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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 86

Psalms 86

The Psalmist grounds his prayer for assistance upon the mercy and forgiving love of God towards his own people, according to which he cannot overlook their misery or permit their prayer to be unheard, Psalms 86:1-5, then turning from what is the first of the enemies of trust in God in trouble, viz., doubt as to his willingness to help, to what is the second, viz., doubt as to his ability, he grounds it next upon the omnipotence and glory of God—so great that in future times all the heathen will do homage to him their creator, Psalms 86:6-10. To these foundations there is added a third in Psalms 86:11-13, the early inexpressible grace of God: inasmuch as God formerly delivered him from the jaws of death, how should he not now help him and should not the Psalmist confidently hope for his assistance? The prayer and the representation of the distress up to this point have been set forth only incidentally and in connection with the representation of the grounds of the confidence; now, however, that these last had been completely given, they break forth in an independent and developed form, Psalms 86:14-17.

The Psalm is divided into two strophes. The number ten of the first is divided by a five, the number seven of the second by a four and a three. The first strophe gives the general grounds of confidence, and in the second the prayer follows upon the special grounds.

The title, “a Prayer of David,” is justified as far as the first part of it is concerned, by the circumstance that the Psalm, in point of form, bears throughout a devotional and supplicatory character; it never sinks down from prayer to meditation, comp. on תפלה at Psalms 90, where the meditation gives rise to addresses to God. It has been objected against the second part of the title that the Psalm, in consequence of the numerous borrowed passages which it contains, is manifestly the production of a later date. But the circumstance that the passages, with the exception of those from the Pentateuch; are all borrowed from the Davidic Psalms, and none from later productions, shows that we must keep by the era of David, and at the same time leads to the idea,—an idea which we shall find confirmed by subsequent examination,—that the borrowed passages originated not in feebleness but in design.

The situation in the life of David may with certainty be ascertained. The Psalmist finds himself in misery, deprived of all human help, Psalms 86:1; his life is endangered by a band of proud, violent, ungodly men, Psalms 86:2, Psalms 86:14, after God, at an early period, had shown towards him great mercy, and had delivered his soul out of the deep hell, Psalms 86:13. As the last passage manifestly refers to his deliverance from the hand of Saul, we are here limited to those dangers to which he was exposed in the time of Absalom.

It is very probable that this Psalm was sung by the sons of Korah from the soul of David, when they accompanied him in his banishment. This was manifestly the case with Psalms 42, Psalms 43, and Psalms 84, and the composition by the Sons of Korah, which it was necessary should be there expressly marked, as Psalms 42, 43 open the series of the Korahitic Elohim-Psalms, and Psalms 84 the series of the Kor.-Jehovah Psalms, is in the case before us determined with equal certainty by the position of the Psalm in the middle of the Korahitic Psalms, from which, the title got its necessary supplement. The prayer, however, is David’s, not only because it was intended for him, and was sung from his soul, the Korahites did no more than give back to him what they had got from him; but also because the poem is throughout interwoven with quotations from the Davidic Psalms. This fact is much more easily explained if we suppose one of the sons of Korah rather than David himself to have been the author. It must have gone to David’s heart to have been comforted with words which he had either addressed to his own afflicted soul in troubles which the Lord had gloriously averted, or with which he had comforted others.

The tenderness of feeling which characterizes the other Psalms which the sons of Korah sang to their afflicted king, is so very marked in this case that it is impossible to overlook it.

It has been objected to the Psalm that the sentiment is not at all of a noble character, the poet boasts of his piety. This objection has been met in our remarks upon other Psalms, in reference to which it has, been in like manner brought forward; comp. for example Psalms 17, Psalms 18 : It is a very preposterous objection to be urged against one who founds his hope entirely upon the forgiving mercy of God, comp. Psalms 86:5, Psalms 86:15.

Verses 1-5

Ver. 1. Incline, O Lord, thine ear, hear me, for I am miserable and poor. Ver. 2. Protect my soul, for I am pious, deliver thy servant, O thou my God, who trusts in thee. Ver. 3. Be gracious to me, O God, for I cry to thee continually. Ver. 4. Rejoice the soul of thy servant, for to thee, O Lord, I draw my soul. Ver. 5. For thou; O Lord, art good and forgiving, and rich in mercy for all who call upon thee.

In Psalms 86:1 the misery is not considered as forming of itself a sufficient basis for the prayer,—this basis is supplemented in what follows. I am miserable, and (what is equivalent to being one of thy servants) full of trust in thee, seeking help from thee alone, and thou art rich in goodness and forgiving mercy towards those who are thine. This goodness and compassion of God is the proper ground of hope, comp. Psalms 86:15; the piety and trust of the Psalmist merely denote the condition of its development.

Psalms 86:14 forms a commentary upon the “protect my soul “ of Psalms 86:2. In reference to חסיד comp. at Psalms 4:3. [Note: On “who trusts in thee,” Calvin: “We know that some were endued with that measure of integrity that they have obtained among men the praise of the highest equity: as Aristides boasted that he had given occasion of grief to none. But because these men, along with the excellency of their virtues, were either filled with ambition or so inflated with pride, that they trusted in themselves rather than in God, it is not wonderful that they paid the penalty of their vanity; just as in reading profane histories we foolishly wonder how it happened that God exposed honourable, grave, and self-denying men to the multitude of the wicked; whereas trusting to their own virtue, they despised in their sacrilegious pride the grace of God. For whereas their virtue was the idol which they worshipped, they did not condescend to lift their eyes to God. Therefore although we maintain a good conscience, and God can be appealed to as the highest attestator of our innocence, yet if we desire his aid, we must cast our hopes and our cares upon him.”]

The “I draw my soul to thee,” in Psalms 86:4, is to be considered as understood with marks of quotation. It forms the beginning of Psalms 25.

The “forgiving,” in Psalms 86:5 is related to the “good,” as the species to the genus: God would not be good if he did not forgive to his people their sins of infirmity.

Verses 6-10

Ver. 6. Accept, O God, my prayer, and attend to the voice of my supplication. Ver. 7. In the day of my calamity I cry to thee, for thou wilt hear me. Ver. 8. There is none like to thee among the gods, O Lord, and there is nothing like thy work. Ver. 9. All the heathen whom thou hast made shall come and worship before thee, O Lord, and give the glory to thy name. Ver. 10. For thou art great and doest wonders, thou, O God alone.

The plural feminine from תחנונת , which does not elsewhere occur, is one constructed by the Psalmist for the purpose of imprinting still more distinctly upon the word the character of weakness and entreaty.

In Psalms 86:7, assurance of being heard is given as the basis of the cry to God in trouble: for thou shalt hear me, certainly not: would that thou wert willing to hear me. The basis on which this confidence rests is given in Psalms 86:8-10, in the reference there made to the glory and omnipotence of God: no man can hinder his work, &c.

Before Psalms 86:8, according to this remark, for is in reality to be supplied. The verse reads literally: there is not (a God) as thou (art) among the gods, and there are not (works) as (are) thine. The fundamental passages are Exodus 15:11, “who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods,” and Deuteronomy 3:24, “where is there a god in heaven and upon the earth, who does according to thy works and according to thy great deeds. On “among the gods,” Calvin: “Should any one assert that it is unseemly to compare God to the empty fictions, the answer is easy, the discourse is accommodated to the ignorance of men, because we know how daringly superstitious men raise their whims above the heavens. David casts contempt in a forcible manner upon their stupidity, inasmuch as they manufacture gods which in no way are attested to be gods.” That thus, “among the gods,” is to be understood as if it were “among the imaginary gods,” is clear from the ( Psalms 86:9) 9th verse, where even the heathen belong to the works of God, whose gods therefore have no domain left them on which to exercise any power. In the parallel passages, Psalms 18:31, “for who is God save the Lord,” 2 Samuel 7:22, “there is no God besides thee” (in a preceding clause as here: there is no God like thee), divinity and therefore existence is denied to all other gods.

In Psalms 86:9, for the purpose of intimating the transcendant greatness of God, it is mentioned that at a future time all the heathen shall serve him; comp. Zephaniah 2:11, “and men shall worship him, every one from his place, all the isles of the heathen,” Zechariah 14:9, Zechariah 14:16, and the Christol. on the last passage. How should such a God not hear the supplication of his servant! The expression, “whom thou hast made,” incidentally refers to the ground of the hope of the future conversion of the heathen. To be and not to be conscious of being cannot always continue apart; the creature must necessarily, at a future period, return to a state of obedience to its Creator. Comp. Ps. 20:28, where the announcement that the heathen shall, at a future period, do homage to the Lord, is founded on the fact that he alone is lawful King of the earth. We here see what a fulness of prophetical matter, and of joyful expectation of the dawning of the day of knowledge, even in the midst of the dark night of error which covered the earth, was furnished by the sound doctrines in regard to the creation, which meet us, as it were, at the very threshold of the sacred Scripture. The expression, “whom thou hast made,” ought always to lift us to blessed confidence, as often as the state of the world before God, falls heavily upon our souls. The proper basis of the confidence, however, is given in Psalms 86:10. God, God alone is great, and does wonderful deeds, and this his greatness manifesting itself in wonderful deeds, cannot but produce a lasting impression. The heathen shall at a future time come and honour his name, the product of his deeds. The hammer of the greatness of God will break the rock of their hearts.

Verses 11-13

Vers. 11-13. But the Lord has given to the Psalmist (O that he did but lay them to heart!) special pledges of acceptance and deliverance. He has already brought him once from death to life: how should he not now prevent his death! The Psalmist not merely as one considering, but as one praying, makes mention of the former favour of God, and his heart is full of confidence.

