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17. Psalm 17

Hear the right, O Lord, attend unto my cry, give ear unto my prayer, that goeth not out of feigned lips.

2Let my sentence come forth from thy presence; let thine eyes behold the things that are equal.

3Thou hast proved mine heart; thou hast visited me in the night; thou hast tried me, and shalt find nothing; I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress.

4Concerning the words of men, by the word of thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer.

5Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not.

6I have called upon thee, for thou wilt hear me, O God: incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech.

7Shew thy marvellous lovingkindness, O thou that savest by thy right hand them which put their trust in thee from those that rise up against them.

8Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings,

9From the wicked that oppress me, from my deadly enemies, who compass me about.

10They are inclosed in their own fat: with their mouth they speak proudly.

11They have now compassed us in our steps: they have set their eyes bowing down to the earth;

12Like as a lion that is greedy of his prey, and as it were a young lion lurking in secret places.

13Arise, O Lord, disappoint him, cast him down: deliver my soul from the wicked, which is thy sword:

14From men which are thy hand, O Lord, from men of the world, which have their portion in this life, and whose belly thou fillest with thy hid treasure: they are full of children, and leave the rest of their substance to their babes.

15As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.

1. Hear my righteousness, O Jehovah. The Psalmist begins the psalm by setting forth the goodness of his cause. He does this because God has promised that he will not suffer the innocent to be oppressed, but will always, at length, succor them. Some explain the word righteousness as denoting righteous prayer, an interpretation which appears to me unsatisfactory. The meaning rather is, that David, confiding in his own integrity, interposes God as a Judge between himself and his enemies, to cognosce or determine in his cause. We have already seen, in a preceding psalm, that when we have to deal with wicked men, we may warrantably protest our innocence before God. As, however, it would not be enough for the faithful to have the approving testimony of a good conscience, David adds to his protestation earnest prayer. Even irreligious persons may often be able justly to boast of having a good cause; but as they do not acknowledge that the world is governed by the providence of God, they content themselves with enjoying the approbation of their own conscience, as they speak, and, gnawing the bit, bear the injuries which are done to them rather obstinately than steadfastly, seeing they do not seek for any consolation in faith and prayer. But the faithful not only depend upon the goodness of their cause, they also commit it to God that he may defend and maintain it; and whenever any adversity befalls them, they betake themselves to him for help. This, therefore, is the meaning of the passage; it is a prayer that God, who knew David to have done justly, and to have performed his duty without giving occasion to any to blame him, 339339     “Que David se soit portd justement et fait son devoir sans donner a aucun occasion de le blasmer.” — Fr. and, therefore, to be unrighteously molested by his enemies, would graciously look upon him; and that he would do this especially, since, confiding in his aid, he entertained good hope, and, at the same time, prays to him with a sincere heart. By the words cry and prayer he means the same thing; but the word cry, and the repetition of what it denotes, by a different expression, serve to show his vehement, his intense earnestness of soul. Farther, as hypocrites talk loftily in commendation of themselves, and to show to others a token of the great confidence which they have in God, give utterance to loud cries, David protests concerning himself that he does not speak deceitfully; in other words, that he does not make use of his crying and prayer as a pretext for covering his sins, but comes into the presence of God with sincerity of heart. By this form of prayer the Holy Spirit teaches us, that we ought diligently to endeavor to live an upright and innocent life, so that, if there are any who give us trouble, we may be able to boast that we are blamed and persecuted wrongfully. 340340     “Que nous sommes blasmez et persecutez a tort.” — Fr. Again, whenever the wicked assault us, the same Spirit calls upon us to engage in prayer; and if any man, trusting to the testimony of a good conscience which he enjoys, neglects the exercise of prayer, he defrauds God of the honor which belongs to him, in not referring his cause to him, and in not leaving him to judge and determine in it. Let us learn, also, that when we present ourselves before God in prayer, it is not to be done with the ornaments of an artificial eloquence, for the finest rhetoric and the best grace which we can have before him consists in pure simplicity.

2. From the presence of thy countenance. Literally it is, from before thy face, or, before thy face. By these words David intimates that if God does not rise up as the vindicator of his cause, he will be overwhelmed with calumnies though innocent, and will be looked upon as a guilty and condemned person. The cognisance which God will take of his cause is tacitly set in opposition to the dark inventions of falsehood which were spread against him. 341341     “Car la cognoissance que Dieu prendra de sa cause est tacitement mise in l’opposite des tenebres des mensonges qu’on semoit contre luy.” — Fr. His language is as if he had said, I do not ask for any other judge but God, nor do I shrink from standing before his judgment-seat, 342342     “Et qu’il ne refuse point de respondre derant le siege judicial d’iceluy.” — Fr. “Nor do I refuse to answer before his judgment-seat.” since I bring with me both a pure heart and a good cause. What he immediately adds with respect to God’s looking upon his uprightness is of similar import. He does not mean to say that God is blind, but only beseeches him actually to show that he does not connive at the wickedness of men, and that it is not to him a matter of indifference when he beholds those who have not the means of defending themselves 343343     “Qui n’ont pas moyen de se defendre.” — Fr. receiving evil treatment undeservedly. Some take the word judgment in too restricted a sense for the right to the kingdom which was promised to David, as if he petitioned to be placed on the royal throne by the power of God, inasmuch as he had been chosen by him to be king, and had also, in his name and by his authority, been anointed to this office by the hand of Samuel. The meaning which I attach to David’s language is simply this, that being oppressed with many and varied wrongs, he commits himself to the protection and defense of God.

3. Thou hast proved my heart. Some are of opinion that in the three first verbs the past tense is put for the future. Others more correctly and more clearly resolve the words thus: If thou provest my heart, and visitest it by night, and examinest it thoroughly, there will not be found any deceit therein. But without making any change upon the words, they may be suitably enough explained in this way: Thou, Lord, who understandest all the secret affections and thoughts of my heart, even as it is thy peculiar prerogative to try men, knowest very well that I am not a double man, and do not cherish any deceit within. What David intended to express is certainly very evident. As he was unjustly and falsely charged with crime, and could obtain neither justice nor humanity at the hands of men, he appeals to God, requesting he would become judge in the matter. 346346     “Le requerant d’en vouloir estre le juge.” — Fr. But not to do this rashly, he subjects himself to an impartial examination, seeing God, whose prerogative it is to search the secret recesses of the heart, cannot be deceived by the external appearance. The time when he declares God to have visited him is during the night, because, when a man is withdrawn from the presence of his fellow-creatures, he sees more clearly his sins, which otherwise would be hidden from his view; just as, on the contrary, the sight of men affects us with shame, and this is, as it were, a veil before our eyes, which prevents us from deliberately examining our faults. It is, therefore, as if David had said, O Lord, since the darkness of the night discovers the conscience more fully, all coverings being then taken away, and since, at that season, the affections, either good or bad, according to men’s inclinations, manifest themselves more freely, when there is no person present to witness and pronounce judgment upon them; if thou then examinest me, there will be found neither disguise nor deceit in my heart. 347347     “Il ne sera trouve desguisement ne fraude quelconque en mon coeur.” — Fr. Hence we conclude how great was David’s integrity, seeing that, when purposely and leisurely taking account of his inmost thoughts, he presents himself so boldly, to be tried by the judgment of God. And he not only declares himself to be innocent of outward crimes, but also free from all secret malice. So far from cherishing malicious designs, while he covered them over with fair pretences, as his enemies alleged, he protests that his words were a frank and undisguised representation of what was passing in his heart: My thought shall not pass beyond my mouth. Our thought is said to pass beyond our mouth when, for the purpose of deceiving, the mind thinks differently from what the tongue expresses. 348348     This is the sense put upon this last clause by the learned Castellio, who translates it thus:- “Non deprehendes me aliud in pectore, aliud in ore habere.” “Thou shalt not find me to have one thing in my breast and another in my mouth.” The word זמה, zimmah, which we have translated simply thought, may also be taken in a bad sense for deceitful and malicious devices.

