Patristic/Medieval Commentary on Psalm 111
Posted by Dim Bulb on May 22, 2016
Arg. Thomas. That Christ bestows the spiritual food of His Word on them that suffer hunger. The Voice of the Church concerning Christ, with praise. Of penitence with praise.
Ven. Bede. His people praiseth the Lord, because freed from the destruction of the world, it knows not how to endure the slavery of sins. This is the first Psalm with the Hebrews which goes through the whole course of the Alphabet, although there are many persons who suppose that other previous ones are written in alphabetical order, for in them there are either some missing or some superfluous letters, and sometimes when one verse is short, another is extended to inordinate length.1 Whence I imagine that this arises rather from the observation of readers than the intention of the writer. And further, the Seventy translators, because some scruple arose in them, did not choose to insert the Hebrew letters in their version.
The nation of the blessed gathered from various parts of the world, at the first outset of the Psalm saith that it confesseth unto the Lord in the congregation of the righteous, where laud is everlasting, and praise without end: I will confess unto Thee, O Lord. Secondly, it says that the faithful have been satisfied with an abundant gift, promising at the same time the Advent of the Lord, that they may search after the promised inheritance with most eager intentness: He hath made a memorial of His marvels. Thirdly, it declares that Christians have been redeemed, in the New Testament hallowed by everlasting grace: He sent redemption unto His people. The first part contains six letters: the second ten: the third, six. And just as little children are taught by letters that they may advance to wisdom, so psalms of this kind are given to the uninstructed and beginners, that their first attempts may be guided, as though with certain rudiments.
Syriac Psalter. Anonymous. Concerning the excellency of the works of God, and enjoining us to give thanks unto Christ. Spoken in the person of the Apostles.
Eusebius of Cæsarea. A thanksgiving to Christ.
S. Athanasius. A psalm having a mingled confession, and a narrative with praise.
1 [Alleluia.] I will give thanks unto the Lord (א) with my whole heart: secretly among the faithful, (ב) and in the congregation.
That man gives thanks unto the Lord with his whole heart who does so unfeignedly,* and not for any present advantage or gain, but heartily and entirely, for he who praises God with half his heart, is deceitful, and not single-hearted. We ought not then to praise Him with one part of us,* and allow the other to incline to sin; lest while we are lifting one foot of the soul up to holiness, we should suffer the other to remain in the mire of sin. Secretly among the faithful.* This is rather a paraphrase than the precise translation, which is in the council of the upright, but the Hebrew word סו̇ד for council also means secret, implying a small number of trusty advisers distinct from and higher than the general congregation. And thus the notion implied is that of conversing with those of tried piety and wisdom on the deeper mysteries of the Faith, while joining also in the public worship of the less instructed flock. (A.) S. Augustine accordingly explains the former term as denoting the college of the Apostles, (C.) the latter as designating the whole Church; and his exposition is generally followed, with the extension of the council to all able teachers of righteousness. Cardinal Hugo,* looking to the word confess, suggests that we have in this verse a recommendation to choose wise and pious confessors to guide us in holiness, and then to make full and public satisfaction in presence of the Church for any faults we have committed.
2 The works of the Lord are great: (ג) sought out of all them that have pleasure therein (ד).
This is the true sense of the passage,* signifying that eager zeal in the study of the deep things of God which characterizes His true followers.* And that because, as a Saint teaches us, knowledge goes before the cultivation of virtue, because no one can heartily desire that of which he is ignorant, nor can he fear an evil unless it be known. Another interpretation, which comes practically to the same thing, translates the second clause,* sought out because of all their pleasantness,* which may be especially taken of the words and acts of Christ when He was in bodily presence on earth. But the LXX. and Vulgate turn the clause, sought out for all His wills; that is, that every part of creation, everything which exists, has its divinely appointed task and place in working out some purpose of God; and that even in the case of such things as seem most adverse to Him, man’s free-will, sickness, sin, death, and the like,* they do but carry out His higher designs. All God’s works, both of the first and second creation, (A.) of nature and of grace, are great; but a favourite application of every verse of this Psalm to the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar,* has made some commentators dwell on it here particularly, as that which has been devised by His love for the sanctification of men. And we then get another sense of for all His wills, (Z.) that such works of God as this and other acts of His grace, dispose all devout and wise persons to do His will with all their might.
