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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 sixteenth letter,* Ain, denotes the eye, and then, by a metaphor, a fountain, as an eye shining in the face of the earth. Both these meanings were known to S. Ambrose, and through him to the mediæval commentators, so there is no departure from the true significance of the Hebrew in their glosses.* The strophe, observes Beda, is a prayer for the Incarnation of CHRIST, that the divine power may be manifested in the destruction of GOD’S enemies. CHRIST is the Living fountain, which is sought, He is that pure eye which seeks.* And in the lower sense, applying the strophe to one of CHRIST’S members, the Saint has the inward eye of faith and judgment enlightened, and has also obtained that promise of the LORD, “The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”* They who drink not of this fountain, ever thirst, and they who are not enlightened by this eye, (B.) are never delivered from the darkness of error. Both ideas are visible in the strophe, which asks on the one hand for the continuous flow of GOD’S mercies in granting steadfastness and perseverance, and on the other, for clear and right judgment in matters of faith.

121 I deal with the thing that is lawful and right: (ע) O give me not over unto mine oppressors.

Lawful and right. Rather, with LXX., Vulgate, and A. V., judgment and justice.* Justice, observes S. Ambrose, is the end of judgment, the one is the keeper of truth, the other, the fruit of equity. And at the first glance it seems as though there were a certain arrogance and spiritual pride in the words, but the close of the verse takes away this charge; since no reward is asked on the ground of innocency, but merely the averting of a terrible punishment. It is a speech like S. Peter’s: “Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed Thee, what shall we have therefore?”* A simple statement of fact, which the LORD would have rebuked had it been dictated by vanity, or overweening estimate of personal merit, but which He was pleased to answer with the promise of a great reward. Socrates, when accused, and asked of what punishment he deemed himself worthy, answered that he should be banqueted daily at the public cost in the Prytaneum, but the Psalmist, far from claiming honour in this fashion, does but humbly intreat for the removal of trouble. For there can be no greater humility than that one who is conscious of having held by judgment and justice should fear to be delivered over to the power of Satan. The man who examines himself, weighs his own faults, and passes sentence on them by confession,* does judgment; (C.) if he punishes them by penance, and walks thenceforward in the right way, (G.) he does justice; “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.”* Judgment, then, enables us to discern between good and evil, justice to refuse the evil and choose the good. (Ay.) And under the head of judgment, CHRIST bids us include mercy and faith, as amongst the weightier matters of the Law,* while in another Psalm we have almsgiving classed under justice, “He hath dispersed abroad and given to the poor; and his righteousness remaineth for ever.”* For oppressors, (A.) the Vulgate reads slanderers; and it is taken first of the evil spirits, accusers of the brethren, (G.) and then of all the human enemies of the Church of GOD or of individual believers, chiefly heathens, infidels, and heretics. The prayer, then, not to be delivered over to the wicked, (H.) is a prayer that GOD may not abandon His suppliant. For every one in whom there is the will to sin, is empty of GOD, and where GOD is not, the devil has his place, and lying in wait and laying siege, will take possession on the first opportunity of the empty house which is given over to him when GOD leaves it: even if there be no formal delivery of possession, as there was when S. Paul delivered over the sinful Corinthian,* and also Hymenæus and Alexander to Satan, that they might learn not to blaspheme.*

