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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.

Gregorian and Monastic. Sing us a hymn * of the songs of Sion.

Ambrosian. Upon the willows * in the midst thereof, we hang up our harps. K. K. K.

Parisian. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem in the beginning of my joy.

Mozarabic. First verse.

1 By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.

This Psalm is the expression of the mingled feelings of a newly-returned exile, recalling the bitter memories of the Captivity amidst his joy at restoration to his native land, and breaking out at the close, as he notes the ruin and desolation of the Holy City, into a cry for vengeance upon the enemies who had wrought it. By the waters of Babylon. Literally, the rivers Euphrates, Tigris, Chebar, and Ulai,* and also, probably, the numerous irrigating canals of that flat plain, contrasting so forcibly with the natural watercourses of mountainous Palestine. It is probable that this sitting by the waters was for the convenience of the ceremonial washings which make so large a part of the Mosaic Law, and it may be that we have here the first mention of those oratories (προσευχὴ) by the river-side,* into one of which S. Paul entered at Philippi. Sat down implies that the burst of grief was a long one,* and also that it was looked on by the captives as some relaxation and repose. It is also the posture of humility, neither erect in pride, nor prostrate in despair, (A.) but midway between the two, in godly sorrow, and that not for personal loss and suffering, but when they remembered Sion. For Sion only they wept, unlike many who weep with the weeping and rejoice with the joy of Babylon, because their whole interests and affections are bound up in things of this world.* For the waters of Babylon are all things which are loved here and pass away, which belong to that city of “confusion”* we call the world. By them sit all who have been led away captive out of Paradise, or out of that visible Church of Sion,* where the hymn waits on GOD. Sion may be captured and wasted for the sins of her children.* Jerusalem which is above is free, and can never come into bondage, and this is the consolation for the citizens of Sion in the midst of their trouble. Nevertheless, several of the commentators understand the Church Triumphant here as the subject of the exiles’ lament, as they sit by the four streams of earthly riches, sensual pleasures, worldly dignity, and unprofitable learning, watching them glide past, with no desire to bathe in or taste of their waters, above (super, Vulg.) which they seat themselves, opposing the torrents of their tears to the torrents of the world; for though obliged to sit among the ungodly,* they are not of them, since the two cities are eternally distinct, and their citizens, however mingled with each other, can never be truly allied.

So runs the hymn:

Now in the meanwhile,* with hearts raised on high,

We for that Country must yearn and must sigh,

Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,

Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

O holy Sion, (A.) where all things stand firm, and nothing flows away, let us ever remember thee!

2 As for our harps, we hanged them up: upon the trees that are therein.

The latter clause of this verse should run, as in A. V. and the other versions, on the willows in the midst of it, that is, of Babylon, through which the Euphrates flowed. The interpretation of this verse is that the harps,* as instruments of cheerful music, denote worldly mirth and pleasure, which the exiled citizens of Jerusalem have no mind for,* but leave entirely to the citizens of Babylon, resembling willows in being unfruitful, continually watered by those carnal streams which the others refuse to touch, bitter in themselves, and dwelling by choice in the very midst of Babylon. (A.) S. Augustine, however, taking the harps to mean the Holy Scriptures, explains this hanging up to be the refusal of the exiles to communicate spiritual teaching to unworthy hearers, lest they should cast their pearls before swine,* and is followed by the majority of mediæval expositors. Nevertheless, one ray of hope steals in even here. The harps are not destroyed, nor put out of sight altogether, but hung up, so as to be within reach,* when GOD’S good time for taking them down and tuning them anew arrives. What then shall be done, the Beloved Disciple will tell us: “And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of GOD. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of GOD, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are Thy works, LORD GOD Almighty; just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of Saints.”*

3 For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody, in our heaviness: Sing us one of the songs of Sion.

There is some variance of opinion as to the motive of this demand on the part of the captors.* It is variously set down as simple curiosity to hear something of the famous melodies of the Hebrew people;* as well-meaning counsel to the exiles to reconcile themselves to their inevitable situation, and to resume their former habits in social harmony with the inhabitants of the land; or, most generally, as a fresh aggravation of their misery, (A.) in requiring them to make sport for their new masters. S. Augustine and several others, following the last-named view, takes the verse as describing the controversial arguments which evil spirits and human unbelievers, (G.) their allies, force upon weak Christians, asking them for tangible proofs of their creed, for evidence that the Gospel has not done more harm than good, that there is another life, that CHRIST really came on earth, and so forth.

