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This psalm purports to be “a psalm of David,” and there is no reason to doubt that he was the author. The occasion on which it was composed is stated in the title. The correctness of this title has been called in question by DeWette and Rudinger, on the ground that the contents of the psalm do not seem to them to be so well suited to that occasion as to the times of Absalom or Ahithophel. There does not, however, appear to be any just reason for doubting the correctness of the title, as all the circumstances referred to in the psalm are susceptible of application to the act of Doeg the Edomite, on the occasion referred to, namely, that mentioned in 1 Samuel 22:9 ff. David had fled to Ahimelech the priest at Nob, 1 Samuel 21:1. By Ahimelech he had been supplied with bread, and furnished with the sword with which he himself had slain Goliath. On this occasion, an Edomite was present, named Doeg, whose character was, from some cause well known; and David felt that he would not hesitate to betray anyone, or do any act of wickedness or meanness, if it would subserve his own purposes 1 Samuel 22:22. Apprehensive of danger, therefore, even in the presence and under the protection of Ahimelech, and supposing that his place of retreat could not be concealed from Saul, he fled to Achish, king of Gath 1 Samuel 21:10, until in the fear of danger there, he feigned madness, and was driven away as a madman 1 Samuel 21:14-15. he found refuge for a time in the cave of Adullam, where he supposed he would be safe, 1 Samuel 22:1-2. From that cave he went to Mizpeh, in Moab 1 Samuel 22:3-4, and thence, at the suggestion of the prophet Gad, he went into the forest of Hareth, 1 Samuel 22:5.
At this time, Doeg the Edomite, in order to secure the favor of Saul, and to show that there was one at least who was friendly to him, and was willing to deliver up to punishment those who had encouraged David in his rebellion, informed Saul of the fact that David had been seen with Ahimelech at Nob, and that Ahimelech had given him food and the sword of Goliath the Philistine. The result was, that Ahimelech and the priests who were with him were summoned before Saul; that they were accused by him of the crime; that Saul commanded those who were around him to fall on Ahimelech and the priests and to put them to death; and when they all hesitated, Doeg himself fell upon them and executed the barbarous order. Eighty-five priests thus perished by the sword, and the city of Nob was destroyed, 1 Samuel 22:9-19. It was the conduct of Doeg in this matter that is the subject of this psalm. Doeg is called “the Edomite.” He was probably a native of Idumea, who had connected himself with Saul, and who hoped to secure his special favor by thus informing him of those who were in league with his enemy David. Some have supposed that he was a native-born Jew, and that he is called an Edomite because he may have had his residence in Idumea; but the more obvious supposition is that he was a native of that land. On Idumea, see the notes at Isaiah 11:14; notes at Isaiah 34:5-6; notes at Isaiah 63:1.
On the phrase in the title, “To the chief Musician,” see the notes at the introduction to Psalms 4:1-8. The fact that it is thus addressed to the overseer of the public music shows that, though it originally had a private reference, and was designed to record an event which occurred in the life of David, it yet had so much of public interest, and contained truth of so general a nature, that it might properly be employed in the public devotions of the sanctuary.
On the word “Maschil,” see introduction to Psalms 32:1-11. The psalm is divided, in the original, apparently for musical purposes, or to adapt it in some way to the music of the sanctuary, into three parts, which are indicated by the word “Selah,” at the close of Psalms 52:3, Psalms 52:5. These, however, have no reference to the sense, or to the natural divisions of the psalm.
As respects the sense or the contents of the psalm, it is divided into three parts, which are not indicated by this musical mark.
I. The first refers to the character of the calumniator and informer, Psalms 52:1-4. He was a man who was confident in himself, and who did not regard the goodness of God, Psalms 52:1; a man whose tongue devised mischiefs like a sharp razor, Psalms 52:2; a man who loved evil more than good, and a lie more than the truth, Psalms 52:3; and a man who loved to utter words that would destroy the character and the happiness of others, Psalms 52:4.
II. The judgment, or punishment that would come upon such a man, Psalms 52:5-7.
(a) God would destroy and root him out of the land, Psalms 52:5;
(b) the righteous would see this, and would triumph over him as one who was brought to a proper end - the proper end of one who did not make God his strength; who trusted in his riches; who strengthened himself in the purposes of wickedness, Psalms 52:6-7.
III. The security - the preservation - the joy, of the author of the psalm, Psalms 52:8-9. The aim - the purpose - of the informer referred to in the psalm, namely Doeg, had been really to disclose the place of David’s retreat, and to have him delivered into the hands of Saul. This he hoped to accomplish through Ahimelech the priest. He supposed, evidently, that when Saul was informed that David had been with “him,” Ahimelech would be brought before Saul and required to give information as to the place where David might be found, and that thus David would be delivered into the hands of Saul. But in this he had been disappointed. David had fled, and was secure.
Ahimelech was summoned to meet Saul 1 Samuel 22:11, and with him were summoned also all “his father’s house, the priests that were in Nob.” In reply to the charge that he had conspired against Saul; that he had befriended David; that he had “given him,” in modern language, “aid and comfort;” that he had assisted him so that he could “rise against Saul,” and that he had so befriended him that he could “lie in wait for him” at that time - he boldly declared his conviction that Saul had not a more faithful subject in his realm than David was; “And who is so faithful among all thy servants as David, which is the king’s son-in-law, and goeth at thy bidding, and is honorable in thine house?” There Ahimelech stood - an example of a bold, firm, independent, honorable, honest man. He maintained the innocence of David, as well as his own. He sought no favor by joining in the clamor against David. He did not seek to avert the blow which he could not but see was impending over himself, by any mean compliance with the prejudices of the king.
