Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 8: Psalms, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
After David in the beginning of the psalm has prayed to God to help him, he immediately turns his discourse to his enemies, and depending on the promise of God, triumphs over them as a conqueror. He, therefore, teaches us by his example, that as often as we are weighed down by adversity, or involved in very great distress, we ought to meditate upon the promises of God, in which the hope of salvation is held forth to us, so that defending ourselves by this shield, we may break through all the temptations which assail us.
To the chief musician on Neginoth. A psalm of David.
It is uncertain at what time this psalm was composed. But from the tenor of it, it is conjectured, with probability, that David was then a fugitive and an exile. I therefore refer it to the time when he was persecuted by Saul. If, however, any person is disposed rather to understand it as referring to the time when he was compelled by the conspiracy of Absalom to secure his safety by flight, I will not greatly contend about the matter. But as, a little after, he uses an expression, namely, “How long?” (verse 3) 47 which indicates that he had a lengthened struggle, the opinion which I have already brought forward is the more probable. For we know with what varied trials he was harassed, before he obtained complete deliverance, from the time when Saul began to be his enemy. Concerning the words which are contained in this verse, I shall only make one or two brief observations. Some translate the word מנתה, Lamnetsah, for ever; and they say that it was the commencement of a common song, to the tune of which this psalm was composed: 48 but this I reject as a forced translation. Others, with more truth, are of opinion, that מנצה, Menetsah, signifies one who excels and surpasses all others. But because expositors are not agreed as to the particular kind of excellence and dignity here spoken of, let it suffice, that by this word is denoted the chief master or president of the band. 49 I do not approve of rendering the word, conqueror; for although it answers to the subject-matter of the present psalm, yet it does not at all suit other places where we shall find the same Hebrew word used. With respect to the second word, Neginoth, I think it comes from the verb נגך, Nagan, which signifies to strike or sound; and, therefore, I doubt not, but it was an instrument of music. Whence it follows, that this psalm was designed to be sung, not only with the voice, but also with musical instruments, which were presided over, and regulated by the chief musician of whom we have just now spoken.
1. Answer me when I cry, O God of my righteousness; thou hast enlarged me in distress; have pity upon me, and hear my prayer.
In these words there is shown the faith of David, who, although brought to the uttermost distress, and indeed almost consumed by a long series of calamities, did not sink under his sorrow; nor was he so broken in heart as to be prevented from betaking himself to God his deliverer. By his praying, he testified, that when utterly deprived of all earthly succor, there yet remained for him hope in God. Moreover, he calls him the God of his righteousness, which is the same thing as if he had called him the vindicator of his right; 50 and he appeals to God, because all men everywhere condemned him, and his innocence was borne down by the slanderous reports of his enemies and the perverse judgments of the common people. And this cruel and unjust treatment which David met with, ought to be carefully marked. For while nothing is more painful to us than to be falsely condemned, and to endure, at one and the same time, wrongful violence and slander; yet to be ill spoken of for doing well, is an affliction which daily befalls the saints. And it becomes them to be so exercised under it as to turn away from all the enticements of the world, and to depend wholly upon God alone. Righteousness, therefore, is here to be understood of a good cause, of which David makes God the witness, while he complains of the malicious and wrongful conduct of men towards him; and, by his example, he teaches us, that if at any time our uprightness is not seen and acknowledged by the world, we ought not on that account to despond, inasmuch as we have one in heaven to vindicate our cause. Even the heathen have said there is no better stage for virtue than a man’s own conscience. But it is a consolation far surpassing this, to know when men vaunt themselves over us wrongfully, that we are standing in the view of God and of the angels. Paul, we know, was endued with courage arising from this source, (1Co 4:5) for when many evil reports were spread abroad concerning him among the Corinthians, he appeals to the judgment-seat of God. Isaiah also, fortified by the same confidence, (Isa 50:6 and following verse) despises all the slanders by which his enemies calumniated him. If, therefore, we cannot find justice anywhere in the world the only support of our patience is to look to God, and to rest contented with the equity of his judgment. It may, however, be asked by way of objection, Since all the purity of men is mere pollution in the sight of God, how can the godly dare to bring forward their own righteousness before him? With respect to David, it is easy to answer this question. He did not boast of his own righteousness except in reference to his enemies, from whose calumnies he vindicated himself. He had the testimony of a good conscience that he had attempted nothing without the call and commandment of God, and therefore he does not speak rashly when he calls God the protector and defender of his right. Hence we learn that David honored God with this title of praise, in order the more readily to set him in contrast with the whole world. And as he asks twice to be heard, in this there is expressed to us both the vehemence of his grief and the earnestness of his prayers. In the last clause of the verse, he also shows whence he expected to obtain what he needed, namely, from the mercy of God. And certainly, as often as we ask anything from God, it becomes us to begin with this, and to beseech him, according to his free goodness, to relieve our miseries.
Thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress. Some think that David here promises himself what he had not yet experienced; and in the exercise of hope anticipates the manifestations of God’s grace with which he should afterwards be favored. But, in my opinion, he rather mentions the benefits which he formerly received from God, and by these strengthens himself against the time to come. Thus the faithful are accustomed to call to their remembrance those things which tend to strengthen their faith. We shall, hereafter meet with many passages similar to this, where David, in order to give energy to his faith against terrors and dangers, 51 brings together the many experiences from which he had learned that God is always present with his own people and will never disappoint their desires. The mode of expression which he here employs is metaphorical, and by it he intimates that a way of escape was opened up to him even when he was besieged and enclosed on every side. The distress of which he speaks, in my opinion, refers not less to the state of his mind than to circumstances of outward affliction; for David’s heart was not of such an iron mould as to prevent him from being cast into deeper mental anguish by adversity.
2. O ye sons of men, how long will ye try to turn my glory into shame? how long will ye love vanity, and seeking after lying? Selah 3. But know that Jehovah hath chosen for himself one who is merciful: Jehovah will hear when I call upon him.
2. O ye sons of men. The happy result of the prayer of David was, that resuming courage, he was able not only to repel the fury of his enemies, but also to challenge them on his part, and fearlessly to despise all their machinations. That our confidence, therefore, may remain unshaken, we ought not, when assailed by the wicked, to enter into conflict without being furnished like David with the same armor. The sum is, that since God was determined to defend David by his own power, it was in vain for all the men in the world to endeavor to destroy him; however great the power which they otherwise might have of doing him injury. By calling those whom he addresses the sons, not of Adam, or of some common persons but of men, he seems by the way to reprove their pride. 52 I do not agree with certain Jewish expositors who think that nobles or men of rank are meant. It is rather an ironical concession of what they claimed to themselves, by which he ridicules their presumption, in esteeming themselves to be noble and wise, whereas it was only blind rage which impelled them to wicked enterprises. In the words how long, he condemns their perverse obstinacy; for what he means, is not that they were stirred up against him merely by some sudden impulses, but that the stubborn purpose of injuring him was deeply fixed in their hearts. Had not their maliciousness deprived them of their understanding, the many instances in which God had proved himself to be David’s defender would have compelled them to desist from their attempts against him. But as they were fully determined to disgrace him whom God had exalted to the royal throne he asks them, How long they will persevere in their endeavors to turn his glory into shame And it is to be observed that although loaded with every kind of reproach, both among the high and the low he yet courageously keeps fast hold of the glory or the honor of royalty which God had graciously promised him, or had conferred upon him, and is fully persuaded that God will at length vindicate his right to it, however much his enemies might wickedly endeavor to blot and obscure it by treating his pretensions with derision and scorn.
How long will ye love vanity? In these words, he partly reproaches his enemies for the wicked and perverse passions with which he saw them to be impelled, although they falsely pretended to be actuated by a godly zeal; and he partly derides their folly in flattering themselves with the hope of success while fighting against God. And it is a most pointed rebuke. Even when the ungodly rush headlong into all manner of wickedness with the grossest 53 malice, they soothe themselves with deceitful flatteries in order not to be disturbed with the feelings of remorse. David, therefore, cries out, that wilfully to shut their eyes and varnish their unrighteousness with deceitful colors, would avail them nothing. The ungodly may indeed flatter and delude themselves, but when they are brought in good earnest to the trial, it will be always manifest that the reason why they are deceived is, because from the beginning they were determined to deal deceitfully. Now, from this place, we ought to take a shield of invincible steadfastness as often as we see ourselves overmatched in prudence and subtlety by the wicked. For with whatever engines they assault us, yet if we have the testimony of a good conscience, God will remain on our side, and against him they shall not prevail. They may greatly excel in ingenuity, and possess much power of hurting us, and have their plans and subsidiary aid in the greatest readiness, and be very shrewd in discernment, yet whatever they may invent, it will be but lying and vanity.
