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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 eleventh letter, Caph, signifies the hollowed hand. The expositors,* however, looking only to the meaning curved, which is but half of its import,* explain the section as signifying the act of bowing down in penitence, or as noting that the Fathers of the Old Testament were like veteran soldiers, stooping with years and toil,* and bowed down yet further by the heavy weight of the Law, only removable by that coming of CHRIST for which they prayed. Others extend the notion to the Saints of the Church, weighed down by the sorrows and cares of this life, and therefore desiring to be dissolved and be with CHRIST.* The true meaning is to be sought in the full interpretation of the word;* for the hand is hollowed either in order to retain something which actually lies in it, or to receive something about to be placed in it by another. Thus the hand may be GOD’S, as the giver of bounty, or man’s, as the receiver of it; and the whole scope of the section, as a prayer for speedy help, is that man holds out his hand, as a beggar, supplicating the mercy of GOD.

81 My soul hath longed for thy salvation: (כ) and I have a good hope because of thy word.

Longed. It ought rather to be fainted, as A. V., agreeing with vulg. defecit; and it denotes the weary waiting of the Saints of old for the coming of the Only-Begotten SON,* the salvation of GOD,* a waiting nevertheless made bearable by the good hope of that coming,* which they derived from their trust in the promises made to them by the Prophets.* Him only the Saint who fears GOD desires,* longs for, strives towards with all his might, cherishes in the bosom of his soul, opens and pours forth himself to Him, and fears nothing save the loss of Him. It is a fainting which is also a strengthening, a progress of the soul, attended with a subduing of the body; it is a desire common to those Saints who before the Virgin’s child-bearing longed for the Incarnation of CHRIST, (A.) and to those who since His Ascension have prayed for His manifestation as Judge of quick and dead, for they know that promise, “When CHRIST our life shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory.”* “They who grow strong in the love of their Maker,* just as they acquire strength in that desired might of GOD, fail in their own strength, and the more vigorously they hunger for eternal things they grow weaker with a wholesome faintness at temporal things. The Psalmist, weary with the force of his love, said, My soul hath fainted for Thy salvation. This he did in his spiritual advance, because, longing for eternal light, he was broken down from all confidence in the flesh, and gasping. So it is said in another place, ‘My soul hath a desire and fainteth for the courts of the LORD.’* It is well said first, ‘desire,’ and then ‘fainteth;’ for that must be a very small longing for divine things which is not speedily followed by fainting on our part. For he who is kindled to desire the everlasting halls, is rightly wearied out by love of this world, and grows as cold in his affection for it as he rises to greater warmth in the love of GOD; and if he succeeds in grasping this perfectly, he entirely abandons the world, and dies altogether to temporal things precisely as he is more deeply quickened by divine inspiration to the life above.” Or you may take it that the soul, drawn entirely into the love of GOD, (G.) fails and wastes in its divine glow like the wax or oil which feeds a flame, or as molten gold is itself a consuming fire. It is an abandonment of self,* as Jacob, inspired by GOD, becomes Israel,* as Saul turns into Paul; and so too the soul, wrapt in divine contemplation, does as it were abandon the body, and leave it weak, tranced, unable to discharge its usual functions of sense and action, (D. C.) while the soul herself, soar as she may, is beaten down, enfeebled, and exhausted by the stupendous effort to attain and grasp the incomprehensible:

Where shall he rest his wing,* where turn for flight?

For all around is Light,

Primal, essential, all-pervading Light!

Heart cannot think, nor tongue declare,

Nor eyes of angel bear

That glory unimaginably bright:

The sun himself had seemed

A speck of darkness there,

Amid that Light of Light!

And yet dazed,* confounded, fainting, the soul has yet a good hope, because the salvation which is promised her is Very GOD, and she knows that “we have an Advocate with the FATHER, JESUS CHRIST the Righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins.”*

82 Mine eyes long sore for thy word: saying, O when wilt thou comfort me?

Note the utter wistfulness of the Verse. (A.) The eyes long so very sorely, that dumb as they are, their gaze becomes speech, the eager yearning of prayer. It is as the LORD said to His disciples: “Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see: for I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them.”* And therefore one interpretation which has found favour with some of the early commentators blends the literal and mystical meaning;* taking the verse of the patient study given by the Fathers of the Old Covenant to the oracles of GOD, wearing their eyes out, as it were, (for fail is here, as in A. V. and Vulg., the true rendering, instead of long,) in diligent poring over the prophecies, in order to forecast the time when the Desire of all nations should come.* We, remarks S. Ambrose, count ourselves idle if we appear to do nothing but study the Word, and we think more of those who are actively employed than of those who are busied in the study of learning divinity; just as though the student of the Word were not a worker, seeing that it is a far higher work than those other kinds. So when Martha was busied about her serving, and Mary was listening to the Word of the LORD, she who listened was counted worthy to be set above her who served.

But the majority of the commentators explain the verse of the inner eyes of the soul, (D. C.) and of their looking for the manifestation of CHRIST and the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, (G.) anointed as they are here with the salve of tears, and yet praying for the time when GOD shall wipe away all tears. So the Cluniac:

For thee,* O dear, dear country,

Mine eyes their vigils keep,

For very love, beholding

Thy happy name, they weep;

The mention of thy glory

Is unction to the breast,

And medicine in sickness,

And life, and love, and rest.

S. Ambrose raises two questions here,* first, why we have eyes in the plural, seeing that the one eye of the soul, not the two eyes of the body, (which cannot see CHRIST,) is meant; and he replies that the moral and mystical sense are thus denoted, of which the mystical is the keener,* and the moral the softer. And next, he asks why we find after this plural, comfort me, instead of comfort us? and replies that in our glorified condition, when GOD gives us His comfort, the bodily eye and the spiritual eye become one, when flesh and soul no longer desire different things, but the one same thing, namely, CHRIST. And so S. Peter Damiani:

Fleshly wars they know no longer, since with blemish stained is none,*

For the spiritual body and the soul at last are one,

Dwell they now in peace eternal, with all stumbling they have done.

The more literal,* but less beautiful explanation is that the eyes are but the instruments of the soul, which speaks through them, and is the me for which comfort is desired.

83 For I am become like a bottle in the smoke: yet do I not forget thy statutes.

A bottle, that is, a wine-skin. The metaphor is taken from the blackened and shrivelled appearance of a skin exposed to the fire.* But one object amongst the ancients of such exposure was to mellow the wine by the gradual ascent of the heat and smoke from the fire over which the skin was suspended: and thus the words teach us the uses of affliction in ripening and improving the soul.* For smoke the LXX. and Vulgate read frost,* and the favourite interpretation based upon this is the result of bodily austerity and mortification in cooling the hot passions of the flesh.* S. Ambrose, coming very near the fullest meaning of the passage,* although adopting the version frost,* observes, The righteous man, who hath mortified his body, is rightly called a wine-skin, seeing that he is found stripped, yet not naked, for a wine-skin is made of the spoils of a dead animal. Let us then die to sin, that we may live to GOD. Filled with the spirit of gladness and pleasantness of joy, we shall be spiritual spoils, free from bodily weakness, and holding within us in the unbroken folds of our soul that grace of divine mysteries which has been poured into us. Of these skins it is said that they put new wine into new bottles who wish to keep both the body and grace. Let not this skin of thine leak then, nor gape, nor grow decayed from lying on the ground, lest the new wine should burst the old skins, and grace be poured out where the skins are torn. Let them not dry up again with the sun of unrighteousness and the excessive force of heat, but rather let the various passions of the glowing flesh be calmed as though with the cold of snow, a snow which shines with the brightness of GOD’S own word, which they who follow shall in the resurrection have raiment white as snow.

Again, taking snow as the type of earthly affliction due to sin,* that “winter” which the LORD bid His disciples pray might not be the season of their flight; the Saint bids us note that we should be as insensible to the influence of sin as a dead skin is to that of cold; because we ought to bear about in our bodies the dying of the LORD JESUS.* He then who chastises his body is a skin which maketh drunken not with wine but with the Spirit, in which there are no grapes of gall, no poison of dragons,* no cruel venom of asps, but that inebriating cup which is so glorious.* Others, reminding us of the heat of Eastern lands,* suggest that the skin, whether containing water or wine, is placed in snow to cool its contents, (G.) on the one hand to prevent evaporation, and on the other to make them more grateful and cooling to the palate, which rejects tepid water with disgust and sickness, but delights in that which is cold. And this sense of affliction making that which is stored within us pleasanter to GOD and man, comes back to the literal meaning, albeit by a different road. The yet of the English versions, though not in the Hebrew, nevertheless seems required to complete the parallelism of the two strophes of the verse, and if we supply it, we must needs follow the translation smoke, and not frost. For too much heat would dry up and evaporate the contents of a skin; and so it is said, Despite the heat of my affliction, yet do I not forget Thy statutes, because Thou art careful not to try me beyond my strength. But cold would leave the quantity of fluid undiminished, and is thus a less suggestive rendering.

84 How many are the days of thy servant: when wilt thou he avenged of them that persecute me?

He speaks of days,* not years, to mark more forcibly the briefness of human life. Nevertheless, the time of the Saint’s tarrying here on earth is counted by days, not by nights, because it is bright with the shining of holy deeds wrought in the light of divine grace. The question is too in another form the cry of the Martyrs under the golden altar in heaven: (A.) “How long, O LORD, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?”* The reason, in this sense of the verse, that the second question is added, is lest any should suppose that a time shall come when there will be no Church left on earth, for the import here is that the Church will abide till the judgment, and then behold the destruction of her foes. When wilt Thou be avenged? This is rather a paraphrase of the original, which runs, as in LXX., Vulgate, and A. V., When wilt Thou execute judgment? (C.) And observe that it is in effect the very question which the Apostles asked their Master after His Resurrection,* only to receive the answer: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the FATHER hath put in His own power.”* And if we take the words as spoken by the Head of the Church Himself, then there will be a two-fold answer to each question. How many are the days of Thy servant? Thirty years and three of obscurity and sorrow, ending in shame and death, on the one hand; and on the other, the answer is, “Thy throne, O GOD, is for ever and ever.”* When wilt Thou be avenged of them that persecute Me? First, when “having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in His Cross;”* next, “when the LORD JESUS shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not GOD, and that obey not the Gospel of our LORD JESUS CHRIST.”*

85 The proud have digged pits for me: which are not after thy law.

The figure is drawn from the mode of snaring wild beasts in Eastern countries, by digging a deep pitfall in the animal’s track, and covering it lightly over with brushwood and earth, so as to give way under the slightest tread. But such pitfalls were only for beasts of prey, and were not after the law in the case of domestic cattle, for it is written, “And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit, and not cover it [rather, shall not fence it], and an ox or an ass fall therein, the owner of the pit shall make it good.”* Much more when a Saint of GOD, and not a brute animal, is in question, such snares are not after GOD’S law. But the LXX. and Vulgate read, The ungodly narrated pratings (LXX,) or fablings (Vulg.) against me.* But the notion is the same, because it is with their tongues that unbelievers and sectaries “digged a pit for the soul”* of the righteous who is not on his guard against them,* and strive to cast him headlong.* Hence, the early commentators with one voice explain this verse of the wresting of Scripture by Jews and heretics, (A.) of the false doctrines of Gnostics,* of the legends of the Talmud and Kabbala, and like perversions of truth. (L.) It is singular that they pass over the obvious reference to the plots of the Pharisees and Herodians against CHRIST,* first lying in wait to entangle Him in His talk; and then, on the failure of this scheme, planning His death.* They extend, (G.) however, the moral sense to all vain, frivolous, and worldly talk, which does indeed dig a pit for the soul. For, as a great Saint observes, the words of carnal persons oftentimes when they busily thrust themselves into our ears, beget a war of temptation in the heart, and although reason rejects, and tongue blames them, yet that requires toil to conquer within which is steadily condemned outwardly.* Whence it is necessary that a thing which the watchful mind repels from access to thought should not even come to the ears. And therefore holy men, panting with desire for eternity, rise to such a high level of life, that they count even hearing worldly talk to be a heavy and depressing burden. For they count that a strange and unpleasant thing which utters no sound of that which they inwardly love.* There is one deep comfort, however, to be drawn from this verse. The Psalmist says that the ungodly dug pits for him, but he does not say that he fell therein.

86 All thy commandments are true: they persecute me falsely; O be thou my help.

The firm truth of GOD’S commandments is in contrast to the treacherous pits dug by His enemies, (A.) fair-seeming, but false. (Ay.) Of no code but GOD’S can it be said that all its commandments are true; (G.) but His merits this title in every particular,—in word, teaching, and life.* And mark the advance from secret plots to open violence, noted by the word persecute, which signifies driving from one place of refuge to another, at the peril of life. But the Psalmist, like a valiant warrior, does not shrink from the wars and battles of the LORD; contenting himself with faithfully and wisely asking for divine help. He makes no petition, therefore, that the persecutions may cease, but that he may be supported through them. For he knew that “all that will live godly in CHRIST JESUS shall suffer persecution.”* Nor does he specify his persecutors, for they are many, visible and invisible, spiritual wickednesses and evil men. Whence there is a stress on the word falsely, for there is a persecution which is just and right, when we make war against injustice itself, when we punish the immoral, when we mulct the fraudulent. Suffering does not constitute in itself a title to help and reward from GOD, for that is a true saying of a Martyr Saint,* “The cause, not the pain, makes the martyr.” Wherefore the Apostle teaches us: “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief,* or as an evil-doer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify GOD on this behalf.”* O be Thou my help. Because Thy commandments are true; and one of those commandments is a precept to obey Him who “doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment.”* And as I obey Thy law, holding that all Thy commandments are true, while they openly violate it, I invoke my King against mine enemies, I appeal to my Judge against my wrongers.

87 They had almost made an end of me upon earth: but I forsook not thy commandments.

They, our spiritual foes, almost made an end of us on earth,* when the two sole representatives of mankind were lured to the fall; when the blood of the second child born upon earth was shed by the first, when Noah and his family alone survived the ruin of the Flood, and yet in each case a seed of righteousness was preserved, and that terrible almost was not suffered to become altogether. (A.) And S. Augustine reminds us how again and again the fury of heathen persecution raged against the Church, and the vast slaughter of Christians swelled the whiterobed army of martyrs in the Church Triumphant, so that there seemed as though there would be no confessors left in the Church Militant here on earth.* It is the cry of Elijah: “They have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life to take it away.”* And then comes GOD’S answer. “I have left Me seven thousand in Israel.” And we may take the verse in another sense,* of the believer struggling against the inducements of the world and the flesh.* They had almost made an end of me upon earth,* by entangling me in the love of earthly things, dragging me down from all thoughts of GOD and heaven, and thus destroying my soul. For if man end on earth, (B.) it is but a pitiful ending, seeing that he cannot then attain to eternal joys. But I forsook not Thy commandments; (D. C.) especially those which bid Thy servants strive manfully against their importunate foes with all perseverance; saying as to Joshua, “Be strong, and of a good courage: be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the LORD thy GOD is with thee whithersoever thou goest;”* and as the LORD to His disciples, “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.”*

88 O quicken me after thy loving-kindness: and so shall I keep the testimonies of thy mouth.

It is no marvel to find this prayer, (Ay.) O quicken me, so often in this Psalm, for it is spoken of the life of grace, which the petitioner nevertheless enjoyed; but he prays for increase and perseverance of that spiritual life, and that he might thus keep the testimonies of GOD to the very end. For all created things need the continual abiding presence and support of GOD, since, were that to cease for a moment of time, they would be annihilated. Whence it is clear that His continual conservation of life in us is a continual gift of life, and therefore a continual quickening.* For the righteous man lives daily to GOD, and dies daily to sin. (A.) And the verse may also be taken of the Martyrs—a notion forcibly suggested here by the LXX. μαρτύρια for testimonies—who pray that the bodily death they undergo for the love of GOD, (C.) may through that same love be their quickening to a higher and more blessed life. (H.) And the testimonies of Thy mouth are in especial the Gospel precepts, declared to men by Him Who is the mouth, and right hand, and strength, and wisdom of GOD, even our LORD JESUS CHRIST, Who is blessed for ever.

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