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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. The LORD turned * the captivity of His people.

Parisian. I mourn in my prayer * and am vexed: the enemy crieth so.

Mozarabic. Hide not Thyself from my petition, * take heed unto me, and hear me, O LORD.

1 Hear my prayer, O GOD: and hide not thyself from my petition.

2 Take heed unto me, and hear me:

And first they notice how many have uttered that same prayer, and have been heard,* not from the mercy, but from the anger of GOD.* So it was with the people that desired the quails; so with those who asked for a king: so even with Satan himself.* Again, of some who asked and were not heard, and yet of whom it cannot truly be said that GOD hid Himself from—or,* as the Vulgate translates it, despised—their petition.* So with Moses, and with S. Paul; while, again, some are both despised and not heard, as the five foolish virgins.* S. Basil speaks of the reasons why men who ask are not heard. Sometimes the unworthiness of the asker, as David,* when he besought that he might build the temple; sometimes that of those for whom the petition is made,* as when Jeremiah was forbidden to pray for the Jews;* and sometimes because of the listless way in which the petition was made, as when the Apostles failed to cast out the devil from the lunatic child.* Most mediaeval writers take the difference between the prayer and the petition,* or, as it is in the Latin, deprecation, to be, that the one asks for that which is good, but the other prays against that which is evil.* But, as we shall have occasion to see,* and as S. Euthymius here says, these words are as often as not used in exactly the opposite sense.

How I mourn in my prayer, and am vexed.

3 The enemy crieth so, and the ungodly cometh on so fast: for they are minded to do me some mischief; so maliciously are they set against me.

But henceforth we must drop all allusion to the petition of sinners, yes, and even of saints, and see only the offering made by the LORD, of strong crying and tears, unto Him That was able to save Him from death,* when He was heard in that He feared. And the Western Church shows that she receives this Psalm in this sense by reading the commentary of S. Augustine on it, for the three middle Lessons of Matins on Maundy Thursday. (D. C.) The enemy crieth so, as when they all cried, “Not this Man, but Barabbas:* as when “they that passed by reviled Him, wagging their heads, and saying, Thou That destroyest the Temple, and buildest it in three days, save Thyself.”

4 My heart is disquieted within me: and the fear of death is fallen upon me.

5 Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me: and an horrible dread hath overwhelmed me.

And as they say, there can be but One, one time, one scene to which these words can truly apply. (L.) S. Hilary, while he takes them in the sense of that Agony which was suffered once, but can never be suffered again, nevertheless is careful to show how all this pain, misery, and shame was the portion of the WORD made flesh, in that He was Man, could not have been,* so far as He was consubstantial with the FATHER, and with the HOLY GHOST. That passage, and this text (not that I am fond of dwelling on polemical discussions from dear verses in the Psalms,) have nevertheless given rise to long arguments as to how, in what sense, and how far, the fearfulness and trembling did come on our Blessed LORD.1 It is believed that notwithstanding, in so far as He was GOD, He knew that He must suffer many things of the Jews and the third day rise again; still, in His Human Nature, He was overwhelmed with an horrible dread, insomuch that His sweat was, as it were, great drops of blood falling down to the ground. For in that fearful hour came upon His righteous Soul all the sinful thoughts and words and deeds that had been since man gave heed to the Tempter, and that should be till His Second Coming, when sin should be at an end; all the impenitence of desperate sinners, to whom His Passion would only be an increase of condemnation; all the coldness and want of faith of those, who would not, so far as in them lay, in their own persons, fill up that which remained behind of the sufferings of CHRIST.

