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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.





              Many a time * have they fought against me from my youth up.


Ambrosian. The blessing of the LORD be upon you * we have blessed you in the Name of the LORD. [Easter Eve: I gave my back * to the smiters, I hid not my face from shame and spitting.]

Parisian. Sinners wrought upon my back * and prolonged their unrighteousness. [Good Friday: It was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour, and the sun was darkened.]

Mozarabic. As Ambrosian.

1 Many a time have they fought against me from my youth up: may Israel now say.

2 Yea, many a time have they vexed me from my youth up: but they have not prevailed against me.

It is the brief summary of all the trials and sufferings the chosen nation endured from its first existence as a people in Egypt until the return from the Captivity and the revival of its national being.* The Egyptian period is definitely named twice at least in Scripture as the time of Israel’s childhood,* “As in the days of her youth, and as in the days when she came up out of the land of Egypt;” and again, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called My son out of Egypt.”* Fought against would be more exactly translated straitened, hemmed me round, and it is not unlikely that there is a hidden allusion in the use of the verb צְרָרוּנִי,* from the root צָרַר, he compressed (whence we have מֵצַר, a narrow place) to Mizraim, מִצְרַיִם, Egypt, literally, the narrowed lands, from the cognate root, מָצַר, he shut in. The reference is,* however, not limited to Egypt, but extends through the long history of Canaanite, Philistine, Ammonite, Syrian, and Babylonian wars, to the failure of the confederacy to prevent the rebuilding of Jerusalem by Nehemiah,* to the renewal of the kingdom under the Maccabee revolters from Greek oppression.* It is no marvel that the Christian commentators apply the words to the spiritual Israel of the Church, (A.) in her protracted struggle against sin from the fall of man, yet in his early youth, from the days of righteous Abel; (D. C.) and later against the whole power of the Synagogue and of the Pagan Empire: and S. Hilary appositely takes the sufferings of the great Teacher of the Gentiles, (H.) from the time when the young man named Saul, newly converted, began to preach CHRIST in Damascus, till the aged Apostle Paul laid down his life gladly for His sake, as a personified type of what the whole Christian body endured. And it is as true of the Head as it was of His members, (Ay.) sought for as He, the King of Israel, was by Herod to slay Him in His cradle, and driven by necessity, as His forefathers were, into Egypt; and how they fought against Him often after that, the incessant plots of Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians against Him,* till the final result, may tell. It holds too, of every Saint who, having put off the old man with his works, and put on the new man, has begun in this wise a spiritual youth, and at once becomes the mark for the enmity of the adversaries of righteousness.* And therefore it is well said Many a time: because the Tempter, (H.) when once overcome, does not thereupon leave us, but returns, as he did to the LORD JESUS, and assays again and again to conquer. One battle, nay, one campaign is not enough for us in such a war. But they have not prevailed against me,* for wings are given to the Church that she may flee away from her persecutors,* the wing of wisdom against words of reproach, (D. C.) the wing of patience against stripes and blows. “And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good?”* “If GOD be for us, who can be against us?”*

3 The plowers plowed upon my back: and made long furrows.

The figure is taken from the cruel scourging of slaves, but it is not unlikely that there may be a literal reference to the fulfilment of the prophecy,* “Therefore shall Zion for your sake be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become heaps.”* It was true of our Head, (Cd.) Who gave His back to the smiters, when “Pilate therefore took JESUS, and scourged Him,”* and when He was forced to bear that heavy Cross on His scourged back;* it was true of many and many a martyr of His,* first lashed with the terrible “scorpion” and loaded whips; and then, as they hung on the Little Horse, torn with the hooked rake,* which literally dug deep, long furrows in their bleeding and quivering flesh. The LXX. and Vulgate however, translate somewhat differently, Sinners wrought upon my back and prolonged their iniquity. And the figure which the commentators have seen in the words is a mass of precious metal lying on the anvil, (B.) and beaten out into greater breadth and length by the hammers of the smiths, until a costly vessel is produced by their labour. (C.) Some will have it that the mention of the back implies what does not show itself before the face,* and thus secret injury, slander and detraction; but the sense of consciously bearing a burden, (A.) which others prefer, suits better with the mention of open violence in the preceding verses; and further agrees with that other passage,* where the enemies of Jerusalem are described as they “which have said to thy soul, Bow down, that we may go over: and thou hast laid thy body as the ground, and as the street to them that went over.”* Into these furrows of the plowers, (Cd.) observes one of the later expositors, the enemies of the Martyrs, all unknowingly, cast seed, which sprang up in a glorious harvest for the garners of GOD. (Lu.) And, having their faces towards GOD, while their backs were turned to the world, the martyrs recked little of all their enemies could do to the body, since they looked only to what was before, and forgot that which was behind.*

