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1. Hear this, all ye people. Whoever may have been the penman of this psalm, it discusses one of the most important principles in divine philosophy, and there is a propriety in the elevated terms designed to awaken and secure attention, with which the Psalmist announces his purpose to discourse of things of a deep and momentous nature. To a superficial view, indeed, the subject might seem trite and common-place, treating, as he does, of the shortness of human life, and the vanity of those objects in which worldly men confide. But the real scope of the psalm is, to comfort the people of God under the sufferings to which they are exposed, by teaching them to expect a happy change in their condition, when God, in his own time, shall interpose to rectify the disorders of the present system. There is a higher lesson still inculcated by the Psalmist — that, as God’s providence of the world is not presently apparent, we must exercise patience, and rise superior to the suggestions of carnal sense in anticipating the favorable issue. That it is our duty to maintain a resolute struggle with our afflictions, however severe these may be, and that it were foolish to place happiness in the enjoyment of such fleeting possessions as the riches, honors, or pleasures of this world, may be precepts which even the heathen philosophers have enforced, but they have uniformly failed in setting before us the true source of consolation. However admirably they discourse of a happy life, they confine themselves entirely to commendations upon virtue, and do not bring prominently forward to our view that God, who governs the world, and to whom alone we can repair with confidence in the most desperate circumstances. But slender comfort can be derived upon this subject from the teaching of philosophy. If, therefore, the Holy Ghost in this psalm introduces to our notice truths which are sufficiently familiar to experience, it is that he may raise our minds from them to the higher truth of the divine government of the world, assuring us of the fact, that God sits supreme, even when the wicked are triumphing most in their success, or when the righteous are trampled under the foot of contumely, and that a day is coming when he will dash the cup of pleasure out of the hands of his enemies, and rejoice the hearts of his friends, by delivering them out of their severest distresses. This is the only consideration which can impart solid comfort under our afflictions. Formidable and terrible in themselves, they would overwhelm our souls, did not the Lord lift upon us the light of his countenance. Were we not assured that he watches over our safety, we could find no remedy from our evils, and no quarter to which we might resort under them.
The remarks which have been made may explain the manner in which the inspired writer introduces the psalm, soliciting our attention, as about to discourse on a theme unusually high and important. Two things are implied in this verse, that the subject upon which he proposes to enter is of universal application, and that we require to be admonished and aroused ere we are brought to a due measure of consideration. The words which I have translated, inhabitants of the world, are translated by others, inhabitants of time; but this is a harsh mode of expression, however much it may agree with the scope of the psalm. He calls upon all men indiscriminately, because all were equally concerned in the truths which he intended to announce. By sons of Adam, we may understand the meaner or lower class of mankind; and by sons of men, (212) the high, the noble, or such as sustain any pre-eminence in life. Thus, in the outset, he states it to be his purpose to instruct high and low without exception; his subject being one in which the whole human family was interested, and in which every individual belonging to it required to be instructed.
(212) The original words for the first of these expressions are, בני אדם bene adam; and those for the second, בני איש bene ish אדם, adam, from אדמה, adamah, earth, means an earthly, frail, mortal, mean man. The term איש, ish, on the other hand, is often used to describe a man who is great and eminent, distinguished for his extraction, strength, valor, and dignity. Thus, in 1 Samuel 25:15, we read, “Art thou not איש, ish, a man?” which is explained by what follows, “And who is like thee in Israel?” denoting there the military valor and reputation of Abner. When the two expressions, בני אדם, bene adam, and בני איש, bene ish, are used together as in this place, in Psalms 62:9, the Jewish Rabbins and modern Christian interpreters have understood a difference of rank to be stated; the former expression, denoting persons of obscure birth, of low rank, the common people: and the latter, meaning men of illustrious descent, the great or nobler sorts of men. See Archbishop Secker’s Dissertation on the words אנוש איש אדם, in Appendix to Merrick’s Annotations on the Psalms, No. 5. The Septuagint translates the former phrase by “ Οἵ γηγενεῖς, ” the earth-born.” The Chaldee expresses the former by the sons of old Adam, and the latter by the sons of Jacob; thus intending to comprehend Jews and Gentiles, all men in the world. “But,” says Hammond, “it is more likely that the phrases denote only the several conditions of men, men of the lower and higher rank, for so the consequeents interpret it, rich and poor. ”
3. My mouth shall speak of wisdom The prophet was warranted in applying these commendatory terms to the doctrine which he was about to communicate. It is, no doubt, by plain appeals to observation that we find him reproving human folly; but the general principle upon which his instruction proceeds is one by no means obvious to the common sense of mankind, not to say that his design in using such terms is less to assert the dignity of his subject than simply to awaken attention. This he does all the more effectually by speaking as one who would apply his own mind to instruction rather than assume the office of exhortation. He puts himself forward as an humble scholar, one who, in acting the part of teacher, has an eye at the same time to his own improvement. It were desirable that all the ministers of God should be actuated by a similar spirit, disposing them to regard God as at once their own teacher and that of the common people, and to embrace in the first place themselves that divine word which they preach to others. (213) The Psalmist had another object in view. He would secure the greater weight and deference to his doctrine by announcing that he had no intention to vend fancies of his own, but to advance what he had learned in the school of God. This is the true method of instruction to be followed in the Church. The man who holds the office of teacher must apply himself to the reception of truth before he attempt to communicate it, and in this manner become the means of conveying to the hands of others that which God has committed to his own. Wisdom is not the growth of human genius. It must be sought from above, and it is impossible that any should speak with the propriety and knowledge necessary for the edification of the Church, who has not, in the first place, been taught at the feet of the Lord. To condescend upon the words, some read in the third verse, And the meditation of my heart shall speak of understanding But as it were a harsh and improper expression to say that the meditation of the heart speaks, I have adopted the simpler reading.
(213) “ Aussi certes il est bien requis que tous les Prophetes de Dieu ayent un tel vouloir et affection, ascavoir qu’ils souffrent volontiers que Dieu soit leur maistre aussi bien que de tout le peuple, et qu’ils recoyvent tous les premiers sa parolle, laquelle ils portent de leur bouche aux autres.” — Fr.
4. I will incline my ear (214) to a parable The Hebrew word משל , mashal, (215) which I have translated parable, properly denotes a similitude; but it is often applied to any deep or weighty sayings, because these are generally embellished with figures and metaphors. The noun which follows, חידת, chidoth (216) and which I have rendered an enigma, or riddle, is to be understood in nearly the same sense. In Ezekiel 17:2, we have both the nouns with their corresponding verbs joined together, חור חידה ומשל משל, chud chedah umshol mashal, the literal translation being, “Enigmatize an enigma, and parabolize a parable.” I am aware that the reference in this place is to an allegorical discourse, but I have already adverted to the reason why, in Hebrew, the name of enigmas or similitudes is given to any remarkable or important sayings. The Psalmist, when he adds that he will open his dark saying, shows that nothing was farther from his intention than to wrap the subject of his discourse in perplexing and intricate obscurity. The truths of revelation are so high as to exceed our comprehension; but, at the same time, the Holy Spirit has accommodated them so far to our capacity, as to render all Scripture profitable for instruction. None can plead ignorance: for the deepest and most difficult doctrines are made plain to the most simple and unlettered of mankind. I see little force in the idea suggested by several interpreters, of the Psalmist having employed his harp, that he might render a subject in itself harsh and disagreeable more engaging by the charms of music. He would merely follow the usual practice of accompanying the psalm with the harp.
(214) Bythner and Fry are of opinion, that “the inclining of the ear” is a metaphor taken from the position of the minstrel, who, in accommodating his words to the tune, brings his ear close to the harp, that he may catch the sounds. Thus the Psalmist expresses the sense he himself had of the importance of his subject, and his purpose of giving to it the most serious attention.
(215) This word is of great latitude in its signification. It signifies primarily any similitude by which another thing is expressed. Thence it comes to denote a figurative discourse, either in the form of fiction and fable, such as riddles or significant apologues, as that of Jotham, Jude 9:7, or in which application is made of some true example or similitude, as when the sluggard is bidden “go to the ant,” and the impenitent sinner to consider the “swallow and crane,” which return at their certain seasons, and so are fitted to give a lesson to sinners to repent. And, finally, it belongs to all moral doctrine, either darkly or sententiously delivered; wise men, in ancient times, having been in the habit of delivering their lessons in short concise sentences, sometimes in schemes and figures, and sometimes without them, as we see in the Proverbs of Solomon, many of which are plain moral sayings without any figure or comparison. Of this sort is that which is here introduced to our attention; it is a moral theme not much veiled with figures, nor so concise as proverbs usually are, but which contains the most instructive lessons on the vanity of the prosperity of all wicked men. See Hammond in loco.
(216) This word is derived from an Arabic root which signifies to bend a thing aside, to tie knots, etc. ; and thus it means an intricate species of composition, a riddle It is used for a riddle in the story of Samson, Jude 14:14; and for difficult questions, as those put by the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, Genesis 10:1. See Lowth’s Lectures on Sacred Poetry, volume1, p. 78. Accordingly, it is here rendered by the Septuagint, “ τὸ πρόβλημά μου,” “my problem or difficult question,” which is not only asked in the fifth verse, but also answered in the subsequent verses. The word, however, is also applied to poetical compositions of a highly adorned and finished style, in which nothing enigmatical appears, but which contain weighty and important matter set forth in the parabolic style to secure the reader’s or the hearer’s attention, Psalms 78:2. See Gesenius’ Lexicon. In the subject-matter of this psalm there does not appear to be any thing peculiarly intricate. It treats of the vanity of riches, and the folly of those who trust in them; their insufficiency to save from the power of death; and the final triumph of all the suffering people of God over their rich and haughty persecutors. This is indeed a dark theme to the worldly-minded man; but it contains nothing occult or mysterious to those who are taught of God.
5. Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil? The Psalmist now enters upon the point on which he proposed to discourse, That the people of God must not yield to despondency even in the most distressing circumstances, when their enemies may seem to have enclosed them on every side, but must rest assured that God, although he connives for a time, is awake to their condition, and only watches the best opportunity of executing his judgments. This manner of introducing the subject by interrogation is much more emphatic than if he had simply asserted his resolution to preserve his mind undisturbed in the midst of adversity. In the second clause of the verse he particularises the heaviest and most bitter of all afflictions, those which are experienced by the righteous when their enemies triumph in the unrestrained indulgence of their wickedness. When, the adverb of time, must therefore be understood — When the iniquity of my heel shall compass me about There is a different meaning which some interpreters have attached to the words, namely, If I should fear in the days of evil, and be guilty of the excessive anxieties of the unbeliever, — in that case, when the hour of my death came, my iniquity would compass me about. The heel they take to be the end of life. But this interpretation is to be dismissed at once as most unnatural. Nor do I see what reason others have for referring this word to the thoughts, for I believe that in no other part of Scripture can such a metaphor or similitude be found. Others, with more plausibility, have rendered the original word liers in wait, (217) because the Hebrew verb עקב, akab, signifies to deceive; and they consider the Psalmist as intimating, that he would not fear though crafty and treacherous men laid snares for him. In my opinion, there is no figure intended; and he means to say, that he would have no fear when his enemies surrounded him, and in pursuing him, trode, as it were, upon his heel. The French have a similar expression, “Poursuyvre jusques aux talons.” (218) I agree with them, that he speaks of enemies, but it is of their wicked persecution as they press upon him in the height of their power, and with design to destroy him, keep themselves near him, and tread, so to speak, upon his very heel.
(217) Lowth reads, “The wickedness of those who lie in wait for me, or endeavor to supplant me; ” and Horsley, “When the iniquity of those who plot against me environs me.” The original word is עקבי, akabey, which Dr Adam Clarke thinks is to be considered as the contracted plural of עקבים, akabim, supplanters, from עקב, akab, to supplant, to defraud It is literally, “My Jacobs;” that is, those who would act towards me as Jacob acted towards Esau. See Genesis 27:36, and Jeremiah 9:4. The Syriac and Arabic versions read it, “My enemies.”
(218) i. e. “To pursue even to the heels.”
6. They trust in their wealth. We are now furnished with the reason why the suffering children of God should dismiss their apprehensions, and keep themselves from despondency, even when reduced to extremity by the violence and treachery of their enemies. Any boasted power which they possess is fleeting and evanescent. The Psalmist would convince us that the fear of man is unwarrantable; that it argues ignorance of what man is even at his best; and that it were as reasonable to startle at a shadow or a spectre. They boast themselves, he adds, in the multitude of their riches, and this is an error into which we are disposed to fall, forgetting that the condition of man in this world is fluctuating and transitory. It is not merely from the intrinsic insufficiency of wealth, honors, or pleasures, to confer true happiness, that the Psalmist proves the misery of worldly men, but from their manifest and total incapacity of forming a correct judgment of such possessions. Happiness is connected with the state of mind of that man who enjoys it, and none would call those happy who are sunk in stupidity and security, and are destitute of understanding. The Psalmist satisfactorily proves the infatuation of the wicked from the confidence which they place in their power and wealth, and their disposition to boast of them. It is a convincing sign of folly when one cannot discern what is before his eyes. Not a day passes without forcing the plain fact upon their notice, that none can redeem the life of another; so that their conduct is nothing less than insanity. Some read, A man shall not be able to redeem his brother; which amounts to the same meaning, and the text admits of this translation. The Hebrew word אח, ach, which I have rendered brother, is by others translated one; but I do not approve, although I would not absolutely reject, this reading. The Psalmist adds, that none can give a price to God for the ransom of another, where he adverts to the truth that men’s lives are absolutely at the disposal of God, and that they never can be extended by any human arrangement one moment beyond the period which God has fixed.
He enforces the same lesson in the verse which follows, where he states that the redemption of their soul is precious, an expression not to be understood as implying merely that it is an event of rare occurrence, but that it never can take place, as 1 Samuel 3:1, where the word of the Lord is said to have been precious under the priesthood of Eli, when it is evidently meant that it had ceased altogether. The Psalmist would assert that no man can hope to purchase an immortality either for himself or others in this world. I have rendered the close of verse 8, And their continuance for ever; but others, who construe the Hebrew word חדל, chadal, as a verb, meaning to cease, read, And ceaseth for ever, as if the Psalmist meant that no price was sufficiently great to answer the purpose, and that it must therefore cease for ever, as what could never obtain the end desired. I consider that which I have given to be the real meaning of the word, having had occasion already to observe upon Psalms 39:5, that it signifies the fixed term of human life. The words in verse 9, That he should still live for ever, more fully express the truth, that it is not merely impossible to redeem the life of men when they are dead, but impossible while they are yet living, to extend the term of their existence. A definite limit has been assigned to every man’s life. This he cannot pass over, and the Psalmist would impress the fact upon us as one which stamps folly upon the conduct of the wicked, who will cherish their unfounded confidence even at the moment when they are upon the brink of the grave. In all this, it may strike the reader that he has not announced any thing which merits being called a dark saying, and has rather been treating a popular subject in a very plain style of language; but if he consider that David here condemns, as by a voice issuing from the awful judgment-seat of God, the stupidity of such as forget that they are men, he will not be disposed to reckon the expression inapplicable. Again, we have seen that he has opened his dark saying, it being the divine will that instruction should be delivered in a form adapted to the meanest capacity.
10 For he shall see that wise men die. I consider the ninth and tenth verses to be connected, and that it is the intention of the Psalmist to censure the folly of those who dream of spending an eternity in this world, and set themselves seriously to establish a permanent settlement in it, though they cannot but see their fellow-creatures cut down daily before their eyes by the stroke of death. It is a common proverb, that experience teaches fools, and they may be looked upon as something worse who will not lay to heart their mortality, when surrounded by so many convincing illustrations of it. This seems obviously to be the connection. These infatuated enemies of God, as if he had said, cannot fail to perceive that death is the universal lot of mankind, that the wise are equally liable to it with the foolish; and yet they persist in the imagination that they will remain here always, and will live as if they were never to quit with this world! They see what happens to others, that all, without exception or discrimination, are involved in the common mortality; and they must observe how often it happens that wealth passes into the hands of strangers The word אחרים, acherim, I translate strangers, rather than others; for although it may be extended to successors of any kind, yet I think that the Psalmist here supposes the case of wealth passing into the hands of those who are not our natural and lawful heirs, and cannot be considered in any sense as representing us. Many not only die, but die childless, and their name becomes extinct, which is an additional ingredient of bitterness in the cup of the worldling. And yet all these affecting lessons of experience are entirely lost upon them, and they still in their secret thoughts fondly cherish the idea of living here for ever. The Hebrew word קרב, kereb, means the middle of anything; but it is taken metaphorically to signify the heart, or inward parts of the man. Here it denotes that their secret thoughts are occupied with an imaginary eternity which they hope to enjoy upon earth. Another and more ingenious interpretation has been suggested by some, that as the word occasionally means a tomb, the Psalmist may here be satirising those who think to perpetuate their memory after death by rearing expensive mausoleums. (220) This view of the words is strained and unnatural; and what immediately follows proves that the other is the most correct, when it is added, that worldly men call out their names upon the earth; that is, make every exertion in their power to win reputation amongst their fellow-creatures. Their desire should be to have their names written in the book of life, and to be blessed before God and his holy angels; but their ambition is of another kind — to be renowned and extolled upon earth. By the expression, calling out, it is insinuated that the fame of ungodly men is but an empty sound. Some interpreters prefer reading, They have called their lands by their own names, (221) that they might leave some monument of themselves to posterity. But what the Psalmist seems chiefly to insist upon is, that they are wholly bent upon earthly renown.
(220) The reading of the Septuagint is, “ Καὶ οἱ τάφοι αὐτῶν ὀικίαι αὐτῶν εἰς τὸν αἰω̑να.” “And their sepulchres are their houses for ever.” The Vulgate, Syriac, and Chaldee, also read “sepulchres.” Kennicott supposes that the authors of these versions must have read קברם, kaberam, their graves, instead of קרבם, kirbam, their inward part The text as it stands admits of a good sense. Some eminent critics, however, are disposed to think that the reading of the ancient versions is the true one.
(221) Some also read the verse thus, “Their grave is their house for ever, their dwelling-place through all generations, though their names are celebrated over countries.”
12 And man shall not abide in honor Having exposed the vain and delusory nature of the fancies entertained by the ungodly, he next shows that however fondly they may cherish them, they must experience the same fate with the beasts of the field. It is true that there is a great difference, so far as the soul is concerned, between man and the brute creation; but the Psalmist speaks of things as they appear in this world, and in this respect he was warranted to say of the ungodly that they die as the beasts. His subject does not lead him to speak of the world to come. He is reasoning with the children of this world, who have no respect to another, and no idea of a farther happiness than that which they enjoy here. He accordingly ridicules their folly in conceiving of themselves as privileged with exemption from the ordinary lot of humanity, and warns them that death will soon be near to humble their presumptuous thoughts, and put them on a level with the meanest of the lower creatures. This I prefer to the more ingenious interpretation which some would put upon the words, that they reduced themselves to the level of beasts by not recognising the true dignity of their nature, which consists in the possession of a never-dying soul. The Psalmist’s great aim is to show the vanity of the boasting of the wicked, from the nearness of death, which must join them in one common fate with the beasts of the field. The last word in the verse gives the reason why the ungodly may be compared to the beasts — they perish It matters little whether or not we consider the relative אשר , asher, as understood, and read, that perish
13 This their way is foolishness As this verse has been variously rendered, I shall briefly, before giving my own sense of it, state the views which have been taken by others. As the Hebrew word כסל , kesel, which I have translated foolishness, occasionally means the kidneys, some refine upon the term, and consider it to be here taken for fat; as if this imagination of theirs were, so to speak, fat which stupified and rendered their senses obtuse. But this reading is too forced to bear examination. Others read, This their way is their folly; (226) that is, the reason why they pursue such a line of conduct is, that they are destitute of sound judgment; for, were they not utterly devoid of it, and did they possess one spark of intelligence, would they not reflect upon the end for which they were created, and direct their minds to higher objects? I rather conceive the Psalmist simply to mean, that the event proves them to be wholly destitute of wisdom, in placing their happiness upon earthly objects, and brands them, notwithstanding all the pretensions they make to foresight and shrewdness, with ridicule and contempt. And this he states, to show in a more aggravated light the madness of their posterity, who will not be instructed by the fate of their predecessors. The last clause of the verse has also been variously rendered, and I may state the views which have been taken of it by others. The Hebrew verb רצה, ratsah, which I have translated to acquiesce, they render, to walk, and the noun פי, phi, translated mouth or sayings, they take to mean a measure, thus understanding the Psalmist to say, that the children walked by the same rule with their fathers; and they change the letter ב, beth, into כ , caph, the mark of similitude which is sufficiently common in the Hebrew language. This view of the passage comes near to the proper meaning of it. Some conceive that there is an allusion to the beasts of the field; but this is improbable. It seems best to understand with others that the word mouth denotes principles or sayings; and the verb רצה, ratsah, may be taken in its more ordinary and most generally received sense, which implies consent or complacency. I have therefore translated it to acquiesce. The boasted confidence of the ungodly proving vain in the issue, and exposing them justly to ridicule, it argues a monstrous infatuation in their posterity, with this example before their eyes, to set their affections upon the same trifles, and to feel and express themselves exactly in the same manner as those who went before them. If men reflect at all upon the judgments which God executes in the world, we might expect that they would particularly consider his dealings with their immediate predecessors, and when, wholly insensible to the lessons which should be learned from their fate, they precipitate themselves into the same courses, this convincingly demonstrates their brutish folly.
(226) “ כסל למו is literally, folly to them; i e. , though this their way (the worldling’s trust in his wealth), seem to them a piece of special wisdom, yet in the event it proves otherwise; it becomes perfect folly to them when they come to discern their frustrations.” — Hammond
14 Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed them (227) The figure is striking. They go down into the grave as sheep are gathered into the fold by the shepherd. The entire world might not seem vast enough for men of a haughty spirit. They are so swollen with their vain imaginations, that they would engross universal nature to themselves. But the Psalmist, finding the wicked spread as it were far and wide, in the boundless pride of their hearts, collects them together into the grave, and hands them over to death as their shepherd. He intimates, that whatever superiority they might affect over their fellow-creatures, they would feel, when too late, that their boasting was vain, and be forced to yield themselves up to the irresistible and humiliating stroke of death. In the second part of the verse, the Psalmist points out the very different fate which awaits the children of God, and thus anticipates an obvious objection. It might be said, “Thou tellest us that those who place their confidence in this world must die. But this is no new doctrine. And why convert into matter of reproach what must be considered as a law of nature, attaching to all mankind? Who gave thee a privilege to insult the children of mortality? Art thou not one of them thyself?” This objection he meets effectually, by granting that on the supposition of death being the destruction of the whole man, he would have advanced no new or important doctrine, but arguing that infidel worldlings reject a better life to come, and thus lay themselves justly open to this species of reprehension. For surely it is the height of folly in any man for a mere momentary happiness — a very dream — to abdicate the crown of heaven, and renounce his hopes for eternity. Here it must be apparent, as I already took occasion to observe, that the doctrine of this psalm is very different from that taught by the philosophers. I grant that they may have