Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
For the general scope of this psalm, compare Introduction to Psalms 16; for particular points of resemblance, compare Psalm 17:8 with Psalm 16:1; Psalm 17:3 with Psalm 16:7; Psalm 17:7; Psalm 17:14 with Psalm 16:8, &c; and many linguistic analogies only seen in the Hebrew. It would be satisfactory if we could actually identify the author—doubtless the same man—of the two; but if we lose sight of him in thinking of the righteous part of Israel generally, suffering under the attacks of the ungodly or the heathen, and with only its faith to sustain it, the question of authorship loses its importance.
The psalm is entirely without rhythmic art.
Title.—A prayer. From Psalm 72:20, “the prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended,” we naturally regard tephillah, i.e., prayer, as a name applicable to all the pieces of the collection, though it only actually occurs as an inscription five times, and only one—the present—belongs to the first two books.
A Prayer of David. Hear the right, O LORD, attend unto my cry, give ear unto my prayer, that goeth not out of feigned lips.(1) Hear the right.—Or (see margin), justice. Some ancient versions read, “Hear, Lord of righteousness.” Others make it concrete: “Hear me, the righteous; “but the Authorised Version has the true sense.
Let my sentence come forth from thy presence; let thine eyes behold the things that are equal.(2) Let my sentence—i.e., let my cause be tried before Thy tribunal, where it is sure of success, since I am innocent and Thou art just. The second clause is better in the present, “Thine eyes behold,” &c.
The things that are equal.—Heb., meysharîm, which may be either abstract, rectitude, or concrete, the just (Song of Solomon 1:4, Note), or adverbial, justly.
Thou hast proved mine heart; thou hast visited me in the night; thou hast tried me, and shalt find nothing; I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress.(3) In the night (as Psalm 16:7).—The time of calm reflection and self-examination. Some, however, taking this verse in connection with Psalm 17:15, think the poem was composed at night.
I am purposed.—The Hebrew word presents a difficulty. It is better to take it as a noun—counsels, and here, as generally, evil counsels—and join it to the preceding, not (as in the Authorised Version) the following words.
“Thou hast proved my heart,
Thou hast visited me in the night,
Thou hast found no malice in me,
My mouth doth not transgress, or
It (malice) doth not pass my mouth.”
“I offend”—that is, “neither in thought nor word.” The LXX., Vulg., Syr., Chald., and Arab. versions support this arrangement.
Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer.(4) Concerning the works of men—i.e., as regards the actions of men, or in ordinary human actions; for the expression comp. Job 31:33; and Hosea 6:7, where the margin has Adam.
By the word of thy lips.—Some take this clause closely with the foregoing, and render, “against the word,” &c; but the Authorised Version is better. The Divine standard for action, not the human or worldly, influences the writer.
I have kept me.—Literally, I for my part have observed ways of violence. But usage (Proverbs 2:20) almost compels us to understand by this, “I have kept ways of violence,” which is impossible here. Hence we have either to give the verb the unusual sense “guard against,” or suppose an error in the text.
Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not.(5) Hold up.—Not, as in the Authorised Version, imperative, which is directly opposed to the context. The psalmist still asserts his innocence. Render:—
My course kept close in thy tracks,
My footsteps have not wavered.
Shew thy marvellous lovingkindness, O thou that savest by thy right hand them which put their trust in thee from those that rise up against them.(7) Shew.—Literally, Separate; but (comp. Psalm 4:3), from its use to express God’s providential care of Israel in distinction to other nations, acquires in addition the idea of wonder and miracle (Exodus 8:22; Exodus 9:4; Exodus 11:7, &c). The LXX. and Vulgate, “make thy mercies appear wonderful.”
Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings,(8) Apple of the eye.—Literally, little man, daughter of the eye. The mannikin is, of course, the reflection seen in the pupil. Daughter is either a contraction of a word meaning cavity, or is the common Hebrew idiom which by son or daughter of expresses relation, as sons of the bow = arrows. In fact, the curious Hebrew phrase is substantially like the Greek κόρη and Latin pupa, or pupilla, even to the gender.
Hide me under the shadow of thy wings.—The figure of the sheltering wings of the parent bird, so common in Hebrew literature, generally refers to the eagle or vulture, as in Deuteronomy 32:10-11, the source of both the beautiful images of the text. Our Lord’s use of the figure is made more tender by the English rendering, “hen” (Matthew 23:37). (See Note New Testament Commentary.)
From the wicked that oppress me, from my deadly enemies, who compass me about.(9) Deadly.—Literally, with the soul, or life, or better, as in the Syriac, “against the life,” and so deadly. Others take it adverbially with the verb, “eagerly compass.”
They are inclosed in their own fat: with their mouth they speak proudly.(10) They are inclosed . . .—Literally, Their fat have they shut up. So LXX. and Vulgate, without indicating the meaning. But the “proudly” of the next clause suggests that “fat” is only a figure for the conceit of prosperity, and as that verb is active, the word mouth should be joined with it as object from the next clause, “In their conceit they shut their mouth; (when they do speak) they speak proudly.
They have now compassed us in our steps: they have set their eyes bowing down to the earth;(11) They have now . . .—Evidently the meaning is, Wherever we go they surround us like curs, i.e., they dog our footsteps. But the text is confused.
They have set.—Literally, they fix their eyes to cast on the earth, which may mean, “they fix their eyes on me, ready to strike me to the ground.” Ewald, “they direct their eyes through the land to strike.” But Mr. Burgess suggests a translation at once simple and convincing. He brings the first word back from the next verse, and points it our blood, instead of the awkward his likeness. He thus gets, “They have set their eyes to shed our blood on the earth.” For the Hebrew verb in similar sense, comp. Isaiah 66:12.
Like as a lion that is greedy of his prey, and as it were a young lion lurking in secret places.(12) Young lion.—Heb., kephir. The Hebrew has seven different names for the lion. Milton’s description of Satan naturally recurs to the reader—
“About them round
A lion now he stalks with fiery glare.”
Arise, O LORD, disappoint him, cast him down: deliver my soul from the wicked, which is thy sword:(13) Disappoint.—Rather, go to meet, as a champion defending some one.
Which is thy sword.—This thought, making the wicked God’s weapons of wrath (Isaiah 10:5), is arbitrarily introduced by the Authorised Version, and is quite out of keeping with the context. Translate “with thy sword,” either understanding a preposition, or treating the accusative as an adverb of manner; as an adverb of time and place it is common. Similarly in the next verse, “with thy hand from men of the world.”
From men which are thy hand, O LORD, from men of the world, which have their portion in this life, and whose belly thou fillest with thy hid treasure: they are full of children, and leave the rest of their substance to their babes.(14) Of the world.—Literally, of time. Heb., cheled, “that which creeps on,” an expression anticipating the New Testament use of world. (Comp. Job 21:7-14.)
Their portion in this life—contrasts with Psalm 16:5.
“With thy treasure thou fillest their womb:
They are full of children.”
These two lines are thus in close parallelism, while the last clause of the verse, “and leave,” &c, answers to “which have their portion in this life.”
As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.(15) I—emphatic. The satisfaction of worldly men is in their wealth and family honours, that of the poet in the sun of God’s presence and the vision of His righteousness. (Comp. Note, Psalm 11:7.)
Instead of “likeness,” render image, or appearance. But what does the poet mean by the hope of seeking God when he wakes? Some think of rising to peace after a perplexing trouble; others of health after suffering; others of the sunlight of the Divine grace breaking on the soul. But the literal reference to night in Psalm 17:3 seems to ask for the same reference here. Instead of waking to a worldling’s hope of a day of feasting and pleasure, the psalmist wakes to the higher and nobler thought that God—who in sleep (so like death, when nothing is visible), has been, as it were, absent—is now again, when he sees once more (LXX.), found at his right hand (comp. end of Psalms 16), a conscious presence to him, assuring him of justice and protection. But as in Psalms 16, so here, we feel that in spite of his subjection to the common notions about death the psalmist may have felt the stirrings of a better hope. Such “cries from the dark,” even if they do not prove the possession of a belief in immortality, show how the human heart was already groping its way, however blindly, towards it.