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16. Because he forgot to show mercy The prophet comes now to show that he had good reason for desiring such awful and direful calamities to be inflicted upon his enemies, whose thirst for cruelty was insatiable, and who were transported with rage, no less cruel than obstinate, against the afflicted and poor man, persecuting him with as little scruple as if they were attacking a dead dog. Even philosophers look upon cruelty, directed against the helpless and miserable, as an act worthy only of a cowardly and grovelling nature; for it is between equals that envy is cherished. For this reason the prophet represents the malignity of his enemies as being bitter in persecuting him when he was in affliction and poverty. The expression, the sorrowful in heart, is still more emphatic. For there are persons who, notwithstanding of their afflictions, are puffed up with pride; and as this conduct is unreasonable and unnatural, these individuals incur the displeasure of the powerful. On the other hand, it would be a sign of desperate cruelty to treat with contempt the lowly and dejected in heart. Would not this be to fight with a shadow? This insatiable cruelty is still farther pointed out by the phrase, forgetting to show mercy; the meaning of which is, that the calamities, with which he beheld this guiltless and miserable man struggling, fail to excite his pity, so that, out of regard to the common lot of humanity, he should lay aside his savage disposition. In this passage, therefore, the contrast is equally balanced on the one side between such obstinate pride, and on the other, the strict and irrevocable judgment of God. And as David spoke only as he was moved by the Holy Spirit, this imprecation must be received as if God himself should thunder from his celestial throne. Thus, in the one case, by denouncing vengeance against the ungodly, he subdues and restrains our perverse inclinations, which might lead us to injure a fellow-creature; and on the other, by imparting comfort to us, he mitigates and moderates our sorrow, so that we patiently endure the ills which they inflict upon us. The wicked may for a time revel with impunity in the gratification of their lusts; but this threatening shows that it is no vain protection which God vouchsafes to the afflicted. But let the faithful conduct themselves meekly, that their humility and contrition of spirit may come up before God with acceptance. And as we cannot distinguish between the elect and the reprobate, it is our duty to pray for all who trouble us; to desire the salvation of all men; and even to be careful for the welfare of every individual. At the same time, if our hearts are pure and peaceful, this will not prevent us from freely appealing to God’s judgment, that he may cut off the finally impenitent. 310310 “Ut desperatos omnes male perdat.” — Lat. “Afin qu’il extermine tous ceux qui sont du tout desesperez.” — Fr.
17 As he loved cursing David still continues to enumerate the sins of his adversaries, and is thus severe in his treatment of them, in order to render it more apparent, that he is strictly conforming to the judgment of God. For as often as we draw near to the tribunal of God, we must take care that the equity of our cause may be so sure and evident as to secure for it and us a favorable reception from him. Fortified by the testimony of an approving conscience, David here declares his readiness to commit the matter between him and his enemies to the judgment of God. The words, which are expressive of cursing and blessing, are in the past tense, cursing came upon him, and blessing was far from him, but it is necessary to translate them as expressive of a wish or desire; for David continues to pray that his enemy may be visited with the same unparalleled ills which he had inflicted upon others. A stranger to every act of kindness, and taking pleasure in doing evil, it is the wish of the Psalmist that he may now be subjected to every species of calamity. Some take malediction to mean cursing and imprecation, thereby intimating that this man was so addicted to execration, that mischief and malevolence were constantly in his heart, and proceeding from his lips. While I do not reject this opinion, I am yet disposed to take a more extended view of the passage, That by injury and abuse, he aimed at the suppression and abolition of every mark of kindness, and that he took delight in the calamities which he beheld coming upon the unsuspecting and the good.
Not a few interpreters translate the next two verses in the past form, he clothed himself with cursing, etc., which would be tantamount to saying that the enemy was as fond of cursing as of costly apparel, or that he clothed himself with it as with a garment, and that, like an inveterate disease, it was deeply seated in the marrow of his bones. The other interpretation is more simple, That cursing should cleave to the wicked, that it should envelop him like a cloak, gird him about as his girdle, and should even penetrate to his bones. And that no one may rashly take for an example what David here spoke by the special influence of the Holy Spirit, let him keep in mind that the Psalmist is not pleading here in reference to any personal interest, and that it is no ordinary character to whom he refers. Belonging to the number of the faithful, he would not omit the law of charity, in desiring the salvation of all men. But in this instance God elevated his spirit above all earthly considerations, stript him of all malice, and delivered him from the influence of turbulent passion, so that he might, with holy calmness and spiritual wisdom, doom the reprobate and castaway to destruction. Others, would have the phrase, he loved cursing, to mean that he purposely drew down the vengeance of God upon himself, as it were procuring destruction for himself by his open hostility to him; but this is an unnatural construction of the passage. The interpretation which I have given is preferable, That he was so addicted to mischief and wrong, that no act of justice or kindness was to be expected from him. In the meantime, let it be observed, that all the machinations of the wicked will eventually recoil upon their own heads, and that when they are raging more violently against others, then it is that the mischief, which they so eagerly desire may come upon them, falls upon themselves, even as the wind called Cecias by blowing attracts the clouds unto him.
