Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 9: Psalms, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
In this psalm David mixes complaint with prayer, and assuages the distress of his mind by meditation upon the mercy of God. He pray, that he may experience the divine help under the persecutions to which he was subjected by Saul, and his other enemies; and expresses his confidence of success. It is possible, however, that the psalm may have been written after the dangers to which he alludes were past, and in thanksgiving for a deliverance which he had already received.
To the chief musician upon the silent dove in distant places, 324 Michtam of David, when the Philistines took him in Gath.
The portion of history referred to in the title is recorded in 1 Samuel 21. Being driven from every hiding-place in which he had hitherto found safety, he fled to King Achish. He speaks here of having been apprehended; and that he was so, may be gathered from the inspired narrative, where Achish is represented as saying, “Lo, ye see the man is mad; wherefore, then, have ye brought him to me?” It is probable that they suspected him of some sinister design in the visit. He escaped upon that occasion by feigning madness; but this psalm proves that he must have been engaged in fervent supplication, and that faith was secretly in exercise even when he betrayed this weakness. He would not appear to have been under that inordinate agitation of mind, which instigates men to adopt methods of relief which are positively sinful; but in the desperate emergency to which he was reduced, he was compelled through fear to employ an artful device, which might save his life, although it would lower his dignity in the eyes of the world. If he lost the praise of magnanimity, it is at least apparent from this psalm, what a strenuous contest there was between faith and fear in his heart. The words, upon the silent dove, are supposed by some to have formed the commencement of a song well known at the time. Others have thought that David is here compared to a dove; and this conjecture is borne out by the propriety of the metaphor in his present circumstances, 325 especially as it is added, in distant places, for he had been driven to an enemy’s country by the fury of his persecutors. The meaning which some have attached to the word, translating it a palace, is farfetched. I have already given my views of the term Michtam. 326 I would not pretend to say anything dogmatically on a point upon which even Hebrew interpreters are not agreed in opinion; but the probability is, that it was a particular kind of tune, or a musical instrument.
1. Be merciful unto me, O God! for man swallows me up 327 he fighting against me, daily oppresseth me. 2. Mine enemies daily swallow me up: surely they be many 328 that fight against me, O Most High! 329 3. In the day that I was afraid, I did put my trust in thee. 4. In God I will praise his word; in God I have put my trust: I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.
1 Be merciful unto me, O God! for man swallows me up 330 It would be difficult to determine whether he speaks here of foreign or domestic enemies. When brought to King Achish he was as a sheep between two bands of wolves, an object of deadly hatred to the Philistines on the one hand, and exposed to equal persecutions from his own fellow-countrymen. He uses the indefinite term man in this verse, though in the next he speaks of having many enemies, the more forcibly to express the truth that the whole world was combined against him, that he experienced no humanity amongst men, and stood in the last necessity of divine help. The term daily would suggest that he refers more immediately to Saul and his faction. But in general, he deplores the wretchedness of his fate in being beset with adversaries so numerous and so barbarous. Some translate שאף, shaaph, to regard, but it is more properly rendered to swallow up, a strong expression, denoting the insatiable rage with which they assailed him. I have adhered to the common translation of לחם, lacham, though it also signifies to eat up, which might consist better with the metaphor already used in the preceding part of the verse. It is found, however, in the sense to fight against, and I was unwilling to depart from the received rendering. I shall only observe in passing, that those who read in the second member of the verse, many fighting with me, as if he alluded to the assistance of angels, mistake the meaning of the passage; for it is evident that he uses the language of complaint throughout the verse.
3. In the day that I was afraid, etc. In the Hebrew, the words run in the future tense, but they must be resolved into the praeterite. He acknowledges his weakness, in so far as he was sensible of fear, but denies having yielded to it. Dangers might distress him, but could not induce him to surrender his hope. He makes no pretensions to that lofty heroism which contemns danger, and yet while he allows that he felt fear, he declares his fixed resolution to persist in a confident expectation of the divine favor. The true proof of faith consists in this, that when we feel the solicitations of natural fear, we can resist them, and prevent them from obtaining an undue ascendancy. Fear and hope may seem opposite and incompatible affections, yet it is proved by observation, that the latter never comes into full sway unless there exists some measure of the former. In a tranquil state of the mind, there is no scope for the exercise of hope. At such times it lies dormant, and its power is only displayed to advantage when we see it elevating the soul under dejection, calming its agitations, or soothing its distractions. This was the manner in which it manifested itself in David, who feared, and yet trusted, was sensible of the greatness of his danger, and yet quieted his mind with the confident hope of the divine deliverance.