6 And I said, O that I had wings like a dove: for then would I flee away, and be at rest.

7 Lo, then would I get me away far off: and remain in the wilderness.

8 I would make haste to escape: because of the stormy wind and tempest.

And in the first place we think of that Dove which once endeavoured to flee away from the ark, the only place of rest. No doubt, as so many mediæval writers explain it,* thinking that rest might be found on the whole wide face of the earth which it was impossible to obtain in the narrow prison of the ark. And see the result. The raven did find rest; rest, probably, on some of the carcases floating on the surface of the water. But, as they go on to remark, the dove wished for some rest, as David here wishes: the dove found none in leaving her home, nor yet could David have found, nor yet will any true servant of GOD find, quiet and peace, by forsaking that home of duty which GOD has given him.

But there is a more beautiful sense which is dearer to the mystical writers.* It is to be taken in connection with that verse in Hosea: “They shall seek to flee1 as a bird out of Egypt, (B.) and as a dove out of the land of Assyria: (D. C.) and I will place them in their houses, saith the LORD.”* And see in how lovely a manner this prophecy applies to our dear LORD: how He indeed desired to escape to His FATHER and to His Home from the hands of His twofold enemy,—the Jews on this side, the Romans on that, both leagued together against Him. And then observe how it proceeds: “I will place them in their houses, saith the LORD.” Them: Him in the first place, Who died that He might open the passage; them, in the next, Who, through His sufferings shall have a portion in the many mansions which He died to secure for them.2 S. Hilary speaks very touchingly here on the yearningness of this petition—for petition it is—for deliverance.* It is,* he truly observes, a kind of prayer from the human to the Divine nature of our LORD; which, hypostatically united together, yet nevertheless could and did, the one petition, as it were, the other: the latter strengthens and comforts and supports the former.

9 Destroy their tongues, O LORD, and divide them: for I have spied unrighteousness and strife in the city.

In the first place: their tongues were truly destroyed and they themselves divided, when the testimony of the two false witnesses agreed not so together. Then, secondly, when the contradictory account of the soldiers that kept watch at the sepulchre, (Ay.) which, in itself was sufficient to condemn itself, received the promise of confirmation—a confirmation, the original expression for which shows by what means it was to be brought to pass—from the governor. And there is a wonderful beauty, except that the use of the lower word, (a very rare fault in our translation,) rather obscures it, in that I have seen unrighteousness in the city. For, as our LORD when He ascended the Cross had His Face turned toward the Temple, so He perceived, not only the unrighteousness of those who thirsted after His Soul,* but also the strife between those Psalms which they constantly recited, and those words which they were then taking in their own mouths.* S. Gregory applies the text to S. Paul’s conduct with respect to the Pharisees and Sadducees, during his examination by the Sanhedrim: and not unreasonably observes that, in this respect, the master and teacher of the false witnesses against our LORD and the calumniators of His saints, excelled his agents. For of leviathan it is written: “The scales of his flesh are joined together; they are firm in themselves; they cannot be moved.”* Whereas the defensive armour of his adherents is anything but firm in its jointure, piece into piece, and can so easily be pierced by that sword of the SPIRIT.

10 Day and night they go about within the walls thereof: mischief also and sorrow are in the midst of it.

11 Wickedness is therein: deceit and guile go not out of their streets.

Day and night. For, as they say well; just as in the day of prosperity, and the night of adversity,* the Captain of our salvation is ready to help; and not only ready to help, but His work is to take advantage of each separate characteristic either of the day or the night:

As darkness shows us worlds of light

We never saw by day;