ridiculed worldly ambition with elegance and eloquence, exposed the other vices, and insisted upon the topics of our frailty and mortality; but they uniformly omitted to state the most important truth of all, that God governs the world by his providence, and that we may expect a happy issue out of our calamities, by coming to that everlasting inheritance which awaits us in heaven. It may be asked, what that dominion is which the upright shall eventually obtain? I would reply, that as the wicked must all be prostrated before the Lord Jesus Christ, and made his footstool, His members will share in the victory of their Head. It is indeed said, that he “will deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father,” but he will not do this that he may put an end to his Church, but “that God may be all in all,” (1 Corinthians 15:24.) It is stated that this will be in the morning (228) — a beautiful and striking metaphor. Surrounded as we are by darkness, our life is here compared to the night, or to a sleep, an image which is specially applicable to the ungodly, who lie as it were in a deep slumber, but not inapplicable to the people of God, such being the dark mist which rests upon all things in this world, that even their minds (except in so far as they are illuminated from above) are partially enveloped in it. Here “we see only as through a glass darkly,” and the coining of the Lord will resemble the morning, when both the elect and reprobate will awake. The former will then cast aside their lethargy and sloth, and being freed from the darkness which rested upon them, will behold Christ the Sun of Righteousness face to face, and the full effulgence of life which resides in him. The others, who lie at present in a state of total darkness, will be aroused from their stupidity, and begin to discover a new life, of which they had previously no apprehension. We need to be reminded of this event, not only because corruption presses us downwards and obscures our faith, but because there are men who profanely argue against another life, from the continued course of things in the world, scoffing, as Peter foretold, (2 Peter 3:4,) at the promise of a resurrection, and pointing, in derision, to the unvarying regularity of nature throughout the lapse of ages. We may arm ourselves against their arguments by what the Psalmist here declares, that, sunk as the world is in darkness, there will dawn ere long a new morning, which will introduce us to a better and an eternal existence. It follows, that their strength, or their form, (229) (for the Hebrew word צורה, tsurah, is susceptible of either meanings) shall wax old If we read strength, the words intimate, that though at present they are in possession of wealth and power, they shall speedily decline and fall; but I see no objection to the other meaning, which has more commonly been adopted. Paul tells us, (1 Corinthians 7:31,) that “ the fashion of this world passes away,” a term expressive of the evanescent nature of our earthly condition; and the Psalmist may be considered as comparing their vain and unsubstantial glory to a shadow. The words at the close of the verse are obscure. Some read, The grave is their dwelling; and then they make ם , mem, the formative letter of a noun. But the other interpretation agrees better both with the words and scope of the psalm, that the grave awaits them from his dwelling, which is put for their dwelling; such a change of number being common in the Hebrew language. They reside at present in splendid mansions, where they rest in apparent security, but we are reminded that they must soon come out of them, and be received into the tomb. There may be a covert allusion to their goings abroad to places of public resort with gaiety and pomp. These, the Psalmist intimates, must give place to the sad procession by which they must be carried down to the grave.
(227) This is also the reading of the Septuagint, “ Θάνατος ποιμανεῖ αὐτούς,” “Death shall feed them as a shepherd,” and of Jerome, “ Mors pascet eos;” and this is the view taken by Dr Kennicott, Dr Hammond, and Bishop Horsley. Hammond’s explanation of this clause is as follows. He observes, that the Hebrew word רעה, raah, means to give the sheep pasture, or to look to them when they are feeding, Genesis 29:7; and that this feeding of sheep is very different from feeding on them. He farther observes, that the word is frequently used for ruling or governing “In this place,” says he, “the metaphor of sheep must needs rule the signification of it. As sheep are put into a pasture, there to continue together in a common place, so men are put into שאול, ἅδης, the state of the dead, mentioned in the former words, and to that regularly follows — Death ידעם, [shall feed them,] — is as the shepherd that conducts or leads them into this pasture, those Elysian fields: — an excellent piece of divine poesy, to signify, how men like sheep, like beasts, go by flocks and herds out of this life, or more plainly, that men die as ordinarily and regularly as sheep are led to their pasture.” Some, however, read, “Death feedeth upon them.” “ רעה signifies not only to feed, but to feed upon and lay waste; and thus we render it in Micah 5:6, ‘They shall waste Assyria with the sword.’ See also Psalms 80:14.” — Appendix to the Notes in Merrick’s version, No. 4, p. 304. This verb also signifies to feed upon in Isaiah 44:20, and Hosea 12:2. Fry’s translation is,“
They are set apart like sheep for Hades; Death feedeth upon them, and they go down to them;”
and he thinks that the idea here is, that Death and Hades are the two monsters for whose consumption the flock is destined. This is a personification which we frequently meet with in the Latin poets. Cerberus is often represented by them as feasting on the bodies of men in the grave; Thus, notwithstanding the strong desires which worldly men have for immortality in this world, they shall become the victims of the grave, and the prey of death.
(228) In the morning, that is, says Dathe, in the time of judgment. He thinks there is here an allusion to the usual time of holding courts of justice, which was in the morning. See Psalms 73:14, and 101:8; and Jeremiah 21:12.
(229) The LXX. read, ‘Η βοήθεια αὐτῶν, their help, conceiving the word צותם, tsuram, to be derived from צור, tsur, a rock, and metaphorically, confidence, aid Ainsworth reads, “their form,” their figure, shape, or image, with all their beauty and proportion; or “their rock,” that is, their strength “The Hebrew tsur, ” says he, “is usually a rock; here it seemeth to be all one with tsurah, a form or figure; and this is confirmed by the writing, for though by the vowels and reading it is tsur, yet, by the letters, it is, tsir, which is an image, Isaiah 45:16.”
15 But God will redeem my soul The Hebrew particle, אך , ach, may be also translated, surely, or certainly. The psalmist had made a general assertion of the great truth, that the righteous shall have dominion in the morning, and now he applies it to himself for the confirmation of his own faith. This verse may, therefore, be regarded as a kind of appendix to the former; in it he makes a personal application of what had been said of all the righteous. By the word, the hand, is to be understood the dominion and power, and not the stroke, of the grave, as some have rendered it. The prophet does not deny his liability to death; but he looks to God as He who would defend and redeem him from it. We have here a convincing proof of that faith in which the saints under the Law lived and died. It is evident that their views were directed to another and a higher life, to which the present was only preparatory. Had the prophet merely intended to intimate that he expected deliverance from some ordinary emergency, this would have been no more than what is frequently done by the children of the world, whom God often delivers from great dangers. But here it is evident that he hoped for a life beyond the grave, that he extended his glance beyond this sublunary sphere, and anticipated the morning which will introduce eternity. From this we may conclude, that the promises of the Law were spiritual, and that our fathers who embraced them were willing to confess themselves pilgrims upon earth, and sought an inheritance in heaven. It evinced gross stupidity in the Sadducees, educated as they were under the Law, to conceive of the soul as mortal. The man must be blind indeed who can find no mention of a future life in this passage. To what other interpretation can we wrest the preceding verse, when it speaks of a morning altogether new and peculiar? We are sufficiently accustomed to see the return of morning, but it points us to a day of an extraordinary kind, when God himself shall rise upon us as the sun, and surprise us with the discovery of his glory. When the Psalmist adds, Assuredly God will redeem my soul (230) from the power of the grave, does he not contemplate a special privilege, such as could not be shared by all other men? If deliverance from death, then, be a privilege peculiar to the children of God, it is evident that they are expectants of a better life. We must not overlook, (what I have already noticed,) that the sure method of profiting by the divine promises is, to apply to ourselves what God has offered generally to all without exception. This is done by the prophet, for how could he have arrived at an assured promise of the redemption of his soul, except by the general fact known to him of the future glory awaiting the children of God, and by concluding himself to be amongst their number? The last clause of the verse runs in the Hebrew literally, for he will take me up Some, however, resolve the causal particle כי, ki, which we render for, into the adverb of time when, and the verb לקח, lakach, which we translate to receive or to take up, they translate to cut off, or take away from this world, giving to the passage this sense, When God shall have called my soul out of this world to himself, he will rescue it from the power of the grave. I am afraid that this is rather too strained an interpretation. Those seem to take a juster view of the words who consider that the future tense has been substituted for the perfect, and who retain the proper signification of the causal particle, reading, for he has taken me up The prophet did not consider that the ground of his hope for a better resurrection was to be found in himself, but in the gratuitous adoption of God who had taken him into his favor. There is no need, however, why we should suppose a change of tense, and not understand the Psalmist as meaning that God would redeem his soul from death, by undertaking the guardianship of it when he came to die. The despairing fears which so many entertain when descending to the grave spring from the fact of their not commending their spirit to the preserving care of God. They do not consider it in the light of a precious deposit which will be safe in his protecting hands. Let our faith be established in the great truth, that our soul, though it appears to evanish upon its separation from the body, is in reality only gathered to the bosom of God, there to be kept until the day of the resurrection.
(230) Soul is not here to be understood of the intellectual immaterial spirit. The Hebrew word נפשי, naphshi, my soul, is often put in the Old Testament Scriptures for the personal pronoun; and thus it means my person, myself, me. — See Appendix., Note on Psalms 16:10.
16 Be not thou afraid The Psalmist repeats, in the form of an exhortation, the same sentiment which he had formerly expressed, that the children of God have no reason to dread the wealth and power of their enemies, or to envy their evanescent prosperity; and as the best preservative against despondency, he would have them to direct their eyes habitually to the end of life. The effect of such a contemplation will be at once to check any impatience we might be apt to feel under our short-lived miseries, and to raise our minds in holy contempt above the boasted but delusory grandeur of the wicked. That this may not impose upon our minds, the prophet recalls us to the consideration of the subject of death — that event which is immediately at hand, and which no sooner arrives than it strips them of their false glory, and consigns them to the tomb. So much is implied in the words, He shall not carry away all these things when he dieth (232) Be their lives ever so illustrious in the eyes of their fellow-creatures, this glory is necessarily bounded by the present world. The same truth is further asserted in the succeeding clause of the verse, His glory shall not descend after him Infatuated men may strain every nerve, as if in defiance of the very laws of nature, to perpetuate their glory after death, but they never can escape the corruption and nakedness of the tomb; for, in the language of the poet Juvenal, -“
Mots sola fatetur Quantula sint hominum corpuscula,” —“
It is death which forces us to confess how worthless the bodies of men are.”
(232) “Heb. ‘take of all;’ that is, ought of all that he hath. ‘For we brought nothing into the world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out.’” — Ainsworth.
