Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 9: Psalms, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
David has recorded in this psalm the prayers which he offered up to God when he heard of his having been betrayed by the Ziphites, and was reduced to a situation of extreme danger. It cannot fail to impress us with a high idea of his indomitable faith, thus to find him calling upon the name of God in the immediate prospect of death.
To the chief musician on Neginoth. A Psalm of David for instruction: when the Ziphites came and said to Saul, Doth not David hide himself with us?
We know from the sacred history that David frequently concealed himself in that part of the wilderness which adjoined to the Ziphites. It appears (1 Sam. 23:19, 1 Sam. 26:1) that he was betrayed by them on two different occasions; and he takes notice of the particular circumstances in which the psalm was written, to teach us that we should never despair of divine help even in the worst situation. Surrounded as he was by hostile troops, and hemmed in on every side by apparently inevitable destruction, we cannot but admire the rare and heroical intrepidity which he displayed in committing himself, by prayer, to the Almighty. It might have appeared just as credible that God could bring the dead out of the grave, as that he could preserve him in such circumstances; for it seemed impossible that he should escape from the cave where he was concealed with his life.
1. Save me, O God! by thy name, and judge me by thy strength. 2. Hear my prayer, O God! give ear to the words of my mouth. 3. For strangers are risen up against me, and the terrible ones have sought after my soul they have not set God before them. Selah.
1. Save me, O God! As David was at this time placed beyond the reach of human assistance, he must be understood as praying to be saved by the name and the power of God, In an emphatical sense, or by these in contradistinction to the usual means of deliverance. Though all help must ultimately come from God, there are ordinary methods by which he generally extends it. When these fail, and every earthly stay is removed, he must then take the work into his own hands. It was in such a situation that David here fled to the saints’ last asylum, and sought to be saved by a miracle of divine power. By appealing, in the second part of the verse, to God as his judge, he asserts his uprightness. And it must strike us all, that in asking the divine protection it is indispensably prerequisite we should be convinced of the goodness of our cause, as it would argue the greatest profanity in any to expect that God should patronise iniquity. David was encouraged to pray for deliverance by the goodness of his cause and his consciousness of integrity; nor did he entertain a single doubt, that on representing this to God he would act the part of his defender, and punish the cruelty and treachery of his enemies.
2. Hear my prayer, O God! The language is expressive of his earnestness. He was led to this fervor of supplication by the extremity of his present circumstances, which is alluded to in the following verse, where he complains of being surrounded by men fierce, barbarous, and unrestrained by a sense of religion. There was no necessity for his informing God of a fact which was already known to him; but he disburdens his own heart by venting the cause of his fear and disquietude. By calling his enemies strangers, 288 he seems to refer to their barbarity, whether he applied the name to the Ziphites only, or, in general, to the whole army of Saul. Others consider him, in this term, to advert to their degeneracy as children of Abraham; and it is true that the Jews are repeatedly stigmatised by the prophets under this form of expression, when they had cast themselves out of the Church of God by their profligacy or impiety. But in this passage it seems to be used in a different sense. As even enemies are accustomed, in some measure, to respect the ties of kindred and relationship, David would point out to us the monstrous inhumanity of the men who now surrounded him, by the fact that they assaulted him as strangers, as persons who had never known him, or as if he had been born in some distant part of the world. He calls them, also, terrible ones, 289 not mighty, or powerful ones, as some have rendered the word; for that falls short of the meaning intended by David, which was, that they were divested of all humanity, and ready to rush upon him like wild beasts. Hence the fear with which he resorted to the protection of God. He adds, that they sought after his soul, to denote that nothing would content their insatiable cruelty but his life. And the better to express the unbridled nature of their fury, he tells us that they had no respect to God. The only thing which could be supposed, in the circumstances, to act as a restraint upon their minds, was the consideration of there being a judge in heaven to whom they were amenable for their conduct; and being insensible to this, what moderation could be expected of them?
4. Behold! God is my helper; the Lord is with them that uphold my soul. 5. He shall reward evil unto mine enemies: cut them off in thy truth. 6. I will freely sacrifice unto thee: I will praise thy name, O God! for it is good. 7. For he hath delivered me out of all trouble; and mine eye hath seen upon my adversaries. 290
4. Behold! God is my helper Such language as this may show us that David did not direct his prayers at random into the air, but offered them in the exercise of a lively faith. There is much force in the demonstrative adverb. He points, as it were, with the finger, to that God who stood at his side to defend him; and was not this an amazing illustration of the power with which faith can surmount all obstacles, and glance, in a moment, from the depths of despair to the very throne of God? He was a fugitive amongst the dens of the earth, and even there in hazard of his life — how, then, could he speak of God as being near to him? He was pressed down to the very mouth of the grave; and how could he recognize the gracious presence of God? He was trembling in the momentary expectation of being destroyed; and how is it possible that he can triumph in the certain hope that Divine help will presently be extended to him? In numbering God amongst his defenders, we must not suppose that he assigns him a mere common rank amongst the men who supported his cause, which would have been highly derogatory to his glory. He means that God took part with those, such as Jonathan and others, who were interested in his welfare. These might be few in number, possessed of little power, and cast down with fears; but he believed that, under the guidance and protection of the Almighty, they would prove superior to his enemies: or, perhaps, we may view him as referring, in the words, to his complete destitution of all human defenders, and asserting that the help of God would abundantly compensate for all. 291
5. He shall reward evil unto mine enemies As the verb ישיב, yashib, may be rendered he shall cause to return, 292 it seems to point not only at the punishment, but the kind of punishment, which would be awarded to his enemies, in the recoiling of their wicked machinations upon their own heads. Some give an optative signification to the verb, understanding the words to express a wish or prayer; but I see no reason why it should not be taken strictly in the future tense, and imagine that David intimates his certain expectation that this favor, which he had already prayed for, would be granted. It is by no means uncommon to find the prayers of the Psalmist intersected with sentences of this kind, inserted for the purpose of stimulating his faith, as here, where he announces the general truth, that God is the righteous judge who will recompense the wicked. With the view of confirming his hopes, he adverts particularly to the truth of God; for nothing can support us in the hour of temptation, when the Divine deliverance may be long delayed, but a firm persuasion that God is true, and that he cannot deceive us by his divine promises. His confidence of obtaining his request was grounded upon the circumstance that God could no more deny his word than deny himself.
6. I will freely sacrifice unto thee. According to his usual custom, he engages, provided deliverance should be granted, to feel a grateful sense of it; and there can be no doubt that he here promises also to return thanks to God, in a formal manner, when he should enjoy an opportunity of doing so. Though God principally looks to the inward sentiment of the heart, that would not excuse the neglect of such rites as the Law had prescribed. He would testify his sense of the favor which he received, in the manner common to all the people of God, by sacrifices, and be thus the means of exciting others to their duty by his example. And he would sacrifice freely: by which he does not allude to the circumstance, that sacrifices of thanksgiving were at the option of worshippers, but to the alacrity and cheerfulness with which he would pay his vow when he had escaped his present dangers. The generality of men promise largely to God so long as they are under the present pressure of affliction, but are no sooner relieved than they relapse into that carelessness which is natural to them, and forget the goodness of the Lord. But David engages to sacrifice freely, and in another manner than the hypocrite, whose religion is the offspring of servility and constraint. We are taught by the passage that, in coming into the presence of God, we cannot look for acceptance unless we bring to his service a willing mind. The last clause of this verse, and the verse which follows, evidently refer to the time when the Psalmist had obtained the deliverance which he sought. The whole psalm, it is true, must have been written after his deliverance; but up to this point, it is to be considered as recording the form of prayer which he used when yet exposed to the danger. We are now to suppose him relieved from his anxieties, and subjoining a fresh expression of his gratitude: nor is it improbable that, he refers to mercies which he had experienced at other periods of his history, and which were recalled to his memory by the one more immediately brought under our notice in the preceding verses; so that he is to be understood as declaring, in a more general sense, that the name of God was good, and that he had been delivered out of all trouble I have already adverted, in a former psalm, (Ps 52:6,) to the sense in which the righteous are said to see the destruction of their enemies. It is such a sight of the event as is accompanied with joy and comfort; and should any inquire, whether it is allowable for the children of God to feel pleasure in witnessing the execution of Divine judgments upon the wicked, the answer is obvious, that all must depend upon the motive by which they are influenced. If their satisfaction proceed in any measure from the gratification of a depraved feeling, it must be condemned; but there is certainly a pure and unblameable delight which we may feel in looking upon such illustrations of the divine justice.
For זרים, zairim, strangers, upwards of twenty MSS. have זדים, zoidim, the proud; and this is the sense given by the Chaldee Paraphrast. As the Ziphites were Jews, and of the same tribe with David, (Jos 15:24,) and therefore not, strictly speaking, “strangers,” some think that the proud is the true reading. But the Ziphites, as our Author justly observes, may be called “strangers,” because they acted towards David the part of strangers and enemies, in seeking to deliver him into the hands of his unjust and cruel persecutor, Saul.
Ainsworth reads, “Daunting tyrants.” “Terrible dismayers, as Saul and his retinue, whose terror daunted many. See Ps 10:18.”
The translators of our English Bible have supposed an ellipsis here; and hence they supply “only desire.” Calvin, in his translation of the verse, makes no supplement, but understands it in a similar sense, “My eye hath seen punishment upon my adversaries;” just as it is said in Ps 91:8, “With thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.” But if we read the words literally, without any supplement, and as they are rendered by the LXX. and the Syriac, “My eyes beheld, or looked upon mine enemies,” they will be susceptible of a very good and natural meaning. David’s enemies were not at this time destroyed; but Saul, when he had reached the farther side of the mountain where David lay concealed, and was about to seize his victim, having heard that the Philistines invaded the land, hastened in confusion to repel the invaders. The meaning of David’s language, therefore, may be, that he was so near Saul and his army as to behold them marching away, which may be easily conceived, when it is considered that “Saul went on this side of the mountain Maon, and David and his men on that side of the mountains” (1Sa 23:26.)
The phrase, אדני בסמכי, Adonai besomkey, which Calvin renders, “The Lord is with them that uphold,” is translated by Hammond, “The Lord among the sustainers;” and he remarks, that this form of expression, which is not unusual among the Hebrews, signifies no more than “God is my upholder; not one of many upholders, but my only upholder.” Thus, when Jephtha (Jud 11:35) tells his daughter, “Thou art among the troublers of me,” or “one of them that trouble me,” the meaning simply is, that she very much grieved and troubled him. So Ps 55:18, “There were many with me;” i e., “God was with me,” which is as good as the greatest multitude. This is the sense in which the learned Castellio understands the passage, rendering it, “Dominus is est qui mihi vitam sustentat;” “The Lord is he who sustains my life;” and he defends it by the above and like arguments. With this the Septuagint agrees: “Κυριος ἀντιλήπτωρ τὢς ψνχὢς μου,” “The Lord is the defender of my soul;” and also the Syriac, Arabic, and Aethiopic.
French and Skinner read, “May their mischief return upon those who watch me;” and observe, “that their mischief in Hebrew is the evil, and that the meaning is, the very evil which they devised against me. Compare Ps 7:16.”