4. In God I will praise his word Here he grows more courageous in the exercise of hope, as generally happens with the people of God. They find it difficult at first to reach this exercise. It is only after a severe struggle that they rise to it, but the effort being once made, they emerge from their fears into the fullness of confidence, and are prepared to grapple with the most formidable enemies. To praise, is here synonymous with glorying or boasting. He was now in possession of a triumphant confidence, and rejoiced in the certainty of hope. The ground of his joy is said to be the divine word; and this implies, that however much he might seem to be forsaken and abandoned by God, he satisfied himself by reflecting on the truthfulness of his promises. He would glory in God notwithstanding, and although there should be no outward appearance of help, or it should even be sensibly withdrawn, he would rest contented with the simple security of his word. The declaration is one that deserves our notice. How prone are we to fret and to murmur when it has not pleased God immediately to grant us our requests! Our discontent may not be openly expressed, but it is inwardly felt, when we are left in this manner to depend upon his naked promises. It was no small attainment in David, that he could thus proceed to praise the Lord, in the midst of dangers, and with no other ground of support but the word of God. The sentiment contained in the latter clause of the verse might seem at first glance to merit little consideration. What more obvious than that God is able to protect us from the hand of men, that his power to defend is immensely greater than their power to injure? This may be true, but we all know too well how much of that perverse unbelief there is in our hearts, which leads us to rate the ability of God below that of the creature. It was no small proof, therefore, of the faith of David, that he could despise the threatenings of his enemies. And it would be well if all the saints of God were impressed with such a sense of his superiority to their adversaries as would lead them to show a similar contempt of danger. When assailed by these, it should never escape their recollection, that the contest is in reality between their enemies and God, and that it were blasphemous in this case to doubt the issue. The great object which these have in view is to shake our faith in the promised help of the Lord; and we are chargeable with limiting his power, unless we realize him standing at our right hand, able with one movement of his finger, or one breath of his mouth, to dissipate their hosts, and confound their infatuated machinations. Shall we place him on a level with mortal man, and measure his probable success by the numbers which are set against him? “But how,” may it be asked, “are we to account for this sudden change in the exercise of David? A moment before, he was expressing his dread of destruction, and now he bids defiance to the collected strength of his enemies.” I reply, that there is nothing in his words which insinuate that he was absolutely raised above the influence of fear, and every sense of the dangers by which he was encompassed. They imply no more than that he triumphed over his apprehensions, through that confident hope of salvation with which he was armed. Men he terms in this verse flesh, to impress the more upon his mind the madness of their folly in attempting a contest so infinitely above their strength.
5. Every day my words vex me; all their thoughts are against me for evil. 6. They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they watch my heels, because they seek my soul. 331 7. After their mischief they think to escape: in thine anger cast down the peoples, O God! 8. Thou hast taken account of my wandering; put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy register?
5 Every day my words vex me The first part of this verse has been variously rendered. Some understand my words to be the nominative in the sentence, and with these I agree in opinion. Others suppose a reference to the enemies of David, and translate, they calumniate my words, or, they cause me grief on account of my words. Again, יעצבו, yeatsebu, has been taken in the neuter sense, and translated, my words are troublesome. But עצב 332 , atsab, commonly signifies to afflict with grief, and in Pihel is always taken transitively; nor does there seem any reason in this place to depart from the general rule of the language. And the passage flows more naturally when rendered, my words affect me with grief, or vex me, than by supposing that he refers to his enemies. According to this translation, the verse contains a double complaint, that, on the one hand, he was himself unsuccessful in everything which he attempted, his plans having still issued in vexatious failure; while, on the other hand, his enemies were devising every means for his destruction. It may appear at first sight rather inconsistent to suppose that he should immediately before have disclaimed being under the influence of fear, and now acknowledge that he was not only distressed, but in some measure the author of his own discomfort. I have already observed, however, that he is not to be considered as having been absolutely divested of anxiety and fear, although enabled to look down with contempt upon his enemies from the eminence of faith. Here he speaks of the circumstances which tried him, which his faith certainly overcame, but at the same time could not altogether remove out of the way. He confesses his own lack of wisdom and foresight, shown in the abortive issue of every plan which he devised. It aggravated the evil, that his enemies were employing their united counsels to plot his ruin. He adds, that they gathered themselves together; and this made his case the more calamitous, matched as he was, a single individual, against this numerous host. In mentioning that they hide themselves, he adverts to the subtile devices which they framed for surprising him into destruction. The verb יצפינו, yitsponu, by grammatical rule ought to have the letter ו, vau, in the middle; from which the general opinion is, that the י yod, is as it were the mark of Hiphil, denoting that the enemies of David came to the determination of employing an ambush, with the view of surrounding him. He tells us that they pressed upon him in every direction, and as it were trod upon his heels, so that he had no respite. And he points at their implacable hatred as the cause of their eager pursuit of him; for nothing, he informs us, would satisfy them but his death.
