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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.





              Ferial. Preserve me from the wicked man. [Gregorian and Monastic. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Passion: Preserve me from the wicked man, O LORD. Five Wounds: The LORD hath bound up the wound of His people, and healed their bruise. Ambrosian. Tuesday before Easter: First verse.]


Parisian. First portion: Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the ungodly. Second portion: O LORD GOD, the strength of my health, forsake me not. [Good Friday: About the ninth hour, JESUS said with a loud voice, My GOD, My GOD, why hast Thou forsaken Me?]

Mozarabic. O LORD GOD, the strength of my salvation, over-shadow my head in the day of battle.

1 Deliver me, O LORD, from the evil man: and preserve me from the wicked man;

2 Who imagine mischief in their hearts: and stir up strife all the day long.

There is no unfitness in understanding this Psalm and others like it of spiritual perils, (H.) and of prayer for deliverance from them, because of a man being named as the foe to be dreaded, for most of the snares laid for us by spiritual wickednesses, are set by the agency of men, and though it is a nature foreign to our own that devises the scheme, the opportunities are found in our defects. (A.) And therefore the evil and wicked man stands here not for the mere instruments of wrong-doing, but for its prince and head, that is, Satan himself; who is so described by the LORD, saying of the sower of tares among the wheat, “An enemy, a man, hath done this.”* The evil spirits are sometimes described in Scripture as beasts, sometimes again as men. When they swoop down suddenly on the soul,* and cause unpremeditated sin, they are like birds; when they proceed by open violence, then they rage like a lion or wolf; when they proceed by craft and reason rather than by force, they are compared to man, who, inferior to many animals in bodily strength surpasses them all in cunning and skill. Thence the Psalmist passes to the plural, who imagine mischief in their hearts, because he prays against the servants as well as against their master; and he uses this special petition against such as speak good words with their mouth, in order to deceive, since it is far easier to avoid an open and violent enemy. And the strife which these foes stir up all the day long is everything which makes part of the Christian’s conflict, all which comes out of these secret thoughts, often hidden under peaceful and flattering words, but yet persevering all the day long with no intermission during the whole of life. There is a distinction between the two phrases evil man and wicked man, literally man of violences, as in the one term the root, and in the other the fruit is described, inasmuch as every man will, sooner or later, hurt either himself or his neighbour; and though there are many evil men in the world who seem not to be violent, because they are not cruel or rough, but only luxurious, drunken, addicted to pleasure, yet they certainly hurt themselves, and rarely fail to hurt others too, by example, or even by fraud or violence, to obtain means to carry on their indulgences after their own resources have been squandered. And as those who strive to injure the spiritual interests of the faithful are more dangerous enemies than such as aim merely at their worldly possessions, many of the commentators see here sectaries,* heretics, and false brethren, (B.) as those who imagine mischief in their hearts against the Faith, stir up strife all the day long by warring against the Church of GOD.* And in that the secret mischief in the hearts, and the strife all day are grouped together, we learn that these two methods of attack are used simultaneously by our foes, who mine the citadel while they assail its walls,* who sometimes shoot a silent and secret arrow, sometimes brandish a formidable spear; and the former method is used chiefly against strong and valiant soldiers whom they dare not face openly, while the other is employed against the weak, and only in the last resource against the strong, as was shown in many a martyrdom, where torture was not tried till every mode of blandishment had been first exhausted. And therefore, interpreting the Psalm of CHRIST, (H.) they see in the evil and wicked man the Tempter who vainly strove to overcome Him in the wilderness with crafty speeches, (D. C.) and failing, stirred up open enmity against Him, making Judas, the chief priests, and the multitude, instruments to compass His death. There is yet another deep sense in which the prayer of those verses may be made, Deliver me, O LORD, from myself, that I may cease to be evil and wicked, that I may deny and forsake myself, not as I am by nature and grace, but as I am by free-will and sin; thinking evil thoughts, (A.) and engaged in ceaseless war of the flesh against the spirit.

3 They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent: adder’s poison is under their lips.

The tongue of the serpent is long and slender,* capable of much protrusion, and forked, whence they observe that the words of slanderers or of false teachers inflict a double wound at once, on the character of that which they attack, (A.) and the conscience of him to whom they speak. The serpent moves swiftly along by means of muscular force and its vertebral column, and having no feet, is silent in its approach, and the track it makes is a very slight and indistinct one, but never in a straight line. It is soft to the touch, but under that softness are hid the deadly fangs with their poison-bags under the lips, while the lips themselves betray no tokens of mischief. Such were the weapons employed against CHRIST by His enemies, (H.) slandering His life, (D. C.) and turning His very miracles of healing into matter for calumny and persecution. “Though I have redeemed them,”* saith the LORD by His Prophets, “yet they have spoken lies against Me;” and they did it too with the deadly venom of the adder, saying, “We have a law, and by our law He ought to die, because He made Himself the SON of GOD.”* Thence the figure passes on to those enemies of CHRIST who endeavour by stealthy measures and acute,* subtil arguments, to poison the minds of the faithful, and slay their belief with specious, friendly, and seemingly pious language.

