Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 10: Psalms, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
In this psalm prayers and holy meditations, engaged in with the view of nourishing and confirming faith, together with praises and thanksgivings, are intermingled. It having been difficult in the judgement of carnal reason for David to escape from the distresses with which he was environed, he sets in opposition to its conclusions the infinite goodness and power of God. Nor does he simply request deliverance from his enemies; but he also prays that the fear of God may be implanted and firmly established in heart.
A Prayer of David.
1. Incline thy ear, O Jehovah! answer me; for I am poor and needy. 2. Preserve my soul, for I am meek: 478 O my God! save thy servant who trusteth in thee. 3. Have mercy upon me, O Jehovah! for daily 479 do I cry to thee. 4. Make glad the soul of thy servant; for to thee, O Lord! 480 do I lift up my soul. 5. For thou, O Lord! art good, and gracious, and of great mercy to all who call upon thee. 6. Listen, O Jehovah! to my prayer, and attend to the voice of my supplications. 7. In the day of my trouble I will call upon thee: for thou wilt answer me.
1. Incline thy ear, O Jehovah! Neither the inscription nor the contents of this psalm enable us to conclude with certainty what dangers David here complains of; but the psalm in all probability refers to that period of his life when he was persecuted by Saul, and describes the train of thought which then occupied his mind, although it may not have been written until after his restoration to a state of outward peace and tranquillity, when he enjoyed greater leisure. He does not without cause allege before God the oppressions which he endured as a plea for obtaining the divine favor; for nothing is more suitable to the nature of God than to succor the afflicted: and the more severely any one is oppressed, and the more destitute he is of the resources of human aid, the more inclined is God graciously to help him. That despair therefore may not overwhelm our minds under our greatest afflictions, let us support ourselves from the consideration that the Holy Spirit has dictated this prayer for the poor and the afflicted.
2. Preserve my soul, for I am meek. Here the Psalmist adduces two other arguments by which to stir up God to grant him succor, — his own gentleness towards his neighbors, and the trust which he reposed in God. In the first clause he may seem at first sight to make some pretensions to personal worth; yet he plainly shows that nothing was farther from his intention than to insinuate that by any merits of his own he had brought God under obligations to preserve him. But the particular mention made of his clemency or meekness tends to exhibit in a more odious light the wickedness of his enemies, who had treated so shamefully, and with such inhumanity, a man against whom they could bring no well-founded charge, and who had even endeavored to the utmost of his power to please them. 481 Since God then has avowed himself to be the defender both of good causes and of those who follow after righteousness, David, not without good reason, testifies that he had endeavored to exercise kindness and gentleness; that from this it may appear that he was basely requited by his enemies, when they gratuitously acted with cruelty towards a merciful man. But as it would not be enough for our lives to be characterised by kindness and righteousness, an additional qualification is subjoined — that of trust or confidence in God, which is the mother of all true religion. Some, we are aware, have been endued with so high a degree of integrity, as to have obtained among men the praise of being perfectly just, even as Aristides gloried in having never given any man cause of sorrow. But as those men, with all the excellence of their virtues, were either filled with ambition, or inflated with pride, which made them trust more to themselves than to God, it is not surprising to find them suffering the punishment of their vanity. In reading profane history, we are disposed to marvel how it came to pass that God abandoned the honest, the grave, and the temperate, to the enraged passions of a wicked multitude; but there is no reason for wondering at this when we reflect that such persons, relying on their own strength and virtue, despised the grace of God with all the superciliousness of impiety. Making an idol of their own virtue they disdained to lift up their eyes to Him. Although, therefore, we may have the testimony of an approving conscience, and although He may be the best witness of our innocence, yet if we are desirous of obtaining his assistance, it is necessary for us to commit our hopes and anxieties to him. If it is objected, that in this way the gate is shut against sinners, I answer, that when God invites to himself those who are blameless and upright in their deportment, this does not imply that he forthwith repels all who are punished on account of their sins; for they have an opportunity given them, if they will improve it, for prayer and the acknowledgement of their guilt. 482 , But if those whom we have never offended unrighteously assail us, we have ground for double confidence before God.