Ver. 11. Teach me, O Lord, thy way, I will walk in thy truth, incline my heart that I may fear thy name. Ver. 12. I will praise thee, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and honour eternally thy name. Ver. 13. For thy grace has been great towards me, and thou didst deliver my soul out of deep hell.—“Teach me thy way, O Lord,” in Psalms 86:11, is borrowed word for word from Psalms 27:11. As the quotation here is undoubtedly designed, the way of the Lord must have the same meaning here which it has there—viz., his guidance, the way of salvation along which he leads his people. The Psalmist had already, in fulfilment of the prayer of Psalms 27:11, learned this way externally, but he prays, judiciously applying the sense of Psalms 27:11, that the Lord would teach him inwardly also, still more perfectly this way, would lead him heartily and fully to appreciate the grace which had been vouchsafed to him as being the only ground on which hope can grow. The truth of God is always the truth (comp. Psalms 30:9) which belongs to God, the agreement between word and deed as manifested in the experience of his people, never the truth which he desires, and which is well-pleasing to him, or faithfulness towards him; comp. at Psalms 25:5. To walk in the truth of God signifies, according to the fundamental passage, Psalms 25:3, to be always mindful of it. David had there represented walking in the truth of God, as the condition of deliverance, He is tenderly reminded of this here by the sons of Korah. They pray out of his soul; as thou hast led me in thy truth, Psalms 25:5, as thou hast richly manifested this in my experience, so may I also turn to my own words ( Psalms 26:3), walk in it, meditate on it with my whole heart. That the fear of the Lord, for which the Psalmist prays in the last clause, is reverential gratitude for the manifestation of the glory of the Lord in his experience, is evident, not only from the second clause, but also from the first clause of Psalms 86:12, which may be considered as a commentary on the expression. The fear here corresponds to the praise there. The fear of the name of the Lord exists already in the Psalmist’s heart, but lie feels that it is not there in a perfect state; he prays to the Lord, therefore, that he would unite his heart to fear his name, i.e., that he would fill it in all its parts with reverential gratitude, that he would entirely remove from him the intervening ground between the torrid and the frigid zone; comp. “I will praise thee with my whole heart,” in Psalms 86:12, Psalms 12:2, James 4:8.

Psalms 86:13 points more distinctly and clearly than the preceding one, to the mighty deliverance in the time of Saul, with allusion to Psalms 13, where, in a Psalm of David’s, composed at this time, we read: “for thou hast delivered my soul from death, so that I walk before God in the land of the living;” comp. also Psalms 18:5, “the cords of hell compassed me about, the snares of death surprised me.” It is impossible to translate with Ew. “the deepest hell,” but only “the under hell,” or “the hell deep below;” comp. Deuteronomy 32:22.

Verses 14-17

Ver. 14-17: the developed prayer.

Ver. 14. O God, the proud rise against me, and the band of the violent stands against my soul, and they do not set thee before their eyes. Ver. 15. And thou; O Lord, art a God, compassionate and gracious, long-suffering, and of great mercy and truth. Ver. 16. Turn thyself to me, and be gracious unto me, give thy strength to thy servant, and help the son of thine handmaid. Ver. 17. Perform to me a sign for good, that those may see it who hate me, and be ashamed, because thou, Lord, assistest me, and comfortest me.

Psalms 86:14 is copied quite literally from Psalms 54:3. The effect in David’s case must have been very striking, when those very same words were here put into his lips in this new distress, which had been used by himself so nobly on a former occasion. The “violent,” who at that time sought after his soul, were now at rest in their graves. The most remarkable of the variations (these always occur in such cases), is that זדים , proud, occurs instead of זרים , strangers, barbarians (comp. at Psalms 19:13), and instead of the violent, the band of the violent, the plural form being retained, which points back to the original text. The conspiracy of Absalom is more exactly indicated by this expression than by the mere word violent. Even the Elohim is transposed from the original passage in which the Psalmist removes his refuge away from the to heaven, flees to God that he may undertake for him in opposition to men.

In Psalms 86:15, the Psalmist turns back once more to the basis. He holds up before God the great comforting expression which had been made use of in Exodus 34:6. “ Towards thine own” must be supplied; comp. Psalms 86:5.

The son of an handmaid, Psalms 86:16, is a home-born slave; comp. Exodus 23:12. As it is incumbent upon the servant that he serve the Lord, it is the duty of the Lord to help and protect the servant.

The sign which the Psalmist asks in Psalms 86:17, is a matter-of-fact attestation of the divine favour. Neither the sense of the word nor the connection admits of a miraculous sign. What the Psalmist speaks of, according to the preceding context, and the conclusion of the Psalm, is simply help and comfort, by which his enemies may see, that it is not without good ground that he calls God his God. For good, for prosperity, comp. Psalms 16:2. In the last words (not, while thou helpest me, in this case the tenses would not be preterites), the Psalmist grounds his prayer upon confidence, with an expression of which the Psalm appropriately closes. The preterites are to be explained by the strength of the faith which anticipates the future.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 86". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-86.html.