Expositor's Bible Commentary
To the chief Musician upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David. Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men.Psalm 12:1-8ONE penalty of living near God is keen pain from low lives. The ears that hear God’s word cannot but be stunned and hurt by the babble of empty speech. This psalm is profoundly melancholy, but without trace of personal affliction. The psalmist is not sad for himself, but sick of the clatter of godless tongues, in which he discerns the outcome of godless lives. His plaint wakes echoes in hearts touched by the love of God and the visions of man’s true life. It passes through four clearly marked stages, each consisting of two verses: despondent contemplation of the flood of corrupt talk which seems to submerge all (Psalm 12:1-2); a passionate prayer for Divine intervention, wrung from the psalmist by the miserable spectacle (Psalm 12:3-4); the answer to that cry from the voice of God, with the rapturous response of the psalmist to it (Psalm 12:5-6); and the confidence built on the Divine word, which rectifies the too despondent complaint at the beginning, but is still shaded by the facts which stare him in the face (Psalm 12:7-8).
The cry for help (Save, LXX) abruptly beginning the psalm tells of the sharp pain from which it comes. The psalmist has been brooding over the black outlook till his overcharged heart relieves itself in this single-worded prayer. As he looks round he sees no exceptions to the prevailing evil. Like Elijah, he thinks that he is left alone, and love to God and men and reliableness and truth are vanished with their representatives. No doubt in all such despondent thoughts about the rarity of Christian charity and of transparent truthfulness there is an element of exaggeration, which in the present case is, as we shall see, corrected by the process of God-taught meditation. But the clearer the insight into what society should be, the sadder the estimate of what it is. Roseate pictures of it augur ill for the ideal which their painters have. It is better to be too sensitive to evils than to be contented with them. Unless the passionate conviction of the psalmist has burned itself into us, we shall but languidly work to set things right. Heroes and reformers have all begun with "exaggerated estimates" of corruption. The judgment formed of the moral state of this or of any generation depends on the clearness with which we grasp as a standard the ideal realised in Jesus Christ and on the closeness of our communion with God.
As in Psalm 5:1-12, sins of speech are singled out, and of these "vanity" and "smooth lips with a heart and a heart" are taken as typical. As in Ephesians 4:25, the guilt of falsehood is deduced from the bond of neighbourliness, which it rends. The sin, to which a "high civilisation" is especially prone, of saying pleasant things without meaning them, seems to this moralist as grave as to most men it seems slight. Is the psalmist right or wrong in taking speech for an even more clear index of corruption than deeds? What would he have said if he had been among us, when the press has augmented the power of the tongue, and floods of "vanity," not only in the form of actual lies, but of inane trivialities and nothings of personal gossip, are poured over the whole nation? Surely, if his canon is right, there is something rotten in the state of this land; and the Babel around may well make good men sad and wise men despondent.
Shall we venture to follow the psalmist in the second turn of his thoughts (Psalm 12:3-4), where the verb at the beginning is best taken as an optative and rendered, "May Jehovah cut off"? The deepest meaning of his desire every true man will take for his own, namely the cessation of the sin; but the more we live in the spirit of Jesus the more we shall cherish the hope that that may be accomplished by winning the sinner. Better to have the tongue touched with a live coal from the altar than cut out. In the one case there is only a mute in the other an instrument for God’s praise. But the impatience of evil and the certainty that God can subdue it, which make the very nerve of the prayer, should belong to Christians yet more than to the psalmist. A new phase of sinful speech appears as provoking judgment even more than the former did. The combination of flattery and boastfulness is not rare, discordant as they seem; but the special description of the "proud things" spoken is that they are denials of responsibility to God or man for the use of lips and tongue. Insolence has gone far when it has formulated itself into definite statements. Twenty men will act on the principle for one who will put it into words. The conscious adoption and cynical avowal of it are a mark of defiance of God. "To our tongues we give strength"-an obscure expression which may be taken in various shades of meaning, e.g. as = We have power over, or = Through, or as to, our tongues we are strong, or = We will give effect to our words. Possibly it stands as the foundation of the daring defiance in the last clause of the verse, and asserts that the speaker is the author of his power of speech and therefore responsible to none for its use. "Our lips are with us" may be a further development of the same godless thought. "With us" is usually taken to mean "our allies," or confederates, but signifies rather "in our possession, to do as we will with them." "Who is lord over us?" There speaks godless insolence shaking off dependence, and asserting shamelessly licence of speech and life, unhindered by obligations to God and His law.
