Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
No other Old Testament saint that we know of could have written this psalm except David. And yet at the outset we are met by the fact that the history makes David’s repentance after each of his great sins turn on the reproof of a prophet. Before this voice from without reached him he appears, as far as the historical narrative can tell us, to have been quite unconscious of having done wrong. Moreover, the last half of the psalm (Psalm 32:7-11) represents quite a different situation from the first, not that of a penitent mourning his sin, but of a just and godly man rejoicing in the guidance of a good Providence, and contrasting the state of peace and security enjoyed under that guidance with the condition of the ungodly. But even a prophetic glance from the outside cannot read the whole history of a soul, while one who can feel profoundly is not unlikely, when reviewing the past, to dwell exclusively on the intense sense of guiltiness before God, without referring to the outward circumstance which may have suddenly brought it home to him. “The song is plainly ancient, original throughout, the token of a powerful mind.” This is Ewald’e judgment, not lightly to be set aside. And if we are not led away by the interest of a particular situation, but consider how David, wishing to express in song the happiness of penitence, might colour his half-didactic purpose with the recollection of his own personal experience of sin and forgiveness, a recollection still vivid with him, we shall not wonder at the apparent contradiction between the beginning and end of the psalm, and may readily allow the correctness of the inscription. The versification is fine.
“Augustine used often to read this psalm with weeping heart and eyes, and had it before his death written on the wall over his sick-bed, that he might exercise himself therein, and find comfort therein in his sickness.” (Quoted by Perowne from Selnecker.)
Title.—Maschil (maskhîl), a title prefixed to thirteen psalms, and in several cases joined to musical directions. By derivation it might indicate a didactic poem. So the LXX., “a psalm of understanding” or “for understanding;” the Vulg., intellectus; and Jerome, intellectus or eruditio. (Comp. the margin.) Against this, “however, must be set the fact that only two out of the thirteen hymns with this title can possibly be considered didactic. But in Psalm 47:7, the word is joined to a term meaning to play or sing (Authorised Version, “sing ye praises with understanding”) in such a way as to indicate a musical reference, a reference fully borne out by some of the titles, and also by the description of the Levitical musicians, 2Chronicles 30:22, by the participle of this verb, as “those who play skilfully with good taste.” Hence render “a skilful song.”
A Psalm of David, Maschil. Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.(1, 2) Transgression—sin—iniquity.—The same terms used here to express the compass and heinousness of sin are found, though in different order, in Exodus 34:7. For St. Paul’s reading of this passage, see Romans 4:6-7.
When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long.(3) When I kept.—He describes his state of mind before he could bring himself to confess his sin (the rendering of the particle ki by when, comp. Hosea 11:1, is quite correct). Like that knight of story, in whom
“His mood was often like a fiend, and rose
And drove him into wastes and solitudes
For agony, who was yet a living soul,”
this man could not live sleek and smiling in his sin, but was so tortured by “remorseful pain” that his body bore the marks of his mental anguish, which, no doubt, “had marr’d his face, and marked it ere his time.”
My bones waxed old.—For this expression comp. Psalm 6:2.
For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah.(4) Thy hand was heavy.—The verb, as in “kept silence” in Psalm 32:3, is properly present—the agony is still vividly present.
My moisture.—The Hebrew word is found only once besides (Numbers 11:8), where the Authorised Version has “fresh oil;” the LXX. and Vulg., “an oily cake.” Aquila has “of the breast of oil,” reading the word erroneously. Here both LXX. and Vulg. seem to have had a different reading, “I was turned to sorrow while the thorn was fixed in.” Symmachus translates somewhat similarly, but by “to destruction” instead of “to sorrow.” Aquila, “to my spoiling in summer desolation.” These readings, however, mistake the lamed, which is part of the word, for a preposition. Gesenius connects with an Arabic root, to suck, and so gets the meaning juice or moisture.
Into the drought of summer.—This is the best rendering of the Hebrew, though it might be either “as in summer dryness” or “with summer heat.” Some understand literally a fever, but it is better to take it figuratively of the soul-fever which the whole passage describes.
I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. Selah.(5) I acknowledged.—The fact that this verb is future, as also “I will confess” in the next clause, as well as the requirements of the passage, uphold Hupfeld’s suggestion that “I said” has changed its place, and should be replaced at the beginning of the verse. (Comp. Psalm 73:15, and Note.) The sense is,
“I said, ‘I will acknowledge my sin unto thee,
And I did not hide mine iniquity.
(I said) ‘I will confess my transgression unto Jehovah,
And thou forgavest the guilt of my sin.”
For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found: surely in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh unto him.(6) For this—i.e., for this cause.
Shall every one.—Better, let every one.
In a time . . .—See margin. The expression, “time of finding,”’ is, of course, elliptical. The Authorised Version explains by Isa. Iv. 6; but Isaiah 45:8 would suggest that “forgiveness” or “acceptance” is the word to be supplied. More probably still some general word, as “goal” or “object,” is required, the phrase being rendered by the LXX., “in the appointed time;” by the Vulg., “opportune.”
Surely.—This adds emphasis to the statement, whether we render after Proverbs 13:10, “only unto him,” or as in Authorised Version. “He—the godly—is the man whom, when the floods rise, they shall not harm.” The floods may either be an image of Divine judgment, as in Nahum 1:8, or of temptation and trial, as in Matthew 7:24-27.
I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye.(8) I will guide thee with mine eye.—The Hebrew may be rendered either “I will advise—with mine eye upon thee,” or “I will fix mine eye upon thee,” which is the translation by the LXX., and to be preferred. This verse changes so abruptly to the first person that it is better, with most of the old interpreters and, among moderns, with Ewald, Hitzig, and Reuss, to suppose them the words of deliverance that sound so sweet in the psalmist’s ears.
Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.(9) Whose mouth.—Here the text has evidently suffered, and the exact meaning is lost. There are also verbal difficulties. The word translated “mouth” elsewhere (except Psalm 103:5, where see Note) means “ornament,” and the literal rendering of the text as it stands is, with bit and bridle his ornament to hold, not approaching to thee. This may mean that the animal is harnessed, either “that it may not approach,” or “because without harness it will not approach.” In either case the general application is the same. Horses and mules can only be rendered obedient by restraints that are unworthy of a rational creature. The LXX. and Vulg. have “jaws” instead of “mouth,” and Ewald follows them, and renders the last clause, “of those who approach thee unfriendly.”