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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.

ARG. THOMAS. That CHRIST may bestow on us a dart wherewith to confound unrighteous tongues. The Voice of CHRIST in the Passion. The Voice of CHRIST to the FATHER touching the Jews. A stranger among aliens prophesies trouble. These fifteen degrees are the progresses of souls, whereby ascending from the desire of a holy life to better things they are perfectly delivered in Heaven from the trouble and perils of this present life.

VEN. BEDE. Songs of Degrees are songs of ascensions, whence the more significant Greek name is Songs of goings-up, because they lead only towards heavenly things; as though one had fallen into a pit, and a ladder were set that he might be able to ascend. So when the people of Israel had come into the pit of captivity, and in its trouble called upon the LORD, it was heard, and was brought back to its country, so that it could say on the restoration of the city and temple, Behold, now, praise the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord, ye that stand in the house of the Lord. After this example, whoso falls into the pit of sin, has need of degrees of humility whereby he may return above. And these Degrees or Steps are said to be numbered fifteen in the Psalter or in Solomon’s temple, to teach that we can rise again to heavenly things by the septenary of the Law and the octave of the LORD’S Resurrection, and can in no other way escape the prince of this world, unless the repose of the soul after the flesh be granted, as though in the seventh age, and the resurrection of the flesh at the end be created, as on the octave. By reason of these fifteen Degrees, that is, the knowledge of both Testaments, it is recorded that the water of the Flood, which rose vastly above the hollows of the valleys and the level of the plains, was fifteen cubits higher than the tops of the loftiest mountains; because the faith of the Church, hallowed by the waters of Baptism, not only readily surpasses the moral code of the Gentiles, but by its height of virtue exceeds the mightiest intellects of philosophers, because it knows how to live rightly in the world, and to believe, hope, and love the everlasting life of the soul with the resurrection of the body in the world to come.

Throughout the Psalm the Prophet speaks. In the first part he calls unto the LORD, to be delivered from lying lips and a deceitful tongue. When I was in trouble I called upon the Lord. In the second he is grievously afflicted, because abiding long in this life, he is worn out with bearing the faults of others, and with association amongst evil men. Woe is me that I am constrained to dwell.

EUSEBIUS OF CÆSAREA. Concerning dwelling.

SYRIAC PSALTER. Anonymous. The first song of going-up. The people captive in Babylon pray for deliverance. And we in like manner pray to be delivered from evil spirits.

There is some difference of opinion as to the exact meaning of the title Songs of Degrees or Gradual Psalms, prefixed to the fifteen poems which follow the great Song of the Law, and which, from their completeness in themselves, hare been aptly styled, “The Little Psalter.”* One ancient Jewish view is that they were intended to be liturgically used in processions to the Temple, one upon each of the fifteen steps leading up from the court of the women to the great portal of the inner court of the men,* or “Court of Israel.” The fact that there was some ascent is certain from the phrase “go up”* used of Hezekiah’s visit of thanksgiving; the probability that the steps were fifteen in number is inferred from the double mention in Ezekiel of two flights of stairs in the temple of his vision,* one of which had seven steps and the other eight. But the most ancient Christian tradition,* without being inconsistent with this one, is more probable, that they are originally pilgrim-songs, for going up to Jerusalem, and their title is derived from the same root as the verb used to denote the going up of Israel out of Egypt,* and the going up of the Jews with Ezra and Nehemiah out of Babylon to Jerusalem.* It is then probable enough that,* first written as expressions of longing for a delayed blessing, and perhaps marking a series of events connected with the end of the captivity, as Origen believes,* they came to be used later by the caravans of Hebrew pilgrims going up to Jerusalem at the three yearly festivals.* And, so explained, a remarkable order is manifest in them. Psalm 120 expresses weariness of heathen companionship and surroundings; 121, the first sight of the mountain girdle of Palestine by the pilgrim, now fairly on his way, and trusting in GOD to keep him safe on his road; 122, the concourse of pilgrims as every cross-road sends its single travellers to swell the great caravan of the main highway; 123, a prayer in peril of an attack by banditti; 124, thanksgiving for deliverance from that danger; 125, the first sight of the mountains round Jerusalem; 126, happy and peaceful talk with sympathising hosts sheltering and feeding their pilgrim countrymen; 127 brings them in sight of the peaceful City itself, and therewith recalls how it was once compassed by war as a punishment for neglecting its Keeper, the true Builder of the glorious House, the one sure Watchman of its formidable walls; 128 is the greeting to the citizens who come out of the houses to meet and welcome the approaching pilgrims; 129 is the thankful expression of security uttered by those who are now safe within the fortifications; 130 brings them in sight of the Temple, and breathes mingled tones of penitence, longing, and hope, uttered from the valley, “out of the deep,” as the pilgrims prepare to ascend to Mount Moriah; 131 is the hush of reverence on near approach to GOD’S House of Prayer; 132 brings the pilgrims in full view of its pomp and beauty, which causes them to break out into eager words of praise and blessing, recalling the memories of David’s zeal for the Tabernacle; 133 is caused by the sight of the anointed priests, visible on the steps and in the outer court; 134 brings the happy pilgrims within the sacred precincts, and is their greeting to the priests whom they had seen at a little distance just before; while theclosing words of all, being the priestly benediction uttered upon the travellers, fitly end the pilgrimage, and are the final reply to the first utterance of the series, “When I was in trouble I called upon the LORD,” answered by “The LORD that made heaven and earth, bless thee out of Sion.” (A.) Whatever their first occasion and their subsequent employment may have been,* at any rate there is no doubt of the religious fitness of the old Jewish comment on this Jacob’s ladder of prayer and praise, that each Psalm of the series is a “Song on the steps on which GOD leads the righteous up to a happy hereafter.” This notion has been worked out in detail by several of the Christian commentators, beginning with S. Hilary, and they are for the most part careful to point out that while the Latin word gradus may imply steps for descending (whence some few have spoken here of the degrees of humility,) yet the Greek ἀναβαθμῶν must mean goings-up, and therefore that we are obliged to limit the meaning to progress in the higher walks of faith. (Ay.) The great Carmelite expositor alleges that the fifteen Psalms were divided by the Jews into three portions of five, with prayers intercalated, much as the Gregorian division of Matins into three Nocturns; and that each of the three grades of advance in the spiritual life is betokened by each quinary; the beginners, the progressors, and the perfect; or, in other terms, those who are severally in the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive way. And thus it will be noticed that in Pss. 120–124 there is constant reference to trouble and danger; in 125–129 to confidence in GOD; in 130–134 to direct communion with Him in His house. And a later commentator defines the fifteen degrees of going up out of the valley of weeping to the presence of GOD to be (1) affliction,* (2) looking to GOD, (3) joy in communion, (4) invocation, (5) thanksgiving, (6) confidence, (7) patient waiting for deliverance, (8) GOD’S grace and favour, (9) fear of the LORD, (10) martyrdom, (11) hatred of sins, (12) humility, (13) desire for the coming of CHRIST, (14) concord and charity, (15) constant blessing of GOD. The Gradual Psalms are called by the Greek Church Proskyria, from the opening words in the LXX. Version of Psalm 120, and they are said, all but the last, at Vespers in the fifteen weeks before Christmas, 136 being substituted for 134, already occurring in Nocturns, and they are also used on weekdays in Lent. In the West, they were anciently recited daily throughout Lent, but are now restricted to the Wednesdays of that season, and appointed to be said in choir before Matins. They are broken up into three quinaries, with intervening versicles and prayers.








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