3. Know that Jehovah hath set apart, etc This is a confirmation of the preceding verse, for it shows that the cause of David’s boldness consisted in this, that he depended upon God, the founder of his kingdom. And surely we may then safely triumph over our enemies when we are assured of having the call of God to the office which we hold, or the work in which we are engaged. Accordingly, David does not here boast of his own strength, or riches, or armies by which he obtained the kingdom. But as he was chosen by God, he intimates that the many attempts of his enemies against him would be without success, because they would find from experience, that God, whose power they could not successfully resist, was against them. In the first place, he says that he was set apart by God, by which he means that he was advanced to the throne, not by the will of man, or by his own ambition, but by the appointment of God. The Hebrew word פלה, Phalah, signifies to separate, and it here refers to separation to honor and dignity; as if he had said you admit no one as king but he who is chosen by your own suffrages, or who pleases you; but it is the peculiar prerogative of God to make choice of whom he will. By the word merciful or bountiful, he doubtless vindicates his right to be king, from the fact that this was a quality which belonged to himself; it is as if he had produced the mark or badge of his calling. For it was truly said in the old proverb, Mercy is the virtue most suitable for kings. Now, God usually furnishes those whom he reckons worthy of having this honor conferred upon them, with the endowments requisite for the exercise of their office, that they may not be as dead idols. Some understand the word חסיד, chasid, in a passive sense, not as denoting a beneficent person, but one who is placed on the throne by the favor of God. As, however, I meet with no examples of this signification of the word in Scripture, I think it safer to follow the common interpretation, which is this: God has chosen a king, who answers to the character which should be possessed by all who are called to fill such an exalted station, in as much as he is merciful and beneficent. Hence, he infers that he would be heard by God as often as he called upon him; for God principally proves his faithfulness in this, that he does not forsake the work of his own hands, but continually defends those whom he has once received into his favor. Hence, we are taught fearlessly to proceed in our path; because whatever we may have undertaken according to his will, shall never be ineffectual. Let this truth then, obtain a fixed place in our minds, that God will never withhold his assistance from those who go on sincerely in their course. Without this comfort, the faithful must inevitably sink into despondency every moment.
4. Tremble then, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah. 5. Sacrifice the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the Lord.
4. Tremble then. Now he exhorts his enemies to repentance, if peradventure, their madness was not wholly incorrigible. In the first place, he bids them tremble, or be troubled; a word by which he rebukes their stupidity in running headlong in their wicked course, without any fear of God, or any sense of danger. And certainly the great presumption of all the ungodly in not hesitating to engage in war against God, proceeds from their being hardened through an infatuated security; and by their thoughtlessness, they render themselves stupid, and become more obdurate by forgetting both God and themselves, and following whithersoever lust leads them. He tells them that the best remedy to cure their rage, and prevent them from sinning any longer, would be to awaken from their lethargy and begin to be afraid and tremble; as if he had said, As soon as you shall have shaken off your drowsiness and insensibility, your desire of sinning will abate; for the reason why the ungodly are troublesome to the good and the simple, and cause so much confusion, is because they are too much at peace with themselves.
He afterwards admonishes them to commune with their own heart upon their bed, that is, to take an account of themselves at leisure, and as it were, in some place of deep retirement; 54 an exercise which is opposed to their indulgence of their unruly passions. In the end of the verse he enjoins them to be still. Now, it is to be observed, that the cause of this stillness is the agitation and trembling, of which he before made mention. For if any have been hurried into sin by their infatuated recklessness, the first step of their return to a sound mind is to awaken themselves from their deep sleep to fearfulness and trembling. After this follows calm and deliberate reflection; then they consider and reconsider to what dangers they have been exposing themselves; and thus at length they, whose audacious spirits shrink at nothing, learn to be orderly and peaceable, or, at least, they restrain their frantic violence.
To commune upon one’s bed, is a form of expression taken from the common practice and experience of men. We know that, during our intercourse with men in the day time, our thoughts are distracted, and we often judge rashly, being deceived by the external appearance; whereas in solitude, we can give to any subject a closer attention; and, farther, the sense of shame does not then hinder a man from thinking without disguise of his own faults. David, therefore, exhorts his enemies to withdraw from those who witnessed and judged of their actions on the public stage of life, and to be alone, that they may examine themselves more truthfully and honestly. And this exhortation has a respect to us all; for there is nothing to which men are more prone than to deceive one another with empty applause, until each man enter into himself, and commune alone with his own heart. Paul, when quoting this passage in Eph 4:26, or, at least when alluding to the sentiment of David, follows the Septuagint, “Be ye angry and sin not.” And yet he has skilfully and beautifully applied it to his purpose. He there teaches us that men, instead of wickedly pouring forth their anger against their neighbors, have rather just cause to be angry with themselves, in order that, by this means, they may abstain from sin. And, therefore, he commands them rather to fret inwardly, and be angry with themselves; and then to be angry, not so much at the persons, as at the vices of others.
5. Sacrifice ye. Many are of opinion that David exhorts his enemies to give some evidence of their repentance; and I certainly admit, that sacrifices were partly enjoined for the purpose of inducing men to walk in newness of life. But when I consider the character of the men who opposed David, I am satisfied that he here censures their hypocrisy, and beats down their groundless boasting. David, when he wandered as a fugitive in deserts, or in caves, or on mountains, or in the regions beyond his own country, might seem to have been separated from the Church of God; and certainly he was commonly accounted as a corrupt member cut off from the body and the communion of the saints. Meanwhile the ark of the covenant was in the hands of his enemies, they kept possession of the temple, and they were the first in offering sacrifices. They, therefore, vaunted themselves against David with the same boldness and presumption with which we know hypocrites to have been always puffed up. Nor is it to be doubted, but they proudly abused the name of God as if they only had been his true worshippers. 55 But as Jeremiah (Jer 7:4) rebukes the ungodly, because of the false confidence which they placed in the temple of the Lord; so David also denies that God is pacified by mere outward ceremonies, since he requires pure sacrifices. There is in the words an implied contrast between the sacrifices of righteousness, and all those vain and spurious rites 56 with which the counterfeit worshippers of God satisfy themselves. The sum, therefore, is, “You boast of having God on your side, because you have free access to his altar to offer your sacrifices there with great pomp; and because I am banished from the Holy Land, and not suffered to come to the temple, you think that I am not an object of the divine care. But you must worship God in a far different manner, if you would expect any good at his hand; for your unclean sacrifices with which you pollute his altar, so far from rendering him favorable to you, will do nothing else but provoke his wrath.” Let us learn from this passage, that, in contending with the corrupters of true religion, who may have the name of God continually in their mouth, and vaunt themselves on account of their observance of his outward worship, we may safely rebuke their boasting, because they do not offer the right sacrifices. But, at the same time, we must beware lest a vain pretense of godliness foster in us a perverse and ill founded confidence, in place of true hope.
6. Many say, Who will show us good? 57 Lift thou up upon us the light of thy countenance, O Jehovah. 7. Thou hast given more joy to my heart than they have in the time when their corn and their wine are increased.
