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Wednesday, October 4th, 2023
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 12

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & PsalmsHengstenberg's Commentary


Psalms 12

The Psalmist complains of the corruption of the world, especially of its prevailing faithlessness and malice, and entreats the Lord to stand by His own, to bring to nought the delusion of ungodliness that it is almighty, to which it had been led by confidence in its own deceptive worth, and, finally, to destroy supercilious iniquity, Psalms 12:1-4. The Lord answers, and promises him a sure fulfilment of his prayer, Psalms 12:5. And on this promise the Psalmist places an undoubting confidence, Psalms 12:6-8. The Psalm may be divided into two strophes of four members, the first of which contains the complaint and prayer, and the second the answer and hope.

Those who set out with the supposition that the Psalm possesses an individual character, differ from each other in regard to the precise period of David’s life to which it refers. Some understand it of Absalom’s revolt, and especially of Ahitophel; others, of the persecutions under Saul. The Psalm, however, is undoubtedly not individual, but composed from the first by David for the necessities of the Church. The Psalmist never claims help for himself: he does not say in Psalms 12:7, “Thou shalt keep me,” but, “Thou shalt keep them” the righteous. From Psalms 12:5, also, it is evident that he prays, not specially for himself, but for “the poor and needy.” For, their oppressed condition, not that of any single individual, is there assigned as the reason for the Divine interference. Finally, in Psalms 12:8, we have the contrast usually found in Psalms possessing a general character, between the wicked on the one hand, and the righteous, suffering under their oppressions, on the other.

Attempts have been made to refer this Psalm to the relations between Israel and the heathen; but the peculiar prominence given to flattery and deceit would then be without meaning, as the heathen nations acted toward the Israelites, not with cunning, but with open violence. The heathen adversaries did not say, as it is here written in Psalms 12:4, “Through our tongues we will prevail,” but through our swords. The allusion to hypocrisy and deceit is precisely the individual physiognomy of the Psalm; and circumstances which it does not suit, must, at the very outset, be regarded as excluded. The Psalm can only be referred to the internal relations of the people of God themselves, and to the great conflict existing within that community, between the righteous and the wicked.

The aim of the Psalm, which Geier rightly describes as “the common complaint of the Church of all times,” is to show, how the righteous are to behave in the sufferings which come upon them through the corruption of the world, manifesting itself even in the covenant-people, aid especially through the prevailing dishonesty and deception, the artifices of a hypocritical and flattering tongue, which appear to prepare for them certain destruction. The Church must carry this affliction up to God, and with unshaken confidence trust in His help.

On the Sheminith, see on Psalms 6.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. Help, Lord. Luther: “It sounds more impressive, when one says, Deliver, or give help, than to say, Deliver me. As one says also in our language, under circumstances of great distress, or approaching death: ‘Help, Thou compassionate God,’ looking simply to the danger, and crying out with all one’s might; so does the prophet, as one inflamed with zeal on account of the perishing condition of God’s people, cry out without any prefatory words, and implore in the most impressive manner, the help of God.” For the godly man ceases, the upright fail from among the children of men. It might seem as if the Psalmist, in common with the prophets, complains, in a general way, that piety, truth, and faith had vanished from the land, and the holy land of the Lord had been changed into a dwelling of unrighteousness,—as if the very sting of his pain were this same degeneracy of the people of God, considered in itself, and without respect to the sufferings which were thereby prepared for the righteous. In fact, several expositors, as Venema, have allowed themselves to be deceived by this appearance. But a closer examination shows, that the disappearing of the pious and upright is here brought under consideration only in so far as the righteous man was thereby placed in circumstances of difficulty, and was exposed to the attacks of the reigning impiety. The “help,” at the very outset, implies that; for that it substantially means, “help me, the righteous man,” is evident from the words, “I will set him in safety, who sighs after it” ( Psalms 12:5), which form the answer, and assure him of being heard. Then, the same thing is decidedly proved by these other words, in that verse, “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the Lord.” It is not, then, the reigning corruption in itself, but what the righteous have to suffer therefrom, that is set forth as the ground for the Divine interference. Psalms 12:7 and Psalms 12:8 also confirm this view, since they express the hope, not that God will improve or annihilate the wicked, purge His floor, but that He will preserve the righteous from that race, and raise them out of the low position to which they had been brought by their machinations.

