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THE SONGS OF DEGREES
The principal hypotheses on which to account for the “Songs of Degrees,” “Songs of Ascents,” “Pilgrim Psalms,” and to each of which great names are attached, and each of which has something to say for itself, are as follows:—
1. The songs of the pilgrims returning from exile (Syr. Chrysostom, Theodoret).
2. The songs chanted by the Temple worshippers on each of the fifteen steps of the Temple (The Rabbins, Gospel of Mary, Vulg.—Luther, Grotius).
3. Denoting some peculiar structure, a gradation of thought approaching a climax (Gesenius, Delitzsch).
4. A musical term denoting some peculiarity of rhythm or music (Michaelis, &c.).
5. And most supported songs for pilgrims making their periodical journeys to Jerusalem (Ewald, Perowne, Hengstenberg). The true interpretation probably is yet to be given, none of the above hypotheses completely answering the requirements of the case. Characteristics—“Sweetness and tenderness; a sad pathetic tone; an absence generally of the ordinary parallelism; and something of a quick trochaic rhythm.”—Speaker’s Com.
This Psalm carries on its face the notion of individual and hardly bearable trial, more than that of national distress (opposition of foreigners to the rebuilding of the Temple, &c.). The trial is like that of David (1 Samuel 21:7; 1 Samuel 22:9, &c., mentioned in the contents of A. v.), and is inflicted by a slanderous tongue. It is soothed by the recollection that God hears the cry of the suppliant, and answers it always. A difference of opinion exists respecting almost every word and verse.—Speaker’s Com.
THE GODLY UNDER MISREPRESENTATION
I. That the godly are not exempt from misrepresentation. Rather are they most subject to it. They of all men have characters to lose, and from their guilelessness and sincerity are most open to attack. A greater than the Psalmist said, “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” and one of the keenest forms of tribulation comes from “lying lips and the deceitful tongue” (Matthew 10:24-28). The motives of the godly are misrepresented, their words, their actions. Misrepresentation exists in many forms, direct lying, suppression, innuendo, &c. No man can expect to be entirely free from it. The thing itself might be endured but for the senseless minds who take it in, and the bad hearts who rejoice to believe it. Misrepresentation in its worst form is that which is covered by professions of friendship to the person misrepresented.
II. That the godly are distressed by misrepresentation, and, humanly speaking, they may well be. No circumspection can guard against it. No force can destroy it. Its origin cannot always be traced. Some will even believe it to be true. It reaches those who can never be reached by its refutation. Always leaves its object open to suspicion.
“Whose edge is sharper than the sword; whose tongue [breath
Outvenoms all the worms of Nile; whose
Rides on the posting winds, and doth belie
All corners of the world: kings, queens, and states,
Maids, matrons; nay, the secrets of the grave,
This viperous slander enters.”—Shakespeare.
III. That the godly should cry to God in misrepresentation.
1. Because God knows all the facts of the case, and therefore judges righteously. Slander should not affect a man whose conscience is clear in the sight of God. He is the Master to whom man stands or falls. Let men, therefore, commit their case to Him (1 Peter 2:24).
2. Because the slandered and suspected soul naturally yearns to unbosom itself. This it often dares not do to its dearest friend. Vehement vindication sometimes only gives rise to suspicions that there must have been something in it after all. The soul can tell its troubles to God without fear of this.
IV. That God clears the godly from misrepresentation.
1. God enables His people to live slander down. This is the only effectual refutation. Men who refuse to listen to the clearest vindication are compelled to recognise the manifestation of the truth, and the commendation of ourselves to every man’s conscience (2 Corinthians 4:2; 2 Corinthians 1:12).
2. God will vindicate them before the assembled universe, when all shall be made manifest; and throughout eternity.
THE SELF-RETRIBUTIVE CHARACTER OF SLANDER
“ ‘What punishment shall be assigned thee, or what shall be done or added to thee, in recompense for misery caused?’ or, ‘What shall (God) give unto thee, and what shall (He) add unto thee?’ Answer—‘Sharp arrows (Psalms 45:5) wielded by a mighty one (Psalms 127:4; Jeremiah 50:9), and burning coals of juniper’ (Psalms 140:10; Proverbs 25:22). Thus the punishment of the slanderous tongue is appropriate; for itself is a sharp sword (Psalms 57:4), a pointed arrow (Jeremiah 9:8), and it burns like hell fire (James 3:6). The root of the retem or broom is used for fire in the desert, and retains its heat for a year.”—Speaker’s Com.
I. The work of slander. Like that which shall destroy it.
1. To sting. It is always hurtful, harassing, and annoying. It will always more or less damage the reputation, and inflict a wound on the mind or temper which will take some time to heal. Its sting often remains.
2. To burn. It sometimes blasts and utterly destroys. It has frequently undermined a man’s character beyond recovery, and brought him down with grief, affliction, and poverty to an untimely grave.
II. The retribution of slander. The law of requital holds terribly good here.
1. It is stung in return. God’s arrows fly thick and sharp upon the slanderous soul. He is ever in fear lest the lie should be traced back to its source, lest it should be proved to be a lie, and lest his calumny should miss its mark. He bears about him, too, the sharpest javelin in God’s armoury—CONSCIENCE!
2. It is consumed. Society consumes the evil speaker and his speech. It sternly condemns him whether his mischievous tales are true or not, and avoids his company and leaves him in contempt to perish. His accumulated fears consume him; and he that maketh a lie inherits the hottest fire of God’s wrath.
THE TRIALS OF THE GODLY
I. Uncongenial neighbours. The Psalmist’s residence in Mesech and Kedar is probably not to be understood literally, as Mesech (Genesis 10:1) inhabited the mountain ranges south of and adjoining Caucasus, and the south-coast borders of the Black Sea, and Kedar was probably an Arabian tribe. They evidently stand for Barbarians. A man can hardly be subjected to a greater trial than to be compelled to mix in society with which he has no sympathy and which has no sympathy with him,—e.g., a scholar with those who despise learning, an artist with those that have no taste, the pure with the impure, the sober with the profligate, and vice versa. So the Psalmist felt himself unhappy amongst men with whom he had no spiritual affinity. This is the case with the godly through all time. They dwell in a world that does not acknowledge their God, and with men who cannot appreciate their worth. Heaven is the place where all is harmony, and whose pursuits, &c., are congenial to all. Hell is the opposite.
II. Unrighteous contradictions. “They will listen to nothing. They are for discord, variance, strife. All my efforts to live in peace are vain. They are determined to quarrel, and I cannot prevent it. (a) A man should separate himself in such a case as the only way of peace. (b) If this cannot be done, then he should do nothing to irritate and keep up the strife. (c) If all his efforts for peace are vain, and he cannot separate, then he should bear it patiently as divine discipline. There are few situations where piety will shine more beautifully. (d) He should look with the more earnestness for the world of peace; and the peace of heaven will be all the more grateful after such a scene of conflict and war.”—Barnes.
THE NATURE AND DOOM OF CALUMNY
The Israelites had returned from Babylon, and were engaged in rebuilding the demolished Temple at Jerusalem. The Samaritans—heathens by extraction, and still continuing heathens at heart—wished to join in the work. The devout Jews, thinking it out of place for any who did not fully acknowledge Jehovah to take part in so sacred an enterprise, quietly but firmly declined their overtures. Exasperated with the repulse, the Samaritans employed every means to annoy the workers, and to hinder the work. They concocted the vilest slanders, and sought to prejudice the mind of the Persian king, by whose permission the liberated Jews were allowed to rebuild the Temple. The Church of God is still assailed by the malice of the wicked. What they cannot accomplish by open violence, they seek to effect by the subtlety of the tongue.
