Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 9: Psalms, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
The following psalm consists of two parts. In the commencement, David vindicates his personal integrity from the calumnies cast upon him by his enemies. Having expressed his sense of the grievous injuries which they had inflicted, their cruelty and their treachery, he concludes by an appeal to the judgment of God, and by praying that they might be visited with deserved destruction.
To the chief musician, Destroy not, Michtam of David.
1. Do ye indeed speak righteousness? O congregation! do ye judge uprightly? O ye sons of men! 2. Yea, rather in heart ye plot wickedness; your hands weigh out violence upon the earth. 3. They are estranged, being wicked from the womb: they went astray as soon as they were born, speaking lies. 4. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear: 5. Which will not hearken to the voice of the enchanter, charm he never so wisely.
1. Do ye indeed speak righteousness? In putting this question to his enemies, by way of challenge, David displays the boldness of conscious rectitude. It argues that the justice of our cause is demonstratively evident when we venture to appeal to the opposite party himself; for were there any ground to question its justice, it would show an absurd degree of confidence to challenge the testimony of an adversary. David comes forward with the openness of one who was supported by a sense of his integrity, and repels, by a declaration forced from their own lips, the base charges with which they blackened his character in the estimation of such as were simple enough to believe them. “Ye yourselves,” as if he had said, “can attest my innocence, and yet persecute me with groundless calumnies. Are you not ashamed of such gross and gratuitous oppression?” It is necessary, however, to determine who they were whom David here accuses. He calls them a congregation, and again, sons of men The Hebrew word אלם, elem, which I have rendered congregation, some consider to be an epithet applied to righteousness, and translate dumb; 346 but this does not express the meaning of the Psalmist. Interpreters differ as to what we should understand by the term congregation. Some think that he adverts, by way of accusation, to the meetings which his enemies held, as is usual with those who entertain wicked designs, for the purpose of concerting their plans. I rather incline to the opinion of those who conceive that he here gives (although only in courtesy) the usual title of honor to the counsellors of Saul, who met professedly to consult for the good of the nation, but in reality with no other intention than to accomplish his destruction. Others read, in the congregation — a translation which gives the same meaning to the passage we have already assigned to it, but is not supported by the natural construction of the words. The congregation which David addresses is that assembly which Saul convened, ostensibly for lawful objects, but really for the oppression of the innocent. The term, sons of men, which he immediately afterwards applies to them — taking back, as it were, the title of courtesy formerly given — would seem to be used in contempt of their character, being, as they were, rather a band of public robbers than a convention of judges. Some, however, may be of opinion, that in employing this expression, David had in his eye the universality of the opposition which confronted him — almost the whole people inclining to this wicked factions and that he here issues a magnanimous defiance to the multitude of his enemies. Meanwhile, the lesson taught us by the passage is apparent. Although the whole world be set against the people of God they need not fear, so long as they are supported by a sense of their integrity, to challenge kings and their counsellors, and the promiscuous mob of the people. Should the whole world refuse to hear us, we must learn, by the example of David, to rest satisfied with the testimony of a good conscience, and with appealing to the tribunal of God. Augustine, who had none but the Greek version in his hands, is led by this verse into a subtle disquisition upon the point, that the judgment of men is usually correct when called to decide upon general principles, but fails egregiously in the application of these principles to particular cases, 347 through the blinding and warping influences of their evil passions. All this may be plausible, and, in its own place, useful, but proceeds upon a complete misapprehension of the meaning of the passage.
2. Yea, rather, in heart ye plot wickedness. In the former verse he complained of the gross shamelessness manifested in their conduct. Now he charges them both with entertaining wickedness in their thoughts, and practising it with their hands. I have accordingly translated the Hebrew article אף, aph, yea, rather — it being evident that David proceeds, after first repelling the calumnies of his enemies, to the further step of challenging them with the sins which they had themselves committed. The second clause of the verse may be rendered in two different ways, ye weigh violence with your hands, or, your hands weigh violence; and as the meaning is the same, it is immaterial which the reader may adopt. Some think that he uses the figurative expression, to weigh, in allusion to the pretense of equity under which he was persecuted, as if he were a disturber of the peace, and chargeable with treason and contumacy towards the king. In all probability, his enemies glossed over their oppression with plausible pretences, such as hypocrites are never slow to discover. But the Hebrew word פלס, phalas, admits of a wider signification, to frame or set in order; and nothing more may be meant than that they put into shape the sins which they had first conceived in their thoughts. It is added, upon the earth, to denote the unbridled license of their wickedness, which was done openly, and not in places where concealment might have been practiced.
3. They are estranged, being wicked from the womb. He adduces, in aggravation of their character, the circumstance, that they were not sinners of recent date, but persons born to commit sin. We see some men, otherwise not so depraved in disposition, who are drawn into evil courses through levity of mind, or bad example, or the solicitation of appetite, or other occasions of a similar kind; but David accuses his enemies of being leavened with wickedness from the womb, alleging that their treachery and cruelty were born with them. We all come into the world stained with sin, possessed, as Adam’s posterity, of a nature essentially depraved, and incapable, in ourselves, of aiming at anything which is good; but there is a secret restraint upon most men which prevents them from proceeding all lengths in iniquity. The stain of original sin cleaves to the whole humanity without exception; but experience proves that some are characterised by modesty and decency of outward deportment; that others are wicked, yet, at the same time, within bounds of moderation; while a third class are so depraved in disposition as to be intolerable members of society. Now, it is this excessive wickedness — too marked to escape detestation even amidst the general corruption of mankind — which David ascribes to his enemies. He stigmatises them as monsters of iniquity.
4. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder 348 He prosecutes his description; and, though he might have insisted on the fierceness which characterised their opposition, he charges them more particularly, here as elsewhere, with the malicious virulence of their disposition. Some read, their fury; 349 but this does not suit the figure, by which they are here compared to serpents. No objection can be drawn to the translation we have adopted from the etymology of the word, which is derived from heat. It is well known, that while some poisons kill by cold, others consume the vital parts by a burning heat. David then asserts of his enemies, in this passage, that they were as full of deadly malice as serpents are full of poison. The more emphatically to express their consummate subtlety, he compares them to deaf serpents, which shut their ears against the voice of the charmer — not the common kind of serpents, but such as are famed for their cunning, and are upon their guard against every artifice of that description. But is there such a thing, it may be asked, as enchantment? If there were not, it might seem absurd and childish to draw a comparison from it, unless we suppose David to speak in mere accommodation to mistaken, though generally received opinion. 350 He would certainly seem, however, to insinuate that serpents can be fascinated by enchantment; and I can see no harm in granting it. The Marsi in Italy were believed by the ancients to excel in the art. Had there been no enchantments practiced, where was the necessity of their being forbidden and condemned under the Law? (De 18:11.) I do not mean to say that there is an actual method or art by which fascination can be effected. It was doubtless done by a mere sleight of Satan, 351 whom God has suffered to practice his delusions upon unbelieving and ignorant men, although he prevents him from deceiving those who have been enlightened by his word and Spirit. But we may avoid all occasion for such curious inquiry, by adopting the view already referred to, that David here borrows his comparison from a popular and prevailing error, and is to be merely supposed as saying, that no kind of serpent was imbued with greater craft than his enemies, not even the species (if such there were) which guards itself against enchantment.
6. Break their teeth, O God! in their mouth: break the jaws of the lions. 7. Let them flow away like waters, let them depart: let them bend their bow, and let their arrows be as broken. 352 8. Let him vanish like a snail, which melts away; like the untimely birth of a woman, which does not see the sun. 9. Before your pots 353 can feel the fire of the thorns, a whirlwind shall carry him away, like flesh yet raw.
6. Break their teeth, O God! in their mouth 354 From this part of the psalm he assumes the language of imprecation, and solicits the vengeance of God, whose peculiar prerogative it is to repel oppression and vindicate injured innocence. It is necessary, however, that we attend to the manner in which this is done. He does not claim the judgment or patronage of God to his cause, until he had, in the first place, asserted his integrity, and stated his complaint against the malicious conduct of his enemies; for God can never be expected to undertake a cause which is unworthy of defense. In the verse before us, he prays that God would crush the wicked, and restrain the violence of their rage. By their teeth, he would intimate that they resembled wild beasts in their desire to rend and destroy the victims of their oppression; and this is brought out more clearly in the latter part of the verse, where he likens them to lions The comparison denotes the fury with which they were bent upon his destruction.
In the next verse, and in the several succeeding verses, he prosecutes the same purpose, employing a variety of apt similitudes. He prays that God would make them flow away like waters, that is, swiftly. The expression indicates the greatness of his faith. His enemies were before his eyes in all the array of their numbers and resources; he saw that their power was deeply rooted and firmly established; the whole nation was against him, and seemed to rise up before him like a hopeless and formidable barrier of rocky mountains. To pray that this solid and prodigious opposition should melt down and disappear, evidenced no small degree of courage, and the event could only appear credible to one who had learnt to exalt the power of God above all intervening obstacles. In the comparison which immediately follows, he prays that the attempts of his adversaries might be frustrated, the meaning of the words being, that their arrows might fall powerless, as if broken, when they bent their bow. Actuated as they were by implacable cruelty, he requests that God would confound their enterprises, and in this we are again called to admire his unshaken courage, which could contemplate the formidable preparations of his enemies as completely at the disposal of God, and their whole power as lying at his feet. Let his example in this particular point be considered. Let us not cease to pray, even after the arrows of our enemies have been fitted to the string, and destruction might seem inevitable.
8. Let him vanish like a snail, which melts away The two comparisons in this verse are introduced with the same design as the first, expressing his desire that his enemies might pass away quietly, and prove as things in their own nature the most evanescent. He likens them to snails, 355 and it might appear ridiculous in David to use such contemptible figures when speaking of men who were formidable for their strength and influence, did we not reflect that he considered God as able in a moment, without the slightest effort, to crush and annihilate the mightiest opposition. Their power might be such as encouraged them, in their vain-confidence, to extend their schemes into a far distant futurity, but he looked upon it with the eye of faith, and saw it doomed in the judgment of God to be of short continuance. He perhaps alluded to the suddenness with which the wicked rise into power, and designed to dash the pride which they are apt to feel from such an easy advance to prosperity, by reminding them that their destruction would be equally rapid and sudden. There is the same force in the figure employed in the end of the verse where they are compared to an abortion. If we consider the length of time to which they contemplate in their vain-confidence that their life shall extend, 356 they may be said to pass out of this world before they have well begun to live, and to be dragged back, as it were, from the very goal of existence.
9. Before your pots can feel the fire of your thorns. Some obscurity attaches to this verse, arising partly from the perplexed construction, and partly from the words being susceptible of a double meaning. 357 Thus the Hebrew word סירות, siroth, signifies either a pot or a thorn. If we adopt the first signification, we must read, before your pots feel the fire which has been kindled by thorns; if the second, before your thorns grow to a bush, that is, reach their full height and thickness. What, following the former sense, we have translated flesh yet raw, must be rendered, provided we adopt the other, tender, or not yet grown. But the scope of the Psalmist in the passage is sufficiently obvious. He refers to the swiftness of that judgment which God would execute upon his enemies, and prays that he would carry them away as by a whirlwind, either before they arrived at the full growth of their strength, like the thorn sprung to the vigorous plant, or before they came to maturity and readiness, like flesh which has been boiled in the pot. The latter meaning would seem to be the one of which the passage is most easily susceptible, that God, in the whirlwind of his anger, would carry away the wicked like flesh not yet boiled, which may be said scarcely to have felt the heat of the fire.
10. The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth 358 the vengeance; he shall wash his hands in the blood of the wicked. 359 11. And a man shall say, Verily there is a reward [literally fruit 360 ] for the righteous; verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth.