4 How shall we sing the LORD’S song: in a strange land?

If the Law of our GOD forbids us to celebrate His worship fully in the Holy Land itself outside of Jerusalem, how can we profane the sacred melodies of the Temple by singing them in an alien and idolatrous region? Note how much the exiles had already learnt by their captivity. They who had fallen away from their religion,* who had trodden under foot the precepts of the Law, who had mocked and ridiculed their Prophets who appealed to them with tears, now refuse to expose the hymns of their once neglected creed to the possible ridicule of unbelievers. For us, it is not merely a lesson not to expose holy things to insult by dwelling on them at unsuitable times and in uncongenial society, (B.) (as many and many a martyr died rather than reveal the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament to heathen questioners,) but as some of the commentators deeply teach,* a warning that it is not possible for us to unite the praise of GOD with earthly and carnal habits of life. When we habitually dwell in an irreligious atmosphere of thought and conduct, we cannot sing the Lord’s song; the very words will be imperfectly uttered, the melody will be false, the whole effort a failure. And this is the sense of that hymn sung at the “Farewell to Alleluia,” (emphatically the Lord’s song,) just before Septuagesima:

Alleluia thou resoundest,*

Salem, Mother ever blest;

Alleluias without ending,

Fit yon place of gladsome rest;

Exiles we, by Babel’s waters

Sit in bondage and distressed.

Alleluia we deserve not

Here to chant for evermore;

Alleluia our transgressions

Make us for a while give o’er,

For the holy time is coming

Bidding us our sins deplore.

It is one of the pathetic touches about the English captivity of King John II. of France,* that once sitting as a guest to see a great tournament held in his honour, he looked on sorrowfully, and being urged by some of those about him to be cheerful and enjoy the splendid pageant, he answered with a mournful smile, “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?”

5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem: let my right hand forget her cunning.

6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth: yea, if I prefer not Jerusalem in my mirth.

These verses seem to fix the meaning of the request for a song as an attempt to reconcile the captives to their new habitation, to induce conformity with the habits of those around them; and the Psalmist’s answer is an imprecation on hand and voice, on his whole exercise of instrumental and vocal skill in music, should he so far forget his city as to fall in with Gentile ways; and the literal rendering of the last clause of verse 6 is, If I exalt not Jerusalem above the head of my joy, that is, If I do not set the prosperity of the Holy City above all personal advantage or pleasure, so as to be unable to feel gladness while she is desolate. It is Nehemiah’s answer to Artaxerxes: “The king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid, and said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?”*

The literal structure of the clause about the hand is, Let my right hand forget, that is, forget all its powers, be palsied. S. Augustine, (A.) taking the right hand, as so often, to mean eternal life, supplies the omission in a different way. If I forget the Church of GOD, if I become conformed to the world, let everlasting life forget me; let me become mute altogether towards GOD, if I speak only the barbarous jargon of the world, and forget my own dear native speech, the song of Jerusalem.* Another interpretation is that the right hand stands for good works, and the verse will thus be a renunciation of all hope of future reward, and even of the power of doing good, while the clause about the tongue similarly denotes all devout speech, become impossible to the captive of this world.

7 Remember the children of Edom, O LORD, in the day of Jerusalem: how they said, Down with it, down with it, even to the ground.

