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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.

In the Gregorian and identical uses the Antiphons to this Psalm recur as intercalations in the Psalm itself, are called Invitatories, and vary for every day and festival.2

Ambrosian. Let us heartily rejoice in the GOD of our salvation. [Christmas Day: This is the SAVIOUR, of Whom the Prophet spake; and this is the Lamb, of which Isaiah spake. Gabriel announced to the Virgin, let us worship Him, and serve Him. Epiphany: Come, every creature, let us worship the LORD, Who hath shined upon us, Whom the Prophets preached, from Moses unto John the Baptist.  . To-day CHRIST hath appeared, GOD of GOD, Light of Light.]

Mozarabic. Let us come before the face of the LORD with thanksgiving,* and show ourselves glad in Him with Psalms.

The use of this Psalm as introductory to Divine Service is of very remote antiquity, in both the Eastern and Western Church. In the former it has for many centuries been abbreviated into a short invitatory or anthem based on the first, third, sixth, and seventh verses; while in the latter the Psalm itself has been retained in full, along with the invitatory. There are traces of its liturgical use in the Pseudo-Athanasius and in S. Augustine, and it had assumed its present position before the time of S. Benedict. Its mode of employment in the Temple Services is not accurately known, but it is used now in the synagogues of the Ashkenazin as the first of a series preparatory to the great Sabbath Psalm 92. And on the Christian use of the Psalm Honorius of Autun observes in the Gemma Animœ, that the Precentor who begins the invitatory is the herald who summons the soldiers of the watch to mount guard, and when he has done his part, all join in singing the Venite as soldiers assembling in camp to praise their King. And then they apportion the watches amongst themselves, as they proceed to chant the three nocturns.

1 O come, let us sing unto the LORD: let us heartily rejoice in. the strength of our salvation.

The Prophet invites us to a great banquet of rejoicing, not in the world, but in the LORD. And in saying, O come, (A.) he means that those who are far off are to draw near. But how can we be far off from Him Who is everywhere present? By unlikeness to Him, by an evil life, by evil habits. A man standing still in one spot draws near to GOD by loving Him, and by loving unrighteousness he withdraws from GOD; he does not move his feet, and yet he can both approach and retire, for our feet, in this journey, are our affections.* Come then, ye Gentiles, (Ay.) who are far from the city of Jerusalem, who are in Babylon, the city of Satan, come from unbelief to faith,* from the devil your seducer to CHRIST your SAVIOUR. Come, as sick men to a physician to obtain health, as scholars to their master to learn wisdom,* as thirsty men to a fountain, as fugitives to a sanctuary, as blind men to the sun. Let us sing unto the Lord. Why then do we find it said,* Blessed are they that mourn,* and woe to you that laugh? Surely because they are blessed who mourn to the world, and woe is to them that laugh to the world, but blessed are they who exult unto the LORD, who know not how to be glad of rapine, of fraud, of their neighbours’ tears. He exults unto the LORD who in word,* deed, and work, exults not for himself, but for his Maker. In the strength of our salvation. The simplest comment on these words is the version of S. Jerome, who translates, to Jesus our Rock.

2 Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving: and show ourselves glad in him with psalms.

For come before the LXX. and Vulgate have, much better, anticipate (προφθάσωμεν, prœoccupemus) His face,* that is, let us make haste to meet Him, not waiting till He sends to call us before Him. Not that we can in any way forestall GOD’S grace and bounty to us, but that we may offer our thanksgiving with sufficient promptness to avoid the charge of ingratitude. Again, (A.) whereas the LXX. and Vulgate word in this clause is not thanksgiving, but confession, which may be either the confession of GOD’S might and goodness, or of our own frailty and sin, the confession of praise or the confession of grief, we are bid, in this second sense, to come away from our sins, to come in penitence to GOD, before He comes to judgment. We cannot forestall the Searcher of hearts, Who knoweth our sins, and seeth our secret thoughts,* and foreseeth things yet to come; but we can confess now, while there is hope of mercy, a time of pardon, a place of repentance, to our FATHER, that we feel not our Judge, (Z.) when He cometh for the second time, remembering how often the face of GOD stands in Holy Writ for His wrath. (Ay.) And the reasons why such forestalling ought to be prompt are, first, that delay in confession when there is an opportunity for it, enhances sin, because the soul is kept just so much the longer in the fetters of evil habit; next, that this continued habit makes the soul less able to resist the next temptation of Satan, and more liable to fall into fresh sins; and thirdly, that we cannot be sure, if we delay, that either the time or the capacity to repent will be granted us. And this idea we find in the Responsory of the Second Nocturn of the First Sunday in Lent:* “Let us amend for the better those things wherein we have ignorantly sinned, lest suddenly forestalled (prœoccupati) by the day of death, we seek time for repentance, (L.) and be not able to find it.”* And we may note that the phrase of coming before GOD’S face is sometimes used in Holy Writ for offering sacrifice, as thus:* “Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high GOD? shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old?”* The chief constituent of the sacrifice of thanksgiving under the Mosaic code was an oblation of cakes of fine flour and wafer-bread,* and thus we may justly see in this place a prophecy of the Sacrifice of the New Law, that Eucharistic oblation of praise and thanksgiving wherein CHRIST is Himself offered in a mystery to the FATHER. And show ourselves glad in Him with psalms. We may take the words in their obvious literal sense of the continuous use of the Psalter in the public and private devotions of Christians, who begin with the praises of GOD before they ask for gifts to satisfy their needs; not like starving men who fall at once upon food set before them,* ere they greet their host. But the majority of the Latins take psalms, as usual, to denote the combination of will and action in good works, because the word implies the use of an instrument as well as of the voice. And we may be glad with psalms when we are alone, (D. C.) as well as when joining with others in the offices of the Church, saying, O come, all ye powers of my soul, my whole being, and all that is within me, especially my reason, memory, and will: let us come, and let us be glad together in the LORD.

3 For the LORD is a great GOD: and a great King above all gods.

The force of this verse is somewhat weakened in all the versions,* by their failing to give the precise point of the Hebrew, which is that Jehovah, the GOD of Israel, is the One supreme Deity, exalted not only above all the false gods of the heathen, but over all angels and spirits, which however superior in power and wisdom to man, are yet inferior to Him.* The literal rendering is, “For JEHOVAH is a great El, and a great King over all Elohim.” To us, the words teach the mystery of the Eternal SON,* pointing out that our LORD, (Cd.) even in His mortal Body, is a great God, by reason of the hypostatic union, and also because He is the express Image of the FATHER, whence we find this very title given Him by the Apostle, saying, “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of our great GOD and SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST.”* And observe how it is true of Him in a special sense,* wherein it was not true of GOD as revealed under the Law, that He is a great King above all gods,* for the Gospel has made successful war against idolatry amongst many lands and nations, which Judaism left quite unaffected; while, in turn, it has never itself been supplanted anywhere by polytheism; and CHRIST is, moreover, the King Whom all the gods,* all those Saints and rulers of His Church whom He hath made partakers of Him, obey and love. Here the Roman Psalter adds a clause not in the Hebrew, LXX., or Vulgate:* For the Lord will not repel His people, that Christian people which He hath purchased with His own Blood, will not reject it crying, praying, seeking, or knocking, to Him.

4 In his hand are all the corners of the earth: and the strength of the hills is his also.

If we take this verse and the following one as descriptive of the power of GOD over creation,* there is no better commentary on them than the words of Isaiah: “He hath measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance.”* But the fuller explanation is to take it as depending on the previous verse, and as pointing out that while various false gods are locally worshipped in special places,* He only is LORD everywhere. And thus we shall see a reference here to the Catholic Church,* no longer bounded by the narrow limits of a single people, but drawn from all the nations of the earth. This view derives especial force from the consideration that while there is one false creed, Buddhism, whose adherents numerically exceed Christians, yet it is practically limited to the east of Asia, to China, Japan, Thibet, and Ceylon; while the Gospel has spread into every part of the world, and covers an enormously larger area of supremacy than any other creed, dominant as it is in Europe, America, and Australia, the belief of the Russian and English masters of half Asia, and pushing its frontier ever further to the north from the ends of Africa itself, to join at last the weak remnant of the ancient Egyptian Church. The strength (or height, A. V.) of the hills is His also.* The words not only denote the empire of GOD over the most inaccessible and untrodden regions, (L.) but the overthrow of heathen temples, so often situated in high places, and the rearing of Christian shrines on the eminences of Tabor, Sinai, Athos, and many another famous hill. Mystically, all the corners of the earth may denote all the powers and faculties of man (a notion brought out better by the literal Hebrew, all the deep places of the earth), while the lofty mountains are types of the exalted citizen of heaven.* Yet again, the earth is often put for men of earthly and grovelling minds, mountains for Saints lifted on high in contemplation of Divine things, alike subject to the sway of the same LORD,* Who guides at His will the wealth and honours of earth, the rewards and glories of heaven.

