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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. Be merciful * unto me, O GOD.

Monastic. Be merciful unto me, O GOD, * for man goeth about to devour me.

Mozarabic. In Thee, O GOD, are my vows, * the praise which I will return to Thee.

1 Be merciful unto me, O GOD, for man goeth about to devour me: he is daily fighting, and troubling me.

2 Mine enemies are daily in hand to swallow me up: for they be many that fight against me, O thou most Highest.

We must take the whole Psalm, S. Augustine says, but more especially these first two verses, in connexion with the title: “When the Philistines took him in Gath;” for Gath, by interpretation is a winepress. And according to that very favourite mediæval metaphor, that spices only give out their strength when they are bruised,—as the strings of the lyre require to be strung to their full extent before they can give out their sweetest melody,—so and even more plainly, the grape cannot yield that juice which maketh glad both GOD and man, until it has been exposed to, and so to speak suffered in, the winepress. So Adam of S. Victor:

Parum sapis vim sinapis,

Si non tangis, si non frangis;

Et plus fragrat quando flagrat

Thus injectum ignibus.

Thus taught by the title, the whole Psalm so applies itself to the Son of David, simply and exclusively that not only the literal interpretation seems almost impossible, but that scarcely any other mystical explanation is allowable—For man goeth about to devour me. It is not wonderful that they should here make such a point of that parable where, though enemy in the original, yet in the Vulgate, it is said, that the MAN the enemy, (Ay.) soweth tares also. Every one who is acquainted in the slightest degree with the most ordinary ecclesiastical correspondence,* to say nothing of the commentaries, of the middle ages, knows that the homo inimicus, occurs over and over again, wherever any temptation of the individual, or trial to the Church, is in question. And as it is well said by Jerome,—if Satan transforms himself into an Angel of Light, much more may he, and does he, transform himself into the image of that “man” whose whole race he, as far as he could, made like to himself in the disobedience of Adam. But then; of all Psalms that most dearly apply to our LORD’S life in the years of His ministry, none surely can match with this.

3 Nevertheless, though I am sometime afraid: yet put I my trust in thee.

It is quite different in the Vulgate: From the height of the day shall I fear: but in Thee will I put my trust. In all likelihood, the two verses have been wrongly divided; as so often: so that the “O Thou most Highest” of the former verse, is indeed rightly joined with it in our translation,* so far as its division goes: and, literally, the interpretation should be this, “Mine enemies are daily in hand to swallow me up, for they be many that fight against me out of pride.” Where the Out of pride is expressed in our translation by, O Thou most Highest: in the Vulgate it is carried over into the next verse, and appears in height of the day. It is our work, not so much to inquire into the meaning of the Hebrew, as into the sense in which the Western Church took her own translation. Out of the twelve mystical interpretations,—which it is needless to go through,—these, perhaps, are the most striking. From the height of the day will I fear. “And it was about the sixth hour,* and they crucified Him.” So during that darkness which fell on the earth, surely if ever fearfulness and trembling came upon—it is not true as yet to say, the Church, but—the LORD’S few followers, that was the place, so then was the time. And the words, so taken, have a higher meaning even than these. The more we study the four histories of the Passion, the clearer it is that towards the afternoon of that day, what we should now call the popular feeling as regarded the Crucified One, had entirely changed. They passed by wagging their heads: true: but that was before noon: after the confession of the Good Thief, and the darkness, and the earthquake,—not one word more is recorded of insult: but everything to the contrary. We are far too apt to pass over one clause of one verse in S. Matthew. That the Centurion said: “Certainly this was a righteous man,”* “Truly this was the SON of GOD,”* every child can tell us. But we scarcely realise all that is meant by that expression of S. Matthew,—“Now when the Centurion, AND THEY THAT WERE WITH HIM, WATCHING JESUS, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, THEY feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the SON of GOD.” It was at the height of the day, at that sixth hour when they crucified Him, that the faith of the little band of His followers must have been most shaken; whereas after that time, each succeeding event, if it could work a kind of belief in the mere by-standers, much more must have aided in restoring or strengthening the faith of disciples.

4 I will praise GOD, because of his Word: I have put my trust in GOD, and will not fear what flesh can do unto me.

It is rather remarkable that the first, the striking, mystical sense of Because of His word, should find so very slight recognition in the earlier Commentators. They rather take it in the sense of S. Peter: “If any speak, let him speak as the oracles of GOD:”* whether that the word so preached to the Gentiles brings them in from darkness to light;* or because that word teaches whatever we might otherwise think good, and be ready to extol in ourselves, of a verity is all His: (“Not unto us, O LORD: not unto us, but unto Thy Name,”)—but this seems rather a far-fetched meaning;* though the Carmelite seems to approve of it: (Ay.) or again; as if David were saying,—let others praise, and, in a certain sense, rightly praise, earthly actions, I will praise God. But in truth it must be That Word Which was in the beginning, Which was with GOD, Which was GOD, that the Psalmist will praise.1 I have put my trust in God, namely, in GOD the Word Who was made Flesh to this end; that we might not be afraid what flesh can do to us. Made Flesh in the Incarnation, that the weariness and the hunger, and the thirst, and the coronation, and the scourging, might teach us S. Peter’s lesson: “Forasmuch then as CHRIST has suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind.”* Made Flesh in the Blessed Sacrament, to the end that, that dearest of all verses might in us he fulfilled;

Se nascens dedit socium

Convescens in edulium

Se moriens in premium

Se regnans dat in premium.

