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Commentary on Psalms - Volume 5

Commentary on the Book of Psalms - Volume 5

John Calvin, 1509-1564

Jean Calvin

Anderson, Rev. James

Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library









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In bringing to a close his labors on Calvin’s Commentary On The Psalms, the Editor begs leave to state, that in addition to the General Index, and the Indices Of Texts Of Scripture, and of Hebrew Words, originally contemplated, it has been deemed highly desirable to give at the end of the Commentary a Translation; or Calvin’s Version Of The, Psalms arranged in parallelisms, together with a Table Of Those Passages In The Psalms Which Are Quoted In The New Testament, and a Table Of The Particular Subjects Of Each Psalm, according to Calvin’s interpretation. These additions, it is hoped, will be considered as improvements. From the extent to which they have increased the size of this Volume, it has been found necessary to omit the Appendix of Additional Criticisms to which reference is made in some of the footnotes throughout the work.

To exhibit the Psalms arranged in the metrical order, was an idea which appears never to have suggested itself to the mind of Calvin. In his time, indeed, and long after it, the peculiar character of Hebrew Poetry was not understood. It was not till a recent period that any steady light was; thrown on the laws of its composition. A vast amount of learning had indeed been expended on the subject, and a variety of hypotheses had been suggested by successive writers to unravel a question so intricate and mysterious; but no satisfactory result was attained until it was investigated by the learned Bishop Lowth, to whose genius and erudition we are indebted for the discovery of this long lost secret. He has proved, with a clearness and force of evidence which has now commanded universal assent, that Hebrew Poetry bears no resemblance in its structure to the Poetry of Greece and Rome, that it has no rhyming termination of lines as in the Poetry of our own language, and that its peculiar, and perhaps its sole characteristic, lies in a felicitous arrangement of words into what he denominates Parallelism. In other words, its leading peculiarity is that. each sentence consists generally of two parts, closely corresponding to each other, not indeed in the number of syllables, but in the ideas which they express, or in their grammatical constructive form, the second being synonymous (or, as Bishop Jebb would denominate it, cognate) with the first, — or antipathetic to it in its terms and sentiments, — or similar to it in the form of grammatical construction, such as noun answering to noun, verb to verb, member to member, negative to negative, interrogative to interrogative. fe1 The division of these sacred poems into hemistichs or lines is, therefore, the form in which they ought naturally to be arranged; and such an arrangement is attended with great advantages. It exhibits to the eve the peculiar structure of Hebrew poetical composition, and is, besides, an important aid in Scriptural Interpretation, as it often contributes to the elucidation of obscure and difficult passages, and enables even the mere English reader to discover a thousand beauties, which, without such a help, would escape his notice.

In translating this parallel version, two of Calvin’s translations of the Hebrew text were at the service of the Editor, — the Latin and the French. The former is strictly literal, rarely changing the Hebrew idiom, or even inserting a supplementary term, and uniformly giving the arrangement of the words as they stand in the inspired original. The latter is also upon the whole literal, though in some instances it changes the Hebrew idiom into the French, as well as frequently inserts such supplementary terms as the sense seems to require; and disregarding the arrangement of the words in the original, it gives them in the order most suitable to the genius of the French tongue. The Editor has followed Calvin’s Latin; Version, and has rendered it literally, retaining the Hebrew modes of expression, and the arrangement of the words in the sequence of the Hebrew text, except in a very few instances where a deviation seemed necessary to render the reading intelligible. Occasionally he has found it necessary to insert some supplementary words. These, when taken from Calvin’s French Version, as is generally the case, are printed simply in italics, and when supplied by the Editor are printed in italics and enclosed within brackets. By adhering to the Hebrew order of the words, the arrangements may sometimes appear harsh and uncouth; but very often they give much beauty and force to the expression. And in retaining the Hebrew idioms, the Editor has felt little scruple, considering that as our English Bible is a literal verbal translation of the Original Hebrew, many of these are quite familiar to us, and from their peculiar grace have even become naturalized in our language.

“The Hebrew idioms,” says Addison, “run into the English with a peculiar grace and beauty. Our language has received innumerable elegance’s and improvements from that infusion of Hebraisms which are derived to it out of the poetical passages in Holy Writ. They give a force and energy to our expressions, warm and animate our language, and convey our thoughts in more ardent and intense phrases than any that are to be met with in our own tongue. There is something so pathetic in this kind of diction, that it often sets the mind in a flame, and makes our heart burn within Us.”

The utility of the two Tables adverted to is too obvious to require to be dwelt upon. From the former the reader will perceive how completely the inspiration of the Psalms is established by New Testament authority, and how highly they were appreciated by Christ And His Apostles, there being no portion of Old Testament Scripture from which they so frequently quoted. The other Table will readily serve as a guide to the selection of such Psalms as may be adapted to the doctrines of the Christian system, the duties of the Christian life, or the varied circumstances, whether prosperous or adverse, in which the Christian or the Church of God may be placed.

EDINBURGH, April 1849.

Psalm 119:121-128

121. [ I have done judgment and righteousness: give me not up to my oppressors. 122. [ Become surety for thy servant for good, that the proud may not oppress me. 123. [ My eyes have failed for thy salvation, and for thy righteous word. fe2 124. [ Deal with thy servant according to thy goodness, and teach me thy statutes. 125. [ I am thy servant, give me understanding, that I may learn thy testimonies. 126. [ It is time for thee, O Jehovah! to be doing for they have destroyed thy law. 127. [ And therefore I have loved thy statutes above gold, fe3 yea even above the most fine gold fe4 128. [ Therefore I have esteemed all thy commandments to be altogether right, and have hated every way of lying.

121. I have done judgment and righteousness. The Prophet implores the help of God against the wicked who troubled him, and he does so in such a manner as at the same time to testify that the harassing treatment he received from them was on his part altogether undeserved. If we would have God to come down to succor us, it becomes us to see to it that we meet him with the testimony of a good conscience. As He everywhere promises his aid to the afflicted who are unrighteously oppressed, it is no superfluous protestation which the Prophet makes, that he had not provoked his enemies, but had restrained himself from all injury and wrong-doing, and had not even attempted to requite evil for evil. In asserting that he had at all times done judgment, he means that whatever rite wicked practiced, he steadfastly persevered in following after integrity, and never turned aside from what was just and right in any of his public or private transactions.

122. Become surety for thy servant for good. This prayer is almost similar to that of the preceding verse; for I prefer translating the Hebrew verb bwr[, arob, by Become surety for, to rendering, as others do, Delight thy servant in good, or Make thy servant to delight in good. According to this second version, the words are a prayer that God would rejoice his servant with his benefits. There is a third translation, by which they become a prayer that God would inspire his heart with the love and desire of rectitude; for true perfection consists in our taking pleasure in justice and uprightness. But as from the last clause of the verse it is obvious that David here desires succor against his enemies, the verb Become surety is the more appropriate rendering fe5 Lord, as if he had said, since the proud cruelly rush upon me to destroy me, interpose. thyself between us, as if thou weft my surety. The letter l, lamed, which signifies for, is not indeed prefixed to the noun, but this is no valid objection to our translation, as that letter is often understood. It is a form of expression full of comfort, to represent God as performing the office of a surety in order to effect our deliverance. He is said metaphorically to become surety for us, just as if, on finding us indebted in a large sum of money, he discharged us of the obligation, by paying down the money to our creditor. The prayer is to this effect, That God would not suffer the wicked to exercise, their cruelty against us at their pleasure, but that he would interpose as a defender to save us. By these words the Prophet intimates, that he was in extreme danger, and that he had nothing else left him in which to hope but the help of God.

123. My eyes have failed for thy salvation. fe6 In the first; place he testifies, that he had been afflicted with severe troubles, and that not for a short time only, but for a period so protracted as might have exhausted his patience and occasioned despondency. But so far was this from being the effect they produced, that he declares that in all these long and wearisome conflicts his heart had never sunk into despair. We have before explained failing for salvation as denoting that although there was no prospect of an end to his calamities, and although despair presented itself on every side, yet he strove against temptation even to the fainting of his soul. Should we understand the past tense of the verb as put for the present, in which sense it seems to be employed, the Prophet in that case intimates, that his eyes fail him not because they become fatigued, but Because through earnest looking they contract as it were a dimness, and that yet he does not cease to wait continually for the salvation of God. In short, the failing of his eyes indicates perseverance combined with severe and arduous effort, and it is opposed to the momentary ardor of those who immediately faint, if God does not grant their requests. This expression also denotes a painful earnestness, which almost consumes all the senses. As to the term salvation, he does not limit it to one kind of help, but comprehends under it the continual course of God’s grace, until he put his believing people in the possession of complete salvation. He expresses the manner in which he waited for salvation, which was by depending upon God’s word in which two things are to be attended to, first, that we can only be said to wait for salvation from God, when, confiding in his promises, we actually betake ourselves to him for protection; and secondly, that we then only yield to God the praise of salvation, when we continue to keep our hope firmly fixed on his word. This is the way in which He is to be sought; and although he may conceal from our view the working of his hand, we ought to repose in his bare promises. This is the reason why David calls God’s word righteous. He would hereby confirm his faith in the truth of the divine promises for God in promising liberally does not cherish in his people delusive expectations.

124. Deal with thy servant according to thy goodness. The two clauses of this verse must be read correctly; for he does not first separately desire God to deal well with him, and next desire him to be his master and teacher. He rather beseeches him in the exercise of that goodness and mercy, which he is wont to display towards all his people, to instruct him in his law. The object of the Prophet’s request then is, that God would teach him in his statutes. But he begins with the divine mercy, employing it as an argument to prevail with God to grant him what he desires. This prayer then must be resolved thus: Lord, deal gently with me, and manifest thy goodness towards me by instructing me in thy commandments. Our whole happiness undoubtedly consists in our having that true wisdom which is to be derived from the word of God; and our only hope of obtaining this wisdom lies in God’s being pleased to display his mercy and goodness towards us. The Prophet, therefore, magnifies the greatness and excellence of the benefit of being instructed in the divine law, when he requests that it may be bestowed upon him as a free gift.

125. I am thy servant, give me understanding. Here the prayer of the preceding verse is repeated. The repetition shows how ardently he wished the blessing prayed for, and how earnest and importunate he was in pleading with God for it. By the words he expresses still more plainly in what way it is that God teaches his own people — that he does so by illuminating with sound knowledge their understandings, which otherwise would be blind. It would profit us little to have the divine law sounding in our ears, or to have it exhibited in writing before our eyes, and to have it expounded by the voice of man, did not God correct our slowness of apprehension, and render us docile by the secret influence of his Spirit. We are not to suppose that David advances any meritorious claims before God when he boasts of being his servant. Men, indeed, commonly imagine that when we are previously well prepared, God then adds new grace, which they term subsequent grace. But the Prophet, so far from boasting of his own worth, rather declares how deep the obligations were under which he lay to God. It is not in the power of any man to make himself a servant of the Most High, nor can any man bring anything of his own as a price with which to purchase so great an honor. Of this the Prophet was well aware. He knew that there is not one of the whole human family who is worthy of being enrolled among that order; and therefore he does nothing more than adduce the grace he had obtained, as an argument that God according to his usual way would perfect what he had begun. In a similar manner he speaks in <19B606>Psalm 116:6,

“I am thy servant and the son of thine handmaid:”

in which place it is abundantly manifest that he does not boast of his services, but only declares that he is one of the members of the Church.

126. It is time for thee, O Jehovah! to be doing. It being the object of the Prophet to imprecate upon the impious and wicked the vengeance which they have deserved, he says, that the fit time for executing it had now arrived, inasmuch as they had carried to a great extent their wanton forwardness against God. The general verb doing is more emphatic than if one more specific had been used. The language is as if he had said, that God would seem to delay too long, if he did not now execute the office of a judge. It is the peculiar work of God to restrain the wicked, and even to punish them severely when he finds that their repentance is utterly hopeless. If it is alleged, that this prayer is inconsistent with the law of charity, it may be replied, that David here speaks of reprobates, whose amendment is become desperate. His heart, there is no doubt, was governed by the spirit of wisdom. Besides, it is to be remembered, that he does not complain of his own private wrongs. It is a pure and honest zeal which moves him to desire the destruction of the wicked despisers of God; for he adduces no other reason for the prayer, than that the wicked destroyed God’s law. By this he gives evidence, that nothing was dearer to him than the service of God, and that nothing was held by him in higher recommendation than the observance of the law. I have already repeatedly warned you, in other places, that our zeal is forward and disordered whenever its moving principle is a sense of our own personal injuries. It is, therefore, to be carefully noticed, that the Prophet’s grief proceeded from no other cause than that he could not endure to see the divine law violated. In short, this is a prayer that God would restore to order the confused and ruinous state of things in the world. It remains for us to learn from David’s example, whenever the earth is fraught and defiled with wickedness to such a degree that the fear of him has become almost extinct, to call upon him to show himself the maintainer of his own glory. This doctrine is of use in sustaining our hope and patience whenever God suspends the execution of his judgments longer than we would incline. Previous to his addressing himself to God, the Prophet adopts it as a principle, that, although God may seem for a time to false no notice of what his creatures do, yet he never forgets his office, but delays the execution of his judgments for wise reasons, that at length he may execute them when the seasonable time arrives.
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