Patristic/Medieval Commentary on Psalm 33
Posted by Dim Bulb on March 19, 2016
Title. LXX.: A Psalm of David. Without any title in the Hebrew.1
Arg. Thomas. That by Christ, the Word of the Father, the heavens and their powers were established. The Prophet exhorts God’s people with praise. The voice of the Church consoling the martyr. The Prophet admonishes to rejoice in the Lord.
Ven. Bede. In this Psalm the Prophet exhorts the Church of the faithful to psalmody, enumerating the power and mighty deeds of the Creator, that man may more eagerly hasten to praise Him, when he knows His virtue and power. Through the whole Psalm the Prophet speaketh: but in the first section he admonisheth the just to rejoice in the Lord, Who supports His creatures with admirable power. In the second he exclaims that the man is blessed who has merited to take His worship in hand, signifying the Christian times in which a multitude of the Gentiles would believe.
Eusebius of Cæsarea. An exhortation to celebrate God’s praises, together with Divine knowledge.
1 Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous: for it becometh well the just to be thankful.
This Psalm has from the beginning been applied to the martyrs, (A.) as it is said now on the Festival of Many Martyrs. And so it was in the time of S. Augustine. Thus he speaks on such a festival:* “You know that which we have just been singing, Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O ye righteous. If the righteous rejoice in the Lord, the unrighteous only rejoice in the world. This is the first rank that has to be overthrown.1 First we must conquer delectation and then trouble. How can we conquer the world when it rages, if we cannot vanquish it when it flatters?” Thus then, in this verse we invite those blessed ones with God to join in our gladness: for it indeed becometh well those to be thankful of whom the hymn says:
Hinc hi beati
Sunt hi viventes
Me vitâ fruentes,
Me lumen videntes,
Sunt et divini
Di quoque igniti
And if it becometh well the just to be thankful, so also, the wise man says, “Praise is not seemly in the mouth of a sinner.”* And therefore notice that neither our Lord nor S. Paul would allow Satan to confess the power of God. “He rebuking them, suffered them not to speak, for they knew that He was Christ.”* And thus, when the Pythoness proclaimed, (L.) “These men are the servants of the Most High God,”* Paul commanded the evil spirit to come out of her. Notice also how the last verse of the preceding Psalm and the first verse of this seem to run into each other: the penitential sorrow of the one having been gradually raised into the exultation of the other. Ayguan has a singular idea of the body’s upbraiding the soul with reference to It becometh well the upright, (Ay.) as it is in the Vulgate: both were created by God upright, and intended to look up towards the sky. Man does not imitate the beast by bowing his head to the ground, as even the heathen poet tells us,
.… Cœlumque videre
Jussit,* et erectos ad cœlum tollere vultus;
but in his soul man does stoop and bend down, curved instead of upright, to the pleasures and business of this world. Rejoice. S. Ambrose observes that there is no greater defence against Satan than spiritual joy, which indeed comes second in the catalogue of the graces of the Spirit;* as the evil spirit that vexed Saul was driven away by David’s harp.
2 Praise the Lord with harp: sing praises unto him with the lute, and instrument of ten strings.
Here we have the first mention of musical instruments in the Psalms. It is to be observed that the early Fathers almost with one accord protest against their use in churches; as they are forbidden in the Eastern Church to this day, where yet,* by the consent of all, the singing is infinitely superior to anything that can be heard in the West. It is not easy to determine when they were first introduced into the West. S. Gregory the Great speaks of organs;* but Amalarius in the eighth century, describing the use of the Church of France, says that no instruments were employed. S. Thomas Aquinas seems to disapprove them,* or at least barely tolerates them; and the Church of Lyons, which held more faithfully to primitive practice than any other in France, admitted them only in the sixteenth century. To what perfection they were brought among the Jews the whole routine of the Temple service abundantly shows. The instrument of ten strings they take to mean the music of the Church Triumphant, ten being the symbol of perfection: and as the Vulgate, herein following the Hebrew, mentions only the harp and the ten-stringed Psaltery, instead of the three instruments which both our Bible and our Prayer Book version have, they see in this the union of the Church on earth with that in heaven. So Bernard of Cluny,—
Thou city of the Angels! thou city of the Lord!*
Whose everlasting music is the glorious decachord.
