The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Medieval Commentary on Psalm 1

Posted by Dim Bulb on February 10, 2010

This is a repost from January 17th, 2008.  It is a compilation of interpretations from various scholars, theologians and preachers of the Middle Ages.

The Argument

Thomassin That Christ is the tree of life. This Psalm treats generally of all the Saints, but more especially of Joseph, who buried the body of the Lord. That the eye is to be used modestly.

Bede: In the first part the prophet expounds the virtues of the holy Incarnation. The second part shows that the wickedness of the ungodly shall receive its due recompense in the day of Judgment.

Arabic Psalter: The beauty of holiness and the hope of another world.

Historical Antiphons

Gregorian: Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice unto Him with reverence.

Common of a Confessor: Blessed is the man whose meditation is in the law of the Lord; his delight shall remain day and night, and all things whatsoever he does shall prosper.

Common of One Martyr: In the law of the Lord was his delight day and night.

Common of Many Martyrs: By the rivers of waters he planted the vine of the just, and in the law of the Lord was their delight.

Easter Day: I am that am, and My counsel is not with the wicked, and in the law of the Lord is My delight. Alleluia.

Corpus Christi: The Lord gave the fruit of salvation to the taste at the season of His death.

All Saints: The Lord knows the way of the righteous, who meditates is in the law of the Lord day and night.

This Psalm is the preface of the Psalter, the Psalm of Psalms, the title of the whole book; and as the key of a palace, by opening the outer gate, gives access to innumerable chambers, so this gives admission to the mystery of all Psalms. And it has no title, because Jesus Christ, our Head, of Whom it altogether treats, “is before all things, and by Him all things subsist.” (St Peter Chrysolsogus, sermon 44)

Blessed: As the prize is proclaimed before the contest, so this book, the companion to the Church to the end of time in her great contest, opens with the promise of her great reward-blessedness. Both David and the Son of David, Jesus Christ, begin their teaching with a blessing; only whereas here we have but one, the commencement of the Sermon on the Mount gives us eight. (Michael Ayguan)

Blessed is the man: Namely, both He who is both God and Man, Jesus Christ. The counsel of the ungodly was oftentimes offered to Him. Satan said, “Command these stones to be made bread” (Mt 4:3); His brothers said, “If you do these things, show Yourself to the world” (Jn 7:4); The chief priests said, Let Christ, the King of Israel, descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mk 15:32). The way of sinners was open before Him; but He warned against it when He said, “Enter in at the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction” (Mt 7:13). Before the seat of the scornful He stood indeed, when He testified of Himself that for this end He came into the world, that He should bear witness to the truth . But when He sat, it was in the seat of teaching, as when He instructed the multitude in the Sermon on the Mount; or in the seat of love, as when He was known to the tow disciples in the breaking of bread; and finally He shall sit in the seat of judgment, when He shall come in the glory of the Father and of the holy Angels.( Michael Ayguan). You, therefore, O Christian, if you seek the name of blessed, repel these temptations as your Master did; for it is written: “Blessed is the man that endures temptation” (James 1:12). And when you have repelled them, remember to return the blessing to Him from Whom it came, according to that saying, “Blessed be the Name of His Majesty forever” (Ps 72:19). (Parez)

Notice the gradual way in which a man grows in hardened in sin. First he walks, or rather departs in the counsel of the ungodly; depart from God, and goes to himself; leaves the Fountain of all wisdom, for the advice of him that is the source of iniquity. Secondly, he stands in the way of sinners, for in that way all were born; but, who has not stood in it, after being once removed from it by holy Baptism. Lastly, which is more than walking or standing, there is the sitting in the seat of scoffers; the throwing in our lot and portion with them here, because we chose it, whose lot and portion will be ours hereafter, whether we chose it or not (St Bonaventure). And, again, there are three other steps of guilt: the ungodly, namely, those that forget God; the sinners, those who commit open and grievous sins; the scornful,those who boast themselves in their wickedness and ridicule that which is good . Where observe, that the three miracles of raising the dead which our Lord performed set forth for us His power over all these three degrees of sin (Parez). Jairus’ daughter was just dead; there is the state of the ungodly. The son of the widow of Nain was already carried out of the city; where we have the sinners, who are removed from the company of the faithful. Lazarus had been dead four days, and was buried; and he is a type of the scorners, who are dead and buried in trespasses and sins. And further, notice, that of these three, Lazarus is the only one that is mentioned by name; just as it has oftentimes pleased God to make the greatest sinners into the great lights of His Church.

