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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.

Here we have Aleph,* the first letter. And some of the mediæval commentators, following S. Jerome, explain the meaning of this word to be doctrine,1 bidding us observe that we have in the various letters as it were a concise summary of the intent of the entire Psalm, divided under its two and twenty heads, and that doctrine, as the leading idea of the whole poem,* is thus fitly placed at the very beginning. In truth, the meaning of Aleph now most widely accepted, is that it signifies Ox, an interpretation given by Plutarch as the Phœnician one of his day. But this, in its recognised mystical sense,* brings us back to the same idea, for the ox is the received type of laborious preachers, engaged in tilling the soil of the world for the reception of the Word, and in separating the grain from the straw.* Wherefore fitly in Solomon’s temple the great sea of brass, foreshadowing the laver of baptism,* was borne up by twelve oxen, types of the Apostolic college.

1 Blessed are those that are undefiled in the way: (א) and walk in the law of the LORD.

They are blessed who are in the way, (H.) not a way, any chance or uncertain road,* but “the King’s Highway,” that path which the LORD Himself has declared to us, saying, “I am the Way.”* Nor is it enough to be in the way, unless we also walk in it, for a way is meant to lead us somewhither, not to stand still in; and so long as we are only on the way, we do not attain that which we seek. Wherefore the Apostle saith, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect; but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of CHRIST JESUS. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of GOD in CHRIST JESUS.”* They who are truly in this way are undefiled,* not by natural and inherent innocency, (C.) but by the remission of their sins, washed away in the Blood of the Lamb, Who is alone the Undefiled. It is part of the duty of Christians, as the royal priesthood of GOD, to keep themselves pure; as is well said by an Egyptian Father,* “Every one is consecrated priest over his own body; not to exercise authority in matters of order and jurisdiction over others, but that ruling his passions, he may make his body the shrine and temple of chastity.” The blessedness is twofold, for all those who during their pilgrimage on earth hare been undefiled by sin as they go towards their country, first the gladness of hope and then that of fruition.* And on the connection of this latter and greater blessedness with the duty of walking in the Law of the LORD, the best comment is the LORD’S own saying, (H.) “If thou wilt enter into life,* keep the commandments.”* Nor are the words of the Lord at the close of the verse superfluous, for there is another law,* that of sin in our members, wherein too many walk, whereas the law of the Lord, while embracing all His commandments, is especially the law of love to Himself and to our neighbour, of which is written, “Walk in love, as CHRIST also hath loved us.”*

2 Blessed are they that keep his testimonies: and seek him with their whole heart.

For keep the Vulgate reads search out.

How wonderful and beautiful, exclaims a Saint,* is the order of the words, how full of teaching and grace! Observe that it is not said first that they are blessed who search out His testimonies, but they who are undefiled in the way, because life should be sought before doctrine. For a good life, even though without any doctrinal learning, comes of grace; but learning without the life has no soundness. (A.) And therefore, (C.) to make it clear that no blessedness attaches to unspiritual study of Holy Writ, such as that of the scribes and lawyers in the days of CHRIST, or that of the sectaries and heretics who have since troubled His Church, it is added, and seek Him with their whole heart. They who seek otherwise shall fail in their quest, for it is written, “They shall seek Me early, (G.) but they shall not find Me.”* Here too we see the order of spiritual progress;* first the active life, and then the contemplative, with GOD as the final goal of each. And the word Blessed is doubled, in order to assure us of the absolute certainty of GOD’S promise to His servants. The English version keep, which is also that of Aquila and Symmachus, is closer to the Hebrew, and teaches that there is a higher grade of spiritual advance than even walking in the law of the LORD,* namely, the treasuring up every Divine precept as a precious deposit in the heart, and being ready to contend even to death for its safe retention.* And in saying seek Him, the Psalmist warns us that man has lost sight of GOD through sin, for we do not seek for that which is not lost. How we are to seek Him is easily learnt; in repentance, in truth, in His own Word, for Himself only, and through His Only-Begotten SON.

3 For they who do no wickedness: walk in his ways.

The verse ought to run as an expansion of the idea in the previous ones, thus: who do no wickedness, and walk in His ways;* and not appear as a fresh statement. And if it be asked how such a character can be assigned to any living man, (C.) the answer is that to the doing of wickedness three things must unite: the purpose of sin, delight in sin, and continuance in it, whereas these three are not found united in GOD’S Saints, since their higher will resists the lower, and neither purposes sin, delights in it, nor abides in it. But the LXX.* and Vulgate read conversely, For they who work wickedness, walk not in His ways. It is not said, “They who have worked” wickedness, and have repented, since then no man would be excepted, but they who are working it, and continue therein. (A.) Nor is it said, “They who are without sin,” for sin abideth in their mortal body, but they who do not actively set that natural sin in motion, rather saying with the Apostle: “It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”* In His ways. In the first verse there was but one way named, here there are many. But all these many are but paths into that one high road. (H.) Wherefore the prophet Jeremiah saith: “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein.”* And these are all the Prophets, Apostles, and preachers,* who tell of CHRIST and lead us on to Him, and thus to that FATHER to Whom He is the only Way. Every precept of Holy Writ is also one of these ways of GOD, (Ay.) leading us, if we follow it to the end, into the King’s highway of eternal life.* And there is the force of the word walk, for the Jews, though they are in the right way, stop short at Moses, and go not on to the end, which is CHRIST.

4 Thou hast charged: that we shall diligently keep thy commandments.

Not merely to keep them,* but to keep them diligently; or, as the Vulgate has it, extremely (nimis). When was this command given? In Paradise GOD commanded Adam to keep the commandments, but it may be that there was no injunction added to keep them diligently; and that in this wise Adam fell, swayed by his wife’s voice and deceived by the serpent, supposing that if he departed from the commandment in some one particular he would not be going altogether wrong; but in once quitting the path of the commandments, he abandoned the way entirely, stripped himself of everything, and left himself naked. Therefore the LORD, since he that was in Paradise fell, hath warned thee since that time by the Law, the Prophets, the Gospel, and the Apostles, to keep diligently the commandments of the LORD thy GOD. Of every idle word, saith He, that thou speakest, thou must give account. Do not try to hide the truth, not one jot nor one tittle passeth away from My commandment. Beware of quitting the way. If when walking in the way thou art scarcely safe from the robber,* what wilt thou do if He find thee straying out of the way? Let Thy steps be guided, and if thou be too weak to guide them thyself, pray that the LORD may direct thy ways. For it is written, “Cursed be he that doeth the work of the LORD negligently.”* And some of them dwell on the word nimis, (C.) literally too much,* reminding us that it denotes the absence of all hesitation in action, and urges us to go on even to the shedding of our blood. (D. C.) Too much for our own strength in this life, but not too much for the grace of GOD.* And observe that the word commandments would be more strictly translated deposits, precious trusts committed by GOD to our safe keeping. Wherefore the Apostle saith, “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust.”*

5 O that my ways were made so direct: that I might keep thy statutes!

This was the motto chosen by S. Pius V. for his own.* And that because, (L.) as the Prophet exclaims, “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.”* In like manner the Wise Man adds, “A man’s heart deviseth his way; (A.) but the LORD directeth His steps.”* Wherefore it is a prayer to be delivered from the pride of our own free-will.* Thou hast given me the Law, cries man to GOD, and I know it to be good, but if Thy grace help me not, that which is in itself good will work death in me when sin revives. (Ay.) These ways of ours are first our affections and desires, and then all the actions of our lives, each of which is a step on the road which brings us to our end. (G.) They need surely to be made direct, for of themselves they are apt to be tortuous and crooked, and to lead us far from our Country. (A.) Even good works, if done outside the bounds of charity, are also mere deviations from the way.

6 So shall I not be confounded: while I have respect unto all thy commandments.

Adam was ashamed and confounded,* hiding himself from the face of GOD when he had sinned; and as disobedience was the cause of his shame, so obedience through grace is the only refuge from it,* since, as a great Saint declares, confusion is the fruit of rebellion. While I have respect. The LXX. and Vulgate, nearly agreeing with each other, have While I look at, and While I perceive, or look thoroughly at, (perspexero). (A.) And it is taken by the commentators in the sense of gazing in a mirror, upon which they quote the Apostle’s words, “Whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.”* All Thy commandments, not picking and choosing amongst them,* for if a man look at his own face in a glass, and observe that all his features are comely and harmonious, he feels pleasure, but if he note one that is disfigured or disproportionate, he is ashamed; and so when testing his life by the law of GOD.* Those who do part of GOD’S will, and neglect the rest, are like a mere echo, which does not repeat the whole of a sentence, (D. C.) but only some of its words or sounds; and thus they do not bear in mind that saying, “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.”* Saul slew all the Amalekites, save one;* and the single exception cost him his throne and life, and brought him under the displeasure of GOD.

7 I will thank thee with an unfeigned heart: when I shall have learned the judgments of thy righteousness.

For unfeigned heart, (G.) the A. V. has uprightness of heart, which is closer to the LXX. εὐθύτητι καρδίας and the Vulgate directione cordis. And this is itself the first ground of thanksgiving, that GOD has by His grace made that heart which was perverse and crooked, straight and upright, so as to fit it for the study of the Divine judgments. And the word learned implies a teacher.* The Psalmist would have us understand that he acquired his knowledge of the Divine law from GOD Himself as his instructor, (C.) and from the doctrine of his fathers, not inventing opinions for himself after the fashion of sectaries. There is a further stress in the word learned, (Ay.) as showing us that while on the one hand mere knowledge of GOD’S law will not keep a depraved and crooked heart in the right way, so on the other that knowledge is necessary even to the pure and upright heart to enable it to obey GOD’S will. And while all GOD’S judgments are judgments of His righteousness, yet these words most fully refer to the final sentences at the Last Day pronounced severally to those on the right hand and those on the left. (D. C.) Well may those souls which have heard the Voice of the LORD say to them, “Come, ye blessed of MY FATHER, inherit the kingdom,”* thank Him with an unfeigned heart.

8 I will keep thy ceremonies: O forsake me not utterly.

The Prayer Book version here gives the exact sense, in that the word here found, usually, and by the A. V. in this place, translated statutes, does refer to the ceremonies and other positive injunctions of the Mosaic Law. But the Vulgate reading, justificationes, leads most of the commentators to repetition of what they had already said concerning GOD’S righteous decisions; (Ay.) though the Carmelite, following S. Ambrose, seeing here a reference first to the chief events of the Gospel history, and then to the sacraments of the Church, comes nearer to the original sense. There is more agreement in the latter clause, where they point out that the Psalmist, knowing in what wise GOD is pleased to try His Saints, and make them conscious of their own infirmity, that they may cast themselves the more on Him, (D. C.) does not ask that he may not he forsaken at all, or for a little time, but not utterly, that grace may return to help him in time of need, and above all, that he may be delivered from the sin of ascribing his diligence in keeping GOD’S statutes to his own strength and merit.* GOD did leave Judas utterly, but stretched out His hand to Peter when sinking in the waters. We should have been forsaken utterly, (G.) adds Gerhohus, had not the SON of GOD come Himself into the world to bring us medicine and salvation. (A.) Now, according to that prayer of CHRIST’S Body, He did not forsake it utterly, because “GOD was in CHRIST, reconciling the world unto Himself.”* We may also understand the words as those of him who said in his prosperity, “I shall never be moved,”* as though trusting in his own strength, so that GOD, in order to show him that this strength was not of merit, but of the Divine Will, turned His Face from him, so that he was troubled. And thus, coming to himself, and no longer self-confident, he cries, O forsake me not utterly. Even if Thou hast forsaken me, that I might learn my weakness, do it not utterly, lest I perish.

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