Treasury of David
OCCASION. The Psalm cannot be referred to any especial event or period in David's history. All attempts to find it a birthplace are but guesses. It was, doubtless, more than once the language of that much tried man of God, and is intended to express the feelings of the people of God in those ever-returning trials which beset them.
If the reader has never yet found occasion to use the language of this brief ode, he will do so before long, if he be a man after the Lord's own heart. We have been accustomed to call this the "How Long Psalm." We had almost said the Howling Psalm, from the incessant repetition of the cry, "how long?"
DIVISION. This Psalm is very readily to be divided into three parts:
the question of anxiety, 1, 2;
the cry of prayer, 3, 4;
the song of faith, 5, 6.
Verse 1. "How long?" This question is repeated no less than four times. It betokens very intense desire for deliverance, and great anguish of heart. And what if there is some impatience mingled therewith—is not this the more true a portrait of our own experience? It is not easy to prevent desire from degenerating into impatience. O for grace that, while we wait on God, we may be kept from indulging a murmuring spirit!
"How long?" Does not the oft-repeated cry become a very HOWLING? And what if grief should find no other means of utterance? Even then, God is not far from the voice of our roaring; for he does not regard the music of our prayers, but his own Spirit's work in them in exciting desire and inflaming the affections.
"How long?" Ah! how long do our days appear when our soul is cast down within us!
Time flies with full-fledged wing in our summer days, but in our winters he flutters painfully. A week within prison-walls is longer than a month at liberty.
Long sorrow seems to argue abounding corruption; for the gold which is long in the fire must have had much dross to be consumed, hence the question "how long?" may suggest deep searching of heart.
"How long will you forget me?" Ah, David! how like a fool you talk! Can God forget? Can Omniscience fail in memory? Above all, can Jehovah's heart forget his own beloved child?
Ah! brethren, let us drive away the thought, and hear the voice of our covenant God by the mouth of the prophet, "But Zion said, The Lord has forsaken me, and my Lord has forgotten me. Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yes, they may forget—yet will I not forget you. Behold, I have graven you upon the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me."
"Forever?" Oh, dark thought! It was surely bad enough to suspect a temporary forgetfulness, but shall we ask the ungracious question, and imagine that the Lord will forever cast away his people? No, his anger may endure for a night, but his love shall abide eternally.
"How long will you hide your face from me?" This is a far more rational question, for God may hide his face, and yet he may remember still. A hidden face is no sign of a forgetful heart. It is in love that his face is turned away; yet to a real child of God, this hiding of his Father's face is terrible and he will never be at ease until, once more he has his Father's smile.
Verse 2. "How long shall I take counsel, in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily?" There is in the original the idea of "laying up" counsels in his heart, as if his devices had become innumerable but unavailing. Herein we have often been like David, for we have considered and reconsidered day after day, but have not discovered the happy device by which to escape from our trouble.
Such store is a sad sore. Ruminating upon trouble is bitter work. Children fill their mouths with bitterness when they rebelliously chew the pill which they ought obediently to have taken at once.
"How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?" This is like wormwood in the gall, to see the wicked enemy exulting while our soul is bowed down within us. The laughter of a foe grates horribly on the ears of grief. For the devil to make mirth of our misery is the last ounce of our complaint, and quite breaks down our patience; therefore let us make it one chief argument in our plea with mercy.
Thus the careful reader will remark that the question "how long?" is put in four shapes. The writer's grief is viewed, as it seems to be, as it is, as it affects himself within, and his foes without. We are all prone to play most on the worst string. We set up monumental stones over the graves of our joys, but who thinks of erecting monuments of praise for mercies received? We write four books of Lamentations, and only one of Canticles, and are far more at home in wailing out a Misere than in chanting a Te Deum.
Verse 3. Consider and hear me, O LORD my God; Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death. But now prayer lifts up her voice, like the watchman who proclaims the daybreak. Now will the tide turn, and the weeper shall dry his eyes.
The mercy-seat is the life of hope and the death of despair. The gloomy thought of God's having forsaken him is still upon the psalmist's soul, and he therefore cries, "Consider and hear me." He remembers at once the root of his woe, and cries aloud that it may be removed. The final absence of God is Tophet's fire, and his temporary absence brings his people into the very suburbs of Hell. God is here entreated to see and hear, that so he may be doubly moved to pity. What would we do if we had no God to turn to in the hour of wretchedness?
