David, reproving wicked judges, describeth the nature of the wicked, and devoteth them to God's judgments, whereat the righteous shall rejoice.
To the chief Musician, Al-taschith, Michtam of David.
Title. תשׁחת אל al tashcheth.— Bishop Patrick observes, that the order of time, in placing this, the former, and the following psalms, is inverted; for the occasion of the 59th was first. Then, upon Saul's missing David, he supposes him to have called his council together; when they, to ingratiate themselves with the reigning prince, adjudged David to be guilty of treason in aspiring to the throne of Israel; which he thinks to have been the occasion of this psalm. And this was prior to what happened in the cave which gave occasion to the last psalm.
Psalms 58:1. Do ye indeed speak righteousness, &c.— Truth.—O congregation, that is, "Ye courtiers assembled in council." Ye sons of men, signifies, "Ye rulers of the people." See Psalms 8:4.
Psalms 58:2. Ye work wickedness, &c.— You work wickedness on the earth; your hands frame violence.
Psalms 58:3. The wicked are estranged from the womb— This is a strong hyperbole, a figure often used, as it is here, with great elegance by the finest writers; when, to be more expressive, they speak in such terms as apparently exceed the strict matter of fact. St. John does the same thing, when he says, If all our Saviour's miracles and actions were to be recorded, The world itself would not contain the books which should be written: i.e. The account of them would be exceedingly long and large. But in one sense, we may add, all men are estranged from God from the womb: all are fallen.
Psalms 58:4. Like the deaf adder, &c.— Dr. Hammond observes from Schindler, that "the deaf viper, or adder, is so called, because, being deaf of one ear, he useth to stop the other with dust, or with his tail, to avoid the force of the charms or incantations wherewith he is wont to be caught." And then, from Philostratus, he gives us an account of their manner of catching certain dragons or serpents in India; part of which is, that "they use certain charms to them, by which they are induced to come out of their holes, and are lulled to sleep, and then the charmers take that opportunity, and cut off their heads. For the avoiding of which danger, the deaf adder, so called because he hears but with one, is supposed to stop the other ear, and so secure himself." Whether there be exact truth in this, is not material to the Psalmist's use of it, or to the explaining the meaning of this allusion; which, as from a thing vulgarly believed, sets forth the matter in hand, the impersuasibleness of wicked men. Thus far the Doctor. And certain it is, says a modern writer upon the Psalms, that the common adder or viper, here in England, the bite of which too, by the way, is very venomous, if it be not wholly deaf, has the sense of hearing very imperfectly. This is evident from the danger there is of treading upon these animals, unless you happen to see them; for if they do not see you, and you do not disturb them, they never endeavour to avoid you, which when they are disturbed, and do see you, they are very solicitous of doing. Allowing, then, that there is a species of these noxious animals, which, either not having the sense of hearing at all, or having it only in a small degree, may very well be said to be deaf; this may help to explain the present poetical passage of the Psalmist. He very elegantly compares the pernicious and destructive practices of wicked men, to the venom of a serpent; and his mentioning the species of animals seems to have brought to his mind another property of at least one sort of them, in which they likewise resembled perverse and obstinate sinners, who are deaf to all advice, utterly irreclaimable, and not to be persuaded. This the adder finely resembled, which is a very venomous animal, and moreover is deaf, or very near it. And perhaps his saying that she stoppeth her ears, may be no more than a poetical expression for deafness: just as the mole, which, in common speech, is said to be blind, might in a poetical phrase, be said to shut her eyes; as in fact she does when you expose her to the light. The next clause, Which refuseth to hear, &c. is another poetical expression for the same thing; and it may not be amiss to add here, that there certainly were people in former times, who made it their business, or at least pretended to have some power over these animals, by virtue of musical sounds, or the repetition of sundry verses. Neither is it at all improbable, that music should have a considerable and surprising effect over them. That it really had, appears from several other passages of Scripture. In Ecclesiastes 10:11. Solomon says, Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment; and God himself declares, by the prophet Jeremiah, Jeremiah 8:17. Behold, I will send serpents which will not be charmed: Agreeable to which, the author of Sirach 12:13 asks, Who will pity a charmer that is bitten with a serpent? The heathen poets also frequently allude to the same thing. Virgil does it more than once:
Strains, in the meadow, or the secret brake, Can the deaf adder split, and venom'd snake. Ecl. 8:71 and in the 7th Eneid, ver. 753 speaking of Umbro, the priest of Marruvia, he has this remarkable passage:
His charms in peace the furious serpent keep, And lull th' envenom'd viper's race to sleep, His healing hand allay'd the raging pain; And at his touch the poisons fled again.
