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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.

The seventh letter, Zain, means a dart or missile weapon. This has a threefold mystical signification in Holy Scripture. If referred to GOD,* or those acting in His Name, it denotes Divine chastisement for sin, as in the command for setting bounds about Mount Sinai, “if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be thrust through with a dart;”* and as in the punishment of Zimri and Cozbi,* when Phinehas thrust them through with a javelin.* If to the Saints, the notion is that of defence by prayer, “ejaculations,” javelin-throwings of the soul, wherefore we read of Hezekiah (“strength of the LORD,”) that he not only fortified the Holy City, but made “darts and shields in abundance.”* If of evil spirits, it means the piercing of the soul by sin, “till a dart strike through the liver;”* or, in the classical passage,* “all the fiery darts of the wicked,” it stands for temptations and afflictions of any kind. The key-note of this section takes in all three meanings, for the judgments of GOD are hinted at in verse 53, as threatening the ungodly; the nature of our defence in dangers appears in vv. 49 and 50, and the shafts of the wicked are implied in verse 51. And they note that whereas this is the seventh strophe of the Psalm, (G.) so there are seven godly resolutions found in it.

49 O think upon thy servant, (ז) as concerning thy word: wherein thou hast caused me to put my trust.

The first words here should rather be, as in Vulgate and A. V., (A.) Remember. Not that GOD does or can forget, but that the delay appointed in His wisdom before He fulfils His promises to the godly, or His threats to the wicked, is often too much for man’s impatience; and the force of the word Remember is its marking our yearning and beseeching. (C.) As concerning Thy word. That is, as more than once already, Thy promise: and as the number seven is the Scriptural type of rest,* so the choir of saints in this seventh strophe of the Psalms, declares its rest and trust in the promises of GOD, as the sure bulwark against all worldly troubles. What, then, is the special promise meant, which could give such confidence to the Jew?* Doubtless that old pledge to Abraham that in his seed should all the families of the earth be blessed, (G.) which the Psalmist asks may be fulfilled,* by GOD’S sending the WORD Himself.* And for us, now that the WORD has come, the verse has another meaning: The LORD JESUS calls us to Himself, saying, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”* We have then to follow Him away from earthly to heavenly things, and when we have done so, (Ay.) to say, Remember Thy word unto Thy servant.* I have fought the fight, I ask the prize Thou hast promised me,* and it is not unreasonably that I have hoped for it, because Thou madest me to hope. I am Thy servant, I look for nourishment from my Master, I am Thy soldier, I ask for my pay from my General, I am an invited guest, I call for the fulfilment of my Host’s pledge. And observe that there are three reasons in the verse itself for this confident asking of an eternal reward. First, GOD’S own promise, according to Thy word; secondly, man’s obedience, unto Thy servant; thirdly, his perseverance, put my trust. For GOD is wont to fulfil that which He has promised, not remembering our iniquities, but bearing in mind His own promises.

50 The same is my comfort in my trouble: for thy word hath quickened me.

When men are sick with heavy diseases,* earthly comforts, such as food, drink, and recreation arouse loathing when proffered, and the pleasures of sin instead of lessening trouble increase it; and thus we are thrown back on divine consolation as our one stay in time of distress.* And therefore if there be persecution, danger, death, severe illness, attack of robbers, confiscation of goods, or any of those things which are counted as evils in this world, they are readily overcome if there be hope to comfort. For even if they do happen, they cannot be grievous to him who saith, “I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”* For trouble the Vulgate reads humility, (A.) and this is either explained as equivalent to affliction,* (A. V.) or more specifically of the state of man after the fall, or any season of unusual temptation; (G.) or yet again of voluntary submission and lowliness like that of Blessed Mary,* or of the penitent confessing his sins.* For Thy word hath quickened me. That is, the word of GOD is the vital substance of the soul, whereby it is nourished, fed, and ruled. Nor is there aught else save GOD’S Word that can make the reasoning soul live. And just as the union of our body and soul is quickened and kept up by the breath of life,* and nourished thereby, so our soul is quickened by the Word of GOD and by spiritual grace. He has quickened me, lying dead in sin, and raised me by the first resurrection, (Ay.) He hath quickened me by rousing and kindling my soul to good. And that because He is the Life of the inward man, and hath said, He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life.”* And if there be such comfort and joy in the promise, what will the fulfilment be?*

51 The proud have had me exceedingly in derision: yet have I not shrinked from thy law.

And thus the Apostle counts amongst the sufferings of the Saints that “they had trials of mockings,”* since it was fitting that they should follow in the steps of their Master,* Who was reviled and jeered at upon the Cross.* The LXX. and Vulgate read in the first clause, (A.) The proud have dealt very wickedly, and do not include the notion of derision. The proud are, according to some, the heathen persecutors, who not merely tortured the martyrs and reviled them,* but also endeavoured to bring about their apostasy. (R.) Others, carrying on the former reference to the sin of our first parents, hold that they are here intended, (a meaning which will of course not stand with the Hebrew text,*) and that the intention is to declare in this verse the resistance of grace to the temptings of original and intentional sins.

A better interpretation, however, sees here any scornful transgression of the law, and adds the evil spirits to that gathering of the proud against the soul of the righteous. And this seems the sense of S. Ambrose in his comment on the passage: “Pride is the greatest sin in man, because hence flowed the source of our faultiness.* This is the first weapon wherewith the devil wounded and smote us. For had not man, led away by the luring of the serpent, wished to be as GOD, and to know good and evil, which he could not altogether distinguish by reason of human weakness, and broke through forbidden things through discontent at the bounds set him, the heirloom of that fatal sin would never have passed to us. And why do I speak of man? The devil himself lost through pride his natural grace. For while he was saying, ‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High,’* he fell from the company of the Angels, and justly punished for that sin, he sought to make man a partaker in his guilt, to pass on to him a share of the same offence.”

And as the Psalmist had stated what power of evil there is in pride, he was bound to teach us how it might be overcome; and so as a good physician he shows us the remedy, after speaking strongly about the bane. Hearken then how to cast out the poison of pride: I have not shrinked from Thy law. It is then GOD’S law which can dilute the venom of pride, by teaching the devout man how to rule himself with due caution. For there are many persons, not only far from hostile to the faith, but who even seem to have tasted freely of Scriptural precepts, who are often tried by observing the prosperous success of the proud and ungodly, and the losses and troubles of the righteous, so that their mind becomes warped, and they think that GOD has somehow erred in His judgments, because they do not hold to that capital truth that it is not in this world, but the next, that GOD rewards good works.

52 For I remembered thine everlasting judgments, O LORD: and received comfort.

For I remembered.* This is the reason why he did not shrink; since unless a man be taught and trained by the examples of the law, and so believe that GOD’S judgments are always true, he shrinks quickly from that law. But he who reads the past, and ponders the order of history, learns that the sinner does not escape the punishment of his guilt, nor the righteous lose the reward of his goodness. For everlasting the A. V. reads of old, and this is the sense in which the Vulgate a sœculo is for the most part explained,* as showing that the course of GOD’S dealings with man has remained unaltered since the creation; whether in His punishment of the vessels of wrath or His correction of the vessels of grace. And whether we take the word judgment to denote rewards or chastisements, (Ay.) they are alike the source of comfort to the godly, as proving that GOD does not forget them, but is dealing with them as is best. So it is written in another Psalm, “Thy word and Thy staff comfort me.”* Whereby we understand that GOD’S scourging and His support are alike wholesome and pleasant to the soul which loves and trusts Him.

