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Many of the Jews are of opinion that in this psalm there is given forth a prediction concerning the future oppression of their nation: as if David, by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, bewailed the afflicted condition of the Church of God under the tyranny of the Gentiles. They therefore refer what is here spoken to the dispersed condition in which we see them at the present day, as if they were that precious heritage of God which the wild beasts devour. But it is very apparent, that in wishing to cover the disgrace of their nation, they wrest and apply to the Gentiles, without any just ground, what is said concerning the perverse children of Abraham. (279) We cannot certainly find a better qualified interpreter than the Apostle Paul, and he applies this psalm expressly to the people who lived under the law, (Romans 3:19.) Besides, although we had not the testimony of this Apostle, the structure of the psalm very clearly shows that David means rather the domestic tyrants and enemies of the faithful than foreign ones; a point which it is very necessary for us to understand. We know that it is a temptation which pains us exceedingly, to see wickedness breaking forth and prevailing in the midst of the Church, the good and the simple unrighteously afflicted, while the wicked cruelly domineer according to their pleasure. This sad spectacle almost completely disheartens us; and, therefore, we have much need to be fortified from the example which David here sets before us: so that, in the midst of the greatest desolations which we behold in the Church, we may comfort ourselves with this assurance, that God will finally deliver her from them. I have no doubt that there is here described the disordered and desolate state of Judea which Saul introduced when he began to rage openly. Then, as if the remembrance of God had been extinguished from the minds of men, all piety had vanished, and with respect to integrity or uprightness among men, there was just as little of it as of godliness.
The fool hath said. As the Hebrew word נבל , nabal, signifies not only a fool, but also a perverse, vile, and contemptible person, it would not have been unsuitable to have translated it so in this place; yet I am content to follow the more generally received interpretation, which is, that all profane persons, who have cast off all fear of God and abandoned themselves to iniquity, are convicted of madness. David does not bring against his enemies the charge of common foolishness, but rather inveighs against the folly and insane hardihood of those whom the world accounts eminent for their wisdom. We commonly see that those who, in the estimation both of themselves and of others, highly excel in sagacity and wisdom, employ their cunning in laying snares, and exercise the ingenuity of their minds in despising and mocking God. It is therefore important for us, in the first place, to know, that however much the world applaud these crafty and scoffing characters, who allow themselves to indulge to any extent in wickedness, yet the Holy Spirit condemns them as being fools; for there is no stupidity more brutish than forgetfulness of God. We ought, however, at the same time, carefully to mark the evidence on which the Psalmist comes to the conclusion that they have cast off all sense of religion, and it is this: that they have overthrown all order, so that they no longer make any distinction between right and wrong, and have no regard for honesty, nor love of humanity. David, therefore, does not speak of the hidden affection of the heart of the wicked, except in so far as they discover themselves by their external actions. The import of his language is, How does it come to pass, that these men indulge themselves in their lusts so boldly and so outrageously, that they pay no regard to righteousness or equity; in short, that they madly rush into every kind of wickedness, if it is not because they have shaken off all sense of religion, and extinguished, as far as they can, all remembrance of God from their minds? When persons retain in their heart any sense of religion, they must necessarily have some modesty, and be in some measure restrained and prevented from entirely disregarding the dictates of their conscience. From this it follows, that when the ungodly allow themselves to follow their own inclinations, so obstinately and audaciously as they are here represented as doing, without any sense of shame, it is an evidence that they have cast off all fear of God.
The Psalmist says that they speak in their heart They may not utter this detestable blasphemy, There is no God, with their mouths; but the unbridled licentiousness of their life loudly and distinctly declares that in their hearts, which are destitute of all godliness, they soothingly sing to themselves this song. Not that they maintain, by drawn out arguments or formal syllogisms, as they term them, that there is no God, (for to render them so much the more inexcusable, God from time to time causes even the most wicked of men to feel secret pangs of conscience, that they may be compelled to acknowledge his majesty and sovereign power;) but whatever right knowledge God instils into them they partly stifle it by their malice against him, and partly corrupt it, until religion in them becomes torpid, and at last dead. They may not plainly deny the existence of a God, but they imagine him to be shut up in heaven, and divested of his righteousness and power; and this is just to fashion an idol in the room of God. As if the time would never come when they will have to appear before him in judgment, (280) they endeavor, in all the transactions and concerns of their life, to remove him to the greatest distance, and to efface from their minds all apprehension of his majesty. (281) And when God is dragged from his throne, and divested of his character as judge, impiety has come to its utmost height; and, therefore, we must conclude that David has most certainly spoken according to truth, in declaring that those who give themselves liberty to commit all manner of wickedness, in the flattering hope of escaping with impunity, deny in their heart that there is a God. As the fifty-third psalm, with the exception of a few words which are altered in it, is just a repetition of this psalm, I will show in the proper places, as we proceed, the difference which there is between the two psalms. David here complains that they have done abominable work; but for the word work, the term there employed is iniquity. It should be observed that David does not speak of one work or of two; but as he had said, that they have perverted or corrupted all lawful order, so now he adds, that they have so polluted their whole life, as to make it abominable, and the proof of this which he adduces is, that they have no regard to uprightness in their dealings with one another, but have forgotten all humanity, and all beneficence towards their fellow-creatures.
(279) “ Ce qui est dit de ceux qui, fausses enseignes serenomment enfans d’Abraham vivans autrement qu’il n’appartient.” — Fr. “What is said of those who, according to false marks, call themselves the children of Abraham, while living a different life from what they ought.”
(280) Some critics observe, that as יהוה, Yehovah, the name which denotes the infinite, self-existent essence of God, is not the word here employed, but אלוהס, a name which they regard as referring to God as judge and governor of the world, the meaning of the first verse is not that the fool denies the existence of God, but only his providence and government of the world; that he persuades himself God has no concern about the actions of men, and that there will be no judgment to come; and, therefore, goes on in sin, in the hope of escaping with impunity. — See Poole’s Synopsis Criticorum. The Targum paraphrases the words, “There is no God,” thus, “There is no אלוהס government of God in the earth.”
(281) “ Et abolir de leurs esprits toute apprehension de sa majeste.” — Fr.
2. Jehovah looked down from heaven. God himself is here introduced as speaking on the subject of human depravity, and this renders the discourse of David more emphatic than if he had pronounced the sentence in his own person. When God is exhibited to us as sitting on his throne to take cognisance of the conduct of men, unless we are stupified in an extraordinary degree, his majesty must strike us with terror. The effect of the habit of sinning is, that men grow hardened in their sins, and discern nothing, as if they were enveloped in thick darkness. David, therefore, to teach them that they gain nothing by flattering and deceiving themselves as they do, when wickedness reigns in the world with impunity, testifies that God looks down from heaven, and casts his eyes on all sides, for the purpose of knowing what is done among men. God, it is true, has no need to make inquisition or search; but when he compares himself to an earthly judge, it is in adaptation to our limited capacity, and to enable us gradually to form some apprehension of his secret providence, which our reason cannot all at once comprehend. Would to God that this manner of speaking had the effect of teaching us to summon ourselves before his tribunal; and that, while the world are flattering themselves, and the reprobate are trying to bury their sins in forgetfulness by their want of thought, hypocrisy, or shamelessness, and are blinded in their obstinacy as if they were intoxicated, we might be led to shake off all indifference and stupidity by reflecting on this truth, that God, notwithstanding, looks down from his high throne in heaven, and beholds what is going on here below!
To see if there were any that did understand As the whole economy of a good and righteous life depends upon our being governed and directed by the light of understanding, David has justly taught us in the beginning of the psalm, that folly is the root of all wickedness. And in this clause he also very justly declares, that the commencement of integrity and uprightness of life consists in an enlightened and sound mind. But as the greater part misapply their intellectual powers to deceitful purposes, David immediately after defines, in one word, what true understanding is, namely, that it consists in seeking after God; by which he means, that unless men devote themselves wholly to God, their life cannot be well ordered. Some understand the word משכיל, maskil, which we translated, that did understand, in too restricted a sense; whereas David declares that the reprobate are utterly destitute of all reason and judgment.
