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Bible Commentaries

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

Psalms 141

Verse 1

1. O Jehovah! I have cried unto thee. From such an exordium and manner of praying, it is evident that David was laboring under no small trial, as he repeats his requests, and insists upon receiving help. Without venturing to say anything definite upon the point, we would not disapprove of the conjecture that this Psalm was written by David with reference to the persecutions he suffered from Saul. He teaches us by his example to make application immediately to God, and not be tempted, as wicked men are, to renounce prayer, and rely on other resources. He says that he cried to God, not to heaven or earth, to men or to fortune, and other vain objects, which are made mention of, in the first place at least, in such cases by the ungodly. If they do address themselves to God, it is with murmurs and complaints, howling rather than praying.

Verse 2

In the second verse the allusion is evidently to the legal ceremonies. (235) At that time the prayers of God’s people were according to his own appointment sanctified through the offering up of incense and sacrifices, and David depended upon this promise. (236) As to the conjecture some have made, that he was at this time an exile, and cut off from the privileges of the religious assembly, nothing certain can be said upon that point; their idea being that there is a tacit antithesis in the verse — that though prevented from continuing with God’s worshippers into the sanctuary, or using incense and sacrifice, he desired God would accept his prayers notwithstanding. But as there seems no reason to adopt this restricted sense, it is enough to understand the general truth, that as these symbols taught the Lord’s people to consider their prayers equally acceptable to God with the sweetest incense, and most excellent sacrifice, David derived confirmation to his faith from the circumstance. Although the view of the fathers was not confined entirely to the external ceremonies, David was bound to avail himself of such helps. As he considered, therefore, that it was not in vain the incense was burned daily on the altar by God’s commandment, and the evening offering presented, he speaks of his prayers in connection with this ceremonial worship. The lifting up of the hands, evidently means prayer, for those who translate משאת, masath, a gift, obscure and pervert the meaning of the Psalmist. As the word, which is derived from נשא, nasa, means lifting up in the Hebrew, the natural inference is, that prayer is meant, in allusion to the outward action practiced in it. And we can easily suppose that David here as elsewhere repeats the same thing twice. As to the reason which has led to the universal practice amongst all nations of lifting up the hand in prayer, I have taken notice of it elsewhere.

(235) The allusion, according to the opinion of most commentators, is to the morning and evening sacrifices, of which see an account in Exodus 29:38. In the phraseology of the verse it is supposed that there is a reference to the commencing and concluding acts of the daily public worship among the Jews. Every morning and evening the priests offered incense upon the incense-altar which stood in the holy place, while the people prayed without. But in the morning the incense was offered before the sacrifice was laid upon the altar of burnt-offering; whereas in the evening (at the ninth hour) it was offered after the sacrifice was laid upon the altar; and thus in the evening the sacrifice and the incense were offered at the same time. See Lightfoot’s Temple Service, chapter 9: section 5. Dr. Adam Clarke, however, thinks that David does not refer to any sacrifice; “for,” says he, “he uses not זבח, zebach, which is almost universally used for a slaughtered animal, מנחת, minchath, which is generally taken for a gratitude offering, or an unbloody sacrifice.” He translates the last two words “the evening oblation.”

(236) “ Car pource que lors Dieu vouloit que les prieres des fideles fussent sanctifiees par encensement et par sacrifices, David s’appuye sur ceste promesse.” — Fr.

