The perennial problem of reconciling God's moral government with observed facts is grappled with in this psalm, as in Psalms xxxvii. and xlix. It tells how the prosperity of the godless, in apparent flat contradiction of Divine promises, had all but swept the psalmist from his faith, and how he was led, through doubt and struggle, to closer communion with God, in which he learned, not only the evanescence of the external well-being which had so perplexed him, but the eternity of the true blessedness belonging to the godly. His solution of the problem is in part that of the two psalms just mentioned, but it surpasses them in its clear recognition that the portion of the righteous, which makes their lot supremely blessed, is no mere earthly prosperity, but God Himself, and in its pointing to "glory" which comes afterwards, as one element in the solution of the problem.
The psalm falls into two divisions, in the first of which (vv. 1-14) the psalmist tells of his doubts, and, in the second (vv. 15-28), of his victory over them. The body of the psalm is divided into groups of four verses, and it has an introduction and conclusion of two verses each.
The introduction (vv. 1, 2) asserts, with an accent of assurance, the conviction which the psalmist had all but lost, and therefore had the more truly won. The initial word "Surely" is an indication of his past struggle, when the truth that God was good to Israel had seemed so questionable. "This I have learned by doubts; this I now hold as most sure; this I proclaim, impugn it who list, and seem to contradict it what may." The decisiveness of the psalmist's conviction does not lead him to exaggeration. He does not commit himself to the thesis that outward prosperity attends Israel. That God is good to those who truly bear that name is certain; but how He shows His goodness, and who these are, the psalmist has, by his struggles, learned to conceive of in a more spiritual fashion than before. That goodness may be plainly seen in sorrows, and it is only sealed to those who are what the name of Israel imports--"pure in heart." That such are blessed in possessing God, and that neither are any other blessed, nor is there any other blessedness, are the lessons which the singer has brought with him from the darkness, and by which the ancient faith of the well-being of the righteous is set on surer foundations than before.
The avowal of conquered doubts follows on this clear note of certitude. There is a tinge of shame in the emphatic "I" of ver. 2, and in the broken construction and the change of subject to "my feet" and "my steps." The psalmist looks back to that dreary time, and sees more clearly than he did, while he was caught in the toils of perplexity and doubt, how narrow had been his escape from casting away his confidence. He shudders as he remembers it; but he can do so now from the vantage-ground of tried and regained faith. How eloquently the order of thought in these two verses speaks of the complete triumph over doubt!
In the first quatrain of verses, the prosperity of the godless, which had been the psalmist's stumbling-block, is described. Two things are specified--physical health, and exemption from calamity. The former is the theme of ver. 4. Its first clause is doubtful. The word rendered "bands" only occurs here and in Isa. lviii. 6. It literally means bands, but may pass into the figurative signification of pains, and is sometimes by some taken in that meaning here, and the whole clause as asserting that the wicked have painless and peaceful deaths. But such a declaration is impossible in the face of vv. 18, 19, which assert the very opposite, and would be out of place at this point of the psalm, which is here occupied with the lives, not the deaths, of the ungodly. Hupfeld translates "They are without pains even until their deaths"; but that rendering puts an unusual sense on the preposition "to," which is not "till." A very plausible conjecture alters the division of words, splitting the one which means "to their death" (l'motham) into two (lamo tam), of which the former is attached to the preceding words ("there are no pains to them" = "they have no pains"), and the latter to the following clause ("Sound and well nourished is," etc.). This suggestion is adopted by Ewald and most modern commentators, and has much in its favour. If the existing text is retained, the rendering above seems best. It describes the prosperous worldling as free from troubles or diseases, which would be like chains on a captive, by which he is dragged to execution. It thus gives a parallel to the next clause, which describes their bodies (lit., belly) as stalwart. Ver. 5 carries on the description, and paints the wicked's exemption from trouble. The first clause is literally, "In the trouble of man they are not." The word for man here is that which connotes frailty and mortality, while in the next clause it is the generic term "Adam." Thus the prosperous worldlings appeared to the psalmist, in his times of scepticism, as possessing charmed lives, which were free from all the ills that came from frailty and mortality, and, as like superior beings, lifted above the universal lot. But what did their exemption do for them? Its effects might have taught the doubter that the prosperity at which his faith staggered was no blessing, for it only inflated its recipients with pride, and urged them on to high-handed acts. Very graphically does ver. 6 paint them as having the former for their necklace, and the latter for their robe. A proud man carries a stiff neck and a high head. Hence the picture in ver. 6 of "pride" as wreathed about their necks as a chain or necklace. High-handed violence is their garment, according to the familiar metaphor by which a man's characteristics are likened to his dress, the garb of his soul. The double meaning of "habit," and the connection between "custom" and "costume," suggest the same figure. As the clothing wraps the body and is visible to the world, so insolent violence, masterfulness enforced by material weapons and contemptuous of others' rights, characterised these men, who had never learned gentleness in the school of suffering. Tricked out with a necklace of pride and a robe of violence, they strutted among men, and thought themselves far above the herd, and secure from the touch of trouble.
