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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 36

Psalms 36

IN the conflict, which is so apt to arise against the people of God from the depth and magnitude of human corruption, the Psalmist addresses himself, “Be thou at peace, and rest in the God of thy life.” After a superscription, which indicates, that he speaks not from himself and for himself, but in the name and service of God, and consequently for the church, he first describes in Psalms 36:1-4, the conflict, as one that seems to prepare hopeless destruction for the righteous, and fills him with painful solicitude. He paints in strong features the intensity of human corruption. The heart of the wicked is free from all fear of God, and every thought of the avenging righteousness of God is choked. Hence, the words of his mouth are wickedness and deceit, and in his actions he gives scope to himself in every thing: nothing is too bad for him. This representation of the necessity and the danger is followed in Psalms 36:5-9, by a representation of the consolation. God with his inexhaustible fulness of love, faithfulness, and righteousness, appears in opposition to man and his wickedness. This line of reflection is followed in Psalms 36:10-12, by the prayer and the expression of confidence in its fulfilment: God’s love and righteousness can and will unfold themselves in his dealings towards his own, in the support he administers to them, and the overthrow he brings upon the wicked.

If we draw the superscription into the compass of the Psalm for which we have here an especial ground, the meditative part will complete itself in the number ten, which again falls into two fives. The prayer and confidence rising on the ground of the Mosaic blessing, is ruled by the number three.

The Psalm is as to its subject nearly allied to Psalms 11 and Psalms 14 and between it and the latter there is a close resemblance even verbally in the introductions. We are not to think of any particular occasion. The Psalmist speaks for the fearers of God, and in their name. Already does Luther remark in his summaries: this is a didactic Psalm.

