Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 10: Psalms, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This psalm contains very grievous lamentations, poured forth by its inspired penman when under very severe affliction, and almost at the point of despair. But he, at the same time, whilst struggling with sorrow, declares the invincible steadfastness of his faith; which he displayed in calling upon God to deliver him, even when he was in the, deep darkness of death. 505
A Song or Psalm of the sons of Korah. To the chief musician upon Machalath, to make humble. An instruction of Heman, the Ezrahite.
Heman, whose name appears in the inscription, is probably the same person who is mentioned in sacred history, 1Ki 4:31, where Solomon, when commended for his wisdom, is compared with Ethan, Heman, Chalcol, and Darda. 506 It is, therefore, not surprising that a man, so highly distinguished by the spirit of wisdom, was the author of this psalm. Some translate על-מהלת, al-machalath, upon infirmity; 507 but it is probable, according to the ordinary use of the word, that it denotes either some instrument of music, or the beginning of some song. 508 Of the other words I have already sufficiently spoken elsewhere. Moreover, it is of importance to bear in mind, that in the person of one man there is presented to our view an example at once of rare affliction and of singular patience. God, in so sorely exercising Heman, whom he had adorned with such excellent gifts to be an example to others, did not do this for the sake of his servant only. His object was to present common matter of instruction to all his people. Carrying out this object, Heman ascending, as it were, an elevated stage, testifies to the whole Church his infirmities as well as his faith and constancy. It greatly concerns us to look upon such a distinguished servant of God, and one who was so eminently adorned with the graces of the Holy Spirit, thus overwhelmed with so heavy a burden of afflictions as made him mournfully complain that he differed nothing from a dead man, — it greatly concerns us, I say, to look on this spectacle, that our distresses, however grievous, may not overwhelm us with despair; or if we should at times be ready to faint through weariness, care, grief, sorrow, or fear, that we may not on that account despond, especially when we see that it is not without the highest effort that the holy prophet emerges from this profound darkness into the cheering light of hope. We should rather rest assured that the Spirit of God, by the mouth of Heman, has here furnished us with a form of prayer for encouraging all the afflicted who are, as it were, on the brink of despair to come to himself.
1. O Jehovah! God of my salvation! I cry day and night before thee. 2. Let my prayer come into thy presence: incline thy ear to my cry; 3. For my soul is filled with troubles; and my life is drawing near to the grave. 4. I am numbered with them that go down to the pit: I have been as a man who hath no strength: 5. Free among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more, and who are cut off from thy hand.
1 O Jehovah! God of my salvation! Let me call upon you particularly to notice what I have just now stated, that although the prophet simply, and without hyperbole, recites the agony which he suffered from the greatness of his sorrows, yet his purpose was at the same time to supply the afflicted with a form of prayer that they might not faint under any adversities, however severe, which might befall them. We will hear him by and by bursting out into vehement complaints on account of the grievousness of his calamities; but he seasonably fortifies himself by this brief exordium, lest, carried away with the heat of his feelings, he might become chargeable with complaining and murmuring against God, instead of humbly supplicating Him for pardon. By applying to Him the appellation of the God of his salvation, casting, as it were, a bridle upon himself, he restrains the excess of his sorrow, shuts the door against despair, and strengthens and prepares himself for the endurance of the cross. When he speaks of his crying and importunity, he indicates the earnestness of soul with which he engaged in prayer. He may not, indeed, have given utterance to loud cries; but he uses the word cry, with much propriety’, to denote the great earnestness of his prayers. The same thing is implied when he tells us that he continued crying days and nights. Nor are the words before thee superfluous. It is common for all men to complain when under the pressure of grief; but they are far from pouring out their groanings before God. Instead of this, the majority of mankind court retirement, that they may murmur against him, and accuse him of undue severity; while others pour forth their cries into the air at random. Hence we gather that it is a rare virtue to set God before our eyes, that we may address our prayers to him.
3 For my soul is filled with troubles. These words contain the excuse which the prophet pleads for the excess of his grief. They imply that his continued crying did not proceed from softness or effeminacy of spirit, but that from a due consideration of his condition, it would be found that the immense accumulation of miseries with which he was oppressed was such as might justly extort from him these lamentations. Nor does he speak of one kind of calamity only; but of calamities so heaped one upon another that his heart was filled with sorrow, till it could contain no more. He next particularly affirms that his life was not far from the grave. This idea he pursues and expresses in terms more significant in the following verse, where he complains that he was, as it were, dead. Although he breathed still among the living, yet the many deaths with which he was threatened on all sides were to him so many graves by which he expected to be swallowed up in a moment. And he seems to use the word גבר, geber, which is derived from גבר, gabar, he prevailed, or was strong, 509 in preference to the word which simply signifies man, — the more emphatically to show that his distresses were so great and crushing as to have been sufficient to bring down the strongest man.
