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The Psalmist complains of his great distress upon earth, and that in heaven he seemed to be forgotten, Psalms 13:1 and Psalms 13:2. He prays the Lord for help, Psalms 13:3-4, and is revived by the assurance he obtains of it, Psalms 13:5-6.
The Psalm contains no indication, from which the time of its composition might be more exactly determined. We are therefore here also justified in supposing, that the Psalm was not, at a later period, first devoted to general use, but that David originally composed it with this design. Already did Luther understand it of every pious man, who was persecuted as David was. The general character of this Psalm, as well as of many others, is falsely viewed by Jarchi, Kimchi, and De Wette, who refer it exclusively to the relation of the Israelitish people to the heathen. Of national enemies, too, there is no trace whatever to be found here. As throughout the Psalm a single individual comes into view, it cannot be doubted that he is described from the soul of suffering individuals, oppressed by personal enemies, unless it could be proved on definite grounds, that the people are here personified as an individual. Such grounds, however, have no existence.
The situation is that of one who, through lengthened persecutions and continued withholding of Divine help, has been brought to the verge of despair, and is plunged in deadly sorrow. This particular feature of the Psalm may be recognised in the four times repeated question, how long? States of mind such as those here described, must often have crept upon David in the later periods of the Sauline persecution, and with the consolation which he experienced under them he here comforts his brethren.
Ver. 1. How long, O Lord, wilt Thou continually forget me? How long hidest Thou Thy face from me? The נצח , according to the most obvious exposition, marks the uninterruptedness, and consequently the entireness, of the forgetting. The Psalmist’s darkness was illuminated by no ray of Divine favour; his misery had no lucid intervals. This exposition is confirmed by the corresponding יומם , “the whole day,” in Psalms 13:2. It may be doubted, however, whether the נצח and the לנצח which occurs in parallel passages ( Psalms 79:5, “How long, O Lord, wilt Thou be angry” לנצח ? and again in Psalms 74:10, Psalms 89:46), can signify continually, in the sense of constant, uninterrupted, as it rather appears to mean only, for ever—comp. especially Psalms 9:18 “For the needy shall not alway be forgotten, the expectation of the meek shall not perish for ever;” where לנצח is parallel to לעד , and obviously only a final forgetting is spoken of. It is the more natural to think of this here, as the sufferer, according to Psalms 13:3, “Lighten mine eyes, that I sleep not unto death,” believes himself to have already reached the last stage, and prays God that He would still rescue him before the gate is closed. Now, if we attach decisive importance to these doubts with regard to the exposition in question, we must render the clause: “How long wilt Thou forget me for ever?” The weak man, who is always inclined to estimate the grace of God according to his own feeling and experience, is prone, in every suffering, to give himself to despair concerning it, to regard himself as wholly and irrecoverably lost. But when a hard and continuous cross has been appointed, as is the case here, the flesh cries out even to the strongest man, that he is for ever forgotten. On the other hand, however, the Spirit raises its protest; faith lays hold of the declaration, that the poor shall not alway be forgotten. This conflict in the feelings of the sufferer discovers itself also in his address to God; for he prays God at length to restore to him the favour which appearances teach, and the flesh affirms, had completely gone. The sense is quite correctly given by Muis: “Thou showest Thyself to me such as if Thou hadst entirely forgotten me.” Calvin: “Not in a human way, or by natural feelings, do we recognise in our misery that God cares for us, but by faith we apprehend His invisible providence. So David, as far as he could gather from the actual state of things, seemed to himself to be deserted by God. Still, however, with eyes previously enlightened by the light of faith, he saw the grace of God, though hidden; else, how could he have directed his groans and desires to Him?” Luther: “Does he not thus paint this most pungent and bitter anxiety of mind in the most graphic words, as one that feels he has to do with a God alienated from him,—hostile, unappeasable, inexorable, and for ever angry? For here hope itself despairs, and despair, notwithstanding, hopes; and there only lives the unutterable groaning with which the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, Romans 8:26; who moved upon the darkness which covered the waters, as is said at the beginning of Genesis. This no one understands who has not tasted it.” Luther also perceived what emphasis lies in the repetition of the “how long,” with which the sufferer introduces his “four bitter and violent complaints.” “In Hebrew the expression, “how long,” is four times repeated without alteration; instead of which, however, the Latin translator has substituted another word at the third repetition, for the sake of variety. But we would rather preserve the simplicity of the Hebrew dialect, because, by the fourfold use of the same word, it seeks to express the emotion of the prophet; and its impressiveness is weakened by the change adopted by the Latin interpreter.” The Psalm is prepared for those who have been sighing under long distress, and in the one expression, “how long,” its whole nature is, in a manner, expressed.
Ver. 2. How long must I take counsel in my soul, sorrow in my heart daily? The expression, “ put or lay counsels,” has something strange in it. The simplest mode of explaining it is by taking the word lay as equivalent to lay down, as in Exodus 10:1, “That I may lay (put down) these My signs in thy midst.” The soul and heart appear as a store-room, which is entirely filled with counsels and sorrows. The sense of the words, “How long must I take counsels?” is: How long wilt Thou leave me to myself—how long must I weary myself in finding a way of escape from this misery and distress, from which Thou couldst so easily deliver me? We have here very strikingly portrayed the mental condition of a man who harasses himself in helpless embarrassment, seeking for counsel, falling sometimes upon this, sometimes upon that plan, and then giving them all up again in utter despondency, because he sees them to be all unavailing. This disquiet, which arises in us whenever the Lord turns away His face from us in trouble, the sufferer considers as his greatest evil. Luther: “When the unhappy man finds that God feels toward him in the manner described, he does as follows:
That is, his heart is as a raging sea, in which all sorts of counsels move up and down; he tries on all hands to find a hole through which he can make his escape; he thinks of various plans, and still is utterly at a loss what to advise.” What is implied in taking or forming counsels, David knew well in his, own experience, especially during the persecution of Saul, when hunted by his enemies “like a partridge upon the mountains:” he sought refuge, sometimes upon the hill-tops, sometimes among the Moabites, sometimes among the Philistines; and amid all the projects which he formed for his deliverance, the mournful reflection still forced itself upon him, “I shall notwithstanding perish one day by the hand of Saul.” The sufferer was pained, not merely because of his outward trouble, but still more because God seemed to have turned away His face from him, denying him His favour and assistance. This was the real sting of his pain, the throbbing pulse of his misery. Many render יומם improperly: “the whole day,” giving it the force of יומם ולילה . The day, in its more extended signification, comprehends also the night. The word here means, not merely “by day,” but also “daily;” comp. Ezekiel 30:16. “Just as diu in Latin is connected with dies;” Ewald. Against the former view may be urged, that יומם and לילה are constantly opposed: and against the latter view, that a combination of such different meanings should only be assumed in an extreme case. יומם rather means “the day through;” here, and in Ezekiel 30:16, it is equivalent to “from morning to evening.” Night, as the time of sleep, is left out of view. How long shall mine enemy exalt himself over me?
Ver. 3. The prayer stands in immediate connection with the complaint. Luther: “He here sets something over against each of the preceding points. He had complained of four evil things, therefore he begs for four sorts of good.” To the forgetting and the hiding of the countenance stand opposed the looking and hearing; to the counsels and sorrow, the lightening of the eyes; and to the words: “How long shall mine enemy exalt himself over me?” reference is made in Psalms 13:4. The Psalmist, however, has avoided all monotony: in the three first petitions, the reference is only in the matter, and never verbally expressed; and in the fourth, even the form of a petition is abandoned. Look hither. This is opposed to the hiding of the face, of which the Psalmist complains in the first verse. “So long (remarks Calvin) as God does not actually stretch out His hand to help us, the flesh cries out that His eyes are shut.” Hear me, O Lord my God, enlighten mine eyes. These words are explained by Luther thus: “As soon as the face of God is turned away from us, presently follows consternation, distraction, darkness in the understanding and uncertainty of counsel, so that we grope as it were in the dark, and seek everywhere how we may find an escape. Therefore, when the Lord lifts upon us the light of His countenance, and turns His face toward us, listening to our cry, then are our eyes again enlightened, and we have no difficulty in obtaining counsel.” But, that this exposition is not right—that the enlightening of the eyes here is not to be understood spiritually, but literally, with a special reference to the words, “the sorrow in my heart,” in Psalms 13:2, is evident from the following words: So that I sleep not unto death. In the man who is oppressed with sorrow, the feeble and dying, the eyes, which reflect the power of life, become dim; hence to “enlighten the eyes” is as much as to give the vital spark, as Calvin justly remarks. The passage 1 Samuel 14 throws light on this. The eyes of Jonathan, who was faint almost to death, were covered with darkness; but after he had tasted the honey-comb, his eyes see, according to 1 Samuel 14:27 (where the Ketib alone is right), and are enlightened, אורו , according to 1 Samuel 14:29. In Ezra 9:8, the words, “enlighten our eyes,” stand in connection with “give us a reviving.” The Psalmist here, then, represents himself as a dying man, as one already half gone, who will soon be wholly overwhelmed with the darkness of death, if the Lord do not give him new power of life, set him free from consuming grief and sorrow, by granting him deliverance, and so prevent his threatening dissolution. Ewald exclaims: “Pity that we could not more exactly determine the historical circumstances.” But with this, after the remarks made in the introduction, we cannot sympathize. The feeling here expressed is not so very singular a one, as to need explanation from the facts of history. How many souls, driven to the verge of death, have found in this verse the record of their own experience!
Nay, who that has been exercised in the cross, has not already passed through such experience? It is also against all experience to maintain, that the man who feels thus, looks to this earthly life as the final limit of his existence.
To sleep to death—a bold poetical connection for: To sleep the sleep of death; comp. Jeremiah 51:39, Jeremiah 51:57, where sleeping an eternal sleep occur; Ewald, p. 591.
Ver. 4. Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him. יכלתיו from יכל , potuit, stands, according to many, for יכלתי לו ; but this is wrong, if the suff. accus. be understood to designate precisely the dative. The construction with the accus., instead of the common one with ל , is rather to be explained from a modification of the meaning of the verb, “to overpower any one.”
Mine adversaries rejoice not when I fail. The sufferer says, that it were unworthy of God to give His servant as an occasion of mirth to the ungodly, who were just watching for this fall, to rail at it. He proceeds, therefore, on the principle, that it is God’s peculiar business to check the impudence of sinners, as often as they boast of having conquered His people, and through them Himself.
Vers. 5, 6. The Lord imparts to the Psalmist, and through him to all who are in a similar situation; or, rather, He imparts to the righteous sufferer, the assurance of His favour and assistance.
And I trust in Thy goodness, my heart rejoices in Thy salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for He has dealt bountifully with me.—יגל , as many, “will rejoice,” but, “shall rejoice,” as even the form, which is the Fut. apocop. for the optative (comp. Ewald, p. 527), and its suitability to the following, “I will sing,” suggest. The Psalmist declares his wish and resolution, that his heart might give thanks to God for his salvation, which, as already inwardly promised to him, he sees with the eye of faith as actually present. In this wish is involved, at the same time, the certainty and greatness of the salvation. The exultation of the righteous man’s heart stands opposed to that of the enemies, Psalms 13:4. The object of the emotion of joy is marked by ב . The Pret. גמל is to be explained from the faith, which sees what is not as if it were. Luther, whom most expositors follow, renders: “That He deals so well with me;” and this exposition is right, and decidedly to be preferred to the other: “That He recompenses me.” Comp. upon גמל with על , “to make presents,” on Psalms 7:4.
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Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 13". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/