Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 8: Psalms, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
The subject of this psalm is almost the same as that of the preceding. David, being afflicted, not only with the deepest distress, but also feeling himself, as it were, overwhelmed by a long succession of calamities and multiplied afflictions, implores the aid and succor of God, the only remedy which remained for him; and, in the close, taking courage, he entertains the assured hope of life from the promise of God, even amidst the terrors of death.
To the chief musician. A song of David.
1. How long, O Jehovah, wilt thou forget me, for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? 2. How long shall I take counsel in my soul? and have sorrow in my heart daily? how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?
1. How long, O Jehovah. It is very true that David was so greatly hated by the generality of people, on account of the calumnies and false reports which had been circulated against him, that almost all men judged that God was not less hostile to him than Saul 270 and his other enemies were. But here he speaks not so much according to the opinion of others, as according to the feeling of his own mind, when he complains of being neglected by God. Not that the persuasion of the truth of God’s promises was extinguished in his heart, or that he did not repose himself on his grace; but when we are for a long time weighed down by calamities, and when we do not perceive any sign of divine aid, this thought unavoidably forces itself upon us, that God has forgotten us. To acknowledge in the midst of our afflictions that God has really a care about us, is not the usual way with men, or what the feelings of nature would prompt; but by faith we apprehend his invisible providence. Thus, it seemed to David, so far as could be judged from beholding the actual state of his affairs, that he was forsaken of God. At the same time, however, the eyes of his mind, guided by the light of faith, penetrated even to the grace of God, although it was hidden in darkness. When he saw not a single ray of good hope to whatever quarter he turned, so far as human reason could judge, constrained by grief, he cries out that God did not regard him; and yet by this very complaint he gives evidence that faith enabled him to rise higher, and to conclude, contrary to the judgment of the flesh, that his welfare was secure in the hand of God. Had it been otherwise, how could he direct his groanings and prayers to him? Following this example, we must so wrestle against temptations as to be assured by faith, even in the very midst of the conflict, that the calamities which urge us to despair must be overcome; just as we see that the infirmity of the flesh could not hinder David from seeking God, and having recourse to him: and thus he has united in his exercise, very beautifully, affections which are apparently contrary to each other. The words, How long, for ever? are a defective form of expression; but they are much more emphatic than if he had put the question according to the usual mode of speaking, Why for so long a time? By speaking thus, he gives us to understand, that for the purpose of cherishing his hope, and encouraging himself in the exercise of patience, he extended his view to a distance, and that, therefore, he does not complain of a calamity of a few days’ duration, as the effeminate and the cowardly are accustomed to do, who see only what is before their feet, and immediately succumb at the first assault. He teaches us, therefore, by his example, to stretch our view as far as possible into the future, that our present grief may not entirely deprive us of hope.
2. How long shall I take counsel in my soul? We know that men in adversity give way to discontent, and look around them, first to one quarter, and then to another, in search of remedies. Especially, upon seeing that they are destitute of all resources, they torment themselves greatly, and are distracted by a multitude of thoughts; and in great dangers, anxiety and fear compel them to change their purposes from time to time, when they do not find any plan upon which they can fix with certainty. David, therefore, complains, that while thinking of different methods of obtaining relief, and deliberating with himself now in one way, and now in another, he is exhausted to no purpose with the multitude of suggestions which pass through his mind; and by joining to this complaint the sorrow which he felt daily, he points out the source of this disquietude. As in severe sickness the diseased would desire to change their place every moment, and the more acute the pains which afflict them are, the more fitful and eager are they in shifting and changing; so, when sorrow seizes upon the hearts of men, its miserable victims are violently agitated within, and they find it more tolerable to torment themselves without obtaining relief, than to endure their afflictions with composed and tranquil minds. The Lord, indeed, promises to give to the faithful “the spirit of counsels” (Isa 11:2) but he does not always give it to them at the very beginning of any matter in which they are interested, but suffers them for a time to be embarrassed by long deliberation without coming to a determinate decision, 271 or to be perplexed, as if they were entangled among thorns, not knowing whither to turn, 272 or what course to take. Some explain the Hebrew word יומם, yomam, as meaning all the day long. But it seems to me, that by it is rather meant another kind of continuance, namely, that his sorrow returned, and was renewed every day. In the end of the verse he deplores another evil, that his adversaries triumph over him the more boldly, when they see him wholly enfeebled, and as it were wasted by continual languor. Now this is an argument of great weight in our prayers; for there is nothing which is more displeasing to God, and which he will less bear with, than the cruel insolence which our enemies display, when they not only feast themselves by beholding us in misery, but also rise up the higher against us, and treat us the more disdainfully, the more they see us oppressed and afflicted.