Tropologically, all mediæval writers dwell on the similarity between the strings of musical instruments and Christian souls. Firstly,* they are made of dead animals,—so must we be dead to sins. Next, they require an equal tension, as our passions must be subdued and moderated. Thirdly, as all their sound depends on the air; so all that we can do is to be attributed to the Holy Spirit. Adam of S. Victor sees a parallel between the martyrs and their sufferings and the strings of the lyre, which are drawn tight and stricken, so that they may yield their sweetest sound.
“Sicut chorda musicorum*
Tandem sonum dat sonorum,
Sic in chely tormentorum
Melos Christi confessorum
Martyris dat tensio.”
So, again, Hildebert of Le Mans:
“Sicut chorda solet dare tensa sonum meliorem,*
Sic pœnis tensus dat plenum laudis honorem.”
3 Sing unto the Lord a new song: sing praises lustily unto Him with a good courage.
This is the first time that we have had that expression, A new song: on which S. Augustine has left us a whole treatise, and on which all mediæval writers love to dwell at length. Zigabenus sees in this expression the four great hymns of the New Testament: (Z.) he also sees in the decachord the ten songs of the Old Testament, those of Miriam, Moses, Deborah, (A.) Hannah, David, Solomon, Judith, Hezekiah, Habakkuk, the Three Children,—an adaptation rather than an explanation. S. Augustine would have the decachord to mean the three commandments which pertain to God, the seven which pertain to man.1 The remarks of Ayguan may so well apply to choirs of the present day, that I will transcribe them here. “For when we go to sing the Office of God in church, (Ay.) reverence and humility ought to be more strictly observed, lest, when we come into the presence of God Himself, we should be worse than at other times. For there are some who, wandering in their thoughts, staring about with their eyes, slovenly in their dress, look about and gaze upon the flat walls, sing one thing and think of another, are bodily in the choir, and mentally in the market.2 And there are some singers of effeminate voices, who glory in their delicate modulation, and put in other notes than those that are written in the ecclesiastical books, that they may rather, forsooth, please the people than God. They who sing after this fashion do not sing in the choir with Miriam, the sister of Moses: but in the palace with the daughter of Herodias, that they may please those that sit at meat, and Herod. They glory in reaching such and such a high note; but no one reaches such a high note as he whom God is accustomed to hear from His lofty mountain. You, therefore, sing in the valley of humility, that you may merit to be heard on the hill of glory. If you so sing as to be careful about the praise of others, you sell your voice, and make it not yours, but theirs. You have your voice while you sing in your own power; have your mind in your own power too.”* Lustily unto Him with a good courage. Notice how God cares rather for the will than for the deed: how we must throw ourselves heart and soul into our work, if we would do that work so as to please Him. Our English translation, lustily, gives the force more emphatically than any other version. If we wish to show the inferiority of the Bible translation, we could not choose many more glaring examples than this. Compare, on the one side, the noble, Sing praises lustily unto Him with a good courage; on the other, Play skilfully with a loud noise.3
[A new song,* because Christ has made all things new, and we having put on the new man,* must have a new kind of praise in our mouths.* That, remarks another saint, is love, for the Lord hath said, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another.”* And not only one another, but “Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you.”* And it may be further taken of the counsels of perfection, of chastity, “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it;”* and of poverty, “Sell that ye have, and give alms.”*]
4 For the word of the Lord is true: and all his works are faithful.
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” (A.) said the Word of the Lord Himself; and it well follows, All His works are faithful, since it is written, “All things were made by Him.” Yet the greater part of the early commentators do not take it in this sense. Theodoret, with the literal interpretation which his school dearly loved, takes it of Holy Scripture. So does S. Gaudentius of Brescia.* S. Basil and Cassiodorus take it of the Catholic faith; S. Bruno, by a miserably narrow interpretation, understands it of the precept of singing. The word, says Ayguan, is the half-way spot between the intention and the action; (Ay.) and therefore is the Word of the Lord true, or straight, because of the faithfulness of all His promises. As it is written, “All His commandments are true: they stand fast for ever and ever.”
5 He loveth righteousness and judgment: the earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.
Righteousness and judgment: or as it is in the Vulgate, Mercy and judgment.* For these are the two pillars on which God’s house is reared up,—the Jachin and Boaz which stand before the celestial temple. And mercy is well put before judgment: for the promise of the Deliverer who should bruise the serpent’s head was given before the sentence of punishment was pronounced on Adam and Eve: as also at the last day the King will first speak the blessedness of those on the Right Hand, before He shall bid those on the left to depart into everlasting fire.* And since He loves mercy, so He commands us to love it also. “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justice and to love mercy?” The earth is full. And why does he rather say the earth than mankind? Because God’s mercies are over all His works, as well as over man: He that gave warning in the plague of hail that the cattle of the Egyptians should not perish,—He that forbad the taking the dam and the eggs together,—He that had pity on the much cattle of Nineveh, (Z.)—certainly shows His goodness to His other creation as well as to man. Again; the earth is mentioned as if to tell that this world,* and not the next, is the season for repentance and mercy.
6 By the word of the Lord were the heavens made: and all the hosts of them by the breath of his mouth.
Here we have one of the most remarkable testimonies in the Old Testament to the doctrine of the Trinity. Almost all the Fathers have so applied it,—Tertullian,1 S. Cyprian,2 S. Ambrose,3 S. Augustine,4 S. Isidore,5 S. Fulgentius,6 S. Athanasius,7 and many others. Some of these have gone further, and have attributed the creation of the heavens more especially to the Word, that of the stars and angels more especially to the Holy Ghost. S. Augustine, referring the heavens, as he always does, to the Apostles, shows how it was the teaching of the Word of God which made them what they were, and formed them for their work. “And how dared,” says he, “those same heavens to go with confidence, of weak men to be made heavens, except that by the Word of the Lord were the heavens made firm? Whence could sheep among wolves have such strength, except that by the breath of His mouth were all the strength of them? ‘Behold,’ saith He, ‘I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.’ O Lord, most merciful, surely Thou dost this that the earth may be full of Thy mercy! If, then, Thou art so merciful as to fill the earth with Thy mercy, see whom Thou sendest, see whither Thou sendest. Sheep into the midst of wolves. ‘I send them,’ saith He, ‘because they are become heavens to water the earth.’ Whence weak men can be heavens. But all the strength of them by the Spirit of His mouth. Behold, the wolves shall take you, and deliver and give you up to the powers, for My Name’s sake. Now arm ye yourselves. With your own strength? Far from it. ‘Take no thought how or what ye shall speak, for it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.’ This is of a truth, (Cd.) All the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” Many have thought that S. John, at the commencement of his Gospel, and especially in that saying, “All things were made by Him,” was simply referring to this passage, and re-stating it in its own highest Christian meaning. If this be so, it is a curious instance of the way in which the Apostles understood the symbolical teaching of the Psalms. S. Basil understands the heavens, not of Apostles, but of Angels, which, however, is less in accordance with the general principle of symbolism. Grounding themselves on this verse, the Jewish rabbis declare that the basis of all the bases of the Mosaic law is this: that the creation of the world was the immediate work of God, and not His mediate work by the hand of Angels.
7 He gathereth the waters of the sea together, as it were upon an heap: and layeth up the deep as in a treasure-house.
Taking the heavens to signify the Apostles, and the hosts of them the exceeding great army of converts which by their preaching was spread throughout the world,* then here we see an analogy with that prophecy in Isaiah, “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” These waters He gathered together in that book of remembrance which is written for them that fear Him:* and layeth up the deep as in a treasure-house: for what are His treasures but the innumerable souls which either directly or indirectly the preaching of the Apostles has brought in? The Vulgate has it, gathering as in a bottle the waters of the sea: (Z.) and they refer to the new wine and the new bottles which the Lord’s Incarnation was to prepare. Others again take the deep thus laid up in a treasure-house,* of the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God: others, of afflictions, bitter in themselves like the waters of the sea, but the exceeding great treasures of grace. Or again: Theodoret takes the waters* in the bottle of the clouds, sucked up and raised from the sea and there reserved till the time comes to pour them forth upon the earth. As it is written in Job: “Who can number the clouds in wisdom, or who can stay the bottles of heaven?”* On an heap. As it was when the Red Sea was passed, (L.) and when the nether waters of the Jordan were cut off. And if we take the Latin,* Placing the abysses in His treasures, then we may see how the greatest sinners have sometimes become His greatest saints;* abysses of wickedness turned into treasures of mercy. S. Basil says,* “Laying up the abysses in His treasures. It would have been more after the common manner of speech, Laying up His treasures in abysses: that is, containing His treasures in mysteries and hidden secrets. But now He speaks of the abysses themselves as of something precious and worthy of Divine treasures. Nor do I know whether the reasons themselves of Divine judgments hidden in themselves, and comprehensible by no minds, are hence called abysses, because they are reserved to the Divine understanding alone. We, when we shall be held worthy of that knowledge by which God is seen face to face, shall then contemplate those abysses in the treasures of God. But if you collect what is written concerning bottles in the sacred volume, you will approach nearer to the understanding of those prophecies. Those are called new bottles in the Gospel who day by day renew their spiritual life, and receive new wine from the True Vine. But they who have not yet put off the old man with his deeds, are old bottles, into which new wine cannot conveniently or safely be poured.” Thus Adam of S. Victor:
Utres novi,* non vetusti,
Sunt capaces novi musti;
Vasa parat vidua;
Dat liquorem Helisæus;
Nobis sacrum rorem Deus,
Si corda sint congrua.