5 Free among the dead, lie the slain who lie in the grave. The prophet intended to express something more distressing and grievous than common death. First, he says, that he was free among the dead, because he was rendered unfit for all the business which engages human life, and, as it were, cut off from the world. The refined interpretation of Augustine, that Christ is here described, and that he is said to be free among the dead, because he obtained the victory over death by a special privilege, that it might not have dominion over him, has no connection with the meaning of the passage. 510 The prophet is rather to be understood as affirming, that having finished the course of this present life, his mind had become disengaged from all worldly solicitude; his afflictions having deprived him of all feeling. 511 In the next place, comparing himself with those who have been wounded, he bewails his condition as worse than if, enfeebled by calamities, he were going down to death by little and little; for we are naturally inspired with horror at the prospect of a violent death.
What he adds, that he is forgotten of God, and cut off from his hand or guardianship, is apparently harsh and improper, since it is certain that the dead are no less under the Divine protection than the living. Even wicked Balaam, whose purpose it was to turn light into darkness, was, nevertheless, constrained to cry out,
“Let me die the death of the righteous,
and let my last end be like his,” (Nu 23:10.)
To say, then, that God is no longer mindful of man after he is dead, might seem to be the language of a heathen. To this it may be answered, That the prophet speaks according to the opinion of the generality of men; just as the Scriptures, in like manner, when treating of the providence of God, accommodate their style to the state of the world as presented to the eye, because our thoughts ascend only by slow degrees to the future and invisible world. I, however, think, that he rather gave utterance to those confused conceptions which arise in the mind of a man under affliction, than that he had an eye to the opinion of the ignorant and uninstructed part of mankind. Nor is it wonderful that a man endued with the Spirit of God was, as it were, so stunned and stupified when sorrow overmastered him, as to allow unadvised words to escape from his lips. Although faith in the truth that God extends his care both to the living and the dead is deeply rooted in the hearts of all his genuine servants, yet sorrow often so overclouds their minds as to exclude from them for the time all remembrance of his providence. From perusing the complaints of Job, we may perceive, that when the minds of the godly are preoccupied with sorrow, they do not immediately pierce to the consideration of the secret providence of God, which yet has been before the subject of their careful meditation, and the truth of which they bear engraven on their hearts. Although the prophet, then, was persuaded that the dead also are under the Divine protection, yet, in the first paroxysm of his grief, he spoke less advisedly than he ought to have done; for the light of faith was, as it were, extinguished in him, although, as we shall see, it soon after shone forth. This it will be highly useful particularly to observe, that, should we be at any time weakened by temptation, we may, nevertheless, be kept from falling into despondency or despair.
6. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in dark places, in the deeps. 7. Thy indignation lieth heavy upon me; and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah. 8. Thou hast removed my acquaintances from me: thou hast made me to be abhorred by them: I am shut up that I cannot go forth. 9. My eye mourneth because of my affliction; I invoke thee, O Jehovah! daily: I stretch out my hands to thee.
6 Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit. The Psalmist now acknowledges more distinctly, that whatever adversities he endured proceeded from the Divine hand. Nor indeed will any man sincerely betake himself to God to seek relief without a previous persuasion that it is the Divine hand which smites him, and that nothing happens by chance. It is observable that the nearer the prophet approaches God the more is his grief embittered; for nothing is more dreadful to the saints than the judgment of God.
Some translate the first clause of the 7th verse, Thy indignation hath approached upon me; and the Hebrew word סמך, samach, is sometimes to be taken in this sense. But from the scope of the passage, it must necessarily be understood here, as in many other places, in the sense of to surround, or to lie heavy upon; for when the subject spoken of is a man sunk into a threefold grave, it would be too feeble to speak of the wrath of God as merely approaching him. The translation which I have adopted is peculiarly suitable to the whole drift of the text. It views the prophet as declaring, that he sustained the whole burden of God’s wrath; seeing he was afflicted with His waves. Farther, as so dreadful a flood did not prevent him from lifting up his heart and prayers to God, we may learn from his example to cast the anchor of our faith and prayers direct into heaven in all the perils of shipwreck to which we may be exposed.
8 Thou hast removed my acquaintances from me. He was now destitute of all human aid, and that also he attributes to the anger of God, in whose power it is either to bend the hearts of men to humanity, or to harden them, and render them cruel. This is a point well worthy of our attention; for unless we bear in mind that our destitution of human aid in any case is owing to God’s withdrawing his hand, we agitate ourselves without end or measure. We may indeed justly complain of the ingratitude or cruelty of men whenever they defraud us of the just claims of duty which we have upon them; but still this will avail us nothing, unless we are thoroughly convinced that God, being displeased with us, takes away the means of help which he had destined for us; just as it is easy for him, whenever he pleases, to incline the hearts of all men to stretch forth their hand to succor us. The prophet, as an additional and still more grievous element in his distressed condition, tells us that his friends abhorred him. 512 Finally, he concludes by observing, that he could perceive no way of escape from his calamities: I am shut up that I cannot go forth. 513
9. My eye mourneth because of my affliction. To prevent it from being supposed that he was iron-hearted, he again repeats that his afflictions were so severe and painful as to produce manifest traces of his sorrow, even in his countenance and eyes — a plain indication of the low condition to which he was reduced. But he, notwithstanding, testifies that he was not drawn away from God, like many who, secretly murmuring in their hearts, and, to use a proverbial expression, chafing upon the bit, have nothing farther from their thoughts than to disburden their cares into the bosom of God, in order to derive comfort from Him. In speaking of the stretching out of his hands, he puts the sign for the thing signified. I have elsewhere had an opportunity of explaining the import of this ceremony, which has been in common use in all ages.
10. Wilt thou perform a miracle for the dead? shall the dead 514 arise to praise thee? Selah. 11. Shall thy loving kindness be declared in the grave? thy truth in destruction? 515 12. Shall thy wonders be known in darkness? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? 13. But to thee have I cried, O Jehovah! and in the morning my prayer shall come before thee. 516
10. Wilt thou perform a miracle for the dead? By these words the prophet intimates, that God, if he did not make haste to succor him, would be too late, there being scarce anything betwixt him and death; and that therefore this was the critical juncture, if God was inclined to help him, for should the present opportunity not be embraced another would not occur. He asks how long God meant to delay, — if he meant to do so till death intervened, that he might raise the dead by a miracle? He does not speak of the resurrection at the last day, which will surpass all other miracles, as if he called it in question; yet he cannot be vindicated from the charge of going to excess, for it does not belong to us to prescribe to God the season of succouring us. We impeach his power if we believe not that it is as easy for him to restore life to the dead as to prevent, in proper season, the extreme danger which may threaten us from actually lighting upon us. Great as has been the constancy of the saints, it has always had some mixture of the infirmity of the flesh, which has rendered it necessary for God, in the exercise of his fatherly clemency, to bear with the sin with which even their very virtues have been to a degree contaminated. When the Psalmist asks, Shall thy loving-kindness be declared in the grave? he does not mean that the dead are devoid of consciousness; but he pursues the same sentiment which he had previously stated, That it is a more seasonable time to succor men, whilst in the midst of danger they are as yet crying, than to raise them up from their graves when they are dead. He reasons from what ordinarily happens; it not being God’s usual way to bring the dead out of their graves to be witnesses and publishers of his goodness. To God’s loving-kindness or mercy he annexes his truth or faithfulness; for when God delivers his servants he gives a confirmation of his faithfulness to his promises. And, on the other hand, he is influenced to make his promises by nothing but his own pure goodness. When the prophet affirms, that the divine faithfulness as well as the divine goodness, power, and righteousness, are not known in the land of forgetfulness, some deluded persons foolishly wrest the statement to support a gross error, as if it taught that men were annihilated by death. He speaks only of the ordinary manner in which help is extended by God, who has designed this world to be as a stage on which to display his goodness towards mankind.
13. But to thee have I cried, O Jehovah! There may have been a degree of intemperateness in the language of the prophet, which, as I have granted, cannot be altogether vindicated; but still it was a sign of rare faith and piety to persevere as he did with never-failing earnestness in prayer. This is what is meant when he says, that he made haste in the morning; by which he would have us not to imagine that he slowly and coldly lingered till he was constrained by dire necessity. At the same time, he modestly intimates by these words, that his pining away in long continued miseries was not owing to his own sluggishness, as if he had not sought God. This is an example particularly worthy of notice, that we may not become discouraged if it happen sometimes that our prayers are for a time unsuccessful, although they may proceed from the heart, and may be assiduously persevered in.
14. Wherefore, O Jehovah! wilt thou reject my soul? and hide thy face from me? 15. I am afflicted, and ready to die from my youth; I have suffered thy terrors by doubting. 16. Thy wraths have passed over me: thy terrors have cut me off. 17. They have daily encompassed me like waters: they have surrounded me together. 18. Thou hast put far from me friend and companion: and my acquaintances are darkness. 517
14. Wherefore, O Jehovah! wilt thou reject my soul? These lamentations at first sight would seem to indicate a state of mind in which sorrow without any consolation prevailed; but they contain in them tacit prayers. The Psalmist does not proudly enter into debate with God, but mournfully desires some remedy to his calamities. This kind of complaint justly deserves to be reckoned among the unutterable groanings of which Paul makes mention in Ro 8:26. Had the prophet thought himself rejected and abhorred by God, he certainly would not have persevered in prayer. But here he sets forth the judgment of the flesh, against which he strenuously and magnanimously struggled, that it might at length be manifest from the result that he had not prayed in vain. Although, therefore, this psalm does not end with thanksgiving, but with a mournful complaint, as if there remained no place for mercy, yet it is so much the more useful as a means of keeping us in the duty of prayer. The prophet, in heaving these sighs, and discharging them, as it were, into the bosom of God, doubtless ceased not to hope for the salvation of which he could see no signs by the eye of sense. He did not call God, at the opening of the psalm, the God of his salvation, and then bid farewell to all hope of succor from him.
The reason why he says that he was ready to die 518 from his youth, (verse 15,) is uncertain, unless it may be considered a probable conjecture that he was severely tried in a variety of ways, so that his life, as it were, hung by a thread amidst various tremblings and fears. Whence also we gather that God’s wraths and terrors, of which he speaks in the 16th verse, were not of short continuance. He expresses them in the 17th verse as having encompassed him daily. Since nothing is more dreadful than to conceive of God as angry with us, he not improperly compares his distress to a flood. Hence also proceeded his doubting. 519 for a sense of the divine anger must necessarily have agitated his mind with sore disquietude. But it may be asked, How can this wavering agree with faith? It is true, that when the heart is in perplexity and doubt, or rather is tossed hither and thither, faith seems to be swallowed up. But experience teaches us, that faith, while it fluctuates amidst these agitations, continues to rise again from time to time, so as not to be overwhelmed; and if at any time it is at the point of being stifled, it is nevertheless sheltered and cherished, for though the tempests may become never so violent, it shields itself from them by reflecting that God continues faithful, and never disappoints or forsakes his own children.
“As well the singers as players, or dancers, shall be there; i e., the whole chorus of joy and praise. Dr Chandler renders it, ‘They shall sing like those that lead up the dance;’ i e., with joy and exultation.” — Williams Symmachus and Aquila translate the text:— ...Και ἁδοντες ὡς χωροι, πασαι πηγαι εν σοι:“And they shall sing as in leading up a dance; ‘All my fountains are in thee.’”
There are various opinions as to the occasion of the composition of this psalm. Dr Kennicott conceives it to be the prayer of a person shut up in a separate house because of the leprosy, who seems to have been in the last stage of that distemper; this disease, under the Mosaic dispensation, having been supposed to come from the immediate stroke of God. Kimchi is of opinion that it was written in the name of the Jewish people during the captivity, in the language of a poor slave under his chains. Bishop Patrick supposes that Heman, the author of it, was during the same period cast into a dark prison, (see verses 5, 6,) or, that he was otherwise as miserably treated, as if he had been in a dungeon; and that he here bewails his private calamity.
The Heman mentioned in that text has been supposed by some to be the son of Zerah, one of Judah’s sons, by his daughter-in-law Tamar, spoken of in 1Ch 2:6. If these two passages refer to the same persons, then as the grandchildren of Judah are called in 1Ki 4:31, the sons of Mahol, it would follow that Mahol was either another name of Zerah or the name of his wife. If this Heman was the author of the psalm before us, and if Ethan, his brother, wrote the subsequent psalm, as they lived at least one hundred and seventy years before Moses, these poems are the oldest poetical compositions extant, and the most ancient part of divine revelation. This, however, is far from being certain. Heman, the grandson of Judah, may have been the author of the 78th psalm; but the 79th could not have been written by Ethan, his brother, as it speaks of transactions that took place long after his time, at least as late as the days of David, who is particularly mentioned in it. Calvin obviously considers this Heman to have lived in the time of David or Solomon. There is a person of the same name who was constituted by David one of the chiefs of the sacred singers, 1Ch 25:1. But he was a Levite, whereas the present Heman is called an Ezrahite, which is understood to denote a descendant from Zerah, the son of Judah. If, therefore, the chief musician in the time of David be intended, some transcriber must have erroneously applied to him the term Ezrahite. But if the psalm, as is supposed by many, was written during the Babylonish captivity, it must have been written by a different person.
Street renders the title, “An instructive psalm in sickness, through affliction, by Aiman, the Ezrahite.” He observes, “מחלה, sickness, is used, Ex 23:25. The word מהלת, is the construct form of it.” He adds — “The title thus translated agrees with the matter contained in the psalm.”
See volume 2, page 320, note 2. Some consider the words מחלת לענות, Machalath Leannoth, which Calvin renders “Machalath, to make humble,” as together denoting an instrument of music. “For my part,” says Dr Morison, “I lean to the idea that these words are intended to denote some musical instrument of the plaintive order; and in this opinion Kimchi and other Jewish writers perfectly agree. They assert that it was a wind-instrument, answering very much to the flute, and employed mainly in giving utterance to sentiments of grief, upon occasions of great sorrow and lamentation.”
גבר geber, therefore, denotes a man “when in vigorous manhood; who is neither a boy nor an old man, yet it is applied to Balaam, when old, in Nu 24:4.” — Bythner
“‘Free among the dead,’ inter mortuos liber,” says Dr Adam Clarke, “has been applied by the Fathers to our Lord’s voluntary death: all others were obliged to die; He alone gave up his life, and could take it again, (Joh 10:18.) He went into the grave and came out when he chose. The dead are bound in the grave: He was free, and not obliged to continue in that state as they were.”
This verse has been supposed to contain a reference to the condition of the leper under the law, which much resembled the picture here drawn. חפשי, chophshi, from חפש, chophash, “is free,” says Hammond, (“in opposition to servitude,) manumitted, set at liberty The use of this word may more generally be taken from 2Ch 26:21, where of Uzziah, being a leper, it is said, that he dwelt, בית החפשית, ‘in an house of freedom, for he was cut off from the house of the Lord.’ The meaning is, that after the manner of the lepers, he was excluded from the temple, and dwelt, בר מן ירושלם, saith the Chaldee, there, in some place without Jerusalem, which is therefore called the ‘house of freedom,’ because such as were there were exempt from the common affairs, and shut up from the conversation of men. And in comparison with these, they that are, as it were, dead and laid in their graves, are here said to be free, i e., removed from all the affairs and conversation of the world.”
“This verse,” observes Dr Adam Clarke, “has been supposed to express the state of a leper, who, because of the infectious nature of his disease, is separated from his family, — is abominable to all, and at last shut up in a separate house, whence he does not come out to mingle with society.” “Heman means,” says Walford, “either that the character of his disease was such that men could not endure to be near him, or that the state of his mind was so disordered that he became wearisome and intolerable; perhaps he includes both.”
According to Cresswell, the meaning of this clause is, “That the Psalmist confined himself to his house from the fear of encountering, if he were abroad, the revilings of his former friends.” Walford explains it as follows — “Either his state of feeling was such as induced him to withdraw himself altogether from society, or he was so environed by hopeless misery, that he regarded himself as a wretch confined in a dungeon, whence he could not escape.” Horsley reads, “I am shut up apart, and am not permitted to come out.” He observes, that shut up apart is the proper sense of כלא, and adds, that “when it denotes confinement, it always implies solitary confinement.”
The Hebrew word for the dead, in the first clause of the verse, is מתים, methim; here it is רפאים, rephaim This last “Hebrew word,” says Parkhurst, “means ‘dead bodies reduced,’ or ‘resolved into their original dust.’ I know not (he adds) of any one English word that will express it: remains, or relics, come as near to it as any that I can recollect. It is several times put after מתים, ‘the dead,’ as of more intense signification.” (See Parkhurst’s Lexicon,רפא, 2.) “Mortui, qui vivere desierunt, manes, proprie flaccidi.” — Simonis According to Dr Adam Clarke, רפאים, rephaim, means “the manes or departed spirits.” The Chaldee paraphrases this word “the carcases that are putrefied in the dust.”
“C’est, la mort.” — Fr. marg. “That is, death.”
Or prevent thee — Come before the usual hour of morning prayer. — See Mr 1:35.
“C’est, se cachent.” — Fr. marg. “That is, hide themselves.” Walford reads, “The darkness of death is my associate;” on which he has the following note: — “The darkness of death. I take this literally to mean, ‘My acquaintance, or he that knoweth me, is darkness personified:’ — orcus, abaddon.”
The original word for “ready to die” is גוע, goveang It is literally, I labour,or pant for breath, I breathe with pain and difficulty, as a person in great affliction and distress. The verb sometimes signifies to expire; but it does not so strictly express as imply death, from the obstruction of breathing that accompanies it. (See Parkhurst’s Lexicon, גגע, 1, 2.)