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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. LORD, I call upon Thee, * hearken unto me. [Maundy Thursday, &c.: Keep me from the snare that they have laid for me, and from the traps of the wicked doers. Ambrosian. Tuesday before Easter: Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the ungodly * and preserve me from the evil one.]


Parisian. The righteous shall rebuke me in mercy * but the oil of sinners shall not anoint my head. [Good Friday: JESUS, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scriptures might be fulfilled, said, I thirst.]

This, structurally one of the most obscure and difficult of the Psalms, is of uncertain date and occasion. If it be David’s, as the title alleges, (C.) it will agree best with the time of Absalom’s rebellion, though any period before the Captivity at which evil men had the upper hand may be plausibly assigned to it.

1 LORD, I call upon thee, haste thee unto me: and consider my voice, when I cry unto thee.

The faithful prayer of every Saint is a cry to GOD, (H.) for He is cried to by faith, and not by the sound of the voice. The blood of the martyrs has no bodily voice, but their unmerited death is as a cry to GOD; as the LORD Himself saith to Cain concerning Abel, “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto Me;”* and in this wise it is that the souls of the martyrs under the altar of GOD are said to cry aloud, saying, “How long, O LORD, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?”* And note that the difference of tense, I have cried, (A.) (Heb., LXX., and Vulg.) followed by when I cry, signifies the earnest perseverance of the Saint in prayer, never ceasing so long as, trouble lasts.* And trouble does last so long as we are in the world, wherefore the Apostle teaches us, “Pray without ceasing.”* They are the words of every Saint, but chiefly of the King of all Saints, (G.) crying as our Head for His Church with His own Blood,* which speaketh better things than that of Abel, for Abel’s cry brought vengeance on one fratricide, but CHRIST’S Blood in His Agony in the Garden and upon the Cross, joined with His prayer, obtained free pardon without vengeance for many of His enemies, and for many more with corrective chastisement, as the thief upon the Cross. Note, moreover, that GOD hears us before we pray, (Ay.) because the very will and intention of prayer, without which it cannot be made, comes from His inspiration, and therefore He must needs be thus beforehand with us in all our petitions.

2 Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as the incense: and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.

These are the words of one cut off from external communion in the Temple services, and desiring to share in them spiritually, albeit debarred from bodily presence and action, and this may well refer to David when driven from Jerusalem by Absalom.

Set forth.* Rather, with LXX., Vulg., and A. V. margin, directed, Let my prayer go straight to Thee, not being purposely turned aside by hypocrisy or desire of applause, (H.) nor yet blown about with the contrary winds of distracting thoughts. And this prayer is to be like the incense, because incense rises from below upwards on high, and is fragrant to the senses.* Moreover, the sacred incense of the Law was compounded of four ingredients, stacte, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense, all blended together, denoting the four kinds of petitions specified by S. Paul, “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks;”* answering to the four Christian graces which make us pray acceptably, humility putting us in the attitude of supplication, faith in that of prayer, hope in that of intercession, love in giving of thanks. And the four elements are thought to be typified also by these same four spices, transparent frankincense standing for air, the coarser and opaque galbanum for earth, the dropping stacte for water, the smoking onycha for fire; as teaching that everything which is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth, is bound to pay its service of worship to Almighty GOD. The incense was offered morning and evening on its own special golden altar in the Holy Place,* in front of the veil, at first by the High Priest only, but under the Second Temple, by the inferior priests also, chosen daily by lot for the office. Besides this separate cremation of incense as an independent offering, it was joined to all the other oblations “of a sweet savour,”* as something which gave them acceptance; and similarly in the Apocalypse the Angel who stands at the altar with a golden censer, offers the incense “with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne,”* while in a previous chapter an ambiguity of the English version disappears in the Greek original, which shows that the “golden vials”* of the four and twenty elders “are the prayers of saints,” while the “odours” are something superadded. That something, by the consent of all Christian teaching, is the perpetual intercession of CHRIST; and it is therefore for union with Him that the Psalmist prays, that his golden vial may be full of odours, that the Great Angel of the Covenant may present his petition amidst the smoke which rises from off the altar of gold. This is the spirit of the “Prayer of Incense” in many ancient Liturgies, of which the Armenian may serve as an example:* “We offer unto Thee, O LORD CHRIST, incense with sweet smelling savour. Grant that it may ascend into Thy holy dwelling-place, and there be received by Thee, and send down upon us, we beseech Thee, the grace of Thy Holy Spirit, for to Thee, with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, we ascribe glory, now and ever, and to ages of ages. Amen.” And the lifting up of my hands. Not only in prayer, (and with a probable reference to the attitude of the Jewish priests in benediction after the evening oblation,) but in action, in zealous carrying out of GOD’S will;

Offerri nequit hostia major,*

Quam cum homo castorum profert libamina morum,

Et de virtutum munere sacra litat.

No better offering can be made,

Than when man gives the wine of holy life,

And sacrifices pious deeds unto the LORD.

As the evening sacrifice. That is, the Minchah, or “meat-offering,”* of fine flour, mixed with oil and frankincense, and salted, which was added to the daily burnt-offering of a lamb, both morning and evening;* but for a typical reason, a greater stress was laid on the evening rite, as appears more than once in Holy Scripture.* The Minchah was, first of all, made of corn,* the chief food of man, but not until it had been made, by bruising and grinding,* into flour; thus typifying the sufferings of CHRIST, the Bread of Life, which fitted Him to be the offering for the sins of the world. Wheaten flour so ground is pure white, marking CHRIST’S perfect holiness. It had to be fine flour for the Minchah, boulted more than once, to make it quite free from husks and other foreign matter; as in CHRIST there was no unevenness nor inequality, no changefulness nor uncertainty. Oil was poured upon it, to denote His anointing by the HOLY GHOST; frankincense because of His acceptance, sweetness, and Ascension; salt, because of His incorruptibility and preserving power, and the greater part of the offering became the food of the priests, only a memorial of it being burnt. And as all these types looked to Him, and Him only, His Saints have delighted to see in this verse a prophecy of His intercession and sacrifice. His prayer for man’s salvation ascended with Himself into heaven in perpetual mediation as the incense at the golden altar. (A.) His lifting up His hands upon the Cross where they were nailed,* as He died at the ninth hour, (the time of the second Minchah) was the evening sacrifice, (C.) at the close of the Mosaic day of legal ceremonies, for the sins of the whole world;* wherefore too it was that on the night before His Passion, He constituted that new Minchah1 of the Gospel which Malachi foretold,* offered now in all places amongst the Gentiles, and made the food of His royal priesthood. So in the Liturgy of the Abyssinian Church these two notions are united in one of the introductory prayers of incense: “Peace be unto thee, holy Christian Church,* abode of peace. Peace be with thee,* O Virgin Mary, Mother of GOD, thou art the golden censer which didst bear the coal of living fire. Blessed be he who receiveth out of the sanctuary Him Who forgiveth sins and blotteth out transgressions, even GOD the Word, Who took flesh of thee, Who offered Himself to His FATHER as incense and a precious sacrifice: we adore Thee, O CHRIST, with Thy good FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, the Giver of Life, for Thou camest to save us.” And therefore, O LORD, as my trust is in that all-sufficing oblation upon the Cross, let the lifting up of my hands in final penitence, in the evening of my days, when the shadows of the night are coming fast around me, be like that evening sacrifice, and in union with it, (G.) be acceptable unto Thee, that as I have abided by Thy Cross in the sorrows of the Passion, so I may offer Thee the morning sacrifice too, in the bright dawn of the Resurrection!

Hold Thou Thy Cross before my closing eyes,*

Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies,

Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee,

In life, in death, O LORD, abide with me.

3 Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth: and keep the door of my lips.

