A Patristic/Medieval commentary on Psalm 90

TITLE
Hebrew: A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.
Chaldee Targum: A Prayer wherewith Moses the Prophet of God prayed when the people, the house of Israel, sinned in the wilderness; he spoke and said thus:

ARGUMENT

Arg. Thomas. That Christ, become the refuge of the people, satisfies us early with His mercy. The Voice of the Apostles to the Father. The Apostolic Voice to the Lord. Here the Prophet showeth that man can hope little from this life.

Ven. Bede. There can be no doubt that such names are attached to the titles as serve to clear up the text of the Psalms by their interpretation. For this reason the name of Moses is fitly prefixed to show the force of this supplication, for he ofttimes appeased the Lord’s wrath by his prayer, and he was also a minister of the Old Testament, and a Prophet of the New. And because this Psalm united both these, it is entitled by his name: which is itself radiant with a twofold mystery. For Moses is interpreted Taken up, because he was lifted out of the waters by Pharaoh’s daughter; which thing, by reason of the Red Sea, denotes the Israelites, and by reason of Baptism, the Christians. Otherwise: Because the Psalmist was about to speak of God, eternal before the ages, Creator and Ruler of the world, and of mankind as subject to death by reason of sins; all which things he had learned from the sayings of Moses, he consecrated by his name, not undeservedly, what he had obtained knowledge of from him.

Moses in the first part begins with praise of the Judge: briefly commemorating His benefits and power: Lord, Thou hast been our refuge. Then he beseeches Him to help our infirmity, which he describes in many ways: Turn not man, &c. Thirdly: He asks that the Advent of the Saviour may quickly appear; Who, as he knew, would bestow blessings on mankind: Make Thy right hand so known.

Eusebius of Cæsarea. The rejection of the Jews.

S.Athanasius. A Psalm of narrative and prayer.

COMMENTARY

It is to be observed, before entering on the exposition of this glorious Psalm, the opening one of the Fourth Book of the Psalter, that the ancient and mediæval Christian commentators, with almost one voice, adjudge it away from Moses, and decline to accept the title as any authority in the matter. S. Athanasius, S. Augustine, S. Jerome, Beda, Euthymius Zigabenus (who usually follows S. Basil and Theodoret) are agreed on this head with Cardinal Bellarmine, Grotius, and the great majority of modern critics.1 Bellarmine, after citing S. Augustine’s remark, that if the title were genuine, we should find the Psalm in the Pentateuch along with the other songs of Moses, and not in the Psalter; adds another objection, that the verse fixing the age of man at eighty years for its extreme limit is incompatible with the history of Moses himself, who, if he wrote the Psalm at all, did so at the close of the forty years’ wandering in the desert, when he was a hundred and twenty years old, yet hale and vigorous, and perfectly competent for the conduct of affairs. Nor is it probable that he would have been chosen as leader at eighty years of age, or Aaron as High Priest at eighty-three, if such seniority then implied decrepitude. Further, it may be noted that the Rabbinical tradition, which lays down a canon that uninscribed Psalms are to be taken as the composition of the last person named in the titles, assigns the nine following Psalms to Moses also; a position at once refuted by the mention of Samuel in 99:6. And we shall thus most fitly take the title to be merely a personification of Moses by the Psalmist, who speaks in his character.

