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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 ninth letter,* Teth, is usually explained by the mediæval commentators,* following S. Jerome, as meaning good, while others take it as denoting exclusion; but the true signification, serpent (which the letter represents with its head lifted up, preparing for an attack) yields a much deeper mystical sense. For being the recognised emblem of evil, as subtle and venomous, it is the Scriptural type of Satan, and of his temptations. (H.) But the key-note of this section is the use of adversity, and the blessedness of affliction; and thus it teaches us that even the Tempter is but an instrument in the hand of a stronger than he, forced to subserve His purpose, to evolve a higher form of good by means of the conflict with evil, and to perfect the saints, as in the case of holy Job, by the trials and sorrows he is permitted to use against them.

65 O LORD, (ט) thou hast dealt graciously with thy servant: according unto thy word.

And that by making me a son instead of a servant, (A.) for “the servant abideth not in the house for ever, but the son continueth ever.”* Graciously, by teaching me to love good for its own sake,* and not merely to do it through fear of punishment; graciously, too, in chastising me, that I might be turned in time from my sins; graciously, in giving me,* Thy servant, that peace and cheerfulness of mind which I had not, when, nominally free and following my own will, I was in truth the captive of my lusts and slave of the world. And that because of those very chastisements, for whereas all worldly pleasures not merely pall,* but hurt, and at best cannot be taken with us out of the world, and thus are not really good, that training which GOD gives us is to fit us for eternal gladness. (Ay.) Wherefore it is written, “My son, despise not the chastening of the LORD,* nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him: for whom the LORD loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth.… Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them that are exercised thereby.” There is yet a further and higher way in which GOD has dealt graciously with His servants, (B.) by the Incarnation and Passion of His Only-Begotten SON. And that according to Thy word, in three-fold wise: the word of promise,* fulfilling His pledge given to the patriarchs and prophets; the word of inspiration, pouring into our hearts that Spirit of love, which is liberty and the truth that makes us free; and chiefest of all, the Eternal WORD Himself, according to Whom, and through Whom, all divine blessings are vouchsafed to man.

66 O learn me true understanding and knowledge: for I have believed thy commandments.

True understanding. The literal Hebrew is good taste, and the words may mean either the pleasant savour of GOD’S law to His saints, or else, more probably, as the English version denotes, clear and delicate perception (A. V. good judgment) of the inward meaning of the law, joined with familiar knowledge of its outward letter. (A.) And note that it is said Teach me, not give me, because when GOD chooses to teach, He first gives His disciples the power of understanding, without which no man can learn Divine knowledge; whereas human teachers can at best only state such facts as they know, without any certainty that their pupils will be able to comprehend them. The LXX. and Vulgate make a noun of the adjective good, and read, goodness, and discipline, and knowledge; and this triad is variously explained. Teach me Thy mercy,* Thy fear, and Thy mysteries, says S. Ambrose. Teach me, that is, inspire me with charity, with patience, with wisdom, (A.) exclaims the Doctor of Grace. Teach me personal holiness,* self-restraint, and discernment between good and evil, comments another. Good works, obedience to the rules of the Church, and knowledge to uphold the Faith when attacked, (B.) is the gloss of a third. Teach me, says the last of the Fathers, in my dealings with others, goodwill and compassion first, but then,* lest it should be abused by unworthy persons, zeal for right and justice in the next place, and lastly, that these may be fitly combined and exercised, teach me discretion.

The Hebrew Will bear either the Vulgate or the English construction, but there is a parallel passage in the New Testament which makes for the latter, “I pray that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent,”* for the word which is rendered “judgment” is αἰσθήσει, denoting perception by the senses, and thus answering to the Hebrew טַעַם, here found.* “This,” says an old English commentator, “is a rare grace; for many by the judgment of light know what is good and what is evil, who know it not by the judgment of taste: for if by sense they felt the bitterness of sin and sweetness of righteousness, they would not so love the one, and set light by the other as they do.” And further, the word tells us of a difference between this world and the next. Here we have but a taste, there we shall be filled. For I have believed, &c. S. Augustine raises the question why the verb is believed rather than obeyed, seeing the latter is the proper term for commandments and believed for promises. And he answers by saying that it means, I have believed that the commandments are Thine, and not man’s, albeit they have come to me through man’s intervention. And because my faith is such, it asks of Thee grace to fulfil these commandments, and therefore teach me, O LORD.

