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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 11

Psalms 11

The speaker is hard pressed by godless enemies; and he is advised, abandoning all—all, indeed, being already lost—to look only to the safety of his life, Psalms 11:1-3. But he answers, that he puts his confidence in God, who, throned on high in His holy heaven, rules with His providence over the affairs of men, will assuredly accomplish the overthrow of evil, though it seems almighty, and secure victory to the righteous, Psalms 11:4-7. “Confidence in the Lord and His protection, even against the huge force of the wicked,” remarks Claus, is the simple subject of this Psalm. After expressing briefly this confidence (“in Jehovah I put my trust”), he sets forth the facts, which seem to show, that the condition of the people of God is a perfectly hopeless one; that the suppression of the good principle and its supporters, and the triumph of wickedness, is a decided one; so that the righteous and upright, who can no longer be of service in public affairs, does best to attend only to his own personal deliverance. In opposition to these facts, the speaker proceeds to unfold the words, “I put my trust in the Lord;” representing how the Lord would bring deliverance in what, humanly considered, were completely hopeless circumstances, so that it was not necessary to flee, but to continue in good courage. The general principle laid down in Psalms 11:4, that the providence of the holy and omnipotent God bears rule among men (“His eyes behold, His eyelids try the children of men”), is carried out further in Psalms 11:5 by the assertion, that He lovingly knows the righteous, and hatingly knows the wicked (“The Lord trieth the righteous, and the wicked His soul hateth”): these two principles the Psalmist carries out still further in Psalms 11:6 and Psalms 11:7, taking up again the last first, “Upon the wicked He will rain snares,” etc., and then returning again to the first, “Righteous is the Lord, He loveth righteousness, His countenance beholds the upright.”

The hypothesis of Koester, who divides the Psalm into two strophes of three verses, with a concluding verse, is quite subverted by this distribution of the matter. The second strophe is mutilated, if we separate Psalms 11:7 from it.

At first sight, the Psalm appears to bear an individual character; the words, “I put my trust,” and, “How say ye to my soul,” seem to introduce us into the midst of personal relations. But, considered more narrowly, this commencement leads to a precisely opposite result: the address directed to a number, “flee,” and the expression, “to your mountain,” can only be satisfactorily explained by supposing, that the speaker introduced, saying, “I put my trust,” is an ideal person, the personification of a whole class—more especially, as the supposition, which otherwise is somewhat far-fetched, that, along with the Psalmist, his companions are addressed, has against it the following singular, צפור , in which the Psalmist again returns to the personification. In Psalms 11:2-7, also, there is no trace whatever of a reference to an individual: we have only to do with “the wicked,” “the right-hearted,” “the righteous,” “the upright,”—the two classes which constantly meet us in those Psalms that are of a general character. How little colour the Psalm affords for a personal construction, is evident from the circumstance, that those who take that view perpetually dispute whether it refers to the times of Saul or of Absalom. The individualizing designation, given in Psalms 11:2, to the misdeeds which the wicked practise against the righteous, appears also to be opposed to both, inasmuch as it points to crafty devices of a private nature, whereas, in both the periods referred to, the wicked openly lifted themselves up against the righteous—a trait which is equally fatal also to the supposition of De Wette, that the Psalm refers to the relation of the Israelites to their heathen oppressors; comp. on Psalms 10:8-10.

The following, accordingly, presents itself to our mind as the correct view: David had lived to see two great conflicts of the evil principle against the good; and, having stood in both as the representative of the latter, had on each occasion “strengthened himself in the Lord,” and had received deliverance as the reward of his faith. On the ground of this personal experience, he here shows “the righteous,” how in similar circumstances, when the Church is in a troubled and distracted condition, they ought to behave themselves; viz. that they should not abandon themselves to despair, but should trust in the Lord.