20 Let this be the work from Jehovah. That is, let the gain or reward of the work be from God. In pointing out the work as proceeding immediately from God, he intends to show that, though deprived of all human aid, he yet entertained the hope that God would grant him deliverance, and avenge the injuries of his servant. From this verse we learn that David did not rashly, or unadvisedly, utter curses against his enemies, but strictly adhered to what the Spirit dictated. I acknowledge, indeed, that not a few, while they pretend a similar confidence and hope, nevertheless, recklessly rush beyond the bounds of temperance and moderation. But that which David beheld by the unclouded eye of faith, he also uttered with a zeal becoming a sound mind; for having devoted himself to the cultivation of piety, and being protected by the hand of God, he was aware that the day was approaching when his enemies would meet with merited punishment. From which we also learn, that his trust was placed in God alone, and that he did not regard the persons of men so as to direct his course according as the world smiled or frowned upon him. And, assuredly, whosoever places his dependence on men, shall find that the most trifling incident will annoy him. Therefore, should the whole world abandon us, it becomes us, in imitation of this holy man, to lift up our heads to heaven, and thence look for our defender and deliverer. If it be his intention to employ human instrumentality for our deliverance, he will soon raise up those who will accomplish his purpose. Should he, for the trial of our faith, deprive us of all earthly assistance, instead of regarding that as any reflection upon the glory of his name, we ought to wait until the proper time arrive when he will fully display that decision in which we can calmly acquiesce.
21 And thou, O Jehovah my Lord! From the pouring out of complaints and imprecations against his enemies, the Psalmist passes to prayers; or rather, after having betaken himself to God as his guardian and deliverer, he appears to take occasion, from this circumstance, to encourage himself in prayer; even as all the pious reflections by which the faithful exercise and strengthen their faith, stimulate them to call upon the name of God. At the same time, he does not pique himself upon any service which he has rendered to God, as deserving of his help, nor does he rely upon his own worthiness, but he places all his confidence in the free grace and mercy of God. That integrity of which he was conscious, he placed in opposition to his enemies, for the purpose of making their iniquity more manifest; but he does not aspire after any recompense from God, because he adopts the nobler principle, that of owing every thing to God’s voluntary choice, upon which also he acknowledges his safety depends. Were it lawful for any one to boast of his virtues and merits, certainly David was not the man who was least entitled to do so; and, moreover, he was the representative of Christ, and of the whole Church. Hence it follows, that all our prayers will vanish in smoke, unless they are grounded upon the mercy of God. The case of Christ was indeed a peculiar one, inasmuch as it was by his own righteousness that he appeased the wrath of his Father towards us. As, however, his human nature was entirely dependant on the good pleasure of God, so it was his will, by his own example, to direct us to the same source. What can we do, seeing that the most upright among us is constrained to acknowledge that he is chargeable with the commission of much sin; surely we never can make God our debtor? It follows, therefore, that God, on account of the benignity of his nature, takes us under his protection; and that, because of the goodness of his mercy, he desires his grace may shine forth in us. In coming to God, we must always remember that we must possess the testimony of a good conscience, and must beware of harbouring the thought that we have any inherent righteousness which would render God our debtor, or that we deserve any recompense at his hands. For if, in the preservation of this short and frail life, God manifests the glory of his name and of his goodness, how much more ought all confidence in good works to be laid aside, when the subject-matter referred to is life heavenly and eternal? If, in the prolonging of my life for a short time on earth, his name is thereby glorified, by manifesting of his own accord towards me his benignity and liberality; when, therefore, having delivered me from the tyranny of Satan, he adopts me into his family, washes away my impurity in the blood of Christ, regenerates me by his Holy Spirit, unites me to his Son, and conducts me to the life of heaven, — then, assuredly, the more bountifully he treats me, the less should I be disposed to arrogate to myself any portion of the praise. How different a part does David act, who, in order to procure favor for himself, publishes his own poverty and misery? And as outward affliction is of no avail, unless a man, at the same time, be humbled, and his proud and rebellious spirit be subdued, the Psalmist here repeats, that his heart was wounded within him. From which we may learn, that God will be a physician to none, except to such as in the spirit of genuine humility send up their sighs and groans to him, and do not become hardened under their afflictions.
