Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 10: Psalms, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This is a complaint and lamentation of the Church when severely afflicted; in which, while the faithful bewail their miserable and, in one sense, undeserved calamities, and accuse their enemies of cruelty, they acknowledge that, in another sense, they have been justly chastised, and humbly betake themselves to the divine mercy. Their confidence of obtaining this, they rest chiefly upon the fact, that they saw God’s dishonor conjoined with their calamities, inasmuch as the ungodly, in oppressing the Church, blasphemed his sacred name.
A Psalm of Asaph.
This psalm, like others, contains internal evidence that it was composed long after the death of David. Some who ascribe it to him allege, in support of this opinion, that the afflictions of the Church have been here predicted by the spirit of prophecy, to encourage the faithful in bearing the cross when these afflictions should arrive. But there does not appear to be any ground for such a supposition. It is not usual with the prophets thus to speak historically in their prophecies. Whoever judiciously reflects upon the scope of the poem will easily perceive that it was composed either when the Assyrians, after having burnt the temple, and destroyed the city, dragged the people into captivity, or when the temple was defiled by Antiochus, after he had slaughtered a vast number of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Its subject agrees very well with either of these periods. Let us then take it as an admitted point, that this complaint was dictated to the people of God at a time when the Church was subjected to oppression, and when matters were reduced to the most hopeless condition. How cruelly the Assyrians conducted themselves is well known. And under the tyranny of Antiochus, if a man dared simply to open his mouth in defense of the pure worship of God, he did it at the risk of immediately forfeiting his life.
1. O God! the heathen [or the nations] have come into thy inheritance; they have defiled the temple of thy holiness; they have laid Jerusalem in heaps. 2. They have given the dead bodies of thy servants for food to the fowls of the heaven; the flesh of thy meek ones to the beasts of the earth. 3. They have shed their blood like water, around Jerusalem: and there was none to bury them. 4. We have been a reproach to our neighbors; a scorn and a derision to them that are around us.
1. O God! the heathen have come into thy inheritance. Here the prophet, in the person of the faithful, complains that the temple was defiled, and the city destroyed. In the second and third verses, he complains that the saints were murdered indiscriminately, and that their dead bodies were cast forth upon the face of the earth, and deprived of the honor of burial. Almost every word expresses the cruelty of these enemies of the Church. When it is considered that God had chosen the land of Judea to be a possession to his own people, it seemed inconsistent with this choice to abandon it to the heathen nations, that they might ignominiously trample it under foot, and lay it waste at their pleasure. The prophet, therefore, complains that when the heathen came into the heritage of God, the order of nature was, as it were, inverted. The destruction of the temple, of which he speaks in the second clause, was still less to be endured; for thus the service of God on earth was extinguished, and religion destroyed. He adds, that Jerusalem, which was the royal seat of God, was reduced to heaps. By these words is denoted a hideous overthrow. The profanation of the temple, and the destruction of the holy city, involving, as they did, heaven-daring impiety, which ought justly to have provoked the wrath of God against these enemies — the prophet begins with them, and then comes to speak of the slaughter of the saints. The atrocious cruelty of these persecutions is pointed out from the circumstance that they not only put to death the servants of God, but also exposed their dead bodies to the beasts of the field, and to birds of prey, to be devoured, instead of burying them. Men have always had such a sacred regard to the burial of the dead, as to shrink from depriving even their enemies of the honor of sepulture. 