Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This psalm most probably belongs to the same occasion as that which produced Psalms 3 (see Introduction to that psalm), but was sung in an hour of still greater trial. Standing by itself, indeed, it might have been written by any prophet struggling against the dislike and opposition of his fellow-citizens. The rhythm is irregular. Psalms 4 was one of those repeated by Augustine at his conversion.
Title.—To the chief musician.—(Margin, overseer.) The rendering of a word occurring fifty-five times in the inscriptions, and in Habakkuk 3:19. Whatever be the primary meaning of the root-word, whether to be bright or strong, the form here employed must imply “one who has obtained the mastery,” or “holds a superior post.” Hence “master,” “director,” or “overseer” (2Chronicles 2:18; 2Chronicles 34:12). But from the description in 1Chronicles 15:16, et seq., we see that the musical directors, as they are considered to be (Asaph, Heman, and Ethan), had themselves cymbals, and took part in the performance, and hence the word would answer to a leader of the band; but as in the case of the Psalms there is vocal music as well, perhaps “precentor” is the best equivalent. The LXX., followed by the Vulg., render “to the end”—a phrase difficult to explain, but which possibly had an eschatological reference rather than a musical.
On Neginoth.—Another musical term occurring, with a slight variation in the preposition, in the titles of six psalms. Its derivation from a root, meaning “to touch the strings,” as well as the connection in which it is found, point to the explanation (almost universally given), “upon stringed instruments,” or, “with harp accompaniment.” It seems natural to join the two directions—“to the conductor of those playing on stringed instruments,” or, “to the leader of the harps.”
To the chief Musician on Neginoth, A Psalm of David. Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer.(1) Hear me.—Better, In my crying hear me, God of my righteousness.
The conception of God as supremely just, and the assertor of justice, is one of the noblest legacies from the Hebrew faith to the world. It is summed up in the question, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” The strength of the innocent in the face of calumny or oppression lies in the appeal to the eternal source of righteousness.
Thou hast enlarged.—Better, in my straitness Thou (or, Thou who) hast made room for me. This is a thought very common in the Psalter, and apparently was a favourite phrase of David’s, occurring in Psalm 18:19 (comp. Psa. 4:36), and in other psalms attributed to him.
O ye sons of men, how long will ye turn my glory into shame? how long will ye love vanity, and seek after leasing? Selah.(2)Sons of men.—A literal rendering of a Hebrew phrase generally interpreted as “men of high degree.” Luther translates “gentlemen” (see Psalm 49:2), where it is “high,” as contrasted with “low.” (Comp. Psalm 62:9, “men of high degree.”)
How long?—Literally, how long to shame my glory? which, after the analogy of Psalm 37:26, “his seed is for a blessing,” must mean How long shall my glory be for shame (opprobrio)? The LXX. and Vulg. follow a different and probably correct reading: “How long will ye be heavy (or slow) of heart? “They also indicate that an interrogative has dropped out before the second clause, so that it is rightly supplied by the Authorised Version.
Seek after.—In Hebrew the intensive conjugation, to seek earnestly, or again and again.
Leasing—i.e., lying. (Comp. Psalm 4:6.) So in Wycliffe’s New Testament: “Whanne he speketh leesing, he speketh of his own; for he is a lere, and is fader of it” (John 8:44). “Lesyngmongers” (1Timothy 1:10). Chaucer uses the word; and it is common in Piers Ploughman. Shakespeare also knows the word:—
“Now Mercury indue thee with leasing,
For thou speakest well of fools.”—Twelfth Night.
(See Bible Educator, iv. 3,) Milton’s translation is—
“To love, to seek, to prize
Things false and vain, and nothing else but lies.”
For “Selah,” see Note, Psalm 3:2.
From this verse we gather that the report of the calumny uttered against him in Jerusalem had reached the king’s ears.
