Psalms 141 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Psalm 141
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

This is one of the most obscure psalms in the whole psalter, hardly a clause of Psalm 141:5-7 offering anything more than a conjectural meaning. The author appears from Psalm 141:2 to be a priest or Levite, being so familiar with the rites of the sanctuary as to use them as metaphors. From Psalm 141:3-4 we gather that he (or as Psalm 141:7 indicates, the community for which he speaks) is under a temptation to betray the cause of Jehovah and true religion, either by pronouncing some blasphemy, or indulging in some license forbidden by a high covenant ideal. The reference to the unlawful dainties in Psalm 141:4 (if we adopt that rendering) naturally suggests either idolatrous feasts (comp. Psalm 16:4) or banquets connected with the games and other foreign innovations against which. when introduced under Grecian influence, the stricter Jews so bitterly protested. Can the allusion in Psalm 141:3 be to the musical gifts and accomplishments of the Levites, which the apostate part of the nation wished to enlist on the side of these Greek customs, but which the poet declines to exhibit, praying for support in his pious resolution? Or does Psalm 141:6 rather indicate a judicial position for the author; and is he afraid of being himself led into the perversion of justice, which he so strongly denounces, by the promise of popular favour?

The Davidic inscription cannot be for a moment maintained. There is no period of David’s life which the psalm could represent. The overthrow of some oppressive and persecuting court party, such as existed at Jerusalem either in the Persian or Grecian period, is surely indicated in Psalm 141:6. The rhythm is fine, and fairly sustained.

A Psalm of David. LORD, I cry unto thee: make haste unto me; give ear unto my voice, when I cry unto thee.
Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
(2) Set forth . . .—See margin; but more literally, be erected, suggesting the pillar of smoke (comp. Tennyson’s “Azure pillars of the hearth”) continually rising to heaven. Some think the incense refers to the morning sacrifice, so that the verse will mean, “let my prayer rise regularly as morning and evening sacrifice.” But this is hardly necessary.

Sacrificei.e., the offering of flour and oil, which followed the burnt offering both at morning and evening (Leviticus 2:1-11; in Authorised Version,” meat offering “), and here probably associated specially with evening, because the prayer was uttered at the close of the day. (See Note, Psalm 141:3.)

For the “lifted hands,” here, from the parallelism, evidently only a symbol of prayer, and not a term for oblation, see Psalm 28:2, Note.

“For what are men better than sheep or goats,

That nourish a blind life within the Drain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer,

Both for themselves, and those that call them friend.”

TENNYSON: Morte d’ Arthur,

Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.
(3) Watch.—The image drawn from the guard set at city gates at night seems to indicate the evening as the time of composition of the psalm.

Door of my lips.—Comp. “doors of thy mouth” (Micah 7:5), and so in Euripides, πύλαι στόματος. For the probable motive of the prayer, see Introduction. The poet’s feeling is that of Xenocrates: “I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent.”

Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practise wicked works with men that work iniquity: and let me not eat of their dainties.
(4) To practise wicked works . . .—The Vulg., ad excusandas excusationes, following the LXX., not only preserves the expressive assonance of the original, but probably conveys its meaning better than the somewhat tame English version. Evidently the danger to be guarded against was not so much a sinful act as a sinful utterance, and the expression “to make pretexts or excuses” may possibly refer to the casuistries by which some of the laxer Jews excused their participation in heathen rites or licentious banquets. Symmachus has, “to devise wicked devices.”

Dainties.—The word is peculiar to this passage, but derived from a root meaning “pleasant.” The LXX. and Vulg. refer it to persons instead of things. But the use of the same root in Psalm 141:6, “for they are sweet,” where the reference is to “words,” suggests a meaning here different both from the English and the ancient versions. “I will not taste of their sweets” may mean “I will not listen to their allurements: what finds favour with them shall not tempt me.” On the other hand, if we retain the English allusion to the dainties of a feast (so Symmachus), the word in Psalm 141:6 will be used metaphorically in contrast. The words of condemnation he utters, though bitter to these feasters, are in reality sweet with the sweetness of truth.

Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head: for yet my prayer also shall be in their calamities.
(5) The difficulties of the psalm thicken here. Render, Let a righteous man smite me, it is a kindness; and let him reprove me, it is oil for the head: my head shall not refuse it though it continue; yet my prayer is against their wickedness.

The word rendered “smite” is that used of Jael’s “hammer strokes “(Judges 5:26). (Comp. Isaiah 41:7.) The Hebrew for “reprove” is probably used in a judicial sense, as in Genesis 31:37; Isaiah 2:4; Proverbs 24:25, &c. The greatest obscurity attaches to the word rendered above “refuse,” but in the Authorised Version “break,” probably because in Psalm 33:10 (“ bring to none effect”) it is in parallelism with “break.” The LXX. and Vulg. take it as meaning “anoint,” rendering (from a different text to ours) “let not oil of a wicked man anoint my head.” If we might adopt this reading it would remove the difficulty of this part of the verse, and give an excellent parallelism: “A righteous man may smite me in mercy and reprove me, but let not a wicked man’s oil anoint my head;” i.e., I would welcome reproof from the righteous, but reject even the festive oil offered by the wicked. For the rendering “wickednesses,” instead of “calamities,” comp. Job 20:12; Psalm 94:23. For the sense of “although” given to the conjunction, see Exodus 13:17. The suffix “their” refers back, of course, to the ungodly in Psalm 141:4. The “oil for the head” (comp. Psalm 45:7) is a natural emblem of festivity, and the whole sentiment of the passage is tolerably clear. Rather than join in the wicked mirth of a profane banquet, the poet would be the object of continued rebuke and chastisement from one of the godly—his prayer meanwhile still rising for protection against the allurements held out to tempt him. We probably have sketched here the actual condition of many a Levite between the apostate and the loyal part of the nation.

When their judges are overthrown in stony places, they shall hear my words; for they are sweet.
(6) This verse again is full of obscurities. The first clause probably should be rendered, Let their judges be broken to pieces by the force (literally, hands) of the rock; or, let their judges be cast down by the sides of the cliff—i.e., hurled down the precipitous face of the ravine (See 2 Chronicles 25:12, and notice that the word here is “Sela‘,” the name of the capital of Edom; comp. Hosea 10:14; Psalm 137:9, where, however, the expression is “against the cliff.”)

They shall . . .—Better, then shall they hear my words; how dainty they are, &c. The expression is ironical. The ungodly party, when their power is broken, instead of being entertained by the poet at a licentious banquet, will listen indeed to his words—shall hear a “dainty song” from him—viz., “a song of triumph.”

Our bones are scattered at the grave's mouth, as when one cutteth and cleaveth wood upon the earth.
(7) Our bones.—The literal rendering of this verse is As when one cutteth and cleaveth in the earth our bones are scattered at the mouth of Sheôl.

The reading “our bones” necessarily makes this an abrupt transition from the fate of the unjust judges in the last verse to that of the afflicted people, but in a correction by a second hand in the Codex Alex. of the LXX. we find the much easier and more satisfactory “their bones”—a reading confirmed by the Syriac, Ethiopic, and Arabic versions; as also by the fact that the word here rendered “cleave” is that employed in 2 Chronicles 25:12 (see reference above, Psalm 141:6) of the Edomites thrown from the cliff. But the abrupt transition is not unlikely in Hebrew poetry, and the more difficult reading is according to rule to be preserved.

The figure is mistaken in the Authorised Version. The reference is not to the ground strewn with the logs left by a woodcutter, but to the clods of earth left by the plough. Keeping the present text, and making the figure refer to the righteous, we should naturally compare Psalm 129:3, where ploughing is used as an image of affliction and torture, as “harrewing” is with us. The verse might be paraphrased: “We have been so harrowed and torn that we are brought to the brink of the grave,” the image being, however, heightened by the recollection of some actual massacre.

But mine eyes are unto thee, O GOD the Lord: in thee is my trust; leave not my soul destitute.
(8, 9) Comp. Psalm 25:15.

Keep me from the snares which they have laid for me, and the gins of the workers of iniquity.
(9) From the snare.—The original idiom is far more forcible: “from the hands (or, ‘clutches’) of the snare.” (See above, Psalm 141:6, “in the hands of the cliff.”)

Let the wicked fall into their own nets, whilst that I withal escape.
(10) Comp. Psalm 7:15.

Withal.—Probably, altogether (“whilst I altogether escape”), which some join with the previous clause, “Let the wicked fall into their own nets together, whilst I escape.”

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