Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 11: Psalms, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
David was not as yet put in possession of the kingdom, but having been already created king by the appointment of God, he prepares himself for exercising the government in the best manner. And he not only stirs up himself to perform faithfully the duties of his kingly office by devoutly meditating on this subject, but also engages by a solemn vow to be God’s faithful servant, in order to induce Him to put him speedily in possession of the kingdom.
A Psalm of David.
1. I will sing of mercy and of judgment: unto thee, O Jehovah! will I sing psalms. 2. I will behave myself prudently in a perfect way, till thou comest to me: 127 I will walk in the integrity of my heart in the midst of thy house. 3. I will not set a wicked thing before my eyes: I hate the work 128 of those who turn aside; it shall not adhere to me. 4. The perverse heart shall depart from me: I will not know evil 129 5. Whoso slandereth his neighbor in secret, him will I destroy: the man whose eyes are lofty, and whose heart is wide, I cannot endure.
1 I will sing of mercy and of judgment What David here says concerning singing must be understood by the reader as intimating that this psalm contains the substance of his meditations with himself, as to what kind of king he would be whenever he should be put in possession of the sovereign power which had been promised him. To sing therefore of mercy and of judgment, is equivalent to declaring in solemn terms, that he would be a just and an upright king. Augustine understands this as meaning that God is to be praised, whether he punish men with severity, or whether he show himself merciful to them; but this interpretation is too refined. David does not speak of God’s secret judgments, but of the due administration of the kingdom, that he might both by words and deeds fulfill his vocation. When he asserts, Unto thee, O Jehovah! will I sing psalms, he acknowledges that it was by the favor of God that he was appointed to so distinguished and honorable an office; for it would have been an act of presumptuous rashness for him to have thrust himself into it, at the mere impulse of his own mind. He very properly comprehends all princely virtues under these two particulars, mercy and judgment; for as it is the principal duty of a king to yield to every man his own right, so he is also required to possess a considerate love and compassion towards his subjects. Solomon therefore justly says, (Pr 16:12) “The throne is established by righteousness.”
2 I will behave myself prudently in a perfect way David here shows that he carefully considered how weighty a charge was laid upon him when he was made king. We know, and it is a truth taught us by experience, that almost all kings are intoxicated with the splendors of royalty; and the proverb was not used without foundation in ancient times, “A king must be born either a king or a fool.” It is indeed a mistake to say that kings are born fools. Men were led to speak in this manner, because it commonly happens that those who are invested with the government of kingdoms and empires are fools and blockheads. And surely it is a remarkable instance of the vengeance of God, that beasts, and such as are altogether unworthy to be numbered among men, commonly possess the highest authority. But although kings are not born fools, yet they are so blinded by their dignity, that they think themselves in no respect indebted to their subjects, become arrogant and haughty in their carriage, recklessly plunge into their pleasures, and at length utterly forget themselves. David therefore says, I will behave myself prudently, or, which amounts to the same thing, I will look warily to myself; it being a rare virtue for the man who may do as he pleases to exercise such moderation, as not to allow himself liberty in any degree to do evil. He then who is exalted to sovereign power, and yet, instead of attempting to go as far as he can in doing mischief, restrains himself by self-control, is endued with true understanding. In short, David protests that he will not be like other kings who are infatuated by their own dignity; but that according to the greatness of the charge imposed upon him, he would endeavor wisely to perform his duty. It is to be observed, that he represents wisdom as consisting in a perfect way, or in uprightness. From this we learn that tyrants who employ their talents in forming wicked devices, and who are daily contriving new methods for burdening and oppressing their subjects; in short, who are ingenious only in doing mischief, are not wise towards God. Many persons, it is true, dislike such craftiness; but still, it is undeniable that, if kings are intent upon enlarging the boundaries of their kingdom, and are masters in refined policy for accomplishing such a purpose, this is accounted the most perfect wisdom which they can possess, and is extolled to the skies. David, on the contrary, covets no other wisdom but that which is the mistress of integrity. Till thou comest to me These words may be read in two ways. Some translate them interrogatively, When wilt thou come? as if David besought God not to subject him to any longer delay. And truly he had just ground to groan and lament, when he saw himself so long oppressed with poverty, and driven from place to place a wretched exile. It had been better for him to have lived obscure and unnoticed in his father’s cottage, following his former occupation as a shepherd, than to be anointed king, that, being driven out of his country, he might live in utter dishonor and hatred. But I prefer reading the sentence without interrogation, until or when thou comest; and yet even this I interpret somewhat differently from the majority of commentators, understanding it to mean, that although David still continued in the condition of a private person, and did not enjoy the royal power which had been promised him, he nevertheless did not cease in the meantime to follow after uprightness. Thus he sets the midst of his house in opposition to palaces and public buildings; as if he had said, Within my private house or in my family.
