The Davidic authorship of this psalm is evidently untenable, if for no other reason, yet because of the state of things presupposed in ver. 35. The supposition that Jeremiah was the author has more in its favour than in the case of many of the modern attributions of psalms to him, even if, as seems most probable, the references to sinking in deep mire and the like are metaphorical. Cheyne fixes on the period preceding Nehemiah's first journey to Jerusalem as the earliest possible date for this psalm and its kindred ones (xxii., xxxv., and xl. 13-18). Baethgen follows Olshausen in assigning the psalm to the Maccabean period. The one point which seems absolutely certain is that David was not its author.
It falls into two equal parts (vv. 1-18 and 19-36). In the former part three turns of thought or feeling may be traced: vv. 1-6 being mainly a cry for Divine help, with plaintive spreading out of the psalmist's extremity of need; vv. 7-12 basing the prayer on the fact that his sufferings flow from his religion; and vv. 13-18 being a stream of petitions for deliverance, with continuous allusion to the description of his trials in vv. 1-6. The second part (vv. 19-36) begins with renewed description of the psalmist's affliction (vv. 19-21), and thence passes to invocation of God's justice on his foes (vv. 22-28), which takes the place of the direct petitions for deliverance in the first part. The whole closes with trustful anticipation of answers to prayer, which will call forth praise from ever-widening circles,--first from the psalmist himself; then from the oppressed righteous; and, finally, from heaven, earth, and sea.
The numerous citations of this psalm in the New Testament have led many commentators to maintain its directly Messianic character. But its confessions of sin and imprecations of vengeance are equally incompatible with that view. It is Messianic as typical rather than as prophetic, exhibiting a history, whether of king, prophet, righteous man, or personified nation, in which the same principles are at work as are manifest in their supreme energy and highest form in the Prince of righteous sufferers. But the correspondence of such a detail as giving gall and vinegar, with the history of Jesus, carries us beyond the region of types, and is a witness that God's Spirit shaped the utterances of the psalmist for a purpose unknown to himself, and worked in like manner on the rude soldiers, whose clumsy mockery and clumsy kindness fulfilled ancient words. There is surely something more here than coincidence or similarity between the experience of one righteous sufferer and another. If Jesus cried "I thirst" in order to bring about the "fulfilment" of one verse of our psalm, His doing so is of a piece with some other acts of His which were distinct claims to be the Messiah of prophecy; but His wish could not influence the soldiers to fulfil the psalm.
The first note is petition and spreading out of the piteous story of the psalmist's need. The burdened heart finds some ease in describing how heavy its burden is, and the devout heart receives some foretaste of longed-for help in the act of telling God how sorely His help is needed. He who knows all our trouble is glad to have us tell it to Him, since it is thereby lightened, and our faith in Him is thereby increased. Sins confessed are wholly cancelled, and troubles spoken to God are more than half calmed. The psalmist begins with metaphors in vv. 1, 2, and translates these into grim prose in vv. 3, 4, and then, with acknowledgment of sinfulness, cries for God's intervention in vv. 5, 6. It is flat and prosaic to take the expressions in vv. 1, 2, literally, as if they described an experience like Jeremiah's in the miry pit. Nor can the literal application be carried through; for the image of "waters coming in unto the soul" brings up an entirely different set of circumstances from that of sinking in mud in a pit. The one describes trouble as rushing in upon a man, like a deluge which has burst its banks and overwhelms him; the other paints it as yielding and tenacious, affording no firm spot to stand on, but sucking him up in its filthy, stifling slime. No water was in Jeremiah's pit. The two figures are incompatible in reality, and can only be blended in imagination. What they mean is put without metaphor in vv. 3, 4. The psalmist is "weary with calling" on God; his throat is dry with much prayer; his eyes ache and are dim with upward gazing for help which lingers. Yet he does not cease to call, and still prays with his parched throat, and keeps the weary eyes steadfastly fixed, as the psalm shows. It is no small triumph of patient faith to wait for tarrying help. Ver. 4 tells why he thus cries. He is compassed by a crowd of enemies. Two things especially characterise these--their numbers, and their gratuitous hatred. As to the former, they are described as more numerous than the hairs of the psalmist's head. The parallelism of clauses recommends the textual alteration which substitutes for the unnecessary word "my destroyers" the appropriate expression "more than my bones," which is found in some old versions. Causeless hatred is the portion of the righteous in all ages; and our Lord points to Himself as experiencing it in utmost measure (John xv. 25), inasmuch as He, the perfectly righteous One, must take into His own history all the bitterness which is infused into the cup of those who fear God and love the right, by a generation who are out of sympathy with them.
The same experience, in forms varying according to the spirit of the times, is realised still in all who have the mind of Christ in them. As long as the world is a world, it will have some contempt mingling with its constrained respect for goodness, some hostility, now expressed by light shafts of mockery and ridicule, now by heavier and more hurtful missiles, for Christ's true servants. The ancient "Woe" for those of whom "all men speak well" is in force to-day. The "hatred" is "without a cause," in so far as its cherishers have received no hurt, and its objects desire only their enemies' good; but its cause lies deep in the irreconcilable antagonism of life-principles and aims between those who follow Christ and those who do not.
The psalmist had to bear unjust charges, and to make restitution of what he had never taken. Causeless hatred justified itself by false accusations, and innocence had but to bear silently and to save life at the expense of being robbed in the name of justice.
He turns from enemies to God. But his profession of innocence assumes a touching and unusual form. He does not, as might be expected, say, "Thou knowest my guiltlessness," but, "Thou knowest my foolishness." A true heart, while conscious of innocence in regard to men, and of having done nothing to evoke their enmity, is, even in the act of searching itself, arrested by the consciousness of its many sins in God's sight, and will confess these the more penitently, because it stands upright before men, and asserts its freedom from all crime against them. In so far as men's hatred is God's instrument, it inflicts merited chastisement. That does not excuse men; but it needs to be acknowledged by the sufferer, if things are to be right between him and God. Then, after such confession, he can pray, as this psalmist does, that God's mercy may deliver him, so that others who, like him, wait on God may not be disheartened or swept from their confidence, by the spectacle of his vain hopes and unanswered cries. The psalmist has a strong consciousness of his representative character, and, as in so many other psalms, thinks that his experience is of wide significance as a witness for God. This consciousness points to something special in his position, whether we find the speciality in his office, or in the supposed personification of the nation, or in poetic consciousness heightened by the sense of being an organ of God's Spirit. In a much inferior degree, the lowliest devout man may feel the same; for there are none whose experiences of God as answering prayer may not be a light of hope to some souls sitting in the dark.
In vv. 7-12 the prayer for deliverance is urged on the ground that the singer's sufferings are the result of his devotion. Psalm xliv. 13-22 may be compared, and Jer. xv. 15 is an even closer parallel. Fasting and sackcloth are mentioned again together in Psalm xxxv. 13; and Lam. iii. 14 and Job xxx. 9 resemble ver. 12 b. Surrounded by a godless generation, the psalmist's earnestness of faith and concern for God's honour made him an object of dislike, a target for drunken ridicule. These broke the strong ties of kindred, and acted as separating forces more strongly than brotherhood did, as a uniting one. "Zeal for God's house" presupposes the existence of the Temple, and also either its neglect or its desecration. That sunken condition of the sanctuary distressed the psalmist more than personal calamity, and it was the departure of Israel from God that made him clothe himself in sackcloth and fast and weep. But so far had deterioration gone that his mourning and its cause supplied materials for tipsy mirth, and his name became a by-word and a butt for malicious gossip. The whole picture is that of the standing experience of the godly among the godless. The Perfect Example of devotion and communion had to pass through these waters where they ran deepest and chilliest, but all who have His Spirit have their share of the same fate.
The last division of this first part (vv. 13-18) begins by setting in strong contrast the psalmist's prayer and the drunkard's song. He is sure that his cry will be heard, and so he calls the present time "a time of favour," and appeals, as often in the Psalter, to the multitude of God's loving-kindnesses and the faithfulness of His promise of salvation. Such a pleading with God on the ground of His manifested character is heard in vv. 13, 16, thus inclosing, as it were, the prayer for deliverance in a wrapping of reminders to God of His own name. The petitions here echo the description of peril in the former part--mire and watery depths--and add another kindred image in that of the "pit shutting her mouth" over the suppliant. He is plunged in a deep dungeon, well-shaped; and if a stone is rolled on to its opening, his last gleam of daylight will be gone, and he will be buried alive. Beautifully do the pleas from God's character and those from the petitioner's sore need alternate, the latter predominating in vv. 17, 18. His thoughts pass from his own desperate condition to God's mercy, and from God's mercy to his own condition, and he has the reward of faith, in that he finds in his straits reasons for his assurance that this is a time of favour, as well as pleas to urge with God. They make the black backing which turns his soul into a mirror, reflecting God's promises in its trust.
