Treasury of David
TITLE. To the Chief Musician, a Psalm for the sons of Korah. This is precisely the same as on former occasions, and no remark is needed.
DIVISION. The poet musician sings, to the accompaniment of his harp, the despicable character of those who trust in their wealth, and so he consoles the oppressed believer.
The first four verses are a preface;
from verses 5-12 all fear of great oppressors is removed by the remembrance of their end and their folly;
verses 13 contains an expression of wonder at the perpetuity of folly;
verses 14-15 contrast the ungodly and the righteous in their future;
from verses 16-20 the lesson from the whole is given in an admonitory form.
Note the chorus in Verses 2, 20, and also the two Selahs.
Verses 1-4. In these four verses the poet prophet calls universal humanity to listen to his didactic hymn.
Verse 1. Hear this, all you people. All men are concerned in the subject, and therefore to them that the psalmist would speak. It is not a topic which men delight to consider, and therefore he who would instruct them must press them to give ear. Where, as in this case, the theme claims to be wisdom and understanding, attention is very properly demanded; and when the style combines the sententiousness of the proverb with the sweetness of poetry, interest is readily excited.
Give ear, all you inhabitants of the world. "He who has ears to hear let him hear." Men dwelling in all climates are equally concerned in the subject, for the laws of providence are the same in all lands. It is wise for each one to feel I am a man, and therefore everything which concerns mortals has a personal interest to me. We must all appear before the judgment seat, and therefore we all should give earnest heed to holy admonition which may help us to prepare for that dread event. He who refuses to receive instruction by the ear, will not be able to escape receiving destruction by it when the Judge shall say, "Depart, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire!"
Verse 2. Both low and high, rich and poor, together. Sons of great men, and children of base men; men of large estate, and you who pine in poverty—you are all bidden to hear the inspired minstrel as he touches his harp to a mournful but instructive lay. The low will be encouraged, the high will be warned, the rich will be sobered, the poor consoled—there will be a useful lesson for each if they are willing to learn it.
Our preaching ought to have a voice for all classes, and all should have an ear for it. To suit our word to the rich alone is wicked sycophancy, and to aim only at pleasing the poor is to act the part of a demagogue. Truth may be so spoken as to command the ear of all, and wise men seek to learn that acceptable style.
Rich and poor must soon meet together in the grave, they may well be content to meet together now. In the congregation of the dead, all differences of rank will be obliterated, they ought not now to be obstructions to united instructions.
Verse 3. My mouth shall speak of wisdom. Inspired and therefore lifted beyond himself, the prophet is not praising his own attainments, but extolling the divine Spirit which spoke in him. He knew that the Spirit of truth and wisdom spoke through him. He who is not sure that his matter is good, has no right to ask a hearing.
And the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding. The same Spirit who made the ancient seers eloquent, also made them thoughtful. The help of the Holy Spirit was never meant to supersede the use of our own mental powers. The Holy Spirit does not make us speak as Balaam's donkey, which merely uttered sounds, but never meditated; but he first leads us to consider and reflect, and then he gives us the tongue of fire to speak with power.
Verse 4. I will incline my ear to a parable. He who would have others hear, begins by hearing himself. As the minstrel leans his ear to his harp, so must the preacher give his whole soul to his ministry.
The truth came to the psalmist as a parable, and he endeavored to unriddle it for popular use. He would not leave the truth in obscurity, but he listened to its voice until he so well understood it as to be able to interpret and translate it into the common language of the multitude. Still of necessity it would remain a problem, and a dark saying to the unenlightened many, but this would not be the songster's fault, for, says he, I will open my dark saying upon the harp.
The writer was no mystic, delighting in deep and cloudy things—yet he was not afraid of the most profound topics; he tried to open the treasures of darkness, and to uplift pearls from the deep. To win attention he cast his proverbial philosophy into the form of song, and tuned his harp to the solemn tone of his subject.
Let us gather round the minstrel of the King of kings, and hear the Psalm which first was led by the chief musician, as the chorus of the sons of Korah lifted up their voices in the temple.
Verse 5. Why should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my heels shall compass me about? The man of God looks calmly forward to dark times when those evils which have dogged his heels shall gain a temporary advantage over him. Iniquitous men, here called in the abstract iniquity, lie in wait for the righteous, as serpents that aim at the heels of travelers.
The iniquity of our heels is that evil which aims to trip us up or impede us. It was an old prophecy that the serpent should wound the heel of the woman's seed, and the enemy of our souls is diligent to fulfill that premonition.
In some dreary part of our road it may be that evil will wax stronger and bolder, and gaining upon us will openly assail us; those who followed at our heels like a pack of wolves, may perhaps overtake us, and compass us about. What then? Shall we yield to cowardice? Shall we be a prey to their teeth? God forbid. Nay, we will not even fear, for what are these foes? What indeed, but mortal men who shall perish and pass away?
There can be no real ground of alarm to the faithful. Their enemies are too insignificant to be worthy of one thrill of fear. Does not the Lord say to us, "I, even I, am he who comforts you. Who are you, that you should be afraid of a man that shall die, and of the son of man which shall be made as grass?"
Verse 6. What if the godly man's foes be among the great ones of the earth! Yet he need not fear them.
Those who trust in their wealth. Poor fools, to be content with such a rotten confidence. When we set our rock in contrast with theirs, it would be folly to be afraid of them. Even though they are loud in their brags, we can afford to smile. What if they boast themselves in the multitude of their riches? Yet while we glory in our God we are not dismayed by their proud threatenings. Great strength, position, and estate, make wicked men very lofty in their own esteem, and tyrannical towards others; but the heir of Heaven is not overawed by their dignity, nor cowed by their haughtiness. He sees the small value of riches, and the helplessness of their owners in the hour of death, and therefore he is not so base as to be afraid of an ephemera, a moth, a bubble.
Verse 7. None of them can by any means redeem his brother. With all their riches, the whole of them put together could not rescue a comrade from the chill grasp of death. They boast of what they will do with us, let them see to themselves. Let them weigh their gold in the scales of death, and see how much they can buy therewith from the worm and the grave. The poor are their equals in this respect; let them love their friend ever so dearly, they cannot give to God a ransom for him. A king's ransom would be of no avail, a mountain of rubies, a continent of silver, a world of gold, a sun of diamonds—would all be utterly despised.
O you boasters, think not to terrify us with your worthless wealth, go and intimidate death before you threaten men in whom is immortality and life.
Verse 8. For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceases forever. Too great is the price—hence the purchase is hopeless. Forever must the attempt to redeem a soul with money, remain a failure. Death comes and wealth cannot bribe him; Hell follows and no golden key can unlock its dungeon. Vain, then, are your threatenings, you possessors of the yellow clay; your childish toys are despised by men who estimate the value of possessions by the shekel of the sanctuary.
Verse 9. No price could secure for any man that he should still live forever, and not see corruption. Mad are men now after gold, what would they be if it could buy the elixir of immortality? Gold is lavished out of the bag to cheat the worm of the poor body by embalming it, or enshrining it in a coffin of lead—but it is a miserable business, a very burlesque and comedy. As for the soul, it is too subtle a thing to be detained when it hears the divine command to soar through tracks unknown. Never, therefore, will we fear those base nibblers at our heels, whose boasted treasure proves to be so powerless to save.
Verse 10. For he sees that wise men die. Every one sees this. The proud persecuting rich man cannot help seeing it. He cannot shut his eyes to the fact that wiser men than he are dying, and that he also, with all his craft, must die.
Likewise the fool and the brutish person perish. Folly has no immunity from death. Off goes the jester's cap, as well as the student's gown. Jollity cannot laugh off the dying hour. Death who visits the university, does not spare the tavern. Thoughtlessness and brutishness meet their end, as surely as much care and wasting study.
In fact, while the truly wise, so far as this world is concerned, die, the fool has a worse lot, for he perishes, is blotted out of remembrance, bewailed by none, remembered no more.
And leave their wealth to others. Not a farthing can they carry with them. Whether heirs of their own body, lawfully begotten, inherit their estates, or they remain unclaimed, it matters not—their hoardings are no longer theirs. Friends may quarrel over their property, or strangers divide it as spoil, they cannot interfere. You boasters, hold you your own, before you dream of despoiling the sons of the living God. Keep shoes to your own feet in death's dark pilgrimage, before you seek to bite our heels.
Verse 11. Their inward thought is, their houses shall continue forever, and their dwelling places to all generations. He is very foolish who is more a fool in his inmost thought, than he dare to be in his speech. Such rotten fruit, rotten at the core, are worldlings.
Down deep in their hearts, though they dare not say so, they imagine that earthly goods are real and enduring. Foolish dreamers! The frequent dilapidation of their castles and rich houses should teach them better, but still they cherish the delusion. They cannot tell the mirage from the true streams of water. They imagine rainbows to be stable, and clouds to be the everlasting hills.
They call their lands after their own names. Common enough is this practice. His grounds are made to bear the groundling's name—he might as well write it on the water. Men have even called countries by their own names, but what are they the better for the idle compliment, even if men perpetuate their nomenclature?
Verse 12. But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish. He is but a lodger for the hour, and does not stay a night. Even when he dwells in marble halls, his notice to leave is written out. Eminence is evermore in imminence of peril. The hero of the hour, lasts but for an hour. Scepters fall from the paralyzed hands which once grasped them, and coronets slip away from skulls when the life is departed. He is like the beasts that perish. He is not like the sheep which are preserved of the Great Shepherd, but like the hunted beast which is doomed to die. He lives a brutish life, and dies a brutish death. Wallowing in riches, surfeited with pleasure—he is fatted for the slaughter, and dies like the ox in the shambles!
Alas! that so noble a creature should use his life so unworthily, and end it so disgracefully. So far as this world is concerned, wherein does the death of many men differ from the death of a dog? They go down—
"To the vile dust from whence they sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung."
What room is there, then, for fear to the godly when such natural brute beasts assail them? Should they not in patience possess their souls?
We make a break here, because this stanza appears to be the refrain of the song, and as such is repeated in Verses 20.
Verse 13. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves. Their vain confidences are not casual aberrations from the path of wisdom, but their way, their usual and regular course; their whole life is regulated by such principles. Their life path is essential folly. They are ingrained fools. From first to last brutishness is their characteristic, and groveling stupidity is the leading trait of their conduct.
And of their followers, who approve their sayings. Those who follow them in descent follow them in folly, quote their worldly maxims, and accept their mad career as the most prudent mode of life. Why do they not see by their father's failure, their father's folly? No, the race transmits its weakness. Grace is not hereditary, but sordid worldliness goes from generation to generation. The race of fools never dies out. No need of missionaries to teach men to be earthworms, they crawl naturally to the dust.
Selah. Well may the minstrel pause, and bid us to muse upon the deep seated madness of the sons of Adam. Take occasion, reader, to reflect upon your own.
Verse 14. Like sheep they are laid in the grave. As dumb driven cattle, they are hurried to their doom, and are penned in within the gates of destruction. As sheep that go where they are driven, and follow their leader without thought, so these men who have chosen to make this world their all, are urged on by their passions, until they find themselves at their journey's end—that end the depths of Hades. Or if we keep to our own translation, we have the idea of their dying peaceably, and being buried in quiet—only that they may wake up to be damned at the last great day.
Death shall feed on them. Death like a grim shepherd leads them on, and conducts them to the place of their eternal pasturage, where all is barrenness and misery. The righteous are led by the Good Shepherd, but the ungodly have death for their shepherd, and he drives them onward to Hell. As the power of death rules them in this world, for they have not passed from death unto life—so the terrors of death shall devour them in the world to come. As grim giants, in old stories, are said to feed on men whom they entice to their caves—so death, the monster, feeds on the flesh and blood of the ungodly.
The upright shall have dominion over them in the morning. The poor saints were once the tail, but at the day break they shall be the head. Sinners rule until night fall; their honors wither in the evening, and in the morning they find their position utterly reversed. The sweetest reflection to the upright is that "the morning" here intended begins an endless, changeless, day.
What a vexation of spirit to the proud worldling, when the Judge of all the earth holds his morning session, to see the man whom he despised, exalted high in Heaven, while he himself is cast away!
And their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling. Whatever of glory the ungodly had shall disappear in the tomb. Form and loveliness shall vanish from them, the worm shall make sad havoc of all their beauty. Even their last dwelling place, the grave, shall not be able to protect the relics committed to it; their bodies shall dissolve, no trace shall remain of all their strong limbs and lofty heads, no vestige of remaining beauty shall be discoverable.
The beauty of the righteous is not yet revealed, it waits its manifestations. But all the beauty the wicked will ever have is in full bloom in this life—it will wither, fade, decay, rot, and utterly pass away. Who, then, would envy or fear the proud sinner?
Verse 15. But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave. Forth from that temporary resting place we shall come in due time, quickened by divine energy. Like our risen Head we cannot be held by the bands of the grave; redemption has emancipated us from the slavery of death.
No redemption could man find in riches, but God has found it in the blood of his dear Son. Our Elder Brother has given to God a ransom, and we are the redeemed of the Lord. Because of this redemption by price, we shall assuredly be redeemed by power out of the hand of the last enemy.
For he shall receive me. He shall take me out of the tomb, and take me up to Heaven. If it is not said of me as of Enoch, "He was not, for God took him," yet shall I reach the same glorious state. God will receive my spirit, and my body shall sleep in Jesus until, being raised in his image, it shall also be received into glory. How infinitely superior is such a hope to anything which our oppressors can boast!
Here is something which will bear meditation, and therefore again let us pause, at the bidding of the musician, who inserts a Selah.
Verse 16. In these last verses the psalmist becomes a preacher, and gives admonitory lessons which he has himself gathered from experience.
Do not be afraid when one is made rich. Let it not give you any concern to see the godless prosper. Raise no questions as to divine justice; allow no foreboding to cloud your mind. Temporal prosperity is too small a matter to be worth fretting about. Let the dogs have their bones, and the swine their chaff.
When the glory of his house is increased. Though the sinner and his family are in great esteem, and stand exceedingly high, never mind; all things will be righted in due time. Only those whose judgment is worthless, will esteem men the more because their lands are broader; those who are highly estimated for such unreasonable reasons, will find their level before long, when truth and righteousness come to the fore.
Verse 17. For when he dies he shall carry nothing away. He has but a lease of his acres, and death ends his tenure. Through the river of death man must pass naked. Not a rag of all his clothing, not a coin of all his treasure, not a jot of all his honor, can the dying worldling carry with him. Why then fret ourselves about so fleeting a prosperity?
His glory shall not descend after him. As he goes down, down, down forever—none of his honors or possessions will follow him. Titles of nobility are invalid in the sepulcher. His worship, his honor, and his lordship—will alike find their titles ridiculous in the tomb. Hell knows no aristocracy. Your dainty and delicate sinners shall find that eternal burnings have no respect for their affectations and refinements.
Verse 18. Though while he lived he blessed his soul. He pronounced himself happy. He had his good things in this life. His chief end and aim were to bless himself. He was charmed with the adulation of flatterers.
Men will praise you, when you do well to yourself. The generality of men worship success, however it may be gained. The color of the winning horse is no matter; it is the winner, and that is enough. "Take care of Number One," is the world's proverbial philosophy, and he who gives good heed to it is "a clever fellow," "a fine man of business," "a shrewd common sense tradesman," "a man with his head put on the right way."
Get money, and you will be "respectable," "a substantial man," and your house will be "an eminent firm in the city," or "one of the best county families."
To do good wins fame in Heaven, but to do good to yourself is the prudent thing among men of the world. Yet not a whisper of worldly congratulation can follow the departing millionaire; they say he died worth a mint of money, but what charm has that fact to the dull cold ear of death? The banker rots as fast as the shoeblack, and the noble becomes as putrid as the pauper. Alas! poor wealth, you are but the rainbow coloring of the bubble—the tint which yellows the morning mist, but adds not substance to it.
Verse 19. He shall go to the generation of his fathers. Where the former generations lie, the present shall also slumber. The sires beckon to their sons to come to the same land of forgetfulness. Mortal fathers beget not immortal children. As our ancestors have departed, so also must we.
They shall never see light. To this upper region the dead worldling shall never return again to possess his estates, and enjoy his dignities. Among the dead he must lie in the thick darkness, where no joy or hope can ever come to him. Of all his treasures there remains not enough to furnish him one poor candle—the blaze of his glory is out forever, and not a spark remains to cheer him. How then can we look with fear or envy upon a wretch doomed to eternal unhappiness?
Verse 20. The song ends with the refrain, Man that is in honor, and understands not, is like the beasts that perish. Understanding makes men different from animals, but if they will not follow the highest wisdom, and like beasts find their all in this life—then their end shall be as base and dishonorable as that of beasts slain in the chase, or slaughtered in the shambles. From the loftiest elevation of worldly honor, to the uttermost depths of death and damnation, is but a step.
Saddest of all is the reflection, that though men are like beasts in all the degradation of perishing—yet not in the rest which animal perishing secures, for, alas! it is written, "These shall go away into everlasting punishment."
So ends the minstrel's song. Comforting as the theme is to the righteous—it is full of warning to the worldly. Hear you it, O you rich and poor. Give ear to it, O nations of the earth.