Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
A Song of Degrees.
If we suppose David to have been the author of this Psalm, as is very probable, he declares how diligently he engaged in prayer, when, to escape the cruelty of Saul, he wandered as an exile from place to place. But he especially complains of wicked informers, who unjustly and calumniously charged him with crimes of which he was altogether innocent. If a different supposition is preferred, the language will be a simple and general complaint against false reports. This Psalm, and the immediately subsequent fourteen, are called Psalms of Degrees; but for what reason is not agreed upon, even among the Hebrew doctors. Some conceive that there were fifteen steps to that part of the Temple which was allotted for the men, whereas the women remained beneath 42 but this is a silly conjecture, for. which there is no foundation; and we know the liberties which the Jews, in obscure and uncertain matters like this, take of giving forth as an explanation whatever comes into their own fancy. Some translate Psalms of Ascents; and by ascent they understand the return of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity 43 — an interpretation which is altogether forced; for it is manifest that the greater part of these Psalms were composed, either by David or Solomon; and it is easy to gather from their contents, that such of them as were written by David, were, sung in the Temple, while he was alive and on the throne. Others think that the word ascents refers to the tones of music 44 Some also affirm that it was the beginning of a song. This being a matter of small moment, I am not disposed to make it the subject of elaborate investigation; but the probable conjecture is, that this title was given to these Psalms, because they were sung on a higher key than others. The Hebrew word for degrees being derived from the verb צלה, tsalah, to ascend or go up, I agree with those who are of opinion that it denotes the different musical notes rising in succession. 45
1. I cried 46 to Jehovah in my distress, and he answered me. 2. O Jehovah! deliver my soul from the lips 47 of falsehood, and from the tongue of deceit. 48 3. What shall the tongue of deceit 49 give thee, and what shall avail thee? 4. The arrows of a strong man sharpened, with coals of junipers.
1. I cried to Jehovah in my distress. The name of the author of the Psalm is not expressed, but the style of it throughout presents David to our view. Although, therefore, I cannot positively affirm, yet I am rather inclined to think that it was composed by him. Nor will it be improper, in my judgment, to explain it as if his name had been mentioned in the inscription. This, then, being granted, I would observe that although David, when in this verse he affirms that the Lord had heard him, gives thanks to him, yet his chief purpose was to set forth, in the form of complaint, how wickedly and cruelly Saul’s flatterers employed all their ingenuity and power to accomplish his destruction. He, however, sets out with an expression of his gratitude to God, telling us that he had not called upon Him in vain; and he does this, that by his own example he might encourage others, especially when oppressed with adversity, to confidence in prayer. Men, it is true, have need of God’s help every moment; but there is not a more suitable season for seeking him than when some great danger is immediately menacing us. It is therefore worthy of notice, that he was heard when, constrained and shut up by tribulation, he betook himself to the protection of God.
2. O Jehovah! deliver my soul from the lip of falsehood. David now points out the kind of his affliction, declaring that he was loaded with false accusations. In charging his enemies with lying and falsehood, he asserts his own innocence of the crimes which they slanderously imputed to him. His complaint therefore amounts to this, that as he was conscious of having committed no fault, he was assaulted by the wicked contrary to all law, human and divine, and that they brought him into hatred without his having given them any occasion for such injurious treatment. Deceitful tongues assault good and simple people in two ways’ they either circumvent them by wiles and snares, or wound their reputation by calumnies. It is of the second way that the Prophet here complains. Now if David, who was endued with such eminent virtue, and free from every mark of disgrace, and far removed from every wicked action, was yet assailed with contumely, is it to be wondered at if the children of God in the present day labor under false accusations, and that when they have endeavored to conduct themselves uprightly they are yet in reported of? As they have the devil for their enemy, it is indeed impossible for them to escape being loaded with his lies. Yea, we see that slanderous tongues did not spare even the Son of God — a consideration which should induce us to bear the more patiently our condition, when the wicked traduce us undeservedly; since it is certain that we have here described the common lot of the whole Church.
