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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 our sins, O LORD.

Monastic. For Thy Name’s sake * be merciful unto our sins, O LORD.

Parisian. Thou forgavest * the wickedness of my sin; for this shall every one that is godly make his prayer unto Thee.

Lyons. As Gregorian.

Ambrosian. As Psalm 77.

Mozarabic. Have mercy upon us, and that soon.

The date and occasion of this Psalm are much disputed by modern critics, who are divided as to the particular destruction of Jerusalem referred to, some holding it to be the Chaldee inroad, and others the spoiling of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes. From at least the time of Cassiodorus the parallelisms between Psalm 74 and this one have been the subject of notice and comment, but the present Psalm depicts a still worse condition of things than the earlier one. A few clues may be obtained to guide us. Thus verse 4 is borrowed directly from verse 13 of the earlier Korhite Psalm 44. On the other hand, verses 5 and 6 are borrowed in turn by Jeremiah, 10:25, just as he borrows in the preceding verse from the Penitential Psalms. This composition, therefore, must date before the final Captivity and after Psalm 44 and it is certainly not a Maccabee Psalm, because it is actually quoted as part of Scripture in 1 Macc. 7:17, a distinction which would not have been accorded while it was still a new poem. Further, verse 6 seems to imply invasion by confederate nations, or by an army recruited from various peoples, which will not hold of the Seleucid forces. It has been ingeniously suggested that the defilement of the Temple and the slaughter of the Saints refer to the idolatrous and tyrannical reign of Manasseh, but it seems very difficult to reconcile this view with the language implying the destruction of the holy city. It is possible that the true date lies between the dethronement of Jehoiakim and the last capture of Jerusalem.

1 O GOD, the heathen are come into thine inheritance: thy holy temple have they defiled, and made Jerusalem an heap of stones.

O God. (L.) The abruptness of this opening is, R. Kimchi remarks, a pathetic appeal. How can it be, seeing Thou art GOD and Judge, that Thou sufferest the heathen to waste Thine inheritance? (A.) We may not apply this as a prophecy of the final destruction of the city and temple by Titus and Hadrian, because the Jewish nation, by rejecting CHRIST, had ceased to be any longer GOD’S inheritance. The words must therefore be taken of an earlier time, and of those faithful ones who were the true heritage of the LORD, as were the Apostles later. But S. Bonaventure takes them,* deeply and beautifully, of the Person of CHRIST, outraged and crucified by Gentile soldiers. An heap of stones. So the Hebrew and S. Jerome. The LXX. and Vulgate read a fruit shed, ὀπωροφυλάκιον, pomorum custodiam, that is, either a place for temporary storage, or the hut erected by the gardener to shelter himself during the harvest, and abandoned when that immediate occasion ended. So the Prophet,* “And the daughter of Sion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers.”* They take it mystically of the inroad of evil thoughts and passions on the soul, making it which should be GOD’S temple, a polluted thing, and deserted by the living principle of faith, or even by “GOD Himself. Again,* it may be explained of those who discredit the Church by their secular lives, who show no result of baptismal grace, (G.) who care only for temporal, not for spiritual things, who,—to imitate the quaint language of a Saint,*—“study in the market, not in Mark, delight in scrip, not in Scripture.”1 It is especially true of worldly prelates and priests, who come into God’s inheritance, the Church, without being called or drawn by Him, and who abandon it as soon as they have made gain by it, just as the gardener or vintager leaves his hut after harvest. Others again, applying it to times of persecution, interpret the defiling as forced apostasy;* the fruit-shed as the Church, (A.) falling into decay when the Martyrs, the rich fruits once stored there, are carried into GOD’S garners.2

2 The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the air: and the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the land.

Once more they point out that the words cannot refer to the conquest of Titus, (Ay.) because the Christians escaped safely from Jerusalem during a lull in the siege.* They prefer to dwell on the sufferings of the Martyrs in the ten great persecutions, noting that the poor vengeance of the heathen not only could not touch the soul, but that the Resurrection makes even their attempts against the body vain. No fitter comment can be made on this sense of these two verses, than the words of S. Basil the Great,* describing the results of Diocletian’s edict. (Ay.) “The private houses of Christians were laid waste, the goods of the innocent were plundered, the bodies of faithful and virtuous persons were rent by the hands of executioners; matrons were dragged through the streets.… Besides all this, the houses of prayer were desolated by profane hands; the most holy altars were overthrown; nor was there any oblation, any incense, any place for offering the Sacrifice left. Deep sorrow, like a spreading mist, (Ay.) reigned everywhere.” Mystically, they take the words as showing that our bodies may be, and are, exposed to the power of evil spirits,* or human tyrants and slanderers, typified by fowls and beasts, but that our souls are not given into their power. Or, taking the Saints to mean all baptized Christians,* their dead bodies will denote those of them who have allowed their souls to become dead in sin,* and who are thus given over to the “powers of the air,” and their flesh will signify carnal passions and appetites, which end in becoming the prey of the devouring lion.

3 Their blood have they shed like water on every side of Jerusalem: and there was no man to bury them.

They try here to give some guess at the number of Christian Martyrs who resisted unto blood in the early days of the Church, (L.) and find only the rough calculation that the various Martyrologies, specifying only the more eminent cases, commemorate an average of five hundred Martyrs for each day of the year, (A.) whence they suggest the vast number of those not so mentioned. Like water, that is, abundantly and wantonly, on every side of Jerusalem,* that is, since Jerusalem denotes the Church, throughout the whole world. It holds of those who shed their own blood, that is, their spiritual life, by publishing their open and reckless sin committed in the Church.* And there was no man to bury them. It may be taken of that height of disorder in the Church, when wickedness, instead of being buried in the grave of repentance, of confession, of restraint, or of a cairn of good works heaped over it so as to hide its evil savour, is openly preached and encouraged. The properties of a grave are thus summed up to enforce this sense:

Terra, cadaver, hians, premit, et tumet, arcet odorem,

Ossa negat, vermi dat carnem, vivida reddit.

There was no man to bury them,* by hiding them from death with the example of life. Observe that in these two verses there is an apparent violation of the normal law of mystical language, whereby in Holy Scripture Jerusalem usually denotes the Church triumphant, and Sion the Church militant. They may, however, be very readily explained in accordance with that law. The words, on every side of Jerusalem, imply that the slaughter did not reach the inner city, but only its suburbs and outworks; and the expression made Jerusalem an heap of stones will then denote the manner in which the great immigration of Martyrs thronged the City above, for the heap of stones will signify that Gilead, or “mound of witness,” whereof is written,* “Gilead is mine.”1

4 We are become an open shame to our enemies: a very scorn and derision unto them that are round about us.

It is the cry of the Martyrs, whether in Pagan, Arian, Vandal, or Saracen days, and yet not altogether a cry of sorrow, but of rejoicing in sharing in the Passion of Him Who was mocked, spit on, buffeted, blindfolded, and blasphemously reviled. Yet again, (P.) it is the confession of guilt on the part of unworthy prelates and clergy,* who have caused unbelievers and even many of the well-disposed laity to condemn the Church on their account.*

5 LORD, how long wilt thou be angry: shall thy jealousy burn like fire for ever?

The anger and jealousy of GOD are not emotions of GOD; as some charge against those Scriptures which they understand not; but by the name of anger is to be understood the avenging of iniquity; under the name of jealousy, the exaction of chastity, that the soul may not despise the law of her LORD, and perish by departing in fornication from the LORD. Like fire. (A.) For GOD’S anger and jealousy do burn like fire till the gold, that is, perfect holiness, be purified, and the wood be reduced to ashes. Note too, that GOD’S anger may be aroused by any sin, but His jealousy,* as well as that of His servants,* is usually spoken of in Scripture as directed against spiritual adultery, that is, idolatry.* Thus Moses says, “They provoked Him to jealousy with strange gods.”* And Phinehas, slaying Zimri and Cozbi, is said to be “zealous for his GOD;”* and Elijah complains, “I have been very jealous for the LORD GOD of Hosts.”*

6 Pour out thine indignation upon the heathen that have not known thee: and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon thy Name.

7 For they have devoured Jacob: and laid waste his dwelling-place.

It is a prophecy, not a wish. (A.) S. Augustine queries how this passage can be reconciled with the words of the Gospel, “That servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes.”* And the answer is, that even the worse of these two is at least his LORD’S servant, calling upon His Name, whereas the heathen spoken of in the Psalm refuse to do so, not through mere ignorance, but through perversity of will.* They call on other names in the three kingdoms of the devil, the world, and the flesh. The proud invoke Baal; the covetous, Mammon; the luxurious, Baal-Peor. (A.) They have devoured Jacob. That is, they have compelled apostasy, and thus caused Christians to pass into their body or society, and laid waste his dwelling-place,* by preventing others from coming to the faith, and thus filling up the vacancies left by those who fall away. Taking the whole scope of the Psalm, (D. C.) with the Carthusian and Parez, to be the fall of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, and the capture of the Holy Places by the Saracens, (P.) we may cite the lament of a contemporary poet:

Eheu! terra inclyta, terra vere bona,*

Sola digna perfrui floridâ coronâ!