3 His work is worthy to be praised, and had in honour: (ה) and his righteousness endureth for ever (ו).
Here the LXX.* and Vulgate read in the first clause, Confession and magnificence are His work. And they take it as well in the literal sense of the glorious beauty of creation, affording matter for our acknowledgment and praise of His power, (C.) as in a more spiritual sense: namely, that the conversion of sinners, leading them to confession of their own sins,* and of the glory of the Holy Trinity (as in the case of S. Paul,) (A.) together with the bright purity of soul (and in some cases the shining gifts of miraculous power) vouchsafed to penitents, are God’s work, not man’s; spring from His love and grace, not from their strength and merit; and then His righteousness, whereby He rewards such confession and magnificence, endureth for ever, in that His promises can never fail, His justifying grace cannot be overruled, His sentence at the Last Day is irrevocable, whether for the doomed or the blessed.
4 The merciful and gracious Lord hath so done his marvellous works: (ז) that they ought to be had in remembrance (ח).
The Prayer Book here misses the force of the Hebrew, nor is the A. V. more exact. The LXX. and Vulgate are precisely right in translating, He hath made a memorial of His wonderful works. Yet this may be taken, if considered apart from the succeeding verse, as denoting much what the Prayer Book version suggests, that God’s dealings with His people and against their enemies were so conspicuous and memorable,* as well in the days of the Patriarchs, Judges, (Z.) and Kings of Israel as in those of the Apostles and Martyrs of Christ, that they became a monument for the gaze and instruction of posterity. But when we carry on our eyes to the succeeding words, we come to a yet deeper meaning:
5 He hath given meat unto them that fear him: (ט) he shall ever be mindful of his covenant (י).
The word memorial in the previous verse is זֵכֶר, that which is used of the Passover in Exodus 12:14 and 13:9, which gives us one reference to the meat here mentioned, while there is, in all probability, a further allusion to the manna in the wilderness; for the word טֶרֶף, here translated meat, is more exactly rendered in the A. V. margin as prey: either spoil in battle, or more probably, the flesh of beasts taken in hunting, of course in uninhabited places like the wilderness. Hence we have, as the idea present to the mind of the Psalmist, the great Festivals of the Jewish Church,* and the feast on the attendant sacrifices, (which may very well be called “prey” in the sense of being the produce of a land conquered by force of Hebrew valour in old time), the food given to the worshippers, whose share in the service proved their fear of God.* And thus we come at once to the sense followed by all the greatest Christian expositors, that we have here a prophecy of the Holy Eucharist, of which its Founder spake, saying, “Offer this for a Memorial of Me;”1* a gift which none could have bestowed save a merciful and gracious Lord. (A.) Nor does the word “prey” make this application less suitable, (L.) for in that adorable mystery we proclaim the death of Christ, remembering how His persecutors pursued Him upon the mountains, and laid wait for Him in the wilderness, till “the breath of our nostrils, the Anointed of the Lord, was taken in their pits,”* and given to us thenceforward to be our food, “for wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.”* Or, if we take “prey” as the spoil in battle, so this holy banquet, like the bread and wine Melchizedek gave to victorious Abraham, is meant only for those that overcome their spiritual foes. (Cd.) And as He fulfilled His covenant to Abraham and Moses,* in giving the land of Canaan to the children of Israel,* so, because the cup of this most holy Sacrament is the New Covenant in His Blood, (D. C.) He is reminded of His promises in that Testament every time we celebrate the Christian Sacrifice, of His oath to us to give us a better country, where we shall shine as the sun in the kingdom of our Father, be as the Angels of God, and because servants of Christ, be where He is also.
6 He hath showed his people the power of his works: (כ) that he may give them the heritage of the heathen (ל).
The first reference is to the ejection of the seven nations from Palestine before the face of Israel,* aided by the mighty hand of God; and then, by a simple and obvious transition, (C.) the words denote the subjugation of the heathen to the law of Christ, by the spreading of His Church; and finally, they mean the conquest of heaven by the Saints, and their occupation of those seats whence the rebel angels fell. In connection with the previous verse, and still keeping to the idea of the Holy Eucharist, we may remember, on the one hand,* that the memorial character of that sacred rite causes it to bring before us all the power of the Lord’s work in His Incarnation, (P.) Passion,* Resurrection, and Ascension, besides the spiritual miracle of change wrought upon the elements themselves;* while in its strengthening properties, as conveying to us the grace and might of Christ, it makes us vigorous enough to take the kingdom of heaven by storm. A reference to the power of Christ displayed in the Resurrection, (Ay.) is the probable reason of the Anglican use of this Psalm on Easter Day.
