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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 41

Psalms 41

HE, who shows tender compassion to the unfortunate, wins for himself thereby the divine blessing, deliverance, when misfortune overtakes him, preservation from the rage of his enemies, restoration when he has been brought by grief to the bed of sickness, Psalms 41:1-3. The Psalmist, who always has a heart full of compassion, finds himself in a position, which occasions and justifies him in laying claim to the reward appointed to the love of compassion. He finds himself in misfortune, and malicious enemies surround him, who anxiously wish for his destruction, and seek with all their powers to accomplish it, Psalms 41:4-9. So that he turns himself to the Lord with a prayer for help, and, consoled by the assurance thereof, gives utterance at the close to his joyful expectations concerning it, Psalms 41:10-12.

The formal arrangement is the same as in Psalms 2. The whole is completed in the number twelve, and falls into four strophes, each of three verses.

According to the current supposition, the sufferer in the Psalm must have been in violent sickness. But there is no reason for supposing sickness here to be an independent thing, or even the chief trouble of the Psalmist; it rather comes into consideration, as in the Psalms generally, as the attendant merely of the assaults of the wicked, The expression in Psalms 41:3, “the Lord will strengthen him on the bed of languishing,” is preceded, in Psalms 41:2, by “give him not into the will of his enemies.” The enemies appear in Psalms 41:5-9, not simply as malicious spectators of the suffering, which, independently of them, the Psalmist was enduring, but they take pleasure in their own work, and seek by further machinations to accomplish it: they gather materials for mischievous slanders, Psalms 41:6, meditate evil against the Psalmist, Psalms 41:7, rejoice in the knavish trick, from which they confidently expected his entire destruction, Psalms 41:8, and lifted up the heel against him, Psalms 41:9. In the prayer, Psalms 41:10, and the expression of confidence, that it would be heard, Psalms 41:11, mention is only made of victory over the enemies, which would at once put an end to the whole suffering of the Psalmist.

The kernel of our Psalm is contained in Psalms 35:13-14, which is the more deserving of consideration, as the second part of the preceding Psalm bears throughout a reference to that Psalm. The ground-thought is this, that he who is compassionate, will receive compassion, that he who has the consciousness of having wept with the weeping, may console himself with the assurance, that his own weeping shall be turned by God into laughing. The Psalm has therefore a very individual aspect, it opens up to the suffering a remote and hidden source of consolation.

The penmanship of David is testified by the superscription, and he certainly speaks here from his own experience. Assuredly his tender and loving heart was often impelled to embrace the wretched; assuredly was his confidence, in the time of his own wretchedness, often awakened thereby in the divine compassion, and often had this confidence verified itself in his experience. But the Psalm nowhere contains any individual traits, which might justify the supposition, that he had an eye to some particular period of his life: it rather bears, if we look away from the form, the character of a didactic Psalm, and the “I” of the Psalm is not the Psalmist, but the righteous sufferer. The more readily, therefore, might the Lord appropriate to himself in John 13:18, and elsewhere, the ninth verse of this Psalm so expressly and unconditionally—he, in whom the idea of the righteous one realized itself, who could first say, with perfect truth, “Blessed is he that considereth the poor,” in whom the two factors of the divine deliverance, viz. divine compassion guaranteeing divine help, and the rage of enemies justifying the sufferer in laying claim to it, existed in a strength, which they did never before or since, and in whose case especially, the trait contained in Psalms 41:9 was most strikingly realised. The direct and exclusive Messianic exposition, to which many of the older expositors were drawn by these considerations, is already refuted by Psalms 41:4, where the righteous recognizes in his sufferings a just punishment for his sins.