10 The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance It might appear at first sight that the feeling here attributed to the righteous is far from being consistent with the mercy which ought to characterise them; but we must remember, as I have often observed elsewhere, that the affection which David means to impute to them is one of a pure and well-regulated kind; and in this case there is nothing absurd in supposing that believers, under the influence and guidance of the Holy Ghost, should rejoice in witnessing the execution of divine judgments. That cruel satisfaction which too many feel when they see their enemies destroyed, is the result of the unholy passions of hatred, anger, or impatience, inducing an inordinate desire of revenge. So far as corruption is suffered to operate in this manner, there can be no right or acceptable exercise. On the other hand, when one is led by a holy zeal to sympathise with the justness of that vengeance which God may have inflicted, his joy will be as pure in beholding the retribution of the wicked, as his desire for their conversion and salvation was strong and unfeigned. God is not prevented by his mercy from manifesting, upon fit occasions, the severity of the judge, when means have been tried in vain to bring the sinner to repentance, nor can such an exercise of severity be considered as impugning his clemency; and, in a similar way, the righteous would anxiously desire the conversion of their enemies, and evince much patience under injury, with a view to reclaim them to the way of salvation: but when wilful obstinacy has at last brought round the hour of retribution, it is only natural that they should rejoice to see it inflicted, as proving the interest which God feels in their personal safety. It grieves them when God at any time seems to connive at the persecutions of their enemies; and how then can they fail to feel satisfaction when he awards deserved punishment to the transgressor?
11. So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward. We have additional evidence from what is here said of the cause or source of it, that the joy attributed to the saints has no admixture of bad feeling. It is noticeable from the way in which this verse runs, that David would now seem to ascribe to all, without exception, the sentiment which before he imputed exclusively to the righteous. But the acknowledgement immediately subjoined is one which could only come from the saints who have an eye to observe the divine dispensations; and I am, therefore, of opinion that they are specially alluded to in the expression, And a man shall say, etc At the same time, this mode of speech may imply that many, whose minds had been staggered, would be established in the faith. The righteous only are intended, but the indefinite form of speaking is adopted to denote their numbers. It is well known how many there are whose faith is apt to be shaken by apparent inequalities and perplexities in the divine administration, but who rally courage, and undergo a complete change of views, when the arm of God is bared in the manifestation of his judgments. At such a time the acknowledgement expressed in this verse is widely and extensively adopted, as Isaiah declares,
“When thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness,” (Isa 26:9.)
The Hebrew particle אך, ach, which we have translated verily, occasionally denotes simple affirmation, but is generally intensitive, and here implies the contrast between that unbelief which we are tempted to feel when God has suspended the exercise of his judgments, and the confidence with which we are inspired when he executes them. Thus the particles which are repeated in the verse imply that men would put away that hesitancy which is apt to steal upon their minds when God forbears the infliction of the punishment of sin, and, as it were, correct themselves for the error into which they had been seduced. Nothing tends more to promote godliness than an intimate and assured persuasion that the righteous shall never lose their reward. Hence the language of Isaiah, “Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him; for they shall eat the fruit of their doings,” (Isa 3:10.) When righteousness is not rewarded, we are disposed to cherish unbelieving fears, and to imagine that God has retired from the government of the world, and is indifferent to its concerns. I shall have an opportunity of treating this point more at large upon the seventy-third psalm.
There is subjoined the reason why the righteous cannot fail to reap the reward of their piety, because God is the judge of the world; it being impossible, on the supposition of the world being ruled by the providence of God, that he should not, sooner or later, distinguish between the good and the evil. He is said more particularly to judge in the earth, because men have sometimes profanely alleged that the government of God is confined to heaven, and the affairs of this world abandoned to blind chance.
