Psalm 36
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
It has been thought by some that this psalm was written about the time when Saul gave his daughter Michal to David with a treacherous design (see Walford, in loc.); by others, that it is a general description of some of the wicked men - such as Saul, Absalom, Ahithophel, etc. - with whom David was brought into contact (see Fausset hereon). But there is no clue in the psalm itself to any such specific historical reference. We see a special significance in the title of the psalm, which tells us that it was written by David as a servant of Jehovah, and banded by him to the choirmaster for use in the songs of the sanctuary. We may regard it as a description of the heart of the ungodly, written in the piercing light of Divine revelation (see ver. 9), affording us a striking illustration of Hebrews 4:12, showing us that "the Word of God is" indeed "living and strong, sharper than any two-bladed sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow," being "a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." We find, too, that the Apostle Paul regards the words, "There is no fear of God before his eyes," as a part of the Divine indictment against a sinful race, whether of Jew or of Gentile origin (cf. Romans 3:18). Hence the inspection of the human heart, the results of which are here stated, is one that has been carried on under the searching light of Heaven. And a terribly painful discovery it is, to find how much iniquity God sees hidden in the nooks and corners of the heart. For us to be always carrying on this introspection would be more than we could bear. Yet the wicked may well be asked to study their own hearts in the light of this description, that they may see how much they need deliverance from their dark and sinful selves; while the believer may well look into this description again and again, that he may see from how much he has been delivered by the grace of God.


1. The heart of an ungodly man has an oracle of its own. The Hebrew word translated "saith" is a noun, and means "oracle." Some would regard the phrase as elliptical, and as meaning, "The oracle [of God, concerning] the transgression of the wicked in his heart, is," etc. (so Cheyne and Olshausen). But it seems to us rather a satirical contrast. The righteous have their oracle, which is Divine. The wicked have their oracle, even transgression. The dislike of being governed by another is the governing principle of their lives. "Our tongues are our own: who is lord over us?" (Psalm 12:14; 2:3). Hence their "oracle" is dictated, not by loyalty, but by rebellion against God.

2. There are terrible negations in the godless man's life. (Ver. 1, "There is no fear of God before his eyes,") There is no desire of the Divine approval, nor dread of the Divine displeasure. It was reserved for the nineteenth century, however, to develop the most impious forms of this denial of God. There are not wanting novels, such as George Eliot's and others, which present model characters in social life on the basis of non-theism, and which depict it as a virtue to be without any fear of God whatsoever. This psalm deals with an evil which is by no means a thing of the past. It is developed to-day in frightful form, and puts on a guise of virtue to hide its ghastliness. There is a second negation (ver. 4): "He hath left off to be wise and to do good." The absence of the fear of God will soon be followed by the loss of respect for man, and the deterioration of general intelligence and of social virtue. There is no sustaining impulse for the highest excellence when God ceases to be enthroned in the heart. For a third negation here specified shows clearly enough the drift of the godless man (ver. 5): "He abhorreth not evil." The issue of a materialistic denial of God, and of a materialistic view of man, must be the denial of evil as evil. Evil cannot exist if atoms of matter be all. For molecules never break the ranks, and can never get out of harness. And he who first abhors not evil, out of senseless bravado, will come to deny evil altogether, and will let his passions hurry him whither they will, on the inward plea that he is "acting according to nature."

3. There are equally terrible positive evils in the godless man's life. First, evils in thought (ver. 3). The psalmist means either that, in spite of his godlessness, he has a very good opinion of himself, or else that he flatters himself his sins will never come out to light, and be found out in all their naked ugliness. Nor is this all. But he positively deviseth mischief upon his bed (ver. 5). Even in the night he is pursuing schemes of serf-gratification, altogether regardless of righteousness or of the good of others. A second form of positive ill is found in his words (ver. 4). Truthlessness will soon follow godlessness. And when in his eye God ceases to be, it will not be long ere right ceases to be right, and truth to be truth. And a third form of ill will develop itself. "He setteth himself in a way that is not good." He plants his feet, he takes a determined stand, in the direction of gratifying self rather than in the direction of pleasing Cod. And will aim at nothing but "utility," in the narrow sense of hedonism. Right as right will have disappeared from the gaze of his eye, and will cease to govern either deed, word, or thought. How terrible a picture is this of unchecked human depravity!


