Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,
says Yahweh of Hosts. Zechariah 4:6
Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in! Who is this King of Glory?
Yahweh of Hosts: He is the King of Glory. Psalm 24:9-10
The purpose of this paper is to present a selection of quotations from John Calvin's commentary on Psalms. These excerpts from the first 59 psalms represent exceptional insights either on the text itself or on Christian living. John Calvin was one of the great theologians of the Protestant Reformation. All excerpts are from the Baker edition in 22 volumes and given with no modification.
The sum of the whole is, that the servants of God must endeavour utterly to abhor the life of ungodly men. But as it is the policy of Satan to insinuate his deceits, in a very crafty way, the prophet, in order that none may be insensibly deceived, shows how by little and little men are ordinarily induced to turn aside from the right path. They do not, at the first step, advance so far as a proud contempt of God; but having once begun to give ear to evil counsel, Satan leads them, step by step, farther astray, till they rush headlong into open transgression. The prophet, therefore, begins with counsel, by which term I understand the wickedness which does not as yet show itself openly. Then he speaks of the way, which is to be understood of the customary mode or manner of living. And he places at the top of the climax the seat, by which metaphorical expression he designates the obduracy produced by the habit of a sinful life. In the same way, also, ought the three phrases, to walk, to stand, and to sit, to be understood. When a person willingly walks after the gratification of his corrupt lusts, the practice of sinning so infatuates him, that, forgetful of himself, he grows hardened in wickedness; and this the prophet terms standing in the way of sinners. Then at length follows a desperate obstinacy, which he expresses by the figure of sitting. . . . And if, in the time of the Psalmist, it was necessary for the devout worshippers of God to withdraw themselves from the company of the ungodly, in order to frame their life aright, how much more in the present day, when the world has become so much more corrupt, ought we carefully to avoid all dangerous society, that we may be kept unstained by its impurities.
David's enemies did not, indeed, think they were making a violent attack against God, yea, they would resolutely deny their having any such intention; yet it is not without reason that David places God in opposition to them, and speaks as if they directly levelled their attacks against him; for by seeking to undermine the kingdom which he had erected, they blindly and ferociously waged war against Him. If all those are rebels against God who resist the powers ordained by him, much more does this apply to that sacred kingdom which was established by special privilege.
But it is now high time to come to the substance of the type. That David prophesied concerning Christ, is clearly manifest from this, that he knew his own kingdom to be merely a shadow. And in order to learn to apply to Christ whatever David, in times past, sang concerning himself, we must hold this principle, which we meet with everywhere in all of the prophets, that he, with his posterity, was made king, not so much for his own sake as to be a type of the Redeemer. We shall often have occasion to return to this afterwards, but at present I would briefly inform my readers, that as David's temporal kingdom was a kind of earnest to God's ancient people of the eternal kingdom, which at length was truly established in the person of Christ, those things which David declares concerning himself are not violently, or even allegorically, applied to Christ, but were truly predicted concerning him. If we attentively consider the nature of the kingdom, we will perceive that it would be absurd to overlook the end or scope, and to rest in the mere shadow. That the kingdom of Christ is here described by the spirit of prophecy, is sufficiently attested to us by the apostles, who, seeing the ungodly conspiring against Christ, arm themselves in prayer with this doctrine, (Acts iv. 24.) But to place our faith beyond the reach of all cavils, it is plainly made manifest from all the prophets, that those things which David testified concerning his own kingdom are properly applicable to Christ. Let this, therefore, be held as a settled point, that all who do not submit themselves to the authority of Christ make war against God. Since it seems good to God to rule us by the hand of his own Son, those who refuse to obey Christ himself deny the authority of God, and it is in vain for them to profess otherwise. For it is a true saying, "He that honoureth not the Son, honoureth not the Father which hath sent him," (John v. 22.) And it is of great importance to hold fast this inseparable connection, that as the majesty of God hath shone forth in his only begotten Son, so the Father will not be feared and worshipped but in his person.
Sacred history teaches that David was not only dethroned, but forsaken by almost all men; so that he had well nigh as many enemies as he had subjects. It is true there accompanied him in his flight a few faithful friends; but he escaped in safety, not so much by their aid and protection as by the hiding-places of the wilderness. It is therefore not wonderful [surprising] though he was affrighted by the great numbers who were opposed to him, for nothing could have taken place more unlooked for, on his part, than so sudden a rebellion. It was a mark of uncommon faith, when smitten with so great consternation, to venture freely to make his complaint to God, and, as it were, to pour out his soul into his bosom. And certainly the only remedy for allaying our fear is this, to cast upon him all the cares which trouble us; as, on the other hand, those who have the conviction that they are not the objects of his regard, must be prostrated and overwhelmed by the calamities which befall them.