[The waters, being the nations of the world, according to that saying, “the waters are peoples and multitudes, and nations and tongues,”* are gathered together into the unity of the Church,* which is compared to a bottle, because, as a leathern bottle is made of the skin of a dead animal,* so the Church is made up of those who have mortified sin in the flesh.]
8 Let all the earth fear the Lord: stand in awe of him, all ye that dwell in the world.
In like manner, the Prophet: “Fear ye not Me? saith the Lord: will ye not tremble at My presence, Which have placed the sand for the bound of the sea, by a perpetual decree, that it cannot pass it?”* They seem to see,* in the two clauses, a double division of those who are addressed: Let all the earth: those who are of the earth, earthy:—all ye that dwell in the world:* those who are true children of that Church which is scattered throughout the whole globe. Stand in awe of Him. And was it not so, when after the stilled storm, Peter fell down at His knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord?” Was it not so when the Gadarenes besought Him that He would depart out of their coasts? Well says S. Augustine: (A.) “Let them not fear another instead of Him. Doth a wild beast rage? Fear God. Doth a serpent lie in wait? Fear God. Doth man beat thee? Fear God. Doth the devil fight against thee? Fear God. For the whole creation is under Him Whom thou art commanded to fear.” Stand in awe of Him. Or as it is in the Vulgate, Let all the inhabitants of the earth be moved because of Him. And that answers precisely to the saying of Ezekiel: “So that the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the field, and all creeping things that creep upon the earth, and all the men that are upon the face of the earth, shall shake at My presence.”*
9 For he spake, and it was done: he commanded, and it stood fast.
Prudentius, in that noble hymn of his, has versified this passage:
Ipse jussit, et creata: dixit ipse,* et facta sunt:
Terra, cœlum, fossa ponti, trina rerum machina,
Quæque in his vigent sub alto Solis et Lunæ globo.
The Greek Fathers seem to take the two clauses as referring,* the former to God’s material, the latter to His spiritual, works. But notice then: He spake, and it was done: a most clear reference to the Word,* by Whom it was done. S. Isidore most truly teaches that He spake is often said of God instead of “He did:” because by His Word His creative power was exercised. And S. Ambrose well says: “God did not give the command that the effect might be: but that it might be seen to be His effect.”* They dispute with reference to this verse, why, in the Apostles’ Creed, in the Latin, God is called Creator of heaven and earth, and in the Nicene, the Maker. And they reply that it was with reference to the heresy of Marcion and his followers, that God did indeed create all the great and chief parts of nature, (Ay.) but that as to the little every-day occurrences of this life, they are brought to pass, made, so to speak, by Satan.
10 The Lord bringeth the counsel of the heathen to nought: and maketh the devices of the people to be of none effect, and casteth out the counsels of princes.