122 Make thou thy servant to delight in that which is good: that the proud do me no wrong.

The first clause here is a mistranslation, and ought to run, as in Aquila,* Theodotion, S. Jerome, and A. V., Be surety for Thy servant unto good. It is the prayer of Hezekiah in his trouble, “O LORD, I am oppressed, undertake for me;”* it is the prayer of Job for a “daysman”* to stand between him and GOD;* it is the cry of the Church before the Incarnation for the appearance of a Divine Mediator; it is the confidence of every faithful soul since that blessed time in the perpetual intercession of our Great High Priest in heaven, which is to us the pledge of future blessedness.* The Gloss gives this sense, by interpreting the Vulgate suscipe, take up, (C.) as the act of a patron (in Roman law) undertaking the cause of his client, but the commentators for the most part generalize the notion as implying GOD’S taking up His servant into the arms of His mercy, to keep him from falling when thrust at by the arm of the enemy. In the latter clause the Vulgate has Lest the proud slander me; and they agree in taking the words as primarily referring to Satan and his angels, but only secondarily to evil men. Let us flee then, exclaims S. Ambrose,* from those evil slanderers, who work sin in us, and then themselves weave slanders against us with the most hostile accusation, reproaching us with what they have done. Lo, the LORD’S Hand is ready to protect and guard thee as thou fleest. Pharaoh, proud and cruel, held thee in bondage, thou fleddest from him, the LORD’S hand took thee up, and rescued thee from peril. Pharaoh would never have let thee go, hadst thou not fled for refuge to the LORD. Pharaoh said, “I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.”* Seest thou how proud he was? He then is truly said to be taken up for good, who hath fled from evil. GOD does not suffer us to remain in evil, He takes us up for good, and permits not His servants to underlie calumny.

123 Mine eyes are wasted away with looking for thy health: and for the word of thy righteousness.

Health ought to be, as in A. V. salvation,* and the verse is the repetition of the thought already expressed,* Mine eyes long sore for Thy Word:* watching and longing eagerly for the Coming of CHRIST, and for that Gospel which is His word of righteousness. Both the eyes of the soul, that of the affections and that of the understanding, fail when looking for these, partly from the sorrow of delay, and partly from the boundless extent of that ocean of Divine wisdom, power, and love, across which man strives to strain his vision. And S. Ambrose bids us note that the longing began to be satisfied when at Ænon (the “fountains” or “eyes”) of Jordan,* CHRIST’S ministry began with His baptism by S. John the Forerunner.* (A.) And as the Israelites suffering from the bite of the fiery serpents turned their eager gaze towards that brazen serpent which Moses lifted up,* so the eyes of sufferers here looked forward once, as they look backward now, with intense and eager straining towards the saving Cross, listening to that word of His righteousness, “It is finished.”*

124 O deal with thy servant according unto thy loving mercy: and teach me thy statutes.

Deal is a bold word, (H.) comments S. Hilary, and marks the faith and confidence of the Psalmist in GOD. But it is not too bold, since the humble title of servant follows immediately to qualify it. And although the Psalmist has just said that he dealt with judgment and justice,* yet he asks for GOD’S mercy first, as knowing his own sinfulness, and that if GOD gave him His statutes first, they would condemn him. It is, therefore, another mode of saying, “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant,”* since whatever good I may have done, I nevertheless owe Thee more as Thy servant, for service is not fully acquitted by one action. And though I am Thy servant, cheerfully obeying Thee of mine own freewill,* yet teach me Thy statutes, enlightening my soul that I may know that all the grace and power of serving Thee is not mine own, but Thy gift to me. And if CHRIST, in answer to our prayer,* “O deal with Thy servant,” should deign to answer, “What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee?” what can the sinner in turn reply save, “LORD, that I may receive my sight?”* Enlighten the eyes of my affections with Thy mercy, and that of my understanding with Thy statutes. And therefore it follows:

125 I am thy servant, O grant me understanding: that I may know thy testimonies.

It is the part of a master,* on acquiring a new servant, to explain to him the duties which he will have to fulfil, and the rules of the household which he will have to obey, as otherwise he cannot reasonably count on having the work done as he would desire. Accordingly, the Psalmist, having given himself over to the service of GOD, asks with S. Paul, when JESUS subdued him, “LORD, what wilt Thou have me to do?”* And though all good things ought to be sought from GOD, (C.) yet there is a special fitness in praying constantly for a right understanding of Holy Writ, seeing that the clearer is the perception of it, the sweeter it becomes to devout minds. And therefore know does not here signify a mere general impression, but such a mastery of the subject as enables it to abide firmly in the memory after once being confided to it. (G.) And note that whereas he had said before, “I have more understanding than the aged,”* yet it is still for understanding that he asks,* because the fountain is exhaustless and his thirst increases with each draught from it. It is the prayer of Moses: “O LORD GOD, Thou hast begun to show Thy servant Thy greatness and Thy mighty hand: I pray Thee, let me go over, and see the good land.”* That good land which he desires is spiritual understanding,* and because it is GOD’S gift only, it is here asked of Him. No stranger, but a servant, the Psalmist asks for his wages. Because he is the LORD’S servant, he cannot be the servant of sin, and therefore asks for understanding, that he may avoid sin. Some understanding he had, but not what he thought abundant enough for him, so he prays for more.

126 It is time for thee, LORD, to lay to thine hand: for they have destroyed thy law.

To lay to Thine hand. (H.) The A. V., more tersely and exactly, to work. S. Hilary’s interpretation has great beauty and force in it. The Jews, Thine own people, have destroyed Thy law, and made it void through their traditions, through their rejection of Thy SON,* sent to collect the rent of the vineyard from its defaulting husbandmen. It is time for Thee, O LORD, to work Thy promised work amongst the Gentiles, and to bring them into Thy fold, “behold,* now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation.”* S. Ambrose, developing and amplifying S. Hilary, as he constantly does in his exposition of this Psalm, comments: It is time to work, just as when the attack of some illness is becoming more severe, you hurry to the physician, that he may come more quickly, lest he should later be unable to do any good. So when the Prophet saw in the HOLY SPIRIT the rebellion of the people, their luxury, pleasures, deceits, frauds, avarice, drunkenness, he runs, for our help, to CHRIST, Whom he knew to be alone able to remedy such sins, implores Him to come, and admits of no delay. It is time, saith he, to work, O Lord: that is, for Thee to ascend the Cross for us and undergo death. The whole world is in deadly peril. Come, and take away the sin of the world. Let life come unto the dying,* the resurrection to the buried. The whole blinded nation knew not its own Creator; the world was lame, and wavered with the stumbling slip of faith. There was no one to apply ointment, or oil, or bandage. That woman of the Gospels, who was the type of all Gentile mankind, had spent all her living on physicians, but none of the physicians of this world could check the flow of her blood, and the deadly issue of her chronic disease.* Wherefore the Prophet saith to CHRIST, It is time for Thee, Lord, to work, not to order, but to work, because no ambassador or messenger, but the LORD Himself must needs save His people. And He knew the time Himself, (A.) but we did not know when His help would best be rendered; but “when the fulness of time was come, GOD sent His SON.”* And observe that there are three senses in which man can be said to destroy GOD’S law, albeit in itself indestructible and eternal;* by putting a false interpretation on it, like Jews and heretics; by refusing to receive it at all, like Pagans and infidels; by transgressing it, like evil Christians. And this last sense is for us the most important, because of that very phrase time to work. Under the old Law, it was the time to command, but the precepts were such as neither we nor our fathers could bear;* but now it is for us too, time to work,* because grace sufficient for the purpose has been given us, according to that saying of the LORD JESUS Himself, “I must work the work of Him that sent Me while it is day; the night cometh, when no man can work.”* And that night is foreshadowed here,* looking forward to that great destroying of GOD’S law which shall be in the time of Antichrist, (G.) when, above all other times that the Church has known, she will need to make this prayer. Never is it so much the duty of GOD’S servants to work as when His enemies are active. It is no time for Peter to be sleeping when Judas is afoot.* How is it that the Psalmist ventures on prescribing a time to GOD? Is not this the sin of the Jews reproved in another place, “They limited the Holy One of Israel?”* The answer is, that GOD Himself fixes a time for the fulfilment of some of His promises, as for the Exodus, the deliverance from Babylon, and for the Incarnation of CHRIST; so that it was reasonable, as the appointed season drew on, to call on Him for the fulfilment of His pledge, as Simeon did, Other promises He makes without fixing a time for their performance, as when He put Noah into the Ark, and sent Joseph and Mary into Egypt; and when it is thus, we should do as they did, and patiently bear our Cross, not bargaining with GOD as to the time of our deliverance, not sinning like Saul by overhastiness, when after waiting seven days for Samuel, he would tarry no longer, but offered sacrifice. Nevertheless, in time of great troubles of the Church, it is no limitation of GOD to call on Him for immediate help, because His own honour, and not our private advantage, is then concerned.* There is a further interpretation of the verse which some commentators give:* Though it is time to work for the LORD, and to serve Him, yet ungodly men choose this very opportunity to be more rebellious than ever, and to employ the time of woe and terror in mad revelry: as the Prophet testifies: “And in that day did the LORD GOD of Hosts call to weeping, and to mourning, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth:* And behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinking wine: let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we shall die;” a portent observed again and again in time of pestilence and other scourges sent on men for their sins.* And finally, there is the sense most commonly followed by the Greek Fathers, that it is time for GOD to take vengeance on those who disobey His law, so that the verse which in the mouth of the Psalmist was a prayer for the first Advent of CHRIST, is now a petition for His second coming to judgment.

127 For I love thy commandments: above gold and precious stone.

For. (C.) It ought to be, as in LXX., Vulg., and A. V. Therefore. It is exactly because others have destroyed GOD’S law that the Saint loves and cherishes it, all the more devoutly and fervently.

Faithful found

Among the faithless,* faithful only he:

Among innumerable false unmoved,

Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified,

His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal,

Nor number, nor example with him wrought

To swerve from both, or change his constant mind,

Though single.

Above gold and precious stone; for under the carnal law earthly prosperity was the promised reward of obedience, whereas the love which is entertained for the spiritual law free and unbought, attracted only by the perfect loveliness of CHRIST, and “we love Him, because He first loved us.”*

Then why,* O blessèd JESU CHRIST,

Should I not love Thee well?

Not for the hope of winning heaven,

Nor of escaping hell:

Not with the hope of gaining aught,

Not seeking a reward,

But as Thyself hast loved me,

O ever-loving LORD.

Precious stone. So most of the old versions, but Symmachus agrees with A. V. and modern critics in translating, fine gold. The LXX., Vulgate, and S. Jerome, however, have here topaz, and on this stone, which is not the topaz of modern jewelry, but the chrysolite, the commentators, following S. Ambrose, have a great deal to say, more fanciful than instructive. (Ay.) The most noteworthy comment is Ayguan’s, who tells us that the gold and topaz signify the creation of heaven and earth, and that the Prophet declares that the works of redemption are greater and more beautiful than all the visible wonders of the universe; and adds that another signification is that gold is the type of intellectual faith, and that the topaz, which imbibes as it were into a vessel the beams of the sun, and stores them up, denotes the Catholic Church, in which are treasured the rays of the Sun of Righteousness. But CHRIST alone is dearer to the Saint than even wisdom and the Church. A yet further interpretation sees in gold those Saints who have been tried by active temptations in this world, and in the topaz the Saints of the contemplative life. So Marbod of Rennes:

Beyond all gems the topaz rare,*

Hath value therefore past compare;

It shines, albeit of colour grey,

Clear as a fine ethereal ray,

And notes the part of them that live

The solid life contemplative.

But CHRIST Himself, the King of the Saints, the Incarnate Wisdom of GOD, is more precious by far than even the holiest of His servants. And thus the best comment on the verse is that noble passage of Job: “But where shall Wisdom be found? and where is the place of understanding? Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living. The depth saith, It is not in me: and the sea saith, It is not with me. It cannot be gotten for gold, neither shall silver be weighed for the price thereof. It cannot be valued with the gold of Ophir, with the precious onyx, or the sapphire. The gold and the crystal cannot equal it: and the exchange of it shall not be for jewels of fine gold. No mention shall be made of coral, or of pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies. The topaz of Ethiopia shall not equal it, neither shall it be valued with pure gold.”*

128 Therefore hold I straight all thy commandments: and all false ways I utterly abhor.

This rendering, though pretty close to the LXX. and Vulgate,* I was directed to Thy commandments, i.e. put in the straight road towards obeying them, does not quite give the sense of the Hebrew, which is rather, I hold all Thy commandments to be straight,* or just. S. Ambrose bids us note; the stress on all in both clauses of the verse; because it is so very common to find men ready enough to condemn some particular fault or faults, whilst freely giving way to others where their own temptation lies; and ends by remarking that it comes to very much the same thing in the end whether a man stays away from church because he is attracted by the amusements of the city or the repose of the country. It is well said all false ways; (H.) for there are many of them, but only one Way to our country, even He who hath said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.”*

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