1 Lord, thou hast been our refuge: from one generation to another.

Our refuge. The A. V. more exactly, with Syriac and S. Jerome,* our habitation. The word refuge, then, here signifies a house well fortified and set on a high place, in which such as take refuge are most secure from all harm of enemies, wild beasts, rain, or winds. And truly they who take refuge with God, and who dwell by faith, hope, and charity in Him, as in a fenced citadel, through steadfast meditation and continual desire, are very safe from all attacks of evil, since all things work together for their good.* The whole Psalm is a prayer of the Church to the Eternal Son, for His Incarnation, that He may deliver man from the condition of mortality. (C.) In the person of Moses the Psalmist recalls God’s mercies to him when he was drawn out of the water, when he overcame Pharaoh and his magicians, bringing the children of Israel out of the Red Sea, and when he strove with the rebellious people in the wilderness.* Also, as a prayer of the whole Jewish nation to God, it reminds Him of His deliverances wrought in the time of Pharaoh,* then under Joshua and the Judges; and lastly, in the return from Babylon. And we, (B.) in applying the Psalm to our dear Lord, are confessing Him to be our defence from all eternity, in contradiction to those Jews who said to Him,* “Thou art not yet fifty years old.” He is our refuge from one generation to another, because He is shadowed in type and prophecy under the Old Testament, and is revealed in flesh under the New; because He lifts us out of the carnal generation into the spiritual; (R.) because He is not only the Creator of heaven and earth, the providential Ruler of man from his first origin, (D. C.) but the Creator of the new heaven and earth of grace, of the new man born again in virtue of the Incarnation.* He is our refuge from the world, the flesh, and the devil; He is the refuge of penitents, who flee from sin; of advancing Christians, who flee from the face of temptation;* and of the perfect, who flee from the anxicties and bustle of the world. And this is said relatively of Him, not that any change is wrought in His nature, but that we, being changed, seek shelter with Him,* and know Him to be that refuge which He always was. He is our city of refuge, wherein we are safe from the avenger of blood; He is our tower,* for “the Name of the Lord is a strong tower:* the righteous runneth into it and is safe;”* He is that Captain of the host, Who saith, “If the children of Ammon be too strong for thee,* then I will come and help thee.” He is the Teacher, to Whom we cry,* “I flee unto Thee to hide me, teach me to do the thing that pleaseth Thee.” He is the dove-cot, to Whom pure souls fly,* “as the doves to their windows.”* He is that tender parent Who exclaimed, “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathered her chickens under her wings.” And all this not in type alone, but in very deed; in His stooping to us by the humility of His Incarnation, (Ay.) by His endurance of temptation for us, by His prayers, especially in the Agony, and by His Cross, all which are a sure refuge for us from the destructive sin of pride. (P.) And on this a Spanish writer says very well, that the one remarkable prayer of Moses to God includes three petitions:* first, that God would come in person to lead His people into the land of promise; secondly, that His presence might be a visible one; thirdly, that He would show His glory to His chosen; all which requests are made anew in this psalm, and granted in the coming of the Lord Jesus.

2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made: thou art God from everlasting, and world without end.

Besides the obvious literal meaning of these words,* whence S. Athanasius and other Fathers draw an argument for the Eternal Godhead of the Son, begotten before all worlds; there are mystical senses indicated, as that the mountains denote the exalted angelic powers, and the earth the lowliness of man, teaching us thereby that Christ was anterior to both. And in the second creation, that of the Church, (A.) He was before the Apostles, those great mountains of His,* and the whole body of the faithful. His eternity is marked by the threefold form of the latter clause; time past, in that He was from everlasting; time present, for we say,* Thou art God; time future, world without end. And when we say from everlasting, (A.) we do not thereby imply that He had a beginning, nor in using the word end, do we hint at a close of His existence, but we signify only His changelessness, that He is eternally the same, and therefore we do not here say Thou wast God from everlasting, (D. C.) nor Thou wilt be God world without end, but Thou art God, the same, past, present, and to come. Wherefore Christ saith, “Before Abraham was, I am.”* Bellarmine points out a certain fitness in the reference to mountains in this verse,* after the phrase refuge in the preceding one, inasmuch as they are not only the strongest and most prominent objects on earth, but also are refuges in many ways; the first places to be left dry after deluges, the most difficult for enemies to attack with success. And thus, as they are often used as types of the Saints in Holy Writ, we learn that God’s love and protection are older,* stronger, and higher than even theirs.

3 Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men.

