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A Commentary On The Psalms From Primitive and Mediæval Writers Volumes 1 To 4 by Rev. J.M. Neale D.D.

The eighth letter,* Cheth, means a hurdle or fence, which its shape in the Phœnician alphabet closely resembles. But S. Jerome explains it as meaning life,* seemingly from the root הָיָה, while another favourite interpretation is awe or terror, from חָתַת;* which is the usual one with the mediævalists. One commentator unites these two latter meanings,* explaining the section as a lesson how to attain life through reverential awe of GOD. If the Psalmist had the original meaning of the letter before his mind—and there is proof positive in two at least of the strophes that the sound of the initial guided the following verses—then it is not improbable that the notion of a sheepfold is shadowed in this stanza; the singer appearing as its wakeful guardian in ver. 62, and as one of the obedient sheep of the fold in ver. 63; a common Scripture metaphor.

57 Thou art my portion, (ח) O LORD: I have promised to keep thy law.

The story is well known how S. Bernard and his brothers,* all but the youngest, having determined to enter the monastic life, went to the Castle of Fontaines to wish their father farewell, and to receive his blessing. Guy, the eldest of the band, addressed Nivard, the youngest of all: “Farewell, my little brother Nivard, you will have all our lands and goods for your own.” “What,” answered the boy, “will you take heaven for your own portion, and leave me only the earth? The division is too unequal.” And he shortly followed their example.* So too, S. Ambrose bids us note that we, who are a royal priesthood to the LORD, have for our pattern the tribe of Levi, whereof it is written, “Levi hath no part nor inheritance with his brethren; the LORD is his inheritance, according as the LORD thy GOD promised him.”* GOD’S saints, then, have no earthly lot, that they may have a heavenly one; far richer in their service of faith and devotion than they who spread around them the ample space of their possessions. For he whose portion is GOD, is owner of all nature. Instead of lands, he suffices for himself, having that good fruit which can never perish; instead of houses, he suffices for himself, that he should be a dwelling of the LORD, a temple of GOD, the most precious of all things. And thus it was that Peter spake: “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, give I to thee. In the Name of JESUS CHRIST of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”* As much as to say, I am rich and powerful in my own portion, and can give health and life out of it, for that is the patrimony of the portion I have chosen for my own. And the way he won it is told us in that other saying, “Lo, we have left all, and followed Thee.”* Great is the heritage, great the portion of him who severs himself not from his father; (G.) to whom Thou, O FATHER, sayest, “Son, thou art ever with Me, and all that I have is thine.”* And thus the Wise Man, (D. C.) after saying of Wisdom, “I preferred her before sceptres and thrones,* and esteemed riches as nothing in comparison of her:” adds the reason a little later: “All good things together came to me with her, and innumerable riches in her hands.” (A.) Yes, heaven is fair to look upon, and earth is fair also, but He Who made them is fairer far. How, then, is the truth of this assertion, Thou art my portion, O Lord, to be tested? What is the proof, the title-deed?* It follows: I have promised to keep Thy law. False Christians have but their tongue for their defence; if tried by the works of their hands, they prove no better than infidels; if even they begin to enter on religion hastily, they rarely persevere. And thus a set determination must precede all steady continuances in the right way, wherefore he saith, (Lu.) I have promised. But as human weakness might fail to keep such a pledge, he follows up his holy resolve with prayer.

58 I made my humble petition in thy presence with my whole heart: O be merciful unto me according to thy word.

The word here translated presence, and in the A. V. favour, is literally face, (C.) as in A. V. margin, and is so rendered by LXX. and Vulgate. And they tell us that this intreating the Face of GOD is a prayer for the Incarnation and manifestation of CHRIST in this world;* and for our own attaining to the Beatific Vision in that which is to come. And although the phrase is a usual Hebraism for humble suing for favour, there is deep thought in the Carthusian’s comment here that the word face teaches us of GOD’S presence everywhere, (D. C.) and His clear sight of all things, so that whatever we do or say must needs be under His eyes. And therefore it is well added with my whole heart,* to warn us against merely pretended fervour of devotion, (D. C.) for it is written: “Burning lips and a wicked heart are like a potsherd covered with silver dross.”* According to Thy Word. “As He spake by the mouth of His holy Prophets, which have been since the world began; that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant.” According to this word, I cry, Be merciful, asking only the fulfilment of Thine own pledge,* and that I may obtain that mercy, I ask it according to Thy Word,* ending my petition thus: “Through JESUS CHRIST, Thy SON, our LORD. Amen.”

