Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 9: Psalms, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
The following psalm cannot so properly be said to consist of prayers as of a variety of pious meditations, which comforted the mind of David under dangers, anxieties, and troubles of a severe description. It contains the vows too which he made to God in the distress occasioned by the alarming circumstances in which he was placed.
A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah. 424
1. O God! thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul has thirsted for thee, my flesh has longed for thee in 425 a desert and thirsty 426 land, where no water is. 2. Thus have I beheld thee in the sanctuary, to see thy power and thy glory. 3. Because thy mercy is better than life, my lips shall praise thee. 4. Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name.
1. O God! thou art my God. The wilderness of Judah, spoken of in the title, can be no other than that of Ziph, where David wandered so long in a state of concealment. We may rely upon the truth of the record he gives us of his exercise when under his trials; and it is apparent that he never allowed himself to be so far overcome by them, as to cease lifting up his prayers to heaven, and even resting, with a firm and constant faith, upon the divine promises. Apt as we are, when assaulted by the very slightest trials, to lose the comfort of any knowledge of God we may previously have possessed, it is necessary that we should notice this, and learn, by his example, to struggle to maintain our confidence under the worst troubles that can befall us. He does more than simply pray; he sets the Lord before him as his God, that he may throw all his cares unhesitatingly upon him, deserted as he was of man, and a poor outcast in the waste and howling wilderness. His faith, shown in this persuasion of the favor and help of God, had the effect of exciting him to constant and vehement prayer for the grace which he expected. In saying that his soul thirsted, and his flesh longed, he alludes to the destitution and poverty which he lay under in the wilderness, and intimates, that though deprived of the ordinary means of subsistence, he looked to God as his meat and his drink, directing all his desires to him. When he represents his soul as thirsting, and his flesh as hungering, we are not to seek for any nice or subtile design in the distinction. He means simply that he desired God, both with soul and body. For although the body, strictly speaking, is not of itself influenced by desire, we know that the feelings of the soul intimately and extensively affect it.
2. Thus in the sanctuary, etc. It is apparent, as already hinted, that God was ever in his thoughts, though wandering in the wilderness under such circumstances of destitution. The particle thus is emphatic. Even when so situated, in a wild and hideous solitude, where the very horrors of the place were enough to have distracted his meditations, he exercised himself in beholding the power and glory of God, just as if he had been in the sanctuary. Formerly, when it was in his power to wait upon the tabernacle, he was far from neglecting that part of the instituted worship of God. He was well aware that he needed such helps to devotion. But now, when shut out, in the providence of God, from any such privilege, he shows, by the delight which he took in spiritual views of God, that his was not a mind engrossed with the symbols, or mere outward ceremonial of religion. He gives evidence how much he had profited by the devotional exercises enjoined under that dispensation. It is noticeable of ignorant and superstitious persons, that they seem full of zeal and fervor so long as they come in contact with the ceremonies of religion, while their seriousness evaporates immediately upon these being withdrawn. David, on the contrary, when these were removed, continued to retain them in his recollection, and rise, through their assistance, to fervent aspirations after God. We may learn by this, when deprived at any time of the outward means of grace, to direct the eye of our faith to God in the worst circumstances, and not to forget him whenever the symbols of holy things are taken out of our sight. The great truth, for example, of our spiritual regeneration, though but once represented to us in baptism, should remain fixed in our minds through our whole life, 427 (Titus 3:5; Eph 5:26.) The mystical union subsisting between Christ and his members should be matter of reflection, not only when we sit at the Lord’s table, but at all other times. Or suppose that the Lord’s Supper, and other means of advancing our spiritual welfare, were taken from us by an exercise of tyrannical power, it does not follow that our minds should ever cease to be occupied with the contemplation of God. The expression, So have I beheld thee to see, etc., indicates the earnestness with which he was intent upon the object, directing his whole meditation to this, that he might see the power and glory of God, of which there was a reflection in the sanctuary.