The next group of verses (vv. 7-10) further describes the unfeeling insolence begotten of unbroken prosperity, and the crowd of hangers-on, admirers, and imitators attendant on the successful wicked. "Out of fat their eye flashes" gives a graphic picture of the fierce glare of insolent eyes, set in well-fed faces. But graphic as it is, it scarcely fits the context so well as does a proposed amended reading, which by a very small change in the word rendered "their eye" yields the meaning "their iniquity," and takes "fat" as equivalent to a fat, that is, an obstinate, self-confident, or unfeeling heart. "From an unfeeling heart their iniquity comes forth" makes a perfect parallel with the second clause of the verse rightly rendered, "the imaginations of their heart overflow"; and both clauses paint the arrogant tempers and bearing of the worldlings. Ver. 8 deals with the manifestation of these in speech. Well-to-do wickedness delights in making suffering goodness a butt for its coarse jeers. It does not need much wit to do that. Clumsy jests are easy, and poverty is fair game for vulgar wealth's ridicule. But there is a dash of ferocity in such laughter, and such jests pass quickly into earnest, and wicked oppression. "As from on high they speak,"--fancying themselves set on a pedestal above the common masses. The LXX., followed by many moderns, attaches "oppression" to the second clause, which makes the verse more symmetrical; but the existing division of clauses yields an appropriate sense.
The description of arrogant speech is carried on in ver. 9, which has been variously understood, as referring in a to blasphemy against God ("they set against the heavens their mouth"), and in b to slander against men; or, as in a, continuing the thought of ver. 8 b, and designating their words as spoken as if from heaven itself, and in b ascribing to their words sovereign power among men. But it is better to regard "heaven" and "earth" as the ordinary designation of the whole visible frame of things, and to take the verse as describing the self-sufficiency which gives its opinions and lays down the law about everything, and, on the other hand, the currency and influence which are accorded by the popular voice to the dicta of prosperous worldlings.
That thought prepares the way for the enigmatic verse which follows. There are several obscure points in it. First, the verb in the Hebrew text means turns (transitive), which the Hebrew margin corrects into returns (intransitive). With the former reading, "his people" is the object of the verb, and the implied subject is the prosperous wicked man, the change to the singular "he" from the plural "they" of the preceding clauses being not unusual in Hebrew. With the latter reading, "his people" is the subject. The next question is to whom the "people" are conceived as belonging. It is, at first sight, natural to think of the frequent Scripture expression, and to take the "his" as referring to God, and the phrase to mean the true Israel. But the meaning seems rather to be the mob of parasites and hangers-on, who servilely follow the successful sinner, in hope of some crumbs from his table. "Thither" means "to himself," and the whole describes how such a one as the man whose portrait has just been drawn is sure to attract a retinue of dependants, who say as he says, and would fain be what he is. The last clause describes the share of these parasites in their patron's prosperity. "Waters of abundance"--i.e., abundant waters--may be an emblem of the pernicious principles of the wicked, which their followers swallow greedily; but it is more probably a figure for fulness of material good, which rewards the humiliation of servile adherents to the prosperous worldling.
The next group (vv. 11-14) begins with an utterance of unbelief or doubt, but it is difficult to reach certainty as to the speakers. It is very natural to refer the "they" to the last-mentioned persons--namely, the people who have been led to attach themselves to the prosperous sinners, and who, by the example of these, are led to question the reality of God's acquaintance with and moral government of human affairs. The question is, as often, in reality a denial. But "they" may have a more general sense, equivalent to our own colloquial use of it for an indefinite multitude. "They say"--that is, "the common opinion and rumour is." So here, the meaning may be, that the sight of such flushed and flourishing wickedness diffuses widespread and deep-going doubts of God's knowledge, and makes many infidels.
Ewald, Delitzsch, and others take all the verses of this group as spoken by the followers of the ungodly; and, unquestionably, that view avoids the difficulty of allotting the parts to different unnamed interlocutors. But it raises difficulties of another kind--as, for instance, those of supposing that these adulators should roundly call their patrons wicked, and that an apostate should profess that he has cleansed his heart. The same objections do not hold against the view that these four verses are the utterance, not of the wicked rich man or his coterie of admirers, but of the wider number whose faith has been shaken. There is nothing in the verses which would be unnatural on such lips.