59 I called mine own ways to remembrance: and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.

This is the regular order of conversion: (C.) first, examination of ourselves, dissatisfaction with our conduct and ways hitherto, turning away from them, considering what our future course shall be, and turning instead to GOD’S testimonies, a change noted by the words here used, which imply having been heretofore turned from GOD and His laws.* Here, amidst the conflicting teachings and confused thoughts of this world, man is as it were like a traveller at a junction of roads, who is obliged to stop and ponder which of the divergent paths will bring him to his goal. We too, who seek the kingdom of heaven, must stand and think, remarking that all roads do not lead to Jerusalem above. And no itinerary to the heavenly City is simpler or fuller than the ready answer made by an English prelate to a scoffer who asked him the way to heaven: “First turn to the right, and keep straight on.” The word ways may very well be applied to speech as well as to action,* and give us counsel against any hasty and indiscreet utterance. And observe that it is not enough to have turned our feet once for all towards GOD’S testimonies; since we are always liable to stray from the right path even after we have truly entered on it.* “For who,” asks S. Bernard, “hath so accurately cut away all needless things from himself as to leave nought that calls for pruning? Believe me, that which has been pruned sprouts again, that which has been driven off returns, that which has been quenched is rekindled.”* We need then to be like mariners, always watching the compass, in order to make sure of our course, even though we be certain of the truth of its main direction. The needle of that compass is the Cross, the pole to which it ever points is JESUS, the haven to which it guides us, Jerusalem on high.

60 I made haste, and prolonged not the time: to keep thy commandments.

Here is the true weapon against Satan’s craft, repentance without delay.* The tempter is too wily to declare that repentance is needless; he does but suggest putting it off for a more convenient season, till the unstanched wound mortifies, till the unquenched spark is a conflagration, till the unsalted meat putrefies. When Moses asked Pharaoh, “When shall I intreat for thee?”* the answer was, “To-morrow.” And so when GOD asks man, “When shall I have mercy on thee?” the reply is too often, “Not till my old age.” And yet the only difference between the wise Virgins and the foolish ones was, that the one did that in time which the others would fain have done out of time, and could not. But when Matthew the publican was called from the receipt of custom by CHRIST, at once “he rose up, left all, and followed Him;”* when Zaccheus was bid to “make haste, and come down, for to-day I must abide at thy house; he made haste, and came down, and received Him joyfully.”* The LXX. and Vulgate, rather paraphrasing the verse, (C.) read the first clause, I was ready, and not flurried; that is, the Saint had counted the cost and made up his mind, and felt no alarm at any peril, however unexpected, remembering that saying of the LORD, “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”* S. Ambrose explains the verse at much length as denoting the calm tranquillity of a truly Christian spirit,* unmoved by earthly wealth or troubles, and compares such a temper to a wise pilot, guiding his ship to its appointed haven through winds and waves, overcoming their rage by patience, courage, and skill.* But the later commentators who follow the Vulgate agree substantially with the first explanation, that prompt obedience without delay is the purport of the verse.

61 The congregations of the ungodly have robbed me: but I have not forgotten thy law.

The congregations, &c.* This is the Chaldee rendering; but the other ancient Versions with one voice, followed by modern critics, (A.) translate The cords of the ungodly have encompassed me. That is, all wiles, deceits, snares, and hindrances of spiritual and earthly foes, which are like a long rope fastened to the horns of a heifer,* dragging it along to its death while it seems to be free. And in the twisted cords we see the close union of all our perverse and tortuous sins; (C.) singly, (Ay.) weak and brittle, but strong enough, when twined together into thick strands, to drag us to our ruin. And the chief of these cords are the lust of the flesh,* and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. (B.) Again, the words may be explained of persecutors of the Faith, endeavouring to force Christians into apostasy.* The great Portuguese preacher, dwelling on the utility of confession and absolution, reminds his hearers that no Emperors or Kings are empowered to loose these cords. Only priests may do it, as it was to Apostles the two commands were given, “Loose him, and bring him unto Me;”* and again, of the dead Lazarus, “Loose him, and let him go.”* The English rendering, which is tenable, and adopted by some Rabbins,* is not very dissimilar in spiritual meaning: as it may be taken of those ghostly foes who despoil us of some of those graces which GOD bestows, albeit they are not able to force the one pearl of great price from our keeping;* as when in Bunyan’s allegory the three rogues, Faint-heart, Mistrust, and Guilt, set upon Little-faith, and robbed him of a bag of silver. But “the place where his jewels were they never ransacked: so those he kept still. But, as I was told, the good man was much afflicted for his loss; for the thieves got most of his spending money. That which they got not, as I said, were jewels; also he had a little odd money left, but scarce enough to bring him to his journey’s end; nay, if I was not misinformed, he was forced to beg as he went, to keep himself alive, for his jewels he might not sell. But beg and do what he could, ‘he went,’ as we say, ‘with many a hungry belly,’ the most part of the rest of the way.” (A.) And S. Augustine tells us what this may mean, explaining the verse of yielding as David did, to temptations of the flesh, while faith remains unshaken.