3 Have mercy upon me, O Jehovah! The Psalmist again betakes himself to the mercy of God. The word חנן, chanan, which I have rendered have mercy, is substantially the same as to gratify, to do a pleasure. It is as if he had said, I bring no merit of my own, but humbly pray for deliverance solely on the ground of thy mercy. When he speaks of crying daily, it is a proof of his hope and confidence, of which we have spoken a little before. By the word cry, as I have already had occasion frequently to remark, is denoted vehemence and earnestness of soul. The saints do not indeed always pray with a loud voice; but their secret sighs and groanings resound and echo upwards, and, ascending from their hearts, penetrate even into heaven. The inspired suppliant not only represents himself as crying, but as persevering in doing so, to teach us that he was not discouraged at the first or second encounter, but continued in prayer with untiring earnestness. In the following verse, he expresses more definitely the end for which he besought God to be merciful to him, which was, that his sorrow might be removed. In the second clause, he declares that there was no hypocrisy in his crying; for he lifted up his soul to God, which is the chief characteristic of right prayer.
5 For thou, O Lord! art good and propitious. 483 We have here a confirmation of the whole preceding doctrine, derived from the nature of God. It would avail the afflicted nothing to have recourse to him, and to lift up their desires and prayers to heaven, were they not persuaded that he is a faithful rewarder of all who call upon him. The point upon which David now insists is, that God is bountiful and inclined to compassion, and that his mercy is so great, as to render it impossible for him to reject any who implore his aid. He calls God propitious, or ascribes to him the attribute of pardoning sin, which is a modification of his goodness. It were not enough for God to be good in general, did he not also extend to sinners his forgiving mercy, which is the meaning of the word סלה, salach. Farther, although David magnifies the plenteousness of God’s mercy, yet he immediately after represents this plenteousness as restricted to the faithful who call upon him, to teach us that those who, making no account of God, obstinately chafe upon the bit, deservedly perish in their calamities. At the same time, he uses the term all, that every man, without exception, from the greatest to the least, may be encouraged confidently to betake himself to the goodness and mercy of God.
6 Listen, O Jehovah! to my prayer. From the earnest repetition of his former requests in this and the subsequent verse, it is evident that he was oppressed with no ordinary degree of grief, and also agitated with extreme anxiety, From this example, we are taught that those who, having engaged in prayer once, allow themselves immediately to give over that exercise, provided God does not at once grant them their desire, betray the coldness and inconstancy of their hearts. Nor is this repetition of the same requests to be thought superfluous; for hereby the saints, by little and little, discharge their cares into the bosom of God, and this importunity is a sacrifice of a sweet savor before Him. When the Psalmist says, God will hear me when I cry in the day of trouble, he makes a particular application to himself of the truth which he had just now stated, That God is merciful and gracious to all who call upon him.
8. Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord! nor any that can work as thou workest. 9. All the nations which thou hast made shall come and worship before thy face, O Lord! and shall give glory to thy name. 10. For thou art great, and thou alone, O God! doest wondrous things. 11. Show me thy ways, O Jehovah! I will walk in thy truth: unite my heart to fear thy name.
8 Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord! Here the Psalmist may be considered either as bursting forth into thanksgivings, after having obtained what he desired, or else as gathering courage and new strength for prayer. The latter opinion I am most inclined to adopt; but perhaps it may be preferable to regard both views as included. Some understand the word אלהום, Elohim, as denoting angels — There is none like unto thee, O Lord! among the angels — as if David compared them with the Most High God; but this does not seem to agree so well with the passage. He does not humble the angels, representing them as inferior gods, that they may give place to the power of God; but he holds up to contempt and derision all the false gods in whom the heathen world imagined some help was to be found; 484 and he does this because they could supply no evidence of their being gods from their works. Had he distributed the power of working between them and the true God in different degrees, assigning less to the former and more to the latter, he would not have attributed to God that which is naturally and exclusively his own. He therefore affirms, without qualification, that no characteristic of Deity could be perceived in them, or traced in any works performed by them. In calling us to the consideration of works, he clearly shows, that those who indulge in ingenious speculations about the occult or secret essence of God, and pass over the unequivocal traces of his majesty which are to be seen beaming forth in bright effulgence in his works, do but trifle and spend their time to no purpose. As the Divine nature is infinitely exalted above the comprehension of our understanding, David wisely confines his attention to the testimony of God’s works, and declares that the gods who put forth no power are false and counterfeit. If it is objected that there is no comparison between God and the silly inventions of men, the answer is obvious, That this language is employed in accommodation to the ignorance of the generality of men. The effrontery with which the superstitious exalt the spurious fabrications of their own brain above the heavens is well known; and David very justly derides their madness in forging gods to themselves, which in reality are no gods.
