Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 10: Psalms, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
A Psalm or Song of the sons of Korah.
It is evident, from constant observation, that, so long as the children of this world are in prosperity, they are well satisfied with their condition, and mightily extol it, while they look upon the Church with proud contempt; and even after having endured calamities, they are not so subdued by them as to renounce the foolish presumption by which they are intoxicated. Meanwhile they recklessly despise all religion, and the worship of God, because, contenting themselves with pleasures, riches, and the splendor of honor, they fancy themselves to be happy without him. And then it often happens, that the Lord pampers them with all kind of good things, purposing at length to inflict upon them merited punishment for their ingratitude, when the fit season shall have arrived; while, on the contrary, he loads his Church with various and grievous afflictions, or, at least, keeps her in a low and despised condition, so that she may seem to herself to be miserable, or she is at least exposed to the contempt of others. That the faithful may not be deceived with this shadowy appearance of things, it is of importance to recall their attention to a different subject, that they may be persuaded of the truth of what is stated in Ps 33:12,
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.”
What we are taught in this psalm may be summed up in this, That the Church of God far excels all the kingdoms and politics of the world, inasmuch as she is watched over, and protected by Him in all her interests, and placed under his government; that, in the first place, amidst the violent commotions and dreadful storms with which the whole world is often shaken, she may continue safe; and, in the second place, and principally, that being wonderfully preserved by the protection of the same God, she may at length, after the toil and struggle of a protracted warfare, be crowned with the triumphant laurels of her high calling. It is in truth a singular benefit of God, and at the same time, a signal miracle, that, amidst the great and various revolutions of the kingdoms of this world, he enlarges her continually from age to age, and preserves her from destruction; so that in the whole world there is nothing enduring but the Church. As, however, it often happens, that whilst the wicked abound in riches, and have lavished upon them worldly possessions and authority, the afflicted Church is tossed amidst many dangers, or rather, is so overwhelmed with impetuous floods as to seem to be entirely shipwrecked, her happiness must be considered as consisting principally in this, that she has reserved for her an everlasting state in heaven.
An attention to the time when this psalm was composed will contribute, in no small degree, to a clear understanding of its contents. Although the people had returned from their captivity in Babylon; although the Church of God had been again gathered together, and united into one body after a long dispersion; although the temple had been rebuilt, the altar set up, and the service of God restored; yet, as of a vast multitude of people, there was only a small portion remaining, which made the condition of the Church very low and despised, — as the number left was daily diminished by their enemies, — and as the temple was far inferior in magnificence to what it originally was; — all this being considered, the faithful had hardly any ground to entertain favorable hopes as to the future. It certainly seemed impossible that they would ever again be raised to their former state from which they had fallen. There was, therefore, reason to apprehend that the minds of the godly, both from the remembrance of the overthrow which they had already experienced, and from the weight of the present miseries with which they were oppressed, would faint and finally sink into despair. That they might not succumb under such heavy adversities, the Lord not only promises in this psalm that they would recover what they had lost, but also encourages them in the hope of an incomparable glory with which the Church should yet be invested, according to that prophecy of Haggai,
“The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former.” (Hag 2:9)
Last of all, it remains that we learn to accommodate this psalm to our own circumstances, and study to derive from it the lessons which it is fitted to convey. The consolation contained in it ought to have had such influence on the godly of that age, as to have made them not only stand erect in the midst of their adversities, but also to have raised them from the grave, and lifted them up to heaven. In the present day, when we know that whatever was foretold by the Spirit has been fulfilled, we are more than ungrateful if the experience of the fathers, added to the words of the Spirit, does not more powerfully confirm our faith. It is impossible to express in language adequate to the subject the glory with which Christ beautified his Church by his advent. Then the true religion which before had been shut up within the narrow limits of Judea was spread abroad through the whole world. Then God, who had been known only by one family, began to be called upon in the different languages of all nations. Then the world, which had been miserably rent in pieces by innumerable sects of superstition and error, was gathered together into a holy unity of faith. Then all men, vying with each other, associated themselves in companies to the society of the Jews, whom they had before abhorred. Then the kings of the earth and their people voluntarily yielded themselves to the yoke of Christ; wolves and lions were converted into lambs; the gifts of the Holy Spirit were poured out upon the faithful, — gifts which far surpassed all the glory, all the riches, and grandeur, and precious ornaments of the world. 