Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The peculiar horror of the imprecations in this extraordinary psalm does not lie in the dreadful consequences they invoke. Shakespeare puts curses equally fierce and terrible into Timon’s mouth:
“Piety, and fear,
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,
Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood,
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,
Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries,
And let confusion live!”
Nor is this horror due to the fact, assuming it to be a fact, that these imprecations are not general in their direction, like the misanthrope’s curses, but are levelled at a single individual, for the passions of revenge and hatred intensify by contraction of their range. The whole difficulty of the psalm lies in the fact that it was, as the inscription shows, actually, if not primarily, intended for use in the public service of the sanctuary.
But this very use at once divests the psalm of one of the greatest sources of difficulty, its personal character. Whatever its origin, whoever the original object of the imprecations, it is certain that they became public, ecclesiastical, national.
It is quite possible that from the first the writer spoke in the name of the persecuted nation against some oppressive heathen prince, such as Antiochus Epiphanes. Certainly, when sung by the congregation it expressed not an individual longing for revenge, but all the pent-up feeling—religious abhorrence, patriotic hatred, moral detestation—of the suffering community.
The continuance of its recitation in Christian churches opens up another question, and has, in a great measure, been the motive for the various apologetic explanations that have been started for the psalm. It is strange that even yet the old theory, which justifies the language of the imprecations as prophetically the language of Christ, should find advocates. The “quotation” theory is noticed in the Notes. On the quotation of the imprecations by St. Peter, see Notes, New Testament Commentary, Acts 1:20-21. The parallelism is synthetic.
Title.—“To the chief musician.” (See Note to title of Psalms 4)
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;(1) God of my praise.—That is, God to whom as covenant God it was a privilege to make tehillah. (See Deuteronomy 10:20-21, where Jehovah is said to be “the praise” of those who “swear by His name.” Comp. also Psalm 106:2-3, and Note, and Psalm 33:1. Perhaps “God of my glory or boast” would more nearly give the force of the original. The psalmist prays that Jehovah’s silence may not make his confident glorifying in the covenant promises vain.
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) Of the deceitful.—Properly, as in margin, of deceit; consequently, to make the two expressions alike, it is proposed to read, instead of “mouth of the wicked” (properly, of a wicked man), “mouth of wickedness.” In any case the best English equivalent will be, “a wicked mouth and a deceitful mouth.” “A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword” (Whichcote).
Spoken against me.—Rather (comp. Psalm 12:3), talked with me.
For my love they are my adversaries: but I give myself unto prayer.(4) For my love . . .—i.e., in return for my love I give myself unto prayer. For a concise expression of the same kind as “I prayer,” see Psalm 120:7, “I peace.” Of course the psalmist means, that in the face of all the taunts and reproaches of his maligners, he simply and naturally has recourse to prayer, and, as the context seems to indicate, prayer for them.
Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.(6) Set thou a wicked man over him.—This rendering is abundantly confirmed by Leviticus 26:16; Numbers 4:27; Numbers 27:16; Jeremiah 15:3; Jeremiah 51:27, against Hitzig’s proposed “Pronounce against him—guilty,” which also would only anticipate Psalm 109:7. (Comp., too, the noun “office” in Psalm 109:8, from the same verb.) The wish expressed is that the persons indicated may fall into the hands of an unscrupulous judge. If, however, we are to think of the divine judgment, then this clause must be taken as exactly parallel to the next: “Appoint a wicked man against him.” Here the imprecatory part of the psalm begins, and it has been ingeniously argued that the whole of it (Psalm 109:6-20) is a quotation, giving, not the psalmist’s curse on his foes, but theirs on him. Such quotations, without any introductory words, are common, and the theory is tenable, but improbable.
Satan.—By no means here a proper name, though the LXX. and Vulg. have diabolus. The use of the same word in Psalm 109:4; Psalm 109:20; Psalm 109:29 is decisive on giving it the general meaning, “adversary” (as in margin) here; even though without the article. Satan is used for the tempting angel in 1Chronicles 21:1, and in Zechariah 3:1 we find the same post, “at the right hand,” assigned to the accuser. An unscrupulous judge and an adversary as accuser, these are the substance of this imprecation.
When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin.(7) When he shall be judged.—Literally, in his being judged. (See margin.) The meaning is, “may he go out of court a condemned man.”
Let his prayer become sin.—If this clause stood by itself, the most natural way would be to give “prayer” and “sin” their usual sense, and see in it the horrible hope that the man’s prayer to God for mercy would be reckoned as “sin.” That such was the result of the performance of religious rites by a wicked man was, it is true, a thought familiar to the Hebrew. (See, in addition to the marginal reference, Proverbs 15:8; Proverbs 21:27.) But the judgment just spoken of is that of an earthly tribunal. Hence we must render here, let his prayer be an offence, that is, instead of procuring him a mitigation of his sentence, let it rather provoke the unscrupulous judge to make it heavier. For sin in this sense of offence, see Ecclesiastes 10:4, and comp. 1Kings 1:21.
