Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This Psalm teaches, in the first place, that God subjects his Church to divers troubles and affections, to the end he may the better prove himself her deliverer and defender. The Psalmist, therefore, recalls to the memory of the faithful how sadly God’s people had been persecuted in all ages, and how wonderfully they had been preserved, in order by such examples to fortify their hope in reference to the future. In the second part, under the form of an imprecation, he shows that the divine vengeance is ready to fall upon all the ungodly, who without cause distress the people of God.
A Song of Degrees.
1. They have often afflicted me from my youth, let Israel now say: 2. They have often afflicted me from my youth; but they have not prevailed against me. 3. The ploughers have plouched upon my back, and made long their furrows. 108 4. But Jellovah who is righteous, hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked.
1. They have often afflicted me from my youth. This Psalm was probably composed at a time when the Church of God, reduced to a state of extreme distress, or dismayed by some great danger, or oppressed with tyranny, was on the verge of total destruction. This conjecture, I conceive, is supported by the adverb of time, now, which appears to me to be emphatic. It is as if the Prophet; had said, When God’s faithful ones are with difficulty drawing their breath under the burden of temptations, it is a seasonable time for them to reflect on the manner in which he has exercised his people from the beginning, and from age to age. As soon as God has given loose reins to our enemies to do as they please we are distressed with sorrow, and our thoughts are wholly engrossed with the evils which presently harass us. Hence proceeds despair; for we do not remember that the patience of the fathers was subjected to the like trial, and that nothing happens to us which they did not experience. It is then an exercise eminently fitted to comfort true believers to look back to the conflicts of the Church in the days of old, in order thereby to know that she has always labored under the cross, and has been severely afflicted by the unrighteous violence of her enemies. The most probable conjecture which occurs to me at present is, that this Psalm was written after the Jews had returned from the Babylonish captivity, and when, having suffered many grievous and cruel injuries at the hands of their neighbors, they hadn’t length almost fainted under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes. In this dark and troublous state of matters, the Prophet encourages the faithful to fortitude, nor does he address himself to a few of them only, but to the whole body without exception; and in order to their sustaining such fierce assaults, he would have them to oppose to them a hope inspired by the encouraging consideration, that the Church, by patient endurance, has uniformly proved victorious. Almost every word is emphatic. Let Israel now say, that is, let him consider the trials of the Church in ancient times, from which it may be gathered, that the people of God have never been exempted from bearing the cross, and yet that the various afflictions by which they have been tried have always had a happy issue. In speaking of the enemies of Israel simply by the pronoun they, without being more specific, the Psalmist aggravates the greatness of the evil more than if he had expressly named the Assyrians or the Egyptians. By not specifying any particular class of foes, he tacitly intimates that the world is fraught with innumerable bands of enemies, whom Satan easily arms for the destruction of good men, his object being that new wars may arise continually on every side. History certainly bears ample testimony that the people of God had not to deal with a few enemies, but that they were assaulted by almost the whole world; and farther, that they were molested not only by external foes, but also by those of an internal kind, by such as professed to belong to the Church.
The term youth here denotes their first beginnings, 109 and refers not only to the time when God brought the people out of Egypt, but also to the time when he wearied Abraham and the patriarchs during almost their whole life, by keeping them in a condition of painful warfare. If these patriarchs were strangely driven about in the land of Canaan, the lot of their descendants was still worse during the time of their sojourning in Egypt, when they were not only oppressed as slaves, but loaded with every kind of reproach and ignominy. At their departure from that land we know what difficulties they had to encounter. If in tracing their history from that period we find seasons in which some respite was granted them, yet they were not in a state of repose for any length of time, until the reign of David. And although during his reign they appeared to be in a prosperous condition, yet soon after troubles and even. defeats arose, which threatened the people of God with total destruction. In the Babylonish captivity, all hope being well-nigh extinguished, they seemed as if hidden in the grave and undergoing the process of putrefaction. After their return they obtained, with difficulty, some brief intermission to take their breath. They were certainly often put; to the sword, until the race of them was almost wholly destroyed. To prevent it, therefore, from being supposed that they had received only some slight hurt, they are justly said to have been afflicted; as if the Prophet placed them before our eyes as it were half-dead, through the treatment of their enemies, who, seeing them prostrated under their feet, scrupled not to tread upon them. If we come to ourselves, it will be proper to add the horrible persecutions, by which the Church would have been consumed a thousand times, had not God, by hidden and mysterious means, preserved her, raising her as it were from the dead. Unless we have become stupid under our calamities, the distressing circumstances of this unhappy age will compel us to meditate on the same doctrine.
