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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 36

Verses 1-12

Psalms 36:1-12

THE supposition that the sombre picture of "the wicked" in Psalms 36:1-4 was originally unconnected with the glorious hymn in Psalms 36:5-9 fails to give weight to the difference between the sober pace of pedestrian prose and the swift flight of winged poetry. It fails also in apprehending the instinctive turning of a devout meditative spectator from the darkness of earth and its sins to the light above. The one refuge from the sad vision of evil here is in the faith that God is above it all, and that His name is Mercy. Nor can the blackness of the one picture be anywhere so plainly seen as when it is set in front of the brightness of the other. A religious man, who has laid to heart the miserable sights of which earth is full, will scarcely think that the psalmist’s quick averting of his eyes from these to steep them in the light of God is unnatural, or that the original connection of the two parts of this psalm is an artificial supposition. Besides this, the closing section of prayer is tinged with references to the first part, and derives its raison d’etre from it. The three parts form an organic whole.

The gnarled obscurity of the language in which the "wicked" is described corresponds to the theme, and contrasts strikingly with the limpid flow of the second part. "The line, too, labours" as it tries to tell the dark thoughts that move to dark deeds. Psalms 36:1-2 unveil the secret beliefs of the sinner, Psalms 36:3-4 his consequent acts. As the text stands, it needs much torturing to get a tolerable meaning out of Psalms 36:1, and the slight alteration, found in the LXX and in some old versions, of "his heart" instead of "my heart" smooths the difficulty. We have then a bold personification of "Transgression" as speaking in the secret heart of the wicked, as in some dark cave, such as heathen oracle-mongers haunted. There is bitter irony in using the sacred word which stamped the prophets’ utterances, and which we may translate oracle, for the godless lies muttered in the sinner’s heart. This is the account of how men come to do evil: that there is a voice within whispering falsehood. And the reason why that bitter voice has the shrine to itself is that "there is no fear of God before" the man’s "eyes." The two clauses of Psalms 36:1 are simply set side by side, leaving the reader to spell out their logical relation. Possibly the absence of the fear of God may be regarded as both the occasion and the result of the oracle of Transgression, since, in fact, it is both. Still more obscure is Psalms 36:2 Who is the "flatterer"? The answers are conflicting. The "wicked," say some, but if so, "in his own eyes" is superfluous; God, say others, but that requires a doubtful meaning for "flatters"-namely, "treats gently"-and is open to the same objection as the preceding in regard to "in his own eyes." The most natural supposition is that transgression, which was represented in Psalms 36:1 as speaking, is here also meant. Clearly the person in whose eyes the flattery is real is the wicked, and therefore its speaker must be another. "Sin beguiled me," says Paul, and therein echoes this psalmist. Transgression in its oracle is one of "those juggling fiends that palter with us in a double sense," promising delights and impunity. But the closing words of Psalms 36:2 are a crux. Conjectural emendations have been suggested, but do not afford much help. Probably the best way is to take the text as it stands, and make the best of it. The meaning it yields is harsh, but tolerable: "to find out his sin, to hate" (it?). Who finds out sin? God. If He is the finder, it is He who also hates; and if it is sin that is the object of the one verb, it is most natural to suppose it that of the other also. The two verbs are infinitives, with the preposition of purpose or of reference prefixed. Either meaning is allowable. If the preposition is taken as implying reference, the sense will be that the glossing whispers of sin deceive a man in regard to the discovery of his wrong doing and God’s displeasure at it. Impunity is promised, and God’s holiness is smoothed down. If, on the other hand, the idea of purpose is adopted, the solemn thought emerges that the oracle is spoken with intent to ruin the deluded listener and set his secret sins in the condemning light of God’s face. Sin is cruel, and a traitor. This profound glimpse into the depths of a soul without the fear of God is followed by the picture of the consequences of such practical atheism, as seen in conduct. It is deeply charged with blackness and unrelieved by any gleam of light. Falsehood, abandonment of all attempts to do right, insensibility to the hallowing influences of nightly solitude, when men are wont to see their evil more clearly in the dark, like phosphorous streaks on the wall, obstinate planting the feet in ways not good, a silenced conscience which has no movement of aversion to evil-these are the fruits of that oracle of Transgression when it has its perfect work. We may call such a picture the idealisation of the character described, but there have been men who realised it, and the warning is weighty that such a uniform and all-enwrapping darkness is the terrible goal towards which all listening to that bitter voice tends. No wonder that the psalmist wrenches himself swiftly away from such a sight!

The two strophes of the second division (Psalms 36:5-6 and Psalms 36:7-9) present the glorious realities of the Divine name in contrast with the false oracle of Psalms 36:1-2, and the blessedness of God’s guests in contrast with the gloomy picture of the "wicked" in Psalms 36:3-4. It is noteworthy that the first and last-named "attributes" are the same. "Lovingkindness" begins and ends the glowing series. That stooping, active love encloses, like a golden circlet, all else that men can know or say of the perfection whose name is God. It is the white beam into which all colours melt, and from which all are evolved. As science feels after the reduction of all forms of physical energy to one, for which there is no name but energy, all the adorable glories of God pass into one, which He has bidden us call love. "Thy lovingkindness is in the heavens," towering on high. It is like some Divine aether, filling all space. The heavens are the home of light. They arch above every head; they rim every horizon; they are filled with nightly stars; they open into abysses as the eye gazes; they bend unchanged and untroubled above a weary earth; from them fall benedictions of rain and sunshine. All these subordinate allusions may lie in the psalmist’s thought, while its main intention is to magnify the greatness of that mercy as heaven high.

But mercy standing alone might seem to lack a guarantee of its duration, and therefore the strength of "faithfulness," unalterable continuance in a course begun, and adherence to every promise either spoken in words or implied in creation or providence, is added to the tenderness of mercy. The boundlessness of that faithfulness is the main thought, but the contrast of the whirling, shifting clouds with it is striking. The realm of eternal purpose and enduring act reaches to and stretches above the lower region where change rules.

But a third glory has yet to be flashed before glad eyes, God’s "righteousness," which here is not merely nor mainly punitive, but delivering, or, perhaps in a still wider view, the perfect conformity of His nature with the ideal of ethical completeness. Right is the same for heaven as for earth, and "whatsoever things are just" have their home in the bosom of God. The point of comparison with "the mountains of God" is, as in the previous clauses, their loftiness, which expresses greatness and elevation above our reach; but the subsidiary ideas of permanence and sublimity are not to be overlooked. "The mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed, but His righteousness endures forever." There is safe hiding there, in the fastnesses of that everlasting hill. From character the psalmist passes to acts. and sets all the Divine dealings forth under the one category of "judgments," the utterances in act of His judicial estimate of men. Mountains seem highest and ocean broadest when the former rise sheer from the water’s edge, as Carmel does. The immobility of the silent hills is wonderfully contrasted with the ever-moving sea, which to the Hebrew was the very home of mystery. The obscurity of the Divine judgments is a subject of praise, if we hold fast by faith in God’s lovingkindness, faithfulness, and righteousness. They are obscure by reason of their vast scale, which permits the vision of only a fragment. How little of the ocean is seen from any shore! But there is no arbitrary obscurity. The sea is "of glass mingled with fire"; and if the eye cannot pierce its depths, it is not because of any darkening impurity in the crystal clearness, but simply because not even light can travel to the bottom. The higher up on the mountains men go, the deeper down can they see into that ocean. It is a hymn, not an indictment, which says, "Thy judgments are a great deep." But however the heights tower and the abysses open, there is a strip of green, solid earth on which "man and beast" live in safe plenty. The plain blessings of an all-embracing providence should make it easier to believe in the unmingled goodness of acts which are too vast for men to judge and of that mighty name which towers above their conceptions. What they see is goodness; what they cannot see must be of a piece. The psalmist is in "that serene and blessed mood" when the terrible mysteries of creation and providence do not interfere with his "steadfast faith that all which he beholds is full of blessings." There are times when these mysteries press with agonising force on devout souls, but there should also be moments when the pure love of the perfectly good God is seen to fill all space and outstretch all dimensions of height and depth and breadth. The awful problems of pain and death will be best dealt with by those who can echo the rapture of this psalm.