Ver. 11 would then be a question anxiously raised by faith that was beginning to reel; ver. 12 would be a statement of the anomalous fact which staggered it; and vv. 13, 14, the complaint of the afflicted godly. The psalmist's repudiation of a share in such incipient scepticism would begin with ver. 15. There is much in favour of this view of the speakers, but against it is the psalmist's acknowledgment, in ver. 2, that his own confidence in God's moral government had been shaken, of which there is no further trace in the psalm, unless vv. 13, 14, express the conclusion which he had been tempted to draw, and which, as he proceeds to say, he had fought down. If these two verses are ascribed to him, ver. 12 is best regarded as a summary of the whole preceding part, and only ver. 11 as the utterance either of the prosperous sinner and his adherents (in which case it is a question which means denial), or as that of troubled faith (in which case it is a question that would fain be an affirmation, but has been forced unwillingly to regard the very pillars of the universe as trembling).
Vv. 15-18 tell how the psalmist strove with and finally conquered his doubts, and saw enough of the great arc of the Divine dealings, to be sure that the anomaly, which had exercised his faith, was capable of complete reconciliation with the righteousness of Providence. It is instructive to note that he silenced his doubts, out of regard to "the generation of Thy children"--that is, to the true Israel, the pure in heart. He was tempted to speak as others did not fear to speak, impugning God's justice and proclaiming the uselessness of purity; but he locked his lips, lest his words should prove him untrue to the consideration which he owed to meek and simple hearts, who knew nothing of the speculative difficulties torturing him. He does not say that his speaking would have been sin against God. It would not have been so, if, in speaking, he had longed for confirmation of his wavering faith. But whatever the motive of his words, they might have shaken some lowly believers. Therefore he resolved on silence. Like all wise and devout men, he swallowed his own smoke, and let the process of doubting go on to its end of certainty, one way or another, before he spoke. This psalm, in which he tells how he overcame them, is his first acknowledgment that he had had these temptations to cast away his confidence. Fermentation should be done in the dark. When the process is finished, and the product is clear, it is fit to be produced and drank. Certitudes are meant to be uttered; doubts are meant to be struggled with. The psalmist has set an example which many men need to ponder to-day. It is easy, and it is also cruel, to raise questions which the proposer is not ready to answer.
Silent brooding over his problem did not bring light, as ver. 16 tells us. The more he thought over it, the more insoluble did it seem to him. There are chambers which the key of thinking will not open. Unwelcome as the lesson is, we have to learn that every lock will not yield to even prolonged and strenuous investigation. The lamp of the Understanding throws its beams far, but there are depths of darkness too deep and dark for them; and they are wisest who know its limits and do not try to use it in regions where it is useless.
But faith finds a path where speculation discerns none. The psalmist "went into the sanctuary (literally, sanctuaries) of God," and there light streamed in on him, in which he saw light. Not mere entrance into the place of worship, but closer approach to the God who dwelt there, cleared away the mists. Communion with God solves many problems which thinking leaves unresolved. The eye which has gazed on God is purged for much vision besides. The disproportion between the deserts and fortunes of good and bad men assumes an altogether different aspect when contemplated in the light of present communion with Him, which brings a blessedness that makes earthly prosperity seem dross, and earthly burdens seem feathers. Such communion, in its seclusion from worldly agitations, enables a man to take calmer, saner views of life, and in its enduring blessedness reveals more clearly the transiency of the creatural good which deceives men with the figment of its permanence. The lesson which the psalmist learned in the solemn stillness of the sanctuary was the end of ungodly prosperity. That changes the aspect of the envied position of the prosperous sinner, for his very prosperity is seen to contribute to his downfall, as well as to make that downfall more tragic by contrast. His sure footing, exempt as he seemed from the troubles and ills that flesh is heir to, was really on a treacherous slope, like smooth sheets of rock on a mountain-side. To stand on them is to slide down to hideous ruin.
The theme of the end of the prosperous sinners is continued in the next group (vv. 19-22). In ver. 19 the psalmist seems as if standing an amazed spectator of the crash, which tumbles into chaos the solid-seeming fabric of their insolent prosperity. An exclamation breaks from his lips as he looks. And then destruction is foretold for all such, under the solemn and magnificent image of ver. 20. God has seemed to sleep, letting evil run its course; but He "rouses Himself"--that is, comes forth in judicial acts--and as a dreamer remembers his dream, which seemed so real, and smiles at its imaginary terrors or joys, so He will "despise" them, as no more solid nor lasting than phantasms of the night. The end contemplated by the psalmist is not necessarily death, but any sudden overthrow, of which there are many in the experience of the godless. Life is full of such awakings of God, both in regard to individuals and nations, which, if a man duly regards, he will find the problem of the psalm less insoluble than at first it appears. But if there are lives which, being without goodness, are also without chastisement, Death comes at last to such as God's awaking, and a very awful dissipating of earthly prosperity into a shadowy nothing.
