This post needs some editing.
This Psalm, though separated from its immediate predecessor in the Hebrew distribution of the Books of the Psalter, is closely related to it and to the 105th in scope and diction. Its language points clearly to the end of the Babylonian exile, and yet there is a certain vagueness of expression, a lack of direct statement either of absolute deliverance, of the restoration of the Temple worship, or of the name of Jerusalem, which so far militates against its character as a post-Captivity Psalm, that some critics have denied it any specific historical character, and regard it as little more than generally didactic. There is one item of internal evidence which is tolerably conclusive against a post-Captivity date, which is that in the third verse, where the four quarters of the horizon are named, the sea stands for the south, a sufficiently correct description of the Persian Gulf for an inhabitant of Babylon, but impossible to a Jerusalemite speaking of the Mediterranean, always the sea in Palestinian language. It would seem then that the present Psalm is a hymn of thanksgiving composed for the use of the synagogue in Babylon, after the decree of Cyrus had been promulgated, and while the exiles were gathering together from all quarters of his empire, probably at Babylon itself, for the homeward march of the first caravan under Zerubbabel. This hypothesis seems to reconcile the difficulties, and to account for the absence of any name for the city referred to in the fourth verse. Babylon itself, with its large Jewish population, and the regular services of the Great Synagogue, would seem almost home to the Jewish pilgrims from the borders of India, or the frontiers of Scythia, cut off as they had been from all religious fellowship with their people, and the worship they found there established would lead them to look onwards to a dearer and more sacred city, towards which they were at last, by Divine mercy, suffered to direct their steps.
1 O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious: and his mercy endureth for ever.
The Holy Ghost begins the Fifth Book of the Psalter with praise,* and ends it with praise, because they who spiritually observe the Pentateuch of the Law shall, with the Angels, praise God for evermore. These three Psalms (105, 106, 107.) begin in the same fashion, for the three orders in the Church praise in like manner the Holy Trinity. The first, personifying both peoples (Jewish and Christian) sings of the Advent of Christ, and afterwards of the blessings of the faithful, which God conferred materially on the elder people, and spiritually upon the new. The second, personifying the Church, sings in confession of the sins of the Jews, telling of what the people in its unfaithfulness committed before Christ’s coming, and how, afterwards, in its unbelief, it repaid the Lord. The third, personifying the Church of the Gentiles, sings joyfully of how the merciful Lord delivered the captive bondsmen out of the hands of the enemy, and the Good Shepherd gathered His scattered sheep from many lands into one flock.
2 Let them give thanks whom the Lord hath redeemed: and delivered from the hand of the enemy;
3 And gathered them out of the lands, from the east, and from the west: from the north, and from the south.
In this Psalm we have set before us four temptations, (A.) four invocations, four deliverances in answer to these, (R.) four acknowledgments of the mercies of the Lord. The first temptation is error and lack of God’s Word; the second is the difficulty of overcoming the passions of former habit; the third is weariness and disgust at the Word of God; (Lu.) the fourth is storm and peril in the guidance of the Churches. And while the primary reference is to the release of the children of Israel from captivity, (Ay.) and to their assembling to the Holy City from their various places of exile, yet a wider gathering, a greater redemption, the overthrow of a more formidable enemy, (R.) is spiritually foretold. It is the redemption with the Precious Blood of Christ from the dominion of Satan, the gathering of the Catholic Church out of all nations of the world, from the rising of the sun, the Jews, on whom God had bestowed the dawning light of knowledge of the Law, the actual presence of the Sun of Righteousness Himself, to the sunsetting, the Gentiles lying in actual darkness and ignorance; from the cold north of sin and carelessness as to religion, to the bitter and stormy sea of passionate unrest, into the one fold where He cherishes the wanderers. And we can use in our day with yet more effect Tertullian’s argument that the Christian faith is the only one which can make its way and win disciples everywhere;* “In whom else have all nations believed, save in Christ Who now hath come? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, Armenia, Phrygia, Cappadocia, and the inhabitants of Pontus and Asia, and Pamphylia, the sojourners in Egypt and the part of Africa which is beyond Cyrene, the citizens and strangers at Rome, the Jews too and other nations in Jerusalem, the various tribes of the Getulians and borders of the Moors; all the limits of the Spains, and divers tribes of the Gauls, and the regions of Britain untrodden by the Romans, but now subdued to Christ, and the lands of the Sarmatians, and Dacians, and Germans, and Scythians, and many hidden races and provinces and many islands unknown to us, which we are utterly unable to enumerate, in all which places the Name of Christ has already found its way and reigns.” (L.) But the song which befits this “great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues,”* who “shall come from the east and the west and from the north and the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God,”* is only for the redeemed, for those who know themselves to have been led captive by the enemy, and “sold under sin,”* but now to be “redeemed, not with corruptible things, as silver and gold, but with the Precious Blood of Christ.”* Those who choose to abide in the prison of their sins, and they who do not confess that they need a Saviour, must be silent when this chant is raised, when “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads.”*
4 They went astray in the wilderness out of the way: and found no city to dwell in;
The Targum restricts the historical sense of this verse to the forty years’ wanderings of Israel in the desert of Sinai,* while the Greek Fathers extend it to the sufferings of the later Jews in exile after Nebuchadnezzar’s conquests,* and to the toils of their homeward journey.* But the deeper meaning tells us of those who wander in the wilderness of this world, (A.) unwatered by the rivers of grace, by the rain and dew of the Holy Ghost, (C.) by the tears of penitence, who have strayed far from the Way,* which is Christ, and have lost the track which leads to the Heavenly Jerusalem.* The words hold good especially of all such as are selfishly intent on themselves alone, and thus, disregarding all social claims upon them, (L.) separate themselves not only from the fellowship of the Saints, but from all intercourse with others whom they may help, or who may help them. Such as these find no city to dwell in, they are at war with society, and alien from the example of Him, the Way, Who taught in the streets of Judea, and they have no peace here, since, as the Preacher saith, “The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the City.”*
5 Hungry and thirsty: their soul fainted in them.
“Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.”* And observe that the words imply eager longing,* and cannot therefore be applied to such as are content to remain in ignorance. Rather we may take them of those Gentile philosophers, (Ay.) notably Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who laboured diligently to find the truth,
And reasoned high
Of providence,* foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fixed fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory, and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy.
Wherefore their soul fainted in them,* not because God was hard and stern, but that in His love He suffered them to fail, that they might call to Him in their need, and hearing His reply,* “Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved,”* they might learn to love their Helper.
6 So they cried unto the Lord in their trouble: and he delivered them from their distress.
7 He led them forth by the right way: that they might go to the city where they dwelt.
What counsel loosed them from such difficulties and straits,* from wandering, from the wilderness, from that sore drought? O wondrous thing! one cry sent up to God from the heart,* changed all for the better. “Truly,” as one has wisely said, “troubles are the spurs to make us run to God.” And observe, remarks a third Saint, they did nothing whatever but cry, exactly as they had done in Egypt; (A.) they performed no admirable actions, they merely called with their whole heart, and told their trouble plainly out to God, and at once their trials vanished, and the sorely needed help was given. And we may well believe that the prayer of many a Gentile,* crying in the night, like Cornelius, through the prevenient grace of God, (L.) went up in this manner, that the preachers of the Gospel might come over and help them.* He led them forth by the right way; by the way of holiness and truth, (C.) by the personal guidance of the Lord Jesus Himself, (L.) and by the teaching of the Apostles. (A.) He did not merely show them the way, as one might point out a distant city from the summit of a lofty mountain, so that the wayfarer might miss the track when he descended into the plain, but He led them forth, and was Himself the guide and pattern of their journey, as well as their Teacher. And observe it is said by the right way. A sage once said to a king, who desired to avoid the toil of study, that there is no royal road to mathematics; the Evangelists and Apostles tell us, in the clearest language, that there is no crooked road to heaven. If the way be not straight, it leads not thither, for the one use of that way is that fallen men may recover Paradise, may once more go to the city where they dwelt, for “here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come, which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”*
8 O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness: and declare the wonders that he doeth for the children of men.
