Aug 30, 2005

Commentary on Psalm 22(21) by St. Robert Bellarmine

Exposition of Psalm 22 (21)
St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine


1 “O God, my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me? Far from my salvation are the words of my sins.”

David speaks here in the person of Christ hanging on the cross, in the height of his suffering, as appears from Matt. 27, in which we read that the Redeemer, just before he expired, exclaimed: “O God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The words, “Look upon me,” are not in the Hebrew; they were added by the Septuagint, for explanation sake. When Christ complains of having been forsaken by God, we are not to understand that he was forsaken by the Second Person, or that there was a dissolution of the Hypostatic Union, or that he lost the favor and friendship of the Father; but he signifies to us that God permitted his human nature to undergo those dreadful torments, and to suffer and ignominious death, from which he could, if he chose, most easily deliver him. Nor did such complaints proceed either from impatience or ignorance, as if Christ were ignorant of the cause of his suffering, or was not most willing to bear such abandonment in his suffering; such complaints were only a declaration of his most bitter sufferings. And whereas, through the whole course of his passion, with such patience did our Lord suffer, as not to let a single groan or sigh escape him, so now, lest the bystanders may readily believe that he was rendered impassible by some superior power; therefore, when his last moments were nigh, he protests that he is true man, truly passible; forsaken by his Father in his sufferings, the bitterness and acuteness of which he then intimately felt. “O God, my God;” looking upon himself as a mere servant, he addresses the Father as his God, because, at that very moment, he was worshipping him as the true God, offering to him the most perfect sacrifice that ever had been offered, the sacrifice of his body. “Look upon me;” he asks him to behold how he suffers for his honor, to acknowledge, therefore, the obedience of his Son, and to accept the sacrifice so offered for the human race. “Why hast thou forsaken me?” As if he were surprised! Is it possible you could allow your beloved and only begotten Son to be overwhelmed in such an abyss of pain and sorrow? Similar expressions are met in John 3, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son;” and Rom. 8, “He did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all.” “Far from my salvation are the words of my sins.” Many, afraid of imputing sin to Christ, give a very forced explanation of these words. Some read them by way of interrogation, without any authority whatever. Others explain thus, “My sins,” having none, “are far from my salvation;” that is, are no obstacle to it. Without entering into other interpretations, mere gratuitous ones, inconsistent with the punctuation, the meaning simply is: With justice I said I was forsaken in my sufferings, because my exemption from them would be incompatible with my satisfying for the sins of the human race, which I have taken upon me, and which I mean to wipe away. And that Christ could take the sins of the human race upon himself, as if they were his own, is plainly shown in the Scripture, 1 Peter 2, “Who his own self bore our sins in his body upon the tree:” Isaias 53, “And the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all:” and, 2 Cor. 5, “Him who knew no sin he hath made sin for us;” that is, a victim for sin. As a victim for sin, then, must be immolated, in order to cleanse from the sin, so Christ, having undertaken to become the victim for the sins of the world, with much propriety says, “Far from my salvation are the words of my sins;” that is, I cannot avoid death, since the sins of the whole world are upon me to satisfy for them. “The words of my sins” is a Hebraism, meaning the sins themselves. “Are far from my salvation,” are inconsistent with my salvation, and I must, therefore needs suffer.

2 “O my God, I shall cry by day, and thou wilt not hear: and by night, and it shall not be reputed as folly in me.”

He assigns another proof of his being forsaken by God, and without any hope of temporal salvation. Though I may cry out day and night to be delivered from this death of the body, you will not hear me. He alludes to his two prayers, one at night in the garden, the other by day on the cross. “And it shall not be reputed as folly in me.” Though I may cry, and though I know you will not hear me, so far as escaping temporal punishment or suffering is concerned; still, it will “not be folly in me,” because my principal object, the redemption of the human race, will be effected, and I will not be kept in death, but will rise to life everlasting.

3 “But thou dwellest in the holy place, the praise of Israel.”

He proves that it was not folly in him to cry out at night, even though he was not heard by day, and that for four reasons. First, because God is holy and merciful. Secondly, because he is wont kindly to hear those who call upon him. Thirdly, because he is in the greatest straits. Fourthly, because, from his nativity, he has confided in God, and in him alone. The present verse contains the first reason. “You, O Lord, will certainly hear me, for you “dwell in the holy place;” you are all sanctity and piety; malice or cruelty cannot come near you, and therefore, you are “the praise” of thy people “Israel;” both because the people of Israel praise thee, and they are praised on your account. For the greatest praise thy people can have is their having a God so holy in every respect.