David uses the expression, The light of God's countenance, to denote his serene and pleasant countenance--the manifestations of his favour and love; just as, on the other hand, the face of God seems to us dark and clouded when he shows the tokens of his anger. This light, by a beautiful metaphor, is said to be lifted up, when, shining in our hearts, it produces trust and hope. It would not be enough for us to be beloved by God, unless the sense of this love came home to our hearts; but, shining upon them by the Holy Spirit, he cheers us with true and solid joy. This passage taches us that those are miserable who do not, with full resolution, repose themselves wholly in God, and take satisfaction therein, even although they may have an overflowing abundance of all earthly things; while, on the other hand, the faithful, although they are tossed amidst many troubles, are truly happy, were there no other ground for it but this, that God's fatherly countenance shines upon them, which turns darkness into light, and, as I may say, quickens even death itself.
It makes little difference as to the sense, whether we read these words in the future tense, All shall rejoice, or in the optative mood, Let all rejoice; for in both ways the meaning of the prophet will be the same; namely, that if God deliver him, the fruit of the deliverance will be common to all the godly; as if he had said, Lord, if thou succourest me, the goodness which thou conferrest upon me will not rest on me alone, but will extend to all thy servants: for this will serve the more to confirm their faith, and make them praise thy name the more. In order, therefore, to induce God to grant him deliverance, he employs as an argument the end or effect which it would produce, inasmuch as it would stir up all the godly to exercise greater trust in God, and encourage them to give praise and thanks to him. This passage teaches us, that we are ungrateful to God if we do not take encouragement and comfort from whatever blessings he confers upon our neighbours, since by these he testifies that he will always be ready to bestow his goodness upon all the godly in common.
The preceding question, with respect to the extent of man's dominion over the works of God, seems not yet to be fully answered. If the prophet here declares, by way of exposition, to what extent God has put all things in subjection to us, this subjection, it seems, must be restricted to what contributes to the temporal comfort and convenience of man while he continues in this world. To this difficulty I answer, That the Psalmist does not intend in these verses to give a complete enumeration of all the things which are subjected to man's dominion, and of which he had spoken generally in the preceding verse, but he brings forward an example of this subjection only in one part or particular; yea, he has especially chosen that part which affords a clear and manifest evidence of the truth he intended to establish, even to those whose minds are uncultivated and slow of apprehension. There is no man of a mind so dull and stupid but may see, if he will be at the trouble to open his eyes, that it is by the wonderful providence of God that horses and oxen yield their service to men,--that sheep produce wool to clothe them,--and that all sorts of animals supply them with food for their nourishment and support, even from their own flesh. And the more that this dominion is apparent, the more ought we to be affected with a sense of the goodness and grace of our God as often as we either eat food, or enjoy any of the other comforts of life.
He again insists on what I adverted to before, that God does not always put a stop to injuries so speedily as we would wish, nor break the attempts of the wicked at the first, but rather withholds and delays his assistance, so that it may seem that we cry to him in vain, a truth which it is of importance for us to understand; for if we measure the help of god according to our senses, our courage will ever and anon fail us, and in the end our hope will be entirely extinguished, and will give place to despondency and despair. We would fondly wish him, as I have said, to stretch forth his hand to a distance, and drive back the troubles which he sees to be prepared for us; yet he seems to take no notice, and does not prevent the blood of the innocent from being shed. Let this consolatory consideration, however, sustain us, that he will at length actually show how precious our blood was in his sight. If it is objected, that God's assistance comes too late, after we have endured all calamities, I answer, God delays to interfere no longer than he knows it to be of advantage for us to be humbled under the cross, and if he chooses rather to take vengeance after we have suffered outrage, than to aid us previous to the infliction of evil, it is not because he is not always willing and ready to succour us; but because he knows it is not always a proper time for manifesting his grace. By the way, it is a striking evidence, not only of his fatherly love towards us, but of the blessed immortality which is the portion of all the children of God, that he has a care about them even after they are dead. Were he always by his grace to prevent affliction from befalling us, who is there amongst us who would not be wholly attached to the present life?
