Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 11: Psalms, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This psalm differs from those which precede it in one respect, that it speaks of the kingdom of God, and the blessings consequent upon it, as confined within Judea; and rather calls upon the posterity of Abraham, in distinction from the surrounding nations, to praise God for the privilege of their adoption.
1. Jehovah reigns; let the people tremble: he dwells between the cherubim; let the earth be moved. 2. Jehovah is great in Zion; and he is high above all nations. 3. They shall acknowledge thy great and terrible name; it is holy. 4. The king’s strength 114 also loves judgment; thou hast established equity, thou hast done judgment and righteousness in Jacob.
1 Jehovah reigns The people, who were formerly called upon to rejoice, are now commanded to tremble. For as the Jews were encompassed by enemies, it was of the utmost importance that God’s power should be magnified among them, that they might know that, while under his guardianship, they would be constantly and completely safe from the hatred and fury of every foe. The Hebrew word רגז, ragaz, as we have elsewhere seen, sometimes signifies to tremble, at other times, to be angry, and, in short, denotes any strong emotion arising either from anger or fear. 115 Accordingly, the prophet here intends that God, in the emancipation of his chosen people, should give such a palpable display of his power, as would strike all the nations with dismay, and make them feel how madly they had rushed upon their own destruction. For it is with regard to men that God is said to reign, when he exalts himself by the magnificent displays which he gives of his power; because, while the aid which he gives to them remains invisible, unbelievers act a more presumptuous part, just as if there were no God.
2 Jehovah in Zion It is proper that we should not forget the antithesis I formerly mentioned, namely, that God is great in Zion to destroy and annihilate all the enemies of his Church; and that, when the Psalmist goes on to say, he is high above all nations, his meaning is, not that he presides over them to promote their welfare, but to disconcert their counsels, to baffle their designs, and to subvert all their power. That which immediately follows about the praising of God’s name, refers not to the nations at large, but in my opinion to the faithful, from whom alone the prophet demands a tribute of gratitude. For although God compels his vanquished enemies to acknowledge him, yet as they do not cease from speaking against his glory, and blaspheming his holy name, it cannot be to them that the exhortation is addressed, Praise the name of God, for it is holy; but to the faithful, who, from their knowledge of God’s holy name, very cordially engage in the celebration of its praises.
4 The king’s strength also loves judgment This may be viewed as a threatening designed to fill his enemies with dismay; as if he should say, such is God’s regard for righteousness and equity, that he hath clothed himself with power to avenge the injuries which his enemies have done to him. I think it preferable, however, to apply it to the Church, because she is under the government of God for the express purpose 116 of practicing righteousness and holiness. There is another interpretation which is by no means objectionable, namely, that which does not associate ideas of tyranny with the government of God, because there is constant concord between his power and justice. But when I consider the whole context, I have no doubt, that the prophet, after having introduced God as established upon his royal throne, now speaks of the manner in which he governs his kingdom; for he adds, thou hast established equity and righteousness. This clause is susceptible of two interpretations; either that God in his law has commanded his people to practice perfect equity, or that, in supporting and defending them, he has uniformly testified his great regard for his justice and equity. It is most true that the highest equity has always characterized the works and judgments of God, yet it appears more probable that it refers to that system, that form of government which God, who loves justice, appointed among the people of Israel, and which was the best rule for leading a life of honesty and integrity. And hence the word to do is improperly taken to signify to order or command. Should any one choose to consider this last clause as relating to God’s government, I am by no means disposed to disagree with him. For there is nothing that more animates and encourages the faithful to render obedience to God, or inspires them with greater zeal to observe his law, than to find in this course of action that they are the objects of his paternal care, and that the righteousness, which he requires from his own people in words, is on his part reciprocated by kind deeds.
5. Exalt Jehovah our God, and worship at his footstool; he 117 is holy. 6. Moses and Aaron among his priests, and Samuel among those who call upon his name; they called upon Jehovah, and he answered them. 7. He spake unto them in the cloudy pillar: 118 they kept his testimonies, and the statute which he gave them. 8. O Jehovah our God, thou wast a God that wast favorable to them, though thou didst take vengeance upon their inventions. 9. Exalt Jehovah our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for Jehovah our God is holy.
5 Exalt Jehovah our God This exhortation is properly addressed to the Church alone, because having been made a partaker of the grace of God, she ought the more zealously to devote herself to his service, and to the love of godliness. The Psalmist, therefore, calls upon the Jews to exalt that God from whom they had received such manifest help, and enjoins them to render that worship appointed in his Law. The temple indeed is frequently in other places denominated God’s seat, or house, or rest, or dwelling-place; here it is called his footstool, and for the use of this metaphor, there is the best of all reasons. For God desired to dwell in the midst of his people in such a manner, as not only to direct their thoughts to the outward temple and to the ark of the covenant, but rather to elevate them to things above. Hence the term house or dwelling-place tended to impart courage and confidence to them, that all the faithful might have boldness to draw near unto God freely, whom they beheld coming to meet them of his own accord.
But as the minds of men are prone to superstition, it was necessary to check this propensity, lest they should associate with their notions of God things fleshly and earthly, and their thoughts should be wholly engrossed by the outward forms of worship. The prophet, therefore, in calling the temple God’s footstool, desires the godly to elevate their thoughts above it, for he fills heaven and earth with his infinite glory. Nevertheless, by these means he reminds us that true worship can be paid to God no where else than upon mount Zion. For he employs a style of writing such as is calculated to elevate the minds of the godly above the world, and, at the same time, does not in the least degree detract from the holiness of the temple, which alone of all places of the earth God had chosen as the place where he was to be worshipped. From this we may see, since the days of Augustine, how vainly many perplex themselves in endeavoring to ascertain the reason for the prophet ordering God’s footstool to be worshipped. The answer of Augustine is ingenious. If, says he, we look to Christ’s manhood, we will perceive a reason why we may worship the footstool of God, and yet not be guilty of idolatry; for that body in which he wishes to be worshipped he took from the earth, and on this earth nothing else than God is worshipped, for the earth is both the habitation of Deity, and God himself condescended to become earth. All this is very plausible, but it is foreign to the design of the prophet, who, intending to distinguish between legal worship, (which was the only worship that God sanctioned,) and the superstitious rites of the heathen, summons the children of Abraham to the temple, as if to their standard, there, after a spiritual manner, to worship God, because he dwells in celestial glory.
Now that the shadowy dispensation has passed away, I believe that God cannot otherwise be properly worshipped, than when we come to him directly through Christ, in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells. It were improper and absurd for any one to designate him a footstool. For the prophet merely spake in this manner to show that God was not confined to the visible temple, but that he is to be sought for above all heavens, 119 inasmuch as he is elevated above the whole world.
The frantic bishops of Greece, in the second Council of Nice, very shamefully perverted this passage, when they endeavored to prove from it that God was to be worshipped by images and pictures. The reason 120 assigned for exalting Jehovah our God, and worshipping at his footstool, contains an antithesis: he is holy For the prophet, in hallowing the name of the one God, declares all the idols of the heathen to be unholy; as if he should say, Although the heathen claim for their idols an imaginary sanctity, they are nevertheless very vanity, an offense, and abomination. Some translate this clauses for it is holy; but it will appear from the end of the psalm that it was the design of the prophet by this title to distinguish God from all idols.
6. Moses and Aaron. The Psalmist magnifies the special grace which God in a very remarkable manner vouchsafed to the seed of Abraham, that thence he chose for himself prophets and priests to be, as it were, mediators between him and the people, to ratify the covenant of salvation. And he mentions three persons who were famous in former times. For Moses was, as it were, a mediator to reconcile the people unto God. Aaron was invested with the same office; and, subsequently, Samuel sustained the same character. There is no doubt, however, that under these three persons he included all the people with whom God had made a covenant. But he mentions the names of those who were the depositaries and guardians of this invaluable treasure. It may appear improper that he should speak of Moses as among the priests, since his sons were only among the common Levites, and that Moses himself, after the giving of the law, never held the office of high priest. But as the Hebrews call כוהנים, chohanim, those who are chief and very eminent personages, 121 such as kings’ sons, there is nothing to prevent the prophet from giving this designation to Moses, as if he had said that he was one of the holy rulers of the Church. 122 Moreover, if we go back to the first original — to the period prior to the publication of the law, it is certain that Moses was then invested with the high priest’s office. The design of the prophet must also be kept in mind, namely, that God not only adopted the seed of Abraham, but set apart some of them to act as mediators, whom he enjoined to call upon his name, in order that his covenant might be the more confirmed. For the invocation of which he speaks must not be understood indiscriminately of every manner of calling upon, but only of that which belongs to the priests, who were chosen by God, as intercessors to appear in his presence in the name of all the people, and to speak on their behalf.
They called upon Jehovah The Psalmist explains more fully what I have just now said, that God from the very first, and with a special reference to his gracious covenant, bestowed great benefits upon the descendants of Abraham — the Jews. And, therefore, as often as they experienced the loving-kindness of God, it behooved them to call to mind his former loving-kindness. The prophet, too, makes particular mention of the visible symbol of the cloudy pillar, by which God designed to testify in all ages that his presence was ever with his people, according as he employed temporal signs, not only for their benefit to whom they were exhibited, but also for the benefit of those who were to succeed them. Not that God always showed a cloudy pillar to his ancient people, but considering that the dullness of men is so great, that they do not perceive the presence of God unless they are put in mind by external signs, the prophet very properly reminds the Jews of this memorable token. And as God had appeared openly in the desert to their fathers, so their posterity might be well assured that he would also be near to them. He adds, that they had kept God’s testimonies, for the purpose of enforcing the duty of like obedience upon succeeding generations.
8. O Jehovah our God The prophet here reminds them that God had heard their prayers because his grace and their piety harmonized. Consequently, encouraged by their exemplary success in prayer, their posterity ought to call upon God, not merely pronouncing his name with their lips, but keeping his covenant with all their heart. He farther reminds us that if God does not display his glory so bountifully, and so profusely in every age, the fault is with men themselves, whose posterity have either utterly forsaken, or greatly declined from the faith of the fathers. It is not to be wondered at that God should withdraw his hand, or at least not stretch it forth in any remarkable way, when he beholds piety waxing cold on the earth.
O God, thou hast been propitious to them. 123 From these words it is quite obvious that what the Psalmist had formerly said concerning Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, refers to the whole people; for surely they did not officiate as priests merely for their own benefit, but for the common benefit of all the Israelites. Hence the transition is more natural which he makes from these three to the remaining body of the people. For I neither restrict the relative, to these three persons, nor do I interpret them exclusively of the same, but I rather think that the state of the whole Church is pointed out; namely, that while God, at the prayers of the priests, was propitious to the Jews, he, at the same time, sharply punished them for their sins. For on the one hand, the prophet magnifies the grace of God in that he had treated the people so kindly, and had so mercifully forgiven their iniquity; on the other hand, he specifies those awful examples of punishment by which he punished them for their ingratitude, that their descendants might learn to submit themselves dutifully to him. For it must not be forgotten, that by how much God deals graciously with us, by so much will he the less easily endure that we should treat his liberality with scorn.
In the close of the psalm he repeats the same sentence which we had in the fifth verse, only substituting his holy mountain instead of his footstool; and as for the sake of brevity he had formerly said somewhat obscurely קדוש הוא, kadosh hu, he is holy, he now says more plainly, Jehovah our God is holy His intention is to show that God is not to be worshipped by the Israelites at random, (as the religion of the heathen depended upon fancy alone,) but that his worship is founded upon the assurance of faith.
“The king’s strength seems here put for the king himself.” — Merrick Street removes the original word for strength to the end of the preceding verse, reading holy and mighty; and renders the first part of this verse thus: “Thou art a king that lovest judgment;” observing, that, in the Hebrew it is מלך, melech, not המלך, hamelech, that the word אהב, aheb, that lovest, is a participle here, and that the pronoun אתה, atah, thou, belongs to the first clause. “According to the translation of the English Bible,” says he, “there is a great want of connection. ‘The king’s strength also loveth judgment: thou dost establish equity,’ etc. There had been no king spoken of before except Jehovah, and the Psalmist is here addressing him in the second person, not speaking of him in the third.”
רגז, ragaz, “denoting commotion either of the body or mind, imports in the latter acceptation particularly two things, fear and anger, those two principal emotions of the mind. In the sense of anger we have it in Ge 45:24, where we render it falling out or quarrelling, and in 2 Kings 19:27, 28, where we render it rage So, Pr 29:9, and in Ge 41:10, the Hebrew קצף, (affirmed of Pharaoh, viz., that) he was wroth, is by the Chaldee rendered רגז. And this is much the more frequent acceptation of the word in the Old Testament.” — Hammond’s note on Ps 4:4. On the text before us, after observing that Abu Walid explains this root as signifying in the Arabic trembling and commotion, arising sometimes from anger, sometimes from fear, and other causes, the same critic says, “Here the context may seem to direct the taking it in the notion of commotion simply, as that signifies ἀκαταστασία, sedition or tumult of rebels or other adversaries. And then the sense will be thus: ‘The Lord reigneth, let the people be moved,’ i e., Now God hath set up David in his throne, and peaceably settled the kingdom in him, in spite of all the commotions of the people. The LXX. render it to this sense, as Ps 4:4, ὀργιζέσθωσαν, ‘let the people be angry or regret it as much as they will.’” The verb here, and the concluding verb of the verse, may be read in the future tense: “The people or nations shall tremble, and the earth shall be moved,” just as at the giving of the Law, “the people trembled,” and “the earth shook.” Thus the passage may be regarded as a prediction of the subjection of the heathen world to the dominion of Christ.
“A ceste condition.” — Fr. “Upon condition.”
The marginal translation in our English Bible is, it is holy, connecting holy with Jehovah’s footstool, mentioned in the preceding clause. This construction appears to be very appropriate. The third, the fifth, and in effect the ninth verses, end with this expression, which seems to be a kind of chorus, and thus divides the psalm into three parts. The first part terminates with ascribing holiness to the name of Jehovah; the second with attributing the same property to his abode; and at the conclusion, holiness, essential, infinite, and immutable holiness, is ascribed to Jehovah himself.
That God spoke to Moses and Aaron out of the cloudy pillar, there is no doubt. In Exod. 16:10, 11, we read,
“And it came to pass as Aaron spoke unto the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and, behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,” etc.
And when God said to Moses, Ex 17:6, “Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb,” The meaning undoubtedly is, that the cloudy pillar, from which he was to speak, would stand upon Horeb. See also Exod. 19:9, 18, 19. To this intercourse Aaron as well as Moses was admitted, as we learn from the 24th verse of that chapter, and from Exod. 20:21, 22. The only difficulty here is, how God can be said to have spoken to Samuel out of the cloudy pillar, of which we have no particular account in his history. To this it may be answered, that when God called upon Samuel four times successively, at the fourth time he “came and stood, and called as at other times, Samuel, Samuel,” (verse 10,) which seems parallel to those words of God to Moses, Ex 17:6, “I will stand before thee upon the rock,” and may, therefore, be presumed to mean that the cloud, the usual emblem of the Divine presence under the former dispensation, came and stood before Samuel, and that God spake from it, though it is evident that at the three preceding calls it did not appear. Again, when Samuel’s offerings and prayers were so signally heard at Mizpeh, 1 Samuel 7, it is said, verse 9, “The Lord answered him,” and verse 10, “The Lord thundered with a great thunder;” and as where thunder is, a cloud is supposed to exist, this answering of Samuel with thunder may not unreasonably be supposed to denote God’s speaking to him at this time also out of the cloud.
“Comme aussi il est esleve par dessus tout le monde.” — Fr.
“La cause qu’il rend.” — Fr. “Causae redditio.” — Lat.
“Ceux qui sont les principaux et les plus excellens personnages.” — Fr.
Accordingly, some instead of priests read princes, or chief men כהן, כחן, to minister, is a common title of civil as well as ecclesiastical officers. Hence, in Ex 2:16, for the Hebrew term כהן, the Chaldee has רבא, “the Prince of Midian.” And in 2Sa 8:18, it is said of David’s sons, that they were כהנים, which does not there mean priests, but princes or chief rulers; — רברבין, great men, as the Chaldee has it, or הראשונים, “principal or chief men about the king,” as they are termed in 1Ch 18:17. Of this sort was Ira the Jairite, who, in 2Sa 20:26, is called כהן, which does not there denote priest, but a chief ruler about David. Thus, as in the more general sense of the word, it comprehends civil as well as ecclesiastical rulers, it is evident that Moses, no less than Aaron, may be reckoned בכהניו, among God’s rulers or chief men; and, as Calvin states, it is to be noticed that Moses was, properly speaking, the Priest of the Israelites before the appointment of Aaron and his family to the sacerdotal office.
Hammond translates, “O God, thou was propitiated for their sakes.” He observes, that להם, lahem, which Calvin renders to them, is not to be understood barely in the sense of the dative case, “thou wast propitiated to them,” or “forgavest them;” but means for them, that is, for their sakes: God sparing the people, for or on account of the prayers of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. God did not destroy them when these holy and devoted men pleaded with him in their behalf; he spared them, and drew back the hand of vengeance in answer to prayer. Such was the effect of Moses’ intercessions. When the people caused Aaron to make the golden calf and worshipped it, God’s anger was kindled against them. And he said to Moses, “Now therefore, let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot, and that I may consume them, and I will make of thee a great nation.” Had Moses let God alone, the whole of that race would have been utterly consumed. But he pleaded with God in their behalf, and “the Lord repented him of the evil which he thought to do unto the people,” Ex 22:10-15. Nor was Aaron less prevalent in turning away the anger of God from the rebellious Israelites, as is evident from Nu 16:43-45. When, on the occasion of the rebellion and murmuring of the people at Moses and Aaron on account of what befell Korah and his company, God said to Moses, “Get thee up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment;” Moses and Aaron “fell upon their faces,” and prayed. Then it follows, verse 46, “And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar; and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them; for there is wrath gone out from the Lord; the plague is begun. And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people: and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stayed.” Equally successful were the intercessions of Samuel. When the Israelites were sore pressed by the Philistines, and afraid of them, they “said to Samuel, Cease not to cry unto the Lord our God for us, that he will save us out of the hand of the Philistines.” Samuel did as they desired, and God was propitiated by his prayers: “Samuel took a sucking lamb, and offered it for a burnt-offering wholly unto the Lord; and Samuel cried unto the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him.” — 1 Sam. 7:7, 8, 9