so also is the ancient enemy ready to avail himself of every advantage which the especial difficulty of day or night may put into his power against us. But there is a very beautiful antithesis which the love of mediaeval writers has attached to this verse. They see in it the diabolical caricature of one of the greatest miracles in the Old Testament, the march round Jericho before its walls fell down. For always be this remembered, that it seems to be one of Satan’s chief delights to parody the works of GOD: as the ritual, the chancels, the chants, the monasteries, the vows of chastity, the cross fylfott of Buddhism are but a ghastly parody of the Catholic Church; and, which is so remarkable, a parody, it is to be believed, older than its original. In like manner, that which those saints who most deeply studied the Apocalypse tell us, of the probable Incarnation, the Resurrection from the dead, of the Antichrist.* And so here they take the procession round Jericho, of our LORD, as the true Ark, attacking the city of this world by the seven virtues of the HOLY GHOST, by His seven words on the Cross; by the seven days, so to speak, in which He prepared for the glorious octave of the Resurrection. And with hatred only less than love, in the same degree that finite cannot compass the infinite power, does Satan in the seven deadly sins, day and night go about the walls of our souls. Deceit and guile. They interpret it of the guile by which our LORD was sold for thirty pieces of silver, betrayed by a false kiss, condemned on the testimony of lying witnesses.* And therefore go not out of their streets, because that same falsehood continued even after our dear LORD’S Passion, continued when the chief priests gave large money to the soldiers, finally continued until those streets of Jerusalem, up one of which the Man of Sorrows passed to His Passion, became, as its prophesiers had foretold, a ploughed land, a place for flocks to lie down in.

12a (12) For it is not an open enemy, that hath done me this dishonour: for then I could have borne it.

12b (13) Neither was it mine adversary, that did magnify himself against me: for then peradventure I would have hid myself from him.

13 (14) But it was even thou, my companion: my guide, and mine own familiar friend.

And, referring, as it was impossible not to do, this whole passage to Judas Iscariot,* they dwell on the horror which from the very beginning his treachery has impressed, not only on the doctrine, but on the ritual of the Church. How not only the greatest doctors of primitive ages, have dwelt on the progress of his crime from his first call to the Apostolate to his suicide: but how in various laws and canons that no Christian should be baptized by the name1 of Judas, so that if any one had any special devotion to the other S. Jude, he must christen his child Thaddeus: how, though Judas was a hundred times more guilty than Pontius Pilate, yet the Church abhors the sin of the one in her creed, but will not pollute her mouth with the utterance of the other: and how in the popular ceremonies of Easter Eve, in both the Eastern and Western Churches, as in being hung from the yard-arm in ships at sea, and the like, Judas yearly receives his meed of ignominy. My companion. And in all the versions used by the Church, it is much stronger than that: one of a like soul with me; unanimous: ἰσόψυχος. Perhaps one of an equal rank with me, comes nearer to the original. And notice, as they well say, how here also, to quote His own teaching with all reverence, “the first shall be last, and the last first.” “Greater works than these shall ye do.” And Judas among the rest. Of the same rank with the other Apostles in miracles; with the other Apostles in the same rank, so far as the world could tell, with their Almighty LORD. It is singular to observe how chary the primitive Church was of applying these verses to Judas; I suppose because they feared that the putting them into our dear LORD’S mouth, with reference to the traitor, might give some advantage to the Arians. But, as centuries swept away that heresy,* the truer, the more comforting, the deeper meaning, was worked out more and more. For it is not an open enemy. (Ay.) And here all the ascetic writers refer with one consent to religious houses.* As needless, thank GOD, as it would be miserable, as it would be incredible to such as love to image those convents of the Middle Ages at their best, that is at their saintliest; no need to dilate for one moment on the horrible miseries, the tremendous wickedness, the fearful violation of all human and Divine law, of which those holy writers speak. This was, and good reason why, a favourite text among the itinerant reformers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: even thou, My companion,—My companion daily in the Seven Hours of My Passion,—and Mine Own familiar friend. My guide. It is not so in the Hebrew. But the dear love of the Mediæval Church explained even this difficulty.* He “was guide unto them that took JESUS.”* And even in another sense, as they fear not to say, he was the guide of our LORD Himself: that is, he, the infinite wisdom of Divine foresight so permitting it, resolved on all those tortuous ways by which the Immaculate Lamb was led to the judgment-seat,* and was therein offered as the evening sacrifice of the whole world.

14 (15) We took sweet counsel together: and walked in the house of God as friends.

