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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 5

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-12

Psalms 5:1-12

THE reference to the temple in Psalms 5:7 is not conclusive against the Davidic authorship of this psalm, since the same word is applied in 1 Samuel 1:9; 1 Samuel 3:3 to the house of God in Shiloh. It means a palace, and may well be used for any structure, even if a hair tent, in which God dwelt. No doubt it is oftenest used for the Solomonic temple, but it does not necessarily refer to it. Its use here, then. cannot be urged as fatal to the correctness of the superscription. At the same time, it does create a certain presumption against it. But there is nothing in the psalm to determine its date, and its worth is quite independent of its authorship. The psalmist is surrounded by foes, and seeks access to God. These are constant features of the religious life, and their expression here fits as closely to the present time as to any past.

The psalm falls into two main parts: Psalms 5:1-7 and Psalms 5:8-12. The former division deals with the inner side of the devout life, its. access to God, to whom sinful men cannot approach, the latter with the outward side, the conduct, "the way" in which the psalmist seeks to be led, and in which sinful men come to ruin because they will not walk. Naturally the inward comes first, for communion with God in the secret place of the Most High must precede all walking in His way and all blessed experience of His protection, with the joy that springs from it. These two halves of the psalm are arranged in inverted parallelism, the first verse of the second part (Psalms 5:8) corresponding to the last verse of the first (Psalms 5:7) and being, like it, purely personal; Psalms 5:9-10 corresponding similarly to Psalms 5:4-6 and like them, painting the character and fate of evil-doers; and, finally, Psalms 5:11-12, answering to Psalms 5:1-3 and representing the blessedness of the devout soul, as in the one case led and protected by God and therefore glad, and in the other abiding in His presence. The whole is a prayerful meditation on the inexhaustible theme of the contrasted blessedness of the righteous and misery of the sinner as shown in the two great halves of life: the inward of communion and the outward of action.

In the first part (Psalms 5:1-7) the central thought is that of access to God’s presence, as the desire and purpose of the psalmist (Psalms 5:1-3), as barred to evildoers (Psalms 5:4-6), and as permitted to, and embraced as his chief blessing by, the singer (Psalms 5:7). The petition to be heard in Psalms 5:1-2 passes into confidence that he is heard in Psalms 5:3. There is no shade of sadness nor trace of struggle with doubt in this prayer, which is all sunny and fresh, like the morning sky, through which it ascends to God. "Consider [or Understand] my meditation"-the brooding, silent thought is spread before God, who knows unspoken desires, and "understands thoughts afar off." The contrast between "understanding the meditation" and "hearkening to the voice of my cry" is scarcely unintentional, and gives vividness to the picture of the musing psalmist, in whom, as he muses, the fire burns, and he speaks with his tongue, in a "cry" as loud as the silence from which it issued had been deep. Meditations that do not pass into cries and cries which are not preceded by meditations are alike imperfect. The invocation "my King" is full of meaning if the singer be David, who thus recognises the delegated character of his own royalty; but whoever wrote the psalm, that expression equally witnesses to his firm grasp of the true theocratic idea.

Noteworthy is the intensely personal tone of the invocation in both its clauses, as in the whole of these first verses, in every clause of which "my" or "I" occurs. The poet is alone with God and seeking to clasp still closer the guiding hand, to draw still nearer to the sweet and awful presence where is rest. The invocation holds a plea in itself. He who says, "My King and my God," urges the relation, brought about by God’s love and accepted by man’s faith, as a ground for the hearing of his petition. And so prayer passes into swift assurance; and with a new turn in thought, marked by the repetition of the name "Jehovah" (Psalms 5:3), he speaks his confidence and his resolve. "In the morning" is best taken literally, whether we suppose the psalm to have been composed for a morning song or no. Apparently the compilers of the first Psalter placed it next to Psalms 4:1-8, which they regarded as an evening hymn, for this reason. "I will lay me down and sleep" is beautifully followed by "In the morning shalt Thou hear my voice." The order of clauses in Psalms 5:3 is significant in its apparent breach of strict sequence, by which God’s hearing is made to precede the psalmist’s praying. It is the order dictated by confidence, and it is the order in which the thoughts rise in the trustful heart. He who is sure that God will hear will therefore address himself to speak. First comes the confidence, and then the resolve. There are prayers wrung from men by sore need, and in which doubt causes faltering, but the happier, serener experience is like that of this singer. He resolves to "order" his prayer, using there the word employed for the priest’s work in preparing the materials for the morning sacrifice. Thus he compares his prayer to it, and stands at the same level as the writer of Psalms 4:1-8, with whose command to "offer the sacrifices of righteousness" this thought again presents a parallel.

A psalmist who has grasped the idea that the true sacrifice is prayer is not likely to have missed the cognate thought that the "house of the Lord," of which he will presently speak, is something other than any material shrine. But to offer the sacrifice is not all which he rejoices to resolve. He will "keep watch," as Habakkuk said that he would do, on his watchtower; and that can only mean that he will be on the outlook for the answer to his prayer, or, if we may retain the allusion to sacrifice, for the downward flash of the Divine fire, which tells his prayer’s acceptance. Many a prayer is offered, and no eyes afterwards turned to heaven to watch for the answer, and perhaps some answers sent are like water spilled on the ground, for want of such observance. The confidence and resolve ground themselves on God’s holiness, through which the necessary condition of approach to Him comes to be purity-a conviction which finds expression in all religions, but is nowhere so vividly conceived or construed as demanding such stainless inward whiteness as in the Psalter. The "for" of Psalms 5:4 would naturally have heralded a statement of the psalmist’s grounds for expecting that he would be welcomed in his approach, but the turn of thought, which postpones that, and first regards God’s holiness as shutting out the impure, is profoundly significant. "Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness" means more than the simple "Thou hast not pleasure" would do; it argues from the character of God, and glances at some of the foul deities whose nostrils snuff up sensual impurity as acceptable sacrifice. The one idea of absolute contrariety between God and evil is put in a rich variety of shapes in Psalms 5:4-6 which first deal with it negatively in three clauses (not a God; not dwell; not stand in Thy sight) and then positively in other three (hatest; shalt destroy; abhorreth). "Evil shall not sojourn with Thee." The verb is to be taken in its full meaning of sojourning as a guest-friend, who has the right to hospitality and defence. It thus constitutes the antithesis to Psalms 5:7. Clearly the sojourning does not mean access to the temple, but abiding with God. The barriers are of the same nature as the communion which they hinder, and something far deeper is meant than outward access to any visible shrine. No one sojourned in the temple. In like manner, the "standing in Thy sight" is a figure drawn from courts, reminding us of "my King" in Psalms 5:2 and suggesting the impossibility of evil or its doers approaching the Divine throne.

But there is more than a negative side to the relation between God and evil, which the psalm goes on to paint in sombre colours, for God not only does not delight in sin, but hates it with a hatred like the physical loathing of some disgusting thing, and will gather all His alienation into one fatal lightning bolt. Such thoughts do not exhaust the truth as to the Divine relation to sin. They did not exhaust the psalmist’s knowledge of that relation, and still less do they exhaust ours, but they are parts of the truth today as much as then, and nothing in Christ’s revelation has antiquated them.

The psalmist’s vocabulary is full of synonyms for sin, which witness to the profound consciousness of it which law and ritual had evoked in devout hearts. First, he speaks of it in the abstract, as "wickedness" and "evil." Then he passes to individuals, of whom he singles out two pairs, the first a more comprehensive and the second a more specific designation. The former pair are "the foolish" and "workers of iniquity." The word for "foolish" is usually translated by the moderns "arrogant," but the parallelism with the general expression "workers of iniquity" rather favours a less special meaning, such as Hupfeld’s "fools" or the LXX’s "transgressors." Only in the last pair are special forms of evil mentioned, and the two selected are significant of the psalmist’s own experience. Liars and men of blood and craft are his instances of the sort of sinners most abominable to God. That specification surely witnesses to his own sufferings from such.

In Psalms 5:7 the psalmist comes back to the personal reference, contrasting his own access to God with the separation of evil-doers from His presence. But he does not assert that he has the right of entrance because he is pure. Very strikingly he finds the ground of his right of entry to the palace in God’s "multitude of mercy." not in his own innocence. Answering to "in Thy righteousness" is "in Thy fear." The one phrase expresses God’s disposition to man which makes access possible, the other man’s disposition to God which makes worship acceptable. "In the multitude of Thy mercy" and "in Thy fear," taken together, set forth the conditions of approach. Having regard to Psalms 5:4, it seems impossible to restrict the meaning of "Thy house" to the material sanctuary. It is rather a symbol of communion, protection, and friendship. Does the meaning pass into the narrower sense of outward worship in the material "temple" in the second clause? It may be fairly taken as doing so (Hupfeld). But it may be maintained that the whole verse refers to the spiritual realities of prayer and fellowship, and not at all to the externalities of worship, which are used as symbols, just as in Psalms 5:3 prayer is symbolised by the morning sacrifice. But probably it is better to suppose that the psalmist’s faith, though not tied to form, was fed by form, and that symbol and reality, the outward and the inward worship, the access to the temple and the approach of the silent soul to God, are fused in his psalm as they tended to be in his experience. Thus the first part of the psalm ends with the psalmist prostrate (for so the word for "worship" means) before the palace sanctuary of his King and God. It has thus far taught the conditions of approach to God, and given a concrete embodiment of them in the progress of the singer’s thoughts from petition to assurance and from resolve to accomplishment.

The second part may be taken as his prayer when in the temple, whether that be the outward sanctuary or no. It is likewise a further carrying out of the contrast of the condition of the wicked and of the lovers of God, expressed in terms applying to outward life rather than to worship. It fails into three parts: the personal prayer for guidance in life, the contemplation of evil-doers, and the vehement prayer for their destruction, corresponding to Psalms 5:4-6, and the contrasted prayer for the righteous, among whom he implies his own inclusion.

The whole of the devout man’s desires for himself are summed up in that prayer for guidance. All which the soul needs is included in these two: access to God in the depths of still prostration before His throne as the all-sufficient good for the inner life; guidance, as by a shepherd, on a plain path, chosen not by self-will but by God, for the outward. He who has received the former in any degree will in the same measure have the latter. To dwell in God’s house is to desire His guidance as the chief good. "In Thy righteousness" is capable of two meanings: it may either designate the path by which the psalmist desired to be led, or the Divine attribute to which he appealed. The latter meaning, which is substantially equivalent to "because Thou art righteous," is made more probable by the other instances in the psalm of a similar use of "in" (in the multitude of Thy mercy; in Thy fear; in the multitude of their transgressions). His righteousness is manifested in leading those who seek for His guidance. {compare Psalms 25:8; Psalms 31:1, etc.} Then comes the only trace in the psalm of the presence of enemies, because of whom the singer prays for guidance. It is not so much that he fears failing into their hands as that he dreads lest, if left to himself, he may take some step which will give them occasion for malicious joy in his fall or his calamity. Wherever a man is earnestly God fearing, many eyes watch him, and gleam with base delight if they see him stumble. The psalmist, whether David or another, had that cross to carry, like every thorough going adherent of the religious ideal (or of any lofty ideal, for that matter); and his prayer shows how heavy it was, since thoughts of it mingled with even his longings for righteousness. "Plain" does not mean obvious, but level, and may possibly include both freedom from stumbling blocks ("Lead us not into temptation") and from calamities, but the prevalent tone of the psalm points rather to the former. He who knows his own weaknesses may legitimately shrink from snares and occasions to fall, even though, knowing the wisdom of his Guide and the help that waits on his steps, he may "count it all joy" when he encounters them.

The picture of the evil-doers in Psalms 5:9 is introduced, as in Psalms 5:4, with a "for." The sinners here are evidently the enemies of the previous verse. Their sins are those of speech; and the force of the rapid clauses of the picture betrays how recently and sorely the psalmist had smarted from lies, flatteries, slanders, and all the rest of the weapons of smooth and bitter tongues. He complains that there is no faithfulness or steadfastness in "his mouth"-a distributive singular, which immediately passes into the plural - nothing there that a man can rely on, but all treacherous. "Their inward part is destruction." The other rendering, "engulfing ruin" or "a yawning gulf," is picturesque; but destruction is more commonly the meaning of the word and yields a vigorous sense here. They plot inwardly the ruin of the men whom they flatter. The figure is bold. Down to this pit of destruction is a way like an open sepulchre, the throat expanded in the act of speech; and the falsely smoothed tongue is like a slippery approach to the descent (so Jennings and Lowe). Such figures strike Western minds as violent, but are natural to the East. The shuddering sense of the deadly power of words is a marked characteristic of the Psalter. Nothing stirs psalmists to deeper indignation than "God’s great gift of speech abused," and this generation would be all the better for relearning the lesson.

The psalmist is "in the sanctuary," and there "understands their end," and breaks into prayer which is also prophecy. The vindication of such prayers for the destruction of evil-doers is that they are not the expressions of personal enmity ("They have rebelled against Thee"), and that they correspond to one side of the Divine character and acts, which was prominent in the Old Testament epoch of revelation, and is not superseded by the New. But they do belong to that lower level; and to hesitate to admit their imperfection from the Christian point of view is to neglect the plain teaching of our Lord, who built His law of the kingdom on the declared relative imperfection of the ethics of the Old. Terrible indeed are the prayers here. Hold them guilty-that is, probably, treat them as such by punishing; let them fall; thrust them out-from Thy presence, if they have ventured thither, or out into the darkness of death. Let us be thankful that we dare not pray such prayers, but let us not forget that for the psalmist not to have prayed them would have indicated, not that he had anticipated the tenderness of the Gospel, but that he had failed to learn the lesson of the law and was basely tolerant of baseness.

But we come into the sunshine again at the close, and hear the contrasted prayer, which thrills with gladness and hope. "When the wicked perish there is shouting." The servants of God, relieved from the incubus and beholding the fall of evil, lift up their praises. The order in which the designations of these servants occur is very noteworthy. It is surely not accidental that we have them first described as "those that trust in Thee," then as "all them that love Thy name," and finally as "the righteous." What is this sequence but an anticipation of the evangelical order? The root of all is trust, then love, then righteousness. Love follows trust. "We have known and believed the love which God hath to us." Righteousness follows trust and love, inasmuch as by faith the new life enters the heart and inasmuch as love supplies the great motive for keeping the commandments. So root, stem, and flower are here, wrapped up, as it were, in a seed, which unfolds into full growth in the New Testament. The literal meaning of the word rendered "put their trust" is "flee as to a refuge," and that beautifully expresses the very essence of the act of faith; while the same metaphor is carried on in "defendest," which literally means coverest. The fugitive who shelters in God is covered by the shadow of His wing. Faith, love, and righteousness are the conditions of the purest joy. Trusts joy; love is joy; obedience to a loved law is joy. And round him who thus, in his deepest self, dwells in God’s house and in his daily life walks, with these angels for his companions, on God’s path, which by choice he has made his own, there is ever cast the broad buckler of God’s favour. He is safe from all evil on whom God looks with love, and he on whom God so looks is he whose heart dwells in God’s house and whose feet "travel on life’s common way in cheerful godliness."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 5". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-5.html.
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