A Patristic/Medieval Commentary on Psalm 40:2, 3, 4, 18

Ps 40:2.  I waited patiently for the LORD: and he inclined unto me, and heard my calling.

I waited for Him That is the expectation of the Gentiles, (Lorinus) and so does He wait also. “And therefore will the LORD wait that He may be gracious unto you, and therefore will He be exalted that He may have mercy upon you” (Isa 30:18).  The Rabbis are fond of comparing those two texts: “the heathen say, Where is now their GOD?” and that triumphant reply, “Lo, this is our GOD, we have waited for Him, and He will save us” (Isa 25:9).  S. Athanasius makes a simpler use of the verse; that we are not, as it were, to outrun the providential leadings of GOD,* by exposing ourselves voluntarily to our persecutors, but are rather expecting to expect Him, till He shall make the way clear for us, whether it is His will that we should serve Him yet longer in this world, or should glorify Him once for all in the fires. But take it rather of the expectation of the Church after the promise of now four thousand years’ standing; “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head;” expectation revived and renewed in every age by the types and prophecies, and at last fixed to a certain epoch by the seventy weeks of Daniel. I waited patiently. And “we are saved by hope;” and what is hope but patient expectation, (Ludolphus, Theodoret) according to that saying of the Apostle (Rom 8:25). “Then do we with patience wait for it?” And if ever of any expectation, it may be said of that expressed by the Psalmist here. And so S. Bernard says—and no one has written better than he on hope—“Thou, (Dionysius the Carthusian) O LORD, art my Hope: whatever I have to do, whatever to avoid, whatever to tolerate, whatever to wish, Thou, O LORD, art my hope: the only cause and reason of my expectation. Let another speak of his own merit; let him boast that he bears the burden and heat of the day. Let him vaunt that he fasts twice in the week, let him glory that he is not as other men; but as for me, I have no such ground of acceptance (St Bernard), I expecting will expect the Lord, and Him alone.” And again, in another place, “If rewards are promised us to be obtained through Thee, I will hope: if battles rise up against me, I will hope; if the world rages, if Satan attacks, if the flesh lusteth against the spirit, in Thee will I hope” (Wasimund).  And He inclined to me. Never so gloriously, never so lovingly, as when the King, now exalted on the throne of the Cross, inclined His Head to give the last kiss of affection to His Bride; or, as others will understand it, to ask her leave to absent Himself for a little while, according to that saying, “I will come again and receive you to Myself.”* S. Thomas goes through the different stages of expectation, comparing them to the increasing brightness of a summer morning: the first greyness, when you can hardly tell whether the day has really broken or not—and that was the hope of the patriarch; the earliest streaks of colour which tell most undoubtedly of the approaching sun, and there we have the Mosaic types; the brightness diffused over the whole earth, and there we have the predictions of the prophets; and then, lastly, the one or two actual rays which shoot up from the horizon, and in like manner such manifest revelations as Daniel’s seventy weeks, and Malachi’s “The LORD Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His Temple.”

Psalm 40:3.  He brought me also out of the horrible pit, out of the mire and clay: and set my feet upon the rock, and ordered my goings.

Out of the horrible pit: or, as it is in the Vulgate, Out of the lake of misery. That is a noble passage of S. Augustine’s (City of God 18, 35), where he speaks of the barrenness of that land where the rivers of justice flow not. Mediæval writers refer to the prophecy of Zechariah, “As for thee also, by the blood of the covenant, I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit, wherein is no water” (Zech 9:1).  Out of the mire. And they dwell, not only on the polluting nature of sin, but on its power of engulphing and swallowing up, (Lorinus) like an abyss of mire. And they remind us how, here also, like cures like: how man, made of clay, and to be resolved into clay again, and engaged in the hard labours which the spiritual Pharaoh exacts from the clay-field, was cured from his blindness by that clay which our LORD made. S. Gregory says well: “By the name of mire in Holy Scripture sometimes we understand the cupidity of earthly possessions, sometimes filthy and polluting doctrines, sometimes the desires of carnal concupiscence” (Jn 9:9).  And so the Prophet cries out, “Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his!—how long?—and that loadeth himself with thick clay!” (Pope Gregory the Great) Or they take the horrible pit on the one side, and the mire and clay on the other, to set forth to us the shame as well as the agony of the LORD’S Passion. Upon a rock. “O true Rock!” cries a mediæval saint (Thomas Aquinas); “O glorious Rock, lifting itself so serenely above the storms and clouds of this lower world! Thou only firm abiding-place for the trembling feet! Thou only secure abode for the hunted conies! What thanks or praise can I give to Thee (Wasimund), Rock, to which I turn my eyes, Rock of my security, Rock whence burst forth the Living Water, the Water whereof, if a man drinketh, he shall thirst no more! Rock of ages! Rock of the elect!” (1 Cor 10:4) This is the Rock so worthily figured by the smitten rock in the wilderness: we need fear no error when we have an Apostolic commentator, “That rock was CHRIST.” And not water alone did that Rock send forth: “He made him to suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock” (Deut 32:13).