Or as it is in the Vulgate, with a deeper meaning, who together with me didst receive sweet food: and although that cannot be borne out by the Hebrew, yet no wonder that thousands of mediæval priests saw in the expression a prophecy of him who was to dip his hand in the same dish with our LORD.1 S. Ambrose, (Ay.) interpreting the Hebrew words in the same sense, nevertheless understands their mystical meaning differently.* According to him, the sweet food was our dear LORD’S own discourses, those sermons and parables of which Judas was equally a hearer with the rest of the Apostles. And walked in the house of God as friends. So all the authorised translations give, and that rightly: S. Jerome alone, by some extraordinary misunderstanding, or wonderful false reading, translates it, walked in the house of God in terror. And the Carthusian draws this good lesson, (D. C.) which I will give in his own words: Hence it appears that those persecutions and injuries are the harder to bear which are inflicted on us by our acquaintances and friends, especially when we have made sure of their love, and have deserved nothing but good from them. As therefore, the Passion of CHRIST was the more bitter, in that He was sold by a disciple, and put to death by His elect and peculiar people. And therefore He saith by Micah, “O My people, what have I done unto thee, or wherein have I wearied thee?”* And again, “What could have been done more to My vineyard, that I have not done unto it?”*

15 (16) Let death come hastily upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.

We have already spoken of these, the so-called imprecatory clauses of the Psalms. And here Dathan and Abiram stand forth as the type of those sinners,—sacrilegious in like manner,—of whom David speaks. And among them. But it is more than this. In their very texture, (L.) inwoven into the whole fabric of their existence.

16 (17) As for me, I will call upon GOD: and the LORD shall save me.

Have I called: so it is in the LXX., (Ay.) and in the Vulgate, though not correctly.* The Carmelite says well: He cried in the country, when He sowed the good seed among the multitudes: He cried in the Temple,* when He preached the law: He cried in the place of death,* when He raised the dead: He cried on the Cross,* when He tasted of death: He cried to the FATHER, when into His Hands He commended His own Spirit.* And the same writer well puts it, that we are to call upon GOD for the support of our corporeal life, for our deliverance from temporal pain, for the consolation of our innermost heart, for our escape from eternal punishment, for the remission of sin, both original and actual.

17 (18) In the evening, and morning, and at noon-day will I pray, and that instantly: and he shall hear my voice.

And here we have the first authorization of the Canonical Hours: and therefore this one verse might supply the material for a large volume. But the earliest interpretation spoke of our LORD, (A.) and of Him only. At evening, that is, in that evening of the Passion wherein the evening sacrifice of the world was accomplished; at morning,* namely, that moment, when before the rising of the sun, the stone was rolled away from the entrance of the sepulchre; at noonday, namely, that noon, when “He led them out as far as to Bethany, and lifted up His hands and blessed them; and it came to pass that, while He blessed them, He was parted from them, and taken up into heaven.” Then in the earliest commentators we find Vespers, Matins, and the Liturgy shadowed out. It would be endless to go through all the Scriptural illustrations of these especial times of prayer, from Daniel down to S. Paul and Silas. But it is worthy of notice, that the Jews from a very early period of their history, kept Tierce, Sexts, Nones: Tierce, because the law, they say, was then given; Sexts, because the brazen serpent was then reared up: Nones, because the smitten rock then poured forth its waters. It is most marvellous that the synagogue should so have foreshadowed the Church. For what responds to the giving of the Law, but the Descent of the HOLY GHOST, as at our Tierce? What answers to the erection of the serpent on the pole, but the lifting up of CHRIST on the Tree of Life, as at our Sexts? What is the antitype of the stream gushing from the rock, but the water that flowed from the pierced Side of His People’s True Rock, as at our Nones? And they find many an admirable reason why these three hours, rather than the seven (on which we shall also have hereafter to dwell,) should be named. Because of the three ever-blessed Persons of the Trinity; because of the three theological virtues of thought, word, and deed; because of the three classes into which all sins fall, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life; because of our three great enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil. There is a remarkable sense which some early mediaeval writers elicit. They say that by the evening,* we are to understand those things which as the conclusion of the day, now gone by, are already past: the Nativity, the Passion, the Resurrection,—in short, our dear LORD’S whole work on earth. By the morning, the glorious morning of the Resurrection; that time when the morning being now come JESUS shall stand on the shore of everlasting peace. By the noonday, the perfect and unclouded splendour of eternal blessedness:

Endless noonday, glorious noonday

From the Sun of suns is there.