Here is the curse pronounced against Adam for his sin,* and the removal of that curse by Christ; the doom of death, and the promise of resurrection. It would be of little avail to us that God is our habitation, if He were not an everlasting one, sufficient for the generation of the world to come, as well as for that of this mortal life; but herein we are taught that He is our eternal Home, for He unites us to Himself, saying, Come again, and that from the destruction and dissolution of sin, to the restoration of penitence and the renewal of the defaced Image of God. And here too we see how God, as He causes each generation to pass away into dust, calls a new one into being. But the LXX. and Vulgate read, Turn not man away to humiliation.1 In this we are not to understand the virtue of lowliness, but either the punishment of dissolution or the sin of earthly and carnal thoughts. (A.) S. Augustine, taking the latter sense, interprets the verse as a prayer that God will not suffer man to turn away from eternal and lofty things to base and fleeting desires, but may give him grace to glory in God alone.* And He saith yet in another place, lest we should doubt His meaning: “Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings.”* What answer can we make then save that which follows? “Behold, we come unto Thee, for Thou art the Lord our God;” a stronger refuge than the mountains, for it continues: “Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains: truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel.”

4 For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday: seeing that is past as a watch in the night.

The Apostle S. Peter supplies us with a gloss on this passage, (L.) telling us that its meaning is that God does not really delay when He seems to us so to do, but is exhibiting His patience towards mankind:* “Beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (A.) S. Augustine bids us note that the thousand years are compared to yesterday, not to to-morrow, albeit of equal length, in order to impress upon us the lesson of forgetting things that are behind, and counting them as done with for ever,* but that we should “reach forth unto those things which are before,”* where it is always to-day. And a mediæval commentator observes that the whole life of a sinner (typified, as so often, by the symbolical number a thousand,) is as yesterday, however long he may live. For if you ask a worldly man, How will you spend to-morrow? he will answer, in word or in fact, As I did yesterday. And how was that? I ate, I drank, I talked, I amused myself, I slept. And so it would be with him, were his life prolonged a thousand years. Thus Isaiah speaks of the blind watchmen, who keep not a good watch in the night,* “We will fill ourselves with strong drink, and to-morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant.” But if man persist in sinning,* God is no less persistent in mercy, and therefore the Greek Fathers remind us that if a man will but hear God’s voice saying, Come again, and will repent, then, although his life may have been so crowded with sins as to seem as if a thousand years had been needed for their commission, yet they will be nought in His sight, and be blotted out as yesterday is.* Eusebius goes into a calculation here, from the literalist point of view, noting that from the building of Solomon’s temple to the overthrow of Ezra’s second erection, is in round numbers a thousand years, the for ever past yesterday of the Mosaic dispensation. If he had said that a thousand years elapsed from the dedication of the first Temple to the Nativity, he would have been more precise; and a similar cycle embraces the time between the conquests of Joshua and the return of Nehemiah. The life of mankind is here said to be as a watch in the night, (C.) for three reasons: its briefness, for there were four night watches, of but three hours each; its toilsome anxiety, fitly signifying the perpetual warfare of this mortal state;* and its darkness.

5 As soon as thou scatterest them, they are even as a sleep: and fade away suddenly like the grass.

6 In the morning it is green, and groweth up: but in the evening it is cut down, dried up, and withered.

The first half of the fifth verse runs quite differently in LXX. and Vulgate, and is, with little variance, Their years shall be nothingness. The clause is for the most part taken with the preceding verse,* and the first interpretation which calls for notice is that of Diodorus, who enforces from the words the lesson of the completeness of God’s pardon for repented sins, so that all the years which have been spent in them shall be utterly blotted out of His records. Another observes that we live by only infinitesimal parts of time.* Our past life is non-existent, for its days and years are dead; our future life is non-existent, for its hours are not yet born, and therefore we can count only the present instant, which slips from us as we try to grasp it, and is nothing. But the truer sense is given by the A. V. agreeing with Symmachus, Thou carriest them away as with a flood, they are as a sleep. And the first of these clauses may be taken in two ways,* either that the comparison is of life to a river, hurrying resistlessly into the ocean, and unable to stay for an instant in its course, or else that the idea is that of a sudden storm of rain,* washing the sky free of clouds, and the ground of light and unfixed objects lying casually about,* which are borne away in the torrent, while the word sleep reminds us of the manner in which our senses and reason are bound in slumber here on earth, so that we take fictions for truth, and have no power to undeceive ourselves, as well as of the manner in which these visions of the night vanish with our awakening. And so Pindar moralizes—

ἐπάμεροι· τί δέ τις; τί δʼ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ
ἄνθρωπος
.*

We are creatures of a day. What is any one? what is he not?
The dream of a shadow, man.