53 I am horribly afraid: for the ungodly that forsake thy law.

The Psalmist’s horror (A. V.) and grief is not for any contempt or injury of himself,* but because GOD’S law is forsaken, and his sorrow is for those who so forsake it, because they die to GOD. So an affectionate father of a delirious child, when abused, struck, and insulted by him, does not grieve for his own trouble, but the patient’s, and so far as he laments the foul language, does so not because it is heaped on himself, but because the sick child knows not what he is doing in his frenzy. And in like manner a good man laments over a sinner as at the point of death, and like one given over by the physicians, and stays by him just as a wise physician would do, heedless of any bad treatment he may receive from the patient, if only he may help him in his need, with knowledge as well as skill. Therefore a righteous man when ill-treated by a sinner, does not abandon him, but if injured, sets the act down to insanity, not to wickedness, and is zealous to apply some healing remedy to the wound, thinking that if his foe were in his right mind he would have acted very differently. And thus the Apostle speaks, “I have great sorrow and continual weariness in my heart for my brethren.” (Cd.) It is as though the Psalmist, looking round on the sea of life, saw men rejecting the guidance of right reason, throwing the Divine Pilot overboard, and drifting rapidly with the tide of iniquity towards the rocks and sands, and as he gazes, the thick darkness of horror falls on him, and he faints away.* The sinner looks on godliness as subject matter for amusement, but the godly man looks on sin as a frightful thing, because he foresees the terrible nature of its punishment;* and we ought therefore to grieve over our erring brethren.

Again, (D. C.) the righteous man may well feel horror when he thinks on his own frailty, and bears in mind that he is even as his fellow men, as likely to sin, as open to be tempted as they. He listens to the Apostle’s warnings, “Be not high-minded, but fear,”* and “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”* For that is a true saying of the wise man, “Happy is the man that feareth alway.”* And so it is told of one who had a zeal for GOD, though not according to knowledge, that one day seeing a malefactor led to execution, he exclaimed, “But for the grace of GOD, there goes John Bradford.”

Whether for oneself or for others, (A.) those words of S. Augustine hold good, “Thou mournest for a dead man, mourn rather for the living. Hast thou no bowels of Christian pity that thou weepest for a corpse from which the soul has departed, and not for a soul whence GOD hath departed?”* But in all such cases our prayer should be our Master’s, “FATHER, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”*

54 Thy statutes have been my songs: in the house of my pilgrimage.

If we do no more than read GOD’S statutes,* we may so forget them when the Bible is out of our hands, that a fresh perusal does no more than remind us that the words are not new to us; but if we learn them because we delight in them, they will haunt our memories like snatches of music, (C.) and come back again and again before our thoughts. And there may very well be here a direct reference to psalmody, to the devotional use of religious poetry,* and those psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs wherewith the saints make melody in their hearts to the LORD.* Such singing as this is mighty as was David’s harp to drive away the evil spirit;* nay, to invoke the presence of the HOLY SPIRIT Himself,* as when the minstrel played before Elisha.

The practical utility of song as a means of education approved itself to the wisest heathens.* Thus Plato advises that the precepts of virtue and good citizenship shall be written in verse and set to music in order that the young might learn them willingly, and remember them clearly. But in this he was not innovating,* for his great pupil tells us that in the times before writing was common, it was the custom to sing the laws of the countries lest they should be forgotten. And another writer tells us that the Cretans were amongst those who enforced this rule on their children.* Nor has the Christian Church been slow to follow so wise a precedent. France, Spain, and parts of Italy have had metrical catechisms, and S. Francis Xavier adopted the same plan to aid in his evangelization of India.

In the house of my pilgrimage. That is, our lowly sojourn in this place of mortality, where man journeys as a pilgrim, (A.) exiled from Paradise and from the heavenly Jerusalem, and going down to that Jericho on the road to which he fell among thieves;* but having been delivered from them by the mercy of the Good Samaritan, he learns to sing in thankfulness the statutes of GOD, lightening the toil of the road with holy song, until the time comes for the purging of the threshing-floor. And we sing of GOD’S statutes, because we feel ourselves to be strangers upon earth, but not so in heaven;* to be here foreigners and pilgrims by reason of our calling of faith, but there fellow-citizens and of the household of GOD.* And further, he who sings is disengaged in thought, and banishes from him anxious cares and troubles, puts covetousness apart, and soothes himself not only with his bodily voice, but also with the liveliness of his mind. And thus the Psalmist, not saddened by any distress of poverty, but free from all bodily passions, saith in another place, “Unto Thee will I sing upon the harp, O Thou Holy One of Israel. My lips will be fain when I sing unto Thee, and so will my soul whom Thou hast delivered.”* In this sense the satirist’s line is true,

Cantabit vacuus coram latrone viator.*

The empty traveller will sing before the robber’s face.

