Catholic Encyclopedia
Church Fathers
Classics Library
Church Documents
Prayer Requests
Ray of Hope
Social Doctrine

A Commentary On The Psalms From Primitive and Mediæval Writers Volumes 1 To 4 by Rev. J.M. Neale D.D.

Gregorian. He shall not be confounded * when he speaketh with his enemies in the gate. [Comm. of B.V.M.: The winter is past, the rain is over and gone, * arise, My fair one, and come away. Comm. of Virg.: Come, My chosen one, and I will set up My throne in thee.]

Monastic. As Psalm 126.

Ambrosian. Except Thou, O LORD,* keep us, our eyes wake in vain. [Good Friday: Simon, sleepest thou? couldest thou not watch with Me one hour?]

Parisian. Blessed is the man who hath fulfilled his desire, * he shall not be ashamed when he speaketh with his enemies.

Lyons. Except the LORD * keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.

Mozarabic. First verse.

The date and occasion of this Psalm are quite unsettled, nor are there any adequate means for coming to a conclusion about them. The sententious and didactic tone, resembling many passages in Proverbs, a reference seen in the first verse to the building of the Temple, and an allusion to Solomon’s own name of “Jedidiah” in the “beloved,” יְוִירוֹ, of the third verse, have led some critics to accept that rendering of the title which assigns the authorship to Solomon himself, while others take it as one of the very latest of David’s Psalms, intended for his son’s instruction. On the other hand, the true scope of the Psalm seems to point to a private dwelling, not to the Temple, in the first verse, and the place assigned to the poem here in the Pilgrim-ritual would argue a much later date; and Ewald’s conjecture is that the occasion of it was the haste of the people to erect their own houses in Jerusalem before rebuilding the Temple, as condemned by the prophet Haggai;* a view which fits in suitably enough with the group in which it is found, (H.) and which S. Hilary mentions as older than his own time; while Origen,* still earlier, ascribes many of the Psalms to the time of Zerubbabel, as Solomon’s representative and heir.

1a (1) Except the LORD build the house: their labour is but lost that build it.

They who in primæval times journeyed from the East,* and said in the plain of Shinar, “Go to, let us build a city and tower,”* built in vain, because the LORD did not build with them; and had Jerusalem been built, either at first or afterwards, with Him, it could not have been overthrown. (H.) But the true house which the LORD builds is that temple of GOD which is made up of ourselves, living stones, wherein the SPIRIT is pleased to dwell.* No human skill can rear it, nor is it planned by worldly art. It is not built upon the earth, nor begun in the shifting sand, but its foundation must be laid upon the Apostles and Prophets,* JESUS CHRIST Himself being the chief corner-stone,* and the whole building the work of GOD alone, albeit He employed under Him those skilled workmen, (H.) the Apostles, who laboured not in vain, because He was with them. (C.) The LORD has come to us. He has ransomed us from captivity, and the House and City are being built up, but they who go up thither must learn and remember that He alone is the Builder and Keeper, and that future exaltation will not come until after present humiliation. Unless He co-operate with preachers and ministers of the Sacraments, who endeavour to build up the house, their speech will be in vain; “So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth, but GOD that giveth the increase.”* Nor can any man build up even the single dwelling of his own conscience;* and, as a great Saint teaches, Almighty GOD pulls down the human heart when He leaves it, builds it up when He fills it. It is not by making war against the mind of man that He destroys it, but by departing from it; and when this is so, and sin has dominion, the heart of a hearer is vainly counselled by a preacher, because every mouth is dumb, if He, Who alone inspires words which can he heard, does not cry aloud in the heart.

1b (2) Except the LORD keep the city: the watchman waketh but in vain.

Here we are taught that even building up, (G.) no matter how solid and lofty, (C.) is insufficient for the protection of the house or city; and what is even more important, that the fact of being within the city, with its numerous houses, dense population, and strong walls, does not secure the safety of one single dwelling; (G.) which teaches us that mere membership of the Church of GOD is not to be made a matter of boasting; since all its sacraments, its hierarchy, its pastors, and even the very guardian angels themselves, all labouring together, cannot protect one human soul, unless the LORD Himself be the Captain of the watch. And if so, how little can the soul of man avail to guard itself! (A.) The watchman waketh,* for woe betide the Bishops and Priests of the Church if they allow GOD’S enemies,* either of unbelief or immorality, to enter the city without sounding an alarm; for it is written, “I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night.”* Nevertheless, human frailty is such, and human insight into the hearts of others so imperfect, that the most zealous overseers of the flock of GOD may be deceived by their crafty foes, and therefore it is needful that they should have recourse to GOD for His external help. And note, that whereas it is said in the first verse, “Except the LORD build,”* yet it is not here said, “Except the LORD wake,”* (since He that keepeth Israel neither slumbereth nor sleepeth,) but Except the LORD keep, there can be no doubt of His power, and only our own wilful sins can oppose His good-will.

2 (3) It is but lost labour that ye haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of carefulness: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.

There is probably enough,* as a Greek Father suggests, a reference here to the toilsome watch and labour of the builders of the wall of Jerusalem, working with one hand and holding a weapon with the other, and keeping guard both day and night.* The last clause in this verse may mean that GOD gives His beloved,* as it were in their sleep, that bread for which those who do not put their trust in Him toil wearily and anxiously. That is, true confidence in GOD removes the sense of care from His faithful servants,* for they know that He is working for them even when they cannot do so for themselves, and therefore they can wait His good time as patiently and peacefully as if slumbering, “as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.”* Or it may be: His beloved know that they can take their natural rest, and do so, with childlike confidence in His care, feeling assured that the ceaseless toil in which those weary themselves who do not trust in GOD’S help is unnecessary.* Or, lastly: He blesseth His beloved in their sleep,* as He did when He granted Solomon wisdom, power, and riches in a vision; or as He does when He grants happy dreams to sleepers. Under each and all of these interpretations, the teaching of the verse is that of the Sermon on the Mount, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, nor yet for your body what ye shall put on.… for your heavenly FATHER knoweth that ye have need of all these things; but seek ye first the kingdom of GOD and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”* The LXX. and Vulgate render the verse a little differently: It is vain for you to arise at dawn (LXX.) or, before the light (Vulg.,) ye rise after ye have been sitting [up late, A. V.] ye who eat the bread of sorrow, (A.) when He gives His beloved sleep. There is no use in rising, that is, in being proud and self-reliant, before the Light, which is CHRIST, arises on our souls. It is good to rise after Him, not before Him; that is, not to set our own will before His,* as James and John did when they asked for the chief seats in His kingdom; as Peter did, when he strove to dissuade Him from His Passion, and was bid to get behind Him. After we have been sitting in lowliness at the Master’s feet, it will be time enough for us to rise, when we have eaten of that bread of sorrow which it is His will to give us. Then we may begin to ascend out of the valley of weeping by these fifteen ascents; when the Lord giveth His beloved sleep, that peaceful sleep of a holy death whose waking shall be in the resurrection of the just.* It is to be noted that while it is vain to rise early for the toils of mere worldly success, there is a blessing in seeking to the LORD before the morning watch, and therefore the Western Church in the Invitatory for the Midnight Office of the four first Sundays in Lent tells her children,* “Let it not be in vain that ye rise early before the light; for the LORD hath promised a crown unto them that watch.”

3 (4) Lo, children and the fruit of the womb: are an heritage and gift that cometh of the LORD.

Because a childless house is no heritage or possession at all, and only offspring can give stability to a family, therefore this especial way of GOD’S building up a house is here set down. And it was Israel itself, the nation, not Canaan, the land in which it once dwelt, which was in very truth the heritage of the LORD. (C.) Here the words have for us a mystical sense, that the living stones of the spiritual temple, those children born to the Church of water and the HOLY GHOST, are all GOD’S gift, not acquired by any human agency, since they are born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of GOD.”* There is great beauty in the way the LXX. and Vulgate read the verse, coupling with it the closing words of the previous one, thus, “When He giveth His beloved sleep, behold the heritage of the Lord, sons.” (H.) That is, the LORD’S own special heritage are those Saints who have fallen asleep in JESUS, (Z.) the payment of the fruit of the womb (Vulg.) of Mary, the purchased possession for which the Incarnation and Passion were the price. This beautiful exposition is not borne out by the Hebrew, wherein it is clear that the fruit and gift are the same thing, and are both in the nominative case; but one scarcely inferior in loveliness will stand with the grammatical construction. Sons, born of water and the HOLY GHOST, are the LORD’S heritage; and the gift, the reward, the priceless possession bestowed on these sons,* is Himself Who is the fruit of the Virgin’s womb.

4 (5) Like as the arrows in the hand of the giant: even so are the young children.

The literal meaning of this verse is clear, as denoting the promise of strength and protection to the fortunes of a house where children rise to be the helpers and defenders of their parents in their age;* and it is well illustrated by a Chinese proverb, “When a son is born into a family, a bow and arrow are hung before the gate.”* Young children ought rather to be children of youth, that is, born of still youthful and vigorous parents,1 and therefore likely to grow up stalwart and active. But the LXX., followed by the Vulgate,* translate curiously, children of the shaken (ἐκτετιναγμένων,2 excussorum,) and the word is variously explained as meaning shaken out, (H.) rejected, or again, looking to one force of the Latin word, shot swiftly from the bow.3 Either way, they explain the shaken to mean the Apostles themselves, (A.) shot as mighty arrows from the bow of CHRIST, the Mighty One (Heb., LXX., Vulg., A. V.) to pierce the hearts of the nations, (G.) and the children to mean the generation of teachers whom they reared and taught, such as S. Luke, S. Mark, S. Timothy, and others similar, of all whom it is written, “I have bent Judah for Me, filled the bow with Ephraim, and raised up thy sons, O Zion, against thy sons, O Greece, and made thee as the sword of a mighty man. And the LORD shall be seen over them, and His arrow shall go forth as the lightning.”* If we take the true rendering of the passage, sons of youth, we shall not lose the allegory, but will rather have the lesson taught that the most successful missionaries of CHRIST were those in the earliest days of the Church. Cardinal Hugo sums up the qualities in which holy preachers of the word resemble arrows,* saying that they are shapely because humble; slender, for they are poor; straight, in their charity; smooth, in equity; long, as long-suffering, feathered with divers virtues, headed with the steel of firm patience, sharp in keenness of intellect, piercing in their zeal for righteousness, swift in their readiness of obedience, yet motionless of themselves, and unless shot forth by Him in Whose hands they are, when they go straight and surely to the mark.

5 (6) Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.

The Targum explains this verse,* coupled with the former one, of spiritual children. “Blessed is the man who fills his school with them, they shall not be confounded when they contend with their adversaries in the gate of the house of judgment.” The literal sense is that a family, parleying with the heralds of a hostile army, or threatened with a lawsuit, to be adjudged at the city-gate, is in little danger of seeing its right overborne by might, when there are strong sons to take care that their father is not wronged.1 They,* in this sense, includes both father and sons, but the LXX. and Vulgate translate in the singular, He shall not be ashamed, when he speaks, &c., and they further translate אַשְׁפָּתו̇, his quiver, as his desire. The meaning is not hereby affected, for it obviously denotes the sense as, He who has as many children as he wishes to have, and then we shall come back to the Chaldee exposition, taking it of the blessedness of those Doctors of the Church whose happiness it has been to train a school of pupils able to hold their ground against the current unbelief and heresy of any age of the Church. Above all, they apply the verse in this sense to CHRIST Himself, (L.) being justified in His sayings and clear when He is judged, and having no reason to be ashamed of His disciples whom He has brought to the mark of His high calling, when the Accuser stands to plead against them before the Throne, but fails, (A.) and is cast down for ever. Again, it may be taken in another sense, that the man who has taken to himself, put in his quiver, (P.) or filled his desire with—it matters not—the teaching of the Apostles, will feel no shame or confusion at openly contending with the teachers of false doctrine, in the gate, that is in the matter of CHRIST Himself, by boldly declaring the truth concerning Him, as the Apostles themselves did when brought before kings and governors. They who stand on His side, are in the gate; they who are against Him, are shut outside it, and may not enter into the City, until they have confessed Him in Whose Name, not in their own, faithful preachers of righteousness bid them knock and ask for admittance.


Glory be to the FATHER, the Builder and Keeper of His house and City; glory be to the SON, the fruit of the Virgin’s womb, His reward for His beloved; glory be to the HOLY GHOST, of Whom the children of the Heavenly Jerusalem are born again in the laver of regeneration.

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

Copyright ©1999-2018 e-Catholic2000.com