Patristic/Medieval Commentary on Psalm 121

ARGUMENT

Arg. Thomas. That Christ, unsleeping, may overshadow and guard Jerusalem. The Voice of the Church to the Apostles. The Voice of the Church concerning the Prophets or the peoples to Christ.

Ven. Bede. At the first step the Prophet, set in trouble, after the example of that publican who beat his breast and dared not lift up his eyes to heaven, besought that he might be delivered from unrighteous lips and a deceitful tongue. But now, taking breath on the second step, he lifted up his eyes unto the hills; that is, to the interceding Saints, by whose prayers he hoped to attain heavenly gifts. The Prophet speaks thus in his own person, being nevertheless himself a mountain and a wondrous patriarch, but for that very reason he has narrated how he successfully climbed up by these steps, to show us in clear recital the kinds of heavenly virtues of which we are ignorant.

The Prophet, as we have said, ascending to the heavenly Jerusalem, in the first clause saith that he hath lifted up his eyes to the merits of the Saints, that he might be helped by their prayers; lest his soul should give way to the attack of the enemy. I have lifted up mine eyes. In the second place he undoubtingly promises himself what he knows he has fittingly asked for; teaching us that what good things soever we ask for with a steady heart, we are to believe without doubt will be given to us. The Lord is my keeper, &c.

Eusebius of Cæsarea. The Return from Babylon and from the dispersion.

Syriac Psalter. Anonymous. One of the songs of the going-up from Babylon, and promises of good things.

S. Athanasius. A Psalm of thanksgiving.

COMMENTARY

1 I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills: from whence cometh my help.

2 My help cometh even from the Lord: who hath made heaven and earth.

This Psalm, as already noted, is a song for the march of the caravan of pilgrims to Jerusalem, as they lift their eyes from the plains of Babylon to the mountain-ranges which gird their native land. The meaning of the two verses is best brought out by reading the latter clause of the first verse as an interrogation;* and the force will then be, I will make the needful effort to reach my home, I will survey the mountains which are interposed between it and me, looking round for aid, and will breast and climb them from the valley below, be they never so high and steep, till I find a pass, and reach the other side. But the task is a hard one, Whence shall come my help to fulfil it? And then the second verse supplies the answer. The mountains thus denote the kingdoms and mighty ones of this world, attempting to bar the way of the Church, or of the individual Saint, but doomed to be made low in order to prepare the way of the Lord.* And so it is written, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts. Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain.”* Or the mountains may be looked at not in the light of obstacles,* but refer to the hills about Jerusalem itself, including Zion and Moriah;* and the verses will then allude indirectly to the Temple, out of which, on its mountain site, the help of God will come to the aid of His servant.* And in this second sense the mystical import will be given us by the words of the Apostle, “Seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God,”* and by the words of the Priest in the beginning of the Canon in the Liturgy, “Lift up your hearts,” whereupon we answer, in the spirit of the Psalmist, “We lift them up unto the Lord.” S. Hilary takes the mountains in two senses: (H.) of the books of prophecy, or, as a later writer will have it, the two Testaments, with their lofty and difficult secrets, admirably fitted to raise the soul from earth, and likened to rich veins of precious metal, for which men toil eagerly; and of the holy angels,* as subjects for thought and imitation in their purity and obedience; (Cd.) but adds that not even from these, as mere ministers of another’s will, does our help come, but from the Lord Himself. S. Augustine, (A.) on the other hand, takes the mountains as the Apostles, and explains that help did come from them, on whom the light of heaven shone first, to those in the valleys below them, by their preaching of the Gospel, itself sent directly from God to them, that God who made those Apostolic heavens themselves,* whence the refreshing rains of doctrine came down upon the parched and sterile earth of the Gentile world below, not less the work of His hands. The far inferior sense of confidence in the intercession of the Saints,* as the secondary sources of our help, given by Venerable Bede, (G.) is followed by several of the mediæval commentators;* though Richard of Hampole is careful to add, after saying that the Psalmist lifts up his eyes to contemplate that glory of the Saints which he yearns to share, “But it is not from these mountains that my help shall come, since my hope is not to be placed in them, for my help is from the Lord,* the Mountain of mountains Himself, from Whom alone comes the light which shines on those lofty summits, (A.) dark without Him, the True Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world,”* Who hath made heaven to be the reward of His valiant soldiers,* and earth to be the lists for their combat.

3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: and he that keepeth thee will not sleep.

4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel: shall neither slumber nor sleep.