370 Whence it follows, that those who take a barbarous delight in seeing the bodies of the dead torn to pieces and devoured by beasts, more resemble these savage and cruel animals than human beings. It is also shown that these persecutors acted more atrociously than enemies ordinarily do, inasmuch as they made no more account of shedding human blood than of pouring forth water. From this we learn their insatiable thirst for slaughter. When it is added, there was none to bury them, this is to be understood as applying to the brethren and relatives of the slain. The inhabitants of the city were stricken with such terror by the indiscriminate butchery perpetrated by these ruthless assassins upon all who came in their way, that no one dared to go forth. God having intended that, in the burial of men, there should be some testimony to the resurrection at the last day, it was a double indignity for the saints to be despoiled of this right after their death. But it may be asked, Since God often threatens the reprobate with this kind of punishment, why did he suffer his own people to be devoured of beasts? We must remember, what we have stated elsewhere, that the elect, as well as the reprobate, are subjected to the temporal punishments which pertain only to the flesh. The difference between the two cases lies solely in the issue; for God converts that which in itself is a token of his wrath into the means of the salvation of his own children. The same explanation, then, is to be given of their want of burial which is given of their death. The most eminent of the servants of God may be put to a cruel and ignominious death — a punishment which we know is often executed upon murderers, and other despisers of God; but still the death of the saints does not cease to be precious in his sight: and when he has suffered them to be unrighteously persecuted in the flesh, he shows, by taking vengeance on their enemies, how dear they were to him. In like manner, God, to stamp the marks of his wrath on the reprobate, even after their death, deprives them of burial; and, therefore, he threatens a wicked king, “He shall be buried with the burial of all ass, drawn and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem,” (Jer 22:19; see also Jer 36:30.) 371 When he exposes his own children to the like indignity, he may seem for a time to have forsaken them; but he afterwards converts it into the means of furthering their salvation; for their faith, being subjected to this trial, acquires a fresh triumph. When in ancient times the bodies of the dead were anointed, that ceremony was performed for the sake of the living whom they left behind them, to teach them, when they saw the bodies of the dead carefully preserved, to cherish in their hearts the hope of a better life. The faithful, then, by being deprived of burial, suffer no loss, when they rise by faith above these inferior helps, that they may advance with speedy steps to a blessed immortality.
4 We have been a reproach to our neighbors. Here another complaint is uttered, to excite the mercy of God. The more proudly the ungodly mock and triumph over us, the more confidently may we expect that our deliverance is near; for God will not bear with their insolence when it breaks forth so audaciously; especially when it redounds to the reproach of his holy name: even as it is said in Isaiah,
“This is the word which the Lord hath spoken concerning him, The virgin, the daughter of Zion hath despised thee, and laughed thee to scorn; the daughter of Jerusalem hath shaken her head at thee. Whom hast thou reproached and blasphemed; and against whom hast thou exalted thy voice, and lifted up thine eyes on high? even against the Holy One of Israel.”
(Isa. 37:22, 23)
And assuredly their neighbors, 372 who were partly apostates, or the degenerate children of Abraham, and partly the avowed enemies of religion, when they molested and reproached this miserable people, did not refrain from blaspheming God. Let us, therefore, remember that the faithful do not here complain of the derision with which they were treated as individuals, but of that which they saw to be indirectly levelled against God and his law. We shall again meet with a similar complaint in the concluding part of the psalm.
5. How long, O Jehovah! wilt thou be wroth for ever? Shall thy jealousy burn like fire? 6. Pour out thy fury 373 upon the heathen [or the nations] who have not known thee, and on the kingdoms which call not upon thy name. 7. For they have devoured Jacob, and made desolate his dwelling. 374 8. Remember not against us the iniquities of former times: make haste, let thy compassions prevent us; for we are exceedingly afflicted. 9. Help us, O God of our salvation! for the glory of thy name; and deliver us, and be merciful to our sins, for thy name’s sake.