4 Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the ungodly: preserve me from the wicked men, who are purposed to overthrow my goings.

S. Hilary, applying the words to CHRIST, (H.) takes the one ungodly person to be the traitor Judas, (C.) the wicked men the priests and soldiers who came under his guidance to seize the LORD. Others, more generally, understand the verse as before, to denote Satan and all his instruments. To overthrow my goings,* to take my feet from under me,* to destroy the basis of belief, the power of advance in good works,* that we may turn back from the way of salvation, or fall upon it, or at any rate, may go very slowly along it.

5 The proud have laid a snare for me, and spread a net abroad with cords: yea, and set traps in my way.

They understand by the proud in the first place all evil spirits, and then all men who follow their own will in preference to GOD’S, especially heretics and sectaries, who set up their own reason and verifying faculty as superior to Holy Scripture and the continuous teaching of the Church. S. Hilary applies the title to the haughty Pharisees and rulers of the Synagogue, (H.) who scorned to associate with the publicans and sinners amongst whom CHRIST mixed familiarly, but who could nevertheless stoop to the baseness of laying plots against His character and life. A distinction is drawn by some between the snare,* as that laid by hunters to catch four-footed prey, and the net of fowlers for birds, denoting that the enemies of souls endeavour to capture alike the earthly and carnal, and the heavenly and spiritual; nay, that they adapt their gins to the different parts of the same man’s nature, at one time assailing him on the side of the flesh, at another on that of the spirit. Abroad. The true sense is given by A. V., as by LXX. and Vulgate, by the wayside. That is, as they are careful to tell us, not in the way, but beside it. On the King’s highway, which is CHRIST Himself, the evil spirits can lay no snare. “It shall be called The Way of Holiness; the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.”* They are safe there, (C.) but the moment they get out of the path, ever so little to one side of it, the snares and nets await them. And therefore it is to be observed that the words in my way, which end the verse, and seem to contradict this gloss, are not in the Hebrew. Nevertheless, it is further to be noticed that the nets are not laid at a distance from the true way,* but close beside it. Those who are manifestly out of the road altogether are in Satan’s territory, and his bondslaves, ruled by open force, not captured by secret craft; but to kidnap the King’s subjects, it is necessary to draw very near His highway, and to use words and doctrines counterfeited as those of the Saints to deceive unwary souls;* and trying to make an evil thing seem good, or at any rate, a very trifling fault. The metaphor of cords, as consisting of slender threads twisted one after another till the requisite thickness is attained, and of nets as fashioned of a number of such cords interlaced, (G.) is one which they dwell on as forcibly illustrating the distortion of sin and the force of accumulated habits,* from both of which they are safe who keep in the straight road and obey the law of the LORD.

6 I said unto the LORD, Thou art my GOD: hear the voice of my prayers, O LORD.

Here is the true refuge from hidden malice,* from open strife, from cords, and nets, and traps, to take refuge with GOD, Invincible and All-wise. And it teaches us, too, that the one safety for simple and unlearned people when assailed by the crafty arguments of heretics and infidels is not controversy, (B.) but prayer, a weapon their enemies seldom use and cannot understand. The Psalmist calls Him my GOD, not as though He were less truly GOD of his enemies, but claiming His protection as His willing liegeman, (A.) not resisting His power as a revolted rebel, not denying CHRIST’S Godhead like the various sects which impugn it, (C.) and refuse to adore Him. The voice of my prayer. Voice denotes life. Dead things may sound, but they have no life, and therefore voice of my prayer signifies a prayer which comes from a living faith, and the loudest cry of such a voice, unheard by man, but well known to GOD, is a holy life in His service.

7 O LORD GOD, thou strength of my health: thou hast covered my head in the day of battle.

As usual, the weak Prayer Book word health should be salvation, (H.) making the appeal to GOD at once more worthy of Him and more significant of imminent peril. S. Hilary bids us observe that the order of the words denotes perfect confidence in GOD, and sure hope of final victory and reward, because the Psalmist speaks of my salvation, as something already his, of which the LORD is the strength, as its source and Preserver; whereas had he been speaking merely as a man, he would have called GOD salvation of my strength, which is a far less thing. Thou hast covered my head, as with a helmet, in the day of armour (Heb.) giving me that “helmet of salvation”* which is the “strength of my head.”* The LXX. and Vulgate read for covered, ἐπεσκίασας, obumbrasti, Thou hast overshadowed my head. According to this rendering there is a double metaphor, and the helmet is not only a protection against the sword, but against the heat, and it is accordingly explained of that battle of the hot passions of the flesh which goes on within man himself, (G.) over and above that war which he has to wage against external foes. And therefore the Church prays in her daily noon-tide hymn when the sun is in midheaven:

Extinguish strife with all its fire,*

Quench Thou the heat of ill desire,*

Health to the body’s frame impart,

True peace bestow upon the heart.

And whereas the sun was darkened during the Passion of CHRIST, (Ay.) we learn that whenever we are oppressed by the heat of battle and the fire of fleshly desires, we can find shade under the Cross in meditation on the redemption wrought thereon. The FATHER was with the SON in that Passion, (D. C.) covering His head with the helmet of a constant and resolute will, enabling Him to bear all to the very last, as it is written, “Behold, the LORD is with Me as a mighty terrible one; therefore My persecutors shall stumble, and they shall not prevail.”*

8 Let not the ungodly have his desire, O LORD: let not his mischievous imagination prosper, lest they be too proud.

This prayer tells us that the ungodly,* even in the height of his pride and power,* is but an unconscious instrument in the hand of GOD, Who can frustrate his best-laid plans, and in a moment overthrow his strength. And this notion is well brought out by a rendering offered for the second clause of the verse by some Rabbins: Cause not his might to come forth,* that is, rein him in with Thy bridle and bit. The reading of the first clause by the LXX. and Vulgate is somewhat different from the English:* Give me not up, O Lord, from my desire, to the sinner. S. Chrysostom explains this to be, Grant not to my enemy even the smallest part of his desire against me. S. Hilary, who had not the word me in the text before him, conversely understands the words thus: Suffer not even the very smallest part of what I desire to be baulked by my enemy, (A.) But the interpretation of S. Augustine is that usually followed: (C.) Give me not over to the enemy by reason of my own desire; that is, Let there be no inward assent to sin by reason of my appetites and wishes. And S. Paul appears to cite this passage indirectly when he says,* “Wherefore GOD also gave them up to uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts.”1 Some, however,* take a desiderio to mean “contrary to my desire;” and understand the ground of the prayer to be exactly that the Psalmist’s will has not consented to the tempter. The verse continues in LXX. and Vulgate, They have planned against me, leave me not, lest they be exalted, (R.) and thus the first clause, Give me not, &c., will be a prayer for the healthy condition of man’s free-will, and the second, one for the co-operating aid of GOD’S Grace. Lest they be exalted, for as the angels rejoice over one sinner that repenteth, (G.) so the devils exult over one Saint that falleth; and they become too proud, as thinking they have won the victory not against him only, but against his GOD.

9 Let the mischief of their own lips fall upon the head of them: that compass me about.

This is rather a paraphrase than a translation. The Hebrew runs, The head of them that compass me about, let the mischief of their own lips cover them.* The previous verse has a Selah or pause at the end, and it seems very probable that it has been pushed too far forward in the MSS., so that the last words of that verse really belong to this one, thus: “When they lift up the head that compass me about, then let the mischief of their own lips cover them.” But it is not necessary so to recast the construction,* as the abrupt transition to a new subject is frequent in the Psalter. They raise a question as to the word head,* whether it is to be taken generally of all the besiegers, or if their chief and leader alone be intended, which is the Chaldee view. Several of the Latins, following S. Augustine, understand the verse in a different way. (A.) The first words run in LXX. and Vulgate, ἡ κεφαλὴ τοῦ κυκλώματος αὐτῶν, caput circuitus eorum, and they take them thus: Let their pride, which is the head and sum of all their circling round and round, instead of going in the straight road,* cause that the toil of their own lips, their own laboured falsehood, may cover them. Another view is that Satan is spoken of. “Their Head is a going-round,” (C.) that is, the devil never can do anything straightforward, but must attain his ends by roundabout means; and further, he is “as a raging lion, going about seeking whom he may devour.”* Yet again,* some have seen here a figure borrowed from the coils of a serpent,* and detect a reference to the contorted and winding arguments by which sectaries and unbelievers endeavour to protect themselves and injure the Faith,* while the true Christian takes the upright rood of the Cross as his pattern. There is less divergence in the interpretation of the last clause, which is, in brief, that prayer of David which the Chaldee takes to be historically intended here, “O LORD, I pray Thee, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.”*

