Patristic/Medieval Commentary on Psalm 122

Psalm 122:1 I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the LORD.

In the first and literal sense, (St Hilary) the words are most probably those of a Hebrew in a foreign land, whose friends and neighbours propose to join in pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and who rejoices in the opportunity thus afforded to himself. Others explain they as the Prophets (St Robert Bellarmine), especially Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, and Zechariah, who declared to the exiled people the certainty of their return and the restoration of their temple and city (Bereshith Rabba). But even the Talmudists declare that the higher sense is that to be followed here, and that it is the heavenly Jerusalem, of which the Prophets tell us, which is meant. Who are they, then, who say these words to us? The Three Persons of the Most Blessed Trinity, and especially the HOLY SPIRIT Himself, (St Hilary) speaking to us by the Prophets (St Albert the Great), Apostles, Doctors, and Saints, and saying, not “Go,” but We will go, and be your guides and companions on the road to that house which admits the righteous only, which is the house of the Angels, and has the blessedness of beholding the Creator of all things, that desirable dwelling, that house built up of living stones, of which is said in another Psalm,  (Cassiorodur) “One thing have I desired of the LORD, which I will require, even that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the LORD, (Remigius of S. Germanus) and to visit His temple.” (Ps 27:4) In that they say it to me, the unity of the Church, the individuality of the promises, is denoted; in that it is added, we will go, the multitude of them that are of one heart and mind is shown forth (Cardinal Hugo). There are four Houses of GOD, moreover, into which the faithful soul must needs go, First is that lower House of His, the Church Militant here on earth, of which is written, “My House shall be called the house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7); next, the outer House of Scripture; the inner house of conscience and secret meditations; the upper house of the Church Triumphant, where there are many mansions. Not need we have any doubt as to our welcome, for when we ask the question, “Master, where dwellest Thou” (Jn 1:38)? He saith unto us, “Come and see.” Happy they of whom it is added (St Augustine): “They came and saw where He dwelt, and abode with Him that day.” How are we to go? On the two feet of charity, answers a Saint (Gregory), love of GOD and love of our neighbour. S. Gregory Nazianzen relates that his father, a Pagan, who had long held out against the prayers and counsels of his Christian wife, dreamt one night that he recited this verse, and conceived therewith a desire to embrace the faith, which he accordingly did speedily afterwards (Oration 19). Richard of S. Victor allegorizes the verse at length, saying that it is the fallen Adam and Eve, the reason and the affection of men, rejoicing in the good news of recall from exile, and return to Paradise.* It is said, we will go, because neither the hand nor the heart alone suffices for that pilgrimage. It is not a very praiseworthy thing for Adam to desire entrance without Eve, for knowledge of divine things without love of them is unprofitable; it is altogether impossible for Eve to enter without Adam, for if we know nothing of divine things, we shall not love them at all. And, lastly, it is taken of the gladness of Saints at entering into their rest through the gate of death, while the Angels round their beds bid them welcome into their fellowship, and urge them to speedy departure.

Psalm 122:2 Our feet shall stand in thy gates: O Jerusalem.

The words should be in the historical tense, as in the Vulgate; (Dionysius the Carthusian ) Our feet were standing, which may imply either a past or a still continuing state of things. The very sign and cause of our hope that we shall go into the House of the LORD is that our feet are, even now, already standing in the gates of Jerusalem, that is, that our desires and contemplations are fixed and established in the mansions of the kingdom of heaven, because our conversation is in heaven, and accordingly the Apostle speaks in similar language to those still on pilgrimage, “Ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the Living GOD, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22).  He stands there who delights himself in GOD (St Augustine), but he whose delight is in himself, cannot stand, but must fall through his pride, as Lucifer did. Note too that it is not said at thy gates, but in thy gates, because the gates of the Church (Rev 21:25), Militant or Triumphant, are open to all, and are shut neither by day nor by night; for CHRIST is Himself the one Door of the heavenly City (Rev 21:12), albeit its twelve minor gates are set on every side of the walls, that we may learn how there is a welcome there for every tribe, from every quarter of the world.

Psalm 122:3 Jerusalem is built as a city: that is at unity in itself.

Or, with A. V., that is compact together. There may be a reference here to the topography of Jerusalem, girdled and hemmed in on all sides by mountains and ravines, forming a great series of natural bastions and entrenchments; or we may understand the words of the repairs executed just after the return from exile, when the gaps and waste places were rebuilt, and the walls completed and dedicated; or, lastly, the Psalm may here express the admiration of a dweller in tents or scattered villages for the stately, numerous, and continuous houses and palaces of the capital city. A further meaning, that Jerusalem is here regarded as the federal capital of all the tribes, which having each local synagogues and courts of their own, here met in one common temple and submitted to one supreme tribunal, may be fairly got out of the Hebrew, and is the plainest sense of Symmachus, συνάφειαν ἔχουσαν ὁμοῦ, borne out, moreover, by the two following verses.

Note, first, that, in speaking of the earthly Jerusalem (St Hilary), the Psalmist does not say that it is a city; but only that it is built as a city; because it is at best but the faint and shadowy type of the only true Jerusalem, the City made without hands, eternal in the heavens. And that Jerusalem, too, is building, stone by stone, nor will it be completed till the fulness of the Gentiles be come in (Rom 11:25), and then shall the remnant of Israel be saved (St Augustine). It is being built of living stones, and therefore is in the truest sense a city, because that is the term for the place where a great concourse of men, citizens, are assembled, while the same place, as a mere collection of empty dwellings, would be no more than a town. The Latin runs on: Cujus participatio ejus in idipsum, a sentence difficult to render into English, but lending itself most readily to the last explanation of the Hebrew given above; to wit, the solidarity of the inhabitants, united in harmonious fellowship, an interpretation given in fact by several of the commentators, who see in this very union and concord a fresh proof that it is no earthly city which is intended, but that one whose citizens all seek and share the same thing (Haymo), that is, GOD (Remigius of St Germanus). But with a patient minuteness of construing, some of them (St Albert the Great), notably S. Augustine, get a further notion out of the words, taking ejus not as a mere redundant iteration of cujus, but as bringing in a fresh idea: (Cassiodorus) Whose participation is of Him Who is the same, “yesterday, to-day, and for ever” (Heb 13:8), JESUS CHRIST our LORD; unwearying might, unchangeable power, self-existent substance, powerful to effect all that He wills, Who is I AM THAT I AM (Ex 4:14). S. Augustine, in another place, quoting Cicero’s definition of a city or state, that it is a multitude of men living in harmony under a common code of laws and for mutual advantage, held together by a traditional bond of moral habit, declares that Rome never answered to this description; and it is equally true, observes Parez, that it never can have applied to the earthly Jerusalem, in which strife, injustice, selfishness, and departure from the law of GOD, had always found a place. The heavenly Jerusalem, too, is built as a city (Cardinal Hugo); it has its points of likeness to the towns of earth; its “many mansions” (Jn 14:2); its one municipal law, that of love; its one King, CHRIST; its fountain (Song 4:12), His pure Mother; its twelve gates, the glorious company of the Apostles (Rev 21:12); its citizens, the Saints and Angels; its walls and bulwarks (Isa 24:1); salvation, that is, CHRIST; “from Whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying (building-up) of itself in love.” (Eph 4:7).

O quàm præclara regio,
Et quàm decora legio,
Ex angelis et hominibus!
O gloriosa civitas,
In quâ summa tranquillitas,
Lux et pax in cunctis finibus!

O how illustrious is that Land,
And how magnificent the band
Of angels and mankind!
O glorious City, where is found
Supremest rest, in every bound
Both light and peace combined!
(Thomas à Kempis, The Hymn, Astant Angelorum Chori.)

Psalm 122:4 For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the LORD: to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the LORD.

To testify unto Israel,* rather, a testimony or ordinance unto Israel, namely, the law which ordained that all males should present themselves thrice a year before the LORD (Ex 23:17), to attest their loyalty to Him (Deut 16:16), and to claim the consequent privileges of the Covenant.

The tribes of the Lord. (St Hilary) It is not, as we might expect, the tribes of Israel who go up, a testimony unto the Gentiles, showing them the way of righteousness; but the Gentile tribes of the Lord who go up, and thus testify unto Israel, saying, “Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the: LORD, to the house of the GOD of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the Word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isa 2:3, St Robert Bellarmine). To give thanks unto the Name of the LORD. Since, as it is written in another Psalm, “Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house, they will be alway praising Thee” (Ps 84:4), for “the streets of Jerusalem shall be paved with beryl and carbuncle, and stones of Ophir; and all her streets shall say, Alleluia; and they shall praise Him, saying, Blessed be GOD, which hath extolled it for ever.” (Tobit 13:17)

Psalm 122:5 For there is the seat of judgment: even the seat of the house of David.

Here is the third glory of Jerusalem (St John Chrysostom), that it is not merely stately and strong in beauty, and the gathering-place of all the tribes, but also the seat of kingly power and justice, and also of the supreme tribunal in matters of religion. (Parez) It is therefore rightly said thrones (seats) of judgment, in the plural, (A. V., LXX., Vulg., &c.) as denoting the appeal in civil and criminal causes to the King, and in religious ones to the High Priest (Origen), both of them sitting in judgment at Jerusalem. So, as it is added, thrones for the house of David, that is, for a line of Sovereigns sprung from the Shepherd-King (Cassiodorus); it is no marvel that all the Christian commentators with one voice see here the fulfilment of those two sayings of the Gospel, “The FATHER judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the SON” (Jn 5:22); and again, “Ye shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:28). The Vulgate reading, over the house of David, draws from the commentators here a note of the priority of the Apostles in the Church, as co-assessors of the High Priest and King to Whom is committed the judgment of quick and dead.

Psalm 122:6 O pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.
Psalm 122:7 Peace be within thy walls: and plenteousness within thy palaces.

The welfare and security of every earthly city consists in two things (Parez); first, in the strength of its walls and towers; next, in the abundance of its citizens and provisions. And the Church Militant here on earth, besieged as it is incessantly by spiritual foes, needs the same helps too; wherefore all Saints of GOD, angels and faithful departed, as well as living men, are besought to join in prayer that the walls of faith, hope, and charity, manned by the Doctors and Martyrs, may be firm and unshattered; that the citizens may be many and zealous, and that abundant store of graces, in Sacraments and prayer, may be provided for their support, that no want or famine may be found there. Gerhohus, reminding us how we have revolted against GOD, how the Church Militant, Jerusalem on earth, has failed to do GOD’S will as it is done in heaven (Lk 14:32), Jerusalem above, notes that we have deep reason to send an embassy to our King to desire conditions of peace, before He comes against us with twenty thousand (Ps 68:17), to sit in judgment on our deeds and words and hidden thoughts; to ask Him not only for pardon, but for plenteousness. For walls and palaces the Vulgate reads strength and towers, (St Augustine) and these terms are variously explained of divers virtues and graces, especially of charity and faith; but a deeper exposition takes the strength of Jerusalem to be the Passion of CHRIST, (Parez) and her towers the heights of celestial grace and glory attained by those who love Him (St Bernard).