493 The body of the Church also was gathered together out of countries far distant from each other, and was increased and preserved in a wonderful manner. The gospel was spread far and wide within a period of time incredibly short, and equally extraordinary was the rich harvest of fruit with which the preaching of it was succeeded. Although, therefore, the renown of the Church had never been celebrated by this prophecy, yet the goodly and unequalled condition of that age, which may be called the Golden Age, clearly demonstrate that she was truly the heavenly kingdom of God. It was however requisite, even at that period, that the faithful should form their estimate of her excellence by something higher than carnal sense or reason. At the time when she flourished most, it was not purple, gold, and precious stones, which imparted to her the splendor which invested her, but the blood of martyrs. Rich she was in the graces of the Spirit, and yet poor and destitute of earthly possessions. Beautiful and glorious in holiness before God and the angels, she was nevertheless contemptible in the eyes of the world. Without she had many avowed enemies, who either exercised towards her fierce and cruel persecution, or by indirect acts practiced against her, the worst that craft could suggest; while within were alarms and treachery. In short, her dignity, venerable indeed, but yet spiritual, lay as yet hidden beneath the cross of Christ. The consolation, therefore, contained in this psalm was very seasonable, even at that time, for encouraging the faithful to wait for a more perfect state of the Church But the case stands otherwise with us. It has already long ago come to pass, 494 through the default of our fathers, that that renowned beauty of the Church has lain polluted and disfigured under the feet of the wicked. And at the present day, overwhelmed with the load of our sins, she groans under miserable desolation, under the scornful reproaches of the devil and the world, under the cruelty of tyrants, and under the wicked calumnies of enemies; so that the children of this world, who wish to live at ease, desire nothing less than to be accounted among the people of God. Whence we may perceive the more clearly how much benefit may be derived from this psalm; and, at the same time, how necessary it is to meditate upon it continually. The title does not so much refer to the authors of the psalm as to the chief musicians to whom it was committed to be sung. It is, however, possible that some Levite of the family of Korah composed it.
1. His foundations are in the holy mountains. 2. Jehovah loveth the gates of Zion above all the dwellings of Jacob. 3. Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God! Selah.
1 His foundations are in the holy mountains. Those who conceive that Jerusalem is here meant, as if it were said to be founded upon the holy mountains, are in my judgment mistaken; for the relative is in the masculine gender. Some learned men, I am aware, defend this opinion, by supposing that the words, the people, are to be supplied, although it is the capital of Judea which is specified. But it is unnecessary for me to say any thing to prove what is apparent to all, that this exposition is forced. Some Jewish interpreters have thought it most probable that this opening sentence is to be referred to the psalm itself; and, accordingly, they explain foundations as denoting metaphorically the theme, or subject of the poem, because it treats of the holy city Jerusalem, which was situated upon mountains. But I am surprised that they should have been mistaken in a matter so very obvious. It being quite a common thing among the Hebrews to put a relative without its antecedent, 495 this manner of speaking ought not to seem harsh or strange. The name of God is mentioned a little after; and we know that he is everywhere represented as having founded Jerusalem.
Some by the mountains understand Moriah and Zion, 496 which were the two tops of a mountain cleft into two, but this is too forced. As the country was mountainous, we are rather to understand the prophet as having in his eye the several neighboring and contiguous mountains which formed a chain around Jerusalem; for we will see in another place that Jerusalem was surrounded by mountains, (Ps 125:2.) The true and natural meaning then is, that God chose the holy mountains in order to found and erect his city in the midst of them. For a little after, in the prosecution of the subject, these words occur, “The Highest himself shall establish her.” He is indeed the founder of other cities also; yet we do not read of him saying with respect to any other city,
“This is my rest for ever; here will I dwell; for I have desired it,”
There is this difference, which is always to be remembered, that while other cities were founded and built by the guidance and power of God, merely for the sake of civil government, Jerusalem was his peculiar sanctuary, and his royal seat. Isaiah also uses a similar form of expression, (Isa 14:32,) “The Lord hath founded Zion, and the poor of his people shall trust in it.” Besides, although the whole country of Judea was consecrated to God, yet he is said to have rejected all the other cities, and to have chosen this one for himself in which to reign. Here the question is not about earthly polity, but spiritual government; for the pure religion, and the true worship of God, and the doctrine of godliness, were at that time to be found nowhere but in Jerusalem.
