After a challenge to certain corrupt magistrates, the poet in this piece shows his detestation of the wicked, and anticipates their fate. There is nothing in the contents of the psalm to bear out the traditional title; but neither is there anything to help us to fix on any other author or date. The same complaints of the maladministration of justice often meet us in the prophetic books, and there is therefore no need to bring the composition of the psalm down to a very late age, especially when the vivacity of the language, and the originality of the imagery, indicate the freshness and power of an early and vigorous age of literary activity. The rhythm is elegant and sustained.
Title.—See title to last psalm.
Nay! with your heart ye work wickedness in the land,
With your hands you weigh out violence.
The most forcible images of determined wickedness, and of the destruction it entails, now follow. The first is supplied by the serpent, the more suggestive from the accumulated evil qualities of which that animal has from the first been considered the type. Here the figure is heightened, since the animal is supposed to have been first tamed, but suddenly darts forth its fangs, and shows itself not only untamed, but untameable.
Adder.—Heb., pethen, translated asp in Deuteronomy 32:33; Job 20:14; Isaiah 11:8 (and here by the LXX.) In the Bible Educator iv. 103, the pethen is identified with the Egyptian cobra, the species upon which the serpent charmers practise their peculiar science.
Deaf.—So Jeremiah 8:17 refers to various kinds of serpents that “will not be charmed.” Here, however, it would seem as if the poet were thinking of some individual of a species, generally tractable, that obstinately resists the spells and incantations of the charmer.
The image of the deaf adder was a favourite with Shakespeare, who, no doubt, derived it from this psalm.
“Pleasure and revenge
Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice
Of any true decision.”
Troilus and Cressida, iii. 2.
(Comp. 2 Hen. VI., iii. 2.)
Charming never so wisely.—Literally, one tying knots wisely, i.e., a most skilful charmer.
Great teeth.—Literally, biters, grinders.
They are utterly gone, as when
One shoots his arrows.
This figure thus becomes also clear and striking. The arrow once shot is irrevocably gone, probably lost, fit emblem of the fate of the wicked. For the ellipse in bend (literally, tread, see Psalm 7:12), comp. Psalm 64:3, where also the action properly belonging to the bow is transferred to the arrow.
The words, “Let them be as cut in pieces,” must be carried on to the following verse, which contains two fresh images: So they are cut off (LXX., “are weak “) as shablûl melts; (as) the abortion of a woman passes away without seeing the sun. The word shablûl, by its derivation (bālal = to pour out) may mean any liquid or moist substance. Hence some understand a watercourse, others (LXX. and Vulg.) wax. The first would weaken the passage by introducing a bald repetition of a previous image. The second is quite intelligible. But the Talmud says shablûl is a slug or shelless snail, and there may be a reference in the passage to the popular notion derived from the slimy track of the creature, that the slug dissolves as it moves, and eventually melts away. Dr. Tristram, however (Nat. Hist. Bib., p. 295), finds scientific support for the image in the myriads of snail shells found in the Holy Land, still adhering, by the calcareous exudation round the orifice, to the surface of the rock, while the animal itself is utterly shrivelled and wasted. The last image presents no difficulty either in language or form, except that the form of the noun woman is unusual.
That they may not.—That this refers to the abortion which passed away without seeing the sun, is certain. The grammatical difficulty of want of concord may be got over by taking abortion as a collective noun.