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This, also, is a psalm of David, and apparently composed under circumstances similar to the former. It is impossible, however, to determine the precise time at which it was written, or the exact circumstances of the psalmist at the time.
The circumstances, as far as they can be gathered from the psalm, are these:
(1) He was in a situation of peril; so much so as to have almost no hope for himself or his followers. Snares and gins were laid for him Psalms 141:9, and his followers and friends were scattered and dispirited, as if their bones were scattered at the grave’s mouth, Psalms 141:7. Everything looked dark and discouraging.
(2) In these circumstances it occurred to his mind, or was suggested to him, to say or do something which, not honorable or right in itself, might have brought relief, or which might have rescued him from his peril, and secured the favor of his enemies; some trick - some artful scheme - some concession of principle - which would have delivered him from his danger, and which would have secured for him a position of safety, plenty, and honor, Psalms 141:3-4. Many considerations, derived from his danger, might have been suggested for this, even by those who were not bad people, but who might have been timid men, and who might have felt that their cause was hopeless, and that it would be proper to avail themselves of this opportunity to escape from their peril in any way.
(3) David knew that to resist this - to abstain from following this apparently wise and prudent counsel - to refuse to do what the circumstances might seem to others to justify - would expose him to the rebukes of sincere and honest people who thought that this would be right. Yet knowing all this, he resolved to hear their reproach rather than to follow such advice by doing a wrong thing. He says Psalms 141:5, that though they should smite him, it would (he knew) be in kindness, with the best intention; though they should reprove him, it would be like a “gentle oil” - it would not break his head or crush him. He would cherish no resentment; he would still pray for them as usual in the time of their calamities, Psalms 141:5. Even when the “judges,” the rulers - his enemies - should be overthrown, as they might be, he would take no advantage of that circumstance; he would not seek for revenge; his words should be “sweet” kind words still, Psalms 141:6.
(4) David prays, therefore, in view of this temptation, and of the counsel suggested to him, that he might be able to set a watchful guard over his own lips, and to keep his heart, that he might not be betrayed into anything which would be dishonorable or wicked; that he might not be allured to that which was wrong by any prospect of temporal advantage which might follow. Psalms 141:1-4.
(5) As the result of all, he put his trust in God, that he might be enabled to pursue an upright course; and that, in such a course, he might be preserved from the snares which had been laid for him, Psalms 141:8-10.
Perhaps what is here said in illustration of the design of the psalm will best agree with the supposition that it refers to the time mentioned in 1 Samuel 24:1-7. Saul was then in his power. He could easily have put him to death. His friends advised it. The “suggestion” was a natural one; it would seem to many to be a justifiable measure. But he resisted the temptation, trusting in the Lord to deliver him, without his resorting to a measure which could not but have been regretted ever afterward.
The practical truth which would be illustrated by this view of the psalm would be, “that we are not to say or do anything that is wrong, though good people, our friends, advise it; though it should subject us to their reproaches if we do it not; though to do it would be followed by great personal advantages; and though not to do it would leave us still in danger - a danger from which the course advised would have delivered us. It is better to act nobly, honorably, and in a high-minded manner, and to leave the result with God, still trusting in him.”
Lord, I cry unto thee - In view of my perils; in view of the suggestions of my friends; in view of my temptation to do a wrong thing at their advice, and with the prospect of the advantage which it might seem to be to me.
Make haste unto me - To save me from all this danger: the danger from my enemies; the danger from the counsels of my friends. See the notes at Psalms 22:19; compare Psalms 40:13; Psalms 70:1, Psalms 70:5; Psalms 71:12. The meaning is, that there is need of immediate interposition. There is danger that I shall be overcome; that I may be tempted to do a wrong thing; that I may be ruined if there is any delay.
Give ear unto my voice ... - See the notes at Psalms 5:1.
Let my prayer be set forth before thee - Margin, “directed.” The Hebrew word means to fit; to establish; to make firm. The psalmist desires that his prayer should not be like that which is feeble, languishing, easily dissipated, but that it should be like that which is firm and secure.
As incense - See the notes and illustrations at Luke 1:9-10. Let my prayer come before thee in such a manner as incense does when it is offered in worship; in a manner of which the ascending of incense is a suitable emblem. See the notes at Revelation 5:8; notes at Revelation 8:3.
And the lifting up of my hands - In prayer; a natural posture in that act of worship.