But of the Saints we may remember that it is spoken, “Thou shalt give them drink of Thy pleasures as out of the river;”* and again, “I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground;”* and yet further, “He giveth His beloved sleep,”* so that they are hurried away in rapt delight at the thought of God, and sleep, with waking heart, in that contemplation wherein they dream of Him. Like the grass. Here they take the morning and evening to be youth and old age, or, with little difference of meaning, life and death. We are cut down in death, dried up as corpses, withered into dust. (A.) And this is more awfully true of those lives which merely flourish and pass (Vulg.) without ever bringing forth actual fruit, (R.) for after the morning of this world,* when the night of judgment is come, they shall be cut down and cast into hell, suffered to harden (Vulg.) in their wickedness, and be dried up in the fierce flame of God’s wrath against sin. Once more, they take the grass to be the Mosaic Law, given in the morning youth of the nation by Christ on Mount Sinai, and abolished in the evening of time, when He came in the flesh. The whole figure is one frequently met in the classical poets, (Cd.) notably in Homer’s comparison of men to the successive leaves of a tree, but perhaps the closest parallel to this passage is supplied by Plautus:

Quasi solstitialis herba paulisper fui,*
Repente exortus sum, repentino occidi.

Like to a summer plant brief space I was,
I sprang up suddenly, and sudden fell.

Although the words of our Lord, wherein He speaks of “the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven,”* may be taken as explaining this sudden decay as the result of external violence, as the action of the scythe, not of natural causes, yet there are not wanting those who prefer to see a reference to those ephemeral plants whose bloom and fading are comprised in a single day. But the most natural explanation is to see noted here the rapid effects of an Eastern sun on the herbage. And so the Apostle S. James, “The sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof fadeth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth,”* an apt type of the sinner in the presence of God.

7 For we consume away in thy displeasure: and are afraid at thy wrathful indignation.

The double chastisement of body and soul is here set before us;* the gradual wasting of our physical frame under the attacks of disease and age,* and the mental terrors brought upon us by the thought of God’s divine anger against sin.* Those who take the whole Psalm as a dirge over the vanished glories of the Hebrew race, explain this verse as denoting that a heavier punishment than falls to the lot of other men had smitten the chosen nation; whether we take the words as referring specially to the death in the wilderness of all but two of the great host of armed men that came up out of Egypt, to the Babylonian captivity, (L.) or to the final dispersion under Titus and Hadrian. (D. C.) And others again prefer to understand it of the gradual shortening of the span of human life, from the centuries of the earliest race to the decades of later times.*

8 Thou hast set our misdeeds before thee: and our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.

Inasmuch as misdeeds are obliquities, (L.) perversities, and deviations from the right, God is said to set them before Him when, instead of hiding His face from them,* or covering them, He does, as it were, turn them round towards Himself, and fixes His eyes upon them, so that they cannot escape nor be concealed, but be detected and punished.* And in this He acts like earthly judges, who summon criminals before their tribunal, and submit them there to close examination, bringing hidden things into the light of judgment. Our secret sins. There is some variety of rendering the Hebrew עֲלֻמֵנוּ, the LXX. and Vulgate taking it as our whole duration (αἰὼν, sæculum,) S. Jerome rendering negligentias, the Chaldee and some others as youth, that is, as elsewhere, youthful sins. But the Prayer Book version appears the most satisfactory, and in any case the ultimate meaning will be the same, that it is precisely what seems to us most obscure and forgotten, that will be placed in the full blaze of God’s countenance,* which does not, like our sight, derive its rays from external objects, but is itself the source of light. The Syriac version, however, keeping to the idea of youth, beautifully turns the second clause into a prayer: Because Thou hast set our misdeeds before Thee, make us grow young in the light of Thy countenance. Put away from us the old man with his sins; renew in us the image of the New Man, and that by showing Him to us visibly in the flesh, that we may see Him as He is,* and thereby become like Him, as the pool becomes like the sun which shines on it.

