Psalm 15:4

4. In his eyes the offcast [or reprobate1] is despised; but he honoureth them that fear the Lord; when he hath sworn to his own hurt, he changeth not.


The first part of this verse is explained in different ways. Some draw from it this meaning, that the true servants of God are contemptible and worthless in their own estimation. If we adopt this interpretation, the copula and, which David does not express, must be supplied, making the reading thus, He is vile and despised in his own eyes. But besides the consideration, that, if this had been the sense, the words would probably have been joined together by the copula and, I have another reason which leads me to think that David had a different meaning, He compares together two opposite things, namely, to despise perverse and worthless characters, and to honor the righteous and those who fear God. In order that these two clauses may correspond with each other, the only sense in which I can understand what is here said about being despised is this, that the children of God despise the ungodly, and form that low and contemptuous estimate of them which their character deserves. The godly, it is true, although living a praiseworthy and virtuous life, are not inflated with presumption, but, on the contrary, are rather dissatisfied with themselves, because they feel how far short they are as yet of the perfection which is required. When, however, I consider what the scope of the passage demands, I do not think that we are here to view the Psalmist as commending humility or modesty, but rather a free and upright judgment of human character, by which the wicked, on the one hand, are not spared, while virtue, on the other, receives the honor which belongs to it; for flattery, which nourishes vices by covering them, is an evil not less pernicious than it is common. I indeed admit, that if the wicked are in authority, we ought not to carry our contempt of them the length of refusing to obey them in so far as a regard to our duty will permit; but, at the same time, we must beware of flattery and of accommodating ourselves to them, which would be to involve us in the same condemnation with them. He who not only seems to regard their wicked actions with indifference, but also honors them, shows that he approves of them as much as it is in his power. Paul therefore teaches us, (Ephesians 5:11,) that it is a species of fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness when we do not reprove them. It is certainly a very perverse way of acting, when persons, for the sake of obtaining the favor of men, will indirectly mock God; and all are chargeable with doing this who make it their business to please the wicked. David, however, has a respect, not so much to persons as to wicked works. The man who sees the wicked honored, and by the applause of the world rendered more obstinate in their wickedness, and who willingly gives his consent or approbation to this, does he not, by so doing, exalt vice to authority, and invest it with sovereign power? "But woe," says the prophet Isaiah, (Isaiah 5:20,) "unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness."

Nor ought it to be regarded as a rude or violent manner of speaking, when David calls base and wicked persons reprobates, although they may be placed in an exalted and honorable station. If (as Cicero affirms, in his book entitled The Responses of the Aruspices) the inspectors of the entrails of the sacrifices, and other heathen soothsayers, applied to worthless and abandoned characters the term rejected, although they excelled in dignity and riches, why should not a prophet of God be permitted to apply the name of degraded outcasts to all who are rejected by God? The meaning of the Psalmist, to express it in a few words, is, that the children of God freely judge of every man's doings, and that for the purpose of obtaining the favor of men, they will not stoop to vile flattery, and thereby encourage the wicked in their wickedness.

What follows immediately after, namely, to honor the righteous and those who fear God, is no mean virtue. As they are often, as it were, the filth and the offscouring of all things in the estimation of the world, so it frequently happens that those who show them favor and sympathy, excite against themselves every where the hatred of the world. The greater part of mankind, therefore, refuse the friendship of good men, and leave them to be despised, which cannot be done without grievous and heinous injury to God. Let us learn then not to value men by their estate or their money, or their transitory honors, but to hold in estimation godliness, or the fear of God. And certainly no man will ever truly apply his mind to the study of godliness who does not, at the same time, reverence the servants of God; as, on the other hand, the love we bear to them incites us to imitate them in sanctity of life.

When he hath sworn to his own hurt. The translation of the LXX. would agree very well with the scope of the passage, were it not that the points which are under the words in the Hebrew text will not bear such a sense.2 It is, indeed, no proof of the inaccuracy of their rendering, that it does not agree with the points; for, although the Jews have always used the points in reading, it is probable that they did not always express them in writing. I, however, prefer following the commonly received reading. And the meaning is, that the faithful will rather submit to suffer loss than break their word. When a man keeps his promises, in as far as he sees it to be for his own advantage, there is in this no argument to prove his uprightness and faithfulness. But when men make a promise to each other, there is nothing more common than from some slight loss which the performance of it would occasion, to endeavor to find a pretext for breaking their engagements. Every one considers with himself what is for his own advantage, and if it puts him to inconvenience or trouble to stand to his promises, he is ingenious enough to imagine that he will incur a far greater loss than there is any reason to apprehend. It seems, indeed, a fair excuse when a man complains that, if he does not depart from his engagement, he will suffer great loss. Hence it is, that we generally see so much unfaithfulness among men, that they do not consider themselves bound to perform the promises which they have made, except in so far as it will promote their own personal interest. David, therefore, condemning this inconstancy, requires the children of God to exhibit the greatest steadfastness in the fulfillment of their promises. Here the question might be asked, If a man, having fallen into the hands of a highwayman, promise him a sum of money to save his life, and if, in consequence of this, he is let go, should he in that case keep his promise? Again, if a man has been basely deceived, in entering into a contract, is it lawful for him to break the oath which he shall have made in such an engagement? With respect to the highwayman, he who confers upon him money falls into another fault, for he supports at his own expense a common enemy of mankind to the detriment of the public welfare. David does not impose upon the faithful such an alternative as this, but only enjoins them to show a greater regard to their promises than to their own personal interests, and to do this especially when their promises have been confirmed by an oath. As to the other case, namely, when a person has sworn, from being deceived and imposed upon by wicked artifice he ought certainly to hold the holy name of God in such veneration, as rather patiently to submit to loss than violate his oath. Yet it is perfectly lawful for him to discover or reveal the fraud which has been practiced upon him, provided he is not led to do so by a regard to his own personal interest; and there is, besides, nothing to hinder him from peaceably endeavoring to compromise the matter with his adversary. Many of the Jewish expositors restrict this passage to vows, as if David exhorted the faithful to perform their vows when they have promised to humble and afflict themselves by fasting. But in this they are mistaken. Nothing is farther from his meaning than this, for he discourses here only of the second table of the law, and of the mutual rectitude which men should maintain in their dealings with one another.

1 "Meschant, ou vilein et abominable." -- Note, Fr. marg. "The wicked, or the vile and abominable."

2 "The LXX., instead of erhl, [lehara,] to hurt, seem to have read erhl, [leharea,] to his fellow, for they render it, tw|~ plhsi>on aujtou, to his neighbor, and so the Syriac, and Latin, and Arabic, and Ethiopic." -- Hammond. This rendering agrees very well with the scope of the Psalm, which relates to our dealing justly with our fellow-men; and it represents the good man as scrupulously performing the promissory oaths which he makes to his neighbor. But the ordinary reading, he sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not, sets forth the moral integrity of the good man in a still more striking light, by describing him as performing his oath in the face of the greatest temptations to break it, when the performance of it may prove detrimental to his own interests; and this is no mean trial of a man's virtue.