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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.

Gregorian. Then were we like * unto them that dream. [Comm. Apost.: Going they went, and wept, casting their seeds.]

Ambrosian. Turn, O LORD, * our captivity, as a torrent in the south.

Parisian. The LORD hath done great things for us, we are made glad.

Lyons. We were made * as the comforted.

Mozarabic. As Parisian.

1 When the LORD turned again the captivity of Sion: then were we like unto them that dream.

So Livy tells us that when the Greeks heard at the Isthmian games after the defeat of the Macedonians by T. Q. Flamininus,* the proclamation of the herald that they should, by the free gift of the Roman people, retain their liberty, “the joy was too great for men to take it all in. None could well believe that he had heard aright, and they looked on one another in wonder, like the empty show of a dream; and as for each person singly, having no confidence in their own ears, they all questioned those standing nearest to them. The herald, called back, because every one was anxious not only to hear but to see the messenger of freedom, repeated the proclamation. Then, when they knew that the good news was certain, such applause and shouting was raised and renewed again and again, that it was easy to see that of all good things nothing is dearer to the people than liberty. The games were then hurriedly gone through, because no one’s mind or attention was bent on the sight at all; to such a degree had that one joy taken up the room of every other pleasure.”

A! fredome is a noble thing!*

Fredome mayss man to haiff liking;

Fredome all solace to man giffis;

He levys at ess that frely levys!

A noble hart may haiff nane ess,

Na ellys nocht that may him pless,

Gyff fredome failyhe; for fre liking

Is yharnyt our all othir thing.

Na he, that ay has levyt fre,

May nocht knaw weill the propyrté,

The angyr, na the wrechyd dome,

That is cowplyt to foule thyrldome.

But gyff he had assayit it,

Than all perquer he suld it wyt;

And suld think fredom mar to pryse

Than all the gold in wurld that is.

The LXX. and Vulgate lose the notion of the joyful unexpectedness expressed by the word dream, translating, as they do, like unto them that are comforted; which is like the tame paraphrase of the Chaldee,* “We were like unto sick men who nave recovered.” Jerusalem above is free, in the bliss of the Angels, (A.) but Sion here below is captive in the sins of men. When the LORD turned its captivity by proclaiming the remission of sins, then were we as men comforted. Not altogether comforted, but only like it, because comfort implies sorrow, and tears, which belong to our exile here, not to be wiped away till we are again at home.

In another sense, they take the verse as telling of the wondering and hesitating joy of the Apostles in the Resurrection, after CHRIST had indeed turned the captivity of Sion by harrowing hell, and bringing the waiting Patriarchs away with Him into the joy of Paradise; (G.) and still more when He ascended on high, leading captivity captive. And it has, moreover, (C.) an historical application to the great peace of the Christian Church when it emerged into permanent freedom from Pagan oppression at the end of the tenth persecution; (D. C.) and a tropological one to the coming of each ransomed soul out of the spiritual Babylon of sin into the grace and glorious liberty of the children of GOD.

2a (2) Then was our mouth filled with laughter: and our tongue with joy.

The word laughter recalls how that child of Abraham was named, in whose supernatural birth the types of the coming Messiah may be said to begin, for Isaac is laughter. Thus, looking to the Easter fulfilment of the verse, we shall see the apt comment on it in the great Paschal Sequence of Adam:

Now let the praise of GOD most High

And voices shouting victory,*

Break forth in triumph free;

This is the day the LORD hath made,

This day hath all our grief repaid,

The day of Jubilee.

Yea, that Child, our mystic Laughter,

For whose sake the ram fell after,

Signifies the Joy of Life,

Joseph from the prison goeth;

CHRIST, by Resurrection, showeth,

He hath conquered in the strife.1

And if we turn to the story of the deliverance under Constantine,* we can do no better than cite some passages from a contemporary writer’s burst of exultation, “The souls of all of us triumphed with a divine and heavenly gladness, when we saw every place which a little before had been razed by the crime and impiety of tyrants revive again after long and fatal desolation, and churches which had been levelled to the ground built up to loftier heights from the very foundations, and adorned with far greater splendour and erected of far vaster size than those which had been destroyed.… Then a glorious sight, welcome and longed for by us all, was set before the public eyes, that is, the dedication festivals of the churches in every city, the hallowings of the newly-erected temples. One was the might and power of the HOLY GHOST, flowing through all the members of the Church, one the mind and feeling of all, one and the same zeal and eagerness in the Faith, one consenting praise of Deity from the mouths of all; crowds of every sex and age, with all their powers of thought, with glad spirit and exulting soul, with prayers and thanksgivings worshipped GOD, the Giver of all good things.”

And in the personal application of the Psalm, (D. C.) we learn somewhat here of that inward consolation and gladness which comes to those souls which GOD delivers from the bonds of sin, and suffers to break out into rejoicing praise.

Therefore shall ye draw with joy

Water from Salvation’s well;*

Praise shall your glad tongues employ,

While His streaming grace ye feel.

Each to each ye then shall say,

Sinners, call upon His Name;

O rejoice to see His day;

See it, and His praise proclaim.”

Glory to His Name belongs,

Great, and marvellous, and high,

Sing unto the LORD your songs,

Cry to every nation, cry!

Yes, (G.) for when crying, in this wise, was heard from the Apostles, speaking with divers tongues in the joy of Pentecost:

2b (3) Then said they among the heathen: The LORD hath done great things for them.

For when those who had been collected at Jerusalem from many lands returned to their own countries, (G.) the first news they spread at home was of certain Galileans, who had spoken to them of the wonderful works of GOD in the several languages of “Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judæa, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Cretes and Arabians.”* It is to be noted that the tense of said in the original is future,* although by a usual Hebrew idiom, the future is treated as a past tense when coupled with אָז, (A.) then; nevertheless, the wording gives a prophetic cast to this part of the Psalm, as noting what will yet come to pass, as well as what happened when the Gentile tribes which had settled in Palestine saw with wonder the return of the Captivity,* and when many of them consequently flocked as proselytes to the victorious Faith. It is not written, Then shall the Gentiles say, (C.) but, Then shall they say among the Gentiles, because neither at the first, nor at the LORD’S coming, nor in time to come did or will all the Gentiles accept the truth, but only certain among them, who were moved by the holiness of life and the wonderful works of believers. So it proved when the Roman Empire bowed before the Cross, (B.) for though very many of the heathens submitted to the new religion, yet Pagan idolatry held its ground for a long time, sullenly resisting, and yielding by only slow degrees before the advance of the Gospel. (G.) Great things. Not only in the miraculous powers conferred upon the Apostles and other early preachers of the Word, (Ay.) and the valiant endurance of the Martyrs under the fiercest tortures, but more than all, the obedience of soul and body to GOD,* the heavenly conversation of those truly turned to Him.

3 (4) Yea, the LORD hath done great things for us already: whereof we rejoice.

It is the thankful acknowledgment made by GOD’S rescued children of the truth just uttered by the wondering Gentiles;* confessing as they do that the work was entirely GOD’S, and contrary at once to their own deservings and expectations. The great things which the LORD did for His Church in her early days were four; preservation of her existence amidst the fiercest persecutions, so that the faithful did not fall away,* nor converts cease to come in; evident judgment on the rebellious and gainsaying Jewish people; overthrow of Paganism in the Empire; and deliverance of the Church from Arianism and other dangerous heresies which threatened her very life. (G.) Gerhohus will have it that these words apply most fitly to the faithful departed, now at rest, delivered out of the Babylon of this world with all its confusion of tongues, and made citizens of that happy country, Jerusalem above, where there is but one language, that of the one Faith taught by the HOLY GHOST. But they without us cannot be made perfect, and therefore follows:

4 (5) Turn our captivity, O LORD: as the rivers in the south.

The primary sense here is obviously that the return of the exiles was not complete; and it is most probable that the date of the Psalm is hereby fixed as that of the first migration under Zerubbabel,* after the decree of Cyrus; and that the first colony, now safe at Jerusalem, joins its prayers to those of the yet distant exiles, that they may be soon united together in their own land and city and temple. (G.) And therefore the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, and we who are on pilgrimage in the Babylon of this world, having the first-fruits of the Spirit, pray for our deliverance out of bondage, and for the conversion of all heathens and unbelievers to the Faith. As the rivers in the south. The south, as the region most exposed to the scorching heats of summer, naturally has its watercourses dried up very rapidly, so that the whole land through which they pass becomes parched and arid. The simile is then that of the sudden flooding of these channels by the streams descending from the northern heights when swollen with the winter rain.* The LXX., however, have here translated south as south-wind, and consequently the whole current of ancient exposition sees here the melting of a river frozen up by the north-wind, and now set free by the genial breezes of the south to pour down in a rapid torrent; so that the imagery of the Psalm is quite unaffected, and the same idea of flood and fertilizing refreshment is presented to us. This South-wind, (A.) they tell us, is the HOLY GHOST Himself, of Whom is written in the Canticles: “Come, thou South, blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out.”* And the HOLY GHOST comes only by mission from the SON, though He proceeds from the FATHER, for it is written of the Almighty, “He sendeth out His, Word, and melteth them: He bloweth with His wind, and the waters flow.”* What that means,* the Son of Sirach will tell us; “Thy sins also shall melt away, as the ice in the fire and warm weather.”* Whither then shall the torrent flow? All rivers properly flow towards and into the sea, (A.) and therefore our cry to the LORD when He has roused us from our wintry sleep is, Direct the channel of our waters in the one true course,

Come near and bless us when we wake,*

Ere through the world our way we take;

Till in the ocean of Thy love

We lose ourselves in heaven above.

6 They that sow in tears: shall reap in joy.

7 He that now goeth on his way weeping, and beareth forth good seed: shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring his sheaves with him.

The first fulfilment of the Verse in its historical sense is found by comparing the account of the foundation of the Second Temple, where we read that “many of the priests and the Levites and chief of the fathers, ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice;”* whereas “the children of Israel, the priests, and the Levites, and the rest of the children of the captivity, kept the dedication of this house of GOD with joy.” The spiritual meaning is, that whereas there are two sowings, to the flesh and to the spirit; and the fruit of the one is adultery, fornication, idolatry, (H.) hatred, variance, heresies, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like;* that of the other is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance; each man shall reap what he sows. And therefore, as the best sacrifice to GOD is a broken spirit,* and they who mourn are blessed, because they shall be comforted, it is well that we should with penitent tears of confession water, as with rain,* the seed we sow,* that we may rejoice, and that with shouting (Heb.), in bringing forth good fruit to be garnered by the LORD at the judgment. For us in this sense the words of the Latin dramatist are most true:

Tibi aras, tibi occas, tibi seris, tibi eidem et metis,*

Tibi denique iste pariet lætitiam labor.

For thyself thou ploughest, for thyself thou harrowest, for thyself thou sowest, for thyself too thou reapest, and that toil will at last bring forth gladness for thyself.

So the LORD Himself has taught us, saying, “Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”* Before CHRIST’S coming, (Cd.) before He consecrated weeping by His own strong crying and tears, nothing but salt drops of bitter water flowed from the eyes of men,* but now they are costly pearls, dear and precious in GOD’S sight. Our tears are fivefold, penitence for sin, fear of judgment, in weariness of exile,* compassion for sinful friends, longing for our country, and the tears of the LORD are the joys of the world. So too the sorrowful persecution, endured by the Apostles and Martyrs, (D. C.) the blood they shed were, as Tertullian forcibly says, the seed of Christians, and the countless millions of believers who have sprung from the teaching of the persecuted Twelve, who will be their crown of rejoicing in the day of the LORD, point the use of this Psalm in the Common of Apostles.* “Let us then sow good example for men by our outward works,* let us sow great joy for the Angels by our hidden sighs.* Sow ye, too, because so many have sown before you, bring forth fruit, because they sowed for you. O race of Adam, how many have been sowing in thee, and what precious seed! How terribly wilt thou perish, and how deservedly, if such seed, and the toil of the sowers at the same time should perish in thee! The whole Trinity sowed in our land, the Angels and the Apostles sowed together, the Martyrs, Confessors, and Virgins, sowed too. The FATHER sowed Bread from heaven, the SON truth, the HOLY GHOST charity. The Apostles went forth, and wept casting their seeds, but coming again they shall come with great joy, bearing their sheaves. Two are those sheaves which thou seekest, honour and rest. They who sow toil and lowliness, shall reap honour and rest together.” (Ay.) But again and again all the commentators return to the dearest meaning of all, the abundant reward and gladness of the righteous in the manifestation of the Son of Man,* when the Sower Who sowed the good seed of the Word in the field of this world triumphs finally over the secret enemy who sowed the tares, when the sorrow of exile here shall be compensated by the joy of restoration to our country. Here it is now the wintry, tearful seed-time,

We that are here in banishment

Continually do moan,*

We sigh and sob, we weep and wail,

Perpetually we groan.

Our sweet is mixed with bitter gall,

Our pleasure is but pain,

Our joys scarce last the looking on,

Our sorrows still remain.

But there they live in such delight,

Such pleasure and such play,

As that to them a thousand years

Doth seem as yesterday.

And in the glad summer harvest-festival of the LORD JESUS, “the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away;”* “they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow together to the goodness of the LORD, for wheat, and for wine, and for oil, and for the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all.”*


Glory be to the FATHER, Who turned the captivity of Sion; glory be to the SON, the Sower of good seed; glory be to the HOLY GHOST, the Joy of the ransomed people of GOD.

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

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