4 “In thee have our fathers hoped; they have hoped, and thou hast delivered them.”
5 “They cried to thee, and they were saved: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.”

Reason the second, from the instances of his kindness, numbers of which are to be found in Judges. As often as the children of Israel appealed to him, so often did he send them one of the Judges to deliver them, such as Gedeon, Samson, Samuel, etc.

6 “But I am a worm, and no man: the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people.”
7 “All they that saw me have laughed me to scorn: they have spoken with lips, and wagged the head.”
8 “He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him: let him save him, seeing he delighteth in him.”

The third reason, derived from the straits in which Christ is placed. “But I am a worm, and no man:” I am just now in that position that I am not only “made less than the angels,” but even made less than man. “Despised and the most abject of men,” Isaias 53, nay, even beneath them, when even Barabbas and the robbers were preferred to me, and thus, I am now become so wretched, more “a worm than a man;” “the reproach of men;” at whom men blush, as they would at some opprobrious character; as did Peter, when he swore a solemn oath, “he knew not the man;” and “the outcast of the people;” one so rejected by the very scum of the people, that they called out, “Not this man but Barabbas.” “All they that saw me have laughed me to scorn:” When they saw me in that state they all mocked me, all manner of persons, high and low, priests and laics, Jews and Gentiles; which was fulfilled when, as St. Luke in chapter 23 writes, “And the people stood beholding, and the rulers with them derided. And the soldiers also mocked him.” “They have spoken with the lips, and wagged the head.” This, too, was accomplished, as St. Matthew writes, in chapter 27, “They blasphemed him, wagging their heads, and saying, Vah, thou who destroyest the temple of God.” “He hoped in the Lord, let him deliver him: let him save him, seeing he delighteth in him.” St. Matthew testifies in the same place that the Jews made use of the very words, saying, “He trusted in God, let him deliver him now, if he will.” Wonderful prophecy, predicting not only the facts, but the very words that would be used on the occasion.

9 “For thou are he that hast drawn me out of the womb: my hope from the breasts of my mother.”
10 “I was cast upon thee from the womb: from my mother’s womb thou art my God.”

The fourth reason, drawn from the eternal innocence of Christ. The word “For” does not imply consequence; it is very often used in Scripture as a mere copulative; sometimes it is quite redundant. “You are he that hast drawn me out of the womb.” I am thine from my birth; specially so, because I have no been born like others; but, through thy singular favor, have been both conceived and born, my mother’s virginity remaining intact. “My hope from the breasts of my mother.” Not content with having “drawn me out of the womb,” it is you who principally nourished me; for, though apparently on the breast of any mother, I know milk from heaven was supplied by you; and, therefore from her very breasts, I learned to hope and confide in thee. “I was cast upon thee from the womb;” The moment I left my mother’s womb, I fell into thy bosom, where I was cared for with such singular love and affection. “From my mother’s womb thou are my God.” As well as you, from the moment of my birth, so providentially protected me, so I, from the earliest dawn of my life, began to serve and to love you as my God.

11 “Depart not from me. For tribulation is very near: for there is none to help me.”

“Depart not from me,” according to some, is a part of the preceding verse, a matter of no great moment; it means, since “I was cast upon thee from the womb,” since “thou are my God,” I may with justice ask you to “depart not from me,” especially when my most grievous and my last “tribulation is very near;” that is, my death. “For tribulation is very near.” This verse may, perhaps, apply to his agony in the garden, when he was so overwhelmed with fear at the idea of his approaching passion; but, I am more inclined to think it should be understood of his actual passion at hand, both because he uses the perfect tense, when he says, “They have dug my hands and feet.” “They parted my garments amongst them;” and because he, before that, quoted the language of the Jews, boasting of their having nailed him to the cross; and, finally, because the very first verse of this Psalm was quoted by our Savior, when hanging on his cross. According, then, to his expression in the 2nd verse, “it shall not be reputed as folly in me.” I will not cry to thee to deliver me from death, but no to detain me therein.

12 “Many calves have surrounded me: fat bulls have besieged me.”