And therefore truly He shall hear my voice follows the noonday, because the prayers of His people partially and imperfectly heard and answered before, shall then be fully accepted, shall then be more than ten thousand times realised.

18 (19) It is he that hath delivered my soul in peace from the battle that was against me: for there were many with me.

As they very well observe, they are two almost opposite, and yet both lovely senses in which we may take the last clause. For there were many with me. On the one hand: the many, who took my part,* were only the means by which He delivered my soul: by their prayers, or by their physical help, He assisted me; and in peace, because our alliance was the effect of peace. Thus, it is only what S. Paul says: “I know that this shall turn to my salvation, through your prayers, and the supply of the Spirit of JESUS CHRIST.”* Or, on the other hand: they take with me to mean: encamped on the same field of battle,* and fighting against me. And then the verse is explained by that: “Though an host of men were laid against me, yet shall not my heart be afraid.”* In peace. “For He is our peace, Who hath made both one.”1 The Chaldaic explanation gives also a beautiful sense: because in many afflictions His Word was with me. Yet one more interpretation. (Ay.) It is the wheat speaking of the tares: it is Elijah, complaining of his standing alone,* while the prophets of Baal were so many.

19 (20) Yea, even GOD, that endureth for ever, shall hear me, and bring them down: for they will not turn, nor fear GOD.

The most noble explanation is that of a Greek saint:* which sees our dear LORD, even God that endureth for ever, That is the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever, That must be true, though every man be a liar, called on by the remembrance of that which He condescended to suffer from human falsehood—even now, according to the poor merits of His servants, to bring them down, the fighters against justice, the haters of the righteous, the lovers of a lie. Here, in our version, we have the word me inserted: and that most rightly. Some of the mediæval commentators interpreted the hear, the hearing them, not me, and puzzled themselves in what sense the enemies of David, and of the truer David, could be said to be heard.

20 (21) He laid his hands upon such as be at peace with him: and he brake his covenant.

21 (22) The words of his mouth were softer than butter, having war in his heart: his words were smoother than oil, and yet be they very swords.

And perhaps there is not another verse in the Psalms which has had so many different explanations—not of the original meaning, which is most perfectly clear—but of the deeper and truer sense. In the first place: he, the traitor of traitors—he,* who afterwards repented after a sort—he laid his hands on Him That was at peace with him. He, so at peace with the only man of whom it is said, “Good were it for that man if he had never been born,” that He permitted the fallen Apostle to lay his hands on His Own most sacred Body, when he gave Him the kiss of peace, wherewith He was wont (so tradition tells) to receive His disciples, returning from their various missions. He laid his hands—upon such as were at peace with him. As they most truly quote from that prophet who was the closest and most exact type of the “Man of Sorrows,”* of the “acquainted with grief”—so exact a type that modern Judaism interprets the 53rd chapter of Isaiah of him—from Jeremiah: “I heard the defaming of many, fear on every side. Report, say they, and we will report it.” Although we have not now to do with the prophecy of Jeremiah, is not this most wonderful? The command to report the circumstances of His death Who was betrayed, as we have seen, by His friends. Report, say they: say the chief priests and elders, after they had taken counsel, to the soldiers that had kept watch at the sepulchre of the LORD; report: “His disciples came by night, and stole Him away while we slept.”* And we will report it. Exactly: so you will. And that report in the miserable times, when the whole history of the Resurrection was searched, inquired into, as a witness might be under cross-examination, was the terror of infidels; was the support of such as needed such an external kind of witness.