1. It is a very solemn thought that we are thus being inspected, at every moment, by an all-searching gaze. It is only where Divine revelation has been vouchsafed that sin is dealt with so very seriously, and that the heart is thus depicted so minutely.

2. How fearful the descent of sin, and how encroaching are its inroads on character! Yet, after all, we need hot fall into the error of supposing that the Word of God regards all as equally guilty or as equally corrupt. Yet, as the Apostle Paul shows in the second and third chapters of his Epistle to the Romans, where he is handling the indictment which stands in God's Law against us, we are "all under sin." If the Jew has sinned against a written Law, the Gentile has sinned against an unwritten law. Hence both are "guilty before God;" although the measure of each one's guilt, and the depth of each one's corruption, can be judged accurately by God alone.

3. Let us be devout/y thankful that we may know the worst of ourselves by comparing what we are with the pure and holy Law of God. To know the disease is an important step in seeking for a cure.

4. Even if we have not gone such lengths is guilt and maddened sin as are here described, let us thankfully acknowledge that we owe it to the restraining providence of God. For, alas! the germs of all ill are in each of us.

5. We need a deliverance from ourselves. We need forgiveness for guilt, and cleansing from corruption.

6. Since all are under sin, how righteous is the retirement of the gospel! "God commandeth all men everywhere to repent." No man is as good as he ought to be, nor yet as good as be knows he ought to be. And for this he ought to be sorry and to mourn his guilt persistently before God. When he is thus ready to put sin away by repenting of it, God is ready to put it away by forgiving it.

7. It is the glory of the gospel that it takes into account all our needs, from every possible point of view. In Christ we have pardon for the penitent's sin, and cleansing from the foulest corruption. Yea, through the Spirit of God we may be regenerated, and sanctified, and snatched from the power of darkness to the kingdom of God's dear Son.

8. It is only in that very Word which looks at sin most seriously that man is regarded most hopefully. Man and his sins are not inseparable They may be parted. And when this blessed effect is brought about, "being made free from sin, and become servants unto God," they will "have their fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life." - C.

I. HIS HEART IS THE SEAT OF EVIL. It is there as an "oracle.' It is enthroned. It speaks with authority. It gives forth its decrees for obedience. The true is opposed by the false. Righteousness gives place to unrighteousness. All counsels of reason and compunctions of conscience are hushed by the cry, "No God!" (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4).

II. HIS LIFE IS MARKED BY ABANDONMENT TO EVIL. The power that rules the heart rules the life. There is progress in depravity, as in goodness. Gradually the sway of sin extends, till at last it works without check, without remorse, without remedy. You know a servant by the livery he wears, so when you see a man who sins wilfully and habitually, whose words and actions and manner of life are manifestly regualted without any fear of God, you cannot but regard such a man as a servant of sin (Romans 6:16; John 8:34).

III. HIS CHARACTER IS FORMED UNDER THE POWER OF EVIL. Acts form habits, and habits character, The process is slow, but certain. What determines character is the power that worketh in us, be it good or be it evil (Galatians 5:17, 18). There is evil in all, but when the heart has been won back to God, the evil, though present, has lost its power. There is conflict, but the victory is Fare for good, and not for evil. On the other hand, where evil still rules supreme, the result is of necessity - greater and greater degradation and corruption.

IV. HIS FUTURE IS DARK WITH THE PROGNOSTICS OF EVIL. To those who are living without God, the prospect in this life is gloomy and painful, but there is still hope. The voice of mercy is ever sounding in their ears, "Why will ye die?" As time passes, things grow darker. Guilt increases, the heart is hardened, and reformation becomes more and more improbable (Jeremiah 13:23). Again and again signs and warnings are given - precursors of the end, foreshadowings of the doom that awaits the impenitent. But they are unheeded. There is a terrible retention of character, and the future has no star of hope to light the gloom. "The wicked is driven away in his wickedness." - W.F.