Verses 1-3

Ver. 1. Blessed is the man, who acts wisely toward the poor; in the day of distress the Lord will deliver him. Ver. 2. The Lord will keep him, and keep him in life; he will be blessed in the land, and thou wilt not give him to the will of his enemies. Ver. 3. The Lord will assist him on the bed of sickness; all his couch dost thou change in his sickness. According to the common view, the Psalmist must be regarded as beginning with eulogizing the blessed state of the compassionate, “because he had experienced the precisely opposite treatment, malice and scorn.” We, on the contrary, would rather supply to his first words, “as I have done,” and refer every thing to the Psalmist, who here points out his right to the divine help in the time of distress, shows Psalms 41:4-9, that such a time now existed, and. words: as I have done, and refer every thing to the Psalmist, in Psalms 41:10-12, first lays claim to the help, and then expresses his confidence in obtaining it. In the current exposition, the three first verses appear as a pure hors d’oeuvre, which might be cut off without prejudice to the main thought, as a moral reflexion standing irrespective of that, and as such, most unsuitably placed at the commencement; the individual character of the Psalm, which according to our view, presents itself to us in this very commencing verse, is thereby completely destroyed: in the fundamental passage Psalms 35:13-14, the Psalmist is himself the merciful and compassionate one; the affecting passage: thou wilt not give him to the will of his enemies, is then only in its proper place, when the seemingly general declaration refers to the Psalmist. John Arnd remarks on the sentiment in Psalms 41:1: “A gracious, compassionate, and beneficent heart wishes and wills, that it may go well with all men, as God himself cordially grants such to us. On this account also, does the Lord so recompense again all good people with such blessings, that it may also go well with them, for what a man sows, that will he reap, and what he seeks, that will he find. Strive and labour after compassion, and so wilt thou find it; if thou wilt sow the reverse, thou shalt certainly reap the same. Such also is the case with the inner man of the heart, for if in faith thou lost exercise goodness and compassion, the heart is united in peace and quietness with God and in God.” השכיל expositors take for the most part in the sense of attending to, but the more common meaning, and that which lies nearer the radical one, of acting prudently, wisely, (comp. for example, Psalms 2:10; 1 Samuel 18:14; Jeremiah 20:11; Jeremiah 23:5), is here more suitable and also recommended by the אל . Wherein the acting prudently consists, in the manifestations of a tender fellow-feeling, Psalms 35:13-14 shows us, and in an opposite line of conduct to that pursued by the enemies of the Psalmist, as described in Psalms 41:5-9. דל signifies properly, thin, lean, slender, and then designates him, who finds himself in a depressed situation, with whom matters go ill and hard.

Instead of יאשר , the marginal form is וְ אֻ שׁ ַ ר , the pret. with the cop. One feels offended at, the want of connection. That אל cannot stand for לא , is self-evident. But on this account the preceding and following fut. are not to be regarded in the light of optatives. The Psalmist turns himself suddenly to the Lord, and entreats him to grant that, which he does according to what precedes and follows, Upon נתן בנפש see on Psalms 27:12.—משכב is never the act of lying, the lying down, but always signifies a couch or bed; the couch stands here for the state of the sick; God changes his couch of pain and sickness into one of convalescence and joy, and that entirely; Berleb. Bible: “let it be as afflicted and miserable as it may.” It is further remarked there, in suitable reference to Psalms 41:5, ss.: “Thou wilt not permit it to go according to the wish of the spectators, who come to see, whether he will soon die, and what will happen after his death, but wilt help him up again, contrary to all expectation.”

The Psalmist, who with perfect right could appropriate to himself the words: “Blessed is he who acts wisely towards the poor,” goes on to mention, in two strophes, that now it was the day of distress for him, now the rage of his enemies was boiling against him, now he was prostrated in pain, so that it was time for him to receive the fulfilment of the promise: he will deliver him, etc.

Verses 4-6

Ver. 4. I spake: Lord be gracious to me, heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee. Ver. 5. My enemies speak evil of me; when will he die, and his name perish? Ver. 6. And when he comes to behold, he speaks deceit, his heart—he gathers mischief to himself he goes out and speaks. The Psalmist says: I spake, not: I spake, because he here appropriated that to himself, which, in the preceding context, had been ascribed in the general to the merciful, q. d. I find myself now in a situation for laying claim to the salvation appointed to the merciful. That the Psalmist desires salvation for his (much oppressed) soul, shows, that the state of bodily distress only proceeded from sorrow and grief. If the soul was healed through the appointment of salvation, deliverance from the enemies, the body would presently again become sound. In the words: for I have sinned against thee, the Psalmist announces the cause, on account of which he needed healing. The connection between sin and suffering is so intimate, according to the scriptural mode of contemplation, that the expression: I have sinned, is sufficient to convey the thought: I have in consequence of my sins become miserable. This misery is next described more particularly in what follows.