2 Jehovah loveth the gates of Zion above all the dwellings of Jacob. Here we are taught that all the excellence of the holy city depended on the free choice which God had made of it. With this agrees what is stated in Ps. 78:60, 67, that God rejected Shiloh, the tribe of Ephraim, and the tabernacle of Joseph, that he might dwell in Zion which he loved. The prophet then points out the cause why God preferred that one place before all others; and the cause which he assigns is, not the worth of the place itself, but the free love of God. If it is demanded why Jerusalem was so highly distinguished, let this short answer be deemed sufficient, Because it so pleased God. To this the divine love is to be traced as its source; but the end of such a choice was, that there might be some fixed place in which the true religion should be preserved, and the unity of the faith maintained, until the advent of Christ, and from which it might afterwards flow into all the regions of the earth. This, then, explains why the prophet celebrates Jerusalem as possessing the high distinction of having God for its master-builder, its founder and protector. Farther, he attributes to the divine favor and adoption whatever excellence it possessed above other places. In putting Zion for Jerusalem, and the gates for the whole compass of the city, there is a double synecdoche.
3 Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God! The reading literally is, That which is spoken in thee are glorious things. We must consider the design of the prophet, or rather the object of the Spirit of God, speaking by the mouth of the prophet. From the low and despised condition of the whole people, from the many and terrible enemies who pressed hard upon them on all sides, from the small number who had sufficient courage to surmount the obstacles in their way, from the new and unlooked-for changes which were daily springing up, from the danger there was lest the state of affairs gradually sinking more and more into decay, should at length become desperate, it was difficult to cherish the hope that the holy city would be restored. That despair might not overcome the hearts of the faithful, and cause them to fail, there is set before them the supporting and consolatory consideration, that the Lord hath spoken differently concerning the future condition of the Church. Their attention, there can be no doubt, is called away from the present aspect of things, and directed to the promises which inspired them with the hope of the wonderful glory with which she should be adorned. Although, therefore, nothing appeared to the eye of sense and reason, calculated greatly to rejoice the heart, yet the prophet would have them encouraged by the word to stand as it were on a watch-tower, waiting patiently for the fulfillment of what God had promised. In this way they were admonished, first, to direct their attention to the ancient prophecies, and to keep in remembrance, especially those which are contained in Isaiah from the fortieth chapter (Isaiah 40) to the end of the book; and, secondly, to give ear to the servants of God, who at that time preached the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Whence it follows that a right judgment cannot be formed of the happiness of the Church, except when we estimate it according to the standard of God’s word.
4. I will make mention of Rahab, 497 and Babel among them that know me: behold the Philistines, and Tyre, with Ethiopia, 498 he is born there! 499 Selah. 5. And it shall be said of Zion, Man and man is born in her: and the Most High himself will establish her. 6. The Lord will recount when he writeth the peoples, he is born there. Selah.
4 I will make mention of Rahab and Babel. The name of Rahab is put for Egypt in many other parts of Scripture; and this signification is very suitable to the present passage, the object of which is to portray the magnificent amplitude of the Church, which as yet was only matter of hope. It is therefore said that those who formerly were deadly enemies, or entire strangers, shall not only become familiar friends, but shall also be ingrafted into one body, that they may be accounted citizens of Jerusalem. In the first clause it is said, I will make mention of Egypt and Babylon among my household. In the second, it is added, that the Philistines, Tyrians, and Ethiopians, who hitherto had been so much at variance with the people of God, shall now be brought into as cordial harmony with them as if they were Jews by birth. What a glorious distinction of the Church, that even those who held her in contempt shall come flocking to her from every quarter, and that those who desired to see her completely cut up and destroyed, shall consider it the highest honor to have a place among the number of her citizens, and to be accounted such! All of them shall voluntarily renounce their own countries in which they had before proudly boasted. Wherever they may have been born, whether in Palestine, or Ethiopia, or Tyre, they shall profess themselves citizens of the holy city.
The Hebrew doctors explain this passage as meaning, that there shall spring from other nations very few who shall excel either in mental endowment or in virtuous attainment, but that in Israel such persons will be very numerous. Scarcely, say they, will there be found among the Tyrians, the Egyptians, the Ethiopians, and other nations, a man to each of them worthy of praise; so that if such an one be found among them, he may be pointed at with the finger, on account of his rarity; but in Zion man and man shall be born; 500 that is to say, the number of such men among the Jews shall be great. Christian doctors are almost unanimous in referring these words to Christ, and think that the cause is here assigned why those who hitherto were strangers, and even mortal enemies to each other, are now to be numbered among the citizens of Jerusalem, namely, because Christ shall be born there, 501 whose office it is to gather together into the unity of faith and hope of eternal life, men who were scattered like members torn from the body. The first of these interpretations being altogether forced, needs no refutation. Moreover, it is very evident that the Jews, actuated by a foolish ambition, wrest this passage as it were purposely. The exposition of the Christian doctors is, at first sight, plausible from its ingenuity; but it is destitute of solidity. The words clearly imply, that whatever nation men may belong to, they shall willingly renounce their own country, to be enrolled in the Register of the chosen people. When it is said, that they are born there, this does not mean that they are natives of the country, and have been brought up in it from their birth, but that they are its citizens. What is added afterwards, The Most High himself will establish her, may, with equal propriety, be translated, will order her; it being the work of God specially to govern his Church by his word.
5 And it shall be said of Zion, Man and man is born in her. It is asserted, in the 4th verse, That new citizens shall be gathered into the Church of God from different parts of the world; and here the same subject is prosecuted. Another figure is however employed, which is, that strangers by birth shall be accounted among the holy people, just as if they were descended from Abraham. It had been stated in the preceding verse, that the Chaldeans and Egyptians would be added to the household of the Church; and that the Ethiopians, Philistines, and Tyrians, would be enrolled among her children. Now, it is added, by way of confirmation, that the number of the new progeny shall be exceeding great, so that the city which had been for a time uninhabited, and afterwards only half filled with a few people, shall be crowded with a vast population. The prophet Isaiah describes more at length what is here promised, in a few words,
“Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord. Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes: for thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.” (Isa 54:1)
“Lift up thine eyes round about, and see; all they gather themselves together, they come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side.”
And, in the 44th chapter, at the 5th verse, we meet with almost the same language as in the passage before us, or at least what comes very near to it: “One shall say, I am the Lord’s; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, and surname himself by the name of Israel.” Nor is the word born inappropriately employed to express the fact, that the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and such like, shall be of the flock of God’s people. Although Zion was not the place of their natural birth, but they were to be grafted into the body of the holy people by adoption; yet as the way by which we enter into the Church is a second birth, this form of expression is used with great propriety. The condition upon which Christ espouses the faithful to himself is, that they should forget their own people and their father’s house, (Ps 45:11,) and that, being formed into new creatures, and born again of incorruptible seed, they should begin to be the children of God as well as of the Church, (Ga 4:19.) And the ministry of the Church, and it alone, is undoubtedly the means by which we are born again to a heavenly life. By the way, we should remember the difference which the Apostle sets forth as subsisting between the earthly Jerusalem, — which, being herself a bondwoman, brings forth children also in bondage, — and the heavenly Jerusalem, which brings forth free children by the instrumentality of the Gospel.
In the second part of the verse, there is expressed the stability and enduring character of Zion. It often happens, that in proportion to the rapidity with which cities rise to distinguished eminence, is the shortness of the continuance of their prosperity. That it may not be thought that the prosperity of the Church is of such a perishable and transitory nature, it is declared, that the Most High himself will establish her It is not surprising, as if it had been said, to find other cities shaken, and subject from time to time to a variety of vicissitudes; for they are carried round with the world in its revolutions, and do not enjoy everlasting defenders. But it is the very reverse with respect to the new Jerusalem, which, being founded upon the power of God, will continue even when heaven and earth shall fall into ruins.
6 The Lord will recount, when he writeth the peoples. The meaning is, that Zion will acquire such renown as to excite all men with the greatest earnestness to desire to be admitted into the number and rank of her citizens. It is a highly honorable condition which is spoken of, the language implying, that when God shall take a census of the people on whom he will be graciously pleased to confer the highest honor, he will write them as belonging to Zion, rather than to Babylon or any other cities; for to be one of the common people among the citizens of Zion, will be a greater distinction than to be invested with the highest rank anywhere else. We are, at the same time, taught that the cause to which we are to trace the sudden elevation of these aliens to so great honor, is the favor of God. Those who are the bondslaves of Satan and of sin will assuredly never be able to obtain, by any efforts of their own, the right of citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem. It is the Lord’s peculiar work to divide people into their respective ranks, distinguishing one from another, as seemeth good to him, all men being on a level by nature. This passage is to be understood as referring to effectual calling. God, it is true, wrote the names of his children in the Book of Life before the creation of the world; but he enrols them in the catalogue of his saints, only when, having regenerated them by the Spirit of adoption, he impresses his own mark upon them.
7. And the singers as the players upon instruments: all my springs are in thee. 502
The meaning of this verse is obscure, partly from its abrupt brevity, and partly from the ambiguity of one word. The word springs is, beyond all controversy, to be here taken metaphorically; but interpreters are not agreed as to the explanation of the metaphor. Some understand it as denoting hopes, some affections, and others thoughts. Did the idiom of the language admit, I would willingly subscribe to the opinion of those who translate it melodies or songs. But as this might be considered unsupported by the usage of the Hebrew term, I am rather inclined to adopt, as most suitable to the subject in hand, the opinion that lookings is the proper translation, the root of the word signifying an eye. It is as if the Psalmist had said, I will always be earnestly looking, as it were, with fixed eyes upon thee.
Let us now inquire what is meant by the other clause, The singers as the players upon instruments. This, it is true, is an abrupt form of expression; but the sense, about which there is a general agreement, is, that so great will be the ground for rejoicing, that the praises of God will resound in Zion continually, with the energy of the living voice, as well as with musical instruments. This, then, is a confirmation of what was spoken before concerning the glorious restoration of Zion; for by the greatness of the joy, and the manifold harmony and melody of praises, is portrayed the happiness which shall prevail in the midst of it. At the same time, we have here described the great design of all the gifts which God has conferred upon his Church with so liberal a hand; namely, that the faithful, by hymns and songs, should testify their remembrance of his benefits and gratefully acknowledge them. 503 The Hebrew word חוללים, cholelim, which we have rendered the players upon instruments, is translated by some, those who dance to the sound of instruments. 504 But this is a matter of no great importance, it being enough to consider the meaning, in short, as this, that there will be a continual concert of God’s praises in the Church, where he unfolds the treasures of his grace, and that the faithful will be heard singing successively and in response. Moreover, the prophet shows his singular love to the Church, and the singular care and zeal which he exercised about her, to encourage and stir up all the godly, by his example, to cultivate and manifest the same zeal, agreeably to what is stated in another psalm,
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem! let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” (Ps 137:5)
All our affections are then settled on the Church, when, gathered in from the vague and vain objects by which they are distracted, and regarding with indifference the honors, pleasures, riches, and pageantries of the world, they find enough to engage and satisfy them in the spiritual glory of Christ’s kingdom, and in that alone.
“Que des le ventre de sa mere il est serviteur domestique de Dieu, et comme nay d’un sien serviteur en la maison.” — Fr.
“Lesquels surmontoyent de beaucoup toute la gloire, toutes les richesses et magnificences et les precieux ornemens du monde.” — Fr.
“Il est advenu desja de pieca.” — Fr.
As examples of this, see 2 Sam. 1:19, 25; Ps 114:2; So 1:2; Isa. 23:1, Isa. 26:1, Isa. 330:4, Isa. 41:2, Isa. 55:4; Jer 33:2; La 3:1; Na 1:8.
Warner, who adopts this opinion, observes: — “Though the hills round about Jerusalem (Ps 125:2) were all holy, from their proximity to the holy city, yet those of Zion and Moriah (Ps 48:2) were more especially so, as on them were built the tabernacle, the palace of David, and the temple of Solomon.”
Rahab is a poetical name of Egypt, (Isa. 30:7, Isa. 51:9, Ps. 87:4, Ps. 89:11.) It signifies pride or fierceness, and seems to have been given to Egypt by the Jews, in memorial of the cruel tyranny which had been exercised over them by the Egyptians during their bondage among that people.
“Ethiopia, the land of Cush, which was in Arabia.” — Williams.
“These nations, as amongst those best known to the Jews, typify the entire Gentile world; and are intended to declare the accession of all the earth to the faith of Christianity.” — Tucker.
“But of Zion it shall be said, He and He were born there; i.e., not one, but many men of note.” — Geddes.
Horsley, who takes this view, translates —
“And every one shall say of Zion,
He was born there:”
on which he has the following note: — “Unusquisque, every one. Every one shall confess, to the honor of the Israelites, that the Savior was a native Jew.” Dimock objects to this, observing that Christ was not born at Jerusalem.
Cresswell connects the second clause of this verse with the first, in this manner: — “Singers also, and players upon the pipe, shall chant, ‘All my wells are in thee;’” i.e., says he, “all my sources of refreshment, of hope, and of salvation, are in thee, O Zion!” He adds, “The phrase, wells of salvation, occurs in Isa 12:3, the Hebrew word being the same as that which, in our two English versions of the Psalms, is translated springs and fountains.” Walford connects the two clauses in the same manner, “They sing with musical instruments, ‘All my springs are in thee.’” “The persons who are here said to sing,” he observes, “accompanied by musical instruments, are the people spoken of in verse 6. They are described as uniting in a joyful song of praise and thanksgiving; and the burden of their song is, ‘All my springs are in thee.’ Springs or fountains are a constant image for the blessings which are productive of refreshment and happiness. These new-born converts are, therefore, represented as joining the universal Church, and offering ascriptions of praise to God, who is the overflowing source of all the streams of good, which refresh and bless the people.”
“Afin que les fideles en chantant Pseaumes et Cantiques monstrent la souvenance qu’ils ont des benefices receus, et luy en facent recognoissance.” — Fr.