62 At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee: because of thy righteous judgments.

This is one of those isolated texts of Scripture which have,* by their own inherent force, powerfully moulded the habits and devotions of the Christian Church. We shall find another example later on in this same Psalm, (H.) but of this it suffices to say that the Nocturns of East and West alike,* and the monastic use of rising at midnight to recite them, are drawn from its inspiration.* In the East, moreover, this very Psalm is part of the midnight office, so that the verse is nightly chanted in the great monasteries of the Greek and Russian Churches, Mount Athos, Mount Sinai, Troitzka, and the rest.* In the West, this verse occurs in the forenoon office of Terce, but the spirit of the midnight service is the same as that of the East; and the very Nocturn office itself testifies to the influence of the Psalm.

Pulsis procul torporibus

Surgamus omnes ocyus,*

Et nocte quæramus Deum,

Propheta sicut præcipit.

Far drive we slumber from our eyes,

And quickly all of us arise,

To seek at dead of night the LORD,

According to His Prophet’s word.

At midnight the avenger went out over the land of Egypt to slay the first-born;* at midnight Samson, foreshowing the Resurrection,* arose and took with him the doors of the gate of Gaza; at midnight there was a cry made, “Behold the Bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet Him;”* at midnight the prayers of Paul and Silas in the dungeon at Philippi opened its doors and loosed its chains;* and thus, while it is the time of temptation and of fear, it is also that of victorious prayer and deliverance.

GOD’S silent, searching flight;*

When my LORD’S head is filled with dew, and all

His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;

His still, soft call;

His knocking true; the soul’s dumb watch,

When spirits their fair kindred catch.

Besides this literal interpretation of the verse, (A.) there are also such explanations as prayer and thanksgiving in the time of persecution or other deep trouble and temptation. (G.) But in the strict construction there is no better comment than the hymn chanted in the Eastern Church after the Nicene Creed which follows the midnight recitation of this Psalm of the Saints:

Behold,* the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night.

And blest is he whose loins are girt, whose lamp is burning bright;

But woe to that dull servant, whom his Master shall surprise

With lamp untrimmed, unburning, and with slumber in his eyes.

Do thou, my soul, beware, beware lest thou in sleep sink down,

Lest thou be given o’er to death, and lose the golden crown;

But see that thou be sober, with watchful eye, and thus

Cry—Holy, Holy, Holy GOD, have mercy upon us.

That day, the day of fear, shall come; my soul, slack not thy toil,

But light the lamp, and feed it well, and make it bright with oil;

Who knowest not how soon may sound the cry at eventide:

Behold, the Bridegroom comes. Arise! Go forth to meet the Bride.

Beware, my soul; take thou good heed, lest thou in slumber lie,

And, like the five, remain without, and knock, and vainly cry;

But watch, and bear thy lamp undimmed, and CHRIST shall gird thee on

His own bright Wedding Robe of Light—the Glory of the SON.