9 For when thou art angry, all our days are gone: we bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told.

The previous verse is taken by several commentators to have a special reference either to the sin of Adam,* visited on his posterity,* or to the rejection of Christ by the Jews, and, consequently, this passage is explained by some to have general reference to the sentence of death pronounced against all mankind for the one cause, or of national overthrow against the Jews specially,* for the other. Had it not been for this, the days and years would have still flowed on, but they would, have brought none of the evils of age and weakness, far less of decay and death, in their course. As it were a tale that is told. There is a considerable variety of interpretation of the Hebrew text here, both amongst ancient and modern critics. The Chaldee turns it,* As the breath of the mouth in winter. S. Jerome, not unlike our rendering, As one uttering a speech. Others again, as a meditation (A. V. marg.) or reverie;1 or further, as a sigh or groan, a meaning which is the most probable, and agrees with the sense of הֶגֶה in the two other places where it occurs, Job 37:2, and Ezek. 2:10. But the LXX., Æthiopic, and Vulgate agree in translating the whole clause, meditated (or shall meditate) as a spider, i.e., a spiders web, which fuller form the Arabic gives, agreeing with the Syriac. however, in making the verb mean fail, or glide away.1 The fanciful nature of this simile has given birth to a crowd of interpretations. (C.) First may be placed that of Cassiodorus, that the lives of sinners are compared to spiders, because their intricate, subtle and yet frail devices for evil ends are like the webs woven to catch flies, while the word meditate is used in opposition to worked, to show the inutility and vanity of their existence.* The web of the spider is very slender, and of no value, like worldly cunning, of which we may take those words of the Prophet, “Moreover, they that work in fine flax, and they that weave net works, shall be confounded.”* The spider spins its web out of its own entrails, and is thus like the covetous. Its toil is laborious, but rapidly swept away; just as the hypocrite’s “hope shall be cut off, and whose trust shall be a spider’s web.”* It weaves its web high up in corners, not on level spots, and thus denotes secrecy and cunning. It prefers to spin in deserted houses, and so they whose soul was been abandoned by God, delight in sinister occupations. It works chiefly in the dark, and thus resembles those who shun the light, because their deeds are evil.* It hangs downwards from its web by a slender thread, denoting those who are in constant suspense and anxiety about earthly trifles, and it labours hard for a very small result, (Z.) giving much meditation thereto. Others, however, take the word meditated in the sense that the years of man shall be reputed or esteemed as no better than spider’s webs.* Eusebius, reminding us of that saying of Isaiah concerning the wicked Jews, “They hatch cockatrice’ eggs, and weave the spider’s web.… their webs shall not become garments;”* observes that in ancient times the children of Israel wove rich vestments for the High Priests, but that when the Great High Priest came, they wove instead subtle plots against Him with cunning use of Scriptural texts and traditional comments, meaning to snare Him therewith, but vainly.

10 The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years: yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow; so soon passeth it away, and we are gone.