In the superscription: To the chief musician, of time servant of the Lord, David, the designation of “servant of the Lord” is the more deserving of notice, as it occurs only once in the superscriptions besides, in Psalms 18 where it bears a manifest reference to the subject, and as it stands in unquestionable connection with the beginning of the Psalm. Like the corresponding words in 2 Samuel 23:1 “The man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob,” it points to the dignity of the person in so far as in that was given a security for the importance of the word: the servant of the Lord speaks not his own word, but God’s, not of his own will, but as moved by the Holy Spirit, 2 Peter 1:21. “The spirit of the Lord spake through him, and his word was upon his tongue,” 2 Samuel 23:2. The suggestion of impiety in the wicked, that God is nothing upon earth, is met by the suggestion of God in his servant, that God is every thing upon earth.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. “ The oracle of transgression to me, the wicked within my heart;” there is no fear of God before his eyes. In the first member the Psalmist introduces the wicked as speaking. He would express the thought, that the wicked listens to the suggestions of sin as words of God. This thought he clothes in such a manner, that, by an ironical imitation of the introductory words in the writings of the prophets, in particular Balaam’s in Numbers 24:3, to which he also referred in 2 Samuel 23:1, he makes the ungodly bring in a decree of his God, of wickedness. There should properly have followed the divine sentence, according to Psalms 14:1; “There is no God;” or Psalms 10:11. “God hath forgotten, he hideth his face, he will never see.” But here the Psalmist leaves the reader to supply the substance of the speech from the second member; he seeks only to have it first distinctly impressed, that the wicked regards as oracles the suggestions of sin, what it dictates in regard to religion. נאם signifies, not a word in general, but a divine word, an oracle. פשע occupies here the place of Jehovah. The expression: to the wicked, corresponds to: of the servant of God, as the Psalmist had just designated himself; or to: the hearer of the divine word, etc. in Balaam. Here, as the prophets in their introductions, as Balaam and as David both here and in 2 Samuel 18:1, the wicked speaks of himself in the third person; while presently the Psalmist speaks in the first: within my heart, as also Balaam, and David in 2 Samuel 18. But there is no difficulty in this; for: to the wicked, is in substance the same as: to me, the wicked. By this remark the quite erroneous reference of the expression: within my heart, to the Psalmist, is set aside; against which also the parallel passage in Psalms 14:1. “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,” and the similar expressions in Psalms 10:6; Psalms 10:11, are decisive. We thus also cut off all temptation to read לבו his heart, instead of לבי , by which, indeed, nothing is gained; for there is then found no indication of the wicked being introduced here as speaking, which is still plainly needed. After the example of Luther, who renders: it is spoken from the bottom of my heart of the ungodly, the meaning of this first member is entirely misapprehended by many expositors, for ex. by De Wette: A speech of the wickedness of transgression is to me in the heart. This exposition discovers itself to be false, in whatever direction we look. Its condemnation is already pronounced in De Wette’s own remark: “The first half of the verse is a kind of announcement, though only of a part of the subject, and by a deficiency in the parallelism the second half passes on immediately to the subject.” The real subject of the Psalm is not, “the wickedness of transgression,” but, “If God is thy friend and thy cause, what can thine enemy, man, do of any consequence?” It is precisely in the first part, in which the Psalmist merely represents, what passes before his eyes, and what might easily be discerned without any divine revelation, that the נאם is not suitable. The parallelism is by this exposition completely destroyed, and the expression: there is no fear of God before his eyes, has a bald appearance, considered as a commencement, and sounds feeble. Further, this exposition takes פשע as the object of the speech: Speech of transgression. But the genitive, which follows the very frequently occurring נאם without exception marks always the speaker, and, indeed, for the most part, the heavenly author of the declaration, the human only in Numbers 24:3, Proverbs 30:1, and 2 Samuel 23:1, which leans upon this. This reason of itself is perfectly decisive. In Isaiah 5:1, also, in the phrase שירת דודי , to which De Wette refers as analogous, the genitive is that of the author; not concerning my beloved, but of my beloved; the song, which is consecrated to the beloved, which is sung to his honour, which has himself, speaking through the mouth of his prophet, for its author. Then, the exposition ungrammatically takes לר שע as a circumlocution for the genitive, which can only be put in this way, when the stat. constr. is inadmissible, as it would be here, if the meaning were: a transgression of the wicked, but which would not be suitable, comp. Ew. Small Gr. § 517. The expression: in the midst of my heart, which is full of meaning in our exposition: in the inmost depth of the wicked, utters forth transgression its oracle, becomes by this exposition quite flat and insignificant, and is never found in such a connection. It is torn away from the already quoted parallel pass. Psalms 14:1, etc., which so obviously correspond, also torn from the eyes here, in Psalms 36:1 and Psalms 36:2, and from the mouth in Psalms 36:3. Finally, this exposition leaves entirely out of view the manifest reference to the superscription of the prophecies, and the parallel passage 2 Samuel 23:1, as also the reference to the superscription here. The oracle of sin to the wicked stands opposed to the oracle of Jehovah to the servant of Jehovah, David, as it is communicated in this Psalm. It is hoped this lengthened statement of objections against the current exposition may serve the purpose of entirely disposing of it, the more so, as the faults hitherto cleaving to the others are removed by our interpretation. Whenever we perceive the fundamental idea of the first member, and view it apart from the clothing under which it is presented, there is seen to be a perfect parallel between the first and the second; the heart of the wicked is full of the God-denying suggestions of sin, before his eyes is no fear of God, q. d. the fear of God is not that, on which he directs his eye in his transactions, or by which he is moved in them, comp. Psalms 26:3.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. For he flatters himself in his eyes in reference to the finding of his sin, the hating. The ground is here given, on account of which the fear of God exercises no determinate influence upon the actions of the wicked. He seeks through all sorts of illusions to stifle the conviction, that God’s avenging righteousness will punish his impiety. החליק , prop. to make smooth, elsewhere with the accus.: his tongue, or his words, to flatter, comp. on Psalms 5:9; here, as in Proverbs 29:5, in the sense of acting smoothly, blanditiis uti , with אל of the person against whom the smooth acting is directed, who is flattered, as in the passage referred to in Prov., where the injurious, destructive nature of the action was to be marked, with על . The self-flatteries, in which the wicked indulges, cannot have respect properly to his moral condition; for, as Sachs justly remarks, though with a wrong application, “it is not the wicked as he falsely represents himself, the would-be-holy, that is here designated, but the palpably wicked.” They have respect rather to his might and prudence, to his skill in sinning, by virtue of which he succeeds in every effort, and believes himself to be beyond the vengeance of an angry God. He says with the ungodly in Isaiah, Isaiah 28:15, “We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement, when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us; for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves.” The expression: in his eyes, refers to the other: before his eyes. Because he flatters himself in his eyes, through the arts of flattery and self-delusion builds himself up in a feeling of security, there is no fear of God before his eyes. The last words point to the sphere, within which the self-delusion and flattery are practised, and what on this account he looks away from. In reference to the finding of his sin, the hating, means as much as, that God will not find his sins hateful, will not punish them. The form of expression מצא עון is to be explained from Genesis 44:16, where the sons of Jacob, after the cup was found in the mouth of Benjamin’s sack, say, “God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants.” According to this God finds out iniquity, when he visits and punishes it. The hating is here added to mark more definitely the quality of the finding, and so, to remove all dubiety. The correct view would not have been so often missed in expositions of this verse, if more regard had been paid to the fundamental passage, Deuteronomy 29:19, where it is said of the wicked, “And it cometh to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of my heart;” and also the parallel passages in the Psalms themselves, such as Psalms 10:6. Among those who concur with us in the reference of אליו to the evil-doer, several expound: in order to accomplish his sin, in order to hate, “in order through his transgression to gratify his hatred toward God, or man.” So Luther: “that they may further their evil cause, and slander others.” But מצא עון never occurs so; with the hating we miss the object, and to hate cannot stand for, to gratify hatred. Others expound: in consideration of the finding of his guilt, and the hating, q. d. he is so entangled in self-deceit, that he has not attained to the recognition of his sinfulness, and, therefore, he cannot hate and renounce it. But it is against this, that מצא עון never signifies: to come to the knowledge of sin; and still more, that through this exposition the whole character of the wicked, as he is represented in this Psalm, is misapprehended: We have here to do with a bold sinner, who is not concerned about finding fig leaves for his sins. Most refer the suff. in אליו to God: Koester: “for he flatters him with his eyes, hence he discovers his guilt, hates it;” Tholuck: “for they flatter God according to their view, in order to commit the more securely their evil deeds, and to give loose the reins to their hatred.” But the character of the wicked is still by this construction grossly misconceived; with the words: in his eyes, we are by it manifestly embarrassed; Tholuck’s mode of viewing the last word has already been disposed of, and that of Koester steps over into the second strophe from the first, and slaps the temptation upon the mouth before it has been put in words. In such a case we must cry out with Job, violence!

