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In our last chapter we have seen that the key-note of "The Songs of the King" may be said to be struck in Psalm xviii. Its complete analysis would carry us far beyond our limits. We can but glance at some of the more prominent points of the psalm.
The first clause strikes the key-note. "I love Thee, O Jehovah, my strength." That personal attachment to God, which is so characteristic of David's religion, can no longer be pent up in silence, but gushes forth like some imprisoned stream, broad and full even from its well-head. The common word for "love" is too weak for him, and he bends to his use another, never elsewhere employed to express man's emotions towards God, the intensity of which is but feebly expressed by some such periphrasis as, "From my heart do I love Thee." The same exalted feeling is wonderfully set forth by the loving accumulation of Divine names which158 follow, as if he would heap together in one great pile all the rich experiences of that God, unnamed after all names, which he had garnered up in his distresses and deliverances. They tell so much as the poor vehicle of words can tell, what his Shepherd in the heavens had been to him. They are the treasures which he has brought back from his exile; and they most pathetically point to the songs of that time. He had called on God by these names when it was hard to believe in their reality, and now he repeats them all in his glad hour of fruition, for token that they who in their extremity trust in the name of the Lord will one day have the truth of faith transformed into truth of experience. "Jehovah, my rock and my fortress," reminds us of his cry in Ziklag, "Thou art my rock and my fortress" (xxxi. 3), and of the "hold" (the same word) of Adullam in which he had lain secure. "My deliverer" echoes many a sigh in the past, now changed into music of praise. "My rock" (a different word from that in a preceding clause), "in whom I take refuge," recalls the prayer, "Be Thou my rock of strength" (xxxi. 2), and his former effort of confidence, when, in the midst of159 calamities, he said, "My soul takes refuge in Thee" (lvii. 1.) "My shield" carries us back to the ancient promise, fresh after so many centuries, and fulfilled anew in every age, "Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield," and to his own trustful words at a time when trust was difficult, "My shield is upon God" (vii. 10). "My high tower," the last of this glowing series, links on to the hope breathed in the first song of his exile, "God is my defence" (the same expression); "Thou hast been my defence in the day of trouble" (lix. 9, 16). And then he sums up his whole past in one general sentence, which tells his habitual resource in his troubles, and the blessed help which he has ever found, "I call on Jehovah, who is worthy to be praised;[R] and from my enemies am I saved" (verse 3).
[R] The old English word "the worshipful" comes near the form and meaning of the phrase.
No comment can heighten, and no translation can adequately represent, while none can altogether destroy the unapproachable magnificence of the description which follows, of the majestic coming forth of God in answer to his cry. It stands at the very highest point, even when compared with the other sublime passages160 of a like kind in Scripture. How pathetically he paints his sore need in metaphors which again bring to mind the songs of the outlaw:—
The snares of death compassed me,
And floods of destruction made me afraid;
The snares of Sheol surrounded me,
The toils of death surprised me.
As he so often likened himself to some wild creature in the nets, so here Death, the hunter, has cast his fatal cords about him, and they are ready suddenly to close on the unsuspecting prey. Or, varying the image, he is sinking in black waters, which are designated by a difficult phrase (literally, "streams of Belial," or worthlessness), which is most probably rendered as above (so Ewald, Hupfeld). In this dire extremity one thing alone is left him. He is snared, but he has his voice free to cry with, and a God to cry to. He is all but sinking, but he can still shriek (so one of the words might be rendered) "like some strong swimmer in his agony." And it is enough. That one loud call for help rises, like some slender pillar of incense-smoke, straight into the palace temple of God—and, as he says, with a meaning which our version obscures, "My cry before161 Him came into His ears." The prayer that springs from a living consciousness of being in God's presence, even when nearest to perishing, is the prayer that He hears. The cry is a poor, thin, solitary voice, unheard on earth, though shrill enough to rise to heaven; the answer shakes creation. One man in his extremity can put in motion all the magnificence of God. Overwhelming is the contrast between the cause and the effect. And marvellous as the greatness, so also is the swiftness of the answer. A moment suffices—and then! Even whilst he cries, the rocking earth and the quivering foundations of the hills are conscious that the Lord comes from afar for his help. The majestic self-revelation of God as the deliverer has for its occasion the psalmist's cry of distress, and for its issue, "He drew me out of many waters." All the splendour flames out because a poor man prays, and all the upheaval of earth and the artillery of heaven has simply this for its end, that a poor man may be delivered. The paradox of prayer never found a more bold expression than in this triumphant utterance, of the insignificant occasion for, and the equally insignificant result162 sought by, the exercise of the energy of Omnipotence.