Omitting the obvious literal interpretation of the verse, let us turn to the spiritual lessons which they draw from it. And first, let us hear S. Augustine explaining, (A.) according to his wont, the mystical significance of the numbers. Seventy and eighty make one hundred and fifty, which the Book of Psalms itself proves to be a sacred number. And its proportional meaning is the same as that of the number fifteen, made up of seven and eight; whereof the former, by reason of the observance of the Sabbath, denotes the Old Testament; the other, the New Testament, because of the Lord’s Resurrection. Hence are there fifteen steps of the Temple, the fifteen Songs of degrees amongst the Psalms, hence the waters of the flood prevailed fifteen cubits above the tops of the mountains. Seventy years is the temporal life of the Old Testament; eighty, which is in power (Vulg.) that is, in things eternal, is the new life of the New Testament in the hope of renewal and resurrection to immortality, while anything beyond (Vulg.) this, anything which transgresses the faith, and seeks for something else, is but labour and sorrow. (B.) Not very dissimilarly, others say that the word seventy denotes active life, as we number our existence here by the seven days of the week, while eighty, as suggesting the eighth day, the beginning of a new week, typical of a new life, implies contemplation on earth, and the Beatific Vision in the life to come. So soon passeth it away, and we are gone. The A. V. more exactly, with Targum and S. Jerome,* we fly away. This at once suggests the famous parable of the heathen Thane in the Witan assembled by Edwin of Northumbria to debate on the mission of S. Paulinus. “The present life of man, O King, may be likened to what often happens when thou art sitting at supper with thy thanes and nobles in winter-time. A fire blazes on the hearth, and warms the chamber; outside rages a storm of wind and snow; a sparrow flies in at one door of thy hall, and quickly passes out at the other. For a moment, and while it is within, it is unharmed by the wintry blast, but this brief season of happiness over, it returns to that wintry blast whence it came, and vanishes from thy sight. Such is the brief life of man; we know not what went before it, and we are utterly ignorant as to what shall follow it. If, therefore, this new doctrine contain anything more certain, it justly deserves to be followed.” But the LXX. and Vulgate diverge completely from the existing Hebrew text, reading as they do, For gentleness hath come upon[us, LXX.] and we shall be corrected [instructed LXX.] That is,* as they tell us, we derive at least this advantage from old age, that it breaks down the pride and obstinacy of youth, and we become gentle through consciousness of our feeble condition, and are corrected or instructed into submitting ourselves under the mighty and chastening, but loving hand of God. (C.) Or, as another, yet more beautifully, teaches, He Who is gentleness itself, our dear and tender Lord, hath come to us, and will correct us, if we obey not His teachings, but more gently than under the harshness of the Law. Another, accepting gentleness as the special epithet of Christ, (R.) takes the coming and correction to be that of the last Judgment, when He Who has been so long-suffering with us, saying to us, like His Apostle, “What, shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love, and the spirit of meekness?”* will punish the impenitent.

The Lord shall come,* but not the same
As once in lowliness He came,—
A silent Lamb before His foes,
A weary Man, and full of woes.
The Lord shall come, a glorious Form,
With wreath of flame and robe of storm,
On cherub wings and wings of wind,
Appointed Judge of all mankind.

But one writer who follows the Vulgate reading,* brings us back to the real force, saying, The phrase We shall be corrected means we shall die, and we shall be amended. For death is a general correction, which amends our vices in us, and in what way? By means of gentleness, for it pacifies all. For gentleness hath come upon us. The lion dies, the tiger dies, the adder dies, and where then is the lion’s valour, the tiger’s fierceness, the adder’s poison? Now, the lion is not brave, the tiger is not fierce, the adder is not venomous, and all those untamed beasts and monsters are docile now, for death hath tamed them. And if death can work such amendment and change in wild beasts, why should it not do the like in man? A better change, too, than mere stilling of our passions, but like that of which one of our own poets has sung—

.… from the Golden Throne the Lord of death*
With love benignant on Ladurlad smiled,
And gently on his head his blessing laid.
As sweetly as a child,
Whom neither thought disturbs nor care encumbers,
Tired with long play, at close of summer day,
Lies down and slumbers,
Even thus as sweet a boon of sleep partaking,
By Yamen blest, Ladurlad sank to rest.
Blessed that sleep, more blessed was the waking,
For on that night a heavenly morning broke,
The light of heaven was round him when he woke.

11 But who regardeth the power of thy wrath: for even thereafter as a man feareth, so is thy displeasure.
12 So teach us to number our days: that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

This rendering is very obscure, and it is simpler to take the A. V., Who knoweth the power of Thine anger? even according to Thy fear, so is Thy wrath.* That is, what man can tell the awfulness of God’s indignation against sin? seeing that His wrath is proportionable to His majesty, and to the reverential fear we ought to entertain for Him, to guard us from transgressing His precepts.* And because no man can do this except God teach him, we then pray Him so to instruct us to understand our brief sojourn here, so to order our lives that we may understand His might and holiness, His justice and wrath as our Judge, our own weakness as miserable sinners, that we may truly repent, and with softened hearts turn to the Eternal Wisdom, the Word of God Himself, and sit meekly at His feet to learn the way of holiness. But the LXX. and Vulgate follow a different reading, and join on the word number to the preceding verse, thus: Who knoweth … to number Thine anger in comparison with Thy fear? which, so far, does not affect the general sense of the passage. (A.) But they continue: So make known Thy right hand,1 and the instructed in heart in wisdom. That is, reveal unto us Thy Christ, the Right Hand of Thy power, that He, in turn, may make known to us that everlasting felicity which is prepared for those who shall be set on His right hand in the Judgment. And show us not only Him, but as further lessons and examples for us, those Apostles, Martyrs, (C.) and Saints who have drunk His wisdom in with thirsty hearts, and have thereby in their lives and doctrine taught us what it is to follow Him.*

