Psalm 73:18-20

18. Surely thou hast set them in slippery places; thou shalt cast them down into destruction. 19. How have they been destroyed, as it were in a moment! they have perished, they have been consumed with terrors. 20. As it were a dream after a man is awakened: O Lord! in awaking,1 thou wilt make their image to be despised, [or contemptible.]


18. Surely thou hast set them in slippery places. David, having now gone through his conflicts, begins, if we may use the expression, to be a new man; and he speaks with a quiet and composed mind, being, as it were, elevated on a watchtower, from which he obtained a clear and distinct view of things which before were hidden from him. It was the prophet Habakkuk's resolution to take such a position, and, by his example, he prescribes this to us as a remedy in the midst of troubles -- "I will stand upon my watch," says he, "and set me upon the tower," (Habakkuk 2:1.) David, therefore, shows how much advantage is to be derived from approaching God. I now see, says he, how thou proceedest in thy providence; for, although the ungodly continue to stand for a brief season, yet they are, as it were, perched on slippery places,2 that they may fall ere long into destruction. Both the verbs of this verse are in the past tense; but the first, to set them in slippery places, is to be understood of the present time, as if it had been said, -- God for a short period thus lifts them up on high, that when they fall their fall may be the heavier. This, it is true, seems to be the lot of the righteous as well as of the wicked; for everything in this world is slippery, uncertain, and changeable. But as true believers depend upon heaven, or rather, as the power of God is the foundation on which they rest, it is not said of them that they are set in slippery places, notwithstanding the frailty and uncertainty which characterises their condition in this world. What although they stumble or even fall, the Lord has his hand under them to sustain and strengthen them when they stumble, and to raise them up when they are fallen. The uncertainty of the condition of the ungodly, or, as it is here expressed, their slippery condition, proceeds from this, that they take pleasure in contemplating their own power and greatness, and admire themselves on that account, just like a person who would walk at leisure upon ice;3 and thus by their infatuated presumption, they prepare themselves for falling down headlong. We are not to picture to our imaginations a wheel of fortune, which, as it revolves, embroils all things in confusion; but we must admit the truth to which the prophet here adverts, and which he tells us is made known to all the godly in the sanctuary, that there is a secret providence of God which manages all the affairs of the world. On this subject my readers, if they choose, may peruse the beautiful verses of Claudian in his first book against Ruffinus.

19. How have they been destroyed, as it were in a moment! The language of wonder in which the Psalmist breaks forth serves much to confirm the sentiment of the preceding verse. As the consideration of the prosperity of the ungodly induces a torpor upon our minds, yea, even renders them stupid; so their destruction, being sudden and unlooked for, tends the more effectually to awaken us, each being thus constrained to inquire how such an event came to pass, which all men thought could never happen. The prophet, therefore, speaks of it in the way of interrogation, as of a thing incredible. Yet he, at the same time, thus teaches us that God is daily working in such a manner as that, if we would but open our eyes, there would be presented to us just matter for exciting our astonishment. Nay, rather, if by faith we would look from a distance at the judgments of God daily approaching nearer and nearer, nothing would happen which we would regard as strange or difficult to be believed; for the surprise which we feel proceeds from the slowness and carelessness with which we proceed in acquiring the knowledge of Divine truth.4 When it is said, They are consumed with terrors, it may be understood in two ways. It either means that God thunders upon them in such an unusual manner, that the very strangeness of it strikes them with dismay; or that God, although he may not lay his hand upon his enemies, nevertheless throws them into consternation, and brings them to nothing, solely by the terror of his breath, at the very time when they are recklessly despising all dangers, as if they were perfectly safe, and had made a covenant with death.5 Thus we have before seen David introducing them as encouraging themselves in their forwardness by this boasting language, "Who is lord over us?" (Psalm 12:4.) I am rather inclined to adopt the first sense; and the reason which leads me to do so is, that when God perceives that we are so slow in considering his judgments, he inflicts upon the ungodly judgments of a very severe kind, and pursues them with unusual tokens of his wrath, as if he would make the earth to tremble, in order thereby to correct our dullness of apprehension.