But know that the LORD hath set apart him that is godly for himself: the LORD will hear when I call unto him.(3) But know.—It is the privilege of true and heroic natures to rise to a consciousness of their strength and dignity in the hour of peril, and when the victims of unjust persecution. Besides his innate greatness, David has a grandeur and dignity, derived from his deep sense of the covenant between God and His anointed, and his own imperfect but sincere endeavour to act worthily the part of God’s vice-regent on earth. His selection by Jehovah is an unanswerable reply to his calumniators, and the surest proof of his own uprightness.
Hath set apart.—That is, has distinguished or honoured. So rightly the LXX. and Vulg. The Hebrew word occurs in Exodus 8:22; Exodus 9:4; Exodus 11:7, of severance between Israel and Egypt. (Comp. Psalm 17:7.)
Godly.—Heb. chasîd, properly, graced or gracious, according as it is used of Israel or of the God of Israel. The covenant relationship is more prominent in the word than a moral excellence, though this is presupposed. See Psalm 1:5, where the word appears to be defined. There is a difficulty in the construction: lô (to him) may go either with the verb or the object. By comparison with Psalm 17:7, we take it with the latter. LXX., “his holy one.”
Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.(4) Stand in awe.—Literally, tremble, whether with fear or anger. But the rendering of the LXX., “be angry,” quoted in Ephesians 4:26, though etymologically correct, is plainly inadmissible here. “(See New Testament Commentary.)
Commune—i.e., reflect on your conduct, let the still hours of the night bring calmer and wiser thoughts with them. The LXX. and Vulg. translate “repent” instead of “be still.” This supposes the words to be addressed to the enemies. But the next verse makes this doubtful. Probably the clause is a general reflection on the proper conduct of Israelites when in trouble.
Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the LORD.(5) Sacrifices of righteousness.—Comp. Psalm 51:18-19; Deuteronomy 33:19. The context in both places directs to the translation “right” or “due” sacrifices, i.e., sacrifices duly and religiously performed.
There be many that say, Who will shew us any good? LORD, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.(6) There be many.—Around the fugitive king were many whose courage was not so high, nor their faith so firm, as his. He hears their expressions of despair—
“Talking like this world’s brood.”—MILTON.
It is better to translate the words of these faint-hearted ones by the future, as in Authorised Version; not by the optative, as Ewald and others.
Lift thou up . . .—This is an echo of the priestly benediction (Numbers 6:24, et seq.), which must so often have inspired the children of Israel with hope and cheerfulness during their desert wanderings—which has breathed peace over so many death-beds in Christian times.
The Hebrew for “lift” is doubly anomalous, and is apparently formed from the usual word “to lift,” with a play upon another word meaning “a banner,” suggesting to the fearful followers of the king that Jehovah’s power was ready to protect him. The Vulg. follows the LXX. in rendering, “The light of thy countenance was made known by a sign over us:” i.e., shone so that we recognised it.
Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than in the time that their corn and their wine increased.(7) Thou hast.—Either “Thou hast put a gladness in my heart more than when their corn and new wine are much,” or, “More than when one has much corn,” &c. The expression is one of pregnant brevity for, “A gladness greater than that when corn and wine are plentiful.”
I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety.(8) Both.—Better, and at once. So the LXX. and Vulg.: “At the very moment.” (Comp. Isaiah 42:14.) This, too, is the meaning of “withal,” used to render the same Hebrew word in Psalm 141:10.
Thou, Lord, only.—The authority of all the ancient Versions, including the LXX. and Vulg., is for taking the adverb with the predicate, not with the subject as in the Authorised Version: “Thou, Jehovah, makest me to dwell alone in safety.” We see from Jeremiah 49:31, Micah 7:14, that isolation from other nations was, in the Hebrew view, a guarantee against danger. This certainly favours the view that the poem is national rather than individual.
For the concluding verses of the psalm Luther had a great affection, and desired Ludvig Teuffel to set them as the words of a requiem for him.