The placing of this Psalm in the same series with the preceding ones, appears to have arisen, not merely from the general similarity of its contents, but also specially from the resemblance of Psalms 11:2 to Psalms 10:8.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. In the Lord put I my trust, how say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain? איך , quomodo ergo—an expression of wonder, of reproach. The words, “to my soul,” are explained by Calvin: “He indicates that his heart was pierced by the taunting question.” But Psalms 11:2 shows rather that the soul is mentioned because the life of the righteous is endangered, and flight appears to be the only means of deliverance (comp. Genesis 19:17). If he who is introduced saying, “In the Lord put I my trust,” is an ideal person, the righteous man, those also who address him must be ideal persons. The Psalmist has in his eye such as, though attached to the good cause (the words unquestionably betoken that), still stand on a lower ground of faith, and who, because their gaze continues fixed on the visible, think that all is irrecoverably gone. In reality, these persons are merely personifications of the doubting thoughts, which arose of themselves in the mind of the speaker,—the “flee,” is the voice of the flesh, which is met by the voice of the Spirit in the declaration, “I put my trust in the Lord.” No one, not even the most advanced, needs to seek those who say “Flee,” outside of himself. The plural נודו is accounted for by what has been already remarked. הרכם , your mountain, is, according to the common interpretation, the mountain which will afford you protection, in which ye have your places of refuge. This, however, is somewhat forced; and we might feel tempted, even were it only because of the word your, to take mountain in a figurative sense, “your mountain”—your hiding-place. Ven.: mons hic locum exilii extra societatem, ad quam noster pertinabat, designat. This exposition is the more natural, as the following rvpc appears to explain why the hiding-place is figuratively described as a mountain. Birds escape the dangers to which they are exposed in the open plain, by betaking themselves to wooded mountains. But even if we should keep to the literal meaning, still the expression would afford no countenance to the individual view of the Psalm. For the mountain, in that case, would only be chosen as an individualizing trait, having respect to the natural appearance of Palestine, where the mountains occupy the first rank among the hiding places: comp. the saying of our Lord, which contains an allusion to this passage, in Matthew 24:16, “Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” We are not, as many expositors think, to supply כ simil. before צפור , but to regard it as a decurtata compar.: as a bird (a bird in the figurative sense). Lamentations 3:52, “Mine enemies chased me sore, like a bird, without cause,” is a parallel passage. הרכם is in the accus., as is usual with verbs of motion; Ewald, p. 585. The Masorites wished, on account of the sing. לנפשי preceding, to read, not נודו , but נודי . This reading would not have been preferred to that of the text, had it been borne in mind, that, like all the Kris, it is no more than a mere conjecture. What is advanced by Hitzig in its support,—that the Ketib offends against the sing. צפור , and is quite unsuitable to the preceding context, where an individual is addressed, serves to explain how it arose. Neither the originators nor the defenders of this reading have succeeded in referring the interchange between the singular and the plural in this verse back to its true ground. They sought, therefore, to set aside what they did not understand, but proceeded with little consistency, when they left standing the to them not less inexplicable הרכם . If we look more closely, we shall find, that נודי , “flee thou, soul,” cannot at all stand. To the soul belongs feeling, not action. The like may be said of the various reading, which the old translators are thought by many to have followed, and which, after their supposed example, several expositors have preferred: הַ?ר כּ?ְ?מוֹ? צִ?פּ?וָ?ר , “to the mountain as a bird.” The easier this reading, the more doubtful is it. Our difficult text could never have arisen from one whose meaning lies so plainly on the surface. The old translators probably left out only the suffix, which must always remain a matter of difficulty, so long as one does not recognise in הרכם the decurtata comparatio, which the following צפור so naturally suggests. Too straitened a sense is given to the verse, by those who seek nothing more in it than a simple call to flee. This the righteous might have complied with, as David indeed actually did flee during the persecutions of Saul and Absalom, without necessarily renouncing confidence in the Lord. The flight may rather, under particular circumstances, be the product of confidence. But here the righteous contrasts confidence in the Lord with such a call. In what sense this was meant, appears from Psalms 11:2 and Psalms 11:3, where it is grounded upon the circumstance, that the constitution of the Church was shaken to its lowest depths, and all prospect of a healthful state of things was foreclosed against the righteous. This flee, therefore, was a word of utter despair, which the righteous meets here by the declaration, “In the Lord put I my trust;” and still more strongly in ver. 4 sq., after expressly exhibiting in Psalms 11:2 and Psalms 11:3 what those, who looked on things with an eye of flesh, produced in justification of their proposal. As in Psalms 11:6 there is undoubtedly a verbal reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha, as recorded in Genesis, it is possible that the words, “Flee to the mountain,” contain an allusion to those of the angel to Lot, “Escape to the mountain,” in Genesis 19:17.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. The friends of the righteous indicate the ground on which they think flight necessary for him. That כי must not be expounded, with Claus, by, indeed! it is true, certainly! is self-evident; and, consequently, there can be no doubt that this verse, and the next, contain the continuation of the discourse of the friends.

