Treasury of David
TITLE. A Song of Degrees. I fail to see how this is a step beyond the previous Psalm; and yet it is clearly the song of an older and more tried individual, who looks back upon a life of affliction in which he suffered all along, even from his youth. Inasmuch as patience is a higher, or at least a more difficult grace than domestic love, the ascent or progress may perhaps be seen in that direction.
Probably if we knew more of the stations on the road to the Temple we should see a reason for the order of these Psalms; but as that information cannot be obtained, we must take the songs as we find them, and remember that, as we do not now go on pilgrimages to Zion, it is our curiosity and not our necessity which is a loser by our not knowing the cause of the arrangement of the songs in this Pilgrim Psalter.
AUTHOR, ETC. It does not seem to us at all needful to ascribe this Psalm to a period subsequent to the captivity. Indeed, it is more suitable to a time when as yet the enemy bad not so far prevailed as to have carried the people into a distant land. It is a mingled hymn of sorrow and of strong resolve. Though sorely smitten, the afflicted one is heart whole, and scorns to yield in the least degree to the enemy.
The poet sings the trials of Israel, verses 1-3;
the interposition of the Lord, verse 4;
the unblessed condition of Israel's foes, verses 5-8.
It is a rustic song, full of allusions to husbandry. It reminds us of the books of Ruth and Amos.
Verse 1. Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, may Israel now say. In her present hour of trial she may remember her former afflictions and speak of them for her comfort, drawing from them the assurance that he who has been with her for so long will not desert her in the end.
The song begins abruptly. The poet has been musing, and the fire burns, therefore he speaks with his tongue; he cannot help it, he feels that he must speak, and therefore may now say what he has to say.
The trials of the church have been repeated again and again, times beyond all count—the same afflictions are fulfilled in us as in our fathers. Jacob of old found his days full of trouble; each Israelite is often harassed; and Israel as a whole has proceeded from tribulation to tribulation.
"Many a time", Israel says, because she could not say how many times. She speaks of her assailants as "they", because it would be impossible to write or even to know all their names. They had straitened, harassed, and fought against her from the earliest days of her history—from her youth; and they had continued their assaults right on without ceasing. Persecution is the heirloom of the church, and the ensign of the elect.
Israel among the nations was peculiar, and this peculiarity brought against her many restless foes, who could never be easy unless they were warring against the people of God. When in Canaan, at the first, the chosen household was often severely tried; in Egypt it was heavily oppressed; in the wilderness it was fiercely assailed; and in the promised land it was often surrounded by deadly enemies.
It was something for the afflicted nation that it survived to say, "Many a time have they afflicted me." The affliction began early, "from my youth"; and it continued late. The earliest years of Israel and of the Church of God are spent in trial. Babes in grace are cradled in opposition. No sooner is the manchild born than the dragon is after it. "It is", however, "good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth", and he shall see it to be so when in after days he tells the tale.
Verse 2. Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth. Israel repeats her statement of her repeated afflictions. The fact was uppermost in her thoughts, and she could not help soliloquizing upon it again and again. These repetitions are after the manner of poetry—thus she makes a sonnet out of her sorrows, and music out of her miseries.
"Yet they have not prevailed against me." We seem to hear the beat of timbrels and the clash of cymbals here: the foe is derided; his malice has failed. "Cast down, but not destroyed", is the shout of a victor. Israel has wrestled, and has overcome in the struggle. If Israel overcame the angel of the covenant, what man or devil shall vanquish him? The fight was oft renewed and long protracted: the champion severely felt the conflict, and was at times fearful of the issue; but at length he takes breath, and cries, "Yet they have not prevailed against me." "Many a time;" yes, "many a time", the enemy has had his opportunity and his advantage, but not so much as once has he gained the victory.
Verse 3. The plowers plowed up on my back. The scourgers tore the flesh as ploughmen furrow a field. The people were maltreated like a criminal given over to the lictors with their cruel whips; the back of the nation was scored and furrowed by oppression.
It is a grand piece of imagery condensed into few words. The afflicted nation was, as it were, lashed by her adversaries so cruelly that each blow left a long red mark, or perhaps a bleeding wound, upon her back and shoulders, comparable to a furrow which tears up the ground from one end of the field to the other.
Many a heart has been in like case; smitten and sore wounded by them that use the scourge of the tongue; so smitten that their whole character has been cut up and scored by calumny. The true church has in every age had fellowship with her Lord under his cruel flagellations: his sufferings were a prophecy of what she would be called hereafter to endure, and the foreshadowing has been fulfilled.
Zion has in this sense been ploughed as a field. They made long their furrows—as if delighting in their cruel labor. They missed not an inch, but went from end to end of the field, meaning to make thorough work of their congenial engagement.
Those who laid on the scourge did it with a thoroughness which showed how hearty was their hate. Assuredly the enemies of Christ's church never spare pains to inflict the utmost injury—they never do the work of the devil deceitfully, or hold back their hand from blood. They smite so as to plough into the man; they plough the quivering flesh as if it were clods of clay; they plough deep and long with countless furrows; until they leave no portion of the church unfurrowed or unassailed.
Ah me! Well did Latimer say that there was no busier ploughman in all the world than the devil; whoever makes short furrows, he does not. Whoever balks and shirks, he is thorough in all that he does. Whoever stops work at sundown, he never does. He and his children plough like practiced ploughmen; but they prefer to carry on their pernicious work upon the saints behind their backs, for they are as cowardly as they are cruel.
Verse 4. The LORD is righteous. Whatever men may be, Jehovah remains just, and will therefore keep covenant with his people and deal out justice to their oppressors. Here is the hinge of the condition: this makes the turning point of Israel's distress. The Lord bears with the long furrows of the wicked, but he will surely make them cease from their ploughing before he has done with them. He has cut asunder the cords of the wicked. The rope which binds the oxen to the plough is cut; the cord which bound the victim is broken; the bond which held the enemies in cruel unity has snapped.
As in Psalm 124:7 we read, "the snare is broken; we are escaped", so here the breaking of the enemies' instrument of oppression is Israel's release.
Sooner or later a righteous God will interpose, and when he does so, his action will be most effectual; he does not unfasten, but cuts asunder, the harness which the ungodly use in their labor of hate.
Never has God used a nation to chastise his Israel without destroying that nation when the chastisement has come to a close: he hates those who hurt his people even though he permits their hate to triumph for a while for his own purpose. If any man would have his harness cut, let him begin to plough one of the Lord's fields with the plough of persecution. The shortest way to ruin, is to meddle with a saint: the divine warning is, "He who touches you touches the apple of his eye."
Verse 5. Let all who hate Zion be confounded and turned back. And so say we right heartily. If this be an imprecation, let it stand; for our heart says "Amen" to it. It is but justice that those who hate, harass, and hurt the good, should be brought to naught. Those who confound right and wrong, ought to be confounded. Those who turn back from God, ought to be turned back. Loyal subjects wish ill to those who plot against their king.
We desire their welfare as men—and their downfall as traitors. Let their conspiracies be confounded, their policies be turned back. How can we wish prosperity to those who would destroy that which is dearest to our hearts?
This present age is so flippant that if a man loves the Savior he is styled a fanatic, and if he hates the powers of evil he is named a bigot. As for ourselves, despite all objectors, we join heartily in this commination; and would revive in our heart the old practice of Ebal and Gerizim, where those were blessed who bless God, and those were cursed who make themselves a curse to the righteous.
We have heard men desire a thousand times that the gallows might be the reward of the assassins who murdered two inoffensive men in Dublin, and we could never censure the wish; for justice ought to he rendered to the evil as well as to the good. Besides, the church of God is so useful, so beautiful, so innocent of harm, so fraught with good, that those who do her wrong, are wronging all mankind and deserve to be treated as the enemies of the human race. Study a chapter from the "Book of Martyrs", and see if you do not feel inclined to read an imprecatory Psalm over Bishop Bonner and Bloody Mary. It may be that some wretched nineteenth century sentimentalist will blame you—pay him no attention.
Verse 6. Let them be as the grass upon the housetops, which withers before it grows up. Grass on the housetop is soon up and soon down. It sprouts in the heat, finds enough nutriment to send up a green blade, and then it dies away before it reaches maturity, because it has neither earth nor moisture sufficient for its proper development. Before it grows up it dies; it needs not to be plucked up, for it hastens to decay of itself.
Such is and such ought to be the lot of the enemies of God's people. Transient is their prosperity—and speedy is their destruction. The height of their position, as it hastens their progress, so it hurries their doom. Had they been lower in station they had perhaps been longer in being. "Soon ripe, soon rotten", is an old proverb. Soon plotting and soon rotting, is a version of the old adage which will suit in this place.
We have seen grass on the rustic thatch of our own country cottages which will serve for an illustration almost as well as that which comes up so readily on the flat roofs and domes of eastern habitations. The idea is that they make speed to success, and equal speed to failure. Persecutors are all sound and fury, flash and flame; but they speedily vanish—more speedily than is common to men.
Grass in the field withers, but not so speedily as grass on the housetops. Without a mower the tufts of verdure perish from the roofs, and so do opposers pass away by other deaths than fall to the common lot of men; they are gone, and none is the worse. If they are missed at all, their absence is never regretted.
Grass on the housetop is a nonentity in the world—the house is not impoverished when the last blade is dried up: and, even so, the opposers of Christ pass away, and none lament them. One of the fathers said of the apostate emperor Julian, "That little cloud will soon be gone"; and so it was. Every skeptical system of philosophy has much the same history; and the like may be said of each heresy. Poor, rootless things, they are—and are not. They come and go, even though no one rises against them. Evil carries the seeds of dissolution within itself. So let it be.
Verse 7. With which the mower fills not his hand; nor he who binds sheaves in his bosom. When with his sickle the gardener would cut down the tufts, he found nothing to lay hold upon: the grass promised fairly enough, but there was no fulfillment, there was nothing to cut or to carry, nothing for the hand to grasp, nothing for the lap to gather.
Easterners carry their corn in their bosoms, but in this case there was nothing to bear home. Thus do the wicked come to nothing. By God's just appointment, they prove a disappointment. Their fire ends in smoke; their verdure turns to vanity; their flourishing is but a form of withering. No one profits by them, least of all are they profitable to themselves. Their aim is bad, their work is worse, their end is worst of all.
Verse 8. Neither do they which go by say, The blessing of the LORD be upon you: we bless you in the name of the LORD. In harvest times men bless each other in the name of the Lord; but there is nothing in the course and conduct of the ungodly man to suggest the giving or receiving of a blessing. Upon a survey of the sinner's life from beginning to end, we feel more inclined to weep than to rejoice, and we feel bound rather to wish him failure than success.
We dare not use pious expressions as mere compliments, and hence we dare not wish God speed to evil men lest we be partakers of their evil deeds. When persecutors are worrying the saints, we cannot say, "The blessing of the Lord be upon you." When they slander the godly and oppose the doctrine of the cross, we dare not bless them in the name of the Lord. It would be infamous to compromise the name of the righteous Jehovah by pronouncing his blessing upon unrighteous deeds.
See how godly men are roughly ploughed by their adversaries, and yet a harvest comes of it which endures and produces blessing; while the ungodly, though they flourish for a while and enjoy a complete immunity, dwelling, as they think, quite above the reach of harm, are found in a short time to have gone their way and to have left no trace behind.
Lord, number me with your saints. Let me share their grief—if I may also partake of their glory. Thus would I make this Psalm my own, and magnify your name, because your afflicted ones are not destroyed, and your persecuted ones are not forsaken.