Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 8: Psalms, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This psalm consists of two parts. In the first part, David recounts the severe assaults of temptation which he had encountered, and the state of distressing anxiety to which he had been reduced during the time of his persecution by Saul. In the second, he congratulates himself on the deliverance which God had granted him, and magnifies the righteousness of God in the government of the world.
To the chief musician. A Psalm of David.
1. In Jehovah do I put my trust: how then say ye to my soul, Flee ye into your mountain as a bird? 2. Surely, behold! the ungodly shall bend 236 their bow, they have fixed their arrows upon the string, to shoot secretly at the upright in heart. 3. Truly, the foundations are destroyed: what 237 hath the righteous One done?
1. In Jehovah do I put my trust. Almost all interpreters think that this is a complaint which David brings against his countrymen, that while seeking in every quarter for hiding-places, he could find nowhere even common humanity. And it is indeed true, that in the whole course of his wanderings, after betaking himself to flight to escape the cruelty of Saul, he could find no secure place of retreat, at least, none where he might continue for any length of time undisturbed. He might, therefore, justly complain of his own countrymen, in that none of them deigned to shelter him when he was a fugitive. But I think he has a respect to something higher. When all men were striving, as it were, with each other, to drive him to despair, he must, according to the weakness of the flesh, have been afflicted with great and almost overwhelming distress of mind; but fortified by faith, he confidently and steadfastly leaned on the promises of God, and was thus preserved from yielding to the temptations to which he was exposed. These spiritual conflicts, with which God exercised him in the midst of his extreme perils, he here recounts. Accordingly, as I have just now observed, the psalm should be divided into two parts. Before celebrating the righteousness of God, which he displays in the preservation of the godly, the Psalmist shows how he had encountered even death itself, and yet, through faith and an upright conscience, had obtained the victory. As all men advised him to leave his country, and retire into some place of exile, where he might be concealed, inasmuch as there remained for him no hope of life, unless he should relinquish the kingdom, which had been promised to him; in the beginning of the psalm, he opposes to this perverse advice the shield of his trust in God.
But before entering farther upon the subject, let us interpret the words. The word נוד, nud, which we have rendered to flee, is written in the plural number, and yet it is read in the singular; 238 but, in my opinion, this is a corrupt reading. As David tells us that this was said to himself only, the Jewish doctors, thinking the plural number unsuitable, have taken it upon them to read the word in the singular. Some of them, wishing to retain the literal sense as it is called, perplex themselves with the question, why it is said, Flee ye, rather than Flee thou; and, at length, they have recourse to a very meagre subtilty, as if those who counselled him to betake himself to flight addressed both his soul and his body. But it was unnecessary labor to put themselves to so much trouble in a matter where there is no difficulty; for it is certain that those who counselled David did not say that he alone should flee, but that he should flee, together with all his attendants, who were in the same danger with himself. Although, therefore, they addressed themselves especially to David, yet they included his companions, who had a common cause with him, and were exposed to the like danger. Expositors, also, differ in their interpretation of what follows. Many render it from your mountain, as if it were מהרכם, meharkem; and, according to them, there is a change of person, because those who spoke to him must have said, flee thou from Our mountain. But this is harsh and strained. Nor does it appear to me that they have any more reason on their side, when they say that Judea is here called mountain. Others think we should read הר כמו צפור, har kemo tsippor, 239 that is, into the mountain as a bird, without a pronoun. 240 But if we follow what I have said, it will agree very well with the scope of the passage to read thus, Flee ye into your mountain, for you are not permitted to dwell in your own country. I do not, however, think that any particular mountain is pointed out, but that David was sent away to the desert rocks wherever chance might lead him. Condemning those who gave him this advice, he declares that he depends upon the promise of God, and is not at all disposed thus to go away into exile. Such, then, was the condition of David, that, in his extreme necessity, all men repelled and chased him far away into desert places.