Look around, how distressing is the scene! Look back, it is the fame tale of human care and crime. Look before, little to encourage, or to lead us to believe that things will be better than they are. But look up, and we can take heart, and speak one to another of better times. Clod reigns. Christ is at the right hand of the Father, to carry out his gracious purposes. Though there be much that is dark and depressing, yet we are able still to pray to God as "our Father," to say, a Thy kingdom come," and to assure our hearts of the final victory of love, for "Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory."

I. FROM THE FALSEHOOD OF MEN WE MAKE OUR COMPLAINT TO THE FAITHFUL NESS OF GOD. Though men lie and beguille, God is true. His Word is truth. "He is faithful who hath promised" We may trust him utterly. Like him, let us also be faithful.

II. FROM THE INJUSTICE OF MEN WE MAY APPEAL TO THE JUSTICE OF GOD. Conscience within and the Law without bear witness that God is righteous. Justice is justice everywhere. Whatever be our lot here, we shall get right yonder. However basely men-may behave to us, God will treat us fairly. The Judge of all the earth will do right. In this faith we can possess our souls in patience (1 Corinthians 4:3, 4; James 4:11, 12). Come what will, let us ever do that which is just and good to all men.

III. FROM THE SELFISHNESS OF MEN WE CAN TAKE REFUGE IN THE LOVE AND MERCY OF GOD. In trade and commerce and all the various businesses of the world, selfishness prevails. The rule is, "Every man for himself;" and the royal law, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," is set at nought. Even in the Churches the leaven of selfishness is sadly operative. But "God is love." He is the great Giver. His delight is to show mercy, to do good and to communicate. He has come nearer than ever in Christ Jesus, and under the strong and loving covert of his wings we find refuge from all the oppressions and ills of life (ver. 7). Let us make it our habit more and more to abide with God. Christ is in the bosom of the Father, and it is as we "live together with Christ" that we abide in the love of God, and are comforted in all our troubles, defended in all our dangers, and strengthened for every good word and work.

"Only, O Lord, in thy dear love,
Fit us for perfect rest above;
And help us, this and every day,
To live more nearly as we pray." W.F.

The psalmist complains of the moral corruption of his generation, and points the character of the time rather than any particular occurrence - unless "the foot of pride" in the eleventh verse may possibly refer to some invader that he dreaded. We have here a vivid description of the cursed state of ingrained, deliberate wickedness, and of the supreme blessedness of fellowship with God.

I. THE CURSE OF INGRAINED, DELIBERATE WICKEDNESS. (Vers. 1-4.) Represented under two main aspects.

1. The utter degeneracy of his thoughts. (Vers. 1, 2.) Translate, "The oracle, or voice, of transgression is in the heart of the wicked;" i.e. evil is the sovereign voice that speaks to or commands him. It is the only imperative voice that he hears - not the voice of conscience or duty. As a consequence, he does not see or hear God, and, therefore, does not fear to transgress. More than this, he becomes complacent ("flatters himself") in devising evil things as a sign of superior cleverness, and glories in hating rather than in loving. He is a fearful example of the total inversion of the moral order in all his thoughts. As a consequence, we have:

2. The utter degeneracy of his conduct. (Vers. 3, 4.) His words are the image of his thoughts - mischief and deceit. He has left off, turned from, every wise and good gay of living, as a thing gone out of his esteem, forming no part of his purpose in life. fie meditates only mischief on his bed, where other men remember the evil of the day, and repent; but he sinks to sleep or awakes from it in forming evil designs, setting himself into the direction of no good way, nor abhorring any evil.


1. God's goodness makes him infinitely worthy of our trust. (Vers. 5-7.) His mercy. faithfulness, righteousness, judgments, preserving providence, are all infinite and perfect, and those who trust in him live in the holiest, safest shelter - under the shadow of his wings overspreading the "mercy-seat."

