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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 tenth letter,* Iod, means the outstretched hand, and its name in Æthiopic signifies the right hand, with which agrees the scope of the first verse, speaking as it does of the hand of GOD as the agent of man’s creation, and using a word יַד, almost identical in sound with the letter’s name.* However, S. Jerome’s explanation is beginning, or knowledge, or “beginning of knowledge,” still bringing us back to Him Who is the Right Hand and Wisdom of GOD, and was with Him in the beginning. The usual account of the section, as given by the mediæval theologians,* is that it is the prayer of man to be restored to his state of original innocence and wisdom by being conformed to the image of CHRIST. And this squares with the obvious meaning, which is partly a petition for divine grace, and partly an assertion that the example of piety and resignation in trouble is attractive enough to draw men’s hearts on towards GOD, a truth set forth at once by the Passion and by the lives of all those saints who have tried to follow it.

73 Thy hands have made me and fashioned me: (י) O give me understanding that I may learn thy commandments.

These hands of GOD are His wisdom and power; (A.) or, as others explain it, His SON and His SPIRIT, consubstantial with Himself, and partaking with Him the act of creation. And in the words made and fashioned they see the double formation of man’s compound nature, the origin of the soul, and the shaping of the body. Or again, there may be here a reference to GOD’S twofold operation in man; the original gift of existence, and the reshaping him by regeneration, after he had become through his sin and fall “without form and void;”* without form, because having lost his likeness to GOD; void, because stripped of the supernatural graces he once possessed. It is then as GOD’S creature and child that man calls on Him for help; since even amongst men we find that they look with favour and tenderness on their own doings, and maintain things simply because they began them. And when man compares his own structure with that of the lower animals,* he cannot but recognise that, made as he has been of clay, he is nevertheless a most choice and precious work of GOD. And his cause for wonder and thankfulness will be increased, if he look to his mental power rather than even to his bodily form, to the hope of eternity as well as to the enjoyment of this present world. For here in his earthly lodging he has a heavenly tenant, so that he is at once a citizen of earth, and yet of kin to GOD. A wondrous gift, did he but know himself, and a beginning of righteousness, to be born rather for the world than for himself. Pagan thinkers have forestalled this teaching of the Christian Saint:* “for since, as Plato has nobly written, we are not born for ourselves alone, but our country claims one part of our birth, our parents another, and our friends a third, and as the Stoics will have it, all things produced on earth are created for man’s use, but men themselves for men and for their mutual benefit, we ought to follow nature as our leader in this respect, and give what open help we can to the common weal.” And this is in truth but the earthly shadow of the heavenly song: “Thou art worthy, O LORD, to receive glory, and honour, and power; for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created.”*

So it is well added, (G.) O give me understanding. Thou hast made the vessel, leave it not empty, but fill it with Thine own precious gifts. S. Ambrose, writing at a time when the students of physical science thought, as they do in our own day, that their favourite pursuit was the highest of which man is capable, and that they, as its hierophants, were entitled to speak infallibly on all other topics which they had not studied,* says: “The Prophet asks for understanding, that he may know himself, and be able to comprehend the nature of his own being; but they who dispute about natural science, and survey the tracts of the heavens, though they are unable to know themselves, think that understanding can be given without the bounty of GOD.” In another place the same Father remarks,* “What can be so dull a thing as to be busy with astronomy,* and to measure the vast spaces of the heavens, and yet to abandon the cause of salvation, and seek that of error?” A little before he had pointed out that we give the names of animals in contempt to men who do not use, or who misuse their understanding, calling them such names as mule, fox, viper, and the like; whereby we may learn that what is truly noble and precious in us is not that outward form which we share with beasts, but the rational soul which makes us near to GOD. He will not punish what is like Himself, but if we cast away His likeness, we lose the very name of men as well as the grace given to men, and cannot claim His promises.

Note,* too, the use to which the Prophet desires to put GOD’S gift of understanding: That I may learn Thy commandments. Not merely to learn what they are, but to master their inner meaning,* delight in them, and practise them constantly. In saying, Thy hands have made me, the Psalmist rebukes the thankless, who do not recognise GOD’S bounty towards themselves; in adding, fashioned me, he rebukes the proud who forget the vileness of the material of which they are made, (wherefore the Church warneth us, saying, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return;”) in saying, O give me understanding, he is against those who trust in their own powers; and by ending with, that I may learn Thy commandments, he gainsays the prying and inquisitive, ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”*

74 They that fear thee, will be glad when they see me: because I have put my trust in thy word.

I myself,”* observes S. Bernard, “have often (as I am not ashamed to confess,) and chiefly in the beginning of my conversion, been cold and hard in heart, and seeking Him whom my soul desired to love (for it was not as yet able to love Him whom it had not hitherto found, or at any rate loved Him less than it wished to do, and for that reason sought to love Him more, since it would never have sought Him unless it loved Him a little first;) when then I was seeking One in Whom my spirit might be warmed and refreshed, chill and numb as it was; and no one came to help it, through whose means the binding frost which held my inward feelings tight might be melted, and the spring-tide of spiritual sweetness and pleasantness might revive, then my soul languished more and more, and was weary and nodding with very weariness, sad and almost despairing, and muttering in itself that saying, ‘Who is able to abide His frost?’* when suddenly at the accost, or even at the sight of some spiritual and perfect man, sometimes even at the mere memory of one dead or absent, my spirit breathed again, and the waters flowed, and those tears were my bread day and night. And what was that save the perfume of the unction wherewith he had been anointed?” It is because the Saint puts into action that precept of his LORD, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your FATHER which is in heaven.”* S. Bernard might, had his inner experience been that of fierce struggles of the lower will for mastery over the higher, have added that the company of a good man is one of the surest means to bring peace, and allay such tumults of the soul, so that all divine graces within it rejoice in such an ally, and all the baser passions are rebuked and silenced at his presence. So the Latin poet may tell us in an allegory:

Ac veluti magno in populo qnum sæpe coorta est

Seditio,* sævitque animis ignobile vulgus;

Jam faces et saxa volant; furor arma ministrat:

Tum, pietate gravem ac meritis si forte virum quem

Conspexêre, silent, arrectisque auribus adstant;

Iste regit dictis animos, et pectora mulcet.

And as in some great nation oftentimes

Tumults arise, and the coarse mob grows wild;

Brands and stones fly at once, rage weapons lends;

Then, if they chance to see some man of note

For goodness and achievements, they are still,

And pause to listen with attentive ears;

He rules with speech their minds and soothes their breasts.

It was not thus,* however, that the Gergesenes greeted CHRIST when He suffered the devils to enter their swine,* nor the way the Samaritans received Him when His face was as though He would go up to Jerusalem.* Let it be our care, instead of repelling Him when He offers Himself, to seek Him out, as the sinful woman did in the Pharisee’s house, fall at His feet, (A.) and bathe them with our tears. The Doctor of Grace expounds this verse as the words of the personified Church, declaring what rejoicing her beauty and glory will cause to the Saints at the Last Day. Because I have put my trust in Thy Word. Hence we see that gladness at the presence of the Saint is not due to his outward aspect,* nor his dress, nor his station, nor possessions, but because of that which is within him,* that shining of holiness which begets affection, since men love in others those virtues which they practise themselves.* And this gives the Saint a fresh claim on GOD’S bounty, since he can truly declare that whatever is bestowed on him from the treasures of divine grace, will rejoice and profit others also. Observe, too, that it is said, in the present tense, They that fear, and then in the future, they shall see (Heb., LXX., Vulg.); because fear belongs to the Saints in this life only, but the perfect joy that casteth out fear arrives when they reach the open vision of GOD in His kingdom. And we may take the words also in the sense of the joyous greeting given by the glorified Saints and Angels of GOD to the victorious Saint who presents himself at the gate of Paradise for admission. “Now,* while they were thus drawing towards the gate, behold, a company of the shining host came out to meet them, to whom it was said by the shining ones: ‘These are the men that have loved our LORD when they were in the world,’.… Then the heavenly host gave a great shout, saying, ‘Blessed are they that are called to the marriage-supper of the Lamb.’ ”*

What are these that glow from afar,*

These that lean over the golden bar,

Strong as the lion, pure as the dove,

With open arms, and hearts of love?