6. Many say. Some are of opinion that David here complains of the cruel malice of his enemies, because they greedily sought for his life. But David, I have no doubt, compares the sole wish with which his own heart was burning, to the many desires with which almost all mankind are distracted. As it is not a principle held and acted upon by ungodly men, that those only can be truly and perfectly happy who are interested in the favor of God, and that they ought to live as strangers and pilgrims in the world, in order through hope and patience to obtain, in due time, a better life, they remain contented with perishing good things; and, therefore, if they enjoy outward prosperity, they are not influenced by any great concern about God. Accordingly, while, after the manner of the lower animals, they grasp at various objects, some at one thing, and some at another, thinking to find in them supreme happiness, David, with very good reason, separates himself from them, and proposes to himself an end of an entirely opposite description. I do not quarrel with the interpretation which supposes that David is here complaining of his own followers, who, finding their strength insufficient for bearing the hardships which befell them, and exhausted by weariness and grief, indulged in complaints, and anxiously desired repose. But I am rather inclined to extend the words farther, and to view them as meaning that David, contented with the favor of God alone, protests that he disregards, and sets no value on objects which others ardently desire. This comparison of the desire of David with the desires of the world, well illustrates this important doctrine, 58 that the faithful, forming a low estimate of present good things, rest in God alone, and account nothing of more value than to know from experience that they are interested in his favor. David, therefore, intimates in the first place, that all those are fools, who, wishing to enjoy prosperity, do not begin with seeking the favor of God; for, by neglecting to do this, they are carried about by the various false opinions which are abroad. In the second place, he rebukes another vice, namely, that of gross and earthly men in giving themselves wholly to the ease and comforts of the flesh, and in settling down in, or contenting themselves with, the enjoyment of these alone, without thinking of any thing higher. 59 Whence also it comes to pass, that as long as they are supplied with other things according to their desire, they are altogether indifferent about God, just as if they had no need of him. David, on the contrary, testifies, that although he may be destitute of all other good things, the fatherly love of God is sufficient to compensate for the loss of them all. This, therefore, is the purport of the whole: ”The greater number of men greedily seek after present pleasures and advantages; but I maintain that perfect felicity is only to be found in the favor of God.”
David uses the expression, The light of God’s countenance, to denote his serene and pleasant countenance — the manifestations of his favor and love; just as, on the other hand, the face of God seems to us dark and clouded when he shows the tokens of his anger. This light, by a beautiful metaphor, is said to be lifted up, when, shining in our hearts, it produces trust and hope. It would not be enough for us to be beloved by God, unless the sense of this love came home to our hearts; but, shining upon them by the Holy Spirit, he cheers us with true and solid joy. This passage teaches us that those are miserable who do not, with full resolution, repose themselves wholly in God, and take satisfaction therein, 60 even although they may have an overflowing abundance of all earthly things; while, on the other hand, the faithful, although they are tossed amidst many troubles, are truly happy, were there no other ground for it but this, that God’s fatherly countenance shines upon them, which turns darkness into light, and, as I may say, quickens even death itself.
7. Thou hast given more joy to my heart. By another comparison he better expresses and illustrates the strength of his affection, showing that, having obtained the good which he had longed for, he does not in the least degree envy the wealth and enjoyments of others, but is altogether contented with his own lot. The sum is, that he had more satisfaction in seeing the reconciled countenance of God beaming upon him, than if he had possessed garners full of corn, and cellars full of wine. 61 Interpreters are not agreed as to the word מעת, me-eth, which we have translated, in the time. Some give this rendering, Thou hast put gladness into my heart, Since The Time that their corn and wine increased; as if David had said, I rejoice when I see mine enemies prospering in the world. 62 But the former translation appears to me much more suitable; according to which David declares, that he rejoices more in the favor of God alone, than earthly men rejoice when they enjoy all earthly good things, with the desire of which they are generally inflamed. He had represented them as so bent upon, and addicted to, the pursuit of worldly prosperity, as to have no great care about God; and now he adds, that their joy in the abundance and increase of their wine and corn is not so great as is his joy in a sense of the divine goodness alone. This verse contains very profitable instruction. We see how earthly men, after they have despised the grace of God, and plunged themselves over head and ears in transitory pleasures, are so far from being satisfied with them, that the very abundance of them inflames their desires the more; and thus, in the midst of their fullness, a secret uneasiness renders their minds uncomfortable. Never, therefore, shall we obtain undisturbed peace and solid joy until the favor of God shine upon us. And although the faithful also desire and seek after their worldly comforts, yet they do not pursue them with immoderate and irregular ardor; but can patiently bear to be deprived of them, provided they know themselves to be the objects of the divine care.