As the evening sacrifice - The sacrifice offered on the altar at evening. Let my prayer be as acceptable as that is when it is offered in a proper manner.
Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth - That I may not say anything rashly, unadvisedly, improperly. Compare Psalms 39:1. The prayer here is, that God would guard him from the temptation to say something wrong. To this he seems to have been prompted by the circumstances of the case, and by the advice of those who were with him. See introduction to the psalm. Compare the notes at Psalms 11:1.
Keep the door of my lips - That my lips or mouth may not open except when it is proper and right; when something good and true is to be said. Nothing can be more proper than “this” prayer; nothing more desirable than that God should keep us from saying what we ought not to say.
Incline not my heart to any evil thing - Hebrew, to a word that is evil; that is, wrong. The connection seems to demand that the term should be thus explained. The expression “Incline not” is not designed to mean that God exerts any “positive” influence in leading the heart to that which is wrong; but it may mean “Do not place me in circumstances where I may be tempted; do not leave me to myself; do not allow any improper influence to come over me by which I shall be led astray.” The expression is similar to that in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.” The psalmist’s allusion here has been explained in the introduction to the psalm.
To practice wicked works with people that work iniquity - To be united or associated with people who do wrong; to do the things which wicked and unprincipled people do. Let me not be permitted to do anything that will be regarded as identifying me with them. Let me not, in the circumstances in which I am placed, be left to act so that the fair interpretation of my conduct shall be that I am one of their number, or act on the same principles on which they act. Literally, “To practice practices in wickedness with people.”
And let me not eat of their dainties - Let me not be tempted by any prospect of participating in their mode of living - in the luxuries and comforts which they enjoy - to do a wicked or wrong thing. Let not a prospect or desire of this overcome my better judgment, or the dictates of my conscience, or my settled principles of what is right. People often do this. Good people are often tempted to do it. The prospect or the hope of being enabled to enjoy what the rich enjoy, to live in luxury and ease, to be “clothed in short linen and fare sumptuously every day,” to move in circles of splendor and fashion, often leads them to a course of action which their consciences condemn; to practices inconsistent with a life of godliness; to sinful indulgences which utterly ruin their character. Satan has few temptations for man more attractive and powerful than the “dainties” which wealth can give; and there are few of his devices more effectual in ruining people than those which are derived from these allurements. The word here rendered dainties properly refers to things which are pleasant, lovely, attractive; which give delight or pleasure. It may embrace “all” that the world has to offer as suited to give pleasure or enjoyment. It refers here to what those in more elevated life have to offer; what they themselves live for.
Let the righteous smite me - This verse is exceedingly difficult and obscure (compare the margin); and there have been almost as many different opinions in regard to its meaning as there have been commentators on the psalm. A large number of these opinions may be seen in Rosenmuller in loc. DeWette explains it, “I gladly suffer anything that is unpleasant from my friends, that may be for my good; but the wickedness of my enemies I cannot endure.” The Septuagint and Latin Vulgate render it, “Let a righteous man correct me with mercy, and he will work convictions in me; but let not the oil of a sinner (for this shall still be my prayer) anoint my head at their pleasure.” “Thompson’s translation.” According to this, the sense would be, “If the righteous smite me with severity of words I shall take it as an act of kindness and benevolence; on the other hand, the bland words of a sinner, smooth as oil, which wound more than sharp arrows, may God avert from me.”
Or, in other words, “I had rather be slain by the severe words of the righteous than anointed by the oily and impious words of the wicked.” The sense proposed by Hengstenberg (Com. in loc.) is, “Even as I through the cloud of wrath can see the sunshine of divine goodness, I will not give myself over to doubt and despair, according to the course of the world, when the hand of the Almighty rests upon me; but I will, and can, and should, in the midst of trouble, be joyful, and that is the high privilege of which I will never be deprived.” According to this, the idea is, that the sufferings endured by good people, even at the hand of the wicked, are chastisements inflicted by a gracious God in justice and mercy, and as such may be likened to a festive ointment, which the head of the sufferer should not refuse, as he will still have occasion for consolation to invoke God in the midst of trials yet to be experienced.
The word “righteous” is evidently employed in the usual sense of the term. It refers to those who love and serve God. The word translated “smite” - חלם châlam - is rendered broken in Judges 5:22; Isaiah 16:8; Isaiah 28:1 (“margin,” but rendered by our translators “overcome,” sc. with wine); “smote,” Judges 5:26; Isaiah 41:7; “beaten,” Proverbs 23:35; “beating down,” 1 Samuel 14:16; “break down,” Psalms 74:6. It does not elsewhere occur, except in the verse before us. It would apply to any beating or smiting, with the fist, with a hammer, with a weapon of war, and then with “words” - words of reproof, or expressions of disapprobation. According to the view above taken (Introduction), it is used here with reference to an apprehended rebuke on the part of good people, for not following their advice.
It shall be a kindness - literally, “A kindness;” that is, an act of kindness. The idea is, that it would be so intended on their part; it should be so received by him. Whatever might be the wisdom of the advice, or the propriety of yielding to it, or whatever they might say if it were not followed, yet he could regard it as on their part only well-intended. If a certain course which they had advised should be rejected, and if by refusing or declining to follow it one should incur their displeasure, yet that ought to be interpreted only as an act well-intended and meant in kindness.
And let him reprove me - As I may anticipate that he will, if his advice is not taken. I must expect to meet this consequence.
It shall be an excellent oil - literally, “Oil of the head.” That is - like oil which is poured on the head on festive occasions, or when one is crowned, as a priest, or a prophet, or a king. See the notes at Mark 6:13; notes at Luke 4:18-19. Oil thus used for the head, the face, etc., was an indispensable article for the toilet among Orientals. The idea is here that the reproof of the righteous should be received as readily as that which contributed most to comely adorning and comfort; or that which diffused brightness, cheerfulness, joy.
Which shall not break my head - Or rather, Which my head shall not (or, should not) refuse; which it should welcome. The word rendered break should not have been so translated. The Hebrew word - הניא hāniy', is from נוא nû' - in Hiphil, to negative; to make naught; then to refuse, to decline, to deny. It is rendered “discourage” in Numbers 32:7, Numbers 32:9 (Margin, “break”); “disallow,” Numbers 30:5 (“twice”), Numbers 30:8, Numbers 30:11; “make of none effect,” Psalms 33:10; “break,” in the passage before us. It does not elsewhere occur. The idea is, “If such reproof comes on me for the faithful doing of what I regard as wise and best, I ought no more to reject it than the head would refuse the oil poured on it, to make the person healthful and comely.”
For yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities - I will not be sullen, displeased, angry, revengeful. I will not refuse to pray for them when trials come upon them, because they have not approved of my course, because they have reproved me for not following their counsel, because they have used words that were like heavy blows. I will cherish no malice; I will not be angry; I will not seek to be revenged. I will not turn away from them when trouble comes on them. I will love them, cherish with gratitude the memory of the kindness they meant, and pray for them in the time when they especially need prayer. Should they now rebuke me rather than pray for me, yet I will not in turn “rebuke” them in similar trials, but “will pray for them,” as though nothing of this had happened. Noble spirit - indicative of what should always be the spirit of a good man. Our friends - even our pious friends - may not be always “wise” in their advice, and they may be severe in their reproofs if we do not follow their counsel; yet let us receive all as well-intended, and let us not in anger, in sullenness, or in revenge, refuse to aid them, and to pray for them in trouble, though they were “not” wise, and though they used words of severity toward us.
When ... - This passage is no less difficult than the preceding, and it seems almost impossible to determine its exact meaning. What is meant by “judges”? What judges are referred to by the word “their”? What is meant by their being “overthrown”? What is the sense of the words “in stony places”? Does the passage refer to some certain prospect that they “would be” overthrown, or is it a mere supposition which relates to something that “might” occur? Who are meant by “they,” in the phrase “they shall hear my words?” It seems to me that the most plausible interpretation of the passage is founded on that which has been assumed thus far in the explanation of the psalm, as referring to the state of things recorded in 1 Samuel 24:1-7. David was in the wilderness of En-gedi, in the midst of a rocky region. Saul, apprised of his being there, came with three thousand chosen men to apprehend him, and went into a cave to lie down to rest. Unknown, probably, to him, David and his men were in the “sides of the cave.” They now saw that Saul was completely in their power, and that it would be an easy thing to enter the cave, and kill him when off his guard. The men urgently advised David to do this. David entered the cave, and cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe, showing how completely Saul was in his power, but he proceeded no further; he did not follow the suggestions of his friends; he did not take the life of Saul, as he might have done; and he even regretted what he had done, as implying a want of due respect for the anointed of the Lord, 1 Samuel 24:11. Yet he had the fullest confidence that the king and his forces would be overthrown, and that it would be done in a way consistent with open and manly war, and not in an underhanded and stealthful way, as it would have been if he had cut him off in the cave. With this in view, it seems to me that the difficult passage before us may be explained with, at least, some degree of plausibility.
Their judges - By the judges, are to be understood the rulers of the people; the magistrates; those in office and power - referring to Saul and the officers of his government. “Their judges;” to wit, the judges or rulers of the hosts in opposition to me - of those against whom I war; Saul and the leaders of his forces.
Are overthrown - Are discomfited, vanquished, subdued; as I am confident they will be, in the regular prosecution of the war, and not by treachery and stealth.
In stony places - literally, “in the hands of the rock;” or, as the word “hands” may sometimes be used, “in the sides of the rock.” It might mean “by the power of the rock,” as thrown upon them; or, “against its sides.” The essential idea is, that the “rocks,” the rocky places, would be among the means by which they would be overthrown; and the sense is, that now that Saul was in the cave - or was in that rocky region, better known to David than to him - Saul was so completely in his power, that David felt that the victory, in a regular course of warfare, would be his.
They shall hear my words - The followers of Saul; the people of the land; the nation. Saul being removed - subdued - slain - the people will become obedient to me who have been anointed by a prophet as their king, and designated as the successor of Saul. David did not doubt that he would himself reign when Saul was overcome, or that the people would hear his words, and submit to him as king.
For they are sweet - They shall be pleasant; mild; gentle; equitable; just. After the harsh and severe enactments of Saul, after enduring his acts of tyranny, the people will be glad to welcome me, and to live under the laws of a just and equal administration. The passage, therefore, expresses confidence that Saul and his hosts would be overthrown, and that the people of the land would gladly hail the accession to the throne of one who had been anointed to reign over them.
Our bones are scattered at the grave’s mouth - We are, indeed, now like bones scattered in the places of graves; we seem to be weak, feeble, disorganized. We are in a condition which of itself seems to be hopeless: as hopeless as it would be for dry bones scattered when they were buried to rise up and attack an enemy. The reference is to the condition of David and his followers as pursued by a mighty foe. His hope was not in his own forces, but in the power and interposition of God Psalms 141:8.
As when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth - Like chips, blocks, splinters, that have no strength; as when these lie scattered around - a fit emblem of our feeble and scattered forces.
But mine eyes are unto thee, O God the Lord - My hope is in thee. I do not rely on my own power. I do not trust in my armed forces. I know that they are weak, dispirited, scattered - like strewed bones - like the chips and splinters lying around the place where wood is chopped. I look, therefore, solely to God. I believe that he “will” interpose; and now that my enemy has placed himself in this position, I do not need to resort to stealthful arts - to dishonorable acts - to assassination - as my friends advise, but the object will be accomplished, and I shall be placed on the throne by the act of God, and in a manner that will not subject my name and memory to reproach by a base and treacherous deed.
In thee is my trust - I rely on thee alone.
Leave not my soul destitute - My life; my all. Do not now leave me without thy gracious interposition; do not suffer this juncture to pass by without such an interposition as will end the war, and restore peace to me and to a distracted land.
Keep me from the snares ... - See the notes at Psalms 11:6. Compare Psalms 38:12; Psalms 69:22; Psalms 91:3. The secret plans which they have laid against me.
And the gins of the workers of iniquity - Wicked men; men who seek my destruction. On the word gins, see the notes at Isaiah 8:14. The gin is a trap or snare to catch birds or wild animals. The word used here is the same which occurs in Psalms 18:5, and which is there rendered “snare.” See the notes at that passage. Compare also Psalms 64:5; Psalms 69:22; Psalms 106:36; Psalms 140:5, where the same word occurs.
Let the wicked fall into their own nets - See the notes at Psalms 35:8. Compare Psalms 7:15-16.
While that I withal escape - Margin, as in Hebrew, “pass over.” While I safely pass over the net or snare which has been secretly laid for me. The word “withal” means, in the Hebrew, “together, at the same time;” that is, At the same time that they fall into the net, let me pass over it in safety. See the notes at Job 5:13.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 141". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
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