But as he seems to intimate that it would be a sign of distrust were he to place his safety in flight, it may be asked, whether or not it would have been lawful for him to flee; yea, we know that he was often forced to retire into exile, and driven about from place to place, and that he even sometimes hid himself in caves. I answer, it is true he was unsettled like a poor fearful bird, which leaps from branch to branch, 241 and was compelled to seek for different bypaths, and to wander from place to place to avoid the snares of his enemies; yet still his faith continued so steadfast that he never alienated himself from the people of God. Others accounted him a lost man, and one whose affairs were in a hopeless condition, setting no more value upon him than if he had been a rotten limb, 242 yet he never separated himself from the body of the Church. And certainly these words, Flee ye, tended only to make him yield to utter despair. But it would have been wrong for him to have yielded to these fears, and to have betaken himself to flight, as if uncertain of what would be the issue. He therefore says expressly, that this was spoken to his soul, meaning that his heart was deeply pierced by such an ignominious rejection, since he saw (as I have said) that it tended only to shake and to weaken his faith. In short, although he had always lived innocently, as it became a true servant of God, yet these malignant men would have doomed him to remain for ever in a state of exile from his native country. This verse teaches us, that however much the world may hate and persecute us, 243 we ought nevertheless to continue steadfast at our post, that we may not deprive ourselves of a right to lay claim to the promises of God, or that these may not slip away from us; and that, however much and however long we may be harassed, we ought always to continue firm and unwavering in the faith of our having the call of God.
2. Surely, behold! the ungodly. Some think that this is added as the excuse made by those who desired David to save himself by flight. According to others, David expostulates with his countrymen, who saw death menacing him on all sides, and yet denied him shelter. But, in my judgment, he here continues his account of the trying circumstances in which he was placed. His design is not only to place before our view the dangers with which he was surrounded, but to show us that he was exposed even to death itself. He therefore says, that wherever he might hide himself, it was impossible for him to escape from the hands of his enemies. Now, the description of so miserable a condition illustrates the more strikingly the grace of God in the deliverance which he afterwards granted him. With respect to the words, they have fixed their arrows upon the string, to Shoot Secretly, or in darkness, some understand them metaphorically of the attempts which David’s enemies made to surprise him by craft and snares. I, however, prefer this interpretation, as being more simple, - that there was no place so hidden into which the darts of his enemies did not penetrate, and that, therefore, to whatever caves he could betake himself for concealment and shelter, death would follow him as his inseparable attendant.
3. Truly, the foundations are destroyed. Some translate the word השתות, hashathoth, by nets, a sense in which the Scripture in other places often uses this word; and their explanation of the words is, that the wicked and deceitful arts which the ungodly practiced against David were defeated. If we admit this interpretation, the meaning of what he adds immediately after, What hath the righteous one done? will be, that his escape in safety was owing neither to his own exertion, nor to his own skill, but that, without putting forth any effort, and when, as it were, he was asleep, he had been delivered from the nets and snares of his enemies by the power of God. But the word foundations agrees better with the scope of the passage, for he evidently proceeds to relate into what straits he had been brought and shut up, so that his preservation was now to all appearance hopeless. Interpreters, however, who hold that foundations is the proper translation of the word, are not agreed as to the sense. Some explain it, that he had not a single spot on which to fix his foot; others, that covenants which ought to have stability, by being faithfully kept, had been often shamefully violated by Saul. Some also understand it allegorically, as meaning that the righteous priests of God, who were the pillars of the land, had been put to death. But I have no doubt of its being a metaphor taken from buildings, which must fall down and become a heap of ruins when their foundations are undermined; and thus David complains, that, in the eyes of the world, he was utterly overthrown, inasmuch as all that he possessed was completely destroyed. In the last clause, he again repeats, that to be persecuted so cruelly was what he did not deserve: What hath the righteous one done? And he asserts his own innocence, partly to comfort himself in his calamities from the testimony of a good conscience, and partly to encourage himself in the hope of obtaining deliverance. That which encouraged him to trust in God was the belief which he entertained, that on account of the justice of his cause God was on his side, and would be favorable to him.
4. Jehovah is in the palace of his holiness: Jehovah has his throne in heaven; his eyes behold, 244 and his eyelids consider the children of men. 5. Jehovah approves the righteous man; but his soul hateth the ungodly, and him who loveth iniquity.
