Treasury of David
This Psalm begins and ends with Hallelujah, "Praise the Lord!" The space between these two descriptions of praise is filled up with the mournful details of Israel's sin—and the extraordinary patience of God. Truly we do well to bless the Lord both at the beginning and the end of our meditations when sin and grace are the themes.
This sacred song is occupied with the historical part of the Old Testament, and is one of many which are thus composed. Surely this should be a sufficient rebuke to those who speak slightingly of the historical Scriptures; it in becomes a child of God to think lightly of that which the Holy Spirit so frequently uses for our instruction. What other Scriptures had David beside those very histories which are so depreciated, and yet he esteemed them beyond his necessary food, and made them his songs in the house of his pilgrimage?
Israel's history is here written with the view of showing human sin, even as the preceding psalm was composed to magnify divine goodness. It is, in fact, a national confession, and includes an acknowledgment of the transgressions of Israel in Egypt, in the wilderness, and in Canaan—with devout petitions for forgiveness such as rendered the Psalm suitable for use in all following generations, and especially in times of national captivity.
It was probably written by David—at any rate its first and last two verses are to be found in that sacred song which David delivered to Asaph when he brought up the ark of the Lord (1 Chronicles 16:34-36).
While we are studying this holy Psalm, let us all along see ourselves in the Lord's ancient people, and bemoan our own provocations of the Most High, at the same time admiring his infinite patience, and adoring him because of it. May the Holy Spirit sanctify it to the promotion of humility and gratitude.
Praise and prayer are blended in the introduction (verses 1-5).
Then comes the story of the nation's sins, which continues until the closing prayer and praise of the last two verses. While making confession the Psalmist acknowledges:
the sins committed in Egypt and at the Red Sea (verses 6-12),
the lusting in the wilderness (verses 13-15),
the envying of Moses and Aaron (verses 16-18),
the worship of the golden calf (verses 19-23)
the despising of the promised land (verses 24-27),
the iniquity of Baal Peor (verses 28-30),
and the waters of Meribah (verses 28-33).
Then he owns the failure of Israel when settled in Canaan, and mentions their consequent chastisement (verses 34-44),
together with the quick compassion which came to their relief when they were brought low (verses 44-46).
The closing prayer and doxology fill up the remaining verses.
Verse 1. Praise the Lord. Hallelujah.
Praise Jah! This song is for the assembled people, and they are all exhorted to join in praise to Jehovah. It is not fit for a few to praise and the rest to be silent; but all should join. If David were present in churches where quartets and choirs carry on all the singing, he would turn to the congregation and say, "Praise the Lord."
Our meditation dwells upon human sin; but on all occasions and in all occupations it is seasonable and profitable to praise the Lord.
O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good.
To us needy creatures the goodness of God is the first attribute which excites praise, and that praise takes the form of gratitude. We praise the Lord truly when we give him thanks for what we have received from his goodness. Let us never be slow to return unto the Lord our praise; to thank him is the least we can do—let us not neglect it.
For his mercy endures forever.
Goodness towards sinners assumes the form of mercy, mercy should therefore be a leading note in our song. Since man ceases not to be sinful, it is a great blessing that Jehovah ceases not to be merciful. From age to age the Lord deals graciously with his church, and to every individual in it he is constant and faithful in his grace, even for evermore.
In a short space we have here two arguments for praise, "for he is good; for his mercy endures forever," and these two arguments are themselves praises. The very best language of adoration is that which adoringly in the plainest words sets forth the simple truth with regard to our great Lord. No rhetorical flourishes or poetic hyperboles are needed, the bare facts are sublime poetry, and the narration of them with reverence is the essence of adoration.
This first verse is the text of all that follows; we are now to see how from generation to generation the mercy of God endured to his chosen people.
Verse 2. Who can utter the mighty acts of the LORD?
What tongue of men or angels can duly describe the great displays of divine power? They are unutterable. Even those who saw them could not fully tell them.
Who can show forth all his praise?
To declare his works is the same thing as to praise him, for his own doings are his best commendation. We cannot say one tenth so much for him as his own character and acts have already done. Those who praise the Lord have an infinite subject, a subject which will not be exhausted throughout eternity by the most enlarged intellects, nay, nor by the whole multitude of the redeemed, though no man can number them.
The questions of this verse never can be answered; their challenge can never be accepted, except in that humble measure which can be reached by a holy life and a grateful heart.
Verse 3. Blessed are those who keep judgment, and he who does righteousness at all times.
Since the Lord is so good and so worthy to be praised, it must be for our happiness to obey him. Multiplied are the blessings which must descend upon the whole company of the keepers of the way of justice, and especially upon that one rare man who at all times follows that which is right.
Holiness is happiness. The way of right is the way of peace. Yet men leave this road, and prefer the paths of the destroyer. Hence the story which follows is in sad contrast with the happiness here depicted, because the way of Israel was not that of judgment and righteousness—but that of folly and iniquity.
The Psalmist, while contemplating the perfections of God, was impressed with the feeling that the servants of such a being must be happy, and when he looked around and saw how the tribes of old prospered when they obeyed, and suffered when they sinned—he was still more fully assured of the truth of his conclusion. O could we but be free of sin—we would be rid of sorrow! We would not only be just—but "keep judgment"; we would not be content with occasionally acting rightly—but would "do justice at all times."
Verse 4. Remember me, O Lord, with the favor which you bear unto your people.
Insignificant as I am, do not forget me. Think of me with kindness, even as you think of your own elect. I cannot ask more, nor would I seek less. Treat me as the least of your saints are treated, and I am content.
It should be enough for us if we fare as the rest of the family. If even Balaam desired no more than to die the death of the righteous, we may be well content both to live as they live, and die as they die. This feeling would prevent our wishing to escape trial, persecution, and chastisement; these have fallen to the lot of saints, and why should we escape them.
"Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease?
While others fought to will the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas."
At the same time we pray to have their sweets as well as their bitters. If the Lord smiled upon their souls we cannot rest unless he smiles upon us also. We would dwell where they dwell, rejoice as they rejoice, sorrow as they sorrow, and in all things be forever one with them in the favor of the Lord.
The sentence before us is a sweet prayer, at once humble and aspiring, submissive and expansive; it might be used by a dying thief or a living apostle; let us use it now.
O visit me with your salvation.
Bring it home to me. Come to my house and to my heart, and give me the salvation which you have prepared, and are alone able to bestow. We sometimes hear of a man's dying by the visitation of God—but here is one who knows that he can only live by the visitation of God. Jesus said of Zacchaeus, "This day is salvation come to this house, "and that was the case because he himself had come there.
There is no salvation apart from the Lord, and he must visit us with it or we shall never obtain it.
We are too sick to visit our Great Physician, and therefore he visits us. O that our great Bishop would hold a visitation of all the churches, and bestow his blessing upon all his flock. Sometimes the second prayer of this verse seems to be too great for us, for we feel that we are not worthy that the Lord should come under our roof. Visit me, Lord? Can it be? Dare I ask for it? And yet I must, for you alone can bring me salvation: therefore, Lord, I entreat you to come unto me, and abide with me forever.
Verse 5. That I may see the good of your chosen.
His desire for the divine favor was excited by the hope that he might participate in all the good things which flow to the people of God through their election. The Father has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus, according as he has chosen us in him, and in these precious gifts we desire to share through the saving visitation of the Lord. No other good do we wish to see, perceive, and apprehend—but that which is the peculiar treasure of the saints.
That I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation.
The psalmist, having sought his portion in the good of the chosen, now also begs to be a partaker in their joy for of all the nations under Heaven the Lord's true people are the happiest.
That I may glory with your inheritance.
He would have a part and lot in their honor as well as their joy. He was willing to find glory where saints find it, namely, in being reproached for truth's sake. To serve the Lord and endure shame for his sake is the glory of the saints below.
Lord, let me rejoice to bear my part therein.
To be with God above, forever blessed in Christ Jesus, is the glory of saints above. O Lord, be pleased to allot me a place there also.
These introductory thanksgivings and supplications, though they occur first in the psalm, are doubtless the result of the contemplations which succeed them, and may be viewed not only as the preface—but also as the moral of the whole sacred song.
Verse 6. We have sinned with our fathers.
Here begins a long and particular confession. Confession of sin is the readiest way to secure an answer to the prayer of verse 4; God visits with his salvation the soul which acknowledges its need of a Savior.
Men may be said to have sinned with their fathers when they imitate them, when they follow the same objects, and make their own lives to be mere continuations of the follies of their sires. Moreover, Israel was but one nation in all time, and the confession which follows sets forth the national rather than the personal sin of the Lord's people. They enjoyed national privileges, and therefore they shared in national guilt.
We have committed iniquity, we have done wickedly.
Thus is the confession repeated three times, in token of the sincerity and heartiness of it.
Sins of omission, commission, and rebellion we ought to acknowledge under distinct heads, that we may show a due sense of the number and heinousness of our offences.
Verse 7. Our fathers understood not your wonders in Egypt.
The Israelites saw the miraculous plagues and ignorantly wondered at them. Their design of love, their deep moral and spiritual lessons, and their revelation of the divine power and justice—they were unable to perceive. A long sojourn among idolaters had blunted the perceptions of the chosen family, and cruel slavery had ground them down into mental sluggishness.
Alas, how many of God's wonders are not understood, or misunderstood by us still. We fear the sons are no great improvement upon the sires. We inherit from our fathers much sin and little wisdom; they could only leave us what they themselves possessed. We see from this verse that a want of understanding is no excuse for sin—but is itself one count in the indictment against Israel.
They remembered not the multitude of your mercies.
The sin of the understanding leads on to the sin of the memory. What is not understood will soon be forgotten. Men feel little interest in preserving husks; if they know nothing of the inner kernel they will take no care of the shells.
It was an aggravation of Israel's sin that when God's mercies were so numerous, they yet were able to forget them all. Surely some out of such a multitude of benefits ought to have remained engraved upon their hearts; but if grace does not give us understanding, nature will soon east out the memory of God's great goodness.
But provoked him at the sea, even at the Red sea.
To fall out at starting was a bad sign. Those who did not begin well can hardly be expected to end well. Israel is not quite out of Egypt, and yet she begins to provoke the Lord by doubting his power to deliver, and questioning his faithfulness to his promise. The sea was only called Red—but their sins were scarlet in reality; it was known as the "sea of weeds," but far worse weeds grew in their hearts.
Verse 8. Nevertheless he saved them for his name's sake, that he might make his mighty power to be known.
When he could find no other reason for his mercy he found it in his own glory, and seized the opportunity to display his power. If Israel does not deserve to be saved—yet Pharaoh's pride needs to be crushed, and therefore Israel shall be delivered.
The Lord very jealously guards his own name and honor. It shall never be said of him that he cannot or will not save his people, or that he cannot abate the haughtiness of his defiant foes. This respect unto his own honor ever leads him to deeds of mercy, and hence we may well rejoice that he is a jealous God.
Verse 9. He rebuked the Red sea also, and it was dried up.
A word did it. The sea heard his voice and obeyed. How many rebukes of God are lost upon us! Are we not more unmanageable than the ocean? God did, as it were, chide the sea, and say, "Why do you stop the way of my people? Their path to Canaan lies through your channel, how dare you hinder them?" The sea perceived its Master and his seed royal, and made way at once.
So he led them through the depths, as through the wilderness.
As if it had been the dry floor of the desert the tribes passed over the bottom of the gulf; nor was their passage venturesome, for HE bade them go; nor dangerous, for He led them.
We also have under divine protection passed through many trials and afflictions, and with the Lord as our guide we have experienced no fear and endured no perils. We have been led through the deeps as through the wilderness.
Verse 10. And he saved them from the hand of those who hated them.
Pharaoh was drowned, and the power of Egypt so crippled that throughout the forty years' wanderings of Israel they were never threatened by their old masters.
And redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.
This was a redemption by power, and one of the most instructive types of the redemption of the Lord's people from sin and Hell by the power which works in them.
Verse 11. And the waters covered their enemies—there was not one of them left.
The Lord does nothing by halves. What he begins he carries through to the end. This, again, made Israel's sin the greater, because they saw the thoroughness of the divine justice, and the perfection of the divine faithfulness.
In the covering of their enemies we have a type of the pardon of our sins; they are sunk as in the sea, never to rise again; and, blessed be the Lord, there is "not one of them left."—Not one sin of thought, or word, or deed, the blood of Jesus has covered all. "I will cast their iniquities into the depths of the sea!"
Verse 12. Then they believed his words.
That is to say, they believed the promise when they saw it fulfilled—but not until then. This is mentioned, not to their credit—but to their shame. Those who do not believe the Lord's word until they see it performed are not believers at all. Who would not believe when the fact stares them in the face? The Egyptians would have done as much as this.
They sang his praise.
How could they do otherwise? Their song was very excellent, and is the type of the song of Heaven; but sweet as it was, it was quite as short, and when it was ended they fell to murmuring. "They sang his praise, "but "they soon forgot his works." Between Israel singing and Israel sinning there was scarce a step. Their song was good while it lasted—but it was no sooner begun than over.
Verse 13. They soon forgot his works.
They seemed in a hurry to get the Lord's mercies out of their memories; they hastened to be ungrateful.
They waited not for his counsel.
Neither waiting for the word of command or promise; eager to have their own way, and prone to trust in themselves.
This is a common fault in the Lord's family to this day; we are long in learning to wait for the Lord, and upon the Lord. With him is counsel and strength—but we are vain enough to look for these to ourselves, and therefore we grievously err.
Verse 14. But lusted exceedingly in the wilderness.
Though they would not wait God's will, they are hot to have their own. When the most suitable and pleasant food was found them in abundance, it did not please them long—but they grew dainty and sniffed at angel's food, and must needs have meat to eat, which was unhealthy diet for that warm climate, and for their easy life. This desire of theirs they dwelt upon until it became a mania with them, and, like a wild horse, carried away its rider. For a meal of meat they were ready to curse their God and renounce the land which flows with milk and honey. What a wonder that the Lord did not take them at their word! It is plain that they vexed him greatly.
And tempted God in the desert.
In the place where they were absolutely dependent upon him and were everyday fed by his direct provision, they had the presumption to provoke their God. They would have him change the plans of his wisdom, supply their sensual appetites, and work miracles to meet their wicked unbelief: these things the Lord would not do—but they went as far as they could in trying to induce him to do so. They failed not in their wicked attempt because of any goodness in themselves—but because God "cannot be tempted,"—temptation has no power over him, he yields not to man's threats or promises.
Verse 15. And he gave them their request.
Prayer may be answered in anger, and denied in love. That God gives a man his desire is no proof that he is the object of divine favor, everything depends upon what that desire is.
But sent leanness into their soul.
Ah, that "but!" It embittered all. The food was poison to them when it came without a blessing; whatever it might do in fattening the body, it was poor stuff when it made the soul lean.
If we must know scantiness, may God grant it may not be scantiness of soul—yet this is a common attendant upon worldly prosperity. When wealth grows with many a man his worldly estate is fatter—but his soul's state is leaner. To gain silver and lose gold is a poor increase; but to win for the body and lose for the soul is far worse. How earnestly might Israel have unprayed her prayers had she known what would come with their answer! The prayers of lust will have to be wept over. We fret and fume until we have our desire, and then we have to fret still note because the attainment of it ends in bitter disappointment.
Verse 16. They envied Moses also in the camp.
Though to him as the Lord's chosen instrument they owed everything, they grudged him the authority which it was needful that he should exercise for their good. Some were more openly rebellious than others, and became leaders of the mutiny—but a spirit of dissatisfaction was general, and therefore the whole nation is charged with it.
Who can hope to escape envy when the meekest of men was subject to it? How unreasonable was this envy, for Moses was the one man in all the camp who labored hardest and had most to bear. They should have sympathized with him; to envy him was ridiculous.
And Aaron the saint of the Lord.
By divine choice Aaron was set apart to be holiness unto the Lord, and instead of thanking God that he had favored them with a high priest by whose intercession their prayers would be presented, they caviled at the divine election, and quarreled with the man who was to offer sacrifice for them.
Thus neither church nor state was ordered aright for them; they would snatch from Moses his scepter, and from Aaron his mitre. It is the mark of bad men that they are envious of the good, and spiteful against their best benefactors.
Verse 17. The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan, and covered the company of Abiram.
Korah is not mentioned, for mercy was extended to his household, though he himself perished. The earth could no longer bear up under the weight of these rebels and ingrates! God's patience was exhausted when they began to assail his servants, for his children are very dear to him, and he who touches them touches the apple of his eye.
Moses had opened the sea for their deliverance, and now that they provoke him, the earth opens for their destruction. It was time that the nakedness of their sins was covered, and that the earth should open her mouth to devour those who opened their mouths against the Lord and his servants.
Verse 18. And a fire was kindled in their company; the flame burned up the wicked.
The Levites who were with Korah perished by fire, which was a most fitting death for those who intruded into the priesthood, and so offered strange fire. God has more than one arrow in his quiver, the fire can consume those whom the earthquake spares. These terrible things in righteousness are mentioned here to show the obstinacy of the people in continuing to rebel against the Lord. Terrors were as much lost upon them as mercies had been—they could neither be drawn nor driven.
Verse 19. They made a calf in Horeb.
In the very place where they had solemnly pledged themselves to obey the Lord they broke the second, if not the first, of his commandments, and set up the Egyptian symbol of the ox, and bowed before it. The ox image is here sarcastically called "a calf"; idols are worthy of no respect, scorn is never more legitimately used than when it is poured upon all attempts to set forth the Invisible God. The Israelites were foolish indeed when they thought they saw the slightest divine glory in a bull, nay, in the mere image of a bull. To believe that the image of a bull could be the image of God must need great credulity.
And worshiped the molten image.
Before it they paid divine honors, and said, "These are your gods, O Israel." This was sheer madness.
After the same fashion the Ritualists must needs set up their symbols and multiply them exceedingly. Spiritual worship they seem unable to apprehend; their worship is sensuous to the highest degree, and appeals to eye, and ear, and nose. O the folly of men to block up their own way to acceptable worship, and to make the path of spiritual religion, which is hard to our nature, harder still through the stumbling blocks which they cast into it. We have heard the richness of Popish paraphernalia much extolled—but an idolatrous image when made of gold is not one jot the less abominable than it would have been had it been made of dross and dung. The beauty of are cannot conceal the deformity of sin!
We are told also of the suggestiveness of their symbols—but what of that, when God forbids the use of them? Vain also is it to plead that such worship is hearty. So much the worse. Heartiness in forbidden actions is only an increase of transgression.
Verse 20. Thus they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eats grass.
They said that they only meant to worship the one God under a fitting and suggestive similitude by which his great power would be set forth to the multitude; they pleaded the great Catholic revival which followed upon this return to a more ornate ceremonial, for the people thronged around Aaron, and danced before the calf with all their might. But in very deed they had given up the true God, whom it had been their glory to adore, and had set up a rival to him, not a representation of him; for how should he be likened to a bullock?
The psalmist is very contemptuous, and justly so. Irreverence towards idols is an indirect reverence to God. False gods, attempts to represent the true God, and indeed, all material things which are worshiped, are so much filth upon the face of the earth—whether they be crosses, crucifixes, virgins, wafers, relics, or even the Pope himself. We are by far too mealy mouthed about these infamous abominations. God abhors them, and so should we. To renounce the glory of spiritual worship for outward pomp and show, is the height of folly, and deserves to be treated as such.
Verse 21. They forgot God their Savior.
Remembering the calf, involved forgetting God. He had commanded them to make no image, and in daring to disobey they forgot his commands.
Moreover, it is clear that they must altogether have forgotten the nature and character of Jehovah, or they could never have likened him to a grass eating animal. Some men hope to keep their sins and their God too—the fact being that he who sins is already so far departed from the Lord that he has actually forgotten him.
Who had done great things in Egypt.
God in Egypt had overcome all the idols, and yet they so far forgot him as to liken him to them. Could an ox work miracles? Could a golden calf cast plagues upon Israel's enemies? They were brutish to set up such a wretched mockery of deity, after having seen what the true God could really achieve.
Verse 22. Wondrous works in the land of Ham, and terrible things by the Red sea.
They saw several ranges of miracles, the Lord did not stint them as to the evidences of his eternal power and godhead, and yet they could not rest content with worshiping him in his own appointed way—but must needs have a Directory of their own invention, an elaborate ritual after the old Egyptian fashion, and a tangible object of worship to assist them in adoring Jehovah. This was enough to provoke the Lord, and it did so. How much he is angered every day in our own land no tongue can tell.
Verse 23. Therefore he said that he would destroy them.
The threatening of destruction came at last.
For the first wilderness sin, he chastened them, sending leanness into their soul.
For the second wilderness sin, he weeded out the offenders and the flame burned up the wicked.
For the third wilderness sin, he threatened to destroy them.
For the fourth wilderness sin, he lifted up his hand and almost came to blows (verse 26).
For the fifth wilderness sin, he actually smote them, "and the plague broke in among them"; and so the punishment increased with their perseverance in sin.
This is worth noting, and it should serve as a warning to the man who goes on in his iniquities. God tries words before he comes to blows, "he said that he would destroy them": but his words are not to be trifled with, for he means them, and has power to make them good.
Had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach.
Like a bold warrior who defends the wall when there is an opening for the adversary and destruction is rushing in upon the city, Moses stopped the way of avenging justice with his prayers. Moses had great power with God. He was an eminent type of our Lord, who is called, as Moses here is styled, "my elect, in whom my soul delights." As the Elect Redeemer interposed between the Lord and a sinful world, so did Moses stand between the Lord and his offending people.
The story as told by Moses himself is full of interest and instruction, and tends greatly to magnify the goodness of the Lord, who thus allowed himself to be turned from the fierceness of his anger. With unselfish affection, and generous renunciation of privileges offered to himself and his family, the great lawgiver interceded with the Lord to turn away his wrath, lest he should destroy them.
Behold the power of a righteous man's intercession. Mighty as was the sin of Israel to provoke vengeance, prayer was mightier in turning it away. How diligently ought we to plead with the Lord for this guilty world, and especially for his own backsliding people! Who would not employ an agency so powerful for an end so gracious! The Lord still harkens to the voice of a man, shall not our voices be often exercised in supplicating for a guilty people?
Verse 24. Yes, they despised the pleasant land.
They spoke lightly of it, though it was the joy of all lands. They did not think it worth the trouble of seeking and conquering; they even spoke of Egypt, the land of their iron bondage, as though they preferred it to Canaan, the land which flows with milk and honey.
It is an ill sign with a Christian when he begins to think lightly of Heaven and heavenly things; it indicates a perverted mind, and it is, moreover, a high offence to the Lord to despise that which he esteems so highly that he in infinite love reserves it for his own chosen. To prefer earthly things to heavenly blessings is to prefer Egypt to Canaan, the house of bondage to the land of promise.
They believed not his word.
This is the root sin. If we do not believe the Lord's word, we shall think lightly of his promised gifts. "They could not enter in because of unbelief"—this was the key which turned the lock against them.
When pilgrims to the Celestial City begin to doubt the Lord of the way, they soon come to think little of the rest at the journey's end, and this is the surest way to make them bad travelers.
Israel's unbelief demanded spies to see the land; the report of those spies was of a mixed character, and so a fresh crop of unbelief sprang up, with consequences most deplorable.
Verse 25. But grumbled in their tents.
From unbelief to grumbling is a short and natural step; they even fell to weeping when they had the best ground for rejoicing.
Grumbling is a great sin and not a mere weakness; it contains within itself unbelief, pride, rebellion, and a whole host of sins. It is a home sin, and is generally practiced by complainers "in their tents," but it is just as evil there as in the streets, and will be quite as grievous to the Lord.
And hearkened not unto the voice of the Lord.
Making a din with their own voices, they refused attention to their best Friend. Murmurers are bad hearers.
Verse 26. Therefore he lifted up his hand against them, to overthrow them in the wilderness.
He swore in his wrath that they should not enter into his rest; he commenced his work of judgment upon them, and they began to die. Only let God lift his hand against a man and his day has come. He falls terribly whom Jehovah overthrows.
To overthrow their seed also among the nations, and to scatter them in the lands.
Foreseeing that their descendants would reproduce their sins, he solemnly declared that he would give them over to captivity and the sword. Those whose carcases fell in the wilderness were, in a sense, exiles from the land of promise, and, being surrounded by many hostile tribes, they were virtually in a foreign land. To die far off from their father's inheritance was a just and weighty doom, which their rebellions had richly deserved.
Our own loss of fellowship with God, and the divisions in our churches, doubtless often come to us as punishments for the sins out of which they grow. If we will not honor the Lord, we cannot expect him to honor us. Our captains shall soon become captives, and our princes shall be prisoners if we forget the Lord and despise his mercies. Our singing shall be turned into sighing, and our mirth into misery—if we walk contrary to the mind of the Lord.
Verse 28. They joined themselves also unto the Baal of Peor.
Ritualism led on to the adoration of false gods. If we choose a false way of worship—we shall, before long, choose to worship a false God. This abomination of the Moabites was an idol in whose worship women gave up their bodies to the most shameless lust. Think of the people of a holy God coming down to this!
And ate the sacrifices of the dead.
In the orgies with which the Baalites celebrated their detestable worship Israel joined, partaking even in their sacrifices as earnest inner court worshipers, though the gods were but dead idols. Perhaps they assisted in necromantic rites which were intended to open a correspondence with departed spirits, thus endeavoring to break the seal of God's providence, and burst into the secret chambers which God has shut up.
Those who are weary of seeking the living God have often shown a hankering after dark sciences, and have sought after fellowship with demons and spirits. To what strong delusions those are often given up who cast off the fear of God! This remark is as much needed now as in days gone by.
Verse 29. Thus they provoked him to anger with their inventions—and the plague broke in upon them.
Open licentiousness and avowed idolatry were too gross to be winked at. This time the offences clamored for judgment, and the judgment came at once. Twenty-four thousand persons fell before a sudden and deadly disease which threatened to run through the whole camp. Their new sins brought on them a disease new to their tribes.
When men invent sins God will not be slow to invent punishments. Their vices were a moral pest, and they were visited with a bodily pest—so the Lord meets like with its like.
Verse 30. Then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgment: and so the plague was stayed.
God has his champions left in the worst times, and they will stand up when the time comes for them to come forth to battle.
This righteous indignation moved him to a quick execution of two open offenders. His honest spirit could not endure that lewdness should be publicly practiced at a time when a fast had been proclaimed. Such daring defiance of God and of all law he could not brook, and so with his sharp javelin he transfixed the two guilty ones in the very act. It was a holy passion which inflamed him, and no enmity to either of the persons whom he slew.
The circumstances were so remarkable and the sin so flagrant that it would have involved great sin in a public man to have stood still and seen God thus defied, and Israel thus polluted. Phinehas was not of this mind, he was no trimmer, or palliator of sin, his heart was sound in God's statutes, and his whole nature was ablaze with zeal for God's glory, and therefore, though a priest, and therefore not obliged to be an executioner, he undertook the unwelcome task, and though both transgressors were of princely stock he had no respect of persons—but dealt justice upon them as if they had been the lowest of the people. This brave and decided deed was so acceptable to God as a proof that there were some sincere souls in Israel that the deadly visitation went no further. Two deaths had sufficed to save the lives of the multitude.
Verse 31. And that was counted unto him for righteousness unto all generations for evermore.
Down to the moment when this psalm was penned the house of Phinehas was honored in Israel. His faith had performed a valorous deed, and his righteousness was testified of the Lord, and honored by the continuance of his family in the priesthood. He was impelled by motives that what would otherwise have been a deed of blood, was justified in the sight of God; nay, more, was made the evidence that Phinehas was righteous. No personal ambition, or private revenge, or selfish passion, or even fanatical bigotry, inspired the man of God—but zeal for God, indignation at open filthiness, and true patriotism urged him on.
Once again we have cause to note the mercy of God that even when his warrant was out, and actual execution was proceeding, he stayed his hand at the suit of one man: finding, as it were, an apology for his grace when justice seemed to demand immediate vengeance.
Verse 32. They angered him also at the waters of strife.
Will they never be done? The scene changes—but the sin continues. Aforetime they had mutinied about water when prayer would soon have turned the desert into a standing pool—but now they do it again after their former experience of the divine goodness. This made the sin a double, yes a sevenfold offence, and caused the anger of the Lord to be the more intense.
So that ill went in with Moses for their sakes.
Moses was at last wearied out, and began to grow angry with them and utterly hopeless of their ever improving—can we wonder at it, for he was man and not God? After forty years bearing with them, the meek man's temper gave way, and he called them rebels, and showed unhallowed anger; and therefore he was not permitted to enter the land which he desired to inherit. Truly, he had a sight of the goodly country from the top of Pisgah—but entrance was denied him, and thus it went ill with him. It was their sin which angered him—but he had to bear the consequences. However clear it may be that others are more guilty than ourselves, we should always remember that this will not screen us—but every man must bear his own burden.
Verse 33. Because they provoked his spirit, so that he spoke unadvisedly with his lips.
Which seems a small sin compared with that of others—but then it was the sin of Moses, the Lord's chosen servant, who had seen and known so much of the Lord, and therefore it could not be passed by. He did not speak blasphemously, or falsely—but only hastily and without care; but this is a serious fault in a lawgiver, and especially in one who speaks for God.
This passage is to our mind one of the most terrible in the Bible. Truly we serve a jealous God. Yet he is not a hard master, or austere; we must not think so—but we must the rather be jealous of ourselves, and watch that we live the more carefully, and speak the more advisedly, because we serve such a Lord.
We ought also to be very careful how we treat the ministers of the gospel, lest by provoking their spirit we should drive them into any unfitting behavior which should bring upon them the chastisement of the Lord. Little do a murmuring, quarrelsome people dream of the perils in which they involve their pastors by their untoward behavior.
Verse 34. They did not destroy the nations, concerning whom the LORD commanded them.
They were commissioned to act as executioners upon races condemned for their unnatural crimes—and through sloth, cowardice, or sinful delight they sheathed the sword too soon, very much to their own danger and disquietude.
It is a great evil with professors that they are not zealous for the total destruction of all sin within and without. We make alliances of peace where we ought to proclaim war to the knife! We plead our constitutional temperament, our previous habits, the necessity of our circumstances, or some other evil excuse as an apology for being content with a very partial sanctification, if indeed it is sanctification at all. We are slow also to rebuke sin in others, and are ready to spare respectable sins, which like Agag walk with mincing steps. The measure of our destruction of sin is not to be our inclination, or the habit of others—but the Lord's command. We have no warrant for dealing leniently with any sin, be it what it may.
Verse 35. But they mingled among the heathen, and learned their customs.
It was not the wilderness which caused Israel's sins; they were just as disobedient when settled in the land of promise. They found evil company, and delighted in it. Those whom they should have destroyed they made their friends. Having enough faults of their own, they were yet ready to go to school to the filthy Canaanites, and educate themselves still more in the arts of iniquity. It was certain that they could learn no good from men whom the Lord had condemned to utter destruction.
Few would wish to go to the condemned cell for learning—yet Israel sat at the feet of accursed Canaan, and rose up proficient in every abomination.
This, too, is a grievous but common error among professors: they court worldly company and copy worldly fashions, and yet it is their calling to bear witness against these things. None can tell what evil has come to the church, because of the folly of worldly conformity!
Verse 36. And they served their idols, which were a snare unto them.
They were fascinated by the charms of idolatry, though it brings misery upon its votaries. A man cannot serve sin without being ensnared by it. It is like birdlime, and to touch it is to be taken by it. Samson laid his head in the Philistine woman's lap—but before long he woke up shorn of his strength. Dalliance with sin is fatal to holy living.
Verse 37. Yes, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils!
This was being snared indeed; they were spell bound by the cruel superstition, and were carried so far as even to become murderers of their own children, in honor of the most detestable deities, which were rather devils than gods.
Verse 38. And shed innocent blood.
The poor little ones whom they put to death in sacrifice had not been partakers of their sin, and God looked with the utmost indignation upon the murder of the innocent.
Even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan.
Who knows how far evil will go? It drove men to be unnatural as well as ungodly. Had they but thought for a moment, they must have seen that a deity who could be pleased with the blood of babes spilled by their own sires could not be a deity at all—but must be a demon, worthy to be detested and not adored.
How could they prefer such service to that of Jehovah? Did he tear their babes from their bosoms and smile at their death throes?
Men will sooner wear the iron yoke of Satan, than carry the pleasant burden of the Lord. Does not this prove to a demonstration the deep depravity of their hearts? If man be not totally depraved, what worse would he do if he were? Does not this verse describe the ultimate of iniquity?
And the land was polluted with blood.
The promised land, the holy land, which was the glory of all lands, for God was there—was defiled with the reeking gore of innocent babes, and by the blood red hands of their parents, who slew them in order to pay homage to devils. Alas! alas! What vexation was this to the thrice holy Lord!
Verse 39. Thus were they defiled with their own works, and went a whoring with their own inventions.
Not only the land, but the inhabitants of it were polluted. They broke the marriage bond between them and the Lord, and fell into spiritual adultery. The language is strong—but the offence could not be fitly described in less forcible words.
As a husband is deeply dishonored and sorely wounded should his wife become unchaste and run riot with many paramours in his own house—so was the Lord incensed at his people for setting up gods many and lords many in his own land.
They made and invented new gods, and then worshiped what they had made. What a folly! Their novel deities were loathsome monsters and cruel demons, and yet they paid them homage. What wickedness! And to commit this folly and wickedness they cast off the true God, whose miracles they had seen, and whose people they were. This was provocation of the severest sort.
Verses 40. Therefore was the wrath of the LORD kindled against his people, in so much that he abhorred his own inheritance.
Not that even then he broke his covenant or utterly cast off his offending people—but he felt the deepest indignation, and even looked upon them with abhorrence.
The feeling described is like that of a husband who still loves his guilty wife, and yet when he thinks of her lewdness feels his whole nature rising in righteous anger at her, so that the very sight of her afflicts his soul.
How far the divine wrath can burn against those whom he yet loves in his heart it is hard to say—but certainly Israel pushed the experiment to the extreme.
And he gave them into the hand of the heathen.
This was the manifestation of his abhorrence. He gave them a taste of the result of sin; they spared the heathen, mixed with them and imitated them, and soon they had to smart from them, for hordes of invaders were let loose upon them to spoil them at their pleasure. Men make rods for their own backs. Their own sins become their punishments.
And they that hated them ruled over them.
And who could wonder? Sin never creates true love. They joined the heathen in their wickedness, and they did not win their hearts—but rather provoked their contempt. If we mix with men of the world, they will soon become our masters and our tyrants, and we cannot have worse.
Verse 42. Their enemies also oppressed them.
This was according to their nature; an Israelite always fares ill at the hands of the heathen. Leniency to Canaan turned out to be cruelty to themselves.
And they were brought into subjection under their hand.
They were bowed down by laborious bondage, and made to lie low under tyranny. In their God they had found a kind master—but in those with whom they had perversely sought fellowship, they found despots of the most barbarous sort. He who leaves his God, leaves happiness for misery. God can make our enemies to be rods in his hands to flog us back to our best Friend.
Verse 43. Many times did he deliver them.
By reading the book of Judges, we shall see how truthful is this sentence. Again and again their foes were routed, and they were set free again, only to return with rigor to their former evil ways.
But they provoked him with their counsel.
With deliberation they agreed to transgress anew. Self-will was their counselor, and they followed it to their own destruction.
And were brought low for their iniquity.
Worse and worse were the evils brought upon them—lower and lower they fell in sin, and consequently in sorrow. In dens and caves of the earth they hid themselves. They were deprived of all warlike weapons, and were utterly despised by their conquerors. They were rather a race of serfs than of free men—until the Lord in mercy raised them up again.
Could we but fully know the horrors of the wars which desolated Palestine, and the ravages which caused famine and starvation, we would shudder at the sins which were thus rebuked.
Deeply engrained in their nature must the sin of idolatry have been, or they would not have returned to it with such persistence in the teeth of such penalties! We need not marvel at this, there is a still greater wonder, man prefers sin and Hell to Heaven and God.
The lesson to ourselves, as God's people, is to walk humbly and carefully before the Lord and above all to keep ourselves from idols. Woe unto those who become partakers of Rome's idolatries, for they will be joined with her in her plagues. May grace be given to us to keep to the separated path, and remain undefiled with the fornication of the scarlet harlot of Babylon.
Verse 44. Nevertheless he regarded their affliction, when he heard their cry.
Notwithstanding all these provoking rebellions and detestable enormities the Lord still heard their prayer and pitied them. This is very wonderful, very godlike. One would have thought that the Lord would have shut out their prayer, seeing they had shut their ears against his admonitions. But no, he had a father's heart, and a sight of their sorrows touched his soul, the sound of their cries overcame his heart, and he looked upon them with compassion. His fiercest wrath towards his own people is only a temporary flame—but his love burns on forever like the light of his own immortality.
Verse 45. And he remembered for them his covenant.
The covenant is the sure foundation of mercy, and when the whole fabric of outward grace manifested in the saints lies in ruins—this is the fundamental basis of love which is never moved, and upon it the Lord proceeds to build again a new structure of grace. Covenant mercy is as sure as the throne of God.
And relented according to the multitude of his mercies.
He did not carry out the destruction which he had commenced. Speaking after the manner of men, he changed his mind, and did not leave them to their enemies to be utterly cut off, because he saw that his covenant would in such a case have been broken.
The Lord is so full of grace that he has not only mercy but mercies, yes a multitude of them, and these hive in the covenant and treasure up good for the erring sons of men.
Verse 46. He made them also to be pitied by all those that carried them captives.
Having the hearts of all men in his hands, he produced compassion even in heathen bosoms. Even as he found friends in Egypt for Joseph, so did he raise up sympathizers for his captive servants. In our very worst condition our God has ways and means for allaying the severity of our sorrows—he can find helpers for us among those who have been our oppressors, and he will do so if we be indeed his people.
Verse 47. Save us, O Lord our God.
This is the closing prayer, arranged by prophecy for those who would in future time be captives.
The mention of the covenant encouraged the afflicted to call the Lord their God, and this enabled them with greater boldness to entreat him to interpose on their behalf and rescue them.
And gather us from among the Heathen.
Weary now of the ungodly and their ways, they long to be brought into their own separated country, where they might again enjoy the means of grace, enter into holy fellowship with their brethren, escape from contaminating examples, and be free to worship the Lord.
How often do true believers now a days long to be removed from ungodly households, where their souls are vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked.
To give thanks unto your holy name, and to triumph in your praise.
Weaned from idols, they desire to make mention of Jehovah's name alone, and to ascribe their mercies to his ever abiding faithfulness and love. The Lord had often saved them for his holy name's sake, and therefore they feel that when again restored they would render all their gratitude to that saving name, yes, it should be their glory to praise Jehovah and none else.
Verse 48. Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting.
Has not his mercy endured forever, and should not his praise be of like duration? Jehovah, the God of Israel, has blessed his people, should they not also bless him?
And let all the people say, Amen.
They have all seen spared by his grace, let them all join in the adoration with loud unanimous voice. What a thunder of praise would thus be caused! Yet should a nation thus magnify him, yes, should all the nations past and present unite in the solemn acclaim—it would fall far short of his deserts. O for the happy day when all flesh shall see the glory of God, and all shall aloud proclaim his praise.
Praise the LORD!
Reader, Praise the Lord, as he who writes this feeble exposition now does with his whole heart.
"Now blessed, forever blessed, be He,
The same throughout eternity,
Our Israel's God adored!
Let all the people join the lay,
And loudly, 'Hallelujah', say,
'Praise the living Lord!'"