10 Let hot burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire, and into the pit, that they never rise up again.

If the metaphor of a siege be carried on from the previous verse into this one,* the meaning may probably be that the assailants are depicted as kindling a great pyre to burn down the gate of the city;* but as discomfited in such fashion from the battlements, that the blazing brands are hurled down on themselves, and their dead bodies fall into the town-fosse on each side of the gate.* Others take it of such a rout as that of the Amorite kings at Azekah, when a storm of thunder and hail proved more fatal than the sword of Joshua. Spiritually, the two opposing schools of interpretation,* as usual, take the words in a contrasted sense;* the one looking to the terrors of the Judgment, (C.) the other seeing in the coals the pains of repentance (or, as others prefer, the glowing words of devout preachers, themselves once black and cold, but now candescent with holy zeal) in the fire the glow of love which those coals kindle, the pit (which the Vulgate omits) will then signify the depth of humility and self-abasement, and then the closing words in miseriis non subsistent, instead of being taken to mean, They shall perish in their misery, are explained, They shall not abide in their misery, because GOD will pardon and restore them at the last.

11 A man full of words shall not prosper upon the earth: evil shall hunt the wicked person to overthrow him.

S. Hilary takes the man full of words (literally a man of tongue, (H.) LXX., ἀνὴρ γλωσσώδης, Vulg. vir linguosus) to be Judas Iscariot, (D. C.) and Denys à Rykel extends the epithet to the Jews, contradicting and gainsaying, while others take it further of heretics and disputatious persons in general. But it seems better to extend it to all evil speakers,* flatterers, slanderers, talebearers, and so forth, to all of whom the lines apply:

Sit tibi linguosus vir quinque modis odiosus,

Præproperus, præceps, ignarus, fictilis, anceps.

A man that is given to prate is in five ways deserving of hate,

Hasty, and headlong in trouble, ignorant, lying, and double.

Such as these shall not be established upon the earth (A. V.) because their own levity does not suffer them to rest, (C.) nor to persevere in the right way, the force of the Vulgate dirigetur in this place.

Evil shall hunt the wicked person to overthrow him. This forcible metaphor recalls the Latin poet’s words:

Raro antecedentem scelestum

Deseruit pede pœna claudo.*

Seldom has vengeance, although lame of foot,

Given up the caitiff who goes on before.

And the Greek Fathers accordingly warn us that the present sense of freedom and impunity which the wicked may feel is no warrant that the pursuing avenger is not on their track,* slow, but sure, as one of their poets, in his turn, has said:

ὅστις δὲ θνητῶν οἴεται τοὐφʼ ἡμέραν

κακόν τἱ πράσσων τοὺς θεοὺς λεληθέναι

δοκεῖ πονηρά, καὶ δοκῶν ἁλίσκεται

ὅτʼ ἂν σχόλην ἄγουσα τυγχάνει Δίκη,*

τιμωρίαν τʼ ἔτισεν ὧν ἦρξεν κακῶν.

What mortal thinks that he can day by day

Do evil, and yet hide it from the Gods,

Deems falsely, and so deeming, he is seized,

When vengeance is at leisure, and must pay

The penalty for evils he began.

But the Vulgate misses the full meaning, (A.) as it translates Evils shall take the unjust man in destruction, that is, as they variously interpret it, evils, which, take hold of every one, saint and sinner alike, will lay hold of the latter, not for his correction but for his utter ruin;* or, as others will have it, evils shall seize on him in his death, so that he goes down to the grave unpardoned, and with the Doom awaiting him.

12 Sure I am, that the LORD will avenge the poor: and maintain the cause of the helpless.

Our LORD Himself, (H.) as Man, was poor. He became poor for our sakes,* that we might become rich. And His FATHER did avenge Him, (D. C.) punishing the Jews, converting the Romans, and upheld the cause of the helpless; the poor and defenceless group of Galilean fishermen who preached the Gospel to the world. (C.) And that defence of the poor and helpless will have a yet more signal manifestation in the Judgment, when they shall be chastised who have persecuted CHRIST’S poor in this world.

13 The righteous also shall give thanks unto thy Name: and the just shall continue in thy sight.

As in the siege and fall of Jerusalem, (D. C.) the little band of Christians escaped safely from the horrors within and without the guilty city, and were enabled to offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving in security to the LORD Who had delivered them, (A.) so in that same Judgment when the enemies of the poor shall be cast down, the righteous shall lift up the voice of thanksgiving to the LORD for their redemption, (C.) and shall dwell with Thy face (Heb., LXX., and Vulg.) pure in heart,* and seeing GOD filled with the joy of Thy countenance in the Beatific Vision.


Glory be to the FATHER, Who hath delivered me from the evil man; glory be to the SON, His Countenance, with Whom the just shall dwell; glory be to the HOLY GHOST, by Whose kindling those coals burn which shall fall upon the ungodly.

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

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