Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
i. The Psalmist appeals for help against a gang of merciless enemies, who are endeavouring to effect his ruin by false accusations or treacherous slanders. Their hostility is not merely causeless: it is a deliberate return of evil for good, of hate for love (Psalm 109:1-5).
ii. Singling out the leader of his persecutors the Psalmist invokes upon him and all that belong to him the retribution which his inhuman conduct deserves. May he be tried and found guilty! May he be degraded from his office and die a premature death! May his children be impoverished and his name speedily become extinct! May all the sins of his ancestors be remembered against him! Because he has deliberately been merciless to the poor and weak, and chosen not to benefit but to injure his neighbour, let him find no mercy or blessing at the hands of God (Psalm 109:6-20).
iii. Then, changing his tone, the Psalmist prays once more for help, pleading the pitiableness of his own plight (Psalm 109:21-25); and his prayer rises into a confident anticipation of ultimate deliverance, and consequent thanksgiving to Jehovah the champion of the poor and needy (Psalm 109:26-31).
Thus the Psalm consists of six stanzas, each of five verses, except the last, which contains six, and falls into three divisions.
Commentators who maintain the Davidic authorship, have supposed it to refer to Doeg, or Ahithophel, or Shimei. But there is nothing in the Psalm to indicate that its author was ever in a position of authority: rather he seems to belong to the class of the poor and oppressed, and to be the victim of a conspiracy of unscrupulous neighbours. Some features in the language point to a late date, and apparently there are allusions to the Book of Job, and to late Psalms, e.g. Psalms 102. Most probably it belongs to the post-exilic period.
It has been held by some that the Psalm is not personal but national; that the speaker is Israel, persecuted and oppressed by scornful and malignant enemies. Others have supposed that the Psalmist writes as the representative of the poor and oppressed classes, and that the enemy whom he denounces is no particular individual, but the typical persecutor of the poor. But alike in its denunciations and in its complaints and in its prayers the Psalm has a personal ring; it is a cry of suffering wrung out by actual circumstances. What those circumstances were we can only conjecture. Possibly the enemy whom he singles out had been the head of a conspiracy to ruin him and his family by false charges and perversion of justice. Such a situation may be indicated by the language of Psalm 109:2-3 (cp. Psalm 109:31), and it would give special point to the form of retribution which the Psalmist invokes in Psalm 109:6 ff. His enemies were evidently of his own countrymen, and the chief enemy was a man of some position (Psalm 109:8). Was he some noble whom the judge would be ready to gratify, or even the judge himself? Cp. Micah 7:3. The narrative in Nehemiah 5 shews that national suffering had not taught the wealthier and more powerful members of the community of the Return to exercise consideration towards their poorer brethren. Possibly, though less probably, the Psalmist’s enemies were men who had been attempting to ruin him by slander and calumny, such as almost proved fatal to Jesus the son of Sirach (Sir 51:1-10).
The Psalm has much in common with Psalms 35, 69. The complaints of the causelessness of the hostility of his enemies resemble those in Psalm 35:11 ff.: the imprecations recall those of Psalm 69:22 ff., but they are more terrible in their detail, and they startle and shock the Christian reader the more because they are levelled not at the guilty man himself alone, but at all his kith and kin.
The moral difficulty of the Imprecatory Psalms has been discussed generally in the Introduction, pp. lxxxviii ff. We shall not attempt to justify them. They are the very opposite of the spirit of the Gospel (Matthew 5:43 ff.). But we must endeavour to understand them. They are the expression of the spirit of a dispensation, in which retribution was a fundamental principle. It is the desire for retribution, above all for retribution for gratuitous malice, which finds such passionate expression here. “As he hath done, so shall it be done to him” was the sentence of the Law (Leviticus 24:19). “Let me see thy vengeance on them” is the prayer of the persecuted prophet (Jeremiah 11:20). “Whoso rewardeth evil for good, evil shall not depart from his house” was the maxim of the Wise men in Israel (Proverbs 17:13). ‘Let it be so in the case of my enemy’ is the sum and substance of the Psalmist’s prayer. ‘My enemies have rewarded me evil for good, and plotted to ruin me. Let the evil they have been devising recoil upon the head of the author of the plot. I am innocent; he is guilty: the fate which he would unjustly have assigned to me will justly be his.’ Again, the Psalmist is Jehovah’s servant (Psalm 109:28); his cause is Jehovah’s cause; if he perishes, Jehovah’s honour will suffer (Psalm 109:21); and his deliverance seems inevitably to involve the destruction of his implacable enemies. Let it be remembered too that we are dealing with poetry, and with the language of burning indignation kindled by cruel wrong. The ruin which the Psalmist imprecates upon the wicked man is doubtless that which he conceives the wicked man had designed to inflict on him.