3 Because thy mercy is better than life, etc. I have no objections to read the verse in this connected form, though I think that the first clause would be better separated, and taken in with the verse preceding. David would appear to be giving the reason of his earnestness in desiring God. By life is to be understood, in general, everything which men use for their own maintenance and defense. When we think ourselves well provided otherwise, we feel no disposition to have recourse to the mercy of God. That being (to speak so) which we have of our own, prevents us from seeing that we live through the mere grace of God. 428 As we are too much disposed to trust in aids of a carnal kind, and to forget God, the Psalmist here affirms that we should have more reliance upon the divine mercy in the midst of death, than upon what we are disposed to call, or what may appear to be, life. Another interpretation has been given of the words of this verse, but a very meagre and feeble one, — That the mercy of God is better than life itself; or, in other words, that the divine favor is preferable to every other possession. But the opposition is evidently between that state of secure prosperity, in which men are so apt to rest with complacency, and the mercy of God, which is the stay of such as are ready to sink and perish, and which is the one effectual remedy for supplying (if one might use that expression) all defects.
The word which I have rendered life, being in the plural number in the Hebrew, has led Augustine to assign a meaning to the sentence which is philosophical and ingenious, but without foundation, as the plural of the word is quite commonly used in the singular signification. He considered that the term lives was here used in reference to the truth, That different men affect different modes of life, some seeking riches, and others pleasure; some desiring the luxuries, and some the honors of this world, while others are given to their sensual appetites. He conceived that there was an opposition stated in the verse between these various kinds of life and eternal life, here by a common figure of speech called mercy, because it is of grace, and not of merit. But it is much more natural to understand the Psalmist as meaning, that it was of no consequence how large a share men possess of prosperity, and of the means which are generally thought to make life secure, the divine mercy being a better foundation of trust than any life fashioned out to ourselves, and than all other supports taken together. 429 On this account the Lord’s people, however severely they may suffer from poverty, or the violence of human wrongs, or the languor of desire, or hunger and thirst, or the many troubles and anxieties of life, may be happy notwithstanding; for it is well with them, in the best sense of the term, when God is their friend. Unbelievers, on the other hand, must be miserable, even when all the world smiles upon them; for God is their enemy, and a curse necessarily attaches to their lot.
In the words which follow, David expresses his consequent resolution to praise God. When we experience his goodness, we are led to open our lips in thanksgiving. His intention is intimated still more clearly in the succeeding verse, where he says that he will bless God in his life There is some difficulty, however, in ascertaining the exact sense of the words. When it is said, So will I bless thee, etc., the so may refer to the good reason which he had, as just stated, to praise God, from having felt how much better it is to live by life communicated from God, than to live of and from ourselves. 430 Or the sense may be, so, that is, even in this calamitous and afflicted condition: for he had already intimated that, amidst the solitude of the wilderness, where he wandered, he would still direct his eye to God. The word life, again, may refer to his life as having been preserved by divine interposition; or the sense of the passage may be, that he would bless God through the course of his life. The former meaning conveys the fullest matter of instruction, and agrees with the context; he would bless God, because, by his goodness, he had been kept alive and in safety. The sentiment is similar to that which we find elsewhere,
“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord;” — (Ps 118:17)
and again; —
“The dead shall not praise the Lord, neither any that go down into silence, but we who live will bless the Lord,”
(Ps. 115:17, 18.)
In the lifting up of hands, 431 in the second clause of the verse, allusion is made to praying and vowing; and he intimates, that besides giving thanks to God, he would acquire additional confidence in supplication, and be diligent in the exercise of it. Any experience we may have of the divine goodness, while it stirs us up to gratitude, should, at the same time, strengthen our hopes of the future, and lead us confidently to expect that God will perfect the grace which he has begun. Some understand by the lifting up of his hands, that he refers to praising the Lord. Others, that he speaks of encouraging himself from the divine assistance, and boldly encountering his enemies. But I prefer the interpretation which has been already given.
5. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips. 6. I shall surely 432 remember thee upon my couch: I will meditate upon thee in the night watches, 433 7. Because thou hast been my help: and I will rejoice in the shadow of thy wings. 8. My soul has cleaved hard after thee: thy right hand will uphold me.
5. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow, etc. In accordance with what was said in the foregoing verse, David expresses his assured persuasion of obtaining a rich and abundant measure of every blessing that could call for thanksgiving and praise. At the period of composing this psalm, he may have been already in the enjoyment of ease and plenty; but there is reason to believe that he cherished the persuasion referred to, even when wandering in the wilderness in a state of poverty and destitution. If we would evidence a strong faith, we must anticipate the divine favor before it has been actually manifested, and when there is no present appearance of its forthcoming. From the instance here set before us, we must learn to be on our guard against despondency, in circumstances when we may see the wicked wallowing and rioting in the abundance of the things of this world, while we ourselves are left to pine under the want of them. David, in the present pressure to which he was exposed, might have given way to despair, but he knew that God was able to fill the hungry soul, and that he could want for nothing so long as he possessed an interest in his favor. It is God’s will to try our patience in this life, by afflictions of various kinds. Let us bear the wrongs which may be done us with meekness, till the time come when all our desires shall be abundantly satisfied. It may be proper to observe, that David, when he speaks in figurative language of being filled with marrow and fatness, does not contemplate that intemperate and excessive indulgence to which ungodly men surrender themselves, and by which they brutify their minds. He looks forward to that moderate measure of enjoyment which would only quicken him to more alacrity in the praises of God.
6 I shall surely remember thee, etc. It may be read also, when, or, as often as I remember thee, I will pray in the night watches. But as the Hebrew particle here used is occasionally taken for an adverb of affirmation, as well as of time, I have adhered to the commonly received translation, In this case, his remembering God is to be understood as the same thing with his meditating upon him; and the one clause contains just a repetition of the sentiment expressed in the other. If the particle be taken in the different sense formerly mentioned, the words intimate, that as often as the name of God recurred to his mind, he would dwell upon it with pleasure, and speak of his goodness. He particularly mentions the night watches, as, when retired from the sight of our fellow-creatures, we not only revert to what may have given us anxiety, but feel our thoughts drawn out more freely to different subjects. We have next the reason assigned for the engagement or declaration he has just made, which is, that he owed to God his preservation. The experience of the divine goodness should dispose us to prayer as well as praise. “I will come into thy house,” says the Psalmist in another place, “in the multitude of thy mercy,” (Ps 5:7.) The second part of the seventh verse is expressive of the lively hope with which he was animated. He was resolved to rejoice and triumph under the shadow of God’s wings, as feeling the same peace and satisfaction in reliance upon his protection as he could have done had no danger existed.
8 My soul has cleaved hard after thee The Hebrew verb means also to apprehend, or follow, especially when in construction with the preposition which is here joined to it, and therefore we might very properly render the words, — My soul shall press or follow after thee. 434 But even should the other translation be retained, the sense is, that David’s heart was devoted to God with steadfast perseverance. The phrase, after thee, is emphatical, and denotes that he would follow with unwearied constancy, long as the way might be, and full of hardships, and beset with obstacles, and however sovereignly God might himself seem to withdraw his presence. The latter clause of the verse may be taken as referring simply to the deliverance which he had previously mentioned as having been received. He had good reason to persevere, without fainting, in following after God, when he considered that he had been preserved in safety, up to this time, by the divine hand. But I would understand the words as having a more extensive application, and consider that David here speaks of the grace of perseverance, which would be bestowed upon him by the Spirit. To say that he would cleave to God, with an unwavering purpose, at all hazards, might have sounded like the language of vain boasting, had he not qualified the assertion by adding, that he would do this in so far as he was sustained by the hand of God.
9. And they, whilst they seek my soul to destroy it, shall go into the lowest parts of the earth. 10. They shall cast him out 435 to the edge of the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes. 11. But the king 436 , shall rejoice in God; and every one who swears by him shall glory: for the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped.
9. And they, whilst they seek, etc. Here we find David rising to a more assured confidence, and triumphing as if he had already obtained the victory. And there is every reason to believe, that though he had escaped his difficulties, and was in circumstances of peace and prosperity when he wrote this psalm, yet he only expresses what he actually felt at the critical period when his life was in such imminent danger. He declares his conviction that the enemies who eagerly sought his life would be cut off; that God would cast them headlong into destruction; and that their very bodies should be left without burial. To be the portion of foxes, 437 is the same thing with being left to be torn and devoured by the beasts of the field. It is often denounced as one judgment which should befall the wicked, that they would perish by the sword, and become the prey of wolves and of dogs, without privilege of sepulture. This is a fate which the best of men have met with in the world, — for good as well as bad are exposed to the stroke of temporal evil; — but there is this distinction, that God watches over the scattered dust of his own children, gathers it again, and will suffer nothing of them to perish, whereas, when the wicked are slain, and their bones spread on the field, this is only preparatory to their everlasting destruction.