The 5th verse is a poetical application of this allusion to the Psalmist's purpose; viz. to shew, that the obstinate and perverse sinner is wilfully deaf to the best advice, though given by the most able person, and in the most judicious manner. To speak a little physically in this matter: As these animals, by the natural imperfection of that sense, are unaccustomed to hear common noises, may they not be more likely to be affected by such sounds as may be more particularly adapted to make an impression upon their organs of hearing?—They who would know more of the subject, may consult Scheuchzer, and Calmet's dissertation upon the place. For my own part, I cannot help conceiving, that the Psalmist does not allude to any natural deafness of the adder, (which appears to be a very disputable point,) but to an artificial deafness, arising from its fury, its unwillingness to hear and to regard any of the usual methods of taming it, when irritated, and in a rage; and, indeed, this seems to be most applicable to the point in comparison. Accordingly, the French version renders it in this sense; Their fury is like that of the serpent, and asp, which makes herself deaf, by stopping her ears: Psalms 58:5. And which hears not the voice, &c.
Psalms 58:6. Break their teeth, O God— The mention of teeth in this first place with the relative their, most probably refers to the adder's or serpent's immediately foregoing, whose poison and noxious power is in their teeth; and the way to disarm serpents is to deprive them of their teeth. They who keep serpents tame usually do this by putting to them a piece of red cloth, in which they love to fix their teeth, and so draw them out. Breaking them is equivalent to drawing them out. This mention of teeth fairly introduces that which follows concerning the lions, whose power of doing mischief with them is more violent; and so signifies the open and riotous offender, as the serpent's teeth may imply the more secret and indiscernible wounds of the whisperer or back-biter; which yet are as dangerous and destructive as the former, by the smallest puncture killing him on whom they fasten.
Psalms 58:7. When he bendeth his bow, &c.— When they would shoot their arrows, let them be as it were without arms. Mudge. See Psalms 64:3-4.
Psalms 58:8. As a snail which melteth, &c.— Like the snail which dissolveth, let them flow away; like the untimely birth of a woman, that never saw the sun. Houbigant and Mudge.
Psalms 58:9. Before your pots can feel the thorns— Sooner than the bramble can heat your pots, let God's wrath, like a stormy wind, sweep them away. See Bishop Hare and Green. The author of the Observations remarks, that among the Arabs, the fire of thorns, furze, and things of that kind, is commonly used for any thing which requires quick heating; and, as it is short-lived, so it is remarkably violent. See p. 141 and Ecclesiastes 7:6. According to Grotius, the Hebrew may be rendered, Before your pots can perceive or feel the thorns; (i.e. a fire made of thorns, which burns with great fury, and soon gives heat to any thing;) so likewise shall the anger of God snatch you away, as it were in a whirlwind. The intention of the Psalmist is, to express both the quick and terrible destruction of the wicked. They were to be taken away suddenly, or rapidly, before the pots could feel the soon-kindling and vehement fire of thorns. They were to be taken off by some terrible catastrophe, like the furious burning of thorns, to which the wrath of God is frequently compared. See Ezekiel 2:6.
Psalms 58:10. The righteous shall rejoice— Not from a mere complacence in the destruction of his enemies, but from a zeal for the glory of God, which is thereby displayed. He shall wash his feet, &c. is an allusion to a great conqueror, who, upon returning with a complete victory from the slaughter of his enemies, dips his feet in their blood as he passes over their carcases.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Psalms 58". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany