Verse 1. - Truly God is good to Israel; i.e. verily, in spite of appearances to the contrary, which had for a time made the writer doubt. It is suggested that the triumph of Absalom may have been the circumstance that shook Asaph's faith. Even to such as are of a clean heart; i.e. to the pious in Israel, who are the true Israel. God is really on their side, though he may seem for a time to favour the wicked. (On the need of a pure heart, see Psalm 24:4.)
But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped.
Verse 2. - But as for me, my feet were almost gone; my steps had well nigh slipped. The psalmist had doubted God's goodness and righteousness, on account of the prosperity of the wicked. He feels now that his doubt had been a sin, and had almost caused him to give up his confidence and trust in the Almighty. He had well nigh slipped from the rock of faith into the abyss of scepticism.
For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
Verse 3. - For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked (comp. Psalm 37:1). To envy the wicked because they prosper is to make more account of the good things of this life than of God's favour - to prefer physical good to moral. It is also to doubt that God governs the universe by the strict rule of justice. The word translated "foolish" means rather, "vain arrogant boasters." Such the wicked commonly become when they prosper (comp. Psalm 5:5).
For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm.
Verse 4. - For there are no bands in their death; or, no sufferings (δυσπάθειαι, Aquila; "torments," Cheyne); comp. Job 21:13, "They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment go down to the grave;" and ver. 23, "One dieth in his full strength, being wholly at ease and quiet." Such deaths often happen, and are a severe trial of faith to those who have no firm conviction of the reality of a hereafter. But their strength is firm; literally, their body is plump (Cheyne). But the Authorized Version probably gives the true meaning. They drop into the grave while their strength is still undiminished.
They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men.
Verse 5. - They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men (comp. Job 21:8-10). There is, no doubt, something of Oriental hyperbole in this representation, as there is in the account given by Job (l.s.c.), which he afterwards qualifies (Job 27:13-23). But still a certain immunity from suffering does seem often to attach to the wicked man, whom God does not chasten, because chastening would be of no service to him.
Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment.
Verse 6. - Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; or, is as a chain about their neck (Revised Version) - makes them stiffen their neck, and hold their head aloft. Not being afflicted, they regard themselves as favourites of Heaven, and are therefore puffed up with pride, which they show in their gait and bearing. Violence covereth them as a garment. Pride and self-conceit naturally lead on to violence, which becomes so habitual to them that it seems like their ordinary apparel (comp. Psalm 109:18, 19). The violence of the great ones in Israel is continually denounced, both by psalmists and prophets (see Psalm 11:2; Psalm 55:9; Psalm 58:2; Psalm 72:14, etc.; Isaiah 1:15; Isaiah 3:15; Isaiah 59:3-7; Hosea 4:1, 2; Amos 3:10, etc.).
Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish.
Verse 7. - Their eyes stand out with fatness. Their eyes, which gloat upon the luxuries around them, seem to stand out from their fat and bloated faces (comp. Job 15:27; Psalm 17:10). They have more than heart could wish; literally, the imaginations of their heart overflew. The exact meaning is doubtful.
They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily.
Verse 8. - They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily; rather, they scoff, and speak wickedly; of oppression do they speak from heaven's height; i.e. "they scoff at the righteous, and speak wickedly concerning them; they talk of the oppressive acts which they meditate, as though they were Divine beings, speaking from the heavenly height" (Cheyne).
They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth.
Verse 9. - They set their mouth against the heavens. So Hupfeld and Canon Cook, who understand the expression of blasphemy; but most modern critics translate, "They have set their mouth in the heavens," and regard the meaning as nearly allied to that of the second clause of the preceding verse, "They speak as though they were inhabitants of the heavens." And their tongue walketh through the earth. Their tongue is always busily employed - boasting (ver. 3), lying, backbiting.
Therefore his people return hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them.
Verse 10. - Therefore his people return hither; rather, therefore he turns his people hitherward; i.e. by his great pretensions and his audacity, he (the wicked man) turns his followers to his own courses, and induces them to act as he acts. And waters of a full cup are wrung out to them; rather, and waters in abundance are drained by them. They "drink iniquity like water" (Job 15:16), "draining" the cup which is handed to them.