That the expressions, “The godly man ceases,” “The upright fail,” are not to be understood very literally, that the Psalmist had only for a moment lost sight of the small beloved band of pious and faithful men, by reason of his sorrow at the wide-spread corruption, is manifest from his own words afterwards, from the mention he makes in Psalms 12:5 of “the poor and needy.” Still, the truly pious must have been only a very small flock; otherwise, the Psalmist could not have spoken, as he did, of the whole human race as of a corrupt mass. Luther: “That the prophet here speaks in such a manner as to make the matter seem greater than it was in reality, arose from his intense zeal; for there always are holy persons upon earth. In the same style, people still complain from time to time, that there is no longer any honesty among men, they act deceitfully in everything.” The ἁ?́?παξ λεγό?μενον פסס is best taken with Jarchi as synonymous with the related אפס , “to come to an end,” “to fail.” This signification agrees quite well with the parallelism with גמר . אמון =נאמן , properly, “the trustworthy.” The words, “the upright fail,” stand related to “the godly man ceases,” as the particular to the general, or as the consequence, which it is the design of the Psalm specially to consider, to the cause. Were it perfectly certain that אמוכים is an adj. or part. Pual of אמן , it would of course have to be so taken here. For, not only do the paral. words, “the pious or godly,” support it; but also the passage in Micah 7:2, “The pious is perished out of the earth, and there is none righteous among men,” where ישר corresponds to אמונים ; and the one passage so remarkably coincides with the other, that the prophet appears to have had the words of the Psalmist before him. However, as אמונים often occurs elsewhere as the plural of אֵ?מוּ?ן , fidelity, while for the adj. meaning no passage can be adduced ( Psalms 31:23, נצר אמונים must be compared with שמר אמונים in Isaiah 26:2, and be rendered “maintaining faithfulness”), we are driven to follow the example of those who, with the Vulgate, render: “Truth and faith have disappeared from among men.”

Verse 2

Ver. 2. They speak lies every one with his neighbour, with smooth lips. Instead of “lies,” Luther has improperly: “Profitless things.” In connections such as this, the word “neighbour” is not to be taken in the attenuated sense that it commonly bears with us. They refer back to the law, in which רע , “companion, fellow, friend,” alternates with “brother,” and forms, in the commands of the second table, the ratio legi adjecta. Here the words, “with his neighbour,” point to the abominableness of the conduct spoken of: those whom they deceive, whom they try to cheat through hollow assurances of friendship, are not strangers, but such as God has joined to them by close bonds. When Paul, in the exhortation, Ephesians 4:25, based on this passage, “Wherefore, putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour, for we are members one with another,” makes the ὅ?τι ἐ?σμὲ?ν ἀ?λλήλων μέλη follow upon the μετὰ? τοῦ? πλησίον αὐ?τοῦ? , he only gives a development of the same idea, but introduces no new matter. שפת חלקות , is most easily explained as the accus., just as קולי אקרא in Psalms 3:4, as to, or with lips of smoothness: comp. with this kind of accus., Ewald, Small Gr. § 512. The exposition: They speak lips of smoothness—lips, for that which is spoken by the lips, words, is opposed by Psalms 12:3, as well as by the parallel: with a double heart. A lip of smoothness is a flattering lip; comp. in Psalms 5:9, “They make their tongue smooth”—on which Luther: “Soft, cozening, and hypocritical,” Proverbs 6:24. Here he substitutes, “They act the hypocrite,” for “They flatter.” חלקות is the plural of חלקה , smoothness.

