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 Psalms 60 through 99 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 expression, at all times, means both in prosperity and adversity, intimating the blameworthiness of those who waver and succumb under every variation in their outward circumstances. God tries his children with afflictions, but here they are taught by David to abide them with constancy and courage. The hypocrites, who are loud in their praises of God so long as prosperity shines upon their head, while their heart fails them upon the first approach of trial, dishonour his name by placing a most injurious limitation to his power. We are bound to put honour upon his name by remembering, in our greatest extremities, that to Him belong the issues of death. And as we are all too apt at such times to shut up our affliction in our own breast--a circumstance which can only aggravate the trouble and embitter the mind against God, David could not have suggested a better expedient than that of unburdening our cares to him, and thus, as it were, pouring out our hearts before him. It is always found, that when the heart is pressed under a load of distress, there is no freedom in prayer. Under trying circumstances, we must comfort ourselves by reflecting that God will extend relief, provided we just freely roll them over upon his consideration. What the Psalmist advises is all the more necessary, considering the mischievous tendency which we have naturally to keep our troubles pent up in our breasts till they drive us to despair. Usually, indeed, men show much anxiety and ingenuity in seeking to escape from the troubles which may happen to press upon them; but so long as they shun coming into the presence of God, they only involve themselves in a labyrinth of difficulties.
In accordance with what was said in the foregoing verse, David expresses his assured persuasion of obtaining a rich and abundant measure of every blessing that could call for thanksgiving and praise. At the period of composing this psalm, he may have been already in the enjoyment of ease and plenty; but there is reason to believe that he cherished the persuasion referred to even when wandering in the wilderness in a state of poverty and destitution. If we would evidence a strong faith, we must anticipate the divine favour before it has been actually manifested, and when there is no present appearance of its forthcoming. From the instance here set before us, we must learn to be on our guard against despondency, in circumstances when we may see the wicked wallowing and rioting in the abundance of the things of this world, while we ourselves are left to pine under the want [lack] of them. David, in the present pressure to which he was exposed, might have given way to despair, but he knew that God was able to fill the hungry soul, and that he could want for nothing so long as he possessed an interest in his favour. It is God's will to try our patience in this life, by afflictions of various kinds. Let us bear the wrongs which may be done us with meekness, till the time come when all our desires shall be abundantly satisfied.
It is just that Heaven should make the mischiefs which they had devised against innocent and upright men to recoil upon their own heads. The judgment is one which we see repeatedly and daily exemplified before our eyes, and yet we find much difficulty in believing that it can take place. We should feel ourselves bound the more to impress the truth upon our hearts, that God is ever watching, as it were, his opportunity of converting the stratagems of the wicked into means just as completely effective of their destruction, as if they had intentionally employed them for that end.
What has been now said may show at once the scope of the Psalmist. The Church and chosen people of God being in possession of the promise of the remission of sins, he calls those blessed whom God has included within that number, and introduced into the enjoyment of such a distinguished privilege. His language intimates that the election did not at that time terminate upon all; for he insists upon it as the special prerogative of the Jews, that they had been chosen by God in preference to the other nations. Were it supposed that man could do anything to anticipate the grace of God, the election would cease to be with God himself, although the right and power of it are expressly ascribed to him. But the Jews had no excellency above others, except in the one point of having enjoyed the distinguishing favour of God. The middle wall of partition is now broken down, that the Gentiles might be called in. It is evident, however, that all are not alike called; and observation proves the ignorance of those who will assert that the grace of God is extended to all in common, without any choice exerted on his part. Can any reason be imagined why God should not call all alike, except it be that his sovereign election distinguishes some from others? Faith and prayer may be means for procuring us an interest in the grace of God; but the source whence it flows is not within but without us. There is a blessedness in exercising trust upon God, and embracing his promises--a blessedness experienced when, through faith in Christ the Mediator, we apprehend him as our Father, and direct our prayers to him in that character;--but ere this faith and prayer can have any existence, it must be supposed that we who are estranged from God by nature have been brought near by an exercise of his favour. We are near him, not as having anticipated his grace, and come to him of ourselves, but because in his condescension he has stretched out his hand as far as hell itself to reach us. To speak more properly, he first elects us, and then testifies his love by calling us.
For the most part, we are apt to undervalue the Divine presence, and therefore David presents us with a description fitted to exalt our thoughts of it. Owing to our unbelieving hearts, the least danger which occurs in the world weighs more with us than the power of God. We tremble under the slightest trials; for we forget or cherish low views of his omnipotence. To preserve us from this error, David directs us to the countless myriads of angels which are at his command,--a circumstance, the consideration of which may well enable us to defy the evils which beset us. Twenty thousand are spoken of; but it is a number designed to intimate to us that the armies of the living God, which he commissions for our help, are innumerable; and surely this should comfort us under the deadliest afflictions of this life.
Men are always disposed to arrogate to themselves the glory of what they may have done instead of tracing their success to God, and David reminds the people once more that they had not triumphed by their own strength, but by power communicated from above. If they had acquitted themselves with energy on the field, he would have them consider that it was God who inspired them with this valour, and would guard them against the pride which overlooks and disparages the Divine goodness. As a consideration which might farther tend to promote humility in their minds, he adverts to the dependence in which they stood of the future continuance of the same favour and protection; this being the great cause of presumptuous confidence, that we do not feel our own helplessness, and are not led under a sense of it to resort humbly to God for the supply of our wants. Another lesson which the passage teaches us is, that more is required than that God should visit us at first with his preventing grace; that we stand constantly in need of his assistance throughout our whole lives. If this be true in the literal warfare, where our conflict is with flesh and blood, it must be still more so in matters of the soul. It is impossible that we could stand one moment in the contest with such enemies as Satan, sin, and the world did we not receive from God the grace which secures our perseverance.
Here we have a series of dire imprecations, with respect to which we must bear in mind what we have elsewhere observed, that David did not allow himself recklessly to pour out his wrath, even as the greater part of men, when they feel themselves wronged, intemperately give way to their own passion; but, being under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he was kept from going beyond the bounds of duty, and simply called upon God to exercise just judgment against the reprobate. Farther, it was not on his own account that he pleaded this manner; but it was a holy zeal for the divine glory which impelled him to summon the wicked to God's judgment-seat. It was also owing to this that he was not carried away by violence of passion, like those who are actuated by a desire of taking revenge. Since, then, the Spirit of wisdom, uprightness, and moderation put these imprecations into the mouth of David, his example cannot justly be pleaded in self-vindication by those who pour forth their wrath and spite upon every one that comes in their way, or who are carried away by a foolish impatience to take revenge; never allowing themselves to reflect for a moment what good purpose this can serve, nor making any efforts to keep their passion within due bounds. We need wisdom by which to distinguish between those who are wholly reprobate and those of whose amendment there is still some hope; we have also need of uprightness, that none may devote himself exclusively to his own private interests; and of moderation too, to dispose our minds to calm endurance.
Here he declares the nature of the temptation with which he was assailed. It consisted in this, that when he saw the present prosperous state of the wicked, and from it judged them to be happy, he had envied their condition. We are certainly under a grievous and a dangerous temptation when we not only, in our own minds, quarrel with God for not setting matters in due order, but also when we give ourselves loose reins, boldly to commit iniquity, because it seems to us that we may commit it and yet escape with impunity. The sneering jest of Dionysius the younger, a tyrant of Sicily, when, after having robbed the temple of Syracuse he had a prosperous voyage with the plunder, is well known. "See you not," says he to those who were with him, "how the gods favour the sacrilegious?" In the same way, the prosperity of the wicked is taken as an encouragement to commit sin; for we are ready to imagine that since God grants them so much of the good things of this life, they are the objects of his approbation and favour. We see how their prosperous condition wounded David* to the heart, leading him almost to think that there was nothing better for him than to join himself to their company, and to follow their course of life. By applying to the ungodly the appellation of foolish, he does not simply mean that the sins which they commit are committed through ignorance or inadvertence, but he sets their folly in opposition to the fear of God, which is the principal constituent of true wisdom. The ungodly are, no doubt, crafty; but, being destitute of the fundamental principle of all right judgment, which consists in this, that we must regulate and frame our lives according to the will of God, they are foolish; and this is the effect of their own blindness.
*Calvin's note: "As to the author of this psalm, I am not disposed to contend very strongly, although I think it probable that the name of Asaph was prefixed to it because the charge of singing it was committed to him, while the name of David, its author, was omitted, just as it is usual for us, when things are well known of themselves, not to be at the trouble of stating them."
This is the provocation of which mention is made in the preceding verse. Not that it was unlawful for them simply to ask food, when constrained to do so by the cravings of hunger. Who can impute blame to persons, when being hungry, they implore God to supply their necessities? The sin which the Israelites were chargeable consisted in this, that not content with the food which He had appointed them, they gave loose reins to their lusts. He, at that time, had begun to feed them with manna, as we shall again see by and by. It was their loathing of that sustenance which impelled them eagerly to desire new food, as if they disdained the allowance assigned them by their heavenly Father. This is what is meant when it is said that they asked food for their soul. They were not reduced to the necessity of asking it by hunger; but their lust was not satisfied with living on the provision which God had appointed for them. On this account, it is declared that they tempted God, overpassing, as they did, the bounds within which he had limited them. Whoever, undervaluing and despising the permission or license which He grants, gives full scope to his own intemperate lust, and desires more than is lawful, is said to tempt God. He acts as if he would subject Him to his own caprice, or questioned whether He could do more than he is pleased really to do. God has power to accomplish whatever he wills; and assuredly, the person who would separate the power of God from his will, or represent him as unable to do what he wills, does all he can to rend him in pieces. Those are chargeable with doing this, who are set upon trying whether he will grant more than he has given them permission to ask. That, therefore, the lust of the flesh may not stir us up to tempt him, let us learn to impose a restraint upon our desires, and humbly to rest contented within the limits which are prescribed to us. If the flesh is allowed to indulge itself without control, we will not be satisfied with ordinary bread, but will often and in many ways, murmur against God.
If it is objected, that God in vain and without ground utters this complaint, since it was in his power to bend the stiff necks of the people, and that, when he was not pleased to do this, he had no reason to compare himself to a man deeply grieved; I answer, that he very properly makes use of this style of speaking on our account, that we may seek for the procuring cause of our misery nowhere but in ourselves. We must here beware of mingling together things which are totally different--as widely different from each other as heaven is distant from the earth. God, in coming down to us by his word, and addressing his invitations to all men without exception, disappoints nobody. All who sincerely come to him are received, and find from actual experience that they were not called in vain. At the same time, we are to trace to the fountain of the secret electing purpose of God this difference, that the word enters into the heart of some while others only hear the sound of it. And yet there is no inconsistency in his complaining, as it were, with tears, of our folly when we do not obey him. In the invitations which he addresses to us by the external word, he shows himself to be a father; and why may he not also be understood as still representing himself under the image of a father in using this form of complaint? In Ezekiel 18:32, he declares with the strictest regard to truth, "I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth," provided in the interpretation of the passage we candidly and dispassionately take into view the whole scope of it. God has no pleasure in the death of a sinner: How? because he would have all men turned to himself. But it is abundantly evident, that men by their own free-will cannot turn to God, until he first change their stony hearts into hearts of flesh: yea, this renovation, as Augustine judiciously observes, is a work surpassing that of the creation itself. Now what hinders God from bending and framing the hearts of all men equally in submission to him? Here modesty and sobriety must be observed, that instead of presuming to intrude into his incomprehensible decrees, we may rest contented with the revelation which he has made of his will in his word. There is the justest ground for saying that he wills the salvation of those to whom that language is addressed, (Isaiah 21:12,) "Come unto me, and be ye converted." In the second part of the verse before us, we have defined what it is to hear God. To assent to what he speaks would not be enough; for hypocrites will grant at once that whatever proceeds from his mouth is true, and will affect to listen just as if an ass should bend its ears. But the clause is intended to teach us that we can only be said to hear God when we submit ourselves to his authority.
God has invested judges with a sacred character and title. This the prophet concedes; but he, at the same time, shows that this will afford no support and protection to wicked judges. He does not introduce them as speaking of the dignity of their office; but anticipating the style of reasoning which they would be disposed to adopt, he replies, "If you appeal to your dignity as an argument to shield you, this boasting will avail you nothing; yea, rather you are deceiving yourselves by your foolish confidence; for God, in appointing you his substitutes, has not divested himself of his own sovereignty as supreme ruler. Again, he would have you to remember your own frailty as a means of stirring you up to execute with fear and trembling the office entrusted to you." This verse may also be viewed as addressed by God himself to rulers, and as intimating that in addition to his clothing them with authority, he has bestowed upon them his name. This interpretation seems to agree with the language of Christ in John 10:34, where he speaks of those as called gods to whom the word of God came. The passage, however, may be appropriately resolved thus: I grant that ye are gods, and the sons of the Most High. But this does not materially alter the meaning. The object is simply to teach that the dignity with which judges are invested can form no excuse or plea why they should escape the punishment which their wickedness deserves. The government of the world has been committed to them upon the distinct understanding that they themselves also must one day appear at the judgment-seat of heaven to render up an account. The dignity, therefore, with which they are clothed is only temporary, and will pass away with the fashion of the world.
This sentence, as is well known, is taken from Exodus 34:6, where we meet with a very remarkable description of the nature of God. First, he is called merciful; in the next place, ready to forgive, which he manifests by compassionating our distresses. In the third place, he is described as long-suffering; for he is not angry whenever an offence is committed against him, but pardons us according to the greatness of his loving-kindness. In short, he is said to be abundant in mercy and truth; by which I understand, that his beneficence is continually exercised, and that he is always true. He is indeed no less worthy to be praised on account of his rigour than on account of his mercy; but as it is our wilful obstinacy alone which makes him severe, compelling him, as it were, to punish us, the Scriptures, in representing him as by nature merciful and ready to forgive, teach us that if he is at any time rigorous and severe, this is, as it were, accidental to him. I am speaking, it is true, in popular language, and such as is not strictly correct; but still, these terms by which the divine character is described amount in effect to this, That God is by nature so gracious and ready to forgive that he seems to connive at [turn a blind eye to] our sins, delays the infliction of punishment, and never proceeds to execute vengeance unless compelled by our obstinate wickedness.
The Psalmist continues to insist upon the truth which I have just adverted to, that, if we confide with implicit reliance upon the protection of God, we will be secure from every temptation and assault of Satan. It is of importance to remember that those whom God has taken under his care are in a state of the most absolute safety. Even those who have reached the most advanced experience find nothing more difficult than to rely upon Divine deliverance; and more especially when, overtaken by some of the many forms in which danger and death await us in this world, doubts will insinuate themselves into our hearts, giving rise to fear and disquietude. There was reason, therefore, why the Psalmist should enter upon a specification of different evils, encouraging the Lord's people to look for more than one mode of deliverance, and to bear up under various and accumulated calamities. Mention is made of the fear of the night, because men are naturally apprehensive in the dark, or because the night exposes us to dangers of different kinds, and our fears are apt at such a season to magnify any sound or disturbance.
So long as we are here we may be truly said to walk amongst wild beasts, and such as threaten us with destruction. And in this case what would become of us did not God promise to make us victorious over the manifold evils which everywhere impend us? None who seriously considers the temptations to which he is liable will wonder that the Psalmist, with the view of removing apprehension from the minds of the Lord's people, should have adopted the language of hyperbole; nor indeed will he say that it is the language of hyperbole, but a true and exact representation of their case. We boast much of our courage so long as we remain at a distance from the scene of danger; but no sooner are we brought into action, than in the smallest matters we conjure up to ourselves lions, and dragons, and a host of frightful dangers. The Psalmist accommodates his language to this infirmity of our carnal apprehension.
The Psalmist, having spoken of the works of God in general, proceeds to speak more particularly of his justice in the government of the world. Though God may postpone the punishment of the wicked, he shows, in due time, that in conniving at [turning a blind eye to] their sins, he did not overlook or fail to perceive them; and though he exercises his own children with the cross, he proves in the issue, that he was not indifferent to their welfare. His reason for touching upon this particular point seems to be, that much darkness is thrown upon the scheme of Divine Providence by the inequality and disorder which prevail in human affairs. We see the wicked triumphing, and applauding their own good fortune, as if there was no judge above, and taking occasion from the Divine forbearance to run into additional excesses, under the impression that they have escaped his hand. The temptation is aggravated by that stupidity and blindness of heart which lead us to imagine that God exerts no superintendence over the world and sits idle in heaven. It is known, too, how soon we are ready to sink under the troubles of the flesh. The Psalmist, therefore, intentionally selects this as a case in which he may show the watchful care exerted by God over the human family. He begins, by using the language of exclamation, for such is the dreadful distemper and disorder by which our understandings are confounded, that we cannot comprehend the method of God's works, even when it is most apparent. We are to notice, that the inspired penman is not speaking here of the work of God in the creation of the heavens and earth, nor of his providential government of the world in general, but only of the judgments which he executes amongst men. He calls the works of God great, and his thoughts deep, because he governs the world in quite another manner than we are able to comprehend. Were things under our own management, we would entirely invert the order which God observes; and, such not being the case, we perversely expostulate with God for not hastening sooner to the help of the righteous, and to the punishment of the wicked. It strikes us as in the highest degree inconsistent with the perfections of God that he should bear with the wicked when they rage against him, when they rush without restraint into the most daring acts of iniquity, and when they persecute at will the good and the innocent;--it seems, I say, in our eyes to be intolerable that God should subject his own people to the injustice and violence of the wicked, while he puts no check upon abounding falsehood, deceit, rapine, bloodshed, and every species of enormity. Why does he suffer his truth to be obscured, and his holy name to be trampled under foot? This is that greatness of the Divine operation, that depth of the Divine counsel, into the admiration of which the Psalmist breaks forth. It is no doubt true, that there is an incomprehensible depth of power and wisdom which God has displayed in the fabric of the universe; but what the Psalmist has specially in view is, to administer a check to that disposition which leads us to murmur against God, when he does not pursue our plan in his providential managements. When anything in these may not agree with the general ideas of men, we ought to contemplate it with reverence, and remember that God, for the better trial of our obedience, has lifted his deep and mysterious judgments far above our conceptions.
The words with which the verse begins, Blessed is the man whom thou hast instructed, have no doubt a reference to chastisements and experience of the cross, but they also comprehend the gift of inward illumination; and afterwards the Psalmist adds, that this wisdom, which is imparted by God inwardly, is, at the same time, set forth and made known in the Scriptures. In this way he puts honour upon the use of the written word, as we find Paul saying, (Rom. 15:4,) that all things "were written for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, might have hope." This shows from what quarter we are to derive our patience--the oracles of God, which supply us with matter of hope for the mitigation of our griefs. In short, what the Psalmist means is summarily this: Believers must, in the first place, be exhorted to exercise patience, not to despond under the cross, but wait submissively upon God for deliverance; and next, they must be taught how this grace is to be obtained, for we are naturally disposed to abandon ourselves to despair, and any hope of ours would speedily fail were we not taught from above that all our troubles must eventually issue in salvation. We have here the Psalmist's testimony to the truth, That the word of God provides us with abundant ground of comfort, and that none who rightly avails himself of it need ever count himself unhappy, or yield himself to hopelessness and despondency. One mark by which God distinguishes the true from the false disciple is that of his being ready and prepared to bear the cross, and waiting quietly for the Divine deliverance, without giving way to fretfulness and impatience. A true patience does not consist in presenting an obstinate resistance to evils, or in that unyielding stubbornness which passed as a virtue with the Stoics, but in a cheerful submission to God, based upon confidence in his grace. On this account it is with good reason that the Psalmist beings by laying it down as a fundamental truth, necessary to be learned by all the Lord's people, That the end of those temporary persecutions to which they are subjected, is their being brought at last to a blessed rest after their enemies have done their worst. He might have contented himself with saying that the truly blessed were those who had learned from God's word to bear the cross patiently, but that he might the more readily incline them to a cheerful acquiescence in the Divine disposals, he subjoined a statement of the consolation which tends to mitigate the grief of their spirits. Even supposing that a man should bear his trials without a tear or a sigh, yet if he champ the bit in sullen hopelessness--if he only hold by such principles as these, "We are mortal creatures," "It is vain to resist necessity, and strive against fate," "Fortune is blind"--this is obstinacy rather than patience, and there is concealed opposition to God in this contempt of calamities under colour of fortitude. The only consideration which will subdue our minds to a tractable submission is, that God, in subjecting us to persecutions, has in view our being ultimately brought into the enjoyment of a rest. Wherever there reigns this persuasion of a rest prepared for the people of God, and a refreshment provided under the heat and turmoil of their troubles that they may not perish with the world around them,--this will prove enough, and more than enough, to alleviate any bitterness of affliction.
Those that fear God are here enjoined to practise righteousness, as Paul says, "Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity," (2 Tim. 2:19.) He shows from the very nature of God, that we cannot be judged and acknowledged to be his servants unless we depart from sin, and practise holiness. God is in himself the fountain of righteousness, and he must necessarily hate all iniquity, unless we could suppose that he should deny himself; and we have fellowship with him only on the terms of separation from unrighteousness. As the persecution of the wicked is apt to provoke us to seek revenge, and unwarrantable methods of escape, the Psalmist guards us against this temptation, by asserting that God is the keeper and protector of his people. If persuaded of being under the Divine guardianship, we will not strive with the wicked, nor retaliate injury upon those who have wronged us, but commit our safety to him who will faithfully defend it. This gracious act of condescension, by which God takes us under his care, should serve as a check to any impatience we might feel in abstaining from what is evil, and preserving the course of integrity under provocation.
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