What the share of Edom was in the overthrow of Jerusalem, we may learn from the woes denounced against that nation by the Prophet Obadiah: “For thy violence against thy brother Jacob shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off for ever. In the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day that the strangers carried away captive his forces, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem, even thou wast as one of them. But thou shouldest not have looked on the day of thy brother in the day that he became a stranger; neither shouldest thou have rejoiced over the children of Judah in the day of their destruction; neither shouldest thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress. Thou shouldest not have entered into the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; yea, thou shouldest not have looked on their affliction in the day of their calamity, nor have laid hands on their substance in the day of their calamity; neither shouldest thou have stood in the crossway, to cut off those of his that did escape; neither shouldest thou have delivered up those of his that did remain in the day of distress.”*

Hence this false kinsman of Israel is made the subject of threatened woes by three of the four great Prophets.* The Jews put the verse into the mouth of their tutelar spirit,* the Archangel S. Michael.* And Christian interpreters take Edom or Esau to be here the Synagogue,* the elder Church which sought the life of the younger, and joined throughout,* so far as opportunity allowed, (A.) in the persecutions which Pagan rulers stirred up against the Christians; of which the attempt to slay the LORD in His cradle, made by the Idumæan Herod, then the civil chief of the Jewish nation, was a foreshadowing. And then, looking to the meaning of Edom as red, and as ultimately the same word as Adam, they add that all cruel and earthly enemies of religion,* especially the Emperors and Præfects who urged on the persecutions, are intended. Down with it, the A. V. more precisely, Rase it, for the Hebrew means to shave, or make bare. And that, the Carthusian tells us, is because the enemies of the Church are never contented with spoiling her goods, (D. C.) which is plundering the city, but desire to subvert her belief, (H.) which is levelling her walls to the very foundation within her, that is, to the abolition of faith in CHRIST Himself, that no possibility of rebuilding may exist. This guilt the LORD is implored to remember; and then we may take the day of Jerusalem in two senses, the more obvious one of the day when the crime which so calls for vengeance was committed, (G.) and Jerusalem was laid low; or that which the commentators prefer, in the day of Jerusalem’s manifestation in power and glory, “when the LORD JESUS shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not GOD, and that obey not the Gospel of our LORD JESUS CHRIST.”*

8 O daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery: yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee, as thou hast served us.

9 Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children: and throweth them against the stones.

As the Jews ascribe the former verse to the Archangel S. Michael,* Prince of Jerusalem, so this one is put by them into the mouth of S. Gabriel his fellow, Prince of Sion. The coming doom of Babylon had been declared by the Prophet long before the event,* and there can be little doubt that this Psalm, albeit composed after the ruin of the imperial city, records a real expression of the exile’s confidence in the speedy fulfilment of her doom, while she yet appeared in her pomp and strength, and that the words wasted with misery (which the Targum, however, and Symmachus take actively, as the waster or spoiler) were prophetic. The daughter of Babylon here stands for the entire empire, depending on the capital, (H.) and the early expositors take its spiritual meaning to be the flesh, (C.) as covering us with the confusion of sin.* The happy one, in the letter referring to Cyrus, is he who subdues the flesh with fasts and austerities, depriving it of its delights, (A.) as it had dealt with the soul, and who takes the children of the flesh, the first motions of evil thoughts, while they are still new and weak, and dashes them against that Rock which is CHRIST,* Who hath said of Himself, “Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.”* And that the mystical sense is here of more direct significance than the literal may be seen from the manner in which the woes here denounced are repeated and amplified in the Apocalypse against the spiritual Babylon: “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. For her sins have reached unto heaven, and GOD hath remembered her iniquities. Reward her even as she rewarded you, and double unto her double according to her works: in the cup which she hath filled fill to her double. Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets; for GOD hath avenged you on her. And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.”*

Then, at the overthrow of evil, then, when the wanderers are returning to their country, the LORD’S song will be heard again:

Exile, take down the lyre!*

Shake off the dust from every tuneless string,

Pass thy hand softly o’er each fragile wire,

Look Zionward—and sing!

Heavenward—till one by one,

The notes of joy thy silent shell o’erflow,

The song they sing before the SAVIOUR’S throne,

Must first be learned below.

Thou canst not join their throng,

Till thou hast caught the keynote of their strain;

The foreign land must echo the home-song,

Worthy the Lamb once slain.”

The music of one Name

O’erflows the courts of heaven with melody;

And pilgrim lips reply—“Worthy the Lamb,

For He was slain for me!”

And so:

Glory be to the FATHER, unto Whom is said, Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom; glory be to the SON, the Rock against which the children of Babylon are dashed; glory be to the HOLY GHOST, Who is the blessedness wherewith he is blessed who dasheth the children of Babylon against the Rock.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

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