The second part of the psalm (ver. 19 to end) has, like the former, three main divisions. The first of these, like vv. 1-6, is mainly a renewed spreading before God of the psalmist's trouble (vv. 19-21). Rooted sorrows are not plucked up by one effort. This recrudescence of fear breaking in upon the newly won serenity of faith is true to nature. On some parts of our coasts, where a narrow outlet hinders the free run of the tide, a second high water follows the first after an hour or so; and often a similar bar to the flowing away of fears brings them back in full rush after they had begun to sink. The psalmist had appealed to God's knowledge of His "foolishness" as indorsing his protestations of innocence towards men. He now (ver. 19) appeals to His knowledge of his distresses, as indorsing his pitiful plaints. His soul is too deeply moved now to use metaphors. He speaks no more of mire and flood, but we hear the moan of a broken heart, and that wail which sounds sad across the centuries and wakes echoes in many solitary hearts. The psalmist's eyes had failed, while he looked upwards for a God whose coming seemed slow; but they had looked yet more wearily and vainly for human pity and comforters, and found none. Instead of pity He had received only aggravation of misery. Such seems to be the force of giving gall for food, and vinegar to His thirst. The precise meaning of the word rendered "gall" is uncertain, but the general idea of something bitter is sufficient. That was all that His foes would give Him when hungry; and vinegar, which would make Him more thirsty still, was all that they proffered for His thirst. Such was their sympathy and comforting. According to Matthew, the potion of "wine (or vinegar) mingled with gall" was offered to and rejected by Jesus, before being fastened to the cross. He does not expressly quote the psalm, but probably refers to it. John, on the other hand, does tell us that Jesus, "that the scripture might be accomplished, said, I thirst," and sees its fulfilment in the kindly act of moistening the parched lips. The evangelist's expression does not necessarily imply that a desire to fulfil the scripture was our Lord's motive. Crucifixion was accompanied with torturing thirst, which wrung that last complaint from Jesus. But the evangelist discerns a Divine purpose behind the utterance of Jesus' human weakness; and it is surely less difficult, for any one who believes in supernatural revelation at all, to believe that the words of the psalmist were shaped by a higher power, and the hands of the Roman soldiers moved by another impulse than their own, than to believe that this minute correspondence of psalm and gospel is merely accidental.
But the immediately succeeding section warns us against pushing the Messianic character of the psalm too far, for these fearful imprecations cannot have any analogies in Christ's words (vv. 22-28). The form of the wish in "Let their table become a snare" is explained by remembering that the Eastern table was often a leather flap laid on the ground, which the psalmist desires may start up as a snare, and close upon the feasters as they sit round it secure. Disease, continual terror, dimmed eyes, paralysed or quaking loins, ruin falling on their homes, and desolation round their encampment, so that they have no descendants, are the least of the evils invoked. The psalmist's desires go further than all this corporeal and material disaster. He prays that iniquity may be added to their iniquity--i.e., that they may be held guilty of sin after sin; and that they may have no portion in God's righteousness--i.e., in the gifts which flow from His adherence to His covenant.
The climax of all these maledictions is that awful wish that the persecutors may be blotted out of the book of life or of the living. True, the high New Testament conception of that book, according to which it is the burgess-roll of the citizens of the New Jerusalem, the possessors of eternal life, does not plainly belong to it in Old Testament usage, in which it means apparently the register of those living on earth. But to blot names therefrom is not only to kill, but to exclude from the national community, and so from all the privileges of the people of God. The psalmist desires for his foes the accumulation of all the ills that flesh is heir to, the extirpation of their families, and their absolute exclusion from the company of the living and the righteous. It is impossible to bring such utterances into harmony with the teachings of Jesus, and the attempt to vindicate them ignores plain facts and does violence to plain words. Better far to let them stand as a monument of the earlier stage of God's progressive revelation, and discern clearly the advance which Christian ethics has made on them.
The psalm ends with glad anticipations of deliverance and vows of thanksgiving. The psalmist is sure that God's salvation will lift him high above his enemies, and as sure that then he will be as grateful as he is now earnest in prayer, and surest of all that his thankful voice will sound sweeter in God's ear than any sacrifice would smell in His nostrils. There is no contempt of sacrifices expressed in "horned and hoofed," but simply the idea of maturity which fits the animal to be offered.
The single voice of praise will be caught up, the singer thinks, by a great chorus of those who would have been struck dumb with confusion if his prayer had not been answered (ver. 6), and who, in like manner, are gladdened by seeing his deliverance. The grace bestowed on one brings thanksgivings from many, which redound to the glory of God. The sudden transition in ver. 32 b to direct address to the seekers after God, as if they stood beside the solitary singer, gives vividness to the anticipation. The insertion of "behold" is warranted, and tells what revives the beholders' hearts. The seekers after God feel the pulse of a quicker life throbbing, when they see the wonders wrought through prayer. The singer's thoughts go beyond his own deliverance to that of Israel. "His captives" is most naturally understood as referring to the exiled nation. And this wider manifestation of God's restoring power will evoke praise from a wider circle, even from heaven, earth, and sea. The circumstances contemplated in vv. 33-36 are evidently those of a captivity. God's people are in bondage, the cities of Judah are in ruins, the inhabitants scattered far from their homes. The only reason for taking the closing verses as being a liturgical addition is unwillingness to admit exilic or post-exilic psalms. But these verses cannot be fairly interpreted without recognising that they presuppose that Israel is in bondage, or at least on the verge of it. The circumstances of Jeremiah's life and times coincide closely with those of the psalmist.