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1.I said, I will take heed to my ways. David explains and illustrates the greatness of his grief by this circumstance, that, contrary to his inclination and resolution, he broke forth into the severest complaints. The meaning substantially is, that although he had subdued his heart to patience, and resolved to keep silence, yet the violence of his grief was such that it forced him to break his resolution, and extorted from him, if we might so speak, expressions which indicate that he had given way to an undue degree of sorrow. The expression, I said, it is well known, does not always mean what is expressed in words, but is often used to denote the purpose of the heart, and, therefore, the words in heart are sometimes added. David, therefore, means not that he boasted of his fortitude and constancy, and made a display of them before men, but that before God he was, by continued meditation, well fortified and prepared to endure patiently the temptations by which he was now assailed. We ought to mark particularly the carefulness by which he was distinguished. It was not without cause that he was so much intent on exercising watchfulness over himself. He did so because he was conscious of his own weakness, and also well knew the manifold devices of Satan. He, therefore, looked on the right hand and on the left, and kept watch on all sides, lest temptation stealing upon him unawares from any quarter might reach even to his heart. Access to it, then, had been impossible, since it was shut up on every side, if the extreme severity of his grief had not overpowered him, and broken his resolution. When he says, I will keep my mouth with a muzzle, (61) that I sin not with my tongue, it is not to be understood as if he could with difficulty restrain and conceal his grief, (for it is mere pretense for a man to show by the countenance and speech the appearance of meekness when the heart still swells with pride;) but as there is nothing more slippery or loose than the tongue, David declares that he had endeavored so carefully to bridle his affections, that not so much as one word should escape from his lips which might betray the least impatience. And that man must indeed be endued with singular fortitude who unfeignedly and deliberately restrains his tongue, which is so liable to fall into error. As to what follows, while the wicked standeth before me, it is generally understood, as if David had concealed his grief, lest he should give occasion of blasphemy to the wicked, who, as soon as they see the children of God fail under the weight of their afflictions, insolently break forth into derision against them, which amounts to a contempt of God himself. But it appears to me that by the term standeth, David meant to express something more, — that even while he saw the wicked bearing rule, exercising authority, and exalted to honor, he resolved not to speak a single word, but to bear patiently the poverty and indignity which otherwise grieve and torment not a little even good men. Accordingly, he says not merely that when he was in the presence of the wicked he restrained himself, lest he should be subjected to their scorn, but that even while the worst of men prospered, (62) and, proud of their high rank, despised others, he was fully determined in his own mind not to be troubled at it. By this he very plainly shows that he was so beset with wicked men, ever ready for mischief, that he could not freely heave a sigh which was not made the subject of ridicule and scorn. Since, then, it was so hard a task for David to restrain his tongue, lest he should sin by giving way to complaints, let us learn from his example, whenever troubles molest us, to strive earnestly to moderate our affections, that no impious expression of dissatisfaction against God may slip from us.
(61) The Hebrew word
(62) Dr Geddes renders the last clause of the verse, “While the wicked prosper before me.”
2.I was dumb in silence. He now declares that this resolution of which he has spoken had not been a mere passing and momentary thought, but that he had shown by his conduct that it was indeed a resolution deeply fixed in his heart. He says, then, that he held his peace for a time, just as if he had been deaf, which was a singular manifestation of his patience. When he thus determined to be silent, it was not such a resolution as persons of a changeable disposition, who scarcely ever know their own mind, and who can with difficulty be brought to carry their desires into effect, often make: he had long and steadfastly inured himself to the exercise of patience; and this he had done, not only by keeping silence but by making himself utterly dumb, as if he had been deprived of the power of speech. The expression from good is expounded by some in the sense that he not only refrained from uttering sinful and unadvised words, but also that he abstained from speaking on any subject whatever. Others think that he held his peace from good, either because, being overwhelmed with miseries and afflictions, he found no relief to whatever side he turned, or else, because, by reason of the greatness of his sorrow, he was unable to sing the praises of God. But in my opinion the natural sense is, that although he was able adequately to defend himself, and it could not be shown that he wanted just and proper grounds of complaint, yet he refrained from speaking of his own mere will. (63) He might have encountered the ungodly with a good defense of his own innocence, but he rather preferred to forego the prosecution of his righteous cause than indulge in any intemperate sorrow. He adds in the last clause of the verse, that although he thus restrained himself for a time, yet at length the violence of his grief broke through all the barriers which he had set to his tongue. If David, who was so valiant a champion, failed in the midst of his course, how much greater reason have we to be afraid lest we fall in like manner? He says that his sorrow was stirred, because, as we shall soon see, the ardor of his affections was inflamed so as to become tumultuous. Some render the phrase in this sense, that his sorrow was corrupted, as if his meaning were, that it became worse; just as we know that a wound becomes worse when it happens to putrify or fester: but this sense is forced.
(63) French and Skinner read, “I held my peace from good and bad.” In the Hebrew it is simply “from good;” but they observe, “This expression occurs frequently in Scripture, and it would seem, that owing to the constant use of it, one part only of the sentence has been here expressed. Thus, ‘Take heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad, ’ (Genesis 31:24.) Again, ‘Absalom spake neither good nor bad, ’ (2 Samuel 13:22.”)
3.My heart became hot within me He now illustrates the greatness of his grief by the introduction of a simile, telling us that his sorrow, being internally suppressed, became so much the more inflamed, until the ardent passion of his soul continued to increase in strength. From this we may learn the very profitable lesson, that the more strenuously any one sets himself to obey God, and employs all his endeavors to attain the exercise of patience, the more vigorously is he assailed by temptation: for Satan, whilst he is not so troublesome to the indifferent and careless, and seldom looks near them, displays all his forces in hostile array against that individual. If, therefore, at any time we feel ardent emotions struggling and raising a commotion in our breasts, we should call to remembrance this conflict of David, that our courage may not fail us, or at least that our infirmity may not drive us headlong to despair. The dry and hot exhalations which the sun causes to arise in summer, if nothing occurred in the atmosphere to obstruct their progress, would ascend into the air without commotion; but when intervening clouds prevent their free ascent, a conflict arises, from which the thunders are produced. It is similar with respect to the godly who desire to lift up their hearts to God. If they would resign themselves to the vain imaginations which arise in their minds, they might enjoy a sort of unrestrained liberty to indulge in every fancy; but because they endeavor to resist their influence, and seek to devote themselves to God, obstructions which arise from the opposition of the flesh begin to trouble them. Whenever, therefore, the flesh shall put forth its efforts, and shall kindle up a fire in our hearts, let us know that we are exercised with the same kind of temptation which occasioned so much pain and trouble to David. In the end of the verse he acknowledges that the severity of the affliction with which he was visited had at length overcome him, and that he allowed foolish and unadvised words to pass from his lips. In his own person he sets before us a mirror of human infirmity, that, being warned by the danger to which we are exposed, we may learn betimes to seek protection under the shadow of God’s wings. When he says that he spake with his tongue, it is not a superfluous mode of expression, but a true and fuller confession of his sin, in that he had not only given way to sinful murmuring, but had even uttered loud complaints.
4.O Jehovah! cause me to know my end. It appears from this, that David was transported by an improper and sinful excess of passion, seeing he finds fault with God. This will appear still more clearly from the following verses. It is true, indeed, that in what follows he introduces pious and becoming prayers, but here he complains, that, being a mortal man, whose life is frail and transitory, he is not treated more mildly by God. Of this, and similar complaints, the discourses of Job are almost full. It is, therefore, not without anger and resentment that David speaks in this manner: “O God, since thou art acting with so much severity towards me, at least make me to know how long thou hast appointed me to live. But is it so, that my life is but a moment, why then dost thou act with so great rigour? and why dost thou accumulate upon my head such a load of miseries, as if I had yet many ages to live? What does it profit me to have been born, if I must pass the period of my existence, which is so brief, in misery, and oppressed with a continued succession of calamities?”