8. I will lay me down, and will sleep together in peace; for thou, Lord, hast placed me alone 63 in safety.
He concludes, by stating, that as he is protected by the power of God, he enjoys as much security and quiet as if he had been defended by all the garrisons on earth. Now, we know, that to be free from all fear, and from the torment and vexation of care, is a blessing to be desired above all other things. This verse, therefore, is a confirmation of the former sentence, intimating that David justly prefers the joy produced by the light of God’s fatherly love before all other objects for inward peace of mind certainly surpasses all the blessings of which we can form any conception. Many commentators explain this place as expressing David’s hope, that his enemies will be reconciled to him, so that he may sleep with them in peace, God having granted him the peculiar privilege of being able to rest without being disturbed or disquieted by any man. But in my judgment the proper meaning is this, that he will live as quietly and securely alone, as in the midst of a great host of men, because God defends him for in the words, I will sleep together, I consider the particle as to be understood, as if the reading were as together, that is to say, as with a multitude. Some refer לבדד, lebadad, alone, to God, translating the words thus, Thou alone, O Lord, hast set me in safety; but this I do not at all approve, because, by taking away the contrast between these two words, together and alone, much of the beauty of the sentence is lost. In short, David boasts that the protection of God alone was sufficient, and that under it he sleeps as securely, although destitute of all human guardianship, as if he had had many to keep watch and ward continually over him, or as if he had been defended on all sides by a great company. Let us therefore, learn from his example, to yield this honor to God — to believe, that although there may appear no help for us from men, yet under his hand alone we are kept in peace and safety, as if we were surrounded by a great host.
“Ascavoir, Jusques a quand, a vers. 3.” — Fr.
“Et ils disent que c’estoit le commencement d’une chanson commune au chant de laquelle ce psaume a este compose.” — Fr.
“Le principal chantre, ou maitre de la musique qui avoit charge de mettre les psaumes en chants et accords.” — Fr. The chief singer or leader of the music who had the charge of setting the psalms to tunes and harmonies.
“Mon protecteur, celuy qui maintient mon droit.” — Fr. My protector, he who maintains my right.
“Contre les effrois et dangers qui se presentoyent.” — Fr. Against the terrors and dangers which presented themselves.
“Le mot Hebrieu ne signifie pas simplement Homme, mais homme viril at robuste; en quoy il semble taxer, en passant, leur arrogance.” — Fr. The Hebrew word signifies not simply man, but a strong and robust man; and by this word he seems, in passing, to rebuke their arrogance.
“D’une malice si evidente qu’on la pourroit toucher au doigt.” — Fr. With a malice so evident that one could touch it with the finger.
“Et estans retirez a part pour sonder leurs consciences.” — Fr. And being retired by themselves to probe or examine their consciences.
“Comme s’ils eussent este gens de bien, adonnez a son service et qu’il n’y eust eu zele qu’en eux.” — Fr. As if they had been his genuine people devoted to his service, and that there was no zeal but among them.
“Entre les sacrifices de justice et toutes les ceremonies, quand elles sont destituees de la verite interieure et destournees de leur droit usage et par consequent falsifiees.” — Fr. Between the sacrifices of righteousness, and all ceremonies, when they are unaccompanied with sincerity of heart, and perverted from their proper use, and are consequently spurious.
The reader will observe, that Calvin does not use the word any, a supplement which is to be found in our English version. The question is certainly more emphatic without this word. “The word any,” says Dr Adam Clarke, “is not in the text, nor any thing equivalent to it; and yet not a few have quoted it, and preached upon the text, placing the principal emphasis upon this illegitimate word.”
“or ceste comparaison du desir de David avec ceux des mondains amplifie bien la substance de ceste doctrine.” — Fr.
“Se contentent d’en jouir sans panser plus haut.” — Fr.
“Se repose totalement en Dieu et y prendre contentement.” — Fr.
The allusion is to the joy of the harvest and vintage.
“Or combien que les expositeurs varient en ce mot que nous avons traduit, Au temps: pource qu’aucuns traduisent, Tu m’as donne liesse au coeur depuis le temps que, etc., comme s’il disoit, Je suis joyeux quand je voy prosperer mes ennemis en ce monde.” — Fr.
“Seul ou a part.” — Fr.