Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
David, having it as his object in this Psalm to encourage the people to fight strenuously under his banner, and to exhort and excite the godly to acknowledge him as entitled to their obedience, declares that he had always submitted himself to the guidance of God, and had done nothing without his call and commission.
A Song of Degrees of David.
1. O Jehovah! My heart has not been elated, nor have mine eyes been lifted up, neither have I walked in great matters, or in, things shut up from me.
1. O Jehovah! My heart has not been elated David had been made head over God’s people, and in order to prove that he was their lawful prince, entitled to the allegiance of the faithful, he is desirous to show that he had not been influenced, in anything which he had attempted, by ambition or pride, but had submitted himself with a quiet and humble spirit to the divine disposal. In this he teaches us a very useful lesson, and one by which we should be ruled in life — to be contented with the lot which God has marked out for us, to consider what he calls us to, and not to aim at fashioning our own lot to be moderate in our desires, to avoid entering upon rash undertakings, and to confine ourselves cheerfully within our own sphere, instead of attempting great things. He denies that his heart had, been lifted up, for this is the true cause of all unwarranted rashness and presumption in conduct Is not pride what leads men, under the instigation of their passions, to dare such presumptuous flights, to hurry on recklessly in their course, and throw the whole world into confusion? Were this loftiness of spirit checked, the consequence would be, that all men would study moderation of conduct. His eyes were not; lifted up; there were no symptoms of pride in his looks or gestures, as elsewhere (Ps 18:28) we find proud looks condemned. Something more than this, however, may be intended, That while he put a restraint upon the risings of ambition in his heart, he was careful that his eyes should not lend their assistance to the heart in any covetous aspirations after greatness. All the senses, in short, as well as his heart, were subjected to the restraints of humility. In denying that he walked in, or was conversant with, great things, he must be supposed to refer to the disposition or temper of his soul. For, to hold as he did the office of a Prophet, to be invested with regal dignity, nay, to sit upon the sacred throne of the only-begotten Son of God, not to speak of other distinctions with which he was honored above the generality of men, were great things. But the expression was applicable, in so far as he strictly confined himself to the one object of being serviceable to God and to the Church. Should any still be inclined to lay an undue stress upon the word which is here employed, I would observe that the words from or above me, at the close of the verse, are to be considered as connected with what David here says of great things, as well as of the things shut up, or hidden, so that we may read I have not walked in great things which are above me. The question, therefore, was not whether the lot of David was mean or exalted; it is enough that he was careful not to pass beyond the proper bounds of his calling. He did not think himself at liberty to move one step unless called to it by God.
His submission in such matters stands contrasted with the presumption of those who, without any call from God, hurry themselves into unwarrantable undertakings, and involve themselves in duties which properly belong to others; for so long as we have a clear call from God things cannot be said to be shut up or hidden from us, or too great for us, provided we stand ready for all obedience; and, on the other hand, those who yield themselves up to the influence of ambition will soon lose themselves in a labyrinth of perplexity. We see how God confounds the proud and boasted enterprises of the children of this world. They run the full course of their wild career, they turn the earth upside down at their pleasure, and put forth their hand in every direction; they are filled with complacency at the thought of their own talents and industry, and, in a moment, when all their plans have been fully formed, they are entirely overthrown, because there is no solidity in them. There are two different forms which the presumption of those takes who will not submit to be humble followers of God, but must needs run before him. Some rush forward with a reckless precipitancy, and seem as if they would build to the skies; others do not so openly exhibit the inordinateness of their desires, are slower in their movements, and cautiously calculate upon the future, and yet their presumption appears no less from the very fact, that, with a total oversight of God, as if heaven and earth were subject to them. they pass their decree as to what shall be done by them some ten or twenty years hereafter. These build, as it were, in the deep sea. But never shall it come to the surface, however extended may be the term of their lives; while those who, like David, submit themselves to God, keeping in their own sphere, moderate in their desires, will enjoy a life of tranquillity and assurance.
2. If I have not set, and quieted and my soul like one that is weaned frown his mother, My soul is over me as a weaned child. 3. Israel shall hope in Jehovah from henceforth, and for ever.
2. If I have not set, etc. He here employs a figure which appropriately explains what he meant, and likens himself to a weaned child; by which is intended, that he dismissed all the anxieties which disquiet the man of ambition, and was willing to be satisfied with small things. This assertion, which some might be inclined to disbelieve, he makes with an oath, expressed in that particular form of which I have elsewhere taken notice, in which the imprecation is not directly brought forward, but left to be understood, to teach us caution in the use of God’s name. 124 As to the words, to set his soul like a child, is as if he had said, that he would frame it into such a likeness. And this with the view, as he declares, of composing himself to silence. For דוממתי domaintee, is formed from דום dum, and has the active sense of reducing to silence. The quiet of soul he alludes to is opposed to those tumultuous desires by which many cause disquietude to themselves, and are the means of throwing the world into agitation. The figure of childhood is elsewhere used in another sense, to convey reprehension. (Isa 28:9.)
“Whom shall I teach knowledge?
them that are weaned from the milk? and drawn from the breasts?”
where the Prophet censures the people for their slowness of apprehension, and being as incapable of profiting by instruction as infants. In the passage now before us, what is recommended is that simplicity of which Christ spake,
“Unless ye become like this little child, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of God.” 125 (Mt 18:3)
The vain desires with which men are carried away, originate in their seeking to be wise and careful above what is necessary. David adds accordingly, my soul over me is quieted, not as expressing the language of self-confidence, but speaking as if his soul lay sweetly and peacefully on his bosom, undisturbed by inordinate desires. He contrasts the wayward and tumultuous agitation which prevails in those of a discontented spirit, with the peace which reigns in the man who abides in the calling of the Lord. From the verse with which the Psalm closes, we see the reason why David asserted his having undertaken nothing in the spirit of a carnal ambition. He calls upon Israel to hope in the Lord, words which must have been abrupt had it not deeply concerned the common safety of the Church, to know that he sat upon the throne of the kingdom by Divine appointment, in which case the faithful would be certain of the bestowment of the promised blessing. Our hope is of the right kind when we cherish humble and sober views of ourselves, and neither wish nor attempt anything without the leading and approbation of God.
“אם-לא, A formula of swearing which may be translated surely or indeed. I have surely so disposed and disciplined my soul as to remove it from any longing after great things, from any ambitious tendencies.” — Phillips.
Of all explanations the best is that of considering the comparison to consist between the humbleness and simplicity of the Psalmist’s mind, and that of a little child, in whom there does not exist a sufficient consciousness to create an ambition for any worldly object. The comparison is not with יונק, a suckling; for it has a longing after the mother’s breast, and, therefore, such a comparison would not be appropriate. The same, indeed, may be said of a child who has only just been weaned; for, in that stage, how often does it cry and mourn after that of which it has been deprived, and the possession of which was just before its chief pleasure? We therefore conclude, that the comparison is intended to be with a child who has been weaned a sufficient time to have forgotten its infantile nutriment, and who is not conscious of any particular desires or cravings, and quietly resigns itself to its mother’s care and training. — Phillips.