Psalm 141
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Psalmist prays that his prayer may be accepted as an evening sacrifice (Psalm 141:1-2); that he may be preserved from sin in word and thought and deed (Psalm 141:3-4), and welcome the reproof of the righteous rather than yield to the temptation to join the godless in their life of selfish ease and sensual enjoyment (Psalm 141:5). When the leaders of the godless party have met with the fate which they deserve, their followers will listen to his teaching, but for the present the Psalmist and his friends are like a routed army, the bones of whose slain lie bleaching on the field of battle (Psalm 141:6-7). Yet even in this extremity he can look with patience to Jehovah for deliverance from the snares of his enemies, whose malice will bring about their own ruin (Psalm 141:8-10).

Such is an attempt to trace the course of thought in the Psalm; but it must be admitted that while the meaning of Psalm 141:1-5; Psalm 141:8-10 is clear, Psalm 141:6-7 are in themselves obscure and stand in no clear connexion with the rest of the Psalm. Either these verses do not belong to the Psalm and have come into their present position by accident; or they are intentionally couched in enigmatic and figurative language, which is unintelligible without some knowledge of the events and circumstances to which they allude.

The use of this Psalm in the early Church at the beginning of the Evening Service, as Psalms 63 was used at the beginning of the Morning Service, was naturally suggested by Psalm 141:2. It was called ὁ ἐπιλύχνιος ψαλμός, because the service was held at the time when the lamps were lighted. See Bingham’s Antiquities, Book xiii. ch. 11, and the passages from the Apostolic Constitutions (ii. 59, viii. 35) there quoted.

A Psalm of David. LORD, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee.
1. I cry unto thee] Or, I have called upon thee (R.V.): he has already been praying, and now pleads for a speedy answer, make haste unto me (Psalm 70:5), i.e. make haste to help me (Psalm 22:19; Psalm 38:22; Psalm 40:13).

1, 2. Introductory appeal for a favourable hearing.

Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
2. Let my prayer be set forth] Lit. be prepared, set in order. The same word is used of the service of the Temple in 2 Chronicles 29:35; 2 Chronicles 35:10; 2 Chronicles 35:16. Or, be presented, avail.

incense] Either the daily offering of incense by the priests upon the altar of incense (Exodus 30:7-8), or the ‘sweet smoke’ from the azkârâ or ‘memorial,’ the portion of the meal-offering which was mixed with oil and frankincense and burnt upon the altar (Leviticus 2:2, see note on the title of Psalms 38), may be meant. But in the only other passage in the Psalter in which the word ‘incense’ (q’tôreth) is used (Psalm 66:15), it denotes the ‘sweet smoke’ of the sacrifice generally; and as in the next line the Psalmist mentions the evening oblation or meal-offering, he may be thinking of the burnt-offering of which the meal-offering was the accompaniment.

the lifting up of my hands] The gesture of prayer (Psalm 28:2; Psalm 63:4; 1 Timothy 2:8), the outward symbol of an uplifted heart (Psalm 25:1).

as the evening oblation] Minchâh properly denotes the oblation or meal-offering which accompanied the daily burnt-offering (Exodus 29:38-42); but it may be used here to include the whole of the evening sacrifice (cp. 2 Kings 16:15; Ezra 9:4-5; Daniel 9:21); or the burnt-offering may have been already alluded to (see preceding note) by the word ‘incense.’

The evening sacrifice may be specially named because the Psalmist was in the habit of praying at that time (cp. Daniel 9:21), and composed the Psalm for use as an evening Psalm.

The sweet smoke of the sacrifice or of incense rising towards heaven was a natural symbol of prayer ascending to God. Cp. Revelation 5:8, where incense represents the prayers of the saints; and Revelation 8:3-4, where the angel adds incense to the prayers of the saints. It would seem that the Psalmist lived at a time when the daily sacrifice was suspended, or at a distance from Jerusalem; but he had learnt that he could approach God as truly in prayer as if he were assisting at the daily sacrifice. Cp. Malachi 1:11. For the correspondence of prayer and sacrifice cp. Proverbs 15:8; Hosea 14:2; Psalm 19:14, note.

Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.
3. Cp. Psalm 34:13; Psalm 39:1; Proverbs 13:3; Proverbs 21:23. The special point of the prayer is that he may be guarded from adopting the profane language of the ungodly men by whom he is surrounded. Cp. Psalm 73:8 ff. This verse is apparently quoted in Sir 22:27, “Who shall set a watch over my mouth?”

keep the door of my lips] Parallelism and construction suggest the reading, a guard over the door of my lips. For the figure cp. Micah 7:5.