5 How long, O Jehovah! wilt thou be wroth for ever? I have already observed that these two expressions, how long and for ever, when joined together, denote a lengthened and an uninterrupted continuance of calamities; and that there is no appearance, when looking to the future, of their coming to a termination. We may, therefore, conclude that this complaint was not ended within a month or two after persecution against the Church commenced, but at a time when the hearts of the faithful were almost broken through the weariness produced by prolonged suffering. Here they confess that the great accumulation of calamities with which they are overwhelmed, is to be traced to the wrath of God. Being fully persuaded that the wicked, whatever they may plot, cannot inflict injury, except in so far as God permits them — from this, which they regard as an indubitable principle, they at once conclude, that when he allows such ample scope to their heathen enemies in persecuting them, his anger is greatly provoked. Nor would they, without this persuasion, have looked to God in the hope that he would stretch forth his hand to save them; for it is the work of Him who hath given loose reins to draw in the bridle. Whenever God visits us with the rod, and our own conscience accuses us, it especially becomes us to look to His hand. Here his ancient people do not charge him with being unjustly displeased, but acknowledge the justice of the punishment inflicted upon them. God will always find in his servants just grounds for chastising them. He often, however, in the exercise of his mercy, pardons their sins, and exercises them with the cross for another purpose than to testify his displeasure against their sins, just as it was his will to try the patience of Job, and as he vouchsafed to call the martyrs to an honorable warfare. But here the people, of their own accord, summoning themselves before the Divine tribunal, trace the calamities which they endured to their own sins, as the procuring cause. Hence it may, with probability, be conjectured that this psalm was composed during the time of the Babylonish captivity. Under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes, they employed, as we have previously seen, a different form of prayer, saying,
“All this is come upon us; yet have we not forgotten thee, neither have we dealt falsely in thy covenant. Our heart is not turned back, neither have our steps declined from thy way,”
(Ps. 44:17, 18.)
We are not to suppose that, in the passage now quoted, the faithful murmured against God, but they employ this language because they knew that he had another end in view than simply to punish their sins; for, by means of these severe conflicts, he prepared them for the prize of their high calling.
6. Pour out thy fury upon the heathen, who have not known thee. This prayer is apparently inconsistent with the rule of charity; for, while we feel anxious about our own calamities, and desire to be delivered from them, we ought to desire that others may be relieved as well as ourselves. It would seem, therefore, that the faithful are to be blamed in here wishing the destruction of unbelievers, for whose salvation they ought rather to have been solicitous. But it becomes us to bear in mind what I have previously stated, that the man who would offer up such a prayer as this in a right manner, must be under the influence of zeal for the public welfare; so that, by the wrongs done to himself personally, he may not suffer his carnal affections to be excited, nor allow himself to be carried away with rage against his enemies; but, forgetting his individual interests, he must have a sole regard to the common salvation of the Church, and to what conduces thereto. Secondly, he must implore God to grant him the spirit of discretion and judgment, that in prayer he may not be impelled by an inconsiderate zeal: a subject which we have treated more at large in another place. Besides, it is to be observed, that the pious Jews here not only lay out of consideration their own particular advantage in order to consult the good of the whole Church, but also chiefly direct their eyes to Christ, beseeching him to devote to destruction his enemies whose repentance is hopeless. They, therefore, do not rashly break forth into this prayer, that God would destroy these or other enemies, nor do they anticipate the judgment of God; but desiring that the reprobate may be involved in the condemnation which they deserve, they, at the same time, patiently wait until the heavenly judge separate the reprobate from the elect. In doing this, they do not cast aside the affection which charity requires; for, although they would desire all to be saved, they yet know that the reformation of some of the enemies of Christ is hopeless, and their perdition absolutely certain.
The question, however, is not yet fully answered; for, when in the seventh verse they arraign the cruelty of their enemies, they seem to desire vengeance. But what I have just now observed must be remembered, that none can pray in this manner but those who have clothed themselves with a public character, and who, laying aside all personal considerations, have espoused, and are deeply interested in, the welfare of the whole Church; or, rather, who have set before their eyes Christ, the Head of the Church; and, lastly, none but those who, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, have elevated their minds to the judgment of God; so that, being ready to forgive, they do not indiscriminately adjudge to death every enemy by whom they are injured, but only the reprobate. With regard to those who make haste in demanding the execution of the Divine vengeance before all hope of repentance is lost, Christ has condemned them as chargeable with inconsiderate and ill-regulated zeal, when he says,
“Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of,”
Moreover, the faithful do not here simply wish the destruction of those who so wickedly persecuted the Church, but, using that familiarity which God allows them in their dealings with him, they set forth how inconsistent it would be did he not punish their persecutors, 375 and reason thus: Lord, how is it that thou afflictest us so severely, upon whom thy name is invoked, and sparest the heathen nations who despise thee? In short, they mean to say, that God has sufficient ground for executing his wrath elsewhere, since they were not the only people in the world who had sinned. Although it does not become us to prescribe to God the rule of his conduct, but rather patiently to submit to this ordination,
“That judgment must begin at the house of God”
yet he permits his saints to take the liberty of pleading, that at least they may not be worse dealt with than unbelievers, and those who despise him.
