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[Note. Critics are very definite in their judgment that this psalm is the most magnificent ode which David composed. It was sung in the last years of prosperity, when the surrounding nations all knelt before the king in homage and presented to him tribute. The form of the psalm is distinctly after the manner of David, who loved to dwell upon the phenomena of the natural world and to find his way through nature up to nature's God. Probably the psalm was composed in view of the occurrence of some great festival. It begins with unusual solemnity. Overwhelmed by a sea of trouble, and sinking to the very gates of hell, the king cries to Jehovah for help; his prayer is heard, and the answer comes accompanied with all the artillery of heaven. A competent critic has said: "Its wealth of metaphor, its power of vivid word-painting, its accurate observation of nature, its grandeur and force of imagination, all meet us here; but above all the fact that the bard of Israel wrote under the mighty conviction of the power and presence of Jehovah. The phenomena of the natural world appealed to his imagination as to that of poets generally, but with this addition, that they were all manifestations of a supreme glory and goodness behind them." The psalm closes with the same high and solemn note with which it began.]
The title states that the words of this song were spoken by David unto the Lord in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul. This, therefore, fixes the circumstances and consequently the historical atmosphere in which the whole production must be studied. It is important to know that there is an actual historical background, and that the poet is not inventing phrases merely for the sake of relieving a passing religious emotion. In order to understand the poetry we must understand the history, and in order to do the history full justice we must carry it up to its poetical enlargements and interpretations. Every fact has a corresponding parable, and every parable points to an underlying fact. Forgetfulness of this simple rule has led to great bewilderment, and in some cases to not a little moral confusion. It has been said that parable is the larger truth. This is emphatically so in the interpretation of all matters connected with the kingdom of God. It was left for Jesus Christ, in a very large degree, to deal with this infinite region of parable. Other teachers told what they had seen, and were content to be regarded as mere eye-witnesses; up to that point their testimony was of course invaluable; but a teacher was needed who would go beyond the strictly factual basis and give the world those larger interpretations which are possible only to parabolical embodiment. In the light of these considerations, we must regard the Psalm as poetical history, or historical poetry. It should be read concurrently with 2 Samuel xxii. Reading the one in immediate sequence to the other will form an admirable illustration of what we have said concerning the translation of history into poetry. The whole psalm may be taken as a glorifying of divine government. The divine government is there of course as a simple and positive fact, but it required an imagination quickened by David's agonistic experience to express in adequate terms the grandeur of the thoughts surrounding the idea of God's throne and rule. We believe, however, that the full explanation of a psalm can only be realized, in proportion as we consider it in its relations to Jesus Christ. What was impossible to David was possible to the Messiah whom he prophetically represented. We have no hesitation, therefore, in fixing this as one of the Messianic psalms, and finding in the triumph and sovereignty of Jesus Christ the fact which is but poorly approached even by this redundance of poetical metaphor and eloquence. This psalm is a kind of apocalypse in anticipation. The man who wrote the Book of Revelation might have begun his literary career by writing the eighteenth psalm. There is the same grand command of language, the same daring imagery, the same noble contempt for all the material forces which appear to be so formidable to the merely material investigator. What is standard and fixed and immovable to the man whose mind operates within the limits of matter, becomes quite easy of treatment, and is indeed blown about as by a great wind, under the conception of a man whose imagination is ennobled by religious faith and sanctified by religious humility. In this psalm, for example, the earth shakes and trembles; the foundations also of the hills are moved and shaken, because of the wrath of heaven; out of God's nostrils there goes up a smoke, and fire out of his mouth devours, and flaming coals blaze from his lips. In his condescension God bows the heavens also, and comes down, and a black cloud infinite masses of rain is gathered and bent towards the earth under the majestic movement. God makes darkness his secret place, and his pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies: the Lord thunders in the heavens, and the Highest gives forth his voice, and the sound of that voice is as the commingling of hailstones and coals of fire. All this sublime imagery is obviously apocalyptic, and is to be interpreted by the imagination rather than inquired into by the critical faculty.
Turning to the psalm for the purpose of distinct religious edification, let us note the particular providence which was glorified. This is stated in Psalms 18:4-6 :
"The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid. The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me. In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears."
No attempt is here made to diminish the severity of the crisis. Often when a great agony is overpast the sufferer himself forgets its intensity, and is inclined to suppose that it might have been cured by less ostentatious means than had been adopted for its pacification. We are seldom critically correct in the recollection of our sorrows. We either unduly magnify them, or we so far modify their intensity as to make any remedial measures look as simple and superficial as possible. David vividly remembered all his afflictive experience. He does not hesitate to speak of that experience in words which are metaphorical, if not romantic, without at all affecting the reality of the trouble through which he had passed. He says "the sorrows of death compassed" him. Some have interpreted this expression as birth-pangs; others again have used the word cords. It has been thought that the figure of the hunter in the next verse, in which we read of the snares of death, fixes the meaning there to be cords. In Samuel, David represents himself as submerged or overwhelmed by the progress or waves of the trouble which had been made to pass over him. Sometimes indeed we do not know what real trouble we have been in until we have been removed from it for some distance and thus enabled to contemplate it in its totality. Again and again the mind exclaims concerning the impossibility that such and such trouble can really have been survived. We are familiar with the experience which declares that certain afflictions could not possibly be borne a second time. It is well to bear in memory our greatest sorrows that we may also recollect our greatest deliverances. There is no true piety in undervaluing the darkness and the horror through which the soul has passed. Instead of making light of the most tragical experiences of life, we should rather accumulate them, that we may see how wondrous has been the interposition of the divine hand and how adequate are the resources of Heaven to all the necessities of this mortal condition. Even admitting the words to be metaphorical, they present a vivid picture of what human sorrow may be, whatever may be rationally imagined may be actually undergone; as to David's own consciousness, what is here stated was a matter of the sternest reality. It should be borne in mind, too, that trouble is a different thing to different men, even when it comes in the same guise and quantity. Much must depend upon temperament. Things animate suffer; things inanimate do not respond to the blow with which they are struck. The poetic temperament is the most suffering of all. According to the sensitiveness of the nature is the terribleness of the stroke which falls upon it. David had the gift of expression even in this matter of trouble; he remembered every pang; he saw every spectral image; he could give a name to every passing emotion; he grew eloquent in the redundance of his language in setting forth the blackness and terribleness of the night through which his soul had been supernaturally conducted. Other men have no gift of telling the extent of affliction which they have undergone. They know they have been in trouble, but they have no words wherewith to set forth before the minds of others adequate images of their actual distress. We must form our estimate of human experience either from the one class or the other, that is, from those who have the gift of expression, or from those who suffer in silence: taking the language of such a man as David for our guide, we cannot but see here the all but infinite capability of human nature in the matter of positive and intolerable anguish. It is curious to notice, too, how sorrow in its utmost pain and fear tends downward when it seeks for some adequate image. As surely as our high and triumphant joy goes up to heaven for its metaphors and symbols, so truly does our extremest anguish find only in hell that which is adequate to give even an outline of its burning pain. When in the fourth verse the Psalmist speaks of "the sorrows of death," and in the fifth verse points to "the sorrows of hell," we see a natural operation of the human mind. Left to itself, the human mind turns its own experience into a revelation alike of heaven and of hell. As mere terms these may have been brought to us by others, but being brought they instantly fit an experience which is full of joy or sorrow. Even were the words blotted from the inspired page, we should still be conscious of the realities within us which these words more fitly typify than any others.
This being the bitter and awful experience of David, we may now turn to the providence by which he was delivered, as recorded in the seventh and following verses. Now let us, in the first instance, try to find the literal line, the plain matter-of-fact occurrence, which runs through the whole of this poetical representation. David means to say that the enemy was thrown into consternation by natural phenomena. He describes these phenomena as shakings of the earth and movings of its foundations, and the strange darts of light which seemed to shoot through and through the pavilion of darkness. Stripped of the poetry, the fact remains that there are times when all nature seems to be employed on the side of vindicating righteousness or punishing iniquity. Account for it as we may, there is the fact that in our own experience there are hours when nature seems to be unwilling to accept our co-operation, when in very deed it would seem almost personally to contradict and exasperate us, setting our ingenuity at defiance and repelling the hand that would cultivate and control.
In the next place, the Psalmist sets it down as a familiar thought that the supernatural may overrule the ordinary, that is to say, that spiritual impressions may absorb every other feeling. Everywhere the Psalmist saw the living God. The whole universe seemed to be alive with his presence and to be afraid of his glance. The hills could not stand still as he approached them, and the shadow of the cherub upon which he did fly seemed to bring the darkness of night with it. The earth was no longer a place of mere dust in the estimation of the Psalmist; it was a church filled by the living presence of the eternal God; on every side was the burning altar, and the whole air was charged with holy incense. This of course is a poetical representation, but underneath it is a plain and obvious reality, confirmed by the spiritual experience of every Christian. There are seasons when we can almost see God in the operations of nature in the beauty of the flower, in the splendour of the stars, in all the comeliness of summer, in all the bountifulness of hospitable harvest. At other times God may seem afar off, but in these better seasons he is nigh at hand: the material seems to have been reduced to a minimum, and all nature takes up the parable of the kingdom of heaven, and relates it in every hue of language and every tone of music. Then the delighted dreamer exclaims, Lo, God is here, and I knew it not! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
We next see how vividly the Psalmist realised the absolute power of mind over matter:
"Then the channels of waters were seen, and the foundations of the world were discovered at thy rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils" ( Psa 18:15 ).
These words represent the idea that when mind is fully roused, and is in its noblest action, all matter trembles in its presence as a thing servile and helpless. Matter appears to be strong and noble under some circumstances, but under other conditions it trembles and fades and dies out of sight as that which is contemptible and unworthy to be seen when the Lord's power is fully abroad. What is this but saying in plain language that there are times when the universe appears to be a thing of mind rather than a thing of matter when the whole plan of creation seems to be an infinite thought rather than a complicated mechanism? Once let the mind seize the idea that the spiritual is greater than the material, and then only poetry can express the prose fact that the throne of the universe is filled by a Spirit, infinite, glorious, and loving, and that all so-called iron law is in the power of that Spirit, to be moulded and appointed according to its beneficent designs.
Passing from this point, the Psalmist shows how the impossible was made possible by the omnipotence of God.
"For by thee I have run through a troop; and by my God have I leaped over a wall" ( Psa 18:29 ).
"He maketh my feet like hinds' feet, and setteth me upon my high places. He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms" ( Psa 18:33-34 ).
This also is a poetical way of representing the fact that impossibilities have often been made possible in our own experience. Looking back upon certain combinations of circumstances, we cannot but feel that we were surrounded by great and high walls, and that troops of dangers thickened around us in deadly array. Now that we see ourselves in a "large place," we are tempted to believe that we are still in a dream, and that our liberty is a thing which we hold only in the uncertain daylight of a momentary vision. We say it is not possible that we can have escaped all our foes and entirely left behind us the "great and terrible wilderness." We still feel as if the enemy might seize us, and as if a moment's boasting would mean lifelong subjugation to the tyranny which we have supposedly escaped. In this view of our own circumstances, our song is not permitted to reach its full compass of delight, lest the enemy should overhear our triumphing and again seize us as his prey. We are pursued by our enemies; when our imagination is vexed by the cross-colours which make up the panorama of life, it is easy to persuade us that to-morrow we shall be back again in chains, for we have enjoyed but an imaginary liberty. Then, under happier circumstances, we see how the miracle is a simple reality that we have in very deed escaped perils which at one time seemed to be insurmountable, and that our escape is due entirely to the exercise of the almightiness of God. It is remarkable how under such circumstances we unconsciously magnify our own importance in the universe. We do not mean to be ostentatious and proud when we declare that God has exerted himself specially on our behalf, and has indeed himself been disquieted until our comfort was restored and established. The Psalmist speaks here as if he were the sole object of the Lord's care, and as if the Infinite took delight only in his well-being and prosperity. It is unfortunately possible also to imagine on the part of the Lord a special contempt for the enemies of whom we are ourselves afraid. It is impossible for us to think that God can be friendly to men who are unfriendly to us. We thus, without intention and certainly without words, accuse God of invidiousness and partiality. There is great need for care in this direction, lest we grow in spiritual self-sufficiency and in the uncertain security of irrational and presumptuous pride. Rather let us think that if men have been our enemies they may have had some reason for their hostility, and let us diligently cross-examine ourselves to find out how far their opposition has been justified by something wrong within our own nature. It is lawful to learn from an enemy, and it is lawful for us to occupy the enemy's standpoint in endeavouring to form a true estimate of ourselves.
In this psalm we have an outline of David's conception of God. Some of the expressions are marvellously penetrating and marvellously beautiful. What can be sweeter than such words as these?
"With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful; with an upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright; with the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward" ( Psa 18:25-26 ).
In the thirty-fifth verse the Psalmist uses an expression which has comforted many a spirit and explained satisfactorily many a sacred experience, "thy gentleness hath made me great." This word gentleness has been translated "meekness," and has been taken as pointing to him who said, "I am meek and lowly." The meaning would seem to be that we owe our stability and enlargement to the forbearance of God. If he had been only all-mighty and all-righteous he would have crushed us and carried us away in a storm of derision because of our falsehood and vanity and selfishness. But he has carefully surrounded us so that we might have an opportunity to grow, become strong, and to mature our life in all acceptable fruitfulness. We owe all that is best and truest in ourselves, not to a culture we have either originated or conducted, but to the gentleness or forbearance of God, who has spared us and enabled us to turn to advantage all the blessings of his providence. In such verses as these we come upon a distinct and unchangeable philosophy. God is to us what we are to God. Wherein we are pure, we see the holiness of the Father; and wherein we are merciful, we share the divine compassion. We thus become as it were interpreters and reflectors of the divine nature. It would seem as if we could only know God according to the limit and quality of our own spirit. We must find the unknown through the known, the divine through the human, and make time itself into a symbol of eternity. Terrible is the thought, yet full also of joy, that man is the best interpreter of God. Whatever we may see of him in the works of so-called "nature" their variety, their vastness, their simplicity, and their security we see more of him in the spirit, the capability, and the growth of a little child. Looking in this direction for parables and illustrations of the divine nature, we feel how possibly true it may be that man was created in the image and likeness of God. We see also how true it is that human gentleness conduces to human growth and social security. We owe next to nothing to violence. Mere strength may be devoted to purposes of devastation, but pity, love, forbearance, gentleness, of necessity conduce towards preservation, establishment, and security.
Whilst this whole psalm may be taken as poetry based upon history so far as David is concerned, it may be taken as literally true concerning David's Lord. Jesus Christ also had his great agony: there was a time when the sorrows of death compassed him, and the floods of ungodly men made him afraid: there was a time when the sorrows of hell compassed him about, and the snares of death suddenly seized upon him. Out of all this agony he came more than conqueror. The heavens darkened, the earth trembled, the rocks were rent, the veil of the temple was thrown down, and out of the darkness of Calvary there dawned the morning of the world. All these phenomena are now in process in the providence of God. Still darkness is the secret place of the Almighty, and the pavilion of the Eternal is in dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. Still God is in the midst of the battles of the world, and is invisibly reigning over all the tumult and fierceness of carnal men and ambitious empires. Things are working together mysteriously but certainly and the end of the co-operation will be the establishment of the Cross and kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. The time will come when the whole earth will be filled with the glory of God. As for his enemies, Jesus Christ will beat them small as the dust before the wind, and his hand shall be upon their necks that he may destroy them. If men will not fall upon the stone and be broken, the stone will fall upon them and grind them to powder. Jesus Christ is yet to give thanks unto the Lord among the heathen, and sing praises unto his name in the uttermost parts of the earth. All this it may be difficult to understand as a mere matter of verbal criticism, but the heart knows it to be true, and rejoices in the promise of millennial light and millennial peace.
Almighty God, thou hast made us, and not we ourselves. We are the offspring of the living God. In God we live and move and have our being. This is our joy, because this is our strength; and this is our terror, because herein is found the beginning of our responsibility and our judgment. Thou knowest what we are, what we can do, how many talents thou hast entrusted to us, and with how many opportunities thou hast enriched our period of probation; so if we are not faithful we cannot evade thee; if we fail to seize the passing time and say, Behold, we knew it not as a season sent from heaven, thy judgment will be just. Inasmuch as we live in thee, may we draw our law from thee, and walk by it steadfastly, thankfully, in growing delight of obedience; rejoicing exceedingly that we are not called upon to make a law for ourselves, but to read and to realize the statutes written by thine own finger. May we inquire for thy revelation, and read it with eagerness, and hide it in our hearts, and know it to be sweeter than honey, yea than the honeycomb the very droppings of the comb, the sweetest of the sweetness. Thus may our life be ordered from on high, and be itself a revelation to other men of what the soul can be and do by being consciously in the living Christ and lovingly serving him who is the Head of Humanity. Thou hast made us apparently for a day only: our breath is in our nostrils; we droop and die; thou changest our countenance and sendest us away. Yet it cannot be for a day only that thou hast made us: thy purpose is greater, thy purpose is boundless. Help us to believe, therefore, that there is a life in reserve, a sphere yet to be revealed, an opportunity yet to be disclosed. May we live in the light of that further day, that brighter day, and abide in the joy and hope of that immortality which is in Christ Jesus a living heaven, a living service, a service that knows no end nor weariness. Whilst we are looking forward to that higher sphere, that wider nobler life, may we remember that there are but twelve hours in this little day of earth, and diligently improve every one of them by being industrious in the service of the living God. Teach us what we ought to do, and teach us how to do it, that with simplicity, fidelity, and godly sincerity we may execute our mission upon earth, and thus become prepared for the greater mission now unknown. We pray thee to have pity upon us in that we are unworthy of thy love: we have broken thy law, we have stained thy name, we have wandered far from the right line; but thou lovest us nevertheless yea, thou dost yearn over us with fatherly anxiety; thou dost listen for our coming home, thou art watching our return: therein thou dost show thy love, thy pity, thine exceeding care. All this we know in Christ Jesus thy Son. He left the ninety-and-nine and came after that which was lost, until he found it: the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost. Lord, we were lost, but by Christ we have been found; we have entered so far into the joy of our Lord as to know the rapture of conscious forgiveness. Now bind us to the Cross of Christ by which we have been saved; deliver us from all sin, darkness, fear, and take away from us the spirit that would apostatise us, luring us by subtler temptations to still deeper ruin. And that this may be so, let thy word dwell in us richly, and thy Holy Spirit never forsake us, and thy grace become magnified towards us in the proportion of our need. It is not enough that thou dost expel the evil; thou wilt also implant and cultivate the good, and increase it until there is no room in us for evil, as there is no inclination for it The Lord give us the sobriety of veneration, the joy of hope, the real blessedness of pardoned souls. The Lord build his temple within us, and dwell therein as in a chosen place. Give to every man a special revelation of truth, and an individual assurance of acceptance. Thus may blessing be individualised and multiplied, and abundantly and eternally increased. Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"With the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure; and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward." Psa 18:26
God is to us what we are to God. This is the explanation of all difficulty, and it is also the secret of all spiritual growth. It is in harmony with what Christ says, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." The pure mind finds purity everywhere. The corrupt mind everywhere finds corruption. Man is mirrored by all nature. If we go into the Bible with the heart of a little child, we shall come out of it rich with flowers and fruits. If we go into the Bible in a merely critical spirit, for the express purpose of finding fault, we shall return from our studies loaded with discrepancies, difficulties, mysteries, and objections of every kind. Let the pure mind review the way of Providence in history, and everywhere it will find indications of purpose, discipline, and ultimate harmony and sanctification. Let the mere faultfinder read any history, and he will grow indignantly eloquent upon the inequalities of life, and upon the consequent favouritism of God. The word "froward" may be regarded as meaning twisted or perverse. The froward mind is twisted round, is crooked, is directly opposed to the whole idea of being straight or upright. What can such a mind see in nature, in history, or in revelation, but something that reflects itself? The lesson to us is to keep our minds in a right condition. To bring the mind into a right condition the heart must be first put into right relation to God. The heart governs the mind. We not only lose the blessings of divine revelation by having a froward mind, we lose all the teachings of life, all the benefits of trustful communion, and all the repose of perfect confidence in each other's sincerity. A perverted mind is a suspicious mind. Suspicion never enriched the soul with a single thought. Suspicion inflicts deadly injustice on all upon whom it falls. Not only, therefore, is there a religious bearing to this text, there is a personal and social bearing, a family and commercial bearing, a natural and artistic bearing. As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he. When the mind is pure, all nature will become of kindred quality.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Psalms 18". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19