He did nothing to flatter the offended monarch, or to gratify him in his purpose to arrest David, the fugitive. He made no offer to disclose to him the place of his concealment. Any one of these things - any act in the line of that which Doeg had performed - might have saved his life. That he knew the place of David’s retreat, is apparent from a circumstance incidentally referred to in the ultimate account of the affair, for, after Ahimelech had been put to death, it is said that one of his sons - Abiathar - fled at once to David 1 Samuel 22:20-21, and disclosed to him the dreadful manner of his father’s death; thus showing that the knowledge of the place of his retreat was in the possession of the family, and could easily have been disclosed to Saul, and yet it was not done. Neither Ahimelech, nor anyone of his family, even intimated to Saul that they knew where David then was, and that they could put him in possession of the means of securing him. That the fact that they did not and would not betray the place of his retreat was one cause of the wrath of Saul, is apparent from the reason assigned why the “footmen” were commanded to put them to death; “And the king said unto the footmen that stood about him, Turn, and slay the priests of the Lord, because their hand also is with David, and because they knew when he fled, and did not show it to me,” 1 Samuel 22:17.
It cannot be doubted, therefore, that if there had been an offer of furnishing the information; if there had been a tender of their services in the case; if there had been evinced a spirit of ready compliance with the prejudices and passions of Saul; if there had been among them the same spirit of mean sycophancy which characterized Doeg - Ahimelech and the whole family would have been safe. But no such thing was done; no such offer was made; no such spirit was evinced. There they stood - noble-minded people - father, son, all the family, true to honor, to virtue, to religion; true to God, to Saul, to David, and to themselves. They hid the secret in their own bosoms; they neither proffered nor submitted to any mean or dishonorable compliances that they might save their lives. There was, on the one hand, Doeg, “the “mighty” man,” but “the mean informer;” on the other, a noble-minded man standing up in the conscious integrity of what he had done, and maintaining it even at the hazard of life.
The result is well known, and was that which, so far as the fate of Ahimelech was concerned, could easily have been anticipated. Saul, maddened against David, was now equally infuriated against the honest man who had befriended him. He commanded him to be put to death at once. And here, in this remarkable transaction, where so much of meaness and honor, of fidelity and falsehood, of integrity and corruption, of soberness and passion, come so near together, we have another strikng instance of firmness and virtue. Saul commanded the “footman,” (margin, the “runners,”) who were about him, to “turn and slay” Ahimelech and his sons. Yet the “footmen” declined to do the bloody work. Noble men, themselves, they saw here an instance of true nobleness of character and of deed in the priests of the Lord; and they refused, even at the peril of the wrath of Saul, to execute an unrighteous sentence on men so noble, so honorable, so true. There was one, however, that would do it. There stood the mean, the sycophantic, the base man, Doeg, who had ‘informed’ against the priests, and he was ready to do the work. The command was given, and he consummated the work of betrayal and of meanness, by putting at once to the sword, fourscore and five priests of the Lord, and by carrying desolation and death through the city of their habitation, smiting “with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings, and oxen, and asses, and sheep;” 1 Samuel 22:18-19.
In the meantime David was safe, and it is this fact which he celebrates when he says in this psalm, “I am like a green olive tree in the house of God,” Psalms 52:8; and it is for this that he gives praise, Psalms 52:9.
The psalm refers, therefore, to the character and the conduct of an “informer,” one of the most odious characters among men. In a book claiming to be a revelation from God, as the Bible does - a book designed for all mankind, and intended to be adapted to all ages, and in a world where such people would be found in all lands and times, it was proper that the character of such should be at least once held up in its true light, that men may see what it really is. Any bad man may make himself more odious by becoming an “informer;” any good man may suffer, as David did, from the acts of such a one; and hence, the case in the psalm may suggest useful lessons in every age of the world.
Why boastest thou thyself in Mischief? - Why dost thou “exult” in that which is wrong? Why dost thou find pleasure in evil rather than in good? Why dost thou seek to triumph in the injury done to others? The reference is to one who prided himself on schemes and projects which tended to injure others; or who congratulated himself on the success which attended his efforts to wrong other people.
O mighty man - DeWette and Luther render this, “tyrant.” The original word would be properly applied to one of rank or distinction; a man of “power” - power derived either from office, from talent, or from wealth. It is a word which is often applied to a hero or warrior: Isaiah 3:2; Eze 39:20; 2 Samuel 17:10; Psalms 33:16; Psalms 120:4; Psalms 127:4; Daniel 11:3; Genesis 6:4; Jeremiah 51:30. So far as the “word” is concerned, it might be applied either to Saul or to any other warrior or man of rank; and Professor Alexander supposes that it refers to Saul himself. The connection, however, seems to require us to understand it of Doeg, and not of Saul, This appears to be clear
(a) from the general character here given to the person referred to, a character not particularly applicable to Saul, but applicable to an informer like Doeg Psalms 52:2-4; and
(b) from the fact that he derived his power, not from his rank and office, as Saul did, but mainly from his wealth Psalms 52:7. This would seem to imply that some other was referred to than Saul.
The goodness of God endureth continually - literally, “all the day.” That is, the wicked man could not hope to prevent the exercise of the divine goodness toward him whom he persecuted, and whom he sought to injure. David means to say that the goodness of God was so great and so constant, that he would protect his true friends from such machinations; or that it, was so unceasing and watchful, that the informer and accuser could not hope to find an interval of time when God would intermit his care, and when, therefore, he might hope for success. Against the goodness of God, the devices of a wicked man to injure the righteous could not ultimately prevail.
Thy tongue deviseth mischiefs - The word rendered “mischiefs” means
(a) desire, cupidity: Proverbs 10:3; then
(b) fall, ruin, destruction, wickedness: Psalms 5:9; Psalms 38:12.
The meaning here is, that he made use of his tongue to ruin others. Compare Psalms 50:19. The particular thing referred to here is the fact that Doeg sought the ruin of others by giving “information” in regard to them. He “informed” Saul of what Ahimelech had done; he informed him where David had been, thus giving him, also, information in what way he might be found and apprehended. All this was “designed” to bring ruin upon David and his followers. It “actually” brought ruin on Ahimelech and those associated with him, 1 Samuel 22:17-19.
Like a sharp razor - See the notes at Isaiah 7:20. His slanders were like a sharp knife with which one stabs another. So we stay of a slanderer that he “stabs” another in the dark.
Working deceitfully - literally, making deceit. That is, it was by deceit that he accomplished his purpose. There was no open and fair dealing in what he did.
Thou lovest evil more than good - Thou dost prefer to do injury to others, rather than to do them good. In the case referred to, instead of aiding the innocent, the persecuted, and the wronged, he had attempted to reveal the place where he might be found, and where an enraged enemy might have an opportunity of wreaking his vengeance upon him.
And lying rather than to speak righteousness - He preferred a lie to the truth; and, when he supposed that his own interest would be subserved by it, he preferred a falsehood that would promote that interest, rather than a simple statement of the truth. The “lying” in this case was that which was “implied” in his being desirous of giving up David, or betraying him to Saul - as if David was a bad man, and as if the suspicions of Saul were wellfounded. He preferred to give his countenance to a falsehood in regard to him, rather than to state the exact truth in reference to his character. His conduct in this was strongly in contrast with that of Ahimelech, who, when arraigned before Saul, declared his belief that David was innocent; his firm conviction that David was true and loyal. “For” that fidelity he lost his life, 1 Samuel 22:14. Doeg was willing to lend countenance to the suspicions of Saul, and practically to represent David as a traitor to the king. The word “Selah” here is doubtless a mere musical pause. See the notes at Psalms 3:2. It determines nothing in regard to the sense of the passage.
Thou lovest all devouring words - All words that tend to devour or “swallow up” reputation and happiness. Luther, “Thou speakest gladly all things (anything) that will serve to destruction.” Anything, everything, that will serve to ruin people. The word rendered “devouring” - בלע bela‛ - occurs only here and in Jeremiah 51:44, though the verb from which it is derived occurs frequently: Isaiah 28:4; Exodus 7:12; Jonah 2:1 Jon 1:17; Genesis 41:7, Genesis 41:24, et al. The verb means to swallow; and then, to consume or destroy.
O thou deceitful tongue - Margin, “and the deceitful tongue.” The sense is best expressed in the text. It is an address to the tongue as loving deceit or fraud.
God shall likewise destroy thee for ever - Margin, “beat thee down.” The Hebrew word means to “tear, to break down, to destroy:” Leviticus 14:45; Judges 6:30. The reference here is not to the “tongue” alluded to in the previous verses, but to Doeg himself. The language in the verse is intensive and emphatic. The main idea is presented in a variety of forms, all designed to denote utter and absolute destruction - a complete and entire sweeping away, so that nothing should be left. The word “here” used would suggest the idea of “pulling down” - as a house, a fence, a wall; that is, the idea of completely “demolishing” it; and the meaning is, that destruction would come upon the informer and slanderer “like” the destruction which comes upon a house, or wall, or fence, when it is entirely pulled down.
He shall take thee away - An expression indicating in another form that he would be certainly destroyed. The verb used here - חתה châthâh - is elsewhere used only in the sense of taking up and carrying fire or coals: Isaiah 30:14; Proverbs 6:27; Proverbs 25:22. The idea here “may” be that he would be seized and carried away with haste, as when one takes up fire or coals, he does it as rapidly as possible, lest he should be burned.
And shall pluck thee out of thy dwelling-place - literally, “out of the tent.” The reference is to his abode. The allusion here in the verb that is used - נסח nâsach - is to the act of pulling up plants; and the idea is, that he would be plucked up as a plant is torn from its roots.
And root thee out of the land of the living - As a tree is torn up from the roots and thus destroyed. He would be no more among the living. Compare Psalms 27:13. All these phrases are intended to denote that such a man would be utterly destroyed.
The righteous also shaIl see - See the notes at Psalms 37:34.
And fear - The effect of such a judgment will be to produce reverence in the minds of good people - a solemn sense of the justice of God; to make them tremble at such fearful judgments; and to fear lest they should violate the law, and bring judgment on themselves.