5 The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands prepared the dry land.

It is a curious fact, noticed by some of the old commentators,* that there is nothing said in the first chapter of Genesis about the creation of the sea, and from this circumstance, certain early heretics maintained that GOD was not its Mater. (A.) This error answers to the commonest mystical interpretation of the sea in this place, namely, that it denotes the Gentile nations, tossed about in the bitterness and barrenness of heathenism, whom the Jews, (C.) in their spiritual pride, refused to believe GOD’S children and care. But He made them, as it is written: “Doubtless Thou art our FATHER, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: Thou, O LORD, art our FATHER, our Redeemer.”* And His hands prepared the dry land. This land, differing from the sea in stability and in capacity of fruitfulness, denotes the Church, or any holy soul. It is dry,* because without the grace of GOD it can do nothing, as land will not bear unless it be watered, but it gaspeth to Him as a thirsty ground. He formed (A. V., LXX., Vulg.),* which means more than He made it, implying that He gave shape and beauty, and fulness, to that which before was “without form and void,”* by reason of Adam’s sin.

6 O come, let us worship and fall down: and kneel before the LORD our Maker.

Here the duty of bodily reverence to GOD is set before us,* and the words denote a climax of humility; we are to worship, that is, to bend the head, as servants before their master, to fall down, as subjects acknowledging their king, to kneel as suppliants beseeching a favour. But the LXX. and Vulgate,* instead of kneel, read weep,1 and on this word lies all the stress of the expositors. (C.) Cassiodorus observes that GOD calls His people first to rejoice, while they are as yet unacquainted with religion, lest they should be alarmed and repelled by its sorrows and austerities; but when they have once accepted the faith, He then summons them to repentance for their sins. Nay, rather, observes a Saint, they are tears of joy,* for gladness brings weeping, as well as sorrow, and then grief for our past sins is blended with the hope of blessing and glory to come.* Some commentators, who take this psalm as having special reference to the Nativity of CHRIST, bid us see here a command to adore Him in the manger, undeterred by the tokens of mortality and lowliness around. We may well weep, even amidst our Christmas joy, in sympathy for the sorrows He came to bear, and for our own sins which laid such a burden upon His shoulders. And thus S. Augustine remarks: “If women, when about to put on their attire, are careful to wash away any stains with water, why should not we still more wash away with tears the stains of our souls, when the Nativity of our LORD is coming to us?”*

7a (7) For he is the LORD our GOD: and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

Note, remarks S. Augustine, the graceful change in the order of the words. (A.) It is not, as we might think more exact, the sheep of His pasture and the people of His hand.* And that in order to teach us that we, even as people, are sheep in respect of GOD, needing Him as our Shepherd, capable of being satisfied with His green pastures only, and yet not unreasoning sheep, which must be driven with a staff, but guided with GOD’S own Hand, the very Hand which made them, and which is sedulous in its loving care to prevent any harm to the flock from the negligence, ignorance, or malice of those inferior shepherds, those pastors and teachers,* to whom He commits, in a measure, the task of herding. He feeds us with bread from heaven now, as He fed our spiritual forefathers with manna in the wilderness; and He cares for us, as a shepherd for his flock, so that we need not do so for ourselves, but cast all our care on Him,* and be like sheep in fruitfulness, patience, and innocence.

7b (8) To-day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts: as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness:

9 When your fathers tempted me: proved me, and saw my works.

To-day, that is, (Z.) “daily, while it is called to-day,”* as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews comments, in one of his threefold citations of this verse; so long as the night has not come, so long as the door of mercy is not shut.* To-day, in the time of grace, when He speaks to us by His SON, not by the Law. To-day, at once, not deferring till to-morrow. If ye will hear His voice,* is the reply to the assertion in the previous verse, “We are the sheep of His hand,”* for the unerring test of CHRIST’S flock is laid down by Himself: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”* You call yourselves His sheep, prove your claim, then, by hearing His voice.* And yet, as S. Bernard tells us, there is no difficulty at all in hearing it; on the contrary, the difficulty is to stop our ears effectually against it, so clear is it in enunciation,* so constant in appeal. Yet there are many who do not hear, from divers causes: because they are far off; because they are deaf; because they sleep; because they turn their heads aside; because they stop their ears; because they hurry away to avoid hearing; because they are dead; all of them types of various forms and degrees of unbelief. In all these ways the Jews sinned in refusing to hear the voice of the LORD JESUS; (Ay.) in all these ways we too sin, when we refuse or delay repentance. Satan’s counsel, observes S. Basil the Great, is “To-day for me, to-morrow for GOD;”* whereas, in the words of another Saint,* He that hath promised pardon to repentance, hath not promised to-morrow to the sinner. And thus the heathen counsel is better than Satan’s:

Sera nimis vita est crastina,* vive hodie.

To-morrow’s life is far too late, live thou to-day.

Harden not your hearts.* For in so doing, you set yourselves in direct opposition to the will of GOD, which is to soften those hearts, in that He said, “My doctrine shall drop as the rain, My speech shall distil as the dew,”* to moisten the dry ground that it may bring forth the tender herb of grace; (C.) whereas it is said of sinners that their hearts are stony,* and of Leviathan, the type of evil power, “His heart is as firm as a stone; yea, as hard as a piece of the nether millstone.”* (L.) As in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation. We should perhaps do better by taking the leading words here as proper names,* and rendering,* As in Meribah, and as in the day of Massah. Some commentators argue hence a double sin, and a possible division amongst the rebellious Jews, referring the word provocation to their resistance to the authority of Moses,* and temptation to their unbelief in the providence of GOD. Cardinal Hugo points out that the words which follow,* in the wilderness, are an aggravation of guilt, because it was exactly there, in the absence of all external help, all human aid, that the thoughts of the Jews should have been most unwaveringly directed to the GOD Who had so wonderfully brought them out of Egypt. He reminds us, too, that men who come out of the Egypt of sin or secularity, who begin a life of repentance or of monastic obligation, are at first in the wilderness, deserted by those they have left behind, not attaining yet to that they seek, and that in that stage of spiritual progress the risk of rebellion and unbelief in GOD is very great, the temptation to resist the pleadings of the HOLY GHOST incessant. When your fathers tempted Me. There is a stress on your fathers,* implying that we are the same people which sinned in a former period of its history, and are therefore likely to yield to our besetting error, and to sin again. (Ay.) And we may tempt GOD in several ways: His mercy, by indevout and careless prayer; His patience, by continuance in sin; His righteousness, by desiring unjust revenge; His power, by lack of trust in Him during perils; His wisdom, by undertaking to teach others without previous study and meditation. Proved Me. This is more than tempting, which denotes the bare experiment;* whereas proving implies its too complete success, inasmuch as the GOD Whose power they doubted, slew them all in the wilderness. (L.) And saw My works. That is, although they saw them,* and that during forty continuous years (which is the connection of the words in the Epistle to the Hebrews), yet they did not believe, and were never really subdued, but renewed their experiments after each miracle and each judgment.

10 Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said: It is a people that do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways.

This mode of reading the verse, which is that of the present Hebrew punctuation, is also that of the LXX. and Vulgate; while, as remarked above,* the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews joins on the words forty years to the previous verse, and inserts the word wherefore immediately after them, a reading which the Arabic version has adopted. There is, however, no real discrepancy between the two, since, on the one hand, the murmurings and rebellions of the Israelites were renewed at intervals during the whole time of their wanderings in the desert; and on the other, the wrath of GOD was continually provoked thereby. Grieved is hardly strong enough for אָקוּט, nor is the Vulgate offended much better. It ought rather to be loathed, implying their obstinate persistency in the foulness of sin,* so as to inspire GOD’S purity with disgust. The Roman Psalter has here a variant, I was close, (proximus)1 to this generation.* Most of the commentators take this as meaning close in the sense that one who punishes is near the criminal,* or as a teacher keeps beside an idle and refractory pupil, to compel his attention to his tasks. However, S. Augustine explains it differently, (A.) of GOD’S continual presence in signs and miracles; while S. Bernard interprets it of an inward voice and inspiration.* The ordinary reading exhibits to us the effect of GOD’S anger;* but this one supplies the cause; the ingratitude of the children of Israel for GOD’S unceasing watch over them. They do not fail to point out the mystical import of the number forty, repeated in the fasts of Elijah and of our LORD, and in the great forty days after Easter; and they tell us that as ten is the first limit we meet in computation, so that this number and its multiples give all the subsequent names to sums, it serves as the type of fulness; while four, as denoting either the seasons of the year or the quarters of the heavens, extends that fulness to all time and place, and thus forty years stand here for the entire of our earthly sojourn. (R.) One reminds us that there is a stress on years,* because the journey of Elijah teaches us that the Israelites could have passed through the desert in forty days, had they only been obedient. And whereas this generation applies literally to the six hundred thousand who came up out of Egypt, and then by accommodation to all living men at any time while it is called To-day, there is also a special fitness in taking it of the Jews after the Passion of CHRIST;* for the interval which lay between that and the final destruction of Jerusalem was almost precisely forty years, (P.) up to which time the door of hope was still open for Israel, and it was still to-day, ere that terrible night set upon the Temple worship. They do always err in their heart.* It is even stronger in the Hebrew, They are ever wanderers in heart. It is a great deal more forcibly said, observes a mediæval commentator, than if it were, They err in their act, for the error of an act has a definite end, whereas the error of the will has no end. Death, at any rate, puts an end to the evil-doing of a sinner, not because he has lost the will to sin, but because he has no longer the power to do so. For they have not known My ways. (Z.) The word known does not here signify that acquaintance with GOD’S ways which may be gathered from reading or meditation, but only the knowledge which comes of assiduous walking in the ways themselves, that is, practical holiness and well-doing.* And the ways of GOD are all reducible to one, that is, CHRIST JESUS Himself, “the Way, and the Truth, and the Life;” moreover, they all lead to the same heavenly country.* They are one way in their construction, in their king, in their goal; they are many ways according to the diversities of the operations of grace, according to the variety of callings and temperaments amongst those who journey home through the wilderness.

11 Unto whom I sware in my wrath: that they should not enter into my rest.

This He did when the spies brought back the evil report of the Land of Promise, and the congregation prepared to elect a leader to bring them back into Egypt.* It is a terrible alarm, (A.) comments S. Augustine. We began with rejoicing, but the Psalm ends with awful dread. It is a great thing that GOD should speak, how much more that GOD should swear! Thou hast reason to fear a man who hath sworn, lest he should, for his oath’s sake, do aught against his will, how much more to fear GOD, Who cannot swear rashly. Let no one say in his heart, That which He promiseth is true, that which He threatens is false. As certain as thou oughtest to be of rest, happiness, eternity, immortality, if thou keep His commandments, so certain shouldst thou be of destruction, of the burning of everlasting fire, of damnation with the devil, if thou despise GOD’S commandments. He hath sworn that these shall not enter into His rest, and yet “it remaineth that some must enter therein,” for it could not be designed for no occupant.* And this rest which meant the earthly Canaan to the Jews of old, means for us that Sabbatism of the heavenly country whereof the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us. (Ay.) Even here on earth, before reaching that blessed land, there remaineth a rest for the people of GOD, whereof the weekly festival is a type and pledge. There is the rest from sin, common to all the righteous, and the rest from bodily cares and temptations, achieved by the contemplative Saints, while, crowning all, is the rest of the blessed, whence all sorrow is banished for evermore.* “Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief,” and be included under the terrible oath of exclusion; (D. C.) and in prayer for grace that it may not be so, O come, let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the LORD our Maker.”


Glory be to the FATHER, the Great King above all gods glory be to the SON, the Strength of our salvation; glory be to the HOLY GHOST, Who saith, To-day if ye will hear His voice,* harden not your hearts.

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

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