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Commentary on Psalms - Volume 1
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Psalm 18:7-11

7. Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations of the mountains were troubled, and were shaken, because he was wroth. 8. There went up a smoke by [or out of] his nostrils, and fire proceeding from his mouth devoured; coals were kindled by it. 9. And he bowed the heavens and came down: and thick darkness was under his feet. 10. He rode also upon a cherub, and did fly; and was carried upon the wings of the wind. 11. He made darkness his secret [or hiding] place; his pavilion [or tent] round about him was dark waters, and the clouds of the skies.

 

7. Then the earth shook. David, convinced that the aid of God, which he had experienced, was of such a character, that it was impossible for him to extol it sufficiently and as it deserved, sets forth an image of it in the sky and the earth, as if he had said, It has been as visible as the changes which give different appearances to the sky and the earth. If natural things always flowed in an even and uniform course, the power of God would not be so perceptible. But when he changes the face of the sky by sudden rain, or by loud thunder, or by dreadful tempests, those who before were, as it were, asleep and insensible, must necessarily be awakened, and be tremblingly conscious of the existence of a presiding God. 400400     “Il faut necessa ement que les gens qui auparavant estoyent comme endormis et stupides se resueillent et apprehendent qu’il y a un Dieu.” — Fr. Such sudden and unforeseen changes manifest more clearly the presence of the great Author of nature. No doubt, when the sky is unclouded and tranquil, we see in it sufficient evidences of the majesty of God, but as men will not stir up their minds to reflect upon that majesty, until it come nearer to them, David, the more powerfully to affect us, recounts the sudden changes by which we are usually moved and dismayed, and introduces God at one time clothed with a dark cloud, — at another, throwing the air into confusion by tempests, — now rending it by the boisterous violence of winds, — now launching the lightnings, — and anon darting down hailstones and thunderbolts. In short, the object of the Psalmist is to show that the God who, as often as he pleases, causes all parts of the world to tremble by his power, when he intended to manifest himself as the deliverer of David, was known as openly and by signs as evident as if he had displayed his power in all the creatures both above and beneath.

In the first place, he says, The earth shook, and nothing is more dreadful than an earthquake. Instead of the words, the foundations of the mountains, it is in the song, as recorded in 2nd Samuel, the foundations of the heavens; but the meaning is the same, namely, that there was nothing in the world so settled and steadfast which did not tremble, and which was not removed out of its place. David, however, as I have already observed in the beginning, does not relate this as a piece of history, or as what had actually taken place, but he employs these similitudes for the purpose of removing all doubt, and for the greater confirmation of faith as to the power and providence of God; because men, from their slowness of understanding, cannot apprehend God except by means of external signs. Some think that these miracles were actually wrought, and performed exactly as they are here related; but it is not easy to believe this, since the Holy Spirit, in the narrative given of David’s life, makes no mention whatever of such wonderful displays of divine power in his behalf. We cannot, however, justly censure or find fault with this hyperbolic manner of speaking, when we consider our slowness of apprehension, and also our depravity, to which I have just now called your attention. David, who was much more penetrating and quick of understanding than ordinary men, finding he could not sufficiently succeed in impressing and profiting people of sluggish and weak understandings by a simple manner of speaking, describes under outward figures the power of God, which he had discovered by means of faith, and the revelation of the Holy Spirit. He doubtless hereby apprehended and knew more distinctly the omnipresent majesty of God, than the dull sort of common people perceive the hand of God in earthquakes, tempests, thunders, the gloomy lowerings of the heavens, and the boisterous winds. At the same time, it is proper to consider, that although God had, in a wonderful manner, displayed his grace in defending and maintaining David, many, nevertheless, thought that it was by his own skill, or by chance, or by other natural means, that all his affairs had come to a prosperous issue; and it was such stupidity or depravity as this which he saw in the men of his own time, that constrained him to mention and to summon together all parts of creation as witnesses for God. Some also justly and judiciously consider that, in the whole of this description, David has an allusion to the common deliverance of God’s chosen people from Egypt. As God then designed and established that event to be a perpetual memorial, from which the faithful might learn that he was the guardian and protector of their welfare, so all the benefits which, from that period, he bestowed upon his people, either as a public body or as private individuals, were, so to speak, appendages of that first deliverance. Accordingly David, in other places as well as here, with the view of exalting the succor which God had granted to his people, sets forth that most memorable instance of the goodness of God towards the children of Israel, as if it were the archtype or original copy of the grace of God. And surely, while many, seeing him an exile from his country, held him in derision as a man expelled from the family of God, and many murmured that he had violently and unrighteously usurped the kingdom, he had good ground to include, under the deliverance which had been common to all the people, the protection and safety which God had afforded to himself; as if he had said, I have been wrongfully cast off as an alien or stranger, seeing God has sufficiently shown, in the deliverance which he has wrought for me, that by him I am owned and acknowledged to be a distinguished and valuable member of the Church. We see how the prophets, whenever they would inspire the people with the hope of salvation, call their thoughts back to the contemplation of that first covenant which had been confirmed by those miracles which were wrought in Egypt, in the passage through the Red Sea and in Mount Sinai. When he says, The earth trembled, because he was wroth, it is to be understood as referring to the ungodly. It is a form of speech which God often employs, to say, that, being inflamed with indignation, he arms himself to maintain the safety of his people against their persecutors.

8. There went up a smoke by [or out of] his nostrils, etc The Hebrew word אף, aph, properly signifies the nose, or the nostrils. But as it is sometimes taken metaphorically for wrath, some translate it thus, There went up a smoke in his wrath, which, in my opinion, is not at all appropriate. David compares the mists and vapours which darken the air to the thick smoke which a man sends forth from his nostrils when he is angry. And when God, by his very breath, covers the heaven with clouds, and taking away from us the brightness of the sun and of all the stars, overwhelms us in darkness, by this we are very impressively taught how dreadful is his wrath. By the rendering which I have given, the figure here strikingly harmonises with the one in the clause which immediately follows, namely, that fire proceeding from his mouth consumed The Psalmist means, that God, without great labor or effort, as soon as he shall have sent forth a breath or blast from his nostrils, and opened his mouth, will kindle such a fire that its smoke will darken the whole world, and its intense heat devour it. What he adds, Coals were kindled by it, serves to distinguish this dreadful fire from a flame which blazes for a moment, and then is extinguished. The bowing of the heavens, denotes a time when the heavens are covered and obscured with clouds. When dense vapours occupy the middle of the air, the clouds seem to us to come down and to lie upon our heads. And not only so, but the majesty of God then approaching, as it were, nearer us, strikes us with dread dismay, and greatly distresses us, although before, when the sky was fair, agreeable, and tranquil, we took ample scope, and enjoyed ourselves with much gaiety. Again, let us remember, that the Scripture, under these descriptions of a clouded and darkened sky, pourtray to us the anger of God. When the sky is clear and unclouded, it seems as if it were the pleasant and benignant countenance of God beaming upon us, and causing us to rejoice; whereas, on the other hand, when the atmosphere is troubled, we feel a depression of the animal spirits which constrains us to look sad, as if we saw God coming against us with a threatening aspect. At the same time, we are taught that no change takes place either in the atmosphere or in the earth, but what is a witness to us of the presence of God.

10. He rode also upon a cherub. The Psalmist having exhibited to us a sign of the wrath of God in the clouds, and in the darkening of the air, representing him as if he breathed out smoke, 401401     “Tout ainsi que s’il jettoit une fureur par les narines.” — Fr. “As if he cast forth fury from his nostrils.” from his nostrils, and descended with a threatening countenance, to afflict men by the dreadful weight of his power; and having also represented lightnings and thunderbolts as flaming fire proceeding from his mouths — he now introduces him as riding upon the winds and tempests, to take a survey of the whole world with rapid speed, or rather with the swiftness of flying. We meet with a similar description in Psalm 104:3, where God is said to “walk upon the wings of the winds,” and to send them forth in every direction as his swift messengers. David does not, however, simply represent God as the governor of the winds, who drives them by his power whithersoever he pleases; he at the same time tells us that he rides upon a cherub, to teach us that the very violence of the winds is governed by angels as God has ordained. We know that the angels were represented under the figure of the cherubim. David, therefore, I have no doubt, here intended to make an allusion to the ark of the covenant. In proposing for our consideration the power of God as manifested in the wonders of nature, he does it in such a manner as all the time to have an eye to the temple, where he knew God had made himself known in a peculiar manner to the children of Abraham. He therefore celebrates God not only as creator of the world, but as He who entered into covenant with Israel, and chose for himself a holy dwelling-place in the midst of that people. David might have called the angels by their common name, but he has expressly made use of a term which has a reference to the visible symbol of the ark, that true believers, in singing this psalm, might always have their minds directed to the service of God which was performed in the temple. What follows with respect, to God’s dark pavilion or tent, is a repetition of the preceding sentence in different words, namely, that when God covers the air with dark clouds, it is as if he spread a thick veil between him and men, to deprive them of the sight of his countenance, 402402     “C’est comme s’il tendoit un voile espes entre luy et les hommes, afin de leur oster le regard de sa face.” — Fr. just as if a king, incensed against his subjects, should retire into his secret chamber and hide himself from them. Those take a mistaken view of this verse who bring it forward to prove, in general, the hidden and mysterious character of the glory of God, as if David, with the view of restraining the presumption of human curiosity, had said that God is hidden in darkness in regard to men. God, it is true, is said to dwell in the light which no man can approach unto” (1 Timothy 6:16;) but the form of expression which David here employs, I have no doubt, ought to be restricted, according to the scope of the passage, to the sense which I have given.


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