Accordingly, this verse should be read in connection with the following one. Behold, thou hast made my days as a hand-breadth. A hand-breadth is the measure of four fingers, and is here taken for a very small measure; as if it had been said, the life of man flies swiftly away, and the end of it, as it were, touches the beginning. Hence the Psalmist concludes that all men are only vanity before God. As to the meaning of the words, he does not ask that the brevity of human life should be shown to him, as if he knew it not. There is in this language a kind of irony, as if he had said, Let us count the number of the years which still remain to me on earth, and will they be a sufficient recompense for the miseries which I endure? Some render the word
(66) “Mine age, i. e. , the whole extent of my life.” — Cresswell.
(67) The word
(68) This word here rendered standeth “is well paraphrased by Dathe, ‘
6.Surely man walketh in a shadow. (69) He still prosecutes the same subject. By the word shadow, he means, that there is nothing substantial in man, but that he is only, as we say, a vain show, and has I know not how much of display and ostentation. (70) Some translate the word darkness, and understand the Psalmist’s language in this sense, That the life of man vanishes away before it can be known. But in these words David simply declares of every man individually what Paul extends to the whole world, when he says,
“The fashion of this world passeth away.” —
1 Corinthians 7:31
Thus he denies that there is any thing abiding in men, because the appearance of strength which displays itself in them for a time soon passes away. What he adds, that men disquiet themselves in vain, shows the very height of their vanity; as if he had said, It seems as if men were born for the very purpose of rendering themselves more and more contemptible: for although they are only as a shadow, yet as if they were fools, or rather insane, they involve themselves needlessly in harassing cares, and vexing themselves to no purpose. He expresses still more plainly how they manifest their folly, when he declares that while they anxiously and carefully heap up riches, they never think that they must soon, and it may be suddenly, leave their present abode. And why is it that they thus fret away their mind and body, but only because they imagine that they can never have enough? for by their insatiable desire of gain, they eagerly grasp at all the riches of the world, as if they had to live a hundred times the life of man. Moreover, David does not in this passage hold up to scorn the covetousness of man in the same sense in which Solomon does, Ecclesiastes 5:10; for he not only speaks of their heirs, but declares generally, that men disquiet and vex themselves with care, although they know not who shall reap the fruit of their labor in amassing riches. (71) They may indeed wish to make provision for themselves; but what madness and folly is it for them to torment themselves with incessant and unprofitable cares which have no certain object or limit? David here condemns those ardent and unbridled desires, under the influence of which worldly men are carried away, and talk in a strange manner, confounding heaven and earth; for they admit not that they are mortal, much less do they consider that their life is bounded by the narrow limits of a hand-breadth. David spoke under the influence of a distempered and troubled state of mind; but there is included in his language this very profitable lesson, that there is no remedy better fitted for enabling us to rise above all unnecessary cares, than the recollection that the brief period of our life is only, as it were, a hand-breadth.
