Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
This psalm purports to be "A Psalm of David," and there is no reason to doubt that it was composed by him. On what occasion it was composed is now unknown, and there is nothing in the psalm itself to enable us to decide. Some have supposed that it was written in view of the persecution of David by Saul; and others, that it was in view of the rebellion of Absalom. There is nothing in the psalm, however, which shows that it has any spectral reference to those persecutions or troubles; nothing which might not have been uttered if those troubles had never occurred. All the expressions in the psalm are of a general character, and seem rather to refer to a prevailing state of iniquity than to any particular manifestation of wickedness as pertaining to the psalmist himself.
The psalm undoubtedly does refer to prevailing iniquity, and it is not difficult to determine to what form of iniquity it refers. It was a general failure of fidelity among good men; a general withdrawal from active duties of such men as had before been found faithful; a lack of that firmness and zeal which it was proper to expect from those who professed to be good men. Particularly, it refers to prevailing modes of speech among those from whom it was right to expect better things: a condition in which there was a lack of seriousness and sincerity in conversation; in which flattery abounded; in which double meanings in conversation were common; in which promises solemnly made could not be relied on; and in which there was, in consequence, great wrong done to the poor and the unsuspecting - those who, on account of their ignorance and their unsuspicious nature, were greatly injured by putting confidence in such promises and assurances. In this state of things the psalmist felt that it was proper to call on God to protect those who were exposed to such wrongs.
The psalm, therefore, is composed of these parts:
I. A statement of the prevailing condition of things, as a reason why it was proper for God to interpose, Psa 12:1-2.
II. The fact that the Lord would interpose in such cases, and would cut off this class of persons, Psa 12:3-5.
III. The strong contrast between the words of the Lord and the language which was then in prevalent use, Psa 12:6. The words of the Lord were pure; pure as silver tried by the severest tests of fire.
IV. A deep conviction on the part of the psalmist that God would be the protector of those who were thus exposed to injury and wrong; particular y he would keep them from the purposes of such a generation forever, Psa 12:7.
V. The closing verse, "The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted" Psa 12:8, seems to be but the carrying out of the idea of the divine protection in the psalm: "Let the wicked walk about, therefore, on every side when vile men are exalted to power, for God is the protector of his people, and all such men are under his control." Or it may be the statement of a fact that wickedness did abound, or that people seemed to be unrestrained when wicked men were in power, though with the idea that God saw them, and would so check and restrain them that the injured and the wronged would be protected.
The title to the psalm - "To the chief Musician upon Sheminith" - is the same as that of the sixth Psalm, except that the words "On Neginoth," used there, are here omitted. See the note at that psalm.
Help, Lord - Hebrew, "Save, Yahweh." The idea is that there was no human help, and, therefore, the divine help is implored. The psalmist saw that those on whom reliance was usually placed for the promotion of the cause of truth and virtue now failed, and hence, he invites the divine interposition.
For the godly man - The word used here properly denotes the "merciful" man - חסיד châsı̂yd. It is a term applied to the righteous, because it is a prominent trait in the character of a pious man that he is merciful, kind, benignant. Hence, the general character is often denoted by the special characteristic; in the same way as we speak of a pious man as a good man, a just man, a righteous man. The idea suggested by the use of the term here is, that it is always a characteristic of a pious man that he is merciful or benignant. Compare Psa 4:3; Psa 32:6, where the same word is rendered "godly;" Psa 30:4; Psa 31:23; Psa 37:28; Psa 50:5; Psa 52:9; Psa 79:2; Psa 85:8, where it is rendered saints; and Deu 33:8; Psa 16:10; Psa 86:2; Psa 89:19, where it is rendered "holy." "Ceaseth." The word used here - גמר gâmar - means properly to bring to an end; to complete; to perfect. Hence, it means to come to an end, to cease, to fail.
