Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This psalm consists of three distinctly defined stanzas of nearly equal length. The first portrays the wicked man who has reached the lowest grade of impiety. The second exalts the goodness and justice of God. The third, which is, in a sort, a practical application of the others, expresses, under the form of a prayer, the right choice to make between the two tendencies, the pious and the impious. The sudden transition at the end of the first stanza has led some critics to pronounce the psalm composite. But what else can the heart, which would not sink beneath the oppressive sense of the accumulated sin and misery of earth, do, but turn suddenly and confidently to the thought of an infinite and abiding goodness and truth. The only resource of faith that would not fail is to appeal from earth to heaven, and see, high over all the fickleness and falsehood of men, the faithfulness of God: strong above all the insolence and tyranny of the wicked His eternal justice: large, deep, and sure, when all other supports seem to fail, His vast and unchanging love.
Those who understand by “God’s house,” in Psalm 36:8, the Temple, reject the Davidic authorship. But understood of the world generally, or, better, of the heavenly abode of the Divine, it does not serve as an indication of date, and there is nothing else in the poem to decide when it was written. The parallelism is varied.
Title.—For “servant of the Lord,” as applied to David, see Psalms 18 (title).
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD. The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart, that there is no fear of God before his eyes.(1) The transgression of the wicked saith within my heart . . .—The literal rendering of the present Hebrew text is, An utterance of sin to the wicked within my heart. The common phrase rendered in our version, “Thus saith Jehovah,” is here imitated, “Thus saith sin.” “To the wicked” cannot, as some explain, mean “concerning the wicked.” The only possible meaning of the text as it stands is therefore, “Thus saith sin to (me) the wicked man in my heart.” But there can be no question that the psalmist wrote “in his heart,” since ail the ancient versions, with the exception of the Chaldee Paraphrase, followed this reading, and some MSS. still show it. This gives us a very fine sense. Sin is personified as the evil counsellor or prompter sitting in the heart of the wicked to suggest evil thoughts: Sin in the wicked man’s heart is his oracle. Conscience is on the wrong side.
There is no fear . . .—This is not the suggestion of sin just mentioned, but an explanation of the condition into which the wicked man has sunk. Impiety and irreverence have so corrupted his nature, that sin has become his oracle.
For he flattereth himself in his own eyes, until his iniquity be found to be hateful.(2) For he flattereth . . .—Literally, For he (or, it) makes smooth to him in his eyes to find out his evil to hate. (See margin.) A sentence of great difficulty. We must seek for the key to the interpretation of these words in the balance of the two phrases, “before his eyes,” “in his own eyes,” and must take the two verses together. They form, in fact, an example of introverted parallelism. (See Gen. Introduction.)
Sin is the wicked man’s oracle in his heart;
No fear of God is before his eyes;
He makes all smooth to himself in his eyes.
As to the discovery of his guilt that is his hate;
The discovery of his guilt is the only thing he hates.
This reading takes the two infinitives as subject and complement with the copula understood. It would be strange if Hebrew, which, above all languages, makes the infinitive do duty in various ways, offered no instance of such a use. (For matsa aven in the sense of the discovery of guilt, comp. Genesis 44:16; Hosea 12:8, etc.)
The words of his mouth are iniquity and deceit: he hath left off to be wise, and to do good.(3, 4) From the secret promptings of sin, the description of the ungodly passes on to its issues in words and deeds. It is an awful picture of wickedness of a man abandoning himself without check or remorse to the inspiration of his own evil heart. He goes from bad to worse. In a great English tragedy, the murderer, though he has determined to wade farther in blood, yet prays against the horror of nightly temptations:
Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature
Gives way to in repose.
But this man “deviseth mischief upon his bed.” When even the worst criminals shudder at their own deeds, whispering to their “deaf pillows” the agonies that creep over them with darkness and silence, this ungodly man of the Hebrew poet’s picture is occupied rather in scheming fresh villainies; even then he abhorreth not evil, or better, rejecteth not, catches rather at every fresh suggestion, and shapes it to his end.
Thy mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds.(5) Thy mercy, O Lord, is in . . .—Better,
Jehovah, to the heavens (reacheth) thy grace,
Thy faithfulness to the sky.
i.e., there are no narrower bounds of divine mercy and truth.
Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep: O LORD, thou preservest man and beast.(6) Great mountains.—See margin, and compare Psalm 80:10, “cedars of God.” So too the rain is called “God’s brook.” The epithet not only implies greatness and dignity, but also has reference to God as Creator.
A great deep.—The reference, as usual, with the words deep, depth, is to the great abyss of waters, of which the seas were regarded as the surface.
The twofold comparison in this verse recalls Wordsworth’s lines—
“Two voices are there: one is of the sea.
One of the mountains—each a mighty voice.”
but while to the modern poet the voice is Liberty, to the ancient Hebrew it is Righteousness. The majesty of the hills has often suggested the supremacy of right over wrong—
“Thou hast a voice, great mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe.”
The calm of the infinite sea has often soothed agitated souls. Hebrew poetry connected both immediately with God. the uplifted strength of the hills became an emblem of His eternal truth; the depth and expanse of the infinite sea of His outspread goodness and inexhaustible justice.
How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.(7) How excellent.—Better, how precious.
Therefore . . .—Better, the simple conjunction, and sons of men, they find shelter, &c
Shadow of thy wings.—See Psalm 17:8, Note.
They shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of thy house; and thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures.(8) They shall be abundantly satisfied.—Better, in order to preserve the parallelism, literally, They shall drink to the full. LXX. and Vulg., “They shall be intoxicated with,” &c
Fatness, therefore, is not here the fat of the sacrificial offerings, but the stream of grace flowing from above, to enrich men as the rain enriches the earth. (Comp. Psalm 65:11, where “fatness” means “fertilising showers”)
“An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.”
For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light.(9) In thy light.—Better, by thy light. This wonderful verse inspired Milton’s sublime invocation:
“The author of all being,
Fountain of light, thyself invisible
Amidst the glorious brightness where thou sitt’st.”
It contains the germ of that moral and spiritual teaching which had its highest development in the Epistles of St. John. But the original intention of the words seems to be that the favour and bounty of God commend themselves as divine in origin, especially to those in the covenant relation.
Let not the foot of pride come against me, and let not the hand of the wicked remove me.(11) The foot of pride . . . the hand of the wicked.—The one tramples on the lowly; the other is full of violence.
Remove.—Better, expel, but we have no indication from where. Perhaps from the Temple.
There are the workers of iniquity fallen: they are cast down, and shall not be able to rise.(12) There . . .—Of place. The poet has some definite incident in his mind, but has not told enough for us to identify it.