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The “title” to this psalm is, “To the chief Musician, A “Psalm” of David the servant of the Lord.” On the meaning of the phrase “To the chief Musician.” see the notes at the title to Psalms 4:1-8. The words “A Psalm” are supplied by the translators. The original is simply “of,” or “by David,” as in Psalms 11:1-7; Psalms 14:1-7; Psalms 25:0; Psalms 26:1-12; and others, without indicating whether it is a “psalm” or a “prayer.” In many instances the “character” of the psalm is indicated try the title, as in Psalms 3:1-8; Psalms 4:1-8; Psalms 5:1-12; Psalms 6:1-10; and others, “A Psalm of David;” in Psalms 7:0, “Shiggaion of David;” Psalms 16:1-11, “Michtam of David;” Psalms 17:1-15, “A “Prayer” of David,” etc. etc. The meaning of the title here is simply that this was “composed” by David, without indicating anything in regard to the “contents” or “character” of the psalm. The addition in the title, “The servant of the Lord,” occurs also in the title to Psalms 18:0. See the notes at that title. This seems to have been added here, as in Psalms 18:0, for some reason which rendered it proper to remark that the psalm was composed by one who was a “servant” or a friend of Yahweh, and who was setting forth something that was especially connected with that service, or was suggested by it - as expressing either the feelings of one who served God; or as showing the result of serving God. In Psalms 18:0 the latter seems to have been the prominent idea; in the psalm before us the former seems to be the main thought; “and the psalm is properly an expression of the feelings of one who is truly engaged in the service of God.” As such, its instructions are valuable at all thees, and in all ages.
The occasion on which the psalm was composed is not known. There is nothing in the title to indicate this, or in the psalm itself, and conjecture is vain. Amyraldus supposed that it had reference to the thee of Saul, and especially to the thee when he seemed to be friendly to David, but when he secretly harbored malice in his heart, and sought to destroy him, and to the fact that David saw his real designs through all the professions of his friendship and confidence. See Rosenmuller’s Introduction to the Psalms. It is certainly possible that this may have been the occasion on which the psalm was composed; but there are no circumstances in the psalm which make this absolutely certain, and there were many occasions in the life of David when the description in one part of the psalm Psalms 36:1-4 would have been applicable to the character and designs of his enemies, as the description in the remainder of the psalm would have been applicable to his own.
The psalm consists of three parts:
I. A description of the character of the wicked, referring doubtless to some persons who were, or who had been, plotting the ruin of the author of the psalm; a general description of human depravity, drawn from the character of those whom the psalmist had particularly in his eye, Psalms 36:1-4.
II. A description of the mercy of God, and an expression of strong confidence in that mercy; particularly, a description of the character of a merciful God as a refuge in thees when depravity prevails, and in thees of darkness; an expression of strong confidence that light will ultimately come forth from him, and that they will find security who put their trust under the shadow of his wings, Psalms 36:5-9.
III. A prayer of the psalmist that he might experience the mercy of God in this case, and an expression of firm conviction that God would interpose in his behalf, Psalms 36:10-12. He is so confident of this - so certain that it would occur - that he speaks of it as if it were already done.
The transgression of the wicked - There is considerable difficulty in respect to the grammatical construction of the Hebrew in this verse, though the general sense is plain. The main idea undoubtedly is, that the fair explanation of the conduct of the wicked, or the fair inference to be derived from that conduct was, that they had no fear of God before them; that they did in no proper way regard or fear God. The psalmist introduces himself as looking at the conduct or the acts of the wicked, and he says that their conduct can be explained, in his judgment, or “in his heart,” in no other way than on this supposition. The word “transgression” here refers to some open and public act. What the particular act was the psalmist does not state, though probably it had reference to something which had been done to himself. What is here said, however, with particular reference to his enemies, may be regarded as a general truth in regard to the wicked, to wit, that their conduct is such that the fair interpretation of what they do is, that there is no “fear of God before their eyes,” or that they have no regard for his will.
Saith - This word - נאם ne'ûm - is a participle from a verb, נאם nâ'am, meaning to mutter; to murmur; to speak in a low voice; and is employed especially with reference to the divine voice in which the oracles of God were revealed to the prophets. Compare 1 Kings 19:12. It is found most commonly in connection with the word “Lord” or “Yahweh,” expressed by the phrase “Saith the Lord,” as if the oracle were the voice of Yahweh. Genesis 22:16; Numbers 14:28; Isaiah 1:24; Isaiah 3:15, “et saepe.” It is correctly rendered here “saith;” or, the “saying” of the transgression of the wicked is, etc. That is, this is what their conduct “says;” or, this is the fair interpretation of their conduct.
Within my heart - Hebrew: “in the midst of my heart.” Evidently this means in my judgment; in my apprehension; or, as we should say, “So it seems or appears to me.” My heart, or my judgment, puts this construction on their conduct, and can put no other on it.
That there is “no fear of God - No reverence for God; no regard for his will. The sinner acts without any restraint derived from the law or the will of God.
Before his eyes - He does not see or apprehend God; he acts as if there were no God. This is the fair interpretation to be put upon the conduct of the wicked “everywhere” - that they have no regard for God or his law.
For he flattereth himself in his own eyes - He puts such an exalted estimate on himself; he so overrates himself and his own ability in judging of what is right and proper, that he is allowed to pursue a course which ultimately makes his conduct odious to all people: the result is so apparent, and so abominable, that no one can doubt what he himself is. The foundation or the basis of all this is an overweening confidence “in himself” - in his own importance; in his own judgment; in his own ability to direct his course regardless of God. The result is such a development of character, that it cannot but be regarded as hateful or odious. There is, indeed, considerable obscurity in the original. A literal translation would be, “For he has made smooth to him in his eyes to find his iniquity to hate.” The ancient interpretations throw no light on the passage. The word rendered “flattereth” - חלק châlaq - means to be smooth; then, to be smooth in the sense of being bland or flattering: Hosea 10:2; Psalms 5:9; Proverbs 28:23; Proverbs 2:16; Proverbs 7:5. Here the meaning is, that he commends himself to himself; he overestimates himself; he ascribes to himself qualities which he does not possess - either:
(a) by supposing that what he does must be right and proper, or
(b) by overestimating his strength of virtue, and his power to resist temptation.
He does this until God suffers him so to act out his own nature, and to show what he is, that his course of life is seen by himself and by others to be odious.
In his own eyes - As if his eyes were looking upon himself, or his own conduct. We act so as to be seen by others; thus he is represented as acting as if he himself were looking on, and sought to commend himself to himself.
Until his iniquity be found to be hateful - Margin, as in Hebrew: “to find his iniquity to hate.” Prof. Alexander renders this, “As to (God’s) finding his iniquity (and) hating (it);” that is (as he supposes the meaning to be), that he flatters himself that God will not find out his iniquity and hate it, or punish it. DeWette renders it, “that he does not find and hate his guilt;” that is, he so flatters himself in what he does, that he does not see the guilt of what he is doing, and hate it. He is blind to the real nature of what he is doing. But it seems to me that the true construction is that which is given by our translators. The real difficulty rests on the interpretation of the preposition in the word למצא limetsâ' - “until he find.” If the interpretation proposed by DeWette were the true one, the preposition should have been the Hebrew letter מ (m) instead of the Hebrew letter ל (l) - ממצא mimetsâ' instead of למצא limetsâ'). The preposition used here often has the sense of “even unto, until.” Compare Ezekiel 39:19; Isaiah 7:15; and this idea seems best to comport with the connection. The idea, according to this, is that he overestimates himself; he prides himself on his own strength and goodness, he confides in his own wisdom and power, he pursues his course of conduct trusting in himself, until he is suffered to act out what is really in his heart - and his conduct becomes hateful and abominable - until he can no longer conceal what he really is. God suffers him to act out what he had endeavored to cover over by his own flattery. Men who pride themselves on their own cunning and strength - men who attempt to conceal their plans from the world - are often thus suffered to develop their character so that the mask is taken off, and the world is allowed to see how vile they are at heart.
The words of his mouth are iniquity and deceit - Are false and wicked. See the notes at Psalms 12:2. It is words do not fairly represent or express what is in his heart.
He hath left off to be wise - To act wisely; to do right.
And to do good - To act benevolently and kindly. This would seem to imply that there had been a change in his conduct, or that he was not what he once professed to be, and appeared to be. This language would be applicable to the change in the conduct of Saul toward David after he became envious and jealous of him 1 Samuel 18:0; and it is possible, as Amyraldus supposed, that this may have had particular reference to him. But such instances of a change, of feeling and conduct are not very uncommon in the world, and it may doubtless have happened that David experienced this more than once in his life.
He deviseth mischief upon his bed - Margin, as in Hebrew: “vanity.” That is, when he lies down; when he is wakeful at night; he plots some scheme of iniquity - some vain, wicked enterprise. So in Proverbs 4:16, “For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause some to fall.”
He setteth himself - That is, he takes his stand or his position; he assumes this attitude. See Psalms 2:2, “The kings of the earth “set themselves,”” where the same word occurs. The meaning is that what is done by him is the result of a calm and deliberate purpose. It is not the effect of passion or temporary excitement, but it is a deliberate act in which the mind is made up to do the thing. The conduct here referred to is thus distinguished from rash and hasty acts, showing that this is the settled character of the man.
In a way that is not good - In a bad or wicked way; in a way in which no good can be found; in conduct which allows of no redeeming or mitigating circumstances, and for which there can be no apology.
He abhorreth not evil - He has no aversion to evil. He is not in any manner deterred from doing anything because it is wrong. The fact that it is sinful is not allowed to be a consideration affecting his mind in determining what he shall do. In other words, the moral quality of an action does not influence him at all in making up his mind as to how he shall act. If it is right, it is by accident, and not because he prefers the right; if it is wrong, that fact does not in any way hinder him from carrying his purpose into execution. This is, of course, the very essence of depravity.
Thy mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens - This commences the second part of the psalm - the description of the character of God in contrast with the character of the wicked man. The meaning here is, evidently, that the mercy of God is very exalted; to the very heavens, as high as the highest object of which man can conceive. Thus, we speak of virtue as “exalted,” or virtue of the “highest kind.” The idea is not that the mercy of God is “manifested” in heaven, for, mercy being favor shown to the guilty, there is no occasion for it in heaven; nor is the idea that mercy, as shown to man, has its “origin” in heaven, which is indeed true in itself; but it is, as above explained, that it is of the most exalted nature; that it is as high as man can conceive.
And thy faithfulness - Thy “truthfulness;” thy fidelity to thy promises and to thy friends.
Reacheth “unto the clouds.” The clouds are among the highest objects. They rise above the loftiest trees, and ascend above the mountains, and seem to lie or roll along the sky. The idea here, therefore, as in the first part of the verse, is, that it is elevated or exalted.
Thy righteousness - Thy justice; that is, the justice of God considered as residing in his own nature; his justice in his laws; his justice in his providential dealings; his justice in his plan of delivering man from sin; his justice to the universe in administering the rewards and penalties of the law.
Is like the great mountains - Margin, as in Hebrew: “the mountains of God.” The name “God” is thus, in the Scriptures, often given to that which is great or exalted, as God is the greatest Being that the mind can form any conception of. So in Psalms 80:10 : “The boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars,” in the Hebrew, “cedars of God.” Connecting his name with “mountains” or “cedars,” we have the idea of “strength” or “greatness,” as being especially the work of the Almighty. The idea here is, that as the mountains are the most stable of all the objects with which we are acquainted, so it is with the justice of God. It is as fixed as the everlasting hills.
Thy judgments - The acts and records which are expressive of thy judgment in regard to what is right and best; that judgment as it is expressed in thy law, and in thy dealings with mankind. The “judgment” of God in any matter may be expressed either by a declaration or by his acts. The latter is the idea now most commonly attached to the word, and it has come to be used almost exclusively to denote “afflictive” dispensations of His Providence, or expressions of His displeasure against sin. The word is not used in that exclusive sense in the Scriptures. It refers to any divine adjudication as to what is right, whether expressed by declaration or by act, and would include his adjudications in favor of that which is right as well as those against that which is wrong.
Are a great deep - The word rendered “deep” here means properly wave, billow, surge; then, a mass of waters, a flood, a deep; and the phrase “great deep” would properly refer to the ocean, its “depth” being one of the most remarkable things in regard to it. The “idea” here is, that as we cannot fathom the ocean or penetrate to its bottom, so it is with the judgments of God. They are beyond our comprehension, and after all our efforts to understand them, we are constrained, as in measuring the depths of the ocean, to confess that we cannot reach to the bottom of them. This is true in regard to his law, in regard to the principles of his government as he has declared them, and in regard to his actual dealings with mankind. It could not be otherwise than that in the administration of an infinite God there must be much that man, in his present state, could not comprehend. Compare Job 11:7-9; Isaiah 55:8-9.
O Lord, “thou preservest man and beast - literally, thou wilt “save;” that is, thou savest them from destruction. The idea is, that he keeps them alive; or that life, where it is continued, is always continued by his agency. The psalmist evidently sees in the fact here stated an illustration of what he had just said about the “greatness” of God in His providential agency and his general government. He was struck with His greatness, and with the incomprehensible nature of His power and agency, in the fact that he kept alive continually so many myriads of creatures upon the earth - so many hundred millions of human beings - so many thousand millions of wild beasts, reptiles, fish, birds, and insects - all dependent upon Him; that He provided for their needs, and that He protected them in the dangers to which they were exposed. And who can comprehend the extent of His law, and the wonderfulness of His Providence, in thus watching over and providing for the multitudes of animated beings that swarm in the waters, in the air, and on the earth?
How excellent - Margin, as in Hebrew: “precious.” The word used here is one that would be applicable to precious stones 1 Kings 10:2, 1 Kings 10:10-11; or to the more costly kind of stones employed in building, as marble 2 Chronicles 3:6; and then, anything that is “costly” or “valuable.” The meaning is, that the loving-kindness of God is to be estimated only by the value set on the most rare and costly objects.
Is “thy loving-kindness - Thy mercy. The same word is used here which occurs in Psalms 36:5, and which is there rendered “mercy.” It is not a new attribute of God which is here celebrated or brought into view, but the same characteristic which is referred to in Psalms 36:5. The repetition of the word indicates the state of mind of the writer of the psalm, and shows that he delights to dwell on this; he naturally turns to this; his meditations begin and end with this. While he is deeply impressed by the “faithfulness,” the “righteousness,” and the “judgment” of God, still it is His “mercy” or His “loving-kindness” that is the beginning and the ending of his thoughts; to this the soul turns with ever new delight and wonder when reflecting on the character and the doings of God. Here our hope begins; and to this attribute of the Almighty, when we have learned all else that we can learn about God, the soul turns with ever new delight.
Therefore - In view of that mercy; or because God is a merciful God. It is not in his “justice” that we can take refuge, for we are sinners, but the foundation of all our hope is his mercy. A holy creature could fly to a holy Creator for refuge and defense; he who has given himself to Him, and who has been pardoned, can appeal to his “faithfulness;” but the refuge of a sinner, as such, is only his “mercy;” and it is only to that mercy that he can flee.
The children of men - literally, “the sons of man;” that is, the human race, considered as descended from their great ancestor, or as one family. The meaning is not that all the children of men actually do thus put their trust in the mercy of God - for that is not true; but:
(a) all may do it as the children of men, or as men; and
(b) all who do “put their trust under the shadow of his wings” confide in His mercy alone, as the ground of their hope.
Under the shadow of thy wings - As little, helpless birds seek protection under the wings of the mother-bird. See the notes at Matthew 23:37; compare Deuteronomy 32:11-12.
They shall be abundantly satisfied - Margin, “watered.” That is, all who thus put their trust in the mercy of God. The Hebrew word - רוה râvâh - means to drink to the full; to be satisfied, or sated with drink; or to be satisfied or filled with water, as the earth or fields after an abundant rain: Isaiah 34:7; Psalms 65:10. The state referred to by the word is that of one who was thirsty, but who has drunk to the full; who feels that his desire is satisfied:
(a) He has found that which is adapted to his wants, or which meets his needs, as water does the wants of one who is a thirst;
(b) He has found this “in abundance.”
There is no lack, and he partakes of it in as large measure as he chooses. So the weary and thirsty traveler, when he finds in the desert a “new and untasted spring,” finds that which he needs, and drinks freely; and so the sinner - the dying man - the man who feels that there is nothing in the world that can satisfy him:
(1) finds in the provisions of the gospel that which exactly meets the needs of his nature, and
(2) he finds it in abundance.
With the fatness - The word used here means properly “fatness” or “fat:” Judges 9:9. Then it means “fat food,” or “sumptuous food,” Job 36:16; Isaiah 55:2; Jeremiah 31:14. It is connected here with the word “drink,” or “drink in,” because this kind of food was “sucked” in at the mouth, and the mode of partaking of it resembled the act of drinking. Gesenius. The allusion is the same as that which so often occurs in the Scriptures, where the provisions of salvation are represented as a “feast,” or where the illustration is drawn from the act of eating or drinking.
Of thy house - Furnished by thy house, or in the place of public worship. God is represented as the Head or Father of a family, and as providing for the wants of his children. Compare Psalms 23:6; Psalms 27:4.
And thou shalt make them drink - In allusion to the provisions of salvation considered as adapted to satisfy the needs of the thirsty soul.
Of the river - The abundance. Not a running fountain; not a gentle bubbling rivulet; not a stream that would soon dry up; but a “river,” large; full; overflowing; inexhaustible.
Of thy pleasures - Furnishing happiness or pleasure such as “thine” is. The pious man has happiness of the same “kind” or “nature” as that of God. It is happiness in holiness or purity; happiness in doing good; happiness in the happiness of others. It is in this sense that the friend of God partakes of His pleasure or happiness. Compare 2 Peter 1:4. The following things, therefore, are taught by this verse:
(1) that God is happy;
(2) that religion makes man happy;
(3) that his happiness is of the same “kind” or “nature” as that of God;
(4) that this happiness is “satisfying” in its nature, or that it meets the real needs of the soul;
(5) that it is abundant, and leaves no want of the soul unsupplied; and
(6) that this happiness is to be found in an eminent degree in the “house of God,” or is closely connected with the public worship of God.
It is there that God has made provision for the wants of His people; and advancement in religion, and in the comforts of religion, will always be closely connected with the fidelity with which we attend on public worship.
For with thee is the fountain of life - The fountain or source from which all life flows. All living beings derive their origin from thee, as streams flow from fountains; all that is properly “called” life proceeds from thee; everything which makes life real life - which makes it desirable or happy - has its origin in thee. The psalmist evidently meant here to include more than mere “life” considered as animated existence. He recalls what he had referred to in the previous verses - the various blessings which proceeded from the mercy and loving-kindness of God, and which were attendant on his worship; and he here says that all this - all that makes man happy - all that can properly be regarded as “life” - proceeds from God. Life literally, in man and in all animated beings; life spiritually; life here, and life hereafter - all is to be traced to God.
In thy light shall we see light - As thou art the Source of light, and all light proceeds from thee, so we shall be enabled to see light, or to see what is true, only as we see it in thee. By looking to thee; by meditating on thy character; by a right understanding of thyself; by being encompassed with the light which encompasses thee, we shall see light on all those great questions which perplex us, and which it is so desirable that we should understand. It is not by looking at ourselves; it is not by any human teaching; it is not by searching for information “away from thee,” that we can hope to have the questions which perplex us solved; it is only by coming to thyself, and looking directly to thee. There is no other source of real light and truth but God; and in the contemplation of himself, and of the light which encompasses him, and in that alone, can we hope to comprehend the great subjects on which we pant so much to be informed. All away from God is dark; all near him is light. If, therefore, we desire light on the subjects which pertain to our salvation, it must be sought by a direct and near approach to him; and the more we can lose ourselves in the splendors of his throne, the more we shall understand of truth. Compare 1 John 1:5; Revelation 21:23; Rev 22:5; 1 Peter 2:9.
O continue - Margin, as in Hebrew: “draw out at length.” The Hebrew word means “to draw;” hence, “to draw out,” in the sense of “continuing” or “prolonging.” Compare Psalms 85:5; Psalms 109:12; Jeremiah 31:3. The desire of the psalmist here is, that God would make the manifestation of his loving-kindness “continuous” or “perpetual” to His people; that it might not be fitful and interrupted, but always enduring, or constant. It is the utterance of a prayer that his favor might always be manifested to his friends.
Thy loving-kindness - Thy mercy, Psalms 36:5, Psalms 36:7. “Unto them that know thee.” That are thy friends. The word “know” is often used to denote true religion: John 17:3; Philippians 3:10; Eph 3:19; 2 Timothy 1:12.
And thy righteousness - Thy favor; thy protection. That is, show to them the righteousness, or the glory of thy character. Deal with them according to those just principles which belong to thy character. Compare the notes at 1 John 1:9.
To the upright in heart - Those who are pure and holy in their intentions or their purposes. Compare Psalms 7:10. All true uprightness has its seat in the heart, and the psalmist prays that God would show his continued favor to those whom he sees to be true in heart to himself.
Let not the foot of pride come against me - The foot of the proud man. The word rendered “come against me” more properly means, “come not upon me;” and the meaning is, Let me not be “trampled down” as they who are vanquished in battle are “trodden down” by their conquerors. Compare the notes at Psalms 18:40.
And let not the hand of the wicked remove me - Let no efforts of the wicked do this. The “hand” is the instrument by which we accomplish anything, and the reference here is to the efforts which the wicked might make to destroy him. The prayer is, that he might be “firm” and “unmoved” amid all the attempts which might be made to take his life.
There are the workers of iniquity fallen - The meaning of this seems to be, that the psalmist saw his prayer answered already. He speaks as if that which he desired and had prayed for was already done, and as if he himself saw it. He was so certain that it would be done, he had such an assurance that his prayer would be answered, that he seemed, by faith, to see the events already occurring before his own eyes, and felt that he might speak of what he prayed for as if it were already granted. Such is the nature of faith; and such strong confidence in God, and in his faithfulness to his promises, may all have who pray in faith. It is remarkable, as has been observed already in reference to the Psalms, how often a psalm begins in depression and ends in triumph; how often the author is desponding and sad as he surveys, at the beginning of the psalm, the troubles which surround him, and how in the progress of the psalm the clouds disperse; the mind becomes calm; and the soul becomes triumphant.
They are cast down, and shall not be able to rise - They are utterly overthrown. Their discomfiture is complete. They shall never be able to rally again. So faith looks on all enemies of truth and righteousness as hereafter to be utterly overthrown, and it regards this as so certain that it may speak already in the exulting language of victory. So certainly will all the spiritual foes of those who trust in God be vanquished - so certainly will the righteous triumph - that, on the wings of faith, they may look beyond all conflicts and struggles, and see the victory won, and break forth into songs of exulting praise. Faith often converts the promises into reality, and in the bright anticipations and the certain hopes of heaven sings and rejoices as if it were already in our possession - anticipating only by a few short days, weeks, or years, what will certainly be ours.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 36". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20