And shall laugh at him - Compare the notes at Psalms 2:4. See also Psalms 58:10; Psalms 64:9-10; Proverbs 1:26. The idea here is not exultation in the “sufferings” of others, or joy that “calamity” has come upon them, or the gratification of selfish and revengeful feeling that an enemy is deservedly punished; it is that of approbation that punishment has come upon those who deserve it, and joy that wickedness is not allowed to triumph. It is not wrong for us to feel a sense of approbation and joy that the laws are maintained, and that justice is done, even though this does involve suffering, for we know that the guilty deserve it, and it is better that they should suffer than that the righteous should sutter through them. All this may be entirely free from any malignant, or any revengeful feeling. It may even be connected with the deepest pity, and with the purest benevolence toward the sufferers themselves.
Lo, this is the man that made not God his strength - That is, the righteous Psalms 52:6 would say this. They would designate him as a man who had not made God his refuge, but who had trusted in his own resources. The result would be that he would he abandoned by God, and that those things on which he had relied would fail him in the day of calamity. He would be pointed out as an instance of what must occur when a man does not act with a wise reference to the will of God, but, confiding in his own strength and resources, pursues his own plans of iniquity.
But trusted in the abundance of his riches - See the notes at Psalms 49:6. From this it would seem that Doeg was a rich man, and that, as a general thing, in his life, and in his plans of evil, he felt confident in his wealth. He had that spirit of arrogance and self-confidence which springs from the conscious possession of property where there is no fear of God; and into all that he did he carried the sense of his own importance as derived from his riches. In the particular matter referred to in the psalm the meaning is, that he would perform the iniquitous work of giving “information” with the proud and haughty feeling springing from wealth and from self-importance - the feeling that he was a man of consequence, and that whatever such a man might do would be entitled to special attention.
And strengthened himself in his wickedness - Margin, “substance.” This is the same word which in Psalms 52:1 is rendered “mischief.” The idea is, that he had a malicious pleasure in doing wrong, or in injuring others, and that by every art, and against all the convictions and remonstrances of his own conscience, he endeavored to confirm himself “in” this unholy purpose and employment.
But I am like a green olive-tree in the house of God - I am safe and happy, notwithstanding the effort made by my enemy, the informer, to secure my destruction. I have been kept unharmed, like a green and flourishing tree - a tree protected in the very courts of the sanctuary - safe under the care and the eye of God. A green tree is the emblem of prosperity. See Psalms 1:3, note; Psalms 37:35, note; compare Psalms 92:12. The “house of God” here referred to is the tabernacle, considered as the place where God was supposed to reside. See Psalms 15:1, note; Psalms 23:6, note; Psalms 27:4-5, notes. The particular allusion here is to the “courts” of the tabernacle. An olive tree would not be cultivated in the tabernacle, but it might in the “courts” or “area” which surrounded it. The name “house of God” would be given to the whole area, as it was afterward to the entire area in which the temple was. A tree thus planted in the very courts of the sanctuary would be regarded as sacred, and would be safe as long as the tabernacle itself was safe, for it would be, as it were, directly under the divine protection. So David had been, notwithstanding all the efforts of his enemies to destroy him.
I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever -
(a) I “have” always done it. It has been my constant practice in trouble or danger.
(b) I “will” always do it.
As the result of all my experience, I will still do it; and thus trusting in God, I shall have the consciousness of safety.
I will praise thee forever, beause thou hast done it - Because thou art the source of my safety. The fact that I have been delivered from the designs of Saul, and saved from the efforts of Doeg to betray me, is to be traced wholly to thee. It has been ordered by thy providence that the purposes alike of Doeg and of Saul have been defeated, and I am still safe.
And I will wait on thy name - That is, I will wait on “thee;” the name being often put for the person himself: Psalms 20:1; Psalms 69:30; Proverbs 18:10; Isaiah 59:19. The language used here means that he would trust in God, or confide in him. All his expectation and hope would be in him. There are two ideas essentially in the language:
(1) the expression of a sense of “dependence” on God, as if the only ground of trust was in him;
(2) a willingness to “await” his interposition at all times; a belief that, however long such an interposition might be delayed, God “would” interfere at the proper time to bring deliverance; and a purpose calmly and patiently to look to him until the time of deliverance should come. Compare Psalms 25:3, Psalms 25:5,Psalms 25:21; Psalms 27:14; Psalms 37:7, Psalms 37:9,Psalms 37:34; Psalms 69:3; Isaiah 8:17; Isaiah 40:31.
For it is good before thy saints - God is good; and I will confess it before his “saints.” His mercy has been so marked, that a public acknowledgment of it is proper; and before his assembled people I will declare what he has done for me. So signal an act of mercy, an interposition so suited to illustrate the character of God, demands more than a private acknowledgment, and I will render him public praise. The same idea occurs in Psalms 22:25; Psalms 35:18; Psalms 111:1; Isaiah 38:20. The general thought is, that for great and special mercies it is proper to render special praise to God before his assembled people. It is not that we are to obtrude our private affairs upon the public eye or the public ear; it is not that mercies shown to us have any particular claim to the attention of our fellow-men, but it is that such interpositions illustrate the character of God, and that they may constitute an argument before the world in favor of his benevolent and merciful character. Among the “saints” there is a common bond of union - a common interest in all that pertains to each other; and when special mercy is shown to anyone of the great brotherhood, it is proper that all should join in the thanksgiving, and render praise to God.
