Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 8: Psalms, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
David, although driven from his kingdom, and pressed down with utter despair of relief from every earthly quarter, ceases not to call upon God, and supports himself from his promise against the greatest terrors, against the mockery and cruel assaults of his enemies; and, finally, against death itself, which then forced itself upon his consideration. In the end of the psalm, he congratulates himself and the whole Church on the happy issue of all.
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his Son 35
How bitter David’s sorrow was under the conspiracy of his own household against him, which arose from the treachery of his own son, it is easy for every one of us to conjecture from the feelings of nature. And when, in addition to this, he knew that this disaster was brought upon him by God for his own fault in having defiled another man’s wife, and for shedding innocent blood, he might have sunk into despair, and been overwhelmed with anguish, if he had not been encouraged by the promise of God, and thus hoped for life even in death. From his making no allusion here to his sins, we are led to infer, that only one part of his prayers is comprised in this psalm; for as God punished him expressly on account of his adultery, and his wicked treachery towards Uriah, there can be no doubt that he was at first distressed with grievous and dreadful torments of mind. But after he had humbled himself before God, he took courage; and being well assured of having obtained forgiveness, he was fully persuaded that God was on his side, and knew that he would always preside over his kingdom, and show himself its protector. 36 But he, nevertheless, complained of his son, and of the whole faction involved in the conspiracy, because he knew that they wickedly rose up for the purpose of frustrating the decree of God. In like manner, if at any time God makes use of wicked and mischievous men, as scourges to chastise us, it becomes us first diligently to consider the cause, namely, that we suffer nothing which we have not deserved, in order that this reflection may lead us to repentance. But if our enemies, In persecuting us, rather 37 fight against God than against us, let the consideration of their doing so be immediately followed by the confident persuasion of our safety under the protection of him, whose grace, which he hath promised to us, they despise and trample under foot.
1. O Lord, how are my oppressors multiplied! many rise up against me. 2. Many say to my soul, There is no help for him in God. Selah.
Sacred history teaches that David was not only dethroned, but forsaken by almost all men; so that he had well nigh as many enemies as he had subjects. It is true there accompanied him in his flight a few faithful friends; but he escaped in safety, not so much by their aid and protection as by the hiding-places of the wilderness. It is therefore not wonderful though he was affrighted by the great numbers who were opposed to him, for nothing could have taken place more unlooked for, on his part, than so sudden a rebellion. It was a mark of uncommon faith, when smitten with so great consternation, to venture freely to make his complaint to God, and, as it were, to pour out his soul into his bosom. 38 And certainly the only remedy for allaying our fears is this, to cast upon him all the cares which trouble us; as, on the other hand, those who have the conviction that they are not the objects of his regard, must be prostrated and overwhelmed by the calamities which befall them.
In the third verse he expresses more distinctly, and more emphatically, the pride of his enemies in deriding him as a castaway, and as a person whose circumstances were past hope. And he means, that their boldness increased hereupon, because they were confident he had been rejected by God. Perhaps, in these words also, their ungodliness is indirectly referred to, inasmuch as they made no account of the help of God in preserving the king whom he had chosen. And this second view is the more probable, for Absalom did not flatter himself with the hope of the favor of God, but, entirely disregarding him, hoped for victory from his own power. David, therefore, expressly introduces both him and the rest as speaking after this manner, to show that it was by a monstrous and outrageous contempt of God that they were driven to such fury against him, as if they made no account whatever of the fact of his having been often wonderfully delivered from the greatest dangers. The ungodly, when they rise up to destroy us, may not openly break forth into such daring presumption as to maintain it to be impossible for us to derive any advantage from the favor of God; yet, as they either ascribe every thing to fortune, or hold the opinion that a man’s success will be in proportion to his strength, and therefore fearlessly rush forward to gain their object, by all means, whether right or wrong, as if it would be equally the same, whether God is angry with or favorable towards them, it is evident that they set no value whatever upon the favor of God, and mock at the faithful as if it would avail them nothing to be under the care and protection of God.
The translation of some, Many say OF my soul, does not give the true meaning of this passage. The letter ל lamed is indeed sometimes used as meaning of in Hebrew, but David here intended to express something more, namely, that his heart was in a manner pierced with the mockery of his enemies. The word soul, therefore, in my opinion, here signifies the seat of the affections. And it has a corresponding meaning in a passage which we shall meet with in another Psalm, (Ps 35:3,) “Say to my soul, I am thy salvation.” David thus teaches us by his own example, that although the whole world, with one voice, should attempt to drive us to despair, instead of listening to it, we ought rather to give ear to God alone, and always cherish within us the hope of the salvation which he hath promised; and as the ungodly use their endeavors to destroy our souls, we ought to defend them by our prayers. With respect to the word Selah, interpreters are not agreed. Some maintain it is a mark of affirmations and has the same signification as truly or amen. Others understand it as meaning for ever. But as סלל Selal, from which it is derived, signifies to lift up, we incline to the opinion of those who think it denotes the lifting up of the voice in harmony in the exercise of singing. At the same time, it must be observed, that the music was adapted to the sentiment, and so the harmony was in unison with the character or subject-matter of the song; just as David here, after having complained of his enemies for shamefully laughing to scorn his hope, as if the protection of God would be of no avail to him, fixes the attention on this blasphemy, which severely wounded his heart, by the use of the word Selah; and as a little after, when he has added a new ground of confidence with regard to the safety of his person, he repeats the same word.
3. And thou, Jehovah, art a shield for me, my glory, and he that exalteth my head. 4. I have cried to the lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah.
The copulative and should be resolved into the disjunctive particle but, because David employs language full of confidence, in opposition to the hardihood and profane scoffings of his enemies, 39 and testifies that whatever they may say, he would nevertheless rely upon the word of God. It besides appears that he had previously entertained an assured hope of deliverance, from the circumstance of his here making no mention of his present calamity as a chastisement inflicted upon him by the hand of God; but rather depending upon the divine aid, he courageously encounters his enemies, who were carrying on an ungodly and wicked war against him, seeing they intended to depose a true and lawful king from his throne. In short, having acknowledged his sin before, he now takes into consideration only the merits of the present cause. And thus it becomes the servants of God to act when molested by the wicked. Having mourned over their own sins, and humbly betaken themselves to the mercy of God, they ought to keep their eyes fixed on the obvious and immediate cause of their afflictions, that they may entertain no doubt of the help of God when undeservedly subjected to evil treatment. Especially when, by their being evil entreated, the truth of God is opposed, they ought to be greatly encouraged, and glory in the assurance that God without doubt will maintain the truth of his own promises against such perfidious and abandoned characters. Had it been otherwise with David, he might seem to have claimed these things to himself groundlessly, seeing he had deprived himself of the approbation and help of God by offending him. 40 But being persuaded that he was not utterly cut off from the favor of God, and that God’s choice of him to be king remained unchanged, he encourages himself to hope for a favorable issue to his present trials. And, in the first place, by comparing God to a shield, he means that he was defended by his power. Hence also he concludes, that God was his glory, because he would be the maintainer and defender of the royal dignity which he had been pleased to confer upon him. And, on this account, he became so bold that he declares he would walk with unabashed brow. 41
4. With my voice have I cried unto the Lord. He here informs us that he had never been so broken by adversity, or cast down by impious scornings, 42 as to be prevented from addressing his prayers to God And it was an infallible proof of his faith to exercise it by praying even in the midst of his distresses. Nothing is more unbecoming than sullenly to gnaw the bit with which we are bridled, and to withhold our groaning from God, 43 if, indeed we have any faith in his promise. Nor is there a redundancy of expression in these words, I have cried with my voice David distinctly mentions his voice, the better to express that how much soever the ungodly might rage against him, he was by no means struck dumb, but pronounced, in a loud and distinct voice, the name of his God; and to do this was a difficult matter under so grievous and severe a temptation. He also particularly mentions his voice, in order to show that he opposes the voice of prayer to the tumultuous outcries of those who either blame fortune or curse God, or give way to excessive complainings; those in short, who with passionate confusion pour forth their immoderate sorrow. But David’s meaning appears to me to be principally this, that amidst