Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 8: Psalms, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
After being delivered by God’s help from great dangers, David, in this psalm, according to his custom, first records the vows that he had made in the midst of his difficulties, and then his thanksgivings and praises to God, to induce others to follow his example. It is probable that he speaks of his persecutions by Saul.
A Psalm of David.
1. Unto thee, O Jehovah! will I cry; O my strength! hold not thy peace from me; lest, shouldst thou be silent to me, I become like them that go down to the grave. 2. Hear the voice of my prayers when I cry to thee, when I lift up my hands to the sanctuary of thy holiness.
1. Unto thee, O Jehovah! will I cry. The Psalmist begins by declaring that he would betake himself to the help of God alone, which shows both his faith and his sincerity. Although men labor every where under a multitude of troubles, yet scarcely one in a hundred ever has recourse to God. Almost all having their consciences burdened with guilt, and having never experienced the power of divine grace which might lead them to betake themselves to it, either proudly gnaw the bit or fill the air with unavailing complaints, or, giving way to desperation, faint under their afflictions. By calling God his strength, David more fully shows that he confided in God’s assistance, not only when he was in the shade and in peace, but also when he was exposed to the severest temptations. In comparing himself to the dead, too, he intimates how great his straits were, although his object was not merely to point out the magnitude of his danger, but also to show that when he needed succor, he looked not here and there for it, but relied on God alone, without whose favor there remained no hope for him. It is, therefore, as if he had said, I am nothing if thou leavest me; if thou succourest me not, I perish. It is not enough for one who is in such a state of affliction to be sensible of his misery, unless, convinced of his inability to help himself, and renouncing all help from the world, he betake himself to God alone. And as the Scriptures inform us that God answers true believers when he shows by his operations that he regards their supplications, so the word silent is set in opposition to the sensible and present experience of his aid, when he appears, as it were, not to hear their prayers.
2. Hear the voice of my prayers when I cry to thee. This repetition is a sign of a heart in anguish. David’s ardor and vehemence in prayer are also intimated by the noun signifying voice, and the verb signifying to cry. He means that he was so stricken with anxiety and fear, that he prayed not coldly, but with burning, vehement desire, like those who, under the pressure of grief, vehemently cry out. In the second clause of the verse, by synecdoche, the thing signified is indicated by the sign. It has been a common practice in all ages for men to lift up their hands in prayer. Nature has extorted this gesture even from heathen idolaters, to show by a visible sign that their minds were directed to God alone. The greater part, it is true, contented with this ceremony, busy themselves to no effect with their own inventions; but the very lifting up of the hands, when there is no hypocrisy and deceit, is a help to devout and zealous prayer. David, however, does not say here that he lifted his hands to heaven, but to the sanctuary, that, aided by its help, he might ascend the more easily to heaven. He was not so gross, or so superstitiously tied to the outward sanctuary, as not to know that God must be sought spiritually, and that men then only approach to him when, leaving the world, they penetrate by faith to celestial glory. But remembering that he was a man, he would not neglect this aid afforded to his infirmity. As the sanctuary was the pledge or token of the covenant of God, David beheld the presence of God’s promised grace there, as if it had been represented in a mirror; just as the faithful now, if they wish to have a sense of God’s nearness to them, should immediately direct their faith to Christ, who came down to us in his incarnation, that he might lift us up to the Father. Let us understand, then, that David clung to the sanctuary with no other view than that by the help of God’s promise he might rise above the elements of the world, which he used, however, according to the appointment of the Law. The Hebrew word דביר, debir, which we have rendered sanctuary, 594 signifies the inner-room of the tabernacle or temple, or the most holy place, where the ark of the covenant was contained, and it is so called from the answers or oracles which God gave forth from thence, to testify to his people the presence of his favor among them.
3. Draw me not away with wicked men, nor with the workers of iniquity, who speak peace to their neighbors, while malice is in their hearts. 4. Give them according to their works, and according to the wickedness of their doings; give them according to the work of their hands; render them their reward. 5. Because they regard not the doings of Jehovah, neither the work of his hands, let him destroy them, and not build them up.