11. But the king will rejoice in God. The deliverance which David received had not been extended to him as a private person, but the welfare of the whole Church was concerned in it, as that of the body in the safety of the head, and there is therefore a propriety in his representing all the people of God as rejoicing with him. Nor can we fail to admire his holy magnanimity in not scrupling to call himself king, overwhelming as the dangers were by which he was surrounded, because he laid claim to that honor by faith, though yet denied him in actual possession. In saying that he would rejoice in God, he refers to the gratitude which he would feel; at the same time, in extolling the divine goodness shown to him, he views it as it affected the common body of the faithful. 438 As was already remarked, the safety of God’s chosen people, at that time, was inseparably connected with the reign of David and its prosperity — a figure by which it was the divine intention to teach us, that our happiness and glory depend entirely upon Christ. By those who swear in the name of the Lord, he means in general all his genuine servants. The act of solemnly calling upon God to witness and judge what we say, is one part of divine worship: hence an oath, by the figure of speech called synecdoche, is made to signify the profession of religion in general. We are not to imagine from this that God reckons all those to be his servants who make mention of his name. Many take it into their lips only to profane it by the grossest perjury; others outrage or slight it by entering into trifling and unnecessary oaths; and hypocrites are chargeable with wickedly abusing it. But those whom David refers to are such as swear by the Lord, considerately and with reverence, and whose hearts respond to what they declare. This appears more clearly from the contrast which follows in the verse, where he opposes those who swear by the name of God to those who speak lies, understanding by that term, not only treacherous and deceitful men, but men who profane the name of God by falsehoods of a sacrilegious kind.
David was often compelled to flee into the remote deserts which lay in the tribe of Judah, to escape the fury of Saul. In tracing his steps, when eagerly sought after by this relentless persecutor, we find him in the forest of Hareth, and in the wildernesses of Ziph, Maon, and Engedi, all in the tribe of Judah. See 1 Sam. 22:5, 1 Sam. 23:14, 24, 25, 1 Sam. 24:1, Josh. 15:55, 62. The only objection which can be made to referring the occasion of the composition of this psalm to David’s persecution by Saul is, that in the 11th verse, David is called king; whereas Saul still swayed the scepter over Israel. But, as Calvin observes on that verse, David may have called himself by this title to express his confident persuasion that God would raise him to the throne in fulfillment of his promise; and his followers might call him king even during Saul’s lifetime, though he was not acknowledged to be sovereign by any tribe till after Saul fell at Gilboa. It is, however, supposed by some that the psalm was written during the rebellion of his son Absalom, when he was under the necessity of quitting Jerusalem, and escaping into the wilderness, 2 Sam. 15:23, 2 Sam. 16:2, 2 Sam. 17:29.
The Syriac, and several MSS., read כארף, ke-erets, as a land, instead of כארף, be-erets, in a land, like the parallel text of Ps 143:6. The two letters, כ, caph, and ב, beth, may be easily mistaken for each other, differing less than the Roman letters c and g
The Hebrew word עיף, ayeph, here rendered thirsty, is literally weary; “that is,” says Horsley, “a land that creates weariness by the roughness of the ways, the steepness of the hills, and the want of all accommodations.” He reads, “dry and inhospitable.”
“Suivant cela, nous devons toute notre vie porter engrave en notre entendement le lavement spirituel, lequel Christ nous a une fois represente au baptesme.” — Fr.
“Denique nostrum esse, ut ita loquar, perstringit nobis oculos, ne cernamus sola Dei gratia nos subsistere.” — Lat. “Brief, notre Etre, si ainsi faut parler, nous eblouit les yeux, tellement que nous ne voyons pas que c’est par la seule grace de Dieu que nous subsistons.” — Fr.
“Thy loving-kindness, חסדך, chasdeca, thy effusive mercy is better, מחיים, me-chayim than Lives: it is better, or good beyond, countless ages of human existence.” — Dr Adam Clarke
“Melius esse nobis vivificari ab ipso quam apud nos vivere.”
“The practice of lifting up the hands in prayer towards heaven, the supposed residence of the object to which prayer is addressed, was anciently used, both by believers, as appears from various passages in the Old Testament, and by the heathen, agreeably to numerous instances in the classical writers. Parkhurst, considering the ‘hand’ to be the chief organ or instrument of man’s power and operations, and properly supposing the word to be thence used very extensively by the Hebrews for power, agency, dominion, assistance, and the like, regards the lifting up of men’s hands in prayer as an emblematical acknowledging of the power, and imploring of the assistance of their respective gods. Is it not, however, rather the natural and unstudied gesture of earnest supplication?” — Mant.
“Ou, quand,” etc. — Fr. marg. “Or, when I shall remember thee.”
Among the Hebrews the night was divided into portions of three or four hours each, which were denominated vigils or watches.
Dr Adam Clarke renders, “My soul cleaves, or is glued after thee.” “This phrase,” says he, “not only shows the diligence of the pursuit, and the nearness of the attainment, but also the fast hold he had got of the mercy of his God.”
“יגירהו,” here rendered, they shall cast him out, “from נגר, signifies in Hiphil, they shall cause to be poured out, or shall pour out The word is ordinarily applied to water, 2Sa 14:14; La 3:49. But here, by the immediate mention of the sword, it is restrained to the effusion of blood; and being in the third person plural, in the active sense, it is, after the Hebrew idiom, to be interpreted in the passive sense, ‘They shall pour out by the hand of the sword;’ i e. ‘They shall be poured out by the sword,’ the hand of the sword being no more than the edge of the sword.” — Hammond Dr Adam Clarke gives the same version: “They shall be poured out by the hand of the sword Heb. That is, their life’s blood shall be shed either in war, or by the hand of justice.” But נגר, nagar, also signifies metaphorically to give over into one’s hands, to give up, as in the phrase, הגיר על ירי חרב, “to deliver any one up to the sword.” See Eze 35:5; Jer 18:21. And the Septuagint, Syriac, Vulgate, Aethiopic, and Arabic versions, Gesenius and Hare here read, “They shall be delivered to the sword.” Horsley translates, “They would shed it;” and observes, that it signifies “my life; for נפש, which is of the doubtful gender, is the antecedent of the masculine suffix הו.”
“I, who am king by God’s anointing, 1 Sam. 15:12, 13.” — Ainsworth.
Under the Hebrew word שועל, shual, here rendered fox, was comprehended, in common language, the jackal, or Vulpes aureus, golden wolf, so called in Latin because its color is a bright yellow; and in this sense שועל, shual, has been generally interpreted here, because the jackal is found in Palestine, and feeds on carrion. Both of these circumstances are, however, also applicable to the fox, and, moreover, Bochart has made it probable that the specific name of the jackal (the θῶς of the Greeks) in Hebrew was אי, aye, the howler, being so called from the howling cry which he makes particularly at night. The term occurs in Isa. 13:22, Isa. 34:14; and Jer 50:39; where איים, ayim, is rendered, in our version, “the wild beasts of the islands,” an appellation very vague and indeterminate. At the same time, it is highly probable that shual generally refers to the jackal. Several of the modern oriental names of this animal, as the Turkish chical, and the Persian sciagal, sciachal, or schachal — whence the English jackal — from their resemblance to the Hebrew word shual, favor this supposition; and Dr Shaw, and other travelers, inform us, that while jackals are very numerous in Palestine, the common fox is rarely to be met with. We shall, therefore, be more correct, under these circumstances, in admitting that the jackal of the East is the Hebrew shual These animals never go alone, but always associate in packs of from fifty to two hundred. They are known to prey on dead bodies; and so greedy are they of human carcases, that they dig them out of their graves, and devour them, however putrescent They have been seen waiting near the grave at the time of a funeral eagerly watching their opportunity of digging up the body almost as soon as it was buried. “I have known several instances,” says a traveler quoted by Merrick, “of their attacking and devouring drunken men, whom they have found lying on the road, and have heard that they will do the same to men that are sick and helpless. I have seen many graves that have been opened by the jackals, and parts of the bodies pulled out by them.” They visit the field of battle to prey upon the dying and the dead, and they follow caravans for the same purpose. It is usual with the barbarous nations of the East to leave the bodies of their enemies, killed in battle, in the field, to be devoured by jackals and other animals. When the Psalmist, therefore, says that his enemies would become a portion for foxes, the meaning is, that they would be denied the rites of sepulture, which was deemed a great calamity, — that they should be left unburied, for jackals and other wild beasts to prey upon and devour.
“Sed extollit Dei gratiam, quia ad piorum omnium conservationem pertineat.” — Lat. “Mais il exalte et magnifie la grace de Dieu envers in d’autant qu’elle s’etendoit a la conservation de tous les fideles.” — Fr.