11 The counsel of the Lord shall endure for ever: and the thoughts of his heart from generation to generation.
So of Ahithophel; so it was with Holofernes; so with Sennacherib. And therefore well might Gamaliel say, “If this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it.” And the Scriptural S. Albert heaps together innumerable passages which testify to the same thing.* So says Eliphaz: “He disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise. He taketh the wise in their own craftiness, and the counsel of the froward is carried headlong.”* So S. Paul: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” So, again, Isaiah: “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure:”* and once more: “The Lord of Hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass: and as I have purposed, so shall it stand.” And thus writes S. Cyprian:* “Hast thou the protection of God? stand safe and without fear against everything that the devil or the world can perform. For what fear can he have from the world, to whom God is a protector in the world?” Casteth out the counsels of princes. It is not in the Hebrew; but being in the LXX., and both in the Italic and Vulgate, it has probably fallen out of the original by accident. And who are these princes, (Ay.) save the devil and his legions? as our Lord Himself says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out.”* “So,” says one of the greatest of the Fathers,* “so, O Christian, his devices against thee are every day brought to nought. He sends such and such a temptation, intending it to be thy ruin; but the Lord, by His overruling providence, turns it into thy victory. He pours forth against thee all the fiery darts of evil thoughts: thy Lord not only intercepts them, but infuses in their stead His Holy Spirit into thy soul.” The counsel of the Lord. Yet we must remember that, as S. John Damascene says, “Counsel,* properly speaking, is only taken by the ignorant.” Hear, therefore, the Carthusian: (D. C.) “But Holy Scripture frequently attributes counsel to God: but it is then ascribed to Him, not in so far as it includes the inquisition of doubtful matters, but in so far as it excludes a hasty determination.” And they remind us that there are three kinds of counsels which God overthrows: 1, the vain philosophy of heathen sects, long before the Advent; 2, (P.) the counsel of Scribes and Pharisees, Annas and Caiaphas, Herod and Pontius Pilate, against our Lord, while He was on earth; and 3, the counsels of great persecutors, of Decius and Diocletian, of Huneric and Mahomet, against His Church since His Ascension. And notice once more how God turns the counsels of the wicked into good. “Often,” says S. Gregory, “while some,* puffed up by human wisdom, devise the most subtle counsels against the dispensation of God, they only carry out the Lord’s will; and while they seek to overthrow it, they indeed confirm it. So Joseph, sold into Egypt that he might not be lord over his brethren, by that very means was made a king and prince to them.”
12 Blessed are the people, whose God is the Lord Jehovah: and blessed are the folk, that he hath chosen to him to be his inheritance.
How does He choose them?* And Cardinal Hugo answers the question at length. If we take God’s own simile of a husbandman, He removes the briars of sin, He ploughs with the plough of the Word, He sows the seeds of grace; He surrounds with the hedge of fear; He walks in His garden in the cool of the evening. S. Basil will have the people to mean the Jews; and then, when they counted themselves, as the Apostle speaks, unworthy of eternal life, the folk to mean the Gentiles. Or, if you like, we may take the people to mean the chosen band of the Apostles: (L.) as the Lord Himself saith,* “Have not I chosen you twelve?” Others, again, see, in the distinction between the two clauses, the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant; (Ay.) or rather,—and it is to be noticed how completely a mediæval writer here eschews the notion of a purgatory1 of suffering,—of the Church awaiting her future reward before the Resurrection, and the Church as having entered into possession at the consummation of all things. To use his own words, “The blessedness which is possessed in our country, so far as respects the first robe before the Resurrection, but which will be complete as to both robes after the Resurrection.” What this blessedness consists in let S. Bernard tell us:* “In that eternal and blessed life those blessed ones triply have fruition of God: to wit, seeing Him in all things, having Him in themselves, and, which is ineffably more glorious and blessed, beholding Him in His very essential Trinity, and contemplating that glory without any enigma, by the pure eye of the heart. And it is this condition of blessedness, which noting, the Saviour saith, ‘This is life eternal, that they may know Thee, the only true God.’ ” And if we take the two clauses together, we thence find that God is the possessor as well as the possessed: as is set forth by S. Anselm with admirable force in his Prosologion. “Therefore God Himself says, Fear not, for I have redeemed thee; I have called thee by thy Name; thou art Mine.” Corderius is rapt beyond his usual elevation in considering this passage: “O words,” says he, (Cd.) “most sweet, and that fill the mind with wonderful happiness! We are the possession of God, we belong to Him, we pertain to Him; no one can hurt us, without challenging the power of God. ‘Thou art Mine,’ He says, and that by a peculiar reason; not in that way only in which the heaven and earth are God’s, as being the demiurge and architect of all, but because, saith He, ‘I have redeemed thee, fear thou not.’ The purple blood itself of the Immaculate Lamb, that immortal and incomparable price, which, save God, nothing can equal, cries out loudly, ‘Fear not;’ and,* as S. Cyprian speaks in his exhortation to martyrdom, promises to us security and protection. To the same effect is that which follows:”
13–14 (13) The Lord looked down from heaven, and beheld all the children of men: from the habitation of his dwelling he considereth all them that dwell on the earth.
So the ancient hymn tells us:
Speculator adstat desuper
Qui nos diebus omnibus,*
Actusque nostros prospicit
A luce primâ in vesperum.
Instead of from the habitation of His dwelling, the Vulgate has it, from His prepared dwelling, an expression which they interpret variously. The meaning attached to it by S. Gregory Nyssen is something harsh:* The Lord—that is, Christ—from His prepared dwelling—that is, from the bosom of the Father, Whose He always is, looked down upon the children of men at the Incarnation. S. Thomas takes it as reminding us that there is a certain abode prepared,* as for God now, so for those that are God’s hereafter; a place where He is, and where we shall be also. And so in Ecclesiasticus: “The eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun, beholding all the ways of men, (D. C.) and considering the most secret parts.”* Prepared habitation. We may take it, if so we will, of those whom God has used as His instruments and temples by which to work, and in which to dwell: (A.) according to that saying, “What, know ye not that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost, Which is in you?”* Thus, from His habitation in each of the Apostles, the Holy Ghost considered the various nations to whom, by their means, He preached: China and India by S. Thomas, Scythia by S. Andrew, Spain by S. Paul. So it is that He exercises that which Tertullian calls His* censorium lumen over those to whom His word is spoken by His messengers at this day. And there is no doubt a contrast in the first and second clauses, between The Lord looked down from heaven and from His prepared habitation. Under the old dispensation He looked down from heaven as a God afar off; under the New Covenant from His prepared habitation: as it is written, “A body hast Thou prepared Me.”*
Man with man in converse blending,*
Scattered He the Gospel seed.
15 (14) He fashioneth all the hearts of them: and understandeth all their works.
Or, as it is in the Vulgate, He fashioneth the hearts of them singly. Hence they are accustomed to refute the fancy of Origen, (L.) that the souls of men were created long before their bodies, and that they are simply put into each body as it is formed. It is not here the place to open, as so many modern commentators do, a door to the whole Jansenian controversy, from the last clause,* and understandeth all their works. Others have gathered that the singly or separately refers to the spirit of man as contrasted with the souls of beasts; (Z.) and others, as S. Isidore of Pelusium, take it to mean that God by Himself, and without any intermediate ministry, has fashioned each several soul. “But do thou, O Christian,” says Hugh of S. Victor, “knowing that* He understandeth all thy works, Whose works even from the cradle to the grave were what they were, that He understandeth all thy works, Whose highest work was performed on the Cross of Calvary, take heed lest He behold in thee works of worldly pleasure, works of self-indulgence, works of sin; works the very opposite of, and contrary to, those which His own right hand and which His holy arm effected; works that will be thy shame and confusion in that day when thou, and all the sons of men, must be judged according to thy works.”
15 There is no king that can be saved by the multitude of an host: neither is any mighty man delivered by much strength.
16 A horse is counted but a vain thing to save a man: neither shall he deliver any man by his great strength.
This is the lesson which God at sundry times and in divers manners taught His people. Thus He said to Gideon, (L.) when about to fight with the Midianites, “The people are yet too many; bring them down to the water, and I will try them for thee there.”* So, again, the man of God said to King Amaziah, “O king, let not the army of Israel go with thee; for the Lord is not with Israel. But if thou wilt go, do it, be strong for the battle; God shall make thee fall before the enemy.”* And so, once more, where it is written that Judas Maccabeus “stretched out his hands towards heaven, and called upon the Lord That worketh wonders, knowing that victory cometh not by arms, but even as it seemed good to Him, He giveth it to such as are worthy.”* Neither is any mighty man delivered by much strength.* For consider that He Who was indeed the mightiest of all mighty,—the God Who, to them that had no might, increaseth strength,—the God Who is strength Himself, delivered not the race of man by strength, but by weakness; as when He fell beneath the Cross, as when He bowed His head and gave up the ghost, as when in the weakness of death He was taken down and laid in the grave. Mighty man: or giant, as it is in the Vulgate. They compare, (Ay.) therefore, Sihon, King of the Amorites, and Og, the King of Bashan,*—the latter “of the remnant of the giants,”*—with the two clauses of the present verse: as they do the horse, counted but a vain thing to save a man, with that of Pharaoh, which went down into the Red Sea. And so it is written in another place, “Thus saith the Lord: (D. C.) Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,* neither let the mighty man glory in his might: let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Me, that I am the Lord.”* And notice why a horse is so often spoken of as a worldly method of defence or attack: because the children of Israel never used horses in battle. We read of the vast number of war-horses brought into the field by the Ammonites and Syrians; also the chariots of iron, which proved an insuperable difficulty to the Ephraimites, in driving out the ancient possessors of their land. But, excepting for show, the kings of Judah had none; and even for show, the Law forbade any great number, “He shall not multiply horses unto himself.”* Neither is any mighty man delivered: or, as it is in the Vulgate, And a giant shall not be saved in the multitude of his strength. There we have a clear reference to those giants whom the Philistines sent forth against God’s people, Goliath at their head: (A.) all of them manifest types of Antichrist. Let S. Augustine, then, teach us what is to be our strength. “To the Lord all, in the Lord all. God be your hope, God be your fortitude, God be your firmness; He be your prayer, He be your praise: He be the help by which you labour, He be the end in which you rest.”
18 (17) Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon them that fear him: and upon them that put their trust in his mercy.
They take it of that eye which, while the Lord was before the judgment-seat, looked Peter into repentance,—while He was hanging on the Cross, inspired the penitent thief with love and hope. And that word* behold, as S. Cyril says, is not idly to be passed by. It seems to bring the mercy of God home to us; as if, not only in those old histories, but in these present days, (C.) that Eye was still watching us through our wanderings, and beaming upon us the strength which is to bring us to our home. And notice once more the gradual ascent from fear to love: upon them that fear Him, first; then upon them that put their trust in His mercy. This was the verse on which the poor old anthropomorphite monk in Egypt based his religion. “It has been all my life,” he said, to the Bishop who showed him the impossibility of his creed, “my comfort to believe, that the Lord was watching me with eyes like those of a man: now you have taken away my God, and what shall I do for another?” S. Albert well observes that here we have a promise of God’s protection in this life in the first clause; of His salvation in the world to come in the next. And he goes on to make an ingenious application of the Mosaic law. “Hope and fear,” he says,* “are the two millstones between which a man’s soul is ground so as to become contrite; and therefore the Law forbids that either the upper or the nether millstone should be taken to pledge, neither being of use without the other.”* And therefore they are well joined in Ecclesiasticus: “Ye that fear the Lord, (A.) hope for good.”* S. Augustine says well: “Whereby shall we be saved? Not by might, not by strength, not by power, not by glory, not by a horse. Whereby, then? Whither shall I go? Where shall I find whence I may be saved? Seek not long, seek not far. Behold, the eyes of the Lord are upon them that fear Him. Ye see that these are the same whom He beholds in His habitation, those who hope in His mercy; not in their own merits, not in strength, not in fortitude, not in a horse; but in His mercy.”
19 (18) To deliver their soul from death: and to feed them in the time of dearth.
They take it with one consent of the blessed Eucharist. Its two principal virtues—deliverance from temptation and eternal death, (L.) and food and refreshment in the wilderness of this world—are marvellously brought out. Gerson, in his beautiful treatise on the Magnificat, dwelling on this subject,* contrasts with the seven deadly sins seven physical properties of the Altar Bread, which he sums up in a line:
Parva, nitens, sana, teres, azyma, mundaque, scripta.
And in three others he sums up the twelve blessings which it bestows:
Restaurat, satiat, delectat, roborat, auget:
Obdormire facit; caro servit; mens dominatur:
Vim genitivam dat: transformat, inarrhat et unit.
To deliver their soul from death: thus speaks David. “He that eateth Me, shall even live by Me,”* says the Son of David. “The time of death is now,” says S. Augustine; (A.) “the time of saturity will be by-and-by. He That deserteth us not in the famine of this corruption, how will He desert us when we shall have become immortal? But while it is the time of famine, we must tolerate, we must endure, we must persevere to the end; and because we bravely bear this famine of our pilgrimage, we must expect to be refreshed in the wilderness, that we faint not.” And, as this, so those many other dear promises in the Old Testament of food to them that are needy: “The poor shall eat, and be satisfied;”* “The Lord giveth meat unto them that fear Him;”* “Behold, My servants shall eat, but ye shall be hungry.”*
20 (19) Our soul hath patiently tarried for the Lord: for he is our help, and our shield.
21 (20) For our heart shall rejoice in him: because we have hoped in his holy Name.