3. What shall the tongue of deceit give thee? 50 The Prophet aggravates the malice of his enemies by asserting that they were so wickedly inclined as to be driven to evil speaking when they saw no prospect of deriving any advantage from such a course of conduct. He however seems to express more than this, — he seems farther to intimate, that after they have poured forth all the venom of their calumnies, their attempts will nevertheless be vain and ineffectual. As God is the maintainer of the innocence of his servants, David, inspired with hope from this truth, rises up against them with heroic courage, as if about to triumph over the whole crowd of his calumniators, 51 reproaching them for doing nothing else than betraying an impotent passion for evil speaking, which God at length would cause to recoil upon their own heads. It is a consideration well fitted to assuage the grief of all the godly, when their good name is unrighteously wounded by calumniators, that such malicious characters will gain nothing thereby in the end, because God will disappoint their expectation.
4. The arrows of a strong man sharpened, with coals of juniper. Here the Psalmist amplifies in another way the malice of such as distress the simple and innocent by their calumnies, affirming that they throw out their injurious reports just like a man who should draw an arrow, and with it pierce through the body of his neighbor; and that their calumnies were like coals of juniper, 52 which penetrate more effectually, and burn more intensely the substances with which they come in contact than the coals of any other kind of wood. The amount is, that the tongues of these slanderers were inflamed with the burning heat of fire, and, as it were, dipped in deadly poison; and that such persons were the less excusable, from the fact that, without deriving any advantage from it, they were impelled by an unbridled passion to inflict upon others deadly mischief. As the Prophet records nothing here which he did not experience in his own person, it may be inferred that if it behoved him and men of a similar character to be assailed by their enemies with lies, which were to them as arrows to pierce them, or coals to burn them, we need not be surprised at seeing the most eminent servants of God exercised with similar assaults.
5. Alas for me! that I have been a sojourner 53 in Mesech, and have dwelt among the tents of Kedar. 6. My soul hath long dwelt with him who hateth peace. 7. I am for peace; and when I speak they are for war. 54
5. Alas for me! that I have been a sojourner in Mesech. David complains that he was doomed to linger for a long time among a perverse people; his condition resembling that of some wretched individual who is compelled to live till he grows old in sorrowful exile. The Mesechites and Kedarenes, as is well known, were Eastern tribes; the former of which derived their original from Japhet, as Moses informs us in Ge 10:2; and the latter from a son of Ishmael. (Ge 25:13.) To take the latter for a people of Italy, who were anciently called Hetrurians, is altogether absurd, and without the least color of probability, Some ‘would have the word Mesech to be an appellative noun; and because מש mashak, signifies to draw, to protract, they think that the Prophet bewails his protracted banishment, of the termination of which he saw no prospect. 55 But as immediately after he adds Kedar, by which term the Ishmaelites are unquestionably intended, I have no doubt that Mesech is to be understood of the Arabians who were their neighbors. If any one is of opinion that the Mesechites obtained this name from their dexterity in shooting with the bow, I will make no objections, provided it is admitted that the Prophet — as if he had been confined within a country of robbers — expresses the irksomeness of an uncomfortable and an annoying place of residence. Although he names the Arabians, yet under the terms employed he speaks metaphorically of his own countrymen, just as he elsewhere applies the appellation of Gentiles to the corrupt and degenerate Jews. 56 But here, with the view of putting still more dishonor upon his enemies, he has purposely selected the name by which to designate them from some of the savage and barbarous nations whose horrible cruelty was well known to the Jews. From these words we are taught, that scarcely a more distressing evil can befall the people of God, than for them to be placed in circumstances which, notwithstanding their living a holy and an inoffensive life, they yet cannot escape the calumnies of venomous tongues. It is to be observed, that although David was living in his own country, he yet was a stranger in it, nothing being more grievous to him than to be in the company of wicked men. Hence we learn that no sin is more detestable to God, by whose Spirit David spake, than the false accusations which shamefully deface the beauty of God’s Church, and lay it waste, causing it to differ little from the dens of robbers, or other places rendered infamous from the barbarous cruelty of which they are the scene. Now if the place where the uprightness of good men is overwhelmed by the criminations of lying lips is to the children of God converted into a region of miserable exile, how could they have pleasure, or rather, how could they fail to feel the bitterest sorrow, in abiding in a part of the world where the sacred name of God is shamefully profaned by horrible blasphemies, and his truth obscured by detestable lies? David exclaims, Alas for me! because, dwelling among false brethren and a bastard race of Abraham, he was wrongfully molested and tormented by them, although he had behaved himself towards them in good conscience. 57 Since, then, at the present day, in the Church of Rome, religion is dishonored by all manner of disgraceful imputations, faith torn in pieces, light turned into darkness, and the majesty of God exposed to the grossest mockeries, it will certainly be impossible for those who have any feeling of true piety within them to lie in the midst of such pollutions without great anguish of spirit.