Verse 3

Ver. 3. The words of his mouth are wickedness and deceit, he ceases to act wisely, to do good. The ceasing is to be explained from a silent contrast: instead of ceasing, as he ought, to sin, comp. חדלו הרע in Isaiah 1:16. השכיל signifies to act prudently, reasonably, comp. on Psalms 14:2, and להיטיב is not subordinate to it, but co-ordinate, just as in Psalms 36:2, the second inf. with ל to the first.

Verse 4

Ver. 4. He thinks of mischief upon his bed, he sets himself in a way not good, he does not eschew evil. The phrase: on his bed, points to the strength of the evil inclination. The passion so rages in him, that it deprives him of sleep. How may it overreach helpless innocence? The apparently weak expression: a way not good, and: he does not eschew evil, derive their strength from their silent contrast to that, which the ungodly should do according to the law of God.

From the wicked, and what the righteous has to dread at his hands, the Psalmist now turns to the consideration of this: And now what have I to trust to? My hope is in thee, the Lord, he brings out, Psalms 36:2-9, suddenly and in immediate contrast, with that also, which the righteous has to expect from him. Calvin: “although a gloomy and frightful confusion shelved itself, which, like a vast abyss, was ready to swallow up the pious, David was still firmly convinced that the world is full of God’s goodness and righteousness, and that heaven and earth are governed by him.”