But there is another side to the Psalmist’s character. He is capable of the tenderest love and deepest devotion. He would rather love than hate, rather bless than curse. In this respect the Psalm presents a striking contrast to the Fourth Psalm of Solomon, “Against the men-pleasers,” which has been quoted as a parallel. That Psalm is a Pharisaic attack upon the Sadducees, and breathes a spirit of rancorous and bitter religious hatred. Comp. Psalm 109:16-25 in Ryle and James’ translation.
“Let dishonour be his portion, O Lord, in thy sight;
Let his going out be with groaning, and his coming in with a curse;
Let his life, O Lord, be spent in pain, in poverty and want:
Let his sleep be in anguish and his awaking in perplexities.
Let sleep be withdrawn from his eyelids in the night-season;
Let him miscarry with dishonour in every work of his hands;
Let him enter his house empty-handed;
And let his house lack everything wherewith he can satisfy his desire.
Let his old age be childless and solitary until the time of his being taken away.
Let the flesh of the men-pleasers be torn in pieces by the beasts of the field,
And the bones of transgressors lie dishonoured in the sight of the sun.
Let ravens peck out the eyes of the men that work hypocrisy,
Because they have made desolate with dishonour many men’s houses, and scattered them in their lust;
And remembered not God, nor feared God in all these things;
And provoked God to anger and vexed him;
That he should cut them off from the earth, because with craftiness they beguiled the souls of the innocent.”
It has been maintained by some commentators that in this Psalm, as in Psalms 69, the imprecations are not the imprecations of the Psalmist upon his enemies, but those of his enemies upon him, which he quotes. We are to supply saying at the end of Psalm 109:5, and to explain Psalm 109:20 to mean, ‘This is mine adversaries’ award unto me; this is the sentence that they would procure against me from Jehovah.’ This view has been advocated by Dr Taylor (Gospel in the Law, pp. 244 ff.), and more recently by Dr Sharpe (Student’s Handbook to the Psalms, pp. 218 ff.). At first sight it is attractive. It accounts for the sudden change of tone and for the transition from the plural to the singular in Psalm 109:6 ff. It removes the moral difficulty. But it must be acknowledged that it is a somewhat strained and artificial interpretation. The sudden changes of feeling, and the abrupt transition from the plural to the singular, marking out one of the band of enemies as their leader and representative, find a complete parallel in Psalms 55. If the moral difficulty were removed in this particular case, it would still remain in other Psalms; and in fact the denunciations are not more terrible than those of Jeremiah against his persecutors (see Jeremiah 11:18 ff; Jeremiah 15:15 ff; Jeremiah 17:18; Jeremiah 18:19 ff; Jeremiah 20:11 ff.); while the combination of fierce emotion with elegiac tenderness finds a complete analogy in the character of that martyr-prophet.
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;1. Hold not thy peace] Or, Be not silent, but answer my prayer by pronouncing and executing judgement upon my persecutors. Cp. Psalm 35:22; Psalm 39:12; Psalm 50:3; Psalm 83:1. God’s silence is contrasted with the noisy clamour of his foes.
O God of my praise] Thou, Who art the object of my praise, Whom I have had cause to praise in times past, leave me not without cause to praise thee now. Cp. Psalm 109:30; Psalm 22:25; and particularly Jeremiah’s prayer (Psalm 17:14) “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me and I shall be saved; for thou art my praise,” based on Deuteronomy 10:21.
 In most editions of the Prayer Book the Latin heading is wrongly given as Deus laudum, which appears to have been introduced as a rendering of this phrase, the proper heading Deus laudem [meam ne tacueris]; ‘O God, pass not over my praise in silence’, seeming to be unintelligible.
