Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
David complains of the implacable cruelty of his enemies, and of their treachery and rancorous calumnies. In the close, having besought God’s help, and expressing his persuasion of obtaining his layout, he comforts himself with the hope of deliverance, and just vengeance being executed upon his enemies.
To the chief Musician — A Psalm of David.
1. Deliver me, O Jehovah! from the evil man, (homo,) preserve me from the man (vir) 222 of injuries. 2. Who imagine mischiefs in their heart; daily they congregate for war. 3. They have sharpened their tongue like a serpent: 223 the poison of an asp 224 is under their lips. Selah 4. Keep us, O Jehovah! from the hands of the wicked: preserve me from the man of injuries, who plot to overthrow my goings. 5. The proud have set a snare for me, and have spread a net with cords: by the way side they have set gins for me. 225 Selah
To the chief Musician, etc. I cannot bring myself to restrict this Psalm to Doeg, as the great body of interpreters do, for the context will clearly show that it speaks of Saul, and of the counselors who ceased not to inflame the king — himself sufficiently incensed against the life of one who was a saint of God. Being as he was a figure of Christ, we need not wonder that the agents of the devil directed so much of their rage against him. And this is the reason why he animadverts so sharply upon their rancor and treachery.
The terms wicked and violent men denote their unwarranted attempts at his destruction without provocation given. He therefore commends his cause to God, as having studied peace with them, as never having injured them, but being the innocent object of their unjust persecution. The same rule must be observed by us all, as it is against violence and wickedness that the help of God is extended. David is not Multiplying mere terms of reproach as men do in their personal disputes, but conciliating God’s favor by supplying a proof of his innocence, for he must always be upon the side of good and peaceable men.
2. Who imagine mischief’s in their heart. Here he charges them with inward malignity of heart. And it is plain that the reference is not to one man merely, for he passes to the plural number (in a manner sufficiently common,) reverting from the head to all his associates and copartners in guilt. Indeed what was formerly said in the singular number may be taken indefinitely, as grammarians say. In general he repeats what I have noticed already, that the hostility to which he was subjected arose from no cause of his. From this we learn that the more wickedly our enemies assail us, and the more of treachery and clandestine acts they manifest, the nearer is the promised aid of the Holy Spirit, who himself dictated this form of prayer by the mouth of David. The second clause may be rendered in three ways. Literally it reads, who gather wars, and so some understand it. But it, is well known that the prepositions are often omitted in the Hebrew, and no doubt lie means that they stirred up general enmity by their false information’s being as the trumpet which sounds to battle. Some render the verb — to conspire, or plot together, but this is a farfetched and meager sense. He intimates afterwards in what manner they stirred up unjust war by the wicked calumnies which they spread, as they could not crush a good and innocent person by violence, otherwise than by first overwhelming him with calumny.
4. Keep me, O Jehovah! To complaints and accusations he now again adds prayer, from which it appears more clearly, as I observed already, that it is God whom he seeks to be his avenger. It is the same sentiment repeated, with one or two words changed; for he had said deliver me, now he says keep me, and for the wicked man he substitutes the hand of the wicked. He had spoken of their conceiving mischief’s, now of their plotting how they might ruin a poor unsuspecting individual. What he had said of their fraud and deceit he repeats in figurative language, which does not want emphasis. He speaks of nets spread out on every side to circumvent him, unless God interposed for his help. Though at first sight the metaphors may seem more obscure than the prayer was in its simple unfigurative expression, they are far from darkening the previous declarations, and they add much to the strength of them. From the word גאים, geim, which signifies proud or lofty in the Hebrew, we learn that he does not speak of common men, but of men in power, who considered that they would have no difficulty in crushing an insignificant individual. When our enemies attack us in the insolence of pride, let us learn to resort to God, who can repel the rage of the wicked. Nor does he mean to say that they attacked him merely by bold and violent measures, for he complains of their spreading gins and snares; both methods are spoken of, namely, that while they were confident of the power which they possessed, they devised stratagems for his destruction.