The לי , in reference to me, as concerns me. רע not simply evil, as רעה in Psalms 41:7, but evil in the moral sense: in malice they speak so, as follows. The Psalmist, in consequence of their assaults upon his body and soul, is miserable and broken, so that they are in hopes of his speedy dissolution, which they could scarcely venture to expect, and according to what follows, seek to hasten forward through the continued manifestation of their malice. In Psalms 41:6 the subject is the ideal person of the wicked. To behold, namely, how it goes with me. He speaks deceit, hypocritical assurances of love and sympathy. We must not expound: his heart gathers, but: his heart, what concerns his heart, in opposition to the friendly mouth, he gathers mischief to himself. For the gathering can- not be fitly attributed to the heart, and it is, even beforehand, probable, that the wicked is the subject of the expression: he gathers, as he is in the three remaining members of the verse. Mischief, i. q. matter for malicious calumnies. He goes out, speaks, scattering things among the people, when he has left me, and using also his tongue against me.

Verses 7-9

Ver. 7. All who hate me, whisper with each other against me, meditate evil against me. Ver. 8. A knavish device overhangs him, and he who lies down, will not rise up again. Ver. 9. Also my friend, whom I trusted, who ate my bread, lifts against me the heel. רעה לי , evil to me, q. d. evil, which is destined for me, which they would bring upon me. The eighth verse contains the words, with which the enemies betray their joy at the plan, which they hatched against the sufferer, and through which they confidently hope to give him, already prostrate in distress, the last push. Compare Psalms 64:6. The first member, literally: a matter of mischief is poured upon him. בליעל always signifies what is useless, in the moral sense, worthlessness, compare on Psalms 18:4, and consequently the discourse here can only be of a knavish device, not of any thing directly pernicious. That the enemies themselves call the matter by the right name, is quite accordant with their moral position. The expression: poured on him, for, hanging close on him, so that he can by no possibility get free of it, receives lustration from Job 41:15-16. The lying down refers to the condition in which the Psalmist was already placed. That he should not again rise up, they hoped to accomplish by the knavish trick

My Friend, prop. my peace-man. Ven.: “he who, on visiting me, continually saluted me with the kiss of love and veneration, and the usual address: peace be to thee.” The expression, “he said, Hail Rabbi, and kissing him,” Matthew 26:49, may fitly be compared here. The peculiar expression: the peace-man, Jeremiah has appropriated to himself, from his predilection for expressions of the kind, Jeremiah 20:10, Jeremiah 38:22, whence Hitzig, by inverting the relation, concludes that Jeremiah had composed this Psalm. The deduction added: in whom I trusted, (which our Lord omits, as not suitable in his case, thereby furnishing an evidence against the direct Messianic interpretation,) who ate my bread, denotes the friend as one, who lived on a footing of confidence with the Psalmist, to whom the latter had given many proofs of his love, who owed everything to him, and consequently serves to show the greatness of the heart distress, the delineation of which reaches the highest point immediately before the prayer is entered on. The eating of the bread may be illustrated from 2 Samuel 9:11, “As for Mephibosheth, he shall eat at my table as one of the king’s sons,” compare 2 Samuel 9:13, 2 Samuel 19:29, 1 Kings 18:19. It is falsely referred by most to the interchange of hospitality, so that it might have been: whose bread I ate. The participle besides points to something continued. In Judas the expression: who ate my bread, receives its full, its frightful truth, while he participated in the feast of the Supper. He lifts up the heel against me, as a horse that kicks at his master.

The personal relations of David, as toward Ahitophel, 2 Samuel 15:12, 2 Samuel 15:31, clearly form the ground of the representation in the verse, though we are not therefore to think of an individual reference.

There follows now in the last strophe, the prayer growing out of the position of matters as described in the preceding context, Psalms 41:10, and the confidence of its fulfilment, Psalms 41:11-12.

