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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 109

Verses 1-31

Psalms 109:1-31

THIS is the last and the most terrible of the imprecatory psalms. Its central portion (Psalms 109:6-20) consists of a series of wishes, addressed to God, for the heaping of all miseries on the heads of one "adversary" and of all his kith and kin. These maledictions are enclosed in prayers, which make the most striking contrast to them; Psalms 109:1-5 being the plaint of a loving soul, shrinkingly conscious of an atmosphere of hatred, and appealing gently to God; while Psalms 109:21-31 expatiate in the presentation to Him of the suppliant’s feebleness and cries for deliverance, but barely touch on the wished for requital of enemies. The combination of devout meekness and trust with the fiery imprecations in the core of the psalm is startling to Christian consciousness, and calls for an effort of "historical imagination" to deal with it fairly. The attempts to attenuate the difficulty, either by making out that the wishes are not wishes, but prophecies of the fate of evildoers, or that Psalms 109:6-20 are the psalmist’s quotation of his enemies’ wishes about him, or that the whole is Messianic prediction of the fate of Judas or of the enemies of the Christ, are too obviously makeshifts. It is far better to recognise the discordance between the temper of the psalmist and that enjoined by Christ than to try to cover it over. Our Lord Himself has signalised the difference between His teaching and that addressed to "them of old time" on the very point of forgiveness of enemies, and we are but following His guidance when we recognise that the psalmist’s mood is distinctly inferior to that which has now become the law for devout men.

Divine retribution for evil was the truth of the Old Testament, as forgiveness is that of the New. The conflict between God’s kingdom and its enemies was being keenly and perpetually waged, in most literal fashion.

Devout men could not but long for the triumph of that with which all good was associated, and therefore for the defeat and destruction of its opposite. For no private injuries, or for these only in so far as the suffering singer is a member of the community which represents God’s cause, does he ask the descent of God’s vengeance, but for the insults and hurts inflicted on righteousness. The form of these maledictions belongs to a lower stage of revelation; the substance of them, considered as passionate desires for the destruction of evil, burning zeal for the triumph of Truth, which is God’s cause, and unquenchable faith that He is just, is a part of Christian perfection.

The usual variety of conjectures as to authorship exists. Delitzsch hesitatingly accepts the superscription as correct in assigning the psalm to David. Olshausen, as is his custom, says, "Maccabean"; Cheyne inclines to "the time of Nehemiah (in which case the enemy might be Sanballat), or even perhaps the close of the Persian age" ("Orig. of Psalt.," 65). He thinks that the "magnanimous David" could not have uttered "these laboured imprecations," and that the speaker is "not a brave and bold warrior, but a sensitive poet." Might he not be both?

To address God as the "God of my praise," even at such a moment of dejection, is a triumph of faith. The name recalls to the psalmist past mercies, and expresses his confidence that he will still have cause to extol his Deliverer, while it also pleads with God what He has done as a reason for doing the like in new circumstances of need. The suppliant speaks in praise and prayer; he asks God to speak in acts of rescuing power. A praying man cannot have a dumb God. And His mighty Voice, which hushes all others and sets His suppliants free from fears and foes, is all the more longed for and required, because of those cruel voices that yelp and snarl round the psalmist. The contrast between the three utterances-his, God’s, and his enemies’-is most vivid. The foes have come at him with open mouths. "A wicked man’s mouth" would read, by a slight alteration, "a mouth of wickedness": but the recurrence of the word "wicked man" in Psalms 109:6 seems to look back to this verse, and to make the rendering above probable. Lies and hatred ring the psalmist round, but his conscience is clear. "They have hated me without a cause" is the experience of this ancient sufferer for righteousness’ sake, as of the Prince of all such. This singer, who is charged with pouring out a flood of "unpurified passion," had, at any rate, striven to win over hatred by meekness; and if he is bitter, it is the pain and bitterness of love flung back with contumely, and only serving to exacerbate enmity. Nor had he met with evil the first returns of evil for good, but, as he says, "I was [all] prayer". {compare Psalms 120:7, "I am-peace"} Repelled, his whole being turned to God, and in calm communion with Him found defence and repose. But his patient meekness availed nothing, for his foes still "laid evil" on him in return for good. The prayer is a short record of a long martyrdom. Many a foiled attempt of patient love preceded the psalm. Not till the other way had been tried tong enough to show that malignity was beyond the reach of conciliation did the psalmist appeal to the God of recompenses. Let that be remembered in judging the next part of the psalm.

The terrible maledictions (Psalms 109:6-20) need little commentary. They may be left in all their awfulness, which is neither to be extenuated nor degraded into an outburst of fierce personal vindictiveness. It is something far more noble than that. These terrible verses are prophecy, but they are prayers too; and prayers which can only be accounted for by remembering the spirit of the old dispensation. They are the more intense, because they are launched against an individual, probably the chief among the foes. In Psalms 109:6-15 we have imprecations pure and simple, and it is noteworthy that so large a part of these verses refers to the family of the evildoer. In Psalms 109:16-20 the grounds of the wished for destruction are laid in the sinner’s perverted choice, and the automatic action of sin working its own punishment is vividly set forth.

Psalms 109:6-8 are best taken in close connection, as representing the trial and condemnation of the object of the psalmist’s imprecations, before a tribunal. He prays that the man may be haled before a wicked judge. The word rendered "set" is the root from which that rendered "office" in Psalms 109:8 comes, and here means to set in a position of authority-i.e., in a judicial one. His judge is to be "a wicked man" like himself, for such have no mercy on each other. An accuser is to stand at his right hand. The word rendered adversary (the verb cognate with which is used in Psalms 109:4) is "Satan"; but the general meaning of hostile accuser is to be preferred here. With such a judge and prosecutor the issue of the cause is certain-"May he go out [from the judgment hall] guilty." A more terrible petition follows, which is best taken in its most terrible sense. The condemned man cries for mercy, not to his earthly judge, but to God, and the psalmist can ask that the last despairing cry to Heaven may be unanswered, and even counted sin. It could only be so, if the heart that framed it was still an evil heart, despairing, indeed, but obdurate. Then comes the end: the sentence is executed. The criminal dies and his office fails to another: his wife is a widow, and his children fatherless. This view of the connection gives unity to what is otherwise a mere heap of unconnected maledictions. It also brings out more clearly that the psalmist is seeking not merely the gratification of private animosity, but the vindication of public justice, even if ministered by an unjust judge. Peter’s quotation of Psalms 109:8 b in reference to Acts 1:20 does not involve the Messianic character of the psalm.

Psalms 109:10-15 extend the maledictions to the enemy’s children and parents, in accordance with the ancient strong sense of family solidarity, which was often expressed in practice by visiting the kindred of a convicted criminal with ruin, and levelling his house with the ground. The psalmist wishes these consequences to fall in all their cruel severity, and pictures the children as vagabonds, driven from the desolation which had, in happier days, been their home, and seeking a scanty subsistence among strangers. The imprecations of Psalms 109:11 at first sight seem to hark back to an earlier stage in the wicked man’s career, contemplating him as still in life. But the wish that his wealth may be "ensnared" by creditors and stolen by strangers is quite appropriate as a consequence of his sentence and execution; and the prayer in Psalms 109:12, that there may be no one to "draw out lovingkindness" to him, is probably best explained by the parallel clause. A dead man lives a quasi-life in his children, and what is done to them is a prolongation of what was done to him. Thus helpless, beggars, homeless, and plundered, "the seed of evildoers" would naturally be short-lived, and the psalmist desires that they may be cut off, and the world freed from an evil race. His wishes go backwards too, and reach to the previous as well as the subsequent generation. The foe had come of a bad stock-parents, son, and son’s sons are to be involved in a common doom, because partakers of a common sin. The special reason for the terrible desire that the iniquity of his father and mother may never be blotted out seems to be, the desire that the accumulated consequences of hereditary sin may fall on the heads of the third generation-a dread wish, which experience shows is often tragically fulfilled, even when the sufferers are far less guilty than their ancestors. "Father, forgive them" is the strongest conceivable contrast to these awful prayers. But the psalmist’s petition implies that the sins in question were unrepented sins, and is, in fact, a cry that, as such, they should be requited in the "cutting off the memory" of such a brood of evildoers "from the earth."

