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Commentary on Psalms - Volume 2
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Psalm 49:1-4

1. Hear this, all ye people; give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world: 2. Both ye sons of Adam, 208208     “C’est, ceux de bas estat.” — Fr. marg. “That is, those of low estate.” and ye sons of men, 209209     “C’est, les nobles.” — Fr. marg. “That is, the noble.” rich and poor, together. 3. My mouth shall speak of wisdom; and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding. 4. I will incline my ear to a parable: 210210     “A mon proverbe.” — Fr. “To my proverb.” “Ou, sentence grave.” — Fr. marg. “Or, grave sentence.” I will open my enigma 211211     “Ou, dire obscur.” — Fr. marg. “Or, obscure saying.” upon the harp.

 

1. Hear this, all ye people. Whoever may have been the penman of this psalm, it discusses one of the most important principles in divine philosophy, and there is a propriety in the elevated terms designed to awaken and secure attention, with which the Psalmist announces his purpose to discourse of things of a deep and momentous nature. To a superficial view, indeed, the subject might seem trite and common-place, treating, as he does, of the shortness of human life, and the vanity of those objects in which worldly men confide. But the real scope of the psalm is, to comfort the people of God under the sufferings to which they are exposed, by teaching them to expect a happy change in their condition, when God, in his own time, shall interpose to rectify the disorders of the present system. There is a higher lesson still inculcated by the Psalmist — that, as God’s providence of the world is not presently apparent, we must exercise patience, and rise superior to the suggestions of carnal sense in anticipating the favorable issue. That it is our duty to maintain a resolute struggle with our afflictions, however severe these may be, and that it were foolish to place happiness in the enjoyment of such fleeting possessions as the riches, honors, or pleasures of this world, may be precepts which even the heathen philosophers have enforced, but they have uniformly failed in setting before us the true source of consolation. However admirably they discourse of a happy life, they confine themselves entirely to commendations upon virtue, and do not bring prominently forward to our view that God, who governs the world, and to whom alone we can repair with confidence in the most desperate circumstances. But slender comfort can be derived upon this subject from the teaching of philosophy. If, therefore, the Holy Ghost in this psalm introduces to our notice truths which are sufficiently familiar to experience, it is that he may raise our minds from them to the higher truth of the divine government of the world, assuring us of the fact, that God sits supreme, even when the wicked are triumphing most in their success, or when the righteous are trampled under the foot of contumely, and that a day is coming when he will dash the cup of pleasure out of the hands of his enemies, and rejoice the hearts of his friends, by delivering them out of their severest distresses. This is the only consideration which can impart solid comfort under our afflictions. Formidable and terrible in themselves, they would overwhelm our souls, did not the Lord lift upon us the light of his countenance. Were we not assured that he watches over our safety, we could find no remedy from our evils, and no quarter to which we might resort under them.

The remarks which have been made may explain the manner in which the inspired writer introduces the psalm, soliciting our attention, as about to discourse on a theme unusually high and important. Two things are implied in this verse, that the subject upon which he proposes to enter is of universal application, and that we require to be admonished and aroused ere we are brought to a due measure of consideration. The words which I have translated, inhabitants of the world, are translated by others, inhabitants of time; but this is a harsh mode of expression, however much it may agree with the scope of the psalm. He calls upon all men indiscriminately, because all were equally concerned in the truths which he intended to announce. By sons of Adam, we may understand the meaner or lower class of mankind; and by sons of men, 212212     The original words for the first of these expressions are, בני אדם bene adam; and those for the second, בני איש bene ish אדם, adam, from אדמה, adamah, earth, means an earthly, frail, mortal, mean man. The term איש, ish, on the other hand, is often used to describe a man who is great and eminent, distinguished for his extraction, strength, valor, and dignity. Thus, in 1 Samuel 25:15, we read, “Art thou not איש, ish, a man?” which is explained by what follows, “And who is like thee in Israel?” denoting there the military valor and reputation of Abner. When the two expressions, בני אדם, bene adam, and בני איש, bene ish, are used together as in this place, in Psalm 62:9, Isaiah 2:9, and 5:15, the Jewish Rabbins and modern Christian interpreters have understood a difference of rank to be stated; the former expression, denoting persons of obscure birth, of low rank, the common people: and the latter, meaning men of illustrious descent, the great or nobler sorts of men. See Archbishop Secker’s Dissertation on the words אנוש איש אדם, in Appendix to Merrick’s Annotations on the Psalms, No. 5. The Septuagint translates the former phrase by “Οἵ γηγενεῖς,” the earth-born.” The Chaldee expresses the former by the sons of old Adam, and the latter by the sons of Jacob; thus intending to comprehend Jews and Gentiles, all men in the world. “But,” says Hammond, “it is more likely that the phrases denote only the several conditions of men, men of the lower and higher rank, for so the consequeents interpret it, rich and poor.” the high, the noble, or such as sustain any pre-eminence in life. Thus, in the outset, he states it to be his purpose to instruct high and low without exception; his subject being one in which the whole human family was interested, and in which every individual belonging to it required to be instructed.

3. My mouth shall speak of wisdom The prophet was warranted in applying these commendatory terms to the doctrine which he was about to communicate. It is, no doubt, by plain appeals to observation that we find him reproving human folly; but the general principle upon which his instruction proceeds is one by no means obvious to the common sense of mankind, not to say that his design in using such terms is less to assert the dignity of his subject than simply to awaken attention. This he does all the more effectually by speaking as one who would apply his own mind to instruction rather than assume the office of exhortation. He puts himself forward as an humble scholar, one who, in acting the part of teacher, has an eye at the same time to his own improvement. It were desirable that all the ministers of God should be actuated by a similar spirit, disposing them to regard God as at once their own teacher and that of the common people, and to embrace in the first place themselves that divine word which they preach to others. 213213     “Aussi certes il est bien requis que tous les Prophetes de Dieu ayent un tel vouloir et affection, ascavoir qu’ils souffrent volontiers que Dieu soit leur maistre aussi bien que de tout le peuple, et qu’ils recoyvent tous les premiers sa parolle, laquelle ils portent de leur bouche aux autres.” — Fr. The Psalmist had another object in view. He would secure the greater weight and deference to his doctrine by announcing that he had no intention to vend fancies of his own, but to advance what he had learned in the school of God. This is the true method of instruction to be followed in the Church. The man who holds the office of teacher must apply himself to the reception of truth before he attempt to communicate it, and in this manner become the means of conveying to the hands of others that which God has committed to his own. Wisdom is not the growth of human genius. It must be sought from above, and it is impossible that any should speak with the propriety and knowledge necessary for the edification of the Church, who has not, in the first place, been taught at the feet of the Lord. To condescend upon the words, some read in the third verse, And the meditation of my heart shall speak of understanding But as it were a harsh and improper expression to say that the meditation of the heart speaks, I have adopted the simpler reading.

4. I will incline my ear 214214     Bythner and Fry are of opinion, that “the inclining of the ear” is a metaphor taken from the position of the minstrel, who, in accommodating his words to the tune, brings his ear close to the harp, that he may catch the sounds. Thus the Psalmist expresses the sense he himself had of the importance of his subject, and his purpose of giving to it the most serious attention. to a parable The Hebrew word משל, mashal, 215215     This word is of great latitude in its signification. It signifies primarily any similitude by which another thing is expressed. Thence it comes to denote a figurative discourse, either in the form of fiction and fable, such as riddles or significant apologues, as that of Jotham, Judges 9:7, or in which application is made of some true example or similitude, as when the sluggard is bidden “go to the ant,” and the impenitent sinner to consider the “swallow and crane,” which return at their certain seasons, and so are fitted to give a lesson to sinners to repent. And, finally, it belongs to all moral doctrine, either darkly or sententiously delivered; wise men, in ancient times, having been in the habit of delivering their lessons in short concise sentences, sometimes in schemes and figures, and sometimes without them, as we see in the Proverbs of Solomon, many of which are plain moral sayings without any figure or comparison. Of this sort is that which is here introduced to our attention; it is a moral theme not much veiled with figures, nor so concise as proverbs usually are, but which contains the most instructive lessons on the vanity of the prosperity of all wicked men. See Hammond in loco. which I have translated parable, properly denotes a similitude; but it is often applied to any deep or weighty sayings, because these are generally embellished with figures and metaphors. The noun which follows, חידת, chidoth 216216     This word is derived from an Arabic root which signifies to bend a thing aside, to tie knots, etc.; and thus it means an intricate species of composition, a riddle It is used for a riddle in the story of Samson, Judges 14:14, 15; and for difficult questions, as those put by the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, 1 Kings 10:1. See Lowth’s Lectures on Sacred Poetry, volume1, p. 78. Accordingly, it is here rendered by the Septuagint, “τὸ πρόβλημά μου,” “my problem or difficult question,” which is not only asked in the fifth verse, but also answered in the subsequent verses. The word, however, is also applied to poetical compositions of a highly adorned and finished style, in which nothing enigmatical appears, but which contain weighty and important matter set forth in the parabolic style to secure the reader’s or the hearer’s attention, Psalm 78:2. See Gesenius’ Lexicon. In the subject-matter of this psalm there does not appear to be any thing peculiarly intricate. It treats of the vanity of riches, and the folly of those who trust in them; their insufficiency to save from the power of death; and the final triumph of all the suffering people of God over their rich and haughty persecutors. This is indeed a dark theme to the worldly-minded man; but it contains nothing occult or mysterious to those who are taught of God. and which I have rendered an enigma, or riddle, is to be understood in nearly the same sense. In Ezekiel 17:2, we have both the nouns with their corresponding verbs joined together, חור חידה ומשל משל, chud chedah umshol mashal, the literal translation being, “Enigmatize an enigma, and parabolize a parable.” I am aware that the reference in this place is to an allegorical discourse, but I have already adverted to the reason why, in Hebrew, the name of enigmas or similitudes is given to any remarkable or important sayings. The Psalmist, when he adds that he will open his dark saying, shows that nothing was farther from his intention than to wrap the subject of his discourse in perplexing and intricate obscurity. The truths of revelation are so high as to exceed our comprehension; but, at the same time, the Holy Spirit has accommodated them so far to our capacity, as to render all Scripture profitable for instruction. None can plead ignorance: for the deepest and most difficult doctrines are made plain to the most simple and unlettered of mankind. I see little force in the idea suggested by several interpreters, of the Psalmist having employed his harp, that he might render a subject in itself harsh and disagreeable more engaging by the charms of music. He would merely follow the usual practice of accompanying the psalm with the harp.


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