4 But the righteous LORD: hath hewn the snares of the ungodly in pieces.

Snares is inexact,* for that word denotes craft, whereas open violence is the suffering here named; and the A. V. cords gives the true meaning. The sense is, most probably, While they were plowing on my back, GOD came suddenly and cut the harness of the oxen asunder, so that they could no longer draw the plow; and then release was mine also. That is, He deprived the enemies of Israel of the instruments necessary for their evil purpose.* Or the cords may be those with which the sufferer was bound in his place of torture, now broken, so that he is freed. (A.) But the LXX. and Vulgate for snares or cords translate necks,1 and the general current of the exposition sees here the punishment of the proud and stiffnecked enemies of GOD’S Church, who refuse to bear His yoke, being easy, but who loudly justify themselves when charged with any fault.

5 Let them be confounded and turned backward: as many as have evil will at Sion.

Here, as so often, two opposing schools of interpretation meet us; the one taking the words in their sterner, literal sense of sinful chastisement in this world and doom in the judgment to come;* the other, more gently and more deeply, of the salutary confusion of penitence, of that turning backward from the broad way of destruction,* to get behind the LORD, and follow Him instead of opposing Him, as Peter did after receiving His rebuke;* to swell the ranks of His army, albeit marching in its rear, like those messengers of Joram whom Jehu (“the LORD is He”*) made to turn behind him, as he went forward to execute the LORD’S judgment on the idolatrous king.

6 Let them be even as the grass growing upon the house-tops: which withereth afore it be plucked up;

7 Whereof the mower filleth not his hand: neither he that bindeth up the sheaves his bosom.

Grass,* remarks S. Gregory the Great, grows on the roofs of houses, but has no firm root, and similarly a hypocrite, (and as others add, the proud) makes a show of doing the very highest things, but he is not stablished in tender sincerity of heart. And as grass of this kind withers before it can be plucked up, so too when a hypocrite has set himself to do good things without any set determination of a right conscience, he loses them, and shows that he was flourishing without a root. (A.) It would be wiser, pithily observes S. Augustine, to grow lower down and thrive better. Such as these, (C.) proud, violent, and hypocrites, unlike those sheaves which shall be brought with joy to GOD’S granaries at the great harvest-home,* shall not be taken from the field nor borne in the bosom of the Angel reapers: since being carnal,* they have brought forth no spiritual fruit, and are utterly worthless.* But the righteous who have led active lives of good shall be led by the reapers’ hands, and those who have served GOD in devout contemplation shall be carried in the bosom of the Angels to their rest in Heaven.

8 So that they who go by say not so much as, The LORD prosper you: we wish you good luck in the name of the LORD.

That is, (A.) as there will be no reapers for the worthless grass upon the housetops, there will be nothing to attract the attention of passers-by, (C.) so as to draw from them the customary greeting to those engaged in getting in the harvest: of which an example is recorded for us in the mutual benediction of Boaz and his reapers at Bethlehem.* They explain the passers-by to be those who are on pilgrimage through this world,* and seeking a better country, so that they do no more than briefly sojourn here where they have no continuing city, and it is especially taken of the Prophets and Apostles, who do not bless those whom they see aiming at high places in the world, (D. C.) and destitute of the root of charity. So the Prophets of the Old Testament have no blessings, but only terrible warnings and threats for their nation if they should reject their King, and have evil will at Sion, the Church of His foundation: as for example when Jeremiah foretells “They have belied the LORD, and said, It is not He,”* there follows the threat of the Roman conquest, with all its terrible devastation. (P.) And Parez works out the whole Psalm as a prophecy of the rejection of the Synagogue, especially comparing its ceremonial system, withering away and producing no fruit, to grass upon the house-tops, dried up for the want of the moisture of grace, and from not being planted on the rich soil of the foundation, which is CHRIST JESUS. And this author, as well as many much earlier, notes that the Psalm refers to heretics and other false Christians as well as Jews; while S. Ambrose,* writing when the memory of the Arian troublers of Sion and of the aid they derived from successive Emperors was still recent, takes the reference to the housetops as marking the Court intrigues and reliance on powerful secular aid which specially characterized the leaders of that particular form of unbelief. (L.) To none such can the preachers of the Church say The Lord bless you (A. V. &c.), for they are rebels against Him; nor can they even say We bless you in the Name of the Lord, to any one who abideth not in the doctrine of CHRIST, “for he that biddeth him GOD speed is partaker of his evil deeds.”* Let us then sow profitably, counsels a Saint at the end of his gloss on this Psalm, (H.) that we may make our labours ready for filling both hands and bosom, and become partakers of that blessing of GOD which is in CHRIST JESUS our LORD.


Glory be to the FATHER, the LORD GOD of Israel; glory be to the SON, on Whose back the plowers made long furrows: glory be to the HOLY GHOST, the righteous LORD, Who blesseth His people.

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

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