Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 8: Psalms, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
David, deploring the wretched and forlorn condition of his people, and the utter overthrow of good order, beseeches God to afford them speedy relief. Then, in order to comfort both himself and all the godly, after having mentioned God’s promise of assisting his people, he magnifies his faithfulness and constancy in performing his promises. From this he concludes, that at length God will deliver the godly, even when the world may be in a state of the greatest corruption. 253
To the chief musician upon the eighth. A song of David.
1. Save me, O Jehovah; for the merciful man hath failed, and the faithful are wasted away from among the children of men, 2. Every one speaketh deceit [or falsehood] with his neighbor; they speak with lips of flattery, with a double heart. 254
To the chief musician upon the eighth. With respect to the word eighth, there are two opinions among interpreters. According to some, it means a musical instrument; while others are rather inclined to think that it is a tune. But as it is of no great importance which of these opinions is adopted, I do not trouble myself much about this matter. The conjecture of some, that it was the beginning of a song, does not seem to me to be so probable as that it refers to the tune, and was intended to point out how the psalm was to be sung. 255 In the commencement David complains that the land was so overspread with wicked men, and persons who had broken forth into the commission of every kind of wickedness, that the practice of righteousness and justice had ceased, and none was found to defend the cause of the good; in short, that there remained no longer either humanity or faithfulness. It is probable that the Psalmist here speaks of the time when Saul persecuted him, because then all, from the highest to the lowest, had conspired to destroy an innocent and an afflicted man. It is a thing very distressing to relate, and yet it was perfectly true, that righteousness was so utterly overthrown among the chosen people of God, that all of them, with one consent, from their hostility to a good and just cause, had broken forth into acts of outrage and cruelty. David does not here accuse strangers or foreigners, but informs us that this deluge of iniquity prevailed in the Church of God. Let the faithful, therefore in our day, not be unduly discouraged at the melancholy sight of a very corrupt and confused state of the world; but let them consider that they ought to bear it patiently, seeing their condition is just like that of David in time past. And it is to be observed, that, when David calls upon God for succor, he encourages himself in the hope of obtaining it from this, that there was no uprightness among men; so that from his example we may learn to betake ourselves to God when we see nothing around us but black despair. We ought to be fully persuaded of this, that the greater the confusion of things in the world is, God is so much the readier to aid and succor his people, 256 and that it is then the most proper season for him to interpose his assistance.
1. The merciful man hath failed. Some think that this is a complaint that the righteous had been unjustly put to death; as if the Psalmist had said, Saul has cruelly cut off all who observed justice and faithfulness. But I would understand the words in a simpler sense, as meaning that there is no longer any beneficence or truth remaining among men. He has expressed in these two words in what true righteousness consists. As there are two kinds of unrighteousness, violence and deceit; so men live righteously when, in their intercourse with each other, they conscientiously abstain from doing any wrong or injury to one another, and cultivate peace and mutual friendship; when they are neither lions nor foxes. When, however, we see the world in such a state of disorder as is here described, and are afflicted thereby, we ought to be careful not to howl with the wolves, nor to suffer ourselves to be carried away with the dissipation and overflowing flood of iniquity which we see prevailing around us, but should rather imitate the example of David.
2. Every man speaketh deceit. David in this verse sets forth that part of unrighteousness which is contrary to truth. He says that there is no sincerity or uprightness in their speech, because the great object upon which they are bent is to deceive. He next describes the manner in which they deceive, namely, that every man endeavors to ensnare his neighbor by flattery 257 He also points out the fountain and first cause of this, They speak with a double heart. This doubleness of heart, as I may term it, makes men double and variable in their speech, in order thereby to disguise themselves in different ways, 258 or to make themselves appear to others different from what they really are. Hence the Hebrew word חלקות, chalakoth, which denotes flattery, is derived from a word which signifies division. As those who are resolved to act truthfully in their intercourse with their neighbors, freely and ingenuously lay open their whole heart; so treacherous and deceitful persons keep a part of their feeling hidden within their own breasts, and cover it with the varnish of hypocrisy and a fair outside; so that from their speech we cannot gather any thing certain with respect to their intentions. Our speech, therefore, must be sincere in order that it may be as it were a mirror, in which the uprightness of our heart may be beheld.