Terra cuï dederat DEUS tanta dona,

Eheu! quantum impia te nunc cingit zona!

Eheu! eheu! DOMINE, gloria justorum,

Angelorum bonitas, salus peccatorum!

Ecce canes comedunt panes filiorum,

Velut aqua funditur sanguis nunc sanctorum!

Flete, omnes populi, flete, et non parum!

Graves luctus facite, planetum et amarum!

Flumina effundite, undas lacrymarum!

Sic ruinam plangite urbium sanctarum.

8 O remember not our old sins, but have mercy upon us, and that soon: for we are come to great misery.

Old sins: whether those of our fathers, (B.) entailing evils on their descendants, or those of original sin, committed before baptism,* and remitted therein, but partially resumed, or else post-baptismal sins, repented of, and left behind. Soon. How soon, let the A. V. tell us, herein agreeing with the Vulgate: Let Thy tender mercies speedily prevent us; let Thy grace anticipate our fall, and not merely lift us up from it; let Thy mercy anticipate Thy judgment, that we be not condemned at the last. (A.) We are come to great misery. The LXX. and Vulgate read, We have become exceeding poor, having lost the gold of purity and the silver of a good conscience, and being destitute of all good works.* Where note, that he is poor, who has none of this world’s goods;* he is very poor, who has not himself; he is exceeding poor, (C.) who not only has not him self, (D. C.) but is in another’s power. “O how great is the might of this verse and of the two which follow! Their power outstrips all human understanding; the tongue fails in uttering their praise; but how good it is to confess our own poverty, and thus to cry ceaselessly in the LORD’S Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’* Wonderful is the might of prayer in these verses, and most wholesome is it to use these holy words, with loving soul, with steadfast attention, with hearty zest, for it were easier for heaven and earth to perish, than for such a prayer to be in vain!”

9 Help us, O GOD of our salvation, for the glory of thy Name: O deliver us, and be merciful unto our sins, for thy Name’s sake.

Help us. While the Psalmist would have us to be helped, (A.) he is neither ungrateful to grace, nor doth he take away freewill. For he that is helped, does something for his own part, wherefore S. Chrysostom saith, (Ay.) that grace is the help of human weakness. Help is not given to sleepers, but to them that bestir themselves.* So when S. Antony warred against evil spirits, and was sore wounded in the conflict, he recognized with gladness, as a sunbeam shone down on him and put the demons to flight, that CHRIST had come to him, and he said, “Where wast Thou, O good JESU: where wast Thou?” And a voice came to him, saying,” Antony, I was here; I was watching thy conflict. Now that thou hast not ceased battling manfully, I will ever help thee.” Whence it is said,* “The SPIRIT helpeth our infirmities.” He does not say “our negligence.”* O God of our salvation, for the glory of Thy Name, which is JESUS, the SAVIOUR, (D. C.) not for any merits of our own, deliver us.

JESU, salva me, Salvator,*

Esto meus liberator

De mortis voragine,

JESU, laudem tibi dico,

Nomen tuum benedico,

Manum mihi porrige.*

Be merciful to our sins. (B.) As pardon was asked in a former verse for old sins, so here the remission of those which we continue to commit is asked from the LORD.* Do more than pardon, grant that the sufferings which we deserve, but which, as Christians, we bear for Thy Name’s sake,* may not cause us to fall away into the sins of the ungodly around us, but help to purge us, (R.) and fit to praise Thy holy Name with honour and thanksgiving.

10a (10) Wherefore do the heathen say: Where is now their GOD?

10b (11) O let the vengeance of thy servants’ blood that is shed: be openly showed upon the heathen in our sight.

The order of the clauses of the eleventh verse in the LXX. and Vulgate is the reverse of this, and the Vulgate adds one of them to the tenth, thus: Where is now their God? and be it known in the nations, &c. That is, not merely that they should deny either GOD’S power to save, or His knowledge of the distress of His people,* but that this blasphemy, confined at first to a few, should spread abroad amongst the unbelieving nations around, (L.) as did the mockery of those who reviled Him when He hung upon the Cross. The vengeance of Thy servants’ blood. There is a double comment on these words in the New Testament, the cry of the souls of the Martyrs under the Altar in heaven: (D. C.) “How long, O LORD, holy and true, dost Thou not avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” and the promise given by their King Himself: “Shall not GOD avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them? I tell you, that He will avenge them speedily.”* S. Augustine dwells at much length on this prayer,* and shows that it is an intreaty in true charity for the correction of the wicked in this life, that they may be saved at last, (A.) (seeing that their sin must be punished somehow and some time,) rather than have it deferred to the world to come, and therefore it is said, in our sight.

