Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
The Church having been providentially delivered from extreme peril, David exhorts true believers to thanksgiving, and teaches them by this memorable example, that their safety depends solely upon the grace and power of God.
A Song of Degrees of David.
1. But for Jehovah, who was on our side, may Israel now say; 2. But for Jehovah who was on our side, when men rose up against us; 3. They had then swallowed us up alive, when their wrath was kindled against us; 4. The waters had then overwhelmed us, the torrent had gone over our soul: 5. The proud waters 77 had then gone over our soul.
1. But for Jehovah, who was on our side. Some expositors think that this Psalm describes the very sad and calamitous condition of the Church when the, residue of the people were carried away into Babylon. This opinion is, however, without any good foundation for the complaints made, apply with equal propriety to the persecutions which the Church suffered under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes. It is another objection to this interpretation, that the Psalm bears in its inscription the name of David, and historically recounts the deliverance which the people had obtained from extreme danger by the power of God. To get quit of this difficulty they observe, that what had not yet come to pass is described prophetically; but this is a forced conjecture, for the Prophets usually speak of things to come in a different manner. It is more probable that David here sets forth a known history, and exhorts the faithful to reflect upon the divine succor which they had already actually experienced. I dare not, however, limit what is here spoken to David’s time. It is indeed true that the heathen nations often waged war against the people of God, armed with such power as to come rushing upon them with the impetuosity of a deluge; but as David does not specify any particular instance, he is not, I conceive, to be understood as celebrating only some one deliverance, but in general all the instances in which God had succoured his Church. The heathen at many different times, as is well known, rose up against the Church, with such mighty hosts, that she was brought almost to the verge of destruction. David then represents as in a mirror the uncertain and changeable condition of the Church, just such as it had been from the beginning, to teach the faithful that its stability had not been owing to its own intrinsic strength, but that it had been preserved by the wonderful grace of God; and to habituate them to call upon God in the midst of dangers.
2. But for Jehovah who was on our side. It is not without cause that he twice repeats the same sentence. So long as we are in danger our fear is immoderate; but no sooner are we delivered than we lessen the greatness of our calamity, and Satan, deceiving us by this artifice, leads us to obscure the grace of God. Since then, after having been wonderfully preserved by the Lord, we for the most part devise all sorts of imaginary circumstances, in order to efface from our minds the remembrance of his grace, David, by introducing the people as struck with amazement, purposely dwells upon the amplification of the danger. In these words a bridle is put upon us, to keep us meditating upon our dangers, lest the sense of God’s grace should vanish from our minds. The common translation, Had not the Lord been on our side, does not sufficiently express David’s meaning; for he affirms that the deliverance and the salvation of the people proceeded from nothing else than God’s succor, and at the same time shows that this succor was both certain and evident. Two things then are here to be distinctly noticed; first, that the Lord had been at hand to afford aid to his servants, and had taken their part; and secondly, that being already in a desperate condition, they could not by help from any other quarter, or in another manner, have escaped from danger. Thus we are taught, that men then only ascribe the glory of their preservation to God, when they are persuaded of his being so favourably inclined towards them as to defend them and maintain them safe. In the second clause there is extolled in high terms the infinite power of God, of which he had given abundant proof in delivering the people, to teach us that such a manner of preserving does not belong to man. By the noun אדם, adam, which when it is collective signifies men in general, David seems to denote a vast number of enemies. The people of God, as if he had said, had not to contend merely against a few men, or against one nation, but were assailed by almost the whole world; it being abundantly manifest that all mankind were the enemies of the Jews.
When he says, (Ps 124:3,) They had swallowed us up alive, 78 he not only expresses barbarous cruelty, but also disproportion of strength. He describes then in the first place how violent was the onset of the enemy, and secondly, how feeble and inadequate the Jews were to withstand them, since these cruel beasts had no need of swords for slaughter, but without a battle or an effort of strength, could easily devour that unwarlike and defenceless flock.