They the blesséd ones gone before,

They the blesséd for evermore:

Out of great tribulation they went

Home to their home of Heaven-content.

What are these that fly as a cloud,

With flashing heads, and faces bowed,

In their mouths a victorious psalm,

In their hands a robe and a palm?

Welcoming Angels these that shine,

Your own Angel, and yours, and mine;

Who have hedged us, both day and night,

On the left hand and on the right.

For put my trust the Vulgate has supersperavi, (G.) that is, I have overhoped, or I have more than hoped, and they explain it on the one hand of man’s insufficient deservings;* and on the other, of GOD’S superabundant rewardings.

75 I know, O LORD, that thy judgments are right: and that thou of very faithfulness hast caused me to be troubled.

The Psalmist is not speaking here of the everlasting judgments of GOD, (H.) of which he could not use the words I know, seeing that in another Psalm they are described as “like the great deep,”* and the Apostle tells us that they are “unsearchable.”* It is of judgments in this life that the Verse teaches us,* that all amidst which man finds himself is ordered by the judgment of GOD, all troubles, sorrows, losses, persecutions, are a fire to purge the dross out of our souls, and leave only pure metal to be fashioned for GOD’S service. Of very faithfulness, that is, not merely that GOD’S judgments are true and just, which is the usual comment here of those who follow the Vulgate in Thy truth, but that they are done in love, and for our salvation.* “Wherefore,” as the Prince of the Apostles saith, “let them that suffer according to the will of GOD commit the keeping of their souls to Him in well-doing, as unto a faithful Creator.”*

Yes, LORD,* in memory’s fondest place

I shrine those seasons sad,

When, looking up, I saw Thy face

In kind austereness clad.

I would not miss one sigh or tear,

Heart-pang, or throbbing brow;

Sweet was the chastisement severe,

And sweet its memory now.

Yes! let the fragrant scars abide,

Love-tokens in Thy stead,

Faint shadows of the spear-pierced side,

And thorn-encompassed Head.

76 O let thy merciful kindness be my comfort: according to thy word unto thy servant.

He does not ask for the removal of GOD’S chastenings,* which are meant for his purification, (H.) but only that he may be supported in and through them by the sense of divine love, that though the blast of the storm may continue to rage, he may have a shelter from it. “And a man shall be as an abiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest;”* for that merciful kindness is the SON of GOD,* the only comfort of sorrowing humanity,* promised long before to Abraham. According to Thy word, in another sense also, because men sometimes do obtain a measure of consolation in trouble from other sources than GOD, but it fails them soon, and they find that He alone can truly sustain them in the time of affliction.

Ah, my dear angry LORD,*

Since Thou dost love, yet strike;

Cast down, yet help afford,

Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise,

I will bewail, approve,

And all my sour-sweet days

I will lament, and love.

77 O let thy loving mercies come unto me, that I may live: for thy law is my delight.

It is of no earthly life that he speaks, (A.) but of that which is eternal and blessed, alone worthy to be called life, in comparison with which that existence which we lead here is rather to be called death than life.* And the loving mercies which give us that life are the Gospel message and Apostolic teaching given us by the advent of the Word made flesh. This is the third prayer for mercy in the Psalm; the first being a cry for pardon,* the second for comfort, and this for that true and higher life which knows no more sin. And it is the truest prayer of them all, since many are found to ask for the two former gifts from GOD, who do not care to ask for this, since they have no desire to forsake their sins. It is not without a deep wisdom, therefore, that they interpret the LXX. rendering παρακάλεσαι as meaning exhort as well as comfort. Great is the mercy of GOD,* which not only grants remission of sins, but adds the spurs of exhortation to the combatants, lest they should shrink in unwarlike dread from the sufferings of the fight. It is not then mercy such as a yielding craven, asking for quarter, desires, that he asks, but that girt about with the confession of GOD, he may accomplish greater things when aided with such a gift. For Thy law is my delight.* This is my one reason for desiring life, that I may serve Thee. It is rightly said delight, for if faith working by love were not the spirit moving the actions, (A.) it would be no way towards everlasting life. Committing the whole of GOD’S law to memory, pondering it oftentimes, making it our song,* taking care not to keep silence about it; all this avails nothing, if we do not live as it enjoins, and that we never can do unless it be our delight.

78 Let the proud be confounded, for they go wickedly about to destroy me: but I will be occupied in thy commandments.

It is for the coming of a blush of shame and contrition,* that is, for the conversion of his enemies, that the Psalmist prays, that they may cease to glory in their confusion,* and be turned to the LORD. The second clause of the verse is not accurately rendered by the Prayer Book. It ought to run, as in A. V., which is much nearer to LXX. and Vulgate, For they dealt perversely with me without a cause. It is the cry of the Church,* as it was of her Head, “That the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated Me without a cause;” and it is the cry also of every one who will live godly in this present world. (Z.) The verse has also been explained as denoting the assaults of our ghostly enemies, (D. C.) and in that case the confusion prayed for to come upon them will mean their final discomfiture in the Day of Judgment; leaving the long-tried Saints of GOD thenceforward free to serve Him for ever, undisturbed by trial, by error, or by sin, occupied in His commandments.

79 Let such as fear thee, and have known thy testimonies: be turned unto me.

There is only One who has the right to say these words in the sense of being the example of all, (A.) the ensign to which the host of GOD are to seek. No mere man dare utter them, or could be listened to were he bold enough to do so. He Who became partaker of our mortality, that we might be partakers of His divinity, here addresses His Heavenly FATHER.* But there is another sense in which we sinners may utter them. We have alienated GOD’S true servants from us by our sins, and they, knowing only our evil report, avoid our company: and rightly so. It is not unfitting then to pray to GOD that as He has received us back into His grace and favour, He may also make us to be accepted of His household. So we read of the great Apostle of the Gentiles, “When Saul was come to Jerusalem,* he assayed to join himself to the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. (Ay.) But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the Apostles, (D. C.) and declared unto them how he had seen the LORD in the way.” They come to be the friends and helpers of the new believer,* who feels that the society of one person who fears GOD is to be preferred to that of thousands who know not His testimonies. If we go back to the first meaning,* the words may be those of the Church in union with her Head, (P.) praying for the return of those to her fold who have strayed through error and mistaken zeal, but not through wilfulness; and show by their life and conversation that they retain some measure of devotion and love of GOD, (H.) as the three thousand who believed at the preaching of Peter. They are to turn to her, because she keeps GOD’S commandments,* that they may become like her therein, and they shall know Thy testimonies.

80 O let my heart be sound in thy statutes: that I be not ashamed.

Sound, that is, whole,* entire; and it is thus a prayer against the half-heartedness of the wavering or the double-heartedness of the deceitful.* The Vulgate rendering is immaculate, a prayer for deliverance from every taint of sin, venial as well as mortal. We may take the words as those of CHRIST Himself praying for His Body, (A.) the Church, that it may be pure in zeal and fervent in love, and that not in its own strength, but in GOD’S statutes;* or it may be the prayer of a Saint for his own purification, that his heart may be made a fit dwelling for his LORD to take up His abode. That I be not ashamed, (H.) while here upon earth, when exposed to mocking for Thy sake; that I be not ashamed later with the awful confusion of the Doom.

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