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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.

Gimel is explained by the old commentators to mean retribution, or else fulness, from the root גָּמַל, he repaid, or he dealt bountifully,* and they interpret this section as being the prayer of the people that grace may be given as a reward to the Saints who dwell in the land, that grace which they lost in their first parent, and saying further that their persecutors shall likewise be rewarded for their deeds. (H.) And thus the third letter’s name denotes both the reward of merit and the fulness of that righteous judgment, as also the fulness of life and knowledge GOD gives His suppliants.* The modern interpretation of the word is camel, from the same root, in the sense of bearing a burden. The mystical sense of the Camel in Scripture is said to be the coming of Gentiles out of their crooked ways to the paths of CHRIST,* a meaning drawn on the one hand from the form of the animal, and on the other from its bearing Rebecca to Isaac and the Magi to the manger at Bethlehem. This fits in with the prayer for enlightenment in verse 18, and with the declaration of being only a stranger and pilgrim, as in verse 19.

17 O do well unto thy servant: that I may live, (א) and keep thy word.

From the word גְמֹל, (A.) gemol, here used, the LXX. and Vulgate have repay, a perfectly legitimate rendering of the Hebrew, instead of do well, in the first clause. But how repay? Good for evil, grace for rebellion, life for capital offences. And so the Cluniac sings of the Saints in glory:

Their one and only anthem,*

The fulness of His love,

Who gives, instead of torment,

Eternal joys above,

Instead of torment, glory;

Instead of death, that life

Wherewith your happy country,

True Israelites, is rife!

But many of them take the word Retribue practically as the A. V. deal bountifully. (C.) Give again and again, as payment to me Thy servant, if Thou wilt, for faithful service, which service Thou only hast made it possible for me to perform,* give me life and obedience. Or, better, give me back again by grace that which I lost by sin, that is, the true life of my soul. (D. C.) That I may live. We may take it in three ways, of prolongation of natural life; of quickening the feeble and dying soul into active holiness; of everlasting blessedness. It is to be noted throughout this Psalm how short a time the singer can abide without uttering a prayer.* He has learned that prayer is the life of the soul, and that the soul can no more live without it than the body can without breathing. And his first petition is for life, but life to be spent in keeping GOD’S law. And that because to a Saint even earthly life is a great benefit, as he goes on from election to glory by the way of sanctification, and does more good as long as he lives, to the glory of GOD, the good of others, and the confirmation of his own salvation; wrestling in prayer; conquering in temptations, persevering in well-doing; that is, in short, keeping GOD’S word. So then we get, as the result of this,* the most precious sense of all, that I may live as a citizen of Thy heavenly kingdom, and keep Thy Word, by ever gazing on, and never losing sight of, the glorious form of my once crucified Redeemer, amidst His rejoicing worshippers.

How can such joy as this want words to speak?*

And yet what words can speak such joy as this?

Far from the world, that might their quiet break,

Here the glad souls the Face of Beauty kiss,

Poured out in pleasure on their beds of bliss;

And drunk with nectar-torrents, ever hold

Their eyes on Him, whose graces manifold,

The more they do behold, the more they would behold.

18 Open thou mine eyes: that I may see the wondrous things of thy law.

Better, (C.) with LXX., Vulgate, and A. V. margin, Reveal mine eyes; that is, take from me that veil of human weakness and ignorance which hides CHRIST from the eyes of my heart.* Cardinal Hugo counts up for us the various ways in which the eyes of the soul are blinded; evil habits, carnal affections, as Samson, and care for temporal things, as Zedekiah; love of earthly goods; over-discussion; sloth and indolence; deliberate malice; the acceptance of gifts, carnal understanding, and that GOD’S glory may be displayed, as in the healing of the blind man at the waters of Siloam. And then he goes on to say how GOD opens our eyes: by chastisement, by bringing our own weakness to our mind, by the bitterness of penitence, by the foretaste of inward sweetness, by prayer, either our own or another’s, and by the infusion of grace.

Only this veyle which Thou hast broke,*

And must be broken yet in me,

This veyle, I say, is all the cloke,

And cloud which shadows me from Thee,

This veyle Thy full-eyed love denies,

And only gleams and fractions spies.

O take it off! make no delay;

But brush me with Thy light, that I

May shine into a perfect day,

And warm me at Thy glorious eye!

O take it off! or till it flee,

Though with no lilie, stay with me!

It is a prayer to be able to see wondrous things out of Thy law,* the antitype in the type, the spirit shadowed in the letter, (H.) the Gospel in the Pentateuch, the Lamb of GOD in the Passover victim, the rest of heaven in the Sabbath, and so forth. (Ay.) So prayed the Psalmist centuries before the Messiah came, and yet we have still to echo S. Paul’s words touching his nation, “But their minds were blinded; for until this day remaineth the same veil untaken away in the reading of the Old Testament; which veil is done away in CHRIST. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart. Nevertheless, when it shall turn to the LORD, the veil shall be taken away.”* With those who do turn towards Him, He deals as He did with Saul by the ministry of Ananias, when “there fell from his eyes as it had been scales, and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.”* And the reason why it is said,* Reveal mine eyes, instead of what we should expect, Reveal the wondrous things, &c., is because the eyes often contradict GOD’S marvels, as in the mystery of the Eucharist; so that in order to understand such wondrous things, two revealings are needful, one of the wondrous things themselves, that the understanding may take cognizance of them; the other that of the eyes, that the sight may not contradict them. He says to each penitent soul which seeks Him, what the Power of Wisdom in the Greek poem says to a brave warrior:

ἀχλὺν δʼ αὖ τοι ἀπʼ ὀφθαλμῶν ἕλον, ἢ πρὶν ἐπῆεν,*

ὕφρʼ εὖ γιγνώσκῃς ἠμὲν θεὸν ἠδὲ καὶ ἄνδρα.

The mist that was on them before, I have ta’en from off thine eyne,

That thou mayest well know mortal man, and also God divine.

And therefore S. Paul concludes that former saying of his touching the blindness of Israel,* “But we all with unveiled (ἀνακεκαλυμμένῳ) face beholding as in a glass the glory of the LORD,* are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, as by the SPIRIT of the LORD.”

19 I am a stranger upon earth: O hide not thy commandments from me.

A stranger, (C.) an exile on earth, from my true home in heaven, but not one of the citizens of Babylon, (A.) albeit sojourning there by constraint,* and therefore I ask Thee to disclose to me those precepts which Thou hidest from them, (G.) Thine enemies. By calling himself a stranger on earth, he means that he renounces the pleasures and snares of this world,* where he has no continuing city, and rather has his conversation in heaven, “knowing that whilst we are at home in the body we are absent from the LORD (for we walk by faith, not by sight): we are confident, and willing rather to be absent from the body and present with the LORD.”* And therefore S. Basil the Great,* when threatened with banishment by Modestus, vicegerent of the Arian Emperor Valens,* answered very well, “I have no fear of exile, knowing that men have but one country, Paradise, so that the whole earth is the common exile of nature.”

O hide not Thy commandments.* It is because he is a stranger, and knows not the true way to his own city, that he asks this question. But there is one noteworthy difference between the type and the antitype here. In any country on earth the people of the land can guide a stranger to the place where he would be;* but the indwellers of the earth cannot show the way to heaven, and therefore the Psalmist seeks no guide among them, but prays the LORD to direct him.

20 My soul breaketh out for the very fervent desire: that it hath alway unto thy judgments.

Breaketh out. This phrase gives the notion of the bursting forth of a fountain, or the escape of a prisoner, either of which images expresses very forcibly the longing of an eager soul.* But it is not the sense of the Hebrew, which is simply is broken, that is, crushed, exhausted, and powerless with desire. The Chaldee, however, with the LXX. and Vulgate, renders it My soul hath desired to long. And the Doctor of Grace bids us note here the steps of advance in holiness. The temper of the unconverted mind is distaste and even loathing for divine things, (A.) and when this has passed away it by no means follows that appetite will at once take its place. Rather we have to begin to wish that we may love what is good, and proceed from this stage to a hearty longing to do so, and ascend thence into a real delight in the thought and practice of holiness. And this alway, because even unbelievers may like for a brief time that which is good, from caprice or novelty, but they soon become weary in well-doing. S. Hilary, (H.) dwelling on the word judgments, and the awful nature of Divine justice, observes that the Psalmist, knowing his own frailty, and how little he is himself able to abide that trial, dares not say that he desires GOD’S judgments, but only that he longs to be able to desire them, to be so pure in heart and deed as to have no reason to fear the Great Doom. (A.) S. Augustine illustrates these meanings by the instance of a sick man who has no relish for food, which is nevertheless necessary for him, and who can get no further than to wish he had an appetite, for though his reasonable will is adequate, his bodily power will not come to its aid, and that this is the case of imperfect beginning in holiness.

But returning to what is the strict meaning of the verse, it may be asked, What is it that so breaks and crushes the heart? And the answer is a most blessed one, it is that “exceeding and eternal weight of glory,”* which is too much for our earthly imagination to bear, but not too much for our hopes to aim at.

21 Thou hast rebuked the proud: and cursed are they that do err from thy commandments.

GOD rebuked Satan,* when in the beginning He cast him down from heaven for the sin of pride. He rebuked our first parents, (A.) and drove them out of Eden when in the pride of their self-will they ate of the forbidden fruit, and in like manner rebuked and punished, as well by threatenings of Scripture as by actual chastisement, Pharaoh, the Israelites in the wilderness, Saul, Ahab, Nebuchadnezzar, and others who lifted themselves up against His will. (Ay.) CHRIST has rebuked the proud by His parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, and by the judgments He has inflicted on the nation which was too haughty to take upon it the light yoke of the Carpenter’s Son.* And there is a stress on the word proud, (H.) because the sin of pride is that which brings man most frequently and most actively into opposition with the will of God.* And so a Greek Father tersely says, “Pride is the mother of transgression, for it persuades to disobedience of God’s commandments.” Cursed. There is, probably, a primary reference herein to the closing words of the commination on Mount Ebal, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.”* And note here two things, (A.) first, it is not said that they are cursed who do not fulfil the commandments, since that may be due to frailty, but those who wilfully turn aside from them, (ἐκκλίνοντες, declinant); and again, that the present tense, not the past, is employed. (Ay.) It is not a threat of irreversible punishment against all who have ever sinned, but a simple statement of the actual condition of those who are continuing in sin, to warn them in time, lest at the Last Day they should hear that final sentence, “Depart from Me, all ye workers of iniquity.”*

22 O turn from me shame and rebuke: for I have kept thy testimonies.

It is the prayer of the choir of martyrs, (A.) suffering for the testimony of CHRIST, and beseeching that the insult and reproach heaped on them may cease; not for their own sakes, since their feeling is that of the singer,

If on my face for Thy dear Name,*

Shame and reproaches be,

All hail reproach, and welcome shame,

If Thou remember me.

And they ask for the sake of their persecutors, that they may be turned from the utterance of blasphemies to the confession of CHRIST, and the keeping His testimonies. It is the prayer, not less, of the sinner, knowing as he does that his guilt deserves shame, and will too surely bring rebuke at the Last Day, (H.) but who appeals to GOD’S mercy on the ground of his own weakness. He declares himself no obstinate rebel, but one who has kept GOD’S testimonies, albeit having since fallen into sin, now repented of once more, and asks to be justified, and so delivered from shame, and glorified, and thus saved for ever from rebuke.* Yet again, it is the cry of a feeble soul, dreading the trial of shame and ridicule, and fearing to be led into temptation from powerlessness to resist it,* and therefore asking of GOD to be spared such a test, under which so many have succumbed. And it may also be taken as a prayer against sins of the tongue. (D. C.) Take from me the habit of slander and reviling, make me innocent and gentle of speech, that I, who am trying to keep Thy testimonies, may not bring discredit on my profession. For, as the Apostle saith: “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.”*

23 Princes also did sit and speak against me: but thy servant is occupied in thy statutes.

This verse is employed as the Introit of the Missal on S. Stephen’s Day.* It was true again and again of Prophets, Apostles, (H.) and Martyrs, when the great ones of the world sat in judgment upon them, when Jeremiah was cast into a dungeon; (C.) when Zechariah was slain betwixt temple and altar, when Daniel was cast into the den of lions, when Antiochus slew the Maccabees, Herod beheaded John Baptist, and Nero martyred the Princes of the Apostles; when Constantius, (G.) Julian, and Valens supported the Arians against the Consubstantial. Thy servant, marks the Psalmist’s humility, and is in contrast with the rank and title of his oppressors.* They bear names of earthly dignity, he one of earthly contempt, but more glorious by far in reality. Is occupied, that is, mentally occupied, or, with A. V. meditates. The princes are speaking, but the servant of GOD is busy in devout thought, and is silent, wherefore we read, “And when He was accused of the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing.”* But the Vulgate reads exercised, (Ay.) and they take it then of the sharp torments which the martyrs underwent for the statutes of GOD after sentence had been pronounced against them by the princes sitting in judgment. (C.) Again,* the “principalities and powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, the spiritual wickednesses in high places,”* which war with our souls, (D. C.) speak against us by suggesting evil thoughts to our minds, and that sitting, implying the deliberation of the plot and the persistence of the siege which they lay against us.* And the best weapon against them is to be occupied in GOD’S statutes, which they cannot resist. He who takes up their weapons,* and returns accusation for accusation, and railing for railing,* is in some peril, but not so he who confides in the Word of GOD and in prayer.

24 For thy testimonies are my delight: and my counsellors.

Alfonso the Wise once being asked,* “Who are the best counsellors?” replied, “The dead,” meaning thereby books written by men no longer living, as they give advice without flattery or favour. But the Psalmist has better advisers even than these, namely, the words of the living GOD. To delight in these,* and to practise them, is the best counsel for man. And observe that one council is here set against another; the council of princes pronouncing sentence against a martyr; (A.) the martyr in the midst of his council praying for the conversion of his persecutors and thus returning good for evil. And so even a heathen moralist may teach us:* “No man is good without GOD. Can any one rise above fortune, unless aided by Him? He it is Who gives noble and upright counsels.” And in the sense of the success of the Martyrs’ prayers,* another saying of the same writer may be quoted, “He who despises his own life is master of thine.” And if it be asked what testimonies of GOD are the delight of the holy soul,* they answer that the chief proofs of CHRIST’S love for us are intended: namely, His Nativity, Passion, descent into Hell, Resurrection, Ascension, Mission of the Comforter, and Second Advent,* and they are the seven seals of the Book which He alone could open.

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