3. Draw me not away with wicked men. The meaning is, that in circumstances so dissimilar, God should not mingle the righteous with the wicked in the same indiscriminate destruction. 595 Undoubtedly, too, in speaking of his enemies, he indirectly asserts his own integrity. But he did not pray in this manner, because he thought that God was indiscriminately and unreasonably angry with men; he reasons rather from the nature of God, that he ought to cherish good hope, because it was God’s prerogative to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, and to give every one his due reward. By the workers of iniquity, he means man wholly addicted to wickedness. The children of God sometimes fall, commit errors, and act amiss in one way or other, but they take no pleasure in their evil doings; the fear of God, on the contrary, stirs them up to repentance. David afterwards defines and enlarges upon the wickedness of those whom he describes; for, under pretense of friendship they perfidiously deceived good men, professing one thing with their tongue, while they entertained a very different thing in their hearts. Open depravity is easier to be borne with than this craftiness of the fox, when persons put on fair appearances in order to find opportunity of doing mischief. 596 This truth, accordingly, admonishes us that those are most detestable in God’s sight, who attack the simple and unwary with fair speeches as with poison.
4. Give them according to their works. Having thus requested God to have a regard to his innocence, the Psalmist thunders forth a curse against his enemies. And the accumulation of words shows that he had groaned long and grievously under the burden before he broke forth to desire such vengeance. He intimates that the wicked of whom he speaks had transgressed not once, nor for a short time, nor in one way, but that they had proceeded so far in their constant evil doings, that their audacity was no longer to be endured. We know how troublesome and grievous a temptation it is to see the ungodly proceeding without measure or end, as if God connived at their wickedness. David, therefore, wearied as it were with continual forbearing, and fainting under the burden, implores God, at length, to restrain the wantonness of his enemies, who of late ceased not to heap wickedness upon wickedness. Thus we perceive that there is nothing superfluous in this verse, when to works he adds the wickedness of their doings, and the work of their hands, and thrice petitions that they may receive the reward which they have deserved. Add to this, that he at the same time bears testimony to his own faith, to which boasting hypocrites often compel the children of God, while by their deceit and cavils, they impose upon the judgments of the world. We see how men who are distinguished for wickedness, not content with impunity themselves, cannot abstain from oppressing the innocent by false accusations, just as the wolf, desirous of making a prey 597 of the lambs, according to the common proverb, accused them of troubling the water. David is therefore compelled by this exigency to call upon God for protection. Here again occurs the difficult question about praying for vengeance, which, however, I shall despatch in few words, as I have discussed it elsewhere. In the first place, then, it is unquestionable, that if the flesh move us to seek revenge, the desire is wicked in the Sight of God. He not only forbids us to imprecate evil upon our enemies in revenge for private injuries, but it cannot be otherwise than that all those desires which spring from hatred must be disordered. David’s example, therefore, must not be alleged by those who are driven by their own intemperate passion to seek vengeance. The holy prophet is not inflamed here by his own private sorrow to devote his enemies to destruction; but laying aside the desire of the flesh, he gives judgment concerning the matter itself. Before a man can, therefore, denounce vengeance against the wicked, he must first shake himself free from all improper feelings in his own mind. In the second place, prudence must be exercised, that the heinousness of the evils which offend us drive us not to intemperate zeal, which happened even to Christ’s disciples, when they desired that fire might be brought from heaven to consume those who refused to entertain their Master, (Lu 9:54.) They pretended, it is true, to act according to the example of Elias; but Christ severely rebuked them, and told them that they knew not by what spirit they were actuated. In particular, we must observe this general rule, that we cordially desire and labor for the welfare of the whole human race. Thus it will come to pass, that we shall not only give way to the exercise of God’s mercy, but shall also wish the conversion of those who seem obstinately to rush upon their own destruction. In short, David, being free from every evil passion, and likewise endued with the spirit of discretion and judgment, pleads here not so much his own cause as the cause of God. And by this prayer, he farther reminds both himself and the faithful, that although the wicked may give themselves loose reins in the commission of every species of vice with impunity for a time, they must at length stand before the judgment-seat of God.
5. Because they regard not the doings of Jehovah. In this verse he lays open the root of impiety, declaring that the ungodly are so bold to do mischief, because, while they are thus indulging their hatred, and perpetrating every species of wickedness, they think that they have nothing to do with God. And when conscience stings them, they soothe themselves with false hopes, and at last stubbornly harden themselves into insensibility. First, being intoxicated with prosperity, they flatter themselves that God is their friend, while he has no regard for those good men who are overwhelmed with so many afflictions; and, next, they persuade themselves that the world is governed by chance, thus blinding themselves in the midst of the clear light of day. In this manner, David’s adversaries, willingly ignorant that God had appointed him to be king, emboldened themselves to persecute him. He therefore complains of their gross ignorance of this, just as Isaiah (Isa 5:20) brings the same complaint, in general terms, against all the ungodly of his days. This doctrine, then, has a twofold use. First, it is no small consolation to the children of God to be persuaded, while they are unrighteously vexed, that by the providence of God they are thus profitably exercised to patience; and that while the affairs of this world are all in a state of disturbance and confusion, God nevertheless sits supreme in heaven conducting and governing all things. 598 In the second place, this is a very proper curb to subdue the passions of our flesh, that we may not, like the Andabates, 599 contend in the dark, and with shut eyes, as if God saw not and cared not about what is done here below. Let us, therefore, learn carefully to consider that the judgments which God executes are just so many proofs of his righteousness in governing mankind, and that although all things should be huddled together in confusion, the eye of faith should be directed to heaven, to consider God’s secret judgments. And as God never ceases, even in the midst of the greatest darkness, to give some tokens of his providence, it is inexcusable indolence not to attend to them. This perverseness the prophet aggravates, by repeating again, the works of God’s hands He thus intimates, that the ungodly, by recklessly pursuing their course, trample under foot whatever of God’s works they may meet with to check their madness.
Let him destroy them, and not build them up. Some are of opinion that the first part of this verse is the nominative in the room of a substantive to the verbs in the last clause; as if David had said, This brutal madness shall destroy them; but the name of God should rather be supplied, and then the context will run excellently. As the verbs, however, in the Hebrew are in the future tense 600 the sentence may be explained as meaning that David now assures himself of the destruction of the reprobates for which he had lately prayed. I do not reject this interpretation; but, in my opinion, the words are just a continuance of his petitions. In this way, he prays that the wicked may be overthrown, so as not to rise again, or recover their former state. The expression, Let him destroy them, and not build them up, is a common figure of speech among the Hebrews, according to what Malachi says concerning Edom, “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, They shall build, but I shall throw down,” (Mal 1:4.) Lest we should be struck, therefore, with an incurable plague, let us learn to awake our minds to the consideration of God’s works, that we may be taught to fear him, to persevere in patience, and to advance in godliness.
6. Blessed be Jehovah, for he hath heard the voice of my supplication. 7. Jehovah is my strength and my shield, my heart hath trusted in him, and I have been helped: therefore shall my heart rejoice, and with my song will I praise him. 8. Jehovah is their strength; and he is also the strength of the salvations [or deliverances] of his anointed.
6. Blessed be Jehovah, who hath heard. This is the second part of the psalm in which the prophet begins to give thanks to God. We have already seen how he employed himself in prayer in the midst of his dangers; and now by this thanksgiving he teaches us that his prayers were not in vain. Thus he confirms by his own example, that God is ready to bring help to his people whenever they seek him in truth and sincerity. He declares the same truth more fully in the next verse, calling God his strength and his shield; for he was persuaded that God had heard him from this, that he had been wonderfully preserved. He adds, that he had been helped in respect of his confidence and hope; for it often comes to pass, that those who call upon God, notwithstanding come short of his grace through their own unbelief. Thirdly, he says that he will add to his joy a testimony of his gratitude. Wicked men and hypocrites flee to God when they are overwhelmed with difficulties, but as soon as they escape from them, forgetting their deliverer, they rejoice with frantic mirth. In short, David trusted not in vain, since he truly found by experience that God possesses ever present power to preserve his servants; and that this was matter of true and solid joy to him, that he found God ever favorable to him. On this account, likewise, he promises that he would be mindful of God, and grateful to him. And undoubtedly, when God spreads cheerfulness through our hearts, it is to open our mouths to sing his praises.
8. Jehovah is their strength. By way of explanation, he repeats what he had said before, that God had been his strength; namely, because he had blessed his armies. David had indeed employed the hand and labor of men, but to God alone he ascribes the victory. As he knew that whatever help he had obtained from men proceeded from God, and that his prosperous success flowed likewise from his gratuitous favor, he discerned his hand in these means, as palpably as if it had been stretched forth from heaven. And surely it is passing shameful, that human means, which are only the instruments of God’s power, should obscure his glory; although there is no sin more common. It is a manner of speaking which has great weight, when, speaking of his soldiers, he uses only the pronoun their, as if he pointed to them with the finger. The second clause assigns the reason of the other. He declares that himself and his whole army were endued with victorious valor from heaven, because he fought under the standard of God. This is the meaning of the word anointed; for, had not God appointed him king, and freely adopted him, he would not have favored him any more than he did Saul. By this means, in extolling solely the power of God which advanced him to the kingdom, he attributes nothing to his own policy or power. In the meantime, we may learn, that when one is satisfied of the lawfulness of his calling, this doctrine encourages him to entertain good hope with respect to the prosperous issue of his affairs. In particular, it is to be observed, as we have briefly noticed in another place, that the fountain whence all the blessings God bestows upon us flows is, that he hath chosen us in Christ. David employs salvations or deliverances in the plural number, because he had been often and in various ways preserved. The meaning, therefore, is, that from the time when God had anointed him by the hand of Samuel, he never ceased to help him, but delivered him in innumerable ways, until he had accomplished the work of his grace in him.
9. Save thy people, and bless thine inheritance; feed them, and lift them up for ever.
In this verse he shows that it was not so much his own welfare as the welfare of the whole Church which was the object of his concern, and that he neither lived nor reigned for himself, but for the common good of the people. He well knew that he was appointed king for no other end. In this he declares himself to be a type of the Son of God, of whom, when Zechariah (Zec 9:9) predicts that he would come “having salvation,” there is no doubt that he promises nothing to him apart from his members, but that the effects of this salvation would diffuse themselves throughout his whole body. By this example, accordingly, he prescribes a rule to earthly kings, that, devoting themselves to the public good, they should only desire to be preserved for the sake of their people. 601 How very far otherwise it is, it is needless to say. Blinded with pride and presumption they despise the rest of the world, just as if their pomp and dignity raised them altogether above the common state of man. Nor is it to be wondered at, that mankind are so haughtily and contumeliously trampled under foot of kings, since the greatest part cast off and disdain to bear the cross of Christ. 602 Let us therefore remember that David is like a mirror, in which God sets before us the continual course of his grace. Only we must be careful, that the obedience of our faith may correspond to his fatherly love, that he may acknowledge us for his people and inheritance. The Scriptures often designate David by the name of a shepherd; but he himself assigns that office to God, thus confessing that he is altogether unfit for it, 603 save only in as far as he is God’s minister.
דביר, debir, is derived from דבר, dabar, to speak.
The verb משך, mashak, here rendered draw, “signifies,” as Hammond observes, “both to draw and apprehend,” and may “be best rendered here, Seize not on me, as he that seizeth on any to carry or drag him to execution. The Septuagint, after having literally rendered the Hebrew by Μὴ συνελκύσὟς την ψυχήν μου, draw not my soul together with, etc., adds Κίαν μὴ συναπολέσὟς με etc., and destroy me not together with, etc. Calvin here evidently takes the same view; though he does not express it in the form of criticism.
“Que ceste finesse de renard, quand on use de beaux semblans pour avoir occasion de nuire.” — Fr.
“Voulant devorer les agneaux.” — Fr.
“Conduisant et gouvernant toutes choses.” — Fr.
“C’estoyent certains peuples ou escrimeurs qui souloyent ainsi comme etre. Voyez les Chiliades d’Erasme.” — Note, Fr. marg. “These were certain people or fencers, who were wont to fight in this manner. See the Chiliades of Erasmus.”
“He will destroy them, and not build them up.”
“Que tout la prospetite qu’ils se souhaitent soit a cause du peuple. — Fr. “That all the prosperity they desire should be for the sake of the people.”
“Veu que la plus grand part rejette et desdaigne de porter le joug de Christ.” — Fr.
“Qu’il n’en est pas digne.” — Fr. “That he is not worthy of it.”