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Monday, May 27th, 2024
the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 101

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-8

Psalms 101:1-8

THE contents of this psalm go far towards confirming the correctness of the superscription in ascribing it to David, as Ewald acknowledges. To call it an ideal description of a Jewish king, dramatically put into such a ruler’s mouth, does not do justice to the ring of earnestness in it. No doubt, subjective impressions are unreliable guides, but it is difficult to resist the impression that a kingly voice is audible here, speaking no ideal description, but his own stern resolves. It is a royal "proclamation against vice and immorality," appropriate to the beginning of a reign. If we accept the superscription, and interpret the abrupt question in Psalms 101:2. "When wilt Thou come to me?" as the utterance of David’s longing to see the Ark set in Jerusalem, we get a most fitting period for the psalm. He had but recently ascended the throne. The abuses and confusions of Saul’s last troubled years had to be reformed. The new king felt that he was God’s viceroy; and here declares what he will strive to make his monarchy-a copy of God’s. He gives evildoers fair warning, and bids all true men be sure of his favour. But he will take heed to himself, before he seeks to purge his court. So the psalm, though it has no strophical arrangement, falls into two main parts, in the first of which the king lays down the rule of his own conduct, and, in the second, declares war against the vermin that infest especially an Eastern court-slanderers, arrogant upstarts, traffickers in lies. His ambition is to have Jehovah’s city worthy of its true King, when He shall deign to come and dwell in it: Therefore his face will be gracious to all good men, and his hand heavy on evildoers. The psalm is "A mirror for Magistrates," to quote the title of an old English book.

The first words of the psalm seem at first sight incongruous with its contents, which are singularly devoid of praise. But they are not meant to refer to the psalm, but declare the singer’s purpose for his whole life. If the speaker is a real character, he is a poet king. Of whom is that singular combination of royalty and minstrelsy so true as of David? If the speaker is an ideal, is it not peculiar that the first qualification of the ideal king should be that he is a poet? The suggestion that "lovingkindness and judgment" are here the monarch’s virtues, not Divine attributes, is negatived by usage and by the following clause, "To Thee, Jehovah, will I sing." But it is as a king that the psalmist vows to praise these twin characteristics of the Divine rule; and his song is to be accompanied by melodious deeds, which shape themselves after that pattern for rulers and all men. Earthly power is then strongest when, like God’s, it is informed by lovingkindness and based on righteousness. In this connection, it is significant that this psalm, describing what a king should be, has been placed immediately after the series which tells who the true King of Israel and the world is, in whom these same attributes are ever linked together.

Psalms 101:2-4 outline the king’s resolves for himself. With noble self-control, this ruler of men sets before himself the narrow, thorny way of perfectness, not the broad, flowery road of indulgence. He owns a law above himself and a far-off goal of moral completeness, which, he humbly feels, is yet unattained, but which he vows will never be hidden from his undazzled eyes, by the glitter of lower earthly good, or the rank mists of sensual pleasures. He had abundant facilities for reaching lower aims, but he turns from these to "give heed" to the way of perfectness. That resolve must be clearly and strongly made by every man, prince or peasant, who would attain to the dominion over self and externals, which is man’s true royalty.

The suddenly interjected question of longing, "When wilt Thou come to me?" is best explained by connecting it with David’s desire that the Ark should be permanently domiciled in Jerusalem-a desire which was checked by his reflections on his own unworthiness. {2 Samuel 6:9} Now he feels that, on the one hand, his whole-hearted desire after righteousness makes him capable of receiving such a guest; and that, on the other, his firmest resolves will be evanescent, without God’s presence to confirm his wavering and to help him to make his resolves into acts. He longed for that "coming" of the symbol of God’s dwelling with men, not with heathenish desire to have it as a magic-working charm against outward foes, but as helping his faith to grasp the fact that God was with him, as his ally in the nobler fight against his own baseness and his position’s temptations. We dare not ask God to come to us, unless we are conscious of desire to be pure; we cannot hope to realise that desire, unless He is with us. So, the natural sequel of determination to give heed to the way of perfectness is petition to Him, to come very near and take up His abode with us.

After this most significant interruption, the stream of resolutions runs on again. In the comparative privacy of his house, he will "walk with a perfect heart," ever seeking to translate his convictions of right into practice, and regulating his activities by conscience. The recesses of an Eastern palace were often foul with lust, and hid extravagances of caprice and self-indulgence; but this ruler will behave there as one who has Jehovah for a guest. The language of Psalms 101:3 is very energetic. "Any villainous thing" is literally "a thing of Belial"; "the doing of transgressions" is literally "doing deeds that turn aside," i.e., from the course prescribed. He will not take the former as models for imitation or objects of desire. The latter kindle wholesome hatred; and if ever he is tempted to dally with sin, he will shake it off, as a venomous reptile that has fastened on him. "A perfect heart" will expel "a perverse heart," but neither will the one be gained nor the other banished without vehement and persistent effort. This man does not trust the improvement of his character to chance or expect it to come of itself. He means to bend his strength to effect it. He cannot but "know evil," in the sense of being aware of it and conscious of its seductions; but he will not "know" it, in the sense of letting it into his inner nature or with the knowledge which is experience and love.

From Psalms 101:5 onwards, the king lays down the principles of his public action, and that mainly in reference to bad men. One verse suffices to tell of his fostering care of good men. The rest describes how he means to be a terror to evildoers. The vices against which he will implacably war are not gross crimes such as ordinarily bring down the sword of public justice. This monarch has regard to more subtle evils-slander, superciliousness, inflated vanity ("proud hearted" in Psalms 101:5 is literally wide in heart, i.e., dilated with self-sufficiency or ambition). His eyes are quick to mark "the faithful in the land." He looks for those whose faithfulness to God guarantees their fidelity to men and general reliableness. His servants shall be like himself, followers of "the way of perfectness." In that court, dignity and office will go, hot to talent, or to crafty arts of servility, or to birth, but to moral and religious qualities.

In the last two verses, the psalm returns to evildoers. The actors and speakers of lies shall be cleared out of the palace. Such base creatures crawl and sting about the purlieus of courts, but this prince will have his immediate entourage free from them. He longs to get rid of the stifling atmosphere of deceit, and to have honest men round him, as many a ruler before and since has longed. But not only palace, but city, has to be swept clean, and one cleansing at the beginning of a reign will not be enough. So "every morning" the work has to be done again. "Ill weeds grow apace," and the mower must not get weary of his scythe. God’s city must be pure. "Without are whatsoever worketh and maketh a lie."

The psalm is a God-given vision of what a king and kingdom might and should be. If David wrote it, his early resolves were sadly falsified. "I will set no villainous things before my eyes"-yet from his "house," where he vowed to "walk with a perfect heart," he looked on Bathsheba. "He that speaks lies shall not be established in my sight"-yet Absalom, Ahithophel, and the sons of Zeruiah stood round his throne. The shortcomings of the earthly shadows of God’s rule force us to turn away to the only perfect King and Kingdom, Jesus Christ and His realm, and to the city "into which shall in no wise enter anything that defileth."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 101". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-101.html.
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