Verses 10-12

Ver. 10. And thou, Lord, be gracious to me, and help me up, so will I requite them. Ver. 11. By this I know, that thou hast delight in me, that my enemy shall not exult over me. Ver. 12. And I—because of my blamelessness thou dost uphold me, and dost place me before thy countenance ever. The expression: “be gracious to me,” is taken again from Psalms 41:4, after a foundation has been laid for it in the preceding verses. The “help me up,” has respect to “he that lies down, will not rise up again,” in Psalms 41:8. In the words: so will I requite them, (falsely several: in order that I may requite them,) many expositors have failed to discover the meaning, The purpose of requiting his enemies, which the Psalmist here declares, appears to clash with Matthew 5:39, Matthew 5:40, with David’s own fundamental principle, Psalms 7:4, and practice,—he frankly forgave a Shimei, 2 Samuel 19:24—with Proverbs 20:22, “Say not thou, I will recompense evil,” and with many other declarations in the Old and New Testaments. Various expedients have been resorted to for the occasion: many of the older expositors, as Calvin, conclude from these words, that it is not David that speaks here, but Christ, to whom vengeance belongs: others call to mind David’s kingly office, not considering that an exclusive reference to David is inconsistent with the entire character of the Psalm: according to Stier the author speaks here in the “friendly-ironical style,” and the recompense he meditates, must consist in showing forgiveness and favour. But the passage will at once be harmonized with those apparently opposed to it, if we distinguish between recompense from revenge, which the injured individual as such, seeks and exercises, and recompense in the service of God, in vindication of the goods and rights confided to us by him, Only the first is reprobated in both Testaments, while the last is every where recommended. It not merely belongs to one in whose person a high office conferred by God has been insulted, as with David respecting Shimei, to whom, for reasons extraneous to the matter, he granted a temporary impunity, but delivers to his successor for punishment, 1 Kings 2:9, as also the Lord in the parable, Luke 19:27, declares how he would execute vengeance on his enemies, and has fearfully done so;—but the private individual also often comes into relations, in which he is not merely warranted, but also bound to requite. No one would be so unreasonable as to adduce against the father, who chastises his froward son, when guilty of flagrant disobedience, Matthew 5:39, Matthew 5:40, when only he does not abandon his just right from personal fondness. Just as little should he be blamed who drags into judgment, or even casts into prison, the malicious defamer of his honour, which every man is bound sacredly to preserve, because without it he cannot fulfil the purposes of his life, the less so, as such conduct is the true manifestation of love also to the calumniator himself, so that the maxim: viri boni est prodesse quibus potest, nocere nemini, quanquam lacessiti injuria, sustains no damage thereby. To offer to the person who gives us a stroke upon the right cheek the other also, may, so soon as it is done, not merely with, the heart, but in outward act too, in certain circumstances, be the most unkind hardness. Between Psalms 41:10 and Psalms 41:11 lies the great fact of the assurance of being heard. Through the certainty of victory, which the Lord imparts to the Psalmist, when every thing appears to him to be lost, he is strengthened in the conviction of God’s gracious satisfaction in him, “which the enemies would dispute with me,” (Berleb. Bible.) That my enemy shall not exult over me, namely, as thou hast given me internal assurance thereof.

The expression: and I, is used in contrast to the enemies devoted to destruction. תם never signifies well-being, but always in a moral sense, blamelessness. This is here the cause, in which the divine administration of help rests, compare Psalms 18:20. The contrast between, “in my blamelessness,” and “I have sinned against thee,” in Psalms 41:4, is only an apparent one. This very blamelessness is burdened with much weakness. On account of this he is visited with manifold, and often very severe sufferings, but the blamelessness prevents entire destruction. The person, whom God “places before himself,” is an object of his protection and watchfulness; compare Psalms 7:15, “I will behold thy face in righteousness.”

Verse 13

Ver. 13. Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from eternity to eternity, Amen. Amen is no component part of the Psalm, but the doxology, which forms the close of the first book. Compare 1 Chronicles 16:36.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 41". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms.