Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
This psalm (with the ten succeeding psalms, together with Ps. 50 - twelve in all) is ascribed to Asaph, unless the reading in the margin, "for Asaph" be correct. The most natural sense of the expression in the title, however, is that they are psalms of Asaph; that is, that they were composed by him. See Introduction to Ps. 50. It has been maintained that a part of these psalms, particularly Ps. 74; Psa 79:1-13; 80; could not be his, for it is alleged that they refer to events long subsequent to his age. There seems to be no objection, however, to the supposition that this psalm was composed by him, as it has no particular reference to any particular age or country, but is made up of general reflections, which might have arisen in any age, or in any land.
Respecting the particular occasion on which the psalm was composed we have no information. It was in view of the prosperity of the wicked, and suggests the reflections which troubled the writer in regard to the divine administration in view of that prosperity. The thoughts which are recorded are such as might occur to any mind, and do often occur, arising from the fact that wicked people are so successful and so happy in the world, living in prosperity, and dying apparently without pain or alarm, while So many of the good are poor and sorrowful in their lives, and their whole course on earth is one of so much grief and sorrow. Such thoughts as are expressed in this psalm will often cross the mind, and the question will arise why God permits this; whether there is any advantage in being good; and whether that God who sees this, and permits this, can be just and benevolent - the friend of the righteous, and the enemy of the wicked - or whether there is any God. The psalm describes these feelings, and shows how the difficulties were solved in the case of its author, suggesting as the solution, that this is not the world of retribution; that there is a future state where exact justice will be done, and where all the inequalities of the present system will be adjusted. In that future world - "in eternity" - there will be ample time and room to make such an adjustment; to do exact justice to all. The "idea" in the psalm is, that these things cannot be explained except on the supposition that there is a future state; and the psalm, therefore, is an argument for a future state of existence. The affairs of earth cannot be explained, and the character of God cannot be vindicated, except on that supposition.
The psalm in its general structure and design bears a strong resemblance to Ps. 37, though there is no evidence that the author of this psalm had that before him, or in his eye. The expressions are not the same, nor does one appear to have been copied from the other. They contain independent reflections on the same general subject, suggesting the same perplexities, and finding a solution of the difficulties in the same way - in looking to the future, to a just retribution in the end. In this case - Ps. 73 - the psalmist says that he learned the solution of the problem by the instructions of the sanctuary Psa 73:17; in the former case - Ps. 37 - the solution was found by an observation of the comparative effects of a wicked and a religious life, Psa 37:10-11, Psa 37:20, Psa 37:23-25, Psa 37:35-37. The idea in both is, that the ultimate effect of goodness or piety must be happiness; the ultimate effect of sin must be misery. The author of one of these psalms finds this solution in the present life; the author of the other, in the life to come. In either case, the character of God is vindicated, and the troubled feelings of the soul calmed down.
The general "idea" in the psalm is stated in the first verse, that "God is good to Israel, to such as are of a clean heart;" that is, that he is the true friend of the righteous, or that his administration is in favor of virtue, or in favor of those who are righteous. The psalm states the process by which the writer came to this conclusion; the mental conflicts through which he passed before this result was reached; his own agitation of mind, and the difficulties he saw in the subject, in view of the facts which exist in this world. His mind had been greatly perplexed when he had meditated on the subject, and the mental conflict had gone so far with him as almost to lead him to abandon the idea that there was a God, or that there was anything in religion, and to conclude that it was all a delusion.
The psalm, therefore, consists of the following parts:
I. The statement of the general proposition that the divine administration is favorable to virtue, or that there is a God who presides in the affairs of people, Psa 73:1.
II. The facts which the psalmist had observed, out of which his doubts had sprung, or which had given him so much perplexity and trouble, Psa 73:2-14. Those facts were, that the wicked seemed to be prosperous and happy; that they lived without trouble, and died without any tokens of the divine disapproval; that their eyes stood out with fatness, and that they had more than heart could desire; that they set their mouths against the heavens, and were proud blasphemers, while God took no notice of them, or manifested no disapprobation; that they contemned God, and yet were prospered in the world, while, on the other hand, he himself - the psalmist - was chastened, and afflicted, and plagued - suggesting the idea that there could be no advantage in piety, and that all his anxiety to have pure hands and a pure heart was in vain.