3–5. Prayer for grace to resist the temptation to sin in word and thought and deed.

Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practise wicked works with men that work iniquity: and let me not eat of their dainties.
4. Incline not my heart &c.] Leave me not by the withdrawal of Thy grace, to turn aside from the path of right. Cp. Psalm 119:10; Psalm 119:133.

to practise &c.] To occupy myself in wicked practices with men who are workers of iniquity. The word for men implies that they are men of rank and position who set this bad example. Cp. Psalm 4:2, note.

let me not eat of their dainties] Let me not share their life of sensual luxury, the means for which are procured by violence and injustice. Cp. Proverbs 4:17, “For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence”: Psalm 24:1-2. There does not seem to be any allusion to participation in idolatrous sacrifices.

Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head: for yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities.
5. Let the righteous smite me, it shall be kindness:

And let him reprove me, it shall be as oil for the head;

Let not my head refuse it:

But still let my prayer be against their evil doings.

From the prayer of Psalm 141:4 it is clear that the Psalmist had felt the seductiveness of worldly luxury, and apparently (cp. Psalm 141:9) godless men had been endeavouring to entice him to cast in his lot with them. On the other hand it would seem that he had been tempted to resent the correction and reproof of the godly, possibly not always offered in the most conciliatory way. He therefore prays that he may welcome correction as kindness, and reproof as the “ointment and perfume” which “rejoice the heart” (Proverbs 27:9), alluding no doubt to the oil with which his head would have been anointed at the banquets of the wicked (Amos 6:6). Smite is of course a metaphor for severe correction. Cp. Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” The Book of Proverbs insists constantly on the value of reproof, which the wise man welcomes and the fool resents (Proverbs 3:11 f.; Proverbs 13:18; Proverbs 15:5; Proverbs 15:31-32; Proverbs 28:23), and the duty of neighbourly reproof is enjoined in the Law (Leviticus 19:17). Cp. Ecclesiastes 7:5.

The last line is obscure, and the text is possibly corrupt, but the general sense may be, ‘Let me not resent reproof, and associate with the wicked, but let me continue to pray against (or, in the midst of) their evil deeds.’ Neglecting the Heb. accents we might render, Let not my head refuse it, but again! (i.e. let him repeat his reproofs), and let my prayer be against their evil deeds.

When their judges are overthrown in stony places, they shall hear my words; for they are sweet.
6. When their judges have been thrown down by the sides of the cliff,

They (or men) will hear my words, that they are sweet.

6, 7. It is not difficult to translate these verses, but it seems impossible to give any satisfactory explanation of them in their present context. They may be rendered:

Our bones are scattered at the grave's mouth, as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth.
7. As when one splitteth and cleaveth (wood) upon the earth,

Our bones are scattered at the mouth of Sheol.

Precipitation from a rock was a common method of execution in ancient times (cp. 2 Chronicles 25:12; Luke 4:29), and the meaning would seem to be that when the judges or leaders of the “workers of iniquity” mentioned in Psalm 141:4 (for it is to them that the pronoun their must refer) have met with the fate they deserve, their followers (or people in general) will welcome the Psalmist’s advice and exhortation. ‘Judges’ however, though it may mean ‘rulers’ (Micah 5:1; Daniel 9:12), is not a natural word to use for the leaders of a class or party. Must not the reference be rather to the corrupt judges by whose help the rich and powerful procured the condemnation and even the judicial murder of the poor and defenceless? Cp. Micah 7:2-3.

Taken by itself the next verse would seem to describe a national disaster, some defeat after which the bodies of the slain lay unburied on the field of battle. Cp. Psalm 53:5. But there is no hint of such a disaster in the rest of the Psalm, and we can only suppose that the Psalmist, when he uses the first person, ‘our bones,’ is speaking on behalf of those with whom he is in sympathy, the godly who are the victims of persecution and oppression. While the wicked and their judges are still in power they are murdered, and their dead bodies call for vengeance; or, if the expression be taken as hyperbolical (cp. Micah 3:2-3), they are deprived of all that makes life worth living, and are no better than bleaching skeletons, ready to be swallowed up by the greedy jaws of Sheol. Some MSS of the LXX, and the Syriac, read their bones, i.e. the bones of the judges who have been executed, but this is probably only a conjectural correction to get rid of the difficulty.