I. That calumny is a terrible instrument of mischief.
1. It is subtle in its insinuations. “A deceitful tongue.” It affects a reluctance to tell all it knows. It implies more than it openly states. It deals in half truths, or in a small modicum of truth, which it makes the pivot on which a whirlwind of the most pernicious slander revolves. It is eloquent in facial expression. A wink, a shrug of the shoulder, a little hieroglyphic finger-writing on the viewless air, a whispered innuendo, will insinuate more evil into the midst of a community than the most outspoken declamation. Calumny is cheating with the tongue.
2. It is false in its representations. “Lying lips.” A liar does his mischief openly for the most part. Stung by a well-deserved rebuff, or prompted by a feeling of spontaneous hatred, he circulates the most flagrant falsehoods. The more barefaced the falsehood the less harm it does among the thoughtful. The consummate liar rings his own alarm bell, and the unprejudiced are sufficiently warned. But there is always a large class of people who will believe the most abominable lies: the more confidently and unblushingly they are uttered, the more firmly are they credited. The splenetic detractor is never at a loss for defamatory material. A word is falsely reported, an act misconstrued, a motive misread, and the whole plan of life misconceived. When all else is exhausted, the vile calumniator falls back upon the endless fabrications of a corrupt imagination.
3. It is dangerous in its use. It pollutes and debases those who traffic in it.
“Let falsehood be a stranger to thy lips;
Shame on the policy that first began
To tamper with the heart to hide its thoughts!
And doubly shame on that unrighteous tongue
That sold its honesty and told a lie!”
It is pernicious in its effects on individuals, societies, and commonwealths. “A lie,” says Carlyle, “should be trampled on and extinguished wherever found. I am for fumigating the atmosphere when I suspect that falsehood, like pestilence, breathes around me.” The march of calumny is invisible as the wind, and often more terribly destructive.
II. That calumny is productive of acute suffering.
1. It fills the soul with anguish. “In my distress.” It wounds the soul as with the barb of an envenomed arrow, and inflicts incredible pain. The distress is aggravated when we discover that the javelin is thrown by the hand of a professed friend. The discovery of treachery in human nature is a painful shock to the confiding. Calumny is not easily traced to its source, and is often difficult to refute.
2. It mars the happiness of a life. “Deliver my soul”—my life. The Psalmist felt that his whole life was endangered. Calumny has ruined the fairest reputation, embittered many a life, blasted its prospects, diverted its influence, and injuriously affected its destiny.
III. That calumny drives the soul to seek redress in prayer.
1. The refuge of the calumniated is in God. “In my distress I cried unto the Lord. Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips.” No man is safe from the shafts of falsehood. He cannot always refute it. He cannot prevent its effects on his reputation. Slanders may penetrate into regions where its refutation never comes. The sufferer can do nothing but commit his case to God, and trust to his own conscious integrity, the lapse of time, and the operations of Divine providence to clear his character.
2. The cry of the calumniated is not in vain. “He heard me.” Prayer is the surest method of relief. The soul is comforted. Grace is given to act circumspectly, and to live down the false imputations. When Plato was told how his enemies slandered him, he quietly replied, “I fear them not. I will so live that no one shall believe them.” In His own way, and at His own time, Jehovah vindicates His suffering people.
IV. That calumny involves its perpetrators in severest vengeance.
“What shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue? Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.” The juniper sparkles, burns, and crackles more vehemently than any other wood, and is of such a nature that, if covered with ashes, it will continue alive the whole year. Fiery arrows, or arrows wrapped round with inflammable material, were formerly used in sieges to set the place on fire. The Chaldee has it:—“The strong sharp arrows are like lightning from above, with coals of juniper kindled in hell beneath.” The tongue of the calumniator was often like a sharp, fiery arrow shot by a strong hand, causing intense and prolonged pain; but now the fierce, burning arrow of vengeance, shot by the Mighty One, has pierced the soul, and will rankle there in ever-increasing torture. The future retributive sufferings of the wicked will infinitely exceed anything they ever inflicted on their most helpless victims. Beware of indulging revenge. We may safely leave our oppressors to their merited punishment. “Speak not of vengeance; ’tis the right of God.”
1. Calumny is the source of many evils.
2. The best of characters are liable to its most distressing assaults.
3. God will defend, sustain, and vindicate His people, and signally punish their calumniators.
THE FEROCITY OF THE WICKED A SOURCE OF DISTRESS TO THE GOOD
Mesech refers to a barbarous race inhabiting the Moschian regions between Iberia, Armenia, and Colchis. From this people the Muscovites descended. Kedar describes the wild, restless, nomadic offspring of Ishmael, who occupied the territory of Arabia Petræa. The Psalmist did not personally reside in either Mesech or Kedar. The sixth verse gives the key to the sense in which the words are to be understood. He dwelt in the midst of a people as rudely barbarous, and as fiercely contentious, as those in Mesech and Kedar. The Church of God is now situated in the midst of a mass of gross wickedness that surrounds and assails it like an angry sea.
I. That the Good are brought into Unavoidable Contact with the Wicked.
There is no spot under heaven into which evil cannot penetrate. Go where we will it presses in upon us from every quarter. The exigencies of life will sometimes lead the godly into the company of the wicked. But for this, not only would commercial extension be impossible, but the humanising influence of social intercourse be lost to the world. The Providence of God may conduct His people into the midst of the wicked—to testify against their pernicious practices, to moderate their violence, to present a holy and beneficent example, to attract to a better life. The residence of the good among the habitations of the wicked is sometimes compulsory. Without any fault of their own they are banished from home and temple, and compelled to mingle with people whose principles they disapprove, and whose practices they detest. It is possible to be encompassed with evil, and yet not participate in it. As the fire-fly will pass through the flame without being singed, as fresh water currents circulate in the sea without partaking of its saline property, as the pearl is unimpaired by the unsightly shell in which it is clasped, so the good may move about in the midst of abounding wickedness without contamination.
II. That the attitude of the wicked is one of fierce antagonism to the good.
They hate peace—they are for war. The presence of the good is a perpetual rebuke to the wicked. Their simple transparency of character makes them conscious of the duplicity and blackness of their own; their pacific temper, instead of soothing, is made an occasion of ungovernable irritability.
1. The antagonism of the wicked is prompted by a spirit of intense hatred. “My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.” Hatred is the great mischief-maker. It sets man against himself; against society; against God; against the universe. “A man,” says Plato, “should not allow himself to hate even his enemies; because if you indulge this passion, on some occasion it will rise of itself on others; if you hate your enemies, you will contract such a vicious habit of mind, as by degrees will break out upon those who are your friends, or those who are indifferent to you.” Hatred in the heart of the wicked is a fiend let loose.
2. The antagonism of the wicked is unreasonable. “I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.” There are some restless, quarrelsome spirits, whom nothing will propitiate or pacify. If no provocation is given, they will invent one. Whatever efforts are made to promote peace, they construe into causes for new hostilities. They are like the Macedonians, of whom it was said, in the time of Philip, “To them peace was war, and war was peace.” Such conduct is senseless and unreasonable.
III. That the ferocity of the wicked is a source of distress to the good. “Woe is me.”
There is no greater pain to a tender, sensitive spirit, than to be brought in contact with prevalent wickedness. The most pathetic lamentations of Jeremiah were uttered when he beheld the moral degeneracy and violent discord of his countrymen. Evil is abhorrent in any aspect; but when it assumes the fierceness of a reckless, impetuous, and fiendish aggression, it is intolerable. To be compelled to dwell in the midst of the quarrelsome is a miniature pandemonium. Such an experience is often the means of discipline to the good. It teaches forbearance, patience, and self-control. It calls for the exercise of a spirit of god-like forgiveness and charity. It reveals the diabolic character of sin, and its inevitable tendency to transform men into demons.
1. The universality of sin.
2. The greatest troubles of life are the result of sin.
3. A time is coming when the good will be for ever delivered from the assaults of sin.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 120". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19