Note the cry of faith, "O Lord MY God!" Is it not a very glorious fact that our interest in our God is not destroyed by all our trials and sorrows? We may lose our gourds, but not our God. The title-deed of Heaven is not written in the sand, but in eternal brass.
"Enlighten my eyes" that is, let the eye of my faith be clear, that I may see my God in the dark; let my eye of watchfulness be wide open, lest I be entrapped, and let the eye of my understanding be illuminated to see the right way.
Perhaps, too, here is an allusion to that cheering of the spirits so frequently called the enlightening of the eyes because it causes the face to brighten, and the eyes to sparkle.
Well may we use the prayer, "Enlighten our darkness, we beseech you, O Lord!" for in many respects we need the Holy Spirit's illuminating rays.
"Lest I sleep the sleep of death." Darkness engenders sleep, and despondency is not slow in making the eyes heavy. From this faintness and dimness of vision, caused by despair, there is but a step to the iron sleep of death. David feared that his trials would end his life, and he rightly uses his fear as an argument with God in prayer; for deep distress has in it a kind of claim upon compassion, not a claim of right, but a plea which has power with grace. Under the pressure of heart sorrow, the psalmist does not look forward to the sleep of death with hope and joy, as assured believers do, but he shrinks from it with dread, from which we gather that bondage from fear of death is no new thing.
Verse 4. Lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed against him"; lest those who trouble me rejoice when I am moved. Another plea is urged in the fourth verse, and it is one which the tried believer may handle well when on his knees. We make use of our arch-enemy for once, and compel him, like Samson, to grind in our mill while we use his cruel arrogance as an argument in prayer. It is not the Lord's will that the great enemy of our souls should overcome his children. This would dishonor God, and cause the evil one to boast. It is well for us that our salvation and God's honor are so intimately connected, that they stand or fall together.
Our covenant God will complete the confusion of all our enemies, and if for awhile we become their scoff and jest, the day is coming when the shame will change sides, and the contempt shall be poured on those to whom it is due.
Verse 5-6. But I have trusted in Your mercy; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because He has dealt bountifully with me. What a change is here! Lo, the rain is over and gone, and the time of the singing of birds is come. The mercy-seat has so refreshed the poor weeper, that he clears his throat for a song.
If we have mourned with him, let us now dance with him. David's heart was more often out of tune than his harp, He begins many of his psalms sighing, and ends them singing; and others he begins in joy and ends in sorrow. "So that one would think," says Peter Moulin, "that those Psalms had been composed by two men of a contrary humor." It is worthy to be observed that the joy is all the greater because of the previous sorrow, as calm is all the more delightful in recollection of the preceding tempest. "Sorrows remembered sweeten present joy."
Here is his avowal of his confidence: "But I have trusted in your mercy." For many a year it had been his custom to make the Lord his castle and tower of defense, and he smiles from behind the same bulwark still. He is sure of his faith, and his faith makes him sure; had he doubted the reality of his trust in God, he would have blocked up one of the windows through which the sun of Heaven delights to shine. Faith is now in exercise, and consequently is readily discovered; there is never a doubt in our heart about the existence of faith while it is in action. When the partridge is quiet we see it not, but let the same be in motion and we soon perceive it.
All the powers of his enemies had not driven the psalmist from his stronghold. As the shipwrecked mariner clings to the mast, so did David cling to his faith; he neither could nor would give up his confidence in the Lord his God. O that we may profit by his example and hold by our faith as by our very life!
Now hearken to the music which faith makes in his soul. The bells of the mind are all ringing, "My heart shall rejoice in your salvation." There is joy and feasting within doors, for a glorious guest has come, and the fatted calf is killed. Sweet is the music which sounds from the strings of the heart. But this is not all; the voice joins itself in the blessed work, and the tongue keeps tune with the soul, while the writer declares, "I will sing unto the Lord."
"I will praise you every day,
Now your anger's past away;
Comfortable thoughts arise
From the bleeding sacrifice."
The Psalm closes with a sentence which is a refutation of the charge of forgetfulness which David had uttered in the first verse, "He has dealt bountifully with me." So shall it be with us if we wait awhile. The complaint which in our haste we utter shall be joyfully retracted, and we shall witness that the Lord has dealt bountifully with us!