Verse 5

Ver. 5. Lord, in the heaven reaches thy goodness, thy faithfulness even to the clouds. בהשמים can only signify: in the heaven; and the current exposition up to the heaven, is to be rejected as arbitrary. But the expression: in the heaven, which imports: even still in heaven, comprehends and pre-supposes what is in the other, compare Psalms 57:10, “For thy mercy is great unto the heavens, and thy truth unto the clouds.” In the whole representation, the pillar of fire and smoke, emblem of the divine glory, rises from earth to heaven, so that the expression: in heaven, is only suitable when it comprehends: to the heaven. Quite naturally. For the Psalmist places the image of consolation against the image of terror on its own territory. Upon the earth rages the malice of the ungodly, the righteous are alarmed; in opposition to the loftiness which strives in vain to reach to heaven, (compare Genesis 11:4, “whose top may be in heaven,” and Psalms 73:9, “They set their mouth in heaven,”) the Psalmist puts the divine glory, which, giant-like, truly reaches from earth to heaven, so that man hopeless must yield to the might of God. The love and the faithfulness of God are specially named, as the properties which secure help to his people. Their greatness is regarded by the Psalmist as an impenetrable shield against all attacks even from the most intense and powerful malice. Jo. Arnd: “In all tribulations, let them be ever so high, so deep, so broad and long, God’s truth and grace are still greater and higher.”

Verse 6

Ver. 6. Thy righteousness is like mountains of God, thy judgments are a great flood, man and beast thou helpest, O Lord. With the love and faithfulness he here connects the righteousness of God. This comes here, as appears from the parallelism, not properly as it involves faithfulness in promising, so that צדקה would be substantially=אמונה , but as the property which disposes God to recompense to every one according to his works, to give salvation to the righteous, to suspend misery over the wicked. If God is infinitely righteous, the upright may be of good courage, but the wicked should tremble, and the greater their wickedness, the more certain is their destruction. Not a few regard the divine righteousness as compared to the mountains, on account of their firmness. So Luther: it stands as the mountains of God. Jo. Arnd: “It stands firm as the mountains of God, i.e. immoveable, strong, invincible, as the Lord God has made the world fast with mountains, so that no potentate has power to lift up the mighty mountains, and put others in their place. Even so, it is not possible to overthrow God’s righteousness, it will assuredly exercise itself upon all men, when God judges the earth in righteousness.” But, looking at the parallel members, we would rather take the point of comparison to be their greatness and height. The mountains of God are certainly the highest mountains, not such, however, simply and alone, but in so far as they proclaim God’s creative power. Although all nature has been made by God, yet that is pre-eminently attributed to him, which, elevated by its greatness and glory above all that resembles it, especially calls forth the thoughts of his glory. So in Psalms 80:10, the cedars, as kings among the trees, are called cedars of God, ( Genesis 13:10 does not belong to this; for the discourse there is not of a garden of God, but of the garden of Jehovah, the paradise Which had been planted by the Lord, and according to Genesis 2:10, richly watered.) Here, “as the mountains of God,” is plainly spoken with special emphasis: the object compared contains at the same time a pledge of the truth of what is likened to it. Of the righteousness of him who made the highest mountains, we must entertain no earthly and human thoughts. They would rise as witnesses against us, if we did so. Judgments, the judicial transactions, by which God brings to nought the evil and assists the good, are the offspring of the divine righteousness. Jo. Arnd: “Such judgments of God are always. being exercised upon the earth, if the matter is thoughtfully considered.” According to many expositors, it is the incomprehensible and unfathomable nature of the divine judgments which is indicated. But the words cannot bear this sense. For תהום never signifies abyss, deep, but always flood, and the context imperatively requires the idea of immeasureableness. Against the flood of human wickedness stands the great flood, the wide ocean, (of this תהום רבה is used in Genesis 7:11, the only other place where it occurs,) of the divine judgments. In the last words: man and beast thou deliverest, O Lord, the Psalmist turns back to the divine love, with the representation of which he began, and the celebration of which he continues till Psalms 36:9. On the “man” an unseasonable comparison is often made with Matthew 5:45, with the remark, “just and unjust.” The contrast here is the general one of man and beast; but if the Psalmist had wished to give a closer description of the men who enjoy the divine help and deliverance, he would have, according to Psalms 36:10, named them as the upright, and such as know God. God’s goodness towards the bad, which should move them to repentance, is excluded by the connection. It is such goodness only as might afford consolation in consequence of the troubles arising out of the ascendancy of the wicked upon the earth. With what design the beast is here named may be understood from the saying of our Lord, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” Jo. Arnd: God seeks to console us by this, and to strengthen our faith, seeing he much more cares for us.” The somewhat singular expression: Thou deliverest, makes it probable that the Psalmist alludes to the great proof of God’s preserving love in the deluge, in which, besides Noah, the whole animal creation was delivered, an allusion which is the more probable, as in Psalms 29:10; Psalms 32:6, there is also reference made to the deluge, as תהום רבה points to that event, in which the judgments of God appeared as literally a great flood, and as another reference is found to Genesis in Psalms 36:8.