The goodness (LXX. and Vulg., mercies) of the Lord denotes that He has called us to the Faith, (D. C.) that He has waited patiently for us, that He has lovingly converted us, freely justified us, made us to advance in holiness, and to persevere in good. The wonders are His Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, mission of the Holy Ghost, and all the miracles He hath wrought Himself or by the hands of His servants. (C.) These ought to be the theme of thanksgiving in private, of proclamation in public, for they are not meant for a single nation, but for all the children of men. This intercalary refrain recurs four times in the Psalm,* at the eighth, fifteenth, twenty-first, and thirty-first verses. A mystical reason is given for the three former collocations, that as the eighth Beatitude re-echoes the first, so the eighth verse repeats the praise of the opening words of the Psalm; the number fifteen suggests the Psalms of Degrees, the steps of ascent to Heaven, and twenty-one denotes the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit bestowed by the Holy Trinity. And we may add, in the same strain, that thirty-one denotes the final reward of heaven, that which remains over and above for those who have fulfilled the moral law of the Decalogue in faith, hope, and charity. Or again, keeping the same thought in mind, we may note that Joshua did not finally conquer Canaan till he had overthrown and slain one and thirty kings.*
9 For he satisfieth the empty soul: and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.
This is the second temptation from which God delivers,* by His second act of mercy,* delivering us from the habit of sin and the difficulty of doing well;* because there are many who, after being rescued from unbelief, (A.) are from evil habit unable to do right, because the embers of sin and the enticement of the flesh remain in them. The first reference is to the manna wherewith the Israelites were fed in the desert, a type of better things. (D. C.) The souls which were given over to idolatry were empty,* because God was not in them, and they were bare of grace and spiritual gifts. These He satisfies with repentance, a bitter but necessary diet, while He leaves cloyed and full ones to themselves, for “the full soul loatheth an honeycomb, but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.”* He has something better than this in store, however,* as He hath said, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, (D. C.) for they shall be filled,”* here but gradually and according to the needs and powers of this life, but perfectly and absolutely in their Country, for as much as each soul truly, earnestly, purely, and reasonably longs for, whether of grace here or of glory hereafter, so much does God freely bestow, according to the measure of each one’s capacity, till all are satisfied with the plenteousness of His house.*
10 Such as sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death: being fast bound in misery and iron;
11 Because they rebelled against the words of the Lord: and lightly regarded the counsel of the most Highest;
12 He also brought down their heart through heaviness: they fell down, and there was none to help them.
The Chaldee paraphrast interprets these words of Zedekiah,* King of Judah,* a captive and blind; who, according to a tradition mentioned by S. Jerome,* was not only, as we read, chained with brazen fetters, but put into an iron cage at Riblah, and carried thence in the train of Nebuchadnezzar, like a wild beast, to Babylon, where, “bound in fetters, and holden with cords of affliction,”* he died after four years of suffering, into which hunger itself entered as an ingredient, because he lightly regarded the counsel which God sent him by the prophet Jeremiah.*
The words set us before us in type the condition of the Gentiles before the coming of the Lord, (C.) for they did sit in darkness, lacking the light of faith, and blinded by unbelief. And in using the word sit, the Psalmist points out that they had been for a long time in this condition. The shadow of death was the corrupt life of this world, a terrible picture of the death to come. They were fast bound, who were held entangled in the cords of sin under the rule of the devil. Beggary (Vulg. mendicitate) refers to the scarcity of good, the sorest penury of all, which afflicts, not the body, but what is far worse, the soul; (A.) and iron denotes the hardness of the sufferings,* and also the difficulty of breaking the chains of old habits of unbelief and sin. “I was bound,” remarks S. Augustine in his Confessions, “with no external iron, but by my own iron will.” Thus the whole passage may fitly be explained of the condition of sinners, who sit, because of their determined perseverance in wickedness, in darkness, as being either ignorant, or because “the God of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not,”* so that “their foolish heart was darkened,”* in the shadow of death, as separated from God, who is the light and life of the soul;* fast bound in poverty, because lacking the power to do good, (Ay.) and in iron, because chained so as to be unable to flee from danger or evil, and that not because of any irresistible might in their enemies, but solely because of their own refusal to accept the light yoke and easy burden of the Lord, to give heed to His warnings and chastisements, and to listen to His preachers of righteousness and faith.* Thus He also brought down their heart with labour (A. V., LXX., Vulg.,) so that even the dungeon was not a place of rest, (Z.) but of toil,* in that the captives suffered as their fathers had done in Egypt; that is, bondage to Satan does not involve mere incapacity to do good, but the necessity of doing evil, and that at the cost of far more labour than God exacts from His servants.* And it is well added, there was none to help them,* none of the allies to whom Zedekiah looked, none of the false gods to whom his subjects prayed; for while we have Christ and His holy Angels to aid us in all things righteous, the devil and his agents, after luring men into sin, leave all the toil of it to them, as well as the remorse and punishment to come. Wherefore it is truly said,* “The wages of sin is death.” But when it is added, there was none to help them, that held good only so long as they continued to sit and keep silence. The moment they knelt in prayer, a Helper came:
13 So when they cried unto the Lord in their trouble: he delivered them out of their distress.
14 For he brought them out of darkness, and out of the shadow of death: and brake their bonds in sunder.
15 O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness: and declare the wonders that he doeth for the children of men!
For this cause was He born, (D. C.) and came into the world, “to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison-house,”* “to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet unto the way of peace.”* And this He fulfilled in that He brought, (C.) leading with His own Hand,* and sending no messenger in His stead, men out of darkness into the clear light and true knowledge of God, out of the shadow of death, by showing them the glory of a holy life, and brake, not merely loosed, but brake, with speedy deliverance and irresistible might, (C.) their bonds asunder, by destroying the tyranny of Satan, and giving men instant power against evil habit, as he did to Levi the publican, who rose up at once at His call, and left everything behind to follow Him. Wherefore here follows the second exhortation to thanksgiving for so great benefits; and because of the magnitude of them, the Psalmist returns to amplify further what he has already spoken, and adds:
16 For he hath broken the gates of brass: and smitten the bars of iron in sunder.
Here we are taught that the obstacles in His way were no small ones. No slight doors, no slender cords held the captives prisoned, but gates of brass, and bars of iron. The use of these same words in describing the victorious progress of Cyrus, of whom the Lord saith, “I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight, I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron,”* shows us that the primary reference here is to the strong fortifications of those great Eastern cities which formed the strength of the Babylonian empire, seemingly impregnable, but yet doomed to fall before an invader.1 And the citation (as it probably is) of the passage in Isaiah here,* makes in favour of the view that this Psalm was composed in honour of the decree of Cyrus in favour of the Jews.* The favourite interpretation of the passage is that which has fixed this Psalm tor the Matins of Easter Eve in the Ambrosian Use;* namely, that it tells of the victory over Death and Hell wrought by the Passion and Resurrection of Christ,* and of His bearing away with Him to Paradise the once imprisoned Patriarchs. And this idea is repeated in more than one hymn, as thus:
Saviour, for our warning seen,
Bleeding on that precious Rood,
If, while through the meadows green
Gently wound the peaceful flood,
We forgot Thee, do not Thou
Disregard Thy suppliants now.
Guide our bark among the waves,
Through the rocks our passage smooth,
Where the whirlpool frets and raves,
Let Thy love its anger soothe;
All our hope is placed in Thee,
29 For he maketh the storm to cease: so that the waves thereof are still.
30 Then are they glad, because they are at rest: and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.
31 O that men would therefore praise the Lord for his goodness: and declare the wonders that he doeth for the children of men!
The Vulgate has kept much more exactly and happily to the original,* which runs:* He stayed the tempest into a gentle breeze, and the waves thereof were silent. And they tell us that God does this whenever He quells the violence of diabolic temptation and persecution, and sends in its stead the tender grace of the Holy Ghost, stilling all the tumult of the world and the wild commotions of the heart of man. Again;* they remind us of how often the power of the torments inflicted on the Martyrs was stayed, so that they felt no pain on the rack or amidst the flames, because God dealt with them (save in the matter of preserving the life of their bodies) as He did with the Three Children,* when He “made the midst of the furnace as it had been a moist whistling wind, so that the fire touched them not at all, neither hurt nor troubled them.”* Once more;* He stayed the rage of the heathen against the Gospel, by the might of the preachers of the Word, and converted their fierce passion into calm zeal, (Ay.) as He did with Saul of Tarsus, when his persecuting temper was changed into burning love for souls; for then, as on the Lake of Gennesaret, Jesus “arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.”* He does the like too, (B.) when after bringing men through the storm of unwilling conversion, He grants them spiritual peace, following on repentance and amendment. Then are they glad, because the fierce billows are at rest,* and so He makes them enter into the haven of their desire. What that haven is, they describe variously.* One takes it to be the calm of prayer; another the Cross; a third the Church. The most frequent exposition of any is,* that it denotes tranquillity of soul; another again takes it of everlasting salvation, or of the Heavenly Country, reminding us that hell, depicted as the bottomless abyss, (W.) has no haven where anchor may be cast; but best of all is that simplest and fullest view which tells us that Christ is Himself the harbour of safety for all tempest-tossed souls;
Ipseque Portitor, ipseque Portus.*
O that men, (A.) For the fourth time the cry of thanksgiving goes up, and on this occasion with a twofold force; because the previous verses tell us of the total failure of human wisdom, and the gladness of unexpected deliverance from imminent peril.