He inveighs against those giants who mock at the faithful for their simplicity, in calmly expecting, in their distresses, that God will show himself to be their deliverer. And, certainly, nothing seems more irrational to the flesh than to betake ourselves to God when yet he does not relieve us from our calamities; and the reason is, because the flesh judges of God only according to what it presently beholds of his grace. Whenever, therefore, unbelievers see the children of God overwhelmed with calamities, they reproach them for their groundless confidence, as it appears to them to be, and with sarcastic jeers laugh at the assured hope with which they rely upon God, from whom, notwithstanding, they receive no sensible aid. David, therefore, defies and derides this insolence of the wicked, and threatens that their mockery of the poor and the wretched, and their charging them with folly in depending upon the protection of God, and not sinking under their calamities, will be the cause of their destruction. At the same time, he teaches them that there is no resolution to which we can come which is better advised than the resolution to depend upon God, and that to repose on his salvation, and on the assistance which he hath promised us, even although we may be surrounded with calamities, is the highest wisdom.
If a good name is a treasure, more precious than all the riches of the world, (Prov. xxii. 1,) no greater injury can be inflicted upon men than to wound their reputation. It is not, however, every injurious word which is here condemned; but the disease and lust of detraction, which stirs up malicious persons to spread abroad calumnies. At the same time, it cannot be doubted that the design of the Holy Spirit is to condemn all false and wicked accusations.
There is no worse special of usury than an unjust way of making bargains, where equity is disregarded on both sides. Let us then remember that all bargains in which the one party unrighteously strives to make gain by the loss of the other party, whatever name may be given to them, are here condemned. . . .
With respect to usury, it is scarcely possible to find in the world a usurer who is not at the same time an extortioner, and addicted to unlawful and dishonourable gain. Accordingly, Cato of old justly placed the practice of usury and the killing of men in the same rank of criminality, for the object of this class of people is to suck the blood of other men. It is also a very strange and shameful thing, that, while all other men obtain the means of their subsistence with much toil, while husbandmen fatigue themselves by their daily occupations, and artisans serve the community by the sweat of their brow, and merchants not only employ themselves in labours, but also expose themselves to many inconveniences and dangers,--that moneymongers should sit at their ease without doing any thing, and receive tribute from the labour of all other people. Besides, we know that generally it is not the rich who are exhausted by their usury, but poor men, who ought rather to be relieved.
The import of his language is, I am, indeed, fully convinced in my heart, and know assuredly, that God can derive no profit or advantage from me; but notwithstanding this, I will join myself in fellowship with the saints, that with one accord we may worship him by the sacrifices of praise. Two things are distinctly laid down in this verse. The first is, that God has a right to require of us whatever he pleases, seeing we are wholly bound to Him as our rightful proprietor and Lord. David, by ascribing to him the power and the dominion of Lord, declares that both himself and all he possessed are the property of God. The other particular contained in this verse is, the acknowledgment which the Psalmist makes of his own indigence. My well-doing extendeth not unto thee. Interpreters expound this last clause in two ways. As aleyka may be rendered upon thee, some draw from it this sense, that God is not brought under obligation, or in the least degree indebted to us, by any good deeds which we may perform to him; and they understand the term goodness in a passive sense, as if David affirmed that whatever goodness he received from God did not proceed from any obligation he had laid God under, or from any merit which he possessed. But I think the sentence has a more extensive meaning, namely, that let men strive ever so much to lay themselves out for God, yet they can bring no advantage to him. Our goodness extendeth not to him, not only because, having in himself alone an all-sufficiency, he stands in need of nothing, but also because we are empty and destitute of all good things, and have nothing with which to show ourselves liberal towards him. From this doctrine, however, the other point which I have before touched upon will follow, namely, that it is impossible for men, by any merits of their own, to bring God under obligation to them, so as to make him their debtor. The sum of the discourse is, that when we come before God, we must lay aside all presumption. When we imagine that there is any good thing in us, we need not wonder if he reject us, as we thus take away from him a principal part of the honour which is his due. But, on the contrary, if we acknowledge that all the services which we can yield him are in themselves things of nought, and undeserving of any recompense, this humility is as a perfume of a sweet odour, which will procure for them acceptance with God.
There is not a more wretched object than man in adversity, when he has brought himself into distress by acting according to the mere impulse of his own mind, and not by acting in obedience to the call of God. David, therefore, had a good reason for wishing it to be known that it was not ambition which impelled him to enter into those contests which were so painful and difficult for him to bear, and that he had not attempted any thing unlawful or by wicked means, but had always kept steadily in view the will of God, which served as a light to guide him in his path. This is a point which it is highly useful for us to know, in order that we may not expect to be exempted from all trouble, when we follow the call of God, but may rather prepare ourselves for a condition of warfare painful and disagreeable to our flesh.
