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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 10

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-18

Psalms 10:1-18

Psalms 9:1-20; Psalms 10:1-18 are alike in their imperfectly acrostic structure, the occurrence of certain phrases-e.g., the very uncommon expression for "times of trouble," {Psalms 9:9; Psalms 10:1} "Arise, O Lord" {Psalms 9:19; Psalms 10:12} -and the references to the nation’s judgment. But the differences are so great that the hypothesis of their original unity is hard to accept. As already remarked, the enemies are different. The tone of the one psalm is jubilant thanksgiving for victory won and judgment affected; that of the other is passionate portraiture of a rampant foe and cries for a judgment yet unmanifested. They are a pair, though why the psalmist should have bound together two songs of which the unlikenesses are at least as great as the likenesses it is not easy to discover. The circumstances of his day may have brought the cruelty of domestic robbers close upon the heels of foreign foes, as is often the case, but that is mere conjecture.

The acrostic structure is continued into Psalms 10:1-18, as if the last stanza of 9 had begun with the regular Kaph instead of the cognate Qoph; but it then disappears till Psalms 10:12, from which point it continues to the end of the psalm, with the anomaly that one of the four stanzas has but one verse: the unusually long Psalms 10:14. These four stanzas are allotted to the four last letters of the alphabet. Six letters are thus omitted, to which twelve verses should belong. The nine non-acrostic verses (Psalms 10:3-11) are by some supposed to be substituted for the missing twelve, but there are too many verbal allusions to them in the subsequent part of the psalm to admit of their being regarded as later than it. Why, then, the break in the acrostic structure? It is noticeable that the (acrostic) Psalms 9:1-20 is wholly addressed to God, and that the parts of 10 which are addressed to Him are likewise acrostic, the section Psalms 10:3-11 being the vivid description of the "wicked," for deliverance from whom the psalmist prays. The difference of theme may be the solution of the difference of form, which was intended to mark off the prayer stanzas and to suggest, by the very continuity of the alphabetical scheme and the allowance made for the letters which do not appear, the calm flow of devotion and persistency, of prayer throughout the parenthesis of oppression. The description of the "wicked" is as a black rock damming the river, but it flows on beneath and emerges beyond.

The psalm falls into two parts after the introductory verse of petition and remonstrance: Psalms 10:3-11, the grim picture of the enemy of the "poor"; and Psalms 10:12-18, the cry for deliverance and judgment.

The first stanza (Psalms 10:1-2) gives in its passionate cry a general picture of the situation, which is entirely different from that of Psalms 9:1-20. The two opposite characters, whose relations occupy so much of these early psalms, "the wicked" and "the poor," are, as usual, hunter and hunted, and God is passive, as if far away, and hiding His eyes. The voice of complaining but devout remonstrance is singularly like the voice of arrogant godlessness (Psalms 10:4-11), but the fact which brings false security to the one moves the other "to prayer. The boldness and the submissiveness of devotion are both throbbing in that "Why?" and beneath it lies the entreaty to break this apparent apathy. Psalms 10:2 spreads the facts of the situation before God. "Through the pride of the "wicked the afflicted is burned," i.e., with anguish, pride being the fierce fire and burning being a vigorous expression for anguish, or possibly for destruction. The ambiguous next clause may either have "the wicked" or "the poor" for its subject. If the former (R.V), it is a prayer that the retribution which has been already spoken of in Psalms 9:1-20 may fall, but the context rather suggests the other construction, carrying on the description of the sufferings of the poor, with an easy change to the plural, since the singular is a collective. This, then, being how things stand, the natural flow of thought would be the continuance of the prayer; but the reference to the enemy sets the psalmist on fire, and he "burns" in another fashion, flaming out into a passionate portraiture of the wicked, which is marked as an interruption to the current of his song by the cessation of the acrostic arrangement.

The picture is drawn with extraordinary energy, and describes first the character (Psalms 10:3-6) and then the conduct of the wicked. The style reflects the vehemence of the psalmist’s abhorrence, being full of gnarled phrases and harsh constructions. As with a merciless scalpel the inner heart of the man is laid open. Observe the recurrence of "saith," "thoughts," and "saith in his heart." But first comes a feature of character which is open and palpable. He "boasts of his soul’s desire." What is especially flagrant in that? The usual explanation is that he is not ashamed of his shameful lusts, but glories in them, or that he boasts of succeeding in all that he desires. But what will a good man do with his heart’s desires? Psalms 10:17 tells us, namely breathe them to God; and therefore to boast of them instead is the outward expression of godless self-confidence and resolve to consult inclination and not God. The word rendered boast has the two significations of pray and boast, and the use of it here, in the worse one, is parallel with the use of bless or renounce in the next clause. The wicked is also "rapacious," for "covetous" is too weak. He grasps all that he can reach by fair or foul means. Such a man in effect and by his very selfish greed "renounces, contemns God." He may be a worshipper; but his "blessing" is like a parting salutation, dismissing Him to whom it is addressed. There is no need to suppose that conscious apostacy is meant. Rather the psalmist is laying bare the under meaning of the earth-bound man’s life, and in effect anticipates Christ’s "Ye cannot serve God and mammon" and Paul’s "covetousness which is idolatry."

