Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
A prayer for help in an age of apparently universal hypocrisy, dissimulation, and untrustworthiness. The title assigns it to David, who might have written it while he was at the court of Saul, or during his outlaw life. Men like Doeg were in positions of authority. Unscrupulous enemies were poisoning Saul’s mind against him (1 Samuel 26:19). The ungrateful citizens of Keilah were ready to betray their deliverer (1 Samuel 23:11). The Ziphites deliberately meditated treachery (1 Samuel 23:19 ff.).
The situation of the writer resembles that described in Psalms 5. [Psalm 5:5-6; Psalm 5:9-10); Psalm 12:5 should be compared with Psalm 9:18 and Psalm 10:5; ‘I will arise’ (Psalm 12:5) is the answer to the prayer of Psalm 3:7, Psalm 7:6, Psalm 9:19, Psalm 10:12.
But the language is general, and the Psalm might belong to almost any age. Similar complaints are found in Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah. In every period of the Church’s history there have been godly men who, separated from friends and persecuted by enemies, have been tempted to say with Elijah, “I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life to take it away.”
In this psalm prophecy and psalmody meet. The Psalmist speaks to God, and God answers through the Psalmist (Psalm 12:5). It is no doubt possible that he is quoting some prophetic utterance (cp. Psalm 89:19 ff.), but there is no need of the supposition. He can himself hear God speak, and deliver His word as an authoritative message. Cp. Psalm 2:6-7 ff., Psalm 50:1 ff., Psalm 60:6 ff., Psalm 81:6 ff., Psalm 82:2 ff., Psalm 91:14 ff.
The Psalm falls into two equal divisions, each consisting of two equal stanzas.
i. Prayer for help amid prevailing faithlessness (Psalm 12:1-2). O that insolent braggarts might be exterminated! (Psalm 12:3-4).
ii. Jehovah’s promise of help; its purity and preciousness (Psalm 12:5-6). The Psalmist’s confidence in the divine guardianship in the midst of unrestrained wickedness (Psalm 12:7-8).
On the title, For the Chief Musician, set to the Sheminith (R.V.), see Introd. pp. xxi, xxv.
To the chief Musician upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David. Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men.1. Help] Render save, as in Psalm 3:7, Psalm 6:4, Psalm 7:1, and elsewhere; and note the connexion with in safety, Psalm 12:5.
for the godly man ceaseth &c.] Godly, or kindly, men are no more: the faithful fail (or as R.V. marg., faithfulness faileth) from among the sons of men. Mercy and truth, lovingkindness and trustworthiness, seem to have become extinct. Similar complaints are common in the prophets. See Hosea 4:1; Micah 7:2; Isaiah 57:1; Isaiah 59:14 ff.; Jeremiah 5:1 ff; Jeremiah 7:28; Jeremiah 9:2 ff. For the meaning of godly see note on Psalm 4:3 and Appendix, Note I. Here it means ‘one who practises lovingkindness towards his fellow-men as a religious duty.’
1, 2. A cry for help in the midst of prevailing faithlessness.
They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak.2. Hypocrisy and duplicity are universal. Men’s words are vanity, or falsehood, hollow and unreal. Their flatteries come from ‘a double heart,’ lit. a heart and a heart, which thinks one thing and utters another, and has no constancy or consistency, but thinks one thing today and another thing tomorrow. Cp. Proverbs 26:24 ff. For the opposite see 1 Chronicles 12:33; 1 Chronicles 12:38.
The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things:3. Render: May Jehovah cut off &c. Cp. Psalm 31:17-18.
proud things] Lit. as R.V., great things; further defined in Psalm 12:4.
3, 4. The prayer for help passes into a prayer for the excision of these false-hearted braggarts. Cp. Psalm 5:10.
Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?4. Who] Namely, the owners of the flattering lips and boastful tongues. ‘Our tongue,’ they say, ‘we will make mighty: our lips are with us,’ under our own control, at command as faithful allies; who is lord over us? No one can call us to account for our use of them (Psalm 10:4). Unscrupulous courtiers appear to be meant, who deliberately propose to obtain their own ends by reckless disregard of truth, e.g. by flattery, slander, false witness, and the like.
For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.5. Render: Because of the spoiling of the poor, because of the groaning of the needy. Cp. Exodus 2:24.
Now will I arise &c.] Cp. Isaiah 33:10. The moment for action has at length come.
I will set him &c.] An obscure clause. Either (1) as R.V., I will set him in safety at whom they puff. Cp. Psalm 10:5. The despised victim will be put beyond the reach of his tormentors. Or (2) as R.V. marg., I will set him in the safety he panteth for. Or perhaps (3) I will set him in safety when they pant for him; i.e. pursue him like wild beasts with gaping jaws ready to devour him. Cp. Psalm 56:1-2; Amos 8:4.
5, 6. The Psalmist hears God’s answer, and affirms its trustworthiness.
The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.6. A general truth with direct application to the promise of the preceding verse. In Jehovah’s words there is no dross of flattery or insincerity or falsehood. Unlike the words of men, they are wholly to be relied on.
as silver tried] Omit as. Silver is a natural emblem of purity and preciousness. The metaphor underlies the language of Psalm 18:30, Psalm 119:140, Proverbs 30:5.
in a furnace of earth] The precise meaning is doubtful. Either (1) in a furnace on the earth (R.V.), i.e. a furnace built on the ground, the point of which is not obvious: or (2) silver refined in a furnace (flowing down) to the earth may be meant to picture the bright stream of pure metal flowing from the furnace, shewing that the process of refining has done its work.
purified seven times] Again and again till no trace of dross is left. Seven is the number of completeness and perfection. Cp. Psalm 79:12; Proverbs 6:31; Isaiah 30:16.
Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.7. More exactly:
Thou, O Jehovah, wilt preserve them (as Psalm 16:1);
Thou wilt guard him &c.
The first Thou is emphatic: them refers to the poor and needy of Psalm 12:5 : him in the second line singles out each one of the victims of persecution as the object of divine care. Comp. the similar change from plur. (poor and needy) to sing. in Psalm 12:5. But possibly we should follow the LXX and read us, instead of them and him, or at any rate in place of him.
this generation] As the men of one age are commonly distinguished by special characteristics, generation acquires an ethical significance, and denotes kind, class, in good or bad sense. Comp. Psalm 14:5; Proverbs 30:11-14; Matthew 17:17.
7, 8. Concluding expression of confidence in Jehovah’s protection, which is sorely needed when wickedness prevails unchecked.
The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.8. Jehovah will preserve the righteous; although when vileness is exalted among the sons of men, when worthless or profligate men are raised to positions of authority, the wicked stalk insolently everywhere, unabashed and unrestrained. Cp. Psalm 11:1-3. The Psalmist returns to the thought of the prevailing corruption, from which he started.