7. After their mischief they think to escape. The beginning of this verse is read by some interrogatively, Shall they escape in their iniquity? 333 But there is no necessity for having recourse to this distant meaning. It is much better to understand the words in the sense which they naturally suggest when first read, That the wicked think to escape in their iniquity, but that God will cast them down. He alludes to the fact that the ungodly, when allowed to proceed without interruption in their evil courses, indulge the idea that they have a license to perpetrate the worst wickedness with impunity. In these our own times, we see many such profane characters, who display an unmeasured audacity under the assurance that God’s hand can never reach them. They not only look to go unpunished, but found their hopes of success upon their evil deeds, and encourage themselves to farther wickedness, by cherishing the opinion that they will contrive a way of escape from every adversity. David has no sooner stated this vain confident persuasion of the wicked, than he refutes it by an appeal to the judgment of God, declaring his conviction that, however proudly they might exalt themselves, the hour of vengeance would come when God would cast down the peoples He makes use of the plural number, to fortify his mind against fear, when he reflected upon the array of his enemies. Let us remember, when our enemies are many, that it is one of the prerogatives of God to cast down the people, and not one nation of foes merely, but the world.
8. Thou hast taken account of my wanderings The words run in the form of an abrupt prayer. Having begun by requesting God to consider his tears, suddenly, as if he had obtained what he asked, he declares that they were written in God’s book. It is possible, indeed, to understand the interrogation as a prayer; but he would seem rather to insinuate by this form of expression, that he stood in no need of multiplying words, and that God had already anticipated his desire. It is necessary, however, to consider the words of the verse more particularly. He speaks of his wandering as having been noted by God, and this that he may call attention to one remarkable feature of his history, his having been forced to roam a solitary exile for so long a period. The reference is not to any one wandering; the singular number is used for the plural, or rather, he is to be understood as declaring emphatically that his whole life was only one continued wandering. This he urges as an argument to commiseration, spent as his years had been in the anxieties and dangers of such a perplexing pilgrimage. Accordingly, he prays that God might put his tears into his bottle 334 It was usual to preserve the wine and oil in bottles: so that the words amount to a request that God would not suffer his tears to fall to the ground, but keep them with care as a precious deposit. The prayers of David, as appears from the passage before us, proceeded upon faith in the providence of God, who watches our every step, and by whom (to use an expression of Christ)
“the very hairs of our head are numbered,”
Unless persuaded in our mind that God takes special notice of each affliction which we endure, it is impossible we can ever attain such confidence as to pray that God would put our tears into his bottle, with a view to regarding them, and being induced by them to interpose in our behalf. He immediately adds, that he had obtained what he asked: for, as already observed, I prefer understanding the latter clause affirmatively. He animates his hope by the consideration that all his tears were written in the book of God, and would therefore be certainly remembered. And we may surely believe, that if God bestows such honor upon the tears of his saints, he must number every drop of their blood which is shed. Tyrants may burn their flesh and their bones, but the blood remains to cry aloud for vengeance; and intervening ages can never erase what has been written in the register of God’s remembrance.
9. When I cry, then shall mine enemies turn back: this I know, for God is with me. 10. In God will I praise his word; in Jehovah will I praise his word. 11. In God have! hoped: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me.
9. When I cry, then shall mine enemies turn back. Here he boasts of victory with even more confidence than formerly, specifying, as it were, the very moment of time when his enemies were to be turned back. He had no sensible evidence of their approaching destruction but from the firm reliance which he exercised upon the promise, he was able to anticipate the coming period, and resolved to wait for it with patience. Though God might make no haste to interpose, and might not scatter his enemies at the very instant when he prayed, he was confident that his prayers would not be disappointed: and his ground for believing this was just a conviction of the truth, that God never frustrates the prayers of his own children. With this conviction thoroughly fixed in his mind, he could moderate his anxieties, and calmly await the issue. It is instructive to notice, that David, when he would secure the obtainment of his request, does not pray in a hesitating or uncertain spirit, but with a confident assurance of his being heard. Having once reached this faith, he sets at defiance the devil and all the host of the ungodly.
10 In God will I praise his word In the original the pronoun is not expressed, but we are left to infer, from the parallel verse which went before, that it is understood. The repetition adds an emphasis to the sentiment, intimating, that though God delayed the sensible manifestation of his favor, and might seem to deal hardly in abandoning him to the word — giving him nothing more, he was resolved to glory in it with undiminished confidence. When in a spirit such as this we honor the word of God, though deprived of any present experience of his goodness or his power, we “set to our seal that God is true,” (Joh 3:33.) The repetition amounts to an expression of his determination that, notwithstanding all circumstances which might appear to contravene the promise, he would trust in it, and persist in praising it both now, henceforth, and for ever. How desirable is it that the Lord’s people generally would accustom themselves to think in the same manner, and find, in the word of God, matter of never-failing praise amidst their worst trials! They may meet with many mercies calling for the exercise of thanksgiving, but can scarcely have proceeded one step in life before they will feel the necessity of reliance upon the naked promise. A similar reason may be given for his repetition of the sentiment in the 11th verse — In God have I hoped, etc. We shall find men universally agreed in the opinion that God is an all-sufficient protector; but observation proves how ready we are to distrust him under the slightest temptation. When exposed to the opposition of assailants formidable for strength, or policy, or any worldly advantages, let us learn with David to set God in opposition to them, and we shall speedily be able to view the mightiest of them without dismay.
12. Thy vows are upon me, O God! I will pay thy praises. 13. For thou hast delivered my soul from death: hast thou not delivered my feet from falling headlong? that I may walk before God in the light of the living.
12. Thy vows are upon me, O God! I hinted, from the outset, that it is probable this psalm was written by David after he had escaped the dangers which he describes; and this may account for the thanksgiving here appended to it. At the same time, we have evidence that he was ever ready to engage in this exercise even when presently suffering under his afflictions. He declares that the vows of God were upon him; by which he means, that he was bound to pay them, as, among the Romans, a person who had obtained what he sought, under engagement of a vow, was said to be voti damnatus — condemned of his vow If we have promised thanks, and our prayers have been heard, an obligation is contracted. He calls them the vows of God — thy vows; for the money in my hand may be said to be my creditor’s, being, as I am, in his debt. He views his deliverance as having come from God; and the condition having been performed, he acknowledges himself to be burdened with the vows which he had contracted. We learn from the second part of the verse what was the nature of the vows to which he adverts, and, by attending to this, may preserve ourselves from the mistake of imagining that he sanctions any such vows as those which are practiced among Papists. He says that he would render praises, or sacrifices of praise; for the word is applied to sacrifices, which were the outward symbols of thanksgiving. David knew well that God attached no value to sacrifices considered in themselves, or irrespectively of the design and spirit of the person offering them; but we may believe that he would not neglect the sacred ceremonies of the Law which was imposed upon the Church at that time; and that he speaks of some solemn expression of gratitude, such as was customary among the Jews upon the reception of a signal Divine favor.
13. For thou hast delivered my soul from death This confirms the truth of the remark which I have already made, that he considered his life as received from the hands of God, his destruction having been inevitable but for the miraculous preservation which he had experienced. To remove all doubt upon that subject, he speaks of having been preserved, not simply from the treachery, the malice, or the violence of his enemies, but from death itself. And the other form of expression which he employs conveys the same meaning, when he adds, that God had kept him back with his hand when he was on the eve of rushing headlong into destruction. Some translate מדחי, middechi, from falling; but the word denotes here a violent impulse. Contemplating the greatness of his danger, he considers his escape as nothing less than miraculous. It is our duty, when rescued from any peril, to retain in our recollection the circumstances of it, and all which rendered it peculiarly formidable. During the time that we are exposed to it, we are apt to err through an excessive apprehension; but when it is over, we too readily forget both our fears and the Divine goodness manifested in our deliverance. To walk in the light of the living means nothing else than to enjoy the vital light of the sun. The words, before God, which are interjected in the verse, point to the difference between the righteous, who make God the great aim of their life, and the wicked, who wander from the right path and turn their back upon God.
The late learned Editor of Calmet, from comparing this title with verse 6 of the psalm preceding, had a suspicion that it is here misplaced, and belonged originally to that psalm.” — Williams’ Cottage Bible.
Harmer is of opinion, that the dove dumb in distant places is simply the name of the psalm. In support of this view, he quotes the titles of several Eastern books; a Persian metaphysical and mystic poem, called the Rose Bush; a collection of Floral Essays, the Garden of Anemonies; and a poem in which the Arabian prophet is celebrated for having given sight to a blind person, which is entitled the Bright Star. “The ancient Jewish taste.” he remarks, “may reasonably be supposed to have been of the same kind. Every one that reflects on the circumstances of David at the time to which the 56th psalm refers, and considers the Oriental taste, will not wonder to see that psalm entitled the Dove dumb in distant places.” — Observations, volume3, p. 147-149.
See volume1, p. 215.
“Ou, me mangeant.” — Fr. marg. “Or, eating me.”
“Ou, des puissans et robustes.” — Fr. marg. “Or, they be mighty and strong.”
The original word מרום, marom, here rendered “O Most High!” is literally loftily Dathe, Berlin, and Gesenius, render it superbly, proudly Cresswell, following Le Clerc, reads, from the highest places, and considers the meaning to be, that the foes of David made an incursion upon him, descending from the mountains, and forcing him again to supplicate Achish. Compare 1 Sam. 27:1, 2, 3. Horsley and Dr Adam Clarke read, “from on high;” by which the latter critic understands from “the place of authority, the court and cabinet of Saul.” He observes, on the word מרום, marom, “I do not think that this word expresses any attribute of God, or, indeed, is at all addressed to him.” “In Mic 6:6, however,” says Dr Morrison, “מרום seems to express the perfections of the divine character.” Calvin’s translation agrees with that of the Chaldee, of Aquila, and of our English Bible.
The verb here translated swallows me up, is rendered by French and Skinner, panteth after me. It is literally draweth in the air. It thus implies the intense desire of David’s enemies to get him into their hands, and to destroy him.
“Ou, ne demandent qu’a m’oster la vie.” — Fr. marg. “Or, they want only to take away my life.”
Horsley observes, that the primary meaning of the verb עצב, atsab, is “perhaps to do a thing with great labor, to take pains about it; if, indeed, its primary meaning be not to distort Hence it may signify to affect the mind with any unpleasing passion or sensation, grief, vexation, anger; for every perturbation is a sort of distortion of the mind. רברי יעצבו עלי — ‘torquent contra me verba mea,’ — ‘torquent, i e., labouriose fingunt in mentem alienam et sensum alienum.’ — Pagninus after Aben Ezra and R.D.” — Horsley Hammond, after stating that עזב, atsab, signifies primarily to grieve, or be in pain, and that by metonomy it is used for the laborious framing or forming of any thing, says, “Here, being applied to another’s words or speeches, it seems to denote the depraving them, laboring and using great art and diligence to put them into such a form as may be most for the disadvantage of the speaker, turning and winding them to his hurt, in putting some odious gloss upon them, and so, according to sense, may most fully be rendered depraving.”
French and Skinner read, “Shall they escape after their wickedness?“ and observe, that the Hebrew is, “Is there escape for them?“ the meaning being, that they assuredly will not escape, because of their wickedness.
Some think that there is here an allusion to an ancient custom of putting the tears of mourners into lachrymal urns or bottles. In the Roman tombs there are found small vials, or bottles of glass or pottery, usually called ampulloe, or urnoe lachrymales, which, it has been supposed, contained tears shed by the surviving relatives and friends, and were deposited in the sepulchres of the deceased as memorials of affection and sorrow. If in this passage there is a reference to this custom, it must have existed at an early period among the Hebrews. It may however be doubted, whether there is any such allusion. “It is only a modern conjecture that these bottles ‘found in the Roman tombs’ have been deposited there for such a purpose, and there is no trace of such a custom in ancient writings or sculptures. Some think they were intended to contain the perfumes used in sprinkling the funeral pile. On some of them there is the representation of one or two eyes, and this seems to favor the former view.” — Illustrated Commentary on the Bible Let it also be observed, that the word נאד, nod, here translated bottle, means a sort of bottle which had no resemblance to these Roman urns. It was made of a goat’s or kid’s skin, and was used by the Hebrews for keeping their wine, their milk, and their oil. Compare 1Sa 16:20; Jos 9:13; Jud 4:19; Mt 9:17. “Besides,” as Bishop Mant remarks, “the treasuring up of the Psalmist’s tears shed by him during his own sufferings, seems a very different thing from the offering up of the tears of surviving relations or friends, as memorials on the tomb of a deceased person.” The expression, “Put thou my tears into thy bottle,” may be viewed as simply meaning, Let not my tears fall unnoticed; let my distress and the tears which it has wrung from me be ever before thee, excite thy compassion, and plead with thee to grant me relief. As the choicest things, such as wine and milk, were put into bottles, the Psalmist may also be understood as praying that his tears might not only be noted by God, but prized by him. The מאד, nod, was of large capacity, and used for churning as well as for wine. It may therefore contain a reference to the large quantity of tears which David’s affliction forced from him. — Harmer’s Observations, volume 2, pp. 121, 122.