Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Psalmist is suffering from an illness which threatens to be fatal. Treacherous enemies, and among them one who had been a trusted friend, eagerly anticipate his death. But his confidence in Jehovah remains unshaken.
It is much disputed whether the Psalmist is to be thought of as still lying on his sick-bed, or as restored to health and recording his past experience. In the latter case ‘I said’ in Psalm 41:4 must be supposed to govern Psalm 41:4-12, or at least Psalm 41:4-10. But the former alternative appears preferable, for it is unnatural to regard the prayer of Psalm 41:10 as part of a narrative, and the verb in Psalm 41:4 can be rendered ‘I have said’, or ‘I say’.
The Psalm consists of four stanzas, of which the second and third cohere closely.
i. The first stanza is an expansion of the beatitude, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’ The language is general, but the Psalmist is thinking of himself. Conscious, like Job (Job 30:25), of having shewn compassion towards others, he trusts that he may receive the blessings promised to the compassionate. And further, the picture of the spirit which wins divine approval emphasises the wickedness of the treatment which he is himself experiencing (Psalm 41:1-3).
ii. iii. A prayer for restoration introduces the description of his present situation. The malice and hypocrisy of his enemies are vividly delineated. The climax of all is the perfidy of a trusted friend (Psalm 41:4-9).
iv. From his enemies he turns to God with renewed prayer for restoration, and expression of confidence in the continuance of His favour (Psalm 41:10-12).
If David was the author of the Psalm, the false friend can hardly be other than Ahithophel, and the Psalm must have been written shortly before the outbreak of Absalom’s rebellion. Absalom’s sneer at Hushai (2 Samuel 16:17) well illustrates the confidential relation of a trusted counsellor to the king, and the depth of his own perfidy.
It is true that the narrative in 2 Sam. makes no reference to an illness such as is here described; but that narrative necessarily passes over many details. Such an illness would account for the remissness in attending to his official duties, which Absalom’s words to the suitors for justice seem to imply (2 Samuel 15:3). It would account also for the strange failure of David’s natural courage which his flight from Jerusakm at the first outbreak of the rebellion appears to indicate.
Unnerved by sickness, in which he recognised a just punishment for his sins, David watched the growing disloyalty of his courtiers, and in particular of Ahithophel, without feeling able to strike and crush the conspiracy before it came to a head. Comp. generally, Psalms 55.
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble.1. Blessed] Or, happy, as in Psalm 41:2, and in Psalm 1:1. The word is to be distinguished from blessed in the doxology of Psalm 41:13, the tribute of human reverence to divine majesty. The last Psalm in Book I begins like the first with a beatitude.
that considereth the poor] Behaves considerately and intelligently towards those in affliction, shewing kindness and sympathy, and not judging them harshly. Cp. for illustration Psalm 35:13-14; James 1:27. The word rendered poor is different from that in Psalm 40:17. It means weak, and includes the sick as well as the poor. The sequel shews that it is the sick that the Psalmist has chiefly in mind. The P.B.V. the poor and needy follows the LXX, which may have been influenced by Psalm 40:17.
in time of trouble] R.V. in the day of evil, though in the day of trouble is given in Psalm 27:5 for the same phrase.
1–3. The blessings in store for the compassionate man.
The LORD will preserve him, and keep him alive; and he shall be blessed upon the earth: and thou wilt not deliver him unto the will of his enemies.2, 3. It is possible to render as in P.B.V. and R.V. marg., The Lord perserve him … the Lord support him: but it is more natural to regard these clauses as descriptive of the blessings which await the compassionate man, rather than as a prayer on his behalf.
he shall be blessed upon the earth] He shall be made prosperous, or more probably, counted happy (Job 29:11; Psalm 72:17), in the land. Cp. Psalm 37:3 ff.
and thou wilt not deliver him] Rather, as R.V., and deliver not thou him. Cp. Psalm 27:12. The language of promise passes into that of prayer, doubtless with a tacit reference to the Psalmist’s own need.
The LORD will strengthen him upon the bed of languishing: thou wilt make all his bed in his sickness.3. The Lord will support him upon the couch of languishing (R.V.), uphold him (Psalm 18:35) and preserve him from sinking into the grave.
thou wilt make all his bed] Lit. thou hast turned (or, changed) his lying down: changed his sickness into health. Cp. Psalm 30:11. Instead of a general truth a particular example is appealed to: or perhaps faith pictures the result as already attained. ‘The Lord will support … nay, thou hast already raised him up.’
The verse is commonly explained as a metaphor from the nurse supporting the patient’s head and shifting the bed and pillows to give ease and relief, but usage does not seem to warrant this interpretation.
I said, LORD, be merciful unto me: heal my soul; for I have sinned against thee.4. I said] Or, I, even I, have said. This has been and is my prayer. Psalm 41:10 seems to imply that the sickness is not yet a thing of the past.
be merciful] Be gracious (Psalm 4:1; &c.).
heal my soul] The soul is the man’s whole ‘self;’ the living personality which results from the union of spirit and flesh. See Oehler’s Old Test. Theology, § 70. The bodily sickness is the sign and symptom of spiritual disease: he would fain be healed of both. Cp. Psalm 6:2-3; Jeremiah 17:14.
for I have sinned against thee] Cp. Psalm 51:4; Psalm 31:10 He has offended against God; the chastisement comes from Him; and He alone can heal. Cp. Hosea 6:1.
4–6. The foregoing sketch of the blessedness of the compassionate man serves to introduce the Psalmist’s description of his own case, partly as a foil and contrast to the heartless treatment he is experiencing, partly because he feels that he can himself plead for a share in the mercy promised to the merciful.
Mine enemies speak evil of me, When shall he die, and his name perish?5. speak evil of me] R.V. against me. Psalm 41:5 takes up Psalm 41:2, as Psalm 41:4 answers to Psalm 41:3.
When &c.] The words of the enemies, expressing their impatient eagerness for his death, and even for the extinction of his posterity. Cp. Psalm 109:13; 2 Samuel 18:18; Psalm 9:6.
And if he come to see me, he speaketh vanity: his heart gathereth iniquity to itself; when he goeth abroad, he telleth it.6. And if one of them comes to see me, he speaketh falsehood. If one of these enemies comes to visit him, as was usual in sickness (2 Kings 8:29), he speaks vanity or falsehood (Psalm 12:2), makes hypocritical professions of sympathy; though all the time his heart it gathering iniquity or mischief; he is collecting materials for fresh slander, or feeding his malice on the sight of the sick man; and then he goeth abroad, he telleth what he has seen.
All that hate me whisper together against me: against me do they devise my hurt.7. The scene outside the house is graphically depicted. We see the associates waiting, eager for news. With a transparent pretence of secrecy they whisper together, and divert themselves with anticipating the worst.
do they devise my hurt] Or, imagine evil for me, indulging in uncharitable speculations as to the cause of his illness (cp. Job 22:5 ff.), and hoping for a fatal issue of it. The next verse is a summary of their malevolent conversation.
An evil disease, say they, cleaveth fast unto him: and now that he lieth he shall rise up no more.8. Render: A deadly mischief is poured out upon him.
The phrase a thing of belial is variously explained to mean an incurable disease or a matter of wickedness (cp. note on Psalm 18:4). The use of it in Psalm 101:3 (base thing), and Deuteronomy 15:9 (base thought) points to the latter as the primary sense. But probably the speakers do not distinguish between the moral cause—some monstrous crime—and the physical effect—a fatal illness—; but include the latter in the former. Cp. Shimei’s taunt, 2 Samuel 16:7.
cleaveth fast unto him] R.V. marg., is poured out upon him; perhaps, is molten, or, welded fast upon him. He will never be free from his guilt and its punishment.
The rendering in P.B.V., Let the sentence of guiltiness proceed against him, is quite impossible.
now that he lieth &c.] Now that he has taken to his bed he will never leave it again.
Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me.9. mine own familiar friend] Lit. the man of my peace. Cp. Psalm 7:4; Jeremiah 20:10; Jeremiah 38:22; Obadiah 1:7; and the similar complaints of ingratitude in Psalm 35:12 ff., Psalm 55:12 ff. (where the Heb. for familiar friend is quite different).
which did eat of my bread] Bound to me by the tie of hospitality; and, if the speaker is David, by the honour of entertainment at the royal table. Cp. 2 Samuel 9:10 ff.; 1 Kings 18:19; 2 Kings 25:29.
hath lift up his heel against me] Lit. made great the heel: spurned me with brutal violence, exerted himself to trip me up and throw me down. Cp. Psalm 55:12; Jeremiah 9:4.
The words ‘he that eateth my bread lifted up his heel against me’ are quoted by Christ in John 13:18 as fulfilled by the treachery of Judas.
The words of the Psalm are not a direct prediction, but the treachery and the fate of Ahithophel foreshadowed the treachery and the fate of Judas. What saints of old time had suffered by the desertion of friends must be suffered with an aggravated bitterness by the Son of Man. Their experience must be fulfilled in His. Cp. John 17:12; Acts 1:16. See Introd. p. lxxix.
But thou, O LORD, be merciful unto me, and raise me up, that I may requite them.10. But thou, O Jehovah, in contrast to their malignity, be thou gracious unto me: though they say ‘he shall rise up no more,’ raise me up.
that I may requite them] The words have a vindictive ring, which is startling, and seems inconsistent with Psalm 7:4; Proverbs 20:22. Yet if the speaker was David, conscious of his divine appointment to be king, he might well pray that he might be restored to punish traitors as they deserved. For the most part he would leave vengeance to Jehovah (1 Samuel 25:33; 2 Samuel 3:39), yet in this instance he might feel that he would be acting as Jehovah’s instrument, in punishing those who were conspiring to resist His purposes. See Introd. p. xc f.
10–12. After describing his urgent need, the Psalmist resumes his prayer from Psalm 41:4, and affirms his confident assurance of God’s favour.
By this I know that thou favourest me, because mine enemy doth not triumph over me.11. By this I know that thou delightest in me.
In the confidence of faith he can use the present: I know. Cp. Psalm 20:6. For delightest in me, cp. Psalm 18:19; Psalm 22:8; Psalm 35:27; 2 Samuel 15:26.
doth not triumph] Lit. raise a shout of victory. Cp. Psalm 25:2 (a different Heb. word); Psalm 30:1; Psalm 35:19; Psalm 38:16.
And as for me, thou upholdest me in mine integrity, and settest me before thy face for ever.12. Cp. Psalm 26:11; Psalm 63:8. Thou upholdest (lit. hast upheld) is either a reference to past mercies, or more probably a retrospect from the standpoint of deliverance granted. In mine integrity is no contradiction to Psalm 41:4. Integrity (Psalm 7:8; Psalm 15:2) is not synonymous with sinlessness.
and settest me before thy face for ever] His enemies hope that his name will perish. He knows that he will be admitted to stand in the presence of the King of Kings. Cp. Psalm 11:7 (note); Psalm 16:11; Psalm 17:15; Psalm 61:7; and the fundamental promise in 2 Samuel 7:16 (read before me with LXX).
Thus the first book of the Psalter ends with a hope, destined to be illuminated with a new light by the revelation of the Gospel. See Revelation 22:4.
Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting. Amen, and Amen.13. This doxology is of course no part of the Psalm, but stands here to mark the close of Book i. Cp. Psalm 72:18-19; Psalm 89:52; Psalm 106:48.
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel] Better as R.V., Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel. Lord answers to the Name Jehovah, and is not an attribute to God of Israel. Cp. David’s doxology, 1 Kings 1:48; 1 Chronicles 29:10; and Solomon’s, 1 Kings 8:15; also Ezra 7:27; Nehemiah 9:5; Luke 1:68.
from everlasting, and to everlasting] From all eternity in the past to all eternity in the future: in the eternal present of the divine existence. Cp. Psalm 90:2; Psalm 93:2; Psalm 103:17.
Amen, and Amen] So it is: the response of the congregation, affirming the ascription of praise on their own behalf (Psalm 106:48).