13 Turn thee, O Lord, at the last: and be gracious unto thy servants.

At the last. LXX.* and Vulg. rightly, with A. V., How long? As long as is Thy good pleasure, so that Thou be gracious unto Thy servants, (R.) or as long as is needful for Thee to turn unto us for our salvation; or again,* for a time equal to that during which Thou wast turned from us; and, we pray, keep Thyself so turned with the light of Thy countenance shining on us, (D. C.) till we reach our desired end. But the Chaldee takes the sentence as incomplete,* and fills it up thus: How long wilt Thou afflict us? And He gives us a plain answer: “Return unto Me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts.”* Then, when we are willing to forsake our sins, He will be entreated for His servants, and repent Him (A. V.) of His severity; that is, will like a strict loving parent show tenderness to His converted children, in proportion to the weight of His chastening hand so long as they continued froward.

14 O satisfy us with thy mercy, and that soon: so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.
15 Comfort us again now after the time that thou hast plagued us: and for the years wherein we have suffered adversity.

Soon. Rather, early,* which the Vulgate turns, in the morning. It is not of the way, (A.) but of our Country that these words are spoken. Here, God’s love and grace are as a light that shineth in a dark place, in the night and sorrow of this world, in our dimly enlightened hearts, but there, in the morning, when we shall see “the day dawn, and the Day-star arise in our hearts,”* nevermore to set, we shall be satisfied with the mercy of God, (C.) that is, with His dear Son. So shall we rejoice, “for Thou delightest not in our destruction, inasmuch as Thou makest a calm after the storm, and after crying and tears, Thou pourest in gladness.”* Wherefore it is added, After the time that Thou hast plagued us. “This kind of rejoicing,”* observes a Saint, “the heavenly citizens would never have known were it not for the children of the Church. For joy comes in good time after sorrow, rest after toil, a haven after shipwreck. All love safety, but he most who has been afraid. Light is pleasant to all, but most to him who escapeth out of the power of darkness. By the passage from death to life grace is doubled in its delightfulness. This is my special portion in the heavenly banquet, apart from those blessed spirits. I am bold to say that the very life of blessedness itself is augmented, and obtains some addition to its perfection through me, by reason of what it enjoys through its love for me, and that to no small extent, for the angels rejoice at the repentance of a sinner. But if my tears are delightful to the angels, what will my delight be to them?” (D. C.) There is a sense in which the prayer was granted even in this world, by the early morning Resurrection of Christ, by the descent of the Holy Spirit in fiery tongues at the third hour of the Day of Pentecost.* It is granted also to those on whom God bestows the grace of penitence, and inspires with the hope of pardon and salvation after He has chastised them for their sins; nay, with thankful rejoicing in the very chastisements which have testified His fatherly love, and they learn to “rejoice in the Lord alway”* all the days of their earthly life, in preparation for the unending gladness of their promised immortality, in that morning which begins an unending series of days that have no evening.

The night was dark with terror,*
The morn is bright with gladness;
The Cross becomes our harbour,
And we triumph after sadness;
And Jesus to His true ones
Brings trophies fair to see:
And Jesus shall be loved, and
Beheld in Galilee:
Beheld, when morn shall waken
And shadows shall decay,
And each true-hearted servant
Shall shine as doth the day.