As the foot is that member of the body which carries it about to the scenes of its actions, (H.) so its spiritual signification is the motions and advances of the mind. (A.) And pride was the motion which moved Satan from heaven and man from Paradise. God keeps the feet of His Saints safe from this, but gives them the motion of love, that instead of falling they may walk, (Ay.) advance, and go up in the right way. He kept the feet of His Apostles, that no toils or terrors might daunt them from preaching His Gospel in all lands. He that keepeth thee will not sleep. As in the previous clause there is probably a reference to God’s guidance of the pilgrim in the right road to Jerusalem, so here is the night-watch around the sleeping caravan.* God does not slumber, as one fatigued, nor sleep, as needing, like man, nightly rest and refreshment of the frame. Spiritually, they tell us that God sleeps in the heart of His servants when their faith grows cold and languid,* and that we have here the promise of the Holy Spirit that no such calamity shall come upon the steadfast pilgrim. (G.) And in the next clause we have the Godhead and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus shadowed out. He, the true Keeper of Israel, did indeed sleep in the grave, but He did not remain sleeping, but arose again, waking in the morn of the Resurrection, so that “death hath no more dominion over Him.”* And not only so, but even when the Manhood slept in that brief slumber, the ever-wakeful Godhead kept watch over Israel still. There is thus a peculiar fitness in the embodiment of the idea of this verse in the Compline Hymn of the Western Church at Eastertide:

Jesu, Redeemer of the earth,*

Eternal Word of God most High,

Light which from Light Unseen hast birth,

Our Keeper of unsleeping eye:

Thou Who the universe hast made,

Who rulest change of time and tide,

Our toil-worn, weary bodies aid,

And peaceful rest by night provide.

That whilst in earthly forms below

A little time our stay we mate,

Our flesh may take its slumber so

That unto Christ the soul may wake.

“It is necessary,”* observes S. Bernard, “that He who keepeth Israel should neither slumber nor sleep, for he who assails Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. And as the One is anxious about us, so is the other to slay and destroy us, and his one care is that he who has once been turned aside may never come back.”* There is a stress, they remind us, on Israel, (D. C.) to whom alone this unceasing ward is given, teaching us that it is he who sees God, and wrestles with Him in prayer, who may surely look for His protection. “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and on the Israel of God.”*

5 The Lord himself is thy keeper: the Lord is thy defence upon thy right hand;

6 So that the sun shall not burn thee by day: neither the moon by night.

The force and beauty of the connection between these two verses is obscured by the rendering defence,* which ought to be shade, and the mention of the right hand points to the geographical sense of that term in the Old Testament, where it denotes the south, the quarter from which the burning rays of the midday sun pour their heat and glare. The full force of these words can only be known by those who hare had to make forced marches across a bare Syrian plain in the midst of the summer heats. Some, however, separate the two clauses, and treat them independently, The Lord is thy shade, and the Lord is at thy right hand as a defence, but the continued reference to the sun and moon disposes of this view, since sun-stroke, with its frequent result of death, and moon-stroke, often credited in the East with causing ophthalmia and madness, keep before the mind the thought of the need of shelter, and do not bring in any other idea. God’s standing at the right hand, to the apparent exclusion of the left, (H.) is variously explained of His strengthening our power of action, and therefore of resistance in spiritual combat against the enemies of our soul, or to His gift of things eternal, denoted by the right hand, (A.) while the left holds only the temporal bounties of this life. Of the next clause S. Hilary remarks that it is impossible to take it literally, (H.) because so long as our bodies continue what they are, and the laws of nature remain unchangeable as we see them, the sun and moon will produce their usual effects upon us; and that we must therefore look forward to the blessedness of that heavenly country, wherein there will be no bodily infirmity, no cold or heat, no night and change, but perpetual mildness under the rays of the Sun of Righteousness, typified of old by the pillar of fire and cloud which tempered severally the heat of day and the darkness of night. S. Augustine, more boldly, tells us that the Sun is Christ’s Godhead, the moon, the Church, deriving all its light from Him, and waxing and waning here, while the night is that Flesh of Christ wherein the Sun is hid, and wherein the Moon shines, because faith in the Incarnation is the very life and sphere of the Church; so that the verse is a promise to the faithful that they shall not be offended either in Christ or in the Church; in Christ by making difficulties, as heretics do, in accepting the true doctrine of His Person; or in the Church, as schismatics do, by refusing to acknowledge her unity or obey her precepts. Several commentators, however,* prefer to understand the moon in the night as Christ’s bodily presence in the world, and explain these words therefore of doubt as to His being Very Man;* while others again follow the more obvious allegory of protection amidst the prosperity and adversity of mortal life.

7 The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: yea, it is even he that shall keep thy soul.

It is no promise, comments S. Hilary, (H.) of warding off the common evils of the body, want, weakness, death, since were that so, we should not read of Abel’s slaughter, of Job’s sufferings, of Peter’s lack of silver and gold for alms. But these are no real evils, and it is the faithful soul which the Lord will keep, that the moth of the evil one may not corrupt it, the thief not creep upon it, the wolf not tear it, the bear not rage against it, the leopard not spring upon it, the tiger not fly at it, the lion not destroy it. For all these are instruments of the evil one, all these are works of his in this life, to eat the soul away with sin, to creep upon it with flattery, to tear it with allurements, to spring upon it with ambition, to fly upon it with lusts, to destroy it with all his power. It is against evils such as these that we are to look for defence from God. (A.) Thus it was that again and again He kept the souls of His martyrs safe, while suffering their bodies to be the prey of the torturer. And God’s ways of keeping are fourfold;* as a watchman, seeing that no enemy approaches the city which He guards; as a defender, standing with shield and sword in the battle at the right hand of His warriors; as a porter, opening the gate of mercy to every one that knocks; as a physician, tending and binding up the wounds of a sufferer.