In Psalms 109:16 a new turn of thought begins, which is pursued till Psalms 109:20 -namely, that of the self-retributive action of a perverted choice of evil. "He remembered not" to be gracious to him who needed compassion; therefore it is just that he should not be remembered on earth, and that his sin should be remembered in heaven. He deliberately chose cursing rather than blessing as his attitude and act towards others; therefore cursing comes to him and blessing remains far from him. as others’ attitude and act to him. The world is a mirror which, on the whole, gives back the smile or the frown which we present to it. Though the psalmist has complained that he had loved and been hated in return, he does not doubt that, in general, the curser is cursed back again and the blesser blessed. Outwardly and inwardly, the man is wrapped in and saturated with "cursing." Like a robe or a girdle, it encompasses him; like a draught of water, it passes into his inmost nature; like anointing oil oozing into the bones, it steals into every corner of his soul. His own doings come back to poison him. The kick of the gun which he fires is sure to hurt his own shoulder, and it is better to be in front of the muzzle than behind the trigger. The last word of these maledictions is not only a wish. but a declaration of the Law of Divine Retribution. The psalmist could not have found it in his heart to pray such a prayer unless he had been sure that Jehovah paid men’s wages punctually in full. and that conviction is the kernel of his awful words. He is equally sure that his cause is God’s-because he is sure that God’s cause is his, and that he suffers for righteousness and for the righteous Jehovah.

The final part (Psalms 109:21-31) returns to lowly, sad petitions for deliverance, of the kind common to many psalms. Very pathetically, and as with a tightening of his grasp, does the singer call on his helper by the double name "Jehovah, Lord," and plead all the pleas with God which are hived n these names. The prayer in Psalms 109:21 b resembles that in Psalms 69:16, another of the psalms of imprecation. The image of the long, drawn out shadow recurs in Psalms 102:11. The word rendered "am I gone" occurs here only, and implies compulsory departure. The same idea of external force hurrying one out of life is picturesquely presented in the parallel clause. "I am shaken out," as a thing which a man wishes to get rid of is shaken out of the folds of a garment. The psalmist thinks of himself as being whirled away, helpless, as a swarm of locusts blown into the sea. The physical feebleness in Psalms 109:24 is probably to be taken literally, as descriptive of the havoc wrought on him by his persecutions and trouble of soul, but may be, as often, metaphor for that trouble itself.

The expression in Psalms 109:24 b rendered above "falls away from fatness" is literally "has become a liar," or faithless, which is probably a picturesque way of saying that the psalmist’s flesh had, as it were, become a renegade from its former well-nourished condition, and was emaciated by his sorrow.

Others would keep the literal meaning of the word rendered "fatness"-i.e. oil-and translate "My flesh has shrunk up for lack of oil" (so Baethgen and Kay).

One more glance at the enemies, now again regarded as many, and one more flash of confidence that his prayer is heard, close the psalm. Once again God is invoked by His name Jehovah, and the suppliant presses close to him as "my God"; once again he casts himself on that lovingkindness, whose measure is wider than his thoughts and will ensure him larger answers than his desires; once again he builds all his hope on it, and pleads no claims of his own. He longs for personal deliverance: but not only for personal ends, but rather that it may be an undeniable manifestation of Jehovah’s power. That is a high range of feeling which subordinates self to God even while longing for deliverance, and wishes more that He should be glorified than that self should be blessed. There is almost a smile on the psalmist’s face as he contrasts his enemies’ curses with God’s blessing, and thinks how ineffectual are these and how omnipotent is that. He takes the issue of the strife between cursing men and a blessing God to be as good as already decided. So he can look with new equanimity on the energetic preparations of his foes; for he sees in faith their confusion and defeat, and already feels some springing in his heart of the joy of victory, and is sure of already clothing themselves with shame. It is the prerogative of Faith to behold things that are not as though they were, and to live as in the hour of triumph even while in the thick of the fight.

The psalm began with addressing "the God of my praise"; it ends with the confidence and the vow that the singer will yet praise Him. It painted an adversary standing at the right hand of the wicked to condemn him; it ends with the assurance that Jehovah stands at the right hand of His afflicted servant, as his advocate to protect him. The wicked man was to "go out guilty"; he whom God defends shall come forth from all that would judge his soul. "If God be for us, who can be against us? It is God that justifieth: who is he that condemneth?"

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 109". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".