The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Why standest thou afar off, O LORD? why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?Psalms 10
The Boasting of the Wicked
We have already pointed out that in the Septuagint and the Vulgate, Psalms ix. and x. are combined into one. This being the case, the authorship of the tenth psalm is clearly traceable to David. It has further been pointed out that the whole piece was originally alphabetical; our immediate business, however, is with the spiritual purport of the psalm itself.
The whole strain of the psalm is one of deep religious depression, and of lamentation over the condition of the poor and helpless. The first verse is full of sacred pathos:—
"Why standest thou afar off, O Lord? why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?" (Psalm 10:1)
The conscious absence of God or even his conscious distance from the soul is no unfamiliar experience. It is something to know that the experience is of no modern origin, but that it seems to attach to the entire course of the spiritual life. The mourning which invests so many of the psalms with so deep a sadness is literally expressive of our own religious tumult and despair. Indeed, when we wish to give precise utterance to our deepest and saddest feelings, we seem instinctively to turn to the Psalms that we may find proper words. There is more religious instruction in this fact than would at first sight appear. It shows how truly the religious life of mankind is one under all conditions of time and space. There is the same God, the same alternating faith and doubt, the same bright hope and sudden darkness. We are thus united in our deepest experiences, however far we may be separated by circumstances of an incidental kind. The heart of man would seem to be most deeply one alike in trouble and in prayer. Such trouble, too, has its own peculiar place in spiritual education. It inspires the truest and noblest cry for the absent or distant God. But the particular idea of this verse would seem to be not so much a loss of consciousness of spiritual fellowship with God, as a deep and bitter feeling that the Lord has separated himself practically from all the affairs of men. The picture is of the strong oppressing the weak, and God, instead of coming into the battle to avenge injustice and assist helpless poverty, stands upon a distant hill that he may watch the fight from afar. The contest awakens the pity of David and yet does not seem to awaken the pity of God! Has not a similar experience occurred to ourselves? In innumerable instances have we felt that if God himself would only come near he might burn the wicked with a spark, and lift up the virtuous poor to the elevation which is worthy of their spiritual pureness. But affairs appear to go quite in another manner; it is as if men must fight out their own cause whilst the living God is a mere observer looking on from a great distance, and indeed hardly looking on at all. This last point indeed coincides with the grammar of the verse, for the literal rendering, according to Isaiah 1:15, would be, "Why hidest thou thine eyes in times of trouble?" In other words, Why dost thou wink at the wrongdoing of oppressors? Why not look straight at them with eyes of fire, and burn them as they madly pursue their infamous course? Whilst therefore it is profoundly true that there are times when the soul is conscious of the absence of God in a purely spiritual sense, it must not be overlooked that the writer of this verse is rather complaining that God is taking no active part in the battles and sorrows of mankind. The Psalmist asks—Why? It is a bitter question; it is a question forced out of the soul by distressing circumstances.
"The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor: let them be taken in the devices that they have imagined. For the wicked boasteth of his heart's desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the Lord abhorreth" (Psalm 10:2-3).
The grammar of these verses it is difficult to settle, but the moral purpose of them is perfectly distinct. The wicked man does not know the proper measure of his strength, his prosperity makes him proud, and his pride fills him with contempt in reference to the poor. His reasoning is basely carnal: he would say, Look at me and behold what my right hand has done, and then look at the poor man in his vileness, and in that vileness see a proof of his incapacity and worthlessness: his hand is without skill, his eye is destitute of sagacity, and all his plans are marked by the feeblest childishness: surely a man so vile was made to be trampled upon, and in trampling upon him I am but carrying out in a human way what God himself is evidently doing in his mysterious providence. The speech of the wicked man concerning the poor thus aggravates its wickedness by a pretended piety. The wicked man would pretend to see in the poor man's poverty a proof of God's contempt; if the man were not poor he would be more respected in heaven, and because he is not respected in heaven it is evident to the wicked observer that he was not intended to be respected upon earth.