8 The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in: from this time forth for evermore.

God keeps the going out of His Saints from sin, or from bondage, in an enemy’s country, as He kept Abraham in his quitting the heathen land of Haran, (H.) and Abraham’s distant posterity in their exodus from Egypt, and also keeps their coming in to the Land of Promise. And therefore the words may be most truly taken of His protection of the soul in its hour of departure from the prison of this world, and in its happy entrance into the Paradise of rest. “Therefore,” prays the Western Church over her dying children,* “as thy soul goeth forth from the body, let the bright host of angels meet thee; let the Apostles who shall judge the world come unto thee; let the conquering army of white-robed martyrs welcome thee; let the lily-crowned band of shining Confessors compass thee; let the choir of rejoicing Virgins greet thee; let the Patriarchs receive thee to rest happily in their bosom; let Christ Jesus look upon thee in gentleness and joy, and set thee for ever amongst them who stand before Him.” Yet another sense of going out and coming in, very frequent in Scripture,* is the march of a hostile expedition into an enemy’s country,* and the safe return of the army home; so that the meaning in that case will be God’s aid in enabling us to overcome temptations boldly, and to avoid the faults of pride or dangerous security after the victory and the quiet which follows it. (G.)

The Vulgate inverts the order of the words,* putting coming in first and going out last, and this has occasioned some difference in the mode of interpretation. (A.) Coming in, they tell us, is entering into battle in the Church Militant, going out, returning from it into the Church Triumphant, and God keeps our coming in when He takes care that we are not exposed to a temptation too powerful for us to overcome, (for it is written, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation,”*) and our going out by granting us perseverance and means of escape, for “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able, but will with the temptation make a way to escape, (ἔκβασιν, exitum,) that ye may be able to bear it.”* He kept the coming in of His martyrs when they were brought for His sake before kings and governors,* giving them boldness and speech which their enemies could not gainsay or resist;* He kept their going out when they were led to their death,* and continued in the confession of the faith to the very end. He keeps the first beginnings of our yet weak faith when we are entering in to a knowledge of Him, and preserves it to the close, that at our going out of the world we may die as true subjects of His,* in the confession of His Name. (G.) And the words have also a special meaning for those who take upon them any office in the Church, and hearken to that saying of the Lord, “I am the door; by Me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.”* Entering in to thy closet, and shutting the door, in prayer thou wilt find pasture, the affection and influence of prayer itself, when thy Father which heareth in secret will give thee unspeakable consolations for thine unspeakable groans; and then going out for the discharge of any ministry, whether thou teachest with doctrine,* or rulest with diligence, or showest mercy with cheerfulness, or givest with simplicity, thou wilt find pasture in such goings out, namely, such effects of thy ministry, that men seeing thee will glorify the Father in Heaven, the glorifying of whose Name, not praise for thyself, nor human favour, nor any desire of gain or honour, is the true food of thy soul.

Wherefore:

Glory be to the Father, Who made heaven and earth; Glory be to the Son,* Who is the shade upon our right hand; Glory be to the Holy Ghost, Who shall keep our soul.

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

VARIOUS USES

Gregorian. Monday: Vespers. [Prayer on Mount of Olives: II. Noct. Office of Dead: Vespers. Little Office B.V.M.: Terce.]

Monastic. Week-days: Terce.

Ambrosian. Monday: Vespers.

Parisian. Monday: Vespers. [Maundy Thursday: Vespers.]

Lyons. Monday: Vespers.

Quignon. Tuesday: Sext.

ANTIPHONS

Gregorian. Whence shall come * my help? [Prayer on Mount of Olives: It came to pass in those days that Jesus went up into a mountain to pray, and was all night in prayer to God. Office of Dead: The Lord shall keep thee from all evil * yea it is even the Lord that shall keep thy soul.]

Monastic. As Psalm 120.

Ambrosian. Thy right hand shall help us, O Lord.

Parisian. I have lifted up mine eyes unto the hills * my help is from the Lord. [Maundy Thursday: He was offered, because He willed it, and He will bear the sin of many.]

Lyons.

Mozarabic.

}

My help is from the Lord * Who hath made heaven and earth.

COLLECTS

O Lord God, (Lu.) Keeper of Israel, Who neither slumberest nor sleepest, keep Thy people, and that we be not burned by day, defend us from the scandals of this world. (1.)

Unwearied Keeper of Israel, (D. C.) God, Who neither slumberest nor sleepest, be, we beseech Thee, O Lord, our constant protection, keeping us from all evil, and ordering the coming in of our faith and the going out of our life for evermore. (1.)

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One Response to Patristic/Medieval Commentary on Psalm 121

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

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