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Psalm 12

“To the chief Musician upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David. Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men. They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak. The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us? For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him. The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.” (Psalm 12, AV)

This psalm consists of two parts easily distinguished: a complaint with an expression of desire, and a promise with an expression of confidence and hope. The Psalmist laments the waning number of good men, ver. 2 (1), and the abounding of iniquity, ver. 3 (2), to which he desires and expects that God will put an end, ver. 4, 5 (3, 4). In answer to this prayer, he receives an assurance of protection and deliverance for the righteous, ver. 6 (5), on which he rests as infallibly certain, ver. 7 (6), and consoles himself under present trials, ver. 8 (7).

There seems to be no specific reference to the persecution of the Jews by the Gentiles, or of David by Absalom or Saul. The contrast exhibited is rather that between the righteous and the wicked as a class, and the psalm seems designed to be a permanent vehicle of pious sentiment for the church or chosen people under persecution by malignant enemies. It contains an unusual number of difficult expressions in proportion to its length; but these are not of such a nature as to make its general import doubtful or obscure.

  1. To the Chief Musician, on the eighth (or octave), a Psalm of David. This title is identical with that of the sixth psalm, except that Neginoth is here omitted.

  2. (1). Save, Jehovah, for the merciful (or the object of divine mercy) ceaseth, for the faithful fail from (among) the sons of men. The adjective הָסִיד, whether taken in an active or a passive sense, is descriptive of the pious or godly man; see above, on Ps. 4:4 (3). The preterite form of the verbs (has ceased, have failed) represents the fearful process as already begun. The word rendered faithful in the last clause may also have the abstract sense of truth, fidelity; see below, Ps. 31:24 (23), and compare Isa. 26:2. In either case, the whole verse is a strong hyperbolical description of the small number of good men left in the community, and their consequent exposure to the malice of the wicked. Such expressions, as Luther well suggests, are too familiar in the dialect of common life to be mistaken or produce perplexity.

  3. (2). Vanity, i.e. falsehood, they will speak; as they now do, so will they persist in doing; (each) man with his neighbor, not merely with another man, but with his friend, his brother, towards whom he was particularly bound to act sincerely; compare Eph. 4:25. A lip of smoothness, or of smooth things, i.e. flattering; see above, on Ps. 5:10 (9). This may be connected either with what goes before or with what follows: “They speak falsehood, each to his neighbor, with a flattering lip;” or, “(with) a flattering lip (and) with a double heart will they speak.” A heart and a heart, i.e. a double heart, as a stone and a stone means “divers weights.” Deut. 25:13. By a double heart we are probably to understand, not mere dissimulation or hypocrisy, but inconsistency and instability of temper, which leads men to entertain opposite feelings towards the same object. Compare the description of the “double-minded man” in James 1:8.

  4. (3.) May Jehovah destroy all lips of smoothness, flattering lips, (and every) tongue speaking great things, i.e. speaking proudly, boasting. The form of the Hebrew verb is one commonly employed to express an optative meaning; but as this form is often poetically used for the future proper, it might be rendered here, Jehovah will destroy. There is no inconsistency between the flattering lips and the boastful tongue, because the subject of the boasting, as appears from what follows, is the flattery or deceit itself. As if he had said, Jehovah will destroy all flattering lips, and every tongue that boasts of their possession or use. For an example of such boasting, see Isa. 28:15.

  5. (4). Who have said, By our tongues will we do mightily; our lips (are) with us: who is lord to us, or over us? This is an amplified specification of the phrase speaking great things in the preceding verse. By our tongues, literally, as to, with respect to our tongues. The idea of agency or instrumentality is suggested by the context. Do mightily, exercise power, shew ourselves to be strong. Our lips are with us may either mean they are our own, at our disposal, or, they are on our side. The idea of the whole verse is, by our own lips and our tongues we can accomplish what we will.

  6. (5). From the desolation of the wretched, from the sighing of the poor, now will I arise, shall Jehovah say, I will place in safety him that shall pant for it. The preposition from has a causal meaning, because of, on account of. The wretched, afflicted, sufferers; see above, on Ps. 9:13 (12). I will arise; see above, on Ps. 3:8 (7). The future, shall Jehovah say, implies that the promise is not yet uttered, much less fulfilled. An analogous use of the same form of the same verb runs through some of the prophecies, and especially the later chapters of Isaiah.—The last clause is obscure, and may also be translated, “from him that puffeth at him,”—“him at whom they puff,”—“him whom they would blow away,” &c. The most probable meaning is the one first given, according to which the verse contains a promise of deliverance to those who especially desire and need it.

  7. (6). The sayings of Jehovah are pure sayings, silver purged in a furnace of earth, refined seven times. The Psalmist does not use the term commonly translated words, but one derived from the verb to say, with obvious allusion to the use of the verb itself in the preceding verse. What Jehovah there says, the promises there given, are here declared to be true, without any mixture of mistake or falsehood. This is expressed by the favorite figure of pure metallic ore. The idea of extreme or perfect purity is conveyed by the idiomatic phrase, purified seven times, i.e. repeatedly, or sevenfold, i.e. completely. Compare Dan. 3:19. The general meaning of the verse is clear, but it contains one phrase which is among the most doubtful and disputed in the whole book. This is the phrase בעליל לארץ. To the common version above given, in a furnace of earth, and to another somewhat like it, purged in a furnace as to (i.e. from) the earth, or earthy particles, it has been objected, that ארץ never means earth as a material. Some avoid this difficulty by translating, in a furnace on the earth (or ground), or, in the workshop (laboratory) of the earth, i.e. the mine; but this is not the place where ores are purified. It is further objected to all these translations, that they attach a supposititious meaning to the noun עליל. It is therefore explained by some as a variation of בעל, lord or master, and the whole clause made to mean, purified silver of a lord of the earth, i.e. refined not for ordinary use, but for that of some great prince or noble. The obscurity which overhangs the meaning of this clause is less to be regretted, as the main idea must, on any supposition, still be that of unusual and perfect purity.

  8. (7). Thou, Jehovah, wilt keep them; thou wilt guard him from this generation to eternity, i.e. for ever. In the first clause, though not in the second, the pronoun thou is expressed in Hebrew, and may therefore be regarded as emphatic; see above, on Ps. 2:6, 3:4 (3). Thou, and no other, or, thou without the aid of others, wilt preserve them. The plural pronoun in the first clause, and the singular in the second, refer to the same persons, viz., the sufferers mentioned in ver. 7 (6). By a license common in the Psalms, they are first spoken of as a plurality, and then as an ideal person; see above, on Ps. 10:10. This generation, this contemporary race of wicked men, with reference perhaps to the description, in ver 2 (1), of the disproportion between these and the righteous. For ever, as long as the necessity or danger lasts, so long shall the injured innocent experience the divine protection.

  9. (8). Round about will the wicked walk. This may either mean that they shall walk at liberty and have full license, or that they shall encompass and surround the righteous. Compare Ps. 3:7 (6). The other clause is one of the most doubtful and disputed in the whole book. The particle כ may denote either time or resemblance, and the noun זֻלּוּת, which occurs nowhere else, has been variously explained to mean a storm, an earthquake, vileness or contempt, &c. Among the different senses put upon the whole phrase are the following: “When the vileness (or vilest) of men is exalted.” “Like the rising of a storm upon the sons of men.” “When they rise (or are exalted) there is shame (or disgrace) to the sons of men.” “When disgrace arises to the sons of men.” “Like exaltation is disgrace to the sons of man.” In favor of this last it has been urged, that it gives to each word its most natural and obvious sense, and that it closes with a prospect of relief, and not with an unmitigated threatening, which would be at variance with the usage of the Psalms. The meaning of the verse is then, that although the wicked are now in the ascendant, and the righteous treated with contempt, this disgrace is really an exaltation, because only external and in man’s judgment, not in God’s, who will abundantly indemnify his people for the dishonor which is put upon them. The unusual and almost unintelligible form in which this idea is expressed, is supposed to agree well with David’s fondness for obscure and enigmatical expressions; see above, on Ps. 5:1 and 7:1.

Alexander, J. A. (1864). The Psalms Translated and Explained (pp. 55–57). Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot; James Thin. (Public Domain)

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