Let his days be few; and let another take his office.(8) Office.—See Note, Psalm 109:6. Evidently some post of power and influence.
Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.(9) Children . . . wife.—It is one of the sadly peculiar features of this series of curses that the resentment of the imprecator cannot satisfy itself on the person of his foe, but fastens also on his innocent descendants. To invoke a speedy death does not content him; he must feast his anger with the thought of the fatherless children and desolate widow.
Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.(10) Be continually vagabonds.—“Wander and wander about” would better reproduce the original.
Desolate places.—Rather, ruins. They are imagined creeping out of the ruins of their homes to beg. But there was a different reading, followed by the LXX. and Vulg., “let them be driven out of their homes.” This reading involves but a slight literal change. Comp.,
“Worse evil yet I pray for on my spouse;
Let him still live, through strange towns roam in want,
Exiled, suspected, cowering, with no home.”
SENECA: Med., i. 19.
Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.(11) Let the extortioner.—Better, let the usurer lay traps to catch all that he hath. So Timon:
“Let prisons swallow them,
Debts wither them to nothing.”
Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.(13) Posterity.—The Hebrew theory of the Divine government was, that if ruin did not overtake the sinner himself, it would fall on his posterity; his name would be forgotten, and his race extinct.
Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.(14) Fathers.—The sweet of vengeance lies in its completeness. The curse must strike backwards as well as forwards, and the root as well as the branch be destroyed. Undoubtedly the Mosaic Law, which proclaimed that the “iniquity of the fathers should be visited on the children,” suggested the form of the imprecation.
Sin of his mother.—Is the necessity of the parallel. ism sufficient to account for this mention of the mother, or is some definite circumstance in the poet’s thought? The theory which makes this portion of the psalm (Psalm 109:6-20), a quotation of curses really uttered by Shimei against David, finds an allusion to the Moabitish descent on the mother’s side. (Comp. the Rabbinical explanation of Psalm 51:5.)
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) Poor.—The Hebrew word thus rendered, viz., ‘anî, has suggested a reference to the murder of the high priest Onias (2 Maccabees 4:34-36).
As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.(17, 18) Let.—The optatives in the English are wrong. These verses express facts, and the imprecation follows in Psalm 109:19. Render—
He loved cursing; and it comes;
He delighted not in blessing; and it departs;
Yea, he clothed himself in cursing as with his cloak,
And it came like water into his bowels,
And like oil into his bones;
May it be, &c.
Comp. the proverb, “Curses, like chickens, always come home to roost.”
The fabled shirt of Nessus, which ate into the mighty form of Hercules, has suggested itself to commentators in illustration of this image. In a good sense the same figure is a favourite one with the Hebrews. (See Isaiah 11:5.)
Psalm 109:19 has struck most commentators as an anticlimax, and the quotation theory is supported by this fact. But imprecations show their impotence in this way; the angry soul can never be quite “unpacked with curses;” the language of passion exhausts itself too soon, and a violent speech often dies away in unintelligible mutterings or even gestures of rage.
Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the LORD, and of them that speak evil against my soul.(20) Reward.—Either “work” or “wages.” The LXX. and Vulg. take it in the former sense, “This is their work who,” &c.
But do thou for me, O GOD the Lord, for thy name's sake: because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me.(21) Do thou for me.—It is almost impossible in English to retain the emphasis of this appeal, made still more emphatic by the sudden change from imprecation on an enemy to prayer for mercy towards self.
I am gone like the shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down as the locust.(23) Shadow when it declineth.—Literally, a lengthened shade. (Comp. Psalm 102:11, and see Note. Song of Solomon 2:17.) When the day declines the shadow lengthens, it becomes longer and longer, till it vanishes in the universal darkness. Thus does the life of the suffering generation pass away.
Tossed up and down.—Better, tossed or shaken out, as from the lap. So LXX. and Vulg. (See Nehemiah 5:13, where the same verb is three times used.) The grasshopper was an emblem of timidity (Job 39:20).
My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh faileth of fatness.(24) Faileth of fatness.—Literally, has failed me from fat, i.e., has dwindled away.
Let them curse, but bless thou: when they arise, let them be ashamed; but let thy servant rejoice.(28-31) It is impossible not to notice the anti-climax in these verses, if they are spoken by the same person as Psalm 109:16-20, and directed against the same enemies, of whom the one there singled out is the prominent figure. It is not only that the effect is weakened by the change back to the plural number, but the same imprecations are repeated in a diluted and modified form. But perhaps in Psalm 109:28 we should drop the optative, and read, “they will curse, but thou dost bless.”
Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame, and let them cover themselves with their own confusion, as with a mantle.(29) Mantle.—Heb., meîl, which was also a garment worn over the tunic.
For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.(31) For he . . .—Jehovah is the poor man’s advocate, just as an adversary was the wicked man’s accuser.