(69) In the Hebrew it is literally, “Man walketh in an image;” a phantasm, that which seems to be something real and substantial, but which does not deserve that character, which is an appearance only. Life is a mere show; “the baseless fabric of a vision;” it has the semblance of solidity, but there is no reality in it. The word occurs again in Psalms 73:20, “Thou shalt despise their image;” their vain show, or phantastic prosperity. Walford reads, “walketh as a shadow;” observing, that “the prefix
(71) It is important to mark the difference between the Hebrew word
7.And now, O Lord! what do I wait for? David, having acknowledged that his heart had been too much under the influence of ardent and impetuous emotion, from which he had experienced great disquietude, now returns to a calm and settled state of mind; and from this what I have before stated is rendered still more obvious, namely, that this psalm consists partly of appropriate prayers and partly of inconsiderate complaints. I have said that David here begins to pray aright. It is true, that even worldly men sometimes feel in the very same way in which David here acknowledges that he felt; but the knowledge of their own vanity does not lead them so far as to seek substantial support in God. On the contrary, they rather wilfully render themselves insensible, that they may indulge undisturbed in their own vanity. We may learn from this passage, that no man looks to God for the purpose of depending upon him, and resting his hope in him, until he is made to feel his own frailty, yea, and even brought to nought. There is tacitly great force in the adverb now, as if David had said, The flattery and vain imaginations by which the minds of men are held fast in the sleep of security no longer deceive me, but I am now fully sensible of my condition. But we must go beyond this elementary stage; for it is not enough, that, being aroused by a sense of our infirmity, we should seek with fear and trembling to know our duty, unless at the same time God manifest himself to us, on whom alone all our expectation should depend. Accordingly, as it serves no end for worldly men to be convinced of their utter vanity, because, although convinced of this, they never improve by it, let us learn to press forward and make still further progress, in order that, being as it were dead, we may be quickened by God, whose peculiar office it is to create all things out of nothing; for man then ceases to be vanity, and begins to be truly something, when, aided by the power of God, he aspires to heavenly things.
8.Deliver me from all my sins. In this verse the Psalmist still continues his godly and holy prayer. He is now no longer carried away by the violence of his grief to murmur against God, but, humbly acknowledging himself guilty before God, he has recourse to his mercy. In asking to be delivered from his transgressions, he ascribes the praise of righteousness to God, while he charges upon himself the blame of all the misery which he endures; and he blames himself, not only on account of one sin, but acknowledges that he is justly chargeable with manifold transgressions. By this rule we must be guided, if we would wish to obtain an alleviation of our miseries; for, until the very source of them has been dried up, they will never cease to follow one another in rapid succession. David unquestionably wished an alleviation of his miseries, but, as he expected that, as soon as he should be reconciled to God, the chastisement of his sins would also cease, he only here asks that his sins may be forgiven him. We are thus taught by the example of David, not merely to seek deliverance from the miseries which afflict and trouble us, but to trace them to their cause and source, entreating God that he would not lay our sins to our charge, but blot out our guilt. What follows concerning the reproach or scorn of the foolish may be understood in an active as well as a passive signification, denoting, either that God would not abandon him to the mockery of the wicked, or that he would not involve him in the same disgrace to which the ungodly are given over. As, however, either of these senses will agree very well with the design of the Psalmist, I leave it to the reader to adopt the one which he prefers. Besides, the word
9.I was dumb Here David blames himself, because he had not preserved that silence which, as we have already seen, the violence of his grief forced him to break. When he says then that he was dumb, he does not mean this as a commendation of the uniform and persevering restraint which he had exercised over himself. It is rather a correction of his error, as if reproving his own impatience, he had spoken within himself in this way: What doest thou? thou hadst enjoined upon thyself silence, and now thou murmurest proudly against God; what wilt thou gain by this presumption? We have here a very profitable and instructive lesson; for nothing is better fitted to restrain the violent paroxysms of grief, than the recollection that we have to do, not with a mortal man, but with God, who will always maintain his own righteousness in opposition to all that men may say against it in their murmuring complaints, and even in their outrageous accusations. What is the reason why the great majority of men run to such excess in their impatience, but because they forget that, in doing so, they dare to plead a controversy with God? Thus, while some impute all their miseries to fortune, and others to men, and others account for them from a variety of causes which their own fancy suggests, while scarcely one in a hundred recognises in them the hand of God, they allow themselves to indulge in bitter complaint, without ever thinking that in so doing they offend God. David, on the contrary, in order to subdue every unholy desire and sinful excess, returns to God, and resolves to keep silence, because the affliction which he is now suffering proceeded from God. As David, who was thus afflicted with the severest trials, resolved nevertheless to keep silence, let us learn from this, that it is one of the chief exercises of our faith to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, and to submit to his judgments without murmuring or complaint. It is to be observed, that men humbly and calmly submit themselves to God only when they are persuaded, not only that he does by his almighty power whatever he pleases, but that he is also a righteous Judge; for although the wicked feel that the hand of God is upon them, yet as they charge him with cruelty and tyranny, they cease not to pour forth horrible blasphemies against him. In the meantime, David regards the secret judgments of God with such reverence and wonder, that, satisfied with his will alone, he considers it sinful to open his mouth to utter a single word against him.
10Take away thy stroke from me. David here confirms the prayer which he had already presented, namely, that having obtained pardon from God, he might, at the same time, be gently dealt with by him. This prayer, however, does not disturb the silence of which he had just made mention; for our desires and prayers, if they are framed according to the rule of God’s word, are not inconsiderate and noisy so as to provoke the divine displeasure against us, but proceed from the calm stillness which faith and patience produce in our hearts. It is indeed true, that when any one prays earnestly to God, he cannot fail to mix up with it his own feelings, pour forth his complaints, and manifest an extreme ardor. But we see that David, who formerly bewailed his miseries in loud lamentations, now sets himself calmly to consider and weigh what he merited, and prays for pardon. His meaning is, that God would mitigate the punishment which he had inflicted upon him. The reason immediately follows; for I have fainted by the blow of thy hand. In thus speaking, David does not allege this as an excuse to extenuate his fault, but desires that he may be borne with in his infirmity. As he says with respect to himself individually, that he is consumed, because he feels that the hand of God is against him, so he immediately states in the 11th verse the same truth in general terms, telling us, that if God should begin to deal with us according to the strict demands of the law, the consequence would be, that all would perish, and be utterly overwhelmed under his wrath. He plainly shows, first, that he is speaking not of any one man, or even of men generally, for he makes use of a Hebrew word, which denotes a man renowned for his valor, courage, or excellence; (74) and then, secondly, he says, that if God should set himself to chastise such persons, every thing which they esteem precious in themselves would consume away or be dissolved. The sum is, that among men there is no one endued with such power and glory whom the wrath of God, if it burn fiercely against him, will not forthwith bring to nothing. But it will be necessary to examine the words more minutely. David does not simply describe the dreadful character of God’s wrath; but at the same time he declares and sets forth his righteousness in all the punishments which he inflicts upon men. The judgments of God sometimes strike fear and dread into the hearts even of heathen men, but their blindness fills them with such rage, that they still continue to fight against God. By the term rebukes, David means severe punishments, such as are the tokens of strict justice and signs of divine wrath. We know that God often exercises the rod of his chastisement upon true believers, but he does it in such a manner as that in punishing them he at the same time gives them a taste of his mercy and his love, and not only tempers the chastisements with which he visits them, but also mingles them with comfort, which serves to render them much more tolerable. David, then, is not speaking in this place of fatherly chastisement, but of the punishment which God inflicts upon the reprobate, when, like an inexorable judge in the exercise of his office, he executes against them the judgment which they have merited. He tells us that when God makes this rigour to be felt, there is no man who does not forthwith consume or pine away. At first view the comparison of God to a moth may seem absurd; for what relation is there, it may be said, between a small moth-worm and the infinite majesty of God? I answer, That David has with much propriety made use of this simile, that we may know that although God does not openly thunder from heaven against the reprobate, yet his secret curse ceases not to consume them away, just as the moth, though unperceived, wastes by its secret gnawing a piece of cloth or wood. (75) At the same time, he alludes to the excellency (76) of man, which he says is destroyed as it were by corruption, when God is offended, even as the moth destroys the most precious cloths by wasting them. The Scriptures often very appropriately employ various similitudes in this Way, and are wont to apply them sometimes in one view and sometimes in another. When Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:13) compares God to a lion, he does so in reference to the feelings of his own mind, because he was so prostrated and overwhelmed with fear and terror. But in this place David teaches us, that although the world may not perceive the dreadful vengeance of God, yet it consumes the reprobate by secretly gnawing them. This sentence, that every man is vanity, is again very properly repeated; for until we are overcome by the power of God, and as it were humbled in the dust, we never search into our own hearts, that the knowledge of our own vanity may divest us of all presumption. Whence is it that men are so foolishly satisfied with themselves, yea, and even applaud themselves, unless it be that, so long as God bears with them, they are wilfully blind to their own infirmities? The only remedy, then, by which men are cured of pride is when, alarmed with a sense of God’s wrath, they begin not only to be dissatisfied with themselves, but also to humble themselves even to the dust.