23 I walk about as a shadow. These are two very appropriate similitudes: to the first of them I formerly adverted in Psalm 102:12; namely, that the afflicted person, and he who is almost lifeless, is very fitly compared to the shadow of the evening. At sunrise, or when he is shining in noon-day brightness, the constant shifting of the shadow is not so perceptible; but, towards sunset, the shadow flits before us during every moment that passes. By the other similitude, the transitory nature of all sublunary things is pointed out. For as the locusts are constantly skipping from one place to another, so David complains of his life being ever rendered uneasy by incessant persecution, so that no space was allowed him for repose; and this is similar to what he says in Psalm 11:1, that he was compelled to flee like a sparrow, for which the fowler lays snares in all directions. In short, he mourns over his forlorn situation, that he could find no place of safety, and that, even among men, he could get no habitation. And, as in this psalm, he presents us with a picture of the whole Church, we need not be surprised if God try us, and arouse us from our lethargy, by an innumerable variety of events. Accordingly, Paul, 1 Corinthians 4:11, speaking of himself and others, says, that they have no certain dwelling-place; a description which is more or less applicable to all the children of God.
24 My knees are become feeble. Though David had the necessaries of life, yet he emaciated himself by voluntary abstinence, to which, as well as to prayer, he gave himself, and therefore we may regard this verse as expressive of his sorrow and sadness. We may also understand it as expressive of his having no relish for meat or drink, knowing, as we do, that persons who are in sorrow and sadness have no appetite for food; even life itself is burdensome to them. Should any one prefer restricting the interpretation to David’s being in want of the necessaries of life, when he hid himself in the dens of wild beasts, to escape the fury of his enemies, and was then subjected to hunger and thirst, he may do so. It appears to me, however, that by this language he intends to point out the extreme anguish which he felt, because, with death staring him in the face, he loathed all food; and this is in accordance with the next clause, in which he says, my flesh faileth of fatness; because “a sorrowful spirit drieth up the bones,” (Proverbs 17:22) By the term, fatness, some understand delicacies; meaning that he was deprived of all that food which is pleasing to the palate. The more natural way is to consider it as denoting his becoming emaciated by reason of grief and fasting, inasmuch as the natural moisture was wasted. Another proof of his sad situation arises from this, that, according to what he states in Psalm 22:7, he was held in scorn by all. It is, indeed, a sad and bitter thing which God’s children endure, when they are made to feel that the curse which he denounces against the transgressors of his law is directed against themselves; for the law says to the despisers of it,
“Thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and laughing-stock,” (Deuteronomy 28:37)
With this species of temptation David was assailed; and he declares that he was not only regarded as a condemned person, but also cruelly derided; God at the same time coming in for a share of it; for it is usual with the ungodly to conduct themselves with insolence and pride towards us when they see us oppressed under afflictions, and, at the same time, to rail at our faith and piety, because God renders us no help in our miseries.
26 Help me, O Jehovah! The prophet repeats his prayer, because the more we are assailed by the subtilty and deceit of Satan, the more necessary is it for us to strive more ardently, and display the greater boldness. We may, indeed, have the full assurance of God being propitious towards us, yet when he delays to manifest it, and when the ungodly slander us, it must be that various doubts which keep intruding themselves upon us arise in our minds. Hence, it is not without reason that David, in order that he might withstand such attacks, places himself under the protection of that God who, according to his mercy and goodness, helps his people in their time of need. He implores that deliverance may be extended to him, not by ordinary means, but by the peculiar and special display of God’s power, so that his enemies may stand abashed, and not dare to open their mouths; and we know that God sometimes secretly grants succor to his servants, while, at other times, he stretches out his hand in such a visible manner, that the ungodly, though they shut their eyes, are constrained to acknowledge that there is divine agency connected with their deliverance. For as his enemies had exalted themselves against God, so it was his desire, after they shall have been subdued, to exult over them in the name of God. In cherishing this desire, he has no wish to procure for himself the renown of being valiant in war, but that God’s power may be displayed, that no flesh may glory in his sight. The words may also be viewed as referring both to his deliverance from his enemies, and to his affliction; his desire being to attribute his deliverance mainly to the grace of God; because, in opposing the hand of God to fortune and to all human means of deliverance, it is plainly his intention that God should be recognised as the alone author of it. This deserves to be carefully considered by us, for however anxious we are to be delivered by the hand of God, yet there is scarcely one among a hundred who makes the manifestation of God’s glory his chief end; that glory for which we ought to have a greater regard than for our own safety, because it is far more excellent. Whosoever then is desirous that the ungodly may be constrained to acknowledge the power of God, ought the more carefully to take heed to the help of God which in his own case he experiences; for it would be most absurd to point out the hand of God to others, if our minds have not recognised it.