3 I will not set a wicked thing before my eyes After having protested, that in leading a private life, he would practice virtue and righteousness, even as it becomes good princes to begin with this, he now adds, that in executing the office of prince, he will be the enemy of all injustice and wickedness. To set a wicked thing before one’s eyes, is equivalent to purposing to do something that is wicked. He therefore declares, that he will turn away from all wickedness; and it is certain, that no man can be a just and an impartial punisher of wrongdoing, but he who abhors it with all his heart. Whence it follows that kings, in order to the performance of their duty, must keep themselves entirely free from all consent to wickedness. Some join to the first sentence the word עשוה, asoh, which we translate work, and supply the letter ל, lamed; as if it had been said, I will not set before my eyes any wickedness to do it, or, nothing wicked will be acceptable to me to execute it. But the other sense is more probable, which is, that David, after having declared that he will not suffer any iniquity before his eyes, immediately adds for the sake of confirmation, that he will be an enemy to all injustice. If the last clause is referred to the persons who turn aside, there is a change of the number. It may, however, be explained of the work itself, implying that he would never have any share in wicked defections from the path of rectitude.
4 The perverse heart shall depart from me Some by perverse heart understand perfidious men; but this I reject as a sense too forced, and it is moreover inconsistent with the context. As David has added in the second clause by way of exposition, I will not know evil, he doubtless in the first protests that he will be free from all perfidiousness and wickedness. The amount is, that he will do his endeavor to keep himself from all wrong-doing, and that he will not even know what it is to do wrong to his neighbors.
5 Whoso slandereth his neighbor 130 in secret, him will I destroy. In this verse he speaks more distinctly of the duty of a king who is armed with the sword, for the purpose of restraining evil-doers. Detraction, pride, and vices of every description, are justly offensive to all good men; but all men have not the power or right to cut off the proud or detractors, because they are not invested with public authority, and consequently have their hands bound. It is of importance to attend to this distinction, that the children of God may keep themselves within the bounds of moderation, and that none may pass beyond the province of his own calling. It is certain, that so long as David lived merely in the rank of a private member of society, he never dared to attempt any such thing. But after being placed on the royal throne, he received a sword from the hand of God, which he employed in punishing evil deeds. He particularises certain kinds of wickedness, that under one species, by the figure synecdoche, he might intimate his determination to punish all sorts of wickedness. To detract from the reputation of another privily, and by stealth, is a plague exceedingly destructive. It is as if a man killed a fellow-creature from a place of ambush; or rather a calumniator, like one who administers poison to his unsuspecting victim, destroys men unawares. It is a sign of a perverse and treacherous disposition to wound the good name of another, when he has no opportunity of defending himself. This vice, which is too prevalent every where, while yet it ought not to be tolerated among men, David undertakes to punish.
He next characterises the proud by two forms of expression. He describes them as those whose eyes are lofty, not that all who are proud look with a lofty countenance, but because they commonly betray the superciliousness of their proud hearts by the loftiness of their countenance. He farther describes them as wide 131 of heart, because those who aspire after great things must necessarily be puffed up and swollen. They are never satisfied unless they swallow up the whole world. From this we learn that good order cannot exist, unless princes are sedulously on the watch to repress pride, which necessarily draws after it and engenders outrage and cruelty, contemptuous language, rapine, and all kinds of ill treatment. Thus it would come to pass, that the simple and the peaceable would be at the mercy of the more powerful, did not the authority of princes interfere to curb the audacity of the latter. As it is the will of God that good and faithful kings should hold pride in detestation, this vice is unquestionably the object of his own hatred. What he therefore requires from his children is gentleness and meekness, for he is the declared enemy of all who strive to elevate themselves above their condition.
6. My eyes are towards the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me: he who walketh in an upright way shall minister to me. 7. He who worketh [or practiseth] deceit shall not dwell in the midst of my house: he who speaketh falsehoods shall not abide in my sight. 8. Early 132 will I destroy all the wicked of the land; that I may cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of Jehovah.
6 My eyes are towards the faithful of the land David here lays down another virtue of a wise prince, when he affirms that it will be his care to make all the faithful of the land his intimate friends, — that he will avail himself of their good offices, and have as domestic servants such only as are distinguished for personal worth. Some understand the words, that they may dwell with me, in a general sense thus: I will not neglect the good and inoffensive, nor will I suffer them to be unjustly molested; but I will secure, that under my administration, they shall live in a state of peace and tranquillity. But his meaning rather is, that he will exercise discretion and care, that, instead of taking persons into his service indiscriminately, he may wisely determine each man’s character, so as to have those who live a life of strict integrity as his most intimate friends, and that he may intrust them with the offices of state. He speaks of the faithful in the first place, because, although a man may possess talents of a high order, yet if he is not devoted to fidelity and integrity, he will never rightly execute the office of a judge. This is worthy of special notice; for although a prince may be the best of men, yet if his servants and officers are not of a corresponding character his subjects will experience hardly any advantage from his uncorrupted integrity. Servants are the hands of a prince, and whatever he determines for the good of his subjects they will wickedly overthrow it, provided they are avaricious, fraudulent, or rapacious. This has been more than sufficiently demonstrated by experience. The greater part of kings, indeed, passing over the good and the upright, or, which is worse, driving them away from them, purposely seek to have as servants those who are like themselves, and who may prove fit tools for their tyranny; yea, even good and well disposed princes often manifest so much indolence and irresolution as to suffer themselves to be governed by the worst counsels, and inconsiderately prostitute the offices of state by conferring them on the unworthy.
7 He who worketh deceit shall not dwell in the midst of my house This verse may be explained of all magistrates to whose charge the exercise of public judgments is committed, as well as of household servants. But as David has just now spoken in general of all officers, he seems now to speak properly of those who are near the person of the king. When the chief counsellors of kings and other intimate acquaintances who have gained possession of their ears, are deceitful and crafty, this becomes the source of all corruptions; for by their example they encourage others in evil, lifting up as it were the banner of licentiousness. And it is impossible that he who does not maintain good order in his own house, can be a fit person for holding the government of a whole realm. The authority which cannot preserve its influence under the domestic roof is of little worth in state affairs.
