Bible Commentaries
Psalms 35

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-28

THE psalmist’s life is in danger. He is the victim of ungrateful hatred. False accusations of crimes that he never dreamed of are brought against him. He professes innocence, and appeals to Jehovah to be his Advocate and also his Judge. The prayer in Psalms 35:1 a uses the same word and metaphor as David does in his remonstrance with Saul. {1 Samuel 24:15} The correspondence with David’s situation in the Sauline persecution is, at least, remarkable, and goes far to sustain the Davidic authorship. The distinctly individual traits in the psalm are difficulties in the way of regarding it as a national psalm. Jeremiah has several coincidences in point of expression and sentiment, which are more naturally accounted for as reminiscences by the prophet than as indications that he was the psalmist. His genius was assimilative, and liked to rest itself on earlier utterances. The psalm has three parts, all of substantially the same import, and marked off by the conclusion of each being a vow of praise and the main body of each being a cry for deliverance, a characterisation of the enemy as ungrateful and malicious, and a profession of the singer’s innocence. We do not look for melodious variations of note in a cry for help. The only variety to be expected is in its shrill intensity and prolongation. The triple division is in accordance with the natural feeling of completeness attaching to the number. If there is any difference between the three sets of petitions, it may be observed that the first (Psalms 35:1-10) alleges innocence and vows praise without reference to others; that the second (Psalms 35:11-18) rises to a profession not only of innocence, but of beneficence and affection met by hate, and ends with a vow of public praise; and that the final section (Psalms 35:19-28) has less description of the machinations of the enemy and more prolonged appeal to Jehovah for His judgment, and ends, not with a solo of the psalmist’s gratitude, but with a chorus of his friends, praising God for his "prosperity." The most striking features of the first part are the boldness of the appeal to Jehovah to fight for the psalmist and the terrible imprecations and magnificent picture in Psalms 35:5-6. The relation between the two petitions of Psalms 35:1, "Plead with those who plead against me" and "Fight with them that fight against me," may be variously determined. Both may be figurative, the former drawn from legal processes, the latter from the battlefield. But more probably the psalmist was really the object of armed attack, and the "fighting" was a grim reality. The suit against him was being carried on, not in a court, but in the field. The rendering of the R.V. in Psalms 35:1, "Strive with who strive against me," obscures the metaphorof a lawsuit, which, in view of its further expansion in Psalms 35:23-24 (and in "witnesses" in Psalms 35:11?), is best retained. That is a daring flight of reverent imagination which thinks of the armed Jehovah as starting to His feet to help one poor man. The attitude anticipates Stephen’s vision of "the Son of man standing," not throned in rest, but risen in eager sympathy and intent to succour. But the panoply in which the psalmist’s faith arrays Jehovah, is purely imaginative and, of course, has nothing parallel in the martyr’s vision. The "target" was smaller than the "shield". {2 Chronicles 9:15-16} Both could not be wielded at once, but the incongruity helps to idealise the bold imagery and to emphasise the Divine completeness of protecting power. It is the psalmist, and not his heavenly Ally, who is to be sheltered. The two defensive weapons are probably matched by two offensive ones in Psalms 35:3. The word rendered in the A.V. "stop" ("the way" being a supplement) is more probably to be taken as the name of a weapon, a battle axe according to some, a dirk or dagger according to others. The ordinary translation gives a satisfactory sense, but the other is more in accordance with the following preposition, with the accents, and with the parallelism of target and shield. In either case, how beautifully the spiritual reality breaks through the warlike metaphor! This armed Jehovah, grasping shield and drawing spear, utters no battle shout, but whispers consolation to the trembling man crouching behind his shield. The outward side of the Divine activity, turned to the foe, is martial and menacing; the inner side is full of tender, secret breathings of comfort and love.

The previous imagery of the battlefield and the Warrior God moulds the terrible wishes in Psalms 35:4-6, which should not be interpreted as having a wider reference than to the issue of the attacks on the psalmist. The substance of them is nothing more than the obverse of his wish for his own deliverance, which necessarily is accomplished by the defeat of his enemies. The "moral difficulty" of such wishes is not removed by restricting them to the special matter in hand, but it is unduly aggravated if they are supposed to go beyond it. However restricted, they express a stage of feeling far beneath the Christian, and the attempt to slur over the contrast is in danger of hiding the glory of midday for fear of not doing justice to the beauty of morning twilight. It is true that the "imprecations" of the Psalter are not the offspring of passion, and that the psalmists speak as identifying their cause with God’s; but when all such considerations are taken into account, these prayers against enemies remain distinctly inferior to the code of Christian ethics. The more frankly the fact is recognised, the better. But, if we turn from the moral to the poetic side of these verses, what stern beauty there is in that awful picture of the fleeing foe, with the angel of Jehovah pressing hard on their broken ranks! The hope which has been embodied in the legends of many nations, that the gods were seen fighting for their worshippers, is the psalmist’s faith, and in its essence is ever true. That angel, whom we heard of in the previous psalm as defending the defenceless encampment of them that fear Jehovah, fights with and scatters the enemies like chaff before the wind. One more touch of terror is added in that picture of flight in the dark, on a slippery path, with the celestial avenger close on the fugitive’s heels, as when the Amorite kings fled down the pass of Beth-horon, and "Jehovah cast great stones from heaven upon them." Aeschylus or Dante has nothing more concentrated or suggestive of terror and beauty than this picture.

The psalmist’s consciousness of innocence is the ground of his prayer and confidence. Causeless hatred is the lot of the good in this evil world. Their goodness is cause enough; for men’s likes and dislikes follow their moral character. Virtue rebukes, and even patient endurance irritates. No hostility is so hard to turn into love as that which has its origin, not in the attitude of its object, but in instinctive consciousness of contrariety in the depths of the soul. Whoever wills to live near God and tries to shape his life accordingly may make up his mind to be the mark for many arrows of popular dislike, sometimes lightly tipped with ridicule, sometimes dipped in gall, sometimes steeped in poison, but always sharpened by hostility. The experience is too uniform to identify the poet by it, but the correspondence with David’s tone in his remonstrances with Saul is, at least, worthy of consideration. The familiar figures of the hunter’s snare and pitfall recur here, as expressing crafty plans for destruction, and pass, as in other places, into the wish that the lex talionis may fall on the would be ensnarer. The text appears to be somewhat dislocated and corrupted in Psalms 35:7-8. The word "pit" is needless in Psalms 35:7 a, since snares are not usually spread in pits, and it is wanted in the next clause, and should therefore probably be transposed. Again, the last clause of Psalms 35:8, whether the translation of the A.V. or of the R.V. be adopted, is awkward and feeble from the repetition of "destruction," but if we read "pit," which involves only a slight change of letters, we avoid tautology, and preserve the reference to the two engines of craft: "Let his net which he spread catch him; in the pit-let him fall therein!" The enemy’s fall is the occasion of glad praise, not because his intended victim yields to the temptation to take malicious delight in his calamity (Schadenfreude). His own deliverance, not the other’s destruction, makes the singer joyful in Jehovah, and what he vows to celebrate is not the retributive, but the delivering, aspect of the Divine act. In such joy there is nothing unworthy of the purest forgiving love to foes. The relaxation of the tension of anxiety and fear brings the sweetest moments, in the sweetness of which soul and body seem to share, and the very bones, which were consumed and waxed old, {Psalms 6:3; Psalms 32:3} are at ease, and, in their sense of well-being, have a tongue to ascribe it to Jehovah’s delivering hand. No physical enjoyment surpasses the delight of simple freedom from long torture of pain, nor are there many experiences so poignantly blessed as that of passing out of tempest into calm. Well for those who deepen and hallow such joy by turning it into praise, and see even in the experiences of their little lives tokens of the incomparable greatness and unparalleled love of their delivering God!

Once more the singer plunges into the depths, not because his faith fails to sustain him on the heights which it had won, but because it would travel the road again, in order to strengthen itself by persistent prayers which are not "vain repetitions." The second division (Psalms 35:11-18) runs parallel with the first, with some differences. The reference to "unjust witnesses" and their charges of crimes which he had never dreamed of may be but the reappearance of the image of a lawsuit, as in Psalms 35:1, but is more probably fact. We may venture to think of the slanders which poisoned Saul’s too jealous mind, just as in "They requite me evil for good" we have at least a remarkable verbal coincidence with the latter’s burst of tearful penitence: {1 Samuel 24:17} "Thou art more righteous than I, for thou hast rendered unto me good, whereas I have rendered unto thee evil." What a wail breaks the continuity of the sentence in the pathetic words of Psalms 35:12 b! -" Bereavement to my soul!" The word is used again in Isaiah 48:7-8, and there is translated "loss of children." The forlorn man felt as if all whom he loved were swept away, and he left alone to face the storm. The utter loneliness of sorrow was never more vividly expressed. The interjected clause sounds like an agonised cry forced from a man on the rack. Surely we hear in it not the voice of a personified nation, but of an individual sufferer, and if we have been down into the depths ourselves, we recognise the sound. The consciousness of innocence marking the former section becomes now the assertion of active sympathy, met by ungrateful hate. The power of kindness is great, but there are ill-conditioned souls which resent it. There is too much truth in the cynical belief that the sure way to make an enemy is to do a kindness. It is all too common an experience that the more abundantly one loves, the less he is loved. The highest degree of unrequited participation in others’ sorrows is seen in Him who "Himself took our sicknesses." This psalmist so shared in those of his foes that in sackcloth and with fasting he prayed for their healing. Whether the prayer was answered to them or not, it brought reflex blessing to him, for self-forgetting sympathy is never waste, even though it does not secure returns of gratitude. "Your peace shall return to you again," though it may not bring peace to nor with a jangling household. Riehm (in Hupfeld) suggests the transposition of the verbs in Psalms 35:14 a-and b: "I bowed down as though he had been my friend or brother; I went in mourning," etc., the former clause painting the drooping head of a mourner, the latter his slow walk and sad attire, either squalid or black.

The reverse of this picture of true sympathy is given in the conduct of its objects when it was the psalmist’s turn to sorrow. Gleefully they flock together to mock and triumph. His calamity was as good as a feast to the ingrates. Psalms 35:15 and Psalms 35:16 are in parts obscure, but the general sense is clear. The word rendered "abjects" is unique, and consequently its meaning is doubtful, and various conjectural emendations have been proposed-e.g., "foreigners" which, as Hupfeld says, is "as foreign to the connection as can be," "smiting," and others-but the rendering "abjects," or men of low degree, gives an intelligible meaning. The comparison in Psalms 35:16 a is extremely obscure. The existing text is harsh; "profane of mockers for a cake" needs much explanation to be intelligible. "Mockers for a cake" are usually explained to be hangers on at feasts who found wit for dull guests and were paid by a share of good things, or who crept into favour and entertainment by slandering the objects of the host’s dislike. Another explanation, suggested by Hupfeld as an alternative, connects the word rendered "mockers" with the imagery in "tear" (Psalms 35:15) and "gnash" (Psalms 35:16) and "swallow" (Psalms 35:25), and by an alteration of one letter gets the rendering "like profane cake devourers," so comparing the enemies to greedy gluttons, to whom the psalmist’s ruin is a dainty morsel eagerly devoured.

The picture of his danger is followed, as in the former part, by the psalmist’s prayer. To him God’s beholding without interposing is strange, and the time seems protracted; for the moments creep when sorrow laden, and God’s help seems slow to tortured hearts. But the impatience which speaks of itself to Him is soothed, and, though the man who cries, How long? may feel that his life lies as among lions, he will swiftly change his note of petition into thanksgiving. The designation of the life as "my only one," as in Psalms 22:20, enhances the earnestness of petition by the thought that, once lost, it can never be restored. A man has but one life; therefore he holds it so dear. The mercy implored for the single soul will be occasion of praise before many people. Not now, as in Psalms 35:9-10, is the thankfulness a private soliloquy. Individual blessings should be publicly acknowledged, and the praise accruing thence may be used as a plea with God, who delivers men that they may "show forth the excellencies of Him who hath called them out of" trouble into His marvellous peace.

The third division (Psalms 35:18-28) goes over nearly the same ground as before, with the difference that the prayer for deliverance is more extended, and that the resulting praise comes from the great congregation, joining in as chorus in the singer’s solo. The former references to innocence and causeless hatred, lies and plots, open-mouthed rage, are repeated. "Our eyes have seen," say the enemies, counting their plots as good as successful and snorting contempt of their victim’s helplessness; but he bethinks him of another eye, and grandly opposes God’s sight to theirs. Usually that Jehovah sees is, in the Psalter, the same as His helping; but here, as in Psalms 35:17, the two things are separated, as they so often are, in fact, for the trial of faith. God’s inaction does not disprove His knowledge, but the pleading soul presses on Him His knowledge as a plea that He would not be deaf to its cry nor far from its help. The greedy eyes of the enemy round the psalmist gloat on their prey; but he cries aloud to his God, and dares to speak to Him as if He were deaf and far off, inactive and asleep. The imagery of the lawsuit reappears in fuller form here. "My cause" in Psalms 35:23 is a noun cognate with the verb rendered "plead" or "strive" in Psalms 35:1; "Judge me" in Psalms 35:24 does not mean, Pronounce sentence on my character and conduct, but, do me right in this case of mine versus my gratuitous foes.

Again recurs the prayer for their confusion, which clearly has no wider scope than concerning the matter in hand. It is no breach of Christian charity to pray that hostile devices may fail. The vivid imagination of the poet hears the triumphant exclamations of gratified hatred: "Oho! our desire!" "We have swallowed him," and sums up the character of his enemies in the two traits of malicious joy in his hurt and self-exaltation in their hostility to him.

At last the prayer, which has run through so many moods of feeling, settles itself into restful contemplation of the sure results of Jehovah’s sure deliverance. One receives the blessing; many rejoice in it. In significant antithesis to the enemies’ joy is the joy of the rescued man’s lovers and favourers. Their "saying" stands over against the silenced boastings of the losers of the suit. The latter "magnified themselves," but the end of Jehovah’s deliverance will be that true hearts will "magnify" Him. The victor in the cause will give all the praise to the Judge, and he and his friends will unite in self-oblivious praise. Those who delight in his righteousness are of one mind with Jehovah, and magnify Him because He "delights in the peace of His servant." While they ring out their praises, the humble suppliant, whose cry has brought the Divine act which has waked all this surging song, "shall musingly speak in the low murmur of one entranced by a sweet thought" (Cheyne), or, if we might use a fine old word, shall "croon" over God’s righteousness all the day long. That is the right end of mercies received. Whether there be many voices to join in praise or no, one voice should not be silent, that of the receiver of the blessings, and, even when he pauses in his song, his heart should keep singing day-long and life-long praises.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 35". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".