4. Jehovah is in the palace of his holiness. In what follows, the Psalmist glories in the assurance of the favor of God, of which I have spoken. Being destitute of human aid, he betakes himself to the providence of God. It is a signal proof of faith, as I have observed elsewhere, to take and to borrow, so to speak, 245 light from heaven to guide us to the hope of salvation, when we are surrounded in this world with darkness on every side. All men acknowledge that the world is governed by the providence of God; but when there comes some sad confusion of things, which disturbs their ease, and involves them in difficulty, there are few who retain in their minds the firm persuasion of this truth. But from the example of David, we ought to make such account of the providence of God as to hope for a remedy from his judgment, even when matters are in the most desperate condition. There is in the words an implied contrast between heaven and earth; for if David’s attention had been fixed on the state of things in this world, as they appeared to the eye of sense and reason, he would have seen no prospect of deliverance from his present perilous circumstances. But this was not David’s exercise; on the contrary, when in the world all justice lies trodden under foot, and faithfulness has perished, he reflects that God sits in heaven perfect and unchanged, from whom it became him to look for the restoration of order from this state of miserable confusion. He does not simply say that God dwells in heaven; but that he reigns there, as it were, in a royal palace, and has his throne of judgment there. Nor do we indeed render to him the honor which is his due, unless we are fully persuaded that his judgment-seat is a sacred sanctuary for all who are in affliction and unrighteously oppressed. When, therefore, deceit, craft, treachery, cruelty, violence, and extortion, reign in the world; in short, when all things are thrown into disorder and darkness by injustice and wickedness, let faith serve as a lamp to enable us to behold God’s heavenly throne, and let that sight suffice to make us wait in patience for the restoration of things to a better state. The temple of his holiness, or his holy temple, which is commonly taken for Sion, doubtless here signifies heaven; and that it does so is clearly shown by the repetition in the next clause, Jehovah has his throne in Heaven; for it is certain David expresses the same thing twice.
His eyes behold. Here he infers, from the preceding sentence, that nothing is hidden from God, and that, therefore, men will be obliged to render up to him an account of all that they have done. If God reigns in heaven, and if his throne is erected there, it follows that he must necessarily attend to the affairs of men, in order one day to sit in judgment upon them. Epicurus, and such like him as would persuade themselves that God is idle, and indulges in repose in heaven, may be said rather to spread for him a couch on which to sleep than to erect for him a throne of judgment. But it is the glory of our faith that God, the Creator of the world, does not disregard or abandon the order which he himself at first established. And when he suspends his judgments for a time, it becomes us to lean upon this one truth that he beholds from heaven; just as we now see David contenting himself with this consolatory consideration alone, that God rules over mankind, and observes whatever is transacted in the world, although his knowledge, and the exercise of his jurisdiction, are not at first sight apparent. This truth is still more clearly explained in what is immediately added in the fifth verse, that God distinguishes between the righteous and the unrighteous, and in such a way as shows that he is not an idle spectator; for he is said to approve the righteous, and to hate the wicked The Hebrew word בחן, bachan, which we have rendered to approve, often signifies to examine or try. But in this passage I explain it as simply meaning, that God so inquires into the cause of every man as to distinguish the righteous from the wicked. It is farther declared, that God hates those who are set upon the infliction of injuries, and upon doing mischief. As he has ordained mutual intercourse between men, so he would have us to maintain it inviolable. In order, therefore, to preserve this his own sacred and appointed order, he must be the enemy of the wicked, who wrong and are troublesome to others. There is also here contrasted God’s hatred of the wicked, and wicked men’s love of iniquity, to teach us that those who please and flatter themselves in their mischievous practices gain nothing by such flatteries, and only deceive themselves.
6. He will rain upon the ungodly snares, fire and brimstone, and a storm of whirlwinds: this is the portion of their cup. 7. For the righteous Jehovah loveth righteousness; 246 his countenance approveth the upright. 247
6. He will rain upon the ungodly. David now, in the last place, lays it down as a certain truth, that although God, for a time, may be still and delay his judgments, yet the hour of vengeance will assuredly come. Thus we see how by degrees he rises up to the hope of a happy issue to his present affliction, and he uses his efforts to attain this, that the social and moral disorder, which he saw prevailing around him, might not weaken his faith. As the tribunal of God remains firm and immovable, he, in the first place, sustains and comforts himself from the consideration, that God from on high beholds all that is done here below. In the next place, he considers what the office of judge requires, from which he concludes, that the actions of men cannot escape the inspection of God’s omniscient eye, and that although he does not immediately punish their evil deeds, he hates all the wicked. Finally, he adds, that since God is armed with power, this hatred will not be in vain or ineffectual. Thus while God defers the infliction of punishment, the knowledge of his justice will have a powerful influence in maintaining our faith, until he actually show that he has never departed from his watch-tower, from which he beholds the actions of men. 248 He appropriately compares the punishments which God inflicts to rain. As rain is not constant, but the Lord sends it forth when he pleases; and, when the weather is calmest and most serene, suddenly raises a storm of hail or violent showers of rain; in like manner, it is here intimated that the vengeance which will be inflicted on the wicked will come suddenly, so that, when they shall be indulging in mirth, and intoxicated with their pleasures, and “when they shall say, Peace and safety, sudden destruction will come upon them.” 249 At the same time, David here evidently alludes to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As the prophets, when they would promise the grace of God to the elect, remind them of the deliverance from Egypt, which God wrought in behalf of his ancient people, so when they would alarm the wicked, they threaten them with a destruction like that which befell Sodom and Gomorrah, and they do so upon good grounds; since Jude, in his Epistle, tells us that these cities “are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire,” (Jude 1:7) The Psalmist, with much beauty and propriety, puts snares 250 before fire and brimstone. We see that the ungodly, while God spares them, fear nothing, but give themselves ample scope in their wayward courses, like horses let loose 251 in an open field; and then, if they see any adversity impending over them, they devise for themselves ways of escape; in short, they continually mock God, as if they could not be caught, unless he first entangle and hold them fast in his snares. God, therefore, begins his vengeance by snares, shutting up against the wicked every way of escape; and when he has them entangled and bound, he thunders upon them dreadfully and horribly, like as he consumed Sodom and the neighboring cities with fire from heaven. The word זלעפות, zilaphoth, which we have rendered whirlwinds, is by some translated kindlings or burnings; and by others, commotions or terrors. 252 But the context requires the interpretation which I have brought forward; for a tempest is raised by stormy winds, and then follow thunder and lightning.
