Psalms 109 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
i. The Psalmist appeals for help against a gang of merciless enemies, who are endeavouring to effect his ruin by false accusations or treacherous slanders. Their hostility is not merely causeless: it is a deliberate return of evil for good, of hate for love (Psa 109:1-5).
ii. Singling out the leader of his persecutors the Psalmist invokes upon him and all that belong to him the retribution which his inhuman conduct deserves. May he be tried and found guilty! May he be degraded from his office and die a premature death! May his children be impoverished and his name speedily become extinct! May all the sins of his ancestors be remembered against him! Because he has deliberately been merciless to the poor and weak, and chosen not to benefit but to injure his neighbour, let him find no mercy or blessing at the hands of God (Psa 109:6-20).
iii. Then, changing his tone, the Psalmist prays once more for help, pleading the pitiableness of his own plight (Psa 109:21-25); and his prayer rises into a confident anticipation of ultimate deliverance, and consequent thanksgiving to Jehovah the champion of the poor and needy (Psa 109:26-31).
Thus the Psalm consists of six stanzas, each of five verses, except the last, which contains six, and falls into three divisions.
Commentators who maintain the Davidic authorship, have supposed it to refer to Doeg, or Ahithophel, or Shimei. But there is nothing in the Psalm to indicate that its author was ever in a position of authority: rather he seems to belong to the class of the poor and oppressed, and to be the victim of a conspiracy of unscrupulous neighbours. Some features in the language point to a late date, and apparently there are allusions to the Book of Job, and to late Psalms, e.g. Psalms 102. Most probably it belongs to the post-exilic period.
It has been held by some that the Psalm is not personal but national; that the speaker is Israel, persecuted and oppressed by scornful and malignant enemies. Others have supposed that the Psalmist writes as the representative of the poor and oppressed classes, and that the enemy whom he denounces is no particular individual, but the typical persecutor of the poor. But alike in its denunciations and in its complaints and in its prayers the Psalm has a personal ring; it is a cry of suffering wrung out by actual circumstances. What those circumstances were we can only conjecture. Possibly the enemy whom he singles out had been the head of a conspiracy to ruin him and his family by false charges and perversion of justice. Such a situation may be indicated by the language of Psa 109:2-3 (cp. Psa 109:31), and it would give special point to the form of retribution which the Psalmist invokes in Psa 109:6 ff. His enemies were evidently of his own countrymen, and the chief enemy was a man of some position ( Psa 109:8). Was he some noble whom the judge would be ready to gratify, or even the judge himself? Cp. Mic 7:3. The narrative in Nehemiah 5 shews that national suffering had not taught the wealthier and more powerful members of the community of the Return to exercise consideration towards their poorer brethren. Possibly, though less probably, the Psalmist’s enemies were men who had been attempting to ruin him by slander and calumny, such as almost proved fatal to Jesus the son of Sirach ( Sir 51:1-10 ).
The Psalm has much in common with Psalms 35, 69. The complaints of the causelessness of the hostility of his enemies resemble those in Psa 35:11 ff.: the imprecations recall those of Psa 69:22 ff., but they are more terrible in their detail, and they startle and shock the Christian reader the more because they are levelled not at the guilty man himself alone, but at all his kith and kin.
The moral difficulty of the Imprecatory Psalms has been discussed generally in the Introduction, pp. lxxxviii ff. We shall not attempt to justify them. They are the very opposite of the spirit of the Gospel (Mat 5:43 ff.). But we must endeavour to understand them. They are the expression of the spirit of a dispensation, in which retribution was a fundamental principle. It is the desire for retribution, above all for retribution for gratuitous malice, which finds such passionate expression here. “As he hath done, so shall it be done to him” was the sentence of the Law (Lev 24:19). “Let me see thy vengeance on them” is the prayer of the persecuted prophet (Jer 11:20). “Whoso rewardeth evil for good, evil shall not depart from his house” was the maxim of the Wise men in Israel (Pro 17:13). ‘Let it be so in the case of my enemy’ is the sum and substance of the Psalmist’s prayer. ‘My enemies have rewarded me evil for good, and plotted to ruin me. Let the evil they have been devising recoil upon the head of the author of the plot. I am innocent; he is guilty: the fate which he would unjustly have assigned to me will justly be his.’ Again, the Psalmist is Jehovah’s servant ( Psa 109:28); his cause is Jehovah’s cause; if he perishes, Jehovah’s honour will suffer ( Psa 109:21); and his deliverance seems inevitably to involve the destruction of his implacable enemies. Let it be remembered too that we are dealing with poetry, and with the language of burning indignation kindled by cruel wrong. The ruin which the Psalmist imprecates upon the wicked man is doubtless that which he conceives the wicked man had designed to inflict on him.
But there is another side to the Psalmist’s character. He is capable of the tenderest love and deepest devotion. He would rather love than hate, rather bless than curse. In this respect the Psalm presents a striking contrast to the Fourth Psalm of Solomon, “Against the men-pleasers,” which has been quoted as a parallel. That Psalm is a Pharisaic attack upon the Sadducees, and breathes a spirit of rancorous and bitter religious hatred. Comp. Psa 109:16-25 in Ryle and James’ translation.
“Let dishonour be his portion, O Lord, in thy sight;
Let his going out be with groaning, and his coming in with a curse;
Let his life, O Lord, be spent in pain, in poverty and want:
Let his sleep be in anguish and his awaking in perplexities.
Let sleep be withdrawn from his eyelids in the night-season;
Let him miscarry with dishonour in every work of his hands;
Let him enter his house empty-handed;
And let his house lack everything wherewith he can satisfy his desire.
Let his old age be childless and solitary until the time of his being taken away.
Let the flesh of the men-pleasers be torn in pieces by the beasts of the field,
And the bones of transgressors lie dishonoured in the sight of the sun.
Let ravens peck out the eyes of the men that work hypocrisy,
Because they have made desolate with dishonour many men’s houses, and scattered them in their lust;
And remembered not God, nor feared God in all these things;
And provoked God to anger and vexed him;
That he should cut them off from the earth, because with craftiness they beguiled the souls of the innocent.”
It has been maintained by some commentators that in this Psalm, as in Psalms 69, the imprecations are not the imprecations of the Psalmist upon his enemies, but those of his enemies upon him, which he quotes. We are to supply saying at the end of Psa 109:5, and to explain Psa 109:20 to mean, ‘This is mine adversaries’ award unto me; this is the sentence that they would procure against me from Jehovah.’ This view has been advocated by Dr Taylor ( Gospel in the Law, pp. 244 ff.), and more recently by Dr Sharpe ( Student’s Handbook to the Psalms, pp. 218 ff.). At first sight it is attractive. It accounts for the sudden change of tone and for the transition from the plural to the singular in Psa 109:6 ff. It removes the moral difficulty. But it must be acknowledged that it is a somewhat strained and artificial interpretation. The sudden changes of feeling, and the abrupt transition from the plural to the singular, marking out one of the band of enemies as their leader and representative, find a complete parallel in Psalms 55. If the moral difficulty were removed in this particular case, it would still remain in other Psalms; and in fact the denunciations are not more terrible than those of Jeremiah against his persecutors (see Jer 11:18 ff; Jer 15:15 ff; Jer 17:18; Jer 18:19 ff; Jer 20:11 ff.); while the combination of fierce emotion with elegiac tenderness finds a complete analogy in the character of that martyr-prophet.
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The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".