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Psalm 58:1-5

1. Do ye indeed speak righteousness? O congregation! do ye judge uprightly? O ye sons of men! 2. Yea, rather in heart ye plot wickedness; your hands weigh out violence upon the earth. 3. They are estranged, being wicked from the womb: they went astray as soon as they were born, speaking lies. 4. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear: 5. Which will not hearken to the voice of the enchanter, charm he never so wisely.


1. Do ye indeed speak righteousness? In putting this question to his enemies, by way of challenge, David displays the boldness of conscious rectitude. It argues that the justice of our cause is demonstratively evident when we venture to appeal to the opposite party himself; for were there any ground to question its justice, it would show an absurd degree of confidence to challenge the testimony of an adversary. David comes forward with the openness of one who was supported by a sense of his integrity, and repels, by a declaration forced from their own lips, the base charges with which they blackened his character in the estimation of such as were simple enough to believe them. “Ye yourselves,” as if he had said, “can attest my innocence, and yet persecute me with groundless calumnies. Are you not ashamed of such gross and gratuitous oppression?” It is necessary, however, to determine who they were whom David here accuses. He calls them a congregation, and again, sons of men The Hebrew word אלם, elem, which I have rendered congregation, some consider to be an epithet applied to righteousness, and translate dumb; 346346     “אלם.There is some difficulty in ascertaining the sense of this word. Gesenius derives it from אלם, to be silent: Is justice indeed silent? but this breaks the parallelism, which requires צדק תדברון, ‘will ye speak righteousness?’ in the first line, to correspond with מישרים תשפטו, ‘will ye judge uprightness?’ In the second. Dathe agrees with Bishop Lowth, etc., who propose to point the word אלם, or plene, אלים, judices, ‘O ye judges, or rulers!’ See Exodus 22:27; Psalm 82:1. But this reading, though it makes a very good sense, receives no support from the MSS., or ancient versions. Diodati and De Rossi agree with our translators in taking the word in the sense of assembly, congregation So Schindler אלם, collegatio hominum, congregation, multitudo coetus, ab אלם, ligavit, colligavit. This is probably the true sense. LXX. Vulg. Aeth. and Ar., seem to have read אלם, or אלם.” — (Rogers Book of Psalms, volume 2, p. 212.) Walford prefers Dathe’s version. but this does not express the meaning of the Psalmist. Interpreters differ as to what we should understand by the term congregation. Some think that he adverts, by way of accusation, to the meetings which his enemies held, as is usual with those who entertain wicked designs, for the purpose of concerting their plans. I rather incline to the opinion of those who conceive that he here gives (although only in courtesy) the usual title of honor to the counsellors of Saul, who met professedly to consult for the good of the nation, but in reality with no other intention than to accomplish his destruction. Others read, in the congregation — a translation which gives the same meaning to the passage we have already assigned to it, but is not supported by the natural construction of the words. The congregation which David addresses is that assembly which Saul convened, ostensibly for lawful objects, but really for the oppression of the innocent. The term, sons of men, which he immediately afterwards applies to them — taking back, as it were, the title of courtesy formerly given — would seem to be used in contempt of their character, being, as they were, rather a band of public robbers than a convention of judges. Some, however, may be of opinion, that in employing this expression, David had in his eye the universality of the opposition which confronted him — almost the whole people inclining to this wicked factions and that he here issues a magnanimous defiance to the multitude of his enemies. Meanwhile, the lesson taught us by the passage is apparent. Although the whole world be set against the people of God they need not fear, so long as they are supported by a sense of their integrity, to challenge kings and their counsellors, and the promiscuous mob of the people. Should the whole world refuse to hear us, we must learn, by the example of David, to rest satisfied with the testimony of a good conscience, and with appealing to the tribunal of God. Augustine, who had none but the Greek version in his hands, is led by this verse into a subtle disquisition upon the point, that the judgment of men is usually correct when called to decide upon general principles, but fails egregiously in the application of these principles to particular cases, 347347     “Argute hic disputant, hominibus rectum esse judicium in generalibus principiis: sed ubi ad hypothesin ventum est, hallucinari,” etc. The French translation runs — “Dispute yci subtilement que les hommes ont un jugement droit et entier es principes generaux, mais quand ce vient a la particularite, que leur raison defaut,” etc. through the blinding and warping influences of their evil passions. All this may be plausible, and, in its own place, useful, but proceeds upon a complete misapprehension of the meaning of the passage.

2. Yea, rather, in heart ye plot wickedness. In the former verse he complained of the gross shamelessness manifested in their conduct. Now he charges them both with entertaining wickedness in their thoughts, and practising it with their hands. I have accordingly translated the Hebrew article אף, aph, yea, rather — it being evident that David proceeds, after first repelling the calumnies of his enemies, to the further step of challenging them with the sins which they had themselves committed. The second clause of the verse may be rendered in two different ways, ye weigh violence with your hands, or, your hands weigh violence; and as the meaning is the same, it is immaterial which the reader may adopt. Some think that he uses the figurative expression, to weigh, in allusion to the pretense of equity under which he was persecuted, as if he were a disturber of the peace, and chargeable with treason and contumacy towards the king. In all probability, his enemies glossed over their oppression with plausible pretences, such as hypocrites are never slow to discover. But the Hebrew word פלס, phalas, admits of a wider signification, to frame or set in order; and nothing more may be meant than that they put into shape the sins which they had first conceived in their thoughts. It is added, upon the earth, to denote the unbridled license of their wickedness, which was done openly, and not in places where concealment might have been practiced.

3. They are estranged, being wicked from the womb. He adduces, in aggravation of their character, the circumstance, that they were not sinners of recent date, but persons born to commit sin. We see some men, otherwise not so depraved in disposition, who are drawn into evil courses through levity of mind, or bad example, or the solicitation of appetite, or other occasions of a similar kind; but David accuses his enemies of being leavened with wickedness from the womb, alleging that their treachery and cruelty were born with them. We all come into the world stained with sin, possessed, as Adam’s posterity, of a nature essentially depraved, and incapable, in ourselves, of aiming at anything which is good; but there is a secret restraint upon most men which prevents them from proceeding all lengths in iniquity. The stain of original sin cleaves to the whole humanity without exception; but experience proves that some are characterised by modesty and decency of outward deportment; that others are wicked, yet, at the same time, within bounds of moderation; while a third class are so depraved in disposition as to be intolerable members of society. Now, it is this excessive wickedness — too marked to escape detestation even amidst the general corruption of mankind — which David ascribes to his enemies. He stigmatises them as monsters of iniquity.

4. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder 348348     The פתן, phethen, rendered adder, is generally supposed by interpreters to be the kind of serpent called by the ancients the aspic, and to which there are frequent allusions in Scripture. Deuteronomy 32:33; Job 20:14, 16; Isaiah 11:8. It is the בתם, boeten, of the Arabians, which M. Forskal (Descript Anim p. 15) describes as spotted with black and white, about one foot in length, nearly half an inch thick, oviparous, and its bite almost instant death; and which is called “the aspic” by the literati of Cyprus, though the common people give it the name of κουφη, deaf He prosecutes his description; and, though he might have insisted on the fierceness which characterised their opposition, he charges them more particularly, here as elsewhere, with the malicious virulence of their disposition. Some read, their fury; 349349     This is the reading of the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and of Jerome. Sept. “Θυμὸς.” Vulg. and Jeremiah “Furor.” but this does not suit the figure, by which they are here compared to serpents. No objection can be drawn to the translation we have adopted from the etymology of the word, which is derived from heat. It is well known, that while some poisons kill by cold, others consume the vital parts by a burning heat. David then asserts of his enemies, in this passage, that they were as full of deadly malice as serpents are full of poison. The more emphatically to express their consummate subtlety, he compares them to deaf serpents, which shut their ears against the voice of the charmer — not the common kind of serpents, but such as are famed for their cunning, and are upon their guard against every artifice of that description. But is there such a thing, it may be asked, as enchantment? If there were not, it might seem absurd and childish to draw a comparison from it, unless we suppose David to speak in mere accommodation to mistaken, though generally received opinion. 350350     That the serpent tribe may be charmed is a well-attested fact, and one of the most curious and interesting in natural history. It is often mentioned by the Greek and Roman classics, by Hebrew and Arabic writers; to the last of whom the different species of serpents were well known. It is also supported by the testimony of many modern travelers. Some serpents are delighted with the sounds of vocal and instrumental music, and by it may be disarmed of their fury and rendered innoxious, (Ecclesiastes 10:11.) In the East it is not uncommon to make use of pipes, flutes, whistles, or small drums, to draw them from their hiding-places and to subdue their ferocity; and when they are tame ones, the charmer makes them dance and keep time with the notes of music, twists them round his body, and handles them without any harm, although the fangs are not broken or extracted. But in some cases the charmer’s art fails; and, notwithstanding his incantations, the serpent will fasten on the arm, or some other part of the body, and inflict, with its poisoned fangs, a deadly wound, (Jeremiah 8:17.) In this case it “will not listen to the voice of the charmer.” It is not necessary to suppose that the “deaf adder” means a species of serpent naturally deaf, and which it is impossible for the charmer ever to fascinate. Nothing more may be meant but that his incantations sometimes fail of success; that some adders are so stubborn that the sound of music makes no impression upon them; and they are like creatures who are destitute of hearing, or whose ears are stopped. The manner in which the “deaf adder stoppeth its ear” is described by Lochart to be this: — “The reptile lays one ear close to the ground, and with its tail covers the other, that it cannot hear the sound of the music; or it repels the incantation by hissing violently.” So impenetrable are the wicked here represented to be to persuasion: they will not be wrought upon to forsake their wicked courses, and gained to the ways of God, by his most persuasive entreaties. He would certainly seem, however, to insinuate that serpents can be fascinated by enchantment; and I can see no harm in granting it. The Marsi in Italy were believed by the ancients to excel in the art. Had there been no enchantments practiced, where was the necessity of their being forbidden and condemned under the Law? (Deuteronomy 18:11.) I do not mean to say that there is an actual method or art by which fascination can be effected. It was doubtless done by a mere sleight of Satan, 351351     The power which charmers had over serpents was probably ascribed by them to the agency of invisible beings, although it might be the natural effect of the music which they used. whom God has suffered to practice his delusions upon unbelieving and ignorant men, although he prevents him from deceiving those who have been enlightened by his word and Spirit. But we may avoid all occasion for such curious inquiry, by adopting the view already referred to, that David here borrows his comparison from a popular and prevailing error, and is to be merely supposed as saying, that no kind of serpent was imbued with greater craft than his enemies, not even the species (if such there were) which guards itself against enchantment.

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