Treasury of David
This Psalm is in its proper place, and so fitly follows Psalm 139 that you might almost read right on, and make no break between the two. Serious injury would follow to the whole Book of Psalms if the order should be interfered with as certain wiseacres propose.
It is The Cry Of A Hunted Soul, the supplication of a believer incessantly persecuted and beset by cunning enemies, who hungered for his destruction. David was hunted like a partridge upon the mountains, and seldom obtained a moment's rest. This is his pathetic appeal to Jehovah for protection, an appeal which gradually intensifies into a denunciation of his bitter foes. With this sacrifice of prayer, he offers the salt of faith; for in a very marked and emphatic manner he expresses his personal confidence in the Lord as the Protector of the oppressed, and as his own God and Defender. Few short Psalms are so rich in the jewelry of precious faith.
TO THE CHIEF MUSICIAN. The writer wished this experimental hymn to be under the care of the chief master of song, that it might neither be left unsung, nor chanted in a slovenly manner. Such trials and such rescues deserved to be had in remembrance, and to be set up among the choicest memorials of the Lord's goodness.
We, too, have our songs which are of no ordinary kind, and these must be sung with our best powers of heart and tongue. We will offer them to the Lord by no other hand than that of "the Chief Musician."
A PSALM OF DAVID. The life of David wherein he comes in contact with Saul and Doeg, is the best explanation of this Psalm; and surely there can be no reasonable doubt that David wrote it, and wrote it in the time of his exile and peril. The tremendous outburst at the end has in it the warmth which was so natural to David, who was never lukewarm in anything. Yet it is to be noticed that concerning his enemies he was often hot in language through indignation, and yet he was cool in action, for he was not revengeful. His was no petty malice, but a righteous anger. He foresaw, foretold, and even desired the just vengeance of God upon the proud and wicked, and yet he would not avail himself of opportunities to revenge himself upon those who had done him wrong.
It may be that his appeals to the great King cooled his anger, and enabled him to leave his wrongs unredressed by any personal act of violence. "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord"; and David when most wounded by undeserved persecution and wicked falsehood was glad to leave his matters at the foot of the throne, where they would be safe with the King of kings.
Verse 1. Deliver me, O LORD, from the evil man. It reads like a clause of the Lord's prayer, "Deliver us from evil." David does not so much plead against an individual as against the species represented by him, namely, the being whose best description is, "the evil man."
There are many such abroad; indeed we shall not find an unregenerate man who is not in some sense an evil man, and yet all are not alike evil. It is well for us that our enemies are evil: it would be a horrible thing to have the good against us.
When "the evil man" bestirs himself against the godly he is as terrible a being as a wolf, or a serpent, or even a devil. Fierce, implacable, unpitying, unrelenting, unscrupulous, he cares for nothing but the indulgence of his malice. The persecuted man turns to God in prayer; he could not do a wiser thing. Who can meet the evil man and defeat him save Jehovah himself, whose infinite goodness is more than a match for all the evil in the universe?
We cannot of ourselves baffle the craft of the enemy, but the Lord knows how to deliver his saints. He can keep us out of the enemy's reach. He can sustain us when under his power. He can rescue us when our doom seems fixed. He can give us the victory when defeat seems certain. In any and every case, if he does not save us from the man, he can keep us from the evil.
Should we be at this moment oppressed in any measure by ungodly men, it will be better to leave our defense with God than to attempt it ourselves.
Preserve me from the violent man. Evil in the heart simmers in malice, and at last boils over in violence. Evil is a ragtag thing when it gets liberty to manifest itself; and so "the evil man" soon develops into "the violent man."
What watchfulness, strength, or valor can preserve the child of God from deceit and violence? There is but one sure Preserver, and it is our wisdom to hide under the shadow of his wings.
It is a common thing for godly men to be assailed by enemies: David was attacked by Saul, Doeg, Ahithophel, Shimei, and others; even Mordecai sitting humbly in the gate had his Haman; and our Lord, the Perfect One, was surrounded by those who thirsted for his blood. We may not, therefore, hope to pass through the world without enemies, but we may hope to be delivered out of their hands, and preserved from their rage, so that no real harm shall come of their malignity. This blessing is to be sought by prayer, and expected by faith.
Verse 2. Who imagine mischiefs in their heart. They cannot be happy unless they are plotting and planning, conspiring and contriving. They seem to have but one heart, for they are completely agreed in their malice; and with all their heart and soul they pursue their victim.
One piece of mischief is not enough for them; they work in the plural, and prepare many arrows for their bow. What they cannot actually do they nevertheless like to think over, and to rehearse on the stage of their cruel imagination. It is an awful thing to have such a heart disease as this. When the imagination gloats over doing harm to others, it is a sure sign that the entire nature is far gone in wickedness.
Continually are they gathered together for war. They are a committee of opposition in permanent session: they never adjourn, but perpetually consider the all-absorbing question of how to do the most harm to the man of God. They are a standing army always ready for the fray: they not only go to the wars, but dwell in them. Though they are the worst of company—yet they put up with one another, and are continually in each other's society, confederate for fight.
David's enemies were as violent as they were evil, as crafty as they were violent, and as persistent as they were crafty. It is hard dealing with people who are only in their element when they are at daggers drawn with you. Such a case calls for prayer, and prayer calls on God.
Verse 3. They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent. The rapid motion of a viper's tongue gives you the idea of its sharpening it; even thus do the malicious move their tongues at such a rate that one might suppose them to be in the very act of wearing them to a point, or rubbing them to a keen edge. It was a common notion that serpents inserted their poison by their tongues, and the poets used the idea as a poetic expression, although it is certain that the serpent wounds by his fangs and not by his tongue. We are not to suppose that all authors who used such language were mistaken in their natural history any more than a writer can be charged with ignorance of astronomy because he speaks of the sun's traveling from east to west. How else can poets speak but according to the appearance of things to an imaginative eye. The world's great poet puts it in "King Lear":
"She struck me with her tongue,
Most serpent like, upon the very heart."
In the case of slanderers, they so literally sting with their tongues, which are so nimble in malice, and withal so piercing and cutting, that it is by no means unjust to speak of them as sharpened.
Adders' poison is under their lips. The deadliest of all venom is the slander of the unscrupulous. Some men care not what they say so long as they can vex and injure. Our text, however, must not be confined in its reference to some few individuals, for in the inspired epistle to the Romans it is quoted by the apostle as being true of us all. So depraved are we by nature that the most venomous creatures are our fit types.
The old serpent has not only inoculated us with his venom, but he has caused us to be ourselves producers of the like poison—it lies under our lips, ready for use, and, alas, it is all too freely used when we grow angry, and desire to take vengeance upon any who have caused us vexation.
It is sadly astonishing what hard things even godly men will say when provoked; yes, even such as call themselves "perfect" in cool blood are not quite as gentle as doves when their claims to sinlessness are bluntly questioned.
This poison of evil speaking would never fall from our lips, however much we might be provoked, if it were not there at other times; but by nature we have as great a store of venomous words as a cobra has of poison. O Lord, take the poison bags away, and cause our lips to drop nothing but honey.
Selah. This is heavy work. Go up, go up, my heart! Sink not too low. Fall not into the lowest key. Lift up yourself to God.
Verse 4. Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked. To fall into their hands would be a calamity indeed. David in his most pitiable plight chose to fall into the hand of a chastising God rather than to be left in the power of men. No creature among the wild beasts of the forest is so terrible an enemy to man, as man himself when guided by evil, and impelled by violence.
The Lord by providence and grace can keep us out of the power of the wicked. He alone can do this, for neither our own watchfulness nor the faithfulness of friends can secure us against the serpentine assaults of the foe. We have need to be preserved from the smooth as well as the rough hands of the ungodly, for their flatteries may harm us as much as their calumnies. The hands of their example may pollute us, and so do us more harm than the hands of their oppression. Jehovah must be our keeper, or evil hands will do what evil hearts have imagined and evil lips have threatened.
Preserve me from the violent man. His intense passion makes him terribly dangerous. He will strike anyhow, use any weapon, smite from any quarter: he is so furious that he is reckless of his own life if he may only accomplish his detestable design. Lord, preserve us by your omnipotence when men attack us with their violence. This prayer is a wise and suitable one.
Who have purposed to overthrow my goings. They resolve to turn the godly man from his resolve, they would defeat his designs, injure his integrity, and blast his character. Their own goings are wicked, and therefore they hate those of the righteous, seeing they are a standing rebuke to them.
This is a forcible argument to use in prayer with God: he is the patron of holiness, and when the pure lives of his people are in danger of overthrow, he may be expected to interpose. Never let the pious forget to pray, for this is a weapon against which the most determined enemy cannot stand.
Verse 5. The proud have hid a snare for me. Proud as they are, they stoop to this mean action: they use a snare, and they hide it away, that their victim may be taken like a poor rabbit who is killed without warning—killed in its usual run, by a snare which it could not see. David's enemies wished to snare him in his path of service, the usual way of his life. Saul laid many snares for David, but the Lord preserved him.
All around us there are snares of one sort or another, and he will be well kept, yes, divinely kept, who never falls into one of them.
And cords. With these they pull the net together and with these they bind their captive. Thus fowlers do, and trappers of certain large animals. The cords of love are pleasant, but the cords of hate are cruel as death itself.
They have spread a net by the wayside. Where it will be near their prey; where the slightest divergence from the path will bring the victim into it. Surely the common wayside ought to be safe: men who go out of the way may well be taken in a net, but the path of duty is proverbially the path of safety. Yet it is safe nowhere when malicious people are abroad. Birds are taken in nets, and men are taken by deceit. Satan instructs his children in the art of fowling, and they right speedily learn how to spread nets: perhaps they have been doing that for us already; let us make our appeal to God concerning it.
They have set traps for me. One instrument of destruction is not enough; they are so afraid of missing their prey that they multiply their traps, using differing devices, so that one way or another they may catch their victim. Those who avoid the snare and the net may yet be caught in a trap, and accordingly traps are placed in all likely places. If a godly man can be cajoled, or bribed, or cowed, or made angry—the wicked will make the attempt. Ready are they to twist his words, misread his intentions, and misdirect his efforts. They are ready to fawn, and lie, and make themselves mean to the last degree—so that they may accomplish their abominable purpose.
Selah. The harp needs tuning after such a strain, and the heart needs lifting up towards God.
Verse 6. I said unto the LORD, You are my God. Here was David's stay and hope. He was assured that Jehovah was his God, he expressed that assurance, and he expressed it before Jehovah himself. That had need be a good and full assurance, which a man dares to lay before the face of the heart-searching Lord. The Psalmist when hunted by man, addressed himself to God. Often the less we say to our foes, and the more we say to our best Friend the better it will fare with us: if we say anything, let it be said unto the Lord.
David rejoiced in the fact that he had already said that Jehovah was his God. He was content to have committed himself, he had no wish to draw back. The Lord was David's own by deliberate choice, to which he again sets his seal with delight.
The wicked reject God, but the righteous receive him as their own, their treasure, their pleasure, their light and delight.
Hear the voice of my supplications, O LORD. Since you are mine, I pray that you hear my cries. We cannot ask this favor of another man's God, but we may seek it from our own God. The prayers of saints have a voice in them; they are expressive pleadings even when they sound like inarticulate moanings. The Lord can discern a voice in our waitings, and he can and will hearken thereto. Because he is God, he can hear us; because he is our God he will hear us. So long as the Lord does but hear us we are content: the answer may be according to his own will, but we do entreat to be heard. A soul in distress is grateful to any one who will be kind and patient enough to hearken to its tale, but specially is it thankful for an audience with Jehovah. The more we consider his greatness and our insignificance, his wisdom and our folly—the more shall we be filled with praise when the Lord attends unto our cry.
Verse 7. O GOD the Lord, the strength of my salvation, you have covered my head in the day of battle. When he looked back upon past dangers and deliverances, the godly man felt that he would have perished had not the Lord held a shield over his head. In the day of the clash of arms, or of the putting on of armor (as some read it), the glorious Lord had been his constant Protector. Goliath had his armor-bearer, and so had Saul, and these each one guarded his master. Yet the giant and the king both perished, while David, without armor or shield, slew the giant and baffled the tyrant. The shield of the Eternal is a better protection than a helmet of brass, When arrows fly thick and the battle axe crashes right and left, there is no covering for the head like the power of the Almighty.
See how the child of providence glorifies his Preserver! He calls him not only his salvation, but the strength of it, by whose unrivaled force he had been enabled to outlive the cunning and cruelty of his adversaries. He had obtained a deliverance in which the strength of the Omnipotent was clearly to be seen. This is a grand utterance of praise, a gracious ground of comfort, a prevalent argument in prayer. He who has covered our head aforetime will not now desert us. Let us fight a good fight, and fear no deadly wound: the Lord God is our shield, and our exceeding great reward.
Verse 8. Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked. Even they are dependent upon you they can do no more than you do permit. You do restrain them; not a dog of them can move his tongue without your leave and license. Therefore I entreat you not to let them have their way. Even though they dare to pray to you, do not hear their prayers against innocent men. Assuredly the Lord Jehovah will be no accomplice with the malevolent; their desires shall never be his desires; if they thirst for blood, he will not gratify their cruelty.
Further not his wicked devices. They are so united as to be like one man in their wishes; but do rot hear their prayers. Though hand join in hand, and they desire and design as one man—yet do not lend them the aid of your providence. Do not permit their malicious schemes to succeed.
The Lord may allow success to attend the policy of the wicked for a time for wise reasons unknown to us, but we are permitted to pray that it be not so. The petition "Deliver us from evil" includes and allows such supplication.
Lest they exalt themselves. If successful, the wicked are sure to grow proud, and insult the righteous over whom they have triumphed, and this is so great an evil, and so dishonoring to God, that the Psalmist uses it in his pleading as an argument against their being allowed to prosper.
The glory of the wicked is opposed to the glory of God. If God seems to favor them they grow too high for this world, and their heads strike against the heavens. Let us hope that the Lord will not allow this to be.
Selah. Here let us exalt our thoughts and praises high over the heads of self-exalting sinners. The more they rise in conceit the higher let us rise in confidence.
Verse 9. As for the head of those that compass me about, let the mischief of their own lips cover them. To the Lord who had covered his head amid the din of arms the Psalmist appeals against his foes, that their heads may be covered in quite another sense—covered with the wages of their own malice. David's foes were so many that they hemmed him in, encircling him as hunters do their prey. It is little wonder that he turns to the Lord in his dire need.
The poet represents his adversaries as so united as to have but one head; for there is often a unanimity among evil spirits which makes them the more strong and terrible for their vile purposes. The law of retaliation, often brings down upon violent men the evil which they planned and spoke of for others: their arrows fall upon themselves. When a man's lips vent curses they will probably, like chickens, come home to roost. A stone hurled upward into the air, is apt to fall upon the thrower's head.
David's words may be read in the future as a prophecy; but in this verse, at any rate, there is no need to do so in order to soften their tone. It is so just that the mischief which men plot and the slander which they speak should recoil upon themselves that every righteous man must desire it: he who does not desire it may wish to be considered humane and Christlike, but the chances are that he has a sneaking agreement with the wicked, or is deficient in a manly sense of right and wrong.
When evil men fall into pits which they have dug for the innocent, we believe that even the angels are glad. Certainly the most gentle and tender of philanthropists, however much they pity the sufferers, must also approve the justice which makes them suffer. We suspect that some of our excessively soft-spoken critics only need to be put into David's place, and they would become a vast deal more bitter than he ever was.
Verse 10. Let burning coals fall upon them. Then will they know that the scattering of the firebrands is not the sport they thought it to be. When hailstones and coals of fire descend upon them, how will they escape? Even the skies above the wicked are able to deal out vengeance upon them.
Let them be cast into the fire. They have kindled the flames of strife, and it is fair that they should be cast therein. They have heated the furnace of slander seven times hotter than it was accustomed to be heated—and they shall be devoured therein. Who would have pitied Nebuchadnezzar if he had been thrown into his own burning fiery furnace?
Into deep pits, that they rise not up again. They made those ditches for the godly, and it is meet that they should themselves fall into them and never escape. When a righteous man falls he rises again; but when the wicked man goes down "he falls like Lucifer, never to hope again."
The Psalmist in this passage graphically depicts the Sodom of the wicked persecutor: fire falls upon him from Heaven; the city blazes, and he is cast into the conflagration; the valley of Siddim is full of slime pits, and into these he is hurried. Extraordinary judgment overtakes the extraordinary offender—above, around, beneath, all is destruction. He would have consumed the righteous, and now he is consumed himself. So shall it be—so let it be.
Verse 11. Let not an evil speaker be established in the earth. For that would be an established plague, a perpetual curse. Men of false and cruel tongues are of most use when they go to fatten the soil in which they rot as carcases. While they are alive they are the terror of the godly, and the torment of the poor. God will not allow the specious orators of falsehood, to retain the power they temporarily obtain by their deceitful speaking. They may become prominent, but they cannot become permanent. They shall be disendowed and disestablished in spite of all that they can say to the contrary. All evil bears the element of decay within itself; for what is it but corruption?
Hence the utmost powers of oratory are insufficient to settle upon a sure foundation the cause which bears a lie within it. Evil shall hunt the violent man to overthrow him. He hunted the good, and now his own evil shall hunt him. He tried to overthrow the goings of the righteous, and now his own unrighteousness shall prove his overthrow. As he was violent, so shall he be violently assaulted and hunted down.
Sin is its own punishment; a violent man will need no direr doom than to reap what he has sown. It is horrible for a huntsman to be devoured by his own hounds; yet this is the sure fate of the persecutor.
Verse 12. I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and the right of the poor. All through the Psalm the writer is bravely confident, and speaks of things about which he had no doubt: in fact, no Psalm can be more grandly positive than this protest against slander. The slandered saint knew Jehovah's care for the afflicted, for he had received actual proofs of it himself.
"I will maintain it" is the motto of the great Defender of the rights of the needy. What confidence this should create within the bosoms of the persecuted and poverty stricken! The prosperous and wealthy can maintain their own cause, but those who are otherwise shall find that God helps those who cannot help themselves. Many talk as if the poor had no rights worth noticing, but they will sooner or later find out their mistake when the Judge of all the earth begins to plead with them.
Verse 13. Surely the righteous shall give thanks unto your name. The former Psalm had its "surely", but this is a more pleasing one. As surely as God will slay the wicked—he will save the oppressed, and fill their hearts and mouths with praises. Whoever else may be silent, the righteous will give thanks; and whatever they may suffer, the matter will end ill their living through the trial, and magnifying the Lord for his delivering grace.
On earth before long, and in Heaven forever, the pure in heart shall sing unto the Lord. How loud and sweet will be the songs of the redeemed in the millennial age, when the meek shall inherit the earth, and delight themselves in the abundance of peace!
The upright shall dwell in your presence. Thus shall they give thanks in the truest and fullest manner. This abiding before the Lord shall render to him "songs without words", and therefore all the more spiritual and true. Their living and walking with their God shall be their practical form of gratitude. Sitting down in holy peace, like children at their father's table, their joyful looks and language shall speak their high esteem and fervent love to him who has become their dwelling place.
How high have we climbed in this Psalm—from being hunted by the evil man, to dwelling in the divine presence; so does faith upraise the saint from the lowest depths to heights of peaceful repose. Well might the song be studded with Selahs, or uplifters.