Every one of them has gone aside. Some translate the word סר, sar, which is here used, to stink, (282) as if the reading were, Every one of them emits an offensive odour, that it may correspond in meaning with the verb in the next clause, which in Hebrew signifies to become putrid or rotten. But there is no necessity for explaining the two words in the same way, as if the same thing were repeated twice. The interpretation is more appropriate, which supposes that men are here condemned as guilty of a detestable revolt, inasmuch as they are estranged from God, or have departed far from him; and that afterwards there is pointed out the disgusting corruption or putrescence of their whole life, as if nothing could proceed from apostates but what smells rank of rottenness and infection. The Hebrew word סר, sar, is almost universally taken in this sense. In the 53 Psalm, the word סג , sag, is used, which signifies the same thing. In short, David declares that all men are so carried away by their capricious lusts, that nothing is to be found either of purity or integrity in their whole life. This, therefore, is defection so complete, that it extinguishes all godliness. Besides, David here not only censures a portion of the people, but pronounces them all to be equally involved in the same condemnation. This was, indeed, a prodigy well fitted to excite abhorrence, that all the children of Abraham, whom God had chosen to be his peculiar people, were so corrupt from the least to the greatest.
But it might be asked, how David makes no exception, how he declares that not a righteous person remains, not even one, when, nevertheless, he informs us, a little after, that the poor and afflicted put their trust in God? Again, it might be asked, if all were wicked, who was that Israel whose future redemption he celebrates in the end of the psalm? Nay, as he himself was one of the body of that people, why does he not at least except himself? I answer: It is against the carnal and degenerate body of the Israelitish nation that he here inveighs, and the small number constituting the seed which God had set apart for himself is not included among them. This is the reason why Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans 3:10, extends this sentence to all mankind. David, it is true, deplores the disordered and desolate state of matters under the reign of Saul. At the same time, however, he doubtless makes a comparison between the children of God and all who have not been regenerated by the Spirit, but are carried away according to the inclinations of their flesh. (283) Some give a different explanation, maintaining that Paul, by quoting the testimony of David, did not understand him as meaning that men are naturally depraved and corrupt; and that the truth which David intended to teach is, that the rulers and the more distinguished of the people were wicked, and that, therefore, it was not surprising to behold unrighteousness and wickedness prevailing so generally in the world. This answer is far from being satisfactory. The subject which Paul there reasons upon is not, what is the character of the greater part of men, but what is the character of all who are led and governed by their own corrupt nature. It is, therefore, to be observed, that when David places himself and the small remnant of the godly on one side, and puts on the other the body of the people, in general, this implies that there is a manifest difference between the children of God who are created anew by his Spirit, and all the posterity of Adam, in whom corruption and depravity exercise dominion. Whence it follows, that all of us, when we are born, bring with us from our mother’s womb this folly and filthiness manifested in the whole life, which David here describes, and that we continue such until God make us new creatures by his mysterious grace.
(282) Hammond admits that the word סר, sar, means to go aside, or to decline, and that it is commonly applied to a way or path, declining from the right way, or going in a wrong way. But he thinks that the idea here is different, that it is taken from wine when it grows dead or sour, just as the word is used in this sense in Hosea 4:18, סר סבאם, sar sobim, “Their drink is gone aside, or grown sour.” He considers this view corroborated from the clause which immediately follows, נאלחו, ne-elachu, they are become putrid, which is derived from אלה, alach, to be rotten or putrified, referring properly to flesh which has become putrid. “Thus,” says he, “the proportion is well kept between drink and meat, the one growing dead or sour, as the other putrifies and stinks, and then is good for nothing, but is thrown away.”
(283) David speaks of all mankind, with the exception of the “people of God,” and “the generation of the righteous,” spoken of in verses 4, 5 who are opposed to the rest of the human race.
