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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.

Remove from us,* O LORD, the way of unrighteousness, and with Thy law have mercy on us, that Thou mayest take away the habit of sin, and grant us perseverance in living aright. (1.)

O GOD,* Who by the power of Thy Word loosest the soul which cleaveth to earthly things, we beseech Thee, let not the sleep of death press upon us, but rather arouse us Thyself to the way of truth. (1.)

Remove our goings,* O LORD, from the way of unrighteousness, and appoint our course in the path of Thy commandments. Lift up, by Thine healing medicine, our soul which cleaveth to the ground, and when Thou hast taught it with Thy statutes, quicken it by the might of Thy Word. (11.)


He, the fifth letter, is of uncertain meaning, but probably denotes a fissure or window;* and may be so interpreted in explaining this section, which is a prayer for the light of grace and for guidance of the eyes (ver. 37); which latter are the windows through which the soul looks out upon the world; and again, a favourite allegory with mediæval writers is that the Prophets of the Old Testament are windows in the wall of the Law,* giving glimpses of CHRIST, Whom that Law hides altogether under type and shadow;* while our own powers of understanding are also windows to let spiritual light in on our souls; (C.) notions which both find their place in this section.

33 Teach me, (ה) O LORD, the way of thy statutes: and I shall keep it unto the end.

He who is his own pupil,” remarks S. Bernard, “has a fool for his master.”* A soldier who enters on a march does not settle for himself the order of his going, nor begin the journey at his own will, nor yet choose pleasant short-cuts, lest he should fall out of rank, away from the standards, but gets the route from his general, and keeps to it; advances in a prescribed order, walks armed, and goes straight on to the end of his march, to find there the supplies provided by the commissariat. If he goes by any other road, he gets no rations, and finds no quarters ready, because the general’s orders are that all things of this kind shall be prepared for those who follow him, and turn not aside to the right hand or the left. And thus he who follows his general does not break down, and that for good reasons; for the general consults not for his own convenience, but for the capability of his whole army. And this too is CHRIST’S order of march, as He leads His great host out of the spiritual Egypt to the eternal Land of Promise. (C.) We need then to ask Him to teach us the way, and we need too to keep it unto the end, lest we should miss the Golden City at the last. It is not then the old Law, with Moses as leader, that we ask for, but the new Law, of which is written, “Out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the Word of the LORD from Jerusalem;”* that WORD Himself in flesh being the Captain of our salvation. And the LORD shall Himself tell us what is His answer to this prayer. (A.) “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; but this shall be My covenant that I will make with the house of Israel;* After those days, saith the LORD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their GOD, and they shall be My people.”

34 Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law: yea, I shall keep it with my whole heart.

We learn from this prayer that GOD’S law is no easy matter to comprehend,* nor in the power of unassisted man, since we require GOD’S direct aid to master it. For, as one of the profoundest intellects of old time observes:* it is no easy nor trifling thing, but needs at once GOD’S help and our own zeal, that we may draw from it practical utility and mental understanding, as well for active as for contemplative purposes. (A.) And therefore the Psalmist’s prayer is for a knowledge of the spirit which quickeneth, to be had only from GOD’S teaching, that he may add it to the knowledge of the letter that killeth, which he has been able to acquire for himself. (C.) This notion comes out further in the LXX. and Vulgate rendering,* I will search out Thy law, endeavouring to penetrate into its deep and dark sayings, and to learn their mystical sense.* And whereas in a previous verse he promised perseverance in the law, he now adds a promise of sincerity, saying, I will keep it with my whole heart. This pledge can be fulfilled in but one way, (A.) by keeping those two precepts on which hang all the Law and the Prophets. “Thou shalt love the LORD thy GOD with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”* There are plenty of people, observes Cardinal Hugo, who keep the law in boxes and chests,* but the heart is a better storehouse for it.

35 Make me to go in the path of thy commandments: for therein is my desire.

We are like the paralytic, impotent to go of ourselves, till CHRIST saith to any one of us, “Arise, take up thy bed,* and go unto thine house.” But if I take Him for my strength, “He will make my feet like hinds’* feet, and He will make me to walk upon mine high places.” Note, moreover, that it is no longer guidance in the way, (A.) but in the path which he asks. And this notes the narrowness of the road by which we must needs journey,* for a path or track (LXX. τρίβῳ, Vulg. semita) is a much closer and narrower thing than a high-road. There is a further notion, going deeper yet, which is, that the Hebrew נָתִיב,1 here found, means a footpath,* not a way for horses and carriages, and thus tells us that the way of GOD’S commandments is not that of pomp and luxury,* nor yet that of men “like horse and mule, which have no understanding,” but is meant only for the humble and intelligent believer. And Origen bids us note that the word means a trodden way,* so that we cannot plead its impassability or its unknown course as excuses for declining to enter on it, seeing that CHRIST and the Saints our example who followed Him, have traversed it from end to end and left their tracks full in our view. And thus Adam of S. Victor styles our LORD:

JESU Victor,* JESU vita,

JESU, vitæ via trita.

JESU, Victor, Life, and stay,

JESU, life’s well-trodden way.

For therein is my desire.* That is, it is not servile fear of punishment,* but love for GOD and His way which leads me to seek Him. And so the Master of the Sentences lays down that under the Gospel law the only obedience which is meritorious is that which is voluntary.

36 Incline my heart unto thy testimonies: and not to covetousness.

It is well said incline, (C.) for the head which is bowed forward in humility sees better than that which is flung back in pride. And note that this prayer, coming as it does after the declaration in the previous verse of delight in GOD’S law, is a confession of the insufficiency of man’s will unless aided by Divine grace.* It is the same cry as that of the father of the possessed child; “LORD, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief.”* And in saying Thy testimonies, and not covetousness, the Psalmist intreats that his service of GOD may be free and disinterested, (A.) not for the sake of temporal benefits to be obtained as the reward of piety. For in this wise we escape the sneer which the tempter directed against holy Job, saying, “Doth Job fear GOD for nought? Hast not Thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his substance is increased in the land. But put forth Thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse Thee to Thy face.”* And there is further a warning against covetousness in itself, an evil denounced alike by Prophets and Apostles; Jeremiah saying of sinful Israel, “From the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely;”* and S. Paul adds, “Mortify therefore covetousness, which is idolatry.”* They are careful to remind us that covetousness is not limited to greed of money, (B.) but that it equally extends to craving for rank, power, reputation, or other worldly gain, in contrast with our LORD’S counsel, “Lay not up for yourselves treasure upon earth.… but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”* There is, however, a further meaning in the Hebrew בֶּצַע, which the commentators have missed, for it denotes unjust gain, or rapine, a natural result of greed. There is no sin, observes a shrewd Christian,* which a covetous man will not commit for his gain. We should beware of all sins, but especially of mother-sins.* Nor do they fail to remind us how the greatest sin the world has known, the betrayal of the SON of GOD into the hands of His enemies, sprang from this one vice.

37 O turn away mine eyes, lest they behold vanity: and quicken thou me in thy way.

The primary meaning of the first clause here seems to be a prayer against any tampering with idolatry or heathen usages,* a sense in which vanity occurs very frequently in Holy Writ.* And there is much force then in the literal rendering,* which is,* Make mine eyes to pass on one side from seeing vanity,* as contrasted with the steady look of the pilgrim towards the goal of his journey,* whereas vanity,* as has been aptly said, is the “mirage” of the desert which would lure him from the right way. There is a further sense of vanity, akin to that already named, which is false teaching in the Name of GOD,* or religious delusions of any kind, which may mislead even Saints. But the force of the word extends much further even than this,* and includes all things which are not of GOD, and are therefore unstable and unreal, and so to be shunned by those who desire the true riches. It is in this widest sense that the commentators prefer to take it, (A.) and warn us that the eyes are the windows by which death enters the soul.* And therefore, because all things in this world are vanity, the Psalmist finds it impossible for him to turn his eyes himself where they will see no vanity, but must needs pray to GOD to do it for him.* It is well said then, against this peril, Quicken Thou me in Thy way; for he who is in GOD’S way does not behold vanity. CHRIST is the perfect way. How then can he who is in CHRIST behold vanities, seeing that CHRIST hath crucified in His flesh all the vanities of this world? It is vanity to look at wrestlers, for they strive for a crown of weeds. The true wrestlers are they who wrestle against the lures of the world.… CHRIST is before us, His prize is before us, to which he attaineth who hath not run uncertainly, nor recalled his course, but urged it on. Turn thine eyes unto Him, away from the shows and pomp of the world. Lift them to the skies, behold by night the jewelled constellations, the moon’s fair orb, or the sun as he shines by day. Look out upon the sea, cast thy glances round the earth, let all creation wrought by the hand of GOD be thy food. What grace of form do very beasts display, what comeliness in men, what loveliness in birds! Gaze on these, and thou shalt not behold unrighteousness and strife in the city. Look at these,* and death will not enter by the windows of thine eyes. For,* as S. Athanasius teaches, Eyes were given to the body that we might with them look forth upon creation, and by its wondrous harmony recognise its Maker. But he who uses his bodily eye carelessly, will, not undeservedly, be blinded of his inward eye. Lest this should be my punishment, quicken Thou me in Thy way, (Ay.) which is CHRIST, for He hath said, “I am the Light of the world: he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”* Happy then are they who can say with a great penitent and Saint:* “There was a great dark cloud of vanity before mine eyes, so that I could not see the Sun of Righteousness and the light of truth. I, being myself the sun of darkness, was wrapped in darkness: I loved my darkness, because I knew not Thy light. I was blind, and loved my blindness, and walked from darkness to darkness. But, O LORD, Thou art my GOD, Who hast led me out of darkness and the shadow of death: Who hast called me unto this glorious light, and behold, I see.”

38 O stablish thy word in thy servant: that I may fear thee.

This is not the exact meaning of the verse,* which is somewhat obscure in construction. It may be either, (as A. V.,) Confirm Thy promise unto Thy servant, who fears Thee (literally, who is unto Thy fear), or else, Confirm unto Thy servant Thy promise which is for Thy fear, that is, either is meant only for GOD’S dutiful servants, or has for its aim and object to implant holy fear in the soul. This latter explanation, not so probable as the former, practically coincides with the Prayer Book version.* But the LXX. and Vulgate, reading the last clause in Thy fear, (Z.) give rise to the comment that holy fear is the basis or pedestal upon which GOD erects the wisdom drawn from His law, as a column in the temple of man’s soul. (C.) Not merely upon it either, but rooted deeply into it, as a tree into the ground, so that it can never be shaken, according to that saying of the Wise Man, “The root of wisdom is to fear the LORD.”* But the deepest meaning is one which the word eloquium in the Vulgate prevented the Latin commentators from seeing, that the promise is indeed the WORD, the Deliverer promised from the beginning, that Rod of Jesse on Whom should rest, amongst other graces of the HOLY GHOST, “the spirit of the fear of the LORD,”* and that the verse is a cry for His appearing.

39 Take away the rebuke that I am afraid of: for Thy judgments are good.

That rebuke is the charge of falling away from the law of GOD,* whether addressed to the backslider by GOD,* or by evil spirits, or by men mocking and saying, “This man began, and was not able to finish;”* so that we have here a prayer for the grace of perseverance. Others take it as a petition to GOD to avert His chastisements, lest they should be turned to the Psalmist’s reproach,* and thus indirectly to the reproach of the GOD he served, as either powerless to defend him or neglectful of His worshipper. (A.) But most of the Latin commentators, (C.) misled by the structure of the Vulgate, which is, Take away from me my reproach, that I suspected, explain the words as a prayer against the infirmity of suspiciousness and harsh judgment of others. Yet S. Ambrose comes much nearer the full meaning of the passage by explaining the reproach to be sin, and taking the words I suspected as denoting the sense of uneasiness in the soul of one who,* though not sure that he has sinned, is still less sure that he has not sinned, and therefore commits the matter to GOD’S mercy, saying with the Apostle, “I am not conscious of anything in myself, yet am I not hereby justified: but He that judgeth me is the LORD.”** For it is to be marked that a godly man is more afraid for sins which he may do,* than a wicked man is for sins which he has done: and as he lives in a continual sorrow for sins begun, so also in a continual fear of sins wherein he may fall. And so it is added, For Thy judgments are good. Man’s judgment is so perverse that I count it for nought. We know that he condemns often where Thou wilt absolve. That is a high thing many a time in man’s eye, which is abomination unto Thee, but as to Thy rebuke,* I know, LORD, it comes never undeserved, for Thy judgments are good. More than good, even sweet or pleasant, for it is said by the LORD Himself, “Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance.”*

40 Behold, my delight is in thy commandments: O quicken me in thy righteousness.

Even the wicked desire mercy,* but the righteous desire also the way to mercy, not like Balaam, who wished to die the death of the righteous, but would not live his life.* So here the Psalmist does not speak of his own fulfilling of GOD’S commandments, but only of his longing (A. V.) after them. Yet the saint knows that where desires of this kind go before, satisfaction quickly follows, for the LORD hath said, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, (A.) for they shall be filled.”* These commandments which GOD’S true servants most desire are the two great precepts of charity, love to GOD, and love to our neighbour. And lest this desire should prove a mere abortive birth,* and fail to grow into action, (A.) he adds, Quicken me, who am of myself but dead. But how? In Thy righteousness, that is, “in CHRIST JESUS, Who of GOD is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the LORD.”*

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