Or yet again: (Isa 2:1) we may take the rock of that Mountain which shall be established on the top of the mountains and exalted above the hills; (Lorinus) the utmost bound of the everlasting hills. A Rock indeed! For (Rupert), let the foot once be set there, and what can remove it? let the house once be established there, and what can endanger it? And then it may well follow, and ordered my goings. For then we shall see how all our goings have been so ordered, as to lead us in safety to the Everlasting LORD; ordered, by means that we little thought; ordered, by many an affliction, many a fear, many an “all these things are against me;” but ordered right, (St Bruno of Aste) for all that, all things working together for our good. Or, if we take the Hebrew, the sense is even still more applicable: כוֹנֵן אֲשֻׁרָי, making good my success: that glorious, final success, where no more temptations have to be met, no more watch and ward maintained; where the armour may be laid by; where there is perfect peace! Therefore it well follows:

Ps 40:4a  And he hath put a new song in my mouth: even a thanksgiving unto our GOD.

They are full of the different meanings which the new song may have: whether it is to be taken of the Gloria in Excelsis (John Chrysostom, Eligius), first heard at Bethlehem (Lk 2:14); or the Nunc Dimittis (Lk 2:29-32), with its extension of redemption to the Gentiles. But if we take the rock as we have just taken it, of the heavenly mountain, then this can only be the song of Moses and of the Lamb: of Moses, in that the Red Sea of this life is past; and of the Lamb, in that, in a higher and more perfect sense (Hugo of St Victor),  peace is proclaimed to men of peace in that true Vision of Peace. S. Clement of Alexandria dwells at great length on this passage, comparing our LORD to another Orpheus. In the three new songs which the Church daily employs, the Benedictus, the Nunc Dimittis, and the Magnificat, they see a mystical application to each Person of the Blessed TRINITY, and the especial work of that Person in the salvation of man. But why does it go on—even a thanksgiving unto our God? Because, as Ruffinus observes, there are many who so take a hymn of praise into their mouths, as in real truth to glorify themselves, and not GOD. Not unfitly do they compare with this new song the old song of corrupt human nature, (Michael Ayguan) which, like the syren melody of Pagan lore, endeavoured to plunge men into a bottomless abyss. But if, (Dionysius the Carthusian) as before, we put these words into our LORD’S mouth, then what shall the new song be? And they well answer that still there are three. The first is, “I ascend unto My FATHER and your FATHER;” the second, “Whose sins soever ye remit, they are remitted unto them;” the third, “I will send the promise of My FATHER unto you.”

Ps 40:4b.  Many shall see it, and fear: and shall put their trust in the LORD.

