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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 twenty-second and last letter of the Hebrew alphabet,* Tau,* signifies a mark, and especially a mark in the form of a Cross, as this very letter actually was in the Samaritan alphabet in S. Jerome’s time. There are two very remarkable texts in Holy Scripture where it is used in this sense: one is Job 31:35, where the A. V. reads, Behold my desire is that the Almighty would answer me,” and the margin gives sign as an alternative rendering; the true sense being “My signature or subscription, in the form of a Cross, is &c.,” allusion being made to the extremely ancient custom, still surviving amongst the illiterate in our own day, of subscribing documents in this fashion. The other is yet more significant. It is Ezek. 9:4, where the mark to be set on the foreheads of such as were to be spared by the destroying Angel is a Tau or Cross, a mystical type on which it is needless to dilate here; though a curious illustration of it may be adduced by noting that a cross or a T prefixed to the name of a Roman soldier on the muster-roll signified that he was alive and able for service. The position of the Cross at the end of the Hebrew alphabet, and therefore of this alphabetical Psalm, teaches in mystery that the whole scope of the Law and Prophets, the whole divine education of the Jewish people, was to lead, up to the Atonement and Sacrifice of CHRIST, while on the other hand, the ancient Christian usage of prefixing a cross to the alphabet in the horn-books intended for children (whence the name of “CHRIST-Cross row given to the first line of letters,) teaches us that we must begin where they left off.

169 Let my complaint come before thee, (ת) O LORD: give me understanding according to thy word.

The Prayer Book version here omits a word necessary to the full sense, which the A. V. supplies, come NEAR before Thee, and so the LXX. ἐγγυσάτω and the Vulgate appropinquet. At the beginning,* when the Psalmist was as it were learning the first letters of his spiritual alphabet, he was walking towards GOD, and no more. But now, at the close of his lesson, he intreats that his prayer may draw near to GOD, and reach Him. He is not as yet perfect enough to draw near in person, but his prayer goes before him as an ambassador to solicit peace. So we read of the LORD’S command to Israel, “Worship ye afar off; and Moses alone shall come near the LORD, but they shall not come nigh.”* But if Israel could thus approach GOD through Moses, much more can we draw near to Him, through JESUS CHRIST, if we believe Him to be righteousness, truth, wisdom, the resurrection and the true life, since without these, and without peace, to keep our hearts and minds, which is also CHRIST JESUS,* we cannot draw near to GOD. A holy life causes prayer to fly, and gives spiritual wings to petitions, whereby the prayer of the Saints is borne up to GOD, therefore the Psalmist earlier in the Psalm asked for a lantern for his feet, lest he should go astray while walking in this earthly pilgrimage. But now at the end and accomplishment, having finished his allotted journey, he soars altogether. He directs his prayer to the heavenly places, he sends it into the presence of the LORD the SAVIOUR, giving it blasts of righteousness, breaths of wisdom, oarage of devotion and faith, aids of innocence and purity, for sin makes prayer heavy, and keeps it far from GOD. Let us consider further what we mean by coming near in our ordinary speech. Take the case of a teacher and his pupil. If the pupil by attention to his studies takes in the whole of his teacher’s instructions and gives his mind to his directions, so that he seems to attain close likeness to his works and teaching, do we not say that he has come near his master? Show thyself then an imitator of CHRIST, as he did who said, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of CHRIST,”* for if thou have nothing to do with guile, hate falsehood, follow truth, keep to righteousness, and love purity, thou hast come near to CHRIST, and through CHRIST to GOD. For He, Who is ever with the FATHER, is the way by which we come to the FATHER. So then, we have learnt what it is for prayer to come near; that is, it must be lifted up by our actions. If you lift up your acts, you lift up your prayer, for he who knows how to lift up his hands, directeth his prayer into the presence of GOD. And therefore, in order to be able to abandon the Egypt of earth and ascend to the Canaan of heaven, the Psalmist prays, Give me understanding, according to Thy word. Not the understanding and knowledge of this world, not that which philosophers, scientists, lawyers, artists, can teach me; but the divine understanding of Thy Word, Who is the foundation of all true wisdom and holy works.

