Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This Psalm contains a mixture of praise trod prayer; for David, while he extols in very high terms the great mercies which God had bestowed upon him, is led at the same time, either from a consideration of the many trials to be met with in the whole course of human life, or from the connection he still had with wicked men, to pray that God would continue to show this favor to the end. There is this difference between it and Psalm 18, 255 that the latter is triumphant throughout, the kingdom having been thoroughly subdued, and affairs going forward prosperously, whereas in the present he mixes up one or two things which are indicative of fear and anxiety, there being some remaining enemies to cause him apprehension. 256
A Psalm of David.
1. Blessed be Jehovah, my strength, who teaches my hands for battle, my fingers for war. 2. My goodness, and my munition, my citadel, and my deliverer, my shield, and in him I have hoped, who subdues my people under me. 3. O Jehovah! what is man that thou acknowledgest him? the son of man that thou thinkest of him? 4. Man is like to vanity: his deeds are as a shadow passing away.
1. Blessed be Jehovah, my strength 257 It is very evident that David, since he celebrates the favor of God in such high terms, had not only obtained the kingdom, but gained signal victories. When he calls God his strength, he acknowledges that any courage he had was given him from above, not only because he had been made from a country shepherd a mighty warrior, but because the constancy and perseverance he had shown was signally a gift from God. This term answers better than were we to translate it rock; for, by way of explanation, he adds immediately afterwards, that he had been formed under God’s teaching for war. The words certainly imply an acknowledgment, that though of a warlike spirit, he was not born for warlike enterprises but needed to undergo a change. What kind of a commencement, for example, did he show in the case of Goliah? That attempt would have been preposterous on any other supposition than his being upheld by secret divine support, so as to be independent of mere human help. (1Sa 17:40.)
2. My goodness, etc. This way of using the word in a passive sense, as in the Hebrew, sounds harsh in Latin; just as elsewhere (Ps 18:50) he calls himself “God’s king,” not in the sense of his having dominion over God, but being made and appointed king by him. Having experienced God’s kindness in so many ways, he calls him “his goodness,” meaning that whatever good he possessed flowed from him. The accumulation of terms, one upon another, which follows, may appear unnecessary, yet it tends greatly to strengthen faith. We know how unstable men’s minds are, and especially how soon faith wavers, when they are assailed by some trial of more than usual severity. It is not enough, if God would sustain us under such weakness, to promise us his help in individual or single expressions; and, even however many aids he supplies us with, we are subject to very great vacillations, and a forgetfulness of his mercy creeps in upon us which almost overwhelms our minds. We are to remember that it is not merely in token of his gratitude that David heaps together so many terms in declaring the goodness of God, but to fortify God’s people against all attacks of the world, and of the evil one. He had a reason for reckoning it among the chiefest of God’s mercies, that he controlled the people under his government. For עמי, ami, my people, some read, עמים, amim, peoples; 258 and it is surprising they should prefer such a forced rendering, as David means simply that the settled state of the kingdom was owing not to any counsel, valor, or authority of his own, but to God’s secret favor. The verb רדד, radad, is used appropriately, signifying to spread out. The idea some have, that by a people spread out is meant a people set down at ease in a prosperous and happy condition, is farfetched. I have as great objections to the idea of others, that he means a people laid prostrate, so as that they may be trodden under foot; for a violent domination like this would not have been desirable over the chosen people, and sacred inheritance of the Lord. When a people yields a cordial and willing obedience to the laws, all subordinating themselves to their own place peaceably, this signally proves the divine blessing. And in such a settlement as this, where there is no turbulence, nor confusion, the people are appropriately represented, according to what we have said above, as being spread out. David accordingly having ascribed the victories lie had gained over foreign enemies to God, thanks him at the same time for the settled state of the kingdom. Raised indeed as he was from an obscure station, and exposed to hatred from calumnious charges, it was scarcely to have been believed that he would ever obtain a peaceable reign. The people had suddenly and beyond expectation submitted to him, and so surprising a change was eminently God’s work.