Safe home, safe home in port!*
Rent cordage, shattered deck,
Torn sails, provisions short,
And only not a wreck;
But oh! the joy upon the shore,
To tell our voyage-perils o’er!
32 That they would exalt him also in the congregation of the people: and praise him in the seat of the elders!
The Chaldee paraphrases the former of these clauses as denoting the full assembly of the children of Israel, (C.) and the latter as the chair of the wise men, that is, the Sanhedrim, or sacred council. The more usual Christian exposition is nearly identical, for it takes the terms as signifying the laity and clergy. There are, however, two further comments; (B.) one, that the first half of the verse refers to the Gentile Church, and the second to the Jewish Synagogue, its elder in the knowledge of God.* Cardinal Hugo, dealing in his wonted fashion heavy blows at the secularity and nepotism of his time, draws another lesson from the Vulgate wording, Church of the commons (ecclesia plebis), and stall of the elders (cathedra seniorum), and bids us note that the Psalmist speaks of the commons, but says nothing of princes, because they are wont to exalt themselves instead of God, and that he speaks of the stall of the elders, because mere boys ought not to be promoted to cathedral dignities.
33 Who turneth the floods into a wilderness: and drieth up the water-springs.
34 A fruitful land maketh he barren: for the wickedness of them that dwell therein.
At this point the tone and character of the Psalm changes,* and from the contrast between the sufferings of men and God’s mercy in deliverance,* the singer passes to the praise of the providential government of the world, and of the manner in which the Lord exercises His omnipotence by changing the condition of things, in proof of His sole Lord ship and mastery. And the first example given has most probably a direct reference to the destruction of the cities of the plain, so precisely does it answer to the twofold description of the surrounding country before and after that terrible visitation: “And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest to Zoar.”* Later, we read: “The whole land thereof is brimstone, and salt, and burning, that it is not sown, nor beareth, nor any grass groweth therein, like the overthrow of Sodom, and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim.”*
The mystical interpretation here usually found is the rejection of the Jewish people,* the drying up of the springs of spiritual grace,* the disappearance of the fruit of good works,* the cessation of prophecy, (A.) the overthrow of their national polity, the abolition of the Mosaic worship; and that because of the guilt of the Scribes and Pharisees.* For barren the literal rendering is saltness,* A. V. marg., or salt-marsh, LXX. ἅλμην, Vulg. salsuginem;* and one commentator tells us that this epithet here implies that the punishment of the Jews is meant as a condiment for our souls, to correct their folly and guard them from decay.* We are justly reminded by another that such judgments have not fallen upon the Jews alone, but that Christian Churches too have had their candlestick removed.* We know how Persia, once rich in Martyrs, how Egypt, the fruitful mother of ascetic saints, how Asia Minor, formerly diademed with a starry crown of famous Churches, have all bowed before the Koran; how the Church of Libya and Mauritania has left no trace behind; how the great Nestorian community, whose missions once stretched from Siberia to Ceylon, from Antioch to Pekin, has dwindled to a few scattered families; how the sun of the Faith in Japan set in blood; how Holland, and Scandinavia, and much of Germany, and Switzerland, and Scotland, have “forsaken the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water,”* that cannot retain the great doctrines of the Christian Faith, but pass, by inevitable steps, from denial of the Church, to denial of her Founder; from insulting the Bride, to crucifying the Bridegroom afresh, and putting Him to open shame. And none can read the ecclesiastical history of these latter countries for the period immediately preceding the religious convulsion of the sixteenth century, without confessing that it was indeed for the wickedness of them that dwelt therein that God sent upon them that terrible disaster.