And therefore it may well follow,* I, for whom that most precious Flesh was torn on the Cross, I, by whom that most glorious Flesh, the more glorious because of its humiliation, has been again and again eaten, I will not be afraid what Flesh can do unto me.

5 They daily mistake my words: all that they imagine is to do me evil.

Mistake: or, as it is in the Vulgate, execrated. The servant is not above his lord. If the Scribes and Pharisees sent out them that should feign themselves just men, for the sake of purposely mistaking His words, like to Whom never man spake, what great marvel if from that time till the end of the world, the poor, feeble, faltering words of His servants, should again and again sometimes purposely, sometimes really, be mistaken? If His enemies could pervert the “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up;”* if His friends could misunderstand His, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth;”* what wonder if they who speak in His Name should have their sayings in like manner distorted. They daily execrated my words. What marvel, then, if they called the Master of the house Beelzebub, that by the same name they should term them of His household. And then, in a higher sense still: they did indeed refuse and were scandalised at His words, when “from that time many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him:”* when to them, as to many now, even of those who call themselves His followers, His doctrine concerning the eating His own Flesh, and the drinking His own. Blood, met only with the response: “This is an hard saying, Who can hear it?” All that they imagine is to do me evil. And, as they well say, how they imagined to do Him evil, almost every chapter of every Gospel teaches. By tempting Him: by lying in wait to observe Him: by sending forth spies that should feign themselves just men: by endeavouring to cast Him down from the precipice on which Nazareth was built; by taking up stones again, (wherefore, not for the first time,) to stone Him; all this before we enter on the Passion. But they of whom it might be said, All that they imagine is to do me good; how many are they? Some did imagine to do Him good, during His most holy life, forsaking Him in His most bitter Passion: other some, having held aloof from Him during that life, braved all shame and danger for His sake, during that death. S. Peter, and the other nine Apostles that forsook Him, an example of the one class; Joseph and Nicodemus of the other. But of men, not one from first to last clave to Him, unless it may be said that S. John did. Of women, besides the Blessed above women, two at least, most probably three, as they had ministered to Him in His life, so they were not afraid or ashamed to, as that strong Greek expression has it, “be glued” to Him in His Passion and Death. Thus it was that, here also, “the LORD chose new wars.”

6 They hold all together, and keep themselves close: and mark my steps, when they lay wait for my soul.

In the Vulgate, the mystical sense comes out far more deeply and earnestly; not indeed of the LORD and Master, to whom hitherto we have turned our thoughts, but of the servants who are not to be above that LORD, of the disciples who are not to be above that Master. They shall inhabit and hide. O most wonderful description of the sin that doth so easily beset us! Most marvellous antitype of that saying of old: “The Canaanites WOULD dwell in that land.” And again, Judah “could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron:” and how it came to pass that even “when Israel was strong they put the Canaanites to tribute and did not utterly drive them out.” And hide themselves. “Take us the foxes, the little foxes,” skulking and hiding themselves by nature, (Ay.) because they are foxes; concealing themselves the more easily, because they are little foxes.*

7 Shall they escape for their wickedness: thou, O GOD, in thy displeasure shalt cast them down.

The Vulgate is entirely different: thus: They shall inhabit and hide themselves: they shall observe my footsteps. As they have waited for my soul, Thou shalt make them of no regard: in Thy anger, O God, Thou shalt break the people. O God, I have announced to Thee my life, Thou hast put all my tears in Thy sight. The two last verses form the Verse and Response on Wednesday. Shall they escape. And we are immediately reminded of Caiaphas’s advice, that one man should die for the nation, and yet for all that, they did not escape; but the Romans came, and took away their place and nation. For nothing Thou shalt save them, is taken by S. Augustine in a very curious way. “With not any merit of theirs going before shalt Thou save them. I that before was a blasphemer, he saith, and a persecutor, and injurious. Therefore, of this man, not any good merits had gone before, nay, such things had gone before on account of which he would be condemned. Nothing of good he brought in, and saved was he. For nothing Thou shalt save them: that is, with the free gift of Thy grace. What had that robber brought to the Cross? From the lurking place to the judgment; from the judgment unto the tree; from the tree into Paradise. He believed, and therefore he spake. But even that very faith Who did give, but He that by him hung?”

