Explanation, warning, encouragement.
This psalm of David contains—
I. AN EXPLANATION TO BE SOUGHT . How came these strong imprecations to be used by the servant of the Lord? Are they worthy to find a place in the pages of Holy Scripture? Two things, at least, have to be considered in defense of them.
1. David identifies his own cause with that of God, and therefore his own enemies with God's. He is animated by the spirit which breathes in the words, "Do not I hate them that hate thee? … I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies" ( Psalms 139:21 , Psalms 139:22 ). So that his bitterness is not so much personal as public; it is moral indignation rather than individual and personal resentment. He speaks as one who feels that what is said and done against himself is aimed at the cause of Jehovah; there is more of righteousness than rancor in his soul. But if, as may be fairly urged, this does not provide a full explanation, it must be further considered:
2. That David could indulge wishes and take action against his enemies which are impossible to us, without injury to his conscience. He had not sat at the feet of Jesus Christ. He had not read, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt … hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies," etc. ( Matthew 5:43 ). He felt that he was well within the limits of the Law, if indeed he was not eagerly and dutifully championing the cause of God and of righteousness, by uttering these maledictions.
II. A WARNING TO BE HEEDED . It did not need that David should imprecate thus in order that his adversaries should be humbled.
1. Evil would certainly overtake them. They were guilty of unprovoked assault (see Psalms 109:4 , Psalms 109:5 ); they were utterly heartless in their course of cruelty (see Psalms 109:16 ); they would inevitably meet with the condemnation of a righteous God, and with the visible and tangible tokens of his displeasure. All sin has to pay its penalty sooner or later; and it is certain that they who wantonly injure the people of God, and mercilessly afflict the poor and the un-befriended, will have to meet their doom ( Psalms 33:16 ).
2. The penalty which the wicked have to pay answers closely to the character of their crimes ( Psalms 109:17-19 ). He that curses others will himself be cursed of man, as well as condemned of God. "With what measure ye mete," etc. The hard-hearted and close-fisted will have no pity shown them in their hour of need. He that taketh the sword may expect to perish by the sword. To none are we so apt to be uncharitable as to those who have no charity in their hearts towards others. Every one is inclined to excuse cruelty when it is shown to the cruel. Whatsoever we sow, that shall we reap.
III. AN EXAMPLE TO BE FOLLOWED . Not, indeed, in these imprecations; we have not so learned Christ; we have been taught the much more excellent way of pitying those who are wrong (even when they have wronged us), and of seeking to turn their hearts, that they may be saved from the consequences of their own sins. But:
1. In maintaining innocency in the midst of transgression. The psalmist had the peace-bringing consciousness that the wrongs inflicted on him had not been provoked by him; his hands were clean. In the darkest hour of our distress it is a priceless consolation that we have preserved our own integrity, that nothing has left a stain upon our soul. "Poor and needy, and wounded in heart," we may be ( Psalms 109:22 ), but we are true and pure, and our heart is right with God.
2. In looking to God for Divine succor ( Psalms 109:1 , Psalms 109:4 , Psalms 109:26-28 ). We, too, must "give ourselves to prayer," and look to the Strong for strength. Let who will curse us, if God bless us we shall be blessed indeed.
3. In a joyful assurance that all will be well at last ( Psalms 109:30 , Psalms 109:31 ). Whatever the situation now, the future will show a Divine Redeemer at our right hand, rescuing and exalting us.
The dreadful psalm.
It is by no means easy to imagine the whole nation of Israel singing such dreadful imprecations as those contained in Psalms 109:6-19 . "Thousands of God's people," says Mr. Spurgeon, "are perplexed by it." Not a few would like to be rid of it altogether. And the explanation given by many of the old commentators, that these fearful curses are those of the Lord Jesus Christ on Judas, who betrayed him, has only made the difficulties connected with this psalm ever so much worse. What is to be said? The solution we have to offer is that given by a learned theological writer, Mr. J. Hammond; and it is this—that these frightful cursings are not David's at all, but Shimei's (see 2 Samuel 16:1-23 .). They are what he heaped upon David, not David upon him. For—
I. SUCH CURSING IS UNLIKE DAVID . No doubt David was capable of saying and doing terrible things. Still, such brutal malignity, such diabolic depths of cruelty, as are reached in these cursings, are not what David's life, even where the worst has been said of it, would lead us to expect. He was not himself, though passionate, a vindictive man. And if David's dying injunctions concerning Joab and Shimei be cited, we venture to say that, deplorable as they were, they are mildness and meek ness itself compared with what we find here. They do not take in the parents and innocent children, nor stretch into the far future, as these delight to do; they are limited to the individual criminal and to the present life. But this cannot be said of the curses of this psalm. No, they are not like David; we do not believe they could have come from him.
II. AND THEY ARE INCONSISTENT WITH THE PSALM ITSELF WHEN TAKES IN ITS ENTIRETY . There are three plainly marked divisions in the psalm. The first, Psalms 109:1-5 ; the second, containing these imprecations, Psalms 109:6-19 ; and the third, Psalms 109:20 to the end. Now, nothing could be in greater contrast than the central, the cursing portion, and that which both precedes and follows. The first and last sections tell of "adversaries," many of them; but the central one points to one solitary individual: "Let him be condemned;" "He loved cursing," etc. And not in form only, but how utterly different in spirit! See the frequent references to God in the first and last sections; but they are scarcely to be found in the central one. In Psalms 109:4 , in the first section, David meekly says, "I give myself unto prayer;" which assuredly he did not, but to something very different, if Psalms 109:6-19 are the utterances of his mind. Is it likely that all at once, as by a leap, he would pass from the spirit of meek devoutness and lowly trust in God, to the very spirit of hell, which breathes and burns in Psalms 109:6-19 ? And if such were his spirit, would he at Psalms 109:20 suddenly return to the bitter spirit of the beginning of this psalm? We think not.
III. THEIR AUTHORSHIP CAN BE SETTLED ONLY BY THE CONTEXT , and that is in favor of the view we have maintained. Note:
1. That in Hebrew there are no quotation marks. Such contrivances as inverted commas and the like, to make clear when the words of another are given, were unknown to Hebrew writers. You can tell only by the context and the general sense when such quotations occur. Hence:
2. Our translators continually add some word or words to mark them. (Cf. Psalms 2:2 ; Psalms 22:7 ; Psalms 27:8 ; Psalms 41:8 ; Psalms 59:7 ; Psalms 105:15 ; Psalms 137:3 , and many more.)
3. And there are numbers of passages where such signs should be given but are not : e.g. Psalms 2:6 ; Psalms 14:1-7 .; 20. and 21. (liturgical psalms); Psalms 22:22 ; Psalms 39:4 ; and the writer I am indebted to for these references says, "I have counted a score of passages in Perowne's translation of the Psalms where he employs either the one or the other." And then:
4. The reproaches of enemies are cited frequently : e.g. Psalms 10:6 ; Psalms 22:8 ; Psalms 35:21 , etc. Now, may we not ask, that seeing the Hebrew has no quotation marks, and that the context only can decide when they should be inserted, could any context more plainly indicate that these Psalms 35:6-19 form an instance in which our translators should, as they have done elsewhere, have given such signs?
IV. IN DAVID 'S OWN HISTORY WE HAVE AMPLE EXPLANATION OF THIS PSALM , and confirmation of the view we have maintained. The correspondencies between the history and the psalm are clear, constant, and minute, as well as obvious. The history is in 2 Samuel 16:1-23 . Take the 2 Samuel 16:1-5 , and what could more faithfully depict the condition, the spirit, and the enemy of David at the time of Absalom's revolt, and when he was cursed by Shimei? And if, as we believe we should, we introduce the word "saying ' after 2 Samuel 16:5 , then do we not get a vivid representation of the curses that Shimei heaped upon him? And the imprecations themselves are just those that would have been spoken. They indicate the fact that he against whom they were directed held some great office; 2 Samuel 16:8 shows this.
2 Samuel 16:14 points to facts told of in the Book of Ruth. David's ancestors were Israelites, but they had committed the great sin of marrying Moabitish women. This was "the iniquity of his fathers." Then verse 16, which at first sight seems not to correspond with David's character, finds its warrant in that dark page of his history when he slew Uriah, having first taken from him his wife. Nathan distinctly charged him with having "no pity." What wonder that the foul-mouthed Shimei should exaggerate and enlarge this with the charge which verse 16 contains? But in the closing section of the psalm how exact the correspondences are with the moral history l The earnest pleading of verse 21 seems but the echo of the words in the history, "It may be that the Lord will look upon mine affliction, and that the Lord will requite me good for his cursing this day" ( 2 Samuel 16:12 ). Thus, then, from first to last the psalm " fits into the folds of the narrative of David's flight; the key turns without the slightest strain in the wards of the lock," and the whole of these correspondences go to show that the impious speeches in verses 6-19 are not those of David against Shimei, but his and others against David.
V. BUT , IT WILL BE SAID , ST . PETER DISPROVES ALL THAT HAS BEEN MAINTAINED . And doubtless the common interpretation has been upheld by his words in Acts 1:16 . But "the Scripture" (not "this" Scripture, see Revised Version) which "it was needful should be fulfilled" is not that in Psalms 69:25 and Psalms 109:8 , but that in Psalms 41:9 (see reference), which is plainly concerning Judas; and the quotations further down in verse 20 are not concerning Judas, but are simply applied as apposite to him—just as we constantly quote texts and sentences when they suit any particular case, without any idea that they were designed specially for such case. And even if this be questioned, and it be said, "the quotations do refer to Judas," it does not follow that David actually spoke the words. The psalm was his, and as a whole it is assigned to him—the part which belonged to his enemy, as well as those bitter portions which undoubtedly belonged to him. But we do not believe that they do refer to Judas in any other way than that which we have said; for if so, then the dreadful denunciations upon him must be attributed to our Lord Jesus Christ! But that he who when on the cross prayed for his murderers, "Father, forgive them," etc; should utter such cursings as these, is altogether and horribly unbelievable.
VI. AND THE INTERPRETATION IS WELL SUPPORTED . It is that of many Jewish rabbis, of Mendelssohn, of Kennicott, Lowth, etc. (see Mr. Hammond's article); and, above all, it must commend itself to the heart and conscience of those who love God's Word, and desire that others should love it too. The view we have combated lays a burden grievous to be borne on those who believe that in the Scriptures "holy men of old spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost." And this burden we have thus tried somewhat to relieve.—S.C.
Complaining to God.
"I am for prayer." "I find refuge in prayer, committing myself and my cause unto thee." The point of the psalm which seems to be missed is this—the psalmist, deeply moved in his feeling by the treacherous wrong done to him, nevertheless does not express his feeling to his fellow-men, nor act revengefully toward his enemies, but lets out his heart to God, speaking quite freely to him all that he thought and felt. It may, indeed, be said that the psalmist should not have felt so bitterly under any provocation. But we can clearly see that, if he did feel thus, he did what was altogether the wisest and most hopeful thing, when he spoke his bad feelings to God rather than to men. It is generally agreed that David was the author of the psalm, and that the treachery and wickedness of some individual is the cause of David's extreme anger and distress. Doeg, Cush, Shimei, and Ahithophel have been suggested. The treachery of his trusted friend Ahithophel perhaps affected David more than any other wrong done to him. But Shimei was brutal in his enmity. The expressions David uses must be judged in the light of his age.
I. ACTING IN VINDICATION OF SELF MAY BE WRONG . And acting includes speech and deed. In David's case—if the association is the rebellion of Absalom—he could not act; he was helpless to defend himself. But if he had been able, it was clearly wiser not to attempt such defense. There are many forms of trouble to which men are subject which they must leave alone. Attempted vindications only make matters worse. Men often make grave mistakes through over-anxiety about self-vindication; and their own heat of feeling, and the public prejudice excited, make the methods of vindication imprudent, and the results ineffective. "Avenge not yourselves." On David's side it should be urged that he did not attempt to avenge himself.
II. APPEALING TO GOD FOR VINDICATION IS ALWAYS RIGHT . And he who goes to God may be, and should be, genuine with God; and if he does feel strongly, he should say what he feels. Illustrate by the way in which a mother encourages her boy to tell everything to her when he is in a passion. The boy tells how he hates, and wishes evil done to, the person who has injured him. The mother does not misunderstand, and her work is to get the boy soothed and calmed. We may freely speak out our bad feelings to our Father-God. That very unreserve he uses to bring us to our right minds. We may show how wrongly we feel by what we say to God, as David did; but the saying it to God is certainly right. Take your very anger to God in prayer.—R.T.
This is a psalm of the most awful imprecations, in which the writer unrestminedly pours forth the fiercest hatred of his enemy, and pleads with God to load him with the most dreadful curses. He justifies his vindictive spirit by pleading that his enemy had fought against him without a cause; had rewarded his good with evil, and his love with hatred. He says he will give himself unto prayer; but the words which follow breathe a spirit such as we wonder that a man dare utter before God—the God of mercy. The best commentary on the whole psalm would be a sermon on Matthew 5:43-46 , and another on Romans 12:17-21 .—S.
The initial prayer and complaint. The prayer occupies one verse only ( Psalms 109:1 ); the complaint four verses ( Psalms 109:2-5 ).
For my love they are my adversaries . The tenderness and kindness of the good towards wicked men does not soften them. Rather it provokes them to greater hostility. This was seen clearly in the instance of Saul. But I give myself unto prayer ; literally, but I prayer ; i.e. "but I am wholly prayer," "I do nothing during their attacks on me but pray for them."