Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
Section 1. "Author of the psalm." This psalm ascribed to David, both in the title and in the location which it has among the Psalms. There is nothing in the psalm to make this doubtful, and indeed its structure is so much in accordance with those usually ascribed to David, as to leave no doubt as to its authorship.
Section 2. "Occasion on which it was composed." Of this there is no intimation in the title, or in the psalm itself. There is no special reference to any of the incidents of David's life, although some of the thoughts or images were suggested apparently by the recollection of what occurred in the persecutions of Saul or the rebellion of Absalom. Different occasions in the life of David have indeed been referred to as having led to the composition of the psalm. Venema supposes that it was composed when David was in the wilderness of Ziph, and when, betrayed by the inhabitants of the wilderness, and pursued by Saul, his friends began to advise him to seek a place of safety by flight, Sa1 23:14-23. This gave occasion, Venema supposes, for his expressing the sentiment - which is the leading sentiment in the psalm - that when our affairs seem to be hopeless, we are not to be in despair, but are to put our trust still in God. Others have supposed that the psalm was composed when he was in the cave of Adullam 1 Sam. 22, and in imminent danger of his life from the persecutions of Saul. A more plausible opinion is that of Amyraldus, who supposes that it was composed when David was in the court of Saul, and when he may have been advised to leave the court - a place of danger - and flee to a place of safety. But it cannot be determined with certainty on which of these occasions the psalm was composed, if it was on either of them. All that is apparent in the psalm itself is, that it was when the author was in danger, and when some of his friends advised him to seek safety by flight, Psa 11:1. Instead of doing this, David determined to remain where he was, and to put his trust in God, with the belief that he would interpose and deliver him.
Section 3. "Contents of the psalm." This psalm may be properly regarded as divided into two parts:
I. The counsel of some timid and fearful friends to the writer, in the circumstances of danger in which he was, to make his escape, and to seek safety by flight, Psa 11:1-3. They advise him to flee as a bird to the mountain; that is, to flee to a place of security while he could, for he seems to have been surrounded by enemies. The arguments by which they enforced this counsel seem to be referred to in Psa 11:2-3, and were these:
(a) that the wicked had made preparations to destroy him, for their bows and arrows were ready, Psa 11:2; and
(b) that the condition of affairs was as if the very foundations were destroyed; that there was nothing to rest on; and that all his hopes, in his present condition, must be swept away, Psa 11:3.
In these circumstances, all his hopes of safety, in their apprehension, was in flight.
II. The views which the author of the psalm entertained on the subject, in reply to this, Psa 11:4-7. He had unwavering confidence in God; he did not despair; he believed that God would protect him; he believed that the object of God in permitting this was to try the righteous, and that in due time he would come forth and rain snares, fire, and brimstone, upon the ungodly. The state of mind thus evinced, is that of firmness in trying circumstances; steady confidence in God when things seem to be most adverse; and an assured belief that God will in due time rescue those who put their trust in him. It is the manifestation of firmness against the counsels of the timid; the language of unshaken trust in God when the fearful and unbelieving despair.
For the meaning of the title, see the note at Psa 5:1-12.
In the Lord put I my trust - This, in general, expresses the state of mind of the author - a state of feeling which runs through the entire psalm. It is designed to be an answer to the counsel which others had been giving him to escape, and it implies that he was determined at that time, and always, to put his trust in God. They advised him to flee. In the existing circumstances he felt that that would have implied a want of confidence in God. He determined, therefore, to maintain his present position, and to rely upon the interposition of God in due time.
How say ye to my soul - How say ye to "me" - the soul being put for the person himself. "Why" do you say this to me? how can you give me such counsel, as if I were to run away from danger, and to put no trust in God? He seems to have supposed that such an act of flight would have been construed by his enemies, and by the enemies of religion, as evidence that he had no faith or confidence in God. Such circumstances often occur in the world; and when that would be the "fair" and "natural" construction of one's conduct, the path of duty is plain. We are to remain where we are; we are boldly to face the danger, and commit the whole matter to God.
Flee as a bird to your mountain - This implies that it was supposed there was no longer any safety where he then was. The use of the plural number here - "Flee ye," by a change not uncommon in the Hebrew writings - seems designed to refer to the whole class of persons in those circumstances. The mind turns from his own particular case to that of others in the same circumstances; and the language may be designed to imply that this was the usual counsel given to such persons; that, on the same principle on which they now advised flight in this particular case, they would also advise flight in all similar cases. That is, they would counsel persons to flee to a place of safety when they were in danger of their life from persecution. This is the common counsel of the world; this would be the ordinary teaching of human prudence. The mountains in Palestine were regarded as places of safety, and were the common refuge of those who were in danger. In their caves and fastnesses, and on their heights, those who were in danger found security, for they could there hide themselves, or could more easily defend themselves, than they could in the plains and in the vallies. Hence, they became the place of retreat for robbers and banditti, as well as for the persecuted. The allusion to the bird here does not imply that birds sought a refuge in the mountains, and that he was to resemble them in this respect; but the point of the comparison turns on the rapidity with which this refuge should be sought:" Fly to the mountains as swiftly as a bird flies from danger." Compare Mat 24:16; Jdg 6:2; Heb 11:38.
For, lo, the wicked bend their bow - These are to he regarded as the words of the persons referred to in the previous verse, who had advised the persecuted psalmist to flee to the mountains. In this verse reasons are suggested for that advice. The reasons are, that the enemy was preparing for an attack, and that at an unexpected moment the attack would be made unless he should effect his escape. Apprised of the danger, he might now make good his escape, and avoid the peril which was impending. The common weapon in war, as in hunting, was the bow and arrow. The process of preparing for the use of the bow consisted in bending it, and properly adjusting the arrow. The Hebrew word used here is "tread;" "the wicked tread upon the bow;" that is, with a view to bend it. The bow was made of steel, or strong wood, or pieces of ivory framed together, and it often required great strength - beyond the strength of the arm - to bend it so as to adjust the string. Hence, the "foot" was placed upon the center, and the two ends drawn near to each other.
They make ready their arrow upon the string - Hebrew, "they fit or fix the arrow upon the string." That is, they place the end of the arrow in the proper place upon the string of the bow.
That they may privily shoot at the upright in heart - Margin, as in the Hebrew, "in darkness." That is, that they may do it secretly or treacherously. They do not intend to do it in open day, or (as we should say) "in a fair fight;" but they mean to do it when their victim is not aware of their design. The phrase, "the upright in heart," may either denote their own conviction that those whom they designed so to attack were upright in heart - thus knowing that they were innocent; or it may be a statement of the advisers in the case, that those whom they counseled were thus upright - a statement on their part that the attack was made on the righteous. The latter is probably the true construction.
If the foundations be destroyed - These are still to be regarded as the words of the psalmist's advisers; or as an argument why he should make his escape. The word "foundations," here, refers to those things on which society rests, or by which social order is sustained - the great principles of truth and righteousness that uphold society, as the foundations on which an edifice rests uphold the building. The reference is to a destruction of those things in a community, when truth is no longer respected; when justice is no longer practiced; when fraud and violence have taken the place of honesty and honor; when error prevails; when a character for integrity and virtue affords no longer any security. This is supposed to be the case in the circumstances referred to in the psalm, when there was no respect paid to truth and justice, and when the righteous, therefore, could find no security. It is under these circumstances the advice is given Psa 11:1, that the righteous should seek safety in flight.
What can the righteous do? - What source of safety or confidence has he? His trust for his own safety, and for the good of society, has always been in the prevalence of just principles, and he has no other resource. Whatever others may do; whatever reliance they may place on such things, he can have no confidence in fraud, dishonesty, and error - in secret machinations and plans of treachery and deceit. His reliance is, and must be, in the prevalence of just principles; in the observance of law; in the diffusion of truth; in plans and deeds which are honorable and pure. When these no longer prevail, the argument is, there is nothing on which he can repose confidence in executing the plans on which his heart is fixed, and his proper course would be to flee Psa 11:1. Part of this is true; part not. It is true that all the hope of the righteous is in the prevalence of principles of truth and justice, and that for the success of the objects nearest to his heart, whether of a private or public nature, he has no other resource or hope; but it is not always true, even when injustice, fraud, and error prevail, that he, should withdraw from society and seek his safety in flight, and leave the world to its own course. His presence may be the very thing to counteract this; his duty may be to remain and face the evil, and to endeavor to secure a better state of things. So the psalmist understood in his case.
The Lord is in his holy temple - Hebrew, "Jehovah is in the temple of his holiness." That is, he is in heaven, regarded as his temple or dwelling-place. This is the answer of the psalmist to the suggestions of his advisers that he should flee from danger. The answer is, in substance, that he had nothing to fear; that he had a protector in heaven; and that he might appeal to Him for defense. The idea is, that God, the protector of the righteous, is always in the heavens; that his throne is always accessible; and that to it the persecuted may come, and may always be safe.
The Lord's throne is in heaven - God is a king, ruling the universe. As such, the seat of his power or dominion is represented as in heaven, where he administers his government. That throne is fixed, and the affairs of his universe will be administered with justice. The righteous, therefore, may hope in his protection, and need not flee when the wicked assail them. The idea here is that of unwavering confidence in God as sitting upon the throne of the universe, and administering its affairs with justice and truth. Compare Isa 66:1, "heaven is my throne." See the notes on that verse.
His eyes behold - He sees everything in all parts of his vast empire, and therefore he knows all the purposes of the wicked, and all the wants of the righteous. The thought here, as one imparting a sense of safety, is, that God sees us. He is not ignorant of what our enemies are doing, and he is not ignorant of what we need. If he were, the case would be different. We might their despair of safety, and feel that our enemies could overcome and destroy us. It is much, in the trials of life, to have this assurance - this constant feeling - that God sees us. He knows our condition, our wants, our dangers; he knows all that our enemies are doing - all their machinations against us. Knowing all this, we may be assured that he will interpose when it is best that he should interpose, and that he will suffer nothing to come upon us which it is not best that he should permit. When evil befalls us, therefore, it does not come because God does not know it, or because he could not prevent it, but because, seeing it all, he judges that it is best that it should thus occur. Compare Gen 16:13.
His eyelids try - That is, they prove, penetrate into, as if by seeing through them. The "eyelids" here are synonymous with the eyes. The form of the language is varied in accordance with a custom common in Hebrew, and there is attributed here to the eyelids what properly belongs to the eyes - the power of seeing.
The children of men - All men, good and bad. He knows them all - all their purposes, their designs, their wishes, their dangers. He knows, therefore, what our enemies are doing; he knows what are our perils; and we may safely leave our cause with him. We should not, therefore, listen to the counsel which advises us to flee Psa 11:1, but should rather put our trust in him who dwells in the heavens.
The Lord trieth the righteous - That is, he "proves" them, searches them, tests the reality of their piety. His dealings with them are such as to test the genuineness of their religion, and are designed to show their sincerity and the real power of their religious principles. It is not for the purpose of destroying them, or punishing them, that he deals with them as he does, but it is to show the reality of their attachment to him. This language seems here to be used to show the feeling of the persecuted and afflicted author of the psalm. He understood the reason why these calamities were suffered to come upon him - to wit, as a trial of his faith; and therefore it was his duty to remain and bear these troubles, and not to attempt to escape from them by flight. He says, therefore, that these troubles in the case of the righteous were in strong contrast with the purpose of the divine dealings toward the wicked, on whom God would "rain" snares, fire, and brimstone. In their case his judgments were for the purpose of punishing and destroying; in the case of the righteous it was to "try" them, or to test the reality of their religion.
But the wicked - The wicked in general. All the wicked.
And him that loveth violence - Referring particularly here to those who were engaged in persecuting him who was the author of this psalm. They were contemplating acts of violence toward him Psa 11:2; he says that all such persons were the objects of the divine displeasure, and would be appropriately punished.
His soul hateth - that is, "he" hates. God is often spoken of in language appropriate to man; and he is here referred to as having a soul - as he is elsewhere as having eyes, hands, or feet. The meaning is, that all such persons were the objects of the divine abhorrence, and that the divine dealings with them were not, as with the righteous, to "try" them, but to "punish" and "destroy" them. Knowing this, the persecuted author of the psalm, instead of fleeing, calmly committed himself and his cause to God.
Upon the wicked - Upon all the wicked.
He shall rain - He shall pour down as in a furious tempest.
Snares - It seems rather incongruous to speak of raining down "snares, " - understanding by the word snares, as it is used with us, that which entangles, as the snares by which we catch a bird, or by which a wild animal is taken. Compare the notes at Job 18:8-10. The word used here, however, seems to refer to anything by which one is taken in his career or course, or is involved in difficulties; and the meaning is, that God would arrest or seize upon the wicked, as a wild beast is secured by the snares or the toils of the hunter. By their being sent down as in a "rain," is denoted that such means of their arrest and punishment would exist in abundance, so that they could not escape.
Fire and brimstone - There is probably an allusion here to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Gen 19:24. As those cities were eminent for their wickedness, and were destroyed on account of their guilt, they furnished an illustration of the manner in which God would treat the wicked in all future times. As they were destroyed on account of their wickedness, so will all the wicked be destroyed.
And an horrible tempest - As a furious blast of wind sweeps away houses and trees, spreading wide desolation, so will the wicked be swept away by the manifestation of the wrath of God.
This shall be the portion of their cup - That is, this shall be what they shall drink. See the note at Isa 51:17. The idea is, that the Lord holds out to them a cup for them to drink - a cup containing a deadly mixture. The allusion is to the mode of administering punishment by a poisonous draught - not an unfrequent mode of punishment in ancient times. The idea in the whole verse is, that the wicked would be destroyed, and that, therefore, there was nothing ultimately to be apprehended from them. God would protect his own friends, and would destroy all those that sought their hurt. In these circumstances the righteous should confide in him as their protector, and not "flee."
For the righteous Lord loveth righteousness - This would be more correctly rendered, "For Jehovah is righteous; he loves righteousness." The idea is, that God is himself righteous, and, consequently, he loves those who are righteous. He may be confided in, therefore, by the righteous as their friend, and being under his protection they have nothing to fear.
His countenance doth behold the upright - The word rendered "countenance" is, in the Hebrew, in the plural number; literally," his faces." It is not easy to account for this use of the plural, though it is common in the Scriptures. There may be an allusion to the fact that man seems to have two faces - one on the right side, and one on the left, two eyes, two cheeks, two nostrils, etc., as if made up of two persons. Applied to God, it has no other signification than it has when applied to man; nor should we seek to find anything mystical in the fact that the plural form is used. The term here, like the eyelids in Psa 11:6, is equivalent to eyes, since the most remarkable feature of the countenance is the eyes; and the idea is, that God looks upon the upright; that is, he sees their dangers amid their wants; he looks upon them with favor and affection. Being thus constantly under his eye, and being objects of his favorable regard, they can have nothing to fear; or, in other words, they are safe. This, then, is the argument of the righteous man, in reply to the suggestion Psa 11:1 that he should "flee" from danger. The argument is, that God would be his defender, and that he might safely rely on His protection. The wicked have everything to fear; the righteous, nothing. The one is never safe; the other, always. The one will be delivered out of all his troubles; the end of the other can be only ruin.