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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Psalms 36

 

 

Introduction

XXXVI.

This psalm consists of three distinctly defined stanzas of nearly equal length. The first portrays the wicked man who has reached the lowest grade of impiety. The second exalts the goodness and justice of God. The third, which is, in a sort, a practical application of the others, expresses, under the form of a prayer, the right choice to make between the two tendencies, the pious and the impious. The sudden transition at the end of the first stanza has led some critics to pronounce the psalm composite. But what else can the heart, which would not sink beneath the oppressive sense of the accumulated sin and misery of earth, do, but turn suddenly and confidently to the thought of an infinite and abiding goodness and truth. The only resource of faith that would not fail is to appeal from earth to heaven, and see, high over all the fickleness and falsehood of men, the faithfulness of God: strong above all the insolence and tyranny of the wicked His eternal justice: large, deep, and sure, when all other supports seem to fail, His vast and unchanging love.

Those who understand by “God’s house,” in Psalms 36:8, the Temple, reject the Davidic authorship. But understood of the world generally, or, better, of the heavenly abode of the Divine, it does not serve as an indication of date, and there is nothing else in the poem to decide when it was written. The parallelism is varied.

Title.—For “servant of the Lord,” as applied to David, see Psalms 18 (title).


Verse 1

(1) The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart . . .—The literal rendering of the present Hebrew text is, An utterance of sin to the wicked within my heart. The common phrase rendered in our version, “Thus saith Jehovah,” is here imitated, “Thus saith sin.” “To the wicked” cannot, as some explain, mean “concerning the wicked.” The only possible meaning of the text as it stands is therefore, “Thus saith sin to (me) the wicked man in my heart.” But there can be no question that the psalmist wrote “in his heart,” since ail the ancient versions, with the exception of the Chaldee Paraphrase, followed this reading, and some MSS. still show it. This gives us a very fine sense. Sin is personified as the evil counsellor or prompter sitting in the heart of the wicked to suggest evil thoughts: Sin in the wicked man’s heart is his oracle. Conscience is on the wrong side.

There is no fear . . .—This is not the suggestion of sin just mentioned, but an explanation of the condition into which the wicked man has sunk. Impiety and irreverence have so corrupted his nature, that sin has become his oracle.


Verse 2

Verse 3-4

Verse 5

Verse 5-6

God of Nature and God of Grace

Thy lovingkindness, O Lord, is in the heavens;

Thy faithfulness reacheth unto the skies.

Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God;

Thy judgements are a great deep.—Psalms 36:5-6.

The landscape from which the Psalmist has borrowed his lessons in all probability lay beside him while he mused. We imagine him at the time a fugitive from Saul. He is hid in some desert-retreat, with the everlasting hills round about him, and the gleams and the shadows of a summer noon overhead. He had been cast out from the comforts of an earthly home, but God was his dwelling-place and his refuge. Hunt him as men might, they could not drive him where Jehovah’s righteousness did not environ him, and the wings of His lovingkindness stretch to shadow and protect. Out there, amidst the silence and restfulness of nature, God’s breath was about him to cool and to strengthen, and His voice spoke comfort and peace. So the Psalmist speaks little of himself. He mentions his trials and perils only for the sake of dismissing them. From the wickedness and the craft of men he is fain to turn to the goodness and the faithfulness of God, of which all things around were eloquent.

I was struck with the fact that Scripture is adapted to every land, on Sunday week, as I sat in the little English Church at Zermatt, right under the shadow of the gigantic Matterhorn, and read such passages as these on its walls: “Ye frost and cold, bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him for ever.” “Ye mountains and hills, bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him for ever.” And as day after day I moved about in a land where in every direction the eye rested on gigantic peaks, whose crests were often lost in the clouds, these words were ever rising in my mind: “Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God.”1 [Note: W. Garrett Horder.]

I

The Lovingkindness of God

“Thy lovingkindness, O Lord, is in the heavens.”

The “mercy” or “lovingkindness” of which the Psalmist speaks is very nearly equivalent to the New Testament “grace.” Both mean substantially this—active love communicating itself to creatures who are inferior, and who might have expected something else to befall them. Mercy is a modification of love, inasmuch as it is love to an inferior. The hand is laid gently upon the man, because if it were laid with all its weight it would crush him. It is the stooping goodness of a king to a beggar. And mercy is likewise love in its exercise to persons that might expect something else, being guilty. As a general coming to a body of mutineers with pardon and favour upon his lips, instead of with condemnation and death, so God comes to us forgiving and blessing. All His goodness is forbearance, and His love is mercy, because of the weakness, the lowliness, and the ill desert of us on whom the love falls.