8 Thou tellest my flittings; put my tears into thy bottle: are not these things noted in thy book?

Thou tellest my flittings. So they notice twelve flights of David; (L.) and so the flittings of the Son of David were not only through Judæa, and Samaria, and Galilee, but also in times of greater danger, as when “they took up stones to cast at Him, but JESUS hid Himself, and went out of the Temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by:”* or when on the Mount of precipitation, “He passing through the midst of them, went His way.”* Put my tears into Thy bottle. And we think of that strong crying and those tears which, unrecorded in the Gospels, were, nevertheless noted in God’s Book by the great Apostle. Or, (D. C.) as they well say, if to Hezekiah GOD sent the message, “I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears;”* if Jeremiah could so plead his own tears for Jerusalem, of how much more effect must those tears be, which together with the Blood of Calvary, were poured forth for the salvation of the world? In mediæval times, the pilgrimage to Vendôme was one of the most famous in Europe for there was the relic enshrined in a crystal vessel, of a tear of CHRIST. Put my tears into Thy bottle. And what becomes of those tears afterwards, the hymn may tell us.

Bright with pearls the portal glitters,

It is open evermore.

that is, tears which cannot be carried into heaven, are transfigured into the decoration of its external gates. Are not these things noted in Thy Book? The text will come in very well: “He said unto them, What things? And they said unto Him, Concerning JESUS of Nazareth, which was a Prophet mighty in deed and in word.”* In Thy Book. Even as it is written in another Psalm: “Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written of Me, to do Thy will, O GOD.”

9 Whensoever I call upon thee, then shall mine enemies be put to flight: this I know; for GOD is on my side.

Whensoever I call upon Thee. And we are at once carried on to the “FATHER, I thank Thee, that Thou hast heard Me, and I know that Thou hearest Me always.” For God is on my side, is, in the Vulgate, For Thou art my God. See, S. Augustine, how the one thing follows the other. If Thou art my GOD, (Ay.) then, whensoever I call, I shall be heard. There was but one, and there never shall be but that one, who saying, and not only with truth, but in the very highest and intensest sense, My GOD, was not heard, namely, in that cry on the Cross, “My GOD, My GOD, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” And yet even here, in a truer sense, and in the fulness of time, as S. Paul says, “He was heard in that He feared.” Then shall mine enemies be put to flight. As they gloriously were by that last “It is finished:” Satan vanquished, the bars and gates of hell burst, the kingdom of heaven open to all believers. Whensoever I call upon Thee, then shall mine enemies be put to flight.

10 In GOD’S word will I rejoice: in the LORD’S word will I comfort me.

11 Yea, in GOD have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.

So he had said before: and the reason of the repetition they take to be,* that whenever the first expression of trust succeeded one of fear, this was necessary, lest the certainty that His enemies should be put to flight might savour of presumption. (L.) The great Carmelite, following S. Jerome and others, (Ay.) sees in this verse another manifestation of the Trinity, but surely less conveniently. They notice also that the difference of the expression, God’s Word and the Lord’s Word, may refer to His mercy and His justice, as much as to say that in one, not less than the other, would David put his trust. Notice further, that in the fourth verse, it is “what flesh,” here it is, what man, can do unto me: the old distinction of the battle from within and from without.

12 Unto thee, O GOD, will I pay my vows: unto thee will I give thanks.

13 For thou hast delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling: that I may walk before GOD in the light of the living.

And gloriously was this promise kept when the vow that the good Shepherd had made to give His life for the sheep,* was accomplished on Calvary. Unto Thee will I give thanks. Not only in that “FATHER, I thank Thee that Thou hast heard Me,” before the Passion was yet accomplished, but even more gloriously after the Resurrection, when He, returning from His exile, brought back the thank-offering of a ransomed world,* as an oblation to His FATHER and our FATHER, to His GOD and our GOD. For Thou hast delivered my soul from death: even according to that saying, “Thou shalt not leave my soul in hell, neither shalt Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption.” That I may walk before God in the light of the living: Himself the Light that not only lightens this world, but that is the brightness of the celestial kingdom: “for the LORD GOD doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the Light thereof:” Himself the Light: “In Him was Life,* and the Life was the Light of men.” In another sense they take it of the conversion of heretics, translated out of the darkness and death of their former ignorance, into that light first of all implanted by Baptism and manifested in the Church militant now, hereafter to be more gloriously brilliant when her warfare is accomplished. It is well said,* that in the deliverance of the soul from death, we have the work of the FATHER; of the feet from falling, that of the SON; of the walking in the Light of the Living, that of the HOLY GHOST, the LORD and Giver of life.

And therefore:

Glory be to the FATHER, in Whose Word we will rejoice; and to the SON, Who paid His vows in the evening sacrifice of the world; and to the HOLY GHOST, through Whom we trust to walk in the Light of the living;

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

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