3. Let Jehovah cut off all flattering tips, and the tongue that speaketh great [or proud] things: 4. Those who have said we will be strengthened by our tongues; our lips are in our own power: who is lord over us?
To his complaint in the preceding verse he now subjoins an imprecation, that God would cut off deceitful tongues. It is uncertain whether he wishes that deceitful men may be utterly destroyed, or only that the means of doing mischief may be taken from them; but the scope of the passage leads us rather to adopt the first sense, and to view David as desiring that God, by some means or other, would remove that plague out of the way. As he makes no mention of malice, while he inveighs so vehemently against their envenomed tongues, we hence conclude, that he had suffered much more injury from the latter than from the former; and certainly falsehood and calumnies are more deadly than swords and all other kind of weapons. From the second clause of the third verse it appears more clearly what kind of flatterers they were of whom mention was made in the preceding verse: The tongue that speaketh great or proud things. Some flatter in a slavish and fulsome manner, declaring that they are ready to do and suffer any thing which they possibly can for our benefit. But David here speaks of another kind of flatterers, namely, those who in flattering proudly boast of what they will accomplish, and mingle base effrontery and threatening with their deceitful arts. He does not, therefore, speak of the herd of mean conceited persons among the common people who make a trade of flattering, that they may live at other people’s expense; 259 but he points his imprecation against the great calumniators of the court to which he was attached, 260 who not only insinuated themselves by gentle arts, but also lied designedly in boasting of themselves, and in the big and haughty discourse with which they overwhelmed the poor and simple. 261
This the Psalmist confirms more fully in the following verse: Who have said, we will be strengthened by our tongues Those must be possessed of great authority who think that, in the very falsehood to which they are addicted, they have enough of strength to accomplish their purposes, and to protect themselves. It is the utmost height of wickedness for persons to break out into such presumption, that they scruple not to overthrow all law and equity by their arrogant and boasting language; for, in doing this, it is just as if they openly declared war against God himself. Some read, we will strengthen our tongues. This reading is passable, in so far as the sense is concerned, but it scarcely agrees with the rules of grammar, because the letter ל, lamed, is added. Moreover, the sense which is more suitable is this: that the wicked persons spoken of being armed with their tongues, go beyond all bounds, and think they can accomplish by this means whatever they please; just as this set of men so deform every thing with their calumnies, that they would almost cover the sun himself with darkness.
5. Because of the spoiling 262 of the needy, because of the groaning of the poor, I will now arise, Jehovah will say; I will set in safety him whom he snareth. 263 6. The words of Jehovah are pure words: silver melted in an excellent crucible of earth, purified seven times.
5. Because of the spoiling of the needy. David now sets before himself as matter of consolation, the truth that God will not suffer the wicked thus to make havoc without end and measure. The more effectually to establish himself and others in the belief of this truth, he introduces God himself as speaking. The expression is more emphatic when God is represented as coming forward and declaring with his own mouth that he is come to deliver the poor and distressed. There is also great emphasis in the adverb now, by which God intimates that, although our safety is in his hand, and, therefore, in secure keeping, yet he does not immediately grant deliverance from affliction; for his words imply that he had hitherto been, as it were, lying still and asleep, until he was awakened by the calamities and the cries of his people. When, therefore, the injuries, the extortions, and the devastations of our enemies leave us nothing but tears and groans, let us remember that now the time is at hand when God intends to rise up to execute judgment. This doctrine should also serve to produce in us patience, and prevent us from taking it ill, that we are reckoned among the number of the poor and afflicted, whose cause God promises to take into his own hand.
With respect to the meaning of the second clause of the verse, expositors differ. According to some, to set in safety, means the same thing as to give or bring safety, as if the letter ב, beth, which signifies in, were superfluous. But the language rather contains a promise to grant to those who are unjustly oppressed, full restitution. What follows is attended with more difficulty. The word פוה, phuach, which we have rendered to lay snares for, sometimes signifies to blow out, or to puff, — at other times to ensnare, or to lay snares for; and sometimes, also, to speak. Those who think it is here put for to speak also differ among themselves with respect to the meaning. Some render it God will speak to himself; that is to say, God will determine with himself; but as the Psalmist had already declared the determination of God, this would be an unnecessary and vain repetition. Others refer it to the language of the godly, as if David introduced them speaking one to another concerning the faithfulness and stability of the promises of God; for with this word they connect the following sentence, The words of the Lord are pure words, etc But this view is even more strained than the preceding. The opinion of others, who suppose, that to the determination of God to arise, there is subjoined the language which is addressed to the godly, is more admissible. It would not be sufficient for God to determine with himself what he would do for our safety, if he did not speak to us expressly, and by name. It is only when God makes us to understand, by his own voice, that he will be gracious to us, that we can entertain the hope of salvation. God, it is true, speaks also to unbelievers, but without producing any good effect, seeing they are deaf; just as when he treats them with gentleness and liberality, it is without effect, because they are stupid, and devour his benefits without any sense of their coming from him. But as I perceive that under the word יאמר, yomar, will say, the promises of God may be suitably and properly comprehended, to avoid a repetition of the same thing, I adopt without hesitation the sense of the last clause, which I have given in the translation, namely, that God declares he will arise to restore to safety those who seem on all sides to be environed by the snares of their enemies, and even caught in them. The import of the language is this: The ungodly may hold the poor and afflicted entangled in their snares as a prey which they have caught; but I will set them in safety. If it should be replied, that the reading in the Hebrew is not for whom, but for him, I would observe, that it is no new thing for these words, him, for him, to be used instead of whom and for whom. 264 If any one prefer the sense of puffing at, I am not disposed greatly to oppose him. According to this reading, David would elegantly taunt the pride of the ungodly, who confidently imagine they can do any thing, 265 even with their breath, as we have seen in the tenth psalm, at the fifth verse.
6. The words of Jehovah. The Psalmist now declares, that God is sure, faithful, and steadfast in his promises. But the insertion by the way of this commendation of the word of God would be to no purpose, if he had not first called himself, and other believers, to meditate on God’s promises in their afflictions. Accordingly, the order of the Psalmist is to be attended to, namely, that, after telling us how God gives to his servants the hope of speedy deliverance, even in their deepest distresses, he now adds, to support their faith and hope, that God promises nothing in vain, or for the purpose of disappointing man. This, at first sight, seems a matter of small importance; but if any person consider more closely and attentively how prone the minds of men are to distrust and ungodly doubtings, he will easily perceive how requisite it is for our faith to be supported by this assurance, that God is not deceitful, that he does not delude or beguile us with empty words, and that he does not magnify beyond all measure either his power or his goodness, but that whatever he promises in word he will perform in deed. There is no man, it is true, who will not frankly confess that he entertains the same conviction which David here records, that the words of Jehovah are pure; but those who while lying in the shade and living at their ease liberally extol by their praises the truth of God’s word, when they come to struggle with adversity in good earnest, although they may not venture openly to pour forth blasphemies against God, often charge him with not keeping his word. Whenever he delays his assistance, we call in question his fidelity to his promises and murmur just as if he had deceived us. There is no truth which is more generally received among men than that God is true; but there are few who frankly give him credit for this when they are in adversity. It is, therefore, highly necessary for us to cut off the occasion of our distrust; and whenever any doubt respecting the faithfulness of God’s promises steals in upon us, we ought immediately to lift up against it this shield, that the words of the Lord are pure. The similitude of silver, which the Psalmist subjoins, is indeed far below the dignity and excellence of so great a subject; but it is very well adapted to the measure of our limited and imperfect understanding. Silver, if thoroughly refined, is valued at a high price amongst us. But we are far from manifesting for the word of God, the price of which is inestimable, an equal regard; and its purity is of less account with us than that of a corruptible metal. Yea, a great many coin mere dross in their own brain, by which to efface or obscure the brightness which shines in the word of God. The word בעליל, baälil, which we have translated crucible, is interpreted by many prince, or lord, as if it were a simple word. According to them, the meaning would be, that the word of God is like the purest silver, from which the dross has been completely removed with the greatest art and care, not for common use, but for the service of a great lord or prince of some country. I, however, rather agree with others who consider that בעליל, baälil, is a word compounded of the letter ב, beth, which signifies in, and the noun עליל, alil, which signifies a clean or well polished vessel or crucible.
7. Thou, O Jehovah, wilt keep them; thou wilt preserve him from this generation for ever. 8. The ungodly walk about on every side; when they are exalted, there is reproach to the children of men.
7. Thou, O Jehovah. Some think that the language of the Psalmist here is that of renewed prayer; and they, therefore, understand the words as expressive of his desire, and translate them in the optative mood, thus, Do thou, O Jehovah, keep them 266 But I am rather of opinion that David, animated with holy confidence, boasts of the certain safety of all the godly, of whom God, who neither can deceive nor lie, avows himself to be the guardian. At the same time, I do not altogether disapprove of the interpretation which views David as renewing his supplications at the throne of grace. Some give this exposition of the passage, Thou wilt keep them, namely, thy words; 267 but this does not seem to me to be suitable. 268 David, I have no doubt, returns to speak of the poor, of whom he had spoken in the preceding part of the psalm. With respect to his changing the number, (for, he says first, Thou wilt keep them, and, next, Thou wilt preserve him 269 it is a thing quite common in Hebrew, and the sense is not thereby rendered ambiguous. These two sentences, therefore, Thou wilt keep them, and Thou wilt preserve him, signify the same thing, unless, perhaps, we may say that, in the second, under the person of one man, the Psalmist intends to point out the small number of good men. To suppose this is not unreasonable or improbable; and, according to this view, the import of his language is, Although only one good man should be left alive in the world, yet he would be kept in perfect safety by the grace and protection of God. But as the Jews, when they speak generally, often change the number, I leave my readers freely to form their own judgment. This, indeed, cannot be controverted, that by the word generation, or race, is denoted a great multitude of ungodly persons, and almost the whole body of the people. As the Hebrew word דור, dor, signifies as well the men who live in the same age, as the space of time itself, David, without doubt, here means that the servants of God cannot escape, and continue safe, unless God defend them against the malice of the whole people, and deliver them from the wicked and perverse men of the age in which they live. Whence we learn that the world, at that time, was so corrupt, that David, by way of reproach, puts them all, as it were, into one bundle. Moreover, it is of importance again to remember what we have already stated, that he does not here speak of foreign nations, but of the Israelites, and God’s chosen people. It is well to mark this carefully, that we may not be discouraged by the vast multitude of the ungodly, if we should sometimes see an immense heap of chaff upon the barn-floor of the Lord, while only a few grains of corn lie hidden underneath. And then, however small may be the number of the good, let this persuasion be deeply fixed in our minds, that God will be their protector, and that for ever. The word לעולם, leolam, which signifies for ever, is added, that we may learn to extend our confidence in God far into the future, seeing he commands us to hope for succor from him, not only once, or for one day, but as long as the wickedness of our enemies continues its work of mischief. We are, however, from this passage, at the same time, admonished that war is not prepared against us for a short time only, but that we must daily engage in the conflict. And if the guardianship which God exercises over the faithful is sometimes hidden, and is not manifest in its effects, let them wait in patience until he arise; and the greater the flood of calamities which overflows them, let them keep themselves so much the more in the exercise of godly fear and solicitude.