1–5. The Psalmist appeals to God to interpose and defend him from his persecutors, whose hostility is not only causeless, but aggravated by gross ingratitude.
For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.2. For a wicked man’s mouth, yea a mouth of deceit, have they opened against me:
They have spoken with me with a tongue of falsehood.
It would be easy to smooth the style of the first line by reading ‘a mouth of wickedness’ for ‘a wicked man’s mouth’; it is only a question of vowel points in the Heb.: but the Versions support the reading of the Massoretic text, and it points at once to the leader of the gang, who has been set on by his fellows to compass the Psalmist’s ruin. The phrase they have spoken with me (R.V. to me, marg. against me) seems to be used in a forensic sense as in Psalm 127:5. His enemies—there is no need to explain to God who are meant by ‘they’—are scheming to effect his ruin by groundless charges supported by false witness. The word for falsehood is that used in Exodus 20:16, and frequently in Proverbs (Proverbs 6:19, &c.) of false witness.
They compassed me about also with words of hatred; and fought against me without a cause.3. Yea, with words of hatred have they surrounded me,
And fought against me without cause.
Cp. Psalm 35:7; Psalm 35:19-20; Psalm 69:4; Proverbs 1:11.
“Come and let us smite him with the tongue” was the cry of Jeremiah’s opponents (Jeremiah 18:18). “Denounce, yea, let us denounce him” (Jeremiah 20:10).
For my love they are my adversaries: but I give myself unto prayer.4. In return for my love they behave as adversaries unto me,
Though I (gave myself unto) prayer.
Their hostility is not merely gratuitous (Psalm 109:3); it is an actual return of evil for good. The Heb. word for ‘adversaries’ is characteristic of this Psalms , vv20, 29; cp. Psalm 109:6 : elsewhere in the Psalter only in Psalm 38:20; Psalm 71:13. It may mean not ‘enemies’ in general, but ‘accusers,’ opponents in a court of law. For the forcible idiom I (was) prayer cp. Psalm 120:7, “I am peace”; Psalm 110:3, “Thy people are freewill offerings.” The A.V., But I give myself unto prayer, retained in R.V., takes the meaning to be that in his need he commits his cause to God (cp. Psalm 69:13). But the parallel passage in Psalm 35:13 is decidedly in favour of supposing that his prayers for them in past times are meant, and this explanation suits the context best. To these prayers he refers as the proof of his love, the good for which they are now (Psalm 109:5) requiting him with evil.
And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.5. they have rewarded me &c.] Lit. they have laid evil upon me in return for good. Cp. Psalm 35:12; Psalm 38:20; Jeremiah 18:20.
Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.6. Set thou] appoint. He is himself in office (Psalm 109:8, a cognate word, ‘appointment’), but let him be called to account before superior authority.
Satan] Rather an adversary, or, an accuser, for evidently it is a human tribunal before which he is to be summoned, not, as in Zechariah 3:1, the bar of heaven. The word comes from the same root as adversary in Psalm 109:4; Psalm 109:20; Psalm 109:29. We may infer from Zechariah 3:1 that it was customary for the accuser to stand on the right hand of the accused in the court.
6, 7. Let this heartless persecutor of the innocent be put upon his trial, and that before a judge as heartless, and with a malicious accuser as unscrupulous, as himself: let him be found guilty, and let his cry for mercy find no hearing.
6–20. The thought of the enormity of this ingratitude overmasters the Psalmist. He breaks out suddenly into a passionate prayer that due retribution may fall upon the chief offender. May the ruin he was planning for another overtake himself!
The singular (‘over him’ &c.), which now takes the place of the plural, may be collective, the Psalmist’s enemies being regarded as a whole; or distributive, each one of the mass being singled out: but more probably it fastens upon the leader of the gang (Psalm 109:2) upon whom rests the real guilt. Cp. for the sudden transition Psalm 55:12 ff., Psalm 55:20 ff.
