Treasury of David
TITLE. This admirable ode is simply headed, "To the Chief Musician, by David." The dedication to the Chief Musician stands at the head of fifty-three of the Psalms, and clearly indicates that such psalms were intended, not merely for the private use of believers, but to be sung in the great assemblies by the appointed choir at whose head was the overseer, or superintendent, called in our version, "the Chief Musician," and by Ainsworth, "the Master of the Music."
Several of these psalms have little or no praise in them, and were not addressed directly to the Most High, and yet were to be sung in public worship; which is a clear indication that the theory of Augustine lately revived by certain hymn-book makers, that nothing but praise should be sung, is far more plausible than scriptural.
Not only did the ancient Church chant hallowed doctrine and offer prayer amid her spiritual songs, but even the wailing notes of complaint were put into her mouth by the sweet singer of Israel who was inspired of God. Some people grasp at any nicety which has a gloss of apparent correctness upon it, and are pleased with being more fancifully precise than others. Nevertheless it will ever be the way of plain men, not only to magnify the Lord in sacred canticles, but also, according to Paul's precept, to teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in their hearts unto the Lord.
As no distinguishing title is given to this Psalm, we would suggest as an assistance to the memory, the heading—CONCERNING PRACTICAL ATHEISM. The many conjectures as to the occasion upon which it was written are so completely without foundation, that it would be a waste of time to mention them. The apostle Paul, in Romans 3, has shown incidentally that the drift of the inspired writer is to show that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin; there was, therefore, no reason for fixing upon any particular historical occasion, when all of history reeks with terrible evidence of human corruption.
With instructive alterations, David has given us in Psalm 53 a second edition of this humiliating psalm, being moved of the Holy Spirit thus doubly to declare a truth which is ever distasteful to carnal minds.
DIVISION. The world's foolish creed (verse 1);
its practical influence in corrupting morals, 1, 2, 3.
The persecuting tendencies of sinners, 4;
their alarms, 5;
their ridicule of the godly, 6;
and a prayer for the manifestation of the Lord to his people's joy.
Verse 1. "The fool." The Atheist is the fool pre-eminently, and a fool universally. He would not deny God if he were not a fool by nature, and having denied God it is no marvel that he becomes a fool in practice. Sin is always folly, and as it is the height of sin to attack the very existence of the Most High, so it is also the greatest imaginable folly. To say there is no God is to belie the plainest evidence, which is obstinacy.
To oppose the common consent of mankind, which is stupidity.
To stifle consciousness, which is madness.
If the sinner could by his atheism destroy the God whom he hates there were some sense, although much wickedness, in his infidelity. But as denying the existence of fire does not prevent its burning a man who is in it, so doubting the existence of God will not stop the Judge of all the earth from destroying the rebel who breaks his laws. Nay, this atheism is a crime which much provokes Heaven, and will bring down terrible vengeance on the fool who indulges it.
The proverb says, "A fool's tongue cuts his own throat!" and in this instance it kills both soul and body forever. Would to God the mischief stopped even there, but alas! One fool makes hundreds, and a noisy blasphemer spreads his horrible doctrines as lepers spread the plague.
Ainsworth, in his "Annotations," tells us that the word here used is Nabal, which has the signification of fading, dying, or falling away, as a withered leaf or flower. It is a title given to the foolish man as having lost the juice and sap of wisdom, reason, honesty, and godliness.
Trapp hits the mark when he calls him "that sapless fellow, that carcass of a man, that walking sepulcher of himself, in whom all religion and right reason is withered and wasted, dried up and decayed."
Some translate it the apostate, and others the wretch. With what earnestness should we shun the appearance of doubt as to the presence, activity, power and love of God--for all such mistrust is of the nature of folly, and who among us would wish to be ranked with the fool in the text? Yet let us never forget that all unregenerate men are more or less such fools.
The fool "has said in his heart." May a man with his mouth profess to believe, and yet in heart say the reverse? Had he hardly become audacious enough to utter his folly with his tongue? Did the Lord look upon his thoughts as being in the nature of words to Him, though not to man? Is this where man first becomes an unbeliever?—in his heart, not in his head?
And when he talks atheistically, is it a foolish heart speaking, and endeavoring to clamor down the voice of conscience? We think so. If the affections were set upon truth and righteousness, the understanding would have no difficulty in settling the question of a present personal Deity. But as the heart dislikes the good and the right, it is no wonder that it desires to be rid of that Elohim, who is the great moral Governor, the Patron of rectitude and the Punisher of iniquity.
While men's hearts remain what they are, we must not be surprised at the prevalence of skepticism; a corrupt tree will bring forth corrupt fruit.
"Every man," says Dickson, "so long as he lies unrenewed and unreconciled to God is nothing in effect but a madman." What wonder then if he raves?
Such fools as those we are now dealing with are common to all time, and all countries. Like weeds, they grow without watering, and are found all the world over. The spread of mere intellectual enlightenment will not diminish their number, for since it is an affair of the heart, this folly and great learning will often dwell together. To answer skeptical cavilings will be labor lost until grace enters to make the mind willing to believe. Fools can raise more objections in an hour than wise men can answer in seven years, indeed it is their mirth to set stools for wise men to stumble over. Let the preacher aim at the heart, and preach the all-conquering love of Jesus, and he will by God's grace win more doubters to the faith of the gospel than any hundred of the best reasoners who only direct their arguments to the head.
"The fool has said in his heart, There is no God," or "no God." So monstrous is the assertion, that the man hardly dared to put it as a positive statement, but went very near to doing so.
It is not merely the wish of the sinner's corrupt nature, and the hope of his rebellious heart, but he manages after a fashion to bring himself to assert it, and at certain seasons he thinks that he believes it.
It is a solemn reflection that some who worship God with their lips may in their hearts be saying, "no God."
It is worthy of observation that he does not say there is no Jehovah, but there is no Elohim. Deity in the abstract is not so much the object of attack, as the covenant, personal, ruling and governing presence of God in the world. God as ruler, lawgiver, worker, Savior, is the butt at which the arrows of human wrath are shot. How impotent the malice! How mad the rage which raves and foams against Him in whom we live and move and have our being! How horrible the insanity which leads a man who owes his all to God to cry out, "No God"! How terrible the depravity which makes the whole race adopt this as their hearts desire, "no God!"
"They are corrupt." This refers to all men, and we have the warrant of the Holy Spirit for so saying--see the third chapter of the epistle to the Romans. Where there is enmity to God, there is deep, inward depravity of mind. The words are in an active sense, "they have done corruptly:" this may serve to remind us that sin is not only in our nature passively as the source of evil, but we ourselves actively fan the flame and corrupt ourselves, making that blacker still which was as black as darkness itself already. We rivet our own chains by habit and continuance.
"They have done abominable works." When men begin with renouncing the Most High God, who shall tell where they will end? When the Master's eyes are put out, what will not the servants do? Observe the state of the world before the flood, as portrayed in Genesis 6:12, and remember that human nature is unchanged.
He who would see a terrible photograph of the world without God must read that most painful of all inspired Scriptures, the first chapter of the epistle to the Romans. Learned Hindus have confessed that the description is literally correct in Hindustan at the present moment; and were it not for the restraining grace of God, it would be so in England. Alas! it is even here but too correct a picture of things which are done by men in secret. Things loathsome to God and man are sweet to some palates.
"There is none that does good." Sins of omission must abound where transgressions are rife. Those who do the things which they ought not to have done, are sure to leave undone those things which they ought to have done.
What a picture of our race is this! Save only where grace reigns, there is none that does good. Humanity, fallen and debased--is a desert without an oasis, a night without a star, a dunghill without a jewel, a Hell without a bottom.
Verse 2. "The Lord looked down from Heaven upon the children of men." As from a watchtower, or other elevated place of observation, the Lord is represented as gazing intently upon men. He will not punish blindly, nor like a tyrant command an indiscriminate massacre because a rumor of rebellion has come up to his ears.
What condescending interest and impartial justice are here imaged! The case of Sodom, visited before it was overthrown, illustrates the careful manner in which Divine Justice beholds the sin before it avenges it, and searches out the righteous that they perish not with the guilty. Behold then the eyes of Omniscience ransacking the globe, and prying among every people and nation, "to see if there were any that did understand and seek God."
He who is looking down knows the good, is quick to discern it, would be delighted to find it; but as he views all the unregenerate children of men, his search is fruitless, for of all the race of Adam, no unrenewed soul is other than an enemy to God and goodness.
The objects of the Lord's search are not wealthy men, great men, or learned men; these, with all they can offer, cannot meet the demands of the great Governor. At the same time, he is not looking for superlative eminence in virtue, he seeks for any that understand themselves, their state, their duty, their destiny, their happiness; he looks for any that seek God, who are willing and anxious to find him out.
Surely this is not too great a matter to expect; for if men have not yet known God, if they have any right understanding, they will seek him.
Alas! even this low degree of good is not to be found even by him who sees all things: but men love the hideous negation of "No God," and with their backs to their Creator, who is the sun of their life, they journey into the dreary region of unbelief and alienation, which is a land of darkness as darkness itself, and of the shadow of death without any order and where the light is as darkness.
Verse 3. "They are all gone aside." Without exception, all men have apostatized from the Lord their Maker, from his laws, and from all the eternal principles of right. Like stubborn heifers they have sturdily refused to receive the yoke. Like errant sheep they have found a gap and left the right field. The original speaks of the race as a whole, as a totality--and humanity as a whole has become depraved in heart and defiled in life.
"They have altogether become filthy;" as a whole they are spoiled and soured like corrupt leaven, or, as some put it, they have become putrid and even stinking. The only reason why we do not more clearly see this foulness, is because we are accustomed to it--just as those who work daily among offensive odors at last cease to smell them. The miller does not observe the noise of his own mill. Just so, we are slow to discover our own ruin and depravity. But are there no special cases, are all men sinful? "Yes," says the Psalmist, in a manner not to be mistaken, "they are." He has put it positively, he repeats it negatively, "There is none that does good, no, not one."
The Hebrew phrase is an utter denial concerning any mere man that he of himself does good. What can be more sweeping? This is the verdict of the all-seeing Jehovah, who cannot exaggerate or mistake. As if no hope of finding a solitary specimen of a godly man among the unrenewed human family, might be harbored for an instant.
The Holy Spirit is not content with saying all and altogether, but adds the crushing threefold negative, "none, no, not one."
What say the opponents to the doctrine of natural depravity to this? Rather what do we feel concerning it? Do we not confess that we by nature are corrupt, and do we not bless the sovereign grace which has renewed us in the spirit of our minds, that sin may no more have dominion over us, but that grace may rule and reign?
Verse 4. Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? Who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call on the LORD? Hatred of God and corruptness of life are the motive forces which produce persecution of the godly. Men who having no saving knowledge of divine things, enslave themselves to become workers of iniquity, have no heart to cry to the Lord for deliverance, but seek to amuse themselves with devouring the poor and despised people of God.
It is hard bondage to be a "worker of iniquity." A worker at the galleys, or in the mines of Siberia, is not more truly degraded and wretched.
The toil is hard and the reward dreadful! Those who have no knowledge choose such slavery, but those who are taught of God cry to be rescued from it.
The same ignorance which keeps men slaves to evil, makes them hate the freeborn sons of God; hence they seek to "eat them up as they eat bread"—daily, ravenously, as though it were an ordinary, usual, every-day matter to oppress the saints of God. As pikes in a pond, eat up little fish, as eagles prey on smaller birds, as wolves rend the sheep of the pasture--so sinners naturally and as a matter of course, persecute, malign, and mock the followers of the Lord Jesus. While thus preying, they forswear all praying, and in this act consistently, for how could they hope to be heard while their hands are full of blood?
Verse 5. There they are in great fear, for God is with the generation of the righteous. Oppressors have it not all their own way, they have their fits of trembling and their appointed seasons of overthrow.
"There"—where they denied God and hectored against his people. "There"—where they thought of peace and safety, they were made to quail.
"There they are"—these very loud-mouthed, iron-handed, proud-hearted Nimrods and Herods, those heady, high-minded sinners, "There they are in great fear." A panic terror seized them.
"They feared a fear," as the Hebrew puts it--an undefinable, horrible, mysterious dread crept over them. The most hardened of men have their periods when conscience casts them into a cold sweat of alarm. As cowards are cruel, so all cruel men are at heart cowards. The ghost of past sin is a terrible specter to haunt any man, and though unbelievers may boast as loudly as they will, a sound is in their ears which makes them ill at ease.
"For God is in the generation of the righteous." This makes the company of godly men so irksome to the wicked because they perceive that God is with them. Shut their eyes as they may, they cannot but perceive the image of God in the character of his truly gracious people, nor can they fail to see that he works for their deliverance. Like Haman, they instinctively feel a trembling when they see God's Mordecais.
Even though the saint may be in a base position, mourning at the gate where the persecutor rejoices in state, the sinner feels the influence of the believer's true nobility and quails before it, for God is there.
Let scoffers beware, for they persecute the Lord Jesus when they molest his people. The union is very close between God and his people, it amounts to a mysterious indwelling, for God is in the generation of the righteous.
Verse 6. You shame the counsel of the poor, but the LORD is his refuge. Notwithstanding their real cowardice, the wicked put on the lion's skin and lord it over the Lord's poor ones. Though fools themselves, they mock at the truly wise as if the folly were on their side; but this is what might be expected, for how should brutish minds appreciate excellence, and how can those who have owl's eyes admire the sun?
The special point and butt of their jest seems to be the confidence of the godly in their Lord. What can your God do for you now? Who is that God who can deliver out of our hand? Where is the reward of all your praying and beseeching? Taunting questions of this sort they thrust into the faces of weak but gracious souls, and tempt them to feel ashamed of their refuge.
Let us not be laughed out of our confidence by them--let us scorn their scorning and defy their jeers. We shall need to wait but a little, and then the Lord our refuge will avenge his own elect, and ease himself of his adversaries, who once made so light of him and of his people.
Verse 7. Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD brings back the captivity of His people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad. Natural enough is this closing prayer, for what would so effectually convince atheists, overthrow persecutors, stay sin, and secure the godly, as the manifest appearance of Israel's great salvation?
The coming of Messiah was the desire of the godly in all ages, and though he has already come with a sin-offering to purge away iniquity, we look for him to come a second time, to come without a sin-offering unto salvation.
O that these weary years would have an end! Why tarries he so long? He knows that sin abounds and that his people are down-trodden; why comes he not to the rescue?
His glorious advent will restore his ancient people from literal captivity, and his SPIRITUAL seed from spiritual sorrow. Wrestling Jacob and prevailing Israel shall alike rejoice before him when he is revealed as their salvation. O that he were come! What happy, holy, halcyon, heavenly days would we then see! But let us not count him slack, for behold he comes, he comes quickly! Blessed are all those who wait for him.