18 For he will bless his soul in his lifetime Various meanings have been attached to this verse. Some read, He ought to have blessed his soul during his life Others apply the first clause of the verse to the wicked, while they refer the second to believers, who are in the habit of praising God for all his benefits. Others understand the whole verse as descriptive of believers, but without sufficient ground. There can be little doubt that the reference is to the children of the world. In the first part of the verse it is said that they bless their own soul (233) so long as they live on earth, by which is meant, that they indulge and pamper themselves with earthly pleasures, giving way to the excesses of brutish intemperance, like the rich man, of whom Christ spoke in the parable, who said,“
Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years, take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry,” — (Luke 12:19)
or that they seek their happiness entirely from this world, without cherishing a desire for the life that is to come. Some translate the Hebrew verb, he will do good, and read thus, He will do good to his own soul in his lifetime. But I conceive the phrase to be synonymous in its import with that which is employed by Moses,“
And it come to pass, that he bless himself in his heart;” (Deuteronomy 29:19,)
that is, flatter himself as if he might despise God with impunity. The inspired penman here represents the stupidity of such as please themselves with a fallacious dream of happiness. In the latter part of the verse the person is changed, and the votary of pleasure is apostrophised; (234) the prophet insinuating, by the words he uses, that the preposterous pride with which the wicked are inflamed is in part the consequence of the delusive applause of the world, which pronounces them to be happy, and echoes their praises even when they gratify their most unlicensed passions.
(233) That is, themselves. — See note, p. 252.
(234) “There is here a change,” says Walford, “from the oblique to the direct form of speech, by which the writer turns himself to the rich man, who prospers in the world, and says to him, Though you now count yourself happy, and meet with applause from persons of a character resembling your own, yet you shall go to the abode of your fathers, who will never behold the light.” He reads the 19 verse, “Thou shalt go to the abode of thy fathers, who will never behold the light.”
19 He shall come to the age of his fathers He proceeds to show how false are the flatteries by which the wicked deceive themselves, and are deceived by others. Be they ever so intoxicated with the praises of the world, or with their own vain imaginations, yet they cannot live beyond the age of their fathers; and, granting their life to be extended to the longest term, it can never stretch into eternity. Others understand the expression as synonymous with their being gathered to the tomb along with their fathers who have gone before them; as in Scripture death is usually called “The way of all the earth.” The Psalmist, a little above, had spoken of their being gathered together in the grave as sheep in a fold. According to this view, the meaning of the passage is, that having never aspired after heaven, but having been sunk in the low grovelling pursuits of this world, they would come at last to the same fate with their fathers. When it is added, They shall not see the light even for ever, we are to understand their consignment to everlasting darkness. (235) In my opinion, both clauses of the verse combine to express the same truth, That however they may flatter and deceive themselves, they cannot prolong their life beyond the common term of mortality. As either interpretation, however, agrees with the general scope of the psalm, the reader may choose for himself. Should the latter be adopted, the words in the close of the verse are to be considered as asserting that the ungodly can only enjoy the light of life for a short period, as they have no hope of another existence beyond the grave. We are taught by the Psalmist, in the words which have been under our consideration, to beware of flattering ourselves in the possessions of this world, and to be principally anxious for the attainment of that happiness which is reserved for us in heaven. We are also warned not to allow ourselves to be carried away by the erring influence of worldly applause. Even heathen authors have taught us the same lesson. Thus the poet Persius says, —“
Non si quid turbida Roma Elevet, accedas, examenve improbum in illa Castiges trutina: nec te quaesiveris extra,” —“
If Rome, a city full of commotions, exalt or despise any thing, beware of being satisfied with its weight or balance; that is to say, of stopping at its judgment; and do not look to what others say of you, but enter into thyself, and examine what thou art.” (236) But the disposition to be deceived by flattery is one so strongly marked in our nature, as to require that we should attend to the weightier admonition of one who was inspired.
(235) Horsley reads, “To all eternity they shall not see light;” “that light,” says he, “which emphatically deserves the name — that light, of which created light is but a faint image; the light of God’s glory. He shall have no share in the beatific vision.”
(236) This is the translation which is given of these lines in the French version.
20 Man is in honor, and will not understand (237) Here the prophet, that he may not be understood as having represented the present life, which in itself is a singular blessing of God, as wholly contemptible, corrects himself as it were, or qualifies his former statements by a single word, importing that those whom he reprehends have reduced themselves to the level of the beasts that perish, by senselessly devouring the blessings which God has bestowed, and thus divesting themselves of that honor which God had put upon them. It is against the abuse of this world that the prophet has been directing his censures. They are aimed at those who riot in the bounties of God without any recognition of God himself, and who devote themselves in an infatuated manner to the passing glory of this world, instead of rising from it to the contemplation of the things which are above.
(237) This verse is precisely the same as the 12th, with the exception of one word. Instead of בל ילין, bal-yalin, will not lodge, in the 12th verse, we have here ולא יבין, velo yabin, and will not understand But the Septuagint and Syriac versions read in the 12th verse as here, “understands not.” Houbigant thinks that this is the true reading of the 12th verse. “The very repetition,” says he, “proves that it is to be so read. Besides, as the Psalmist immediately subjoins, They are like brute creatures, it is sufficiently evident that the reason why men are said to be like the beasts is, because they do not understand, and not because they do not continue in honor, since honor does not belong to the brute creation.”
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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Psalms 49". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12