An account of the cruelty of his enemies, whom he compares to bulls, lions, and dogs. He alludes to the High Priests and Pharisees, who insult him like bulls, goring him, as it were, with their horns, saying, “Vah, thou that destroyest the temple of God;” or, like lions with their mouths open, hungering for him; thirsting for his blood, and bellowing, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him;” or like dogs gnawing and biting him when they belied him, saying, “We have found this man perverting our nation;” and again, “If he were not a malefactor we would not have delivered him up to thee:” which calumnies and detractions were the cause of our Lord’s immediate crucifixion; and, therefore, he says presently, “They have dug my hands and feet.” To come now in particulars. “Many calves have surrounded me.” We are not to understand young weak calves, but grown, with horns, almost bulls; for the following, “fat bulls have besieged me,” is only a repetition. The High Priests and Pharisees are called “strong” and “fat,” because they were powerful and rich. Some will have it that by the “calves” he meant the populace; by the “bulls,” the Pharisees; not at all improbable; but I prefer the first explanation.

13 “They have opened their mouths against me, as a lion ravening and roaring.”
The High Priests and Pharisees panting for his death.
14 “I am poured out like water; and all my bones are scattered. My heart is become like wax melting in the midst of my bowels.”
15 “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue hath cleaved to my jaws: and thou hast brought me down into the dust of death.”

He tells in these verses how he dealt with the cruelty of his enemies. He offered no opposition to their violence, but always exhibited the humility, patience, and mildness, spoken of in Isaias 50, “I have not turned away my face from them that rebuke me and spit upon me;” and by 1 Peter 2, “Who when he was reviled, did not revile; when he suffered he threatened not, but delivered himself to him that judged him unjustly.” He, therefore, says, “I am poured out like water;” I made no resistance, allowed myself to be turned, driven in all directions, as one would turn a stream of water. “And all my bones are scattered;” I have lost all my strength, not in reality, but I do not with to exercise it. I let my enemies use theirs, according to Luke 22, “This is your hour and the power of darkness.” I have, therefore, shown myself weak and feeble in my resistance, as if I were flesh entirely; “And all my bones are scattered;” and thus incapable of resistance. “My heart is become like wax melting in the midst of my bowels;” I have patiently borne, and meekly borne, all those injuries before man, but I have been also interiorly “humble of heart;” which heart has not been swollen with anger, nor hardened with rage, in a spirit of vengeance, but has been on the contrary, like “melted wax,” in the spirit of affection and love to them, in the spirit of mercy for their blindness, by virtue of which I prayed of you, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “In the midst of my bowels;” a usual phrase in Scriptures, to express our internal feelings; thus, John 7, “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water:” and, Cant. 5, “My bowels were moved at his touch:” “My strength is dried up like a potsherd.” My whole strength has dwindled away, dried up like a brickbat, when I allowed myself to be tied and beaten as if I were incapable of resisting them. “And my tongue adhered to my jaws:” I did not choose to say an offensive word to my enemies, or to complain of their wrongs. “And thou hast brought me down into the jaws of death.” In consequence of their persecutions, and my nonresistance, you have, my God, without whose permission nothing can happen, brought me to my death and burial.

16 “For many dogs have encompassed me; the council of the malignant hath besieged me. The have dug my hands and feet.”
17 “They have numbered all my bones. And they have looked up and stared upon me.”

He tells us how he was “brought to the dust of death:” “For many dogs have encompassed me;” meaning many detractors, namely, the High Priests and Pharisees, who, by accusing me falsely of seducing the people, of refusing to pay tribute, of aiming at the sovereignty, and similar charges, forced Pilate to give me up to the soldiers for crucifixion. “The council of the malignant hath besieged me;” and explanation merely of the last passage; for “the many dogs” are no other than the council; that is, the assembly “of the malignant.” The same malignant set, thought they did not so with their own hands, did it through others. “They have dug my hands and feet.” They drove the nails through. “They have numbered all my bones,” a thing they could easily do, when his blessed hands were stretched out, and the strain on his whole body rendered his ribs and other bones so visible and so easy of counting. “And they have looked and stared upon me.” To add to the punishment of the cross, there was ignominy of his nakedness. They inspected my whole person with the greatest curiosity, there being nothing to cover it.

18 “They parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots.”

All which was fulfilled to the letter as may be read in John 19.

19 “But thou, O Lord, remove not they help to a distance from me; look toward my defense.”

He returns to the prayer with which he commenced the Psalm, and to which he recurred again in verses 10 and 11, and now resumes it here. Having gone through the details of his passion, he now prays to God for a speedy resurrection, as it is it that will deliver him perfectly from the persecution of his enemies. “But thou, O Lord, remove not thy help to a distance from me.” My enemies have arrived at the height of their malice, have put out all their strength against me; it is, therefore, your part to look to me now, to defer you help no longer, but kindly to defend me against their machinations.

20 “Deliver, O God, my soul from the sword: my only one from the hand of the dog.”
21 “Save me from the lion’s mouth; and my lowness from the horns of the unicorns.”

He tells the sort of assistance he requires. “Deliver my soul from the sword.” Deliver me from the instrument of death, making use of the word sword for any instrument, a thing common in the Scriptures, 2 Kings 12, “The sword shall not depart from thy house;” Ezech. 33, “And see the sword coming upon the land;” Rom. 8, “Who, then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? Or distress? Or famine? Or nakedness? Or persecution? Or the sword?” In like manner, the word soul is used here for life, a thing not uncommon in the Scriptures. “My only one from the hand of the dog;” by “the dog,” he means those dogs he had already spoken of; but he makes use here of the singular number by a figure, to show that the malice of them all appeared to be now concentrated in one, and, therefore, so much the more violent and malignant. “My only one;” he means his own life, which he loved in a singular manner, as being that of the Incarnate Word. “Save me from the lion’s mouth;” that lion of which ver. 13 says, “They have opened their mouths against me, as a lion ravening and roaring;” “and my lowness from the horns of the unicorn.” He said before, “Fat bulls have besieged me.” Unicorns are now substituted for bulls, being much more fierce and wild, to show that the cruelty and ferocity of his enemies, so far from being softened by his many sufferings, was only excited and increased. Now, in all these petitions the Lord does not ask to have his temporal life spared; but, as we have repeatedly explained before, he asks that his life may be repaired quickly, and so repaired that he shall be no longer exposed or subject to the bite of the dog, the claws of the lion, or the horn of the bull or the unicorn.

22 “I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church will I praise thee.”

He now begins to tell the fruit of his Resurrection, the conversion of the world to God. “I will declare thy name to my brethren:” when I shall have risen, I will send my apostles through the entire world, and through them, “I will declare my name;” that is, I will impart the knowledge of thy name and of thy Godhead to all men through them; all being my brothers, by reason of the flesh I assumed; and thus, “in the midst of the church I will praise thee;” no longer in a corner of Judea, but in the midst of the immense church, composed of Jews and Gentiles, through the mouths of my ministers will I praise thee. St. Paul, writing to the Hebrews, quotes this passage, in chapter 2, “For which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the church I will praise thee.”

23 “Ye that fear the Lord praise him: all ye the seed of Jacob glorify him.”
24 “Let all the seed of Israel fear him: because he hath not slighted nor despised the supplication of the poor man. Neither hath he turned away his face from me: And when I cried to him he heard me.”

Having said that he would “praise God in the midst of the church,” which was to be effected by getting his faithful to do so, he now exhorts the faithful to praise God, “Ye that fear the Lord;” ye who know and worship him; for fearing God, in the Scriptures, is synonymous with worshipping him; thus, Jonas, then questioned about his people, says, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the God who made the heavens and the earth;” and Daniel says, “Let all fear the God of Daniel;” and it is said of Judith, “that she feared God exceedingly.” The meaning, then, is: You who know and worship the true God, praise him; and, lest we should imagine this exhortation was addressed to a few, the Jews, for instance, he adds, “All ye seed of Jacob, glorify him. Let all the seed of Israel fear him;” that means, glorify, praise, and fear God, all ye children of Israel, and not only ye who are children in the flesh, but ye who are children according to the promise, namely, all the Gentiles converted to Christianity; “Because he hath not slighted nor despised the supplication of the poor man.” He assigns a reason for wishing God to be praised by all, namely, because he heard the prayer he put up to him for his Resurrection and glory, for his victory over the devil, and for the redemption of the human race. He calls himself “a poor man,” as, in truth, he was, when, in his agony, hanging on the cross, he hung naked, deserted, and suffering from hunger and thirst. “Neither hath he turned away his face from me, and when I cried to him he heard me.” A repetition of the preceding sentences.

25 “With thee is my praise in a great church: I will pay my vows in the sight of them that fear him.”

Having encouraged his faithful to praise God, he now predicts the certainty of it. The praise I will chant to thee through my faithful will not be from a corner, nor from a handful of the Jews, but from the church of all nations. “I will pay my vows in the sight of them that fear him.” Vows here signify sacrifices and oblations, as Isaias 19 has it, “They shall worship him in victims and offerings, and they shall make vows to the Lord, and perform them;” for when Christ saw how agreeable was the holocaust of his death to the Almighty, he promises now that through his ministers he will, in the best manner he can, most frequently renew the same holocaust, which he says, in the words, “I will pay my vows in the sight of them that fear him;” through my ministers, the priests of the New Testament, I will most constantly immolate that most agreeable of all sacrifices to God; “in the sight of them that fear him;” of those that acknowledge, worship him, for the sacrifice may not be performed by infidels.