The importance of the subject considered in this psalm - the fact that it is not often referred to in books on moral science, or even in sermons, - and the fact that it involves many points of practical difficulty in the conversation between man and man in the various relations of life - may justify at the close of an exposition of this psalm a consideration of the general question about the morality of giving “information,” or, in general, the character of the “informer.” Such a departure from the usual method adopted in works designed to be expository would not be ordinarily proper, since it would swell such works beyond reasonable dimensions; but perhaps it may be admitted in a single instance.
In what cases is it our duty to give information which may be in our possession about the conduct of others; and in what cases does it become a moral wrong or a crime to do it?
This is a question of much importance in respect to our own conduct, and often of much difficulty in its solution. It may not be possible to answer all the inquiries which might be made on this subject, or to lay down principles of undoubted plainness which would be applicable to every case which might occur, but a few general principles may be suggested.
The question is one which may occur at any time, and in any situation of life - Is it never right to give such information? Are we never bound to do it? Are there no circumstances in which it is proper that it should be voluntary? Are there any situations in which we are exempt by established customs or laws from giving such information? Are there any in which we are bound, by the obligations of conscience, not to give such information, whatever may be the penalty? Where and when does guilt begin or end in our volunteering to give information of the conduct or the concealments of others?
These questions often come with much perplexity before the mind of an ingenuous schoolboy, who would desire to do right, and who yet has so much honor that he desires to escape the guilt and the reproach of being a “tell-tale.” They are questions which occur to a lawyer (or, rather, which “did” occur before the general principle, which I will soon advert to, had been settled by the courts), in regard to the knowledge of which he has been put in possession under the confidential relation of advocate and client. They are questions which may occur to a clergyman, either in respect to the confidential disclosures made at the confessional of the Catholic priest, or in respect to the confidential statements of the true penitent made to a Protestant pastor, in order that spiritual counsel may be obtained to give relief to a burdened conscience. They are questions which it was necessary should be settled in regard to a fugitive from justice, who seeks protection under the roof of a friend or a stranger.
They are questions respecting refugees from oppression in foreign lands - suggesting the inquiry whether they shall be welcomed, or whether there shall be any law by which they shall, on demand, be restored to the dominion of a tyrant. They are questions which the conscience will ask, and does ask, about those who make their escape from slavery, who apply to us for aid in securing their liberty, and who seek an asylum beneath our roof; questions whether the law of God requires or permits us to render any active assistance in making known the place of their refuge, and returning them to bondage. When, and in what cases, if any, is a man bound to give information in such circumstances as these? It is to be admitted that cases may occur, in regard to these questions, in which there would be great difficulty in determining what are the exact limits of duty, and writers on the subject of morals have not laid down such clear rules as would leave the mind perfectly free from doubt, or be sufficient to guide us on all these points. It will be admitted, also, that some of them are questions of much difficulty, and where instruction would be desirable.
Much may be learned, in regard to the proper estimate of human conduct among people, from the “language” which they employ - language which, in its very structure, often conveys their sentiments from age to age. The ideas of people on many of the subjects of morals, in respect to that which is honorable or dishonorable, right or wrong, manly or mean, became thus “imbedded” - I might almost say “fossilized” - in their modes of speech. Language, in its very structure, thus carries down to future times the sentiments cherished in regard to the morality of actions - as the fossil remains that are beneath the surface of the earth, in the strata of the rocks, bring to us the forms of ancient types of animals, and ferns, and palms, of which there are now no living specimens on the globe. They who have studied Dean Trench’s Treatise on “Words” will recollect how this idea is illustrated in that remarkable work; how, without any other information about the views of people in other times, the very “words” which they employed, and which have been transmitted to us, convey to us the estimate which was formed in past ages in regard to the moral quality of an action, as proper or improper - as honorable or dishonorable - as conformed to the noble principles of our nature, or the reverse.
As illustrating the general sentiments of mankind in this respect, I will select “two” words as specimens of many which might be selected, and as words which people have been agreed in applying to some of the acts referred to in the questions of difficulty that I have just mentioned, and which may enable us to do something in determining the morality of an action, so far as those words, in their just application to the subject, indicate the judgment of mankind.
One of these is the word “meanness” - a word which a schoolboy would be most “likely” to apply to the act of a tell-tale or an informer, and which we instinctively apply to numerous actions in more advanced periods of life, and which serves to mark the judgment of mankind in regard to certain kinds of conduct. The “idea” in such a case is not so much the “guilt” or the “criminality” of the act considered as a violation of law, as it is that of being opposed to just notions of “honor,” or indicating a base, low, sordid, grovelling spirits - “lowness of mind, want of dignity and elevation; want of honor.” (Webster)
The other word is “sycophant.” The Athenians had a law prohibiting the exportation of figs. This law, of course, had a penalty, and it was a matter of importance to the magistrate to ascertain who had been guilty of violating it. It suggested, also, a method of securing the favor of such a magistrate, and perhaps of obtaining a reward, by giving “information” of those who had been guilty of violating the law. From these two words - the Greek word “fig,” and the Greek word to “show,” or to “discover,” we have derived the word “sycophant;” and this word has come down from the Greeks, and through the long tract of ages intervening between its first use in Athens to the present time, always bearing in every age the original idea imbedded in the word, as the old fossil that is now dug up bears the form of the fern, the leaf, the worm, or the shell that was imbedded there perhaps million of ages ago. As such a man would be “likely” to be mean, and fawning, and flattering, so the word has come to describe always a parasite; a mean flatterer; a flatterer of princes and great men; and hence it is, and would be applied as one of the words indicating the sense of mankind in regard to a “tale-bearer,” or an “informer.”
Words like these indicate the general judgment of mankind on such conduct as that referred to in the psalm before us. Of course, to what particular “actions” of the kind they are properly applicable, would be another point; they are referred to here only as indicating the general judgment of mankind in regard to certain kinds of conduct, and to show how careful people are, in their very language, to express their permanent approbation of that which is “honorable” and “right,” and their detestation of that which is “dishonorable” and “wrong.”
Let us now consider more particularly the subject with respect to “duty,” and to “criminality.” The question is, whether we can find any eases where it is “right” - where it is our duty to give such information; or, in what eases, if any, it is right; and in what cases it is malignant, guilty, wrong. The points to be considered are:
(1) When it is right, or when it may be demanded that we should give information of another; and
(2) When it becomes guilt.
(1) When it is right, or when it may be demanded of us.
(a) It is to be admitted that there are cases in which the interests of justice demand that people should be “required” to give information of others; or, there are cases where the courts have a right to summon us, to put us upon our oath, and to demand the information which may be in our possession. The courts constantly act on this; and the interests of justice could not be promoted, nor could a cause ever be determined, without exercising this right. If all people were bound in conscience to witchold information simply because they have it in their possession, or because of the mode in which they came in possession of it - or if they witcheld it from mere stubbornness and obstinacy - all the departments of justice must stand still, and the officers of justice might be discharged, since it can neither be presumed that “they” would possess all the knowledge necessary to the administration of justice themselves, nor would the law allow them to act on it if they did.
The law never presumes that a judge is to decide a case from a knowledge of the facts in his own possession, or simply because “he knows what was done in the case.” The ultimate decision must be made in view of testimony given, not of knowledge “possessed.” In most cases, however, there is no difficulty on this point. There is no necessary violation of confidence in giving this information. There have been no improper means used to obtain it. There has been only an observation of that which any other man might have seen. There has been no baseness in “spying” out what was done. There has been no “sycophantic” purpose; there is no voluntariness in betraying what we know; there is no dishonorableness in divulging what “happened” to be known to us. A man may “regret” that he witnessed the act of crime, but he does not blame himself for it; he may feel “pained” that his testimony may consign another man to the gallows, but he does not deem it dishonorable, for he has no mean purpose in it, and the interests of justice demand it.
(b) It is an admitted principle that one employed as counsel in a case - a lawyer - shall “not” be required to give up information which may be in his possession as counsel; information which has been entrusted to him by his client. It is held essential to the interests of justice, that whatever is thus communicated to a professional adviser shall be regarded by the court as strictly confidential, and that the counsel incurs no blame if he does “not” give information on the subject; or, in other words, the true interests of justice do not demand, and the principles of honor will not admit, that he should betray the man who has entrusted his cause to him. How far a man, governed by a good conscience, and by the principles of honor, may undertake a cause which, from the statements of his client in the beginning, he may regard as doubtful, or where in the progress of the case he may become sure that his client is guilty, is a point which does not come under the present inquiry, and which may, in fact, be in some respects a question of difficult solution. It must still, however, even in such a case, be held that he cannot be required to give the information in his possession, and every principle of honor or of right would be understood to be violated, if, abandoning the case, he should become a voluntary “informer.”
(c) In like manner, it is understood that the law does not require a juryman to give voluntary “information” of what may be within his own knowledge in the case that may be submitted for trial. The extent of his oath and his obligation is that he shall give a verdict according to the testimony submitted under the proper forms of law. He may not “go back” of that, and found his opinion in the verdict on any private knowledge which he may have in his own possession, and which has not, under the proper forms of law, been laid before the court; nor may what he himself may have seen and heard enter at all into his verdict, or influence it in any manner, unless it has been submitted with the other testimony in the case to the court. The verdict is to be based on evidence “given;” not on what he “has seen.” An accused man has a right to demand that “all” that shall bear on the sentence in the case - “all” that shall enter into the verdict - shall be submitted as testimony, under the solemnities of an oath, and with all proper opportunities of crossexamination, and of rebutting it by counter testimony. A juryman may, indeed, be called as a witness in a case. But then he is to be sworn and examined as any other witness, and when he comes to unite with others in making up the verdict, he is to allow to enter into that verdict “only” that which is in possession of all the members of the jury, and he is not to permit “any” knowledge which he may have, which was “not” obtained from him in giving testimony, to influence his own judgment in the case.
(d) There are cases, however, in which things entrusted to one as a secret, or in confidence, may be required to be given up. Such cases may occur in a matter of private friendship, or in a case of professional confidence.