When the Prophet says twice, they have afflicted me, they have afflicted me, the repetition is not superfluous, it being intended to teach us that the people of God had not merely once or twice to enter the conflict, but that their patience had been tried by continual exercises. He had said that they had commenced this conflict from their youth, intimating that they had been inured to it from their first origin, in order to their being accustomed to bear the cross. He now adds, that their being subjected to this rigorous training was not without good reason, inasmuch as God had not ceased, by a continued course, to make use of these calamities for subduing them to himself. If the exercises of the Church, during her state of childhood, were so severe, our effeminacy will be very shameful indeed, if in the present day, when the Church, by the coming of Christ, has reached the age of manhood, we are found wanting in firmness for enduring trials. Matter of consolation is laid down in the last clause, which informs us that the enemies of Israel, after having tried all methods, never succeeded in realizing their wishes, God having always disappointed their hopes, and baffled their attempts.
3. The ploughers have ploughed upon my back. 110 Here the Prophet, by an apparent similitude, embellishes his preceding statement respecting the grievous afflictions of the Church. He compares the people of God to a field through which a plough is drawn. He says that the furrows were made long, so that no corner was exempted from being cut up by the ploughshare. These words vividly express the fact — that the cross has always been planted on the back of the Church, to make long and wide furrows.
In the subsequent verse a ground of consolation under the same figure is subjoined, which is, that the righteous Lord hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked The allusion is to a plough, which, as we all know, is tied with cords to the necks of the oxen. The language very aptly conveys the idea, that the wicked, — since they would never have become tired or satiated in exercising their cruelty, and also in consequence of their being well armed, — were prepared to proceed farther, but that the Lord, in a way altogether unexpected, repressed their fury, just as if a man should unyoke oxen from the plough by cutting in pieces the cords and thongs which tied them to it. Hence we perceive what is the true condition of the Church. As God would have us contentedly to take his yoke upon us, the Holy Spirit not unfitly compares us to an arable field, which cannot make any resistance to its being cut, and cleaved, and turned up by the ploughshare. Should any one be disposed to indulge in greater refinement of speculation, he might say that the field is ploughed to prepare it for receiving the seed, and that it may at length bring forth fruit. But in my opinion the subject to which the Prophet limits his attention is the afflictions of the Church. The epithet righteous, with which he honors God, must, in a suitableness to the scope of the passage, be explained as implying that, although God may seem to dissemble for a time, yet he never forgets his righteousness, so as to withhold relief from his afflicted people. Paul in like manner adduces the same reason why God will not always suffer them to be persecuted,
“Seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you;
and to you who are troubled rest with us.” (2 Thess. 1:6, 7,)
It is a point worthy of special notice, that the welfare of the Church is inseparably connected with the righteousness of God. The Prophet, also, wisely teaches us. that the reason why the enemies of the Church did not prevail, was because God brought to nothing their enterprises, and did not suffer them to go beyond what he had determined in his own mind.
5. All who hate Zion shall be confounded, and turned backward. 6. They shall be as the grass 111 of the housetops’, which is withered before it comes forth: 7. With which the mower hath not filled his hand, nor the gleaner his bosom. 112 8. Neither have they who pass by said, The blessing of Jehovah be upon you: we bless you in the name of Jehovah. 113
5. All who hate Zion shall be confounded, and tutored backward. Whether we take this as a prayer or a promise, the Prophet has a respect to the time to come. Since all the verbs are in the future tense, it is certainly a very appropriate interpretation to understand him as deriving from times past instruction as to what is to be hoped for in future, even to the end. In whichever way we understand the passage, he declares that the faithful have no reason to be discouraged when they behold their enemies raised on high. The grass which grows upon the house-tops is not, on account of its higher situation, more valuable than the blade of corn which in the low ground is trampled under foot; for although it stands elevated above men’s heads, it is, in the first place, unprofitable; and secondly, it quickly withers away. 114 The verb, ףלש, shalaph, 115 which we have translate comes forth, is by some rendered, is plucked up. According to this translation the sense is, that without the hand or labor of man the grass on the house-tops is dried up. But as the verb properly signifies to be brought forth, or to come forth, the meaning, in my opinion, is that the grass’. on the housetops, so far from continuing long in a state of freshness, withers and perishes at its first springing up, because it has no root under it, nor earth to supply it with sap or moisture for its nourishment. Whenever, then, the splendor or greatness of our enemies strikes us with fear, let us bring to our recollection this comparison, that as the grass which grows upon the house-tops, though high, is yet without root, and consequently of brief duration, so these enemies, the nearer they approach the sun by the height of their pride, shall be the sooner consumed by the burning heat, since they have no root, it being humility alone which draws life and vigor from God.
7 With which the mower hath not filled his hand. 116 We have here an additional confirmation of the truth, that although the wicked mount high or elevate themselves, and form an extravagant opinion of their own importance, yet they continue mere grass, not bringing forth any good fruit, nor reaching a state of ripeness, but swelling only with fresh appearance. To make this obvious, the Psalmist sets them in opposition to fruit-bearing herbs, which in valleys and low grounds produce fruit for men. In fine, he affirms that they deserve to be hated or despised of all, whereas commonly every one in passing by the corn fields blesses them and prays for the harvest? 117 Farther, he has borrowed this illustration of his doctrine from the affairs of ordinary life, we are taught that whenever there is a hopeful prospect of a good harvest, we ought to beseech God, whose peculiar province it is to impart fertility to the earth, that he would give full effect to his blessing. And considering that the fruits of the earth are exposed to so many hazards, it is certainly strange that we are not stirred ‘up to engage in the exercise of prayer from the absolute necessity of these to man and beast. Nor does the Psalmist, in speaking of passers by blessing the reapers, speak exclusively of rite children of God, who are truly taught by his word that the fruitfulness of the earth is owing to his goodness; but he also comprehends worldly men in whom the same knowledge is implanted naturally. In conclusion, provided we not only dwell in the Church of the Lord, but also labor to have place among the number of her genuine citizens, we will be able fearlessly to despise all fire might of our enemies; for although they may flourish and have a great outward show for a time, yet they are but barren grass, on which the curse of heaven rests.
“Targ. lengthened out their ploughing, i.e., gave us no rest from their slavery, for the longer the furrows the more tedious is the labor of the oxen.” — Bythner.
Hence it is said in Ho 11:1 —
“When Israel was a child, then I loved him,
and called my son out of Egypt.”
Youth is in like manner ascribed to a people, in Isa. 47:12, 15; Jer 48:11; and Eze 16:43.
According to Archbishop Seeker, this refers to severe scourging; and those who have witnessed this cruel infliction tell us that the allusion is most expressive, the long weals or wounds left by the scourges at each stroke being most aptly compared either to furrows, or (as the original admits) to the ridges between the furrows. With respect to the alleged incongruity of ploughing, and making long furrows on the back, the Archbishop observes, “Lacerare et secare tercum are Latin phrases, and ploughing is not much stronger, to express a severe scourging.” The language of the Psalmist may, however, without allusion to any particular species of persecuting violence, be, as Calvin understands it, simply a strong image of cruel oppression. “The persecutors of Israel,” says Walford, “are compared to ploughmen; because as they cut up, and as it were torture the surface of the earth, so did the adversaries greatly and grievously distress these afflicted people.”
Fry reads “corn,” “חציר,” says he, “evidently includes corn as well as grass.”
In the French version it is “son aisselle;” — “his arm-pit.”
“Here is an allusion to the custom of blessing; the reapers at their work; as in that instance recorded in the book of Ru 2:4, ‘And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said unto the reapers, The Lord be with you; and they answered him, The Lord bless thee.’” — Warner. “Precisely the same customs of salutation which are here indicated still prevail in Mohammedan Asia. Nearly the same form of words, implying the blessing and peace of God, is retained, and the neglect to give the salutation is still an indignity and an insult ” — Illustrated Commentary upon the Bible.
“In Judea, the roofs of the houses are flat, and covered with cement. On this the grass would not uncommonly grow: but, being thin and weak, and its situation hot and exposed, it was speedily ‘dried up and withered.’ The same sort of architecture, and the same appearances, are common in the East at this day.” — Warner.
שלף differently interpreted. By the greater number of persons it is translated, to extract, to pull out; and thus it is used in Ruth 4:7, 8, and Joh 20:25, ‘Before any one extracts the grass it withereth.’ The Septuagint has πρὸ τοῦ εκσπασθὢναι, and the Vulgate, ‘priusquam evellatur.’ Our translators have rendered שקדמת שלף, ‘afore it groweth up,’ in which they are supported by Aquila and Symmachus. Theodoret observes that many MSS. of the Septuagint have ἐξανθὢναι for ἐκσπασθὢναι. In either case the sense is, that the haters of Zion shall be exterminated by the just and wonderful judgments of God, before they have time to accomplish their wicked intentions.” — Phillips. “Parkhurst adopts Harmer’s opinion, that the Hebrew verb in this place signifies, ‘to push out, unsheath, as corn its ear.’ It appears nowhere else but in the sense of ‘unsheathing a sword,’ or drawing off a shoe.’ The proper translation seems to be, ‘Which withereth before it unsheaths its ear.’ See Parkhurst on שלף.” — Mant.
“Whereof the mower hath not filled his hand, etc. — i.e., It is too scanty to afford employment for a labourer to gather it by the hand, or for a reaper, who uses a sickle, depositing what he cuts in the fold of his garment, or as Le Clerc understands it, under his left arm. The Psalmist in effect prays, that the enemies of Israel may be reduced to such poverty, that none could become richer by despoiling them: in a word, that they might be altogether despicable. For binding up the sheaves, Hammond suggests, gathereth the handfuls, with reference to the gleaner, Ru 2:2 ” — Cresswell.
“Au lieu que chacun communement en passant par les bleds les benit, et prie pour la moisson.” — Fr.