8. The ungodly walk about on every side. The Hebrew word סביב, sabib, which we have translated on every side, signifies a circuit, or a going round; and, therefore, some explain it allegorically thus: the ungodly seize upon all the defiles or narrow parts of roads, in order to shut up or besiege the good on all sides; and others expound it even more ingeniously, thus: that they lay snares by indirect means, and by inventions full of art and deception. But I think the simple meaning is, that they possess the whole land, and range about through every part of it; as if the Psalmist had said, Wherever I turn my eyes, I see troops of them on every side. In the next clause he complains that mankind are shamefully and basely oppressed by their tyranny. This is the meaning, provided the clause is read as a distinct one by itself, separate from the preceding, a point about which interpreters differ, although this view seems to come nearer to the mind of the inspired writer. Some render the verse in one continuous sentence, thus: The ungodly fly about every where, when the reproaches among the children of men (that is to say, when the worthless and the refuse of men) are exalted, an exposition which is not unsuitable. It commonly happens, that as diseases flow from the head into the members, so corruptions proceed from princes, and infect the whole people. As, however, the former exposition is more generally received, and the most learned grammarians tell us that the Hebrew word זלות, zuluth, which we have translated reproach, is a noun of the singular number, I have adopted the former exposition, not that I am dissatisfied with the latter, but because we must needs choose the one or the other.
“Voire au temps mesmes qu’il n’y aura roy ni equite au monde.” — Fr. “Even when there is neither faith nor equity in the world.”
Calvin’s words literally rendered are, with a heart and a heart, and this is a very literal translation of the Hebrew words בלב ולב, be-leb va-leb. On the margin of the French version, he reads, “De coeur double,” “with a double heart,” which explains the meaning of the other phrase. “With a heart and a heart,” is a form of expression which forcibly describes the character of deceitful men. “They seem to have two hearts,” says Dr Adam Clarke, “one to speak fair words, and the other to invent mischief.”
“Et que c’est pour exprimer comment se devoir chanter le pseaume.” — Fr.
“Tant plus Dieu est prest d’aider et secourir les siens.” — Fr.
Horsley reads “smooth lips.” “Not smooth,” says he, “with flattery, but with glossing lies, with ensnaring eloquence and specious arguments in support of the wretched cause which they espouse.”
“Pour se disguiser en diverses sortes.” — Fr.
“Il ne parle donc pas d’un tas de faquins du commun peuple, qui sont estat de flatter pour avoir la lippee franche.” — Fr.
“The occasion on which this psalm was composed is not expressed, but it is a sad complaint of the corrupt manners of that age, (especially of the court of Saul, 5:3,) in which it was hard to find an honest plain dealing man, in whom one might confide. Some think it aims partly at Doeg, and such like courtiers; partly at the Ziphires, and such perfidious people in the country, who, promising him their friendship, (as Theodoret understands it,) would have most basely betrayed him unto Saul, his declared enemy.” — Bishop Patrick’s Paraphrase on the Book of Psalms.
“Mais qui mentent plaisir en se vantans et tenans propos braves et hautains, desquels ils accablent les poures et simples.” — Fr.
“Oppression.” — Fr.
“Celuy a qui le roeschant tend des laqs.” — Fr. “Him for whom the wicked lays snares.” Hebrews “Il luy tend des laqs.” — Fr. marg. “I will set in safety; he lays snares for him.”
“Et quant a ce qu’on pourroit repliequer qu’il n’y a pas en l’Hebrieu A qui, mais Luy, ce n’est pas chose nouvelle que ces mots Le, Luy se prenent pour Qui et A qui.” — Fr.
“Qu’ils renverseront tout k soufiler seulement.” — Fr. “That they shall overthrow all simply by their breath.”
“Que tu les gardes, Seigneur.” — Fr.
This is the view adopted by Hammond. He refers the them to the words of the Lord mentioned in the preceding verse, and the him following to the godly, or just man, and explains the verse thus: ”Thou, O Lord, shalt keep, or perform, those words, thou shalt preserve the just man from this generation for ever.” The Chaldee version reads, “Thou wilt keep the just;” the Septuagint, Vulgate, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions read, “Thou wilt keep us;”
“Mais quant a ceux qui elisent, Tu les garderas, as avoir Tes paroles; l’exposition ne me semble pas propre.” — Fr.
“Car il dit premierement, Tu les garderas; et puis, Tu le preserveras.” — Fr.