The meaning of the last line is uncertain. Most of the Ancient Versions (Aq. Symm. Jer. Targ. Syr.), and most modern commentators, render as R.V., as when one ploweth and cleaveth the earth, on the ground that this rendering is required by the usage of the language. In Aramaic and in cognate languages the first verb means to plow, cultivate: it comes from the same root as the modern Arabic fellah. But neither it nor the second verb is used in the O.T. in this sense, and the comparison of the bodies or bones of the slain to the clods or stones turned up by the plough is not an obvious one. On the other hand the second verb may certainly mean to cleave wood (Ecclesiastes 10:9), and the first is used in 2 Kings 4:39 of slicing up gourds; and the comparison of the scattered and bleaching bones of the slain to the splinters and chips made by the woodcutter at his work and left scattered and uncared for is forcible and graphic.

But mine eyes are unto thee, O GOD the Lord: in thee is my trust; leave not my soul destitute.
8. But mine eyes] The conjunction must be rendered For, which gives no sense in connexion with Psalm 141:7. It must introduce the reason for the prayers of Psalm 141:1-4, or for the resolution to continue in prayer with which Psalm 141:5 ends. The impossibility of connecting Psalm 141:8 with Psalm 141:6-7 is an additional reason for thinking that these verses are misplaced.

mine eyes are unto thee] The attitude of expectant prayer. Cp. Psalm 25:15, note.

O God the Lord] Jehovah, Lord. Cp. Psalm 140:7, and see note on Psalm 109:21.

in thee is my trust] In thee have I taken refuge. He has put himself under Jehovah’s protection, and appeals to Him on the ground of this relationship. Cp. Psalm 2:12; Psalm 7:1; Psalm 57:1, and many other passages.

leave not my soul destitute] Rather, as R.V. marg., pour not thou out my life, suffer me not to perish. Cp. Isaiah 53:12. The figure is explained by the identification of life with the blood.

8–10. Concluding expression of confidence, with prayer for preservation and deliverance.

Keep me from the snares which they have laid for me, and the gins of the workers of iniquity.
9. Cp. Psalm 140:4-5.

grins] Rather, baits or lures, the sensual temptations by which they are endeavouring to entice him (Psalm 141:4). For grins see on Psalm 140:5.

Let the wicked fall into their own nets, whilst that I withal escape.
10. into their own nets] Heb. into his own nets, i.e. each into his own net. “The enginer” is “hoist with his own petar.” For the thought that the plots of the wicked recoil upon themselves cp. Psalm 140:11; Psalm 7:15-16; Psalm 9:16.

withal escape] Lit. pass on unharmed, at the same time as they are caught in their own snare.

Additional Note

The P.B.V. of Psalm 141:5-7 gives a striking example of the use which Coverdale made of S. Münster’s version in revising his translation of 1535 for the ‘Great Bible’ of 1539 (see Introd. p. lxxiii), and also of the variations between the editions of the Great Bible.

Coverdale’s version of 1535 is: “Let the rightuous (rather) smite me frendly, and reprove me: so wil I take it, as though he had poured oyle upô my heade: it shal not hurte my heade, yee I wil praye yet for their wickednesse. Their iudges stôble at the stone, yet heare they my wordes, ye they be ioyfull. Oure bones lye scatered before ye pytt, like as when one graueth and dyggeth vp the grounde.”

In the Great Bible of 1539, reprinted in April 1540, the only change (with the exception of variations of spelling) is in Psalm 141:6, which runs: “Let theyr judges stomble in stony places: that they may heare my wordes, for they are swete.”

But in the second Great Bible, also published in 1540, all the changes with which we are familiar in the P.B.V. have been introduced. The passage runs thus: “Let the ryghteous rather smyte me frendly and reproue me. But let not ther preciouse balmes: breake myne heed, yee, I wyll praye yet agaynste theyr wyckednesse. Lett theyr judges be overthrowen in stony places: that they may heare my wordes: for they are swete. Our bones lye scatered before the pit, lyke as whç one breaketh and heweth wood upô ye erth.”

The substantial changes are all taken from Münster’s version: “Percutiat me justus in pietate atque redarguat me, oleum autem praecipuum non frangat caput meum: quia adhuc oratio mea contra mala eorum. Praecipitentur in locis petrosis judices illorum, ut audiant sermones meos, quoniam suaves sunt. Sicut qui frangit et dissecat (ligna) in terra, dispersa sunt ossa nostra iuxta sepulchrum.”

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