The tongue,”* observes S. John Chrysostom, “is as though shut up in a prison, for the LORD has compassed and fortified it with two barriers, He has fenced it with teeth, a kind of ivory rampart, and has enclosed it between lips capable of being tightly shut, whereas all the other organs of sense are open. Has He not willed hereby to signify to us how dangerous the tongue is, and with what pains we ought to watch over it?” (A.) Nevertheless, a door is meant to be opened sometimes, and accordingly, “there is a time to speak.”* Let our mouth be open when we have to confess sin, and shut when we would fain excuse it, or make any other ill use of our faculty of speech. If the Psalmist had thought absolute silence at all times a duty, he would have asked for a wall, not a door. “A wise man will hold his tongue till he see opportunity, but a babbler and a fool will regard no time.”* It is told of Rabbi Jehudah the Holy that he proclaimed one day in the market place that he had by him an elixir of life, which had the power of renewing youth and prolonging existence. A great crowd assembled at his house to obtain the precious fluid, and leading them in, he opened the Psalter and read the verses: “What man is he that lusteth to live, and would fain see good days? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips that they speak no guile.”* And we may well, after asking the Wise Man’s question, “Who shall set a watch before my mouth, and a seal of wisdom upon my lips, that I fall not suddenly by them, and that my tongue destroy me not?”* return to the petition in this Psalm, “for every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind; but the tongue can no man tame.”* And therefore that was a wise saying of Xenocrates, who was asked why he had made no answer to one that reviled him, “I have often had to repent of having spoken, but never of having been silent.”*

Prune thou thy words, the thoughts control

That o’er thee swell and throng;*

They will condense within thy soul,

And change to purpose strong.

4 O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing: let me not be occupied in ungodly works with the men that work wickedness, lest I eat of such things as please them.

The first clause of this verse, as given above, is a paraphrase, and the Hebrew runs Incline not my heart, &c., as rightly given by A. V., LXX., and Vulgate. But the sense is the same.* GOD was besought to put a sentinel at the gate to prevent evil thoughts from breaking out in the form of words, and now He is asked to do more, to overcome the evil thoughts themselves in their innermost citadel, that there may be nothing harmful to break out at all.* And in his saying Incline not, we learn two things, the free-will of man, and that the heart is not naturally wicked, but that evil comes of sloth and selfishness, and is something added on for the injury of the heart, instead of being an integral part of it.* All the latter part of the verse deals first with idolatry and the dissolute orgies of heathen festivals, from which the Psalmist prays to be delivered, knowing full well even under the Law that which the Apostle taught his converts in later time: “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, not to GOD, and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the LORD, and the cup of devils, ye cannot be partakers of the LORD’S table, and of the table of devils.”* Lest I eat of such things as please them, rather, of their dainties, and this not only spoken of meat offered to idols, but of any indulgences unfitted for GOD’S servants, as we read of Eleazar the scribe,* who suffered death in the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes rather than eat swine’s flesh. So too, in a more modern day it is recorded of the martyrs of Gorcum,* that during the brief imprisonment which preceded their slaughter, they were given no food except flesh-meat upon a fast-day which occurred, but declined to touch it, on the ground that though necessity is usually held to dispense a fast, yet as this was no accident, but a thing done in deliberate mockery of a religious custom, it was better to endure severe hunger rather than suffer the scoffers to have their way. But the rendering of the LXX. and Vulgate varies a good deal from the English versions. It runs, Incline not my heart unto words of wickedness, to excuse excuses in sins, with the men that work iniquity, and I will not communicate with their chosen. (A.) And they take the whole verse of the sin of self-excuse, (C.) interpreting the Hebrew idiom excuse excuses as denoting the self-deception which follows on a false plea in defence, when the offender endeavours to persuade himself that the excuses he has made are true and reasonable. Cardinal Hugo sums up the commonest excuses made for sin:* accident; pressure of poverty; requirements of rank and wealth; fate; human frailty; ignorance; violence of temptation; and the example of others. The Carthusian supplies more; palliation of evil, laying the blame on another, denial of the facts. And to these we may add the pithy saying of a heathen philosopher,* “The worst of all excuses is, ‘I didn’t think.’ ”1 The closing words of the Vulgate, I will not communicate with their chosen or elect are variously taken to mean their dainties,* or their leaders, (A.) and in the latter case, these are severally described as all people of the stamp of the Pharisees,* cleaning the outside of the cup and platter, or as heresiarchs or other encouragers of falsehood in any form.*

5a (5) Let the righteous rather smite me friendly: and reprove me.

5b (6) But let not their precious balms break my head: yea, I will pray yet against their wickedness.

These two verses, as they stand together, present considerable difficulty. It is not clear whether the first clause of verse 5b is in contrast with verse 5a, as above, or whether it should be translated so as to be a further development of the idea there; that is, whether the precious balms, or rather oil, be that of the righteous or of the wicked.* The former is the view of the Chaldee, which paraphrases Let him not take the oil of the anointing of the sanctuary away from my head; of the A. V. It shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head; of most modern critics, who take it that the reproof is oil for the head, let not my head refuse it. On the other hand, the LXX., Syriac, Æthiopic, Arabic, and Vulgate agree in translating Let not the oil of the sinner anoint my head; which is not very far from the Prayer Book version. In either case,* the ultimate sense is the same, and is akin to that other saying, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful,”* taking, as they all do, the oil of sinners to be flattery. Two other interpretations of the verse are so remarkable that they ought not to be omitted.* One is a variant of the Chaldee, which takes the words of the King of Israel saying,* Let the priest who anointed me with the holy anointing rebuke me, and let not the royal unction of my head, my kingly rank, withdraw me from receiving wholesome correction.* The other is Ewald’s, Let not oil anoint my head, where there is no assignment of the oil to either good or bad, but it is taken as a mark of festivity, from which the Psalmist abstains altogether while the wickedness against which he protests is in the ascendant. The last clause of verse 5b is almost as much debated, and in much the same way, as the preceding one. It may stand as above, agreeing with the Chaldee and Syriac; or it may be My prayer shall be in their calamities, as A. V., or My prayer is yet in their good pleasure, as LXX. and Vulgate; both of which may be taken either as intercession for the righteous, or deprecation against the wicked, or better, for their amendment on their punishment.

6 (7) Let their judges be overthrown in stony places: that they may hear my words, for they are sweet.

That is, let punishment overtake the leaders, that those who have followed them may repent in time, and listen to wholesome counsel, and to the glad tidings of amnesty for all save the chief offenders. Overthrown in stony places may mean either dashed down precipices on the rocks below, or driven out into barren or desolate regions,* where their feastings must needs be at an end. The Vulgate translates the first clause Their judges, joined to the rock,* are swallowed up. The Latins, agreeing that the rock must mean CHRIST, differ in their glosses. (H.) S. Hilary takes it of the Doom. These evil judges, with their prince, shall be swallowed up when once they come in contact with CHRIST in judgment. And he further explains the remainder of the sentence, They shall hear My words, for they have been able, as meaning either, They have no excuse, for they had ample opportunity of hearing in time; or They shall hear My words, and perish, for their words are able to swallow them up. S. Augustine takes it in a somewhat different sense, (A.) Their judges, the chief teachers of Pagan philosophy, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and so forth, when brought close to the Rock, which is CHRIST, for comparison, prove to be nothing, and are swallowed up, because His words are stronger than all theirs, and prevail against them. Another interpretation, for the most part following a variant juxta petram, that is, beside the Rock, but not on it, takes it of the overthrow of heretics, coming very near to the Gospel in their words and doctrines, but not really founded upon CHRIST. (C.) But a more general exposition is the gentler one which connects the verse with the preceding.* My prayer shall be in their good will, that it may one day be pleasant to them, and even to their chief leaders, to be joined to the Rock, and so converted to CHRIST, as to be swallowed up in Him. One other interpretation,* given by S. Bernard, is singular, and allied to this last one, that upright judges ought to be transformed into rock, in their love of justice and firmness of purpose, so that nothing plastic may be found in them to warp them from the right way.

7 (8) Our bones lie scattered before the pit: like as when one breaketh and heweth wood upon the earth.

This verse, sufficiently obscure in itself, is further complicated by the interpolation of the word wood in the English versions. The metaphor is from ploughing, not woodcutting, and seems to mean, Our bones lie neglected and unburied at the mouth of the grave, (Z.) like the clods of earth along the track of the furrows made by a plough.* The meaning is the same if wood be inserted, for then the comparison will be to the neglected fragments and chips lying about where woodcutters have been at work. The LXX. and Vulgate read As the thickness of the earth is burst upon the earth, so are our bones beside hell,* that is, שְׁאוֹל, Hades. Some understand this exactly as above, of the broken clods of the furrows, and S. Augustine, taking the bones as those of the unburied Christian martyrs, explains that this breaking up of the earth’s (that is, the Church, lowly and despoiled) thickness by the furrows of persecution, fitted it to bring forth abundant fruit for the LORD.* Some modern writers, too, though not following the Messianic interpretation, take the verse as a promise of seed-time and national revival. Two other interpretations, however, accord better with the mournful tone of the verse,* that of S. Gregory Nazianzen, who takes it of divisions and schisms in the Church, parting her very best and strongest sons, the bones of her frame, asunder, and bringing her near destruction; and that of Denys à Rykel, who understands the verse of the deadly peril into which the arts of flatterers bring the strongest and healthiest powers and resolutions of the mind, (D. C.) scattering them away from unity and fixity of resolve, and bringing them near to hell.

8 (9) But mine eyes look unto thee, O LORD GOD: in thee is my trust, O cast not out my soul.

I look not to the threats of the persecutors, (A.) to the racks of the executioners, mine eyes look unto Thee, O LORD GOD, hanging for me upon the Cross, and promising me there salvation. (B.) I come to Thee for shelter from the men that work wickedness, O cast not out my soul, to wander houseless, and fall into their hands as they seek after it to destroy it. It is the cry of the Anima Christi:

O good JESU, hear me,

Within Thy wounds hide me,

Suffer me not to be parted from Thee,

From the malicious enemy defend me.

The literal Hebrew is Pour not out my soul,* as water spilt on the ground, but keep it in Thy cup of salvation.

9 (10) Keep me from the snare that they have laid for me: and from the traps of the wicked doers.

The LXX. and Vulgate read scandals and stumbling-blocks in the second clause, (H.) and thence the commentators distinguish here two dangers of the soul; the hidden deceit of Satan, luring by evil thoughts and desires, and the open peril of wicked men prompting to wrongdoing by their example. And taking it,* with many commentators, as a prayer against false teachers, it is well illustrated by that prayer of the Coptic Liturgy: “Pluck up idolatry utterly out of the world. Break down and humble Satan and all his evil power speedily under our feet. Abolish scandals and those who cause them. Let there be an end of the mischievous divisions of heresies. As at all times, so now too, O LORD, bring low the enemies of Thy Church. Break down their pride of heart, teach them their weakness quickly, stay their envyings, their plottings, their mischiefs, their evil speakings, which they practise against us. O LORD, bring them all to nought. Scatter their counsels, O GOD, Who didst scatter the counsel of Ahithophel. Arise, O GOD, and let all Thine enemies be scattered, and let all that hate Thy holy Name flee before Thy face, but let Thy people for ever and for evermore abide in blessing, and do Thy will.”

10 (11) Let the ungodly fall into their own nets together: and let me ever escape them.

The word here rendered together, יַהַד, also means at one time, or in one place, and accordingly, it is more usual to interpret the verse thus: Let the ungodly fall into their own nets, whilst I at the same time pass over. But the LXX. and Vulgate have translated it as though it meant alone (whereas in fact it always implies union of at least two), and read, But I am alone until I pass over. In this wise, the stress is rather on the rescue of but one righteous amidst the many wicked, than on the rescue itself, and out of this S. Augustine has developed a most beautiful meaning, (A.) albeit not to be drawn from the Hebrew. “I”—he puts the words in the mouth of CHRIST—“am alone, with no one to help, no one to understand, no one to sympathize, no one to die for Me, till I pass over,* till that Passover comes, when I shall depart out of the world to MY FATHER. Thenceforward I shall not be alone, for the one grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying there, will give birth to a vast harvest of waving corn, golden in the sunshine.”* Others take it of the Church, (B.) solitary and alone,* or else, united together, a mourning widow in the world, (C.) waiting for the Bridegroom, until she pass over to Him, (R.) or of any faithful soul, alone, because having no fellowship with sinners, alone, because having only one hope, one desire, all through its pilgrimage here, that of passing over to the Land where it shall no more be alone, but ever with the LORD.


Glory be to the FATHER, unto Whom the SON crieth; glory be to the SON, Who crieth to Him; glory be to the HOLY GHOST, the fire eternal, wherewith our prayer is kindled to be directed as incense in the sight of the LORD.

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

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