With dramatic swiftness the scene changes in the next pair of verses (Psalm 12:5-6). That deep voice, which silences all the loud bluster, as the lion’s roar hushes the midnight cries of lesser creatures, speaks in the waiting soul of the psalmist. Like Hezekiah with Sennacherib’s letter, he spreads before the Lord the "words with which they reproach Thee," and, like Hezekiah. he has immediate answer. The inward assurance that God will arise is won by prayer at once, and changes the whole aspect of the facts which as yet remain unchanged. The situation does not seem so desperate when we know that God is moving. Whatever delay may intervene before the actual Divine act, there is none before the assurance of it calms the soul. Many wintry days may have to be faced, but a breath of spring has been in the air, and hope revives. The twofold reason which rouses the Divine activity is very strikingly put first in Psalm 12:5. Not merely the "oppression or spoiling of the meek," but that conjoined with the "sighing of the needy," bring God into the field. Not affliction alone, but affliction which impels to prayer, moves Him to "stir up His strength." "Now will I arise." That solemn "now" marks the crisis, or turning point, when long forbearance ends and the crash of retribution begins. It is like the whirr of the clock that precedes the striking. The swiftly following blow will ring out the old evil. The purpose of God’s intervention is the safety of the afflicted who have sighed to Him; but while that is clear, the condensed language of Psalm 12:5 is extremely obscure. The AV rendering, "I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him," requires a too liberal use of supplemental words to eke out the sense; and the rendering of the R.V (margin), "the safety he panteth for," is most congruous with the run of the sentence and of the thought. What has just been described as a sigh is now, with equal naturalness, figured as a pant of eager desire. The former is the expression of the weight of the affliction, the latter of yearning to escape from it. The latter is vain waste of breath unless accompanied with the former, which is also a prayer; but if so accompanied, the desire of the humble soul is the prophecy of its own fulfilment: and the measure of the Divine deliverance is regulated by His servant’s longing. He will always, sooner or later, get "the safety for which he pants." Faith determines the extent of God’s gift.
The listening psalmist rapturously responds in Psalm 12:6 to God’s great word. That word stands, with strong force of contrast, side by side with the arrogant chatter of irresponsible frivolity, and sounds majestic by the side of the shrill feebleness of the defiance. Now the psalmist lifts his voice in trustful acceptance of the oracle.
The general sense of Psalm 12:6 is clear, and the metaphor which compares God’s words to refined silver is familiar, but the precise meaning of the words rendered "in a furnace on the earth" (R.V) is doubtful. The word for "furnace" occurs only here, and has consequently been explained in very different ways, is omitted altogether by the LXX, and supposed by, Cheyne to be a remnant of an ancient gloss. But the meaning of furnace or crucible is fairly made out and appropriate. But what does "tried in a furnace to the earth" mean? The "on the earth" of the R.V is scarcely in accordance with the use of the preposition "to," and the best course is to adopt a supplement and read "tried in a furnace [and running down] to the earth." The sparkling stream of molten silver as, free from dross, it runs from the melting pot to the mould on the ground, is a beautiful figure of the word of God, clear of all the impurities of men’s words, which the psalm has been bewailing and raining down on the world. God’s words are a silver shower, precious and bright.
The last turn of the psalm builds hope on the pure words just heard from heaven. When God speaks a promise, faith repeats it as a certitude and prophesies in the line of the revelation. "Thou shalt" is man’s answer to God’s "I will." In the strength of the Divine word, the despondency of the opening strain is brightened. The godly and faithful shall not "cease from among the children of men," since God will keep them; and His keeping shall preserve them. "This generation" describes a class rather than an epoch. It means the vain talkers who have been sketched in such dark colours in the earlier part of the psalm. These are "the children of men" among whom the meek and needy are to live, not failing before them because God holds them up. This hope is for the militant Church, whose lot is to stand for God amidst wide-flowing evil, which may swell and rage against the band of faithful ones, but cannot sweep them away. Not of victory which annihilates opposition, but of charmed lives invulnerable in conflict, is the psalmist’s confidence. There is no more lamenting of the extinction of good men and their goodness, neither is there triumphant anticipation of present extinction of bad men and their badness, but both are to grow together till the harvest.
But even the pure words which promise safety and wake the response of faith do not wholly scatter the clouds. The psalm recurs very pathetically at its close to the tone of its beginning. Notice the repetition of "the children of men" which links Psalm 12:8 with Psalm 12:1. If the fear that the. faithful should fail is soothed by God’s promise heard by the psalmist sounding in his soul, the hard fact of dominant evil is not altered thereby. That "vileness is set on high among the sons of men" is the description of a world fumed upside down. Beggars are on horseback and princes walking. The despicable is honoured, and corruption is a recommendation to high position. There have been such epochs of moral dissolution; and there is always a drift in that direction, which is only checked by the influence of the "faithful." "If vileness is set on high among the sons of men," it is because the sons of men prefer it to the stern purity of goodness. A corrupt people will crown corrupt men and put them aloft. The average goodness of the community is generally fairly represented by its heroes, rulers, and persons to whom influence is given; and when such topsy-turvydom as the rule of the worst is in fashion, "the wicked walk on every side." Impunity breeds arrogance; and they swagger and swell, knowing that they are protected. Impunity multiplies the number; and on every side they swarm like vermin in a dirty house. But even when such an outlook saddens, the soul that has been in the secret place of the Most High and has heard the words of His mouth will not fall into pessimistic despondency, nor think that the faithful fail, because the wicked strut. When tempted to wail, "I, even I only, am left," such a soul will listen to the still small voice that tells of seven thousands of God’s hidden ones, and will be of good cheer, as knowing that God’s men can never cease so long as God continues.