2. God will abundantly satisfy all their greatest needs. (Ver. 8.) They shall partake of the Divine satisfaction and joy - eat of the fatness of his house, and drink of the river of his pleasures. Because he is the Fountain of all life and the Substance of all light, and they who dwell with him shall draw his life into themselves, and see all things in the light of his presence.

3. They became confident of the downfall of those who are unrighteously opposed to them. (Vers. 11, 12.) "There!" - pointing as if to the scene of the ruin of his foes and the foes of God. Those who enjoy fellowship with God and Christ are assured that they too will at length conquer their spiritual foes, and enter fully into the kingdom that awaits them. - S.

The reason for so sudden a transition in the theme of this psalm does not clearly appear. It is, indeed, possible that portions of two may be pieced together; but we have no proof of that. The remark of Calvin is very striking, "After having spoken of the great depravity of men, the prophet, afraid lest he should be infected by it, or be carried away by the example of the wicked, as by a flood, quits the subject, and recovers himself by reflecting on a different theme." Whether this be precisely the correct account of the matter or no, certain it is that too prolonged a gaze into the desperate wickedness of man would unnerve us and would generate a spirit of misanthropic distrust. For our own balance of mind, and peace and rest, we must turn our gaze away from the haunts of sin to the abode of perfect righteousness and halcyon calm. And, thank God, we can do it. And if we turn the glass of the Word upward instead of downward, we shall find more to inspire with rapture than we have seen to create dismay. But neither the one description nor the other can be accounted for by the ordinary laws of the human mind. The psychology of the natural man will not serve us here. Only a "man whose eyes are open" could have written either the first or the second part of this psalm. And we here see the working, not of psychology, but of pneumatology - of the pneumatology of the spiritual man when receiving and transmitting a revelation from God and of him. What the Apostle Peter says of prophecy generally may be applied to this psalm: it "came not of old time by the will of man." David spake as he was "moved by the Holy Ghost." Having, then, spied into the abyss of depravity by the glass of the Word, let us peer into the boundless heights of glory by looking through the same glass when turned upward. Let us study -

I. THE PERFECTIONS OF GOD IN THEIR SUBLIME AND PEERLESS GLORY. (Ver. 5, et seq.) We have put before us the sphere in which the Divine Being dwells - "in the heavens;" "unto the clouds." The heavens, in the highest sense, are regarded as the dwelling-place of God; and, to the same intent, the word translated "clouds." Since God is everywhere present, we must not confine his presence (in our thinking thereof) to one spot rather than another (Psalm 139:7-12). Yet we are permitted to think of "heaven" as being a region where he specially manifests his glory - " Our Father, which art in heaven;" "The Son of man' "came down from heaven" (cf. Ezekiel 1:26-28; Isaiah 6:1-4; John 17:5). High, high above this troublous scene of unrest and sin there is a throne of glory, there is a seat of power, there is a realm of unruffled, everlasting calm (Psalm 97:1). But here we have revealed to us him who is on the throne, and the glorious attributes which mark his infinite Being.

1. "Mercy," "goodness;" benignitas, misericordia. God has a heart. "He that formed the ear, doth he not hear? He that formed the eye, doth he not see? He that formed the heart, doeth he not feel?" Yea, verily. God is a Being of infinite tenderness, compassion, and love.

2. "Truth;" i.e. "faithfulness;" fidee, veritas. "Hath he said, and shall he not do it?" "Hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?"

"Firm as a rock his truth remains
To guard his promises" Not one thing hath failed or snail fail of all that the Lord hath spoken.

3. Righteousness." (Ver. 6.) "Thy righteousness is like the great mountains." Justitia. It is because the righteousness of God is so firm and unmovable that we can repose in him the most entire and absolute confidence. Even love, divorced from righteousness, would fail to win our hearts. The work of Christ commands our homage, love, and rest, because therein love and righteousness are seen in sublimest concord. Note: How intense the relief to turn our eyes away from this scene of sin and corruption to him "whose dominion extendeth over all" in righteousness, mercy, and truth!


1. Perfect administration. (Ver. 6.) "Thy judgments are a great deep;" a profound abyss (cf. Psalm 77:19). They often present a depth of mystery which we have no plummet to sound. But they are judgments for all that; i.e. right-settings - they are never at fault. And never is there any flaw in the Divine administration on this globe (Psalm 97:2).

2. Loving-kindness. The same word as is rendered "mercy' (Authorized Version) in ver. 5. But the translators saw the meaning of "mercy" per se becoming "loving-kindness" towards us. Blot only has the sun light, but we feel the warmth of his rays. Even so the tender mercy of God discloses itself to us in innumerable acts of kindness and love.

3. Protection. (Ver. 7.) "The shadow of thy wings" (cf. Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:9-12; Ruth 2:12; Psalm 17:8; Psalm 91:4; Psalm 57:4; Psalm 63:7; Psalm 61:4). Perhaps the most wonderful of God's attributes is that patience with men, whereby he restrains the power that could crush, and puts it forth so gently as to guard. Had we not been sheltered by an invisible guardianship, we had been crushed ere now a thousand times over. Note, also, that the figure of "wings," etc., indicates a marvellous tenderness of love.

4. Supply. (Ver. 8.) "The fatness of thine house " - the rich provisions of Divine love which are so largely enjoyed in the fellowship of worship in the courts of the Lord. "The river of thy pleasures;" literally, "of thine Eden." Is there here an allusion to the river which flowed peacefully through the garden of Eden when sin had not as yet tainted its bowers? Or is this phrase a declension that of the pure joy which is in the heart of God he gives those to partake who are in communion with him? If so, hire is a wonderful anticipation of the truth, "My peace I give unto you."

5. Life. (Ver. 9.) "The fountain of life." Here is a sublime expression of the doctrine which in modern phraseology is called "the origin of force" - a sublime expression thereof, however, on its moral and spiritual side. Such a phrase as this may well have been borne in mind by the Apostle John, when he says of the Son of God, "In him was life."

6. Light. (Ver. 9.) "In thy light shall we see light." In how many senses this is true, and how richly it is true in every sense, it would require many homilies to show. We can but hint. Without God we can see no light anywhere. We have no basis for thought, no account to give of existence. Without the light from God to illumine our souls, we cannot see the glory of his love in creation. Without the enlightening and regenerating power of his Spirit, we cannot see the kingdom of Cod. But with God above, around, within, in what a blaze of light and glory may we live! Note: What amazing bliss is ours, even now, when the fulness of God is made over to us in Christ through his Word and Spirit! Perfect judgment, loving-kindness, guardianship living food, life, light! What more can we have?

III. THE DIVINE PERFECTIONS AS LAID HOLD OF BY BELIEVING MEN. When our God reveals himself thus to us as our God, it is but fitting anti right that our hearts should respond to such revelation. A response we find here. It is fivefold.

1. Here is an exhilarating sense of being in the possession of a precious treasure. (Ver. 7.) "How excellent," etc. rather, "How precious is thy loving-kindness, O God!" Indeed, it is. Precious beyond thousands of gold and silver; yea," better than life" (Psalm 63:3; Psalm 43:4). God is our "exceeding Joy Often and often may we muse with ever-increasing delight on the exhaustless stores of love which are ours in the heart of the infinite and eternal God (cf. Deuteronomy 33:26, 27).

2. Here is a sense of safety and repose in fleeing for refuge to God. (Ver. 7.) Put their trust;" literally, "flee for refuge" (cf. Psalm 91:2). How intense the repose when we make God our Refuge! From the plots of men, from the strife of tongues, from perils of every kind, we can hide in God - blessed and safe in his almighty keeping.

3. Here is a sense of satisfaction in the abundance of a Divine supply. God's love is as meat and drink to us (cf. John 6.). When all the fulness of God is made over to us in Christ, we are indeed well supplied. We often want more of Christ; we never want more than Christ.

4. The trust and love of the heart express themselves in prayer.

(1) For others (ver. 10). We may bear all the saints on our heart as intercessors before God.

(2) For ourselves (ver. 11). That God would so prove himself to us to be all that he has promised to be, that we may never be moved from the right and safe path by any of the plots and snares of designing men.

5. Already, in the anticipation of faith, we sing praise for delivering grace. (Ver. 12.) "There are the workers of iniquity fallen." "There!" - emphatic. There they are! I look on far ahead, and know that I shall triumph in redeeming love, and that I shall yet see those that plotted my ruin brought to nought, as Israel saw their foes dead on the seashore (Exodus 14:30, 31; Psalm 46:6; Psalm 37:34-38; see Romans 64:7-10)..(For the application of all this in its highest and grandest form, see Romans 8:34-39.) Let us trust God, brothers, while danger is nigh, and we shalt shout in triumph when life's storms are over. - C.

There are three great sayings here which deserve our deepest study. First, God's "righteousness," that perfection of his character which secures perfect justice in all his doings. It is like "the mountains," so high that it is always above us, so fixed and stable that it cannot be moved. Then God's "judgments" - his ways, his dealings with men - are called a "great deep," as being in many respects beyond our sounding or measuring, unfathomable and full of mystery (Psalm 77:19). Last, there is God's providential care. It is said, "How excellent is thy loving-kindness, O God!" (vers. 6, 7). But while these sayings are very striking and beautiful, looked at by themselves, they become vastly more significant and consolatory when we regard them in their relationship. Suppose we take the second, and place it in the light of the first and then of the third. In the "great deep" there is much that is awful and perplexing. But if there be mystery, this should not surprise us. We are but children. How can the finite comprehend the Infinite! But this mystery has its uses: it teaches us humility; it inspires us with reverence; it prepares the way for faith and hope and love. But much depends on our standpoint. See how different things become when we look at "the great deep" from the sure ground of the everlasting hills. It is significant that the psalmist speaks of the "mountains" before the "great deep," of the "righteousness" of God before his "judgments." Here is a lesson for us. Let us first make sure as to God's righteousness. Then when our hearts are established in this truth, we can look abroad without fear of the great deep of God's judgments. Even if, like Paul, tossed up and down "in Adria," the assurance of God's righteousness will give us peace, and sustain our hopes; and when we reach the shore again, we can look back, as from Melita, with thankful love and praise to God's ways and wonders in the deep. Then, further, when we take up the third great saying here, the light increases, and the sense of God's gracious presence and care becomes stronger and stronger. How often is it so in God's Word and works! Side by side with some grand manifestation of his greatness and majesty, we have some tender touch that speaks of his fatherly love and care. Whensoever, then, we are oppressed and appalled by the sight of the "great deep," let us call to mind, on the one hand, God's "righteousness;" and, on the other, God's love - that we may be comforted. Before us is the "great deep," with many things that are terrible and distressing - the shipwreck of dear hopes, the burying out of sight of beloved ones, the mystery of trial and of death - but, standing on the sure ground of God's righteousness, we may possess our souls in patience; and, contemplating the manifold and increasing proofs of God's love and goodness in our daily life, we may take heart, and say, "He cannot will me aught but good; I trust him utterly." Let us learn to take the right order in considering God's works. We should begin with what is plain and certain. We should study the dark things in the light of what is clear, the mysteries by what is revealed. Further, mark the importance of making much of common mercies, that we may be the better prepared for uncommon emergencies. God is educating us. When we know him as caring for us in little things, we can trust him to care for us in greater things (Matthew 6:30-34). If we have learned to run with the footmen without being weary, we can better contend with horses. If we do our duty and serve God in the land of peace, then we shall be the fitter to face the swelling of Jordan (Jeremiah 12:5). Above all, let us remember that only in God can we find a sure Refuge from all trouble (ver. 7).

Though griefs unnumbered throng thee round,
Still in thy God confide;
Whose finger marks the seas their bound,
And curbs the headlong tide." ? W.F.

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