Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 9: Psalms, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This psalm was composed by David at the time when the death of Abimelech and the other priests had spread universal tenor among the people, indisposing them for lending any countenance to his cause, and when Doeg was triumphing in the successful issue of his information. Supported, even in these circumstances, by the elevating influence of faith, he inveighs against the cruel treachery of that unprincipled informer, and encourages himself by the reflection, that God, who is judge in heaven, will vindicate the interests of such as fear him, and punish the pride of the ungodly.
To the chief singer. A Psalm of David for instruction; when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul, and said unto him, that David had come into the house of Abimelech.
I have already had occasion to observe that the term משכיל, maskil, is strictly affixed to those psalms in which David makes mention of having been chastised by God, or at least admonished, by some species of affliction, sent, like the rod of the schoolmaster, to administer correction. Of this we have examples in Psalms 32 and 42. As inscribed above the 45th psalm, its meaning is somewhat different. There, it seems designed to intimate to the reader that the song, although breathing of love, was not intended to please a mere wanton taste, but describes the spiritual marriage of Christ with his Church. In this and the following psalms, the term admits of being understood as signifying instruction, more particularly such as proceeds from correction; and David, by employing it, would evidently insinuate that he was at this time subjected to peculiar trials, sent to instruct him in the duty of placing an absolute trust in God. The portion of history to which the psalm refers is well known. When David had fled to Abimelech in Nob, he obtained provisions and the sword of Goliath from the hands of that priest, having concealed from him the real danger in which he stood, and pretended that he was executing a secret and important business of the king. Doeg, chief of the king’s herdsmen, having conveyed intelligence of this to Saul, in expectation of a reward, was the means of drawing down the rage of the tyrant, not only upon that innocent individual, but the whole priesthood. 275 The bloody example which was thus made must have deterred the people from extending to David even the commonest offices of humanity, and every avenue of relief seemed shut upon the miserable exile. As Doeg triumphed in the success of his crime, and others might be tempted, by the reward which he had received, to meditate the ruin of David, we find him in this psalm animating his soul with divine consolations, and challenging his enemies with the audacity of their conduct.
1. Why boastest thou of thy wickedness, thou mighty man? The goodness of God endureth daily. 2. Thy tongue reckons up mischiefs, like a sharp razor, working deceitfully. 3. Thou lovest evil more than good, to speak lying rather than righteousness. Selah. 4. Thou lovest all words of deceit, O thou guileful tongue!
1. Why boastest thou of thy wickedness? The success which crowned the treachery of Doeg must have tended considerably to stagger David’s faith; and he seems to have adopted the strain of holy defiance with which the psalm commences, in order to arm himself more effectually against this temptation. He begins by charging Doeg with an aggravation of his guilt, in boasting of the power which he had acquired by an act of consummate villany. This power may have been sufficiently considerable to attract the notice which is here taken of it; for although he is only said to have been “master of the king’s herdsmen,” the designation does not imply that he was personally occupied in herding cattle, but may have been an honorary title; as in modern courts we speak of “The Master of the Horse.” he is reminded that there was no reason why he should applaud himself in his greatness, so long as he abused it to purposes of wickedness; nor why he should be vain of any new honor which the king might have conferred upon him in consideration of his late crime, as integrity is the only sure pathway to power and preferment. Any triumph which may be obtained by violence, treachery, or other unjustifiable means, is short-lived. In the second part of the verse, he points at the true cause of the blindness and stupidity that lead men to glory in their wickedness, which is, that they despise the poor and the humble; imagine that God will not condescend to interest himself in their behalf; and therefore embrace the occasion of oppressing them with impunity. They make no account of that providence which God exerts over his own children. David, in the exercise of a holy confidence, challenges such proud boasters with dishonoring the goodness of God; and as the Divine goodness does not always pursue the same even course — occasionally appears to suffer an interruption, and sometimes seems as if it were cut off altogether, David repels any temptation which this might suggest, by asserting that, whatever appearances may say to the contrary, it is daily exercised. This is evidently the meaning which he intends to convey, that any partial obstructions which may take place in the display of it can never prevent its constant renewal. He was confident that he would experience, in the future, what he had found in the past; for God cannot become weary in helping his people, or alleviating their miseries; and although he may suffer them again and again to fall into affliction, he is always equally ready to extend them the deliverance which they need.
2. Thy tongue reckons up mischiefs David is not to be considered as here venting a flood of reproaches against his adversary, as many who have been unjustly injured are in the habit of doing, merely to gratify a feeling of revenge. He brings these charges against him in the sight of God, with a view to encourage himself in the hopefulness of his own cause: for it is plain that the farther our enemies proceed in the practice of iniquity, they proportionally provoke the anger of the Lord, and are nearer to that destruction which must issue in our deliverance. His object, therefore, is not to blacken the character of Doeg in the estimation of the world, but rather to set before his own eyes the divine punishment which the flagrant offenses he specifies were certain to draw down upon his head. Amongst these he singles out, as more especially worthy of reprobation, the hidden treachery with which he had been chargeable in accomplishing the destruction of the priesthood. Adverting to his secret and malicious information, he likens his tongue to a sharp razor, as elsewhere, Ps 120:4, the tongues of the wicked are compared to “sharp arrows.” It is added, working deceitfully, which words are considered by some as referring to the razor which cuts subtilely, and not with an open wound like a sword; but perhaps they may be construed with more propriety as applying to the tongue, 276 although there can be no doubt of the reason of the comparison.
The term בלע, balang, in verse fourth, which has been translated destruction, I prefer understanding in the sense of hiding or concealment. He seems to allude to the drawing back of the tongue when we swallow; and under this figure, to describe the deceitfulness of Doeg’s words, by which he devoured the unsuspecting and the innocent. 277 The great design of David, as I have already remarked in the preceding verses, is to encourage himself in the hope of deliverance by dwelling upon the extreme character of that wickedness which his enemy had displayed.
5. God shall likewise destroy thee for ever: he shall take thee away, and pluck thee out of thy dwelling-place, and root thee out of the land of the living. Selah 6. The righteous also shall see, and fear, and shall laugh at him. 7. Lo! this is the man that made not God his strength; and trusted in the abundance of his riches, and strengthened himself in his wickedness.
5 God shall likewise destroy thee for ever. From these words it is made still more evident that his object in dwelling upon the aggravated guilt of Doeg, was to prove the certainty of his approaching doom, and this rather for his own conviction and comfort, than with a view to alarming the conscience of the offender. Accordingly, he declares his persuasion that God would not allow his treachery to pass unpunished, though he might for a time connive at the perpetration of it. The ungodly are disposed, so long as their prosperity continues, to indulge in undisturbed security; and the saint of God, when he sees the power of which they are possessed, and witnesses their proud contempt of the divine judgments, is too apt to be overwhelmed with unbelieving apprehensions. But in order to establish his mind in the truth which he announces, it is observable that the Psalmist heaps one expression upon another, — God shall destroy thee, take thee away, pluck thee out, root thee out, — as if by this multiplicity of words he would convince himself more effectually, that God was able to overthrow this adversary with all his boasted might and authority. 278 In adding that God would root him out of his dwelling-place or tent, 279 and out of the land of the living, he insinuates that the wicked will be destroyed by God, however securely they may seem to repose ir the nest of some comfortable mansion, and in the vain hope of living upon earth for ever. Possibly he may allude, in mentioning a tent, to the profession of Doeg, as shepherds have their dwelling in tents.
6 The righteous also shall see, and fear 280 He here adduces, as another reason why the ruin of Doeg might be expected, that an important end would be obtained by it, in so far as it would promote religion in the hearts of the Lord’s people, and afford them a refreshing display of the Divine justice. Should it take place, it would be witnessed by the ungodly as well as by the righteous; but there are two reasons why the Psalmist represents it as being seen especially by the latter. The wicked are incapable of profiting by the judgments of God, being blind to the plainest manifestations which he has made of himself in his works, and it was only the righteous therefore who could see it. Besides, the great end which God has in view, when he prostrates the pride of the ungodly, is the comfort of his own people, that he may show to them the care with which he watches over their safety. It is they, therefore, whom David represents as witnessing this spectacle of Divine justice. And when he says that they would fear, it is not meant that they would tremble, or experience any slavish apprehension, but that their reverential regard for God would be increased by this proof of his care of their interests. When left exposed to the injurious treatment of their enemies, they are apt to be distressed with doubts as to the concern which he takes in the government of the world. But such illustrations to the contrary have the effect of quickening their discouraged zeal, and promoting that fear which is by no means inconsistent with the joy spoken of in the close of the verse. They are led to reverence him the more when they see that he is the avenger of cruelty and injustice: on the other hand, when they perceive that he appears in defense of their cause, and joins common battle with them against their adversaries, they are naturally filled with the most triumphant joy. The beautiful play upon the words see and fear, in the Hebrew, cannot be transferred to our language; the form of the expression intimates that they would see, and see effectually.
7. Lo! this is the man that made not God his strength Some think that these words are given as what should afterwards be proverbially applied to Doeg; but they would not appear to have been intended in that restricted signification. They merely express the improvement which the people of God would make of the judgment. It would teach them, on the one hand, to be patient under the insolence of the ungodly, which is so speedily humbled; and, on the other, to beware of indulging a similarly infatuated spirit themselves. They would laugh at their destruction, yet not in the way of insulting over them, but rejoicing more and more in the confidence of the help of God, and denying themselves more cheerfully to the vain pleasures of this world. This is the lesson to be learned from such dispensations of providence: they should recall our wandering affections to God. The verse is introduced with an exclamation, Lo! this is the man, etc.; for David would have us to look upon this one instance as representing to our eyes, in a vivid manner, the end of all who despise the Lord; and it may be remarked, that it is no small point of practical wisdom thus to generalise individual providences. The two clauses, made not God his strength, and, trusted in the abundance of his riches, stand mutually connected; for none can be said sincerely to repose upon God but he who has been emptied of all confidence in his own resources. So long as men imagine that they have something of their own in which they can boast, they will never resort to God: just in proportion as we arrogate to ourselves do we derogate from him; and it is not only wealth, but any other earthly possession, which, by engrossing our confidence, may prevent us from inquiring after the Lord. The noun הוה, havah, which most interpreters have rendered wickedness, 281 and some slaughter or destruction, seems, in this place, rather to mean substance. 282 Such repetitions of the same sentiment in different words are common with the Psalmist; and, according to this translation, the verse will flow connectedly, reading, that the man who trusts in his riches, and strengthens himself in his substance, defrauds God of his just glory.
8. But I am like a green olive-tree in the house of God: I have hoped in the goodness of God for ever and ever. 9. I will praise thee for ever, because thou hast done it. I will wait on thy name, for it is good before thy meek ones.
8 But I am like a green olive-tree 283 We have seen that David was enabled, by the exercise of faith, to look down upon the worldly grandeur of Doeg with a holy contempt; and now we find him rising superior to all that was presently afflictive in his own condition. Though, to appearance, he more resembled the withered trunk of a tree which rots upon the ground, he compares himself, in the confidence of coming prosperity, to a green olive. I need not say that the destruction of Doeg could only communicate comfort to his mind, in the way of convincing him that God was the avenging judge of human cruelty, and leading him to infer that, as he had punished his wrongs, so he would advance him to renewed measures of prosperity. From his language, it appears that he could conceive of no higher felicity in his condition than being admitted amongst the number of the worshippers of God, and engaging in the exercises of devotion. This was characteristic of his spirit. We have already had occasion to see that he felt his banishment from the sanctuary of God more keenly than separation from his consort, the loss of worldly substance, or the dangers and hardships of the wilderness. The idea of an allusion being here made, by way of contrast, to Doeg, who came to the tabernacle of the Lord merely as a spy, and under hypocritical pretexts, is strained and far-fetched. It is more natural to suppose that David distinguishes himself from all his enemies, without exception, intimating that, though he was presently removed from the tabernacle, he would soon be restored to it; and that they who boasted of possessing, or rather monopolising, the house of God, would be rooted out of it with disgrace. And here let us engrave the useful lesson upon our hearts, that we should consider it the great end of our existence to be found numbered amongst the worshippers of God; and that we should avail ourselves of the inestimable privilege of the stated assemblies of the Church, which are necessary helps to our infirmity, and means of mutual excitement and encouragement. By these, and our common Sacraments, the Lord, who is one God, and who designed that we should be one in him, is training us up together in the hope of eternal life, and in the united celebration of his holy name. Let us learn with David to prefer a place in the house of God to all the lying vanities of this world. He adds the reason why he should be like the green olive-tree — because he hoped in the goodness of God; for the causal particle appears to be understood. And in this he adverts to the contrast between him and his enemies. They might flourish for a time, spread their branches far and wide, and shoot themselves up to a gigantic stature, but would speedily wither away, because they had no root in the goodness of God; whereas he was certain to derive from this source ever renewed supplies of sap and vigor. As the term of his earthly trials might be protracted, and there was a danger that he might sink under their long continuance, unless his confidence should extend itself far into futurity, he declares expressly that he would not presume to prescribe times to God, and that his hopes were stretched into eternity. It followed that he surrendered himself entirely to God in all that regarded this life or his death. The passage puts us in possession of the grand distinction between the genuine children of God and those who are hypocrites. They are to be found together in the Church, as the wheat is mingled with the chaff on the same threshing-floor; but the one class abides for ever in the steadfastness of a well-founded hope, while the other is driven away in the vanity of its false confidences.
9. I will praise thee, etc. He concludes the psalm with thanksgiving, and shows that he is sincere in this, by the special acknowledgement which he makes of the fact that this had been the work of God. Such is the corruption of the human heart, that out of a hundred who profess gratitude to God with their lips, scarcely one man seriously reflects upon the benefits which he has received as coming from his hand. David declares, therefore, that it was entirely owing to the divine protection that he had escaped from the treachery of Doeg, and from all his subsequent dangers, and promises to retain a grateful sense of it throughout the whole of his life. There is no religious duty in which it does not become us to manifest a spirit of perseverance; but we need to be especially enjoined to it in the duty of thanksgiving, disposed as we are so speedily to forget our mercies, and occasionally to imagine that the gratitude of a few days is a sufficient tribute for benefits which deserve to be kept in everlasting remembrance. He speaks of joining the exercise of hope with that of gratitude; for to wait on the name of God is synonymous with patiently expecting his mercy even when there is least appearance of its being granted, and trusting in his word, whatever delays there may be in the fulfillment of it. He encourages himself in the belief that his hope will not be vain, by reflecting that the name of God is good before his saints Some read, because it is good before thy saints; that is, to hope in the divine name, (Ps 118:8.) But the other reading appears to me to be the most simple and natural, expressing the truth, that God will not frustrate the expectations of his people, because his goodness towards them is always conspicuous. The name of God may be detested by the wicked, and the very sound of it be sufficient to strike terror into their hearts; but David asserts it to be a sweet name in the experience of all his people. They are here called his meek ones, because, as I have remarked in commenting upon Psalm 16:3, they reflect in their character the kindness and beneficence of their Father in heaven.
The history of this transaction is recorded in 1 Sam. 21:1, 1 Sam. 22:9. It affords a strong evidence of the hatred which Saul bore to David, and of his savage cruelty to order the execution of eighty-five priests for no crime; and what a monster of iniquity must Doeg have been, who executed this command when not another individual in all Saul’s company would do it, and who, in addition to this, “smote the city of the priests with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings, and oxen, and asses, and sheep?” “If we are confounded,” says Walford, “by the savage ferocity of a prince who could order the execution of eighty-five persons of most venerable station, for a crime which existed alone in his disturbed imagination, we shall feel disposed to execrate the ruthless villain who could imbrue his hands in the blood of so many innocent victims; and we shall be ready to draw the conclusion, that both Saul and Doeg were prompted to this deed of atrocious cruelty, not merely by their hatred of David, but by a malevolence, almost without parallel, against the ministers of religion, and which rendered conspicuous their contempt and hatred for God himself. It can excite little surprise to find David saying, as he does, in the next psalm, ‘The fool saith in his heart, There is no God.’”
According to the first sense, the meaning is, that as a razor cuts so easily, that the wound is at first hardly perceptible, in the same manner, the deceitful tongue works its purposes of mischief before the objects which it means to ruin are conscious of their danger. It is like a sharp razor, that cuts the throat before a man is aware of it. “If, however, we take the words, thou workest deceitfully, as being descriptive not of the razor but of the tongue, the sense will be, that such a tongue is capable of inflicting deep and dreadful wounds like a sharp razor.” — Walford.
“בלע, balang, is to swallow, to devour, with the idea of eagerness, greediness.” — Gesenius
“Wonderful,” says Bishop Horne, “is the force of the verbs in the original, which convey to us the four ideas of ‘laying prostrate,’ ‘dissolving as by fire,’ ‘sweeping away as with a besom,’ and ‘totally extirpating root and branch,’ as a tree eradicated from the spot on which it grew.” The second verb, יחתך, yachtecha, Bythner explains, “will snatch thee away, as one snatches fire from a hearth. From חתה, chatheh, he snatched off live coals or fire from one place to another.”
There is another interpretation of this expression which may here be stated. It has been thought that the allusion is to God’s tabernacle. “מאהל, meohel,” says Hammond, “is literally ‘from the tabernacle,’ not ‘from thy dwelling-place:’ and so the LXX. render it, ‘Απὸ σκηνώματος,’ ‘from the tabernacle;’ and though the Latin, and Syriac, and Arabic, have added tuo, thy, yet neither will the Hebrew bear, nor do the Chaldee acknowledge it, who read by way of paraphrase, ‘He shall cause thee to depart from inhabiting in the place of the Schechina, or tabernacle, the place of God’s presence.’” Hammond supposes that the expression is to be understood “of the censure of excommunication, which in the last and highest degree was Schammatha, delivering up the offender to the hand of heaven to be cut off, himself and his posterity.” “Doeg,” says Archbishop Secker, “had no office in the tabernacle; but it seems, by his history, that he frequented it, which he might do to seem a good man. And there seems an opposition between his being plucked out of God’s dwelling-place, and David’s continuing in the house of God, verse eighth.”
French and Skinner read, “The righteous shall see it, and feel reverence; — feel reverence, i.e., in the punishment of this wicked man, find additional reason to reverence God, and to observe his righteous laws.”
If this is the true rendering, there may be a reference to the expectations which Doeg had entertained of increasing his power and influence by maliciously injuring David, as he would thereby obtain, in a high degree, the favor of Saul.
This is the marginal reading in our English Bible. As he was Saul’s chief herdsman, it is probable that his riches consisted chiefly in cattle.
Our English Bible also reads, “like a green olive-tree;” but it would be more correct to translate, “I am like a flourishing, or vigorous olive-tree.” The original word, רענן, raanan, has no reference to the color of the tree, but to its fresh, vigouous and flourish condition. Hence this word is used, in Ps 92:11, to express “fresh oil;” and in Da 4:4, to denote the prosperous condition of Nebuchadnezzar, “I was at rest in mine house, and flourishing in my palace.” The fact is, that the color of the olive-tree, so far from being of a bright and lively green, is dark, disagreeable, and yellowish. Travellers, when they have seen this tree, have experienced a feeling of disappointment in not finding it to possess the vivid verdure which they had been led to expect from the description given of it in the Scriptures. An excellent English traveler, Mr Sharpe, writing from Italy, thus expresses himself on this subject: “The fields, and indeed the whole face of Tuscany, are in a manner covered with olive-trees; but the olive-tree does not answer the character I had conceived of it. The royal Psalmist, and some of the sacred writers, speak with rapture of the ‘green olive-tree,’ so that I expected a beautiful green; and I confess to you I was wretchedly disappointed to find its hue resembling that of our hedges when they are covered with dust.” But this disappointment which Mr Sharpe felt arose not from overcharged or exaggerated colouring on the part of the sacred writers, but from his not understanding the meaning of their language. The beauty of the olive-tree is represented in other parts of Scripture as consisting, not in the greenness of its foliage, but in the spread of its branches, (Ho 14:6.) — Harmer’s Observations, volume 3, pp. 255-257. The propriety and beauty of the comparison which David here makes appears from the fact that the olive is an evergreen, and is also, considering its size, long-lived. While, in the 5th verse, he had predicted the speedy and total destruction of Doeg, comparing him to a tree plucked up by the roots, he, in contrast with this, represents himself as like a young, vigorous olive-tree, which had long to live and flourish; confidently expecting to obtain that outward peace and prosperity which God had promised him, and, along with this, the enjoyment of all spiritual blessings.