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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 thirteenth letter,* Mem, signifies water, and the mystical sense, therefore, of this sentence, which sets forth the Psalmist’s love for the personal teaching of GOD, and his own consequent progress in advance of his former instructions, is the higher wisdom and dignity of Christians, washed in the laver of Baptism, over the Hebrew seers and prophets, and still more the Scribes and Rabbins of a later age, who saw only afar off, and in type or vision, what the Church sees face to face, and were therefore less than the least in the kingdom of heaven. The majority of early commentators, following S. Ambrose in supposing the word to mean bowels or inward parts,* explain it as pointing to the language of strong affection found, in the strophe.

97 LORD, what love have I unto thy law: (מ) all the day long is my study in it.

He might have said, How have I kept Thy Law? (H.) but since it is much better to do a thing through love than fear, he saith, what love have I. For the obedience of love differs much from the service of fear, nor has the action of necessity the attractiveness of free-will. Many keep the fasts to avoid censure. Many give money for the needy because they are afraid of being blamed for the irreligious and useless greed of their avarice. Many go to church, because they are ashamed to have remarks made on their absence and neglect.* But it is not every one who loves what he does. He who loves the LORD, loves His law, as Mary, loving her Son, kept all His sayings in her heart, with motherly tenderness. And because Peter said, “LORD, Thou knowest that I love Thee,”* CHRIST committed to him the feeding of His flock, and the doing of His will, for He acknowledged his affection. The Jew who is ruled by fear, and studies only the bare letter of the law, not its spiritual meaning, cannot be said to love it, far less the heathen who either knows it not or scorns it, but to Christians only who with bold and trustful affection ponder and advance in its divine mysteries.

Yet the Christian too must ask himself what love it is he has to GOD’S law.* For there may be a mercenary love, such as that of mere hireling preachers of the Word,* “supposing that gain is godliness,”* priests who teach for hire, and prophets who divine for money; or there may be a mere philosophical love, of supplying material for interesting inquiry; or there may be that which springs from vanity, for “knowledge puffeth up;”* and there may be the merely æsthetic pleasure in the literary beauty of Scripture, of which the Prophet saith,* “And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument, for they hear thy words, but do them not.” And others again love only in pretence and outward show, like those sinners of Israel of whom GOD spake by Isaiah, (C.) “They seek Me daily, and delight to know My ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinances of their GOD;”* while there are those who love it evilly and corruptly, as heretics do. But the true believer, with genuine love in his heart, studies GOD’S law all the day long in the clear brightness of a conscience which knows not the darkness of unbelief,* a day not measured by the alternation of earthly morning and night, (A.) but enduring throughout the whole of his earthly pilgrimage, and continued in the endless glory of heaven. All the day, too, because every holy thing which is done is a study of GOD’S law. And whereas those false lovers spoken of above have various causes for their pretended affection, so on the other hand GOD’S Saints love Him in more ways than one, (Ay.) according to that precept in Deuteronomy: “Thou shalt love the LORD thy GOD with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”* He is to be loved with all the heart for His bounties,* with all the soul for His promises, with all the might for His judgments, with all the mind for His precepts. And the test of this love is action. For merely reading or uttering the law is not enough without doing it; and he only who unites all these can truly say My study is in it.* And that all the day;* for just as one who is in love asks nothing better than to sit all day long beside the object of his affection, regardless of everything else,* so the Saint of GOD is entirely busied in the one employment of doing His will. And having said so much, he proceeds in the following verses to show why the law is so dear to him,* and what blessings it has conferred upon him.

98 Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me.

Mine enemies,* that is, rather, (H.) Thine enemies, for “do I not hate them, O LORD, that hate Thee?” as they take the words of those who do not obey GOD’S commandments, whether Pagans, Jews or false Christians. He who worships the one true GOD in spirit and in truth is wiser than they who serve idols of metal, wood, or stone; he who enters into the spiritual sense of Holy Writ, is wiser than the Jew who clings to the outward letter, having zeal, but not according to knowledge; he who wills to he saved, and holds the Catholic faith whole and undefiled, is wiser than the heretics who mutilate and corrupt it. “Who,”* then, asks the Apostle, “is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.”* Our enemies are also the world,* the flesh, and the devil, and we are wiser than they, if we keep to GOD’S law, because it is ever with us, and will profit us for all eternity; whereas, “though the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light,”* yet their “wisdom is earthly, sensual, devilish,”* and lusts only for this life and temporal things, for they are children of Hagar the bond-woman, (A.) and not of Jerusalem above which is free.

99 I have more understanding than my teachers: for thy testimonies are my study.

100 I am wiser than the aged: because I keep Thy commandments.

They agree here in seeing in the teachers the Pharisees and other doctors of the Law; (C.) and in the aged the whole Jewish Church, as compared with her youthful Gentile daughter; and especially those elders of that Church who again and again conspired against CHRIST and His Apostles.* Nor do they forget to remind us how the LORD JESUS Himself,* when He was twelve years old, astonished the doctors in whose midst He sat in the temple,* by His understanding and answers. And as He is our Head, the Body can use these words, properly belonging to Him alone, (A.) and claim a wisdom which the Law could not give. And whereas Elihu saith, “Great men are not wise, neither do the aged understand judgment,”* Cardinal Hugo takes occasion to observe that simple priests, religious, or lay people, may be much further advanced in divine wisdom and knowledge than those bishops and other dignitaries who ought to be their teachers,* but who are more busy in teaching their dogs to bark and their hawks to fly than to train their flocks in holiness of life. With this agrees that weighty saying of the great martyr Bishop of Carthage,* “The laity who obey the LORD’S precepts, and fear GOD, ought to withdraw from a sinful ruler, and not join in the sacrifices of a sacrilegious priest, seeing that in it is vested the chief power of either choosing worthy priests or rejecting unworthy ones.” And that because, as another Saint sorrowfully observes:* How many are powerful in speech and utterance, who are yet not seasoned with heavenly salt, and tell much concerning the dainties of the King’s table, whereof they have never so much as tasted themselves! There is only one true Master,* Who alone hath not learnt that which He teaches all; but let all others learn before they begin to teach, and receive from Him that which they are to deliver to others. They may well have more understanding than their teachers, if they seek to the Eternal Wisdom, the Source of all knowledge, for instruction, they may well be wiser than the aged, who are taught by the Ancient of Days.

101 I have refrained my feet from every evil way: that I may keep thy word.

The word refrained warns us that we are naturally borne by our feet into the path of every kind of sin, (H.) and are hurried along it by the rush of human passions, so that even the wise and understanding need to check, recall, and retrace their steps, in order that they may keep GOD’S word, and not become castaways.* And further note that the Hebrew verb here translated refrained is even stronger in meaning,* and denotes I fettered, or imprisoned, my feet, whereby we may learn that no light resistance is enough to prevent them from leading us astray; and hence the utility of austere bodily mortification, of fasts, vigils, and other means of subduing the flesh to the spirit. And this notion is further brought out by the reading of the former clause of the verse in the Illyrian Psalter, from every way of the valley, from the easy downward path, contrasting with the hard upward track which leads to the mount of GOD. (L.) There is no need to refrain our feet from pacing towards GOD’S temple, from hastening to help the desolate, to prevent the ungodly, to trip up the deceitful; but the evil ways where we are apt to slip are many.* There is the muddy path of luxury, where man loadeth himself with thick clay;* there is the stony and thorny path of avarice; the hilly road of pride; so that it is not enough to avoid one such path without avoiding all. And amongst those evil ways is that of false doctrine, (C.) which cannot agree with keeping GOD’S word, for S. Paul warns his disciples that “ye cannot drink the cup of the LORD, and the cup of devils, ye cannot be partakers of the LORD’S table and the table of devils.”*

102 I have not shrunk from thy judgments: for thou teachest me.

There are two judgments of GOD which come to all men,* one particular, to each man at his death; the other general, at the Resurrection, and from neither of these does the righteous shrink, because of the trust and love he feels, and because the LORD JESUS teaches him to say, “FATHER, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”* And further, as all GOD’S precepts are judgments of His,* the Psalmist here declares that he has not contented himself with negative abstention from evil, which is all that the previous verse alleges, but that he has readily entered on the way of salvation, in the course of discipline, which Thou hast taught me, that is the Gospel, so much dearer and better than the Law given by Moses, and commented on by the Prophets, since Thou, LORD JESU, hast Thyself come to teach it me.

103 O how sweet are thy words unto my throat: yea, sweeter than honey unto my mouth.

The Psalmist speaks here of his throat and mouth,* but not of his stomach, as meaning that GOD’S words check carnal appetite, but give inward delight to the palate of the heart by their sweetness. (C.) And one commentator bids us notice that there is a special force in the word throat, because literal honey or any other food, once it reaches the throat, gives no more pleasurable sensation to the palate, whereas the sweetness of the Divine words continues in meditation after the actual time of hearing or reading them. The Christian preacher, too, (R.) finds GOD’S words sweet to his throat in his own private study of them, and sweet to his mouth, (G.) when he utters them again publicly for the instruction of others. They may well be sweet, seeing they tell us of the remission of sins, the resurrection of the dead, the life everlasting. (Z.) But only they know that sweetness who are in full enjoyment of their spiritual senses. For such as are of a weak stomach, and cannot digest their food, find even honey bitter.* And yet this very sweetness in the mouth begets within us disgust at our own carnal desires, and at all worldly things, for it is written of the book which the angel gave S. John: “It was in my mouth sweet as honey, and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter,”* for peace with GOD is war with self and with the world.

104 Through thy commandments I get understanding: therefore I hate all evil ways.

It is not here said, (A.) “I understand Thy commandments,” but through Thy commandments I get understanding, because it is only by doing GOD’S will that man can attain to the understanding of those things which he desires to know. And so it is written, “If thou desire wisdom, keep the commandments, and the LORD will give her unto thee.”* For the order cannot be inverted, so that he who has not the lowliness of obedience can attain at his will to the height of wisdom, therefore it is also written: “Seek not out the things that are too hard for thee, neither search the things that are above thy strength; but what is commanded thee, think thereupon.”* But through such obedience there is more to be gained than familiarity with the commandments obeyed, since the whole faculty and scope of understanding itself is acquired by it; (B.) while the latter years of Solomon show us that even understanding itself will not abide with those who neglect obedience to those commandments. (G.) One of those commandments is, (C.) My son, if sinners entice thee, walk not thou in the way with them; refrain thy foot from their path, for their feet run to evil.”* And whereas the Psalmist said above that he refrained his feet from every evil way, now he goes further, declaring that he did this not out of mere compulsion and necessity, but from the free exercise of his will, taking no pleasure in that which is forbidden by GOD, but rather hating it. So the faithful servant of GOD hates not only all evil, but all paths which may lead to evil, all occasions of sin, and dangerous companionship; for the complaints of a flatterer are the way to vain-glory, the beauty of an evil woman is the way to profligacy, the desire of another’s goods is the way to fraud and plunder, and so forth. But the understanding here spoken of must needs be practical, (Ay.) and not merely speculative, since the latter is itself in matter of religion and morals an evil way, for the Apostle warns us: “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”* I should not count that tree as keeping its fruitfulness,* comments S. Ambrose, which ran entirely to foliage, giving no fruit, nor think land fertile which produced only ferns, and not corn, nor that shepherd able to keep his flock, who knew nothing of choosing their pasture, keeping off wolves, guarding his folds with dogs, and giving the sheep drink when they need it. And therefore a spiritual understanding of GOD’S commandments, wherein the Jews, with all their daily readings of the Law, fail, is needful for every true servant of GOD. (D. C.) And accordingly when the prophet asks, “Whom shall He teach knowledge, and whom shall he make to understand doctrine?”* he answers his own question thus: “Them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts,” who have been detached from carnal pleasures and inactive repose.








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