For, lo! the wicked bend the bow, place their arrow upon the string.—כון in Pilel, aptare, to shoot in the dark,—from a concealed lurking-place, comp. במסתרים in Psalms 10:9,— at the upright. There is just as little ground here as there, for understanding the expression figuratively; the less so, if we keep in view the general character of the Psalm, to which the matter of this verse also certainly points. For time utterance of wickedness, here set forth in an individualized form, which was peculiarly adapted to poetry, as being fond of picturesque scenes, was, unquestionably, of very rare occurrence in real life, far rarer than others. ישרילב , properly, straight of heart, not in respect to the cunning and malice of the wicked, but to their own state, as conformed to the rule; comp. Vitringa on Deuteronomy 32 p. 41: “It is implied in the idea of rectitude, that there is some canon, rule, or common measure, according to which judgment may be given in regard to all spiritual operations. What is conformed to this standard is morally straight, as that is, also called in architecture, which is exact according to the line or plummet.” The word “upright” is purposely without the article. That the wicked, should relentlessly persecute the upright, show’s what is the state of things. ירה , to throw, to shoot an arrow; elsewhere with the accus., here with ל of the person, to whom the action pertains, so far as it is the aim thereof. The distinction is such as between our shooting any one, which involves the hitting, and “shooting at one.”

Verse 3

Ver. 3. For the foundations are destroyed. We have no right to take כי in the sense of if, which it very rarely possesses: “If the foundations are destroyed, what doeth the righteous?” The common signification, for, is quite suitable. The particular matter mentioned in the preceding verse is here referred to the general, as to its ground, or root. This general is a state of moral dissolution, which deprives the righteous of any footing for successful activity. שתות from שות , “to lay,” is rightly rendered by the Chaldee, Syriac, Aquila, and Symmachus foundations. What is to be understood by the foundations is obvious enough from the preceding verse, as also from the words, “What can the righteous do?” The basis of society is the supremacy of justice and righteousness. The foundations are destroyed “in societies remarkably corrupt, in which the laws of right and equity are wantonly trodden under foot” (Venema).

The righteous, what does he do? With the dissolving of the foundations, in the sense meant, the impossibility of the righteous accomplishing anything goes hand in hand. Things must have gone far with a community, when such an impossibility exists. What is said by Ewald in his Small GT. § 262, suits the Prat. exactly: “The Perfect is used of actions which the speaker considers as complete, as already finished, but so reaching into the present, that modern languages employ the simple Present.” That the righteous effects nothing, is sufficiently proved by past experience, is a fait accompli. The exposition of De Wette and others: “The righteous, what should he do, what else should he do than emigrate, flee away?” has against it the Pret.; the common use of פעל , not facere, but efficere, comp. Job 11:8, Job 35:6; and the parallelism, since, according to it, we get two unconnected sentences, and we are obliged to resort to such unhappy explanations as: “If the foundations are destroyed, etc.”

Verse 4

Ver. 4. The reply of faith, which sees heaven open, to reason, whose gaze is fixed on earth. Geier: “He returns now to his first resolution to confide, Psalms 11:1, and fortifies himself in it.” Although certainly the earth offered him no help and hope, though all was remediless, so far as human aid was concerned, yet a regard to the Lord and His providence made despair appear to be folly. We can either expound “The Lord (is) in His holy temple, the Lord, in heaven is His throne;” or: “The Lord, in His holy temple, the Lord, whose throne is in heaven, His eyes see,” for: “The eyes of the Lord, who is in His holy temple, whose throne is in heaven, see.” In support of the latter exposition there, Isaiah , 1. This, that in the succeeding context the principle, “His eyes see,” “His eyelids try,” is only further extended; and 2. The parallel passage in Psalms 102:18-19, “For He looks down from His holy height, the Lord looks from heaven upon earth, to hear the groaning of the prisoner, to loose the children of death.” These reasons are sufficient to show, that if we prefer the first exposition, which certainly looks the simplest of the two, still the words, “The Lord is in His holy temple, the Lord, in heaven is His throne,” cannot be considered as independently co-ordinate with these others, “His eyes see,” etc., but only as the basis on which the assertion in the latter is made; so that this alone, “His eyes see,” is the proper shield which preserves the righteous from despair. The Lord is in his holy temple, i.e., as appears from the second clause, in heaven. Calvin: “It is a great exercise of faith, when we are on all sides environed by darkness in the world, to seek light from heaven to guide us into the hope of safety. For though all confess that the world is governed by God, yet, when the sad disorder of affairs has enveloped us in darkness, there are few in whose inmost minds this persuasion keeps a firm hold.” The Lord’s throne is in heaven. The Lord’s throne being in heaven, as a mark of loftiness and majesty, shows His power to see, and the holiness of His abode, arising from His personal purity, His will; for as a holy God He cannot permit unholy beings to obtain the ascendancy in His kingdom on earth. On these two foundations is based the declaration, His eyes see, His eyelids try the children of men

His eye is continually directed toward earthly things; He watches every operation of men, continually weighs their spirits, in order to reward every man according to his works. עפעפיו , “His eye-lashes,” for His eyes, in parallelism with עוניו , because the language offered no expression quite synonymous. בחן , “to prove,” of the penetrating glance of the Lord as judge.

Verse 5

Ver. 5. The Lord tries the righteous. Because God is the just One, His searching and proving involve also His protecting. It must necessarily be a blessing to the righteous for God’s judging eye to be directed to them. Precisely as in Psalms 1:6, the first member is to be supplied out of the second, and the second out of the first. And the wicked, and him that loveth violence, His soul hates. Luther: “This, too, is spoken emphatically, in that the prophet does not say simply, He hates, but, His soul hates; thereby declaring that God hates the wicked in a high degree, and with His whole heart: He cannot, as we may say, either see or hear them. It is not to be understood as if God had a soul as we have; just as He has no eyes. The language here is metaphorical,” etc.

Verse 6

Ver. 6. Upon the wicked He will rain snares, fire and brimstone. ימטר stands here poetically for the common Fut. פחים must here, according to various expositors, be taken as a figurative designation of lightning, which is alleged to be called also by the Arabians, in prose and poetry, by the name of chains. But it is a sufficient objection to this meaning, that פח does not signify cord in general, but specially gin, snare, trap. We are the less warranted to give up the ordinary signification, as the cords, nets, and snares, in which God entangles the wicked, area a common image one destruction which He prepares for them; comp. Psalms 9:15, “In the net which they hid, is their own foot taken;” Job 18:9, “The gin (פח ) shall take him by the heel;” Job 22:10, “Therefore snares are round about thee;” Isaiah 24:17-18; Proverbs 22:5. The common signification also of פחים is confirmed here, by the relation in which it stands to “bird” in Psalms 11:1, being specially used of the snares of bird-catchers; comp. Amos 3:15, Gesenius, Thes. s. v. While the wicked believe that they have the righteous in their snares, and are able with little difficulty to destroy them, suddenly a whole load of snares is sent down upon them from heaven, and, all flight being cut off for them, they are smitten by the destroying judgment of God. It is well remarked by Calvin: “He appropriately mentions snares, before he comes to fire and brimstone. For we know that the wicked fear nothing so long as they are spared by God, but go boldly on, as having a free course. Then, if anything of an adverse nature threatens them, they, bethink themselves of ways of escape. At last, they mock God, as if they could not be caught, until He binds them with His cords” (more correctly: catches them in His gins). This explanation contains, at the same time, a refutation of the supposed emendation of Olshausen, who reads פּ?ֶ?חָ?ם , “coals”—an emendation inadmissible, indeed, even on the ground that the word, when used without any further addition, denotes black coals not yet kindled, in contrast to גחלים , “burning coals;” as appears incontestably from Proverbs 26:21. The same consideration also disposes of the assertion of Gesenius, that פחים is here singular, and of like import with פחם ; as also of Boettcher’s “etymological explanation” of פחים , as meaning “something striking with fearful violence.” We may well dispense with “etymological explanations” of words that are of such frequent occurrence. Hitzig takes the word, indeed, in its common signification, but thinks that the snares must consist of fire and brimstone;—“a sort of burning sulphur-threads is meant.” It is sufficient to object thereto, that פח signifies not “cord,” but “gin,” and to refer also to the parallel passages. One is at a loss to comprehend what should have given rise to all these unfortunate attempts at exposition, since the, correct meaning is so obvious. The expression, “that He will rain,” can present no real difficulty, as it simply points to the fulness of God’s retributive judgments, noticed already by Luther, when he says that by it “the prophet indicates the great variety and multitude of the evils threatened.” In the words, “God will rain fire and brimstone,” there is a verbal reference to the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrha, Genesis 19:24. That event must be regarded as a standing monument of the punitive righteousness of God, the more impressive, as the scene of it lay before the eyes of the covenant-people. The Psalmist hopes that the event in question would be repeated, as every Divine act, indeed, is a prediction, in the form of fact, regarding the future, and, under like circumstances, must again take place. A similar verbal allusion is found in Ezekiel 38:22, comp. Job 18:15.

