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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, &c. First verse of Psalm.

Ambrosian. It is good and pleasant * to praise the LORD.

Mozarabic. As the dew of Hermon, which fell upon the hill of Sion.

Whether this Psalm belongs to David, as the title alleges, and thus refers to the time when all the tribes finally accepted his sway; or, as the Greek Fathers prefer, to the time when, first since the revolt of Jeroboam, the return from exile found the Jews united in one state and polity and worship,* the spiritual teaching contained in it is clear enough.* In favour of the second view of the occasion is the prominence of the religious idea, and the absence of any reference to the civil aspect of the nation, which would almost certainly meet us in a Psalm belonging to the early period of the kingdom. But, in truth, there is no internal evidence whatever as to the date.

1 Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is: brethren, to dwell together in unity!

Behold, (C.) invites the hearer to see for himself in a plain and evident truth that which the speaker finds too great a thing for him to describe. There are many things which are good,* but which are not joyful; and others again are pleasant, but have nothing good about them, for it is not easy to combine the two qualities. But in the subject-matter here, they both converge, pleasantness and the highest good; for Love has this as its chief characteristic, that while it is practically useful, it gives at the same time ease and pleasure. (A.) It is not enough to dwell together, if we add not in unity. And these words of the Psalter, this sweet sound and pleasant melody, as delightful in song as in meaning, has been the parent of the monastic life. This sound roused brothers who desired to dwell together in unity; this verse was their trumpet. It rang throughout the whole world, and they who had been separated were gathered together. The cry of GOD, the cry of the HOLY GHOST, the cry of the Prophets, was not heard in Judea, but was heard in all the rest of the world. They amongst whom this song was sung were deaf to it, and they (of whom it is said, “That which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider,”*) were found with open ears. The words hold good of all Christians who are joined together in the unity of the faith, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life, even though they may not inhabit the same place under one head and rule, for we read that those first disciples in Judea, who brought all they had, and laid it at the Apostles’ feet, “were of one heart and one soul.”* And in this connection it is noteworthy that the LXX. rendering of the words in unity is ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό,* which is the precise phrase used in the Acts of the Apostles to denote the one place where the Twelve were assembled when the fiery tongues descended on the Day of Pentecost. And now, rich and poor, noble and churl, emperor and beggar, (B.) daily say with one voice, “Our FATHER, Which art in heaven,” and show themselves thereby to be brethren, and sons of one Father. The better a man is, the nobler is he, and there are many serfs here who will be lords in that other life, and contrariwise, many lords here who will be bound in hard bondage there.* It is possible to dwell together, and yet not be at unity, as we see in Cain and Abel, in the herdsmen of Abraham and Lot, in the lives of Esau and Jacob. They who are anxious about worldly possessions and selfish interests will quarrel over them; they who rise to spiritual things and have a common hope, will be at unity. And this is typified for us in Abraham’s sacrifice, whereof we read that “he took with him all these, [a heifer, a she-goat, a ram, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon,] and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another; but the birds divided he not,”* because they who are earthly are divided, and they who soar aloft in heavenly contemplation are at one. It is good to dwell together in unity, as it is written, “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”* It is joyful, for as even a heathen moralist has said:* “There is no pleasure in possessing anything without companionship,”1 and the Son of Sirach depicts Wisdom as saying, “In three things I was beautified, and stood up beautiful before GOD and men: the unity of brethren, the love of neighbours, a man and a wife that agree together.”* And all these sayings have their truest fulfilment in the Church of GOD, as the Apostle writes: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body; so also is CHRIST. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”* (L.) A liturgical use of this verse has much beauty in it. It forms part of the last Responsory at Matins in the Common of Many Martyrs, when the commemorated Saints happen to be brothers, and similarly in the Gradual of the Mass; as for example, SS. Cosmas and Damian, SS. John and Paul, &c.

Finally; the most literal English of the Hebrew שֶׁבֶת is not dwell but sit,* and this sitting together implies mutual affection, joint study for mutual advantage, desire of assembling to receive the corporate benefits of the Church, equality, and common session in the school of the same Master. And as a great teacher tells us,* To be together in place, and not in mind, is punishment; to be together in mind, and not in place, is goodness; to be together in mind and place, is happiness.