3. Behold, [or look upon me,] answer me, O Jehovah my God; enlighten mine eyes, lest I sleep in death; 4. Lest my enemy say, I have prevailed against him; and those who afflict me rejoice if I should fall.
3. Look upon me, answer me. As when God does not promptly afford assistance to his servants, it seems to the eye of sense that he does not behold their necessities, David, for this reason, asks God, in the first place, to look upon him, and, in the second place, to succor him. Neither of these things, it is true, is prior or posterior in respect of God; but it has been already stated in a preceding psalm, and we will have occasion afterwards frequently to repeat the statement, that the Holy Spirit purposely accommodates to our understanding the models of prayer recorded in Scripture. If David had not been persuaded that God had his eyes upon him, it would have availed him nothing to cry to God; but this persuasion was the effect of faith. In the meantime, until God actually puts forth his hand to give relief, carnal reason suggests to us that he shuts his eyes, and does not behold us. The manner of expression here employed amounts to the same thing as if he had put the mercy of God in the first place, and then added to it his assistance, because God then hears us, when, having compassion upon us, he is moved and induced to succor us. To enlighten the eyes signifies the same thing in the Hebrew language as to give the breath of life, for the rigour of life appears chiefly in the eyes. In this sense Solomon says,
“The poor and the deceitful man meet together; the Lord lighteneth both their eyes.” (Pr 29:13)
And when Jonathan fainted for hunger, the sacred history relates that his eyes were overcast with dimness; and again, that when he had tasted of the honeycomb, his eyes were enlightened, (1Sa 14:27.) The word sleep, as it is used in this passage, is a metaphor of a similar kind, being put for death. In short, David confesses, that unless God cause the light of life to shine upon him, he will be immediately overwhelmed with the darkness of death, and that he is already as a man without life, unless God breathe into him new vigor. And certainly our confidence of life depends on this, that although the world may threaten us with a thousand deaths, yet God is possessed of numberless means of restoring us to life. 273
4. Lest my enemy. David again repeats what he had a little before said concerning the pride of his enemies, namely, how it would be a thing ill becoming the character of God were he to abandon his servant to the mockery of the ungodly. David’s enemies lay, as it were, in ambush watching the hour of his ruin, that they might deride him when they saw him fall. And as it is the peculiar office of God to repress the audacity and insolence of the wicked, as often as they glory in their wickedness, David beseeches God to deprive them of the opportunity of indulging in such boasting. It is, however, to be observed, that he had in his conscience a sufficient testimony to his own integrity, and that he trusted also in the goodness of his cause, so that it would have been unbecoming and unreasonable had he been left without succor in danger, and had he been overwhelmed by his enemies. We can, therefore, with confidence pray for ourselves, in the manner in which David here does for himself, only when we fight under the standard of God, and are obedient to his orders, so that our enemies cannot obtain the victory over us without wickedly triumphing over God himself.
5. But I trust in thy goodness; my heart shall exult in thy salvation. I will sing unto the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me. 274
The Psalmist does not as yet feel how much he has profited by praying; but depending upon the hope of deliverance, which the faithful promise of God enabled him to entertain, he makes use of this hope as a shield to repel those temptations with the terror of which he might be greatly distressed. Although, therefore, he is severely afflicted, and a multiplicity of cares urge him to despair, he, notwithstanding, declares it to be his resolution to continue firm in his reliance upon the grace of God, and in the hope of salvation. With the very same confidence ought all the godly to be furnished and sustained, that they may duly persevere in prayer. Whence, also, we gather what I have formerly adverted to, that it is by faith we apprehend the grace of God, which is hidden from and unknown to the understanding of the flesh. As the verbs which the Psalmist uses are not put in the same tense, different meanings may be drawn from the different tenses; but David, I have no doubt, here wishes to testify that he continued firm in the hope of the deliverance promised to him, and would continue so even to the end, however heavy the burden of temptations which might press upon him. Accordingly, the word exult is put in the future tense, to denote the continued exercise of the affection spoken of, and that no affliction shall ever shake out of his heart the joy of faith. It is to be observed, that he places the goodness of God first in order, as being the cause of his deliverance, — I will sing unto the Lord I translate this into the future tense. David, it is true, had not yet obtained what he earnestly desired, but being fully convinced that God was already at hand to grant him deliverance, he pledges himself to give thanks to him for it. And surely it becomes us to engage in prayer in such a frame of mind as at the same time to be ready to sing the praises of God; a thing which is impossible, unless we are fully persuaded that our prayers will not be ineffectual. We may not be wholly free from sorrow, but it is nevertheless necessary that this cheerfulness of faith rise above it, and put into our mouth a song on account of the joy which is reserved for us in the future although not as yet experienced by us; 275 just as we see David here preparing himself to celebrate in songs the grace of God, before he perceives the issue of his troubles. The word גמל, gamal, 276 which others render to reward, signifies nothing else here than to bestow a benefit from pure grace, and this is its meaning in many other passages of Scripture. What kind of thanksgiving, I pray you to consider, would that be, to say that God rewarded and rendered to his servant due recompense? This is sufficient to refute the absurd and trifling sophism of those who wrest this passage to prove the merit of works. In short, the only thing which remains to be observed is, that David, in hastening with promptitude of soul to sing of God’s benefits before he had received them, places the deliverance, which was then apparently at a distance, immediately before his eyes.
It was the opinion of Theodoret that this psalm was composed by David, not during his persecution by Saul, but when Absalom conspired against him; and the reason which he assigns for this opinion is, “that the trouble which Saul gave him was before his great sin, and so he was full of confidence; but that of Absalom was after it, which made him cry out in this doleful manner.” — Bishop Patrick’s Paraphrase on the Book of Psalms.
“Mais permet que pour un temps ils s’entortillent en de longs discours sans venir au poinct.” — Fr.
“Ne sachans on se tourner.” — Fr.
“Toutesfois Dieu ha en main des moyens infohis de nous restablir ca vie.” — Fr.
The Septuagint here add another line, namely Και ψαλω τω ὀνοματι Κυριου του ὑψιστου, “And I will sing to the name of Jehovah, the Most High.” This line, which is the same with that which concludes the seventh psalm, has probably been lost in the Hebrew copy. “The conclusion of the psalm,” says Lowth, “is manifestly defective; it ends with an odd hemistich wanting its correspondent. The LXX. have happily preserved it. That it is not a double translation of the single hemistich, now in the Hebrew, is apparent from the difference of the latter Greek hemistich, which does not at all correspond with the words of the former.” — Dr Lowth, in Merrick’s note on this place.
“Qui ne nous est point encore presente.” — Fr.
גמל Signifies “to return, to requite, to recompense, in whatever manner, whether evil for evil, good for evil, evil for good, or good for good.” — Parkhurst. Those who argue from this passage for the merit of good works, make the argument to rest on the notion of retribution attached to the word. But although it uniformly mean, to reward, no conclusive argument could here be drawn from this passage in support of that doctrine. What God bestows upon his people is sometimes called a reward in Scripture; not, however, because they can claim it as due to them by justice, but to express God’s approbation of obedience, and the connection between obedience and happiness. Besides, גמל, also means to deal kindly with, especially when applied to God, See Ps 119:17, and Ps 142:7. The word has this meaning in Arabic; and that it is to be thus understood in the passage before us is supported by the ancient versions. The Septuagint reads εὐεργετήσαντι; and the Vulgate, bona tribuit, hath bestowed upon me good. The Arabic and Ethiopic adopt the same reading.