If God rendered to David a just recompense, it may be said, does it not seem, when he shows himself liberal towards his people, that he is so in proportion as each of them has deserved? I answer, When the Scripture uses the word reward or recompense, it is not to show that God owes us any thing, and it is therefore a groundless and false conclusion to infer from this that there is any merit or worth in works. God, as a just judge, rewards every man according to his works, but he does it in such a manner, as to show that all men are indebted to him, while he himself is under obligation to no one. The reason is not only that which St Augustine has assigned, namely, that God finds no righteousness in us to recompense, except what he himself has freely given us, but also because, forgiving the blemishes and imperfections which cleave to our works, he imputes to us for righteousness that which he might justly reject. If, therefore, none of our works please God, unless the sin which mingles with them is pardoned, it follows, that the recompense which he bestows on account of them proceeds not from our merit, but from his free and undeserved grace.
After having shown that the creatures, although they do not speak, nevertheless serve as instructors to all mankind, and teach all men so clearly that there is a God, as to render them inexcusable, the Psalmist now turns towards the Jews, to whom God had communicated a fuller knowledge of himself by means of his word. While the heavens bear witness concerning God, their testimony does not lead men so far as that thereby they learn truly to fear him, and acquire a well-grounded knowledge of him; it serves only to render them inexcusable. It is doubtless true, that if we were not very dull and stupid, the signatures and proofs of Deity which are to be found on the theatre of the world, are abundant enough to incite us to acknowledge and reverence God; but as, although surrounded with so clear a light, we are nevertheless blind, this splendid representation of the glory of God, without the aid of the word, would profit us nothing, although it should be to us as a loud and distinct proclamation sounding in our ears. Accordingly, God vouchsafes to those whom he has determined to call to salvation special grace, just as in ancient times, while he gave to all men without exception evidences of his existence in his works, he communicated to the children of Abraham alone his Law, thereby to furnish them with a more certain and intimate knowledge of his majesty. Whence it follows, that the Jews are bound by a double tie to serve God.
By presumptuous sins he means known and evident transgressions, accompanied with proud contempt and obstinacy. By the word keep back, he intimates, that such is the natural propensity of the flesh to sin, that even the saints themselves would immediately break forth or rush headlong into it, did not God, by his own guardianship and protection, keep them back. It is to be observed, that while he calls himself the servant of God, he nevertheless acknowledges that he had need of the bridle, lest he should arrogantly and rebelliously break forth in transgressing the law of God. Being regenerated by the Spirit of God, he groaned, it is true, under the burden of his sins; but he knew, on the other hand, how great is the rebellion of the flesh, and how much we are inclined to forgetfulness of God, from which proceed contempt of his majesty and all impiety. Now, if David, who had made so much progress in the fear of God, was not beyond the danger of transgressing, how shall the carnal and unrenewed man, in whom innumerable lusts exercise dominion, be able to restrain and govern himself by his own free will? Let us learn, then, even although the unruliness of our wayward flesh has been already subdued by the denial of ourselves, to walk in fear and trembling; for unless God restrain us, our hearts will violently boil with a proud and insolent contempt of God. This sense is confirmed by the reason added immediately after, that they may not have dominion over me. By these words, he expressly declares, that unless God assist him, he will not only be unable to resist, but will be wholly brought under the dominion of the worst vices. This passage, therefore, teaches us not only that all mankind are naturally enslaved to sin, but that the faithful themselves would become the bond-slaves of sin also, if God did not unceasingly watch over them to guide them in the path of holiness, and to strengthen them for persevering in it. There is also another useful lesson which we have here to attend to, namely, that we ought never to pray for pardon, without, at the same time, asking to be strengthened and fortified by the power of God for the time to come, that temptations, in future, may not gain advantage over us. And although we may feel in our hearts the incitements of concupiscence goading and distressing us, we ought not, on that account, to become discouraged. The remedy to which we should have recourse is to pray to God to restrain us.
Here he [David] confesses, that, after he was deprived of God's gifts, this served to purge his mind as it were by medicine from the disease of perverse confidence. A marvellous [astonishing] and incredible method surely, that God, by hiding his face, and as it were bringing on darkness, should open the eyes of his servant, who saw nothing [when he was] in the broad light of prosperity. But thus it is necessary that we be violently shaken, in order to drive away the delusions which both stifle our faith and hinder our prayers, and which absolutely stupify us with a soothing infatuation. And if David had need of such a remedy, let us not presume that we are endued with so good a state of heart as to render it unprofitable for us to be in want, in order to remove from us this carnal confidence, which is as it were a diseased repletion which would otherwise suffocate us. We have, therefore, no reason to wonder, though God often hides his face from us, when the sight of it, even when it shines serenely upon us, makes us so wretchedly blind.
It is marvellous [astonishing], that, although many things distress us all, scarcely one in a hundred is so wise as to commit his life into God's hand. Multitudes live from day to day as merry and careless as if they were in a quiet nest, free from all disturbance; but as soon as they encounter any thing to terrify them, they are ready to die for anguish. It thus happens that they never betake themselves to God, either because they deceive themselves with vain delusions, flattering themselves that all will yet be well, or because they are so stricken with dread and stupified with amazement, that they have no desire for his fatherly care. Farther, as various tempests of grief disturb us, and even sometimes throw us down headlong, or drag us from the direct path of duty, or at least remove us from our post, the only remedy which exists for setting these things at rest is to consider that God, who is the author of our life, is also its preserver. This, then, is the only means of lightening all our burdens, and preserving us from being swallowed up of over-much sorrow. Seeing, therefore, that God condescends to undertake the care of our lives, and to support them, although they are often exposed to various sorts of death, let us learn always to flee to this asylum; nay, the more that any one is exposed to dangers, let him exercise himself the more carefully in meditating on it. In short, let this be our shield against all dangerous attacks--our haven amidst all tossings and tempests--that, although our safety may be beyond all human hope, God is the faithful guardian of it; and let this again arouse us to prayer, that he would defend us, and make our deliverance sure. This confidence will likewise make every man forward to discharge his duty with alacrity, and constantly and fearlessly to struggle onward to the end of his course. How does it happen that so many are slothful and indifferent, and that others perfidiously forsake their duty, but because, overwhelmed with anxiety, they are terrified at dangers and inconveniences, and leave no room for the operation of the providence of God?
To conclude, whoever relies not on the providence of God, so as to commit his life to its faithful guardianship, has not yet learned aright what it is to live. On the other hand, he who shall entrust the keeping of his life to God's care, will not doubt of its safety even in the midst of death.
Here the sacred writer shows that the wickedness of the ungodly man is of a secret and very determined character. It sometimes happens that many, who otherwise are not disposed to wickedness, err and fall into sin, because occasion presents itself all on a sudden; but David tells us, that the wicked, even when they are withdrawn from the sight of men, and in retirement, form schemes of mischief; and thus, although there is not presented before them any temptation, or the evil example of others to excite them to it, they, of their own accord, devise mischief, and urge themselves to it without being impelled by any thing else. Since he describes the reprobate by this distinguishing mark of character, that they devise mischief upon their beds, true believers should learn from this to exercise themselves when alone in meditations of a different nature, and to make their own life the subject of examination, so that they may exclude all evil thoughts from their minds.
David lays down this as a general principle, that the prosperity of the wicked, in which they greatly rejoice, should on no account vex or disquiet the children of God, because it will soon fade away. On the other hand, although the people of God are afflicted for a time, yet the issue of their afflictions shall be such, that they have every reason to be contented with their lot. Now all this depends upon the providence of God; for unless we are persuaded that the world is governed by him in righteousness and truth, our minds will soon stagger, and at length entirely fail us. David then condemns two sinful affections of the mind, which are indeed closely allied, and the one of which is generated by the other. He first enjoins the faithful not to fret on account of the wicked; and, secondly, that they should not indulge an envious spirit towards them. For, in the first place, when they see the wicked enjoying prosperity, from which it might naturally be supposed that God regards not the affairs of men, there is a danger lest they should shake off the fear of God, and apostatize from the faith. Then another temptation follows, namely, that the influence of the example of the wicked excites in this a desire to involve themselves in the same wickedness with them.