The next trait of character is practical atheism and denial of Divine retribution. The Hebrew is rough and elliptical, but the A.V misses its point, which the R.V gives by the introduction of "saith." "The pride of his countenance" is literally "the elevation of his nose." Translate those upturned nostrils into words, and they mean that God will not require (seek, in the sense of punish). But a God who does not punish is a dim shape, through which the empty sky is seen, and the denial (or forgetfulness) of God’s retributive judgment is equivalent to denying that there is a God at all.

Thus armed, the wicked is in fancied security. "His ways are firm"-i.e., he prospers-and, in the very madness of arrogance, he scoffs at God’s judgments as too high up to be seen. His scoff is a truth, for how can eyes glued to earth see the solemn lights that move in the heavens? Purblind men say, We do not see them, and mean, They are not; but all that their speech proves is their own blindness. Defiant of God, he is truculent to men, and "snorts contempt at his enemies." "In his heart he says, I shall not be moved." The same words express the sane confidence of the devout soul and the foolish presumption of the man of the earth; but the one says, "because He is at my right hand," and the other trusts in himself. "To all generations I shall not be in adversity" (R.V). The Hebrew is gnarled and obscure; and attempts to amend the text have been made (compare Cheyne, Gratz in loc.), but needlessly. The confidence has become almost insane, and has lost sight altogether of the brevity of life. "His inward thought is that he shall continue forever". {Psalms 49:1-20} "Pride stifles reason. The language of the heart cannot be translated into spoken words without seeming exaggeration" (Cheyne). He who can be so blind to facts as to find no God may well carry his blindness a step further and wink hard enough to see no death, or may live as if he did not.

Following the disclosure of the inner springs of life in the secret thoughts comes, in Psalms 10:7-10, the outcome of these in word and deed. When the wicked "lets the rank tongue blossom into speech," the product is affronts to God and maledictions, lies, mischiefs, for men. These stuff the mouth full, and lie under the tongue as sweet morsels for the perverted taste or as stored there, ready to be shot out. The deeds match the words. The vivid picture of a prowling lion seems to begin in Psalms 10:8, though it is sometimes taken as the unmetaphorical description of the wicked man’s crime. The stealthy couching of the beast of prey, hiding among the cover round the unwalled village or poorly sheltered fold, the eyes gleaming out of the darkness and steadfastly fixed on the victim with a baleful light in them, belong to the figure, which is abruptly changed in one clause {Psalms 10:9 c} into that of a hunter with his net, and then is resumed and completed in Psalms 10:10, where the R.V is, on the whole, to be preferred-"He croucheth; he boweth down"-as resuming the figure at the point where it had been interrupted and finishing it in the next clause, with the helpless victim fallen into the grip of the strong claws. With great emphasis the picture is rounded off {Psalms 10:11} with the repetition of the secret thought of God’s forgetfulness, which underlies the cruel oppression.

This whole section indicates a lawless condition in which open violence, robbery, and murder were common. In Hosea’s vigorous language, "blood touched blood," the splashes being so numerous that they met, and the land was red with them. There is no reason to suppose that the picture is ideal or exaggerated. Where in the turbulent annals of Israel it is to be placed must remain uncertain; but that it is a transcript of bitter experience is obvious, and the aspect which it presents should be kept in view as a corrective of the tendency to idealise the moral condition of Israel, which at no time was free from dark stains, and which offered only too many epochs of disorganisation in which the dark picture of the psalm could have been photographed from life.

The phrases for the victims in this section are noteworthy: "the innocent"; "the helpless"; "the poor." Of these the first and last are frequent, and the meaning obvious. There is a doubt whether the last should be regarded as the designation of outward condition or of disposition, i.e. whether "meek" or "poor" is the idea. There are two cognate words in Hebrew, one of which means one who is bowed down, i.e. by outward troubles, and the other one who bows himself down, i.e. is meek. The margin of the Hebrew Bible is fond of correcting these words when they occur in the text and substituting the one for the other, but arbitrarily; and it is doubtful whether in actual usage there is any real distinction between them. "Helpless" is a word only found in this psalm (Psalms 10:8, Psalms 10:10, Psalms 10:14), which has received various explanations, but is probably derived from a root meaning to be black, and hence comes to mean miserable, hapless, or the like. All the designations refer to a class-namely, the devout minority, the true Israel within Israel-and hence the plurals in Psalms 10:10, Psalms 10:12, and Psalms 10:17.