And here we have the answer of the righteous, (L.) who have up to this time been addressed or been spoken of. The Psalm is, as it were, antiphonal: the one choir tells of God’s past mercies, the other resolves to trust in Him for the present. It is worth noticing that the second verse is rendered differently in the LXX. and the Vulgate from the original. Instead of the hope in God’s Name being the cause of joy, these versions would imply that the joy was the cause of the hope. Because our heart rejoiceth in Him, we have hoped in His holy Name. S. Bernard dwells at great length on the duty of spiritual joy. Observe, that in the list of the graces of the Holy Ghost,* if love stands the first, joy occupies the second place; and of what value must that be in the sight of God, which precedes our dear Lord’s last legacy, namely, (Ay.) peace! And notice the difference between our help and our shield: the former the positive, the latter the negative assistance; the former leading on to good works, the latter defending from evil temptations. It is the same thing which we shall hereafter find in the 46th Psalm, “God is our hope and strength;” (P.) hope in the good things which we intend to perform,—strength against the temptations which we desire to conquer. In His holy Name. Another instance of that reference to the Name which is above every name, of which we have had so many, and shall have so many more.* “It is enough,” says S. Basil, “that we are called by the name of Christians, to render us superior to every assault of every enemy.” That Name, lauded in so many hymns; that Name, (L.) no less the worship of the saints in heaven than of those who are yet militant on earth. They propose1 ten names of God, and ask which is that to which reference is here made. God forbid that I, or that any one who may read these pages, should doubt for one moment:
Jesu Nomen omne bonum
Tenet,* dulcem facit sonum,
Promeretur regni thronum,
In hoc lucet splendor Patris;
In hoc patet decor Matris;
In hoc fulget honor fratris;
Hoc fratres magnificat.
22 (21) Let Thy merciful kindness, O Lord, be upon us: like as we do put our trust in thee.
“O valiant prayer,” (L.) cries Theodoret, “measure Thy mercy by my confidence.” So it is indeed; and let us take that prayer in virtual effect on our own lips, whenever we join in the noblest hymn in the Church, ending as it does with the same supplication. O high aim, marvellous petition of the Christian! that he may be forgiven only as he forgives; that he may be helped only as he trusts! Hugh of S. Victor, with that deep mind of his, sees here, in that word* fiat, “fiat misericordia tua super nos,” the mixture of free will and of grace, (C.) which is the only true and safe teaching. Cassiodorus here sees a petition for the Incarnation: that being the merciful kindness hid from ages and generations, but now revealed in the cottage of Nazareth by the message of Gabriel. Let the same writer give us what he calls the conclusion of the Psalm. “What honeyed words have we heard! how gloriously has the celestial Psaltery sounded! Such are the chords of its mandates, that if we will receive them in the ears of our minds, we shall both purify ourselves by the means of David’s lyre, and it will be to us as it was to Saul: evil spirits will be chased away, so that with pure heart we shall serve the Lord. Yes, the blessed have also their music, which enters the hearing of the faithful soul; the sound whereof never fails, the meaning whereof never grows old.”
Glory be to the Father, Whose Counsel shall endure for ever; and to the Son, the Word of the Lord, by Whom the heavens were made: and to the Holy Ghost, the Breath of His Mouth;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
Gregorian. Tuesday: Matins. [Office of Many Martyrs: II. Nocturn.]
Monastic. Monday: I. Nocturn.
Parisian. Thursday: Matins.
Quignon. Wednesday: Vespers.
Lyons. Tuesday: I. Nocturn.
Ambrosian. First Week: Wednesday: I. Nocturn.
Gregorian. It becometh well * the just to be thankful. [Many Martyrs. But the righteous * live for evermore, and the reward of them is with the Most high.]
Monastic. It becometh well * the just to be thankful.
Parisian. The Word of the Lord is true.
Ambrosian. Same as Psalm 32.
Mozarabic. Praise the Lord upon the harp, sing praises unto Him upon a psaltery of ten chords.
Feed, O Lord, Thy people, in the time of famine,* with Thy Word, and deliver our souls from the death of sin; that, being filled with Thy mercy, we may, through Thy gift, merit to be admitted to the joys of the righteous. Through (1.)
Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us; and as Thou didst separately fashion the hearts of men,* so be Thou pleased to sanctify them specially; and because Thine eyes are ever open to them that fear Thee, bestow on us the fulness of Thy fear, and confer on us the completeness of Thy knowledge. Amen. Through Thy mercy (11.)
O God, Whose command it is that the righteous should be full of joy; whose praise both obeys Thee by loving,* and loves by praising; who, by the Harp of the Law, sing the New Song, and in the Psaltery give the glad music of pious words; grant, O Lord, that we may follow in their footsteps, and praise Thee together with them: and because Thy Word is true, and all Thy works faithful, grant that we may believe Thee with a faithful heart, and may diligently obtain Thy loving-kindness. Amen. Through Thy mercy (11.)
[O Christ, Word of the Eternal Father, by Whom the heavens were made, (D. C.) enlighten us with the gift of Thy Spirit, and stablish us in good works, that we may be justified through faith in the Trinity, and through working that which is pleasing to Thee, and may, together with the people Thou hast chosen for Thine inheritance, be glorified for ever. Who livest (5.)]