Gesenius. - This might occur either by their being cut off by death; or by their ceasing to exert their influence in favor of religion; that is, by a general prevalence of wickedness among those who professed to be the friends of God. The latter seems to be the meaning here, since, in the following verses, the psalmist proceeds to specify the manner in which they "fail;" not by death, but by speaking vanity, falsehood, and flattery. That is, their conduct was such that their influence failed, or was lost to the community. No reliance could be placed on them, and, therefore, the psalmist so earnestly calls on God for his interposition. The idea is, that when men professing religion become conformed to the world - when they live like other men - when they cease to exert an influence in favor of piety - when they fall into habits of sin, it is a time to call on God with special earnestness for his aid. Often such conduct on the part of the professed friends of religion makes such an appeal to God more proper than even the death of good men does, for, in the latter case, their influence is simply withdrawn; in the former, not only is this influence which they might exert lost to the church, but there is a positive bad influence to be counteracted. The fall of a professor of religion into sin is a greater loss to the church than his death would be.
For the faithful - Those who profess faith; those who are bound by their vows to be faithful to God and to his cause. The word is equivalent to the believing, and is properly expressive of trust or faith in God.
Fail from among the children of men - Fail, as above noted, by their misconduct; by being false to the trust committed to them.
They speak vanity - This is a statement of the "manner" in which the "godly" and the "faithful" fail, as stated in Psa 12:1. One of the ways was that there was a disregard of truth; that no confidence could be placed on the statements of those who professed to be pious; that they dealt falsely with their neighbors. The word "vanity" here is equivalent to "falsehood." What they spoke was a vain and empty thing, instead of being the truth. It had no reality, and could not be depended on.
Every one with his neighbour - In his statements and promises. No reliance could be placed on his word.
With flattering lips - Hebrew, "Lips of smoothness." The verb from which the word used here is derived - חלק chālaq - means properly to divide, to distribute; then, to make things equal or smooth; then, to make smooth or to shape, as an artisan does, as with a plane; and then, "to make things smooth with the tongue," that is, "to flatter." See Psa 5:9; Pro 5:3; Pro 26:28; Pro 28:23; Pro 29:5. The meaning is, that no confidence could be placed in the statements made. There was no certainty that they were founded on truth; none that they were not intended to deceive. Flattery is the ascribing of qualities to another which he is known not to possess - usually with some sinister or base design.
And with a double heart - Margin, as in Hebrew, "a heart and a heart;" that is, as it were, with two hearts, one that gives utterance to the words, and the other that retains a different sentiment. Thus, in Deu 25:13, the phrase in Hebrew, "a stone and a stone" means, as it is translated, "divers weights" - one stone or weight to buy with, and another to sell with. So the flatterer. He has one heart to give utterance to the words which he uses toward his neighbor, and another that conceals his real purpose or design. No confidence, therefore, could be placed in such persons. Compare the note at Job 32:22.
The Lord shall cut off - This might be rendered, "May the Lord cut off," implying a wish on the part of the psalmist that it might occur. But probably the common rendering is the correct one. It is the statement of a solemn truth, designed for warning, that all such persons would be punished.
All flattering lips - The meaning is, that he will cut off all "persons" who use flattery; that is, he will cut them off from the favors which he will show to his own people, or will punish them. The word used here is the common one to denote disowning or excommunicating, and derives its meaning from the act of separating offenders from a community. See Gen 17:14; Lev 17:10; Lev 18:29; Lev 20:3, Lev 20:6; et soepe.
And the tongue that speaketh proud things - That boasts, or is self-confident. For an example of this, see Isa 28:15; and compare the notes at that passage. It was this disposition to falsehood, flattery, and boasting, which constituted the fact stated in Psa 12:1, that "godly" and "faithful" men - men on whom reliance might be placed, whose word might be trusted, and whose promised aid in the cause of truth might be depended on - had seemed to "fail" among men. That is, no such men could be found.
Who have said - Who habitually say. This does not mean that they had formally and openly said this - for none would be likely to do so - but that they had practically and really said this by their conduct. They acted as if it were the real principle on which they framed their lives, that they might use their tongues as they pleased.
With our tongue - literally, "as to," or "in respect to our tongue;" that is, by our tongue. It was by the tongue that they expected to accomplish their purposes. It was not by direct power, or by violence, but by the power of speech.
Will we prevail - literally, "We will do mightily;" that is, they would accomplish their purposes. They relied on the power of speech - on their ability in influencing others; in deceiving others; in persuading others to fall in with their plans.
Our lips are our own - That is, we may use them as we please; no one has a right to control us in the use of what properly belongs to ourselves. It cannot be meant that they intended to assert this openly as a right, for there are perhaps none who will not admit in words that they are responsible for what they "say," as well as for what they "do." But their conduct was such that this was the fair interpretation to be placed on what they said. They would speak this if they openly professed and avowed what was their real opinion.
Who is lord over us? - That is, who has a right to control us in the case? There are many who practically avow this as a principle of conduct, and who seem to feel that they are not responsible for their words, however much they may admit their responsibility for their actions. There is usually a greater degree of recklessness among men in regard to their speech than in regard to their conduct; and many a man who would shrink from doing another wrong by an act of dishonesty in business, may be utterly reckless as to doing him wrong by an unkind remark.
For the oppression of the poor - That is, on account of the wrong done to the poor in the manner specified above - by the abuse of the power of speech. On account of the slanders uttered against them, or the frauds perpetrated on them by the abuse of this power. The reference is to the wrongs done when no confidence could be placed in men's words; when they uttered words of "vanity" and "flattery" Psa 12:2; when promises were made only to be broken, and obligations assumed never to be fulfilled. In such a state of things the "poor" were the most likely to suffer. In performing service for others - in daily labor on a farm or in a mechanical employment - they would depend for support, on the promises made by their employers; and when their pay was withheld, they and their families must suffer. Compare Jam 5:4. Rich men, having other resources, would not thus suffer; but the poor must always suffer when there is in the community a disregard of the obligation of promises. In like manner, the poor would be most likely to "be taken in by the acts of unprincipled men, and to be deceived in their small dealings with them. Other classes of the community would be on their guard; but the poor, unacquainted with the arts of cunning men, are always liable - though on a small scale, yet of importance to them - to be wronged by the false statements and promises of those against whom they can have no redress.
For the sighing of the needy ... - The word "needy" here is synonymous with "poor." It refers to those in humble circumstances, who were especially liable to be wronged by deceitful statements and promises.
I will set him in safety - I will make him safe. I will save him from the evils which they thought to bring upon him. The general idea is, that God is the vindicator of the poor and the oppressed.
From him that puffeth at him - Prof. Alexander renders this, "I will place in safety him that shall pant for it." Gesenius renders it, "whom they puffed at; that is, the oppressed." The language in the original is difficult. It may mean either "he pants for it," or "he puffs at him;" and the meaning can only be determined by the connection. That would rather seem to be what is indicated in our common version; to wit, that the persons referred to as oppressing the poor and needy, "puffed" at them; that is, they looked upon them with contempt, and felt that with a puff of their breath they could blow them away. They regarded them as insignificant and worthless. By this construction, also, the connection with the main statement will be best preserved - that the injury referred to in the psalm was done by "words," by the breath of the mouth - thus indicating that by a "word" or a "breath" they could destroy them.
The words of the Lord - In contrast with the words of the persons referred to in Psa 12:2-4. Their words were vanity, flattery, and falsehood; and no reliance could be placed on them. In contrast with these words, the words of the Lord were pure. They were to be relied on. All his sayings were true and faithful. The design is to bring his words into contrast with the sayings of such men, and to show how much more safety there is in relying on his promises than on the promises made by such men. Man failed, but God would not. Reliance could not be placed on the words of even the professedly "godly" and "faithful" Psa 12:1, but entire confidence might be placed in the words of Yahweh. All his words were true, pure, faithful, so that even when his own professed friends failed, and confidence could be placed in them, yet there was still reason for unwavering confidence in God himself.
Are pure words - That is, they are without any mixture of falsehood - for this idea is implied in the comparison which the psalmist makes when he says that they are like silver purified in the furnace, that is, from which all the dross has been removed.
As silver tried in a furnace of earth - The word here rendered "furnace" properly means a workshop. Perhaps it corresponds nearly with our word "laboratory," as the term is now used by chemists. It evidently refers to some place where the metal was tried and purified. The words rendered "of earth" literally mean "on the earth," or "in the earth?" The language does not mean that the "furnace" was "made" of earth, as would seem to be implied in our version, but that the "furnace" or laboratory was erected on the earth, or in the earth. It may refer to something like a crucible placed on the ground, around which a fire of intense heat could be made. It is probable that some such structure would be made near the mines where ore was obtained, and that the ore would be thus purified from dross before it was removed.
Purified seven times - By passing it seven times - that is, very often - through the fire. The word "seven" in the Scriptures denotes a complete or perfect number, and is often used to denote frequency. The idea here would seem to be that the process was repeated until the silver became entirely pure. The sense is, that the words of the Lord are "perfectly pure." There is no admixture of falsehood in his statements; there is no deception in his promises; there is no flattery in what he says. This was the ground of confidence on the part of the psalmist - that while men (even those who professed to be good men) so failed that no reliance could be placed on their statements, the most perfect trust could be reposed on all the statements of God.
"Thou shalt keep them That is, the persons referred to in Psa 12:5 - the poor and the needy who were suffering from the wrongs inflicted on them. The idea is, that God would guard and defend them. They were safe in his hands. Compare Psa 37:3-7.
From this generation - This generation, or this race of detractors, flatterers, and oppressors. The idea is, that that entire generation was eminently wicked, and that none but God could deliver the poor and the needy from their designs.
Forever - That is, "constantly," or as long as they would need the divine protection. God would not interpose and save them from the "present" trouble, and then leave them to the designs of their enemies, but he would "always" interpose as often as there was any need of his help. That is, they were now, and would be at all times, entirely safe. They had nothing to fear, for God was their refuge and their help.
The wicked walk on every side - Everywhere. They have full license, or seem to be wholly unrestrained.
When the vilest men are exalted - Margin, "The vilest of the sons of men are exalted." This expression has been very variously translated. Dr. Horsley renders it, "When the scorn of the sons of men is exalted." De Wette, "They exalt themselves; terror to the sons of men." Luther, "Where such wicked people rule among the sons of men." Hengstenberg, "Like exaltation is disgrace to the sons of men." Prof. Alexander seems inclined to favor this last view. According to this interpretation, the meaning is, that "although the wicked are now in the ascendant, and the righteous are treated with contempt, this disgrace is realy an exaltation, because only ... in man's judgment, not in God's, who will abundantly indemnity his people for the dishonor put upon them." The word rendered in our version "the vilest" - זלות zûllûth - means, according to Gesenius, "trembling, terror." It occurs nowhere else in the Scriptures. The verb from which it is derived - זלל zâlal - means to shake, to tremble; then (as one shakes out, or casts away worthless things) to be vile, abject, despised, worthless.
Perhaps, however, the common version expresses the idea more accurately than any of these proposed amendments. I would offer the following as a fair translation of the passage: "The wicked walk on every side; (it is) as the lifting up, or the exaltation of vileness among the sons of men." That is, the state of things is as if the vilest were exalted, or were honored. It seems to be the very exaltation of wickedness or depravity in the world. A state of things exists in which, from the prevalence of iniquity, the wicked seem to go unrestrained; in which no regard is paid to truth; in which falsehood and flattery abound; and it is as if honor were done to the worst forms of sin, and the most abandoned seem to be the most exalted. This appears to be the reason in the mind of the psalmist why the divine interposition is necessary; with this idea the psalm commences, and with this it appropriately closes. There was a state of widespread depravity and successful iniquity, as if all honor were conferred on wicked and abandoned men, while the virtuous were oppressed and degraded. The psalm expresses "confidence" in God - confidence in his faithful word and promises; but the psalmist sees a state of things wherein it was eminently desirable that God should interpose, for the righteous seemed to have failed out of the earth, and the wicked seemed to be wholly in the ascendancy.