With a double heart do they speak. It is usually expounded: They speak otherwise than they think. But how this sense can be derived from the words without some addition, it is not easy to perceive. The attempts also of Venema to make a distinction: “With a double mind, the one which they express, and another which they conceal, the former bland and open the other impious and malignant;” and Umbreit: “That is, that they have one for themselves, and another for their friends,” are not without difficulties. The words, simply considered, imply a duplicity in the mind itself, just as the ἀ?νὴ?ρ δίψυχος , in James 1:8, is not one who is internally unbelieving, feigns faith, but one who is at the same time both believing and unbelieving—has faith in the surface of his heart, but in its depths, unbelief. Experience shows, that hypocrisy and flattery very rarely manifest themselves in a coarse outward shape; this would defeat their object. The hypocrite and flatterer is so dangerous, precisely because he calls forth momentarily in himself, such feelings as appear to him fitted for accomplishing his aim. He not merely feigns love, but he prepares it. Yet, while this prepared love is on the surface, the natural hatred still keeps possession of the underground of his heart. In the paral. passage also of 1 Chronicles 12:33, the words בלא לב ולב mark an internal duplicity of heart. Michaelis: “Not with a wavering and discordant, but with a firm and concordant mind.” The diversity is indicated by repeating the word; so Deuteronomy 25:13, אבן ואבן , stone and stone, a double stone, diverse weights, comp. Deuteronomy 25:14. Ewald, p. 637.

Verse 3

Ver. 3. After the complaint, the Psalmist here follows with the prayer. The Futures must be taken optatively, as was already done by the LXX. The Lord cut of all flattering lips, the tongue that speaks big—the boastful tongue. Expositors find here a difficulty, through which they have partly been drawn into very forced and false interpretations. Supercilious speeches—say they—proud words against the poor and oppressed, do not square with the design of entrapping by “smooth words.” But if we compare the following verse, we plainly see, that the proud, speeches are not to be thought of as directed against the poor; that they rather boast of their fancied almightiness, which they possess by means of their artifices, their skill in lying, hypocrisy, and flattery; so that the meaning is: The tongue, which boasts of its power to deceive. They are the same persons who in Isaiah 28:15 say, “We have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves.” That the rooting out of the lips and the tongue must be accomplished by extirpating their possessors, is shown in the following verse.

Verse 4

Ver. 4. Who thus speak—to be supplied from the preceding verse: The Lord cut off: through our tongues we are strong,—all we wish, we can accomplish through our tongue. According to some, this exposition is unsuitable, for a twofold reason—ללשננ cannot signify “through our tongue;” and the verb has not in Hiph. an intransitive signification; it rather means corroboravit. We must hence translate: Our tongues will we endow with strength; we will so arm them with lies and calumnies, that no one will be in a condition to resist us. Still, however, the reasons against the first exposition are not decisive ללשננו only needs to be rendered, “ in respect to our tongue;” and הגביר may warrantably be taken in the sense of “acting vigorously,” the more readily, as the assertion, that it can only mean “to strengthen,” rests merely upon the single passage of Daniel 9:27, where it is connected, not as here with ל but with the accusative. This exposition also is favoured by the connection and the parallelism. Not the purpose: “we will get strength for our tongues,” but only the declaration: “through our tongues we show ourselves to be strong,” suits the words, “the tongue which speaks big,” and especially “ our lips are with us, who is Lord over us?” the second member of the verse. On the expression with us, J. H. Michaelis: nobis auxilio et praesto sent; and on the expression, “who is Lord over us?” qui impecliat, quod nobis placet et decretum fuit. Our lips impart to us such a power, that we can do what we will—by means of our lips we are omnipotent.