6. My soul 58 hath long dwelt with him who hateth peace. The Psalmist now shows, without figure, and, so to speak, points with the finger to those 59 whom he had before indirectly marked out by the terms Mesech and kedar, namely, the perfidious Israelites, who had degenerated from the holy fathers, and who rather wore the mask of Israelites than were the true seed of Israel. 60 He calls them haters of peace, 61 because they wilfully, and with deliberate malice, set themselves to make war upon the good and unoffending. To the same purpose he adds immediately after, that his heart was strongly inclined to seek after peace, or rather, that he was wholly devoted to it, and had tried every means in order to win their favor, but that the implacable cruelty of their disposition invariably impelled them to do him mischief. When he says, I peace, it is an abrupt, yet not an obscure expression, implying that he had not done them any injury or wrong which could give occasion for their hatred there having been always peace on his part. He even proceeds farther, asserting, that when he saw them inflamed with resentment against him, he endcavourcd to pacify them, and to bring them to a good understanding; for to speak, is here equivalent to offering conditions of peace in an amicable spirit, or to treating of reconciliation. From this it is still more apparent, how savage and brutal was the pride of David’s enemies, since they disdained even to speak with him — to speak with a man who had deserved well at their hands, and who had never in any respect injured them. We are taught by his example, that it is not enough for the faithful to abstain from hurting others: they must, moreover, study to allure them by gentleness, and to bend them to good will. Should their moderation and kindness be rejected, let them wait in patience, until God at length show himself from heaven as their protector. Let us, however, remember, that if God does not immediately stretch forth his hand in our behalf, it is our duty to bear the wearisomeness occasioned by delay, like David, whom we find in this Psalm giving, thanks to God for his deliverance, while, at the same time, as if worn out with the weariness of waiting for it, he bewails the long oppression to which he had been subjected by his enemies.
This opinion was held by Rabbi David Kimchi; and he asserts that the Psalms, entitled Songs of Ascents or Steps, were so entitled because the Levites sang one of them upon each of the fifteen steps, which, says he, separated the court of the women from that of the men in Solomon’s Temple. This Calvin justly characterizes as a “silly conjecture;” and such an explanation is now generally rejected. Jebb, after stating several of the attempted solutions of the title of these Psalms, observes — “On these notions it is unnecessary to dwell, and still less upon that Jewish fable mentioned by Rabbi David, that these Psalms were sung on ascending the fifteen steps, which were imagined to lead from one of the outer courts of the Temple to that of the Levites. No trace in history, or authentic tradition, can be found of these steps, which owe their construction solely to the accommodating fancy of the Rabbins, who, as usual, imagined facts, in order to support their preconceived theories.” — Jebb’s Literal Translation of the Psalms, with Dissertations, volume 2. It is an additional objection to this Rabbinical conceit, that David, whose name several of these Psalms bear — and others of which have evident reference to his time and circumstances — lived in the time of the tabernacle, which had no steps.
The Syriac version calls them “Songs of Ascent out of Babylon;” and such is the interpretation of several modern critics, among whom is Calmet, who has given an able analysis of what has been written on this title in his Dissertation sur les quinze Psaumes Gradue After stating numerous explanations, and characterizing many of them as “vaines et frivoles conjectures,” he adopts it as the most probable supposition, that they were sung during the journey of the returning captives from Babylon to Jerusalem.
This is the opinion of Aben Ezra.
While Calvin leans to this as the most probable explanation, he has before admitted that it is only a conjecture; and after all that has been said since his time on the subject, it is still involved in obscurity, and perhaps it is now impossible to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. The Psalms, however, which bear this title, have a striking resemblance to each other, and are different in style from the other divine Poems in this book. They are all very short, and in several of them there is a gradation of meaning, and a degree of point towards the dose, which may be called epigrammatic. Hence Gesenius suggests that the title may mark a peculiar species of Hebrew composition. “The construction of the songs” [of degrees,] says Jebb, “is such as to reduce the evidently to a class. They are all short compositions, sententious, eminently fitted for lyrical use, in the highest degree poetical, and, as Calmet justly remarks, epigramrustic; using this term in its highest sense as concinnate, terse, and abounding in turns expressed with the most exquisite brevity. Two remarkable characteristics they possess, which, though found occasionally in other Psalms, seem to enter into the very texture of these — I mean the frequent recurrence of a characteristic word, and that figure which the rhetoricians call Epanaphora, or the repetition of the same idea or expression. As to the characteristic words: In Psalm 121 this is the word keep (שמר); in Psalm 122 the word Salem, and others of a like sound; in Psalm 123 the word eyes, עיני, in Psalm 126 the words turn and captivity, which in Hebrew are almost the same, םרב and שיבה in Psalm 127 vain, שרא; in Psalm 133 the word descend, ירר; and bless, ברך in Psalm 134 ” — Jebb’s Literal Translation of the Psalms, with Dissertations, volume 2.
“קראתי, I have called constantly, attentively, and anxiously, not with violent external gesture, or elevation of voice, but with strong inward emotion ” — Phillips.
“Des leures.” — Fr. “From the lips.” But in the Hebrew text it is in the singular,” from a lip of falsehood,” that is, “from a false lip.”
“לשון רמיה, the deceitful tongue. We have here two norms, both of which are in the absolute state, so that we must suppose the latter to be put emphatically for an abjective, the force of the expression being the same as that of לשון רמיה, tongue of deceit, i.e., deceitful tongue, a more frequent construction. So also we have שפת שקר, lip of falsehood, for false lip, in the first member of this verse. The literal rendering of the words לשון רמיה, is tongue, (which is) deceit itself.” — Phillips.
“La langue pleine de fraude.” — Fr. “The tongue full of deceit.”
The Psalmist here addresses himself in particular to his traducers.
“Comme s’il avoit desia le triomphe contre toute la bande de scs ennemis.” — Fr. “As if he had already triumphed over the whole host of his enemies.”
The Hebrew word רתם, rothem, here rendered “juniper,” occurs also in 1 Kings 19:4, 5, and Job 30:4, in both which places it is translated in our English Bible by “juniper-tree.” It would appear that this shrub was remarkable for the intense flame with which it burned, and for the length of time during which its embers retained their heat. Several critics, however, think that the Hebrew rothem means the genista or Spanish broom; and in support of this opinion it is said that the genista is much used as fuel by the Arabs, among whom the Psalmist describes himself as then living; and that, as Geierus asserts, it” sparkles, burns, and crackles more vehemently than any other wood.” (See Parkhurst on רתם.) It is somewhat difficult to decide in this matter. As more than thirty different trees are mentioned in the Bible, and as we are but imperfectly acquainted with the natural history of these remote countries, it is no wonder though we find it impossible to identify all these trees. It may be observed that Calvin in his translation brings out that beautiful gradation of sense, terminating in a point of severity, for which the Hebrew text is remarkable, but which does not appear in our English version. Slanderous words are first compared to “arrows,” secondly, to “arrows discharged from the bow by a strong man,” and in proportion to the strength of a man will be the force with which his weapon strikes; next to “sharp arrows;” and lastly, to “coals of juniper,” or some wood used in those days celebrated for burning fiercely and long, (for the particle עם, im translated with, is sometimes one of similitude, as in Ps 106:6, “We have sinned like as our fathers,”) intimating not only that malignant slanders deeply penetrate, but that they inflame and burn for a long time. Hence the Apostle James (Jas. 3:5, 6) compares the tongue of slander to a fire enkindled from hell, and inflaming the course of nature. Some interpreters think that this verse is not to be understood as a description of calumny, but rather as the punishment which God will inflict on the calumniator. They therefore regard it as an answer to the question in the preceding verse, “What shall be given unto thee,” etc.; observing that calumny and falsehood being frequently represented by the images of arrows and fire, the same images suitably express the requital which awaits them at the hand of God — the swift and terrible retributive vengeance of the Almighty, which will overtake all who practice falsehood and slander. See Ps 57:4; Ps. 64:3, 7, 9; and Job 20:26. “Sharp arrows of the Mighty One, with coals of juniper,” await them. This opinion is adopted by Street, Mant, Morison, Paxton, Fry, French and Skinner. Calvin’s exposition is embraced by Walford and Phillips. The former, to elicit this meaning the more clearly, uses a supplement:
“Sharp arrows of a warrior,
And burning coals of juniper, thou resemblest.”
He, however, in a footnote requests the reader “to observe, that this is given as what seems to be the most probable interpretation of the passage, though it cannot be regarded as absolutely certain.”
“C’est, en exile;” —”That is, in exile.” — Fr-. Marg.
Literally it is, “I peace; and when I speak, they for war.”
This is the sense in which the word is rendered in most of the ancient versions. Thus the Septuagint has ἡ παροικία μρυ ἐμακρύνθη, “my sojourning is protracted;” and it is followed by the Syriac, Vulgate, and Arabic versions. Aquila has προσηλύτευσα ἐν μακρυσμῷ I was a stranger for a long time;” and Symmachus, παροικῶν παρίλκυσα “I have protracted sojourning.” Bishop Patrick and Dr. Hammond, following these authorities, render משך, mesech, adverbially. But though this is a meaning which the word will bear, yet as Calvin observes, there is little room for doubting that it is here a proper name. The parallelism which enables us in many instances to determine the accurate interpretation of a word in Hebrew poetry when other helps entirely fail, decidedly favors this interpretation. The term corresponding to משך mesech, in the next hemistich, is קרר kedar; and as it is universally admitted that this is the name of a place, it cannot be justly questioned that such is also the case with respect to משך mesech. To render it otherwise is destructive of the poetical structure of the passage. “If,” says Phillips, “the adverbial sense be intended, then the expression should not have been גרתי משך, but something analogous to רבת שכנה in the next verse. Many localities have been mentioned for the geography of Mesech, as Tuscany, Cappadocia, Armenia, etc., which proves that the particular district called by this name is uncertain.” It is however obvious that some barbarous and brutal tribes of Arabs are intended.
A similar mode of speaking is not uncommon in our own day. Thus we are accustomed to call gross and ignorant people Turks and Hottentots.
“D’autant que dcmeurant entre des faux freres et une race bastardc d’Abraham, a tort il est par eux molest4 et tourment( cornroe ainsi soit th’envers eux il se porte en bonne conscience.” — Fr.
My soul, for I.
“Et (par maniere de dire) monstre au doigt ceux,” etc — Fr.
“Aseavoir les Israelites desloyaux qui avoyent forligne’ des saincts Peres, et qui estoyent plustost des masques d’Israclites, que non pas une vraye semence d’Israel.” — Fr.
In describing those among whom he was now living as haters of peace, and, in the next verse, as bent on war, the inspired writer probably still alludes to the Arab tribes he had specified in the 5th verse, who have, from their origin to the present hour, been eminently characterized by their hatred of peace and propensity to war. Dr. Shaw thus writes concerning these barbarous tribes as they are to be found in our own day, and their character and habits were the same at the time when this Psalm was written: “The Arabs are naturally thievish and treacherous; and it sometimes happens, that those very persons are overtaken and pillaged in the morning who were entertained the night before with all the instances of friendship and hospitality. Neither are they to be accused for plundering strangers only, and attacking almost every person whom they find unarmed and defenceless, but for those many implacable and hereditary animosities which continually subsist among them: literally fulfilling the prophecy to Hagar, that ‘Ishmael should be a wild man; his hand should be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.’”