If God is such, what is man’s natural attitude to so great and sweet a name? Glad wonder, accepting His gift as the one precious thing, and faith sheltering beneath the great shadow of His outstretched wing. The exclamation in Psalms 36:8, "How precious is Thy lovingkindness!" expresses not only. its intrinsic value, but the devout soul’s appreciation of it. The secret of blessedness and test of true wisdom lie in a sane estimate of the worth of God’s lovingkindness as compared with all other treasures. Such an estimate leads to trust in Him, as the psalmist implies by his juxtaposition of the two clauses of Psalms 36:7, though he connects them, not by an expressed "therefore," but by the simple copula. The representation of trust as taking refuge reappears here, with its usual suggestions of haste and peril. The "wing" of God suggests tenderness and security. And the reason for trust is enforced in the designation "sons of men," partakers of weakness and mortality, and therefore needing the refuge which, in the wonderfulness of His lovingkindness, they find under the pinions of so great a God.

The psalm follows the refugees into their hiding place, and shows how much more than bare shelter they find there. They are God’s guests. and royally entertained as such. The joyful priestly feasts in the Temple colour the metaphor, but the idea of hospitable reception of guests is the more prominent. The psalmist speaks the language of that true and wholesome mysticism without which religion is feeble and formal. The root ideas of his delineation of the blessedness of the fugitives to God are their union with God and possession of Him. Such is the magical might of lowly trust that by it weak dying "sons of men" are so knit to the God whose glories the singer has been celebrating that they partake of Himself and are saturated with His sufficiency, drink of His delights in some deep sense, bathe in the fountain of life, and have His light for their organ and medium and object of sight. These great sentences beggar all exposition. They touch on the rim of infinite things, whereof only the nearer fringe comes within our ken in this life. The soul that lives in God is satisfied, having real possession of the only adequate object. The variety of desires, appetites, and needs requires manifoldness in their food, but the unity of our nature demands that all that manifoldness should be in One. Multiplicity in objects, aims, loves, is misery; oneness is blessedness. We need a lasting good and an ever-growing one to meet and unfold the capacity of indefinite growth. Nothing but God can satisfy the narrowest human capacity.

Union with Him is the source of all delight, as of all true fruition of desires. Possibly a reference to Eden may be intended in the selection of the word for "pleasures," which is a cognate with that name. So there may be allusion to the river which watered that garden, and the thought may be that the present life of the guest of God is not all unlike the delights of that vanished paradise. We may perhaps scarcely venture on supposing that "Thy pleasures" means those which the blessed God Himself possesses; but even if we take the lower and safer meaning of those which God gives, we may bring into connection Christ’s own gift to His disciples of His own peace, and His assurance that faithful servants will "enter into the joy of their Lord." Shepherd and sheep drink of the same brook by the way and of the same living fountains above. The psalmist’s conception of religion is essentially joyful. No doubt there are sources of sadness peculiar to a religious man, and he is necessarily shut out from much of the effervescent poison of earthly joys drugged with sin. Much in his life is inevitably grave, stern, and sad. But the sources of joy opened are far deeper than those that are closed. Surface wells (many of them little better than open sewers) may be shut up, but an unfailing stream is found in the desert. Satisfaction and joy flow from God because life and light are with Him; and therefore he who is with Him has them for his. "With Thee is the fountain of life" is true in every sense of the word "life." In regard to life natural, the saying embodies a loftier conception of the Creator’s relation to the creature than the mechanical notion of creation. The fountain pours its waters into stream or basin, which it keeps full by continual flow. Stop the efflux, and these are dried up. So the great mystery of life in all its forms is as a spark from a fire, a drop from a fountain, or, as Scripture puts it in regard to man, a breath from God’s own lips. In a very real sense, wherever life is, there God is, and only by some form of union with him or by the presence of His power, which is Himself, do creatures live. But the psalm is dealing with the blessings belonging to those who trust beneath the shadow of God’s wing; therefore life here, in this verse, is no equivalent to mere existence, physical or self-conscious, but it must be taken in its highest spiritual sense. Union with God is its condition, and that union is brought to pass by taking refuge with Him. The deep words anticipated the explicit teaching of the Gospel in so far as they proclaimed these truths, but the greatest utterance still remained unspoken: that this life is "in His Son."

