Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 9: Psalms, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This psalm begins with prayer, or, at any rate, with the brief record of a prayer, which David had preferred to God in a season of deep distress. It is chiefly occupied, however, with the praises of God, expressing his thankfulness for a miraculous deliverance which he had experienced from some imminent danger, and for his establishment upon the throne.
To the chief musician upon Neginoth, A Psalm of David.
1. Hear my cry, O God! attend unto my prayer. 2. Prom the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is vexed: thou shalt lead me to the rock which is too high for me. 401 3. For thou hast been my hope, a tower of strength from the face of the enemy. 4. I will abide in thy tabernacle for ever; I will be safe under the covert of thy wings. Selah.
1. Hear my cry, O God! It is not exactly ascertained at what time this psalm was composed; but there seems to be some probability in the conjecture, that David had been for a considerable period in possession of the throne before he fell into the circumstances of distress which are here mentioned. I agree with those who refer it to the time of the conspiracy of Absalom; 402 for, had he not been an exile, he could not speak, as in the second verse, of crying from the ends of the earth. By using the term cry, he would intimate the vehemency of his desire; and it is a word which expresses inward fervency of spirit, without reference to the fact whether he may have prayed aloud, or in a low and subdued tone. The repetition which is employed denotes his diligence and perseverance in prayer, and teaches us that we should not faint and become discouraged in this exercise, because God may not have immediately and openly testified his acceptance of our petitions. There can be no question that, by the ends of the earth, he refers to the place of his banishment, as being cut off from access to the temple and the royal city. By some, indeed, the words have been understood figuratively, as meaning, that he prayed from the lowest deeps of distress; but I can see no foundation for this. In a subsequent part of the psalm, he calls himself King, a title never assumed by him before the death of Saul, and from this circumstance we may at once infer, that the time referred to was that when he fled in trepidation from the fury of his son Absalom, and hid himself in the wilderness of Mahanaim, and places of a similarly solitary description. Mount Zion was the place where the ark of the covenant had been deposited, and it was the seat of royalty; and David, when banished from this, which was the principal and most eligible locality, speaks as if he had been driven to the uttermost parts of the earth. Living, though he did, under the shadows of a legal dispensation, he did not cease to pray, because removed to a distance from the temple; and how inexcusable must our conduct be, privileged as we are of God, and called to draw near by the way which has been opened through the blood of Christ, if we break not through every hinderance which Satan presents to our communications with heaven? Let those who may have been deprived of the hearing of the word, and the dispensation of the sacraments, so as, in a manner, to be banished out of the Church, learn from the example of David to persevere in crying to God, even under these solitary circumstances. He adverts, in what follows, to his grief and anguish. He adds the fact of his being shut up from every method of escape, that the grace of God might be made more apparent in his deliverance. The Hebrew word עטף, ataph, which I have translated vexed, means occasionally to cover, or involve, which has led some to render the clause, while my heart is turned about; that is, tossed hither and thither, or agitated. This is a harsh translation. Others read with more propriety, while my heart is involved in cares and troubles, or overwhelmed. 403 I have adopted a simpler rendering, although I would not be understood as denying the metaphor, to which they suppose that there is an allusion. The clause, there can be no question, is inserted to intimate that he was not prevented by trouble from having recourse to God. Notice was taken already of the outward trial to which he was subjected, in distance from the sanctuary, and of his rising above this, so as to direct his cry to God; and in the words before us, we have his confession that he was far from being stoically insensible, being conscious of a severe inward struggle with grief and perplexity of mind. It is the duty, then, of believers, when oppressed with heaviness and spiritual distress, to make only the more strenuous efforts for breaking through these obstacles in their approaches to God. His prayer is, that God would bring him to that safety from which he seems to be excluded. By a rock or citadel, he means, in general, secure protection, from which he complains of being shut out, as it was impossible to reach it unless he were raised by the hand of God. In looking round him, it seemed as if every place of shelter and safety were lifted up above his head and rendered inaccessible. He was cut off from all help, and yet, hopeless as deliverance appeared, he had no doubt of his safety, should God only extend his hand for interposition. This is the plain meaning of the passage, when divested of figure, that God was able to rescue him from danger, though all other help should be withdrawn, and the whole world should stand between him and deliverance; a truth which we would do well to consider seriously. In looking for deliverance from God, we must beware of yielding to the suggestions of sense; we should remember that he does not always work by apparent means, but delivers us when he chooses by methods inscrutable to reason. If we attempt to prescribe any one particular line of procedure, we do no less than wilfully limit his almighty power.
3. For thou hast been my hope Here we may suppose, either that he calls to his remembrance such benefits as he had formerly received, or that he congratulates himself upon deliverance which he had presently experienced. There is much probability in either supposition. Nothing animates our hopes more than the recollection of the past goodness of God, and, in the midst of his prayers, we frequently find David indulging in reflections of this kind. On the other hand, the remainder of the psalm is occupied with returning praise to God for his present goodness; and there is no reason why we should not suppose, that these words before us form the commencement of the thanksgiving. In that case, the Hebrew particle, which we have rendered for or because, may be understood rather in an affirmative sense, surely or certainly.
In the verse which follows, he expresses the confidence which he had that he would dwell from this time forth in the sanctuary of the Lord. I cannot altogether agree with those who think that David was still in his state of exile from his native country when this was written, and is merely to be understood as promising to himself the certainty of his return. He would seem rather to be rejoicing in restoration already obtained, than assuaging his grief by anticipation of it in the future; and this will be still more apparent, when we come to consider the immediate context. It is noticeable, that now when he was returned from his banishment, and established within his own palace, his heart was set more upon the worship of God than all the wealth, splendor, and pleasures of royalty. We have his testimony in other parts of his writings, that in the worst calamities which he endured, he experienced nothing which could be compared to the bitterness of being shut out from the ordinances of religion; and now he accounts it a higher pleasure to lie as a suppliant before the altar, than to sit upon the throne of a king. By the words which immediately follow, he shows that he did not, like too many uninformed persons, attach a superstitious importance to the mere externals of religion, adding, that he found his safety under the shadow of God’s wings. Ignorant persons might conceive of God as necessarily confined to the outward tabernacle, but David only improved this symbol of the Divine presence as a means of elevating the spiritual exercises of his faith. I would not deny that there may be an allusion to the cherubim when he speaks of the shadow of God’s wings. Only we must remember, that David did not rest in carnal ordinances, the elements of the world, 404 but rose by them and above them to the spiritual worship of God.
5. For thou, O God! hast heard my vows: thou hast given inheritance to those 405 fearing thy name. 6. Thou shalt add days upon days to the king, and his years as generation upon generation. 7. He shalt abide before the face of God for ever: prepare mercy and truth; let them keep him. 8. So will I sing unto thy name for ever, that I may daily perform my vows.
5. For thou, O God! hast heard my vows. He here shows the grounds upon which he had spoken of his abiding under the wings of God. The sudden joy which he experienced arose from the circumstance of God’s having heard his prayers, and made light to spring out of darkness. By his vows we must understand his prayers, according to a common figure of speech by which the part is taken for the whole, having made vows when he prayed. In general, he would acknowledge himself indebted for his restoration entirely to an interposition of Divine power, and not to any dexterity which he had shown in gaining time for the collection of his forces, 406 nor to any assistance which he had derived, either from the favor of the priests or the exertions of his soldiers. Had the letter ל, lamed, been prefixed to the Hebrew word יראי, yirey, which is rendered fearing, there would have been no reason left to doubt that the words which follow were of the nature of a general assertion, to the effect, that God has given the inheritance to those who fear him. As it is, they may be construed to mean, that God had given David the inheritance of those who fear him. Still I prefer attaching the more general sense to the words, and understand them as intimating that God never disappoints his servants, but crowns with everlasting happiness the struggles and the distresses which may have exercised their faith. They convey an implied censure of that unwarrantable confidence which is indulged in by the wicked, when favored, through the divine forbearance, with any interval of prosperity. The success which flatters them is merely imaginary, and speedily vanishes. But inheritance — the word here employed by David — suggests that the people of God enjoy a species of prosperity more solid and enduring; their momentary and short-lived troubles having only the effect of promoting their eternal welfare. He praises God that those who fear his name are not left to the poor privilege of rejoicing for a few days, but secured in a permanent heritage of happiness. The truth is one which cannot be questioned. The wicked, having no possession by faith of the divine benefits which they may happen to share, live on from day to day, as it were, upon plunder. It is only such as fear the Lord who have the true and legitimate enjoyment of their blessings.