28. They shall curse. Interpreters are divided in their opinions about the meaning of these words. One class would render them as expressive of a desire or wish: Let them curse, provided that thou bless: let them arise, and be clothed with confusion Another class, and with them I readily agree, adopt the future tense of the indicative mood, They shall curse, etc. Should any prefer to understand the passage as indicating, on the part of the Psalmist, his resolution to suffer and submit to the curses of his enemies, I do not oppose their interpretation. In my opinion, however, those who view the words as a prayer, misinterpret them; because David, having already presented his petitions to God, and being secure in his favor, seems now rather to boast that their cursing will do him no harm; for Thou, says he, wilt bless me. By this means, he proves how little and how lightly he regarded the menaces of his enemies, though they might assail him by the poison of the tongue, and the power of the sword. From the example of David, let us learn to form the resolution of engaging God on our side, who can baffle all the designs of our enemies, and inspire us with courage to set at defiance their malice, wickedness, audacity, power, and fury.
And then, indeed, it is that the loving-kindness of God appears, when it banishes from our minds the fears which we entertain of the threatenings of the world. Therefore, relying upon the grace of God, boldly setting at nought the machinations and attacks of his enemies, believing that they could not prevail against God’s blessing, David raises the shout of triumph even in the midst of the battle. This truth is still more impressively inculcated in the succeeding clause of the verse: Though they arise, yet shall they be put to shame. By these words it is obviously his design to intimate that the ungovernable violence of his enemies is not yet subdued, but that he can endure all their fury and foam so long as the hand of God is stretched forth to maintain and defend him; and thus he animates and fortifies himself against all the pride of the world, and, at the same time, by his example emboldens all the faithful, so that they do not feel dejected even when the perverseness of their enemies seems to get the advantage over them, and to menace them with instant destruction. Cherishing such a hope, he trusts that, for the future, he shall be delivered from all his sorrows. Whence let us learn to bear patiently and meekly our trials, until the fit season and the full time, which God hath appointed, arrive for turning our weeping into joy. In the following verse he proceeds in the same strain of exultation, because, though he beholds the ungodly assuming a lofty air, yet, looking beyond the present state of things with the eye of faith, he entertains no doubt that God will frustrate all their designs, and pour contempt upon all their schemes.
30. I will praise Jehovah greatly with my mouth These words clearly establish the truth of the observation I formerly made, that David does not pray God to curse his enemies, but, by the holy boldness of his faith, sets them at defiance; for he prepares to offer up a tribute of gratitude to God, as if he had already realised the object of his desire. The phrase, with my mouth, is not, as some erroneously suppose, superfluous, but is to be considered as a public acknowledgement, on his part, of his thanksgiving to God for the deliverance vouchsafed to him; as if he should say, I will, not only when alone and when no human eye beholds me, and in the inward recesses of my heart, meditate upon the great goodness which I have received from God, but also in the appointed sacrifice of praise will I declare publicly, before men, how much I am indebted to his grace. Agreeably to this meaning, he adds, in the assembly of great, or of many men; for the term רבים, rabbim, is susceptible of being rendered both ways. I prefer rendering it, great men, because it appears to me, that David refers to an assembly of men of notable and noble rank. He declares that he will acknowledge the goodness of God, not only in some obscure corner, but also in the great assembly of the people, and among governors and those of noble rank. In the celebration of God’s praises, there can be no question that these must issue from the heart ere they be uttered by the lips; at the same time, it would be an indication of great coldness, and of want of fervor, did not the tongue unite with the heart in this exercise. The reason why David makes mention of the tongue only is, that he takes it for granted that, unless there be a pouring out of the heart before God, those praises which reach no farther than the ear are vain and frivolous; and, therefore, from the very bottom of his soul, he pours forth his heart-felt gratitude in fervent strains of praise; and this he does, from the same motives which ought to influence all the faithful — the desire of mutual edification; for to act otherwise would be to rob God of the honor which belongs to him.
Moreover, he also subjoins the form in which he rendered thanks; namely, that God stood at the right hand of the poor By this language he intimates, that when God had apparently forsaken and abandoned him, and stood far from him, even then he was always near and ready to render him seasonable and needful help; and, assuredly, his poverty and affliction gave some reason for suspecting that he was forsaken of God, inasmuch as he then either withdrew or concealed his loving-kindness. Notwithstanding of this seeming departure, he acknowledges that, during his affliction and poverty, God never ceased to be present to render him assistance. In saying that he was saved from the judges of his life, he sets forth, in a still stronger light, the very trying situation in which he was placed; his having to deal with very formidable enemies, such as the king and the princes of the realm, who, proudly presuming upon their grandeur and greatness, and regarding his recovery hopeless, treated him as if he had been a dead dog. It is my firm conviction, that in this passage he complains both of the torturing cruelty of his enemies, and also that his character had been unjustly aspersed by calumny and reproach; for we know that he was borne down by the malignity and wickedness of those who, being invested with authority, boastingly, yet falsely, pretended that they wished to act as judges and as the executors of justice, which plausible pretexts they adopt as a cloak for their iniquity.