22 (23) O cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall nourish thee: and shall not suffer the righteous to fall for ever.

There are two different senses in which they took this casting the burden.* The one—that which I suppose would be generally taken; thy burden—the heavy load of sin, sorrow, temptation, let it be what it may, the Man of Sorrows will bear them all. Or,* in another sense; Cast thy burden on Him in the same way that the ship in a storm casts her burden on the anchor, which anchor holds on to its sure fixing place. And to my mind, that is the more beautiful sense of the two: a sense which, once entered into, may be followed out in these glorious verses:—

And I see the good ship riding, all in a perilous road;

The low reef booming on her lee; the swell of ocean poured,

Sea after sea, from stem to stern; the mainmast by the board:

The bulwarks down; the rudder gone; the boats stove by the chains:—

But courage still, brave mariners! the ANCHOR yet remains:

And he will flinch—no, never an inch—until ye pitch sky high;

Then he moves his head, as if he said: “Fear nought! for here am I.”

And He shall nourish thee. And look in what different ways. How will you have it? Of Joseph nourishing his father and his brethren:* or of the widow woman commanded—though she little knew it—to sustain Elijah; or, of the miraculous provision of manna,* or of quails, or of that in the great famine of Samaria, when the spoilers were spoiled? All this against famine. Or shall we take it of that dear love which can bring nourishment out of bitterness, as in the waters of Marah—or,* out of absolute poison, as from the springs of Jericho—or from downright venom,* as from the viper in Melita, which beast was the occasion of the sustenance of S. Paul and his company after the inhabitants of the island changed their minds, and said that the Apostle was a God.

It is remarkable how Arnobius, who interprets the word burden of all thoughts—care would be the nearest interpretation of all—dwells on the infinite mercy which allows us—not only allows, but commands us to commit all those troubles which haunt us, either from sin, or from temptation, or from bodily suffering, to Him Who therefore fell beneath the load of His Own Cross,* that we might never fall under the weight of ours. And so also says S. Leo.

23a (24) And as for them: thou, O GOD, shalt bring them into the pit of destruction.

23b (25) The bloodthirsty and deceitful men shall not live out half their days: nevertheless, my trust shall be in thee, O LORD.

The most noble sermon, perhaps, which was preached in that century of sermons, the seventeenth, though not taken from, was yet, to a great extent, based on this verse: that of Vieyra’s, from the text, “Go and sin no more.” Thus he shows how there is a certain amount of sin, known only to Him Who knows all things, and differing in different persons, which once heaped up, the day of mercy is at an end. After having dwelt on those prophecies in Amos—“For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four”—“for three transgressions of Gaza, and for four”—and so on, he turns to this text as his proof that man’s term of life is not so absolutely, determinately appointed, but that it may by his own wickedness be cut short. That sermon, to my mind,* has a solemnity which can hardly find a parallel. They interpret the words of the Psalm, it is true, in other ways.1 It is a more curious than plausible interpretation of the shall not live out half their days,* which S. Gregory gives. Every sin, he says, must be repented of: the life of a Christian, therefore, is made up of falls and penitence: therefore, he who is guilty of the falls, but knows nothing of the penitence, lives but half that which he ought to live: of such David speaks. It may perhaps be said, without any irreverence to one of the greatest Doctors of the Church, that, had all his interpretations been of the same character, he would scarcely have stood as high both in the East and West, as he does now.

And therefore:

Glory be to the FATHER, That endureth for ever, and shall hear me, and bring mine enemies down; and to the SON, the LORD, on Whom our burden is to be cast, and Who shall nourish us with His Own Body and Blood; and to the HOLY GHOST, Who, when its tongues were destroyed and divided of old time, gave us that first Pentecost, the gifts of divers languages to His Apostles, for the propagation of the faith;

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

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