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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. Great is the LORD, * and highly to be praised.

Parisian. And when I am in my health * Thou upholdest me, and shalt set me before Thy Face for over.

Monastic. Great is the LORD, * and highly to be praised.

1 O hear ye this, all ye people: ponder it with your ears, all ye that dwell in the world:

2 High and low, rich and poor: one with another.

Strange it is that two Psalms so near together, as this and the 45th should, and should alone, imitate, or be the forerunners of, two works of David’s son: this, Ecclesiastes, the former, the Canticles. Then the great question is: who it is that here speaks? Is it an Evangelist or Apostle? so seem the great doctors of the Eastern Church to think. Is it the HOLY GHOST Himself? Who else,* asks S. Basil, could have the right to address such an august audience as all ye that dwell in the world? Is it, as S. Augustine would teach us, prophecy personified, and thus indeed speaking to all people, and that not of one generation only, but to those who should afterwards rise up as long as the world lasts. Learn one lesson, says S. Peter Chrysologus; learn one lesson, O thou preacher: be thine audience never so large,* if thou hast a message from GOD,—then call to mind the saying of Ehud: “I have a message from GOD unto thee, O king;”* say with David, “I will speak of Thy testimonies even before kings, and will not be ashamed;”* obey the command given to Ezekiel; “They, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear, for they are a rebellious house, yet shall know that there hath been a prophet among them.”* High and low, rich and poor. And first notice that, if it be our dear LORD Who is speaking, as other mediæval Saints have taken it—who has a better right than He to call on each class,* on every rank? He, so highly exalted in the bosom of the FATHER; He, so lowly tabernacling in the womb of the Virgin; He, so rich as the LORD of the City whose streets are of pure gold; He, so pure, that He had the wood of the manger for His cradle, the wood of the boat’s stern for a pillow in His troubled life, the wood of the Cross for His last bed. Well may the Eastern Church exclaim, “Thou wast high, O CHRIST, and yet Thou didst condescend to my humility; Thou wast lowly, and Thou didst raise me up to Thy glory: Thou didst sleep,*—and Thou didst arouse the sleepers: Thou didst pray for the unity of Thy Church, and Thou didst rend asunder the veil of the temple. Thou wast buried in the tomb, and Thou didst raise all men from all tombs. Glory be to Thee, CHRIST, our GOD.”

3 My mouth shall speak of wisdom: and my heart shall muse of understanding.

4 I will incline mine ear to the parable: and shew my dark speech upon the harp.

There is very little doubt how the two first clauses are to be taken. Wisdom—we can understand that of none save of Him Who is the true Wisdom, the Eternal Wisdom of the FATHER. Understanding—and almost with one accord they take that of the types and parables in which That Wisdom is concealed in the Old Testament; beginning from the riddle of Samson,* down to the last chapter of Malachi. And in this sense this same verse might be the motto of all the Psalms. For, as says one of the greatest preachers of modern times, “Worthy is the Lamb Which was slain to receive riches.” And what riches does that Divine Lamb desire? Search,* and you will find. “The law of Thy mouth is dearer unto me than thousands of gold and silver.” These, then, are the riches which He is worthy to receive, and worthy to receive on this account, that He was slain. And, looking forward to the continuation of this Psalm, the same preacher teaches us, and that so nobly: wisdom, according to him, being the condescension of GOD to man; understanding the upraising of man to GOD; both one and the other meet in a single doctrine and in that only; the doctrine of the Incarnation as being the base of that of the Sacraments. “By the Incarnation, GOD, Who was incomprehensible, vouchsafed to be comprehended in one place; by the Sacrament of Sacraments, CHRIST, Who was, according to His human Nature, comprehensible, becomes as it were infinite, and is at one time in all the places of the world. By the Incarnation, GOD, Who was invisible, became visible, and was thus seen of the eyes of men: by that Sacrament, CHRIST, Who was visible, becomes invisible, because neither do we, nor can we, therein see Him. By the Incarnation, GOD, Who was immortal and impassible, becomes mortal and passible; not only became passible,* but of a verity, suffered and died: in the Sacrament, though He thus humbles Himself, He can die no more, He can suffer no more, He can become subject to the ordinary circumstances of that material under which He is received, no more: at once so glorious and so lowly; at once so exposing Himself to, and yet so incapable of, corruption.”