1. As the heavens are high above the earth, so God’s lovingkindness evermore transcends man. Far above the towers that men’s hands have reared, the waves that the tempests uplift, the peaks that the earth has heaved, the heaven stretches its distant curtain, embracing but surmounting them all. And so with the mercy of our God. It is the one all-enfolding, all-transcending fact in God’s moral universe, lifting itself far above the region of human experience and analogy. It is high; we cannot attain to it. It is far above man’s mercies, for our “goodness extendeth not to God’s,” and while “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” God “commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It is far above man’s deserts, for we are “not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth” which He showeth to His servants. It is far above man’s sins, for high as he has heaved the mountains of his provocations, God’s mercy can transcend the loftiest. It is far above man’s prayers and conceptions, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways higher than our ways, and His thoughts than our thoughts, and He “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all we ask or think.”

Great God! I stood beneath the skies one night,

When all Thy stars were out, serene and clear,

And tried to think of Thee, and feel Thee near,

When, suddenly, a sense of all Thy might,

Thy times to come, Thy wonders out of sight,

Struck chill on me—my spirit reeled for fear;

Scarce certain of the ground I stand on here,

I shrank abased beneath Thy awful height;

When soft as dew, a word of Holy Writ

Fell on my troubled mind; “Thy mercy, Lord,

Is greater than the heavens”—then all above,

Around, beneath, took comfort from the word;

For ’twas as if the heavens were newly lit

With their best, brightest star—the Star of Love.

2. Like the face of the summer sky, the lovingkindness of God is unalterable. The earth which the sky overshadows has seen many mutations. “Surely the mountain falling cometh to nought, and the rock is removed out of its place. The waters wear the stones; thou washest away the things that grow out of the dust of the earth.” Rivers have altered their courses. The sea has shifted its ancient bounds. Forests have sunk in swamps. Empires have risen and fallen. The grass rustles and the lizards bask by the broken columns of cities that pulsed with the interests and sounded with the traffic of busy men. Generation after generation has come and gone, and the place that knew them once knows them no more for ever. Beneath there is nothing but flux, restlessness, change. But the sky has looked down on it all, serene and unvarying, amidst all the overturning and mutations of the countless years. Time writes no wrinkles on its steadfast blue. Orion hangs his glittering sword, and the Pleiades weave their mystic braids, just as they did for Isaac when he went forth to the field to meditate at the eventide; for Abraham when God took him out from his tent, and bade him look up to heaven with the promise of a seed that should be as the stars of heaven for multitude; for Adam when the first day faded over him, and the glories of the night revealed themselves amidst the balm and the silences of an unstained Eden. So with the mercy of God. All down the ages His covenant has stood, ordered in all things and sure amidst all changes, free from variableness or any shadow of turning. As the heavens that were formed of old “continue unto this day according to God’s ordinance,” so does the word that is settled there.

Miss R. having told Dr. Duncan that a young man had said at a meeting that “there was not mercy in God from everlasting—there could not be mercy till there was misery,” he said, “God is unchangeable; mercy is an attribute of God. The man is confounding mercy with the exercise of mercy. There could not be the exercise of mercy till there was misery; but God was always a merciful God. You might as well say that there could not be justice in God till there were creatures towards whom to exercise punitive justice.”1 [Note: David Brown, Memoir of John Duncan, 422.]

3. Like the canopy of heaven, the lovingkindness of God is all-embracing. “The noblest scenes of earth,” it has been said, “can be seen and known but by few; it is not intended that man should live always in the midst of them; he injures them by his presence, he ceases to feel them if he be always with them. But the sky is for all. Bright as it is, it is not ‘too bright or good for human nature’s daily food.’ It is fitted in all its functions for the perpetual comfort and exaltation of the heart.” No rough hand can sully the clear blue vault above, as it unfolds its splendour and dispenses its blessings for a worldful at once, and that without money or price. Be your dwelling-place on the bleakest and dreariest swamp, without a tree or a hill to diversify its surface, you have still overhead a picture of loveliness and of mystery as often as you choose to look up. Thread the narrowest thoroughfare of a crowded town, and far above the filth and squalor, between the eaves of the tall and tottering tenements that enclose you, there are strips of clear blue sky, reminding you that, whatever be the restlessness, the sorrow, and the vice below, there is nothing above but beauty, purity, and peace. So again with the mercy of our God; it is exceeding broad. It is the attribute of all attributes that is ever engirdling and overshadowing us, making its existence known through a thousand channels, in a thousand ways. Mercy is the very sphere in which we live and move; it is swift as the light of heaven, near to us as its circling breaths. And it is just as free. Rich and poor, high and low, all have alike a share in it. And as it is the gift of God to all, so is it the gift of God to all in all circumstances, throughout every change of their changing lives.

The Doctor must keep his temper: this is often worse to manage than even his time, there is so much unreason, and ingratitude, and peevishness, and impertinence, and impatience, that it is very hard to keep one’s tongue and eye from being angry; and sometimes the Doctor does not only well, but the best when he is downrightly angry, and astonishes some fool, or some insolent, or some untruth doing or saying patient; but the Doctor should be patient with his patients, he should bear with them, knowing how much they are at the moment suffering. Let us remember Him who is full of compassion, whose compassion never fails; whose tender mercies are new to us every morning, as His faithfulness is every night; who healed all manner of diseases, and was kind to the unthankful and the evil; what would become of us, if He were as impatient with us as we often are with each other? If you want to be impressed with the Almighty’s infinite loving-kindness and tender mercy, His forbearance, His long-suffering patience, His slowness to anger, His Divine ingeniousness in trying to find it possible to spare and save, think of the Israelites in the desert, and read the chapter where Abraham intercedes with God for Sodom, and these wonderful “peradventures.”1 [Note: Dr. John Brown, Horœ Subsecivœ, ii. 35 (appendix).]

My fear is not of expanding, but of contradicting, the Gospel which we are sent to preach; not of seeing too strong a testimony in the Bible to the will of Him in whom is light and no darkness at all, but of limiting its testimonies to meet my narrow conceptions; not of exaggerating the duty of the Church to be a witness against all hard and cruel conceptions of our Father in Heaven, which lead to a confusion between Him and the Spirit of Evil, but of not perceiving how manifold are the ways in which that duty should be fulfilled. I am sure that if the Gospel is not regarded as a message to all mankind of the redemption which God has effected in His Son; if the Bible is thought to be speaking only of a world to come, and not of a Kingdom of Righteousness and Peace and Truth with which we may be in conformity or in enmity now; if the Church is not felt to be the hallower of all professions and occupations, the bond of all classes, the instrument of reforming abuses, the admonisher of the rich the friend of the poor, the asserter of the glory of that humanity which Christ bears—we are to blame, and God will call us to account as unfaithful stewards of His treasures.1 [Note: Life of Frederick Denison Maurice, ii. 227.]

II

The Faithfulness of God

“Thy faithfulness reacheth unto the skies.”

God’s faithfulness is in its narrowest sense His adherence to His promises. It implies, in that sense, a verbal revelation, and definite words from Him, pledging Him to a certain line of action. He hath said, and shall He not do it? He will not alter the thing that is gone out of His lips. It is only a God who has actually spoken to men that can be a “faithful God.” He will not palter with a double sense, keeping His word of promise to the ear, and breaking it to the hope. And not only His articulate promises, but also His own past actions, bind Him. He is always true to these; and not only continues to do as He has done, but discharges every obligation which His past imposes on Him. The ostrich was said to leave its eggs to be hatched in the sand. Men bring men into positions of dependence, and then lightly shake responsibility from careless shoulders. But God accepts the cares laid upon Him by His own acts, and discharges them to the last jot. He is a “faithful Creator.” Creation brings obligations with it—obligations on the creature, obligations on the Creator. If God makes a being, God is bound to take care of the being that He has made. If He makes a being in a given fashion, He is bound to provide for the necessities that He has created. According to the old proverb, if He makes mouths it is His business to feed them. And He recognizes the obligation. His past binds Him to certain conduct in His future. We can lay hold on the former manifestation, and we can plead it with Him. “Thou hast been, and therefore Thou must be.” “Thou hast taught me to trust in Thee; vindicate and warrant my trust by Thy unchangeableness.” So His word, His acts, and His own nature, bind God to bless and help. His faithfulness is the expression of His unchangeableness. “Because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself.”

I believe that love and righteousness and justice in God mean exactly the same thing, namely, a desire to bring His whole moral creation into a participation of His own character and His own blessedness. He has made us capable of this, and He will not cease from using the best means for accomplishing it in us all. When I think of God making a creature of such capacities, it seems to me almost blasphemous to suppose that He will throw it from Him into everlasting darkness, because it has resisted His gracious purposes towards it for the natural period of human life. No, He who waited so long for the formation of a piece of old red sandstone will surely wait with much long-suffering for the perfecting of a human spirit.1 [Note: Letters of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, ii. 242.]

1. The faithfulness of God reaches to the clouds of sin and remorse.—Think of David after his terrible fall. The clouds gathered round him then as they never gathered before. As he had sowed, so he was reaping; and no sufferings are so terrible or so testing as the sufferings that are the obvious outcome and natural retribution of a man’s own follies and crimes. What of the darkness that envelops him then—when the sword that he had lifted against Uriah was turned against himself, and he experienced in the sins of his family the reproduction of his own, to the overshadowing and embitterment of his later years? Youth gone from him, his spirit crushed—does the man lose his hope and let go his hold on the promise of a truth-keeping God? Behind clouds such as these, does he fail to grasp and to cling to the faithfulness he spoke of in the years long gone by? Listen: “Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation, and all my desire, though he make it not to grow.” Yes, whom God loves He loves throughout, and He loves to the end.

A friend once showed an artist a costly handkerchief on which a blot of ink had been made. “Nothing can be done with it now, it is absolutely worthless.” The artist made no reply, but carried it away with him. After a time he sent it back, to the great surprise of his friend, who could scarcely recognize it. In a most skilful and artistic way he had made a fine design in India ink, using the blot as a basis, making the handkerchief more valuable than ever. A blotted life is not necessarily a useless life. Jesus can make a life beautiful though it has been marred by sin.1 [Note: Twentieth Century Pastor, xxviii. (1911) 252.]

2. The faithfulness of God reaches to the clouds of trouble.—God has hid His Church ere this in the mountain mists and in the deep places of the earth, till they were dead or vanished that sought its life.

You remember the story of the godly family whose home lay across the track a returning army was expected to follow, when flushed with victory and athirst for rapine and blood. “Be a wall of fire unto us, O God,” was the prayer which the father put up as he knelt at the household altar ere retiring for the night, and having thus committed himself and his circle to the hands of a preserving God, he and they together laid them down in peace, and took their quiet rest, knowing who it was that made them dwell in safety. The night-watches hastened on, morning came, and the family awoke. All was unwontedly dark and still when they rose. There was no light from chink or from window, nor sound of stirring life around. Noiselessly, and all unseen, the hand whose protection they craved stole forth from the wintry heavens, not, indeed, in the shape of a wall of fire, but in something as sufficient and safe—in wreath upon wreath of driven snow. Meanwhile the foe had passed by, and had gone on his way, and those whom he threatened breathed freely, for they knew that their tabernacle was at peace.2 [Note: W. A. Gray, The Shadow of the Hand, 15.]

III

The Righteousness of God

“Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God.”

1. The idea in the mind of the Psalmist was that the righteousness of Jehovah is fixed and unchangeable. Men’s ideas of righteousness may change. Those of one age may differ from those of another; one land may have a different standard from that of another. But in spite of this there is an everlasting, an unchanging righteousness in God. Nothing in this world so impresses the mind with the idea of unchangeableness as the great mountains. The dwellings of men in the valleys are ever undergoing change; at every visit something new strikes one—the fields which men cultivate produce their different crops, the forests on the mountain sides grow denser and taller, the rivers alter their course, even the sea is restless, now receding from and now encroaching on the land; but the great mountains seem to be lifted to a realm beyond change. The snow upon them, it is true, is ever melting; the glaciers between them are ever moving, but the granite rock beneath seems ever the same. The generations of men who dwell beneath them live their little life and pass away; year after year new and wondering eyes look up to these mountains, but there they stand, the most impressive symbol of permanence in a world of change.

(1) The mountains are stable and permanent.—The mountains were thought to be the most ancient parts of the earth, the framework on which the Great Architect of the Universe had builded; next the earth generally; and then the world, or, in the Hebrew sense, the fruitful, habitable part of the earth. So in the Athanasian Creed, “The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal.” Eternal and changelessly the same throughout eternity, and therefore we do not read, “Thou wast God from everlasting,” or, “Thou wilt be God world without end”; but, “Thou art God, the same past, present, and to come.” As we look up to-day, so have the successive generations of men lifted up their eyes to the mountains that speak to each of an unimaginable and almost limitless past.

Stand at the mountain’s foot and look up at its high head, and remember how it has braved many a storm which hissed itself out of breath over it, and it still remains to-day scarred like a veteran, it is true, but yet proud and firm on the victorious field.

His proud head the airy mountain hides

Among the clouds; his shoulders and his sides

A shady mantle clothes; his curling brows

Frown on the gentle stream, which calmly flows;

While winds and storms his lofty forehead beat,—

The common fate of all that’s high and great.

It was not yesterday that it was reared; it will not fall to-morrow; but it has seen generation after generation come and go, with all their faith and fear, their love and lust, their weal and woe; and to-day it looks down upon another race which trusts and trembles, sins and sorrows, loves and laughs, as though they were the first that mountain ever looked upon. Oh! if it could only speak, it would tell us how the actors constantly change on the stage of Time; that the play, now tragic, now comic, oftenest commonplace, is always the same, and that it has seen it acted over and over again; and yet it looks on with no tired look. Whenever you see the mountain, you see that which is very old, and that which is very young. The signs of its age are also the symbols of its youth. It transmutes the furrows of its old age into the dimples of childhood’s laughter. Perpetual youth is the prerogative of the old mountain. It lasts, lives on—

Eternal pyramids, built not with hands,

From linked foundations that deep-hidden lie,

Ye rise apart, and each a wonder stands!

Your marble peaks, which pierce the clouds so high,

Seem holding up the curtain of the sky;

And there, sublime and solemn, have ye stood,

While crumbling Time, o’er-awed, passed reverent by,

Since Nature’s resurrection from the flood,

Since earth, new born, again received God’s plaudit, “Good!”


How many races have ye seen descend

Into Time’s grave, the lowly with the great;

How many kingdoms seen asunder rend,

How many empires fall, how many centuries end?1 [Note: J. A. Davies, Seven Words of Love, 168.]

(2) The righteousness of God is more permanent than the mountains.—Though the mountains seem as if they did not change, yet they do change. The atmospheric influences which play upon them do alter them, though the alteration may be imperceptible to men who can observe them only for a few brief years. But absolutely without change is the righteousness of God. How is God’s righteousness shown? Most of all in His kindness. And so Isaiah says, “For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my righteousness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.” There is one thing in this universe of change which is absolutely without change, and that is the eternal righteousness: “I the Lord change not; therefore ye, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” Here is a resting-place for our souls. In this world nothing abides in one stage. We move from childhood to youth, from youth to manhood, from manhood to old age, from old age to the unseen world, but God changes not. We pass into new relationships, from being children to being parents, from having to serve to having to govern, from the active government of manhood to the quiescent stage of old age; friends drop from our side, old bonds are broken, new bonds are formed; but in the midst of this sea of change, where the waters are ever in movement, now receding, now advancing, there is a rock which abides—the righteousness of God. There is one point on which the eye can rest. There is one spot on which the foot can be planted. There is one place of anchorage for the soul—the rightousness of God.

Geologists tell us that these giants of Bernese mountains are but a third now of their original height, and we know how, to quote Ruskin, “The hills, which, as compared with human beings, seem everlasting, are in truth as perishing as they, their veins of flowing fountain weary the mountain heart, as the common pulse does ours; the natural force of the iron crag is abated in its appointed time, like the strength of the sinews in a human old age; and it is but the lapse of the larger years of decay which, in the sight of the Creator, distinguishes the mountain range from the moth and the worm.” Yet God and His attributes, and even His relations to man, remain unchanged, and from this treasury Isaiah picks out the two jewels of kindness and peace for our thankful contemplation.1 [Note: J. W. Horsley, in The Church Times, July 28, 1911.]

Arthur Clough, whose early death prevented him from becoming the foremost poet of the age, and who passed through many spiritual vicissitudes, felt and expressed this in his noble lines:

It fortifies my soul to know

That, though I perish, Truth is so:

That, howsoe’er I stray and range,

Whate’er I do, Thou dost not change.

I steadier step when I recall

That, if I slip, Thou dost not fall.2 [Note: W. Garrett Horder.]

2. The righteousness of God is like the great mountains in its power to inspire awe, wonder, and reverence. The great height of mountains, the vastness of their bulk, and their far-reaching extent overawe the spectator, and dwarf him into insignificance in their presence. Their dark and frowning crags, their awful chasms, and their mysterious yet gigantic forms shut his lips in silent awe, and chasten his thoughtless spirit into seriousness and reflection. If they should fall upon him he is crushed like an insect by the foot. A thunder-storm among the mountains is an awful thing. Once experienced, it will never be forgotten. The Law of Moses was fitly given amid thunderings and lightnings and a great earthquake among the mountains of Sinai. Like the great mountains the righteousness of God is an awful thing. When we are first convinced of sin and stand in the presence of God we tremble and cry out for fear.

“So Christian turned out of his way to go to Mr. Legality’s House for help: but behold, when he was got now hard by the Hill, it seemed so high, and also that side of it that was next the wayside, did hang so much over, that Christian was afraid to venture further, lest the Hill should fall on his Head; wherefore there he stood still; and wotted not what to do. Also his burden now seemed heavier to him than while he was in his way. There came also flashes of fire out of the Hill that made Christian afraid that he should be burned: here therefore he sweat, and did quake for fear.”1 [Note: Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (Cambridge edition), 152.]

(1) The real greatness of the mountains appears only as we approach them. We look up at them from the valleys and fancy that an hour’s climb will bring us to their summit. It seems as if we could shoot an arrow to the top; but we begin to climb, and as we climb they seem to lift their heads higher and higher. And so it is with the righteousness of God. Until we begin to strive after it, it seems within easy reach; it is only when we begin the long ascent that its height is really felt, and the higher we go the loftier does it appear. The man who has climbed highest in the way of righteousness knows best how great is the distance he has yet to climb. Indeed, to the man who has not begun to strive after righteousness, it seems most easy of attainment. It seems to him far easier to be righteous than to be learned, or muscular, or inventive. He stands more amazed at some great work of art, or literature, or mechanical contrivance than at the sight of righteousness in man. And why? The one can be apprehended by the eye and the other can be apprehended only by the heart, and his heart has not been trained by the pursuit of righteousness to appreciate its glory. Righteousness is only spiritually discerned. It cannot be seen by the eye, or heard by the ear, or felt by the hand. It needs a deeper faculty. The delicate, subtle fancy of poetry, or the grace of art, or the exquisite suggestiveness of the noblest music is not discerned by the uncultured. Preparation is needed before any of these can be discerned. And the beauty of holiness, which is only another name for righteousness, is not revealed save to those who, by striving after it, have realized the difficulty and glory of its attainment. Only those who have begun to walk in the way of righteousness know how lofty, how far off, how difficult to reach, is the position to which the great Master, Christ, calls us when He says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”

About ten days ago we started from the valley of Zermatt, which is itself some thousands of feet above the level of the sea, and for nearly five hours were climbing up to the well-known Gorner Gratz, and when we reached it, the Matterhorn, instead of seeming nearer, positively seemed farther off, the distance to the summit appeared greater. When we were in the valley the lower mountains around its base seemed to lessen the distance, and only when these were scaled could we realize its awful height.1 [Note: W. Garrett Horder.]

(2) The summits of the mountains are clearly revealed only as the sun lifts the clouds. And so it is with the righteousness of God. Clouds and darkness are round about Him, until Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, arises, and brings Him into view. Before, all was mystery and gloom to men. Their eyes could not pierce the cloud. They feared as they entered therein. But on the mystery Christ threw His revealing light, so that the clouds were lifted and all stood out in startling clearness. And then men began to realize that the righteousness which seemed so repellent was but the vesture of love; nay, that there could not be any real righteousness unless, at its very heart, there was the fire of love; just as there could not be any verdure or beauty on the earth but for the central core of fire within.

I stand upon the mount of God,

With sunlight in my soul;

I hear the storms in vales beneath,

I hear the thunders roll.


But I am calm with Thee, my God,

Beneath these glorious skies;

And to the height on which I stand

Nor storms nor clouds can rise.


Oh, this is life! Oh, this is joy!

My God, to find Thee so!

Thy face to see, Thy voice to hear,

And all Thy love to know.

3. Mountain chains have been a refuge for the oppressed in all ages. Liberty, bruised and broken on the level plain, has fled into the mountain ranges and there has found a refuge. Out of the level plains of Egypt Israel escapes and finds its life in the rocky ranges of Mount Horeb. In the mountains of Palestine the Israelites escape from Moabitish hosts on the east of them and the Philistine hosts on the south of them. In the mountain caves of En-gedi David hides from the persecuting hosts of Saul. In the mountains Greece finds its escape from the overwhelming Persian hosts. In the mountains of Switzerland liberty is cradled, while all over Europe despotism is triumphant. In the mountains of Northern Italy the Waldenses keep alive the Protestant religion before Protestantism has been born.

We are not accustomed to think that God is a refuge because of His righteousness. We rather, perhaps, think His righteousness closes His heart to us in our sinfulness. Perhaps we will say that a good man, a benevolent man, a merciful man, will serve as a refuge to us in our hour of need, but not a man strong in his righteousness. And yet, if we will consider a little, it is not the righteousness, it is the unrighteousness, of men that makes them unmerciful and therefore repellent. One man repels another, not because the first man is too righteous to have mercy, but because he is not righteous enough. The men that are fighting scepticism are half sceptics. The man who only half believes is at enmity with the man who does not believe at all, because he is in perpetual fear lest his half-belief shall be taken away from him; but he who is anchored, by a chain that cannot be broken, to the eternal verities has no fear, and therefore has a heart open to all argument and all reasons, and considers them with patience and gentleness. So it is a dormant sense of unrighteousness in us that makes us afraid of the unrighteous.

In that marvellous story, Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, when Miriam has fallen into a great sin and comes to Hilda, and Hilda will not receive her because of that sin, bidding her not come nearer, and Miriam cries, “Because I have sinned I need your friendship the more,” Hilda replies, “If I were one of God’s angels, incapable of stain, I would keep ever at your side and try to lead you upward. But I am a poor, lonely girl, and God has given me my purity, and told me to take it back to Him unstained, and I dare not associate with the criminal lest I carry back to Him a stained and spotted garment.” It is the consciousness of a dormant impurity in the pure Hilda that makes her dread to receive to her heart the impure as her companion. It is not Hilda’s perfection of righteousness, it is her imperfection, that makes her fail as a refuge to poor, sinful, despairing Miriam. Now, God’s righteousness is of the kind that never can be harmed.1 [Note: Lyman Abbott.]

IV

The Judgments of God

“Thy judgements are a great deep.”

By “judgments” are not meant merely the acts of God’s punitive righteousness, the retributions that destroy evil-doers, but all God’s decisions and acts in regard to man. Or, to put it into other and briefer words, God’s judgments are the whole of the “ways,” the methods of the Divine government. So St. Paul, alluding to this very passage, when he says,” How unsearchable are his judgments,” adds, as a parallel clause, meaning the same thing, “and thy ways past finding out.” That includes all that men call, in a narrower sense, judgments; but it includes, too, all acts of kindness and loving gifts. God’s judgments are the expressions of His thoughts, and these thoughts are thoughts of good and not of evil.

Perhaps it was the great and wide sea that the Psalmist thought of while he spoke—the secret of whose depths only Omniscience could see, the noise of whose billows only Omnipotence could still. Or perhaps it was some land-locked lake, on whose shining surface he looked down, as it crisped with the breezes or slept in the calms of a long summer day. But in either case, the picture yields a ready lesson: “Thy judgments,” he says, “are a great deep.” It is the one touch that is needed to enhance the description; for what were mercy, faithfulness, and righteousness, without infinite wisdom to plan and direct the whole? But this wisdom is evermore a great deep, unsearchable and unfathomable, whether it lies in the heart of God as His purpose, or in the word of God as His statutes, or in the ways of God as His Providence. “Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea.” “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!”

1. The deep means mystery. We cannot escape the mystery in life, it is true, just as we cannot explore all ocean’s secrets. But it is not wisdom to think we have touched bottom because the plummet ceases to descend. The plumb line slackens in our hands. But that may mean only that life is too deep for our pessimists’ soundings, which have never gone deeper than the shifting surface tides. What is the obscurity of the sea? Not that which comes from mud, or anything added, but that which comes from depth. As far as a man can see down into its blue-green depths they are clear and translucent; but when the light fails and the eye fails, there comes what we call obscurity. The sea is clear, but our sight is limited.

Here towers Vesuvius; there at its feet lie the waters of the bay. So the Righteousness springs up like some great cliff, rising sheer from the water’s edge, while its feet are laved by the sea of the Divine judgments, unfathomable and shoreless. The mountains and the sea are the two grandest things in nature, and in their combination sublime; the one the home of calm and silence, the other perpetual motion. But the mountain’s roots are deeper than the depths of the sea, and though the judgments are a mighty deep, the righteousness is deeper, and is the bed of the ocean.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

2. The righteousness of God is seen in His judgments. In God’s nature the mountain height answers back to the sea deep; the great deep of judgment reflects the mountain summits of righteousness in its clear calm. We need to remember this great truth of the unity of God’s purpose in the world; for the age which disputes most passionately the justice of God’s judgments is the age which most completely ignores or opposes His commands. A man on the cliff can look much deeper into the ocean than a man on the level beach. The farther we climb the farther we shall see down into the “sea of glass mingled with fire” that lies placid before God’s throne. Let us remember that it is a hazardous thing to judge of a picture before it is finished, of a building before the scaffolding is pulled down; and it is a hazardous thing for us to say about any deed or any revealed truth that it is inconsistent with the Divine character. Let us wait a bit! “Thy judgments are a great deep.” The deep will be drained off one day, and we shall see the bottom of it. Let us judge nothing before the time.

If we believe in the Father and His good purpose towards us, what we require of affliction and of suffering, what we have a right to require, is this, that it should be felt to be helping us and purifying us. God gives us a natural sense of justice, implanting it deep in our hearts; and it is through this sense of justice that all the best victories of humanity have been won.… The Father cannot have it in His heart that we should merely be crushed and silenced by our punishment; that we should submit, simply because there is no way out, as a little bird submits to be torn by a hawk. If our submission is like that, it is worth nothing; it only plunges our spirit in deeper darkness.2 [Note: A. C. Benson, Thy Rod and Thy Staff, 106.]

One night when I was recently crossing the Atlantic, an officer of our boat told me that we had just passed over the spot where the Titanic went down. And I thought of all that life and wreckage beyond the power of man to recover and redeem. And I thought of the great bed of the deep sea, with all its held treasure, too far down for man to reach and restore. “Too far down!” And then I thought of all the human wreckage engulfed and sunk in oceanic depths of nameless sin. Too far gone! For what? Too far down! For what? Not too far down for the love of God! Listen to this: “He descended into hell,” and He will descend again if you are there. “If I make my bed in hell, thou art there.” “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” “He bore our sin”; then He got beneath it; down to it and beneath it; and there is no human wreckage lying in the ooze of the deepest sea of iniquity that His deep love cannot reach and redeem. What a Gospel! However far down, God’s love can get beneath it!1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, Things That Matter Most (1913), 17.]

Literature

Davies (J. A.), Seven Words of Love, 165.

Dearden (H. W.), Parochial Sermons, 68.

Gray (W. A.), The Shadow of the Hand, 198.

Hanks (W. P.), The Eternal Witness, 142.

Maclaren (A.), A Year’s Ministry, ii. 211.

Christian World Pulpit, xxxiv. 188 (W. G. Horder); xl. 169 (L. Abbott); lxxv. 60 (E. E. Newell).

Church Times, July 28, 1911 (J. W. Horsley).

Preacher’s Magazine, vii. 439 (R. Brewin).

Twentieth Century Pastor, xxviii. (1911) 201 (J. E. Flower).


Verse 6

Verse 7

(7) How excellent.—Better, how precious.

Therefore . . .—Better, the simple conjunction, and sons of men, they find shelter, &c

Shadow of thy wings.—See Psalms 17:8, Note.


Verse 8

(8) They shall be abundantly satisfied.—Better, in order to preserve the parallelism, literally, They shall drink to the full. LXX. and Vulg., “They shall be intoxicated with,” &c

Fatness, therefore, is not here the fat of the sacrificial offerings, but the stream of grace flowing from above, to enrich men as the rain enriches the earth. (Comp. Psalms 65:11, where “fatness” means “fertilising showers”)

The house of God may either be the whole earth (Gesenius), or, more probably, heaven, just as the temple is used (Psalms 11:4; Psalms 18:6; Psalms 29:9). God’s loving-kindness is regarded as

“An endless fountain of immortal drink,

Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.”

KEATS: Endymion.


Verse 9

Verse 11

(11) The foot of pride . . . the hand of the wicked.—The one tramples on the lowly; the other is full of violence.

Remove.—Better, expel, but we have no indication from where. Perhaps from the Temple.


Verse 12

(12) There . . .—Of place. The poet has some definite incident in his mind, but has not told enough for us to identify it.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 36:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/psalms-36.html. 1905.

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Saturday, January 25th, 2020
the Second Week after Epiphany
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