Psalm 59
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

The fascinating conjecture of Ewald which connects this psalm with the Scythian irruption into Judæa in the reign of Josiah is not easily surrendered. Some wild nomad tribe supporting itself by pillage, terrifying the inhabitants of a beleaguered city with an outlandish gesture and speech, seems indicated by the recurring simile of the “dogs” (Psalm 59:6; Psalm 59:14-15). And, again, the mode in which the heathen are spoken of in Psalm 59:8, and the effect to be produced far and wide by the evidence of Jehovah’s power (Psalm 59:13) seems to point to a foreign invasion. But, on the other hand, the prominence given to the utterances of this poet’s foes (Psalm 59:7; Psalm 59:12), seems to indicate that his danger was rather from calumnious and false accusations than from hostile violence. Was he merely the mouthpiece of the righteous part of the community, whom a hostile or renegade party is trying to devour, body and soul, character and substance, as the gaunt scavenger dogs devour in an Eastern city? At first sight an apparent double refrain (Psalm 59:6; Psalm 59:14; Psalms , 9, 17) promises a regular poetical form, but the strophes are unequal and the parallelism loose.

Title.—See titles, Psalms 4, 57, 16, and see Introduction.

To the chief Musician, Altaschith, Michtam of David; when Saul sent, and they watched the house to kill him. Deliver me from mine enemies, O my God: defend me from them that rise up against me.
(1) Defend me.—Literally, set me on high, i.e., place me on some lofty and secure height.

For, lo, they lie in wait for my soul: the mighty are gathered against me; not for my transgression, nor for my sin, O LORD.
(3) For, lo, they lie in wait . . .—Better, for look, they have laid an ambush.

Mighty.—Perhaps with the idea of insolence in their strength.

Not for my transgression . . .—Better, Without transgression or fault of mine, as in next verse.

They run and prepare themselves without my fault: awake to help me, and behold.
(4) They run and prepare.—These words might both be taken in a military sense. For “run,” see Psalm 18:29; Job 15:26; Job 16:14.

Help me.—Literally, as in margin, meet. It is found in a hostile sense, and never in the sense of helping. A suggested emendation, “Awake to my calling, and behold,” removes the difficulty.

Thou therefore, O LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel, awake to visit all the heathen: be not merciful to any wicked transgressors. Selah.
(5) Therefore . . .—Better, Yea, even Thou . . . Not only is there an emphatic “thou,” but the passion of prayer cannot exhaust itself without piling up all the customary names of the Divine Being.

God of Israel.—This is added so emphatically because of the “heathen,” against whom aid is invoked.

All the heathen . . . wicked transgressors.—These two terms are not synonymous, but contrasted. There were not only foreign, but domestic foes, viz., the party who, pretending to be loyal Israelites, were yet intriguing with the foreigners. The literal “coverers of wickedness” implies concealment and treachery.

They return at evening: they make a noise like a dog, and go round about the city.
(6) A dog.—This comparison to the gaunt half-starved wild dogs of an Eastern town has met us before (Psalm 22:16). The verbs should be rendered as futures here and in Psalm 59:15.

Make a noise.—Better, howl. (See Note Psalm 55:7.) An English traveller has described the noise made by the dogs of Constantinople: “The noise I heard then I shall never forget. The whole city rang with one vast riot. Down below me at Tophane; over about Stamboul; far away at Scutari; the whole 60,000 dogs that are said to overrun Constantinople appeared engaged in the most active extermination of each other without a moment’s cessation. The yelping, howling, barking, growling, and snarling were all merged into one uniform and continuous even sound” (Albert Smith, A Month at Constantinople, quoted from Spurgeon’s Treasury of David).

Behold, they belch out with their mouth: swords are in their lips: for who, say they, doth hear?
(7) Behold.—Without question this word should, as Mr. Burgess suggests, be emended to “spears” (chanîth instead of hinneh), to give—

“Spears they pour out with their mouths,

Swords with their lips.”

(Comp. Psalm 57:5, and

“She speaks poniards.”—As You Like It.

But thou, O LORD, shalt laugh at them; thou shalt have all the heathen in derision.
(8) Laugh.—Comp. Psalm 2:4, Note. Probably the same contrast is intended in these clauses as in Psalm 59:5.

Because of his strength will I wait upon thee: for God is my defence.
(9) His strength.—This gives no intelligible meaning, and Psalm 59:17 shows that the ancient versions (and some MSS.) are right in reading “my strength” (vocative). The first two words of the next verse must also be brought back to this: “My strength, on Thee let me wait. For God is my fortress, God of my grace (or mercy),” i.e., my gracious or merciful God.

The God of my mercy shall prevent me: God shall let me see my desire upon mine enemies.
(10) Preventi.e., come to meet. (See Psalm 21:3, Note.)

See my desire.—See Note, Psalm 54:7. (Comp. Psalm 92:11.)

Slay them not, lest my people forget: scatter them by thy power; and bring them down, O Lord our shield.
(11) Slay them not, lest my people forget . . .—The Spartans refused to allow the destruction of a neighbouring city, which had often called forth their armies, saying, “Destroy not the whetstone of our young men.” Timon, in the play, is made to say—

“Live loath’d and long

You smiling smooth detested parasites,”

that the ruin of Athens might be complete, if deferred. National feeling, too, has often insisted on extreme modes of punishment, partly from vindictive feeling, partly for deterrent purposes. Witness the sequel to the Indian mutiny. But where is the parallel to the feeling that seems uppermost in the Psalmist’s mind, viz., a wish for protracted retribution on the nations for the moral benefit of Israel?

Scatter them.—Better, make them wander: a word applied to Cain and to the Israelite wanderings in the wilderness.

For the sin of their mouth and the words of their lips let them even be taken in their pride: and for cursing and lying which they speak.
(12) For the sin . . .—As the text stands, it runs: Sin of their mouth, word of their lips, and they are taken in their pride, and cursing and lying they say; where some would supply a copula, “The sin of their mouth is the word of their lips,” which seems tautological nonsense. But, perhaps, we should take the accusative as adverb of instrument: By the sin of their mouth, by the word of their lips, let them even be taken in their pride.

And for cursing and lying which they speak.—That is, let their own malignant slanders, their blasphemous lies, recoil on their own heads; a frequent thought in the Psalms.

Consume them in wrath, consume them, that they may not be: and let them know that God ruleth in Jacob unto the ends of the earth. Selah.
(13) That they may not be.—Better, That they may be no more. These words are to be taken closely together. The signal overthrow of the poet’s foes is to be a proof to the ends of the world of the sovereign rule of the God of Jacob.

Let them wander up and down for meat, and grudge if they be not satisfied.
(15) Let them wander.—This verse is variously understood. The margin gives the rendering of most modern scholars; but what does it mean by “They will pass the night”? To say they will not go away unsatisfied seems poor. Ewald’s conjecture, “They will satisfy themselves forsooth, and remain,” i.e., die, seems strained. The slightest change in the vowel-points gives the interpretation adopted by the LXX., Vulg., Jerome, Luther, &c: “If not satisfied they will growl,” which admirably suits the context.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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