6. I said to Jehovah thou art my God; hear the voice of my supplication. 7. O, Jehovah, my Lord! the strength of my salvation, thou hast set a covering upon my head in the day of arms. 226 8. Grant not, O Jehovah! the desires of the wicked; they have devised, do not though consummate, they shall be exalted. Selah. 9. As for the head of those compassing me about, let the mischief of his lips cover him. 10. Let coals with fire fall upon them; he shall cast them into deeps, 227 they shall not rise again.
6. I said to Jehovah. In these words he shows that his prayers were not merely those of the lips, as hypocrites will make loud appeals to God for mere appearance sake, but that he prayed with earnestness, and from a hidden principle of faith. Till we have a persuasion of being saved through the grace of God there can be no sincere prayer. We have here an excellent illustration of the nature of faith, in the Psalmist’s turning himself away from man’s view, that he may address God apart, hypocrisy being excluded in this internal exercise of the heart. This is true prayer — not the mere idle lifting up of the voice, but the presentation of our petitions from an inward principle of faith. To beget in himself a persuasion of his obtaining his present requests from God, he recalls to his mind what deliverance’s God had already extended to him. He speaks of his having been to him as a shield in every time of danger. Some read the words in the future tense — “Thou wilt cover my head in the day of battle.” But it is evident David speaks of protection formerly experienced from the hand of God, and from this derives comfort to his faith. He comes forth, not as a raw and undisciplined recruit, but as a soldier well tried in previous engagements. The strength of salvation is equivalent to salvation displayed with no ordinary power.
8. Grant not, O Jehovah! the desires of the wicked 228 We might render the words Establish not, though the meaning would be the same — that God would restrain the desires of the wicked, and frustrate all their aims and attempts. We see from this that it is in his power, whenever he sees proper, to frustrate the unprincipled designs of men, and their wicked expectations, and to dash their schemes. When, therefore, it is found impracticable to bring our enemies to a right state of mind, we are to pray that the devices which they have imagined may be immediately overthrown and thwarted. In the next clause there is more ambiguity. As the Hebrew verb פוק, puk, means to lead out, as well as to strike or fall, the words might mean, that God would not carry out into effect the counsels of the wicked. But the opinion of those may be correct who read — their thought is thou wilt not strike, David representing such hopes as the wicked are wont to entertain. We find him elsewhere (Ps 10:6) describing their pride in a similar way, in entirely overlooking a divine providence, and considering all events as subject to their control, and the world placed under their sole management. The word which follows with thus come in appropriately — they shall be lifted up, in illusion to the wicked being inflated by pride, through the idea that they can never be overtaken by adversity. If the other reading be preferred, the negative particle must be considered as repeated — “Suffer not their attempts to be carried into effect; let them not be exalted.” At any rate David is to be considered as censuring the security of his enemies, in making no account of God, and in surrendering themselves to unbridled license.
9. As for the head, etc. There may be a doubt whether, under the term head, lie refers to the chief of the faction opposed to him; for we call suppose an inversion in the sentence, and a change of the plural to the singular number, bringing out this sense. 229 “Let the mischief of their wicked speeches, which they intended against me, fall upon their own head.” 230 As almost all interpreters, however, have taken the other view, I have adopted it, only understanding the reference as being to Saul rather than Doeg. There follows an imprecation upon the whole company of his enemies generally, that coals may fall upon them, alluding to the awful fate of Sodom and Gomorrha. We find this elsewhere (Ps 11:6) set forth by the Spirit of God as an example of Divine vengeance, to terrify the wicked; and Jude (Jude 1:7) declares that God testified, by this example of everlasting significance, that he would be the Judge of all the ungodly. Some translate what follows — the wilt cast them into the fire, which might pass. But as: ב, beth, in the Hebrew often denotes instrumentality, we may properly render the words — thou wilt cast them down By fire, or With fire, as God sent it forth against Sodom and Gomorrha. He prays they may be sunk into deep pits, whence they may never rise. God sometimes heals those whom he has smitten with great severity; David cuts off the reprobate from the hope of pardon, as knowing them to be beyond recovery. Had they been disposable to repentance, he would have been inclinable on his part to mercy.