Blessed is the man: The word man does not here denote sex, but maturity of reason, wherefore the Church does not hesitate to use the Psalm of certain Virgin Martyrs. And as the Psalmist tells us of the man Adam, who was wretched because he walked in the counsel of the ungodly, and thereby drew all men into condemnation, so he points to the doming Man, Whose obedience shall be rewarded with blessedness above human thought. The way of sinners: This world is that way, observes St Augustine, the broad way which leads to destruction. The seat of the scornful: The LXX and the Vulgate read “the seat of pestilence.” Sitting, that is, as a teacher of evil, corrupting by precept and example, in contrast with Christ, Whose words are healing to the soul. Pride is that seat, remarks another, and he only sits not there who desires not the kingdom of this world. Or, better, it is heretical doctrine, whose “word will eat as a cancer”(2 Tim 2:17) especially the false philosophy of Gentile pagans.

2. But his delight is in the law of the Lord: and in his law he exercises himself day and night.

Here we have three steps in holiness, which in some degree answer to the three stages of sin. And in the respective position of the two verses we learn that the beginning of God’s fear is to depart from sin,-its progress, to do good; as it is written, “ceases to do evil, learn to do good” (Is 1:16). To delight in the law of the Lord; this is much: and yet this, after a sort, is done by the wicked: “They take delight in drawing near to God” (Is 58:2). To meditate on his law by day,-that is, in the day of prosperity, is more; and yet of this Satan may say, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” But most of all it is to do so in the night of adversity. So it is with the Man of whose blessedness the Psalm treats. He so meditated on the law of His Father in the same night in which he was betrayed, that whereas He might presently have called for more than twelve legion of angels, He would not, saying, “How then shall the Scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it might be?” (Mt 26:54) Again, he so meditated on it in that night when “there was darkness over the whole earth from the sixth to the ninth hour,” that is is written of Him, “after this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, I thirst.” And in these three steps to, or degrees of, holiness, we are reminded of that Blessed Trinity, to Whose presence they lead.

His delight is in the law…Yet the Apostle said that “the law is not made for the righteous man” (1Tim 1:9). But it is one thing to be IN the law, and another to be UNDER the law. He who is IN the law, deals according to the la, he who is UNDER the law, is dealt according to it. The one is free, the other a slave. Day and night…This is, in its fullness, true of Christ only, Who kept God’s law sleeping as well as waking, and of whom it is therefore said, “I sleep, but my heart is awake” (Sng of Sngs 5:3).

3. And he shall be like a tree planted by the water: Here, leaving for a moment the Lord, David turns to the servant. He, the true follower of Christ, shall be like the tree planted by the water-course, which is Christ himself, “the green tree” on which his enemies did such things, and which they hewed down, but which now flourishes in the midst of the Paradise of God. Thus it is said that the true servant of the Lord shall be transformed into the image of his Lord. Planted by the water…for as rivers flow through valleys and low countries, so the root of all holy actions is nourished by humility. And here also the tears of repentance are set forth to us, that the water-course by which the greatest of God’s saints have most loved to be planted. Planted…and that by the hand of God, as it is written, “Every tree which My heavenly Father has not planted shall be rooted up” (Mt 15:13). In due season…for it is not enough that our works be good, unless they also be done at the right time. As one says, “God loves adverbs; it matters little to him if a thing be good, than that it be well.” And this also was fulfilled by the Man of Whom we speak. Who Himself testified, “My time is not yet come, but your time is always ready” (Jn 7:6).

He, Christ Jesus Himself, shall be like a tree, in His humanity, planted by the water-course, because hypostatically united to the Godhead of the Son, which flows from the Father, that will bring forth His fruit, the Holy Spirit, Who has mission from Him, in due season, after His own resurrection and ascension. The Monastic Breviary, prefixing, on the Exaltation of the Cross, the words of Venantius Fortunatus as the antiphon of the Psalm:

Sweetest wood, and sweetest iron,
Sweetest weight is hung on thee,

teaches us that the Cross itself is the Tree which brought forth its fruit in God’s own season, as the same poet sings in another hymn:

When at length the sacred fullness
Of the appointed time was come,
This world’s Maker left His Father,
Sent the heavenly mission from.

And the verse will then tell us of conformity to the Passion as the true mark of the saint.

Others again, while referring the Tree to Christ, find in the water-course a reference to the Church, intended for all nations, according to the saying, “The waters are peoples, and multitudes, , and nations, and tongues” (Rev 17:15), and the fruit then denotes the local churches founded in many lands by the Apostles. They who take the Tree to represent a Saint, explain the water as the gift of the Holy Spirit, free cooling, satisfying.

4. His leaf shall not wither, and whatsoever he touches, it shall prosper: As the fruit signifies works, so the leaves set forth words. The leaves of the tree, the words of Him who spoke as man never spoke, “are for the healing of all the nations”(Rev 12:2). His leaf, not leaves; for all the words of the Christ are comprehended in this one, namely,-Love. Shall not wither… wherefore, O servant of God, knowing that every idle word men speak they shall give account, take heed lest you give offense with your tongue, and remember what the Master said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, bu My words shall not pass away” (Mt 5:18) whatsoever he does, it shall prosper: It shall indeed. “He went forth conquering and to conquer” (Rev 6:2). “The help that is done upon earth, He does it Himself.” Shall prosper: There are three kinds of prosperity: that of fools, which destroys them; that of the godly, which may be a snare to them; and that of the blessed, the only true prosperity, when, as the prophet writes, “Jacob shall return, and be at rest and at ease, and none shall make him afraid’ (Jer 46:27). And thus David lays down six conditions necessary for the righteous man, and which were fulfilled by Him, Who died at the sixth hour of the sixth day. He must depart from sin (has not walked in the cousel of the ungodly); must love the commandments of God (his delight is in the law of the Lord); be conversant in them (on His law does he meditate); fulfill them (he brings forth his fruit); teach them (his leaf also shall not wither); persevere unto the end (whatsoever he does, it shall prosper).

5. As for the ungodly, it is not so with them: but they are like chaff which the wind scatters away upon the face of the earth. Now follows the wretched estate of the enemies of Christ. It is not so with them: They reviled The Man Whose blessedness is set forth, and reviled yet again; they gave Him vinegar and gall; He who feeds the sons of men with His own Body and Blood. They set on Him a crown of thorns; He who prepared for them a crown of glory. “I fed you with manna in the wilderness, and you gave me to drink vinegar and gall,” says the reproaches on Good Friday. They are like chaff which the wind scatters away. “As soon, then, As He said to them, ‘I am He, they went backward and fell to the ground”(Jn 18:6). The wind: Like that great and strong wind of old time, which rent the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, so this shall at the Last Day utterly destroy those whose hearts were hard as rocks. This is that whirlwind which Ezekiel saw coming, “Out of the north, with a great cloud and a fire enfolding itself”(Ezk 1:4). Scatters away upon the face of the earth: As it is written in another Psalm, “let them be as dust before the wind, and the angel of the Lord scattering them.” And it is also written in the Book of Revelations how the ungodly shall desire the mountains to fall on them and the hills to cover them from the wrath of the Lamb.

Chaff: The Vulgate reads dust, which the wicked are like, because unwatered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, not united by any bond of charity, “carried about by every wind of doctrine,” and by every temptation of the Devil, they are scattered away upon the face of the earth, that is, from the Church, the solid ground of the truth, which bears fruit for God.

6. Therefore the ungodly shall not be able to stand in the judgment: The Godly did stand in the judgment of that unrighteous governor; and by so standing for a while there, was exalted to sit down at the right hand of the Glory forever. Shall not be able to stand in the judgment: In one sense they certainly shall stand in it, as it is written, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of God.” But either they shall not stand in it, as being already judged, as it is written, “He that believes not, is condemned already” (Jn 3:18); or they shall not so stand in it as to abide in it, so as to be justified in it, so as to be delivered from it. “If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and sinners appear?” (1 Pt 4:18) Neither the sinners in the congregation of the righteous: In this world they do stand in that congregation. The wheat and the tares grow together till the harvest. The net that is cast into the sea gathers bad fish as well as good. The man without the wedding garment comes into the palace of the king as well as he who is arrayed in it. But then it shall not be so. The sheep on the right, the goats on the left; the good fish gathered into buckets, the bad fish cast away; the wheat housed in the barn, the chaff burnt in fire that is not quenched; the other guests sitting down at the marriage supper of the Lamb, while he without the wedding garment is cast into outer darkness. The congregation of the righteous: Gathered together, that is, by the merits of the strength of Him Who is only righteous, and therefore truly His congregation.

7. But the Lord knows the way of the righteous: and the way of the ungodly shall perish: God is said to know things in two ways: in the way, as the schoolmen speak, of cognition, and in the way of complacence. By the one He knows all things, bad as well as good: as it is written, “You know the hearts of the children of men” (1 Kng 8:39); and again, “He knew what was in man” (Jn 2:25). By the other, He knows so as to approve: and in this sense it is said to the foolish virgins, “Truly I say to you, I know you not” (Mt 25:12). Knows the way of the righteous: and that will end in their knowing Him as He is. The way of the ungodly shall perish: Note, not the WAY of the ungodly shall perish, lest it should seem that no place were left for repentance.

Wherefore: Glory be to the Father, Who knows the WAY of the Righteous; glory be to the Son, Who is the WAY of the Righteous, the Man Who is blessed, and prosperous in whatever He does; glory to the Holy Spirit, Who is the Wind that scatters the ungodly. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. -excerpted from A COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS FROM PRIMITIVE AND MEDIEVAL SOURCES by J.M. Neale, Public domain book

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