Or, as S. Augustine reads it, The just shall see it: a reading for which there is no authority. But we may ask, How can we see a song? And why ought not the Psalmist rather to say, They shall hear it? And the answer is ready: Because the hymn of praise that GOD loves is that of deeds, and not of words. Hence it is set down as the character of the wicked, “Behold, they speak with their mouth:” that is, with their mouth only. Therefore also it is said that, when the evil spirit troubled Saul (Vieyra), it was the harp of David—not his voice—which drove it away; for the harp needs the hand to make it sound. And fear. But why, if it be a thanksgiving, should they fear? And they happily refer to that first new song, “Glory to GOD in the Highest,” concerning which it is said that the shepherds were sore afraid. And shall put their trust in the Lord. For so they did when they continued, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem” (Michael Ayguan).  And they observe also how any example of great trust has been preceded by a time of fear. “Fear not: lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.” And so the Angel to the Blessed Virgin: “Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found favour with GOD” (Lk 1:30). So to the shepherds: “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Lk 2:10). So to the holy women at the Sepulchre: “Fear not ye; for I know that ye seek JESUS, Which was crucified” (Mt 28:3). It is well said, “In the way of GOD we begin by fear, and advance to courage; for, just as in the way of the world adversity is the parent of fortitude (St Gregory the Great), so in that of the LORD boldness ends in debility, fear in strength.” And how is this? Let an early writer explain: “The beginning of our salvation and of our wisdom is, as Scripture testifieth (Cassian), the fear of the LORD; from the fear of the LORD springs salutary compunction; from compunction self-renunciation; from that, humility; from humility mortification of all our appetites: by that mortification every vice is uprooted, and withers; and vice failing, then grace takes root, and flourishes.” And so it follows here: shall fear, and shall put their trust in the Lord. Oh happy dread, so ending in happy love! Oh hard yet dear schoolmaster, thus to bring us to the only Source of perfect security! Who would not fear, (W.) who would not tremble, with Esther? Who would not say, ‘If I perish, I perish,’ if only Ahasuerus is about to stretch forth the golden sceptre, and to welcome the timid suppliant?

Ps 40:18.  As for me, I am poor and needy: but the LORD careth for me. Thou art my helper and redeemer: make no long tarrying, O my GOD.

It will be better to consider these verses (14-18) when, by GOD’S help, they occur again, where they form the 70th Psalm. That, as the second edition, may be considered, if I may use the expression without irreverence, as the more perfect, in its verbal differences, of the two; and for that therefore we will wait. The verse which corresponds to 40:18 in Psalm 70 reads as follows:

As for me, I am poor and in misery: haste thee unto me, O GOD. Thou art my helper, and my redeemer: O LORD, make no long tarrying.

The person who compiled the commentary writes:

It is most truly spoken of Him Who had not where to lay His head (St Hilary), Who was a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. But, it is added in the fortieth Psalm, the Lord careth for me, with the care of a FATHER, for His Only-begotten and beloved SON, the care of the Divinity of the WORD for that Manhood which He assumed, the care of the HOLY GHOST for Him on Whom He descended in Jordan. And because it is so, I may cry, sure of being heard, Haste Thee unto me, O God (St Bruno of Aste), and raise me up in the joy of the Resurrection. It is the cry of all those who have hearkened to the warning voice of CHRIST, and who no longer say, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing” (Rev 3:17), but have learnt that they are “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked;” and who therefore desire to buy of the LORD gold tried in the fire, and white raiment. Many of the Saints have dwelt on these words (Michael Ayguan), spoken in the Person of CHRIST, as teaching the counsel of perfection in voluntary poverty, as a state well-pleasing to GOD. (Gerhohus) And observe, that all beings save GOD are always needy, because they require His aid, while He alone is “without need” (Theophylact), and they are poor besides, when they have not got the things which they require. How true it is of mankind (John Chrysostom), let a great Saint tell us; Man is a beggar and poor, for though he once was rich and noble, (enriched by GOD’S law, and joined in kinship with Him by the royal image,) yet he was reduced to such want that his poverty passed on to many generations, so that at last, brought up in that poverty, he was named poor. What art thou to do then, (Augustine) poor and needy one? Beg before the gate of GOD, knock, and it shall be opened to thee. And what are the alms? Let the Beatitude answer, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3).

Thou art my helper, in all good works—Redeemer from all evil ones. Make no long tarrying. It is the cry of the individual sinner, (Dionysius the Carthusian) asking for instant help in trouble. (Gerhohus) It is the cry of the Church in days of persecution and affliction, and yet more, it is the prayer of all who long for the speedy coming of CHRIST, (St Augustine) of the Martyrs under the golden Altar in heaven, who cry, “How long, O LORD, how long,” and of Confessors on earth uttering the petition, “Thy kingdom come.”

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One Response to A Patristic/Medieval Commentary on Psalm 40:2, 3, 4, 18

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

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