Verse 5

Ver. 5. The Lord answers the complaint and prayer of the righteous, and promises to repress the violence. Because of the desolation of the poor, because of the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the Lord. מן is the מן causae, marking the motion from out of a thing. The misery of the poor is that from which the Divine action proceeds as from its immediate cause; comp. Ewald, p. 601. עתה is used with peculiar emphasis. Till now, says the Lord, I have rested; but now I must act. At the foundation of this lies the consolatory truth, that so soon as the malice of the wicked, and the wretchedness of the poor, has reached a certain point, God must interpose. The last member is literally: place will I in safety him who sighs after it. The constr. of שית with ב is to be explained in this way, that safety is here considered as a possession, in which God instals the righteous. Till now he had been in distress, now God sets him in safety. Rightly already Calvin: “To the unjustly oppressed God promises a restitutio in integrum.” The words contain the answer to the “help,” at the commencement. The suff. in לו refers to the deliverance. The pron. relat. is awanting from the originally looser connection, which latterly is also very common in poetry; comp. Ewald, p. 646. פוח signifies in Hiph. to pant, to long earnestly for something; the object after which one does sigh, is connected with it by ל , as in Habakkuk 2:3, יפח לקץ anhelat ad finem oraculum, in parallelism with: there is no delay. In a similar way is שאף used, prop. anhelare, not unfrequently of vehement longings and sighings. Therefore: I shall conduct him to a state of safety, who longs for it, viz. safety. According to this exposition, the second member is quite parallel to the first. On account of the sighing of the needy will I now arise. Others expound: I set him in safety against whom they, or the impious, snort. But this exposition is to be rejected on the simple ground, that the verb פוח in Hiph. is never used in the sense of puffing. And besides, the puffing is here not at all suitable. The wicked in the Psalm are not scornful tyrants, but sleek hypocrites and flatterers. The exposition of Gesell. in his Thes.: quem sufflant, contemnunt, is also to be rejected. We already showed on Psalms 10:4, that blowing is never used as a gesture of contempt. Others again, as Calvin and Dereser, expound: I set in security him, who is blown upon, whom the ungodly thinks to blow away like chaff. But we should then have expected not לו , but rather, as in Psalms 10:4, בו . Contrary to usage also is the exposition of Schultens, which takes הפיח in the sense of breathing upon: it (the deliverance), or he must breath on himself, i.e. recover strength. The word, however, never occurs in this signification; and by that exposition, אשית would lose its object, which cannot fail.

Verse 6

Ver. 6. The righteous places firm confidence in this promise of the Lord. For: the words of the Lord (“the words of the Lord” here refer to “thus saith the Lord,” in Psalms 12:5) are pure words; they are throughout true, have no mixture of false in them; they are not like impure ore, from which dross and earth must first be removed, but they are purified silver of a lord of the earth, purified seven times. The ב in בעליל we take, with Aben Ezra and Kimchi, as radical, and בעליל as synonymous with בעל dominus, with a reduplication of the last radical letter, as is done in סגריר , חכליל , שפריר , עבטיט ; comp. Ewald, Small Gr. § 332. לארץ is a periphrasis of the stat, constr., placed thus not without reason, as the Psalmist wished to say “of a lord,” while חארץ ´ב would have implied “of the lord of the earth;” comp. Ewald, p. 582. It is remarked by Gesenius in his Thes., p. 730, that “ל stands occasionally after nouns, which signify lord, king, god, and, on the other hand, servant, minister, especially when the noun is used quite indefinitely,” as the ל after אדון Genesis 45:8-9, and after מלךְ? , Isaiah 37:13, and אדינ לנו in the present Psalm. Kings and judges of the earth not unfrequently occur in the Psalms; comp. Psalms 2:1, Psalms 2:9, Psalms 138:4; Psalms 148:11. The meaning, according to this sense, is well given by Vatable: “The word of the Lord is like the purest silver, which is diligently and with the greatest care purged from all dross, not for common use, but for the use of an earthly prince.” The striking parallel is not to be overlooked, which arises out of this explanation: the word of the Lord of the whole world is pure as the silver of a prince of the earth; it is related to an ordinary word as this silver is to common silver. A great mass of wrong expositions have been occasioned by the belief, that ב was to be taken as a servile. Of these expositions we shall examine only those which are now the most current. Rosenm., Gesen., Winer, and Hitzig expound: “Silver purified in the workshop, in respect to earth, or earthy ingredients.” This exposition is objectionable on two grounds. The meaning ascribed to עליל , workshop, is a pure invention. The idea of working does lie in the root עלל , as the derivative עלילה and others show, but still עליל cannot, from its form, signify a workshop. The form קטיל is that of adjectives, partly with a passive, partly with an intransitive signification; comp. Ewald, p. 234; and that we must attribute this signification also to עליל , is clear from the frequently occurring fem. עלילה , “that which is worked, done,” then, “the work, the deed.” This first ground may be urged also against another exposition (that of Luther, recently Maurer), according to which עליל , without any apparent justification from Hebrew usage—merely upon the authority of Rabbins, guessing from the context, or on the basis of an etymological combination (Hupfeld)—is taken in the sense of crucible. But the second reason is still more decisive. לארץ cannot possibly signify “in reference to earthy elements,” for ארץ never denotes the earth as matter. For this the Hebrews have a special word, אדמה ; for example, “man is of the earth,” taken ex humo, could not be expressed by מן הארץ , but only by מן האדמה . This difficulty Umbreit escapes by rendering: “in the workshop upon earth.” But he still has the first standing against him. He succeeds better, however, with לארץ than the defenders of the exposition, “in a crucible,” who render the words: “upon the earth, into which the crucible is built,”—for that were quite useless and confusing—or even: “of earth, earthy” (Luther). The same may be said against this last, as well as that it is contrary to usage. Others, as Michaelis and Dereser, expound: “as silver purified in a workshop of earth,—as solid silver, which has been found in the mountains, the workshop of earth.” But against this is to be advanced, not only the inadmissibility of the explanation of עליל by workshop, but also, that then the two nouns ought to have been connected by the stat. constr., and not by ל . For the workshop of earth would in that case have been defined by its contrast with a human workshop. Besides, one does not see how solid silver, which has never been purified, can be called צרוף .

The comparison of the word of God with purified metal is peculiar to David, and occurs again in Psalms 18:30. Calvin: “Though such knowledge may appear, at first sight, easy of attainment, yet if any one will consider, more attentively, how prone the minds of men are to distrust and impious doubts, he will readily understand how profitable it is to have our faith strengthened by the testimony, that God is not fallacious, and does not beguile us with empty words, nor unduly laud His own power and goodness, but that He simply offers in His word, what, in reality, He is willing to bestow. There is no one, indeed, who does not profess heartily to believe what David here says, that the words of God are pure; but those who, in ease and retirement, extol the word of God loudly, when matters come to serious conflict, though they dare not openly spout out blasphemies against God, yet often charge Him with bad faith. For whenever He delays to help us; we consider His fidelity at fault, and forthwith begin to cry out, as if we had been defrauded.” Luther remarks: “It is not necessary, by God’s words, to understand only such as are taken from Scripture into the mouth; but also what God speaks through men, whatsoever it may be, and whether the speaker be learned or unlearned; also what He spake through His apostles, apart from the use of Scripture, and what He still speaks from day to day, through His own people.” In general this is quite correct. The praise of God’s word is here, indeed, immediately occasioned by an inward oracle, which the righteous received, and which was designed to serve the purpose of leading him to grasp with firm faith the substance thereof, which should be again repeated for every one that reads the Psalm. We must, therefore, comprehend under the words of God those also of which Paul Gerhard sings: “His Spirit often speaks to my spirit in sweet consoling strains,” etc. It is not, however, to be forgotten, that these internal speeches, now that Scripture exists, always rest upon its foundation, as here the word of the Lord, in Psalms 12:5, is only a special application of the promises of the law to the righteous.

Verse 7

Ver. 7. Thou, O Lord, shalt keep them,

Thy people suffering wrongfully.

Luther, incorrectly: “Be pleased to keep them.” The context demands the expression of firm hope, not of a wish.