170 Let my supplication come before thee: deliver me according to thy word.

Observe the order of the words here and in the preceding verse.* First we had, “Let my cry come near;” then “Give me understanding,” and that “according to Thy Word,” and now we have Let my prayer enter in (LXX., Syr., Arab., Vulg.) before Thee. Just so, if you wish for an interview with a man of very high rank, first you come near his house, then you ask for information and instruction as to his intentions, then you ask permission to enter, lest you should be driven away and refused admittance. Knock therefore at the door of the heavenly palace, knock, not with your bodily hand, but with the right hand of prayer. For the voice can knock as well as the hand, as it is written, “It is the voice of my Beloved that knocketh.”* And when you have knocked, see how you go in, lest after entering you should not get the sight of the King. For there are many who make their way into palaces, and do not at once get an audience of an earthly sovereign, but have to watch constantly to obtain an interview at last. Nor have they the choice of the opportunity, they come when they are sent for, and then present their petition, if they wish to be favourably received. And the first care in addressing the sovereign is to avoid any slip or offence. How much more ought we to intreat GOD that our prayer may enter the door of His mercy! And the kind of prayers which enter into GOD’S presence are such as you offer up for widows and orphans, for a merciful, devout and faithful person, or in time of trouble or sorrow, and if you are moved yourself, when praying, with a sense of grief, then your prayer enters into GOD’S favour, and enters His house if the Church make her supplication with thee, if all the people intreat, that it may obtain the favour of the LORD. Deliver me according to Thy word. (G.) I do not ask either to be rescued from evils or to enjoy blessings save in accordance with Thy Word, whereby we are first invited to drink the cup of the LORD’S Passion, that we may be fitted to drink the new wine in the kingdom of GOD.

171 My lips shall speak of thy praise: when thou hast taught me thy statutes.

Shall speak.* It should rather be shall pour forth, as a fountain, which is the way S. Jerome and the Arabic version take the word. And though a very beautiful meaning, that of the unceasing praise of GOD by His Saints in Heaven, after they have learnt all that GOD means to teach them, and are at last face to face with essential Wisdom, may be drawn from the turn given here, (as by LXX. and Vulgate,) to the latter clause, yet the words ought to run thus: Because Thou teachest me Thy statutes. The delight and thankfulness of the Psalmist because of GOD’S instructions are the cause and occasion of his song of praise.* And therefore the highest sense to us is that whereas under the Old Covenant mere human teachers held, and too often withheld, the key of knowledge, the Christian Church has the LORD JESUS, the Eternal WORD Himself, for her teacher, and therefore pours forth His praise in an unceasing fountain of glad laudation.* No one can pour forth a hymn of praise till he have first learnt GOD’S statutes, and from GOD Himself as the teacher. “For One is your Master, even CHRIST;”* nor can any one sing who is in a state of fear and dread of punishment, since they who are captive to the law of sin are forced to say, “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?”*

Mine onely schoole shall be Mount Calvarie;*

The pulpit but the Cross; and teacher none

But the mere Crucifix to mortifie;

No letters but Thy blessed wounds alone;

No commaes but Thy stripes, no periods

But Thy nailes, crown of thorns, speare, whips, and rods.

None other booke but Thy unclasped side,

Wherein’s contained all skils angelical:

None other lesson but CHRIST crucified

Will I e’er learne, for that is all in all:

Wherein selfe curiositie may find

Matter to please the most displeaséd mind.

172 Yea, my tongue shall sing of thy word: for all thy commandments are righteous.

Sing of should rather be respond to, and the sense may be either the utterance of an assenting “Amen,” or the echoing and repeating the promises of GOD, a meaning which may with very little pressure be taken as fulfilled in the antiphonal chants of the Christian Church;* the most ancient form of which was that the officiant began each verse, while the people sang the close of it;* a practice ascribed to the teaching of S. Ignatius of Antioch,* the pupil of S. John the Divine.* But the LXX. and Vulgate have, My tongue shall pronounce Thy word,* and several of the commentators hence observe that as praise is referred to in the previous verse, so preaching is indicated here. (A.) The word, as translated by LXX. (G.) and Vulgate, φθέγξαιτο, pronuntiabit, signifies loud and clear utterance, and this, if explained of preaching, denotes the boldness and plainness with which the preacher of GOD’S Word should discharge his office;* or, if it be taken of singing, will depict the Psalmist as precenting the praise of GOD in a great congregation, whose responses swell the tide of resonant harmony. Whichever of these interpretations be adopted,* the comment of S. Ambrose will equally apply: He who hath learnt GOD’S statutes, speaks the word of GOD, and he who speaks the word of GOD, speaks no idle word. An idle word is speaking of men’s works. Therefore the Saint saith that GOD hath given him grace that his mouth should not speak the works of men; since that is an idle word, and not merely idle, but even perilous, since we shall have to give account for it. It is no light peril, when you have so many words of GOD and works of GOD which He did in the books of the Old Testament and in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, to pass them by, to speak and hear the things of the world.* For all Thy commandments are righteous, whereas, S. Chrysostom observes, much of the talk and songs of the world is made up of licentiousness, (L.) jesting, frivolity, slander, lying, and such like, for which heavy punishment is reserved; wherefore “if any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of GOD,”* “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”*

173 Let thine hand help me: for I have chosen thy commandments.

It is a prayer for the Advent of the LORD,* for CHRIST is the Hand of GOD; and in a lower sense, the armies of heaven and all the angelic powers are His hand too,* whereby He executes His pleasure, wherefore He is here besought to send them to the help of His servant.* And CHRIST, Whose Hands saved us on the Cross,* does become our Helper and SAVIOUR daily, by forgiving our sins, and conferring spiritual grace upon us.* Thus GOD answers that old prayer of His waiting Church, “Glorify Thy hand and Thy right arm, that they may set forth Thy wondrous works.”* This is that right hand of Moses,* which appeared leprous when taken out of his bosom, and whole again when thrust back into his bosom once more; as the SON of GOD was counted as a leper and outcast by the Jews when He appeared on earth out of the bosom of the FATHER by His Incarnation, and is adored by His faithful people as the Most Holy One, returned to the FATHER’S bosom by His Ascension, and to be manifested as such in His second appearing to judge the world. The words, for I have chosen Thy commandments, make this prayer especially suitable to the Martyrs, (Ay.) and to all preachers of righteousness, against whom the world rages through hate of their message. It ought to be the prayer of all preachers still,* who should bear in mind how Peter toiled all the night in fishing, and caught nothing, till he cast in his net in the Name of the LORD.*

174 I have longed for thy saving health, O LORD: and in thy law is my delight.

There are many men who desire saving health,* yet not GOD’S, but that of the body, in this world. They wish for long life, and to extend their span to the utmost limit of extreme old age;* while others are broken down with bodily infirmity, and count it happiness to enjoy good health, seeking, like Asa, “not to the LORD, but to the physicians,”* whose prescriptions are often apt to be unlike those enjoined on such as are desirous of Divine knowledge, for physicians forbid fasting, studying, and intense thought, and thus he who gives himself up to physicians, denies himself to himself. But he who seeks GOD’S saving health follows CHRIST, Who is the salvation of GOD, and looks not for such things as concern the body, but things eternal, even while he is here in the body, (A.) making his constant delight and meditation in the law of the LORD; (Z.) looking, under the Old Law, for the Incarnation, and under the New, for the Second Advent of the SAVIOUR.

175 O let my soul live, and it shall praise thee: and thy judgments shall help me.

The words may of course be taken in the literal sense as a prayer for prolongation of life in this world, (H.) but they prefer to take it of that truer and higher life with CHRIST in heaven, where our soul shall praise Him.* And the Saint can truly say to GOD, Thy judgments shall help me to this end, because weak and sinful though I be, and therefore in awe of GOD’S judgments because of my conscience of sins, yet as they humble and chasten me, they help forward that purging and sanctifying of my soul which enables me to look forward to the judgment with rejoicing hope.

176 I have gone astray like a sheep that is lost: O seek thy servant, for I do not forget thy commandments.

Although this Psalm contains many various speakers, (C.) at one time the most faithful Saints of the Old Testament, at another the elect of the new regeneration, some of them enduring martyrdom, others constant in their steadfast meditation in the law of the LORD, yet that the whole Catholic Church speaks in her members is made clear by this language at the close. For it is man in general that speaks, gone astray in Adam by the law of sin, and unable to return of himself to the LORD’S fold, because he had lost that gift of wisdom he once possessed.* O seek Thy servant: Come then, LORD JESU, seek Thy servant, seek Thy weary sheep, come, O my Shepherd, seek me as Joseph did his sheep. Thy sheep has gone astray while Thou lingerest, while Thou art among the mountains. Leave Thy ninety-and-nine, and come to seek the one which is lost. Come without dogs, come without evil servants, come without the hireling, who knoweth not how to enter by the door, come without any helper, without any messenger, I have long been waiting for Thy coming. I know that Thou wilt come, for I do not forget Thy commandments.* Come then, not with a rod, but in love, (G.) and the spirit of meekness. Seek me, that I may seek Thee, seek me till Thou findest me, and till I find Thee. Seek me, exposed as I am to the wolves, nay, already torn and so weakened by them that I have no strength to seek Thee, and must wait for Thee to seek me first, that finding me, Thou mayest say to Thy blessed angels all gathered together, “Rejoice with Me, for I have found My sheep which was lost.”* And what is His answer to such a prayer? “Behold I, even I, will both search My sheep, and seek them out; as a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered, so will I seek out My sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the dark and cloudy day.”* “O LORD,” exclaims one of His true Saints,* “these promises were made to be made good to some, and why not to me? I hunger, I need, I thirst, I wait. Here is Thy handwriting in Thy word, and in the last Sacrament I had Thy seal affixed to it. I resolve to be as importunate till I obtain, and as thankful afterwards, as I shall be enabled to be through Thy grace, being sure that I am altogether lost and undone unless Thou hear the desires of the lowly, and if Thou shouldst hear and grant, I know myself and my heart so well, that I have of my own nothing to glory in, but I shall wholly glory in the LORD, and I determine and believe that I shall to all eternity praise and magnify the riches of Thy grace.”

JESU,* most loving One, Who from Thy glory’s throne,

Camest to seek the sheep roaming astray,

JESU, Thou sweetest Guest, JESU, Thou Shepherd best,

Draw my heart after Thee, now, and for aye.

I who have lost my way, I am that sheep astray,

Save me, CHRIST JESU, from peril of hell,

And in the gushing flood of Thine own precious Blood

Wash me, that cleansed I may cherish Thee well.

Comfort of weeping eyes, Thou the soul’s sweetest prize,

Fount of grace, love, and sole gladness below,

SAVIOUR, with Whom is rest, JESU, Thou Shepherd best,

After death save me, and guard from the foe.

JESU, Thou fairest here, Bridegroom most true and dear,

Brighter than sunshine, than honey more sweet,

Grant me, O LORD, Thy grace, give Thy lost sheep a place

When life is ended, in joy at Thy feet. Amen.

So far as I could, (A.) and as I have been helped by the LORD, I have handled and explained this great Psalm. Assuredly wiser and more learned persons than I have done it better, and will do so hereafter; yet that is no reason why my service should be lacking to it, especially as my brethren, for whom I am bound to discharge this office, have asked it earnestly of me.”

And now:

Glory be to the FATHER, Who is good and gracious; Glory be to the SON, the Word that endureth for ever in heaven; Glory be to the HOLY GHOST, Who giveth light and understanding unto the simple.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

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