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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Psalms 11

 

 

Verses 1-7

Psalms 11:1-7

The correctness of the superscription is, in the present case, defended by Ewald and Hitzig. Delitzsch refers the psalm to the eve of Absalom’s conspiracy, while other supporters of the Davidic authorship prefer the Sauline persecution. The situation as described in the psalm corresponds sufficiently well to either of these periods, in both of which David was surrounded by stealthy hostility and counselled by prudence to flight. But there are no definite marks of date in the psalm itself; and all that is certain is its many affinities with the other psalms of the group which Cheyne calls the "persecution psalms," including Psalms 37:9-14; Psalms 37:17. These resemblances make a common authorship probable.

The structure of the psalm is simple and striking. There are two vividly contrasted halves; the first gives the suggestions of timid counsellors who see only along the low levels of earth, the second the brave answer of faith which looks up into heaven.

In the first part (Psalms 11:1-3) the psalmist begins with an utterance of faith, which makes him recoil with wonder and aversion from the cowardly, well-meant counsels of his friends. "In Jehovah have I taken refuge"-a profession of faith which in Psalms 7:1-17. I was laid as the basis of prayer for deliverance and is here the ground for steadfastly remaining where he stands. The metaphor of flight to a stronghold, which is in the word for trust, obviously colours the context, for what can be more absurd than that he who has sought and found shelter in God Himself should listen to the whisperings of his own heart or to the advice of friends and hurry to some other hiding place? "He that believeth shall not make haste," and, even when the floods come, shall not need to seek in wild hurry for an asylum above the rising waters. Safe in God, the psalmist wonders why such counsel should be given, and his question expresses its irrationality and his rejection of it. But these timid voices spoke to his "soul," and the speakers are undefined. Is he apostrophising his own lower nature? Have we here a good man’s dialogue with himself? Were there two voices in him: the voice of sense, which spoke to the soul, and that of the soul, which spoke authoritatively to sense? Calvin finds here the mention of spirituales luctas; and whether there were actual counsellors of flight or no, no doubt prudence and fear said to and in his soul, "Flee." If we might venture to suppose that the double thought of the oneness of the psalmist’s personality and the manifoldness of his faculties was in his mind, we should have an explanation of the strange fluctuation between singulars and plurals in Psalms 11:1 b. "Flee" is plural, but is addressed to a singular subject: "my soul"; "your" is also plural, and "bird" singular. The Hebrew marginal correction smooths away the first anomaly by reading the singular imperative, but that leaves the anomaly in "your." The LXX and other old versions had apparently a slightly different text, which got rid of that anomaly by reading (with the addition of one letter and a change in the division of words), "Flee to the mountain as a bird"; and that is probably the best solution of the difficulty. One can scarcely fail to recall the comparison of David to a partridge hunted on the mountains. Cheyne finds in the plurals a proof that "it is the Church within the Jewish nation of which the poet thinks." The timid counsel is enforced by two considerations: the danger of remaining a mark for the stealthy foe and the nobler thought of the hopelessness of resistance, and therefore the quixotism of sacrificing one’s self in a prolongation of it.

The same figure employed in Psalms 7:12 of God’s judgments on the wicked is here used of the wicked’s artillery against the righteous. The peril is imminent, for the bows are bent, and the arrows already fitted to the string. In midnight darkness the assault will be made. {compare Psalms 64:3-4} The appeal to the instinct of self-preservation is reinforced by the consideration [Psalms 11:3] of the impotence of efforts to check the general anarchy. The particle at the beginning of the verse is best taken as in the same sense as at the beginning of Psalms 11:2, thus introducing a second coordinate reason for the counsel. The translation of it as hypothetical or temporal (if or when) rather weakens the urgency of Psalms 11:3 as a motive for flight. The probably exaggerated fears of the advisers, who are still speaking, are expressed in two short, breathless sentences: "The foundations [of society] are being torn down; the righteous-what has he achieved?" or possibly, "What can he do?" In either case, the implication is, Why wage a hopeless conflict any longer at the peril of life? All is lost; the wise thing to do is to run. It is obvious that this description of the dissolution of the foundations of the social order is either the exaggeration of fear, or poetic generalisation from an individual case (David’s), or refers the psalm to some time of anarchy, when things were much worse than even in the time of Saul or Absalom.

All these suggestions may well represent the voice of our own fears, the whispers of sense and sloth, which ever dwell on and exaggerate the perils in the road of duty, and bid us abandon resistance to prevailing evils as useless and betake ourselves to the repose and security of some tempting nest far away from strife. But such counsels are always base, and though they be the result of "prudence," are short-sighted, and leave out precisely the determining factor in the calculation. The enemy may have fitted his arrows to the string, but there is another bow bent which will be drawn before his. [Psalms 7:12] The foundations are not being destroyed, however many and strong the arms that are trying to dig them up. The righteous has done much, and can do more, though his work seem wasted. Self-preservation is not a man’s first duty: flight is his last. Better and wiser and infinitely nobler to stand a mark for the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" and to stop at our post though we fall there, better infinitely to toil on, even when toil seems vain, than cowardly to keep a whole skin at the cost of a wounded conscience or despairingly to fling up work, because the ground is hard and the growth of the seed imperceptible. Prudent advices, when the prudence is only inspired by sense, are generally foolish; and the only reasonable attitude is obstinate hopefulness and brave adherence to duty.

So the psalm turns, in its second part, from these creeping counsels, which see but half the field of vision, and that the lower, to soar and gaze on the upper half. "God is in heaven; all’s right with the world," and with the good men who are trying to help to make it right. The poet opposes to the picture drawn by fear the vision of the opened heaven and the throned Jehovah. In Psalms 11:4 the former part is not to be taken as a separate affirmation: "The Lord is," etc., but "Jehovah" is a nominative absolute, and the weight of the sentence falls on the last clause. The "holy palace" in which Jehovah is beheld enthroned is not on earth, as the parallelism of the clauses shows. To the eyes that have seen that vision and before which it ever burns, all earthly sorrows and dangers seem small. There is the true asylum of the hunted soul; that is the mountain to which it is wise to flee. If the faint hearted had seen that sight, their timid counsels would have caught a new tone. They are preposterous to him who does see it. For not only does he behold Jehovah enthroned, but he sees Him scrutinising all men’s acts. We bring the eyelids close when minutely examining any small thing. So God is by a bold figure represented as doing, and the word for "beholds" has to divide as its root idea, and hence implies a keen discriminating gaze. As fire tries metal, so He tries men. And the result of the trial is twofold, as is described in the two clauses of Psalms 11:5, which each require to be completed from the other: "The Lord trieth the righteous (and finding him approved, loveth), but the wicked" (He trieth, and finding him base metal), His soul "hateth." In the former clause the process of trial is mentioned, and its result omitted; in the latter the process is omitted, and the result described. The strong anthropomorphism which attributes a "soul" to God and "hatred" to His soul is not to be slurred over as due to the imperfection of Hebrew ideas of the Divine nature. There is necessarily in the Divine nature an aversion to evil and to the man who has so completely given himself over to it as to "love" it. Such perverted love can only have turned to it that side of the Divine character which in gravity of disapprobation and recoil from evil answers to what we call hate, but neither desires to harm nor is perturbed by passion. The New Testament is as emphatic as the Old in asserting the reality of "the wrath of God." But there are limitation and imperfection in this psalm in that it does not transcend the point of view which regards man’s conduct as determining God’s attitude. Retribution, not forgiveness nor the possibility of changing the moral bias of character, is its conception of the relations of man and God.

The Divine estimate, which in Psalms 11:5 is the result of God’s trial of the two classes, is carried forward in Psalms 11:6-7 to its twofold issues. But the form of Psalms 11:6 is that of a wish, not of a prediction; and here again we encounter the tone which, after all allowances, must be regarded as the result of the lower stage of revelation on which the psalmist stood, even though personal revenge need not be ascribed to him. In the terrible picture of the judgment poured down from the open heavens into which the singer has been gazing, there is a reproduction of the destruction of the cities of the plain, the fate of which stands in the Old Testament as the specimen and prophecy of all subsequent acts of judgment. But the rain from heaven is conceived as consisting of "snares," which is a strangely incongruous idea. Such mingled metaphors are less distasteful to Hebrew poets than to Western critics; and the various expedients to smooth this one away, such as altering the text and neglecting the accents and reading "coals of fire," are unnecessary sacrifices to correctness of style. Delitzsch thinks that the "snares" are "a whole discharge of lassoes," i.e., lightnings, the zigzag course of which may be compared to a "noose thrown down from above"! The purpose of the snares is to hold fast the victims so that they cannot escape the fiery rain-a terrible picture, the very incongruity of figure heightening the grim effect. The division of the verse according to the accents tarts the snares from the actual components of the fatal shower, and makes the second half of the verse an independent clause, which is probably to be taken, like the former clause, as a wish: "Fire and brimstone and a burning wind [Zornhauch, Hupfeld] be the portion of their cup," again an incongruity making the representation more dreadful. What a draught-flaming brimstone and a hot blast as of the simoom! The tremendous metaphor suggests awful reality.

But the double judgment of Psalms 11:5 has a gentler side, and the reason for the tempest of wrath is likewise that for the blessed hope of the upright, as the "for" of Psalms 11:7 teaches. "Jehovah is righteous." That is the rock foundation for the indomitable faith of the Psalter in the certain ultimate triumph of patient, afflicted righteousness. Because God in his own character is so, He must love righteous acts-His own and men’s. The latter seems to be the meaning here, where the fate of men is the subject in hand. The Divine "love" is here contrasted with both the wicked man’s "love" of "violence" and God’s "hate" (Psalms 11:5), and is the foundation of the final confidence, "The upright shall behold His face." The converse rendering, "His countenance doth behold the upright" (A.V). is grammatically permissible. but would be flat, tautological-since Psalms 11:4 has already said so-and inappropriate to the close. where a statement as to the upright, antithetical to that as to the wicked, is needed. God looks on the upright, as has been said; and the upright shall gaze on Him, here and now in the communion of that faith which is a better kind of sight and hereafter in the vision of heaven, which the psalmist was on the verge of anticipating. That mutual gaze is blessedness. They who looking up behold Jehovah are brave to front all foes and to keep calm hearts in the midst of alarms. Hope burns like a pillar of fire in them when it is gone out in others; and to all the suggestions of their own timidity or of others they have the answer, "In the Lord have I put my trust; how say ye to my soul, Flee? Here I stand; I can do no otherwise. God help me. Amen."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 11:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-11.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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