A very strong and vivid figure is that presented in the third verse. The wicked are represented as speaking praise to the lust of their own soul. When wicked people overwhelm the poor, they arise and address to their own souls rhetorical congratulations. They pour upon their own hearts eloquent tributes to their genius and strength. The literal idea is that of a villain addressing his vilest passions and congratulating them upon their satisfaction and triumph. An illustrative instance is found in the case of the rich man who told his soul that much goods had been laid up for many years and that the time of holiday and feasting had now come. The covetous man is represented in the text as blessing himself, which is exactly the idea of the parable of the rich man and his abundant harvests. The literal translation of "covetous" in the third verse is "robber." This is not only a grammatical change, it is a truly spiritual rendering. When we speak plain language to ourselves we shall not disguise the fact that covetousness is robbery. We speak now in modified language of covetous men being "close," "thrifty," "prudent," "worldly-wise," but these softened expressions must be indignantly driven away, and in their places there must stand the word so terrible but true, that the covetous man is a thief and a robber. The expression at the close of the third verse, "whom the Lord abhorreth," should be inverted and read, "who abhorreth the Lord." Many such expressions ought to be inverted, and thus many a difficulty in regard to the divine nature would be removed. When we read of the Lord abhorring a man we may set it down as an absolute certainty that the man first abhorred the Lord. This true interpretation gets rid of the unholy and debasing notion that the Lord conceives particular prejudices against particular persons on grounds which are purely arbitrary. Set it down as a guiding fact, as indeed a key of interpretation, that wherever the Lord is said to be opposed to a man or nation, the act of hostility began on the human side. We can hardly determine whether the Psalmist is fixing his mind upon some merely dramatic personalities whom he describes by the name of wicked and covetous. What is the result of our own observation in these matters? Have the wicked changed? Are covetous men more softly and tenderly inclined towards the poor? Has the hand of the tyrant relaxed?
"The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts. His ways are always grievous; thy judgments are far above out of his sight: as for all his enemies, he puffeth at them. He hath said in his heart, I shall not be moved: for I shall never be in adversity. His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and fraud: under his tongue is mischief and vanity. He sitteth in the lurking-places of the villages: in the secret places doth he murder the innocent: his eyes are privily set against the poor. He lieth in wait secretly as a lion in his den: he lieth in wait to catch the poor: he doth catch the poor, when he draweth him into his net He croucheth, and humbleth himself, that the poor may fall by his strong ones. He hath said in his heart, God hath forgotten: he hideth his face; he will never see it" (Psalm 10:4-11).
The expression, "pride of his countenance," literally refers to the heightening of the nostril. This was a Hebrew form of representing pride. Men were said to lift their heads high, to turn up their noses at the poor, and to set hard faces against the heavens. Wherever there is such self-confidence, truly religious feeling is impossible, hence we read "God is not in all his thoughts." The simple doctrine is, that either God or selfishness must be the ruler of the human spirit: where there is self-trust, there is no God; where there is true reverence, there is no self-trust.
But consider how strong are the temptations of the wicked man to trust his own sagacity and skill! See how many acres he owns, how many people do obeisance to him, how many institutions knock at his door and supplicate his patronage, how men flee before him that he may have ample room on the highway, and then consider how difficult it must be for such a man to believe that he is merely mortal and that his breath is in his nostrils. There is no God in all his thoughts. Why should he trouble himself about God? He has but to look upon his gardens and they smile in flower; he has but to put out his hand even in the darkness and to take it back again filled with gold; he is not in trouble like other men, his eyes stand out with fatness. He is a trouble to all who are pious in heart, yet whose way is hedged up with hardness and difficulty. The idea of the fifth verse is that the ways of the wicked man are always successful. A corresponding expression is found in Job 20:21 : "Nothing escapes his covetousness, therefore his prosperity shall not last." Whatever judgments he may honour in an abstract way, he says they are practically "far above out of his sight," so that they have no relation to him and he need not concern himself about them. They do not from his point of view descend into his life and trouble him by their searching criticism: the wicked man is prepared to give assent to theological propositions, but he will not allow that the divine judgments are the rule of daily discipline and conduct.
Having got rid of God it is easy for the wicked man to get rid of his enemies. "As for his enemies, he puffeth at them," that is to say, he treats them with scorn, so to say, with the most scornful scorn; he does not condescend to use words or arguments, he simply snorts out his contempt against his impotent foes. The wicked man has abounding confidence in his own stability: "he hath said in his heart, I shall not be moved: for I shall never be in adversity,"—more literally, "I shall never be moved at any time, I who am without ill." His mouth is filled with perjury. He sits in enclosed spaces and watches in darkness that he may murder the innocent. He is represented as secretly watching the poor. His eyes wait for the darkness. The eye of the adulterer waiteth for the twilight. To-day "the Arab robber lurks like a wolf amongst sand-heaps, and often springs out suddenly upon the solitary traveller, robs him in a trice, and then plunges again into the wilderness of sand-hills and reedy downs where pursuit is fruitless."
This is the picture of the truly bad man. When will the poor cease to trust in him? It is folly to expect anything from the clemency of a tiger; it is madness to attempt to make rational terms with a wolf. What then is the poor man to do? In what direction are his eyes to turn for light and help? To this enquiry the remainder of the psalm gives a sublime reply:—
"Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up thine hand: forget not the humble. Wherefore doth the wicked condemn God? he hath said in his heart, Thou wilt not require it. Thou hast seen it; for thou beholdest mischief and spite, to requite it with thy hand: the poor committeth himself unto thee; thou art the helper of the fatherless. Break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man: seek out his wickedness till thou find none. The Lord is king for ever and ever: the heathen are perished out of his land. Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the humble: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear: to judge the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may no more oppress" (Psalm 10:12-18).
Now God is called back again, as in the first verse he was felt to be absent and careless. He is appealed to as if he had been asleep, or had allowed the affairs of the world to glide far away from him and plunge themselves into unrighteousness and all moral confusion. But the very withdrawment of God is the occasion of this heart-felt desire for him. We never know how gladsome the summer is until we feel the biting cold of winter. It is in the deep midnight that we are most vividly reminded of the splendours of day. The Psalmist notes what cannot have escaped our own observation, namely, with what terrific rapidity the wicked man doubles his wickedness. Not only does the wicked man deny God in some kind of paltry philosophical way, from denial he proceeds to contempt, and from contempt to defiance. Man cannot stop at the point of agnosticism. It would appear to be impossible to be coldly irreligious any more than to be coldly pious. There is a point of passion even in irreligiousness; a point at which a man takes his affairs into his own hands, and having none other to trust to, he boasts of his strength and offers sacrifices to his own ingenuity. Let it never be supposed then that a man can rest at the point of merely not knowing; the next point is denying; the next point is defying; the next point is absolute self-idolatry. But out of all the darkness which oppresses the soul of the Psalmist the sufferer comes with a song of hope and exultation. Through some rift of the angry cloud he has seen the king upon his throne, and has realised that though a king he is yet identified with the cause of the humble, he is the judge of the fatherless and the oppressed. Thus the greater triumphs over the smaller. Oppression, robbery, haughtiness, self-seeking had but a short day in which to display their folly and rioting, and within the narrow limits of that day they seemed to be triumphant and secure, but the time came when a greater law asserted its sovereignty and swept them away. The great lesson is that we are not to judge within misleading limits or to pronounce final judgments whilst processes are being developed. We are not to deny the force of wickedness or the malignity of unclean hearts, nor are we to deny the sorrows of the poor and the despair of the helpless, all these things are to be recognised in the broadest possible way; but to our immediate observation of these appalling realities we are to add the religious faith that at the right time and in the right way God himself will come and make the very boasting of the wicked the deepest depth of his humiliation, and the very grandeur of the robber shall be constituted into an element of his disaster and shame.