Verse 3

3. Set a watch, O Jehovah! upon my mouth. As David was liable to be hurt at the unbridled and unprincipled rage of his enemies, so as to be tempted to act in a manner that might not be justifiable, he prays for divine direction, and not that he might be kept back from manual violence merely, but that his tongue might be restrained from venting reproach, or words of complaint. Even persons of the most self-possessed temper, if unwarrantably injured, will some — times proceed to make retaliation, through their resenting the unbecoming conduct of their enemies. David prays accordingly that his tongue might be restrained by the Lord from uttering any word which was out of joint. Next he seeks that his heart be kept back from every mischievous device that might issue in revenge. The words added — that I may not eat of their delicacies, are to be understood figuratively, as a petition that he might not be tempted by the prosperity which they enjoyed in sin to imitate their conduct. The three things mentioned in the context are to be connected; and it may be advisable to consider each of them more particularly. Nothing being more difficult than for the victims of unjust persecution to bridle their speech, and submit silently and without complaint to injuries, David needed to pray that his mouth might be closed and guarded — that the door of his mouth might be kept shut by God, as one who keeps the gate watches the ingress and egress — נצרה, nitsrah, being the imperative of the verb, rather than a noun. He next subjoins that God would not incline his heart to an evil thing; for דבר, dabar, is here, as in many other places, used to signify a thing. Immediately after he explains himself to mean, that he would not desire to strive with them in wickedness, and thus make himself like his enemies. Had that monk of whom Eusebius makes mention duly reflected upon this resolution of David, he would not have fallen into the silly fallacy of imagining that he had shown himself the perfect scholar by observing silence for a whole term of seven years. Hearing that the regulation of the tongue was a rare virtue, he betook himself to a distant solitude, from which he did not return to his master for seven years; and being asked the cause of his long absence, replied that he had been meditating upon what he had learned from this verse. It would have been proper to have asked him at the same time, whether during the interim he had thought none, as well as spoken none. For the two things stand connected the being silent, and the being free from the charge of evil thoughts. It is very possible that although he observed silence, he had many ungodly thoughts, and these are worse than vain words. We have simply alluded in passing to this foolish notion, as what may convince the reader of the possibility of persons running away with a word torn from its connection, and overlooking the scope of the writer. In committing himself to the guidance of God, both as to thoughts and words, David acknowledges the need of the influence of the Spirit for the regulation of his tongue and of his mind, particularly when tempted to be exasperated by the insolence of opposition. If, on the one hand, the tongue be liable to slip and too fast of utterance, unless continually watched and guarded by God; on the other, there are disorderly affections of an inward kind which require to be restrained. What a busy workshop is the heart of man, and what a host of devices is there manufactured every moment! If God do not watch over our heart and tongue, there will confessedly be no bounds to words and thoughts of a sinful kind, — so rare a gift of the Spirit is moderation in language, while Satan is ever making suggestions which will be readily and easily complied with, unless God prevent. It need not seem absurd to speak of God inclining our hearts to evil, since these are in his hand, to turn them whithersoever he willeth at his pleasure. Not that he himself prompts them to evil desires, but as according to his secret judgments he surrenders and effectually gives over the wicked to Satan’s tyranny, he is properly said to blind and harden them. The blame of their sins rests with men themselves, and the lust which is in them; and, as they are carried out to good or evil by a natural desire, it is not from any external impulse that they incline to what is evil, but spontaneously and of their own corruption. I have read — to work the works of iniquity; others read — to think the thoughts of iniquity. The meaning is the same, and it is needless to insist upon the preference to be given. By מנעמים, manammim, translated delicacies, is meant the satisfaction felt by the ungodly when their sins are connived at through the divine forbearance. While their insolence in such a case becomes more presumptuous, even the Lord’s people are in danger of being deceived by the prosperity they see enjoying, and to take liberties themselves. David had reason therefore to pray for the secret restraints of the Holy Spirit, that he might be kept from feasting on their delicacies; that is, being intoxicated into license or sinful pleasure through anything debasing, flattering, or agreeable in outward circumstances. (237)

(237) “ C’est a dire qu’il ne s’enyure de la vaine douceur qu’ils out en se desbordant a mal, et qu’ainsi il ne s’esgaye en pechez.” — Fr.

Verse 5

5. Let the righteous smite me, etc. While Satan tempts the wicked by his allurements, they, at the same time, deceive one another by flattery, which leads David to declare, that he would much rather be awakened to his duty by the severe rod of reproof, than be seduced through pleasing falsehoods. Among those who hold religion in contempt no reproof is administered to one who has contracted any sin, and, therefore, if we have any concern for our spiritual safety we will connect ourselves with good men, who restore such as have fallen by upright admonition, and bring back those who have erred to the right way. It is not agreeable to corrupt nature to be reproved when we sin, but, David had brought himself to that degree of docility and self-denial which led him to consider no reproof distasteful which he knew to proceed from the spirit of kindness. As there is some ambiguity in the words, we may see to ascertain the proper meaning of them. The noun חסד, chesed, can very well be resolved into the adverb — the righteous shall smite me mercifully, or in mercy, supplying the preposition. And this is the meaning adopted by most interpreters, that David reckoned as the best ointment such reproofs as breathed charity and kindness, or proceeded from a kind and dispassionate spirit. Should this reading be preferred it is to be remembered, that David refers, not so much to the outward manner in which the reproof is to be administered, as to the frame of the heart. However how good men may be, and whatever severity of language they may employ in admonishing those who have erred, they are still actuated by the force of brotherly affection. My, the very severity is, in fact, occasioned by their holy anxiety and fear of their brother’s safety. The righteous act mercifully under all this apparent sharpness and severity — as the wicked, on the other hand, act cruelly who censure only in a very gentle manner. By noticing this feature in reproof, David besides would distinguish that kind of it which takes its rise in sincere affection, from invectives which proceed from hatred or private animosity, as Solomon says. (Proverbs 10:12.) The other rendering of the words, however, which I have adopted, is equally suitable —

Let the righteous censure me, it shall be mercy, or, I will reckon it a benefit, let him reprove me, this shall be precious ointment that will not hurt my head.

The last clause some interpret in another way — the oil of the head let it not break my head, that is, let not the wicked seduce me to destruction by their pleasing flatteries. (239) By the oil they understand the pernicious adulations by which the wicked would ruin us, and plunge us deeper and deeper in destruction, while they seem to administer pleasure. This would make the passage convey a fuller meaning, That while David was pliable and yielding in the matter of reproof, he fled from flattery as from the fatal songs of the Sirens. However sweet praise may be to the taste at first, every one who lends an ear to flattery, drinks in a poison which will presently diffuse itself through the whole heart. Let us learn by David’s example to reject all flatteries, prone as we are naturally to receive them, and to renounce waywardness and obstinacy, lest we should put away from us those corrections which are wholesome remedies for our vices. For such is the infatuated love men have to their own destruction, that even when forced to condemn themselves they wish to have the approbation of the world. And why? that by superinducing torpor of conscience, they may, by their own spontaneous act, devote themselves to ruin.

For yet my prayer, etc. Three explanations of this clause have been suggested. According to some the meaning of it is, that, as we are ever ready to be corrupted by bad example, David here prays, that he might not decline to their evils, or the evils which they practiced. The second sense assigned is, that David, recognizing their mischievous devices, prays that he may be kept by the Lord from their wickedness. The third sense, that recognizing them as reduced to desperate calamities, he prays that the just vengeance of God might be executed upon them according to their deserts. The very opposite meaning might seem the more suitable, that David was not prevented by their obstinacy in wickedness from praying for their welfare. For there is the adverb yet emphatically inserted. Or, what if David is to be considered as predicting their unfortunate end, intimating, that though the ungodly now riot in excess, they shall shortly be arrested, and that before long his compassion would be exercised towards them? The way in which the words stand connected favors this view; for he does not say — yet my prayer shall be in their calamities, but rather separately, “ yet, or, yet a little while, and then my power shall be in their calamities.” As David was in danger of being tempted to yield to similarly vain courses with them, he very properly suggests a sustaining motive to his soul, why he should retain his integrity, that erelong they would be overtaken with so awful a destruction as to entreat compassion from him and others of the people of God.

(239) “ Que l’huile de la teste ne rompe point ma teste, c’est a dire, que les meschans ne m’amadouent point par leurs flatteries a ma perdition et ruine.” — Fr.

Verse 6

6. Their judges have been thrown down upon stony places (240) Almost all interpreters agree, that the tense of the verb should be changed from the preterit to the future, and then resolve it into the optative — let them be thrown down. It appears to me that the sense of David would be made very plain by reading, When their judges have been cast down from the rock, or upon stony places, they shall hear my words. David, on perceiving the rage which the common people expressed towards him, as carried away through the influence of error and misrepresentation, lays the blame upon their leaders. When their power should be taken away, he is confident that the simple, who had been misled, would be brought to a right mind. Casting from the rocks, or upon stony places, is a metaphorical expression in reference to the high and dignified position in which they were placed. Although not without blame in following evil counselors so as to persecute unjustly a good and godly man, yet he had reason to entertain more hope of their repentance, that they would return to consideration when God executed vengeance upon those who were at their head. We see how ready the common people are to judge by impulse rather than deliberation, and to be hurried into most condemnable proceedings by blind prejudice, while afterwards upon being admonished they retrace their steps with equal precipitation. So that, granting cruelty must always be sinful, and simplicity no excuse, we are taught by David’s example to pray that sound counsel may be sent to such as are in error, with a view to enabling them to hear the truth and the right with patience.

(240) Those who understand this verse as containing an allusion to the generous manner in which David acted towards Saul in the cave of En-gedi, and to his mild expostulation after they had both left the cave, translate thus: —

Their princes on the sides of the rock were dismissed, or let go in safety; And they heard my words that they were pleasant.”

