Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 8: Psalms, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
upon the book of Psalms
He who collected the Psalms into one volume, whether Ezra or some other person, appears to have placed this Psalm at the beginning, by way of preface, in which he inculcates upon all the godly the duty of meditating upon the law of God. The sum and substance of the whole is, that they are blessed who apply their hearts to the pursuit of heavenly wisdom; whereas the profane despisers of God, although for a time they may reckon themselves happy, shall at length have a most miserable end.
1. Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scorner. 2. But his delight is in the law of Jehovah; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
1. Blessed is the man. 19 The meaning of the Psalmist, as I have stated above, is, that it shall be always well with God’s devout servants, whose constant endeavor it is to make progress in the study of his law. The greater part of mankind being accustomed to deride the conduct of the saints as mere simplicity, and to regard their labor as entirely thrown away, it was of importance that the righteous should be confirmed in the way of holiness, by the consideration of the miserable condition of all men without the blessing of God, and the conviction that God is favorable to none but those who zealously devote themselves to the study of divine truth. Moreover, as corruption has always prevailed in the world, to such a degree, that the general character of men’s lives is nothing else but a continual departure from the law of God, the Psalmist, before asserting the blessedness of the students of the divine law, admonishes them to beware of being carried away by the ungodliness of the multitude around them. Commencing with a declaration of his abhorrence of the wicked, he teaches us how impossible it is for any one to apply his mind to meditation upon God’s laws who has not first withdrawn and separated himself from the society of the ungodly. A needful admonition surely; for we see how thoughtlessly men will throw themselves into the snares of Satan; at least, how few comparatively there are who guard against the enticements of sin. That we may be fully apprised of our danger, it is necessary to remember that the world is fraught with deadly corruption, and that the first step to living well is to renounce the company of the ungodly, otherwise it is sure to infect us with its own pollution.
As the prophet, in the first place, enjoins the godly to beware of temptations to evil, we shall follow the same order. His affirmation, that they are blessed who have no fellowship with the ungodly, is what the common feeling and opinion of mankind will scarcely admit; for while all men naturally desire and seek after happiness, we see how securely they can indulge themselves in their sins, yea, that those of them who have departed farthest from righteousness, in the gratification of their lusts, are accounted happy, because they obtain the desires of their heart. The prophet, on the contrary, here teaches that no man can be duly animated to the fear and service of God, and to the study of his law, until he is firmly persuaded that all the ungodly are miserable, and that they who do not withdraw from their company shall he involved in the same destruction with them. But as it is no easy matter to shun the ungodly with whom we are mingled in the world, so as to be wholly estranged from them, the Psalmist, in order to give the greater emphasis to his exhortation, employs a multiplicity of expressions.
In the first place, he forbids us to walk in their counsel; in the second place, to stand in their way; and, lastly, to sit in their seat
The sum of the whole is, that the servants of God must endeavor utterly to abhor the life of ungodly men. But as it is the policy of Satan to insinuate his deceits, in a very crafty way, the prophet, in order that none may be insensibly deceived, shows how by little and little men are ordinarily induced to turn aside from the right path. They do not, at the first step, advance so far as a proud contempt of God but having once begun to give ear to evil counsel, Satan leads them, step by step, farther astray, till they rush headlong into open transgression. The prophet, therefore, begins with counsel, by which term I understand the wickedness which does not as yet show itself openly. Then he speaks of the way, which is to be understood of the customary mode or manner of living. And he places at the top of the climax the seat, by which metaphorical expression he designates the obduracy produced by the habit of a sinful life. In the same way, also, ought the three phrases, to walk, to stand, and to sit, to be understood. When a person willingly walks after the gratification of his corrupt lusts, the practice of sinning so infatuates him, that, forgetful of himself, he grows hardened in wickedness; and this the prophet terms standing in the way of sinners. Then at length follows a desperate obstinacy, which he expresses by the figure of sitting. Whether there is the same gradation in the Hebrew words רשעים, reshaim, חטאים, chataim, and לצים, letsim, that is to say, a gradual increase of evil, I leave to the judgment of others. 20 To me it does not appear that there is, unless perhaps in the last word. For those are called scorners who, having thrown off all fear of God, commit sin without restraint, in the hope of escaping unpunished, and without compunction or fear sport at the judgment of God, as if they would never be called to render up an account to him. The Hebrew word חטאים, chataim, as it signifies the openly wicked, is very properly joined with the term way, which signifies a professed and habitual manner of living. 21 And if, in the time of the Psalmist, it was necessary for the devout worshippers of God to withdraw themselves from the company of the ungodly, in order to frame their life aright, how much more in the present day, when the world has become so much more corrupt, ought we carefully to avoid all dangerous society that we may be kept unstained by its impurities. The prophet, however, not only commands the faithful to keep at a distance from the ungodly, from the dread of being infected by them, but his admonition farther implies, that every one should be careful not to corrupt himself, nor abandon himself to impiety. 22 A man may not have contracted defilement from evil examples, and yet come to resemble the wicked by spontaneously imitating their corrupt manners.
In the second verse, the Psalmist does not simply pronounce those happy who fear God, as in other places, but designates godliness by the study of the law, teaching us that God is only rightly served when had law is obeyed. It is not left to every man to frame a system of religion according to his own judgment, but the standard of godliness is to be taken from the Word of God. When David here speaks of the law, it ought not to be understood as if the other parts of Scripture should be excluded, but rather, since the whole of Scripture is nothing else than an exposition of the law, under it as the head is comprehended the whole body. The prophet, therefore, in commending the law, includes all the rest of the inspired writings. He must, therefore, be understood as meaning to exhort the faithful to the reading of the Psalms also. From his characterising the godly as delighting in the law of the Lord, we may learn that forced or servile obedience is not at all acceptable to God, and that those only are worthy students of the law who come to it with a cheerful mind, and are so delighted with its instructions, as to account nothing more desirable or delicious than to make progress therein. From this love of the law proceeds constant meditation upon it, which the prophet mentions on the last clause of the verse; for all who are truly actuated by love to the law must feel pleasure in the diligent study of it.
3. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of waters, that bringeth his fruit in his season; whose leaf shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The Psalmist here illustrates, and, at the same time, confirms by a metaphor the statement made in the preceding verse; for he shows in what respect those who fear God are to be accounted happy, namely, not because they enjoy an evanescent and empty gladness, but because they are in a desirable condition. There is in the words an implied contrast between the vigor of a tree planted in a situation well watered, and the decayed appearance of one which, although it may flourish beautifully for a time, yet soon withers on account of the barrenness of the soil in which it is placed. With respect to the ungodly, as we shall afterwards see, (Ps 37:35) they are sometimes like “the cedars of Lebanon.” They have such an overflowing abundance of wealth and honors, that nothing seems wanting to their present happiness. But however high they may be raised, and however far and wide they may spread their branches, yet having no root in the ground, nor even a sufficiency of moisture from which they may derive nourishment, the whole of their beauty by and by disappears, and withers away. It is, therefore, the blessing of God alone which preserves any in a prosperous condition. Those who explain the figure of the faithful bringing forth their fruit in season, as meaning that they wisely discern when a thing ought to be done so as to be done well, in my opinion, show more acuteness than judgment, by putting a meaning upon the words of the prophet which he never intended. He obviously meant nothing more than that the children of God constantly flourish, and are always watered with the secret influences of divine grace, so that whatever may befall them is conducive to their salvation; while, on the other hand, the ungodly are carried away by the sudden tempest, or consumed by the scorching heat. And when he says, he bringeth forth his fruit in season, 23 he expresses the full maturity of the fruit produced, whereas, although the ungodly may present the appearance of precocious fruitfulness, yet they produce nothing that comes to perfection.
4. The ungodly are not so; but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
The Psalmist might, with propriety, have compared the ungodly to a tree that speedily withers, as Jeremiah likens them to the heath which grows in the wilderness, (Jer 17:6) But not reckoning this figure sufficiently strong, he debases them by employing another, which represents them in a light still more contemptible: and the reason is, that he does not keep his eye on the prosperous condition of which they boast for a short time, but his mind is seriously pondering on the destruction which awaits them, and will at length overtake them. The meaning, therefore, is, although the ungodly now live prosperously, yet by and by they shall be like chaff; for when the Lord has brought them low, he shall drive them hither and thither with the blast of his wrath. Besides, by this form of speech, the Holy Spirit teaches us to contemplate with the eye of faith, what might otherwise seem incredible; for although the ungodly man rise high, and appear to great advantage, like a stately tree, we may rest assured that he will be even as chaff or refuse, whenever God chooses to cast him down from his high estate, with the breath of his mouth.
5. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. 6. For Jehovah knoweth the way of the righteous; but the way of the ungodly shall perish.
In the fifth verse, the prophet teaches that a happy life depends on a good conscience, and that, therefore, it is not wonderful, if the ungodly suddenly fall from the happiness of which they fancied themselves in possession. And there is implied in the words a kind of concession; the prophet tacitly acknowledges that the ungodly please and enjoy themselves, and triumph during the reign of moral disorder in the world; just as robbers revel in the woods and caves, when beyond the reach of justice. But he assures us, that things will not always remain in their present state of confusion, and that when they shall have been reduced to proper order, these ungodly persons shall be entirely deprived of their pleasures, and feel that they were infatuated when they thought themselves happy. We now see how the Psalmist pronounces the ungodly to be miserable, because happiness is the inward blessing of a good conscience. He does not deny, that before they are driven to judgment, all things succeed well with them; but he denies that they are happy unless they have substantial and steadfast integrity of character to sustain them: for the true integrity of the righteous manifests itself when it comes at length to be tried. It is indeed true, that the Lord daily executes judgment, by making a distinction between the righteous and the wicked, but because this is done only partially in this life, we must look higher if we desire to behold the assembly of the righteous, of which mention is here made.
Even in this world the prosperity of the ungodly begins to pass away as often as God manifests the tokens of his judgment; (for then, being awakened out of sleep, they are constrained to acknowledge, whether they will or no, that they have no part with the assembly of the righteous;) but because this is not accomplished always, nor with respect to all men, in the present state, we must patiently wait for the day of final revelation, in which Christ will separate the sheep from the goats. At the same time, we must maintain it as a general truth, that the ungodly are devoted to misery; for their own consciences condemn them for their wickedness; and, as often as they are summoned to give an account of their life, their sleep is broken, and they perceive that they were merely dreaming when they imagined themselves to be happy, without looking inward to the true state of their hearts.
Moreover, as things appear to be here driven about at the mercy of chance, and as it is not easy for us, in the midst of the prevailing confusion, to acknowledge the truth of what the Psalmist had said, he therefore presents to our consideration the grand principle, that God is the Judge of the world. Granting this, it follows that it cannot but be well with the upright and the just, while, on the other hand, the most terrible destruction must impend over the ungodly. According to all outward appearance, the servants of God may derive no advantage from their uprightness; but as it is the peculiar office of God to defend them and take care of their safety, they must be happy under his protection. And from this we may also conclude that, as he is the certain avenger of wickedness, although, for a time, he may seem to take no notice of the ungodly, yet at length he will visit them with destruction. Instead, therefore, of allowing ourselves to be deceived with their imaginary felicity, let us, in circumstances of distress, have ever before our eyes the providence of God, to whom it belongs to settle the affairs of the world, and to bring order out of confusion.
In the Septuangint, the reading is μακαριος ἀνηρ, blessed is the man. Both Calvin and our English translators have adopted this rendering. But the Hebrew word אשרי, rendered blessed, is in the plural number, and האיש, ha-ish, the man, in the singular. Accordingly, the words have been considered as an exclamation, and may be literally rendered, O, the blessedness of the man! A beautiful and emphatic form of expression.
C’est a dire, un accroissement de mal comme par degrez. — Fr.
Il est bien conjoint avec le verbe signifiant une profession de vivre et un train tout accoustume. — Fr.
Et s’adonner de soy-mesme a impiete. — Fr.
“And it bringeth forth all its produce to maturity.” — (Street’s New Literal Version of the Psalms.)