4. As for the works of men, by the word of thy lips. Interpreters explain this verse in different senses. Some thinking that the letter ב, beth, which commonly signifies in or by, is taken for against, render it thus: As for the works of men which they practice against thy word. But I rather incline to the opinion of others who consider that there is here commended a right judgment of the actions of men which is formed according to the rule of the word of God. There are some shrewd and ingenious persons who carefully mark the works of men, but they do not judge of them according to the word of God. What we have as yet said does not, however, fully give us the sense of the passage. We must still consider what the Psalmist means when he speaks of the paths of the destroyer. 349349     Or, the paths of the violent. Literally of him who, by violent means, makes a breach in, or breaks down a wall or fence, the word פריף, pharits, being derived from פרף, pharats, to break down, or break through. It is referred by Calvin to the violent and wicked conduct of his enemies towards him. Some think he refers to the men of his own company, who, if he had not restrained them, would have instantly rushed like robbers to commit depredation; since being reduced to the greatest distress, and seeing no prospect of an alteration to the better in their affairs, they were become bold through despair; and we know how sharp a spur necessity is in goading men forward in any course. But this exposition seems to me to be forced, and therefore I rather refer the words to his enemies. Farther, there is a diversity of opinion among interpreters with respect to the meaning of the word watched or observed. Some understand it in this sense, that David had done his duty in strenuously opposing outrageous men, and those who were wickedly engaged in the work of disturbing the repose and tranquillity of their fellow-men. 350350     “De troubler le repos et la tranquillite des autres.” — Fr. Others understand it thus, that he was careful to distinguish between good and evil, or right and wrong, that he might not be corrupted by bad examples, 351351     “Afin de n’estre point corrompu par mauvals exemples.” — Fr. but avoid them, and, on the contrary, practice those things which he saw to be agreeable to the word of God. But David, I have no doubt, had a different meaning, and intended to declare, that although wicked and malicious men provoked him to evil, he had, nevertheless, been always restrained by the word of God, so that he kept himself from exercising violence and inflicting injuries, or from rendering evil for evil. 352352     “or have kept me from the paths, etc. or observed the paths, viz., so as to avoid them.” — Poole’s Annotations. He therefore tells us, that whatever may have been the works of men, he had been always so devoted to the word of God, and so hung, as it were, upon his mouth, that he could not think of allowing himself, when provoked by the injuries his enemies inflicted on him, to act towards them as they acted towards him. We know how severe a temptation it is, and how difficult to overcome, to disregard the manner in which men behave themselves towards us, and to consider only what God forbids or commands us. Even those who are naturally inclined to gentleness and humanity, 353353     “Car mesme ceux qui sont de nature enclins a debonnairete.” — Fr. who desire to do good to all men, and wish to hurt nobody, whenever they are provoked, burst forth into a revengeful mood, carried away by a blind impetuosity; especially when we see all right and equity overthrown, the confusion so blinds us, that we begin to howl with the wolves. If, therefore, we would have a good rule for governing ourselves, when our enemies, by their mischievous actions, provoke us to treat them in a similar manner, let us learn, after the example of David, to meditate upon the word of God, and to keep our eyes fixed upon it. By this means our minds will be preserved from ever being blinded, and we shall always avoid the paths of wickedness, seeing God will not only keep our affections under restraint by his commandments, but will also train them to patience by his promises. He withholds us from doing evil to our neighbors, 354354     “De real faire a nos prochains.” — Fr. not only by forbidding us, but by declaring, at the same time, that he will take into his own hand the execution of vengeance on those who injure us, 355355     “Qu’il prendra en main la vengence contre ceux qui nous outragent.” — Fr. he admonishes us to “give place unto wrath,” (Romans 12:19.)

5. Uphold my steps. If we take God’s paths for the precepts of his law, the sense will be evident, namely, that although David had spoken according to truth, in boasting of having, in the midst of the most grievous temptations which assailed him, constantly practiced righteousness with a pure heart, yet, conscious of his own weakness, he commits himself to God to be governed by him, and prays for grace to enable him to persevere. His language is as if he had said, Since hitherto, under thy guidance, I have proceeded onward in the right path, I beseech thee, in like manner, to keep my steps from sliding with respect to the time to come. And certainly the more any one excels in grace, 356356     “Et de faict, selon qu’un chacun a receu plus de graces.” — Fr. “And certainly the more grace any one has received.” the more ought he to be afraid of falling; for it is the usual policy of Satan to endeavor, even from the virtue and strength which God has given us, 357357     “De la vertu et force que Dieu nous aura donnee.” — Fr. to produce in us carnal confidence which may induce carelessness. I do not altogether reject this sense, but I think it more probable that David here beseeches God to bring his affairs to a prosperous issue, however dark the aspect of matters was at present. The import of his language is this, Lord, since thou seest that I walk in uprightness and sincerity of heart, govern thou me in such a manner as to make all men see that thou art my protector and guardian, and leave me not to be cast down at the will of my enemies. Thus, by the paths of the Lord, he will mean not the doctrine by which our life is regulated, but the power by which God upholds us, and the protection by which he preserves us. And he addresses God in this manner, not only because all events are in his hand, but because when he takes care of us all things in our lot go on prosperously. When he adds, that the soles of my feet may not slide, he refers to the many adverse events which threaten us every moment, and to the danger we are in of perishing, if not sustained by the hand of God.

6. I have called upon thee, etc. This verb being put in the past tense denotes a continued act; and, therefore, it includes the present time. The Hebrew word כי, ki, which we translate surely, often signifies because, and if it is so understood in this passage, the meaning will be, that David took encouragement to pray, because, depending upon the promise of God, he hoped that his prayers would not be in vain. But, perhaps, it may be thought preferable to change the tense of the verb as some do, so as to give this meaning, I will pray, because I have hitherto experienced that thou hast heard 358358     The Septuagint renders the verb in the past tense, “Επηκουσας μου,” “Thou hast heard me.” The Syriac and Vulgate give a similar rendering. The verb, in the Hebrew, is in the future; but it is a common thing in Hebrew to use the future tense for the past. my prayers. I have, however, chosen the exposition what appears to me the more simple. David, in my judgment, here encourages and animates himself to call upon God, from the confident hope of being heard, as if he had said, Since I call upon thee, surely, O God, thou wilt not despise my prayers. Immediately after he beseeches God to bestow upon him the blessings of which he told us he entertained an assured hope.

7. Make marvellous thy mercies. As the word הפלה, haphleh, signifies sometimes to make wonderful, or remarkable, and sometimes to separate and set apart, both these senses will be very suitable to this passage. In Psalm 31:19, the “goodness” of God is said to be “laid up” in store as a peculiar treasure “for them that fear him,” that he may bring it forth at the proper season, even when they are brought to an extremity, and when all things seem to be desperate. If, then, the translation, separate and set apart thy mercy, is preferred, the words are a prayer that God would display towards his servant David the special grace which he communicates to none but his chosen ones. While God involves both the good and the bad in danger indiscriminately, he at length shows, by the different issue of things, in regard to the two classes, that he does not confusedly mingle the chaff and the wheat together, seeing he gathers his own people into a company by themselves, (Matthew 3:12, and Matthew 25:32.) I, however, prefer following another exposition. David, in my judgment, perceiving that he could only be delivered from the perilous circumstances in which he was placed by singular and extraordinary means, betakes himself to the wonderful or miraculous power of God. Those who think he desires God to withhold his grace from his persecutors do too great violence to the scope of the passage. By this circumstance there is expressed the extreme danger to which David was exposed; for otherwise it would have been enough for him to have been succoured in the ordinary and common way in which God is accustomed daily to favor and to aid his own people. The grievousness of his distress, therefore, constrained him to beseech God to work miraculously for his deliverance. The title with which he here honors God, O thou preserver of those who trust [in thee,] serves to confirm him in the certain hope of obtaining his requests. As God takes upon him the charge of saving all who confide in him, David being one of their number, could upon good ground assure himself of safety and deliverance. Whenever, therefore, we approach God, let the first thought impressed on our minds be, that as he is not in vain called the preserver of those who trust in him, we have no reason whatever to be afraid of his not being ready to succor us, provided our faith continue firmly to rely upon his grace. And if every way of deliverance is shut up, let us also at the same time remember that he is possessed of wonderful and inconceivable means of succouring us, which serve so much the more conspicuously to magnify and manifest his power. But as the participle trusting, or hoping, is put without any additional word expressing the object of this trust or hope, 361361     Poole observes, that the Hebrew phrase for “them which trust,” might be properly rendered without any supplement, “believers.” some interpreters connect it with the last words of the verse, thy right hand, as if the order of the words were inverted. They, therefore, resolve them thus, O thou preserver of those who trust in thy right hand, from those who rise up against them. As this, however, is harsh and strained, and the exposition which I have given is more natural, and more generally received, 362362     Calvin’s rendering is the same as that of the Septuagint, Vulgate, and Syriac versions let us follow it. To express, therefore, the meaning in one sentence, the Psalmist attributes to God the office of defending and preserving his own people from all the ungodly who rise up to assault them, and who, if it were in their power, would destroy them. And the ungodly are here said to exalt themselves against the hand of God, because, in molesting the faithful whom God has taken under his protection, they openly wage war against him. The doctrine contained in these words, namely, that when we are molested, an outrage is committed upon God in our person, is a very profitable one; for having once declared himself to be the guardian and protector of our welfare, whenever we are unjustly assailed, he puts forth his hand before us as a shield of defense.

The two similitudes which David has subjoined in the following verse, respecting the apple of the eye, and the little birds which the mother keeps under her wings, 363363     “Et des petis oiseaux que la mere tient sous ses ailes.” — Fr. are introduced for illustrating the same subject. God, to express the great care which he has of his own people, compares himself to a hen and other fowls, which spread out their wings to cherish and cover their young, and declares them to be no less dear to him than the apple of the eye, which is the tenderest part of the body, is to man; it follows, therefore, that whenever men rise up to molest and injure the righteous, war is waged against him. As this form of prayer was put into the mouth of David by the Holy Spirit, it is to be regarded as containing in it a promise. We have here presented to our contemplation a singular and an astonishing proof of the goodness of God, in humbling himself so far, and in a manner so to speak, transforming himself, in order to lift up our faith above the conceptions of the flesh.

9. From the face of the ungodly. The Psalmist, by again accusing his enemies, intends to set forth his own innocence, as an argument for his obtaining the favor of God. At the same time, he complains of their cruelty, that God may be the more inclined to aid him. First, he says that they burn with an enraged desire to waste and to destroy him; secondly, he adds, that they besiege him in his soul, by which he means, that they would never rest satisfied until they had accomplished his death. The greater, therefore, the terror with which we are stricken by the cruelty of our enemies, the more ought we to be quickened to ardor in prayer. God, indeed, does not need to receive information and incitement from us; but the use and the end of prayer is, that the faithful, by freely declaring to God the calamities and sorrows which oppress them, and in disburdening them, as it were, into his bosom, may be assured beyond all doubt that he has a regard to their necessities.


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