7 The works of his hands are verity and judgment: (מ) all his commandments are true (נ).
Here again the first reference is to the punishment of the Canaanites:* and God’s dealings with them, in depriving them of their settlements and transferring them to another people, are vindicated on the score of justice; because the seven nations had transgressed His plainest commandments,* such as are familiar even to natural religion, and therefore God, after enumerating the horrible crimes which were prevalent amongst them,* spake to Israel by Moses: “Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these things the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: and the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity of the land upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.”* And in His conquest of the heathen by His Church the same rule holds, (A.) for although He suffered His martyrs to be haled to prison and to judgment, yet His truth prevailed by that very persecution, so as to become known and dear to countless thousands. His work in the soul is truth, in teaching us to love that which is right and holy; it is judgment, in showing us how to sit in trial upon our doings,* and to condemn our sins. And He will show His verity again in the Last Day by rewarding according to His most true promise them that have kept His commandments faithfully, (C.) and His judgment by condemning such as have continued obstinately in rebellion against Him.* One commentator tells us that we have the method of true penitence, which is God’s commandment, set forth plainly in the first clause of this verse: verity, implying candour of the mouth in acknowledgment of our sins; judgment, the genuine contrition which condemns them in the heart, so as to forsake them altogether; works of the hands, the acts of satisfaction in reparation of our past misdoings. And, continuing the Eucharistic gloss, (Ay.) they remind us that the Sacrament is the work of Christ’s hands, as He is its sole Institutor; it is verity, because of the Real Presence, being no mere figure of an absent Person: and judgment, because of the condemnation of unworthy communicants.
8 They stand fast for ever and ever: (ס) and are done in truth and equity (ע).
The vindication of God’s ways continues.* It may not be pleaded by sinners that new laws and conventional statutes can set aside His moral commandments, since these are for ever and ever, and thus, if man’s enactments profess to legalize aught which He has condemned, as adultery and divorce, they are inherently void, and carry no sanction with them. His laws have truth on their side, (C.) because God will most certainly fulfil what He hath spoken concerning them; they have equity, because they are no mere positive and variable rules, but based on the profoundest morality. And because of their efficacy and power, it is well said, that they are done, not spoken, in truth and equity. The Carmelite, (Ay.) continuing his reference to the Blessed Sacrament, declares it to stand fast for ever and ever, by reason of the indelible character of the priesthood, and the impossibility of any other oblation supplementing the Eucharist till the end of time, while he takes truth, as before, to denote the Real Presence; since in the Holy Eucharist an evil priest and an evil communicant can neither of them prevent the power of the Sacrament from being there, whereas in Baptism an insincere catechumen derives nothing whatever from the rite. And equity he goes on to explain as that property of the Holy Eucharist by which it precisely adapts itself to each communicant, being profitable to the devout, and more than perilous to the impenitent.
Bad and good the feast are sharing
O what diverse dooms preparing,
Endless death, or endless life!
Life to these, to those damnation:
See how like participation
Is with unlike issues rife.
9 He sent redemption unto his people: (פ) he hath commanded his covenant for ever; (צ) holy and reverend is his Name (ק).
The deliverance from Egyptian bondage, the giving of the Law, (L.) the proclamation of the Divine titles to Moses, form the first meaning here. But the Psalmist is looking forward to much more glorious events than these: even to those which God Himself foretold by the mouth of the Prophet: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”* And that was fulfilled when “the Lord God of Israel visited and redeemed His people,”* and “Christ, being come an High Priest of good things to come, (A.) obtained eternal redemption for us;”* (C.) and commanded His new covenant, appointing it by the hands of His Apostles,* after it had been “established upon better promises”* than the former one, which, decayed and waxed old, was then ready to vanish away, whereas this one is to abide for evermore, in the power of that Name which is holy and beloved by the Saints, but terrible (LXX. and Vulg., rightly,) to the wicked, (Ay.) remembering His office and title as Judge of the whole world, (C.) In like manner, as in the previous verse, we are reminded of the perpetual duration of the Holy Eucharist, and its twofold effect on those who eat thereof.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: (ד) a good understanding have all they that do I thereafter; (ש) the praise of it endureth for ever (ת).
As there are two ways of fearing God:* a servile dread and a filial reverence, it is needful to inquire which is here intended. And on this S. Thomas says: The beginning of wisdom is a term which can be used in two ways; one, that it is the beginning, as regards the essence of wisdom; the other, as regards the effect of it. Just so, in any art, its essential beginning consists of the principles whence it is derived; but its effective beginning is that whence the exercise of the art begins. So we may call a foundation the beginning of architecture, because the architect begins to rear his work thereon. But seeing that wisdom is the knowledge of divine things, we look at it in one way and metaphysicians in another. For as the end of our life is the fruition of God, and is guided in accordance with a certain share of divine nature, bestowed on us by grace; we do not consider wisdom merely as having to do with the knowledge of God, as the metaphysicians regard it, but also in so far as it is the guide of human life, which has to be regulated not only by human reasons but by divine ones. As then the beginning of wisdom according to its essence is the first principles of wisdom, which are the articles of faith, in this respect we call faith the beginning of wisdom. But so far as the effect of wisdom is concerned, its beginning is that whence wisdom begins to work, and in this way fear is the beginning of wisdom. But servile fear is this beginning in one fashion, and filial fear in quite another. Servile fear is a kind of outward beginning, urging towards wisdom, in so far as any one departs from sin through fear of punishment, and is in this wise got ready for the operation of wisdom, as it is written in Ecclesiasticus: “The fear of the Lord driveth away sins.”* But pure or filial fear is the beginning of wisdom, as the first effect of wisdom itself. For as it is part of wisdom that human life should be regulated according to divine reasons, it ought to have its beginning from this, that man reverence God, and submit himself to Him.* But even this filial dread is no more than the beginning of wisdom.* Perfect wisdom is love, which casteth out fear.* And because of all the good things which flow from the fear of God, which the Wise Man enumerates for us, including honour, glory, gladness, a crown of rejoicing, long life, peace, and perfect health, with much besides, a good understanding have all they that do thereafter. Not, be it observed, they who know and are learned in the theory, but they that do, for it is written: “To him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin,”* and, moreover, “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.”* The praise of it endureth for ever. That is, in this way of reading the words, the praise of such understanding as prompts a man to keep God’s commandments, (A.) and therefore the praise of that man himself,* shall endure for ever,* because he shall dwell in the house of the Lord always, and join in the millenary Song of heavenly praise;* and will, moreover, himself be praised and commended by his Lord as a good and faithful servant, and will hear the words of eulogy echoed by all the Saints and Angels.* But it seems better to take the clause, with A. V., (Z.) His praise endureth for ever; that is, the praise of the Lord, our Redemption, Whose Name is blessed to ages of ages. (C.) His praise can have no end, because His bounties are inexhaustible. We praise Him here on earth, because He rescues sinners; we shall praise Him in the world to come, because He crowns His Saints; and thus this Psalm, which begins with Alleluia, fitly ends with the declaration that this Song of laud shall resound for evermore.
Glory be to the Father, Who hath sent Redemption unto His people; glory be to the Son, Who hath given us the meat of His new Covenant as a memorial of His wondrous works; glory be to the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of understanding and of the fear of the Lord.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
Gregorian and Monastic. Sunday and Festivals: Vespers. [Corpus Christi: Vespers.]
Ambrosian. Sunday: Vespers. [Christmas Day: II. Nocturn.]
Parisan. Sunday: Vespers.
Lyons. Sunday: Vespers.
Quignon. Sunday: Vespers.
O God, glorious confession of all Saints,* grant us the fear of Thy Name, which Thou hast declared to be the beginning of wisdom, that joined to the councils of Thy servants, we may be filled with the banquet of Thy mercy. (1.)
Great are Thy works, O Lord,* sought out for all Thy wills. Grant us, Thy servants, while we admire the greatness of Thy works, to praise with due confession the glory of the Creator, and search out with reverent wisdom Thy faithful commandments, and achieve with obedient fear the perfect comeliness of understanding. (11.)
O merciful and gracious Lord, (D. C.) Who with Thy wonted goodness hast long spared us sinners; fill us at length with a good understanding, and pour into our minds fear, the beginning of Thy wisdom, and make us to please Thee by living henceforth a sober and godly life. (1.)