4. The waters had then overwhelmed us. He embellishes by an elegant metaphor the preceding sentiment, comparing the dreadful impetuosity of the enemies of the Jews to an inundation, which swallows up whatever it meets with in its overflowing course. And he continues to preserve the character of a man affrighted. He names the waters, next the torrent, thirdly, the proud or impetuous waters. He says, over us, and over our soul, as if, by presenting the thing to the eye, he intended to strike terror into the people. And certainly this impassioned language ought to have all the effect of a graphic representation, that the faithful might the better feel from what a profound gulf they had been rescued by the hand of God. He only truly attributes his deliverance to God, who acknowledges himself to have been lost before he was delivered. The adverb them is here either demonstrative, as if the Psalmist had pointed to the thing with the finger, or it is taken for long ago. The former signification is, however, more suitable to the present passage.
6. Blessed be Jehovah! who gave us not for a prey to their teeth 79 7. Our soul has been rescued as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare has been broken, and we have been delivered 80 8. Our help is in the name of Jehovah, who made heaven and earth.
6. Blessed be Jehovah! The Psalmist now exhorts the godly to a grateful acknowledgment of the divine goodness, and as it were puts words into their mouth. Here also he shows by another similitude, that it would have been all over with them had not God succoured them; affirming that they were delivered not otherwise than if some one had plucked the prey from the teeth of a wild and cruel beast. Of the same import is the third similitude, That they were on all sides entrapped and entangled in the snares of their enemies, even as little birds caught in the net lie stretched under the hand of the fowler; and that when they were delivered, it was just as if one should set at liberty birds which had been taken. The amount is, that the people of God, feeble, without counsel, and destitute of aid, had not only to deal with blood-thirsty and furious beasts, but were also ensnared by bird-nets and stratagems, so that being greatly inferior to their enemies as well in policy as in open force, they were besieged by many deaths. From this it may be easily gathered that they were miraculously preserved.
8. Our help is in the name of Jehovah. David here extends to the state of the Church in all ages that which the faithful had already experienced. As I interpret the verse, he not only gives thanks to God for one benefit, but affirms that the Church cannot continue safe except in so far as she is protected by the hand of God. His object is to animate the children of God with the assured hope, that their life is in perfect safety under the divine guardianship. The contrast between the help of God, and other resources in which the world vainly confides, as we have seen in Ps 20:7,
“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will remember the name of the Lord our God,”
is to be noticed, that the faithful, purged from all false confidence, may betake themselves exclusively to his succor, and depending upon it, may fearlessly despise whatever Satan and the world may plot against them. The name of God is nothing else than God himself; yet it tacitly conveys a significant idea, implying that as he has disclosed to us his grace by his word, we have ready access to him, so that in seeking him we need not go to a distance, or follow long circuitous paths. Nor is it without cause that the Psalmist again honors God with the title of Creator. We know with what disquietude our minds are agitated till they have raised the power of God to its appropriate elevation, that, the whole world being put under, it alone may be pre-eminent; which cannot be the case unless we are persuaded that all things are subject to his will. He did not show once and in a moment his power in the creation of the world and then withdraw it, but he continually demonstrates it in the government of the world. Moreover, although all men freely and loudly confess that God is the Creator of heaven and of earth, so that even the most wicked are ashamed to withhold from him the honor of this title, yet no sooner does any terror present itself to us than we are convicted of unbelief in hardly setting any value whatever upon the help which he has to bestow.
“Alors les eaux enfiees et impetueuses fussent,” etc. — Fr. “The swollen and impetuous waters had then,” etc. The epithet proud is applied to the waves of the sea in Job 38:11.
“The metaphor may be taken from famished wild beasts attacking and devouring men, (Comp. 5:5,) or the reference may ‘be to the case of a man shut up alive in a sepulcher, (Pr 1:12,) and ]left there to perish, or (Nu 16:30) swallowed up by an earthquake ” — Cresswell. “A figurative expression to intimate the savageness of the adversaries, alluding to the practice of many predatory animals of swallowing their victims alive. Such is the well-known habit of many of the predatory kinds of fish.” — Phillips.
The Church’s escape, be it observed, as appears from verse third, is likened to a rescue from the jaws of a ferocious animal, which swallows its prey quick, or alive.
The reader will perceive, that as the imagery goes on it becomes the more beautiful. Pleasing and tender ideas are associated with the escape of an innocent bird from the snares which the art and cruelty of man had contrived, to deprive it of life, or rob it of liberty.