And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High?
Verse 11. - And they say, How doth God know? Their wickedness breeds scepticism in them. They wish God not to know, and therefore begin to question whether he does or can know (comp. Psalm 10:4, 11, 13). And is there knowledge in the Most High? Does God concern himself at all with the things that take place on earth (comp. Psalm 94:7)? IS not man too weak and contemptible to attract his attention?
Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches.
Verse 12. - Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; rather, and they prosper always. They increase in riches. This is the impression which the psalmist has received from the general course of human affairs in his day. It is closely allied to the view taken by Job (Job 21:7-15).
Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.
Verse 13. - Verily, I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. Such was the psalmist's first instinctive feeling, when he noticed the prosperity of the wicked. The Prayer book Version inserts, between this verse and the last, the words, "and I said;" which is correct, though somewhat free, exegesis. Compare with the expression, "I have washed my hands in innocency," Job's remarkable words, "If I wash myself with snow, and make my hands never so clean" (Job 9:30).
For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning.
Verse 14. - For all the day long have been plagued. While the ungodly have prospered, and net been plagued at all (ver. 5), I, the representative of the righteous, have been "plagued," or afflicted, continually. What, then, does goodness advantage me? And chastened every morning; literally, and my chastisement has beem every morning (comp. Job 7:18).
If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children.
Verse 15. - If I say, I will speak thus; behold, I should offend against the generation of thy children; or, if I had said (Revised Version). If, when these feelings assailed me, and the lot of the ungodly man seemed to me much better than my own, I had resolved to speak out all my thoughts, and let them be generally known, then should I have dealt treacherously with (Revised Version) the generation of thy children. I should have deserted their cause; I should have hurt their feelings; I should have put a stumbling block in their way. Therefore, the psalmist implies, he said nothing - a reticence well worthy of imitation.
When I thought to know this, it was too painful for me;
Verse 16. - When I thought to know this; literally, and I meditated, that I might understand this. A process of careful thought and consideration is implied, during which the psalmist tried hard to understand the method of God's government, and to explain to himself its seeming anomalies. But he says, It was too painful for me. He did not succeed; he was baffled and perplexed, and the whole effort was a pain and a grief to him.
Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end.
Verse 17. - Until I went into the sanctuary of God; literally, the sanctuaries (comp. Psalm 68:35; Psalm 84:1; Psalm 132:7). The three subdivisions of beth the tabernacle and the first temple, viz. the court, the holy place, and the holy of holies, constituted three sanctuaries. The psalmist, in his perplexity, took his doubts into the sanctuary of God, and there, "in the calmness of the sacred court" (Kay), reconsidered the hard problem. Compare Hezekiah's action with the perplexing letter of Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:14). Then understood I their end. There came to him in the sanctuary the thought that, to judge aright of the happiness or misery of any man, it is necessary to await the end (comp. Herod., 1:32; Soph., 'OEd. Tyr.,' ad fin.; Eurip., 'Andromach.,' 50:100; Aristot., ' Eth. Nic.,' 1:10).
Surely thou didst set them in slippery places: thou castedst them down into destruction.
Verse 18. - Surely thou didst set them up in slippery places. The wicked have at no time any sure hold on their prosperity. They are a "set in slippery places" - places from which they may easily slip and fall. Thou castedst them down to destruction. The fall often comes, even in this life. The flourishing cities of the plain are destroyed by fire from heaven; Pharaoh's land is ruined by the plagues, and his host destroyed in the Red Sea; Sennacherib's army perishes in a night; Jezebel is devoured by dogs; Athaliah is slain with the sword; Antiochus Epiphanes perishes in a distant expedition; Herod Agrippa is eaton of worms; persecutors, like Nero, Galerius, Julian, come to untimely ends. A signal retribution visits the wicked in hundreds and thousands of instances. When it does not, the question remains - Is death the end? This point is not formally brought forward, but it underlies the whole argument; and, unless retribution after death be regarded as certain, a single exception to the general rule of retribution in this life would upset the solution which the psalmist finds satisfactory.
How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! they are utterly consumed with terrors.
Verse 19. - How are they brought into desolation, as in a moment! There is something very striking in the suddenness with which the prosperity of a wicked man often collapses. Saul, Jezebel, Athaliah, Epiphanes, Herod Agrippa, are cases in point, likewise Nero, Galerius, Julian. The first and second Napoleonic empires may also be cited. They are utterly consumed with terrors; literally, they perish; they come to an end through terrors (comp. Job 18:11; Job 24:17; Job 27:20).
As a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord, when thou awakest, thou shalt despise their image.
Verse 20. - As a dream when one awaketh; so, O Lord, when thou awakest, thou shalt despise their image. As men despise their dreams when they awake from them, so, when God "stirs up himself and awakes to judgment" (Psalm 35:23), he will despise such mere semblances of humanity (Psalm 39:6) as the wicked are.
Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins.
Verse 21. - Thus my heart was grieved; literally, for my heart was grieved, or "was soured." The "for" refers to a suppressed phrase of self-condemnation, "But at the time I did not see all this - the solution did not present itself to me." I was too full of grief and bitterness to consider the matter calmly and dispassionately. And I was pricked in my reins; i.e. "a pang of passionate discontent had pierced my inmost being" (Cheyne).
So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee.
Verse 22. - So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee. I had no more intelligence than the brute beasts; I was wholly unable to reason aright (comp. Psalm 32:9; Psalm 92:7; Proverbs 30:2).
Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand.
Verse 23. - Nevertheless I am continually with thee; i.e. "nevertheless, I have not fallen away, but have kept always my hold upon thee;" and, on thy part, thou hast holden me by my right hand; i.e. thou hast upheld me and prevented me from slipping (comp. Psalm 18:35; Psalm 89:21; Psalm 119:117).
Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.
Verse 24. - Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel. The psalmist expresses full confidence in God's continual guidance through all life's dangers and difficulties, notwithstanding his own shortcomings and" foolishness." He then looks beyond this life, and exclaims, And afterward (thou wilt) receive me to glory. Even Professor Cheyne sees m this the story of Enoch spiritualized." "Walking with God," he says, "is followed by a reception with glory, or into glory; and he compares the passage with Psalm 49:16, which he has previously explained as showing that "the poet has that religious intuition which forms the kernel of the hope of immortality."
Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.
Verse 25. - Whom have I in heaven but thee? Who is there in all the host of heaven on whom I can place any reliance, excepting thee? None of thy "holy ones," neither angel nor archangel, can afford me any support or sustenance, preserve or guide or save me, but THOU only (comp. Job 5:1). And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. Much less can earth supply me with a substitute for God. On him my heart's affections are centred (comp. Psalm 63:1, "My soul thirsteth top thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is").
My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.
Verse 26. - My flesh and my heart faileth. The meaning is, "Though my flesh and my heart fail utterly, though my whole corporeal and animal nature fade away and come to nothing, yet something in the nature of a heart - the true 'I,' consciousness, will remain, and will be upheld by God." God is the Strength of my heart, and my Portion forever. "A strong assertion of personal immortality" (Cook). "This is the mysticism of faith; we are on the verge of St. Paul's conception of the πνεῦμα, the organ of life in God" (Cheyne).
For, lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee.
Verse 27. - For lo, they that are far from thee shall perish. As God is the source of all life, to be "far from him" is to perish - to have this life depart from us, even if existence of any kind remains. The psalmist is vague with respect to the ultimate fate of the wicked, confident only of the continued existence, in a condition which he declares to be "good," of the righteous. Thou hast destroyed all them that go a-whoring from thee. The strong phrase here used is rare in the Psalms, occurring only in this place and in Psalm 106:39. It commonly refers to idolatrous practices, but is used sometimes of other kinds of declension and alienation from God (see Leviticus 20:6; Numbers 14:33).
But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, that I may declare all thy works.
Verse 28. - But it is good for me to draw near to God; or, "but as for me, nearness to God is my good" (Kay). Compare the well known hymn -
"Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee;
Even though it be a cross
That raiseth me;
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee." I have put my trust in the Lord God; literally, in the Lord Jehovah (Adonai Jehovah) - an unusual combination. That I may declare all thy works. With the intention of ever hereafter declaring and magnifying all thy works.