the blasphemies of his enemies by which they endeavored to overwhelm his faith, he was not put to silence, but rather lifted up his voice to God, whom the ungodly imagined to have become his enemy. He adds that he cried not in vain, to encourage all the godly to the like constancy. As to the expression, from the hill of his holiness or, which signifies the same things from his holy hill, it is improperly explained of heaven, as has been done by some. Heaven, I indeed confess, is often called, in other places, God’s holy palace; but here David has doubtless a reference to the ark of the covenant, which at that time stood on Mount Sion. And he expressly affirms that he was heard from thence, though he had been compelled to flee into the wilderness. The Sacred History relates, (2Sa 15:24,) that when Abiathar the priest commanded the ark to be carried by the Levites, David would not suffer it. And in this the wonderful faith of the holy man appears conspicuous. He knew that the Lord had chosen Sion to be the dwelling place of the ark, but he was, notwithstanding, willing rather to be torn from that sacred symbol of the divine presence, (which was painful to him as if his own bowels had been torn from him,) than make any innovation not sanctioned by the will of heaven. Now, he boasts, that although he was deprived of the sight of the ark, and notwithstanding the distance to which he was removed from it, God was near him to listen to his prayers. By these words he intimates that he kept a due medium, inasmuch as he neither despised the visible sign, which the Lord had appointed on account of the rudeness of the times, nor by attaching a superstitious importance to a particular place, entertained carnal conceptions of the glory of God. Thus, he did not idly scatter words which would vanish into air, as unbelievers are wont to do, who pray also but are in doubt to what place they ought to direct their speech. David turned himself directly towards the tabernacle, whence God had promised to be merciful to his servants. Hence the confidence with which he prayed; and this confidence was not without success. In our day, since there is fulfilled in Christ what was formerly shadowed forth by the figures of the law, a much easier way of approach to God is opened up for us, provided we do not knowingly and willingly wander from the way.
5. I laid me down and slept, I awaked; for the lord sustained me. 6. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, who have set their camps against me on all sides.
According to the usage of the Hebrews, these words, which are in the past tense, I laid me down and slept, are taken sometimes for the future, I will lie down and sleep. 44 If we retain the reading of the verb in the past tense, David expresses a wonderful and almost incredible steadfastness of mind in that he slept so soundly in the midst of many deaths, as if he had been beyond the reach of all danger. He had doubtless been tossed amidst the merciless waves of anxiety, but it is certain their violence had been allayed by means of faith, so that however much he was disquieted, he reposed in God. Thus the godly never fail in ultimately proving victorious over all their fears, whereas the ungodly, who do not rely upon God, are overwhelmed with despair, even when they meet with the smallest perils. Some think there is here a change of tenses; and, therefore, translate the verbs into the fixture tense, I will lay me down and will sleep, and will awake, because immediately after a verb of the future is subjoined, The Lord shall uphold me But as he expresses, by these last words, a continuous act, I thought it unnecessary to change the tenses in the three first verbs. Still we ought to know, that this confidence of safety is not to be referred peculiarly to the time of his affliction, or, at least, is not to be limited to it: for, in my judgment, David rather declares how much good he had obtained by means of faith and prayer; namely the peaceful and undisturbed state of a well regulated mind. This he expresses metaphorically when he says, that he did the ordinary actions of life without being disturbed by fear. “I have not lain,” says he, “waking and restless on my bed; but I have slept soundly, whereas such manner of sleeping does not generally happen to those who are full of thought and fear.” But let us particularly notice that David came to have this confidence of safety from the protection of God, and not from stupidity of mind. Even the wicked are kept fast asleep through an intoxication of mind, while they dream of having made a covenant with death. It was otherwise with David, who found rest on no other ground but because he was upheld by the power of God, and defended by his help. In the next verse, he enlarges upon the incalculable efficacy of this confidence, of which all the godly have some understanding, from their experience of the divine protection. As the power of God is infinite, so they conclude that it shall be invincible against all the assaults, outrages, preparations, and forces of the whole world. And, indeed, unless we ascribe this honor to God, our courage shall be always failing us. Let us, therefore, learn, when in dangers, not to measure the assistance of God after the manner of man, but to despise whatever terrors may stand in our way, inasmuch as all the attempts which men may make against God, are of little or no account.
