Treasury of David
SUBJECT. The writer sees evildoers in power, and smarts under their oppressions. His sense of the divine sovereignty, of which he had been singing in the previous Psalm, leads him to appeal to God as the great Judge of the earth; this he does with much vehemence and importunity, evidently tingling under the lash of the oppressor. Confident in God's existence, and assured of his personal observation of the doings of men, the psalmist rebukes his atheistic adversaries, and proclaims his triumph in his God. He also interprets the severe dispensation of Providence to be in very deed most instructive chastisements, and so he counts those happy who endure them. The Psalm is another pathetic form of the old enigma, "Why do the wicked prosper?" It is another instance of a good man perplexed by the prosperity of the ungodly, cheering his heart by remembering that there is, after all, a King in Heaven, by whom all things are overruled for good.
In 1-7 the psalmist utters his complaint against wicked oppressors.
From 8-11 he reasons against their skeptical notion that God did not notice the actions of men.
He then shows that the Lord does bless his people and will deliver them, though for a while they may be chastened, 12-15.
He again pleads for help in 16, and declares his entire dependence upon God for preservation, 17-19.
Yet a third time urges his complaint, 20-21; and then concludes with the confident assurance that his enemies, and all other wicked men, would certainly be made to reap the due reward of their deeds, "yes, the Lord our God shall cut them off."
Verse 1. O LORD God, to whom vengeance belongs; O God, to whom vengeance belongs, show yourself.
Or, God of retribution, Jehovah, God of retribution, shine forth! A very natural prayer when innocence is trampled down, and wickedness exalted on high. If the execution of justice is a right thing—and who can deny the fact?—then it must be a very proper thing to desire it; not out of private revenge, in which case a man would hardly dare to appeal to God—but out of sympathy with right, and pity for those who are made wrongfully to suffer.
Who can see a nation enslaved, or even an individual downtrodden, without crying to the Lord to arise and vindicate the righteous cause? The toleration of injustice is here attributed to the Lord's being hidden, and it is implied that the bare sight of him will suffice to alarm the tyrants into ceasing their oppressions. God has but to show himself, and the good cause wins the day. He comes, he sees, he conquers!
Truly in these evil days we need a manifest display of his power, for the ancient enemies of God and man are again struggling for the mastery, and if they gain it, woe unto the saints of God.
Verse 2. Lift up yourself, judge of the earth.
Ascend your judgment seat and be acknowledged as the ruler of men. Moreover, raise yourself as men do who are about to strike with all their might; for the abounding sin of mankind requires a heavy blow from your hand.
Pay back the proud for what they deserve.
Give them measure for measure, a fair retaliation, blow for blow. The proud look down upon the gracious poor and strike them from above, as a giant might hurl down blows upon his adversary. After the same manner, O Lord, lift up yourself, and return a recompense upon the proud, and let them know that you are far more above them than they can be above the meanest of their fellow men. The psalmist thus invokes the retribution of justice in plain speech, and his request is precisely that which patient innocence puts up in silence, when her looks of anguish appeal to Heaven.
Verse 3. LORD, how long shall the wicked—how long shall the wicked triumph?
Shall wrong forever rule? Are slavery, robbery, tyranny, never to cease? Since there is certainly a just God in Heaven, armed with almighty power, surely there must be sooner or later an end to the ascendancy of evil, innocence must one day find a defender.
This "how long?" of the text is the bitter complaint of all the righteous in all ages, and expresses wonder caused by that great enigma of providence, the existence and predominance of evil.
The sound "how long?" is very akin to howling, as if it were one of the saddest of all the utterances in which misery bemoans itself. Many a time has this bitter complaint been heard in the dungeons of the Inquisition, at the whipping posts of slavery, and in the prisons of oppression. In due time God will publish his reply—but the full end is not yet.
Verse 4. How long shall they utter and speak hard things?
The ungodly are not content with deeds of injustice—but they add hard speeches, boasting, threatening, and insulting over the saints. Will the Lord forever endure this? Will he leave his own children much longer to be the prey of their enemies? Will not the insolent speeches of his adversaries and theirs at last provoke his justice to intervene? Words often wound more than swords—they are as hard to the heart as stones to the flesh; and these are poured forth by the ungodly in redundance, for such is the force of the word translated utter; and they use them so commonly that they become their common speech (they utter and speak them)—will this always be endured?