8 Early will I destroy all the wicked of the land The Psalmist at length concludes by asserting, that he will endeavor to the utmost of his power to purge the land from infamous and wicked persons. He affirms that he will do this early; for if princes are supine and slothful, they will never seasonably remedy the evils which exist. They must therefore oppose the beginnings of evil. The judge, however, must take care not to yield to the influence of anger, nor must he act precipitately and without consideration. The original word for early is in the plural number, (it being properly at the mornings,) which denotes unremitted exertion. It were not enough that a judge should punish the wicked sharply and severely in one or two instances: he must continue perseveringly in that duty. By this word is condemned the slothfulness of princes, when, upon seeing wicked men daringly break forth into the commission of crime, they connive at them from day to day, either through fear or an ill-regulated lenity. Let kings and magistrates then remember, that they are armed with the sword, that they may promptly and unflinchingly execute the judgments of God. David, it is true, could not purge the land from all defilements, however courageously he might have applied himself to the task. This he did not expect to be able to do. He only promises, that without respect of persons he will show himself an impartial judge, in cutting off all the wicked. Timidity often hinders judges from repressing with sufficient rigor the wicked when they exalt themselves. It is consequently necessary for them to be endued with a spirit of invincible fortitude, that relying upon Divine aid, they may perform the duties of the office with which they are invested. Moreover, ambition and favor sometimes render them pliant, so that they do not always punish offenses alike, where this ought to be done. Hence we learn that the strictness, which is not carried to excess, is highly pleasing to God; and, on the other hand, that he does not approve of the cruel kindness which gives loose reins to the wicked; as, indeed, there cannot be a greater encouragement to sin than for offenses to be allowed to pass unpunished. What Solomon says should therefore be remembered, (Pr 17:15) “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord.” What David adds, That I may cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of God, is also emphatic. If even heathen kings are commanded in common to punish crimes, David well knew that he was under obligations of a more sacred kind to do so, since the charge of the Church of God had been committed to him. And certainly if those who hold a situation so honorable do not exert themselves to the utmost of their power to remove all defilements, they are chargeable with polluting as much as in them lies the sanctuary of God; and they not only act unfaithfully towards men by betraying their welfare, but also commit high treason against God himself. Now as the kingdom of David was only a faint image of the kingdom of Christ, we, ought to set Christ before our view; who, although he may bear with many hypocrites, yet as he will be the judge of the world, will at length call them all to an account, and separate the sheep from the goats. And if it seems to us that he tarries too long, we should think of that morning which will suddenly dawn, that all filthiness being purged away, true purity may shine forth.
“Ou, quand viendras-tu a moy?” — Fr. marg. “Or, when wilt thou come to me?”
“Toute oeuvre.” — Fr. “All the work.”
“Ou, le mauvais.” — Fr. marg. “Or, the evil man.”
The reading of the Chaldee is striking, “He who speaks with a triple tongue,” “i e.,” says Bythner, “an informer, calumniator, detractor, who injures three souls, his own, his hearers, and the calumniated; he inflicts a deep wound on his own conscience, puts a lie into the mouth of his hearer, and injures the subject of his slander; according to which, Herodotus has said, Διαβολή ἐστι δεινότατον ἐν τὣ δύο μέν εἰσιν οἱ ἀδικέοντες εἷς δε ὁ ἀδικεόμενος. ‘Calumny is most iniquitous, in which there are two injuring and one injured.’” The word מלושני, meloshni rendered slandereth, is from the noun לשון, lashon, the tongue In Ps 140:12, it is said, “Let not איש לשון, ish lashon, a man of tongue, (i e., a slanderer,) be established in the earth.”
The Hebrew noun רחב, rechab, for wide or large, is derived from רחב, rachab, dilatus est “Applied to the heart or soul, it denotes largeness of desires. — So Pr 28:25, ‘He that is רחב נפש, large in soul;’ where the LXX. fitly render רחב, by ἄπληστος, ‘insatiable,’ applying it either to wealth or honor, the insatiable desire of either of which (as there follows) ‘stirs up strife.’ And so here they have rendered it again ἄπλήστῳ καρδίᾳ, ‘he that cannot be filled in the heart,’ i e., the covetous or ambitious man. The Syriac reads, wide or broad; so the Jewish Arab, ‘Him that is high of eyes, and wide of heart, I can have no patience with those two.’” — Hammond
“Hebrews aux matins.” “Hebrews at the mornings.” — Fr marg Courts of judicature for the execution of public justice were wont to be held in the morning in ancient times, as they are still with us, or at least began then, and continued till the evening. Hugo Grotius and others think there is here an allusion to these courts. “To this,” says Hammond, “most probably לבקרים in the plural, in the mornings, here refers, the season wherein David, as a judge entering the tribunal, destroys and cuts off the wicked doers. The former part of the psalm contains his resolution for choice of counsellors and officers of state, preferring the plain, honest, and not the subtlest contrivers; and this last for the execution of justice, discountenancing and judicially cutting off all wicked men.”