The “fire and brimstone,” in the opinion of many expositors on Genesis, in particular Le Clerc and Michaelis, must be understood as a circumlocution for “lightning.” A number of expositors are inclined also to adopt this explanation here, but it has not sprung from an unprejudiced investigation. In conformity with the natural constitution of the region of Sodom and Gomorrha, we must assume a literal raining of brimstone, which supplied material for the fire that at the same time descended. This is perfectly clear from Job 18:15, where brimstone occurs without fire, so that we cannot suppose lightning to be referred to. If we take the words here in their natural sense, we see at once that we must lay too much stress on the letter of the descriptions given in the Psalms of the destruction of the wicked. Inasmuch as the rain of fire and brimstone is something very isolated, it is plain that the Psalmist represents that in the future which is essentially of the same nature, under the form of what had happened in the past, and that we are to concern ourselves only with the essence, and not with the form.

The last clause is explained by recent interpreters: And a burning wind is the portion of their cup; more correctly, their cup-portion, for the suffix refers to the compound idea. The wind Silaphot is said to be the pestiferous wind, called by the Arabians Samum, which blows in July and August, and instantly kills everything which does not prostrate itself on the ground. But the language does not support this exposition. Of the two other places where the word occurs, that in Psalms 119:53 does not admit of this exposition. And then the image of the burning wind, which does not blow in Palestine, is generally, and, in particular, as denoting the punishment of the ungodly, very seldom used. The only well-grounded exposition is: strong wrath. The ל is a letter inserted, not belonging to the root: comp. the collection of similar examples in Gousset’s Lexicon, and Ewald, p. 520. The root זעף has, in Hebrew, the signification of being angry; no other, not even that of being hot, is to be found in the dialects: the vehemence of the anger is denoted by the plural, perhaps also by the strengthening of the form. The wrath-wind is the Divine anger, which resembles a wind, breaks forth even as a tempest. The representation of the Divine anger under the image of wind and storm, is a very current one. Here it is the more suitable, as mention had just been made of fire and brimstone. The breath of God’s indignation blows upon the burning coals, Isaiah 30:33. In the two other passages also this exposition is quite suitable: Psalms 119:53, “Anger, indignation hath taken hold of me, because of the wicked, who forsake Thy law.” In the paral. ver 139, קנאה , zeal, is substituted for זלעפה . In Lamentations 5:9, the prophet takes the keenness of hunger as a poetical description of His fury. Their cup-portion, that which is proper for them to drink—a figurative description of their lot or portion. Upon the form מְ?נָ?ת , with Kanietz, comp. Ewald, Small Gr. § 386. Such representations of the fearful destruction of the wicked, as already intimated, are not to be taken literally; but we ought always to bear in mind the remark of Luther on this passage: “This verse contains the description of a storm against the wicked, who do not, however, always perish in an actual tempest, and by a corporeal destruction; but it does happen, nevertheless, in whatever way, that they perish, not in peace and enjoyment.” This is the substance of the thing; the form is partly borrowed from the earlier judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrha, and partly adapted to the imaginative character of poetry, so that it must not be taken into account. The threatening is also fulfilled in him who, though outwardly reposing in the lap of fortune, breathes his last amid pangs of remorse.