26 “The poor shall eat and shall be filled; and they shall praise the Lord that seek him: their hearts shall live forever and ever.”

Of this sacrifice “the poor shall eat,” when they acknowledge their spiritual neediness and poverty; “and shall be filled,” because they will taste of the good, exceeding all good; “and they shall praise the Lord,” thanking him for such an immense favor: “that seek him;” those that hunger for and eagerly seek him; “their hearts shall live forever.” Such will be the fruit of this reflection, that the hearts nourished by such excellent and noble food will lead to a spiritual life – a life of grace here, and of glory forever; for so the Truth speaketh, in John 6, “Whosoever eateth of this bread shall live forever.” For, as perishable food supports the body for a time, so the imperishable food confers life everlasting.

27 “All the ends of the earth shall remember, and shall be converted to the Lord: and all the kindred of the Gentiles shall adore in his sight.”

He shows how it will happen that he shall have to praise God “in a great church,” because all nations will be converted to God through the merits of the sacrifice of the cross. “They shall remember” their first origin, how they were formed in their first parent, a thing they had quite forgotten, through original sin; and, therefore, they said to the wood and the stones, “Thou art my father, “ Jer. 2. “They shall remember” their first creation, “and all the ends of the earth shall be converted to the Lord;” that is, all the nations on the face of the globe, even to its remotest ends; that is to say, some from every nation. “And all the kindred of the Gentiles shall adore in his sight.” An explanation of the preceding verse; because, “adoring” the Lord, and being converted to the Lord, imply the same thing; namely, the abandonment of idolatry by the whole human race all over the world.

28 “For the kingdom is the Lord’s; and he shall have dominion over the nations.”

They will deservedly be converted to and adore the Lord, because he, not the infernal spirits, being the true and natural king of all, will justly ‘have dominion over the nations.”

29 “All the fat ones of the earth have eaten and have adored: all they that go down to the earth shall fall before him.”

Having stated that “The poor shall eat and shall be filled, and shall praise the Lord;” and that “All the kindred of the Gentiles shall adore in his sight,” for feat any one may suppose it was only the poor and the hungry would be called and converted, he now introduces the rich and the powerful. “All the fat ones have eaten, and have adored.” The very “fat ones” of this world, who abound in its blessings, such as princes, emperors, kings, they, too, shall eat of the Lord’s table, and will adore and praise the common Lord, whose sway is over all nations. In the style of the prophets, the perfect tense is used here for the future. Finally the words “that go down to the earth,” mean all mortals who to earth must return. “Shall fall before him;” shall bend their knees, and adore; and thus the conversion of the Gentiles, the fruit of our Lord’s passion and Resurrection, will be truly general.

30 “And to him my soul shall live: and my seed shall serve him.”

He concludes by saying, that he and his posterity would thence forward live for God’s glory alone, and for his faithful service; the soul is put here for the entire man, which is often done in the Scripture.

31 “There shall be declared to the Lord a generation to come: and the heavens shall show forth his justice to a people that shall be born, which the Lord hath made.”

An explanation of the expression, “My seed shall serve him,” for “the generation to come;” meaning the people, under the new dispensation, will get good news concerning the Lord and his justice, the justice of Faith. “Then shall be declared to the Lord a generation to come;” that means, the generation to come shall get the news; it shall be announced to them, for it is a Greek phrase, like the expression, “The poor have the gospel preached to them;” whereas, literally translated, it would mean, the poor preached the gospel: the meaning, then, is, not that the Lord will be declared to the generation to come, but the generation to come will be declared, as enlisted to the Lord; this is plain from the following, where he says, “The heavens shall show forth his justice to a people that shall be born;” now, “that shall be born,” and “the generation to come,” are one and the same. The Lord, then, will be declared to the coming generation, for the heavens, that holy people, will do it. The justice of faith is called the justice of God, which makes men truly just, and which God gratuitously gives to those who believe in Christ. For the gospel strongly inculcates that we are all sinners, that we cannot be justified of ourselves, but that through faith in Christ we are to expect justice from God alone.

St. Bellarmine, A Commentary on the Book of Psalms, translated by Ven. John O'Sullivan, D.D., Archdeacon of Kerry, Loreto Publications, Fitzwilliam, NH, 2003.

1 comment:

Bill Crofut said...

St. Robert Bellarmine is one of my heroes. It’s my wish to obtain an English language

copy each of the document of canonization and declaration as a Doctor of the Church.

Bill Crofut