And all the workers of iniquity boast themselves.
They even soliloquise and talk to themselves, and of themselves, in arrogance of Spirit, as if they were doing some good deed when they crush the poor and needy, and spit their spite on gracious men. It is the nature of workers of iniquity to boast, just as it is a characteristic of godly men to be humble—will their boasts always be suffered by the great Judge, whose ear hears all that they say? Long, very long, have they had the platform to themselves, and loud, very loud, have been their blasphemies of God, and their railings at his saints—will not the day soon come when the threatened heritage of shame and everlasting contempt shall be meted out to them? Thus the oppressed plead with their Lord, and shall not God avenge his own elect? Will he not speak out of Heaven to the enemy and say, "Why do you persecute me"?
Verse 5. They break in pieces your people, O LORD.
Grinding them with oppression, crushing them with contempt. Yet the men they break in pieces are God's own people, and they are persecuted because they are so; this is a strong plea for the divine interposition.
And afflict your heritage.
Causing them sorrowful humiliation and deep depression of heart. The term, "your heritage," marks out the election of the saints, God's peculiar interest and delight in them, his covenant relation, of long standing, to them and their fathers. This also is a storehouse of arguments with their faithful God. Will he not defend his own people? Will a man lose his inheritance, or permit it to be contemptuously despoiled? Those who are ground down, and trampled on, are not strangers—but the choice and chosen ones of the Lord; how long will he leave them to be a prey to cruel foes?
Verse 6. They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless.
They deal most arrogantly with those who are the most evident objects of compassion. The law of God especially commends these poor ones to the kindness of good men, and it is peculiar wickedness which singles them out to be the victims not only of fraud but of murder. Must not such inhuman conduct as this provoke the Lord? Shall the tears of widows, the groans of strangers, and the blood of orphans be poured forth in vain? As surely as there is a God in Heaven, he will visit those who perpetrate such crimes; though he bear long with them, he will yet take vengeance, and that speedily.
Verse 7. Yet they say, the Lord shall not see.
This was the reason of their arrogance, and the climax of their wickedness: they were blindly wicked because they dreamed of a blind God. When men believe that the eyes of God are dim, there is no reason to wonder that they give full license to their brutal passions. The persons mentioned above not only cherished an infidel unbelief—but dared to avow it, uttering the monstrous doctrine that God is too far away to take notice of the actions of men.
Neither shall the God of Jacob regard it.
Abominable blasphemy and transparent falsehood! If God has actually become his people's God, and proved his care for them by a thousand acts of grace, how dare the ungodly assert that he will not notice the wrongs done to them? There is no limit to the proud man's profanity, reason itself cannot restrain him; he has broken through the bounds of common sense.
Jacob's God heard him at the brook Jabbok; Jacob's God led him and kept him all his life long, and said concerning him and his family, "Touch not my anointed, and do my prophets no harm;" and yet these brutish ones profess to believe that he neither sees nor regards the injuries wrought upon the elect people! Surely in such unbelievers is fulfilled the saying of the wise, that those whom the Lord means to destroy he leaves to the madness of their corrupt hearts.
Verse 8. Understand, you brutish among the people.
They said that God did not note, and now, using the same word in the original, the psalmist calls on the wicked to note, and have regard to the truth. He designates them as boors, boarish, swinish men, and well was the term deserved—he bids them understand or consider, if they can. They thought themselves to be wise, and indeed the only men of wit in the world—but he calls them "boars among the people". Wicked men are fools, and the more they know, the more foolish they become. "No fool like a learned fool" is a true proverb.
When a man has done with God, he has done with his manhood, and has fallen to the level of the ox and the donkey—yes, beneath them, for "the ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master's crib."
Instead of being humbled in the presence of scientific infidels, we ought to pity them; they affect to look clown upon us—but we have far more cause to look down upon them.
And you fools, when will you be wise?
Is it not high time? You know the ways of folly, what profit have you in them? Have you no relics of reason left? no shreds of sense? If as yet there lingers in your minds a gleam of intelligence, hearken to argument, and consider the questions now about to be proposed to you.
Verse 9. He who planted the ear, shall he not hear?
