Treasury of David
TITLE AND SUBJECT. A Psalm of Asaph. This poet of the temple here acts as a preacher to the court and to the magistracy. Men who do one thing well are generally equal to another; he who writes good verse is not unlikely to be able to preach. What preaching it would have been had Milton entered the pulpit, or had Virgil been an apostle.
Asaph's sermon before the judges is now before us. He speaks very plainly, and his song is rather characterized by strength than by sweetness. We have here a clear proof that all psalms and hymns need not be direct expressions of praise to God; we may, according to the example of this psalm, admonish one another in our songs. Asaph no doubt saw around him much bribery and corruption, and while David punished it with the sword, he resolved to scourge it with a prophetic psalm. In so doing, the sweet singer was not forsaking his profession as a musician for the Lord, but rather was practically carrying it out in another department. He was praising God when he rebuked the sin which dishonored him, and if he was not making music, he was hushing discord when he bade rulers dispense justice with impartiality.
Verse 1. God stands in the congregation of the mighty.
He is the overlooker, who, from his own point of view, sees all that is done by the great ones of the earth. When they sit in state he stands over them, ready to deal with them if they pervert judgment. Judges shall be judged, and to justices justice shall be meted out. Our village squires and country magistrates would do well to remember this. Some of them had need go to school to Asaph until they have mastered this psalm. Their harsh decisions and strange judgments are made in the presence of him who will surely visit them for every unfitting act, for he has no respect unto the person of any, and is the champion of the poor and needy. A higher authority will criticize the decision of petty sessions, and even the judgments of our most impartial judges will be revised by the High Court of Heaven.
He judges among the gods.
They are gods to other men—but he is GOD to them. He lends them his name, and this is their authority for acting as judges—but they must take care that they do not misuse the power entrusted to them, for the Judge of judges is in session among them. Our puisne judges are but puny judges, and their brethren who administer common law will one day be tried by the common law.
This great truth is, upon the whole, well regarded among us in these times—but it was not so in the earlier days of English history, when Jeffries, and such as he, were an insult to the name of justice. Oriental judges, even now, are frequently, if not generally, amenable to bribes, and in past ages it was very hard to find a ruler who had any notion of justice apart from his own arbitrary will. Such plain teaching as this psalm contains was needful indeed, and he was a bold good man who, in such courtly phrases, delivered his own soul.
Verse 2. How long will you judge unjustly and accept the persons of the wicked?
It is indirectly stated that the magistrates had been unjust and corrupt. They not only excused the wicked—but even decided in their favor against the righteous. A little of this is too much, a short time too long. Some suitors could get their claims settled at once, and in their own favor, while others were wearing out their lives by waiting for an audience, or were robbed by legal process because their opponents had the judge's ear: how long were such things to be perpetuated? Would they never remember the Great Judge, and renounce their wickedness? This verse is so grandly stern that one is tempted to say, "Surely an Elijah is here."
This gives the offenders pause for consideration and confession.
Verse 3. Defend the poor and fatherless. Cease to do evil, learn to do well.
Look not to the interests of the wealthy whose hands offer you bribes—but protect the rights of the needy, and especially uphold the claims of orphans whose property too often becomes a prey. Do not hunt down the peasant for gathering a few sticks, nor allow the gentlemanly swindler to break through the meshes of the law.
Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Even they can claim from you as judge no more than justice; your pity for their circumstances must not make you hold the scales unfairly: but if you give them no more than justice, at least be sure that you give them that to the full. Do not allow the afflicted to be further afflicted by enduring injustice, and let not the needy long stand in need of an equitable hearing.
Verse 4. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
Break the nets of the man catchers, the legal toils, the bonds, the securities, with which cunning men capture and continue to hold in bondage the poor. It is a brave thing when a judge can liberate a victim like a fly from the spider's web, and a horrible case when magistrate and plunderer are in league. Law has too often been an instrument for vengeance in the hand of unscrupulous men, an instrument as deadly as poison or the dagger. It is for the judge to prevent such villainy.
Verse 5. They know not, neither will they understand.
A wretched plight for a nation to be in when its justices know no justice, and its judges are devoid of judgment. Neither to know his duty nor to wish to know it is rather the mark of an incorrigible criminal than of a magistrate—yet such a stigma was justly set upon the rulers of Israel.
They walk on in darkness.
They are as reckless as they are ignorant. Being both ignorant and wicked they yet dare to pursue a path in which knowledge and righteousness are essential: they go on without hesitation, forgetful of the responsibilities in which they are involved, and the punishment which they are incurring.
All the foundations of the earth are out of course.
When the dispensers of law have dispensed with justice, settlements are unsettled, society is unhinged, the whole fabric of the nation is shaken. When injustice is committed in due course of law the world is indeed out of course. When Justices' justice" becomes a byword it is time that justice dealt with justices. Surely it would be well that certain of the great unpaid" should be paid off, when day after day their judgments show that they have no judgment. When peasants may be horsewhipped by farmers with impunity, and a pretty bird is thought more precious than poor men, the foundations of the earth are indeed sinking like rotten piles unable to bear up the structures built upon them. Thank God we have, as an almost invariable rule, incorruptible judges; may it always be so. Even our lesser magistrates are, in general, most worthy men; for which we ought to be grateful to God evermore.
Verse 6. I have said, you are gods.
The greatest honor was thus put upon them; they were delegated gods, clothed for a while with a little of that authority by which the Lord judges among the sons of men.
And all of you are children of the Most High.
This was their ex-officio character, not their moral or spiritual relationship. There must be some government among men, and as angels are not sent to dispense it, God allows men to rule over men, and endorses their office, so far at least that the prostitution of it becomes an insult to his own prerogatives. Magistrates would have no right to condemn the guilty if God had not sanctioned the establishment of government, the administration of law, and the execution of sentences. Here the Spirit speaks most honorably of these offices, even when it censures the officers; and thereby teaches us to render honor to whom honor is due, honor to the office even if we award censure to the officer bearer.
Verse 7. But you shall die like men.
What sarcasm it seems! Great as the office made the men, they were still but men, and must die. To every judge this verse is a memento mori! He must leave the bench to stand at the bar, and on the way must put off the ermine to put on the shroud.
And fall like one of the princes.
Who were usually the first to die: for battle, sedition, and luxury, made greater havoc among the great than among any others. Even as princes have often been cut off by sudden and violent deaths, so should the judges be who forget to do justice. Men usually respect the office of a judge, and do not conspire to slay him, as they do to kill princes and kings; but injustice withdraws this protection, and puts the unjust magistrate in personal danger.
How quickly death unrobes the great. What a leveler he is. He is no advocate for liberty—but in promoting equality and fraternity, he is a masterly democrat. Great men die as common men do. As their blood is the same, so the stroke which lets out their life produces the same pains and throes. No places are too high for death's arrows: he brings down his birds from the tallest trees. It is time that all men considered this.
Verse 8. Arise, O God, and judge the earth.
Come O Judge of all mankind, put the bad judges to your bar and end their corruption and baseness. Here is the world's true hope of rescue from the fangs of tyranny.
For you shall inherit all nations.
The time will come when all races of men shall own their God, and accept him as their king. There is one who is "King by right divine," and he is even now on his way. The last days shall see him enthroned, and all unrighteous potentates broken like potter's vessels by his potent scepter. The second advent is still earth's brightest hope. Come quickly, even so, come, Lord Jesus.