6. Thou shalt add days upon days to the king etc. 407 David cannot be considered as using these words of gratulation with an exclusive reference to himself. It is true that he lived to an extreme old age, and died full of days, leaving the kingdom in a settled condition, and in the hands of his son, who succeeded him; but he did not exceed the period of one man’s life, and the greater part of it was spent in continued dangers and anxieties. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the series of years, and even ages, of which he speaks, extends prospectively to the coming of Christ, it being the very condition of the kingdom, as I have often remarked, that God maintained them as one people under one head, or, when scattered, united them again. The same succession still subsists in reference to ourselves. Christ must be viewed as living in his members to the end of the world. To this Isaiah alludes, when he says, “Who shall declare his generation or age?” — words in which he predicts that the Church would survive through all ages, notwithstanding the incessant danger of destruction to which it is exposed through the attacks of its enemies, and the many storms assailing it. So here David foretells the uninterrupted succession of the kingdom down to the time of Christ.
7. He shall abide before the face of God for ever. This is only a simpler way of expressing what he had said before, I will abide in thy tabernacle for ever. He refers to the security and peace which he would enjoy under the protection of God, who would effectually preserve his life. By the face of God, must be meant the fatherly care and providence which he extends to his people. So numerous are the dangers which surround us, that we could not stand a single moment, if his eye did not watch over our preservation. But the true security for a happy life lies in being persuaded that we are under divine government. There follows a prayer that God would appoint mercy and truth for preserving the king. And this admits of two meanings. As clemency and truth are the best safeguards of a kingdom, it would not be altogether unreasonable to suppose that David prays here to be endued with these dispositions, as a means of establishing his throne. But the other meaning is perhaps preferable, that God would gird himself with clemency and truth in order to the preservation of the king. The Hebrew term מנה, manah, signifies not only to prepare, but to set over, or appoint; and he speaks as if the true defense of the kingdom was only to be found in the mercy and faithfulness of God. He uses the expression prepare, or command, to intimate how easily God can provide the means necessary for preserving his people. In the concluding words, he expresses his resolution to persevere in the constant celebration of the praises of God, with a view to fulfilling the vows which he had contracted — and this again may lead us to remark the agreement which ought ever to subsist between the two parts of invocation: for David, while he applied to God for help, under the pressure of calamity, showed himself uniformly grateful when he had experienced deliverance.
He represents himself as like a man climbing to get up into a place of safety, but who wants strength to get to it.
It is generally agreed that this psalm refers to the history recorded in 2 Sam. 17:22, 24.
This last translation is omitted in the French version, perhaps through inadvertency.
“Non fuisse retentum in mundi elementis.” — Lat. “David ne s’est point arret, aux elemens du monde, (comme Sainct Paul appelle les ceremonies prises charnellement et quant a l’exterieur,”) etc. — Fr.
“Ou, l’heritage de ceux.” — Fr. marg. “Or, the inheritance of those.”
“Quamvis prudenter colligendis viribus tempus sumpsisset,” etc. — Lat. “Combien qu’il eust use de prudence a donner ordre a son affaire, et prendre temps pour amasser forces,” etc. — Fr.
In the Chaldee it is: “Thou shalt add days to the days of the King Messiah; his years shall be as the generation of this world, and of the world to come.”