Verse 7

Ver. 7. How glorious is thy goodness, O God, and children of men trust in the shadow of thy wings. יקר prop. precious. John Arnd: “David rejoices in the goodness and grace of God, and compares them to a noble, precious, and costly treasure.” The general name of God stands here, because it is the contrast between God and man that is expressed. God and man, what a distance! How great and glorious must the divine love be; which fills up the infinite gulph between the two, and provides that the weak and wretched mortal be the object of God’s protection and tender care! comp. Psalms 8. The confiding trust comes here into consideration in so far as God affords ground and warrant for it. That the children of men were to confide in God, was only meant to be brought out in a general way. The species in the genus, who are not more definitely pointed out here, are the righteous. חסה with ב always signifies: to trust in, to take refuge under. Because the shadow yields defence from the heat, it not unfrequently stands as a figurative description of protection. The image of wings, only indicated here, is given at length in Deuteronomy 32:11, and Matthew 23:37.

Verse 8

Ver. 8. They drink of the fatness of thy house, and with the river of thy pleasures thou givest them drink. It is here still farther brought out, what the divine goodness provides for the servants of God, notwithstanding all the machinations of the wicked. The riches of the divine grace and beneficence are represented in both members under the image of a copious drink, with which it supplies them. For that this grace is not exhibited in the first clause of the verse, under the image of food, with which he satisfies them, is manifest from רוה , prop. are moistened, comp. Psalms 23:5. The fat must accordingly be taken as a figurative designation of the glorious gifts of God; Vulgate: ab ubertate domus tuae, Luther, “of the rich goods of thy house,” far more correctly than our recent expositors, who quite prosaically remark, that the fat is here spoken of as fit for drinking, rather than eating. The house of God is here neither, as several absurdly expound, the world, which is never so named, nor is it, as others suppose, a mere image of a divine storehouse, but it is here, as everywhere else, the national. sanctuary, the tabernacle of meeting, in which the servants of the Lord spiritually dwell with him, and where they are tenderly cared for by him as the good householder. Comp. on Psalms 15:1; Psalms 23:6; Psalms 24:3; Psalms 27:4-5; Psalms 65:4. Michaelis, correctly as to the sense: ecclesiae tuae. For the house of God was the image of the church. To it belong the treasures of salvation, of which God makes his people to partake.

In the second member there seems to be a reference to Genesis 2:10, “And a river went out from Eden (delight) to water the garden,” which is also alluded to in John 4:18; Ezekiel 47; Zechariah 14:8—passages in which the thought, the whole earth shall partake of the blessings of the kingdom of God, is represented under the image of a stream, which, issuing from Jerusalem, refreshes the dry and barren region around. Comp. Christol. P. II. p. 367. In the stream, which of old watered the garden of Eden for the good of man, the Psalmist saw the type of that stream of bliss, with which God’s love never ceases to refresh his people.