In the case of a Presbyterian clergyman, it has been held that he was bound to submit a letter to the court which had been addressed to him by the accused as her pastor, and which was supposed to contain important disclosures in regard to her criminality. In this case, however, the disclosure was not originally made by the pastor; nor was the fact of the existence of such a letter made known by him. The fact that such a letter had been sent to him, was stated by the party herself; and the court, having this knowledge of it, “demanded” its production in court. It was submitted after taking legal advice, and the community justified the conduct of the pastor. So the principle is regarded as well settled that a minister of religion may be required to disclose what has been communicated to him, whether at the “confessional,” or as a pastor, which may be necessary to establish the guilt of a party; and that the fact that it had been communicated in confidence, and for spiritual advice, does not constitute a reason for refusing to disclose it.
(2) But the point before us relates rather to the inquiry when the act of giving such information becomes “guilt,” or in what circumstances it is forbidden and wrong.
Perhaps all that need to be said on this point can be reduced to three heads: when it is for base purposes; when the innocent are betrayed; and when professional confidence is violated. The illustration of these points, after what has been said, need not detain us long.
First. When it is for base purposes. This would include all those cases where it is for gain; where it is to secure favor; and where it is from envy, malice, spite, or revenge. The case of Doeg was, manifestly, an instance of this kind, where the motive was not that of promoting public justice, or preserving the peace of the realm, but where it was to ingratiate himself into the favor of Saul, and secure his own influence at court. The parallel case of the Ziphims Psalms 54:1-7 was another instance of this kind, where, so far as the narrative goes, it is supposable that the only motive was to obtain the favor of Saul, or to secure a reward, by betraying an innocent and a persecuted man who had fled to them for a secure retreat. The case of Judas Iscariot was another instance of this kind. He betrayed his Saviour; he agreed, for a paltry reward, to disclose his place of usual retreat - a place to which he had resorted so often for prayer, that Judas knew that he could be found there.
It was for no wrong done to him. It was from no regard to public peace or justice. It was not because he even supposed the Saviour to be guilty. He knew that he was innocent. He even himself confessed this in the most solemn manner, and in the very presence of those with whom he had made the infamous bargain - and with just such a result as the mean and the wicked must always expect, when those for whom they have performed a mean and wicked act have no further use for them. such, also, is the case of the “sycophant.” That a man might, in some circumstances, give information about the exportation of “figs” contrary to law, or might even be required to do it, may be true; but it was equally true that it was not commonly done for any patriotic or honorable ends, but from the most base and ignoble motives; and hence, the sense of mankind in regard to the nature of the transaction has been perpetuated in the world itself. So, in a school, there is often no better motive than envy, or rivalship, or malice, or a desire to obtain favor or reward, when information is given by one school-boy of another; and hence, the contempt and scorn with which a boy who acts under the influence of these motives is always regarded - emblem of what he is likely to meet in all his subsequent life.
Second. The innocent are never robe betrayed. The divine law pertaining to this seems to be perfectly plain, and the principles of that law are such as to commend themselves to the consciences of all mankind. Thus, Isaiah 16:3-4, “Take counsel, execute judgment; make thy shadow as the night in the midst of the noonday; hide the outcasts; bewray not him that wandereth. Let mine outcasts dwell with thee, Moab; be thou a covert to them from the face of the spoiler.” Also in Deuteronomy 23:15-16, “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.”
On these passages I remark:
1. That they are settled principles of the law of God. There is no ambiguity in them. They have not been repealed. They are, therefore, still binding, and extend to all cases pertaining to the innocent and the oppressed.
2. They accord with the convictions of the human mind - the deep-seated principles which God has laid in our very being, as designed to guide us in our treatment of others.
3. They accord with some of the highest principles of self-sacrifice as illustrated in history - the noblest exhibitions of human nature in giving an asylum to the oppressed and the wronged; instances where life has been perilled, or even given up, rather than that the persecuted, the innocent, and the wronged, should be surrendered or betrayed. How often, in the history of the church has life been thus endangered, because a refuge and a shelter was furnished to the persecuted Christian - the poor outcast, driven from his home under oppressive laws! How honorable have people esteemed such acts to be! How illustrious is the example of those who have at all hazards opened their arms to receive the oppressed, and to welcome the persecuted and the wronged! In the year 1685, by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantz, eight hundred thousand professed followers of the Saviour - Huguenots - were driven from their homes and their country, and compelled to seek safety by flight to other lands.
In their own country, fire and the sword spread desolation everywhere, and the voice of wailing filled the land. Those who could flee, did flee. The best people of France - those of noblest blood - fled in every direction, and sought a refuge in other countries. They fled - carrying with them not only the purest form and the best spirit of religion, but the best knowledge of the arts, to all the surrounding nations. Belgium, Holland, England, Scotland, Switzerland, opened their arms to welcome the fugitives. Our own country welcomed them - then, as now, an asylum for the oppressed. In every part of our land they found a home. Thousands of the noblest spirits - the best people of the South and the North, were composed of these exiles and wanderers. But suppose the world had been barred against them. Suppose they had been driven back again to their native land, poor persecuted men and women returned to suffering and to death. How justly mankind would have execrated such an act!
The same principles are applicable to the fugitive from slavery. Indeed, one of the texts quoted relates to this very point, and is designed to guide people on this subject in all ages and in all lands. “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee.” No law could possibly be more explicit; none could be more humane, just, or proper; and consequently all those provisions in human laws which require people to aid in delivering up such fugitives are violations of the law of God - have no binding obligation on the conscience - and are, at all hazards, to be disobeyed. Acts 5:29; Acts 4:19.
Third. Professional confidence is not to be betrayed. We have seen, in the remarks before made, that those who are employed as counselors in the courts, cannot be required to communicate facts which are stated to them by their clients, but that confidential communications made to others may be demanded in promoting the interests of justice. The point now, however, relates only to the cases where professional confidence is voluntarily violated, or where knowledge thus obtained is made use of in a manner which cannot be sanctioned either by the principles of honor or religion. Two such instances may be referred to as illustrations:
(a) One occurs when a clergyman, to whom such knowledge is imparted as a clergyman for spiritual advice, instruction, or comfort, abuses the trust reposed in him, by making use of that information for any other purpose whatever. It is entrusted to him for that purpose alone. It is committed to him as a man of honor. The secret is lodged with him, with the implied understanding that it is there to remain, and to be employed only for that purpose. Whether at the “confessional” of the Roman Catholic, or whether made in the confidence reposed in a Protestant pastor, the principle is the same. Whatever advantage may be taken of that secret for the promotion of any other ends; whatever object the minister of religion may propose to secure, based on the fact that he is in possession of it; whatever influence he may choose to exert, founded on the assumption that he could divulge it; whatever statement he may make in regard to such a person - based on the fact that he is in possession of knowledge which he has, but which he is not at liberty to communicate - and designed to injure the person; whatever use he may make of it as enabling him to form an estimate for his own purposes of what occurs in a family; or, in general, whatever communication he may make of it, of any kind (except under process of law, and because the law demands it), is to be regarded as a betrayal of professional confidence. The interests of religion require that a pastor should be regarded as among the most faithful of confidential friends; and no people, or class of people, should be placed in such circumstances that they may, at the “confessional,” or in any other way, have the means of arriving at secrets which may be employed for any purposes of their own whatever.
(b) It is a breach of professional confidence when a lawyer is entrusted with knowledge in one case by a client, which, by being employed in another case, and on another occasion, he uses against him. The secret, whatever it may be, which is entrusted to him by a client, is for that case alone; and is, to all intents, to die when that case is determined. It is dishonorable in any way for him to engage as counsel for another party against his former client when, by even the remotest possibility, the knowledge obtained in the former occurrence could come as an element in the determination of the case, or could be made use of to the advantage of his new client. Every sentiment of honesty and honor demands that if there is a possibility of this, or if there would be the remotest temptation of the kind, he should at once promptly and firmly decline to engage against his former client.
In human nature there are two classes of propensities or principles: those which are generous, magnanimous, gentle, kind, benevolent, large-hearted, humane, noble; and those which are low, grovelling, sordid, sycophantic, mean, ignoble.
Though man is destitute of holiness, and though, as I believe, not one or all of these things which I have referred to as generous and noble can by cultivation become true religion, or constitute, by mere development, what is needful to secure the salvation of the soul, yet they are to be cultivated, for they are invaluable in society, and necessary to the happiness and the progress of mankind. On these, more than on most other things, the happiness of families, and the welfare of the world depend; and whatever may be our views of the necessity and value of religion, we are not required to undervalue “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit,” or those virtues which we connect, in our apprehensions, with that which is manly and honorable, and which tend to elevate and ennoble the race.
Christianity has, if I may so express it, a “natural affinity” for one class of these propensities; it has none for the other. It, too, is generous, humane, gentle, kind, benevolent, noble; it blends easily with these tilings when it finds them in human nature; and it produces them in the soul which is fully under its influence, where they did not exist before. It has no more affinity for that which is mean, ignoble, morose, sycophantic, than it has for profanity or falsehood, for dishonesty or fraud, for licentiousness or ambition.
That true religion may be found in hearts where these virtues, so generous and noble, are not developed, or where there is not a little that dishonors religion as not large, and liberal, and courteous, and gentlemanly, it is, perhaps, impossible to deny mean, so sycophantic, so narrow, so sour, and so morose, that a large part of the work of sanctification seems to be reserved for the close of life - for that mysterious and unexplained process by which all who are redeemed are made perfect when they pass “through the valley of the shadow of death.” But though there may be religion in such a case, it is among the lowest forms of piety. What is mean, ignoble, and narrow, is no part of the Christian religion, and can never be transmuted into it.
There has come down to us as the result of the progress of civilization in this world, and with the highest approbation of mankind, a class of virtues connected with the ideas of honor and honorableness. That the sentiment of honor has been abused among people; that an attempt has been made to set it up as the governing principle in cases where conscience should rule; that in doing this a code has been established which, in many respects, is a departure from the rules of morality, there can be no doubt; - but still there are just principles of honor which Christianity does not disdain; which are to be incorporated into our principles of religion, and which we are to endeavor to instil into the hearts of our children. Whatever there is in the world that is “true, and honest, and just, and pure, and lovely, and of good report;” whatever belongs to the name of “virtue,” and whatever deserves “praise,” is to be blended with our religion, constituting our idea of a Christian man.
It is the blending of these things - the union of Christian principle with what is noble, and manly, and generous, and humane - which, in any case, entitles to the highest appellation that can be given to any of our race - that of the christian gentleman.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 52". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27