11 (12) O let the sorrowful sighing of the prisoners come before thee: according to the greatness of thy power, preserve thou those that are appointed to die.

Prisoners, either in the bonds of the flesh, which they only feel heavy who “desire to depart and to be with CHRIST,” or in the bonds of GOD’S commandments, (A.) which, fitly worn, become ornaments, as it is written, “Put thy feet into her fetters, and thy neck into her chain,”* because, as is said further, “then shall her fetters be a strong defence for thee, and her chains a robe of glory.” Or prisoners in the bonds of charity and brotherly love, who are constrained to make perpetual intercession on behalf of sinners,* as Moses did for guilty Israel, (D. C.) and who thus bind the LORD Himself.* Or, yet again, prisoners under the bondage of the old Law, not yet admitted into “the glorious liberty of the children of GOD.”* Lastly; they take it of literal chains, wherewith the heathen bound the Martyrs and Confessors of CHRIST. (C.) And with this they take those that are appointed to die.* The Hebrew literally is, the sons of death, and the LXX. and Vulgate turn the words, acquire for Thy possession the sons of the slaughtered, which is, that in accordance with the prayer of the Apostles and Martyrs, whose spiritual children we are, (A.) their blood-shedding might not be fruitless, (D. C.) but enrich the field of the Church with a rich harvest. And so it has been a proverb for sixteen hundred years, “The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Another reminds us that when GOD delivers us from any great peril of death, bodily or spiritual, He thereby purchases us as His especial property,* and we are more than ever bound to His service. They are to be acquired or preserved by the greatness of God’s power, or, as the Hebrew and the versions generally,* of His Arm, that is, of His Only-begotten SON, that Arm which is most potent to deliver, most ample to embrace, most tenacious to hold; of which it is written, “He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”*

12 (13) And for the blasphemy wherewith our neighbours have blasphemed thee: reward thou them, O LORD, sevenfold into their bosom.

Sevenfold, as doing it perfectly, (A.) into their bosoms, as doing it secretly. They take it, for the most part, of severe chastisements at GOD’S hand, (Ay.) in vengeance on the seven deadly sins, marked by seven deprivations of grace in this world, and seven woes in the world to come.* Far deeper and lovelier is the gloss of Cassiodorus, (C.) followed by many others, (R.) that it is a prayer for the conversion of sinners by sending into their hearts the sevenfold gifts of the HOLY GHOST;* the first effect of which will be to cover them with confusion, (B.) so that they shall hide their faces in the bosom of GOD, and there reproach themselves seven times as much as they once did the Name of GOD.

13 (14) So we, that are thy people, and sheep of thy pasture, shall give thee thanks for ever: and will alway be showing forth thy praise from generation to generation.

Cardinal Hugo, according to his wont, sums up in mnemonic verse the mystical properties of pasture:*

Pascua sponte virent; pascunt inculta licenter

Alta pecus, sed aquosa boves, dant fœna per imbres.

They remind us that the Jewish people were the first sheep of GOD’S pasture in this world, (Ay.) and that as sheep assemble together in summer, and part in winter,* so the Jews were ready to give thanks to GOD in prosperity, but in time of affliction they always fell away. But of His own elect, He, the Good Shepherd, Who has given Himself to be their Food, saith, “I will seek out My sheep, and will bring them to their own land, and feed them upon the mountains of Israel by the rivers, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them in a good pasture, and upon the high mountains of Israel shall their fold be: there shall they lie in a good fold.”* How good that fold is, let us hear one tell us whose soul thirsted to be there:

Winters snowing,* summers glowing, never thither pain may bring,

Everlasting roses blowing make an everlasting spring,

Lily blanching, crocus blushing, and the balsam perfuming.

Pasture groweth, flowret bloweth, honey drops from combs of bees,

Liquid odours, fragrant spices, shed their perfume on the breeze,

Never-falling fruits are hanging from the ever-leafy trees.

From generation to generation.* From the generation of circumcision to that of baptism, from the generation of nature to that of grace, from the generation of this world to that of heaven, we shall praise Thy Name in the most blessed psalmody of the world to come, (C.) which the choir of Saints shall chant unceasingly, not to teach others, for none there will be untaught, but that, offering honour where it is due, they may be fed with the very sweetness of their own song. And so once more the holy Bishop of Ostia:

In new harmonics unceasing they with voice melodious sing,*

While their listening ears are gladdened with the harps’ exultant ring,

And, for He hath made them victors, praises chant they to their King.


Glory be to the FATHER, the GOD of our Salvation: and to the SON, the Greatness of His Arm; and to the HOLY GHOST, Who giveth His sevenfold grace into our bosom.

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

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