Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
After a challenge to certain corrupt magistrates, the poet in this piece shows his detestation of the wicked, and anticipates their fate. There is nothing in the contents of the psalm to bear out the traditional title; but neither is there anything to help us to fix on any other author or date. The same complaints of the maladministration of justice often meet us in the prophetic books, and there is therefore no need to bring the composition of the psalm down to a very late age, especially when the vivacity of the language, and the originality of the imagery, indicate the freshness and power of an early and vigorous age of literary activity. The rhythm is elegant and sustained.
Title.—See title to last psalm.
To the chief Musician, Altaschith, Michtam of David. Do ye indeed speak righteousness, O congregation? do ye judge uprightly, O ye sons of men?(1) Congregation.—This rendering comes of a mistaken derivation of the Hebrew word êlem, which offers some difficulty. As pointed, it must mean silence (comp. Psalms 56 title, the only other place it occurs); and some, regardless of sense, would render, “do ye truly in silence speak righteousness.” Of the many conjectures on the passage, we may choose between reading elim (short for elîm = gods), and here, as in Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8; Psalm 82:6, applied to the judges) and ulam (with the LXX., Syriac, and Arabic, in the sense of but. To speak righteousness is, of course, to pronounce a just judgment. If we prefer the former of these (with most modern scholars), it is best to take sons of men in the accusative rather than the vocative, do ye judge with equity the sons of men.
Yea, in heart ye work wickedness; ye weigh the violence of your hands in the earth.(2) In heart . . . in the earth (or, better, in the land).—These in the text are in antithesis. The mischief conceived in the heart is weighed out, instead of justice, by these unjust magistrates. The balance of justice is thus turned into a means of wrong-doing. But, perhaps, we should rather arrange as follows:
Nay! with your heart ye work wickedness in the land,
With your hands you weigh out violence.
The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.(3) The Wicked.—The poet passes from his indignant challenge to the unjust judges to speak of the wicked generally. He finds that such maturity of vice points to very early depravity. Such hardened sinners must have been cradled in wickedness.
Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;(4) Their poison . . .—Better, they have a venom like, &c. The term for serpent is the generic nāchash.
The most forcible images of determined wickedness, and of the destruction it entails, now follow. The first is supplied by the serpent, the more suggestive from the accumulated evil qualities of which that animal has from the first been considered the type. Here the figure is heightened, since the animal is supposed to have been first tamed, but suddenly darts forth its fangs, and shows itself not only untamed, but untameable.
Adder.—Heb., pethen, translated asp in Deuteronomy 32:33; Job 20:14; Isaiah 11:8 (and here by the LXX.) In the Bible Educator iv. 103, the pethen is identified with the Egyptian cobra, the species upon which the serpent charmers practise their peculiar science.
Deaf.—So Jeremiah 8:17 refers to various kinds of serpents that “will not be charmed.” Here, however, it would seem as if the poet were thinking of some individual of a species, generally tractable, that obstinately resists the spells and incantations of the charmer.
The image of the deaf adder was a favourite with Shakespeare, who, no doubt, derived it from this psalm.
“Pleasure and revenge
Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice
Of any true decision.”
Troilus and Cressida, iii. 2.
(Comp. 2 Hen. VI., iii. 2.)
Which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely.(5) Charmers.—Heb., melachashîm, a word undoubtedly formed from the sound made by the charmer in imitating the snake, in order to entice it from its hole. Lane, in Modern Egyptians, describing a snake charmer at his task, says: “He assumes an air of mystery, strikes the walls with a short palm stick, whistles, makes a clacking noise with his tongue.” The art of serpent charming, and the magic connected with it, was of great antiquity in Egypt, and passed thence to surrounding countries.
Charming never so wisely.—Literally, one tying knots wisely, i.e., a most skilful charmer.
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O LORD.(6) Break their teeth.—The change is abrupt from the image of obstinacy deaf to all charms, to that of violence that must be tamed by force.
Great teeth.—Literally, biters, grinders.
Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces.(7, 8) After the types of obstinate and fierce malignity, come four striking images of the fatuity of the wicked man’s projects, and his own imminent ruin. The first of these compares him to water, which, spilt on a sandy soil, sinks into it and melts away. (Comp. 2Samuel 14:14.) Perhaps a phenomenon, often described by travellers, was in the poet’s mind, the disappearance of a stream which, after accompanying the track for some time, suddenly sinks into the sand. The words which run continually, even if the Hebrew can bear this meaning, only weaken the figure. The verb is in the reflexive conjugation, and has “to” or “for themselves” added, and seems to be exactly equivalent to our, they walk themselves off. This certainly should be joined to the clause following. Here, too, we must suppose that the sign of comparison, khemô, was dropped out by the copyist in consequence of the lāmô just written, and afterwards being inserted in the margin, got misplaced. We must bring it back, and read:
They are utterly gone, as when
One shoots his arrows.
This figure thus becomes also clear and striking. The arrow once shot is irrevocably gone, probably lost, fit emblem of the fate of the wicked. For the ellipse in bend (literally, tread, see Psalm 7:12), comp. Psalm 64:3, where also the action properly belonging to the bow is transferred to the arrow.
The words, “Let them be as cut in pieces,” must be carried on to the following verse, which contains two fresh images: So they are cut off (LXX., “are weak “) as shablûl melts; (as) the abortion of a woman passes away without seeing the sun. The word shablûl, by its derivation (bālal = to pour out) may mean any liquid or moist substance. Hence some understand a watercourse, others (LXX. and Vulg.) wax. The first would weaken the passage by introducing a bald repetition of a previous image. The second is quite intelligible. But the Talmud says shablûl is a slug or shelless snail, and there may be a reference in the passage to the popular notion derived from the slimy track of the creature, that the slug dissolves as it moves, and eventually melts away. Dr. Tristram, however (Nat. Hist. Bib., p. 295), finds scientific support for the image in the myriads of snail shells found in the Holy Land, still adhering, by the calcareous exudation round the orifice, to the surface of the rock, while the animal itself is utterly shrivelled and wasted. The last image presents no difficulty either in language or form, except that the form of the noun woman is unusual.
That they may not.—That this refers to the abortion which passed away without seeing the sun, is certain. The grammatical difficulty of want of concord may be got over by taking abortion as a collective noun.
Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath.(9) Before.—The figure in this difficult verse is generally intelligible, though the text as it stands resists all attempts to translate it. As in the preceding images, it must convey the idea of abortive effort and sudden ruin, and, as has generally been understood, some experience of eastern travel undoubtedly supplied the figure which accident or a copyist’s error has rendered so obscure. The Hebrew literally runs, Before (shall) understand your pots a bramble as (or so) living as (or so) heat sweeps them off. The ancient versions mostly render thorns instead of pots, and make the simile to lie in the destruction of the bush before growing to maturity. The English versions have undoubtedly caught the figure more correctly. But it is doubtful if the Hebrew word rendered feel could be used of inanimate objects, and even if a kettle might be said to feel the fire, we should hardly speak of its feeling the fuel. Some change in the text must be made. A very slight change in one letter gives excellent sense to the first clause. Before thorns (taking the word ātad which in Judges 9:14-15 is translated bramble collectively) make your pots ready. But the second clause remains very difficult. Even if (with Grätz) we read charôl (Job 30:7; Proverbs 24:31, “nettles”) for charôn, and render thorny bush, the words as living still offer a puzzle. And even if with the Prayer Book we might render raw instead of living, yet burning heat could not stand for cooked meat. Apparently the poet intends to compare the sudden overthrow of the wicked before their arms could succeed, to the disappearance of the fuel before it had time to heat the cooking-pot; and it is quite possible that he compressed all this into a condensed expression, which we must expand: “As, before the brambles make the pots ready, they are consumed, so He will whirl them (i.e., the wicked) away alive, as the fierce heat consumes the thorns.” Hebrew poetry is always more satisfactory with metaphor than with simile, and here, as often, seems to falter between the two, and so becomes obscure.
The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.(10) Wash his feet.—So in Psalm 68:23. “Wading deep in blood” is the picture suggested.