The second part of the psalm (Psalms 10:12-18) is the prayer, forced from the heart of the persecuted remnant, God’s little flock in the midst of wolves. No trace of individual reference appears in it, nor any breath of passion or vengeance, such as is found in some of the psalms of persecution; but it glows with indignation at the blasphemies which are, for the moment, triumphant, and cries aloud to God for a judicial act which shall shatter the dream that He does not see and will not requite. That impious boast, far more than the personal incidence of sufferings, moves the prayer. As regards its form, the reappearance of the acrostic arrangement is significant, as is the repetition of the prayer and letter of Psalms 9:19, which binds the two psalms together. The acrostic reappears with the direct address to God. The seven verses of the prayer are divided by, it into four groups, one of which is abnormal as containing but one verse, the unusual length of which, however, somewhat compensates for the irregularity (Psalms 10:14). The progress of thought in them follows the logic of emotional prayer rather than of the understanding. First, there are a vehement cry for God’s intervention and a complaint of His mysterious apparent apathy. The familiar figure for the Divine flashing forth of judgment, Arise, O Lord, is intensified by the other cry that He would "lift His hand." A God who has risen from His restful throne and raised His arm is ready to bring it down with a shattering blow; but before it falls the psalmist spreads in God’s sight the lies of the scornful men. They had said (Psalms 10:11) that He forgot; the prayer pleads that He would not forget. Their confidence was that He did not see nor would requite; the psalmist is bold to ask the reason for the apparent facts which permit such a thought. The deepest reverence will question God in a fashion which would be daring, if it were not instinct with the assurance of the clearness of His Divine knowledge of evil and of the worthiness of the reasons for its impunity. "Wherefore doest Thou thus?" may be insolence or faith. Next, the prayer centres itself on the facts of faith, which sense does not grasp (Psalms 10:14). The specific acts of oppression which force out the psalmist’s cry are certainly "seen" by God, for it is His very nature to look on all such ("Thou" in Psalms 10:14 is emphatic); and faith argues from the character to the acts of God and from the general relation of all sin towards Him to that which at present afflicts the meek. But is God’s gaze on the evil an idle look? No; he sees, and the sight moves Him to act. Such is the force of "to take it into Thy hand," which expresses the purpose and issue of the beholding. What He sees He "takes in hand," as we say, with a similar colloquialism. If a man believes these things about God, it will follow of course that he will leave himself in God’s hand, that uplifted hand which prayer has moved. So Psalms 10:14 is like a great picture in two compartments, as Raphael’s Transfiguration. Above is God, risen with lifted arm, beholding and ready to strike; beneath is the helpless man, appealing to God by the very act of "leaving" himself to Him. That absolute reliance has an all-prevalent voice which reaches the Divine heart, as surely as her child’s wail the mother’s: and wherever it is exercised the truth of faith which the past has established becomes a truth of experience freshly confirmed. The form of the sentence in the Hebrew (the substantive verb with a participle, "Thou hast been helping") gives prominence to the continuousness of the action: It has always been Thy way, and it is so still. Of course "fatherless" here is tantamount to the "hapless," or poor, of the rest of the psalm.

Then at last comes the cry for the descent of God’s uplifted hand (Psalms 10:15-16). It is not invoked to destroy, but simply to "break the arm" of the wicked, i.e., to make him powerless for mischief, as a swordsman with a shattered arm is one blow from God’s hand lames, and the arm hangs useless. The impious denial of the Divine retribution still affects the psalmist with horror; and he returns to it in the second clause of Psalms 10:15: in which he prays that God would "seek out"-i.e., require and requite, so as to abolish, and make utterly nonexistent-the wicked man’s wickedness. The yearning of every heart that beats in sympathy with and devotion to God, especially when it is tortured by evil experienced or beheld flourishing unsmitten, is for its annihilation. There is no prayer here for the destruction of the doer; but the reduction to nothingness of his evil is the worthy aspiration of all the good, and they who have no sympathy with such a cry as this have either small experience of evil, or a feeble realisation of its character.

The psalmist was heartened to pray his prayer, because "the nations are perished out of His land." Does that point back to the great instance of exterminating justice in the destruction of the Canaanites? It may do so, but it is rather to be taken as referring to the victories celebrated in the companion psalm. Note the recurrence of the words "nations" and "perished," which are drawn from it. The connection between the two psalms is thus witnessed, and the deliverance from foreign enemies, which is the theme of Psalms 9:1-20, is urged as a plea with God and taken as a ground of confidence by the psalmist himself for the completion of the deliverance by making domestic oppressors powerless. This lofty height of faith is preserved in the closing stanza, in which the agitation of the first part and the yearning of the second are calmed into serene assurance that the Ecclesia pressa has not cried nor ever can cry in vain. Into the praying, trusting heart "the peace of God, which passeth understanding," steals, and the answer is certified to faith long before it is manifest to sense. To pray and immediately to feel the thrilling consciousness, "Thou hast heard," is given to those who pray in faith. The wicked makes a boast of his "desire"; the humble makes a prayer of it, and so has it fulfilled. Desires which can be translated into petitions will be converted into fruition. If the heart is humble, that Divine breath will be breathed over and into it which will prepare it to desire only what accords with God’s will, and the prepared heart will always find God’s ear open. The cry of the hapless, which has been put into their lips by God Himself, is the appointed prerequisite of the manifestations of Divine judgment which will relieve the earth of the incubus of "the man of the earth." "Shall not God avenge His own elect, though He bear long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily." The prayer of the humble, like a whisper amid the avalanches, has power to start the swift, white destruction on its downward path; and when once that gliding mass has way on it, nothing which it smites can stand.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 10". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-10.html.
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