Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The date of its composition is in no way indicated in this psalm. Its resemblance to Psalms 58, 64 hardly needs to be pointed out. “The close of all three psalms sounds much alike; they agree in the use of rare forms of expression, and their language becomes fearfully obscure in style and sound. when they are directed against the enemies.” Besides the conjecture of Davidic authorship by the Rabbins, further developed by the addition in the Syriac, “when Saul threw the spear,” Manasseh’s reign, the immediate post-exile times, and the Maccabæan age, have all been selected for the situations out of which the psalm sprang. It is most in harmony with its feeling to suppose Israel speaking as a community, or an individual who identifies his own fortunes entirely with that of the better part of the nation. Heathen oppressors and foreign influences are undoubtedly attacked in the poem, and the blessings attending a loyal adherence to the religious and national traditions supply the cheerful and confident tone in which it ends. The rhythm is fine and varied.
Title.—See Psalms 4.
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. Deliver me, O LORD, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man;(1) Evil man.—The singular of the object in this verse must not lead us to think the psalm is an expression of personal feeling against one enemy, for it is immediately changed to the plural.
Violent man.—See Margin.
Which imagine mischiefs in their heart; continually are they gathered together for war.(2) Imagine . . .—Or, contrive, plot.
Gathered together.—This translation follows the analogy of Psalm 56:6. Others render, “dwell with wars.” But it is preferable to derive from a root meaning to incite: “They are continually stirring up wars.” It is the situation described in Psalm 120:7 and frequently; Israel would be at peace, but within and without are those ever trying to involve her in troubles.
They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders' poison is under their lips. Selah.(3) Comp. Psalm 64:3; Psalm 58:4; Psalm 52:2; Psalm 10:7.
Adders.—The Hebrew word is peculiar to this place, and is explained by Gesenius to be a compound of two words, to represent “that which rolls itself up and lies in ambush.” “Besides the cobra and the cerastes, several other species of venomous snakes are common in Syria, and we may apply the name, either generically or specifically, to the vipers. Two species, Vipera ammodytes and Vipera euphratica, we found to be very common. The former of these was known to Linnæus as inhabiting Palestine. They are plainlycoloured serpents, with broad flat heads and suddenly-contracting tails” (Tristram, Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 275). The LXX. and Vulg. read “asp.” (Comp. Romans 3:13.)
Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked; preserve me from the violent man; who have purposed to overthrow my goings.(4) Overthrow my goings.—Literally, thrust aside my steps. The verse is a repetition, with variation, of Psalm 140:1.
The proud have hid a snare for me, and cords; they have spread a net by the wayside; they have set gins for me. Selah.(5) Net.—An elaboration of the favourite image of the net. (Psalm 9:15.) The frequent occurrence of this figure well indicates the dangers to which Israel was subjected through the leaning of many of the nation itself to foreign influences.
O GOD the Lord, the strength of my salvation, thou hast covered my head in the day of battle.(7) In the day of battle.—Literally, in the day of arms, i.e., when he was arming for fight. God covered the warrior’s head, i.e., provided the “helmet of salvation” (Isaiah 59:17). (Comp. also Psalm 60:9 : “Strength of my head.”) Others, however, follow the LXX. and Authorised Version in understanding by “day of arms” the day of battle.
Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked: further not his wicked device; lest they exalt themselves. Selah.(8) Desires.—The form of the Hebrew word is anomalous, but the meaning certain. The LXX. and Vulg. give the first clause thus: “Give me not over to the enemy, by reason of their own desire;” which may possibly have been in St. Paul’s mind in Romans 1:24.
Further not.—The text of this clause has undoubtedly suffered. The Authorised Version follows the LXX. and Vulg. in inserting a negative before the last word. These versions also take the word rendered “wicked devices” as a verb, not finding a noun of the form anywhere else: “They have plotted against me: desert me not, lest they exalt themselves.” So also Symmachus, and another Greek version quoted by Origen.
As the text at present stands, we must render: his plot do not further—they lift up. Looking on to the next verse, “the head of those surrounding me,” the suggestion at once arises that the verb lift up properly belongs to this clause:
“His plot do not further.
They lift the head, these surrounding me.”
This arrangement disregards the “selah.” and also obliges us to suspect that a clause has dropped cut after the first clause of Psalm 140:9—a suspicion confirmed by the rhythm.  Mr. Burgess amends to “Further not his plot to his exaltation.”
 Mr. Burgess amends to “Further not his plot to his exaltation.”
As for the head of those that compass me about, let the mischief of their own lips cover them.(9) Head.—Ewald, who keeps to the text, takes rôsh in the sense of poison (see Psalm 69:22, Note):—
“The poison of those encircling me,
Let them be covered with the perdition of their lips.
Let burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire; into deep pits, that they rise not up again.(10) In this verse too there is a grammatical difficulty, which the margin, “Let there fall on them,” instead of “Let them bring upon them,” does not remove, since the subject of the next verb is third person singular. The first verb is usually taken impersonally, as by the LXX., which version is actually to be followed in rendering coals of fire (literally, coals accompanied with fire, or, coals as fire), and we get the somewhat awkward, but intelligible—
“Let them bring upon them coals of fire;
Let him cast them into pits that they rise not again.’
But a very slight change gives a plain grammatical sentence with the subject carried on from the last verse:
“Let it (mischief) bring even upon themselves coals of fire;
Let it cast them into pits, so that they rise no more.”
The word “pits” is peculiar to the passage. Gesenius, deriving from a root meaning “to boil up,” renders, “whirlpools,” which, as in Psalm 66:12, combines “water” with “fire,” as joint emblems of perils that cannot be escaped. But Symmachus, Theodotion, and Jerome render “ditches,” which is supported by a Rabbinical quotation, given by Delitzsch: “first of all they burned them in pits; when the flesh was consumed they collected the bones, and burned them in coffins.”
Let not an evil speaker be established in the earth: evil shall hunt the violent man to overthrow him.(11) An evil speaker.—Literally, as in LXX. and Vulg., a man of tongue; (Comp. Ecclesiasticus 8:3; Job 11:2.) margin,” man of lips.” It is hardly possible to resist the suggestion that some particular person, noted for the loudness or violence of his speech, was intended.
Evil shall hunt . . .—Comp. Proverbs 13:21 and Horace, Odes iii. 2, Conington’s translation:
“Though vengeance halt, she seldom leaves
The wretch whose flying step she hounds.’
To overthrow.—The Hebrew is a noun, formed from a root meaning “to thrust,” and literally means either to destruction or with hasty pursuit. Some render “with successive thrusts;” but this is hardly a hunting figure.
I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and the right of the poor.(12) Comp. Psalm 9:4; Psalm 9:16.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks unto thy name: the upright shall dwell in thy presence.(13) Surely.—Or, perhaps here, only, the primary meaning of the particle.
Dwell.—For the thought comp. Psalm 11:7; Psalm 16:11. After the peril and seeming abandonment God again proves the covenant promise true, and those whom the heathen would have chased from the land find in it a sure dwelling-place in the light of the presence and favour of Jehovah.