Thou shalt preserve him against this generation for ever. The singular suffix in the second clause is to be explained as a personification. In order to mark the contrast more pointedly between the pious and the ungodly, and to indicate that it is not one between certain individuals and certain others, “the pious man” is often set in opposition to “the ungodly man,” the righteous to the wicked; the former as the object of Divine care, the latter as the object of Divine punishment. The מן הדור זו is not, “from this sort of men,” but “from this generation.” Calvin: “We collect from this, that the age was so corrupt, that David could, by way of reproach, throw them all together, as it were, into one bundle.” This exposition has the common usage on its side, and perfectly agrees with the general spread of corruption, described in Psalms 12:1. It affords a far grander contrast than the other:—on the one side, the small band of pious men, and, on the other, the immense mass of the ungodly, who form, as it were, the whole present generation, the bearers of the spirit of the age. This is a contrast which arises out of the character of human nature, and has given rise to the prevailing use in the New Testament of κόσμος , in opposition to the chosen. The signification of κόσμος , Koester would here attribute to עזלם . He renders: “Thou wilt keep them from the generation which lives to the world.” But the word never has that signification; it never means the world, but always eternity; and לעולם is always used adverbially, for ever.

Verse 8

Ver. 8. The wicked walk round about,—they have encompassed the righteous on all hands, so that, without God’s help, deliverance is impossible; comp. Psalms 3:6. As elevation is depression to the sons of men; i.e. although now the righteous are overborne by the wicked, yet their distress is to be regarded in the light of prosperity, because God forsakes not His own, but will richly recompense them for the sufferings they have endured. The sense requires that a but should be inserted before the second member. רם , “elevation,” is inf. nominascens. The meaning of זלות , which occurs only here, cannot be doubtful. זלל has the same, and only one, meaning in all the Semitic dialects. In the Chal., according to Buxtorf, it signifies, vilescere, vilipendi, despici, ut Hebr. קלה et קלל quibus quandoque respondet. In Arabic, [Note: Arabic not reproduced

ED.] abjectus, vilis, despectus fuit. In Hebr. זוֹ?לֵ?ל , “the little-worth,” stands opposed in Jeremiah 15:19 to רקר , “the precious the same word denotes, in Deut. 21:28, etc., a man of manners. The Niph. of the verb occurs in Isaiah 64:2, in the sense of “to be lowered, despised.” So that זלות can signify nothing else than “humiliation, contempt,” just as the Chald. זלותא , vilitas, despectus. This signification, as it is the only one philologically grounded, so it is specially recommended by the contrast with רם , which is perfectly obvious, and which all other expositions leave unnoticed. The sense of terror, which Gesenius and Hitzig give to the word, is unproved and unsuitable. Still more so is that of storm, which Maurer adopts. The greater part of expositors follow Kimchi in their explanation of this hemistich, who thinks that כרם is put for כרמם ; it is then rendered: “as they exalt themselves, it is a reproach to the children of men.” But this exposition cannot be at all grammatically justified, since for such an omission of the suffix, no analogous example can anywhere be produced. In addition to this, the repetition of the complaint, of the power of the ungodly, without any mention being made of hope in the Lord’s assistance, to which the righteous looks for consolation, would here be unsuitable: the conclusion would be quite an unsatisfactory one, such as one should be compelled to wish away. The same reason decides also against the exposition of J. H. Michaelis and Umbreit: “When disgrace exalts itself among men;” and against that also of Ewald, which is of like import: “So soon as baseness exalts itself;” and it is further to be objected to the latter, that זלות cannot signify baseness, and that רום does not mean “to exalt itself, or to rise,” but “to be high,”—which latter difficulty is avoided by Luther, though he follows the same exposition, by rendering: “Where such wicked people reign among men.” According to our exposition, the conclusion of the Psalm gathers up, in a short enigmatic saying, the substance of the whole of it. The depth to which the righteous have sunk, through the hostilities of the wicked, is equivalent to an elevation. For, as sure as there is a God in heaven, their suffering is a prediction of their joy, their contempt of their honour. So that they may quietly look on at all the machinations of malice.

Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 12". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-12.html.
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