These two sentences, who have not known thee, and which call not upon thy name, it is to be observed, are to be taken in the same sense. By these different forms of expression, it is intimated that it is impossible for any to call upon God without a previous knowledge of him, as the Apostle Paul teaches, in Ro 10:14,
“How, then, shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” (Ro 10:14)
It belongs not to us to answer, “Thou art our God,” till He has anticipated us by saying, “Thou art my people,” (Ho 2:23;) but he opens our mouths to speak to him in this manner, when he invites us to himself. Calling on the name of God is often synonymous with prayer; but it is not here to be exclusively limited to that exercise. The amount is, that unless we are directed by the knowledge of God, it is impossible for us sincerely to profess the true religion. At that time the Gentiles everywhere boasted that they served God; but, being destitute of his word, and as they fabricated to themselves gods of their own corrupt imaginations, all their religious services were detestable; even as in our own day, the human invented religious observances of the blind and deluded votaries of the Man of Sin, who have no right knowledge of the God whom they profess to worship, and who inquire not at his mouth what he approves, are certainly rejected by Him, because they set up idols in his place.
8 Remember not against us the iniquities of former times. The godly Jews here confirm the sentiment which they had before briefly and obscurely touched upon, namely, that they had justly deserved the chastisements which had been inflicted upon them. And they present this prayer, because they could only get relief from their calamities by obtaining reconciliation with God. This is the sovereign remedy for every kind of adversity; for so long as he is angry with even our prosperity turns out to be unproductive of advantage and happiness. By the iniquities of former times, some understand the sins committed by the fathers. Others think that the sins which the suppliants themselves committed in their childhood and youth are intended. But the expression, I presume, has a more extensive signification, containing a confession not only of one offense or two, and these only recently committed, but an acknowledgement that they had for a long time been involved, along with their fathers, in manifold and old transgressions. Thus they acknowledge a long continued stubbornness, in which they had hardened themselves against God. This acknowledgement corresponds with the rebukes which the prophets administered to them; for sacred history bears testimony that the punishment of the captivity was suspended until God had proved from experience that their perversity was incurable. Nor should it excite our surprise to find the children praying that God would not impute to them the iniquity of their fathers, when we consider that the law declares that God casts the sins of the fathers into the bosom of their children, and takes vengeance upon their iniquities unto the third and fourth generation, (Ex 20:5.) The contrast between the expressions, make haste, and the iniquities of former times, is worthy of notice. Had God called the Israelites to a strict account for all the sins which they had committed during three or four hundred years before, the time of their deliverance would have been long delayed. The faithful, therefore, beseech him to forget their former offenses, and to make haste to succor them. As their sins proved the great obstacle and cause of delay, we may see the propriety with which they farther implore that the compassions of God might speedily meet them.
9 Help O God of our salvation! They again repeat in this verse, that whatever afflictions they endured were to be traced to the anger of God, and that they could have no comfort under them unless He were reconciled to them. Being deeply sensible that they had committed many transgressions, to strengthen their hope of obtaining pardon, they employ a variety of expressions. In the first place, as an argument to induce God to show them favor, they address him as the God of their salvation. In the second place, they testify that they bring nothing of their own to influence him to have mercy upon them; and that the only plea which they present before him is his own glory. From this we learn, that sinners are not reconciled to God by satisfactions or by the merit of good works, but by a free and an unmerited forgiveness. The observation which I have made a little before, and which I have explained more at length on the sixth psalm, is here to be kept in mind, — That when God visits us with the rod, instead of being merely desirous to be relieved from external chastisements, our chief concern ought to be to have God pacified towards us: nor should we follow the example of foolish sick persons, who are anxious to have merely the symptoms of their disease removed, and make no account of being delivered from the source and cause of it. With respect to the word כפר, chapper, 376 which expositors translate, Be merciful, or propitious, I have had an opportunity of speaking in another place. It properly signifies to cleanse, or expiate, and is applied to sacrifices. Whenever, therefore, we desire to obtain the favor of God, let us call to remembrance the death of Christ; for “without shedding of blood is no remissions” (Heb 9:22.)