67 Before I was troubled, I went wrong: but now have I kept thy word.

If we take the first historical sense, we see how eminently true this verse has proved of the Jewish people. Before its first great national disaster, it was continually hankering after idolatry, superstition, and heathen accretions on the Mosaic code, and divided into the two hostile camps of Judah and Israel; but never since its return from the seventy years’ captivity has it been other than one in fraternal feeling, and steadfast in its worship of the GOD of its fathers. This has held good of the Christian Church also, collectively in the days when the abuses and scandals which came of the entrance of hosts of half-converted Pagans into the fold were pruned away by the sharp steel of the Ten Persecutions, especially that under Decius; and in the case of national Churches by many other trials; the Mohammedan advances in the East, the Norman conquest of England; the Revolution in France, and the like. But the sense in which the words are truest of all is the original one of individual experience. “For if thou ascribest thy troubles to thy sins, thou turnest upon thyself whatever may happen thee,* and beginnest to be righteous instead of guilty, in that thou condemnest thyself.” And these troubles may be either such afflictions as GOD pleases to send for our correction, or even acts of sin themselves, which by breaking down self-confidence and spiritual pride, are often most salutary lessons in the school of humility and patience. (D. C.) But now have I kept Thy word. For GOD says to us, “I will hedge up thy way with thorns, and make a wall;”* and we in turn say with Ephraim, “Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the rope; turn Thou me, so shall I be turned; for Thou art the LORD my GOD. Surely after I was turned, I repented.* It is recorded that when Francis I. was captured after the disastrous fight of Pavia, his captors hurried him into the church of the Certosa during Terce, at the very moment when the choir was chanting this verse, which was accepted as a direct lesson from GOD by the bystanders.

68 Thou art good and gracious: O teach me thy statutes.

And gracious. The A. V. more exactly, And doest good. GOD is not good in essence only,* but in action;* and if He were not, who could abide upon the earth? How good He is, we may conjecture from His works, for “a good tree bringeth forth good fruit.”* The holy angels, all righteous men, all the fair creation, testify the goodness and loveliness of Him Whose productions they are. The Vulgate reads, In Thy goodness teach me, &c. Not in dread and austerity, as Thou taughtest the old Law, but in tenderness and love. S. Augustine, reading Thou art sweet, O Lord, in Thy sweetness teach me, explains the words of the Blessed Sacrament; “Teachers drive their pupils to learn with stripes and rods, but Thou,* O LORD, drawest me on to wisdom with abundant sweetness and with the gift of sweetest dainties. For as parents lure on their little children to learn their letters by giving them cakes and sweetmeats, (Cd.) so Thou in like manner, O sweetest FATHER, by giving us heavenly Bread drawest us on to drink in the doctrines of CHRIST, and to endure all toils.”* Note, too, that the prayer with which the verse closes is based on the praise with which it begins, for, as the LORD Himself hath said to us: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children; how much more shall your heavenly FATHER give the HOLY SPIRIT to them that ask Him?”*

69 The proud have imagined a lie against me: but I will keep thy commandments with my whole heart.

It is more than have imagined, for the strict Hebrew is have patched up, or sewn together, paraphrased by the A. V. forged,* and denoting the choice of such varied materials as can be converted into slander, with the careful piecing of them together into one tissue of falsehood.* And note that they who do this base and mean thing are the proud, just those whom we should suppose incapable of it. The reason is simple, because pride is a false estimate of our own worth and importance, leading first to an equally false depreciation of that of others, and then to an attempt at all risks to impose these two falsehoods upon men, which can be done only through the means of some third departure from truth. But the LXX. and Vulgate read, the iniquity of the proud hath been multiplied.* And S. Ambrose explains it of conduct like that of Job’s three friends, bringing accusations against the character and godliness of such as suffer trouble, which they declare to be merited punishment. (G.) It is however better interpreted by another commentator of open reviling or secret calumny, and a third adds that the lures and threats of evil spirits are included as well as those of haughty men. (D. C.) They are,* says S. Ambrose, only the opponents whom every true athlete must challenge and overcome before he can win his crown. But I will keep Thy commandments. It is the answer of Plato to a friend who told him of the slanders spread concerning him by his enemies: (Ay.) “I will so live that no one will believe them.” It is the yet deeper and nobler reply of the martyr S. Vincent to Dacian: “Thou shalt see that I am stronger, by GOD’S might, under torture, than thou who torturest me.” So it is added, with my whole heart, for that heart is so enlarged with the love of GOD and man as not merely to keep GOD’S laws in despite of all temptations to the contrary, (B.) but even to love those men who strive by force or fraud to make the saint break them.