7. Arise, O Lord, save me, O my God; for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek-bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly. 8. Salvation belongeth unto the Lord; thy blessing is upon thy people. Selah.
7 Arise, O Lord. As in the former verses David boasted of his quiet state, it would now appear he desires of the Lord to be preserved in safety during the whole of his life; as if he had said, Lord, since thou hast overthrown my enemies, grant that this thy goodness may follow me, and be continued even to the end of my course. But because it is no uncommon thing for David, in the Psalms, to mingle together various affections, it seems more probable, that, after having made mention of his confidence in God, he returns again to make the same prayers as at the beginning. 45 He therefore asks to be preserved, because he was in eminent peril. What follows concerning the smiting of his enemies, may be explained in two ways: either that in praying he calls to his remembrance his former victories, or that having experienced the assistance of God, and obtained the answer of his prayers, he now follows it up by thanksgiving: and this last meanings I am much inclined to adopt. In the first place, then, he declares that he fled to God for help in dangers, and humbly prayed for deliverance, and after salvation had been granted him, he gives thanks, by which he testifies, that he acknowledged God to be the author of the deliverance which he had obtained. 46
8. Salvation belongeth unto the Lord. Because ל is sometimes used by the Hebrews for מך Min, some not improperly translate this clause, Salvation is of the Lord. I, however consider the natural and obvious meaning to be simply this, that salvation or deliverance is only in the hands of God. By these words, David not only claims the office and praise of saving for God alone, tacitly opposing his power to all human succor; but also declares, that although a thousand deaths hang over his people, yet this cannot render God unable to save them, or prevent him from speedily sending forth without any effort, the deliverance which he is always able to impart. In the end of the psalm, David affirms that this was vouchsafed, not so much to him as an individual, as to the whole people, that the universal Church, whose welfare depended on the safety and prosperity of his kingdom, might be preserved from destruction. David, therefore, acknowledges the dispersion of this wicked conspiracy to have been owing to the care which God had about the safety of his Church. From this passage we learn, that the Church shall always be delivered from the calamities which befall her, because God who is able to save her, will never withdraw his grace and blessing from her.
The inscription or title of the psalm refers it to the conspiracy of Absalom, and that the psalm refers to this is evident from the whole tenor of it. “But these titles are destitute of authority, as the careful reader of the Psalms will soon remark; they are to be regarded merely as marginal glosses of the Jews, but poor guides to the interpretation of Scripture.” — Fry’s Translation and Exposition of the Psalms.
Et s’en monstreroit le protecteur. — Fr.
En nous poursuyvant. — Fr.
Il a ose venir familierement faire sa complainte a Dieu et comme se discharger a lui. — Fr.
L’audace de ses ennemis et risee accompagnee de sacrilege. — Fr.
En l’offensant. — Fr.
De la procede l’asseurance dont il fait mention puis apres qu’il marchera hardiment la teste levee. — Fr. From this proceeded the confidence of which he makes mention a little after, that he will boldly walk with unabashed brow.
Par les mocqueries malheureuses des meschans. — Fr. By the pitiful scornings of the wicked.
D’esloigner de Dieu nos gemissemens, et les luy cacher — Fr. To withhold our groanings from God, and to conceal them from him,
Selon l’usage des Hebrieux, ces mots qui sont en un temps passe, Je suis couche et endormi se prenent ancunesfois pour un temps a-venir, Je me coucheray et dormiray. — Fr.
A faire les mesmes prieres qu’au commencement. — Fr.
Et puis a cause qu’il a obtenu cela, c’est a dire, qu’il est demeure, en sauvete, it luy en rend graces; tesmoignant par cela qu’il tient de Dieu sa deliverance et la recognoist de luy. — Fr. And then having obtained this, that is to say, having been preserved in safety, he gives thanks to God, testifying by this, that he owed his deliverance to him, and recognized it as coming from him.