The portion of their cup. By this expression he testifies that the judgments of God will certainly take effect, although ungodly men may delude themselves by deceitful flattery. This metaphor is frequently to be met with in the Scriptures. As the carnal mind believes nothing with greater difficulty than that the calamities and miseries which seem to be fortuitous, happen according to a just distribution from God, he represents himself under the character of a householder, who distributes to each member his portion or allowance. David, therefore, here intimates that there is certainly a reward laid up for the ungodly; that it will be in vain for them to resist, when the Lord shall reach to them the cup of his wrath to drink; and that the cup prepared for them is not such as they may sip drop by drop, but a cup, the whole of which they will be compelled to drink, as the prophet threatens,
(Eze 23:34) “Thou shalt drink it off even to the dregs.”
7. For the righteous Jehovah loveth righteousness. The Psalmist has just now reasoned from the office of God that he will punish the wicked, and now, from the nature of God, he concludes, that he will be the defender of the good and the upright. As he is righteous, David shows that, as the consequence of this, he must love righteousness, for otherwise he would deny himself. Besides, it would be a cold speculation to conceive of righteousness as inherent in God, unless, at the same time, we could come to the settled conclusion that God graciously owns whatever is his own, and furnishes evidence of this in the government of the world. Some think that the abstract term righteousness is put for righteous persons. But, in my opinion, the literal sense is here more suitable, namely, that righteousness is well pleasing to God, and that, therefore, he favors good causes. From this the Psalmist concludes, that the upright are the objects of his regard: His countenance approveth the upright He had said a little before in a different sense, that God beholds the children of men, meaning that he will judge the life of every man; but here he means that God graciously exercises a special care over the upright and the sincere, takes them under his protection, and keeps them in perfect safety. This conclusion of the psalm sufficiently shows, that the scope of the whole of it was to make it manifest that all those who, depending upon the grace of God, sincerely follow after righteousness, shall be safe under his protection. The Psalmist himself was one of this number and, indeed, the very chief of them. This last clause, His countenance approveth the upright, is, indeed, variously explained; but the true meaning, I have no doubt, is, that God has always a regard for the upright, and never turns away his eyes from them. It is a strained interpretation to view the words as meaning that the upright shall behold the face of God. But I will not stop to refute the opinions of other men.
“Ont tendu l’arc.” — Fr. “Have bent their bow.”
“Mais que?” — Fr. “But what?”
Calvin’s meaning is, that according to the Hebrew letters, the verb is in the plural number; but according to the Hebrew punctuation, which regulates the reading, it is in the singular. Piscator, in his commentary on this passage, observes, נודו, nudi, according to the points, is singular and feminine, and refers to the soul of David; according to the letters it is plural, נודו, nudu, and refers to David and his associates. This last reading appears to me the most appropriate, both because it is followed by the relative in the plural number, and because it does not seem to be a proper or natural mode of expression, to speak of persons addressing the soul of another” The phrase, to my soul, however, may simply mean to me, a sense in which it is frequently used in Scripture.
This is the reading adopted by the Chaldee, Septuagint, and Vulgate versions. Hammond observes, that “where the Hebrew now reads, הרכם צפור, har kemo tsippor, To your mountain a sparrow, all the ancient interpreters uniformly read, To the mountain as a sparrow.” Horsley translates the words, “Flee, sparrows, to your hill,” and views the expression “as proverbial, denoting a situation of helplessness and danger, in which there was no hope of safety but in flight” The noun, צפור tsippor, which he renders sparrows, is singular, and it is here construed with a plural verb and a plural pronoun. But he remarks, that as this word, like most names of animals in the Hebrew language, signifies either the individual or the species, it may here be used in the singular number for many individuals, and construed with plural verbs, adjectives, and pronouns.
“Sans specifier a qui est ceste montagne. — Fr. “Without specifying whose mountain it is.”
“Je response que combien qu’il n’ait non plus este arrestd qu’un poure oiselet craintif qui saute de branche en branche.” — Fr.
“Combien que les autres le tenissent pour un homme perdu et duquel les affaires estoyent bors d’espoir et qu’ils n’en felssent non plus de casque d’un membre pourri.” — Fr.
“Nous deteste et poursuyve.” — Fr.
The Sentuagint has here the addition of Εις τον πενητα, “the afflicted one.” “His eyes behold the afflicted one.”
“De prendre et par maniere de dire, emprunter lumiere du ciel.” — Fr.
“Car le Seigneur est juste, et aime justice.” — Fr. “For the Lord is righteous, and loveth righteousness.”
“La droiture.” Fr. “Uprightness.” “Ou, le droiturier.” — Fr. marg. “Or, the upright.”
“De la quelle il contemple les faits des hommes.” — Fr.
“Et qu’ils diront paix et asseurance mort soudaine leur advient h’a.” — Fr.
Horsley reads, “glowing embers.” Lowth renders the word “live coals,” and observes, that פתים, pachim, means globes of fire, or simply the lightning. “This,” says he, “is certainly more agreeable to the context than snares. The root is puach, which, though it sometimes means to ensnare, yet more frequently means to breathe forth, or emit, fire, for instance. Eze 21:31, ‘In the fire of my wrath I will blow upon thee.’ The Ammonites are spoken of as thrown into the furnace of the divine wrath: compare Eze 22:21, where almost the same words occur, except that the corresponding (and in this case synonymous) verb apach is made use of, whence mapnach, a bellows, Jer 6:29. In the same sense the verb puach is introduced, Pr 29:8, ‘Scorners will inflame a city.’ From this explication of the root puach, the word pach, a coal blown up, is rightly derived.” — Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, volume. 1, pp. 194, 195. Lowth also states, that the Orientals sometimes call the lightning snares or chains, probably from the continual coruscations of the lightning in its passage through the air, which seem to be connected with each other like a chain. Hengstenberg, however, opposes this exposition, and adopts and defends that which Calvin has given. “פחים,” says he, “must here, according to most expositors, be taken as a figurative designation of lightning, which is alleged to be called also by the Arabians, in prose and poetry, by the name of chains. But it is a sufficient objection to this meaning, that פח does not signify cord, in general, but specially, gin, snare, trap.” In proof of this, he quotes Ps 9:15; Job 18:9, Job 22:10; Isa. 24:17, 18; Pr 22:5. “The expression, that he will rain,” says he, “can present no proper difficulty, as it simply points to the fullness of God’s retributive judgments, noticed already by Luther, when he says, that by it the prophet indicates the great variety and multitude of the evils threatened.”
“Ainsi que des chevaux desbridez.” — Fr.
Dr Adam Clarke renders the words רוה זלעפות, ruach zilaphoth, “the spirit of terrors,” and states, that “this may refer to the horribly suffocat ing Arabian wind called Sinurn.” Bishop Lowth translates the words, “a burning storm,” upon which Michaelis observes, “This is an admirable image, and is taken from the school of nature. The wind zilgaphoth, which blows from the east, is very pestilential, and, therefore, almost proverbial among the Orientals Many wonderful stories are related of its effects by the Arabians, and their poets feign that the wicked, in their place of eternal torment, are to breathe this pestiferous wind as their vital air.” — Lowth’s Sacred Poetry, vol. 1, p. 193. Hengstenberg translates the words wrath-wind, and explains them as simply meaning the divine anger which breaks forth as a tempest; and observes, that the vehemence of the anger is denoted by the plural number. In opposition to the rendering burning wind, and to the opinion that there is an allusion to the Arabian Samurn, he states, “The root, זעפ has, in Hebrew, the signification of being angry, no other; and that of being hot, is not once to be found in the dialects.”