70 Their heart is as fat as brawn: but my delight hath been in thy law.

As brawn. Rather, with A. V. as grease. The LXX. and Vulgate,* with other ancient versions, following a different vowel pointing, read, curdled as milk. There is not much difference in the ideas suggested, which are: first, the abundance of their riches and luxury; and next, the effects of such things, a “fatty degeneration” of the heart, a disappearance of the sensitive heart of flesh, and the substitution of one with no feeling. The heart of the Saints, comments one of the most earnest of themselves,* is fluid (subtile,) the heart of the proud is curdled. For as milk is naturally pure, beautiful, and untainted, but sours by corruption, so the nature of man’s mind and heart is pure, sincere, and transparent until it is soured by admixture of sins. When milk curdles, a kind of solid body is formed which has not its former sweetness nor pleasantness. And in like manner men who had been like milk in their thoughtfulness, pleasantness, and sweetness of their language, haunted by no envy, the moment they begin to be envious, their heart curdles with sin, (Ay.) and instead of the sweetness of friendship there is the sourness of envy. Others, not very dissimilarly, explain this verse of the contrast between milk and cheese, between a heart flowing with charity, (Z.) and one hardened with selfishness. And on this S. Bernard observes, it was prophesied of CHRIST that He should eat “butter,”* but not cheese,* as betokening that He took our nature upon Him without any admixture of the souring and curdling taint of sin.* But my delight hath been in Thy law. Because whatever is hard and frozen in the heart softens and melts under the fire of GOD’S love, and pours out in a stream of penitence and longing.* “O happy heart, where piety affecteth, where humility subjecteth, where repentance correcteth, where obedience directeth, where perseverance perfecteth, where power protecteth, where devotion projecteth, where charity connecteth!”

71 It is good for me that I have been in trouble: that I may learn thy statutes.

This confession makes a spiritual advance over the statement of the former verse, (L.) which said, “Before I was troubled, I went wrong.”* For there no more is alleged than the deterrent and corrective effect of chastisement, whereas here the penitent acknowledges not only the justice, (A.) but the mercy and love of his chastener.* Affliction in its own nature is evil, being a punishment of sin; but the LORD, Who changed the waters of Marah,* and made them sweet unto Israel, hath also changed to His children the nature of the Cross, that not only they find comfort in it, but also most happy effects are wrought by it. “In our health and clearer days,”* says the most eloquent of English preachers, “it is easy to talk of putting our trust in GOD; we readily trust Him for life, when we are in health; for provisions, when we have fair revenues; and for deliverance, when we are newly escaped: but let us come to sit upon the margent of our grave, and let a tyrant lean hard upon our fortunes, and dwell upon our wrong, let the storm arise, and the keels toss till the cordage crack, so that all our hopes bulge under us and descend into the hollowness of sad misfortunes; then can you believe, when you neither hear, nor see, nor feel anything but objections? This is the proper work of sickness: faith is then brought into the theatre, and so exercised, that if it abide but to the end of the contention, we may see the work of faith which GOD will largely crown. The same I say of hope, and of charity, and the love of GOD, and of patience, which is a grace produced from the mixture of all these: they are virtues which are greedy of danger, and no man was ever honoured by any wise or discerning person for dining upon Persian carpets, nor rewarded with a crown for being at ease. It was the fire that did honour to Mutius Scævola; poverty made Fabricius famous; Rutilius was made excellent by banishment; Regulus by torments, Socrates by poison, Cato by his death. And GOD hath crowned the memory of Job with a wreath of glory because he sat upon his dunghill wisely and temperately, and his potsherd and his groans mingled with promises and justifications of GOD, pleased Him like an anthem sung by Angels on the morning of the Resurrection. GOD could not choose but be pleased with the delicious accents of martyrs, when in their tortures they cried out nothing but ‘HOLY JESUS,’ and ‘Blessed be GOD;’ and they also themselves who, with a hearty resignation to the Divine pleasure, can delight in GOD’S severe dispensation, will have the transportations of cherubim when they enter into the joys of GOD. If GOD be delicious to His servants when He smites them, He will be nothing but ravishments and ecstasies to their spirits when He refreshes them with the overflowings of joy in the day of recompenses.” Such is the Saint’s confidence in GOD’S chastening hand;

τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώσαντα,*

τὸν πάθει μάθος

θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.

