It can be seen as a response to the increasingly agitated demands from some of our elders (in body at least) for respect.
Age is not always synonymous with wisdom!
Last week over at aCath Blog, regular liberal commentator liturgist Sr Carmel Pilcher, for example, wrote a piece lauding the ageing women that dominate many parishes as the equivalent to the deaconesses and widows of the early Church and lamenting the lack of recognition they are accorded. And she is far from alone in lamenting the attitudes of the 'young fogeys' in the Church who reject the 'progressive' message being pushed by their elders and demand orthodoxy and orthopraxis instead.
In this stanza, however, the psalmist asserts that he is wiser than his enemies (v98), and understands more than his teachers (v99) and the elders (v100). It is a reminder us that age does not always equate with wisdom!
At another level, it can also be interpreted as a reference to the superiority of the New Covenant to the Old.
Should we respect our elders?
There is, it is true, a certain sense of the proper order of things turned upside down when one looks at the Church today and see that younger people tend to me more conservative, interested in reclaiming the traditional liturgy and practices, while the older generation are still trying to live out those tired out 70s clichés such as "dialogue" to engage youth, inclusiveness, and other such fading mantras.
Normally we have a duty to respect our elders. There are always exceptions to the normal order of things though, and in the stanza labelled starting with Mem in the Hebrew, the psalmist points out that age or position counts for nothing if it is not linked to the true wisdom that comes from following and loving the law, and hating sin.
And in their commentaries on it, the Fathers point to numerous Scriptural precedents for the psalmist's contention, including David himself (the probable author of the psalm), Samuel, Jeremiah, and of course Our Lord himself, teaching in the Temple at the age of twelve.
“Elders is the term which we use for those who excel in ripe wisdom and are considerably older than ourselves. Scripture says of them: Ask thy father, and he will declare to thee: thy elders, and they will tell thee. We also use elders for persons of mature age who are most inconstant in their tendency to vices; the gospel writes of them: The priests held counsel with the elders to put him to death. In this passage the people term as elders those hoary in body rather than in mind. They rightly say that they have understood more than these, for they venerated as their Creator one whom those others despised with sacrilegious minds. Often younger persons understand the divine Scriptures better than their elders…”
There is also a timely counter here, also, to the excessive inclusiveness advocated by so many of the older generation of ageing liberals in the verse:
propterea odivi omnem viam iniquitatis= therefore I have hated all the ways of iniquity
We often think that hatred is a bad thing, and usually it is. But not when it comes to sin (as opposed to sinners), for St Augustine tells us:
“For it is needful that the love of righteousness should hate all iniquity: that love, which is so much the stronger, in proportion as the sweetness of a higher wisdom does inspire it, a wisdom given unto him who obeys God, and gets understanding from His commandments.”
It is not enough to avoid sin, St Robert Bellarmine, reminds us, we must detest it, be filled with a sense of horror at it:
“…from wisdom and prudence I acquired by constant meditation a law, I not only abstained from sin, but I even got a thorough hatred of all sinful actions. Such hatred is a wonderful preservative of the purity and sanctity of the soul, and generates great confidence in God, which leads to joy unspeakable, to a great peace and tranquility far and away beyond all the treasures and pleasures of this world.”
Christianity is an advance on Judaism
The Fathers also see this stanza as reaffirming that Christianity contains the fullness of truth, and is thus superior to Judaism. The Old Testament is of course all true: but it is only in the light of the New that it can be properly understood, as Cassiodorus points out:
“Certainly the new people had better understanding than the older Jewish people, for they happily accepted the Lord Christ who the Jews with mortal damage to themselves believed was to be despised.”
He actually sees the reference in verse 103 to the law being sweeter than honey as another allusion to this idea:
“Honey has particular reference to the Old Testament, the comb to the New; for though both are sweet, the taste of the comb is sweeter because it is enhanced by the greater attraction of its newness. Additionally, honey can be understood as the explicit teaching of wisdom, whereas the comb can represent that known to be stored in the depth, so to say, of the cells. Undoubtedly both are found in the divine Scriptures.”
In summary, then, Cassiodorus argues:
“The blessed people, who had made progress by the deepest meditation on the prophets and the gospel, is under this letter ushered in to maintain that they have understood the divine commands more than did their teachers and elders, and so they claim that the sweetness of the divine Scriptures, sweeter than honey and the comb, has sprung forth on their lips.”
A timely place indeed to leave this meditation on the psalm for a few days!
97 Quomodo dilexi legem tuam, Domine! tota die meditatio mea est.
O how have I loved your law, O Lord! It is my meditation all the day.
98 Super inimicos meos prudentem me fecisti mandato tuo, quia in æternum mihi est.
Through your commandment, you have made me wiser than my enemies: for it is ever with me.
99 Super omnes docentes me intellexi, quia testimonia tua meditatio mea est.
I have understood more than all my teachers: because your testimonies are my meditation
100 Super senes intellexi, quia mandata tua quæsivi.
I have had understanding above ancients: because I have sought your commandments. I have had understanding above ancients: because I have sought your commandments.
101 Ab omni via mala prohibui pedes meos, ut custodiam verba tua.
I have restrained my feet from every evil way: that I may keep your words.
102 A judiciis tuis non declinavi, quia tu legem posuisti mihi.
I have not declined from your judgments, because you have set me a law
103 Quam dulcia faucibus meis eloquia tua! super mel ori meo.
How sweet are your words to my palate! More than honey to my mouth.
104 A mandatis tuis intellexi; propterea odivi omnem viam iniquitatis.
By your commandments I have had understanding: therefore have I hated every way of iniquity.