III. The statement of his purpose to conceal his feelings on the subject, lest he should do injury to those who had not these troublesome thoughts, but who endeavored in humility to serve God, Psa 73:15. He had thoughts which he did not consider it proper to make known to others - thoughts which would only pain them, or unsettle their faith in God, without doing any good.
IV. The means by which his mind had been made calm on the subject, and his difficulties solved, Psa 73:17-20. He had gone to the sanctuary; he had looked at the end of these things; he had seen what was to be the result; he had been instructed to look forward to a time when all these inequalities would be adjusted, and when, in the punishment of the wicked, it would be seen that there is a God, and that he is just.
V. He now condemns his own former folly, and sees that his conduct had been wholly irrational; that his views had been short-sighted; that he had been stupid, like a beast, in the low conceptions which he had taken of God, Psa 73:21-22.
VI. In view of all, the psalmist now commits himself to God. He sees that there is reason to trust in him. He resolves to murmur or complain no more. He finds his portion in God. He believes that God will guide him by his counsel, and ultimately receive him to glory. He says that there is none in heaven or on earth that he desires beside him. He is cheered with the thought that when his strength and heart should fail, God would be the strength of his heart, and his portion forever. He would, therefore, henceforth, confide in the Lord God, Psa 73:23-28.
Truly God is good to Israel - That is, to his people; to the righteous; to those who serve him. That is, God is the "real" friend of the righteous. He has not forgotten them. He does not abandon them. He is not indifferent to them. He is not the friend of wicked people; and the administration of his government is not in favor of wickedness. After all that seems to indicate this, after all that troubles the mind in regard to his dealings, it is a truth that God is the friend of righteousness, and not of wickedness, and that there is advantage in his service. To see the force of what is said here by the psalmist we must realize that the train of thought in the psalm had passed through his mind, and that his perplexities had been relieved in the manner specified in the psalm. The margin here is "yet;" "yet God is good to Israel." This word "yet" would, in this place, be a happy translation. The psalmist then would be represented as having been engaged in meditating on the subject and in looking at all its perplexities, and then he says, "Yet God is good; notwithstanding all the difficulties in the case, it is nevertheless true that he is the friend of his people - the friend of righteousness."
Even to such as are of a clean heart - Margin, as in Hebrew, "clean of heart." See Psa 73:13. The reference is to those who are truly righteous, for all true righteousness has its seat in the heart. See Psa 51:10.
But as for me - literally, "And I." The meaning is, "And I, who so confidently now trust in God, and believe that he is good, was formerly in a far different state of mind; I was so hesitating, so troubled, and so doubtful, that I had almost entirely lost confidence in him as a wise and just moral governor."
My feet were almost gone - I was just ready to fall. Of course, this refers to his state of mind. In regard to his faith or confidence in God, he was like a man standing in a slippery place, and scarcely able to remain upright.
My steps had well nigh slipped - The expression rendered "well nigh" means "like nothing," or "as nothing;" that is, in reference to firmness it was as if there was "nothing" left. There was nothing which would keep him from slipping. The word rendered "slipped" means "poured out." That is, in his going he was like water poured out, instead of being like something solid and firm. The idea is, that his faith seemed to be all gone. He was like a falling man; a man who had no strength to walk.
For I was envious at the foolish - The word "foolish" here refers to sinners. It may either refer to them as foolish, or as proud, insolent, vain - for so the word is elsewhere used. See Psa 14:1.
When I saw the prosperity of the wicked - More literally, "the peace of the wicked." The reference is not so much to their prosperity in general as to their peace; their conscious safety; their freedom from trouble; and especially their calmness, and their freedom from suffering, in death. From all this he was led for the moment to doubt whether there was any advantage in religion; whether God was just; and whether he befriended the righteous anymore than he did the wicked.
For there are no bands in their death - The word rendered "bands" here means properly "cords tightly drawn," Isa 58:6; then, pains, pangs, torments - "as if" one were twisted or tortured with pain, as a cord is closely twisted. The word occurs only in Isa 58:6, and in this place. The fact which is here referred to by the psalmist, and which gave him so much uneasiness, was that which so often occurs, that when the wicked die, they do not seem to suffer in proportion to their wickedness; or there seem to be no special marks of the divine displeasure as they are about to leave the world. They have lived in prosperity, and they die in peace. There is no uncommon agony in death; there is no special alarm about the future world. They have enjoyed this world, and a sinful life seems now to be followed by a peaceful death. They do not even suffer as much in death as good people often do; - what then is the advantage of piety? And how can we believe that God is just; or that he is the friend of the righteous; or even that there is a God? Of the fact here adverted to by the psalmist, that the wicked do thus live and die, there can be no doubt, and that fact has given perplexity to good people in all ages of the world.
But their strength is firm - Margin, as in Hebrew, "fat." That is, They are not emaciated and weakened by disease, but they go down to death apparently from good health, and without wasting disease. See the notes at Job 21:23-26.
They are not in trouble as other men - Margin, "In the trouble of other men." Literally, "In the labor of man they are not;" that is, they are exempt from the common burdens and troubles of humanity, or those which pertain to man as man. There seems to be some special interposition in their favor to save them from the common calamities which come upon the race.
Neither are they plagued like other men - Margin, "with." Literally, "And with mankind they are not afflicted," or smitten. The calamities which come so thickly and heavily on the race do not seem to come upon them. They are favored, prospered, happy, while others are afflicted.
Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain - Therefore they are proud, haughty, imperious. They put on the ornaments and trappings of pride; their clothing and their adorning all are indicative of a proud heart. They seem to imagine that they are better than others, and that they are treated in this manner "because" they are better than others. In the original it is a single word which is rendered "compasseth about as a chain." The word means "to adorn with a necklace or collar;" and the idea is, that pride surrounds them as with a neck-chain, or a collar for the neck. They wear it as an ornament. They make it conspicuous. It is apparent on a haughty neck - in an erect and stiff demeanour. Compare the notes at Isa 3:16 : "The daughters of Zion walk with stretched forth necks."
Violence covereth them as a garment - Injustice or cruelty seems to be their very clothing. It is manifest in their whole gait and demeanor that they are men of haughtiness and pride; that they are destitute of tenderness, sympathy, sensibility.
Their eyes stand out with fatness - As the fruit of their high living. They are not weakened and emaciated by toil and want, as other men often are. Compare the notes at Psa 17:10.
They have more than heart could wish - Margin, "they pass the thoughts of the heart." Literally, "the imaginations or thoughts of the heart pass;" pass along; pass forth. The meaning seems to be, not that they have more than heart could desire, as in our translation - for that would not probably be true; nor, that the thoughts of the heart are "disclosed," as Prof. Alexander supposes - for that idea does not seem to be in the language; but that their thoughts, their plans, their purposes, pass freely along without any obstruction; their wishes are all gratified; their purposes are accomplished; they have all that they wish. Whatever comes into the mind as an object of desire is obtained without hindrance or trouble. They seem only to wish for a thing, or to think of a thing, and they have it.
They are corrupt - literally, "they mock." The word rendered "they are corrupt" never has this signification. It is the very word - מוק mûq - from which our word mock is derived, and means the same thing. The idea is that they deride religion, or mock at all that pertains to God, and to the retributions of the future world.
And speak wickedly concerning oppression ... - literally, "they speak in wickedness; oppression they speak from on high." That is, they use arrogant language; they speak in a proud manner, as if they were above others; they use harsh and violent language, not regarding the feelings or the rights of others.
They set their mouth against the heavens - Compare Rev 13:6. Literally, "They set their mouth in heaven," or in the heavens. The idea is, they speak as if they were "in" the heavens; as if they were clothed with all authority; as if they were superior beings, and had a right to command the universe.
And their tongue walketh through the earth - It has no limit; it is as if it roamed over all the earth. They speak without any restraint of law, or propriety; without any regard to the command of God, or to what is due to people, In other words, they seem to set themselves above all law, and to act as if there were no one in heaven or in earth to control them.
Therefore his people - Those that truly love God; the pious in the earth.
Return hither - Return to this subject. In their musings - their meditations on divine things - they come back to this inquiry. The subject occupies their minds, and they recur to it as a subject which perplexes them; as a thing that is incomprehensible. They think it over again and again, and are more and more perplexed and embarrassed. The difficulties which these facts suggest about God and his government are such that they cannot solve them.
And waters of a full cup are wrung out to them - literally, "waters of fullness;" or, full waters. The Chaldee renders this, "Many tears flow from them." The Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate, "And full days shall be found by them." The word rendered "are wrung out" - from מצה mâtsâh - means properly to "suck;" then, to suck out; to drink greedily. See Isa 51:17. It is applied to one who drinks greedily of an intoxicating cup; and then, to one who drinks a cup of poison to the dregs. Psa 75:8. The meaning here is, that the facts in the case, and the questions which arose in regard to those facts, and which so perplexed them, were like a bitter cup; a cup of poison, or an intoxicating cup which overpowered their faculties - and that they, in their perplexities, "exhausted" the cup. They drank it all, even to the dregs. They did not merely taste it; but they drank it. It was a subject full of perplexity; a subject that wholly overpowered all their faculties, and "exhausted" all their powers.
And they say - His people say. The connection demands this interpretation. The meaning is, that his people, as they return again and again to this subject Psa 73:10, are constrained to put this question. They are compelled by these facts to start such painful inquiries about God; and distressing as the inquiries are, and as are the doubts which they involve, these thoughts will pass through their mind, even though to avoid giving needless pain to those who have no such perplexities and difficulties they keep these thoughts to themselves, Psa 73:15.
How doth God know? - That is, How can these facts be reconciled with God's omniscience? How can it be that he sees all this, and yet suffers it to occur, or that he does not interpose to prevent it? Is it not a fair inference from these facts that God does "not" see them, and that he is "not" an Omniscient Being? Can it be explained, can it be believed, that God sees all this, and that he calmly looks on, and does nothing to prevent it? If he sees it, why does he not interpose and put an end to it? These perplexities were not confined to the psalmist. They are such as have been felt by good people in all ages; and no one yet has been able to furnish a solution of them that is wholly free from difficulty.
And is there knowledge in the Most High? - Can there be in God a knowledge of these facts? Are we not driven to the conclusion that he must be ignorant of them? for, if he knew them, would he not interpose to prevent them? How "can" it be consistent with the idea that he "knows" them, and "sees" them, that he does "not" interpose, and that he suffers these things to take place without any attempt to check such evils? Who, even now, can answer these questions?
Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world - This is also to be understood as the language of the good man perplexed and embarrassed by the fact that the wicked are prosperous and happy. The meaning is, "Lo, these are wicked people - people of undoubted depravity; they are people who live regardless of God; and yet they are peaceful, tranquil, happy, prospered." This was one of the facts which so much embarrassed the psalmist. If there had been any doubt about the character of those people, the case would have been different. But there was none. They were people whose character for wickedness was well known, and yet they were permitted to live in peace and prosperity, as if they were the favorites of heaven. The literal meaning of the words rendered "who prosper in the world" is, "tranquil (or secure) for the age;" that is, forever, or constantly. They know no changes; they see no reverses; they are the same through life. They are always tranquil, calm, happy, successful.
They increase in riches - literally, "They become great in substance." They make constant accumulations in wealth, until they become great.
Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain - That is, There is no advantage in all my efforts to become pure and holy. It does not assist me in obtaining the favor of God; and it would be just as well to live a sinful life - to indulge in the pleasures of sense - to make the world my portion. Nothing is to be gained by all my painful efforts at self-discipline; by all my endeavors to become righteous. It would have been as well for me - or better - if I had lived a life of sin like other people. The righteous obtain from God fewer blessings than the wicked; they have less happiness and less prosperity in this world; they are subjected to more trouble and sorrow; and to all else there must be added the struggles, the conflict, the warfare, the painful effort "to be" pure, and to lead a holy life, all of which is now seen to be of no advantage whatever. Such thoughts as these were not confined to the psalmist. They are thoughts which will start up in the mind, and which it is not easy to calm down.
And washed my hands in innocency - That is, It has been of no use that I have washed my hands in innocency. The word "innocency" here means "purity." He had washed his hands in that which was pure; as, pure water. To wash the hands is emblematic of innocence or purity. See the notes at Psa 26:6.
For all the day long - Continually. All my life.
Have I been plagued - Smitten; afflicted; troubled. My life has been a life of trial. I have not known prosperity.
And chastened every morning - Margin, as in Hebrew, "My chastisement was." That is, my sufferings - my trials - have been repeated with every returning morning. Each new day has brought some new form of affliction, designed to rebuke and punish me. I never have found exemption from trial even for a single day. So different is my lot from the lot of wicked people, who know nothing of this, and who are always prospered and happy. See the notes at Job 7:18.
If I say, I will speak thus - If I should resolve to give expression to my feelings. If I should utter all that is passing in my mind and my heart. It is implied here that he had "not" given utterance to these thoughts, but had confined them to his own bosom. He knew how they might be regarded by others; how others might be led to feel as if no confidence was to be placed in God; how this might suggest thoughts to them which would not otherwise occur to them, and which would only tend to fill their minds with distress; how such thoughts might unsettle the foundations of their faith, their peace, their hope, and their joy.
I should offend against the generation of thy children - The word rendered "I should offend," means to treat perfidiously, or in a faithless or treacherous manner. Then it means, "to deal falsely with." And this is the meaning here; "I should not be "true" to them; I should not be "faithful" to their real interests; I should do that which would be equivalent to dealing with them in a false and perfidious manner." The idea is, that he "ought" not to say or do anything which would tend to lessen their confidence in God, or which would suggest to their minds grounds of distrust in God, or which would disturb their peace and hope. This was alike an act of justice and benevolence on his part. Whatever might be his own troubles and doubts, he had no "right" to fill their minds with doubts and distrust of God; and he felt that, as it was desirable that the minds of others should not be harassed as his own had been, it could not be kind to suggest such thoughts.
This, however, should not forbid anyone from mentioning such difficulties to another for the purpose of having them removed. If they occur to the mind, as they may to the minds of any, however sincere and pious they may be, nothing can make it improper that they should be laid before one of greater age, or longer experience, or wider opportunities of knowledge, in order that the difficulties may be solved. Nothing can make it improper for a child to have recourse thus to a parent - or a member of a church, to a pastor. If, however, these doubts can be calmed down otherwise, it is better that they should be mentioned to no one. Some little additional strength may be given them even by dwelling on them long enough to mention them to another, and by putting them in such a form that they would be understood by another; and the true way is to go to God with them by prayer, and to spread them out before the mercy-seat. Prayer, and a careful study of the word of God may calm them down without their being suggested to any human being. At any rate, they should not be suggested at all to the young, or to those with fewer advantages of education, or of less experience than we have had, on whom the only effect would be to fill their minds with doubts which they could not solve - and with thoughts tending only to perplexity and unbelief - such as would never have occurred to themselves.
When I thought to know this - When I endeavored to comprehend this, or to explain it to myself. The idea is that he "thought" on the subject, or "meditated" on it with a view to be able to understand it. He did not express his opinions and feelings to others, but he dwelt on them in his own mind; not to find additional difficulties, not to confirm himself in opposition to God, and not to find new occasions for distrusting the divine government, but to understand exactly how this was. It was his object to seek and understand "the truth."
It was too painful for me - Margin, "It was labor in mine eyes." The Hebrew word rendered "painful," means properly labor, toil, a burden; and the idea is, that the question was a burden - was too weighty for his weak powers.
Until I went into the sanctuary of God - The word "sanctuary" we now apply to a place of public worship; and, thus understood, the passage here would mean that he learned the truth on the subject only by the statements and disclosures made there in regard to the divine plans and dealings, and the results of human conduct. This interpretation makes good sense, and is in itself true, but it is not the idea in the original. The word "sanctuary" in the Old Testament, in the singular number, is applied to the tabernacle, or the temple, or, more especially to the most holy place in the tabernacle or the temple; the place of the unique dwelling of God. Thus understood the idea would be that he learned the solution of the mystery "there." But these were not places of instruction, and it cannot be supposed that the reference is to either of them. The word in the original is in the plural number - sanctuaries - things that God regarded as holy; and the meaning seems to be, that the only solution of the case was to be learned from those things which pertained to God's most holy and secret places; or in those places which were nearest to him, and where he most clearly manifested himself. The difficulty was not to be solved by any mere human reasoning - by the powers of man, away from God; it was to be learned in the presence of God himself, and in the disclosures which He made about his divine plans and purposes. The psalmist had tried his own powers of reason, and the subject was above his reach. The only solution of the difficulty was to be obtained by a near approach to God himself. There the mystery could be solved, and there it was solved. The "end" of all this, as disclosed by God, would determine why, it was permitted, and would remove the perplexity of the mind.
Then understood I their end - literally, their after things; that is, the things which will occur to them hereafter. That solves all the difficulty. There will be a judgment hereafter, and dark as things may now appear, it will be seen in the end, or in the result, that exact and equal justice will be done to all.
Surely thou didst set them in slippery places - Not in a solid and permanent position; not where their foothold would be secure, but as on smooth and slippery rocks, where they would be liable any moment to fall into the foaming billows. However prosperous their condition may seem to be now, yet it is a condition of uncertainty and danger, from which they must soon fall into ruin. In their prosperity there is nothing of permanence or Stability; and this fact will explain the difficulty.
Thou castedst them down into destruction - They are placed, not in a permanent condition, but in a condition from which they will be cast down to destruction. Ruin is before them; and the end will demonstrate the justice of God. Nothing can be determined from their present condition as to the question which caused so much perplexity, but in order to a proper solution we must wait to see the end. As an illustration of this, see the interesting account of the interview between Solon of Athens, and Croesus, the rich king of Lydia, as given in Herodotus, book i., 30-33.
How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! - How suddenly and unexpectedly does destruction come upon them! Nothing can be argued from their apparent prosperity, for there is no ground of security in "that," no basis for an argument that it will continue. The end must be seen in order to form a correct estimate on the subject, and that end may soon come. Compare the notes at Job 15:20-21.
They are utterly consumed with terrors - literally, "they perish; they are destroyed by terrors;" that is, by terrible things, or by things suited to produce terror in the mind. The idea is not that they are destroyed by their own fears, but that things come upon them which are suited to overwhelm the soul, and that by those things they are utterly destroyed. It is by this result that we are to determine in regard to the equity of the divine administration, and not by their prosperity and their apparent safety.
As a dream when one awaketh - Their prosperity is like the visions of a dream; the reality is seen when one awakes. A man in a dream may imagine that he is a king; that he dwells in a palace; that he is surrounded by flatterers and courtiers; that he walks in pleasant groves, listens to the sounds of sweet music, sits down at a table loaded with the luxuries of all climes, and lies upon a bed of down. He may awake only to find that he is encompassed with poverty, or that he is on a bed of languishing, or that he is the miserable tenant of a hovel or a dungeon. The reality is when he awakes. So it is in regard to our present condition on earth. The reality is seen when the dream - the gorgeous dream - of life is over.
So, O Lord, when thou awakest - The Hebrew expression here - בעיר bā‛ı̂yr - occurs in more than fifty other places in the Scriptures, and is in all these places translated "in the city." This interpretation, however, would be quite unmeaning here, and the probability is that the expression is a form of the verb עור ‛ûr, "to awake, to arouse;" and the idea is not, as in our version, that of "God's" awaking as if he had been asleep, but it refers to the dreamer when he shall awake. It is, literally, in the awaking; that is, when the dream is over.
Thou shalt despise their image - The image that floated before their imaginations in the dream of life. Thou wilt pay no attention to it; there is no reality in it; it will at once vanish. In the future world, God will pay no regard to the dreams of human life, to the outward show, to the appearance; but the affairs of eternity will be regulated by what is real - by that which constitutes the character of the man. By that, and not by the vain dreams of the world, will the destiny of people be determined. We are to look at "that" in determining the question about the government of God, and not at what "appears" in the brief dream of life.
Thus my heart was grieved - literally, and more expressively, "was soured." The meaning is, that his heart was grieved, pained, dissatisfied. His mind was embittered, and he was rendered unhappy, by the views which he cherished about God, as doubting the wisdom and justice of his dealings with people - and about people, as being envious at their prosperity.
And I was pricked in my reins - The reins are often in the Scriptures represented as the seat of the thoughts or affections. See the notes at Psa 7:9. The word rendered "pricked" means to sharpen, as a sword; and then, to pierce and penetrate as a sword does. The idea is, that these thoughts, so distressing and painful, seemed to be like a sharp sword penetrating to the seat of life.
So foolish was I, and ignorant - Such low and imperfect views did I take of the subject. The margin is, "I knew not." So the Hebrew: "And I am brutish, and know not;" that is, I did not understand the case; I had no correct views in regard to it.
I was as a beast before thee - Margin, as in Hebrew, "with thee." That is, in thy very presence; or, I was guilty of such foolishness in the very presence of my Maker. If it had been when I was alone, or when no one saw me, the folly would not have been so aggravated, and so much to be regretted, but it was when the very eye of God was upon me. Compare Isa 1:7; Jer 7:30; Jer 18:10; Psa 51:4. When he says that he was as a beast, he means that he was stupid and senseless; he had no proper understanding of the case; he did not take any just views of it.
Nevertheless, I am continually with thee - I am kept by thee in the land of the living; I am permitted to abide in thy presence; I am allowed to hope in thy mercy. Notwithstanding my low and unworthy views, notwithstanding my doubts about the justice of the divine administration, notwithstanding my envy at the prosperity of the wicked, and my spirit of complaining against God, I am not driven away from God; I am not banished from his presence, or cut off from his favor. Well may we marvel when we reflect on our thoughts about God, that He has not risen in his anger, and banished us from his presence forever and ever.
Thou hast holden me by my right hand - Thou hast not left me. Thou hast stretched out thy hand to keep me. Thou hast been to me as, a Protector and Friend. Thou hast not been angry at my unkind and ungrateful thoughts; thou hast not banished me eternally from thy presence.
Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel - With thy advice; with thy teaching. This implies two things:
(a) his belief that God "would" do this, notwithstanding his folly; and
(b) his purpose that God "should" be his guide now.
He would no longer murmur or complain, but would entrust all to God, and allow himself to be led as God should be pleased to direct him.
And afterward receive me to glory - After thou hast led me along the path of the present life in the way in which thou wouldst have me to go, thou wilt then receive me to thyself in heaven - to a world where all shall be clear; where I shall never have any doubts in regard to thy being, to the justice of thy dispensations, or to the principles of thy government.
whom have I in heaven but thee? - literally, "Who is to me in the heavens?" That is, There is no one there that in my love for him can be compared with thee; no one who can do for me what thou canst do; no one who can meet and satisfy the needs of my soul as thou canst; no one who can be to me what God "is" - what a God "must" be. After all my complaining and my doubts there is no one, not even in the heavens, who cant supply the place of "God," or be to me what God is; and the warm affections of my soul, therefore, are "really" toward him. I feel my need of him; and I must and do find my supreme happiness in him. What would even heaven be to me without God? who there, even of the angels of light, could supply the place of God?
And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee - That is, Thou art all-sufficient; thou dost meet and satisfy the needs of my nature. All my happiness is in thee; no one on earth could be substituted in thy place, or be to me what thou art as God.
My flesh and my heart faileth - Flesh and heart here seem to refer to the whole man, body and soul; and the idea is, that his powers of body and mind failed; were spent; were exhausted. This seems to have been said in an "ideal" sense, or by anticipation. He does not mean to say that his strength then had actually failed, but he seems to have placed himself by imagination in the situation where his strength "would" be all gone - in sickness, in weakness, in sorrow, on the bed of death. He asks himself now what would be his strength then - what would be the object of chief interest and love - on what he would rely; and he answers without hesitation, and with entire confidence, that he could rely on God, and that He would be his portion forever. Even then, when heart and flesh should fail, when all the powers of mind and body should be exhausted, the love of God would survive, and he would find strength and joy in Him.
But God is the strength of my heart - Margin, as in Hebrew, "rock;" the rock on which my heart relies; that is, my refuge, my defense. See the notes at Psa 18:2. Compare Psa 61:2.
And my portion for ever - The source of my happiness. Not wealth, then; not honor; not earthly friends; not fame - will be my reliance and the ground of my hope; but that which I shall regard as most valuable - my supreme joy and rejoicing - will be the fact that God is my friend and portion. With all the doubts which I have had in regard to the rectitude of his government, I am sure that when I come to die, I shall cling to him as my hope, my joy, my all. My last refuge - my sufficient refuge - is God. When people come to die, they have "no other refuge" but God. Nothing that they can accumulate of this world's goods will meet their needs then, for God only can give strength and comfort on the bed of death. Of each and all, however vigorous they may now be, it will be true that "flesh and heart" will "fail;" of each and all it is true that when this shall occur, none but God can be the portion and the strength of the soul.
For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish - All that are estranged from thee; all who are not thy friends. They will certainly be destroyed. For them there can be no hope. This is the fact which solved the difficulty of the psalmist in regard to the divine dealings with people, Psa 73:3-7. The fact that there will be a righteous judgment, in which God will deal with people according to their deserts, made all plain. Compare Psa 73:16-20.
Thou hast destroyed - That is, Thou wilt certainly destroy. The psalmist places himself in the future, and speaks of this as if it were already done. It will be so certainly done that he could speak of it as if it were already accomplished.
All them that go a whoring from thee - The relation of God to his people is often compared in the Scriptures with the marriage relation (compare Ps. 45); and a departure from Him is compared with a want of fidelity to the marriage contract. See Mat 12:39; Mat 16:4; Jer 3:8-9; Jer 5:7; Jer 13:27; Eze 23:37; Rev 2:22 :
But it is good for me to draw near to God - That is, It is pleasant; it is profitable; it is the chief good. For myself, happiness is to be found in that alone; there I find what my nature pants for and desires. Others find, or attempt to find, happiness in other things; my happiness is found in God alone. This is the result to which the psalmist came after all his perplexity. With all his doubts and difficulties, his real desire was to be near to God; his supreme happiness was found there.
I have put my trust in the Lord God - I have truly confided in him; he is my portion and the sole ground of my reliance. The doubts which he had had were not, after all, real doubts about the claim of God to confidence. There was an underlying trust in God in the midst of all this. He had not desired to cherish such doubts; he did, on the most calm reflection, still trust in God.
That I may declare all thy works - That I might make known thy doings toward the children of men. I have desired rightly to understand thee and thy government, that I might vindicate thy name, and assert thy claim to the love and confidenee of mankind. His doubts and perplexities had not really been because he was an enemy of God, or because he desired to cherish doubts in regard to him, but because, when appearances were against the equity of the divine government, he wished to see how the things which occurred could be explained consistently with a proper belief in the goodness and justice of God, in order that he might go and explain the matter to his fellow-men. Such perplexities and doubts, therefore, are not really inconsistent with true love for God and genuine confidence in him; and it is well when such doubts are made the means of enabling us more clearly to explain the divine dealings - it is well when, under all such doubts and difficulties, we can still find evidence that we truly love God.