16 Show thy servants thy work: and their children thy glory.

Not works, in the plural, like the many sacrifices of the Law.* The covenant of grace knows only one work, that of Christ. Thy work. The especial work of God is the salvation of man, to be wrought out by the merits of Christ. It is therefore a prayer for His coming, His Resurrection and Ascension, the sending of the Holy Ghost, and the foundation of the Church, for “this is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.”* And note that the prayer is twofold, that we may see the work, and our children the glory, teaching us thereby that the triumph of the Church is not to be looked for till the work is ended, that the sufferings of the Saints must precede their victories, that the martyrdom of the Apostles is the needful preliminary to the conversion of the Empire.* Or, if we take the words of God’s work in the soul, their meaning will be, “Work in Thy servants by Thy grace, that they may do good works, and let Thy work in the matter be so plain, that others may see their good deeds, and glorify Thee, their Father in heaven, and that this holy operation may not cease with them, but be continued for their children too. The LXX. and Vulgate are, however, slightly different here, and read, Look upon Thy servants, and Thy works, and guide their children. It is, observes Cassiodorus, (C.) a prayer to God to spare the Jewish nation, once His servants, though now rebels, and to guide into the way of salvation the children of those who slew Him.* Bless, as another will have it, the work of Thy servants in the ministry of souls, and guide their spiritual children, their converts and pupils, in the right way.

17 And the glorious majesty of the Lord our God be upon us: prosper thou the work of our hands upon us, O prosper thou our handywork.

There is a twofold Rabbinical tradition respecting this verse and the preceding one;* that they were the original prayer recited by Moses as a blessing on the work of making the Tabernacle and its ornaments, and that subsequently he employed them as the usual formula of benediction for any newly undertaken task, whenever God’s glorious majesty was to be consulted for an answer by Urim and Thummim. For us that glorious majesty is Christ our King Himself,* Whose splendour has enlightened us for ever; it is, further, the illumination of the Holy Ghost, Whom He has sent us, it is even His own triumphal Cross, wherein we glory, wherewith we sign ourselves as a safeguard against evil.* So enlightened, so fortified by His prevenient grace, we may begin our part of the great undertaking. (C.) When He has shown us His work, and given us clear light wherein to see it, (P.) then we may ask for wisdom and strength to carry it on, (A.) always under His guidance, to the one perfect work and end of charity, wherein He co-operates throughout with His grace,* as He bestowed on us the will and power necessary for a beginning.

Wherefore:

Glory be to the Father, Who is God from everlasting; glory be to the Son, His Mercy, Who saith to us, Come again, ye children of men; glory be to the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.

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

VARIOUS USES

Gregorian and Monastic. Thursday: Lauds.

Ambrosian. Wednesday of Second Week: III. Nocturn.

Parisian. Thursday: Prime.

Lyons. Friday: Compline.

Quignon. Wednesday: Nones.

Eastern Church. Prime.

ANTIPHONS

Gregorian and Monastic. Lord,* Thou hast been our refuge.

Ambrosian. As preceding Psalm.

Mozarabic. The glorious majesty of the Lord our God be upon us.

COLLECTS

Almighty God, Creator of the star of light,* Who drivest away the night and bringest back the light anew to the world, satisfy us, we beseech Thee, with the renewed shining of Thy mercy, that we may, through Thine illumination, drive away all the darkness of sin. (1.)

Keep us, O Lord, from one generation to another,* and let not us, who have clung to Thy foundation, be carried away with this present world, but arise to be our Comforter in trouble, and by the bestowal of joy wipe away our sorrows. (11.)

Let Thy glorious majesty, O Lord, be upon us, and guide Thou the work of our hands,* look graciously upon Thy servants, and with Thy light direct the beginnings of good works in us. (11.)

Be Thou our Refuge, O Lord, and guide Thy people with Thy fatherly governance,* that as the times of our fathers felt Thy cares, so ours also may know Thy bounties towards them. (11.)

We beseech Thee, O Lord our Saviour, that Thy glory may shine in our hearts,* that Thou mayest cast out from us all assaults of darkness and all foul thoughts, and drive away all sins from our hearts; so enlighten our darkness that the shades may flee, and glorious light dwell in our hearts. (5.)

O Lord, Who art God from everlasting and world without end, (D. C.) be Thou in all places our Refuge; look mercifully upon us Thy servants, and let the glory of Thy godhead be upon us, that our works may alway be guided by Thee, and be finished by Thee when begun. (1.)

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2 Responses to A Patristic/Medieval commentary on Psalm 90

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C | stjoeofoblog

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