Psalm 122:8 For my brethren and companions’ sakes: I will wish thee prosperity.1

There are two literal ways of interpreting this verse (Agellius), each of which lends itself to a deep mystical sense. I will wish thee prosperity, because I recognize all thy citizens as my own brothers and friends, and thus have a personal and domestic interest in thy welfare; or, I will wish thee prosperity, that all my brothers and friends, now in exile and poverty, may be brought home to their own city, (Cassiodorus) and be enriched with the abundance of her palaces, “not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:33). One gives us the rejoicing sense of fellowship in the Communion of Saints, the Catholic Church; the other the eager yearning of all devout and compassionate souls for those who have gone astray and are in captivity to sin, suffering a famine of the Word of GOD. The last words of the verse are more literally, I will speak peace within thee, that is, will utter the greeting, “Peace be unto thee.” And then we get a further meaning besides that correctly enough, that he who has at heart the interests of the Church will preach in her the unity of the Faith, wherein alone is true peace (Arnobius), and not merely try to cover over real divisions by specious words of agreement with all parties. Some commentators take these words as those of CHRIST Himself, promising present blessings and future glory to the Church on earth, “for both He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb 2:11).

Psalm 122:9 Yea, because of the house of the LORD our GOD: I will seek to do thee good.

The outward splendour, the temporal polity of Jerusalem is dear to her true citizens only as encompassing and shrining the House of GOD. (St Hilary) The descent of the blessing of peace on the brethren and companions of the Psalmist constitutes them into the City of GOD, as when JESUS returning to His yet infant Church, while it mourned for His death, said, “Peace be unto you” (Jn 20:19): and now the whole City, learning what is the dignity and beauty of the House of the LORD, desires to be that House itself, that GOD may dwell not only within its limits, but throughout it, in the heart of every one within its walls, saying to her citizens, “Ye are the temple of GOD, and the Spirit of GOD dwelleth in you” (1 Cor 3:16). I will seek to do thee good is more than I will wish thee prosperity, for it carries goodwill into action; firstly, that of earnest wrestling in prayer that GOD may grant His City all desirable blessings; and next (Haymo), diligent seeking out of good things to increase the power and wealth of that City, new converts, to be soon full citizens, fresh stores of song, art, devotion, beauty, holiness, to be cast into the treasury of the LORD.

And so:
Glory be to the FATHER, the Maker and Builder of the heavenly Jerusalem; glory be to the SON, the Prince of the House of David, Who sitteth on the Throne of Judgment; glory be to the HOLY GHOST, Who hath told us by the Prophets and Apostles that we shall go into the House of the LORD.

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


Gregorian. Thursday: Vespers. [Circumcision. Comm. B.V.M. Comm. Virg.: Vespers. Little Office B.V.M.: Terce.]

Monastic. Week-days: Terce.

Ambrosian: Tuesday: Vespers.
Parisian: Tuesday: Vespers.
Lyons: Tuesday: Vespers.

Quignon. Wednesday: Sext.


Gregorian. We will go gladly into the House of the LORD. [Circumcision: In the bush which Moses saw unconsumed, we recognize the preservation of thy praiseworthy Virginity. Mother of GOD, intercede for us. Comm. B.V.M. and Virg.: I am black, but comely, O daughters of Jerusalem, therefore the King loved me, and brought me into His chamber.]

Monastic. As cxx.

Ambrosian. Be there peace * in Thy might, O LORD.

Parisian. For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I spake peace of thee, O Jerusalem.

Lyons. As Gregorian.

Mozarabic. Peace be within thy walls * and plenteousness within thy towers.


Ludolphus: Almighty GOD,  vouchsafe to bestow plenteousness of peace on them that walk in the courts of Thine house, that while we give thanks unto Thee with all the eagerness of our hearts, we may attain Thy good things in heavenly places. (If the Collect be addressed to GOD the FATHER, the proper ending is: Through JESUS CHRIST our LORD, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the HOLY GHOST, One GOD, world without end. Amen.)

Dionysius the Carthusian: O GOD, the artificer of all things which be, cause our feet to stand in Thy courts, build up within us Jerusalem which is above, let us have unbroken peace in Thy might, that we may always devoutly seek the good of that sure City, and find it by Thine aid. (If the Collect be addressed to GOD the FATHER, the proper ending is: Through JESUS CHRIST our LORD, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the HOLY GHOST, One GOD, world without end. Amen.)

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One Response to Patristic/Medieval Commentary on Psalm 122

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the First Sunday of Advent, Year A | stjoeofoblog

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