My dark speech upon the harp. What dark speech? Surely this, that “it is better to go to the house of mourning, than to the house of feasting;” that, “out of the cater cometh forth meat;”* that out of the lion honey is to be obtained: that only by the rod is the honeycomb to yield its strength: that only by casting (and that truly is a proverb in most modern nations,) the helve after the hatchet is the iron to swim. And see how gloriously it is said, I will incline mine ear to the parable. As if there were but one parable worth the attention of man; as if in that parable—and indeed it is so,—lay hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.1 And why is the dark speech to be shown upon the harp, (Ay.) rather than upon any other instrument? For the old reason, or rather, the old double reason. The first, let Adam of S. Victor give in his own words;

Sicut chorda musicorum

Tandem sonum dat sonorum

Plectri ministerio,*

Sic in chely tormentorum

Melos Christi confessorum

Martyris dat tensio:

Or, if you prefer it in the words of S. Hildebert:

Sicut corda solet dare tensa sonum meliorem,*

Sic pœnis tensus dat plenum laudis honorem.

That, then, is the first reason; the other, the old explanation of the Acts, how JESUS began both to do and to teach: teaching by doing, just as the harp can only give forth its sound when struck by the hand.

5 Wherefore should I fear in the days of wickedness: and when the wickedness of my heels compasseth me round about?

In the first place let us see the different meaning attached to the verse by varying translations. The Vulgate: wherefore should I fear in the evil day? The iniquity of my footstep shall surround me. The LXX. the same; except heel instead of footstep. But in all probability: why should I fear, in the days of evil, that the iniquity of my supplication should overthrow me? And so in Psalm 41:9. All mediæval commentators are agreed in this: that the present verse is one of the most difficult in the whole Book of Psalms. Some take it—looking at the heel as the extremity of the body—as if the sense were: Wherefore should I fear even though the enemy gathered together against me all his instruments of mischief, (Ay.) assembled all his squadrons, did (as we say) his worst? Others take it in the sense; that for every sin we have committed,* and of which we have, as it were, left an impression in the road over which we have travelled, there ought—if there were nothing but our own righteousness to be depended on,—to be a swift retribution? So then, the wherefore leads us to the Cross at once, and to the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, therefore undergone that to us there might be the eternal joy in a Paradise of pleasure. And others again would interpret the phrase of that great enemy who is always so watchful,*—always so persevering in remembering and dragging out to light the sins of past years: that just as an Indian in the forest or in the prairies, tracks out the impression of the footsteps of his enemy, invisible to any eye—save to one practised in such schemes of vengeance,—so Satan,* when he stands to accuse us, as he did Joshua, the son of Josedec, in the presence of the Angel of the LORD, will set forth every false step we have taken, every deviation from the King’s highway that we have made,—and that indeed in the evil day, that day, as S. Joseph of the Studium says,

That evil day, that day of speechless dread,

When Thou shalt come to judge the quick and dead,

I shudder to foresee,

O GOD, what then shall be.

It will be unnecessary to go through the eighteen explanations which mediæval Commentators have given; it is not wonderful that the Fathers of the Greek Church, well versed in the conceptions of their tragic poets, and therein having learnt the terror of an Erinnys always dogging the footsteps of the sinner, till she had hunted him down, should take, in preference to other interpretations, the last mentioned one of the footprints followed up in the sand.

6 There be some that put their trust in their goods: and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches.

7 But no man may deliver his brother: nor make agreement unto GOD for him:

It is a very bold idea which some of the earlier mediæval writers bring forward. The wickedness of my heels in the foregoing verse,* they take to mean that of which our LORD speaks, “They pierced My feet.” Then, what are the wealth and the multitude of the riches of which these in the Psalms boast themselves? What, but our dear LORD’S vestments, some of which the soldiers parted; for one of which they cast lots among themselves? “Ah,” (B.) as one says, “if we could but have in reality, what they had in parable, if we could but have in antitype, what they had in type, what more abundant, what more ineffable riches could there be!” For notice: That glorious LORD clothed Himself with the vesture of our mortality to the end that we might be clothed with the golden garment of His righteousness: not according to that later heresy of which mediæval times knew nothing, as superseding our own, but as co-incorporating our poor deeds with His most perfect work and thereby rendering them acceptable to His FATHER. And here, whatever may be said of the true sense of the Hebrew original, there can be no doubt that that meaning on which the Church of GOD, Eastern or Western, has built all its interpretations for a thousand years, is true in the deepest and truest sense. A brother redeemeth not, man shall redeem. They try—those Latin Commentators—those words under every different aspect of interrogation, of assertion, of admiration. Brother,* (to take it in the indicative meaning) that is brother according to our natural humanity cannot offer himself as a sacrifice for the whole race of Adam: Can man redeem? that is, can any one so take upon himself our common nature, as to atone for that guilt which in the same nature was committed? As I have often said, our work here is not to investigate what the precise and critical meaning of the Hebrew may be, but to interpret each Psalm in the sense in which the Church, not the Synagogue, has received it; ay,* and received it too, for eighteen instead of ten centuries. Can man redeem? Nature says,* no. Every Pagan religion says, no.1 The Synagogue itself says, no. But man can redeem. That Man, that Elder Brother, that Man Who so took the nature which was then Satan’s prey, that He might exalt it to the throne of GOD: Who so assumed the human soul beset with outer darkness, that He might give it a portion in the inaccessible light: Who so took our weakness that He might make it victorious over thrones, and dominions, and principalities, and powers; That Man shall redeem, and That Man shall redeem, not though, but because He is our brother.

8 For it cost more to redeem their souls: so that he must let that alone for ever;

9 Yea, though he live long: and see not the grave.

Although the meaning is the same in all the great translations, most surely the beauty and the emphasis remain with ours. It cost more—than what? As S. Bernard says: More than all the sufferings of all the Martyrs, more than all the life-long patience of all the Confessors, more than all the purity of all the Virgins. But not more than one hour,* nay, nor more than one minute of Calvary; of that courage, of that patience, of that purity. “Ye are bought with a price:” and as S. Paul continues, “Be not ye therefore the servants of men:”* that is, of the flesh: of that flesh, (B.) of which it is written, “The adulteress will hunt for the precious life.”* “Precious!” cries S. Fulbert; “and oh, how precious ought that to be to us, O LORD JESUS, which stood Thee in such a cost! How precious that, for the sake of which the tree was cast into the pool of Mara; the helve caused the iron to swim; the water,* the salvation of Israel,* was turned into the appearance of the blood which tempted the Moabites to their destruction: a redemption which cost no less than the betrothal of the thistle that was in Lebanon to the cedar that was in Lebanon.1 On the other hand, it is curious to observe how the interpreters of the tenth and eleventh centuries, that time of most horrible corruption in the Church, see here, as they always do when they can, rather the threatening of Eternal punishment than the promises of Eternal salvation. I will not here take it so, because I know that this sense in this passage was never intended by the HOLY GHOST: but you may easily understand how terribly saints like S. Peter Damiani, like S. Bruno, like S. Gregory VII., work out the translation of the Vulgate, and he shall labour to eternity, and yet shall live for ever, and shall never see death. Most true is it, that which a great Portuguese preacher tells us, that this passage is one of those which,* taken one way, is the savour of life unto life; in the other, the savour of death unto death. So that he must let that alone for ever, he of whom the sentence is gone forth that the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and he not saved; yea, though he live long, namely, in the punishment prepared for the ungodly; and see not the grave, the grave, that is, as a place of rest: or, He must let that alone for ever, He, namely, Who had taken the work of our salvation upon Himself, if the cup had passed from Him, if He, in His human nature, had lived without dying, if He had never ascended the Cross, if He had never lain in the new tomb, if He had never become the first-fruits of them that sleep. If all this had been, then indeed, He must have left the salvation of man alone for ever: at the very possibility of which GOD forbid any Christian should hint without immediately adding, as S. Paul does in the like case; “but now is CHRIST risen from the dead: for since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection from the dead.”*

10 For he seeth that wise men also die, and perish together: as well as the ignorant and foolish, and leave their riches for other.

Truly, (Ay.) as says the great Carmelite doctor, we all see,—see every day of our lives,—see as a spectacle both to angels and to men, the Wise Man, the GOD only wise, die; that by death He might overcome death, that by the crown of pain, and the title of derision, and the sceptre of scorn, He might reign from the tree. Truly the earth saw and owned that this Wise Man died, when the earth did quake and the rocks rent, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain. Truly the heavens saw that this Wise Man died, when there was darkness over all the earth from the sixth hour until the ninth hour; just as the same heavens had borne witness to the Birth of that same Wise Man, when the star stood in the east, and drew the three wise men to worship Him. Or take it in a wider sense, (B.) He seeth that wise men also die and perish together. Verily they do, as long ago it was written in the Wisdom of Solomon: “We fools accounted his life madness, and his end to be without honour; how is he numbered among the children of GOD, and his lot is among the saints.” And therefore,* as S. Augustine says—and his saying has been amplified by his followers, and therefore were they wise, because they died and perished together; because they, sometimes singly, but more often by twos or threes, and sometimes by tens and hundreds, died for Him Who died for them; perished for Him Who never will suffer one hair of their heads to be lost at the last day. And so Prudentius gloriously speaks:

Plena magnorum domus angelorum

Non timet mundi fragilis ruinam,*

Tot sinu gestans simul offerenda

Munera Christo.

Cum Deus, dextram quatiens coruscam,

Nube subnixus veniet rubente,

Gentibus justam positurus æquo

Pondere libram:

Orbe de magno caput excitata,

Obviam Christi properantis ibit

Civitas quæque, pretiosa portans

Dona canistris.

11 And yet they think that their houses shall continue for ever: and that their dwelling-places shall endure from one generation to another; and call the lands after their own names.

And yet they think. And what thought was ever, in the eyes of the world, a thought of greater folly than this? That He Who,* for three years and a half, had with great difficulty, and barely, notwithstanding all His miracles, set up His house on earth, should, when He came to that most shameful death of malefactors, even the death of the Cross, imagine that His house should continue for ever! Be it so: yet He had a participator in that which this miserable world called folly:—a participator? Yes: and one that spake, not of a house, but of a kingdom that should be everlasting: “LORD, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.” And that their dwelling places shall endure. And so observe how it has hardly ever been known that one especial dwelling-place, (B.) that one particular Church, should be swallowed up by Satan. Unhappily, we cannot now say, as those mediæval saints could, that there is not one single example in which—the fight between the two being fair and hand to hand—the Church was overthrown: for, we must remember too sadly the examples of Japan and Cochin China. But yet on the whole, see how gloriously the last clause of the verse belongs to our LORD; that He should call the lands after His own Name. See how even thus His words are gone out unto the ends of the earth. Take it of Him alone, (D. C.) and how many a city and province, by its very title, has owned its subjection to Him Who is King of kings and LORD of lords. Take it in the plural; and what colony on the mainland, what island in the sea, is there, which has not some province, some cape, some river, some city, baptized with a name from those of His saints? And so, O LORD JESUS, (Ay.) do Thou go forth conquering and to conquer! changing into the title of Bethel the place which was called Luz at the first; setting up altars to Thyself,*—altars on which should be sacrificed Thine own most precious Body and Blood,—altars on which also shall he presented the oblation of the bodies and souls of Thy faithful people as a holy and reasonable service.

12 Nevertheless, man will not abide in honour: seeing he may be compared unto the beasts that perish; this is the way of them.

They well compare the idea which Adam entertained of himself in the moment of the fall, (Ay.) with that knowledge which GOD had concerning the result of the fall. Adam believed him who said,* “Ye shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.” GOD says, He may be compared unto the beasts that perish. Thus Satan’s exhortation to divinity is GOD’S degradation to brutality. Man will not abide in honour. And well says the same Carmelite: “Oh. sad and tearful mutation! That man, the inheritor of Paradise, the Lord of the earth, the Citizen of heaven, the servant of the LORD of Sabaoth, the co-heir of celestial spirits, the co-equal of heavenly virtues, should, by a sudden conversion, have need of a Redeemer, “Who, because of the weakness it was necessary He should bear, took on Himself human infancy; because of the rejection it was needful that He should suffer, lay in the manger; because of the example He would set in trampling down pride, had no better courtiers than the ox and the ass: the ox to acknowledge Whom man denied; the ass to adore, in the stable, Him from Whom Adam would have fled in Paradise. Wherefore, O man, adore His cradle. Whose empire thou didst at first contemn: acknowledge Him as the poor Infant Whom thou didst refuse as the Almighty King.” Or, (D. C.) if you will, take it in another sense, Man will not abide in honour. Why not? And let the verse of the mediæval hymn answer:

What love of Thine was that which led

To take our woes upon Thy head,

And pangs and cruel death to bear

To ransom us from death’s despair?

13 This is their foolishness: and their posterity praise their saying.

And now see whether any more true description could have been given of that which was then, (L.) and that which is now, of the life of the saints. This is their foolishness. This: their struggles against themselves, (Ay.) their battles against the world, their life-long warfare against Satan. But after all, when the battle is over, when the crown is won, when the pilgrimage is at an end, then their posterity praise their saying: then their descendants build the tombs of them to whom their fathers gave the crown of martyrdom.

14 They lie in the hell like sheep, death gnaweth upon them, and the righteous shall have domination over them in the morning: their beauty shall consume in the sepulchre out of their dwelling.

Is it not better, is it not dearer, is it not more like Him Who is Love, that of two opposite senses in these many-sided Psalms, we should take that which best represents that love? In each separate diamond, out of all the facets, we may at all events choose that which sets forth His glory the most, to Whose worship all the Psalms and all their parts minister. Therefore we will not take this verse in its darker and sadder meaning, (L.) but rather see in it how even out of the depths of misery

Vexilla regis prodeunt.

As He Who was dumb before His shearers like a sheep, (D. C.) so His servants giving their lives for Him as He for us, lie in hell, are received in the grave as a sacrifice well pleasing to Him. Death gnaweth upon them. And notice the force of the word, so true in its symbolical sense. It gnaws: it does not devour or destroy; but does its little worst, and that for a season only: and the Righteous,—He Who only is righteous, He Who alone is King of kings and LORD of lords, He Whose holiness shall atone for the sins of the whole world, He shall have domination over them in the morning; in that morning of the resurrection when He, now standing on the shore of everlasting peace, shall call those who have been toiling all the night of this world, to gird to them those vestments of good works which, save for Him they never would have possessed, and without which they must have been that which S. Paul so earnestly prays against—“not that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon.”* Their beauty shall consume in the sepulchre. And it is well said,* Their beauty. For there was One Whose beauty, so far as human eyes beheld it, first had its existence out of, and because of, the sepulchre. Till He was therein laid, He had no form nor comeliness, and when men saw Him, there was no beauty that they should desire Him. So then it follows very well:

15 But GOD hath delivered my soul from the place of hell: for he shall receive me.

Even the Jewish commentators here saw our LORD: and how shall not His own servants see that glorious redemption on the third day? first in the Head, and then in the members. He is speaking of the redemption which CHRIST now showeth in Himself. For He hath descended into hell, (A.) and hath ascended into heaven. What we have seen in the Head we have found in the Body. For what we have believed in the Head, they that have seen have themselves told us, and by their means have we seen: “For we are all one body.* But are they better that see, we worse that have been told? Not so, saith the Life Itself, our Shepherd Himself. For He rebuketh a certain disciple of his doubting, and desiring to handle His scars; and when he had so handled them, and had cried out, saying, “My LORD and my GOD,” seeing His disciple doubting, and looking to the whole world which believe, “Blessed,” saith He, “are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

16 Be not thou afraid, though one be made rich: or if the glory of his house be increased;

17 For he shall carry nothing away with him when he dieth: neither shall his pomp follow him.

So one, that One Great Enemy, was enriched by his first conquest of Eden: enriched by the spoil of countless souls, all, in that one action made over to him; so the glory of his house was increased,* when the creature made by GOD so very good was so infinitely marred; when Adam, created himself in the Image and likeness of GOD, begat a son in his own image and likeness. But these spoils shall be won back from him again: the stronger than the strong man will bind him and spoil his house: the prey shall be taken from the mighty, and the lawful captive delivered.

Gigas noster, gigas fortis,

Victor fregit postes mortis:

Nuda gemunt Tartara.

Neither did his pomp follow him,* when after he had showed the LORD all the kingdoms of the earth in a moment of time, he himself was put to flight with one “Get thee hence, Satan:” Neither did his pomp follow him when the oracles gradually ceased to give their responses, when the garlanded hecatombs no longer crowded the temple doors, when the stones and pillars mouldered into decay, when the temple of Apollo itself, in the last Pagan struggle of Satan, under his apostate servants could only offer, instead of the thousand victims that once attested its fame,* one poor fowl to its false god.

18 For while he lived, he counted himself an happy man: and so long as thou doest well unto thyself, men will speak good of thee.

Marvellously true as is our own translation in itself, worthy, if we may so speak, of inspiration, it is not the sense of the Hebrew. The Vulgate is nearer. Quia anima ejus in vitâ ipsius benedicetur, confitebitur tibi cum benefeceris ei: or, nearer still, Though, while he lived, he rejoiced his own soul, then shall he praise thee for doing well to thyself. Then: then when the things that are seen have passed away before the invisible world; then they who rejoiced their own souls, who said, “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years, take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry,” then they shall praise thee; thee, the poor servant of the Poor King; thee, who didst bravely take up thy cross and follow thy Master; thee, who didst lay up thy treasures where thief cannot steal, nor moth nor rust consume; then they shall praise thee for thus doing well to thyself. “Then shall the righteous man stand in great boldness before the face of such as have afflicted him, and made no account of his labours. And they repenting and groaning for anguish of spirit, shall say within themselves, This was he whom we had sometimes in derision, and a proverb of reproach; we fools accounted his life madness, and his end to be without honour: how is he numbered with the children of GOD, and his lot is among the saints.”* For doing well to thyself. Oh, how well they did to themselves, those Martyrs who gave their bodies to the wild beasts, to the racks, to the scourge, to the stake, to the equuleus, to the scorpions, to all the torments which Satan devised for CHRIST’S athletes! Oh, how well they did to themselves, those Confessors whose whole life was one long struggle with the world, and the flesh, and the devil: how well, when they were in perils often, in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness. Oh, how well they did to themselves, those Virgins, who for CHRIST’S sake bartered all the love and joy and softness of this world, for the midnight service, and the cold cell, and the rough garment, and the discipline!

O pulchras acies, castraque fortia,

Quæ spes, una fides, unus amor regit,*

Omnes lege sub unâ,

Uno sub duce militant!

Heu! quantis rapiunt astra laboribus!

Pulsant perpetuis quæstibus æthera;

Per jejunia longa

Vires corporis atterunt.

19 He shall follow the generation of his fathers: and shall never see light.

What light, save that light like to a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone,* clear as crystal—that most glorious light of the Beatific Vision? He, Who did good to himself while he lived; he, who never for CHRIST’S sake bore shame or reproach; he, (L.) who never endured hardness, as a good soldier of his LORD; he, who following the generation of his fathers, even from the time of Adam’s fall, obeyed his own heart’s lusts rather than His LORD’S law: not for him is that blessed abode, where

Sole solis illustrata

Semper est meridies.

20 Man being in honour hath no understanding: but is compared unto the beasts that perish.

See ver. 12.

And therefore:

Glory be to the FATHER, Who shall deliver my soul from the place of hell: and to the SON, Who showeth His dark speech upon the harp: and to the HOLY GHOST, by Whom the mouth speaks of wisdom;

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

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