2 It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down unto the beard: even unto Aaron’s beard, and went down to the skirts of his clothing.

The last verse of the preceding Psalm showed us CHRIST wearing His two-fold crown as King and Priest; this verse shows us how His royal and sacerdotal office affects His people; and in this connection a Rabbinical gloss on the first verse of this Psalm is very suggestive. The brethren referred to in it are the chiefs of the State and the Church,* and “especially King Messiah and the High Priest,” which is probably what the Targum means by the names Sion and Jerusalem which it inserts in its paraphrase,* and the primary notion is that of the grace and power transmitted downwards from the High Priest to the subordinate Priests and the Levites,* and from the King to his various officers and subjects. The precious ointment was composed of pure myrrh,* sweet cinnamon, sweet calamus, and cassia, blended with olive oil. The mystical sense of these is as follows: Pure myrrh, that is, myrrh which flows of itself,* and is not obtained by incisions in the tree, denotes voluntary penitence and austerity, the overflowing of a softened heart showing naturally and freely out under the warm rays of the Sun of Righteousness; cinnamon, ashy-coloured outside, and brown within, denotes external lowliness and obedience joined with inner warmth of devotion; calamus, upright, hard in bark, and sweet in perfume (whence its use as an ingredient of incense) denotes justice, outward strictness, and inward gentleness in contemplation; cassia is a variety of cinnamon, of coarser quality, thus typifying the holiness of secular life, as the other does that of religion; and olive oil signifies the rich grace of the Holy Spirit. All these virtues blend in the oil of hallowing for our Great High Priest and King.* Upon the head, of Him Who is our Head; and observe that the manner in which the Jews anointed the head of their High Priest was in the form of a S. Andrew’s Cross,* X on the crown and also on the forehead, foreshadowing the Altar on which the one true High Priest should offer the Great Atonement, and also that letter of His title in Greek as the Anointed Χριστός, which was to be borne as the chief standard of the Empire in times to come. (A.) That ran down unto the beard. The beard, lower than the head, yet closely united to it, and the symbol of manly vigour, is the first to receive the flow of oil from the consecrated temples, and signifies to us the Apostles and early Martyrs, clinging closely to their Master, bold and manly in their active toil and passive sufferings, and communicating the grace received from Him to those next below them. (C.) Even unto Aaron’s beard. This limits and qualifies what went before. It is not every costly ointment, nor any common head, which serves to bestow and communicate the blessing of hallowed unity. The oil must be the holy oil of anointing; the head must be that of the first High Priest, that Aaron whose name means “The Shining One.”* Moreover, though every Priest was anointed, yet only the High Priest was anointed on the head,* and there is a tradition that this rite was omitted after the Captivity, so that there is a special stress on the name of Aaron. And went down to the skirts of his clothing. The word is rather edge (literally mouth) than skirts, (A.) and S. Augustine, followed by many critics, understands it to mean the upper border of the robe, where was the aperture for the head, rather than the lower edge or skirt. In any case, the hallowing oil was communicated from the beard to the robe, consecrating the whole of it by touching any part. And, as has been noted, the place where it did so touch the robe was just over the embroidered breastplate bearing the twelve gems engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel,* so that the unction symbolically reached and flowed over them all. The clothing of our Aaron is the seamless robe of His Church, (A.) which He will present one day to His FATHER, “not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing.”* The High Priest’s clothing was of four colours, fair white linen, blue, purple,* and scarlet, being blended in it. Josephus takes these to denote GOD’S sovereignty over the four elements, because the flax of the fine linen grows out of the earth, blue is the colour of the sky, purple comes from a shell-fish out of the sea, and scarlet is the colour of fire. And taken of the LORD JESUS, the four colours claim for Him not only the throne of the universe; but the fine linen is His spotless righteousness, the blue His heavenly origin, the purple, His Kingly dignity, the scarlet, His bloody Passion, all inextricably woven into the texture of that Church which is His Body. Those who accept the rendering skirts explain the word as denoting that the grace descends to the very humblest members of His Body,* of CHRIST and continues to the very end of the world, (C.) so (G.) that the last believers who shall be born into it will have the same blessings that the first disciples enjoyed. (A.) But others, adhering to the stricter sense, tell us that the edge is where the garment is finished or perfected,* and that the Saints who are nearest to the beard are followers of the Apostles even as they were of CHRIST JESUS,* (especially the Martyrs,) and are the next to receive the grace descending from the Head. The symbolical meaning of this verse has prompted the Western use of the Psalm at the Consecration of Bishops and Benediction of Abbats.*

3a (3) Like as the dew of Hermon: which fell upon the hill of Sion.

Hermon, (Cd.) a great mountain with three summits, lying east of Jordan, (Z.) and covered with perpetual snow, the crown of the hills of Lebanon, and the source whence the Jordan flows to water the southern plain, which cools the vapours of the air, and condenses them into refreshing clouds, to be borne by the northern winds down to cool the “parched” land around the lowlier height of Sion, means, according as one or other etymon is followed, Lofty1 or Accursed.2 And the symbolism is this, CHRIST, the Man Whose Name is the East, Who has passed, beyond the river which we too shall have to cross, Who is One Person of the Trinity in Unity, He it is Who from the majestic dignity of the great white throne, where He is now Most High Who was made a curse for us and hung on the once accursed Tree, sends plenteous rain on His weary inheritance of thirsty Sion, the Church of Expectation here below. (G.) Gerhohus takes the same ideas in a somewhat different sense: with him, Hermon, the accursed, beyond the limits of Canaan, denotes the Gentiles, on whom now the very same dew of the HOLY GHOST has been rained that once fell upon the Apostles in Sion: but the literal sense clearly implies that the relation of Hermon to Sion in the transmission of dew is the same as that of the head to the beard and robe in shedding the oil downward; and this is the sense, accordingly, in which most of the mediæval commentators, though generally explaining Hermon as “exalted light,” take the passage: one at least of them taking Hermon, (B.) in the sense of accursed, as denoting the Apostles, excommunicated and anathematized by the Jews, and turning then to the expectant Gentiles with the message of salvation.

3b (4) For there the LORD promised his blessing: and life for evermore.

There, (C.) that is, in Zion, itself naturally dry, as its name signifies, but watered by the grace of GOD, the LORD commanded (A. V., LXX., Vulg.) His blessing, namely, CHRIST the LORD; as S. Paul confesses, saying, “Blessed be the GOD and FATHER of our LORD JESUS CHRIST, Who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in CHRIST.”* And that literally, (G.) by the manifestation of the LORD in the earthly Jerusalem, (Z.) as well as spiritually by His indwelling in the Church. There, in brotherly love and concord, in true fellowship and unity, so that a twofold blessing is there, GOD’S blessing of grace to man, and man’s blessing of praise and service to GOD. (D. C.) In such an assembly as this is, GOD commandeth His blessing, for those who are at discord are not worthy to praise Him. The divine language of this Psalm exhorts us to an inviolable bond of brotherly love, to peaceful dwelling together, to sharing with one another. For without charity no virtue hath merit. It is the beginning, middle, and end of spiritual improvement. It makes a paradise of the cloister, and angels of monks. But hatred makes the cloister a hell and monks devils. He who advanceth not in charity, advanceth in nothing, and without advance in charity bodily exercise profiteth nothing. Solitude, silence, abstinence, discipline, hair-cloth, enclosure, watching, hard couches, are of no avail unto everlasting life without the presence of charity. Wherefore the Apostle saith, “I show unto you a more excellent way: Though I speak with the tongue of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.”* And hence it is written in the Epistle of Peter, “Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing,”* and be united in the Church on earth, till the refreshing dews have done their work, till the divided brethren of Jews and Gentiles and the separated communities of Christians are dwelling in unity, and the harvest is reaped in Jerusalem above,* even life for evermore.

And therefore:

Glory be to the FATHER, Who promised us His blessing, even His Only-Begotten SON; glory be to the SON, our Anointed High Priest; glory be to the HOLY GHOST, the precious unction of the Saints.

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

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