Here David illustrates and confirms the doctrine contained in the preceding verse. In order that God may accomplish our desires, it behooves us to cast all our cares upon him in the exercise of hope and patience. Accordingly, we are taught from this passage how to preserve our minds in tranquillity amidst anxieties, dangers, and floods of trouble. There can be no doubt, that by the term ways we are here to understand all affairs or businesses. The man, therefore, who, leaving the issue of all his affairs to the will of God, and who, patiently waiting to receive from his hand whatever he may be pleased to send, whether prosperity or adversity, casts all his cares, and every other burden which he bears, into his bosom; or, in other words, commits to him all his affairs,--such a person rolls his ways upon Jehovah. Hence, David again inculcates the duty of hope and confidence in God: And trust in him. By this he intimates, that we render to him the honour to which he is entitled only when we intrust to him the government and direction of our lives; and thus he provides a remedy for a disease with which almost all men are infected. Whence is it that the children of God are envious of the wicked, and are often in trouble and perplexity, and yield to excess of sorrow, and sometimes even murmur and repine, but because, by involving themselves immoderately in endless cares, and cherishing too eagerly a desire to provide for themselves irrespective of God, they plunge, as it were, into an abyss, or at least accumulate to themselves such a vast load of cares, that they are forced at last to sink under them. Desirous to provide a remedy for this evil, David warns us, that in presuming to take upon us the government of our own life, and to provide for all our affairs as if we were able to bear so great a burden, we are greatly deceived, and that, therefore, our only remedy is to fix our eyes upon the providence of God, and to draw from it consolation in all our sorrows. Those who obey this counsel shall escape that horrible labyrinth in which all men labour in vain; for when God shall once have taken the management of our affairs into his own hand, there is no reason to fear that prosperity shall ever fail us. Whence is it that he forsakes us and disappoints our expectations, if it is not because we provoke him, by pretending to greater wisdom and understanding than we possess? If, therefore, we would only permit him, he will perform his part, and will not disappoint our expectations, which he sometimes does as a just punishment for our unbelief.
It is not without good reason that David so frequently inculcates this doctrine, that the righteous are blessed because God provides for their necessities. We see how prone the minds of men are to distrust, and how much they are vexed by an excess of cares and anxieties from which they are unable to extricate themselves, while, on the other hand, they fall into another error in being more anxious regarding the future than there is any reason for; and yet, however active and industrious in the formation of their plans, they are often disappointed in their expectations, and not unfrequently fail altogether of success. Nothing, therefore, is more profitable for us than to have our eyes continually set upon the providence of God, which alone can best provide for us every thing we need. On this account, David now says, that God knoweth the days of the righteous; that is to say, he is not ignorant of the dangers to which they are exposed, and the help which they need. This doctrine we ought to improve as a source of consolation under every vicissitude which may seem to threaten us with destruction. We may be harassed in various ways, and distracted by many dangers, which every moment threaten us with death, but this consideration ought to prove to us a sufficient ground of comfort, that not only are our days numbered by God, but that he also knows all the vicissitudes of our lot on earth. Since God then so carefully watches over us for the maintenance of our welfare, we ought to enjoy, in this our pilgrimage on earth, as much peace and satisfaction as if we were put in full possession of our paternal inheritance and home.
Having spoken before of the deliverance which God had vouchsafed to him, he takes occasion from it to set forth the general providence of God in nourishing and sustaining men. It is also his design in this to exhort the faithful to a consideration of God's providence, that they may not hesitate to cast all their cares upon it. Whilst some are in constant pain by reason of their own anxiety and discontent, or quake at the slightest breeze that flows, and others labour hard to fortify and preserve their life by means of earthly succours,--all this proceeds from ignorance of the doctrine that God governs the affairs of this world according to his own good pleasure. And as the great majority of men, measuring the providence of God by their own understanding, wickedly obscure or degrade it, David, placing it on the proper footing, wisely removes this impediment. The meaning of the sentence, therefore, amounts to this, that in the works of God men should reverently admire what they cannot comprehend by their reason; and whenever the flesh moves them to contradiction or murmuring, they should raise themselves above the world. If God cease to work, he seems to be asleep, because, binding up his hands to the use of outward means, we do not consider that he works by means which are secret. We may therefore learn from this place, that although the reason of his works may be hidden or unknown to us, he is nevertheless wonderful in his counsels. . . .
There is nothing so preposterous as to affect, of one's own accord, a gross ignorance of the providence of God, because as yet we cannot comprehend it perfectly, but only discern it in part; even as at this day we find some who employ all their endeavours to bury it in oblivion, for no other pretence than that it surpasses our understanding, as if it were unreasonable to allow to God anything more than what appears right and proper, according to our carnal reason.
These were violent assaults, and enough to have overturned the faith of this holy man, unless, supported by the power of the Spirit in a more than ordinary degree, he had made a strong and vigorous resistance. It is evident that his feelings had been really and strongly affected. We may be often agitated, and yet not to such an extent as to abstain from eating and drinking; but when a man voluntarily abstains from food, and indulges so much in weeping, that he daily neglects his ordinary meals, and is continually overwhelmed in sorrow, it is obvious that he is troubled in no light degree; but that he is wounded severely, and even to the heart. Now, David says, that he did not experience greater relief in any thing whatever than from weeping; and, therefore, he gave himself up to it, just in the same manner as men take pleasure and enjoyment in eating; and this he says had been the case every day, and not only for a short time. Let us, therefore, whenever the ungodly triumph over us in our miseries, and spitefully taunt us that God is against us, never forget that it is Satan who moves them to speak in this manner, in order to overthrow our faith; and that, therefore, it is not time for us to take our ease, or to yield to indifference, when a war so dangerous is waged against us. There is still another reason which ought to inspire us with such feelings, and it is this, that the name of God is held up to scorn by the ungodly; for they cannot scoff at our faith without greatly reproaching him. If, then, we are not altogether insensible, we must in such circumstances be affected with the deepest sorrow.
I have already mentioned shortly before how profitable is the doctrine taught us in this place, that our faith is really and truly tested only when we are brought into very severe conflicts, and when even hell itself seems opened to swallow us up. In like manner, we have portrayed to us the victory of faith over the whole world, when, in the midst of the utmost confusion, it unfolds itself, and begins to raise its head in such a manner as that although the whole creation seem to be banded together, and to have conspired for the destruction of the faithful, it nevertheless triumphs over all fear. Not that the children of God, when placed in peril, indulge in jesting or make a sport of death, but the help which God has promised them more than overbalances, in their estimation, all the evils which inspire them with fear. . . . Their fortitude, therefore, has its foundation in the assurance of the divine protection alone, so that they who rely upon God, and put their trust in him, may truly boast, not only that they shall be undismayed, but also that they shall be preserved in security and safety amidst the ruins of a falling world.
This verse teaches us that the faithful were preserved by the power of God; for, when all things were in a state of the greatest confusion, they continued tranquil and patient until God at length, having pity upon them, brought them help. The Hebrew word damam, which we have rendered to wait, properly signifies to be silent, and is here used to denote tranquillity of mind. From this we conclude, that the people of God were so harassed with dangers, that, had they listened to the judgment of carnal sense and reason, they would have been overwhelmed with terror; even as we know that men are in a state of continual uneasiness, and are driven hither and thither by contrary waves, until faith tranquillise their minds, and settle them in true patience. The amount of what the Psalmist says is, that the faithful, although severely afflicted, were not driven from their purpose, and prevented from relying upon the aid of God; but that, on the contrary, by their patience and hope, they opened the gate of his grace. It served to magnify and illustrate the greatness of the grace of God, that their expectations of assistance from him were not disappointed.
It is not merely from the intrinsic insufficiency of wealth, honours, or pleasures, to confer true happiness, that the Psalmist proves the misery of worldly men, but from their manifest and total incapacity of forming a correct judgment of such possessions. Happiness is connected with the state of mind of that man who enjoys it, and none would call those happy who are sunk in stupidity and security, and are destitute of understanding. The Psalmist satisfactorily proves the infatuation of the wicked from the confidence which they place in their power and wealth, their disposition to boast of them. It is a convincing sign of folly when one cannot discern what is before his eyes. Not a day passes without forcing the plain fact upon their notice, that none can redeem the life of another; so that their conduct is nothing less than insanity.
These verses cast light upon the preceding context. Had it been stated in unqualified terms that sacrifices were of no value, we might have been perplexed to know why in that case they were instituted by God; but the difficulty disappears when we perceive that they are spoken of only in comparison with the true worship of God. From this we infer, that when properly observed, they were far from incurring divine condemnation. There is in all men by nature a strong and ineffaceable conviction that they ought to worship God. Indisposed to worship him in a pure and spiritual manner, it becomes necessary that they should invent some specious appearance as a substitute; and however clearly they may be persuaded of the vanity of such conduct, they persist in it to the last, because they shrink from a total renunciation of the service of God. Men have always, accordingly, been found addicted to ceremonies until they have been brought to the knowledge of that which constitutes true and acceptable religion. Praise and prayer are here to be considered as representing the whole of the worship of God, according to the figure synecdoche. The Psalmist specifies only one part of divine worship, when he enjoins us to acknowledge God as the Author of all our mercies, and to ascribe to him the praise which is justly due unto his name: and adds, that we should betake ourselves to his goodness, cast all our cares into his bosom, and seek by prayer that deliverance which he alone can give, and thanks for which must afterwards be rendered to him. Faith, self-denial, a holy life, and patient endurance of the cross, are all sacrifices which please God. But as prayer is the offspring of faith, and uniformly accompanied with patience and mortification of sin, while praise, where it is genuine, indicates holiness of heart, we need not wonder that these two points of worship should here be employed to represent the whole.
He [David] now discovers his reason for imploring pardon with so much vehemency, and this was the painful disquietude which his sins caused him, and which could only be relieved by his obtaining reconciliation with God. This proves that his prayer did not proceed from dissimulation [hypocrisy], as many will be found commending the grace of God in high terms, although, in reality, they care little about it, having never felt the bitterness of being exposed to his displeasure. David, on the contrary, declares that he is subjected by his sin to constant anguish of mind, and that it is this which imparts such an earnestness to his supplications. From his example we may learn who they are that can alone be said to seek reconciliation with God in a proper manner. They are such as have had their consciences wounded with a sense of sin, and who can find no rest until they have obtained assurance of his mercy. We will never seriously apply to God for pardon, until we have obtained such a view of our sins as inspires us with fear. The more easily satisfied we are under our sins, the more do we provoke God to punish them with severity, and if we really desire absolution from his hand, we mut do more than confess our guilt in words; we must institute a rigid and formidable scrutiny into the character of our transgressions. David does not simply say that he will confess his sins to man, but declares that he has a deep inward feeling of them, such a feeling of them as filled him with the keenest anguish. His was a very different spirit from that of the hypocrite, who displays a complete indifference upon this subject, or when it intrudes upon him, endeavours to bury the recollection of it.
It is the opinion of some that he here adverts to the circumstance of his sin, although it was committed against man, being concealed from every eye but that of God. None was aware of the double wrong which he had inflicted upon Uriah, nor of the wanton manner in which he had exposed his army to danger; and his crime being thus unknown to men, might be said to have been committed exclusively against God. According to others, David here intimates, that however deeply he was conscious of having injured men, he was chiefly distressed for having violated the law of God. But I conceive his meaning to be, that though all the world should pardon him, he felt that God was the Judge with whom he had to do, that conscience hailed him to his bar, and that the voice of man could administer no relief to him, however much he might be disposed to forgive, or to excuse, or to flatter. His eyes and his whole soul were directed to God, regardless of what man might think or say concerning him. To one who is thus overwhelmed with a sense of the dreadfulness of being obnoxious to the sentence of God, there needs no other accuser. God is to him instead of a thousand. There is every reason to believe that David, in order to prevent his mind from being soothed into a false peace by the flatteries of his court, realized the judgment of God upon his offence, and felt that this was in itself an intolerable burden, even supposing that he should escape all trouble from the hands of his fellow-creatures. This will be the exercise of every true penitent.
It might appear at first sight that the feeling here attributed to the righteous is far from being consistent with the mercy which ought to characterize them; but we must remember, as I have often observed elsewhere, that the affection which David means to impute to them is one of a pure and well-regulated kind; and in this case there is nothing absurd in supposing that believers, under the influence and guidance of the Holy Ghost, should rejoice in witnessing the execution of divine judgments. That cruel satisfaction which too many feel when they see their enemies destroyed, is the result of the unholy passions of hatred, anger, or impatience, inducing an inordinate desire of revenge. So far as corruption is suffered to operate in this manner, there can be no right or acceptable exercise. On the other hand, when one is led by a holy zeal to sympathize with the justness of that vengeance which God may have inflicted, his joy will be as pure in beholding the retribution of the wicked, as his desire for their conversion and salvation was strong and unfeigned.
David very properly suggests this to his own mind, as a consideration which should produce patience. We are apt to think, when God has not annihilated our enemies at once, that they have escaped out of his hands altogether; and we look upon it as properly no punishment, that they should be gradually and slowly destroyed. Such being the extravagant desire which almost all, without exception, have, to see their enemies at once exterminated, David checks himself, and dwells upon the judgment of God to be seen in the lesser calamities which overtake the wicked. It is true, that were not our eyes blinded, we would behold a more evident display of divine retribution in cases where the destruction of the ungodly is sudden; but these are so apt to fade away from our remembrance, that he had good reason to express his desire that the spectacle might be one constantly renewed, and thus our knowledge of the judgments of God be more deeply graven upon our hearts. He arms and fortifies himself against impatience under delays in the execution of divine judgment, by the consideration that God has an express design in them, as, were the wicked exterminated in a moment, the remembrance of the event might speedily be effaced.
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