Verse 9

Ver. 9. For with thee is the fountain of life, in thy light we see light. The verse confirms the subject of the preceding one, and traces it up to its source. God is the fountain of life: in him has essential life, and whatever properly deserves this name, (comp. on the חיים on Psalms 16:11,) has its origin, as already in Deuteronomy 30:20, it was said of God to Israel, “He is thy life:” whosoever does not draw it from him, the one source of life, he is destitute of it, notwithstanding all the means which he may possess for his preservation and support; on the other hand, whoever has this fountain at command, the malice of the whole world cannot take life away from him; he will be kept in life, and will drink with satisfaction in the presence of his enemies, Psalms 23:5. Light is here as commonly (comp. on Psalms 27:1) a figurative designation of salvation; the expression, “in thy light we see light,” simply means: through thy salvation we see salvation. Since salvation is only from God, the world can never bestow it by any means which it has at command; neither can it take this away, and in the face even of the greatest evils the righteous can say: If God is for me, it matters not who are against me. Although the words are verified also upon the spiritual territory, we must primarily, as in Job 29:3, think of an external salvation. This appears from the context, according to which, the discourse can only be of such things as were feared in consequence of human malice, also from the parallelism with the life, and the comp. with Psalms 36:11. Those, who by the light understand the light of knowledge, violently detach the words from the connection, and destroy the structure of the Psalm.

The Psalmist has hitherto considered in a general way, human malice, and what the righteous have in their God. Now he comes more closely to the distress and assault, which had occasioned this general meditation. He brings the two sides of the contrast, which till now he had simply placed over against one another, into immediate contact and conflict with each other, entreats God that he would unfold his love and righteousness in his dealings with his own, and especially with him, and would deliver him from the wicked. At the close, he sees, in spirit, this prayer fulfilled, the wicked annihilated.

Verse 10

Ver. 10. Continue thy goodness to those who know thee, and thy righteousness to the upright. משךְ? , to draw, to draw into length, to prolong. With God there is never a new beginning, but only a continuation; if he continues to act as he has done, he helps us. The knowledge of God has love to him, and life in him, for its foundation. The true and essential knowledge of God is to be found only in a sanctified state of mind, the gift of God. Comp. 1 Samuel 2:12; Jeremiah 22:16; Titus 1:16; 1 John 2:3; 1 John 4:8. The righteousness of God here also stands in no special reference to covenant faithfulness, but is to be understood as exercised in so far as he gives to any one what is his, see on Psalms 36:5. On the upright see on Psalms 33:1.

Verse 11

Ver. 11. Let not the foot of pride tread me, and the hand of the wicked pursue me not. The foot comes upon any one, for: he will be trodden down, violently overborne and oppressed. The proud appear as personified pride. That we must not to the words: let not the hand of the wicked make me flee, supply: out of my land—that it is rather to be regarded as meaning: let me not quit the field before him, be obliged to retire into the distance, as David had to do in the times of Saul and Absalom, (comp. Psalms 11:1,) is manifest from the parallelism and the contrast in Psalms 36:12. The Psalmist sees there the enemies lying helpless, and prostrate, on the very spot where they had thought to vanquish him, and put him to flight.

Verse 12

Ver. 12. There are the workers of iniquity fallen, they are cast down and are not able to arise. The Psalmist obtains from the Lord all answer, and in spirit sees his enemies already overthrown. שם always means there; never then, comp. on Psalms 14:5. The right view was already perceived by Calvin: “While the ungodly are puffed up by their prosperity, the world applauds them. But David, looking as from the lofty watch-tower of faith, descries from afar their destruction, and speaks of it with as much confidence as if it were close at hand.” For the last words see on Psalms 18:38, and Proverbs 24:10, “A just Man falleth seven times, and riseth up again, but the wicked are destroyed by adversity.”

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Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 36". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms.