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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 eighteenth letter,* Tsaddi, denotes a fish-hook or fish-spear, and the meaning sickle has also been suggested for it.* The mystical sense given to the fish-hook by the mediæval interpreters is very curious. It is used to signify the God-head of CHRIST, employed to snare and draw out Leviathan, by the means of CHRIST’S Manhood, serving as a bait to lure the monster. So, amongst several others, Hildebert of Tours:

Fisher the FATHER is: this world, the sea;*

CHRIST’S Flesh the bait, the hook His Deity,

The line His generation. Satan took

The offered bait; and perished by the hook.

A further interpretation is that GOD draws sinners out of the mire of this world with the hook of trouble and the line of righteousness. (L.) But S. Jerome,* whom most of the mediævalists follow, explains Tsaddi as meaning justice or righteousness, which, however, is צֶדֶק, tsedek. But he is so far right that there is a play in this strophe on the sound of the initial letter, as in the case of Gemol, for the very first word, righteous, is צַדִּיק, tsaddik, and the whole scope of the strophe is the strong grasp which even the young and inexperienced soul can have of righteousness amidst the troubles of the world, a notion wherein the barb of the fish-hook finds a place.

137 Righteous art thou, (צ) O LORD: and true is thy judgment.

138 The testimonies that thou hast commanded: are exceeding righteous and true.

S. Hilary and S. Augustine, (H.) representing two distinct schools of Christian thought, comment very differently on these verses. They are, says the elder Father, a confession of unwavering faith in GOD’S perfect goodness, that He will not be unjust to His own creatures, that He has made us not for our hurt or sorrow, and that if we suffer, it is of His goodness, and for our benefit, that it comes to pass. He delights in seeing Satan overcome by the strength of our patience, and ourselves tried and tested by grief, mourning, and suffering; so that, common as murmuring is against troubles, it is a sin, because nothing short of an accusation against the justice and love of GOD. S. Augustine, (A.) on the other hand, draws hence the lesson that the sinner must fear, and may well shed rivers of water from his eyes, since if he perish, he must needs do so confessing that his damnation is just. GOD’S judgments are often hidden,* but they are never unrighteous; nor does He command anything which is not in itself truth and righteousness, and thus man has no excuse for disobedience.* For here we see how the Law of GOD expresses to us His image, since from His righteous nature flow His righteous judgments. And therefore sin is a fearful evil, because in transgressing a perfectly true and righteous law it is a direct impugning and violating of the Divine nature, so far as a creature can do so. The laws of earthly kings may be broken without injury to their persons, far less any violation of their nature, since they often themselves desire the evil things which their laws forbid; even if those laws be not themselves, as they often are, unrighteous and false; but GOD and His laws are so closely united that we cannot break them without rebelling against Him. But the righteous man,* even if he have sinned, puts his hope, rather than his fear, in GOD’S righteousness. If chastened, he confesses in the very beginning of his words that he suffers justly, and thus proclaims the LORD’S righteousness, whence he hopes for pardon. For He, the Righteous One, is not always wroth; but as He is the chastiser of guilt, so also is He the mitigator of punishment; as He is the avenger of sin, so is He the rewarder of holiness and of all the best deservings of man. He who chooses to give the prize, ought to behold the contest, since no one without a contest is crowned. Therefore He suffers us often to be tempted, desirous of justly giving the prize to the wrestler, not to the slumberer. And He is righteous too in His mercy, (G.) keeping His promise of pardon to penitent sinners, that He may be justified in His sayings and clear when He is judged.* Blessed sayings are they: “I desire not the death of a sinner;”* “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall he as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool;”* and many another like these; not only exceeding righteous, but also exceeding true, so that there will be no refusal of amnesty to any rebel who accepts GOD’S easy and bountiful conditions.

The hundred and thirty-seventh verse,* like the twenty-fifth, is associated with the sorrows of an Imperial penitent. When the deposed and captive Emperor Maurice was led out for execution by the usurper Phocas, his five sons were previously murdered one by one in his presence; and at each fatal blow he patiently exclaimed, “Righteous art Thou, O LORD, and true is Thy judgment.” And so firm was his own attachment to truth and justice that he himself revealed to the soldiers the kindly deceit of a nurse who offered her own child to death to save an Imperial infant.

139 My zeal hath even consumed me: because mine enemies have forgotten thy words.

There is a zeal unto life,* and there is also a zeal unto death. Zeal unto life is to keep the divine precepts and to observe GOD’S commandments for love of Him, as Phinehas did. It is part of human nature, (H.) when we see resistance made to the wishes of those we love, to be fired with zeal for the person disregarded. What grief then we feel when we see one of the people of GOD becoming a servant of the world, a hireling of the devil, a vessel of death, a brand for the burning? We read that the Apostles took note of this sort of zeal when the LORD entered the Temple and drove out with a scourge of cords them that bought and sold therein, remembering that it is written, “The zeal of Thine house hath eaten Me up.”* We ourselves are sometimes the temple of GOD, or a house of merchandise, or a den of thieves. For our bodies which are sanctified in CHRIST are, according to the Apostle,* the temples of GOD. These same bodies we turn into dens of thieves when we ponder and execute debauchery, murder, robberies, falsehoods, frauds; and when we busy ourselves anxiously in worldly concerns and in buying and selling, we make the house of GOD a house of merchandise instead of a place of prayer. And the LORD is moved with zeal to drive such as these out of His temple. Here, (A.) therefore, it is zeal for GOD, not zeal for himself, that the Psalmist speaks of, saying like the Apostle, “I am jealous with godly jealousy,”* because mine enemies have forgotten Thy words. Here is the test by which a true servant of GOD will know his enemies.* He is to bear no malice for private injuries, but to regard as the direst enemy of all men him who wrongs the Creator of all.* For that is a false zeal if we aim rather at avenging our own wrong than GOD’S, and if we are hot against those who have been unthankful or unkind to us. Yet even in GOD’S cause it behoves us to be careful, for there are many of the faithful who are kindled with zeal not according to knowledge,* and often when attacking others as heretics, invent heresies themselves, whereas they ought to consider the weakness of their opponents, and conciliate them by reason and gentleness.

140 Thy word is tried to the uttermost: and thy servant loveth it.

The meaning which these words present at first sight, that the very persecution of the truth makes it dearer to the Saint, though a very beautiful and true one, is not the sense of the Hebrew, which is, Thy words are very pure, that is, refined as gold in the furnace; as we have it in another Psalm, “The words of the LORD are pure words: even as the silver, which from the earth is tried, and purified seven times in the fire.”* Hence the LXX. and Vulgate have the epithet fired (πεπυρωμένον, ignitum,) in this place. And the commentators take it rather of the consuming power of GOD’S Word than of its perfect purity,* as though it were that fire which CHRIST came to send upon the earth;* the Word which is sharper than any two-edged sword.* That is a good fire which makes our heart burn within us while He opens to us the Scriptures,* which warms,* but scorches up nothing except sins.* This is the fire by which the gold laid on the Apostle’s foundation is tried,* this is the fire by which the silver of good works is tested, this is the fire which makes the precious stones to sparkle and glow, but burns up the hay and stubble. This fire purges the mind, and consumes error, wherefore the LORD saith, “Now ye are clean, through the word which I have spoken unto you.”* This is the fire which burneth before the LORD;* for no one who fails to be kindled with the flame of devotion can enjoy the LORD’S presence. Kindle then this fire in thy mind, that the light of CHRIST may shine on thee; it is the same which burnt in the bush which yet was unconsumed. For the Word of GOD burns, that it may purge the sinner’s conscience, but does not burn it up for its destruction. The two meanings do not clash,” for our GOD is a consuming fire,”* and therefore His words, (H.) as they come fresh from Himself,* are not only most pure, so that no tittle of them can pass away,* but also glowing with incandescent heat, wherefore it is written, “From His right hand went a fiery law for them;”* and the LORD Himself saith by His Prophet,* “Is not My Word like as a fire, and as a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”* And Thy servant loveth it. What shall be the test? “His Word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.”* The preacher who knows that GOD’S words are pure, and who feels them to be as a fire within him, will be like him of whom it is written, “Then stood up Elias the Prophet as fire, and his word burned like a lamp;”* where we may note that fervour is not enough without knowledge, for the true herald of the Word must not merely rouse and excite the tumult of his hearers’ emotion, but teach them plainly also to see and follow the will of GOD.