20. As it were a dream after a man is awakened. This similitude is often to be met with in the Sacred Writings. Thus, Isaiah, (Isaiah 29:7,) speaking of the enemies of the Church, says, "They shall be as a dream of a night vision." To quote other texts of a similar kind would be tedious and unnecessary labor. In the passage before us the metaphor is very appropriate. How is it to be accounted for, that the prosperity of the wicked is regarded with so much wonder, but because our minds have been lulled into a deep sleep? and, in short, the pictures which we draw in our imaginations of the happiness of the wicked, and of the desirableness of their condition, are just like the imaginary kingdoms which we construct in our dreams when we are asleep. Those who, being illuminated by the Word of God, are awake, may indeed be in some degree impressed with the splendor with which the wicked are invested; but they are not so dazzled by it as thereby to have their wonder very much excited; for they are prevented from feeling in this manner by a light of an opposite kind far surpassing it in brilliancy and attraction. The prophet, therefore, commands us to awake, that we may perceive that all which we gaze at in this world is nothing else than pure vanity; even as he himself, now returning to his right mind, acknowledges that he had before been only dreaming and raving. The reason is added, because God will make their image to be despised, or render it contemptible. By the word image some understand the soul of man, because it was formed after the image of God. But in my opinion, this exposition is unsuitable; for the prophet simply derides the outward pomp or show6 which dazzles the eyes of men, while yet it vanishes away in an instant. We have met with a similar form of expression in Psalm 39:6, "Surely every man passeth away in an image," the import of which is, Surely every man flows away like water that has no solidity, or rather like the image reflected in the mirror which has no substance. The word image, then, in this passage means what we commonly term appearance, or outward show; and thus the prophet indirectly rebukes the error into which we fall, when we regard as real and substantial those things which are merely phantoms created out of nothing by our imaginations. The word ryeb, bair, properly signifies in the city.7 But as this would be a rigid form of expression, it has been judiciously thought by many that the word is curtailed of a letter, and that it is the same as ryehb, bahair; an opinion which is also supported from the point kamets being placed under b, beth. According to this view it is to be translated in awakening, that is, after these dreams which deceive us shall have passed away. And that takes place not only when God restores to some measure of order matters which before were involved in confusion, but also when dispelling the darkness he gladdens our minds with a friendly light. We never, it is true, see things so well adjusted in the world as we would desire; for God, with the view of keeping us always in the exercise of hope, delays the perfection of our state to the final day of judgment. But whenever he stretches forth his hand against the wicked, he causes us to see as it were some rays of the break of day, that the darkness, thickening too much, may not lull us asleep, and affect us with dullness of understanding.8 Some apply this expression, in awaking, to the last judgment,9 as if David intended to say, In this world the wicked abound in riches and power, and this confusion, which is as it were a dark night, will continue until God shall raise the dead. I certainly admit that this is a profitable doctrine; but it is not taught us in this place, the scope of the passage not at all agreeing with such an interpretation. If any prefer reading in the city -- in the city thou wilt make their image to be despised, -- the meaning will be, that when God is pleased to bring into contempt the transitory beauty and vain show of the wicked, it will not be a secret or hidden vengeance, but will be quite manifest and known to all, as if it were done in the public market place of a city. But the word awaking suits better, as it is put in opposition to dreaming.

1 Martin thinks that there is here an allusion to the time at which judicial sentences were pronounced, which was in the morning, when men awoke from the sleep of night.

2 "Comme junchez en lieux glissans." -- Fr.

3 "Qu'ils prenent plaisir a contempler leur puissance et grandeur, et sy mirent, comme qui voudroit se pourmener a loisir sur la glace." -- Fr.

4 "De nostre tardivete et nonchalance a profiter en la doctrine." -- Fr.

5 "They are utterly consumed with terrors; their destruction is not only sudden, but entire; it is like the breaking in pieces of a potter's vessel, a sherd of which cannot be gathered up and used; or like the casting of a millstone into the sea, which will never rise more: and this is done with terrors, -- either by terrible judgments inflicted on them from without, or with terrors inwardly seizing upon their minds and consciences, as at the time of temporal calamities, or at death, and certainly at the judgment, when the awful sentence will be pronounced upon them. See Job 27:20." -- Dr. Gill.

6 With this agree Bishop Horsley and Dr Adam Clarke. The former translates: --

"Like the dream of a man beginning to wake publicly,
O Lord! thou renderest their vain show contemptible."

The latter: --

"Like to a dream after one awaketh,
So wilt thou, O Jehovah! when thou risest up,
Destroy their shadowy grandeur."

The original word, Mlu tselem, for image, means likeness, corporeal or incorporeal; and it agrees with lu, tsel, a shade, because an image is, as if the shade or shadow of the body. See Bythner on Psalm 39:6. "It seems to be taken here," says Hammond, "for that which hath a fantastical only in opposition to a real substantial being." "The Hebrew term," says Walford, "means an unsubstantial appearance, splendid while it continues, but which in an instant disappears." The prosperity which wicked men for a time enjoy, their greatness, riches, honor, and happiness, however dazzling and imposing, is thus nothing more than an image or shadow of prosperity, an empty phantom; and within a short period it ceases to be even so much as a shadow, it absolutely vanishes and comes to nothing, convincing the good but afflicted man, to whom it seemed to involve in doubt the rectitude of the Divine government, what is its real character, and that it should never occasion any perplexity to the student of Divine Providence.

7 The LXX. read, ejn th po>lei sou, "in thy city," deriving the original word from rye ir, a city. Such, also, is the reading of the Vulgate, Arabic, and Æthiopic versions. But the word comes from rwe, ur, to awahe, and is in the infinitive hiph. b, beth, excluding h, he, characteristic of the conjugation.

8 "As a dream of one who awaketh. The thought here is, as a pleasing dream vanishes instantly on awaking, so the pleasures of these men will vanish, and show their unsubstantial nature, when God shall effect his righteous judgement." -- Walford. Then the prosperity of the wicked is seen to be fantastic, and to consist only of "such stuff as dreams are made of."

9 "The Chaldee in their paraphrase refer it to the day of judgment, when wicked men shall rise out of their graves, and God proceed in wrath against them, (Nwhtwmd zgrb robt, 'in fury shalt thou scorn or despise them,') according to that expression of Daniel 12:2, 'Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to shame and everlasting contempt.'" -- Hammond.