Light and life are closely connected. Whether knowledge, purity, or joy is regarded as the dominant idea in the symbol, or whether all are united in it, the profound words of the psalm are true. In God’s light we see light. In the lowest region "the seeing eye is from the Lord." "The inspiration of the Almighty giveth understanding." Faculty and medium of vision are both of Him. But hearts in communion with God are illumined, and they who are "in the light" cannot walk in darkness. Practical wisdom is theirs. The light of God, like the star of the Magi, stoops to guide pilgrims’ steps. Clear certitude as to sovereign realities is the guerdon of the guests of God. Where other eyes see nothing but mists, they can discern solid land and the gleaming towers of the city across the sea. Nor is that light only the dry light by which we know, but it means purity and joy also; and to "see light" is to possess these too by derivation from the purity and joy of God Himself. He is the "master light of all our seeing." The fountain has become a stream, and taken to itself movement towards men; for the psalmist’s glowing picture is more than fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who has said, "I am the Light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."

The closing division is prayer based both upon the contemplation of God’s attributes in Psalms 36:5-6, and of the wicked in the first part. This distinct reference to both the preceding sections is in favour of the original unity of the psalm. The belief in the immensity of Divine lovingkindness and righteousness inspires the prayer for their long, drawn out (so "continue" means literally) continuance to the psalmist and his fellows. He will not separate himself from these in his petition, but thinks of them before himself. "Those who know Thee" are those who take refuge under the shadow of the great wing. Their knowledge is intimate, vital; it is acquaintanceship, not mere intellectual apprehension. It is such as to purge the heart and make its possessors upright. Thus we have set forth in that sequence of trust, knowledge, and uprightness stages of growing God-likeness closely corresponding to the Gospel sequence of faith, love, and holiness. Such souls are capaces Dei, fit to receive the manifestations of God’s lovingkindness and righteousness; and from such these will never remove. They will stand stable as His firm attributes, and the spurning foot of proud oppressors shall not trample on them, nor violent hands be able to stir them from their steadfast, secure place. The prayer of the psalm goes deeper than any mere deprecation of earthly removal, and is but prosaically understood, if thought to refer to exile or the like. The dwelling place from which it beseeches that the suppliant may never be removed is his safe refuge beneath the wing, or in the house, of God. Christ answered it when He said, "No man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand." The one desire of the heart which has tasted the abundance, satisfaction, delights, fulness of life, and clearness of light that attend the presence of God is that nothing may draw it thence.

Prayer wins prophetic certitude. From his serene shelter under the wing, the suppliant looks out on the rout of baffled foes, and sees the end which gives the lie to the oracle of transgression and its flatteries. "They are struck down," the same word as in the picture of the pursuing angel of the Lord in Psalms 35:1-28. Here the agent of their fall is unnamed, but one power only can inflict such irrevocable ruin. God, who is the shelter of the upright in heart, has at last found out the sinner’s iniquity, and His hatred of sin stands ready to "smite once, and smite no more."

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 36". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".