And then there is a further meaning of the house of my pilgrimage. It denotes also the mortal body in which our soul tabernacles for a time, and the verse thus teaches us the duty of serving GOD with voice as well as heart, knowing that “with the mouth confession is made unto salvation,”* and we are bound to give thanks to Him Who hath delivered us from the enemy.

Therefore my songs, my SAVIOUR,*

E’en in this time of woe,

Shall tell of all Thy goodness

To suffering man below;

Thy goodness and Thy favour,

Which present from above,

Rejoice those hearts, my SAVIOUR,

That live in Thee and love.

55 I have thought upon thy Name, O Lord, in the night-season: and have kept thy law.

It is night in this lowly state of ours, (A.) amidst mortal cares; it is night amongst the proud and deriding, it is night in the house of those who forsake GOD’S law; finally, it is night in this house of pilgrimage, “until the LORD come, Who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.”* And therefore it is fitting to think upon His Name, “that, according as it is written, he that glorieth, let him glory in the LORD.”* And in the literal sense, (H.) too, the saint will think of GOD’S Name by night as well as by day; remembering that night in its loneliness and inactivity,* when the body is weighed down with food and sleep, is a time of special temptation from evil thoughts, which need to be driven away by invocation of the Holy Name. It was night when Judas betrayed JESUS, and Peter denied Him. (G.) We should keep the watches of the night about our souls, like shepherds guarding their flocks against wolves and robbers;* like the master of a house taking care that his wall be not digged through;* like the Bride, seeking her Beloved first on her bed,* and then in the streets of the city. And so exhorts the Prophet: “Arise, cry out in the night; in the beginning of the watches pour out thine heart like water before the face of the LORD.”* And if it be true that students of secular learning are obliged to stint themselves of sleep and to toil in the night-season in order to make sufficient progress;* much more ought they who desire to derive wisdom of GOD, to pray, meditate, and wrestle in the night, whether that of literal darkness or of adversity and trouble.* Either way, that is a wise counsel of S. Bernard, that when betaking ourselves to rest, we ought to have some thought in our mind and memory which may help us to fall asleep peacefully, and even so dream that the night will shine brightly as the day upon us. And another and earlier writer reminds us that thinking on GOD’S Name is the only means to keep us in the right road when we are wrapped in the night of the dark and secret plots of ungodly men.* Yet a further point is, that the Psalmist here proves the sincerity of his love and obedience, since he thought of GOD not only in public,* where desire for the praise of men might have swayed him, as it does hypocrites; but in the privacy of night, with no eye to see him. Wherefore the LORD Himself saith: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy FATHER which is in secret; and thy FATHER which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”*

56 This I had: because I kept thy commandments.

They dispute what this denotes.* Some will have it that it means the act of remembering GOD in the night; (Z.) others think that the law itself is spoken of as the Psalmist’s possession which he has kept; (A.) while a third view is, that the night is intended; (G.) meaning that GOD has given us the night of mortality and sorrow for our profit, or that man has persecuted us because of our keeping the Divine law. Once more, the ellipsis is supplied with different words: (C.) I had this comfort, in my trouble;* or this special care, to keep Thy law;* or this reward for my obedience; which last interpretation, as including all the spiritual blessings granted by the LORD to His faithful servants,* seems on the whole to be best. And to add a super-commentary to this Jewish gloss, the Rabbins were wont to say,* “The reward of a precept is a precept,” meaning thereby that the prize GOD grants for obedience to one command is grace to keep another and harder one; just as the most coveted token of proficiency in a good school is not the remission of tasks, but the advancement of a studious pupil into a higher grade, where the work is more difficult; and that is the sense of the words, Because I kept Thy commandments.

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