The peculiar horror of the imprecations in this extraordinary psalm does not lie in the dreadful consequences they invoke. Shakespeare puts curses equally fierce and terrible into Timon’s mouth:
“Piety, and fear,
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,
Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood,
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,
Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries,
And let confusion live!”
Nor is this horror due to the fact, assuming it to be a fact, that these imprecations are not general in their direction, like the misanthrope’s curses, but are levelled at a single individual, for the passions of revenge and hatred intensify by contraction of their range. The whole difficulty of the psalm lies in the fact that it was, as the inscription shows, actually, if not primarily, intended for use in the public service of the sanctuary.
But this very use at once divests the psalm of one of the greatest sources of difficulty, its personal character. Whatever its origin, whoever the original object of the imprecations, it is certain that they became public, ecclesiastical, national.
It is quite possible that from the first the writer spoke in the name of the persecuted nation against some oppressive heathen prince, such as Antiochus Epiphanes. Certainly, when sung by the congregation it expressed not an individual longing for revenge, but all the pent-up feeling—religious abhorrence, patriotic hatred, moral detestation—of the suffering community.
The continuance of its recitation in Christian churches opens up another question, and has, in a great measure, been the motive for the various apologetic explanations that have been started for the psalm. It is strange that even yet the old theory, which justifies the language of the imprecations as prophetically the language of Christ, should find advocates. The “quotation” theory is noticed in the Notes. On the quotation of the imprecations by St. Peter, see Notes, New Testament Commentary, Acts 1:20-21. The parallelism is synthetic.
Title.—“To the chief musician.” (See Note to title of Psalms 4)
Spoken against me.—Rather (comp. Psalm 12:3), talked with me.
Satan.—By no means here a proper name, though the LXX. and Vulg. have diabolus. The use of the same word in Psalm 109:4; Psalm 109:20; Psalm 109:29 is decisive on giving it the general meaning, “adversary” (as in margin) here; even though without the article. Satan is used for the tempting angel in 1 Chronicles 21:1, and in Zechariah 3:1 we find the same post, “at the right hand,” assigned to the accuser. An unscrupulous judge and an adversary as accuser, these are the substance of this imprecation.
Let his prayer become sin.—If this clause stood by itself, the most natural way would be to give “prayer” and “sin” their usual sense, and see in it the horrible hope that the man’s prayer to God for mercy would be reckoned as “sin.” That such was the result of the performance of religious rites by a wicked man was, it is true, a thought familiar to the Hebrew. (See, in addition to the marginal reference, Proverbs 15:8; Proverbs 21:27.) But the judgment just spoken of is that of an earthly tribunal. Hence we must render here, let his prayer be an offence, that is, instead of procuring him a mitigation of his sentence, let it rather provoke the unscrupulous judge to make it heavier. For sin in this sense of offence, see Ecclesiastes 10:4, and comp. 1 Kings 1:21.
Desolate places.—Rather, ruins. They are imagined creeping out of the ruins of their homes to beg. But there was a different reading, followed by the LXX. and Vulg., “let them be driven out of their homes.” This reading involves but a slight literal change. Comp.,
“Worse evil yet I pray for on my spouse;
Let him still live, through strange towns roam in want,
Exiled, suspected, cowering, with no home.”
SENECA: Med., i. 19.
“Let prisons swallow them,
Debts wither them to nothing.”
Sin of his mother.—Is the necessity of the parallel. ism sufficient to account for this mention of the mother, or is some definite circumstance in the poet’s thought? The theory which makes this portion of the psalm (Psalm 109:6-20), a quotation of curses really uttered by Shimei against David, finds an allusion to the Moabitish descent on the mother’s side. (Comp. the Rabbinical explanation of Psalm 51:5.)
He loved cursing; and it comes;
He delighted not in blessing; and it departs;
Yea, he clothed himself in cursing as with his cloak,
And it came like water into his bowels,
And like oil into his bones;
May it be, &c.
Comp. the proverb, “Curses, like chickens, always come home to roost.”
The fabled shirt of Nessus, which ate into the mighty form of Hercules, has suggested itself to commentators in illustration of this image. In a good sense the same figure is a favourite one with the Hebrews. (See Isaiah 11:5.)
Psalm 109:19 has struck most commentators as an anticlimax, and the quotation theory is supported by this fact. But imprecations show their impotence in this way; the angry soul can never be quite “unpacked with curses;” the language of passion exhausts itself too soon, and a violent speech often dies away in unintelligible mutterings or even gestures of rage.
Tossed up and down.—Better, tossed or shaken out, as from the lap. So LXX. and Vulg. (See Nehemiah 5:13, where the same verb is three times used.) The grasshopper was an emblem of timidity (Job 39:20).