141 I am small, and of no reputation: yet do I not forget thy commandments.

The words befit the Early Gentile Church,* few in numbers, lowly in rank, and despised (LXX., Vulg., A. V.) by Jews and Pagans alike, and young (LXX. and Vulg.) in comparison with the hoary Synagogue, but honoured by GOD with His Sacraments, and given CHRIST Himself for food and drink. They also befit individual Christians, when they learn humility; confessing themselves young in the knowledge of GOD, receiving the kingdom of heaven as little children, being lowly as Jeremiah was when he said, “Ah! LORD GOD! behold, I cannot speak; for I am a child.”* Yet because he did not forget GOD’S commandments, the answer to his humble excuse was: “Say not, I am a child, for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee, thou shalt speak.” Cardinal Hugo,* taking this verse in connection with the previous one, and explaining it of a youthful priest excusing himself from preaching the Word on the ground of insufficient capacity, or on that of immaturity in years, knowledge, or spiritual life (for the child shall die an hundred years old,”*) pithily concludes with S. Paul’s counsel to Timothy: “These things command and teach. Let no man despise thy youth.”*

142 Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness: and thy law is the truth.

This verse differs from the first of the strophe by declaring that GOD’S righteousness is everlasting.* And therefore it is impossible for us to obey that righteousness by fits and starts, or by persevering for a time and then giving up our efforts, or again by choosing some righteous things to do and neglecting others. It will not avail that we are strictly honest, if we be also parsimonious, nor yet to give the poor a share of wealth which has been unjustly acquired. It is an everlasting righteousness in the further sense that the principles it lays down do not vary, and that the rewards and punishments it decrees do not terminate in a given time,* like those of an earthly judge, but last through eternity; and further, taking the words in particular of the Gospel dispensation, they mark the difference between it and the righteousness of the Law, which being a mere figure and type, was destined to vanish away, whereas that law which is the truth abideth for ever, and is everlasting in its constant support,* comfort,* and joyfulness to the faithful, because the everlasting righteousness of GOD is JESUS CHRIST Himself, “the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.”*

143 Trouble and heaviness have taken hold upon me: yet is my delight in thy commandments.

It is the brief sum of the early years of that younger people, (H.) which was not merely despised by the world, but persecuted in every land with confiscations, exiles, dungeons, stakes, and swords, till the throngs of confessors and martyrs ennobled every country. And whereas the literal rendering of taken hold is as in the Vulgate,* found, S. Ambrose bids us note that trouble and distress seek for the righteous man, sometimes finding him, and sometimes not. He who is to have a crown, is found; he who is not thought strong enough for a contest is not found. And therefore trouble is a favour from GOD. Trouble and heaviness, (C.) remarks another holy writer, are great blessings to good men, because they know that when they are put under the press of their weight, their sins are forced, out, and they are themselves fitted to hasten on to unending joys, and therefore their delight is in those very commandments of GOD which cause them to suffer, and they draw from thence their support and consolation, as so many martyrs did upon the rack or in the arena.

144 The righteousness of thy testimonies is everlasting: O grant me understanding, and I shall live.

Trouble and heaviness are only for a time, and therefore here the Psalmist beautifully sets over against them the everlasting righteousness of GOD’S testimonies and promises, (C.) which give courage and patience to bear up under adversity. And further he adds, O give me understanding, that he who was of late small and despised, now, wiser than the aged, may learn the wisdom that leads to the life unending, and live, if need be, by the death of martyrdom, if only he may therefore rejoice for ever.

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