63 I am a companion of all them that fear thee: and keep thy commandments.

In the beginning of this section the Psalmist declared that GOD was his portion,* now he adds that all GOD’S servants are his companions. There is no contradiction, because that GOD Who is the portion of the Saints has, by His incarnation, companions and fellows amongst men. Wherefore it is said, “GOD, even Thy GOD, hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows.”* He is that Prophet of whom Moses spake, saying, “The LORD thy GOD will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren.”* He has fellows in baptism, because He was baptized for us; fellows in righteousness, because He is Righteousness Himself, and hath granted us of that which is His own to have fellowship with Him; fellows in truth, because He is Himself the Truth, and hath willed that we should hold the truth; fellows in the resurrection, because He is the Resurrection; fellows in life immaculate, because He is Himself immaculate. And whoso walks in newness of life and keepeth to the way of righteousness is a partaker of CHRIST. He hath also partakers in His sufferings; and partakers of His burial, for whoso is “buried with Him by baptism unto death,”* is partaker of Him. He too is a partaker of CHRIST, who comforts the mourner with pitying tenderness, who baulks not the prisoner of personal service, who sits by the bed of the sick, who clothes the naked, who feeds the hungry. If I hate a lie, I am a partaker of CHRIST, because CHRIST is the Truth; if I fly from iniquity, I am a partaker of CHRIST, for CHRIST is Righteousness. And note how modestly the Prophet saith, of all them that fear Thee.* He does not say of Thee, nor even of them that imitate Thee, but that fear Thee, for “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”* In his lowliness he ranks himself among the recruits, though he excels veterans in his devotions. And yet fear too belongs to holiness, for it is written, “O fear the LORD, ye that are His saints.”* And lest any should think that this is not holy fear (for there are some who cower with dastardly terror, and quiver with timid fright) he adds, and keep Thy commandments; showing thereby that he is not slothful in action, while devout in heart and religious in feeling. (A.) Of those who serve CHRIST in this wise it is true that “He is not ashamed to call them brethren,”* and we could not be made partakers of His Divinity, had He not first been made partaker of our mortality. And thus all who are in grace are one in CHRIST by the bond of charity, (D. C.) and seek not their own, but the wealth of others.* By reason of the unity of the Head and members, that is, of CHRIST and Christians, the merits of CHRIST and of His Saints are imparted to us and work within us. Each of us then, “given power to become the sons of GOD,”* and relying on the SAVIOUR’S petition, “I pray that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be made perfect in one,”* can say to the saints his fellows, like the Apostle in Patmos, “I am your brother and companion in tribulation, (G.) and in the kingdom and patience of JESUS CHRIST.”*

64 The earth, O LORD, is full of thy mercy: O teach me thy statutes.

How is the earth full of GOD’S mercy,* save by the Passion of our LORD JESUS CHRIST, whereby remission of sins is bestowed on us all? The natural sun is bidden to arise on every one, and does so every day. And that spiritual Sun of Righteousness arose on all, came to all, suffered for all, rose again for all; and suffered, moreover, that He might take away the sins of the world. If any one believe not in CHRIST he defrauds himself of the general benefit: just as if any one shuts up his windows to keep out the sunshine, it does not mean that the sun has failed to rise on all, if that one man has robbed himself of its warmth. So far as the sun is concerned, it keeps to its fixed rule; so far as the foolish man is concerned, he shuts out for himself the common blessing of light. It may be asked, why is it not said, The heaven is full of Thy mercy,* seeing that there is “spiritual wickedness in high places?” Because they have no claim on the common right of GOD’S pardon, nor to the remission of sins, seeing that everlasting fire is reserved for them; and those heavenly beings which are powers and ministering spirits, albeit they are held up by GOD’S aid, yet do not need His mercy in such a degree as lower and earthly beings do, because they are not clad in that garment of flesh wherein is the enticement of frequent error. (C.) And the earth is full of GOD’S mercy in another sense, because there is no land where the Christian faith is not proclaimed with its message of salvation, according to that prophecy, “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”* Every land, too, can show its saints, restored to grace by the LORD’S mercy, (R.) and even apart from the spiritual sense, the whole kingdom of nature, earth, air, and water, plants and insects,* birds and fishes, animals and men, depends for its power,* its beauty, its very existence, on the unfailing mercy of GOD. For it is written, “After this the LORD looked upon the earth, and filled it with His blessings; with all manner of living things hath He covered the face thereof.”* There are two further senses in which they explain the words,* of the Church militant here in earth,* full of mercies, blessings and graces bestowed by GOD; and of that especial garden of the LORD, the Virgin Mother, whose hallowed womb was filled with Him Who is the very Mercy of GOD. And therefore is added, O teach me Thy statutes. Teach me, (C.) albeit I have been learning them already,* for there is no end to searching out Thy ways, no satiety in knowledge of Thee. Teach me, for there is no other teacher like Thee, since earthly masters cannot tell me what they have not themselves seen. Teach me Thy justifications (Vulg.) for Thou art Justice itself; teach me what hath been said wisely, for Thou art Wisdom. Open Thou my heart, for Thou didst open the book.* Open that gate which is in heaven,* for Thou art the Door.








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