He fashioned that marvelous organ, and fixed it in the most convenient place near to the brain—and is he deaf himself? Is he capable of such design and invention—and yet can he not discern what is done in the world which he made? He made you hear—can he not himself hear? Unanswerable question! It overwhelms the skeptic, and covers him with confusion.
He who formed the eye, shall he not see?
He gives us vision; is it conceivable that he has no sight himself? With skillful hand he fashioned the optic nerve, and the eyeball, and all its intricate mechanism—it surpasses all conception that he can himself be unable to observe the doings of his creatures. If there is a God, he must be a personal intelligent being, and no limit can be set to his knowledge.
Verse 10. He who chastises the heathen, shall not he correct?
He reproves whole nations—can he not reprove individuals? All history shows that he visits national sin with national judgment—and can he not deal with single persons? The question which follows is equally full of force, and is asked with a degree of warmth which checks the speaker, and causes the inquiry to remain incomplete.
It begins, He who teaches man knowledge, and then it comes to a pause, which the translators have supplied with the words, shall not he know? But no such words are in the original, where the sentence comes to an abrupt end, as if the inference were too natural to need to be stated, and the writer had lost patience with the brutish men with whom he had argued.
The earnest believer often feels as if he could say, "Go away, you are not worth arguing with! If you were reasonable men, these things would be too obvious to need to be stated in your hearing. I forbear."
Man's knowledge comes from God. Science in its first principles was taught to our progenitor Adam, and all after advances have been due to divine aid—does not the author and revealer of all knowledge himself know?
Verse 11. Whether men admit or deny that God knows, one thing is here declared, namely, that The Lord knows the thoughts of man, that they are vanity. Not their words alone are heard, and their works seen—but he reads the secret motions of their minds, for men themselves are not hard to be discerned of him. Before his glance they themselves are but vanity. It is in the Lord's esteem no great matter to know the thoughts of such transparent pieces of vanity as mankind are, he sums them up in a moment as poor vain things.
This is the sense of the original—but that given in the authorized version is also true—the thoughts, the best part, the most spiritual portion of man's nature, even these are vanity itself, and nothing better.
Poor man! And yet such a creature as this boasts, plays at monarch, tyrannizes over his fellow worms, and defies his God! Madness is mingled with human vanity, like smoke with the fog, to make it fouler but not more substantial than it would have been alone. How foolish are those who think that God does not know their actions, when the truth is that their vain thoughts are all perceived by him! How absurd to make nothing of God when in fact we ourselves are as nothing in his sight!
Verse 12. Blessed is the man whom you chasten, O LORD.
The psalmist's mind is growing quiet. He no longer complains to God or argues with men—but tunes his harp to softer melodies, for his faith perceives that with the most afflicted believer, all is well. Though he may not feel blessed while smarting under the rod of chastisement—yet blessed he is. He is precious in God's sight, or the Lord would not take the trouble to correct him, and right blessed will the results of his correction be.
The psalmist calls the chastened one a "man" in the best sense, using the Hebrew word which implies strength. He is a man, indeed, who is under the teaching and training of the Lord.
And teach him out of your law.
The book and the rod, the law and the chastening—go together, and are made doubly useful by being found in connection. Affliction without the word is a furnace for the metal—but there is no flux to aid the purifying: the word of God supplies that need, and makes the fiery trial effectual. After all, the blessing of God belongs far rather to those who suffer under the divine hand, than to those who make others suffer: better far to lie and cry out as a "man" under the hand of our heavenly Father, than to roar and rave as a brute, and to bring down upon one's self a death-blow from the destroyer of evil.
The afflicted believer is under God's tutelage, he is in training for something higher and better. All that he meets with is working out his highest good, therefore is he a blessed man, however much his outward circumstances may argue the reverse.
Verse 13. That you may give him rest from the days of adversity, until the pit is dug for the wicked.
The chastening hand and instructive book are sanctified to us, so that we learn to rest in the Lord. We see that his end is our everlasting benefit, and therefore abide quiet under all trying providences and bitter persecutions, waiting our time.
The Mighty Hunter is preparing the pit for the brutish ones; they are prowling about at this time, and tearing the sheep—but they will soon be captured and destroyed, therefore the people of the Lord learn to rest in days of adversity, and tarry the leisure of their God.
Wicked men may not yet be ripe for punishment, nor punishment ready for them. Hell is a prepared place for a prepared people. As days of grace ripen saints for glory—so days of wantonness help sinners to rot into the corruption of eternal destruction.
Verse 14. For the LORD will not cast off his people.
He may cast them down—but he never can cast them off. During fierce persecutions the saints have been apt to think that the Lord had left his own sheep, and given them over to the wolf. But it has never been so, nor shall it ever be, for the Lord will not withdraw his love, neither will he forsake his inheritance. For a time he may leave his own with the design of benefitting them thereby—yet never can he utterly desert them.
"He may chasten and correct,
But he never can neglect;
May in faithfulness reprove,
But he never can cease to love."
Verse 15. But judgment shall return unto righteousness.
The great Judge will come, the reign of righteousness will commence, the course of affairs will yet be turned into the right channel—and then all the godly will rejoice. The chariot of righteousness will be drawn in triumph through our streets, and all the upright in heart shall follow it, as in happy procession.
A delightful hope is here expressed in poetic imagery of much beauty. The government of the world has been for a while in the hands of those who have used it for the basest and most wicked ends; but the cry of prayer will bring back righteousness to the throne, and then every upright heart will have its portion of joy.
Verse 16. Who will rise up for me against the evildoers? Who will stand up for me against the workers of iniquity?
Notwithstanding the psalmist's persuasion that all would be well eventually, he could not at the time perceive anyone who would stand side by side with him in opposing evil; no champion of the right was forthcoming, the faithful failed from among men. This also is a bitter trial, and a sore evil under the sun; yet it has its purpose, for it drives the heart still more completely to the Lord, compelling it to rest alone in him. If we could find friends elsewhere, it may be our God would not be so dear to us; but when, after calling upon Heaven and earth to help, we meet with no support but such as comes from the eternal arm, we are led to prize our God, and rest upon him with undivided trust. Never is the soul safer or more at rest than when, all other helpers failing, she leans upon the Lord alone.
The verse before us is an appropriate cry, now that the church sees error invading her on all sides, while faithful ministers are few, and fewer still are bold enough to "stand up" and defy the enemies of truth. Where are our Luthers and our Calvins? A false charity has enfeebled the most of the valiant men of Israel. Our John Knox would be worth a mint at this hour—but where is he? Our grand consolation is that the God of Knox and Luther is yet with us, and in due time will call out his chosen champions.
Verse 17. Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul had almost dwelt in silence.
Without Jehovah's help, the psalmist declares that he would have died outright, and gone into the silent land, where no more testimonies can be borne for the living God.
Or he may mean that he would not have had a word to speak against his enemies—but would have been wrapped in speechless shame.
Blessed be God, we are not left to that condition yet, for the Almighty Lord is still the helper of all those who look to him. Our inmost soul is bowed down when we see the victories of the Lord's enemies—we cannot endure it, we cover our mouths in confusion; but he will yet arise and avenge his own cause, therefore have we hope.
Verse 18. When I said, My foot is slipping.
Is slipping even now. I perceived my danger, and cried out in horror, and then, at the very moment of my extremity, came the needed help.
Your mercy, O LORD, held me up.
Often enough is this the case, we feel our weakness, and see our danger, and in fear and trembling we cry out. At such times nothing can help us but mercy; we can make no appeal to any imagined merit, for we feel that it is our inbred sin which makes our feet so ready to fail us; our joy is that mercy endures forever, and is always at hand to pluck us out of the danger, and hold us up—otherwise we would fall to our destruction.
Ten thousand times has this verse been true in relation to some of us, and especially to the writer of this commentary. The danger was imminent, it was upon us, we were going; the peril was apparent, we saw it, and were aghast at the sight; our own heart was failing, and we concluded that it was all over with us. But then came the almighty interposition: we did not fail, we were held up by an unseen hand, the devices of the enemy were frustrated, and we sang for joy. O faithful Keeper of our souls, be extolled forever and ever. We will bless the Lord at all times, his praise shall continually be in our mouths.
Verse 19. In the multitude of my thoughts within me.
When I am tossed to and fro with various reasonings, distractions, questions, and forebodings, I will fly to my true rest.
For your comforts delight my soul.
From my sinful thoughts, my vain thoughts, my sorrowful thoughts, my griefs, my cares, my conflicts—I will hasten to the Lord; he has divine comforts, and these will not only console but actually delight me. How sweet are the comforts of the Spirit! Who can muse upon eternal love, immutable purposes, covenant promises, finished redemption, the risen Savior, his union with his people, the coming glory, and such like themes, without feeling his heart leaping with joy?
The little world within is, like the great world without full of confusion and strife; but when Jesus enters it, and whispers "Peace be unto you, "there is a calm, yes, a rapture of bliss.
Let us turn away from the mournful contemplation of the oppression of man and the present predominance of the wicked, to that sanctuary of pure rest which is found in the God of all comfort. To give us some evidence and assurance of his love and favor towards us; these are his comforts.
This is a transcendent expression, which the Holy Spirit in the pen of the prophet David comes up unto. It had been a great matter to have said, they satisfy my soul, or, they quiet me, no more but so, that is the highest pitch which a perplexed spirit can wish to itself. Those who are in great pain, they would be glad if they might have but ease, and they cannot aspire so high as pleasure and delight, this is more than can be expected by them.
But see here now the notable efficacy of these Divine comforts; they do not only pacify the mind—but they delight it; they not only satisfy it—but ravish it; they not only quiet—but delight it.
Your comforts delight my soul. That is, not only take away the present grief—but likewise put in the room and place of it most unspeakable comfort and consolation; as the sun does not only dispel darkness—but likewise brings in a glorious light in the stead of it.
Verse 20. Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with you?
Such thrones there are, and they plead a right divine—but their claim is groundless, a fraud upon mankind and a blasphemy of Heaven. God enters into no alliance with unjust authority, he gives no sanction to unrighteous legislation.
Which frames mischief by a law?
They legalise robbery and violence, and then plead that it is the law of the land; and so indeed it may be—but it is a wickedness for all that. With great care men prepare enactments intended to put down all protests, so as to render wrong-doing a permanent institution—but one element is necessary to true government, namely, righteousness; and lacking that, all their arrangements of the holders of power must come to an end, and all their decrees must in process of time be wiped out of the statute book. Nothing can last forever but impartial right. No injustice can be permanent, for God will not set his seal upon it, nor have any fellowship with it, and therefore down it must come, and happy shall be the day which sees it fall.
Verse 21. They gather themselves together against the soul of the righteous.
So many are there of them that they crowd their assemblies, and carry their hard measures with enthusiasm; they are the popular party, and are eager to put down the saints. In counsel, and in action, they are unanimous; their one resolve is to hold their own tyrannical position, and put down the godly party.
And condemn the innocent blood.
They are great at slander and false accusation, nor do they stick at murder; no crime is too great for them, if only they can trample on the servants of the Lord.
This description is historically true in reference to persecuting times; it has been fulfilled in England, and may be again if Popery is to advance in future time at the same rate as in the past few years. The dominant sect has the law on its side, and boasts that it is the national church; but the law which establishes and endows one religion rather than another, is radically an injustice. God has no fellowship with it, and therefore the synagogue of Ritualism will yet be a stench in the nostrils of all sane men. What evil times are in store for us it is not for us to prophesy; it is ours to leave the matter in the hands of him who cannot be in fellowship with an oppressive system, and will not always endure to be insulted to his face by Popish idols, and their priests.
Verse 22. Let the wicked gather as they may, the psalmist is not afraid—but sweetly sings, The Lord is my defense, and my God is the rock of my refuge. Firm as a rock is Jehovah's love, and there do we betake ourselves for shelter. In him, even in him alone, we find safety, let the world rage as it may. We ask not aid from man—but are content to flee into the bosom of omnipotence.
Verse 23. He has brought on them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness.
The natural result of oppression is the destruction of the despot—his own iniquities crush him before long. Providence arranges retaliations as remarkable as they are just. High crimes in the end bring on heavy judgments, to sweep away evil men from off the face of the earth. Yes, God himself interposes in a special manner, and cuts short the career of tyrants while they are in the very midst of their crimes. Wicked men are often arrested by the messengers of divine justice red handed, with the evidences of their guilt upon them.
While the stolen bread is in their mouths, wrath slays them. While the ill gotten wedge of gold is yet in their tent, judgment overtakes them. God himself conspicuously visits them, and reveals his own power in their overthrow.
The LORD our God shall cut them off. Here, then, the matter ends; faith reads the present in the light of the future, and ends her song without a trembling note.