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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 7

Verses 1-17

THIS is the only psalm with the title "Shiggaion." The word occurs only here and in Habakkuk 3:1, where it stands in the plural, and with the preposition "upon," as if it designated instruments. The meaning is unknown, and commentators, who do not like to say so, have much ado to find one. The root is a verb, "to wander," and the explanation is common that the word describes the disconnected character of the psalm, which is full of swiftly succeeding emotions rather than of sequent thoughts. But there is no such exceptional discontinuity as to explain the title. It may refer to the character of the musical accompaniment rather than to that of the words. The authorities are all at sea, the LXX shirking the difficulty by rendering "psalm," others giving "error" or "ignorance," with allusion to David’s repentance after cutting off Saul’s skirt or to Saul’s repentance of his persecuting David. The later Jewish writers quoted by Neubauer ("Studia Biblic.," 2:36, sq.) guess at most various meanings, such as "love and pleasure," "occupation with music," "affliction," "humility," while others, again, explain it as the name of a musical instrument. Clearly the antiquity of the title is proved by this unintelligibility. If we turn to the other part of it, we find further evidence of age and of independence. Who was "Cush, a Benjamite"? He is not mentioned elsewhere. The author of the title, then, had access to some sources for David’s life other than the Biblical records; and, as Hupfeld acknowledges, we have here evidence of ancient ascription of authorship which "has more weight than most of the others." Cush has been supposed to be Shimei or Saul himself, and to have been so called because of his swarthy complexion (Cush meaning an African) or as a jest, because of his personal beauty. Cheyne, following Krochmal, would correct into "because of [Mordecai] the son of Kish, a Benjamite," and finds in this entirely conjectural and violent emendation an "attestation that the psalm was very early regarded as a work of the Persian age" ("Orig. of Psalt.," p. 229). But there is really no reason of weight for denying the Davidic authorship, as Ewald, Hitzig, Hupfeld, and Riehm allow; and there is much in 1 Samuel 24:1-22; 1 Samuel 25:1-44; 1 Samuel 26:1-25, correspondent with the situation and emotions of the psalmist here, such as, e.g., the protestations of innocence, the calumnies launched at him, and the call on God to judge. The tone of the psalm is high and courageous, in remarkable contrast to the depression of spirit in the former psalm, up out of which the singer had to pray himself. Here, on the contrary, he fronts the enemy, lion like though he be, without a quiver. It is the courage of innocence and of trust. Psalms 6:1-10 wailed like some soft flute; Psalms 7:1-17 peals like the trumpet of judgment, and there is triumph in the note. The whole may be divided into three parts, of which the close of the first is marked by the Selah at the end of Psalms 7:5; and the second includes Psalms 7:6-10. Thus we have the appeal of innocence for help (Psalms 7:1-5), the cry for more than help-namely, definite judgment (Psalms 7:6-10)-and the vision of judgment (Psalms 7:11-17).

The first section has two main thoughts: the cry for help and the protestation of innocence. It is in accordance with the bold triumphant tone of the psalm that its first words are a profession of faith in Jehovah. It is well to look to God before looking at dangers and foes. He who begins with trust can go on to think of the fiercest antagonism without dismay. Many of the psalms ascribed to David begin thus, but it is no mere stereotyped formula. Each represents a new act of faith, in the presence of a new danger. The word for "put trust" here is very illuminative and graphic, meaning properly the act of fleeing to a refuge. It is sometimes blended with the image of a sheltering rock, sometimes with the still tenderer one of a mother bird, as when Ruth "came to trust under the wings of Jehovah," and in many other places. The very essence of the act of faith is better expressed by that metaphor than by much subtle exposition. Its blessedness as bringing security and warm shelter and tenderness more than maternal is wrapped up in the sweet and instructive figure. The many enemies are, as it were, embodied in one, on whom the psalmist concentrates his thoughts as the most formidable and fierce. The metaphor of the lion is common in the psalms attributed to David, and is, at all events, natural in the mouth of a shepherd king, who had taken a lion by the beard. He is quite aware of his peril, if God does not help him, but he is so sure of his safety, since he trusts, that he can contemplate the enemy’s power unmoved, like a man standing within arm’s length of the lion’s open jaws, but with a strong grating between. This is the blessing of true faith, not the oblivion of dangers, but the calm fronting of them because our refuge is in God.