The Divine deliverance is set forth under the familiar image of the coming of God in a tempest. Before it bursts, and simultaneous with the prayer, the "earth rocks and quivers," the sunless "pillars of the hills reel and rock to and fro," as if conscious of the gathering wrath which begins to flame far off in the highest heavens. There has been no forth-putting yet of the Divine power. It is but accumulating its fiery energy, and already the solid framework of the world trembles, anticipating the coming crash. The firmest things shake, the loftiest bow before His wrath. "There went up smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured; coals were kindled by it." This kindling anger, expressed by these tremendous metaphors, is conceived of as the preparation in "His temple" for the earthly manifestation of delivering vengeance. It is like some distant thunder-cloud which grows on the horizon into ominous blackness, and seems to be filling its ashen-coloured depths with store of lightnings. Then the piled-up terror begins to move, and, drawing nearer,163 pours out an avalanche of gloom seamed with fire. First the storm-cloud descends, hanging lower and lower in the sky. And whose foot is that which is planted upon its heavy mass, thick and frowning enough to be the veil of God?
"He bowed the heavens, and came down,
And blackness of cloud was under His feet."
Then the sudden rush of wind which heralds the lightning breaks the awful silence:—
And He rode upon a cherub, and did fly,
Yea, He swept along upon the wings of the wind.
The cherubs bear, as in a chariot, the throned God, and the swift pinions of the storm bear the cherubs. But He that sits upon the throne, above material forces and the highest creatures, is unseen. The psalmist's imagination stops at its base, nor dares to gaze into that light above; and the silence is more impressive than all words. Instead of pagan attempts at a likeness of God, we have next painted, with equal descriptive accuracy, poetic force, and theological truth, the pitchy blackness which hides Him. In the gloom of its depths He makes His "secret place" His "tent." It is "darkness of waters," that is, darkness from which streams out the164 thunder-rain; it is "thick clouds of the skies;" or perhaps the expression should be rendered, "heavy masses of clouds." Then comes the crash of the tempest. The brightness that lies closer around Him, and lives in the heart of the blackness, flames forth, parting the thick clouds—and through the awful rent hail and coals of fire are flung down on the trembling earth. The grand description may be rendered in two ways: either that adopted in our version, "At the brightness that was before Him His thick clouds passed—hailstones and coals of fire;" or, "Through His thick clouds there passed hailstones and coals of fire." The former of these is the more dramatic; the broken construction expresses more vividly the fierce suddenness of the lightning blaze and of the down-rush of the hail, and is confirmed by the repetition of the same words in the same construction in the next verse. That verse describes another burst of the tempest—the deep roll of the thunder along the skies is the voice of Jehovah, and again the lightning tears through the clouds, and the hail streams down. With what profound truth all this destructive power is represented as coming from the brightness of165 God—that "glory" which in its own nature is light, but in its contact with finite and sinful creatures must needs become darkness, rent asunder by lightning! What lessons as to the root and the essential nature of all punitive acts of God cluster round such words! and how calm and blessed the faith which can pierce even the thickest mass "that veileth Love!"—to see the light at the centre, even though the circumference be brooding thunder-clouds torn by sudden fires. Then comes the purpose of all this apocalypse of Divine magnificence. The fiery arrows scatter the psalmist's enemies. The waters in which he had well nigh drowned are dried up before the hot breath of His anger. "That dread voice" speaks "which shrinks their streams." And amid the blaze of tempest, the rocking earth, and the failing floods, His arm is thrust forth from above, and draws His servant from many waters. As one in later times, "he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me; and immediately He stretched forth His hand and caught him."
A calmer tone follows, as the psalmist recounts without metaphor his deliverance, and reiterates the same assertion of his innocence166 which we have already found so frequently in the previous psalms (vers. 17-24). Rising from his personal experience to the broad and lofty thoughts of God which that experience had taught him, as it does all who prize life chiefly as a means of knowing Him, he proclaims the solemn truth, that in the exercise of a righteous retribution, and by the very necessity of our moral nature, God appears to man what man is to God: loving to the loving, upright to the upright, pure to the pure, and froward to the froward. Our thoughts of God are shaped by our moral character; the capacity of perceiving depends on sympathy. "Unless the eye were light, how could it see the sun?" The self-revelation of God in His providence, of which only the psalm speaks, is modified according to our moral character, being full of love to those who love, being harsh and antagonistic to those who set themselves in opposition to it. There is a higher law of grace, whereby the sinfulness of man but draws forth the tenderness of a father's pardoning pity; and the brightest revelation of His love is made to froward prodigals. But that is not in the psalmist's view here, nor does it interfere with the law of retribution in its own sphere.167
The purely personal tone is again resumed, and continued unbroken to the close. In the former portion David was passive, except for the voice of prayer, and God's arm alone was his deliverance. In the latter half he is active, the conquering king, whose arm is strengthened for victory by God. This difference may possibly suggest the reference of the former half to the Sauline persecution, when, as we have seen, the exile ever shrunk from avenging himself; and of the latter to the early years of his monarchy, which, as we shall see, were characterized by much successful military activity; and if so, the date of the psalm would most naturally be taken to be the close of his victorious campaigns, when "the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies round about" (2 Sam. vii. 1). Be that as it may, the latter portion of the psalm shows us the soldier king tracing all his past victories to God alone, and building upon them the confidence of a world-wide dominion. The point at which memory passes into hope is difficult to determine, and great variety of opinion prevails on the matter among commentators. It is perhaps best to follow many of the older versions, and the168 valuable exposition of Hupfeld, in regarding the whole section from ver. 37 of our translation as the expression of the trust which past experience had wrought. We shall then have two periods in the second half of the psalm—the past victories won by God's help (vers. 31-36), the coming triumphs of which these are the pledge (vers. 37-end).