10. Why should the heathen say, where is their God? Let the avenging of the blood of thy servants, which has been shed, be made known among the heathen in our sight. 11. Let the sighing [or groaning] of the prisoner 377 come before thee, [or into thy presence:] and, according to the greatness of thy arm, reserve the children of death: 378 12. And recompense our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom 379 their reproach with which they have reproached thee, O Jehovah! 13. And we thy people, and the sheep of thy pasture, will confess to thee 380 for ever; declaring thy praise from generation to generation.
10. Why should the heathen say, Where is their God? Here the people of God, in urging his name as a plea at the throne of grace: do so in a different sense from that in which they had urged it before. He extends his compassion towards us for his own name’s sake; for, as he is merciful, and will have our mouths stopped, that he alone may be accounted righteous, he freely pardons our sins. But here, the faithful beseech him that he would not allow his sacred name to be exposed to the blasphemies and insults of the wicked. From this we are taught that we do not pray in a right manner, unless a concern about our own salvation, and zeal for the glory of God, are inseparably joined together in our exercise. From the second clause of the verse, the same question may be raised which we have just now answered. Although God declares that he will execute vengeance upon our enemies, we are not warranted to thirst for revenge when we are injured. Let us remember that this form of prayer was not dictated for all men indiscriminately, that they might make use of it whenever impelled by their own passions, but that, under the guidance and instruction of the Holy Spirit, they might plead the cause of the whole Church, in common, against the wicked. If we would, therefore, offer up to God a prayer like this in a right manner, in the first place, our minds must be illuminated by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit; and, secondly, our zeal, which is often corrupted by the turbid affections of the flesh, must be pure and well-regulated; and then, with such a pure and well-tempered zeal, we may lawfully beseech God to show us, by evident examples, how precious, in his sight, is the life of his servants whose blood he avenges. The faithful are not to be understood as expressing any desire to be glutted with the sight of the shedding of human blood, 381 as if they longed greedily after it: they only desire that God would grant them some confirmation of their faith, in the exercise of his fatherly love which is manifested when he avenges the wrongs done to his own people. 382 It is farther to be noticed, that the appellation, the servants of God, is given to those who, nevertheless, were justly punished on account of their sins; for although he may chastise us, yet he does not forthwith cast us off, but, on the contrary, testifies thereby that our salvation is the object of his care. Again, we know that when the anger of God is extended over the whole body of the Church, as the good and the bad are mingled together in her, the former are punished in common with the latter, even as Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Daniel, and others, were carried into captivity. They were not, it is true, altogether faultless; but it is certain that so great a calamity was not brought upon the Jews on their account. In their person, there was rather set forth a spectacle to the ungodly, that they might be the more deeply affected.
11. Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee. The people of God, I have no doubt, were in captivity when the Holy Spirit endited this prayer; and, therefore, the name of prisoners is applied to them all in general, because they were so shut up within the bounds of Assyria and Chaldea, that had they stirred one foot thence, they would have incurred the penalty of death. They are called the children of death; by which is meant, that they were appointed or condemned to death in respect of their captivity. This sentence, however, may not improperly be restricted to a small number who were shut up in prison under closer restraint. By this expression, it is intimated that those proud spirits who had before vaunted themselves against God, were now broken and effectually humbled. The greatness of God’s arm, that is to say, the greatness of his power, 383 is implored; for without a signal and extraordinary interposition on his part, no hope could be entertained of the restoration of the Church.
12 And render to our neighbors sevenfold. We have already said enough on the subject of vengeance; and here the faithful show still more clearly, that they are not so much moved by the injuries done to themselves personally, as inflamed with a holy zeal when they see the sacred name of God blasphemed, and, as it were, torn in pieces by the wicked. If this affection reign in our hearts, it will easily moderate the ungovernableness of our flesh, and if the wisdom of the Spirit is added to it, our prayers will be in strict accordance with the just judgment of God.
In the last verse, the pious Jews declare that the fruit of their deliverance will be, that the name of God will be celebrated; and we ought not to desire our preservation or welfare for any other end. When he freely bestows upon us all things, the design for which he does this is, that his goodness may be made known and exalted. Now, these sufferers engage to make a grateful acknowledgement of their deliverance, and declare that this will not be done merely for a short time, but that the remembrance of it will be transmitted to their posterity, and pass, in continued succession, from age to age to the end of the world. The particular designation here given to them is also worthy of notice: We are thy people, and the sheep of thy pasture As the posterity of Abraham were chosen to celebrate the name of God, and that his praises might resound in Zion, what would have been the consequence had that people been destroyed, but that the memory of the name of God would have perished? This passage, there is no doubt, corresponds with that prophecy of Isaiah,
“This people have I formed for myself; they shall show forth my praise.” (Isa 43:21)
If this psalm was written on the taking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, or during the Babylonish captivity, it would appear, from this verse, that when the Chaldeans destroyed Jerusalem, they left the bodies of the slain unburied, to be devoured by beasts and birds of prey.
Similar threatenings are to be found in Isa. 14:19, 20; Jer 8:2.
Street, instead of “our neighbors,” reads, “those that dwell among us;” and has the following note: — “Those foreigners who sojourn among us; לשכנינו, from שכן, to inhabit or dwell; γειτοσιν ἡμων, our neighbors, Septuagint. But that rendering does not sufficiently express the distressed and humbled state of Israel, as described in the Hebrew; they were so reduced, that not only neighboring nations, but even those foreigners who sojourned amongst them, had the insolence to deride them, even in their own country.” Dr Adam Clarke explains, We are become a reproach to our neighbors, thus: “The Idumeans, Philistines, Phoenicians, Ammonites, and Moabites, all gloried in the subjugation of this people; and their insults to them were mixed with blasphemies against God.”
“C’est, ire.” — Fr. marg. “That is, anger.”
This and the preceding verse are almost exactly the same with Jer 10:25. “Pour out thy fury upon the heathen that know thee not, and upon the families that call not on thy name: for they have eaten up Jacob, and devoured him, and consumed him; and have made his habitation desolate.” From this, some have thought that Jeremiah, who was one of the prophets of the captivity, was the inspired writer of this psalm.
“Mettans en avant l’absurdite qui en reviendroit, si Dieu ne punissoit les persecuteurs.” — Fr.
“כפר, chapper, be propitiated, or receive an atonement (על הטאתינו, al chatoteinu) on account of our sins.” — Dr Adam Clarke
Horsley, who guesses that this psalm was composed during the distresses of Manasseh’s reign, supposes “the prisoner” to mean Manasseh.
“C’est, les condamnez a mort.” — Fr. marg. “That is, those who are condemned to death.” “Sons of death, either those who were condemned to death because of their crimes, or condemned to be destroyed by their oppressors. Both these senses apply to the Israelites: they were sons of death, i.e., worthy of death because of their sins against God. They were condemned to death, or utter destruction, by their Babylonish enemies.” — Dr Adam Clarke.
“Sevenfold, i.e., in excessively great measure, — (comp. Gen. 4:15, 24; 1Sa 2:5,) — into their bosom. This is an allusion to the custom of folding the loose garment worn by the natives of Eastern countries, so as to make it a recipient of gifts. Comp. Ps 35:13; Isa 65:6; Jer 32:18; Lu 6:38.” — Cresswell.
“C’est, te rendrons graces.” — Fr. marg. “That is, will give thee thanks.”
“Car ce n’est pas que les fideles se veuillent yci souler a veoir espandre le sang humain.” — Fr.
“Laquelle apparoist quand il fait la vengence des outrages qu’on a faits aux siens.” — Fr.
“C’est a dire, de la puissance de Dieu.” — Fr.