The psalmist has no revelation here of future retribution. His vindication of God's justice is not based on that, but simply on the transiency of worldly prosperity, and on its dangerous character. It is "a slippery place," and it is sure to come to an end. It is obvious that there are many other considerations which have to be taken into account, in order to a complete solution of the problem of the psalm. But the psalmist's solution goes far to lighten the painful perplexity of it; and if we add his succeeding thoughts as to the elements of true blessedness, we have solution enough for peaceful acquiescence, if not for entire understanding. The psalmist's way of finding an answer is even more valuable than the answer which he found. They who dwell in the secret place of the Most High can look on the riddle of this painful world with equanimity, and be content to leave it half unsolved.
Vv. 21, 22, are generally taken as one sentence, and translated as by Delitzsch, "If my heart should grow bitter . . . I should be brutish," etc.; or, as by Hupfeld, "When my heart grew bitter . . . then I was as a beast," etc.; but they are better regarded as the psalmist's penitent explanation of his struggle. "Unbelieving thoughts had fermented in his mind, and a pang of passionate discontent had pierced his inmost being. But the higher self blames the lower self for such folly" (Cheyne, in loc.). His recognition that his doubts had their source, not in defect in God's providence, but in his own ignorance and hasty irritation, which took offence without cause, prepares him for the sweet, clear note of purely spiritual aspiration and fruition which follows in the next strophe.
He had all but lost his hold of God; but though his feet had almost gone astray, his hand had been grasped by God, and that strong hold had kept him from utterly falling. The pledge of continual communion with God is not our own vacillating, wayward hearts, but God's gentle, strong clasp, which will not let us go. Thus conscious of constant fellowship, and feeling thrillingly God's touch in his inmost spirit, the psalmist rises to a height of joyous assurance, far above doubts and perplexities caused by the unequal distribution of earth's trivial good. For him, all life will be illumined by God's counsel, which will guide him as a shepherd leads his sheep, and which he will obey as a sheep follows his shepherd. How small the delights of the prosperous men seem now! And can there be an end to that sweet alliance, such as smites earthly good? There are blessings which bear in themselves assurance of their own undyingness; and this psalmist, who had nothing to say of the future retribution falling on the sinner whose delights were confined to earth, feels that death cannot put a period to a union so blessed and spiritual as was his with God. To him, "afterwards" was irradiated with light from present blessedness; and a solemnly joyful conviction springs in his soul, which he casts into words that glance at the story of Enoch's translation, from which "take" is quoted (cf. Psalm xlix. 16). Whether we translate "with glory" or "to glory," there can be no question that the psalmist is looking beyond life on earth to dwelling with God in glory. We have, in this utterance, the expression of the conviction, inseparable from any true, deep communion with God, that such communion can never be at the mercy of Death. The real proof of a life beyond the grave is the resurrection of Jesus; and the pledge of it is present enjoyment of fellowship with God.
Such thoughts lift the psalmist to a height from which earth's troubles show small, and as they diminish, the perplexity arising from their distribution diminishes in proportion. They fade away altogether, when he feels how rich he is in possessing God. Surely the very summit of devotional rapture is reached in the immortal words which follow! Heaven without God were a waste to this man. With God, he needs not nor desires anything on earth. If the impossible should be actual, and heart as well as flesh should fail, his naked self would be clothed and rich, steadfast and secure, as long as he had God; and he is so closely knit to God, that he knows that he will not lose Him though he dies, but have Him for his very own for ever. What care need he have how earth's vain goods come and go? Whatever outward calamities or poverty may be his lot, there is no riddle in that Divine government which thus enriches the devout heart; and the richest ungodly man is poor, because he shuts himself out from the one all-sufficient and enduring wealth.
A final pair of verses, answering to the introductory pair, gathers up the double truth, which the psalmist has learned to grasp more firmly by occasion of his doubts. To be absent from God is to perish. Distance from Him is separation from life. Drawing near to Him is the only good; and the psalmist has deliberately chosen it as his good, let worldly prosperity come or go as it list, or, rather, as God shall choose. By the effort of his own volition he has made God his refuge, and, safe in Him, he can bear the sorrows of the godly, and look unenvying on the fleeting prosperity of sinners, while, with insight drawn from communion, he can recount with faith and praise all God's works, and find in none of them a stumbling-block, nor fail to find in any of them material for a song of thankfulness.