In the former there shine out not only David's habitual consciousness of dependence on and aid from God, but also a very striking picture of his physical qualifications for a military leader. He is girded with bodily strength, swift and sure of foot like a deer, able to scale the crags where his foes fortified themselves like the wild antelopes he had so often seen bounding among the dizzy ledges of the cliffs in the wilderness; his hands are trained for war, and his sinewy arms can bend the great bow of brass. But these capacities are gifts, and not they, but their Giver, have made him victorious. Looking back upon all his past, this is its summing up:—
"Thou hast also given me the shield of Thy salvation,
And Thy right hand hath holden me up,
And Thy lowliness hath made me great."
God's strength, God's buckler, God's supporting hand, God's condescension, by which He bows down to look upon and help the feeble, with the humble showing Himself humble—these have been his weapons, and from these has come his victory.
And because of these, he looks forward to a future like the past, but more glorious still, thereby teaching us how the unchanging faithfulness of our God should encourage us to take all the blessings which we have received as but the earnest of what is yet to come. He sees himself pursuing his enemies, and smiting them to the ground. The fierce light of battle blazes through the rapid sentences which paint the panic flight, and the swift pursuit, the vain shrieks to man and God for succour, and the utter annihilation of the foe:—
(42) "And I will pound them like dust before the wind,
Like street-filth will I empty them out."
Then he gives utterance to the consciousness that his kingdom is destined to extend far beyond the limits of Israel, in words which, like so many of the prophecies, may be translated in the present tense, but are obviously future in signification—the prophet placing himself in170 imagination in the midst of the time of which he speaks:—
(43) "Thou deliverest me from the strivings of the people (i.e., Israel),
Thou makest me head of the heathen;
People whom I knew not serve me.
(44) At the hearing of the ear they obey me.
The sons of the stranger feign obedience to me.
(45) The sons of the stranger fade away,
They come trembling from their hiding-places."
The rebellion which weakened his early reign is subdued, and beyond the bounds of his own people his dominion spreads. Strange tribes submit to the very sound of his name, and crouch before him in extorted and pretended submission. The words are literally "lie unto me," descriptive of the profuse professions of loyalty characteristic of conquered orientals. Their power withers before him like a gathered flower before a hot wind, and the fugitives creep trembling out of their holes where they have hid themselves.
Again he recurs to the one thought which flows like a river of light through all the psalm—that all his help is in God. The names which he lovingly heaped together at the beginning171 are in part echoed in the close. "The Lord liveth, and blessed is my rock, and the God of my salvation is exalted." His deliverances have taught him to know a living God, swift to hear, active to help, in whom he lives, who has magnified His own name in that He has saved His servant. And as that blessed conviction is the sum of all his experience, so one glad vow expresses all his resolves, and thrills with the expectation which he had cherished even in his lonely exile, that the music of his psalm would one day echo through all the world. With lofty consciousness of his new dignity, and with lowly sense that it is God's gift, he emphatically names himself His king, His anointed, taking, as it were, his crown from his brows and laying it on the altar. With prophetic eye he looks onward, and sees the throne to which he had been led by a series of miracles enduring for ever, and the mercy of God sustaining the dominion of his house through all generations:—
(49) "Therefore will I give thanks to Thee among the nations, O Jehovah,
And to Thy name will I strike the harp:
(50) Who maketh great the deliverances of His king
And executeth mercy for His anointed,
For David and his seed for evermore."
And what were his purposes for the future? Here is his answer, in a psalm which has been with considerable appropriateness regarded as a kind of manifesto of the principles which he intended should characterize his reign (Psa. ci.): "I will walk within my house with a perfect heart. I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes." For himself, he begins his reign with noble self-restraint, not meaning to make it a region of indulgence, but feeling that there is a law above his will, of which he is only the servant, and knowing that if his people and his public life are to be what they should be, his own personal and domestic life must be pure. As for his court and his ministers, he will make a clean sweep of the vermin who swarm and sting and buzz about a throne. The froward, the wicked, privy slanderers, proud hearts, crafty plotters, liars, and evil-doers he will not suffer—but "mine eyes shall be upon the faithful in the land; he that walketh in a perfect way, he shall serve me." He is fired with ambition, such as has brightened the beginning of many a reign which has darkened to cruelty and crime, to make his kingdom some faint image of God's, and to bring the actual Israel173 into conformity with its ancient Magna Charta, "Ye shall be to me a holy nation." And so, not knowing perhaps how hard a task he planned, and little dreaming of his own sore fall, he grasps the sword, resolved to use it for the terror of evil-doers, and vows, "I will early destroy all the wicked in the land, that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the Lord." Such was his "proclamation against vice and immorality" on his accession to his throne.Contents
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