“אלם.There is some difficulty in ascertaining the sense of this word. Gesenius derives it from אלם, to be silent: Is justice indeed silent? but this breaks the parallelism, which requires צדק תדברון, ‘will ye speak righteousness?’ in the first line, to correspond with מישרים תשפטו, ‘will ye judge uprightness?’ In the second. Dathe agrees with Bishop Lowth, etc., who propose to point the word אלם, or plene, אלים, judices, ‘O ye judges, or rulers!’ See Ex 22:27; Ps 82:1. But this reading, though it makes a very good sense, receives no support from the MSS., or ancient versions. Diodati and De Rossi agree with our translators in taking the word in the sense of assembly, congregation So Schindler אלם, collegatio hominum, congregation, multitudo coetus, ab אלם, ligavit, colligavit. This is probably the true sense. LXX. Vulg. Aeth. and Ar., seem to have read אלם, or אלם.” — (Rogers’ Book of Psalms, volume 2, p. 212.) Walford prefers Dathe’s version.
“Argute hic disputant, hominibus rectum esse judicium in generalibus principiis: sed ubi ad hypothesin ventum est, hallucinari,” etc. The French translation runs — “Dispute yci subtilement que les hommes ont un jugement droit et entier es principes generaux, mais quand ce vient a la particularite, que leur raison defaut,” etc.
The פתן, phethen, rendered adder, is generally supposed by interpreters to be the kind of serpent called by the ancients the aspic, and to which there are frequent allusions in Scripture. De 32:33; Job 20:14, 16; Isa 11:8. It is the בתם, boeten, of the Arabians, which M. Forskal (Descript Anim p. 15) describes as spotted with black and white, about one foot in length, nearly half an inch thick, oviparous, and its bite almost instant death; and which is called “the aspic” by the literati of Cyprus, though the common people give it the name of κουφη, deaf
This is the reading of the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and of Jerome. Sept. “Θυμὸς.” Vulg. and Jeremiah “Furor.”
That the serpent tribe may be charmed is a well-attested fact, and one of the most curious and interesting in natural history. It is often mentioned by the Greek and Roman classics, by Hebrew and Arabic writers; to the last of whom the different species of serpents were well known. It is also supported by the testimony of many modern travelers. Some serpents are delighted with the sounds of vocal and instrumental music, and by it may be disarmed of their fury and rendered innoxious, (Ec 10:11.) In the East it is not uncommon to make use of pipes, flutes, whistles, or small drums, to draw them from their hiding-places and to subdue their ferocity; and when they are tame ones, the charmer makes them dance and keep time with the notes of music, twists them round his body, and handles them without any harm, although the fangs are not broken or extracted. But in some cases the charmer’s art fails; and, notwithstanding his incantations, the serpent will fasten on the arm, or some other part of the body, and inflict, with its poisoned fangs, a deadly wound, (Jer 8:17.) In this case it “will not listen to the voice of the charmer.” It is not necessary to suppose that the “deaf adder” means a species of serpent naturally deaf, and which it is impossible for the charmer ever to fascinate. Nothing more may be meant but that his incantations sometimes fail of success; that some adders are so stubborn that the sound of music makes no impression upon them; and they are like creatures who are destitute of hearing, or whose ears are stopped. The manner in which the “deaf adder stoppeth its ear” is described by Lochart to be this: — “The reptile lays one ear close to the ground, and with its tail covers the other, that it cannot hear the sound of the music; or it repels the incantation by hissing violently.” So impenetrable are the wicked here represented to be to persuasion: they will not be wrought upon to forsake their wicked courses, and gained to the ways of God, by his most persuasive entreaties.
The power which charmers had over serpents was probably ascribed by them to the agency of invisible beings, although it might be the natural effect of the music which they used.
There is nothing in the original for, “Let their arrows be;” it is a supplement made by Calvin in the French version. There is some difficulty in the last member of the verse. Many interpreters refer it to God, who bends his bow against the ungodly. This agrees with the Septuagint, Vulgate, Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic versions. But Symmachus and others refer it to ungodly men, who study, indeed, to hurt the godly, but without effect. “This seems,” says Dathe, “to be the most natural connection: in the 6th verse the sacred writer addresses God himself in the second person; and there is here described the unsuccessful issue of the endeavors of the wicked against the righteous.” “I am persuaded,” says Rogers, “that some word, the name of something with which the wicked, perishing under the Divine vengeance, were compared, is lost in the Hebrew.” — Book of Psalms in Hebrew, volume2, p. 213.
“Ou, vos espines.” — Fr. marg. “Or, your thorns.”
“Break their teeth in their mouth” is most probably a continuation of the metaphorical illustration taken from serpents and adders immediately before, whose poison is contained in a bag at the bottom of one of their teeth, and who are disarmed by being deprived of this tooth which conveys the poison. This the charmer sometimes does after he has brought them out of their retreats by music. When the serpent makes its appearance, he seizes it by the throat, draws it forth, shows its poisoned fangs, and beats them out. To this beating out there seems to be here an allusion. “This mention of teeth,” says Hammond, “fairly introduces that which follows concerning the lion, whose doing mischief with that part is more violent and formidable, and so signifies the open, riotous invader, the violent and lawless person; as the serpent’s teeth, the more secret, indiscernible wounds of the whisperer or backbiter, which yet are as dangerous and destructive as the former, by the smallest puncture killing him on whom they fasten.”
The original word for snail occurs only in this instance in the whole Bible. The LXX. render it ὡσεὶ κηρὸς, as wax, and the Syriac and Vulgate follow them. But the Chaldee reads “as a reptile,” interpreting the word as meaning some creeping thing, which affords an eminent example of melting, and this seems to apply to the snail, which, in its progress from its shell, leaves a slime in its track till it altogether melts away and dies. Comp. Job 3:16
“Si reputamus quantum temporis inani fiducia devorent,” etc. Literally, “If we consider how much time they devour in their vain-confidence,” etc. The French version adheres to this translation of the mere words. “Si nous regardons combien ils devorent de temps par leur vaine confiance.” We have hazarded the more free translation given in the text, because this seems one of those instances where the brevity of the Latin idiom demands explanation, in order that the idea may be intelligible in any other language.
This verse has been deemed one of the most difficult passages in the Psalter, and has greatly perplexed commentators. Bishop Horsley reads —
“Before your pots feel the bramble,
In whirlwind and hurricane he shall sweep them away.”
He supposes that the language is proverbial, and that the Psalmist describes the sudden eruption of the divine wrath; sudden and violent as the ascension of the dry bramble underneath the housewife’s pot. Walford reads —
“Before your cooking vessels feel the fuel;
Both the green and the dry a whirlwind shall scatter.”
The passage is supposed by this author and others to contain an allusion to the manners of the Arabs, who, when they want to cook their food, collect bushes and brambles, both green and withered, with which they kindle a fire in the open air. But before their culinary vessels are sensibly afflicted with the heat, a whirlwind not unfrequently arises and scatters the fuel. And this strikingly expresses the sudden and premature destruction of the wicked. Fry gives a somewhat different explanation. He reads —
“Sooner than your vessels can feel the blazing thorn,
The hot blast shall consume them, as well the green as the dry.”
And he observes, that “שער, or סער, no doubt expresses the action of the hot wind of the desert.” This wind is eminently destructive, and has not unfrequently been known to entomb and destroy whole caravans. Sidi Hamet, describing his journey across the great desert to Tombuctoo with a caravan consisting of above one thousand men and four thousand camels, relates that, “after travelling upwards of a month they were attacked by the Shume, the burning blast of the desert, carrying with it clouds of sand. They were obliged to lie for two days with their faces on the ground, only lifting them occasionally to shake off the sand and obtain breath. Three hundred never rose again, and two hundred camels also perished.” — (Murray’s Discoveries in Africa, volume 1, pp. 515, 516.) Estius gives this sense: “Before your thorns shall arrive to their full growth into a bush, the rage of a tempest shall snatch them away, as it were, in the flower of their age and growing to maturity.” The words כמו-חי, kemo-chai, which Calvin renders flesh yet raw, are used in this sense in Le 13:16, and 1Sa 11:15
“Ou, pource qu’il aura veu.” — Fr. marg. “Or, because he seeth.”
“The similitude is taken from fierce battles, in which the effusion of blood is so great as to moisten the feet of the victors in the conflict.” — Walford. See Appendix.
Reward is the fruit of obedience, Isa 53:10.