Verse 1. - Do ye indeed speak righteousness, O congregation! The rendering of elem (אֵלֶם) by "congregation" is contrary to all analogy, and quite untenable. It must either mean "dumb ones," or be a corruption of elim (אֵלִים) - "mighty ones" (comp. Psalm 29:1). In either case it is an epithet applied to the judges of the people, and not to the congregation. Do ye judge uprightly, O ye sons of men? Both questions are asked in bitter irony, as is clear from the context.
Yea, in heart ye work wickedness; ye weigh the violence of your hands in the earth.
Verse 2. - Yea, in heart ye work wickedness; literally, wickednesses, or iniquities. These ye first devise in your heart, and then (see the next clause) carry out with your hands. Ye weigh (or, weigh out) the violence of your hands in the earth. Instead of carefully meting out justice to men, after accurately weighing it in the balance of right and equity, you weigh out to them mere wrong and "violence."
The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.
Verse 3. - The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies. This is the language of hyperbole, and is certainly not the profession of the doctrine of original sin. What the psalmist means is that those who ultimately become heinous sinners, for the most part show, even from their early childhood, a strong tendency towards evil. He implies that with others the case is different. Though there may be in them a corruption of nature (Psalm 51:6), yet, on the whole, they have good dispositions, and present a contrast to the ungodly ones whom he is describing.
Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;
Verse 4. - Their poison is like the poison of a serpent (comp. Psalm 140:3; Song of Sirach 25:15). They are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear. The "adder" was supposed to be deaf, on account of its being very difficult to charm. It was thought obstinately to set itself against the charmer, and, as it were, stop its ears against him.
Which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely.
Verse 5. - Which will not hearken to the voice of charmers. Serpent charmers are alluded to in Ecclesiastes 10:11 and Jeremiah 6:17. They have at all times been common in the East, as they are still in India; and it is with reason suspected that the magicians of Pharaoh employed the art in their contest with Moses and Aaron. Charming never so wisely; literally, though they bind their spells skilfully.
Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O LORD.
Verses 6-9. - "Description passes into imprecation, with an 'Elohim' emphatically placed first" (Cheyne). Metaphors are accumulated. Menace follow menace. The wrath of God is first invoked upon the evil doers (vers. 6-8); then (ver. 9) coming judgment is announced. Verse 6. - Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth. Serpent charmers sometimes, when they have caught their snake, proceed to beat out the poison fangs with a stone or stick (Geike, 'The Holy Land and the Bible,' vol. 1, p. 245). The psalmist, in the first clause, seems to allude to this practice; in the second, he changes the metaphor, reverting to his favourite image of the young lion (kephir). Break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord. The "cheek teeth" (Joel 1:6), or principal fangs on either side, are intended.
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.
Verse 7. - Let them melt away as waters which run continually; i.e. "let them waste away, and go to naught, like water, that runs off and accomplishes nothing." When he bendoth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces; i.e. "let the arrows be as though snapped in two, or headless."
As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.
Verse 8. - As a snail which molteth, lot every one of them pass away; or, "let them be as a snail, which melteth and passeth away" (Revised Version). Snails in Palestine, during dry seasons, often shrink, shrivel up, and disappear from their shells (Tristram, 'Natural History of the Bible,' p. 296). Like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun; rather, that hath not seen the sun (Professor Cheyne, Revised Version); i.e. "let them be as an abortion" (comp. Job 3:16).
Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath.
Verse 9. - Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath. This "difficult and obscure verse" has been variously explained. Professor Cheyne translates, "Before your pots can feel the thorns, and while your flesh (i.e. the flesh in the pots, on which you are about to feast) is still raw, the hot wrath of Jehovah shall sweep it away." The Revised Version gives the following: "Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them [i.e. the thorns] away with a whirlwind, the green [thorns] and the burning alike." Dr. Kay, "Before your caldrons have felt the thorn fire, even as raw flesh, even so, shall hot fury sweep him away." The general meaning seems to be that before the wicked judges can enjoy the fruits of their wickedness, the fierce wrath of God will come upon them like a tempest, and sweep both them and the produce of their villainy away (comp. 2 Samuel 23:6, 7).
The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Verses 10, 11. - In conclusion, the psalmist expresses the satisfaction of the righteous at the punishment of the unjust judges. Verse 10. - The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance. As the good man is pained when he sees the ungodly prosper, so he cannot but feel a certain satisfaction and pleasure when punishment overtakes him. Dante says -
"O Signor mio, quando saro io lieto
A veder la vendetta, che nascosa
Fa dolce l'ira tua nel suo segreto?"
(Purg.,' 20:94-96.) He shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked (comp. Psalm 68:24; Isaiah 63:3). It is observable that David, personally, was too indulgent, rather than too severe, towards offenders.
So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth.
Verse 11. - So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous. God's righteous judgment being seen in the punishment of the wicked, men will no longer doubt of the ultimate reward of the godly. God must, by his very nature, be more inclined to reward goodness than to punish wickedness. Verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth; rather, verily there is a God, etc. (see Revised Version). Elohim is joined with a plural here, because the speakers are men generally, not only Israelites.