35 Again, he maketh the wilderness a standing water: and water-springs of a dry ground.
36 And there he setteth the hungry: that they may build them a city to dwell in;
37 That they may sow their lands, and plant vineyards: to yield them fruits of increase.
Here we have the other side of the picture, (A.) the calling of the Gentiles, and the spread of the knowledge of God throughout the earth,* as the waters cover the sea. It is not impossible that the literal reference may be to the resettlement of Canaan by the returning Jews, when the long deserted fields were again brought under tillage, the tanks, reservoirs, cisterns, conduits, and general system of irrigation put once more into working order, and, above all, Jerusalem itself rebuilt.* And this would seem to square with the primary and literal sense of certain prophecies of Isaiah. Mystically, (C.) they tell us that the standing waters are the fonts of Baptism, filled with calm pools for the laver of regeneration, or else resident pastors, as distinguished from the water-springs, which are the itinerant preachers of righteousness who go forth into heathen lands,* dry ground, where the rain of doctrine is unknown;* that the city is the Church, given as a home to them that hungered and thirsted after righteousness, where they may sow the land with the seed of the Word of God, and plant the vineyards of the local Churches, while they are engaged in raising up the walls of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Another interpretation, not very different, sees in the standing water Holy Scripture, made over to the Gentiles as a vast reservoir of spiritual wisdom, whence the springs, the preachers and expounders, derive those waters wherewith they irrigate the gardens of the Church, the souls of the faithful.* Yet again, it is explained, but less happily, of floods of penitential tears, and the whole passage is accommodated, by more than one writer, to the circumstances of the Religious Life.
38 He blesseth them, so that they multiply exceedingly: and suffereth not their cattle to decrease.
They multiply exceedingly in holiness and good works, and when this is the case with the teachers and pastors of the flock, (C.) God does not suffer their cattle,* that is, those simple and less cultivated souls to which they minister, (D. C.) to be made a prey of by heretical teachers,* whose surest wile to lead the uneducated astray is to point out the shortcomings of their lawful pastors. He does not suffer them to decrease; nay, He makes them to increase more than any others,* for “hath not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him?”* “And base things of the world, and things which are despised,* hath God chosen.” He hath not made them less, because persons of no great ability are not worse off under the Gospel than they were under the sects of philosophy, but better, for God has a particular care for those on whom men look down, and finds work and dignity for them in His Church, because the heart is mightier than the brain, and love greater than faith, and hope, and wisdom. So we are taught by the beautiful legend of the eloquent Bishop, who doubted if a poor beggar who sat at the foot of the pulpit could understand the periods wherewith the preacher held and swayed the minds of his congregation, but who was instructed in a vision at night that he owed his very power, and the success which followed its exercise, to the beggar’s intercessory prayer on his behalf, which had gone up and been accepted at the throne of God.
39 And again, when they are minished and brought low: through oppression, through any plague, or trouble;
40 Though he suffer them to be evil intreated through tyrants: and let them wander out of the way in the wilderness;
41 Yet helpeth he the poor out of misery: and maketh him households like a flock of sheep.
After the Christian Church had been multiplied exceedingly from the Twelve and the Seventy into vast numbers of disciples, (Z.) it began to be minished and brought low in two ways; (Ay.) first, by persecution thinning the ranks sorely with martyrdom and with apostasies; and next, by internal heresies, (A.) schisms, and divisions; which sometimes, as in the days of Arian success, have reduced the Church to a few, and will do so again in the last days, during the manifestation of Antichrist. In periods of strife and unbelief such as these, He poureth contempt on princes,* (A. V., LXX., Vulg.,) because revolt against justly constituted authority, whether in Church or State, simply because it is authority, is one of the marks of the schismatic temper, and always goes hand in hand with false doctrine, though the rulers of the Church may indeed have earned that contempt by their luxury and worldliness.* Or, again, (L.) these words may bear a meaning closer to that of the Prayer Book version, and tell us of the manner in which God laughs to scorn the attempts of tyrants to uproot and extirpate His Church. Several of the commentators, while keeping with sufficient closeness to the main scope of this exposition, take the passage not as immediately descriptive of the Church weakened by heresy, (A.) but of the heretics themselves considered apart, (C.) and called few (Vulg.) not because of actual paucity of numbers,* but because of their spiritual unimportance as compared with the wide extent of the Catholic Church (an interpretation which holds good even for these days.*) And in that case the contempt poured on their princes will denote the constant multiplication of schisms from the sects founded by heresiarchs, whose influence is inadequate to retain permanent hold over their disciples; and to the low esteem in which the ministers of all such sects are sooner or later held by their flocks, who quickly learn that they have no Divine commission, and may therefore be treated as man’s servants, not as God’s ambassadors, (C.) inasmuch as by their departure from Catholic unity and tradition, (R.) and by their conflicting interpretation of Scripture, they cannot serve as leaders to the Land of Promise, but only wander out of the way in the wilderness. And in this wise, “He removeth away the speech of the trusty, and taketh away the understanding of the aged: He poureth contempt upon princes, and weakeneth the strength of the mighty.”* Yet even in such times of rebuke and blasphemy, (R.) God does not forget His suffering people, but makes the very prevalence of error a lesson of warning to them, that they may desire the true riches, after having had some experience of the poverty of schism, its few and feeble tenets, its meagre worship, its lack of depth and fervour; and then He makes their families like a flock, (A. V., S. Hieron,) because while His pastors sorrowfully look at the diminished number of the faithful, and lamenting over the seceders, say, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us;”* He answers on the other hand in words of encouragement, “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice, and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd.”* Thus, the conversion of Northern Europe repaired the breach made by the progress of Islam in Asia; thus, the missionary successes and the great Religious Houses of the tenth century counterbalanced the sin and ignorance of that truly Dark Age; thus the Martyrs who died on the Cross in Japan made reparation to their Lord for the sin of the European traders who trod that Cross under foot, that they might have licence to traffic with the heathen.
Two other expositions of the passage may be cited. One is,* that it is to a great extent a brief recapitulation of what went before, and describes the overthrow of the Jews by the Romans, and the substitution of the Gentiles in their stead as the spiritual children of God. The other sees in it the spread of the Religious Life, despite the fewness, obscurity,* and poverty of its followers; nay, the manner in which that very poverty served as the strength of the cloister, and multiplied Houses of many a famous Order throughout the wide pastures of the Church.
42 The righteous will consider this, and rejoice: and the mouth of all wickedness shall be stopped.
43 Whoso is wise will ponder these things: and they shall understand the loving-kindness of the Lord.
The Psalmist, (C.) after describing the proud abettors of heresy, now returns to the lowly Catholics, whom in their poverty God, leaving the princes of the sects to their hunger, refreshes with heavenly aid.* And the preachers of righteousness, seeing the conversion of the nations brought about in this wise, rejoice, whereas the voice of unbelief, Jewish, sectarian, and infidel, is silenced, because unable to resist the mighty advance of the Word of the Lord.
Whoso is wise will ponder these things, (C.) and prefer to be ranked amongst the poor of Christ, than amongst the princes of the sects, and will rather choose to knock at the door of the King of Heaven than teach words which do hurt. And so humbling themselves they will understand, (A.) not their own merits, strength, or power, but that whatever good they possess is bestowed on them by the mercies of the Lord, Who led the wanderers into the right way; and fed the hungry; loosed and freed him who struggled against the force of sin, and was bound in the chains of habit; Who, sending the medicine of His Word, healed him who turned away from the Word of God and was at the point of death through weariness; Who calmed the sea and brought into the haven of rest him that was in peril amidst wrecks and storms, and set him amongst a lowly people, that He might bring His sheep into the fold of Paradise. (D. C.) He who remembers and understands all this is wise, though he may not have the learning of this world, and for this cause the Lord Himself hath said, “I thank Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes; even so, Father; for so it seemed good in Thy sight.”*
Glory be to the Father, the Most Highest; glory be to the Son, the Word sent to heal us, and save us from destruction; glory be to the Holy Ghost, the gentle wind which stilleth the tempest of our souls.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.