This exactly corresponds with the occurrences referred to. In correspondence with the first line, it, is said in 1 Samuel 24:2, that Saul and his chosen men went to seek David upon the rocks of the wild goats; and the terms in which David expostulated with Saul, were so gentle, dutiful and affecting, as for the time to melt into tenderness and contrition the heart of Saul, and to impress the minds of all who heard them.

Verse 7

7. As one who breaketh, etc. Here David complains that his enemies were not satisfied with inflicting upon him one death — death of a common description — but must first mangle him, and those associated with him, and then cast them into the grave. The common robber on the highway throws the body of his murdered victim whole into the ditch; David tells us, that he and those with him were treated more barbarously, their Bones being dispersed, as one cleaves wood or stones into fragments, or digs the earth. From this it appears, that David, like Paul, (2 Corinthians 1:9,) was delivered from deaths oft; (241) and we may learn the duty of continuing to cherish hope of life and deliverance even when the expression may apply to us, that our bones have been broken and scattered.

(241) If David here refers to the treatment he and his followers met with at the hands of Saul, this exhibits in dark colors the extreme inhumanity of that monarch. “We are not sufficiently informed,” says Walford, “respecting the cruelties which were perpetrated against David and those who adhered to him, to enable us to point out the instances to which he here alludes; but the murder of Abimelech, and of the priests who were with him, furnishes a pregnant proof of the atrocities which Saul and his agents were capable of perpetrating. (See 1 Samuel 22:0) It appears from the language of this verse that such enormities were not confined to a few cases, but must have been numerous, to give occasion to the image which is employed to describe them.” How striking the contrast between David’s treatment of Saul, and that which Saul adopted towards him! Mr. Peters in his Dissertations on Job, gives an exposition of this 7 verse which is ingenious, and which Archbishop Secker calls “admirable, though not quite unexceptionable.” Understanding the verse as referring to the slaughter of the priests at Nob, just now adverted to, he renders the words שאול לפי, (which Calvin translates, at the grave’s mouth,) at the mouth, that is, at the command of Saul. In support of this translation he produces similar expressions, על פי פרעה, at the command of Pharaoh, (Genesis 45:21,) and על פיך, at thy command. (Job 39:17.) To this rendering there is, however, this strong objection, that we do not find David ever mentioning Saul by name in any of the Psalms. Peters, indeed, states that this objection was offered to him against his view, and he endeavors to remove it, though, as we think, with indifferent success.

Verse 8

8. Because to thee, O Jehovah ! etc. If we reflect upon what was comprehended under the previous figure of their bones being broken, his praying in such circumstances is just as if the torn fragments of a mangled corpse should cry unto God. This may give us some idea of the heroical courage of David, who could continue to direct his eyes to God even under such overwhelming difficulties; this being the very part faith ought to discharge, in making us collected and composed when our senses would otherwise be confounded. (243) Great a miracle as it would have been for God to have preserved them in life, when their bones were scattered abroad, it was a double miracle to support their minds in the firm persuasion of their not perishing.

(243) “ C’est le propre de la foy de rassembler lessens de la personne dispersez, lequels autrement s’esvanouiroyent a chacun coup.” — Fr.

Verse 9

9. Keep me, etc. He owns himself to be shut up in the snares of his enemies, unless set free by a higher hand. In praying to God under the straits to which he was reduced, he proves what a high estimate he formed of what his mercy could effect, as elsewhere he says, that the issues from death belong to him. (Psalms 68:20.) God often delays interposing, that the deliverance may be the more signal; and afterwards he makes the devices of the wicked to recoil upon their own heads. It seems absurd to refer the pronoun his to Saul, as if the sense were that Doeg and others of that character would fall into the snares of Saul. It would seem to be God who is intended. First, he had spoken of being preserved by God from the toils of the wicked, and now to these snares which the wicked spread for the upright he opposes the snares with which God catches the crafty in their own devices. And as the number of his enemies was great, he uses the expression, let them fall together, for escape would have been impossible, had he not been persuaded that it was easy for God to overthrow any combined force and array of men. What follows admits of two meanings. Many read, I shall always pass. But we may suppose order of the words changed and read, until I pass. It prays that his enemies should be held in the snare till he got off safe,

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Bibliographical Information
Calvin, John. "Commentary on Psalms 141". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". 1840-57.