11. The man (vir) of tongue shall not be established in the earth, evil shall hunt the man (vir) 231 of violence to banishments. 12. I have known that God will accomplish the judgment of the poor, the judgment of the afflicted. 13. Surely the righteous will praise thy name, the upright shall dwell before thy face.
11. The man of tongue, 232 etc. Some understand by this the loquacious man, but the sense is too restricted; nor is the reference to a reproachful, garrulous, vain and boastful man, but the man of virulence, who wars by deceit and calumny, and not openly. This is plain from what is said of the other class of persons in the subsequent part of the sentence, that his enemies were given to open violence as well as to treachery and cunning — like the lion as well as the wolf — as formerly he complained that the poison of the asp or viper was under their lips. The words run in the future tense, and many interpreters construe them into the optative form, or into a prayer; but I prefer retaining the future tense, as David does not appear so much to pray, as to look forward to a coming deliverance. Whether his enemies wrought by treachery, or by open violence, he looks forward to God as his deliverer. The figure drawn from hunting is expressive. The hunter, by spreading his toils on all sides, leaves no way of escape for the wild beast; and the ungodly cannot by any subterfuge elude the divine judgments. Mischief hunts them into banishment’s, for the more they look for impunity and escape, they only precipitate themselves more certainly upon destruction.
12. I have known; that God, etc. There can be no question that David here seals or corroborates his prayer by turning his thoughts and discourse to the providential judgments of God, for, as I have already said, doubtful prayer is no prayer at all. He declares it to be a thing known and ascertained that God cannot but deliver the afflicted. As he may connive for a time, however, and suffer good and upright persons to be grievously tried, David suggests as consideration which may meet this temptation, that God does so advisedly, that he may relieve those who are in affliction, and recover those who are oppressed. He accordingly says in express words that he will be the judge of the poor and the afflicted. In this way does he encourage both others and himself under continued troubles, till the time proper for deliverance arrive, intimating that though he might be universally considered an object of pity in being exposed to the fury of the wicked, and in not being immediately delivered by the hand of God, he would not give way to despair, but remember that it was the very part of God to undertake the cause of the poor. It were to weaken the passage if we considered David merely to be speaking of his own individual case.
He infers (Ps 140:13) that the righteous would give thanks to God, and be safe under his help. For the particle אך, ach, which is often adversative in the Hebrew, is here affirmative, and denotes inference or consequence from what was formerly stated. Though the godly may be silenced for a time, and through the force of trouble may not raise the praises of God, David expresses his conviction that what was taken away would be speedily restored, and they would celebrate the loving kindness of the Lord with joy and alacrity. As this is not easily believed in circumstances of trial, the already referred to is inserted. We must endeavor, though with a struggle, to rise to a confident persuasion, that however low they may be brought, the Lord’s people will be restored to prosperity, and will soon sing his praises. The second clause of the verse gives the reason of their thanksgiving’s. He speaks of this as being the ground of the praises of the righteous, that they experience God’s care of them, and concern for their salvation. For to dwell before God’s face is to be cherished and sustained by his fatherly regards.
“The word ‘man’ in these two lines is expressed in the first by אדם (homo,) in the second by איש (vir.)” — Jebb’s Translation of the Psalms, etc., volume 1.
Mant translates —
“The serpent’s brandished tongue is theirs.”
“The verb,” says he, “here rendered ‘brandished,’ signifies either ‘to whet, sharpen,’ which is performed by reiterated motion or friction, or to ‘vibrate.’ In either case the metaphor, as applied to a wicked tongue, is beautiful and appropriate. I have preferred the latter as affording a more poetical image. See Parkhurst on שנן, 3.” In illustration of this figure Kimchi observes, that “the serpent when it comes to bite will open its mouth, and will hiss, and move its tongue here and there as if it would make it sharp as a barber’s razor.”
The original word עכשוב, achshub, rendered “asp,” is to be found in Scripture only in this place; and though it evidently denotes some of the serpent tribe, it is not so easy to determine the particular species intended. In our English Bible it is translated “adder,” and as the word is derived from an Arabic verb, which signifies to coil up, or bend back, it has been said that this act perfectly corresponds with the nature of the adder, which in preparing to strike contracts itself into a spiral form, and raises its horrid head from the middle of the orb; and which also assumes the same form when it goes to sleep, coiling its body into a number of circles, with its head in the center. — (Paxton’s Illustrations of Scripture, vol. i. p. 428.) But the same action is common to most serpents; and this name may, therefore have reference to no particular species. Some, however, contend that it is another name for the pethem, or asp mentioned in Job 20:14, the venom of which is so deadly as to be incurable and followed by speedy death, unless the wounded part is amputated. Such seems to have been the opinion of the LXX., as they render it by ασπις, in which they are followed by the Vulgate and by the Apostle Paul, who quotes this text in Ro 3:13. Calvin here adopts the word sanctioned by these authorities.
“As to the poison, it will be observed, that in the venomous serpents there is a gland under the eye secreting the poisonous matter which is conveyed in a small tube or canal to the end of a fang which lies concealed at the roof of the mouth. This fang is moveable at the pleasure of the serpent, and is protruded when it is about to strike at an antagonist. The situation of this poison, which is in a manner behind the upper lip, gives great propriety to the expression — ‘Adders’ poison is under their lips.’ The usage of the Hebrew language, renders it by no means improbable that the fang itself is called לשון, lashon, ‘a tongue,’ in the present text; and a serpent might be said to sharpen its tongue, when in preparing to strike it protruded its fangs. We do not see any explanation by which a more consistent meaning may be extracted from the expression here employed.” — Illustrated Commentary upon the Bible.
The imagery in this verse is borrowed from the practices of hunters and fowlers in the eastern regions of the world, who are accustomed to take and destroy the ferocious beasts and the larger species of birds by a variety of ingenious snares and devices. It is a curious circumstance, as noticed by Thevenot, that artifices of this kind are literally employed against men as well as against birds and wild beasts by some of the Orientals. “The cunningest robbers in the world,” says he, as quoted by Mant, “are in this country. They use a certain slip, with a running noose, which they cast with so much slight about a man’s neck when they are within reach of him, that they never fail, so that they strangle him in a trice.”
That is, in the day of battle, in the day of the clashing or noisy collision of arms.
In the French version it is, as in our English Bible — “Fosses profondes;” “deep pits.” The Hebrew word, according to Parkhurst, properly means breaches or disruptions of the earth, such as are made by an earthquake. He conceives that the Psalmist alludes to the punishment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and of the two hundred and fifty men who burnt incense. (Nu 16:31-35.) See Parkhurst on המר. Bishop Horsley, who concurs with Parkhurst in the supposed allusion, translates chasms of the yawning earth, observing that he cannot otherwise than by this periphrasis express the idea of the word מהמרות
“The desires which the wicked have for my destruction.” — Phillips.
“Car il pourreit estre que l’ordre des mots seroit renverse, et que le nombre singulier seroit mis pour le pluriel, en ce sens,” etc. — Fr.
“The meaning of the verse may be, that the mischief designed by the wicked against others shall fall on their own head, as Ps 7:17, ‘his violence shall descend on his own head;’ or it may express the leader of the hostile party, as Saul or Doeg, in the case of David being here the speaker.” — Phillips.
איש is the word for man in both these clauses.
“A man, of tongue, i.e., of evil tongue; a slanderer or detractor.” — Phillips. The Bible translation renders the phrase “an evil speaker;” and the Chaldee Paraphrase has “the man of detraction, with a three-forked tongue;” because such a man wounds three at once — the receiver, the sufferer, and himself.