This question is added to give a more amplified illustration of the preceding doctrine. The prophet had said that God observed from heaven the doings of men, and had found all of them gone out of the way; and now he introduces him exclaiming with astonishment, What madness is this, that they who ought to cherish my people, and assiduously perform to them every kind office, are oppressing and falling upon them like wild beasts, without any feeling of humanity? He attributes this manner of speaking to God, not because any thing can happen which is strange or unexpected to him, but in order the more forcibly to express his indignation. The Prophet Isaiah, in like manner, (Isaiah 59:16,) when treating of almost the same subject, says,“
And God saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor.” (Isaiah 59:16)
God, it is true, does not actually experience in himself such affections, but he represents himself as invested with them, that we may entertain the greatest horror and dread on account of our sins, when he declares them to be of so monstrous a character, that he is as it were thrown into agitation and disorder by them. And were we not harder than the stones, our horror at the wickedness which prevails in the world would make the hair of our head to stand on end, (285) seeing God exhibits to us in his own person such a testimony of the detestation with which he regards it. Moreover, this verse confirms what I have said in the commencement, that David does not speak in this psalm of foreign tyrants, or the avowed enemies of the church, but of the rulers and princes of his people, who were furnished with power and honor. This description would not apply to men who were altogether strangers to the revealed will of God; for it would be nothing wonderful to see those who do not possess the moral law, the rule of life, devoting themselves to the work of violence and oppression. But the heinousness of the proceedings condemned is not a little aggravated from this circumstance, that it is the shepherds themselves, whose office it is to feed and to take care of the flock, (286) who cruelly devour it, and who spare not even the people and heritage of God. There is a similar complaint in Micah 3:1,“
And I said, Hear I pray you, O heads of Jacob, and ye princes of the house of Israel: Is it not for you to know judgment? Who hate the good and love the evil; who pluck off their skin from off them; and their flesh from off their bones; who also eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them,”
etc. If those who profess to know and to serve God were to exercise such cruelty towards the Babylonians or Egyptians, it would be a piece of injustice which could admit of no excuse; but when they glut themselves with the blood and flesh of the saints, as they devour bread, this is such monstrous iniquity, that it may well strike both angels and men with astonishment. Had such persons a particle of sound understanding remaining in them, it would restrain them from conduct so fearfully infatuated. They must, therefore, be completely blinded by the devil, and utterly bereft of reason and understanding, seeing they knowingly and willingly flay and devour the people of God with such inhumanity. This passage teaches us how displeasing to God, and how abominable is the cruelty which is exercised against the godly, by those who pretend to be their shepherds. In the end of the verse, where he says that they call not upon the Lord, he again points out the source and cause of this unbridled wickedness, namely, that such persons have no reverence for God. Religion is the best mistress for teaching us mutually to maintain equity and uprightness towards each other; and where a concern for religion is extinguished, then all regard for justice perishes along with it. With respect to the phrase, calling upon God, as it constitutes the principal exercise of godliness, it includes by synecdoche, (a figure of rhetoric, by which a part is put for the whole,) not only here, but in many other passages of Scripture, the whole of the service of God.
(285) “ Il faut que l’horreur des meschancetez qui regnent au monde nous face dresser les cheveux en la teste.” — Fr.
(286) “ Desquels l’office est de paistre et governer le troupeau.” — Fr.
5. There did they tremble with fear, The prophet now encourages himself and all the faithful with the best of all consolations, namely, that God will not forsake his people even to the end, but will at length show himself to be their defender. Some explain the adverb of place there, as meaning that God will take vengeance on the wicked in the presence of his saints, because they exercised their tyranny upon them. But I rather think that by this word there is expressed the certainty of their punishment, (289) as if the Psalmist pointed to it with the finger. (290) It may also intimate what we may gather from Psalms 53:0, that the judgment of God would come upon them suddenly, and when they were not thinking about it; for it is there added, where no fear is, or, where no fear was. (291) Expositors, I am aware, differ in their interpretation of these words. Some supply the word equal or like, and read, There is no fear equal to it. Others refer them to those secret alarms with which the ungodly are tormented, even when there may be no ground for apprehension. God threatens the transgressors of his law with such mental torment that they “shall flee when none pursueth them,” (Leviticus 26:17, and Proverbs 28:1) and that “the sound of a shaking leaf shall chase them,” (Leviticus 26:36) just as we see that they are themselves their own tormentors, and are agitated with mental trouble even when there is no external cause to create it. But I think the meaning of the prophet is different, namely, that when their affairs are in a state of the greatest tranquillity and prosperity, God will suddenly launch against them the bolts of his vengeance.“
For when they shall say, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them,” (1 Thessalonians 5:3.)
The prophet, therefore, encourages and supports the faithful with this prospect, that the ungodly, when they think themselves free from all danger, and are securely celebrating their own triumphs, shall be overwhelmed with sudden destruction.
The reason of this is added in the last clause of the verse, namely, because God is determined to defend the righteous, and to take in hand their cause: For God is in the generation of the righteous Now, in order to preserve them safe, he must necessarily thunder in his wrath from heaven against their enemies, who unjustly oppress and waste them by violence and extortion. (292) There is, however, some ambiguity in the word דור , dor, which we have translated generation. As this noun in Hebrew sometimes signifies an age, or, the course of human life, the sentence might be explained as follows: Although God for a time may seem to take no notice of the wrongs inflicted upon his servants by the wicked, yet he is ever present with them, and exercises his grace towards them during their whole life. But it seems to me a more simple and natural exposition to interpret the clause thus: That God is on the side of the righteous, and takes their part, as we say, (293) so that דור , dor, will have the same signification here which the word natio, [nation,] sometimes has among the Latins.
In Psalms 53:5, the Psalmist adds a sentence which does not occur in this psalm, For God hath scattered the bones of him that besiegeth thee, thou shalt put them to shame; because God hath rejected them. By these words the prophet explains more clearly how God protects the righteous, that it is by delivering them from the jaws of death, just as if one were to put to flight those who had laid siege to a town, and were to set at liberty its inhabitants, who before were in great extremity and quite shut up. (294) Whence it follows, that we must patiently bear oppression, if we desire to be protected and preserved by the hand of God, at the time of our greatest danger. The expression, bones, is used metaphorically for strength or power. The prophet particularly speaks of their power; for if the wicked were not possessed of riches, ammunition, and troops, which render them formidable, it would not appear, with sufficient evidence, that it is the hand of God which at length crushes them. The Psalmist next exhorts the faithful to a holy boasting, and bids them rest assured that an ignominious destruction hangs over the heads of the wicked. The reason of this is, because God hath rejected them; and if he is opposed to them, all things must ultimately go ill with them. As מאס, maäs, which we have translated to reject, sometimes signifies to despise, some render it thus, Because God hath despised them; but this, I think, does not suit the passage. It would be more appropriate to read, — He hath rendered them contemptible, or, subjected them to disgrace and ignominy. Whence it follows, that they only draw down upon themselves dishonor and infamy while they strive to elevate themselves, as it were, in despite of God.
(289) Though punishment had not as yet been actually inflicted on the oppressors of the people of God, of whom the Psalmist had spoken in the preceding verse, he speaks of their punishment as if it had taken place. The reason of this manner of speaking concerning things future in prophetic poetry, Horsley explains to be this, “That a scene typical of futurity is presented to the prophet’s imagination, and what he sees in that scene he speaks of as done.”
(290) The particle שם, is used demonstratively, in reference to the scene which lies before the inspired poet’s fancy. “See there!” — Horsley.
(291) In the Septuagint version, to the words, there were they in great fear, there is added the words οὑ ουκ ἠν ὁ φόβος, Where there was no fear, the transcribers, perhaps, transferring it by memory from Psalms 53:6, or the translators adding the words by way of paraphrase.
(292) “ Qui les foullent injustement et usent de violence et extorsion.” — Fr.
(293) “ Et tient leur parte, comme on dit.” — Fr.
(294) “ Ne plus ne morns que si quelqu’un mettoit en fuite ceux qui auroyent dress, le siege derant une ville, et mettoit en liber, les habitans d’icelle qui estoyent auparavant en grande extremit, et bien enserrez.” — Fr.
6. Ye deride the counsel of the poor. He inveighs against those giants who mock at the faithful for their simplicity, in calmly expecting, in their distresses, that God will show himself to be their deliverer. And, certainly, nothing seems more irrational to the flesh than to betake ourselves to God when yet he does not relieve us from our calamities; and the reason is, because the flesh judges of God only according to what it presently beholds of his grace. Whenever, therefore, unbelievers see the children of God overwhelmed with calamities, they reproach them for their groundless confidence, as it appears to them to be, and with sarcastic jeers laugh at the assured hope with which they rely upon God, from whom, notwithstanding, they receive no sensible aid. David, therefore, defies and derides this insolence of the wicked, and threatens that their mockery of the poor and the wretched, and their charging them with folly in depending upon the protection of God, and not sinking under their calamities, will be the cause of their destruction. At the same time, he teaches them that there is no resolution to which we can come which is better advised than the resolution to depend upon God, and that to repose on his salvation, and on the assistance which he hath promised us, even although we may be surrounded with calamities, is the highest wisdom.
David, after having laid down the doctrine of consolation, again returns to prayers and groanings. By this he teaches us, that although God may leave us for a long time to languish, yet we ought not to weary, or lose courage, but should always glory in him; and, again, that while our troubles continue, the most effectual solace we can have is often to return to the exercise of prayer. When he asks the question, Who shall give salvation? this does not imply, that he was looking either to the right hand or to the left, or that he turned away his eyes from God in search of another deliverer; he intends only to express the ardor of his desire, as if he had said, When will the time at length come when God will display his salvation, and make it fully manifest? By the word Sion, which he adds, he testifies that his hope is fixed on God; for Sion was the holy place from which God had promised to hear the prayers of his servants; and it was the dwelling-place of the ark of the covenant, which was an external pledge and symbol of the presence of God. He does not, therefore, doubt who would be the author of his salvation; but he asks, with a sorrowful heart, when at length that salvation will come forth which is to be expected from no other source than from God alone. The question may, however, be put, if this prayer refers to the time of Saul, how can Sion, with propriety, be named as being already the sanctuary of God? I will not deny that the Psalmist, by the spirit of prophecy, may have predicted what had not yet actually taken place; but I think it highly probable, that this psalm was not composed until the ark of the covenant had been placed on mount Sion. David, as we know, employed his leisure hours in committing to writing, for the benefit of posterity, events which had happened long before. Besides, by expressing his desire for the deliverance of Israel, we are taught that he was chiefly anxious about the welfare of the whole body of the Church, and that his thoughts were more occupied about this than about himself individually. This is worthy of being the more carefully marked when we consider, that, while our attention is engrossed with our own particular sorrows, we are in danger of almost entirely neglecting the welfare of our brethren. And yet the particular afflictions with which God visits each of us are intended to admonish us to direct our attention and care to the whole body of the Church, and to think of its necessities, just as we see David here including Israel with himself.
When the Lord shall have brought back the captivity of his people, In these words, David concludes, that God will not suffer the faithful to languish under continual sorrow, according as it is said in another psalm, (Psalms 126:5) “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” He doubtless aims at confirming and encouraging himself and all the godly to hope for the promised deliverance. He therefore says, in the first place, that although God may delay, or at least may not make so much haste as we would wish, he will, nevertheless, show himself to be the defender of his people, by redeeming them from captivity. And, in the next place, he assuages their sorrow, by setting forth that the issue of it will be joyful, seeing it will at length be turned into gladness. The captivity, of which he makes mention, is not the Babylonish, or the dispersion of his people among the heathen nations; it rather refers to an oppression at home, when the wicked exercise dominion like tyrants in the Church. We are, therefore, taught by these words, that when such furious enemies waste and destroy the flock of God, or proudly tread it under foot, we ought to have recourse to God, whose peculiar office it is to gather together his Israel from all places whither they have been dispersed. And the term captivity, which he employs, implies, that when the wicked overthrow at their pleasure all good and lawful order in the midst of the Church, it is converted into a Babylon or Egypt. Farther, although David defers the joy of the holy people, to the time of their deliverance, yet the consolatory prospect of this should serve not only to moderate our grief, but also to mix and season it with joy.
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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Psalms 14". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18