Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 11: Psalms, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This psalm differs from the preceding, inasmuch as there the Psalmist showed that God had been more than a bountiful father to his chosen people, in order to procure for himself, in coming ages, a race of pure worshippers, while here he acknowledges that these remarkable benefits had been turned to a bad account; because the Jews from time to time threw off the yoke of God, basely abused his kindness, defiled themselves with many pollutions, and also perfidiously departed from his word. Nevertheless, it is not so much in the shape of a reproof or complaint, as a confession of their sins, in order to the obtaining the pardon of them. For the prophet commences with the praises of God, with the design of encouraging both himself and others to cherish good hope in him. Then he prays that God would continue his blessing to the seed of Abraham. But because the people, after so frequently revolting from God, were unworthy of the continuation of his kindness, he asks pardon to be extended to them, and this after he had confessed that from first to last, they had provoked God’s wrath by their malice, ingratitude, pride, perfidy, and other vices. 237
1. Hallelujah. 238 Praise ye Jehovah; because he is good; 239 because his mercy endureth for ever. 2. Who shall express the power of Jehovah? who shall declare all his praise? 3. Blessed are they that keep judgment, and blessed is he who worketh in righteousness at all times. 240 4. Remember me, O Jehovah! with the good will which thou bearest towards thy people: visit me with thy salvation; 5. That I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the joy of thy nation, and glory with thy heritage.
1. Praise ye Jehovah This exhortation supplies the want of a title; not that the psalm contains nothing else than thanksgiving and praise to God, but that the people, from the experience of past favors, may obtain the assurance of reconciliation; and thus entertain the hope that God, although at present offended, would soon be pacified towards them. In celebrating the praises of God, therefore, he orders them to call to mind such things as would have a tendency to assuage their grief on account of present ills, and to animate their spirits, and prevent them from sinking into despair. 241
2 Who shall express. This verse is susceptible of two interpretations; for if you read it in connection with the one immediately following, the sense will be, that all men are not alike equal to the task of praising God, because the ungodly and the wicked do nothing else than profane his holy name with their unclean lips; as it is said in the fiftieth psalm: “But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?” And hence to this sentence the following clause should have been annexed, in the form of a reply, Blessed are they that keep judgment I am of opinion, however, that the prophet had another design, namely, that there is no man who has ever endeavored to concentrate all his energies, both physical and mental, in the praising of God, but will find himself inadequate for so lofty a subject, the transcendent grandeur of which overpowers all our senses. Not that he exalts the power of God designedly to deter us from celebrating its praises, but rather as the means of stirring us up to do so to the utmost of our power. Is it any reason for ceasing our exertions, that with whatever alacrity we pursue our course, we yet come far short of perfection? But the thing which ought to inspire us with the greatest encouragement is, the knowledge that, though ability may fail us, the praises which from the heart we offer to God are pleasing to him; only let us beware of callousness; for it would certainly be very absurd for those who cannot attain to a tithe of perfection, to make that the occasion of their not reaching to the hundredth part of it.
3 Blessed are they that keep judgment I make a distinction between this and the preceding verse, and yet so as to preserve the connection between them. For the prophet, having declared the magnitude of God’s power to be such that no tongue could utter all its praises, now says, that the praises of the lip merely are not acceptable to God, but that the concurrence of the heart is indispensable, nay, that even the whole of our deportment must be in unison with this exercise. Now, when he first commands to keep judgment, and then to work righteousness, he gives us a short description of genuine godliness. I have no doubt, that in the former clause he describes the sincere affection of the heart, and that, in the latter, he refers to external works. For we know, there is nothing but the mere shadow of righteousness, unless a man cordially devote himself to the practice of honesty. He requires perseverance, too, that no one may imagine that he has discharged this duty properly, excepting he whose constant and continued aim it is to live righteously and justly. We behold not a few who have only an empty profession; others show some signs of virtue, but do not maintain a consistent course of conduct.
4 Remember me By these words the prophet declares it to be his chief desire, that God would extend to him that love which he bore towards the Church, that he might thus become a participator of all the blessings which, from the very first, he bestows upon his chosen, and which day by day he continues with them. Nor does he desire this for himself alone, but in name of the Church Catholic, offers up a prayer alike for all, that, by his example, he might stimulate the faithful to present similar petitions.
Remember me, says he, with the good will which thou bearest towards thy people; that is to say, grant to me the same unmerited kindness which thou art pleased to confer upon thy people, that so I may never be cut off from thy Church, but always be included among the number of thy children; for the phrase, good will towards thy people, is to be understood passively of that love which God graciously bears to his elect. It is, however, by a metonymy employed by the prophet to point out the marks of God’s love. For from this gracious source flows that proof which he actually and experimentally gives of his grace. But the prophet, if accounted to belong to the number of the people of God, would consider this to be the summit of true happiness; because, by this means, he would feel that God was reconciled to him, (than which nothing is more desirables) and thus, too, he would experience that he was bountiful. The term, remember, relates to the circumstance of time, as we shall see towards the end of the psalm that it was penned when the people were in a state so sad and calamitous, that the faithful might entertain some secret apprehension that their God had forgotten them. To obviate this is the tendency of the next clause, visit me with thy salvation For God is said to visit those from whom he had apparently withdrawn himself; and their salvation is a demonstration of his good-will towards them. In the next verse he repeats the same sentiment, that I may see the good of thy chosen For he desires to be an associate and participator of the blessings which are constantly realised by the elect of God. The verb to see, is very plainly taken to denote the enjoyment of the blessings, as “to see the kingdom of God,” (Joh 3:3;) and “to see good and life” (1Pe 3:10,) denote the corresponding blessings. Those who expound it, that I may see thee do good to the chosen, are mistaken; because the preceding verse upon which this depends will not bear this interpretation, and the exposition which I have given is supported by the words which follow, that I may rejoice in the joy of thy nation, and glory with thy heritage For it is quite obvious that the prophet is solicitous to become a sharer in all the benefits which are the portion of the chosen, that, satisfied with God alone, he may, under his providential care, live joyfully and happily. Whatever might be the then mournful state of the Church, the prophet, amid all such tumult, still clings fast by this principle, that there is nothing better than to be regarded as belonging to the flock and people of God, who will always prove the best of fathers to his own, and the faithful guardian of their welfare. All that he asks is, that God would deal with him, as he is wont to deal with his Church; and declares that he could not bear the thought of being severed or separated from the common lot of the Church. These words, however, imply a tacit complaint that at that time God was withholding his loving-kindness from his afflicted Church, as if he had cast her off altogether.
6. We have sinned with our fathers, we have acted iniquitously, we have done wickedly. 7. Our fathers understood not thy wonders in Egypt; they remembered not the multitude of thy kindnesses; they rebelled at the sea, even the Red Sea. 8. Yet he saved them for his own name’s sake, that he might make his power to be known. 9. Also he rebuked the Red Sea, and dried it up; and made them walk through the depths, as through the desert. 10. And saved them from the hand of the enemy, and delivered them from the hand of the wicked. 11. And the waters covered their oppressors: there was not one of them left.
6 We have sinned with our fathers It is quite plain from these words, that although the prophet may have spoken in the person of one man, he yet dictates a form of prayer for the common use of the whole Church, seeing that he now identifies himself with the whole body. And from this to the end of the psalm, he gleans from ancient histories that their fathers had always been of a malign and perverse spirit, of corrupt practice, rebellious, ungrateful and perfidious towards God; and confesses that their descendants were not better; and having made this confession, 242 they come and ask the remission of their sins. And as we are unable to obtain the pardon of our sins until we have first confessed ourselves to be guilty of sin, and as our hardness of heart shuts out the grace of God from us, the prophet, therefore, with great propriety, humbly acknowledges the guilt of the people in this their severe and sore chastisement, and that God might justly inflict upon them a yet harder punishment. On another account it was advantageous for the Jews to have their sins set before them; because, if God punish us severely, we at once suppose that his promises have failed. But when, on the contrary, we are reminded that we are receiving the reward due to us for our transgressions, then if we thoroughly repent, those promises in which God appears as pacified towards us will come to our aid. Besides, by the three expressions which he employs in reference to their transgressions, he points out their enormity, that (as is usually the case) their hearts might not be slightly affected, but deeply wounded with sorrow. For we know how men are fettered by their vices, and how ready to let themselves alone, until compelled to examine themselves in good earnest; nay, what is more, when God calls them to judgment, they make a kind of verbal confession of their iniquities, while, at the same time, hypocrisy blinds their minds. When, therefore, the prophet says, that the people acted iniquitously in sinning, and had become ungodly and wicked, he employs no useless or unnecessary accumulation of words. Let any of us examine ourselves, and we will easily find that we have equal need to be constrained to make an ingenuous confession of our sins; for though we dare not say that we have no sin, yet there is not one of us but is disposed to find a cloak and subterfuge for his sin.
In a very similar manner, Daniel, in the ninth chapter of his prophecies, acknowledges the guilt of his own iniquities and those of the people; and it may be that the author of this psalm followed his example. From both let us learn, that the only way of pleasing God is to institute a rigid course of self-examination. Let it also be carefully observed, that the holy prophets, who never departed from the fear and worship of God, uniformly confessed their own guilt in common with the people; and this they did, not out of feigned humility, but because they were aware that they themselves were tainted with manifold corruptions, for when iniquity abounds, it is almost impossible for even the best of men to keep themselves from being infected by its baneful effects. Not comparing themselves with others, but sisting themselves before God’s tribunal, they at once perceive the impossibility of making their escape.
At that time impiety had attained to such a degree of enormity among the Jews, that it is not astonishing if even the best and most upright men were carried away, as if by the violence of a tempest. How very abominable, then, is the pride of those who hardly imagine that they offend in the least possible way; nay, who even, like certain fanatics of the day, conceive that they have attained to a state of sinless perfection! It must be borne in mind, however, that Daniel, who carefully kept himself under the fear of God, and whom the Holy Spirit, by the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel, declares to be one of the most upright of men, did not with reigned lips acknowledge his own transgressions, and those of the people, when he confessed them, under a deep sense of their grievously and dreadfully abhorrent character in the eyes of God. True, indeed, he was not overwhelmed in the same torrent of iniquity with others; but he knew that he had contracted a very large amount of guilt. Besides, the prophet does not bring forward their fathers for the purpose of palliating his own delinquency, (as many at the present day set at nought all reproof, shielding themselves with this, namely, that they have been so taught by their fathers, and that, therefore, their bad education, and not they, is at fault,) but rather to show that he and those of his own nation were obnoxious to severe punishment, because even from the very first, and as if co-existent with their early infancy, they never ceased to provoke the displeasure of God against themselves more and more by their fresh transgressions. It is in this manner that he involves the fathers with the children in many of the grounds of condemnation. 243
7 Our fathers understood not thy wonders in Egypt, Here he relates how the people immediately, from the very commencement of their emancipation from bondage, were ungrateful to God, and conducted themselves in a rebellious manner. Nor does he confine himself to the history of one period only, but the whole drift of his narrative is to point out that the people had never ceased from doing wickedly, although God met them in return with inconceivable kindness; which is a proof of the invincible and desperate perversity of this nation. He first blames the folly of the people as the occasion of such ingratitude. In calling it folly, he does not intend to lessen the offense, (as some are often wont to do,) but to expose the vile and disgraceful stupidity of the people, in being blind in matters so plain; for God’s works were such that even the blind might behold them. Whence could such gross ignorance originate, unless that Satan had so maddened them that they did not regard the miracles of God, which might have moved the very stones? Now, when he adds, they remembered not, he expresses more forcibly the inexcusable nature of their ignorance, nay, that their blindness was the result of stupid indifference, more than the want of proper instruction. For the cause of their ignorance was their overlooking those matters which, in themselves, were abundantly manifest. He further mentions how quickly that forgetfulness came upon them, which tended to increase their guilt. For it was marvelous that not even the very sight of these things could arouse their spirits. Hence it came to pass, that while they had scarcely made their departure from Egypt, and were passing through the sea, they proudly rose up against their deliverer. Surely not one year, nor even a century, ought to have erased from their minds deeds so worthy of being remembered. What madness, then, at that very time to murmur against God, as if he had abandoned them to be slaughtered by their enemies? That arm of the sea through which the people passed is, in the Hebrew, called the Sea of Suph. Some translate it the Sea of Sedge, and will have the word סופ, suph, to signify sea-weed. 244 But whatever be its derivation, there can be no doubt about the place. It is very likely that the name was given to it because it abounded with rushes.
8 And saved them The prophet here teaches what any one could easily learn from the preceding sentence, that the Israelites were saved, not on account of their deserving to be so, but because God had a regard to his own glory. That obstacle being removed, God went on to accomplish that deliverance which he had commenced, in order that his holy name might not become a reproach among the heathen. Besides, we must not overlook the antithesis between the name of God and the merits of men, because God, out of a regard to his own glory, can find in us no cause wherefore he should be moved to save us. The inestimable kindness of God, which, for the sake of a people so perverse, altered the usual order of nature, is more illustriously displayed by the account which is afterwards given of the means by which they were preserved. When he says that the sea was rebuked, he extols the power of God, at whose command and will the sea was dried up — the waters receded, so that a free passage was opened up between the opposite heaps of waters. With the design of magnifying the miracle, he employs a similitude, which, in all likelihood, was drawn from Isaiah; for in the sixty-third chapter and thirteenth verse, he says, “Thou hast made thy people to walk through the deeps, as an horse in the wilderness, that he might not stumble.” When the people walked through the sea as upon a dry plain, the prophet informs us that this was done solely by the astonishing power of God. It is quite possible, that in the desert in which the people wandered, there was many an abyss, the path rugged, and many a hill and dale and ragged rock. But it cannot be doubted that the prophet extols the power of God in the passage through the sea, and enhances it by this consideration, that the path through that deep sea was smooth. Besides, he gives greater strength to the miracle in saying that their enemies were drowned; because, when the sea afforded a free passage to the children of Israel, and covered and engulfed the Egyptians, so that not one of them escaped alive, whence proceeded this instantaneous difference, but from this, that God made a distinction between the one people and the other?
12. Then they believed his words; they sang his praises. 13. They made haste, and forgot his works; they did not attend to his counsel; 14. And lusted greatly in the desert, and tempted God in the wilderness. 15. And he gave them their desire; but sent leanness into their soul.
12. Then they believed his words In stating that they believed God’s word, and sang his praise, the prophet does not say this to their commendation, but rather to increase, in a twofold manner, their guilt; because, being convinced by such indubitable testimony, they yet instantly resumed their wonted disposition of mind, and began to rebel against God, as if they had never beheld his wonderful works. How very inexcusable was that impiety which in a moment could forget the remarkable benefits which they had been constrained to admit! Overpowered by the grandeur of God’s works, they were, he says, in spite of themselves, compelled to believe in God, and give glory to him, and thus the criminality of their rebellion was increased; because, although their stubbornness was overcome, yet they immediately relapsed into their former state of unbelief. A question, however, arises, seeing that true faith always corresponds with the nature of the word, and as the word is an incorruptible seed, so though it may happen to be almost, it never can be totally destroyed. But there is a temporary faith, as Mark calls it, (Mr 4:17) which is not so much a fruit of the Spirit of regeneration, as of a certain mutable affection, and so it soon passeth away. It is not a voluntary faith which is here extolled by the prophet, but rather that which is the result of compulsion, namely, because men, whether they will or not, by a sense which they have of the power of God, are constrained to show some reverence for him. This passage ought to be well considered, that men, when once they have yielded submission to God, may not deceive themselves, but may know that the touchstone of faith is when they spontaneously receive the word of God, and constantly continue firm in their obedience to it.
In order to point out the inconstancy of the people, he says, they made haste Some explain this in the following manner, namely, that after they had set out on their journey, they hastened to come to the place called Marah. This, however, is to give a very tame representation of the emphatic style in which the prophet speaks, when severely reprehending their hasty and headlong departure from the way, in that they believed only for a very short time, and speedily forgot God’s works; for they had only journeyed three days from their passage through the sea till they came to Marah, and yet they began to murmur against God, because they could not procure pleasant waters. 245 Meantime, we must here observe what we have seen elsewhere, that the alone cause why men are so ungrateful towards God, is their despising of his benefits. Were the remembrance of these to take fast hold of our hearts, it would serve as a bridle to keep us in his fear. The prophet declares what their transgression was, namely, that they did not suspend their desires till a fitting opportunity occurred for granting them. The insatiable nature of our desires is astonishing, in that scarcely a single day is allowed to God to gratify them. For should he not immediately satisfy them, we at once become impatient, and are in danger of eventually falling into despair. This, then, was the fault of the people, that they did not cast all their cares upon God, did not calmly call upon him, nor wait patiently until he was pleased to answer their requests, but rushed forward with reckless precipitation, as if they would dictate to God what he was to do. And, therefore, to heighten the criminality of their rash course, he employs the term counsel; because men will neither allow God to be possessed of wisdom, nor do they deem it proper to depend upon his counsel, but are more provident than becomes them, and would rather rule God than allow themselves to be ruled by him according to his pleasure. That we may be preserved from provoking God, let us ever retain this principle, That it is our duty to let him provide for us such things as he knows will be for our advantage. And verily, faith divesting us of our own wisdom, enables us hopefully and quietly to wait until God accomplish his own work; whereas, on the contrary, our carnal desire always goes before the counsel of God, by its too great haste.
14. And they lusted He goes on, according to the history, to mention the sin which, agreeably to the duty of his office as a teacher, he had briefly noticed. Should any one inquire in what way they did not attend to God’s counsel, he answers, because they had indulged in the gratification of their lusts; for the only way of acting with proper moderation is, when God rules and presides over our affections. It is therefore the more necessary to bridle that strong tendency to fleshly lusts which naturally rage within us. For whoever allows himself to desire more than is needful, openly sets himself in direct opposition to God, inasmuch as all fleshly lusts are directly opposed to him.
To tempt God is not to acquiesce in his will, but to desire more than he is willing to grant. And since there are a variety of modes of tempting God, the prophet here adverts to one mode of doing so, namely, that the people had been so presumptuous as to limit God to means of their own devising; and thus, in rejecting the way which they ought to have followed, they ascribed to God a property altogether novel, as much as to say, If God do not feed us with flesh we will not regard him as God. He gave them the food which ought to have satisfied them. And though God is not limited by any means whatsoever, yet it is his will that our minds be rendered subservient to the means which he has appointed. For instance, although he can nourish us without bread, nevertheless it is his will that our life be sustained by such provision; and if we neglect it, and wish to point out to him another way of nourishing us, we tempt his power.
15. He gave them their desire There is a fine paronomasia in the word רזון, razon, for if, instead of ז, zain, we read ץ, tsädhé, the word would signify good pleasure. The prophet, therefore, in allusion to their lusting, by a word which is very similar to good pleasure or desire, says that God sent leanness into their souls; meaning by that, that he had indeed gratified the inordinate desires of the people, in such a way, however, as that those who had loathed the manna, now received nothing but leanness. 246 Thus the prophet would seem to charge the people with what we daily observe among those who live luxuriously and are fastidious, especially when their stomach, in consequence of the fluids poured into it, being vitiated, has no relish for wholesome food. For such persons only relish that food which is pernicious; and, therefore, the more they pamper themselves with it, so much the more do they become the creatures of noxious habits; and thus in a very short time, the very food itself makes them pine away. The prophet, seems, therefore, to apply to the mind what he says about the unhealthy state of the body, and to compare the Jews to those morbid persons, whose voraciousness, instead of promoting health, injures it, because they do not derive any nourishment from their food. The reason is, that God withheld his blessing from the food which they had so immoderately longed for, in order that this their punishment for their transgression might humble them. But their perversity is seen to be very great, in that even this mode of punishing them did not overcome their stubborn hearts. It is a proverbial saying, that fools learn wisdom from the experience of evil. How insane and incorrigible must they have been, whom even compulsion itself could not reform!
16. And they envied Moses in the camp, and Aaron the saint of Jehovah. 17. The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan, and covered over the tent of Abiram. 18. And a fire was kindled in their assembly, and the flame consumed the wicked. 19. They made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped before the molten image. 20. And they changed their glory into the likeness of an ox that eateth grass. 21. They forgot God their preserver, who had done great things in Egypt; 22. And wondrous works in the land of Ham, and terrible things at the Red Sea.
16. And they envied He refers here very shortly to another transgression, and that, too, in such a way as to furnish both to himself and others ample grounds for deep consideration. For, as the people, in devising from time to time new modes of sinning, displayed so much cunning in their attempts to provoke God’s anger, so we ought the more to be filled with fear on that account. Moreover, when he says that they envied Moses and Aaron, his meaning is, that, acting under the influence of diabolic pride, they had risen up against God, and were endeavoring to throw off the yoke which he had laid upon them; according as Moses also said,
“What am I, and what is Aaron, that ye murmur against us?” (Nu 16:11)
As it was the will of God to rule the people by means of Moses and Aaron, not to submit to their rule was virtually to set themselves obstinately to resist the authority of God himself. There is therefore great importance attached to the term, envy, namely, that at the very time when God was treating the children of Israel with the utmost kindness and care, they yet were discontented with their lot, and rebelled against him. Could such madness serve any other purpose than to show, that, casting off all farther dependence upon the providence of God for their support, they aspire to rise above the very heavens? In this sense Aaron is called the saint of Jehovah, 247 in order that we might know that both he and Moses were equally identified with God; for under the person of the one, the designation is applied to both, and in this way the prophet shows that they had been Divinely invested with that authority which they were exercising. In renouncing their authority, therefore, and, to the utmost of their power, dishonoring these saints, Dathan and Abiram were rebelling not against men, but against God.
17 The earth opened The heinousness of their sin may be seen in the magnitude of the punishment by which it was visited. But the design of the prophet was to accuse and reprove publicly the obstinacy of the people, who, so far from being bettered by their corrections, (although the vengeance of God was so terrible as almost to move the very stones,) conducted themselves the more perversely. That was surely an awfully ominous event, when the earth swallowed up alive Dathan and Abiram, and all their accomplices; and when fire coming down from heaven consumed 248 them, according to the saying of Moses,
“If any thing common happen to these men, then believe not that God who ruleth in heaven rules over you and me; but if this new and extraordinary thing happen, namely, that the earth open her mouth and swallow them up, then indeed believe that I am sent by God,” Nu 16:29
When the Israelites were so infatuated as to rise in rebellion against God, then did the terrible nature of their distemper appear in that it could not be cured by the stringent remedy which was applied to it. And as even hypocrites are afraid when they feel the severity of God, it was the height of folly in them to fret and quarrel with God where he was visiting their iniquities with stripes. Should any one ask why God charges the faults of a few upon the whole body of the people? the answer is obvious; for although there were only two individuals who were the principal abettors of the conspiracy, and along with them two hundred and seventy seditious persons, yet it would seem, from the murmurings and cavillings of the whole congregation, that they also were affected with the same distemper. The punishment did not extend beyond the captains 249 and ringleaders of this wicked conspiracy, it being the design of God to mitigate it, and to spare the people at large, who nevertheless had been most desirous of innovation, seeing they could not endure the authority of Moses and Aaron.
19. They made a calf. 250 Here he represents their rebellion as exceedingly base, in that they abandoned the true worship of God, and made to themselves a calf. For although it was their intention to worship God in this manner, yet the prophet reprehends their brutal stupidity, because they worshipped before the molten image, 251 and represented God by the figure of an ox which eateth grass 252 From this the prophet infers, that God had been robbed of his honor, and that all his glory had been tarnished. And surely it is so; for although the idolaters feign to serve God with great zeal, yet when, at the same time, they represent to themselves a God visible, they abandon the true God, and impiously make for themselves an idol. But he reproaches them with being guilty of still greater impiety, when he says, after the likeness of an ox that eateth grass; and contrasts with it their honor or glory. For seeing that God had clothed them with his own glory, what madness was it to substitute in place of him not only an ox, but the inanimate form of an ox, as if there were any resemblance between God who createth all kinds of food, and that stupid animal which feeds upon grass?
It is necessary, however, to observe the design of the prophet, which is to point out the blindness of men as more base and abominable, because not contenting themselves with any common form of superstition, but casting off all sham they give themselves up to the most shocking forms of worshipping God. Had the people formed for themselves a likeness of God under the likeness of a man, even that would have been impiously robbing God of his due; how much more shameful was their conduct when they assimilated God to an ox? When men preserve their life by eating and drinking, they acknowledge how frail they are, because they derive 253 from dead creatures the means of its continuation. How much greater is the dishonor done to God when he is compared to the brutal tribes? Moreover, the comparison referred to increases the enormity of their guilt. For what credit was it for a holy people to worship the inanimate likeness of an ox instead of the true God? But God had condescended to spread out the overshadowing wings of his glory upon the children of Abraham, that he might put on them the highest honor. Therefore, in denuding themselves of this honor, they had exposed their own baseness to the derision of all the nations of the earth. And hence Moses employs the phrase of nakedness, when he is showing that crime of idolatry:
“And when Moses saw that the people were naked, (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies)”
Should any one be disposed to say that the ark of the covenant was a representation of God, my answer is, That that symbol was given to the children of Israel, not to engross the whole of their attention, but only for the purpose of assisting and directing them in the spiritual worship of God.
21. They forgot God The prophet again repeats that the people had sinned not simply through ignorance, but also wilfully, inasmuch as God had already given a very palpable manifestation of his power and glory. And as he makes himself known in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, the blindness of men is totally inexcusable. But far more aggravating is the sin of the children of Israel, who, after God had made himself known to them, in the most condescending manner, cast him off altogether, and gave themselves up to the practice of brutish idolatry. And God having from heaven put forth his Almighty power for their salvation, there must surely be no little importance attached to such displays of his power as proclaim the praise and honor of his great name. Had he merely given an ordinary token of his power, even that ought to have attracted so much consideration as should have kept the people in the fear and worship of God. Now, that these miracles were so very notable, or rather terrible and rare, the people acted a very base part to shut their eyes upon them, and give themselves over to idolatry. For as the darkness is dispelled by the beamy lustre of the sun, so all inventions and perverse errors should vanish before such knowledge of God.
23. And he said that he would destroy them, unless that Moses his chosen had stood in the breach before his face, to turn away his wrath, that he might not destroy them. 24. And they despised the pleasant land; they did not believe his word; 25. And they murmured in their tents, and did not listen to the voice of Jehovah. 26. And he lifted up his hand against them, to destroy them in the desert: 27. And to destroy their seed among the heathen, and to scatter them throughout the lands. 254
23. And he said The prophet informs us, by these words, that the people had a feeling sense of their remarkable deliverance from impending destruction, by means of prayer alone, which, for a season, restrained God’s vengeance from bursting forth against them. In a very short time, however, they return to their wonted disposition of mind, a striking proof of the awful perversity of their hearts. To represent how highly God was offended, the prophet says that he had purposed to destroy the transgressors: not that God is subject to human passions, to be very angry for a little, and then immediately afterwards, on being appeased, changes his purpose; for God, in his secret counsel, had resolved upon their forgiveness, even as he actually did pardon them. But the prophet makes mention of another purpose, by which God designed to strike the people with terror, that coming to know and acknowledge the greatness of their sin, they might be humbled on account of it. This is that repentance so frequently referred to in the Scriptures. Not that God is mutable in himself; but he speaks after the manner of men, that we may be affected with a more feeling sense of his wrath: like a king who had resolved to pardon an offender, yet sisted him before his judgment-seat, the more effectually to impress him with the magnitude of the kindness done to him. God, therefore, while he keeps to himself his secret purpose, declared openly to the people that they had committed a trespass which deserved to be punished with eternal death. Next he says that Moses stood in the breach, meaning that he had made intercession with God, lest his awful vengeance might break forth among the people. There is here an allusion to the manner in which cities are stormed; for if a breach is made in the wall by any of the various engines which are employed in war, brave soldiers will instantly throw themselves into the breach to defend it. 255 Hence Ezekiel reproaches the false prophets, who, unlike Moses, deceiving the people by their flatteries, making, as it were, a mud-wall, do not place themselves in the breach in the day of battle.
“Ye have not gone up into the gaps, neither made up the hedge for the house of Israel, to stand in the battle in the day of the Lord,” Eze 13:5.
Some expositors are of opinion that the prophet refers to the separation which the people had made among themselves in violating the covenant of God, and the sacred relation in which they stood to each other; but the meaning is the same. For in that breach which gave rise to this metaphor or similitude, God, in defending his people so faithfully, was to them in place of a wall or bulwark. Having provoked him to anger anew, he was about to rush upon them for their destruction, had not Moses interposed as their intercessor.
24. And they despised It was an evident demonstration of the unconquerable wickedness of the Jews, that, after they had been in the jaws of destruction, and while they had scarcely escaped from danger so great and so imminent, they rose up in rebellion against God. What was the cause of this rebellion? The despising of the Holy Land, which of all things ought to have been most desired by them. The country of Canaan, which had been destined to them, as the place where they were to be brought up under God’s paternal care, and as a people separated from heathen nations were to worship him only, and which, also, was more especially to them a pledge of the heavenly inheritance, — this country here, and in several other passages, is very properly called the pleasant land Was it not, then, the basest ingratitude to despise the holy habitation of God’s chosen people? To the cause of this scorn the prophet refers, when he says, they did not believe God’s word For had they laid hold upon God’s promise with that faith which it was incumbent upon them to do, they would have been inflamed with such a strong desire for that land, that they would have surmounted all obstacles which might occur in their way to it. Meanwhile, not believing his word, they not only refuse the heritage which was offered to them, but excite a rebellion in the camp, as if they would rise up in arms against God.
26. And he lifted up. He describes another example of the vengeance of God, the recollection of which ought to have been deeply seated in their hearts, so that cherishing a constant fear of him, they might watch over themselves with the utmost solicitude. No good having ensued from all this, it is obvious that the madness of that people was incurable. At that time God did restrain his anger, in that he did not disperse their offspring throughout various parts of the earth; but his threatening of itself ought to have sufficed for the subduing of their pride, had they not been incorrigible. To lift up the hand is in this passage susceptible of two meanings. In Scripture God is frequently said to lift up his hand to inflict punishment. But as it is generally admitted that the prophet is here speaking of swearing, 256 with this opinion I most readily coincide. The practice of lifting up the hand, as if they would have called God down from heaven, was a solemn usual rite among them, accompanying an oath; and is therefore improperly applied to God, whose sublimity rises above all things, and who, as the apostle says, cannot swear by a greater than himself, (Heb 6:13) In employing it, therefore, it must be understood that he borrows it from the common customs which prevail among men. Had not the Holy Land been preserved to the people by the prayers of Moses, awful indeed would their dispersion have been.
28. And they joined themselves to Baal-peor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead. 29. And they provoked God to anger by their works, 257 and the plague broke out among them. 30. And Phinehas stood up, and executed justice: and the plague was stopped. 31. And that deed was imputed to him for righteousness from generation to generation for ever.
28 And they joined themselves to Baal-peor The prophet tells us that the Jews, after they had been threatened with very awful punishment, very soon fell into a new species of apostasy. Some think, that they are indirectly accused of falling away to the superstitions of the Midianites, in consequence of having been imposed upon by female intrigue. This, it is well known, was the design of Balaam, as soon as he knew that he was forbidden by God to curse the people. His counsel to king Balak was to set the daughters of Moab before the people, to entice them by their allurements to the practice of idolatry,
“Behold, these women caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor.” Nu 31:16
And as the idolatry here mentioned originated from carnal intrigues, some expositors are of opinion, that on this account the prophet charges the people with the commission of a twofold trespass, in their not only being inveigled by the Midianitish women, but also in binding themselves by another bond to Baal-peor, (Numbers 25) Be that as it may, the prophet exclaims against the perfidy of his own nation, because in forsaking the true worship of God, they had broken that holy union by which they had been betrothed to him. For we know, that as God adopts the Church as his spouse, when she gives herself up to idolatry, she no less shamefully violates her fidelity, than when a wife leaves her husband, and becomes an adulteress. It is well known, that Baal-peor was the idol of the Midianites; but it is not so well known how he received this appellation. The word בעל, Baal, has a signification 258 equivalent to lord, master, or patron. And since פער, paar, signifies to open, some render it the God of opening, and assign as a reason, which, however, I dare not affirm, their shamefully exposing themselves in his presence. Perhaps it is the name of some place, for we know that the heathens often gave to their idols the names of the countries where they were worshipped. 259 We now perceive the prophet’s meaning, That the Jews had wickedly revolted from God, and defiled themselves in joining themselves to Baal-peor. In saying that they ate the sacrifices of the dead, 260 he points out the greater baseness of their offense. By the sacrifices of idols, he means that they ate things that were offered to idols, as they had been wont to partake of those sacrifices which bound them to the true God, the inexhaustible fountain of life. Hence their conduct was the more detestable, when they wilfully gave themselves over to death by perpetrating such a heinous crime. And we know, that banqueting was to some extent connected with their worship. The result of this was, that, renouncing the true God, they joined themselves in marriage with the dead; and thus the prophet charges them with acting a very disgraceful part, in not only bowing the knee to Baal, and offering sacrifices to him, but also in feasting upon these sacrifices.
29. And they provoked God to anger. The prophet once more informs us, that they had been put upon their guard by another plague, in order that it might appear that God had always a strict regard for his own glory, in chastising the people; but as they were not bettered by these plagues, these chastisements were fruitless. Having formerly stated, that God’s wrath had been appeased by the prayers of Moses, he now says, that the plague had been arrested or ceased by means of the kind interposition of Phinehas. Some render the word פלל, pillel, to pray; but the other rendering, to execute justice, is more in accordance with the context; namely, that by his zeal in executing justice upon the profligates, he turned away God’s vengeance from the Israelites. He stood up therefore, that is, he rose up or interposed, when all others maintained a careless indifference. As the Jews were sensible that it was by the kind intervention of one man that the plague was now healed, their obstinacy was the less excusable in not even then ceasing to sin. We must not forget that all these things are addressed to us. For when God from time to time chastises us, and calls upon us to repent by setting before us the example of others, how few profit by his corrections! Moreover, it deserves to be noticed, that the plague ceased at the very time when Phinehas executed justice. From this we may learn, that the most effectual way to quench the fire of God’s anger, is when the sinner willingly sits in judgment upon himself for the punishment of his own transgressions; as Paul says, 1Co 11:31,
“If we would judge ourselves, verily we would not be judged of the Lord.”
And surely God confers no small honor upon us, in placing the punishment of our sins within our reach. At the same time, it must be observed, that on that occasion the plague ceased in consequence of the punishment of a single person, because the people then shrunk from the abominable wickedness to which they had been addicted.
31. And that deed was imputed The prophet, in thus praising one individual, heaps reproach upon the whole body of the people. For we infer from this token of approbation with which the Holy Spirit condescended to stamp the excellent action of Phinehas, how very base their conduct must have been. Neither was this honor reserved for him alone, but his posterity were to enjoy it throughout their succeeding generations. In order, therefore, to cast the greater reproach upon the people, Phinehas alone is contrasted with them. Some may be disposed to inquire, how the zeal of a single individual, overstepping the boundaries 261 of his calling, taking a sword and executing justice, could be approved of God? For it would seem, as if he had ventured upon this action without due consideration. I answer, that the saints have sometimes been under peculiar and extraordinary impulses, which ought not to be estimated by the ordinary standard of actions. When Moses slew the Egyptian, (Ex 2:12) though not yet called by God to be the deliverer of Israel, and while he was not yet invested with the power of the sword, it is certain, that he was moved by the invisible and internal impulse of God to undertake that deed. Phinehas was moved by a similar impulse. No one indeed imagined that he was armed with the sword of God, yet he was conscious to himself of being moved by a heavenly influence in this matter. And hence it is to be observed, that the common mode and order of calling which God adopts, does not prevent him, whenever it seems proper, to stir up his elect by the secret influence of the Spirit to the performance of praiseworthy deeds.
But a more difficult question still remains, How that one action could be imputed to Phinehas for righteousness? 262 Paul proves that men are justified by faith alone, because it is written,
“Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness,” Ro 4:3
In Ge 15:6, Moses employs the same word. If the same thing may be said respecting works, the reasoning of Paul will be not only feeble, but frivolous. First of all, let us examine, whether or not Phinehas was justified on account of this deed alone. Verily the law, though it could justify, by no means promises salvation to any one work, but makes justification to consist in the perfect observance of all the commandments. It remains, therefore, that we affirm, that the work of Phinehas was imputed to him for righteousness, in the same way as God imputes the works of the faithful to them for righteousness, not in consequence of any intrinsic merit which they possess, but of his own free and unmerited grace. And as it thus appears, that the perfect observance of the law alone (which is done no where) constitutes righteousness, all men must prostrate themselves with confusion of face before God’s judgment-seat. Besides, were our works strictly examined, they would be found to be mingled with much imperfection. We have, therefore, no other source than to flee for refuge to the free unmerited mercy of God. And not only do we receive righteousness by grace through faith, but as the moon borrows her light from the sun, so does the same faith render our works righteous, because our corruptions being mortified, they are reckoned to us for righteousness. In short, faith alone, and not human merit, procures both for persons and for works the character of righteousness. I now return to Paul. And it is not from a single expression, that he argues that we are justified freely, and by faith only, but he assumes higher principles, to which I lately referred, that all men are destitute of righteousness, until God reconcile them to himself by the blood of Christ; and that faith is the means by which pardon and reconciliation are obtained, because justification by works is no where to be obtained. Hence he very properly concludes, that we are justified by faith alone. But righteousness by works is as it were subordinate (as they say) to the righteousness just mentioned, while works possess no value in themselves, excepting, and as far as, out of pure benevolence, God imputes them to us for righteousness.
32. And they provoked him to anger at the waters of strife 263 , and it turned out ill to Moses on their account: 33. For they grieved his spirit, 264 so that he spake with his lips. 34. They did not destroy the nations whom Jehovah had commanded them: 35. But were mingled with 265 the heathen, and learned their works. 36. And served their idols: which were the occasion of their overthrow. 37. And sacrificed their sons and daughters unto devils, 38. And they shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was defiled with blood. 39. And they were polluted with their own works, and went a whoring after their own inventions. 266
32 And they provoked him The prophet mentions another offense of which they were guilty, in that, they contended with God at the waters of strife, from which circumstance that place derived its name. The clamor was, it is true, raised directly against Moses, but if we examine the matter properly, we will find that they virtually murmured against God himself. And to point out the aggravation of their offense, he says that Moses was hardly dealt with on their account. From this it may be inferred that their transgression was very heinous, in that God did not spare even his own servant, whom he had chosen in preference to all others. We do not deny that Moses deserved that punishment; but if we search for the origin of the trespass, we will find that it was the sin of the people that was visited upon him. If Moses was prevented from entering the land of Canaan, because through the influence of the sin of others, and in opposition to the convictions of his own mind, he had been hurried on to the commission of iniquity, how much more inexcusable is the impiety of that people who deliberately strove with God, and by their folly and fretfulness, brought in Moses for a share of their guilt?
33. For they grieved his spirit The verb מרה, marah, properly signifies to vex or irritate, but as it is here put in what the Hebrews call the Hiphil conjugation, some are of opinion that it is to be understood passively, to denote that it was the people who were the occasion of the rebellion; which interpretation does not appear to me to be very objectionable. I cannot, however, agree with those who would have the particle את, eth, to be a sign of what is denominated the dative case, as if Moses might be said to have rebelled against the Spirit of God. Had he done so, then assuredly the prophet would not have spoken so severely of the sin and folly into which he had inadvertently fallen. The meaning which I have already given answers very well, That the prime movers of the rebellion must have committed a very heinous offense, seeing that Moses, who had been pushed on by the impetuosity of the people to sin, was so severely dealt with by God. But while the prophet informs us that Moses was punished on the people’s account, he is not to be understood as saying that he was altogether blameless. For even admitting that his spirit was ruffled in consequence of the tumult of the people, this ought to have made him the more careful to continue steadfast in his adherence to the Law of God. He adds, that he spoke with his lips; and this I take to refer to Moses, there being no ground for the conjecture that it refers to the punishment which God expressly denounced against Moses. It is more likely that these words were intended by the prophet to express how greatly the spirit of Moses was agitated when he openly murmured against God. The prophet, therefore, informs us that the submissive and gentle spirit of Moses was fanned, as it were, into a breeze by the perverseness of the people, so that even he spake un-advisedly, saying, “Can God give you water out of the rock?” (Nu 20:10) For such was the indignation which he felt burning within him, that he could not calmly wait for the commandment of God to smite the rock.
34. They did not destroy the nations It appears to me that those persons are mistaken who think that the prophet is here simply giving a relation of the punishment which was inflicted upon the Jews, as if he were imputing to them the entire blame of not exterminating the nations, in consequence of their not deserving the honor of obtaining any more victories over them. But he rather prefers another charge against them, that they had been remiss in driving out the heathen, or more probably that they had not obeyed the Divine command to root them out of the land. Now that the cup of the iniquity of the Amorites was full, it was the purpose of God that they should be exterminated, lest their society might prove injurious to the holy people. For God, having chosen that land for a habitation to himself, intended that it should be holy and purified from all defilement. In refusing, therefore, to execute the vengeance enjoined upon them, the people showed their willingness to associate with the uncircumcised inhabitants of Canaan. In manifesting such indifference about God’s command respecting the driving out these nations, they gave just cause for his anger waxing hot against them. Behold, saith he, I have commanded all these nations to be cut off by the sword; and now, because ye have not obeyed my voice,
“they shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell,” Nu 33:55
The not destroying all these nations, but permitting some of them to remain, might appear to be an act of mercy; but in thus acting, the people were guilty of neglecting to execute God’s righteous vengeance upon them, and of leaving the land liable to be polluted with their abominations. From these things it ought to be noticed, that there are two extremes in which men are apt to indulge, either in being unnecessarily over rigorous, or in defeating the ends of justice by too great lenity. We must, therefore, adhere strictly to God’s command, if we would desire to shun both extremes. For if the Israelites are condemned for sparing some of these nations wholly, what are we to think of those judges who, from a timid and apathetic attention to the responsible duties of their office, exercise too much lenity to a few persons, thus weakening the restraints of the inlets to vice, to the great detriment of the public weal?
35 But were mingled He describes what was the result of this foolish humanity; namely, that they were defiled with the pollutions of the nations whom they had spared. Had they exclusively inhabited the land of Canaan, they would have more easily retained the pure worship of God. Allured by the influence of such neighbors, it is not wonderful that they soon degenerated from the footsteps of their fathers, for we are more inclined to follow the example of the bad than of the good. And now he speaks of the descendants of those who had so frequently provoked God’s anger in the wilderness, and declares, that as the same unbelief, rebellion, and ingratitude, were rampant in the succeeding race, they were no better than their fathers.
In mingling with the heathens they openly rejected the distinguishing loving-kindness of God, who adopted them as his children, under the express condition that they should be separated from these profane nations. Therefore, in associating with them indiscriminately, they render this holy covenant of no effect. When he adds, that they learned their works, he warns us, that nothing is more dangerous than associating with the ungodly; because, being more prone to follow vice than virtue, it cannot but be, that the more conversant we are with corruption, the more widely will it spread. In such circumstances, the utmost care and caution are requisite, lest the wicked, with whom we come into contact, infect us by their vitiated morals; and particularly where there is danger of relapsing into idolatry, to which we are all naturally prone. What, then, will be the effect produced upon us when instigated by others to commit sin, but to add sin to sin? 267 The prophet, therefore, declares that the Jews were already so much under the tuition of the heathen as to abandon themselves to the practice of their idolatrous rites. In employing the word to serve, he confutes the contemptible evasion of the Papists, who pretend that they do not give to images the worship that is due to God alone, but only a sort of honorary adoration. 268 But if the worshipping of images be lawful, the prophet had no sufficient cause to condemn his own nation for serving strange gods. Despicable, therefore, is the distinction, that Divine homage is to be paid to God alone, and that a kind of honorary adoration is to be given to images. He adds, that this issued in their overthrow, in order that their obstinate attachment to their follies, and their despising the chastisements of God, may more palpably appear.
37. And they sacrificed The prophet here mentions one species of superstition which demonstrates the awful blindness of the people; their not hesitating to sacrifice their sons and daughters to devils. 269 In applying such an abominable designation to the sin of the people, he means to exhibit it in more hateful colors. From this we learn that inconsiderate zeal is a flimsy pretext in favor of any act of devotion. For by how much the Jews were under the influence of burning zeal, by so much does the prophet convict them with being guilty of greater wickedness; because their madness carried them away to such a pitch of enthusiasm, that they did not spare even their own offspring. Were good intentions meritorious, as idolaters suppose, then indeed the laying aside of all natural affection in sacrificing their own children was a deed deserving of the highest praise. But when men act under the impulse of their own capricious humor, the more they occupy themselves with acts of external worship, the more do they increase their guilt. For what difference was there between Abraham and those persons of whom the prophet makes mention, but that the former, under the influence of faith, was ready to offer up his son, while the latter, carried away by the impulse of intemperate zeal, cast off all natural affection, and imbrued their hands in the blood of their own offspring.
38. And they shed He inveighs with still greater indignation against that religious phrensy which led them to sacrifice their own children, and thus to pollute the land by the shedding of innocent blood. Should any one object that Abraham is praised, because he did not withhold his only son, the answer is plain, That he did it in obedience to God’s command, so that every vestige of inhumanity was effaced by means of the purity of faith. For if obedience is better than sacrifice, (1Sa 15:22) it is the best rule both for morality and religion. It is an awful manifestation of God’s vindictive wrath, when the superstitious heathens, left to their own inventions, become hardened in deeds of horrid cruelty. As often as the martyrs put their life in jeopardy in defense of the truth, the incense of such a sacrifice is pleasing to God. But when the two Romans, by name Decii, 270 in an execrable manner devoted themselves unto death, that was an act of atrocious impiety. It is not without just cause, therefore, that the prophet enhances the guilt of the people by this consideration, that to the perverse mode of worshipping God, they had added excessive cruelty. Nor is there less cause for charging them with having polluted that land out of which God had commanded them to expel the ancient inhabitants, in order that he might render it the peculiar scene where he was to be worshipped. The Israelites then were doubly wicked, who, by not only defiling the land with their idolatry, but also by cruelly butchering their children, robbed God of his due, and in a manner frustrated his designs.
39 And they were polluted with their own works He now concludes by stating generally, that the Jews, in adopting the abominable practices of the heathen, were become wholly filthy; because in all the devices of men there is nothing else than impurity. He denominates as the works of men all the false worship which they devise without the Divine sanction; as if he should say, that the holiness, which is truly connected with the worship of God, comes from his word, and that all human inventions and admixtures in religion are profane, and tend to corrupt the service of God. Doubtless it was the intention of the Israelites to serve God, but the Holy Spirit declares that all the fruit of their burning zeal was their becoming more abominable in God’s sight by their lewd inventions. For a strict adherence to the word of God constitutes spiritual chastity.
40. And the wrath of Jehovah waxed hot against his people, and he abhorred his own inheritance: 41. And he delivered them into the hands of the heathen; and their enemies ruled over them. 42. And their adversaries subdued them, and they were afflicted under their hand. 43. Many times he delivered them; and they provoked him with their counsel, and were oppressed by their iniquity. 44. And he saw when they were in straits, in that he heard their cry: 45. And he remembered his covenant towards them, and it repented him according to the greatness of his mercies. 46. And he made them to find pity from those who had carried them away captive.
40. And the wrath of Jehovah waxed hot. The severity of the punishment inflicted upon the people confirms the truth of what we formerly said, that they had been guilty of no trivial offense, in presuming to corrupt the worship of God. And they themselves showed how hopeless their reformation was, in that all this as yet failed to bring them truly to repent of their sin. That the people, who were God’s sacred and chosen heritage, were delivered up to the abominations of the heathen, who themselves were the slaves of the devil, was an awful manifestation of his vindictive wrath. Then, at least, ought they to have held in abhorrence their own wickedness, by which they had been precipitated into such direful calamities. In saying, that they were subdued and afflicted by their enemies, the prophet points out, in a still more astonishing manner, the baseness of their conduct. Reduced to a state of bondage and oppression, their folly appears the more disgraceful, in that they were not truly and heartily humbled under God’s almighty hand. For prior to this, they had been warned by Moses, that they had not casually fallen into that bondage so galling to them, neither had it happened by the valor of their enemies, but because they were given over, and, as it were, sold to it by God himself. That those who had refused to bear his yoke, should be delivered up to tyrants to harass and oppress them, and that those who would not endure to be ruled by God’s paternal sway, should be subdued by their enemies, to be trodden under their feet, is a striking example of God’s retributive justice.
43. Many times. As the wicked perversity of the people was manifested in that God’s severe chastisements failed to produce their reformation, so now, on the other hand, the prophet deduces the detestable hardness of their hearts from the fact, that all the benefits which they had received from God could not bend them into obedience. They did, indeed, in the time of their afflictions, groan under the burden of them; but when God not only mitigated their punishment, but also granted them wonderful deliverances, can their subsequent backsliding be excused? It becomes us to bear in mind, that here, as in a glass, we have a picture of the nature of all mankind; for let God but adopt those very means which he employed in relation to the Israelites, in order to reclaim the majority of the sons of men, how comparatively few are there who will not be found continuing in the very same state as they were? And if he either humble us by the severity of his rod, or melt us by his kindness, the effect is only temporary; because, though he visit us with correction upon correction, and heap kindness upon kindness, yet we very soon relapse into our wonted vicious practices. As for the Jews, their insensate stupidity was insufferable, in that, notwithstanding the many and magnificent deliverances which God wrought out for them, they did not cease from their backslidings. For the Psalmist says, that they, nevertheless, provoked God with their wicked inventions Then he declares that they received a just recompense of reward in being oppressed by their iniquity. Moreover, he informs us, that though they were most deserving of all their afflictions, yet their groanings were heard; whence we learn, that God, in his unwearied kindness, did not cease to strive with them on account of their perverseness of spirit.
For what pity was this, to hear the cry of those who turned a deaf ear to his wise instructions, and were regardless of all his warnings and threatenings? And yet after all this forbearance and long-suffering, their exceedingly depraved hearts remained unchanged.
45. And he remembered God’s being mindful of his covenant is here assigned as the cause of his great mercy and long-suffering. In that covenant, he not only declares that there is a gracious pardon for transgressions, but he also adverts to the perverse blindness of those who were not brought back by such remedies to the covenant, in which they were well aware that their safety was placed. But above all, he charges them with ingratitude; because, when deserving to perish, they did not acknowledge that they were indebted to the mercy of God alone for their preservation. This observation is strengthened by the next clause of the verse, in which he says that God had spared them according to the greatness of his mercies For the greatness of the punishment which their sins deserved, may be inferred from the great treasures of his loving-kindness, which God had to open in order to procure their redemption. The word to repent expresses no change in God, but only in the mode of administering his corrections. It may seem as if God altered his purpose, when he mitigates punishment, or withdraws his hand from executing his judgments. The Scripture, however, accommodating itself to our weak and limited capacity, speaks only after the manner of men.
46. And he made them to find pity As he had above said, that the Jews had been delivered into the hands of their enemies, because God’s anger was, as it were, arms to their adversaries to subdue them; so now he says, that the same God had softened the hearts of these very enemies, who, by terrible means, and with great cruelty, had executed his vengeance upon them. As, then, the hearts of all men are entirely under God’s control, to harden or to soften them according to his sovereign pleasure, so, while his anger was kindled against his people, their enemies were at the same time also inflamed with implacable resentment towards them. But the moment his anger was appeased, the fire which issued from the furnace of his judgment was extinguished, and the cruelty of their enemies was changed into mercy. And that enemies, cruel and barbarous, should begin to love and pity those whom they formerly hated, was a change so astonishing as to be incredible, had they not, in the kind providence of God, from wolves been transformed into lambs.
47. Save us, O Jehovah our God! and gather us from among the heathen, to praise thy holy name, and to glory in thy praise. 48. Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Israel, for ever and ever; and let all the people say, Amen. Praise ye Jehovah. 271
47. Save us, Jehovah our God! From the conclusion of the psalm, it is evident, that it was composed during the sad and calamitous dispersion of the people. And although subsequent to the times of Haggai and Malachi, no famous prophets appeared among the people, it is nevertheless probable that some of the priests were endued with the spirit of prophecy, in order that they might direct them to the source whence they might receive all needful consolation. It is my opinion, that after they were dispersed by the tyranny of Antiochus, this form of prayer was adapted to the exigency of their existing circumstances, in which the people, by reflecting upon their former history, might acknowledge that their fathers had, in ways innumerable, provoked God to wrath, since the time he had delivered them. For it was needful for them to be completely humbled, to prevent them from murmuring against God’s dispensations. And seeing that God had extended pardon to their fathers though undeserving of it, that was calculated to inspire them hereafter with the hope of forgiveness, provided they carefully and cordially sought to be reconciled to him; and especially is this the case, because there is here a solemn remembrance of the covenant, through the faith of which they might draw near to God, though his anger was not yet turned away. Besides, as God had chosen them to be his peculiar people, they call upon him to collect into one body the dissevered and bleeding members, according to the prediction of Moses,
“If any of thine be driven out unto the utmost parts of heaven, from thence will the Lord thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee,” De 30:4
This prediction was at length accomplished, when the widely separated multitude were gathered together, and grew up in the unity of the faith. For although that people never regained their earthly kingdom and polity, yet their being grafted into the body of Christ, was a more preferable gathering together. Wherever they were, they were united to each other, and also to the Gentile converts, by the holy and spiritual bond of faith, so that they constituted but one Church, extending itself over the whole earth. They subjoin the end contemplated by their redemption from captivity, namely, that they might celebrate the name of God, and employ themselves continually in his praises.
48. Blessed be Jehovah, the God of Israel The prophet here regulates the prayers and desires of the people in such a way, as that, amid their grievous oppression, the dejected captives may not cease to render thanks to God; and this is a matter which must be carefully attended to, because, when borne down by adversity, there is scarcely one among a hundred, who, with composure of spirit, draws near to God; but, on the contrary, he betrays the pride of his heart by the careless and insipid manner in which he prays, or in pouring out complaints about his afflicted condition. But the only way in which we can expect God to lend a favorable ear to the voice of our supplications is, in the spirit of meekness to submit to his corrections, and patiently to bear the cross which he is pleased to lay upon us. It is with great propriety then, that the prophet exhorts the afflicted captives to bless God, even when he was chastising them with considerable severity. It is to the same purpose that it is added, let the people say, Amen; as if he were commanding them all to consent to the praises of God, though both privately and publicly they were overwhelmed in a sea of troubles.
The first and two last verses of this psalm form a part of that psalm which David delivered into the hand of Asaph and his brethren, to be sung before the ark of the covenant, after it was brought from the house of Obed-edom to mount Zion. See 1Ch 16:34-36. Hence it has been ascribed to the pen of David. Many of the ancients thought, and they are followed by Horsley and Mudge, that it was written during the captivity; resting their opinion chiefly on verse 47; but as that verse occurs in the psalm of David recorded in 1 Chronicles 16, at the 35th verse, this argument is clearly without force.
“הללו יה, Praise the Lord. These words constitute the title, and are not to be considered as making any part of the text of the psalm. The Chaldee retains them as a title; the LXX. and Vulgate have the Hebrew words, which are joined into one; whilst the Syriac has in their stead a sort of table of contents of the psalm ” — Phillips.
“כי-טוב, For he is good. משפטיו is employed emphatically, denoting that God is good, without any mixture of evil, perfectly good in himself, and is, as it were, the fountain from which flows every good, and nothing but good. Hence we read in Mt 19:17, ‘There is none good but one, that is, God.’” — Ibid.
Bishop Horsley, following the Syriac, which reads משפטיו, and all the other versions, which read עשי, translates the verse, “Blessed are they that keep his judgments, and do righteousness at all seasons.”
It is the province of faith to celebrate the divine mercy in the most trying circumstances.
“Ils vienent a demander pardon de leurs pechez.” — Fr.
“En beaucoup d’articles de condemnation.” — Fr.
“At the Red Sea, i.e., at the Arabian Gulf; literally, at the Sea of Suph, which, if Suph be not here a proper name, (as it seems to be in De 1:1 and, with a slight variation, in Nu 21:14) means the sea of weeds; and that sea is still called by a similar name in modern Egypt. This, its designation throughout the books of the Old Testament, is in the Syriac version and the Chaldee paraphrase likewise rendered the sea of weeds; which name may have been derived from the weeds growing near its shore, or from the weeds, or coralline productions, with which, according to Diodorus Siculus and Kircher, it abounded; and which were seen through its translucent waters. Finati, quoted by Laborde, speaks of the transparency of its waters, and the corals seen at its bottom ” — Cresswell. It has sometimes been asserted that this sea received the appellation of Red from its color. But it has been abundantly attested by those who have seen it, that it is no more red than any other sea. Niebuhr, in his description of Arabia, says, “The Europeans are accustomed to give the Arabian Gulf the name of Red Sea; nevertheless, I have not found it any more red than the Black Sea or the White Sea, or any other sea in the world.” Artemidorus in Strabo expressly tells us that “it looks of a green color, by reason of the abundance of sea-weed and moss that grow in it;” which Diodorus Siculus also asserts of a particular part of it. It appears to have derived its name of “Red Sea” from Edom, which signifies red. Although throughout the whole Scriptures of the Old Testament it is called Yam Suph, the weedy sea, yet among the ancient inhabitants of the countries adjoining it was called Yam Edom, the sea of Edom, (1Ki 9:26; 2 Chr. 8:17, 18,) the land of Edom having extended to the Arabian Gulf; and the Edomites or Idumeans having occupied at one time a part, if not the whole, of Arabia Petraea. The Greeks, who took the name of the sea from the Phoenicians, who called it Yam Edom, instead of rendering it the sea of Edom, or, the Idumean Sea, as they ought to have done, took the word Edom, by mistake, for an appellative, instead of a proper name, and accordingly rendered it ερυθρα θαλασσα, that is, the Red Sea. Hence the LXX. translate Yam Suph, by the Red Sea; in which they have been followed by the authors of our English version. But the sea of weeds is undoubtedly the best translation of the Hebrew text. — See Prideaux’ Connections, etc., volume 1, pages 39, 40.
The history to which reference is here made is recorded in Ex 15 We read in the 22nd verse of that chapter, that the Israelites “went out into the wilderness of Shur, and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water.” They then came to Marah, where there was abundance of water; but it was so bitter that they could not drink of it. Being thus disappointed in the hopes with which the first sight of these waters inspired them, they murmured against Moses, and said, “What shall we drink?” How rapid the transition from gratitude and praise to discontent and murmuring! No sooner did a new trouble befall that people, than they forthwith yielded to impatience, forgat the long series of miracles which had been wrought for their deliverance from Egypt, and distrusting God, appeared to be at once prepared to break out in rebellion against him and Moses their leader.
The reference here is to the quails which God granted to the people in answer to their request for flesh, but which, from the excess in which they partook of them, so far from affording nourishment, proved the cause of disease. When food of an unwholesome quality, or too much of that which is wholesome, is eaten, nature with much violence seeks to throw it off from the system by the several evacuations, upon which follows a sudden and almost incredible deprivation of strength and flesh. The Israelites, when God gave them the quails, having indulged their appetite to an immoderate degree, (Ex 16:8; Ps. 78:25, 29,) the effect was their being seized with a sudden and wasting sickness, which is supposed by some to have been what is called cholera, a disease which produces a rapid prostration of strength and emaciation of the whole frame. This opinion seems confirmed from what is stated in Nu 11:20, where it is threatened that the quails should “come out at their nostrils,” probably indicating the violent vomitings which accompany that malady. It is indeed said, that the Lord smote the people with a very great plague, Nu 11:33. But God’s agency, and even his miraculous agency, admits of the subserviency of means. French and Skinner read the clause, “But sent a wasting disease among them.” “The word רזה, to attenuate, emaciate,” says Hammond, “is used also for destroying, Zep 2:11, when God threatens that he will emaciate, i.e., destroy all the gods. And then רזון, may be rendered, more generally, destruction or plague, and so R. Tanchum on Zephaniah renders it destruction.”
“The saint, i.e., a man consecrated with holy oil to the office of the priesthood, and wearing on his mitre a plate inscribed, ‘Holiness to the Lord,’ (Ex 28:36)” — Cresswell. קדוש יהוה, holy of the Lord. Aaron is thus called, because he was separated from the whole congregation of Israel, and appointed to direct the public worship, and to offer the sacrifices. In reference to this, Moses said to Korah, ‘The Lord will show who are His, and who is holy,’ (Nu 16:5) — Phillips.
The fire consumed two hundred and fifty, and fourteen thousand and seven hundred died of the plague. — Num. 16:35, 49.
“Capitaines et portenseignes.” — Fr.
This idol seems to have been an imitation of the Egyptian God Apis, or Serapis, a word which signifies the head of an ox, the Egyptians having exalted that animal to the rank of a god whom they absurdly worshipped, and to whom they resorted as to an oracle. “The modern Jews assert, that their ancestors were in that matter misled by certain Egyptian proselytes, who had accompanied the Israelites when they were delivered from their bondage. The Psalmist, it may be remarked, does not observe the order of time in his narrative, the making of the calf being prior to the fate of Dathan and Abiram. — Comp. Exod. 32:4, 5.” — Cresswell.
“More properly, ‘the overlaid image;’ or, more literally still, ‘the metalline shell.’” — Horsley. “The Hebrew word,” says Mant, “here, as elsewhere, rendered by our translators ‘molten image,’ strictly and properly means ‘the metalline case’ or ‘covering spread over’ the carved wood. It is often joined with the ‘carved wooden, image’ which it covered. Aaron’s calf was thus made of wood, and overlaid with gold.”
“That eateth hay — the Egyptians, when they consulted Apis, presented a bottle of hay or of grass, and if the ox received it, they expected good success.” — Cresswell.
“Empruntent des creatures mortes la continuation d’icelle.” — Fr.
Some interpreters, as Mudge and Horsley, have felt great difficulty in interpreting this verse. “Nothing,” says the latter critic, “was said about overthrowing the seed, at the time when the adults, which came out of Egypt, were sentenced to perish in the wilderness. On the contrary, it was promised that their little ones, i.e., those who were under the age of twenty years at the time of the general muster, should be settled in the land of Canaan. — See Nu 14“ He farther adds, that “nothing was said at the time alluded to about scattering the seed, which should be settled in Canaan, in some future period, through the lands.” And he concludes his note on the verse by observing, that, upon the whole, he could not explain it to his own satisfaction. But there seems in the passage to be a reference to those prophetical denunciations afterwards uttered, by which God threatened that he would punish the sins of the Israelites, not only in their own persons, but also in their posterity; — denunciations which have been fulfilled in the various dispersions of that people, and which are fulfilling at the present day. — Le 26:33; De 28:64. “It is obvious,” says Dr Morison, “that those interpreters are mistaken who refer the allusions of the 27th verse to the same history as those of the 26th. The people overthrown in the wilderness were to be destroyed by pestilence; but the overthrow threatened in the 27th verse was by banishment and captivity.”
The sins of the people had opened a breach or gap, for God as an enemy to enter and destroy them. But, like soldiers who stand in the breach that has been made in the walls of a beleaguered city to oppose the irruption of the enemy, Moses, by his earnest prayer, stopped this breach, Ex 32:11-14. “Moses is here mentioned in the character of a mediator, under the figure of one standing in the breach of the wall of a city made by besiegers, to oppose any farther hostile aggressions. The figure of a breach is frequently employed in Scripture to denote some destruction by God. Thus in Jud 21:15, God made a breach,פרף, in the tribes of Israel, i.e., He destroyed one of the tribes, viz., that of Benjamin: see also 2Sa 6:8; Eze 22:30. Hence in this passage we understand that God would have destroyed the Israelites, had not Moses stood in the breach, i.e., interceded by his prayers, just at the time when the divine judgments were about to be executed. The Chaldee has paraphrased it thus, If Moses had not stood before Him and prevailed in prayer, i.e., arrested the destruction.” — Phillips
The passage refers to the oath which God swore against that people recorded in Nu 14:21-23. To the same oath there is an allusion in Ps 95:11. The Chaldee paraphrast has, “He lifted up his hand with an oath.”
In our English Bible it is “their inventions.” “Rather,” says Horsley, “‘their frolics.’”
“Signifie autant comme Maistre ou Patron.” — Fr.
Baal was a very common name of the principal male god of the nations of the East, as Ashtaroth was a common one for their chief female deity. The Moabites, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and often the Hebrews, worshipped this idol. Among the Babylonians, he was called Bel or Belus. The sun only might at first be worshipped under that name, as we know that under it the Phoenicians adored that luminary. But at length it came to be applied to many other idols, according to these words of the Apostle, “There be gods many, and baalims, or lords many,” 1Co 8:5. As the idol Jupiter among the Romans had different names and different rites of worship, occasioned sometimes from the different benefits which he was thought to bestow upon men, as Jupiter Pluvius, because he gave rain, Jupiter Lucetius, because he gave light, Jupiter Altitonans, from thundering; and sometimes from different places — as Jupiter Olympius, from the hill Olympus, Jupiter Capitolinus, from the Capitol hill, Jupiter Latialis, from that part of Italy which is called Latium: so Baal had his distinctive titles, and different rites of worship, occasioned in the same manner. He sometimes received his name from the benefits he was supposed to confer, as Baal-tsephon, (Ex 14:1) the latter term denoting a watcher, and Baalzebub, (2Ki 1:2) which signifies the lord of the flies. He was worshipped under this last name by the Cyrenians, but principally by Ekronites, because, whenever they sacrificed to him, they believed that the swarms of flies, which at that time molested the country, would die. At other times he received a distinctive appellation from the places where he was worshipped, as Baal-peor, from the hill Peor, mentioned in Nu 23:28; and his temple, whither his votaries resorted, standing on the same hill, was called Beth-peor, De 3:29. Possibly, however, the mountain might have taken its name from the god that was there worshipped. The idol named Chemosh, in Jer 48:7, is thought to be the same as Baal-peor. “I take it,” says Goodwin, “to be applied to Baal-peor, by way of contempt, as if one should say their blind god, according to that in the psalm, ‘They have eyes, and see not;’ for the first letter, caph, signifies as it were, or like, and מוש, musch, to grope, or feel about in manner of blind men.” Moses and Aaron, page 170. This idol was also called Baal-bereth, (Jud 8:33, and 9:4,) from his worshippers binding themselves to him by covenant.
“The dead” appears to be a term of contempt applied to idols. They are so called in opposition to the true and living God. There may also be an allusion to the fact, that many of the heathen idols were men who had been deified after their death.
“Lequel outre les limites de sa vocation.” — Fr.
And it was counted to him for righteousness. Dr Hammond properly observes, that this expression signifies something more than justifying, as being the opposite of condemning; for thus it would denote no more than acquitting Phinehas, who had certainly committed no offense; on the contrary, by this act an offended God was satisfied. He gives to צדקה, therefore, the sense of reward, in which he is supported by the Chaldee, which has לזכו, for merit. Mendlessohn also, in his Beor to Ge 15:6, where this phrase occurs, assigns to צדקה the meaning of merit or reward. The reward in this case, we learn from the history, consisted in placing the priesthood in his family for ever and ever, as stated in the next portion of the verse. — See Nu 25:13.” — Phillips.
At the waters of Meribah, where “they strove with the Lord,” Nu 20:13. — See Ps 95:8.
“Ou, feirent rebeller.” — Fr. marg. “Or, made his spirit to rebel.”
“‘But were mingled among’ rather, ‘But formed alliances with.’” — Horsley.
“ — ‘And went a whoring with their own inventions;’ rather, — ‘and play the wanton in their perverse habits.’” — Horsley.
“Quid igitur fief ubi oleum camino adder aliena instigatio?” — Lat. “Que sera-ce donc quand l’instigation d’autruy iettera (comme l’on dit) de l’huile dedans le feu?” — Fr.
“Dum adoratione duliae, non latriae, se imagines colere excusant.” — Lat. — See volume 2, page 272, note.
“לשדים, to the devils. This word is found only here and in De 32:17, ‘They sacrificed unto devils, not to God,’ etc. Some persons derive it from שוד, to lay waste. Michaelis, from an Arabic word, signifying to be black. Hengstenberg, from an Arabic word, signifying to exercise lordship. Whatever root may be the true one, there is no doubt that שדים denotes false gods of some kind or another to which human sacrifices were offered ” — Phillips. That the Canaanites, and their descendants, the Carthaginians, as well as other heathen nations, sacrificed men, and even their dearest children, to appease their deities, is a fact established not only from the Sacred Writings, but also from profane history; and strange as it may seem, it is no less certain, that in this they were imitated by the Israelites, who offered their sons and daughters to the same false gods. Compare 2 Kings 16:3, 2 Kings 17:17, 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chr. 28:3, 2 Chr. 33:6. They had been expressly warned against this horrid practice, (Lev. 18:21, Lev. 20:3; Deut. 12:31, Deut. 18:10;) but so infatuated were they, and such is the desperate wickedness of the human heart and the power of Satan over men, that they frequently relapsed into it. Dr Adam Clarke translates the original word which Calvin renders devils by demons. “Devil,” says he, “is never in Scripture used in the plural; there is but one devil, though there are many demons.”
“Mais quand les deux Romains nommez Decii.” — Fr.
The Hebrew for “Praise ye Jehovah,” is הללו-יה, Haleluyah, — a word which occurs very frequently at the beginning and end of psalms. The LXX., leaving it untranslated, have Αλληλουϊα. From this solemn form of praise to God, which no doubt was far more ancient than the time of David, the ancient Greeks plainly had their similar acclamation, Αλληλουϊα, with which they both began and ended their poems or hymns in honor of Apollo. — See Parkhurst’s Lexicon on הלל, 4. With this psalm is concluded the fourth of the books into which the Psalms have been divided by the Jews.