(75) The meaning according to our English version seems to be, that the beauty of man is consumed as the moth is consumed. “But,” says Walford, “this gives no correct or suitable sense. The design is to state, not that the moth is consumed, but that it is a consumer or spoiler of garments.” He reads,
“With rebukes thou chastisest man for iniquity,
Then thou destroyest his goodliness as a moth
destroyeth a garment.”
This is precisely Calvin’s interpretation. The moth is called in Hebrew
(76) The original word, which Calvin renders “excellency,” is translated by Hammond “precious things;” by which he understands wealth, greatness, health, beauty, strength, and, in short, whatever is most precious to us.
12Hear my prayer, O Jehovah! David gradually increases his vehemence in prayer. He speaks first of prayer; in the second place, of crying; and in the third place, of tears This gradation is not a mere figure of rhetoric, which serves only to adorn the style, or to express the same thing in different language. This shows that David bewailed his condition sincerely, and from the bottom of his heart; and in this he has given us, by his own example, a rule for prayer. When he calls himself a stranger and a sojourner, he again shows how miserable his condition was; and he adds expressly, before God, not only because men are absent from God so long as they dwell in this world, but in the same sense in which he formerly said, My days are before thee as nothing; that is to say, God, without standing in need of any one to inform him, knows well enough that men have only a short journey to perform in this world, the end of which is soon reached, or that they remain only a short time in it, as those who are lodged in a house for pay. (78) The purport of the Psalmist’s discourse is, that God sees from heaven how miserable our condition would be, if he did not sustain us by his mercy.
13Let me alone, that I may recover strength. Literally, it is, cease from me, and therefore some explain it, Let there be a wall raised betwixt us, that thy hand may not reach me. Others read, as a supplement, the word eyes; but as to the sense, it matters little which of the expositions be adopted, for the meaning is the same, That David entreats God to grant him a little relaxation from his trouble, that he might recover strength, or, at least, enjoy a short respite, before he depart from this world. This concluding verse of the psalm relates to the disquietude and sinful emotions which he had experienced according to the flesh; for he seems in the way of complaining of God, to ask that at least time might be granted him to die, as men are wont to speak who are grievously harassed by their affliction. I admit, that he speaks in a becoming manner, in acknowledging that there is no hope of his being restored to health, until God cease to manifest his displeasure; but he errs in this, that he asks a respite, just that he may have time to die. We might, indeed, regard the prayer as allowable, by understanding it in this sense: Lord, as it will not be possible for me to endure thy stroke any longer, but I must, indeed, miserably perish, if thou continuest to afflict me severely, at least grant me relief for a little season, that in calmness and peace I may commit my soul into thy hands. But we may easily infer, from the language which he employs, that his mind was so affected with the bitterness of his grief that he could not present a prayer pure and well seasoned with the sweetness of faith; for he says, before I depart, and be no more: a form of speech which indicates the feeling almost of despair. Not that David could regard death as the entire annihilation of man, or that, renouncing all hope of his salvation, he resigned himself to destruction; but he employs this language, because he had previously been so much depressed by reason of grief, that he could not lift up his heart with so much cheerfulness as it behoved him. This is a mode of expression which is to be found more than once in the complaints of Job. It is obvious, therefore, that, although David endeavored carefully to restrain the desires of the flesh, yet these occasioned him so much disquietude and trouble, that they forced him to exceed the proper limits in his grief.
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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Psalms 39". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19