Indignant repelling of slander follows the first burst of triumphant trust (Psalms 7:3-5). Apparently "the words of Cush" were calumnies poisoning Saul’s suspicious nature, such as David refers to in 1 Samuel 24:9: "Wherefore hearkenest thou to men’s words, saying, Behold, David seekest thy hurt?" The emphatic and enigmatic This in Psalms 7:3 is unintelligible, unless it refers to some slander freshly coined, the base malice of which stirs its object into flashing anger and vehement self-vindication. The special point of the falsehood is plain from the repudiation. He had been charged with attempting to injure one who was at peace with him. That is exactly what "men’s words" charged on David, "saying, Behold, David seeketh thy hurt" (1 Samuel, as above), "If there be iniquity in my hands" is very like. "See that there is neither evil nor transgression in mine hand, and I have not sinned against thee"! "Thou huntest after my soul to take it" (1 Samuel) is also like our Psalms 7:1: "them that pursue me," and Psalms 7:5: "let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it." The specific form of this protestation of innocence finds no explanation in the now favourite view of the sufferer in the psalm as being the righteous nation. The clause which is usually treated as a parenthesis in Psalms 7:4, and translated, as in the R.V, "I have delivered him that without cause was mine adversary," is needlessly taken by Delitzsch and others as a continuation of the hypothetical clauses, and rendered, with a change in the meaning of the verb, "And if I have despoiled him," etc.; but it is better taken as above and referred to the incident in the cave when David spared Saul’s life. What meaning would that clause have with the national reference? The metaphor of a wild beast in chase of its prey colours the vehement declaration in Psalms 7:5 of readiness to suffer if guilty. We see the swift pursuit, the victim overtaken and trampled to death. There may also be an echo of the Song of Miriam: {Exodus 15:9} "The enemy said, I will pursue; I will overtake." To "lay my glory in the dust" is equivalent to "bring down my soul to the dust of death." Man’s glory is his "soul." Thus, nobly throbbing with conscious innocence and fronting unmerited hate, the rush of words stops, to let the musical accompaniment blare on, for a while, as if defiant and confident.

The second section of the psalm (Psalms 7:6-10) is a cry for the coming of the Divine Judge. The previous prayer was content with deliverance, but this takes a bolder flight, and asks for the manifestation of the punitive activity of God on the enemies, who, as usually, are identified with "evil-doers." The grand metaphors in "Arise," "Lift up Thyself." "Awake." mean substantially the same thing. The long periods during which evil works and flaunts with impunity are the times when God sits as if passive and, in a figure still more daring, as if asleep. When His destructive power flashed into act, and some long-tolerated iniquity was smitten at a blow, the Hebrew singers saw therein God springing to His feet or awaking to judgment. Such long stretches of patient permission of evil and of swift punishment are repeated through, the ages, and individual lives have them in miniature. The great judgments of nations and the small ones of single men embody the same principles, just as the tiniest crystal has the same angles and lines of cleavage as the greatest of its kind. So this psalmist has penetrated to a true discernment of the relations of the small and the great, when he links his own vindication by the judicial act of God with the pomp and splendour of a world wide judgment, and bases his prayer for the former on the Divine purpose to effect the latter. The sequence, "The Lord ministereth judgment to the peoples"-therefore-"judge me, O Lord," does not imply that the "me" is the nation, but simply indicates as the ground of the individual hope of a vindicating judgment the Divine fact, of which history had given him ample proof and faith gave, him still fuller evidence, that God, though He sometimes seemed to sleep, did indeed judge the nations. The prerogative of the poet, and still more, the instinct of the inspired spirit, is to see the law of the greatest exemplified in the small and to bring every triviality of personal life into contact with God and His government. The somewhat harsh construction of the last clause of Psalms 7:6 begins the transition from the prayer for the smaller to the assurance of the greater judgment which is its basis, and similarly the first clause of Psalms 7:8 closes the picture of that wider act, and the next clause returns to the prayer. This picture, thus embedded in the heart of the supplication, is majestic in its few broad strokes. First comes the appointment of judgment, then the assembling of the "peoples," which here may, perhaps, have the narrower meaning of the "tribes," since "congregation" is the word used for them in their national assembly, and would scarcely be employed for the collection of Gentile nations. But whether the concourse be all Israel or all nations, they are gathered in silent expectance as in a great judgment hall. Then enters the Judge. If we retain the usual reading and rendering of Psalms 7:7 b, the act of judgment is passed over in silence, and the poet beholds God, the judgment finished, soaring above the awe-struck multitudes, in triumphant return to the repose of His heavenly throne. But the slight emendation of the text, needed to yield the meaning "Sit Thou above it," is worthy of consideration. In either case, the picture closes with the repeated assurance of the Divine judgment of the peoples, and (Psalms 7:8) the prayer begins again. The emphatic assertion of innocence must be taken in connection with the slanders already repudiated. The matter in hand is the evils charged on the psalmist, for which he was being chased as if by lions, the judgment craved is the chastisement of his persecutors, and the innocence professed is simply the innocence which they calumniated. The words have no bearing at all on the psalmist’s general relation to the Divine law, nor is there any need to have recourse to the hypothesis that the speaker is the "righteous nation." It is much more difficult to vindicate a member of that remnant from the charge of overestimating the extent and quality of even the righteous nation’s obedience, if he meant to allege, as that interpretation would make him do, that the nation was pure in life and heart, than it is to vindicate the single psalmist vehemently protesting his innocence of the charges for which he was hunted. Cheyne confesses (Commentary in loc.) that the "psalmist’s view may seem too rose coloured," which is another way of acknowledging that the interpretation of the protestation as the voice of the nation is at variance with the facts of its condition.

The accents require Psalms 7:9 a to be rendered "Let wickedness make an end of the wicked," but that introduces an irrelevant thought of the suicidal nature of evil. It may be significant that the psalmist’s prayer is not for the destruction of the wicked, but of their wickedness. Such annihilation of evil is the great end of God’s judgment, and its consequence will be the establishment of the righteous. Again the prayer strengthens itself by the thought of God as righteous and as trying the hearts and reins (the seat of feeling). In the presence of rampant and all but triumphant evil, a man needs to feed hopes of its overthrow that would else seem vainest dreams, by gazing on the righteousness and searching power of God. Very beautifully does the order of the words in Psalms 7:9 suggest the kindred of the good man with God by closing each division of the verse with "righteous." A righteous man has a claim on a righteous God. Most naturally then the prayer ends with the calm confidence of Psalms 7:10: "My shield is upon God." He Himself bears the defence of the psalmist. This confidence he has won by his prayer, and in it he ceases to be a suppliant and becomes a seer.

The last section (Psalms 7:11-17) is a vision of the judgment prayed for, and may be supposed to be addressed to the enemy. If so, the hunted man towers above them, and becomes a rebuker. The character of God underlies the fact of judgment, as it had encouraged the prayer for it. What he had said to himself when his hope drooped, he now, as a prophet, peals out to men as making retribution sure: "God is a righteous Judge, yea a God that hath indignation every day." The absence of an object specified for the indignation makes its inevitable flow wherever there is evil the more vividly certain. If He is such, then of course follows the destruction of everyone who "turns not." Retribution is set forth with solemn vigour under four figures. First, God is as an armed enemy sharpening His sword in preparation for action, a work of time which in the Hebrew is represented as in process, and bending His bow, which is the work of a moment, and in the Hebrew is represented as a completed act. Another second, and the arrow will whizz. Not only is the bow bent, but (Psalms 7:11) the deadly arrows are aimed, and not only aimed, but continuously fed with flame. The Hebrew puts "At him" (the wicked) emphatically at the beginning of the verse, and uses the form of the verb which implies completed action for the "aiming" and that which implies incomplete for "making" the arrows burn. So the stern picture is drawn of God as in the moment before the outburst of His punitive energy-the sword sharpened, the bow bent, the arrows fitted, the burning stuff being smeared on their tips. What will happen when all this preparation blazes into action?

The next figure in Psalms 7:14 insists on the automatic action of evil in bringing punishment. It is the Old Testament version of "Sin when it is finished bringeth forth death." The evil-doer is boldly represented as "travailing with iniquity," and that metaphor is broken up into the two parts "He hath conceived mischief" and "He hath brought forth falsehood." The "falsehood," which is the thing actually produced, is so called, not because it deceives others, but because it mocks its producer with false hopes and never fulfils his purposes. This is but the highly metaphorical way of saying that a sinner never does what he means to do, but that the end of all his plans is disappointment. The law of the universe condemns him to feed on ashes and to make and trust in lies.

A third figure brings out more fully the idea implied in "falsehood," namely, the failure of evil to accomplish its doer’s purpose. Crafty attempts to trap others have an ugly habit of snaring their contriver. The irony of fortune tumbles the hunter into the pitfall dug by him for his prey. The fourth figure (Psalms 7:16) represents the incidence of his evil on the evil-doer as being certain as the fall of a stone thrown straight up, which will infallibly come back in the line of its ascent. Retribution is as sure as gravitation, especially if there is an Unseen Hand above, which adds impetus and direction to the falling weight. All these metaphors, dealing with the "natural" consequences of evil, are adduced as guarantees of God’s judgment, whence it is clear both that the psalmist is thinking not of some final future judgment, but of the continuous one of daily providence, and that he made no sharp line of demarcation between the supernatural and the natural. The qualities of things and the play of natural events are God’s working.

So the end of all is thanksgiving. A stern but not selfish nor unworthy thankfulness follows judgment, with praise which is not inconsistent with tears of pity, even as the act of judgment: which calls it forth is not inconsistent with Divine love. The vindication of God’s righteousness is worthily hymned by the choral thanksgivings of all who love righteousness. By judgment Jehovah makes Himself known as "most high," supreme over all creatures; and hence the music of thanksgiving celebrates Him under that name. The title "Elyon" here employed is regarded by Cheyne and others as a sign of late date, but the use of it seems rather a matter of poetic style than of chronology. Melchizedek, Balaam, and the king of Babylon {Isaiah 14:14} use it; it occurs in Daniel, but, with these exceptions, is confined to poetical passages, and cannot be made out to be a mark of late date, except by assuming the point in question-namely, the late date of the poetry, principally nineteen psalms, in which it occurs.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 7". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".