9 All nations which thou hast made shall come. 485 If any would rather limit what is here stated to David’s present case, this view does not seem liable to any material objection. He, in fact, often enhances the Divine goodness of which he himself had experience by the like magnificent strain. It may, however, be fitly extended to the universal power of God; but whether he speaks of the grace that was bestowed upon himself alone, or treats, in general, of the works of God, we must bear in mind what has been observed in another place, that whenever he celebrates the prevalence of true godliness among the heathen, he has an eye to the kingdom of Christ, prior to whose coming God gave only the initial or dawning manifestation of his glory, which at length was diffused through the whole world by the preaching of the Gospel. David was not ignorant of the future calling of the Gentiles; but this being a doctrine with which Jewish ears were not familiar, that people would have felt it a disagreeable announcement, to have been told that the Gentiles should come to worship God indiscriminately with the children of Abraham, and, all distinction being removed, become partakers with them of heavenly truth. To soften the announcement, he asserts that the Gentiles also were created by God, so that it ought not to be accounted strange if they, being enlightened also, should at length acknowledge Him who had created and fashioned them.
10. For thou art great, and thou alone, O God! doest wondrous things. In this verse there is again repeated the cause which will bring all nations to worship before the Lord, namely, the discovery made of his glory by the greatness of his works. The contemplation of God’s glory in his works is the true way of acquiring genuine godliness. The pride of the flesh would always lead it to wing its way into heaven; but, as our understandings fail us in such an extended investigation, our most profitable course is, according to the small measure of our feeble capacity, to seek God in his works, which bear witness of him. Let us therefore learn to awaken our understandings to contemplate the divine works, and let us leave the presumptuous to wander in their own intricate mazes, which, in the end, will invariably land them in an abyss from which they will be unable to extricate themselves. To incline our hearts to exercise this modesty, David magnificently extols the works of God, calling them wondrous things, although to the blind, and those who have no taste for them, they are destitute of attraction. In the meantime, we ought carefully to attend to this truth, That the glory of Godhead belongs exclusively to the one true God; for in no other being is it possible to find the wisdom, or the power, or the righteousness, or any of the numerous marks of divinity which shine forth in his wonderful works. Whence it follows, that the Papists are chargeable with rendering, as much as in them lies, his title to true Godhead nugatory, when despoiling him of his attributes they leave him almost nothing but the bare name.
11. Show me thy ways, O Jehovah! David now rises higher, praying that he may be governed by the spirit of sound understanding, in order to his living a holy life, and that he may be strengthened in his endeavors thereto by the spirit of fortitude. He tacitly contrasts the ways of God with all the counsels which he could derive from carnal reason. In submitting himself to God, and in imploring Him to be his guide, he confesses that the only possible way by which we can be enabled to live a holy and an upright life is, when God goes before us, while we follow after him; and, accordingly, that those who deviate, let it be never so little, from the law through a proud conceit of their own wisdom, wander from the right path. This he more fully confirms, by adding immediately after, I will walk in thy truth. He pronounces all to be guilty of vanity and lying who observe not this rule of truth. Farther, his prayer to be taught in the ways of the Lord does not imply that he had been previously altogether ignorant of divine truth; but well aware of the much darkness — of the many clouds of ignorance in which he was still enveloped, he aspires after greater improvement. Let it also be observed, that he is not to be understood as speaking only of external teaching: but having the law among his hands, he prays for the inward light of the Holy Spirit, that he may not labor in the unprofitable task of learning only the letter; according as he prays in another place,
“Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law,” (Ps 119:18.)
If a prophet so distinguished, and so richly endued with the graces of the Holy Spirit, makes such a frank and cordial confession of his own ignorance, how great our folly if we feel not our own deficiency, and are not stirred up to greater diligence in self-improvement from the knowledge of our slender attainments! And, assuredly, the more progress a man has made in the knowledge of the true religion, the more sensible will he be that he is far from the mark. Secondly, it is necessary to add, that reading or hearing is not enough, unless God impart to us inward light by his Spirit.
In addition to this, the Psalmist desires that his heart may be framed for yielding obedience to God, and that it may be firmly established therein; for as our understanding has need of light, so has our will of uprightness. The original words which I have translated, unite my heart, are translated by some, rejoice my heart, as if the verb were from the root, חדה, chadah, to rejoice; 486 but it rather comes from יחד, yachad, to unite — a sense which is very suitable to the passage before us. 487 This word contains a tacit contrast, which has not been sufficiently attended to, between the unwavering purpose with which the heart of man cleaves to God when it is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the disquietude with which it is distracted and tossed so long as it fluctuates amidst its own affections. It is therefore indispensably requisite, that the faithful, after having learned what is right, should firmly and cordially embrace it, that the heart may not break forth in impetuous desire after unhallowed lusts. Thus, in the word unite, there is a very beautiful metaphor, conveying the idea, that the heart of man is full of tumult, drawn asunder, and, as it were, scattered about in fragments, until God has gathered it to himself, and holds it together in a state of steadfast and persevering obedience. From this also, it is manifest what free will is able to do of itself. Two powers are ascribed to it; but David confesses that he is destitute of both; setting the light of the Holy Spirit in opposition to the blindness of his own mind; and affirming that uprightness of heart is entirely the gift of God.
12. I will praise thee, O Lord my God! With all my heart: and I will glorify thy name for ever. 13. For thy mercy has been great towards me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lower grave. 488 14. O God! the proud have risen up against me, and a company of mighty men have sought after my soul; and they have not set thee before them. 15. And thou, O Lord! art God, merciful, ready to forgive, long-suffering, and abundant in mercy and truth. 16. Look to me, and have pity upon me: give thy strength to thy servant, and save the son of thy handmaid. 17. Make with me a sign for good: and my adversaries will see it 489 and be ashamed; for thou, O Jehovah! hast succoured and comforted me.
12. I will praise thee, O Lord my God! David engages, when he shall have experienced God to be in all respects a beneficent father, to yield to him the tribute of gratitude. He expressed in the preceding verse a desire to have his heart united to God, that he might fear him; and now he affirms it to be his resolution to publish or celebrate his praises, not only with the mouth or tongue, but also with sincere affection of heart; yea, even to continue with steadfast perseverance in that exercise.
In the 13th verse, he sets forth the reason of this, which is, because, in delivering him, God had given a singular and remarkable proof of his mercy. To place in a stronger light the greatness of this benefit, he describes the dangers from which he had been delivered, by the expression, the lower grave; as if he had said, I have not been held down by one death only, but have been thrust down into the lowest depths of the grave, so that my circumstances required the hand of God to be stretched out to me in a wonderful manner. By the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we are delivered from a still deeper abyss of death; and such being the case, our ingratitude will be inexcusable, unless each of us exercise himself to the utmost of his power in celebrating this deliverance. If David so highly magnified the name of God merely on account of the prolongation of his life for a short time, what praises are due for this unparalleled redemption by which we are drawn from the depths of hell and elevated to heaven? The Papists attempt to found an argument on this passage in support of their doctrine of Purgatory, as if that were an upper hell, while there was another lower; 490 but this argument is too rotten to stand in need of refutation.
14. O God! the proud are risen up against me. Instead of זדים, zedim, the proud, some read, זרים, zarim, strangers; and, undoubtedly, the Scriptures often employ this word to denote barbarous cruelty, so that it is the same as if it had been said, the cruel. I, however, prefer following the generally received reading. As between the Hebrew word זדים, zedim, the proud, and זרים, zarim, strangers, there is only the difference of a single letter, the one having the letter ד, daleth, where the other has the letter ר, resh, it is obvious that, from the similarity of these two letters, the former might easily have been changed into the latter. Besides, the word, proud, agrees better with the scope of the passage; for, in the same sense, the Psalmist immediately after applies the epithet, strong, to those who, with headlong impetuosity and fierceness, rushed upon him to destroy him; and we know that where pride reigns no moderation is observed. He expresses without figure what he had just now said respecting the grave. Being as a lamb in the midst of wolves, he would have been quickly swallowed up, had not God miraculously delivered him, as it were, from the jaws of death. In representing his enemies as having no regard to God, he means to set forth the extreme excess of their cruelty. The fury of our lusts, unless we are restrained by the fear of God and the sense of his judgment, will become so great as to dare any thing, however atrocious. For these calamities he seeks a remedy, in the Divine mercy, in the following verse.
15. And thou, O Lord! art God, merciful, ready to forgive. By immediately passing on to the celebration of these divine attributes, he would intimate, that we have adequate strength and protection against the audacity and rage of the wicked, in the divine goodness, mercy, and faithfulness. Perhaps, also, from his feeling that the wicked were scourges in the hand of God, he set before himself the divine goodness and mercy, to allay the excess of terror with which he might be seized; for this is the true and the only source of comfort, that although God chastise us he does not forget his mercy. This sentence, as is well known, is taken from Ex 34:6, where we meet with a very remarkable description of the nature of God. First, he is called merciful; in the next place, ready to forgive, which he manifests by compassionating our distresses. In the third place, he is described as long-suffering; for he is not angry whenever an offense is committed against him, but pardons us according to the greatness of his loving-kindness. In short, he is said to be abundant in mercy and truth; by which I understand, that his beneficence is continually exercised, and that he is always true. He is indeed no less worthy to be praised on account of his rigour, than on account of his mercy; but as it is our wilful obstinacy alone which makes him severe, compelling him, as it were, to punish us, the Scriptures, in representing him as by nature merciful and ready to forgive, teach us, that if he is at any time rigorous and severe, this is, as it were, accidental to him. I am speaking, it is true, in popular language, and such as is not strictly correct; but still, these terms by which the divine character is described amount in effect to this, That God is by nature so gracious and ready to forgive, that he seems to connive at our sins, delays the infliction of punishment, and never proceeds to execute vengeance unless compelled by our obstinate wickedness. Why the truth of God is joined with his mercy has been considered in another place. As even those who are most generous sometimes desire to retract the promises which they have made, repenting of their too great facility, we who are accustomed unreasonably to judge of God by ourselves, distrust his promises. God therefore declares, that he is unlike men, because he is as firm to his purpose in abundantly performing whatever he has promised, as he is distinguished for promising liberally.
16. Look to me, and have pity upon me. Here the Psalmist makes a more distinct application to himself of what he had said concerning the divine mercy and goodness. As God is merciful, he assures himself that his welfare will be the object of the divine care. The second verb in the verse, חנן, chanan, which I have rendered have pity, signifies to gratify, to do one a pleasure; and is intended to convey the idea, that the succor which God affords to his people proceeds from his free goodness. 491 Finally, the Psalmist concludes, that the only way in which he can be preserved is by the divine aid, which he seeks to obtain by prayer; and thus he confesses his utter destitution of any strength of his own. In applying to himself the appellation of God’s servant, and the son of his handmaid, he does not boast of his own services, but urges as a plea, for obtaining greater favor at the divine hand, the long line of his ancestors, and the continual course of God’s grace; setting forth, that he was from his mother’s womb a household-servant of God, and, as it were, born one of his servants in his house: 492 a point of which we have already spoken elsewhere.
The last verse contains an additional confirmation of the statement, that he was in a manner forsaken of God. He would not have desired to be favored with some token of the divine favor, had he not been on all sides driven to despair, and had not the divine favor been hidden from him to try his patience. It was a proof of no ordinary steadfastness to maintain the conflict with this temptation, and to do this so successfully, as not to cease to descry light in the midst of darkness. He desires that his enemies may be put to shame, because they assailed his simplicity with mockery and scoffing, as if he had acted a foolish part by trusting in God. The miserable and distressing condition in which the Church was placed after the Babylonish captivity, might be apt to sink the minds of the godly into despondency; and, accordingly, the Holy Spirit here promises her restoration in a wonderful and incredible manner, so that nothing would be more desirable than to be reckoned among the number of her members.
“Hezekiah, in the season of distress, 2Ki 19:16, begins his prayer with these words: which may have occasioned the tradition of the Jews that he made use of this psalm on that occasion.” — Warner.
In our English version it is, “for I am holy.” Cresswell would rather render, “for I am merciful and pious.” “That,” says he, “is the meaning of the Hebrew word, which the Septuagint and Jerome have rendered by holy. The Psalmist supplicates God’s favor upon five several grounds, namely, his destitution, (verse 1;) his mercifulness and goodness, (verse 2;) his trust in God, (verse 2;) his prayerfulness, (verses 3, 4;) and God’s goodness, (verse 5.”) — Cresswell.
“Ou, tout le jour.” — Fr. marg. “Or, all the day.”
Here, and in all the verses in this psalm where אדני, Adonai, occurs, many MSS. read יהוה, Yehovah We have before observed, (volume 1, page 13, note 2, and page 195, note,) that the Jews, out of reverence to the incommunicable name Jehovah, pronounce אדני where יהוה is in the text. It is, therefore, not improbable that יהוה is the true reading in all these places.
“Veu que luy qui estoit homme innocent, voire qui s’estoit efforce de tout son pouvoir a leur faire plaisir.” — Fr.
“Quia illis ad manum est deprecatio.” — Lat. “Car ils ont en main la priere et recognoissance de leur faute.” — Fr.
The word for “and propitious” is וסלח, vesallach, which Bythner renders, “and a pardoner.” It is from סלח, salach, he forgave, pardoned
“Among the gods, i.e., among the gods of the Gentiles, such as Baal, Baal-berith, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Ashtoreth, Chemosh, Milcom, Nisroch, and especially, as R. Kimchi thinks, the heavenly bodies, the sun and the stars. Some commentators suppose that it may mean, among angels, or among princes. There is good reason for doubting, however, with Parkhurst, whether the word Alaim ever positively means princes, judges, or magistrates; and the passage (Jud 13:22) quoted by Buxtorf, to show that it sometimes means an angel, only proves that Manoah intended to say that he had seen God in the person of his angel. Comp. Ps. 89:7, Ps. 96:5.” — Cresswell.
“This verse has been considered, with great probability, as a prediction of the calling of the Gentiles under the messiah. See Ro 15:9.” — Warner.
The reading of the LXX. is, “Let my heart rejoice,” with which the Syriac agrees; and this sense is adopted by several critics, as Muis, Dr Durell, and others.
Bishop Law would read, “Make my heart one, that it may fear thy name;” that is, says he, “Let the fear of thee be the one ruling disposition of my soul.” — Quoted in Warner’s Psalter, with Notes.
The original word here for grave is שאול, sheol; on which Mr Peters remarks, that if sheol here meant only a deliverance from death and the grave, the expression, lower, or lowest, would be quite unnecessary. “The lower grave” may, however, be a figurative expression for a state of the deepest distress.
Street reads, “That those who hate me may fear. The word יראו,” he observes, “if considered without the points, may be the third person plural of ירא, to fear; but the authors of all the versions seem to have derived it from ראה, to see I read לטובך instead of לטובה.”
“Comme si c’estoit un enfer plus haut, et qu’il y en eust un autre plus bas.” — Fr.
“Et est pour monstrer que le secours que Dieu donne aux siens, procede de sa bonte gratuite.” — Fr.