3. O Jehovah! what is man, etc. He amplifies the goodness shown by God by instituting a comparison. Having declared how singularly he had been dealt with, he turns his eyes inward, and asks, “Who am I, that God should show me such condescension? “He speaks of man in general; only the circumstance is noticeable that he commends the mercy of God, by considering his lowly and abject condition. In other places he mentions grounds of humiliation of a more personal or private nature, — here he confines himself to what has reference to our common nature; and though even in discussing the nature of man there are other reasons he might have specified why he is unworthy of the regard and love of God, he briefly adverts to his being like the smoke, and as a shadow. 259 We are left to infer that the riches of the divine goodness are extended to objects altogether unworthy in themselves. We are warned, when apt at any time to forget ourselves, and think we are something when we are nothing, that the simple fact of the shortness of our life should put down all arrogance and pride. The Scriptures, in speaking of the frailty of man, comprehend whatever is necessarily connected with it. And, indeed, if our life vanish in a moment, what is there stable about us? We taught this truth also — that we cannot properly estimate the divine goodness, unless we take into consideration what we are as to our condition, as we can only ascribe to God what is due unto him, by acknowledging that his goodness is bestowed upon undeserving creatures. The reader may seek for further information upon this point in the eighth Psalm, where nearly the same truth is insisted upon.
5. O Jehovah! bow thy heavens, 260 and descend: 261 touch the mountains, and they shall smoke. 6. Thunder forth thunderings, and scatter them; 262 shoot out thine arrows, and destroy them. 7. Send thy hand from above, rid me and deliver me out of great waters, from the hand of the sons of the stranger. 8. For their mouth hath spoken falsehood; and their right hand is a right hand of deceit.
5. O Jehovah! bow thy heavens. After extolling, as was due, the great goodness of God, he requests him to furnish such help for the preservation of the kingdom as was necessary in the present exigency. As formerly we saw that he had gloried in God with a heroical courage, so here he makes use of the same lofty terms in his prayers, That he would bow the heavens — that he would make the mountains to smoke — disturb the air with thunderings — and shoot forth arrows; forms of speech by which, doubtless, he would put away from him all the obstacles which stand between us and a believing apprehension of the omnipotence of God, and from which we find it so difficult to emerge. He employs almost the same phraseology in the eighteenth Psalm, but it is in praising God for help already extended, and to signify that he had been preserved from above in a wonderful and unusual manner. For although such signs as he mentions might not always occur when God interposed in his behalf, he had good ground to celebrate what had happened to him of an unexpected kind, by reference to extraordinary phenomena. In the passage before us his purpose is different. Threatened by destruction of various kinds, which might overwhelm his mind with despair, he would realize the wonderful power of God, before which all obstacles of a worldly kind must necessarily give way. We may be certain at least that he indulged in this figurative phraseology for a good reason, that he might not confine deliverance to human remedies; for nothing could be more preposterous at such a time than to measure divine power by ordinary rules.
7. Send thy hand, etc. In one word we are now made to see what was meant by the figures formerly used — that in the absence of all earthly help, God would put forth his hand from above, the greatness of the exigency making extraordinary help necessary. Accordingly he compares his enemies to great and deep waters. He calls them strangers, not in respect of generic origin, but character and disposition. It were a mistake to refer the term to the uncircumcision, for David rather animadverts upon degenerate Jews who gloried in the flesh; and shortly afterwards he hints that he had to do with internal foes rather than a foreign enemy, who would openly assault him with violence and arms. By the right hand of falsehood some understand rash attempts, which David hoped would be frustrated. Others limit the phrase to the solemn ceremony of taking an oath, as if he said they were perjured; 263 while others explain it as meaning that they not only lied with the tongue, but executed wicked devices with the hand. 264 But as it was customary in making promises to join hands, as Solomon says, (Pr 11:21; Pr 16:5,) I have no doubt David’s reference here is to false, treacherous, and perfidious persons. The two things go naturally together in the verse — the lying tongue and the deceitful hand, meaning upon the matter that nothing was to be looked for from any of their promises, since it was only to deceive that they flattered with their mouth and gave the hand.
9. O God! I will sing a new song to thee: upon the nablum, upon the psaltery, 265 I will sing psalms to thee. 10. Giving salvation to kings, delivering David his servant from the hurtful sword. 11. Deliver me, and rescue me from the hand of the sons of the stranger, whose mouth hath spoken falsehood, and their right hand is a right hand of deceit.
9. O God! I will sing a new song to thee. He again sets himself, with self-possession, to the exercise of praising God, not doubting but he would continue those mercies which he had once bestowed. I have taken notice in another place that by a new song is meant one of a singular or uncommon kind; and we are left from this to infer that David’s expectations stretched beyond the conclusions of man’s judgment; for, with a view to the greatness of the help to be extended, he promises a song of praise unprecedented in its nature, and distinguished, by the title here applied to it, from ordinary thanksgiving’s. As to the nablum and psaltery, I have elsewhere observed that they formed part of that system of training under the law to which the Church was subjected in its infancy. But the chief thing to be noticed is the subject of his songs that God, who is the preserver of kings, had kept — and even rescued from the sword — David, whom he had made and anointed king by his authoritative decree. As to the idea of there being implied in the term kings an opposition to the commonalty, David meaning that not only the common class of people are indebted to divine preservation, but the more influential, and such as appear to have sufficient and abundant strength of their own, I question whether it be well founded. His meaning seems to me rather to be different from this, That while God preserves all men without exception, his care is peculiarly extended to the maintenance of political order, which is the foundation of the common safety of all. It is in effect as if he called him the guardian and defender of kingdoms; for as the very mention of government is an odious thing, and none willingly obeys another, and nothing is more contrary to natural inclination than servitude, men would seek to throw off the yoke, and subvert the thrones of kings, were these not hedged round by a hidden divine presidency. David, however, distinguishes himself from other kings, as elsewhere he is called “the firstborn of kings,” (Ps 89:27;) at least he speaks of the goodness of God as having been preeminently shown to him, representing himself as holding the highest place, on account of the holy anointing which had been more eminently bestowed upon him. As a title of distinction, he claims the special name of God’s servant; for although all kings are God’s servants, and Cyrus has the name applied to him by Isaiah emphatically, (Isa 45:1,) yet as no heathen prince ever recognized himself as called of God, and David alone of all others in the world was invested with legitimate authority, and had a warrant to reign which faith could rest upon with certainty, it was not without reason that this mark of distinction is applied to him. By the hurtful sword, are doubtless meant all the dangers he had passed through for a series of years, which were such that he might be truly said to have come to the throne by deaths oft, and to have been settled upon the throne in the midst of them.
12. Because our sons are as plants which have grown up in their youth, our daughters as corners polished after the similitude of a palace. 266 13. Our recesses [or corners] full, going out, 267 from kind to kind; our sheep brining forth to thousands, to ten thousands, 268 in our streets. 269 14. Our oxen accustomed 270 to the burden, no breach, nor going out, nor cry in our streets. 15. Happy the people to whom it is so! happy the people whose God is Jehovah!
12. Because our sons, etc. These three concluding verses some consider as being a wish or a prayer. 271 Others think that David congratulates himself, and all the people, that through the divine blessing every species of mercy was showered down prosperously upon them. I have no doubt that David commemorates, by way of thanksgiving, the liberality which God had shown to his people. But it consists very well with this, to suppose that he prays at the same time for the continuance or preservation of those divine benefits which must well-nigh be cut off altogether by wicked men and domestic foes, unless God should interpose, in the troubles and confusions which prevailed. The end he has in view therefore is, that God would not suffer the signal blessings with which he had loaded his people to fail and depart. He begins by making mention of the children, comparing the male portion of them, by way of commendation of their excellency, to plants which have grown up in their youth; for trees rarely come to any height if they do not grow large early, and when yet tender. He speaks of the girls as being like corners skillfully and ingeniously cut out, to make the building beautiful; as if he would say that they adorned the house by their comeliness and elegance. It is not surprising that he should reckon a noble and well trained offspring to be the very first of God’s earthly blessings, a point of which I have spoken elsewhere more at large. As David speaks in the name of the whole people, and of his own condition as mixed up with that of the community, we may infer from this that he was not exclusively occupied with his own private interests.
13. Our recesses full, etc. Some read storehouses, 272 and I would not reject this meaning. But as the word comes from the same root with זוה, zavah, which is rendered corner in the previous verse, it seems more agreeable to the etymology to translate the words as I have done — “that the recesses or corners were full.” The participle מפיקים, mephikim, some take transitively, and read producing, but the meaning comes to the same thing, that abundance of every blessing flowed from all the corners, expression מזן אל-זן, mizan el-zan, 273 seems to me to denote the variety and manifold nature of the blessings, rather than, as some interpreters think, so abundant a produce as would issue in the different species being mixed, and forming a confused heap owing to the unmanageable plenty. We have no need to have recourse to this strained hyperbole, and the words as they stand evidently do not favor that sense, for had a confused heap been meant, it would have read simply זן זן, zan. The meaning in short is, that there prevailed amongst the people such plenty, not only of wheat, but all kinds of produce, that every corner was filled to sufficiency with every variety.
14. Our oxen, etc. The Hebrew word סבל, sabal, is properly to carry. Accordingly some understand מסובלים, mesubbalim, to mean robust, 274 as unless they were strong oxen they would not be fit for carriage, or bearing burdens. Others think they are spoken of as laden with fat. There is no need for insisting upon this point, as it does not affect the main scope of the passage. It may be more important to notice, that God’s fatherly care of his people is celebrated on the account that he condescends to attend to every the smallest matter which concerns their advantage. As in the verse before he had ascribed the fruitfulness of the herds and flocks to God’s goodness, so now the fattening of their oxen, to show that there is nothing relating to us here which he overlooks. As it would signify little to have abundance of everything unless we could enjoy it, he takes notice of it as another part of the Lord’s kindness that the people were peaceable and quiet. By breach I have no doubt that he alludes to hostile incursions, that there was no enemy to break in upon them through demolished gates or walls. By goings out it is surprising that any should understand exile, that the people were not torn away from the bounds of their native country. All he means simply is, in my opinion, that there was no necessity of sallying out to repel an enemy, none offering violence or molestation. To the same effect is the expression, as to any crying in the streets, the effect of a sudden tumult. The meaning is, accordingly, that there was no disturbance in the cities, because God kept enemies at a distance.
15. Happy the people, etc. He thus concludes that the divine favor had been sufficiently shown and manifested to his people. Should any object that it breathed altogether a gross and worldly spirit to estimate man’s happiness by benefits of a transitory description, I would say in reply that we must read the two things in connection, that those are happy who recognize the favor of God in the abundance they enjoy, and have such a sense of it from these transitory blessings as leads them through a persuasion of his fatherly love to aspire after the true inheritance. There is no impropriety in calling those happy whom God blesses in this world, provided they do not show themselves blinded in the improvement and use which they make of their mercies, or foolishly and supinely overlook the author of them. The kind providence of God in not suffering us to want any of the means of life is surely a striking illustration of his wonderful love. What more desirable than to be the objects of God’s care, especially if we have sufficient understanding to conclude from the liberality with which he supports us he is our Father? For everything is to be viewed with a reference to this point. Better it were at once to perish for want than have a mere brute satisfaction, and forget the main thing of all, that they and they only are happy whom God has chosen for his people. We are to observe this, that while God in giving us meat and drink admits us to the enjoyment of a certain measure of happiness, it does not follow that those believers are miserable who struggle through life in want and poverty, for this want, whatever it be, God can counterbalance by better consolations.
The ideas and the phraseology of a considerable part of this Psalm appear to be borrowed from the eighteenth.
The occasion on which this Psalm was written can only be conjectured. The Septuagint, Vulgate, Aethiopic, and Arabic versions entitle it “A Psalm of David against Goliah;” and that the Chaldee paraphrast took this to be the subject of the Psalm is evident from his reading in verse 10th, “the sword of Goliah.” Judging, however, from internal evidence, the enemies referred to seem rather to be those of David and his kingdom, after he ascended the throne. Some refer the Psalm to David’s war with the Ammonites and Syrians, recorded in 2Sa 10; and it may have been composed by him when about to encounter these hostile powers.
“Ou, mon rocher.” — Fr. marg. “Or, my rock.”
Those who conjecture that עמים, amim, is the correct reading, refer to the parallel passage in Ps 18:47, where the word is in the plural. They also observe in support of their opinion, that this reading is actually found in a great number of MSS. examined by Kennieott and De Rossi; and they account for עמי, ami, having got into the text by supposing that it was written in the first instance as a contraction for עמים, amim. Rosenmuller supposes, but with less probability, that the original word was עם, and that the letter י, yod, is paragogic, that is, has been annexed to improve the sound; עם, am, being taken collectively. The Masorets have noticed that עם, which the translators of our English Bible took to be עם, with its possessive affix here, in 2Sa 22:44, and La 3:14, and consequently rendered by my people, is to be taken as the plural number of that noun.
“Et mesmes combion qu’en espluchant la nature des hommes il eust peu toucher d’autres choses, pour lesquelles ils sont indignes. — neantmoins,” etc. — Fr.
“Bow thy heavens. This expression is derived from the appearance of the clouds during a tempest: they hang low, so as to obscure the hills and mountains, and seem to mingle heaven and earth together. Such an appearance is figuratively used to depict the coming of God, to execute vengeance upon the enemies of his people. See Ps 18:10, and other instances.” — Walford
The verbs in this and the two following verses are in the imperative mood, whereas in the corresponding passages in the eighteenth Psalm they are in the past tense. This difference is best accounted for by supposing, with Calvin, that these verses are the language of prayer, uttered by David in a time of threatened danger from the enemies of his kingdom and people; whilst those of the eighteenth Psalm were spoken after some signal deliverance or deliverances had been vouchsafed.
“Scatter them. The antecedent of ‘them’ is ‘peoples’ in verse second.” — Walford.
“In taking an oath the right hand was lifted up. The enemies of David profaned their oaths by violating the covenants into which they entered, and breaking their solemn engagements.” — Walford.
“The meaning is, the hands with which they confirm their treaties of peace and leagues of friendship are immediately lifted up against the lives and liberties of their allies.” — Warner.
In the French version it is — “Upon the psaltery, and upon an instrument of ten strings.” It is evident that Calvin supposed two instruments to be here mentioned. This, however, has been doubted. The rendering in the Hebrew text is — בנבל עשור, benebel asor, “with a nobel (or psaltery, as the term is translated in our English Bible) ten (stringed).” Thus only one musical instrument may be indicated — “the psaltery of. ten strings.” In Ps 33:2, we read similarly, בנבל עשור, benebel asor, “with the psaltery ten (stringed).” In Ps 42:3, however, nebel and asor are represented as two distinct musical instruments. We there read, עליא-עשור ועלי-נבל, ale-asor veale-nabel, “upon the asor or ten (stringed instrument), and upon the nebel or psaltery.” But whatever inference may be drawn from the independent exhibition of asor in that text, yet in the passage before us, and in Ps 33:2, if we may judge from the construction, it seems rather to represent the number of strings of the common nebel or psaltery, or a particular variety of that instrument, than to be a distinct musical instrument. With respect to the Hebrew nebel from which comes the ναβλος; of the Greeks, and the nablum of the Latins, our information is very limited and indistinct. It is supposed to have been a stringed instrument of the harp or lyre kind, and appears to have been of the triangular form. As it is not noticed in Scripture earlier than the days of David, it is not considered of equal antiquity with some other musical instruments. It was formed of precious wood, as we learn from 1Ki 10:12, and ultimately, according to Josephus, of that species of precious mixed metal called electrum. From its being never mentioned in the Sacred Writings, except in connection with the worship of the sanctuary, it has been conjectured that it was not used in private, and that it was probably larger, and more costly, than other instruments of a similar kind. Josephus says that it was played upon with the fingers, and had twelve strings. The number of strings may, however, have varied according to circumstances.
“The paraphrase of Bishop Patrick, doubtless, conveys the real meaning: ‘Tall and beautiful, like those polished pillars which are the ornaments of a palace.’” — Illustrated Commentary upon the Bible. “The polished corners of the Temple — rather, the sculptured angles, the ornament of a palace. Great care and much ornament were bestowed by the ancients upon the angles of their splendid edifices. It is remarkable that the Greeks made use of pilasters, called Caryatides, (carved after the figure of a woman dressed in long robes,) to support the entablatures of their buildings.” — Cresswell.
“Ou, produisans, fournissans.” — Fr, marg. “Or, producing, providing.”
In the East sheep are remarkably fruitful, bringing forth, as Boehart shows, not only two at a time, (So 4:2,) but sometimes three or four, and that twice a year. This accounts for the prodigious number of sheep which whitened the extensive pastures of Syria and Canaan. See 2 Kings 3:4, 1 Chr. 5:21, 2 Chr. 35:7; Psalm 65:14 [sic].
“In our streets. Streets are not proper places for sheep. The word חוצות, chutzoth, is different from that properly rendered ‘streets’ in the ensuing verse, and is the same that is translated ‘fields’ in Job 5:10. The word literally means ‘outplaces,’ and as such is susceptible of various applications; in the present text it probably denotes the outpastures in the commons and deserts.” — Illustrated Commentary upon the Bible
“Ou, gras.” — Fr. marg. “Or, fat.”
“Grant that our sons may be as plants,” etc. Such is the view taken by the Translators of the English Bible.
מזוינו, Our garners. This word is to be found in Scripture only once, but it has most probably the same root as זוית, and it may denote primarily our corners, and then our garners; because garners or storehouses were usually at the ends or corners of edifices.” — Phillips
Literally, “from kind to kind.”
מסבלים, burdened, viz. with flesh, according to Pagninus, who has onusti carne. The root is סכל, and the form is the pual participle, which occurs only in this place. Compensis has paraphrased it: santi et ferendis oneribus apti. Perhaps burdened oxen may be a phrase equivalent to our beasts of burden such as are strong and adapted to carry burdens; and here the prayer of the Psalmist is, that they may be eminently fitted for this service.” — Phillips