When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin.7. When he is Judged, he shall come out guilty] Lit. wicked: he will be shewn to be what he is and condemned accordingly. Cp. Psalm 37:33.
and his prayer shall be held as a sin] This cannot mean that his plea to the judge or to his accuser (Matthew 18:26) will be regarded as an aggravation of his offence, for the word for prayer is never used of requests made to men; but that when he cries to God for help, his prayer will only be regarded as a sin and find no hearing. Terrible as this statement is, it is only in accord with the teaching of many other passages. See Psalm 66:18 ff.; Proverbs 1:28 ff; Proverbs 15:8; Proverbs 21:27; Proverbs 28:9; Isaiah 1:15. A prayer, wrung from the wicked man in his extremity, and prompted by no true penitence, would only be an appeal to God to take the part of the wicked, to the confusion of the moral order of the world. The Versions and commentators generally ignore the fact that the verb in the second line is not in the optative (jussive) form let it be held, but a simple future (imperfect), it shall be held: and presumably the verb in the first line is also to be translated as a future not an optative, though in this case no distinctive form exists.
Let his days be few; and let another take his office.8. Let his life come prematurely to an end (Psalm 37:35-36; Psalm 55:23), and let another man succeed him in his post of authority: or perhaps, let his life be short and withal dishonoured by degradation from his office. Cp. Isaiah 22:19 ff. The rendering let another take his store is less probable.
The second clause is quoted together with Psalm 69:25 in Acts 1:20. Judas was the antitype of the man who requited love with treachery, and the words of Scripture are appealed to as a solemn sanction for filling up his office by the election of another Apostle.
Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.9, 10. The curse of his misdeeds falls even upon his wife and children. This is the climax of awfulness in the imprecation. But a man’s family was regarded as part of himself; his punishment was not complete unless they were included in it; and for full retribution they must share his ruin, for doubtless, this man’s schemes, if successful, would have involved the ruin of the Psalmist’s family. See Introd. p. xcii.
Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.10. let them seek &c.] And seek (their bread) far from their ruined home. Let the wicked man’s home become a ruin, and his children have to get their living away from it. The LXX however points to the reading, and let them be driven out of their ruined home.
Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.11. Let a creditor ensnare all that he hath,
And let foreigners plunder his labour.
Ensnare is a graphic word for the wily schemes by which an unscrupulous creditor or usurious money-lender would contrive to get possession of all a man’s property. For examples of the destitution to which Israelites were sometimes brought by creditors see 2 Kings 4:1 ff.; Nehemiah 5:1-7.
Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.12. Let him have none to continue lovingkindness to him as represented in his children; nor any one to have pity on his orphans.
Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.13. Cp. Psalm 37:28; Psalm 37:38; Job 18:13-21. May his sons die childless, and in the next generation their name be removed from the register of citizens. Cp. Psalm 69:28. An Israelite, with his strong sense of family solidarity, looked forward to living on in his descendants; and the extinction of the family was contemplated as the most terrible of calamities. P.B.V. ‘his name,’ follows the Vulg. from the LXX.
Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.14. be blotted out] From God’s book in which it is recorded as a debt. Cp. Psalm 51:1.
14, 15. Let the full penalty for the sins of his ancestors be exacted from him, in accordance with the warning of the law, that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. See Exodus 20:5; cp. Matthew 23:32-36.
Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.15. Let them be] The iniquity and sin. Cp. Psalm 90:8; Lamentations 1:22.
the memory of them] Of his ancestors and all their posterity. Cp. Psalm 34:16.
Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart.16. Because he remembered not to do lovingkindness,
But persecuted the afflicted and needy man,
And him that was cowed in heart, to do them to death.
He took no thought of the constant teaching of prophets (Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8) and wise men (Proverbs 11:17). The poor and downhearted and spiritless, men such as the Psalmist represents himself to be (Psalm 109:22), were his victims.
16–20. This curse is deserved: it is the just retribution for his deliberate choice of evil.
As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.17. And he loved cursing, and it came to him;
And delighted not in blessing, and it was far from him:
As he clothed himself with cursing like as with his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.18. And he clad himself with cursing as with his robe,
And It came into his inward parts like water, and like oil into his bones:
Let it be unto him as the garment which covereth him, and for a girdle wherewith he is girded continually.19. (So) let it be unto him as the garment in which he wraps himself,
And as the belt wherewith he girds himself continually.
As the text stands, the verbs in Psalm 109:17-18 cannot be rendered as optatives, let it come … let it be far … let it come. At first sight it is tempting to make the slight change in vocalisation which would give this sense (cp. LXX and Jer.); but the text admits of a good explanation. The past tenses it came … it was far … it came are not to be explained as ‘futures of certainty,’ water and oil (possibly with a reference to the water of jealousy, Numbers 5:22) being regarded as figures for what will inevitably penetrate his whole body. Water and oil naturally denote what is refreshing and strengthening (Job 15:16; Job 34:7; Proverbs 3:8). The wicked man deliberately chose the policy of cursing, and welcomed it to a home in his heart; he banished blessing from his thoughts and purposes. Cursing became the habit of mind, which he assumed each day as naturally as his garment: it was a positive refreshment and invigoration of his whole being. Therefore let it cleave inseparably to him and let him never be able to free himself from it Let it cling to him like a Nessus-shirt of venom.
Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the LORD, and of them that speak evil against my soul.20. Let this be the reward] Or as R.V., This (is) the reward; the wages, as the word implies, which they have earned by their behaviour.
adversaries] See note on Psalm 109:4.
But do thou for me, O GOD the Lord, for thy name's sake: because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me.21. But thou, Jehovah the Lord (or, my Lord), work thou for me] Lit. with me; put forth Thy power so as to shew that Thou art on my side, and prove Thyself all that Thou hast declared Thyself to be. Cp. Psalm 119:126; Jeremiah 16:7. God is printed in capitals in A.V., because it represents the sacred Name Jehovah, for which Elôhîm, ‘God,’ was substituted by the Jews in reading when Adônai, ‘Lord,’ the regular substitute, is joined with it. This combination of names Jehovah Adonai occurs in the Psalter only in Psalm 68:20; Psalm 140:7; Psalm 141:8; and elsewhere only in Habakkuk 3:19.
because &c.] Cp. Psalm 69:16.
21–25. From the pitilessness of man the Psalmist turns to implore the mercy of God.
For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.22. Cp. Psalm 109:16; Psalm 40:17; Psalm 55:4.
I am gone like the shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down as the locust.23. Like a shadow when it declines or is stretched out towards evening (Psalm 102:11), and is about to disappear altogether, so am I made to depart: the form of the verb implies compulsion from without.
I am tossed up and down] Or, driven away. The point of comparison is the helplessness of the locust swept along by the wind (Exodus 10:19; Joel 2:20).
My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh faileth of fatness.24. faileth of fatness] Hath grown lean and lost fatness may be the meaning. But more probably, is shrunken for want of oil. In his distress he had no appetite for food (Psalm 102:4), and like a mourner (2 Samuel 14:2) abstained from the use of oil.
I became also a reproach unto them: when they looked upon me they shaked their heads.25. And I—I am become a reproach unto them:
When they see me, they shake their head,
a gesture of contempt and abhorrence, as though I were the object of the wrath of God. Cp. Psalm 22:7; Psalm 69:10-12; Lamentations 2:15; Job 16:4.
Help me, O LORD my God: O save me according to thy mercy:26. Cp. Psalm 31:16.
26–31. Repeated prayers for help, ending with calm assurance that the end of suffering is at hand.
That they may know that this is thy hand; that thou, LORD, hast done it.27. that this is thy hand] That thou hast interposed for the deliverance of Thy servant. With hast done it cp. Psalm 109:21, lit. do thou with me.
Let them curse, but bless thou: when they arise, let them be ashamed; but let thy servant rejoice.28. They may curse, but thou wilt bless:
They arise and are put to shame, but thy servant shall rejoice.
They and thou are emphatically contrasted.
Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame, and let them cover themselves with their own confusion, as with a mantle.29. Mine adversaries shall be clothed with dishonour,
And shall wrap themselves in their own shame as in a mantle.
Cp. Psalm 109:18-19; Psalm 71:13; Psalm 35:26.
I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth; yea, I will praise him among the multitude.30. I will give great thanks unto Jehovah with my mouth] Confidently he anticipates the resumption of his former thanksgivings and praises (Psalm 109:1) in the congregation.
For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.31. A contrast to Psalm 109:6-7. Jehovah stands at the right hand of the needy (Psalm 109:16; Psalm 109:22) as his advocate and champion, while the accuser is to stand at the right hand of the wicked man. The wicked man is to be found guilty, as he deserves, while his victim will be saved from the persecutors who are minded to judge his soul, i.e. condemn him to death.