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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 141

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-10

Psalms 141:1-10

PART of this psalm is hopelessly obscure, and the connection is difficult throughout. It is a prayer of a harassed soul, tempted to slacken its hold on God, and therefore betaking itself to Him. Nothing more definite as to author or occasion can be said with certainty.

The allusions in Psalms 141:6-7 are dark to us, and the psalm must, in many parts, remain an enigma. Probably Baethgen and Cheyne are wise in giving up the attempt to extract any intelligible meaning from Psalms 141:5 c and Psalms 141:6 as the words stand, and falling back on asterisks. Delitzsch regards the psalm as being composed as suitable to "a Davidic situation," either by David himself, or by some one who wished to give expression in strains like David’s to David’s probable mood. It would thus be a "Dramatic Idyll," referring, according to Delitzsch, to Absalom’s revolt. Psalms 141:2 is taken by him to allude to the king’s absence from the sanctuary, and the obscure Psalms 141:6, to the fate of the leaders of the revolt and the return of the mass of the people to loyal submission. But this is a very precarious reference.

The psalm begins with the cry to God to hear, which so often forms the introduction to psalms of complaint and supplications for deliverance. But here a special colouring is given by the petition that the psalmist’s prayers may be equivalent to incense and sacrifice. It does not follow that he was shut out from outward participation in worship, but only that he had learned what that worship meant. "Appear" might be rendered established. The word means to be set firm, or, reflexively, to station oneself and hence is taken by some as equivalent to "appear" or "come" before Thee; while others give prominence rather to the notion of stability in the word, and take it to mean continue-i.e., be accepted. There may be a reference to the morning sacrifice in the "incense," so that both morning and evening ritual would be included; but it is more natural to think of the evening incense, accompanying the evening "meal offering," and to suppose that the psalm is an evening prayer. The penetrating insight into the realities of spiritual worship which the singer has gained is more important to note than such questions about the scope of his figures.

The prayer in Psalms 141:3-4 is for deliverance not from dangers, but from temptation to sin in word or deed. The psalmist is not suffering from the hostility of the workers of iniquity, but dreads becoming infected with their sin. This phase of trial was not David’s in Absalom’s revolt, and the prominence given to it here makes Delitzsch’s view of the psalm very doubtful. An earlier psalmist had vowed to "put a muzzle on his mouth," but a man’s own guard over his words will fail, unless God keeps the keeper, and, as it were, sets a sentry to watch the lips. The prayer for strength to resist temptation to wrong acts, which follows that against wrong speech, is curiously loaded with synonymous terms. The psalmist asks that his heart, which is but too apt to feel the risings of inclination to fall in with the manners around him, may be stiffened into wholesome loathing of every evil-"To practise practices in wickedness with men [perhaps, great men] who work iniquity." The clause rather drags, and the proposed insertion of "Let me not sit" before "with men that work iniquity" lightens the weight, and supplies a good parallel with "Let me not eat of their dainties." It is, however, purely conjectural, and the existing reading is intelligible, though heavy. The psalmist wishes to keep clear of association with the corrupt society around him, and desires to be preserved from temptations to fall in with its luxurious sensuality, lest thereby he should slide into imitation of its sins. He chose plain living, because he longed for high thinking, and noble doing, and grave, reverend speech. All this points to a period when the world fought against goodness by proffering vulgar delights, rather than by persecution. Martyrs have little need to pray that they may not be tempted by persecutors’ feasts. This man "scorned delights" and chose to dwell with good men.

The connection of Psalms 141:5 with the preceding seems to be that in it the psalmist professes his preference for the companionship of the righteous, even if they reprove him. It is better, in his judgment, to have the wholesome correction of the righteous than to feast with the wicked. But while this is the bearing of the first part of the verse, the last clause is obscure, almost to unintelligibility, and even the earlier ones are doubtful. If the Hebrew accents are adhered to, the rendering above must be adopted. The division of clauses and rendering adopted by Hupfeld and many others, and in the A.V. and R.V., gives vividness, but requires "it shall be" to be twice supplied. The whole sentence seems to run more smoothly, if the above translation is accepted. "Oil for the head" is that with which the head is anointed as for a feast and there is probably a tacit suggestion of a better festival, spread in the austere abodes of the righteous poor, than on the tables loaded with the dainties of the wicked rich.

But what is the meaning and bearing of the last clause of Psalms 141:5? No wholly satisfactory answer has been given. It is needless here to travel through the various more or less violent and unsuccessful attempts to unravel the obscurities of this clause and of the next verse. One sympathises with Hupfeld’s confession that it is an unwelcome (sauer) task to him to quote the whirl of varying conjectures. The rendering adopted above, as, on the whole, the least unlikely, is substantially Delitzsch’s. It means that the psalmist "will oppose no weapon but prayer to his enemies’ wickedness, and is therefore in the spiritual mood susceptible to well-meaning reproof." The logic of the clause is not very clear, even with this explanation. The psalmist’s continuance in prayer against the wicked is not very obviously a reason for his accepting kindly rebuke. But no better explanation is proposed.

The darkness thickens in Psalms 141:6. The words indeed are all easily translatable; but what the whole sentence means, or what an allusion to the destruction of some unnamed people’s rulers has to do here, or who they are who hear the psalmist’s words, are questions as yet unanswered. To cast men down "by the sides [lit., hands] of a rock" is apparently an expression for the cruel punishment mentioned as actually inflicted on ten thousand of the "children of Seir". {2 Chronicles 25:12} Those who, with Delitzsch, take the revolt under Absalom to be the occasion of the psalm, find in the casting down of these judges an imaginative description of the destruction of the leaders of the revolt, who are supposed to be hurled down the rocks by the people whom they had misled while the latter, having again come to their right mind, attend to David’s word and find it pleasant and beneficent. But this explanation requires much supplementing of the language, and does not touch the difficulty of bringing the verse into connection with the preceding.

Nor is the connection with what follows more clear. A various reading substitutes "Their" for "Our" in Psalms 141:7, and so makes the whole verse a description of the bones of the ill-fated "judges" lying in a litter at the base of the precipice. But apparently the reading is merely an attempt to explain the difficulty. Clearly enough the verse gives an extraordinarily energetic and graphic picture of a widespread slaughter. But who are the slain, and what event or events in the history of Israel are here imaginatively reproduced, is quite unknown. All that is certain is the tremendous force of the representation, the Aeschylean ruggedness of the metaphor, and the desperate condition to which it witnesses. The point of the figure lies in the resemblance of the bones strewn at the mouth of Sheol to broken clods turned up by a plough. Sheol seems here to waver between the meanings of the unseen world of souls and the grave. The unburied bones of slaughtered saints "lie scattered," as unregarded as the lumps of soil behind the ploughman.

In Psalms 141:8-10 the familiar psalm tone recurs, and the language clears itself. The stream has been foaming among rocks in a gorge, but it has emerged into sunlight, and flows smoothly. Only the "For" at the beginning of Psalms 141:8 is difficult, if taken to refer to the immediately preceding verses. Rather, it overleaps the obscure middle part of the psalm, and links on to the petitions of Psalms 141:1-4. Patient, trustful expectance is the psalmist’s temper, which gazes not interrogatively, but with longing which is sure of satisfaction, towards God, from amidst the temptations or sorrows of earth. The reason for that fixed, look of faith lies in the Divine names, so rich in promise, which are here blended in an unusual combination. The devout heart pleads its own act of faith in conjunction with God’s names, and is sure that, since He is Jehovah, Lord, it cannot be vain to hide oneself in Him. Therefore, the singer prays for preservation from destruction. "Pour not out my soul" recalls Isaiah 53:12, where the same vivid metaphor is used. The prayer of the earlier verses was for protection from temptation; here, circumstances have darkened, and the psalmist’s life is in danger. Possibly the "snares" and "gins" of Psalms 141:9 mean both temptations and perils.

The final petition in Psalms 141:10 is like many in earlier psalms. It was a fundamental article of faith for all the psalmists that a great Lex Talionis was at work, by which every sin was avenged in kind; and if one looks deeper than the outside of life, the faith is eternally warranted. For nothing is more certain than that, whomsoever else a man may harm by his sin, he harms himself most. Nets woven and spread for others may or may not ensnare them, but their meshes cling inextricably round the feet of their author, and their tightening folds will wrap him helpless, like a fly in a spider’s web. The last clause presents some difficulties. The word rendered above "at the same time" is literally "together," but seems to be used here, Psalms 4:8 (at once), with the meaning of simultaneously. The two things are cotemporaneous-the enemies’ ensnaring and the psalmist’s escape. The clause is abnormal in its order of words. It stands thus: "At the same time I, while [until] I pass by." Probably the irregularity arose from a desire to put the emphatic word "at the same time" in the prominent place. It is doubtful whether we should translate "while" or "until." Authorities are divided, and either meaning is allowable. But though the rendering until gives picturesqueness to the representation of the snared foe restrained and powerless, until his hoped for prey walks calmly, through the toils, the same idea is conveyed by while, and that rendering avoids the implication that the snaring lasted only as long as the time taken for the psalmist’s escape. What is uppermost in the psalmist’s mind is, in any case, not the destruction of his enemies, but their being made powerless to prevent his "passing by" their snares uncaptured.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 141". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-141.html.
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