Verse 7

Ver. 7. For righteous is the Lord, He loves righteousness, His countenance beholds the upright. The Psalmist concludes from the nature of God, that He could not do otherwise than suspend Over the ungodly the judgment spoken of in the preceding verse. He, the righteous One, loves righteousness, because it accords with His own nature; His eye, therefore, rests with satisfaction upon the upright, as the possessor of righteousness; and He must support and avenge him by the overthrow of the wicked. The verse is to be viewed primarily as laying the ground for what is affirmed in Psalms 11:6. But a comparison of Psalms 11:5 shows that it must be also co-ordinated with that. We have already remarked, that in it the Psalmist further unfolds the first half of Psalms 11:5, just as in Psalms 11:6 he further unfolds the second half. The words, His countenance beholds, is a mark of satisfaction. God hides or veils His face from those with whom He is displeased. The plural suffix is to be explained from the fulness and richness of the Divine nature. ימו never stands for the singular—as is evident from the circumstance, that where it appears to do so, it always refers to collectives, or ideal persons, who, in point of fact, comprise a multitude, while it is never used in regard to actual individuals. See on the plural designations of God, which are unconnected with Elohim, and spring from the same root with it (the plural of the suf. in Genesis 1:26, “In our image, after our likeness”), my Beiträge, P. ii. pp. 256-260, 309. Here the plural suf. is probably chosen for the sake of having at the close a full, well-sounding form. Others expound, “the righteous behold His countenance,” equivalent to, “they rejoice in His favour;” as the expression is unquestionably used in Psalms 17:15,—only we should then have expected the plural. The plural יחזו , standing between a singular and a plural, cannot, without the greatest violence, be referred to any other than the latter. Then by this exposition the obvious parallelism between the first and second member is left unnoticed: as יחזו פנימו corresponds to אהב , so must ישר stand in a like relation to צדקות . Further, everything is represented in Psalms 11:4-7 as proceeding from God even as to form, and hence to His acting the conclusion must especially refer. But besides, there is not the slightest ground for rejecting the first exposition. It is supported by Psalms 11:4, where, likewise, God’s eyes, that is, God’s countenance, are the seeing, and the children of men are the seen. Let it only be remarked how exactly this, “His eyes behold the children of men,” corresponds to that, “His countenance beholds the upright.” A comparison of the two parallel passages also speaks against the exposition of Koester: “the righteous shall see it with their countenance,” which is inferior even to the second. So also does it exclude the exposition of Boettcher: “on that which is right, His countenance looks.” (ישר as neuter, in which Luther also takes it, though not in Psalms 37:37, yet in Psalms 111:8, Job 33:27.) The seen must here, as well as there, be persons. All these expositions vanish the moment we discern aright the structure of Psalms 11:4-7,—see introduction. It is then perceived that the words, “His eyes behold the children of men,” in Psalms 11:4, and those in Psalms 11:5, “the Lord tries the righteous,” have not merely the significance of passages accidentally parallel, but are also strictly a standard for ascertaining the sense of the passage before us. Against the objection of Boettcher, that ישר is never used as an appellative for the upright, it is enough simply to refer to Psalms 37:37; and against the allegation of De Wette, that the expression, “His countenance beholds,” never occurs, but that it is always, “His eye beholds,” Psalms 34:16 is a sufficient proof, where the words, “the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous,” are followed by “the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.”

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 11". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-11.html.