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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 140

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-13

Psalms 140:1-13

IN tone and contents this psalm has many parallels in the earlier books, especially among the psalms ascribed to David. Its originality lies principally in its use of peculiar words, and in the extreme obscurity of a part of it. The familiar situation of a man ringed about by slanderous enemies, the familiar metaphors of snares and traps, the familiar venture of faith flinging itself into God’s arms for refuge, the familiar prayers for retribution, are all here. One cannot argue about impressions, but the present writer receives the impression strongly from the psalm that it is cast in the Davidic manner by a later singer, and is rather an echo than an original voice, while, no doubt, the feelings expressed, both of distress and of confidence, are none the less felt by the singer, though he falls back on familiar forms for their expression.

The arrangement is in four strophes of approximately equal length, the first and third of which consist of three verses of two clauses each, while the fourth is abnormally elongated by having three clauses in Psalms 140:10, and the second (Psalms 140:4-5) has two verses of three clauses each. Selah again appears as dividing the strophes, but is omitted at the end of the fourth, to which a closing strophe of two verses is appended.

The first two strophes (Psalms 140:1-3 and Psalms 140:4-5) cover the same ground. Both set forth the psalmist’s need, and plead for deliverance. The first verse of the second strophe (Psalms 140:4) is almost identical with Psalms 140:1. Both paint the psalmist’s enemies as evil and violent, plotting against him privily. The only difference in the two strophes is in the metaphors describing the foes and their devices, and in the prominence given in the first to their slanderous and sharp tongues. The forms of their malice are like those in earlier psalms. A characteristic of the Psalter is the prominence given to hostility which has but bitter speech for its weapon. {Psalms 10:7; Psalms 58:4} The slanderer’s tongue is sharp, like a serpent’s, with which the popular opinion supposed that the venom was injected. The particular kind of serpent meant in Psalms 140:3 a-is doubtful, as the word is only found here.

The figures for hostility in the second strophe are the other equally familiar ones of setting snares and traps. The contrivers are here called "proud" since their hostility to God’s servant implies haughty antagonism to God. But they are not too proud to resort to tricks. Cunning and pride do not go well together, but they are united in these enemies, who spread a net "by the hand of the path."

In the third strophe, Faith rouses itself to lay hold on God. The psalmist turns from contemplating what his foes are doing, to realise what Jehovah is to him, and is wont to do for him. Since He is the singer’s God and protects him in all conflict, he "finds it in his heart" to ask confidently that the plots of the foe may be wrecked. Consciousness of danger drove the poet in the former strophes to prayer; Jehovah’s character and loving relations to him draw him, in this one.

"The day of battle" is literally "the day of armour"-when weapons clash and helmets are fitting wear. Then Jehovah will be as a headpiece to him, for He always gives the shape to His help which is required at the moment. The words in Psalms 140:8 for "desires" and "plan" are found here only.

The text here is evidently in some disorder, and the word which is now awkwardly attached to the end of Psalms 140:8 is by most commentators carried over to Psalms 140:9. The change of position clears away difficulties in both verses, but a considerable crop remains in this fourth strophe. The language becomes gnarled and obscure under the stress of the poet’s emotion, as he prays for the destruction of his persecutors. If the transference of the word from Psalms 140:8 to Psalms 140:9 is accepted, that verse describes in vivid fashion what in prose would have been cast into the form of, "When my encompassers lift up the head [i.e., in proud assault], then, " etc. The psalmist omits the particles which would give a hypothetical form, and prefers to set the two things side by side, and leave sympathetic readers to feel their connection. Psalms 140:10 is very obscure. According to the Hebrew text, the first clause would have to be rendered, "Let coals be thrown on them"; but such a rendering is "contrary to the usage of the language." The Hebrew margin, therefore, corrects into, "Let them [i.e., men indefinitely] cast down coals"; but this is harsh, and the office is strange as one attributed to men. The emendation which finds favour with most moderns substitutes for the inappropriate verb of the present text that which is used in precisely the same connection in Psalms 11:6, and gives the reading, "Let Him [i.e., Jehovah] rain coals on them." The following clause then swiftly adds another element of horror. Fire rains down from above; fire yawns below. They are beaten down by the burning storm, and they fall into a mass of flame. The noun in Psalms 140:10 c is found only here, and is by some rendered "pits," by others "floods," and by others is corrected into "nets." If "floods" is taken as the meaning, destruction by water is set by the side of that by fire, as if the antagonistic elements forgot their opposition and joined in strange amity to sweep the wicked from the earth. The terrible strophe ends with the assured declaration of the Divinely appointed transiency of the evil-doers, especially of the slanderers against whom the psalmist took refuge in Jehovah. They shall be soon cut off, and the hunters (Psalms 140:5) shall become the hunted. "Evil"-i.e., the punishment of their evil deeds-shall dog their heels, and with stroke after stroke chase them as dogs would follow vermin.

In Psalms 140:13-13, the poet comes back to brighter thoughts, and his words become limpid again with his change of mood. He "knows," as the result of meditation and experience, that not only he, but all the afflicted and needy, who are righteous and upright, have God on their side. He will stand by their side in their hour of distress; He will admit them to dwell by His side, in deep, still communion, made more real and sweet by the harassments of earth, which drive them for shelter and peace to His breast. That confidence is a certitude for the psalmist. He announces it with an "I know," and seals it with a "surely." Such is the issue of trouble which was spread before Jehovah, and vented itself in prayer.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 140". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-140.html.
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