Catholic Encyclopedia
Church Fathers
Classics Library
Church Documents
Prayer Requests
Ray of Hope
Social Doctrine

A Commentary On The Psalms From Primitive and Mediæval Writers Volumes 1 To 4 by Rev. J.M. Neale D.D.

The fourteenth letter,* Nun, signifies a fish, and thus fitly follows Mem, or water. Beda takes it of the believer tossed about in the waves of this world, and desiring the light of life; but also gives and prefers S. Jerome’s rendering, eternal; while S. Ambrose, giving two interpretations which are not capable of being traced to any Hebrew etymon, single, and their pastures, is followed by most of the commentators. Fish,* however, is certainly the true meaning, and its mystical import goes deeper than Beda saw. In the first place, fish are the first living creatures mentioned in the Book of Genesis as created and receiving a blessing;* and they are thus the types of Christians, born again and blessed in the waters of Baptism. Wherefore it is written, “The beginning of life is water.”* And the storms of the ocean do not alarm the fish, nor destroy it,* while out of the water it dies. So too, the Christian who abandons his baptismal vows perishes,* but can swim unterrified and uninjured amongst the wildest billows of the world.* Further, the Apostles were made “fishers of men,”* and the good and bad within the fold of the Church are compared to good and bad fishes, of which the latter will be cast away at the last; for the dumbness, and greediness of the fish, the density of the medium in which they live, and their devouring one another, makes them fit emblems of sinners. And above all, the fish is the favourite symbol for CHRIST Himself amongst the ancient Fathers, because the Greek word ΙΧΘΥΣ is made up of the initial letters of the words, ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ, ΣΩΤΗΡ, JESUS CHRIST, SON of GOD, SAVIOUR, Who lived unharmed by sin amidst its tempests, as the fish swims securely in the midst of the ocean, while the fish twice miraculously multiplied to feed thousands, and that “broiled fish”* of which the LORD partook after His Resurrection have constantly been taken as emblems of His Body given in the Holy Eucharist, so that the Latin Fathers commonly say, Piscis assus, Christus passus, “The fish thus broiled, is CHRIST Who toiled,” as it may be rendered. That being so, we find on examining the strophe, that it is the cry of a Saint in trouble to the Light of the World for aid, that is of the individual baptized Christian, the “pisciculus,” or “little fish,” amidst the waters, (to use the phrase of an early Christian writer,) to the ἰχθύς CHRIST Himself.

105 Thy word is a lantern unto my feet: (נ) and a light unto my paths.

S. Basil the Great,* interpreting the word as GOD’S will revealed in Holy Scripture, observes that the Old Testament, and in especial the Law, was only a lantern (lamp or candle) because an artificial light, imperfectly illumining the darkness, whereas the Gospel, given by the LORD JESUS Himself, is a light of the Sun of Righteousness, giving brightness to all things. S. Ambrose, going yet deeper, tells us that CHRIST is Himself both lamp and light.* He, the Word of GOD, is a great light to some, to others He is a lamp. To me He is a lamp; to Angels a light. He was a light to Peter, when the Angel stood by him in the prison, and the light shined about him. He was a light to Paul when the light from heaven shined round about him; and he heard CHRIST saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?”* And CHRIST is truly a lamp to me, when I speak of him with my mouth. He shineth in clay, He shineth in a potter’s vessel: He, that treasure which we bear in earthen vessels. Pour in oil, that He fail thee not; no mere earthly oil, but that of heavenly mercy and grace, wherewith the prophets were anointed. CHRIST Himself was a lamp to the Jews according to the Law, and a lamp under a bushel, but according to the Gospel He is a great light. Open then thy windows, that the light may shine in on thee. Get ready thy candlestick, that the lamp may be set thereon by the LORD. And as we walk in darkness here towards the fight, let us follow this lamp, for there are many pits, many rocks which escape notice in the gloom. He will be a lamp to my feet, and a light to my paths. A lamp is enough for the feet to walk by, it is not enough to enlighten the paths, but that same WORD of GOD is nevertheless both lamp to the feet and light to the paths, for He, the Only-Begotten SON, is the Advocate of the erring, the rewarder of the strong, the pardoner of sins, the lavisher of rewards. (A.) S. Augustine, on the other hand, reminds us of the distinction between S. John Baptist and CHRIST, one being a mere created lamp (λύχνος) albeit a “burning and shining”* one, and the other the Uncreated Light (φῶς), argues that we must understand here not CHRIST Himself, (A.) but His revelation to the Fathers of the Old Covenant, and cites in proof S. Peter’s words: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light (lamp, λύχνος) that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts.”* But the other interpretation is the deeper, and S. Augustine’s difficulty is readily overcome, not only by the explanation of S. Ambrose,* but by reference to our LORD’S created Humanity, hypostatically united to His uncreated Godhead. CHRIST is a lantern to my feet, because He first arouses my affection, and implants in me the desire of going in the way of salvation,* giving me at first just so much fight as is needful to begin my journey, and then increasing this illumination as I advance, becoming a light to my paths,* because they who fulfil the counsels of CHRIST are endowed with fuller light than they who merely obey the ordinary precepts. Hence it is well said, a lamp to my feet, (Z.) because in the darkness and night of this world, we need guidance for every several step, (H.) lest we should err. But a lantern,* to use the English rendering, is intended to be carried only to light a man home to his dwelling, and so we, when we reach our home, shall have no more need of a lantern, because our home is that City where “they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the LORD GOD giveth them light.”* “Here we see darkly, but there face to face.”* And therefore:

Lead,* kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home,—

Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet, I do not ask to see

The distant scene,—one step enough for me.

Only, however, “quench not the Spirit;”* for they who suffer this light to be extinguished in them, are as the foolish virgins who were shut out at the Coming of the Bridegroom; (H.) for it is written,* “The light of the righteous rejoiceth, but the lamp of the wicked shall be put out.”*

106 I have sworn, and am steadfastly purposed: to keep thy righteous judgments.

The Greek Fathers, (L.) holding to the literal construction of that saying of CHRIST, “Swear not at all,”* agree in expounding the word sworn here as merely equivalent to the next phrase, steadfastly purposed.* But a great Western Saint, observing that to swear is a token of knowledge and a witness of conscience,* argues that our LORD addressed this precept not to the Apostles, who were strong, but to the multitudes, lest in their weakness they should perjure themselves; while the Saint, whose strength is in the LORD, can vow himself to His service with confidence;* in accordance with the pledge of obedience which the children of Israel gave at the great sacrifice which followed the proclamation of the Decalogue. But for us there is a more special meaning, because every Christian vows himself to GOD in one or more of those holy rites termed sacraments, literally “military oaths,”* whether Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, or Holy Orders. Here the weak conscience will object,* and say, If I swear, and afterwards fail, do I not increase my guiltiness? But to such it is answered, Shall we never resolve to do good, yea, and to confirm ourselves by an oath to do it, because we are infirm, and fail in many things, and cannot bring our good purposes to perfection? Or shall we think that every failure in our particular duties, against our resolution, our promise, yea, and against our oath, is always a falling away from the covenant which by our great oath in Baptism we once ratified? No: for the certainty and continuance of this covenant is not grounded on us, but upon GOD Himself. It falls not by our falling: but we rise again and stand by the stability thereof. Thirdly; albeit of infirmity there be many failures in performance of our promise and oath, yet is there any renouncing of it? GOD forbid! but these same sins whereinto we fall, make us the more ashamed of ourselves; the more afraid of our weakness, the more earnest to renew our former resolution, and the more careful to call upon GOD for grace to perform it. What comes of it when the Church in all her members keeps her vow to GOD, we may learn from that which came to pass in the days of Asa, when “all Judah rejoiced at the oath, for they had sworn with all their heart, and sought Him with their whole desire, and He was found of them.”* A partial failure to keep our covenant with GOD no more annuls it than a casual fault annuls the marriage bond on the part of husband or wife.

107 I am troubled above measure: quicken me, O LORD, according to thy word.

Brought near to death itself by affliction,* the Prophet beseeches GOD to have mercy, and to revive him, and that not merely according to His word, wherein it is written, “Thou shalt keep therefore His statutes and His commandments, that it may go well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon earth;”* but with His word. And note herein, that which is the terror of the ungodly is the medicine and hope of the Saint, for whereas the children of Israel said to Moses, “If we hear the voice of the LORD our GOD any more, we shall die;” here the Psalmist asks that this very same Voice may quicken him. (A.) They say, too, some of them, that the trouble here spoken of is persecution by the wicked because of the Saint’s obedience to GOD’S law,* and that the verse is therefore a prayer for endurance and victory.* But the Vulgate reading, I have been exceedingly humbled, has given rise to another stream of interpretation, taking the words of the virtue of lowliness. He rejoices, comments S. Ambrose,* that he has not merely been humbled, but exceedingly humbled. Happy is the man who boasts rather of his lowliness than of his power, for power deceiveth, but lowliness forsaketh not. And the words may be those of CHRIST Himself, Who was indeed troubled above measure, if we take the one version, and exceedingly humbled, following the other translation,* “meek and lowly of heart,” and found in the form of a servant. “Wherefore GOD also hath highly exalted Him.… that at the Name of JESUS every knee should bow.”* Dare I tell of the great things the LORD hath done, without having bent my knee to Him? But I have bent it, after He was humbled. For in this wise, by His lowliness, by His Cross, He gathered the Church together unto Himself when His FATHER quickened Him according to His word, and raised Him the third day from the dead.

108 Let the free-will offerings of my mouth please thee, O LORD: and teach me thy judgments.

The free-will offerings. That is, (A.) such as are made of love,* and not of necessity; heartily, and not for advantage. For the offerings of the mouth, of the “calves of our lips”* may be made in three several fashions: They may be extorted from reluctant lips, as in the case of the evil spirits, for “devils also came out of many, crying out, and saving, Thou art the SON of GOD.”* They may be hypocritical, “This people draw near Me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour Me, but have removed their heart far from Me.”* And there is the true free-will offering, pleasing to GOD, for “when the Prince shall prepare a voluntary burnt-offering or peace-offerings voluntarily unto the LORD, one shall then open him the gate that looketh towards the East.”* It is to be remembered that the free-will offerings of the Mosaic Law were such as were not enjoined upon any man, (L.) and whose omission involved no penalty for neglect or disobedience. They were additions spontaneously made as gifts, after the debt of the prescribed oblations had been acquitted; and on this let us hear the comment of an old Scottish writer:* “It is a great grace, that the LORD should accept anything from us, if we consider these three things: first, Who the LORD is; next, what we are; thirdly, what it is we have to give unto Him. As for the LORD, He is all-sufficient, and stands in need of nothing we can give Him. As for us, we are poor creatures, living by His liberality; yea, begging from all the rest of His creatures: from the sun and moon, from the air, the water, and the earth; from fowls and fishes; yea, from the worms; some give us light, some meat, some clothes, and are such beggars as we meet to give to a King? And thirdly, if we well consider, What is it that we give? Have we anything to give, but that which we have received from Him? and whereof we may say with David: ‘All things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee?’ ”*

Of my mouth. (B.) Some take the words in the narrowest sense,* as referring to the vow of the previous verse: “I have sworn.” The Greek Fathers, more happily,* apply the words to the monastic vows of poverty,* chastity, and obedience, strictly free-will offerings,* because, as S. Jerome observes, they are above and beyond nature, and therefore not enjoined, because too hard for most persons, but yet permitted and even encouraged by GOD, that man may have some voluntary tribute to lay at His feet. And the latter part of the verse fits in very aptly with this interpretation, Teach me Thy judgments, instruct me in the inner spirit of the rule I have adopted, the true nature of that life into which I have externally entered.

Nevertheless, the clear meaning of the verse points to certain acts of vocal praise and thanksgiving as primarily intended; and so taking it, we obtain a twofold lesson, one applying to the priesthood,—the other to the laity. In the former case the rule laid down by all the ancient Churches prescribes a fixed daily office to be recited by Ecclesiastics, which is a debt they are morally and religiously bound to pay.* No freewill offering of the mouth can be made till this debt be acquitted,* since it is not lawful to leave it unrecited on the plea of other clerical occupations, nor yet to substitute a different office, however beautiful and edifying in itself, for the appointed one. And therefore this duty is one on which the Canonists lay the greatest stress. The story,* too, is well known how S. Francis de Sales gave a young priest, who was wont to celebrate the Holy Eucharist only on Sundays and great festivals, a costly box full of altar-breads, and said: “You are a priest, GOD has summoned you to this calling, and further, to the cure of souls: would it be a right thing for an artisan, a magistrate, or a doctor, to shun the labours of his profession except once or twice a week?” And on some excuses and arguments being tendered by the young man, the holy Bishop added, “Besides, if a sense of unworthiness draws you back through humility, (a thing which happened to S. Bonaventura,) and the custom is of less profit to yourself by reason of your lack of inclination, reflect that you are a public official, you, your parishioners, and your church have need of the daily Mass, the departed still more so, and above all, on the days when you abstain from it, you baulk GOD’S glory of increase and the angels of joy.” As for the laity, they may be counselled in the language of a writer already cited: “And such as have liberty to come to the holy assemblies,* and offer not there the praises of their mouth to GOD, but sit as if they were dumb; as also they that offer naked words, without the willing heart, are here much more convinced. They were great beasts under the Law, that thought to please GOD by offering a beast unto Him, keeping back themselves; and they are greater beasts under the Gospel, that will give their heart to another, and think to please GOD, by giving some other gifts unto Him. ‘Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’* Is it such sacrifices will please the LORD? No, if thou wilt not offer thyself unto Him, He will have nothing that is thine.”

109 My soul is alway in my hand: yet do I not forget thy law.

The literal sense is, I am in constant peril of death, as it were carrying my own blood in my hands,* and yet my danger has not made me so busy in thinking about myself as to forget Thee, and cause me to break Thy law. So David might have said when Saul pursued after him to slay him,* and yet never provoked him to retaliation when full opportunity was afforded more than once. And so it may be taken of the Church in times of peril and bitter persecution,* when public preaching of GOD’S law was interdicted by the State, and yet was secretly meditated and taught, for in such a case not to forget is victory. But a strict adherence to the Hebrew, which has and where we read yet, by making the two clauses of the verse parallel instead of contrasted, brings out two very beautiful meanings: My soul is alway in my hand, borne thereon as a continual offering to GOD, (A.) as it is written in another Psalm, “Unto Thee, O LORD, will I lift up my soul.”* It is in my hand, ready to open unto the LORD, and give it to Him when He knocketh.* And this is to be observed, that there is no trouble so ready to take away the life of GOD’S children as they are to give it. As Elijah came out of the mouth of his cave to meet with the LORD,* and Abraham stood at the door of his tabernacle to speak to the angel;* so the soul of the godly stands ready in the door of the tabernacle of this body, to remove when the LORD shall command it, whereas the soul of the wicked lies back, hiding itself as Adam among the bushes;* and is taken out of the body perforce: as was the soul of that worldling, “This night do they require thy soul of thee:”* but the wicked never sacrifice their souls willingly to the LORD. My soul is alway in my hand, that is,* in my actions,* because I put my heart into my work; as the Wise Man teaches: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”* And S. Bernard draws from the words the further lesson that Christians ought to imitate the Psalmist in solicitude about their spiritual needs;* guarding the soul as though a lighted candle, with both hands of heart and body, lest it should be extinguished by our foes. “For as we do not readily forget what we hold in our hands, so let us never forget the interests of our souls, and let that care be the chief thing to flourish in our hearts.” Yet again,* some of them explain that the soul,* or spiritual understanding, is said to be in the hand of a Saint,* as the weapon wherewith he defends himself against the enemies of GOD’S law. For the righteous man, though set in the midst of perils, saith to the LORD: For thy sake I die daily, I am daily in peril, in peril by him who lieth in wait, in peril by the reviler, in peril by those whom I dispute with, whom I refute, in peril for truth and righteousness, and yet I do not forget Thy law.

But some of the copyists of the LXX., (H.) not understanding the Hebrew idiom,* My soul is in my hands, substituted Thy for my, (A.) and this is the reading followed by SS. Ambrose and Augustine, Theodoret, and many others.1 Their comments may be summed up in two of the texts which they cite. As regards this world, “the king’s heart is in the hand of GOD,”* since every one who subdues his passions and rules over them is a king, and his heart is where his treasure is, with GOD. As regards the life to come, it is written in another place: “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of GOD, and there shall no torment touch them.”*

110 The ungodly have laid a snare for me: but yet I swerved not from thy commandments.

A saying worthy of one who forsakes this world,* because he escapes the nets of the persecutors and the snares of the liers in wait. A saying worthy of the martyrs, before whom many punishments were set, many rewards offered, that they might be recalled from their zeal for martyrdom either by dread of pain and horror of a cruel death, or by the enticement of rewards.* A snare is a secret thing, but he who walks in the light of GOD’S law can see clearly enough to shun it, especially when bearing in mind that it never can be laid in the straight road where it is his duty to walk, but always a little on one side of it; (G.) as it is written in another place, “They have spread a net by the wayside.”* It is all fair enough, (H.) quaintly comments S. Hilary, to lay nets for birds, since they ought to be in their own place, the free air of heaven, and it is their own fault if they touch the ground where the snare lies; and so too GOD’S servant should abide in his own element of heavenly things, having renounced the world, and been given the wings of a dove, of the HOLY SPIRIT Himself, that he may flee away and be at rest, instead of returning to the earth because he hungers after the miserable dainty with which the snare is baited. Translated to heaven with Enoch, borne aloft in the chariot of Elijah, caught up to Paradise with Paul, what hast thou, CHRIST’S servant,* bought with the Cross, to do with earth’s temptations?

111 Thy testimonies have I claimed as mine heritage for ever: and why? they are the very joy of my heart.

It is a great deal more than claimed, it is taken (A. V.,) or acquired (Vulg.) The LXX., not quite so vigorously, has I have inherited Thy testimonies.* Once we were the heirs of a sinner, now we are the heirs of CHRIST. The one was the heritage of guilt, but this is the heritage of holiness; that one bound us, this looses us; that delivered us over, indebted with the usury of offences, to our enemy, this wins us for CHRIST, ransomed with the title of the LORD’S Passion. The evil succession to Eve devoured all mankind, the glorious heritage of CHRIST delivered all mankind. Not for one heir, truly, nor for a few, did JESUS write His testament, but for all. We are all set down as heirs, not for a portion, but for the entire. The testament is in common, the right of all, the possession of every one, and yet the entire property of individuals. One by one men claim under this New Testament, and all take possession, nor does that which fellow-heirs claim lessen the portion of any one heir. The property remains entire, and the share of each becomes larger, in proportion as there are more to acquire it. And so S. Peter Damiani:

And though each for divers merits there hath won a various throne,*

Yet their love for one another maketh what each loves his own,

Every prize to all is common, yet belongs to each alone.

They lay a special stress on the Greek word here, μαρτύρια, martyria, (A.) for testimonies, as denoting martyrdom itself, so eagerly desired by Saints of old, and the lesser martyrdom of bearing poverty,* insult, and bodily mortification, so as to make the Saint a fit witness to CHRIST’S Passion. For ever. And therefore let the Christian, when solicited to yield up this his hope for any earthly good,* answer with Naboth, “The LORD forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.”* And why? they are the very joy of my heart. So the Apostles felt it, when they were beaten, and “departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name.”* Rightly, too, for as S. Bernard says, what are the riches of salvation,* what are the delights of the heart, what the true and prudent security of the soul, save the LORD’S testimonies? For besides the present comfort this inheritance renders unto us, it is the Charter sealed and confirmed by GOD, by sacraments sealed, by the oath of GOD ratified, with the Blood of CHRIST subscribed; whereby we are made sure of our heavenly inheritance. But, alas! by the most part of men it is not regarded, they prefer their trifles before it. Take from them a foot-breadth of their earthly inheritance, they show such a carnal zeal as stirs them up to hazard their lives in defence of it: take from them the comfort of GOD’S word, they regard not, neither are they any more touched therewith, than if it did not concern them. And all the cause hereof proceeds from this, that they never found it possible to say, They are the very joy of my heart.

112 I have applied my heart to fulfil thy statutes alway: even unto the end.

Applied. Rather,* with LXX., Vulg., and A. V., inclined. The notion is taken from a balance, and the mind which has got the mastery over its passions, depresses the scale in favour of GOD’S statutes. It is well said inclined, as telling us that when we have once bowed ourselves down towards what is lowly and level, we shall not find the path of GOD’S commandments steep and difficult.* The Psalmist had said to GOD earlier: “Incline mine heart;” (R.) here he says, “I have inclined,”* showing us clearly that this inclination is not of his own will, but of divine grace. It is GOD’S work, by prevenient grace, (G.) it is mine by free-will consenting to the operation of that grace; not that even that consent is of myself, but of Thee, since did I claim it as my very own, I should have not an inclined heart, but a lofty one, and merit wrath rather than grace. Even unto the end. Because,* as a Saint has truly said,* He runs swiftly in vain, who breaks down before reaching the goal. But the LXX. and Vulgate, following a possible sense of the Hebrew, read because of retribution instead of unto the end, and the commentators agree in taking it of the hope of eternal blessedness promised to him that overcometh. Yet it is reasonably objected by one of them that this is but a servile and selfish motive for perseverance,* and therefore that the other rendering is to be preferred.

Copyright ©1999-2018 e-Catholic2000.com