στάζει δʼ ἔν θʼ ὕπνῳ πρὸ καρδίας

μνησιπήμων πόνος, καὶ παρʼ ἄ-

κοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν.

Who guideth mortals to be wise,

Mating them grasp lore firmly through their pain.

And trouble, mindful of woes, in their sleep

Drops on the heart, and wisdom cometh so

Even to the unwilling.

That I may learn Thy statutes. Not only know them in a measure, (A.) but learn them. CHRIST knew sin in a certain sense, seeing that He taught men how to avoid it, and rebuked, men for it, but it made no part of His habitual thought, which was righteousness only. And we, on the contrary, know righteousness as something external to ourselves, which we recognise when we see it, but have not learnt it so that it abides in our memory and shows in our action.* That we may do so is the grace asked here, that the lesson taught by experience may not be forgotten when the chastening hand of GOD is withdrawn; for wicked men are somewhat good when they are in affliction; but so soon as they are delivered, they return to their old sins, as we see in Pharaoh. These are like iron, which is soft, and will bow at the workman’s will when it is in the fire, but soon after it is drawn out, it returns to the old hardness. These men use repentance as worldlings do an old garment, which they put about them in time of a shower, but cast it away so soon as the weather becomes fair. Far otherwise is it with the godly, who say with holy Job: “The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away, blessed be the Name of the LORD;”* who add with the Apostle: “We glory in tribulation also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience,* and patience experience, and experience hope.”*

Grant Thou this patience,* O JESU, to me,

Grant Thou Thy graces my safeguard to be,

So that in all things Thy will may be mine,

Bearing all troubles because they are Thine.

Still let me study like Thee to appear,—

Still let me seek to be crucified here;

That if my anguish, like Thine, is increased,

I may sit also with Thee at Thy Feast.

72 The law of thy mouth is dearer unto me: than thousands of gold and silver.

The law of Thy mouth. The old law, because “GOD spake all these words, and said”* them to Moses; the new law, because “GOD, (C.) Who at sundry times, and in divers manners spake in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His SON,”* Whose own lips uttered the Gospel message. (H.) Sometimes men look to the ministry of the Word, and not to the authority of it, and then it is no marvel that they disesteem it,* even as Samuel ran to Eli when he should have run to GOD, because he thought the voice that called him had been but the voice of Eli. So many regard not the Word, because they take it to be the voice of man,* and not of GOD. Than thousands of gold and silver. Shall we think it poverty if we be scant of gold and silver? Is an angel poor because he has no flocks of cattle? Or was S. Peter poor because he had no gold or silver to give the cripple?* No, for he had grace which was more excellent than either; and we have to remember that they are not current money in Canaan, not accounted of in our heavenly country.* “O you sons of Adam,” exclaims S. Bernard, “you covetous generation, what have you to do with earthly riches, which are neither true, nor yours? Gold and silver are mere earth, red and white, which only the error of man makes, or rather reputes, precious. In short, if they be yours,* carry them with you.” There is a tradition of a Jewish Rabbi who was offered a very lucrative situation in a place where there was no synagogue, but who thinking on this verse refused it; an instructive example to Christians who readily go to places where there is a “famine of the words of the LORD”* in order to acquire worldly riches. For the saint, the laws of CHRIST’S mouth, the delight of standing with Him face to face, as a man talketh with his friend surpasses all such wealth, and rightly, for the place of that converse is in the golden City where

The lukewarm Blood of this dear Lamb,* being spilt,

To rubies turned, whereof her posts were built;

And what dropped down in a kind gelid gore,

Did turn rich sapphires, and did pave her floor:

The brighter flames, that from His eyeballs rayed,

Grew chrysolites, whereof her walls were made:

The milder glances sparkled on the ground,

And groundsilled every door with diamond;

But dying, darted upward, and did fix

A battlement of purest sardonyx.

Her streets with burnished gold are paved around;

Stars lie like pebbles scattered on the ground,

Pearl mixed with onyx and the jasper stone

Made jewelled pathways to be trampled on.

There shines no sun by day, no moon by night,

The palace glory is, the palace light.

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