1. Yet God is good to Israel, to those who are right of heart.2. As for me, my feet were almost gone, my steps had well nigh slipped.3. For I envied the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
As to the author of this psalm, I am not disposed to contend very strongly, although I think it probable that the name of Asaph was prefixed to it because the charge of singing it was committed to him, while the name of David, its author, was omitted, just as it is usual for us, when things are well known of themselves, not to be at the trouble of stating them. How much profit we may derive from meditation upon the doctrine contained in this psalm, it is easy to discover from the example of the prophet, who, although he had been exercised in no ordinary degree in true godliness, yet had great difficulty in keeping his footing, while reeling to and fro on the slippery ground on which he found himself placed. Nay, he acknowledges that, before he returned to such soundness of mind as enabled him to form a just judgment of the things which occasioned his trial, he had fallen into a state of almost brutish stupidity. As to ourselves, experience shows how slight impressions we have of the providence of God. We no doubt all agree in admitting that the world is governed by the hand of God; but were this truth deeply rooted in our hearts, our faith would be distinguished by far greater steadiness and perseverance in surmounting the temptations with which we are assailed in adversity. But when the smallest temptation which we meet with dislodges this doctrine from our minds, it is manifest that we have not yet been truly and in good earnest convinced of its truth.
Besides, Satan has numberless artifices by which he dazzles our eyes and bewilders the mind; and then the confusion of things which prevails in the world produces so thick a mist, as to render it difficult for us to see through it, and to come to the conclusion that God governs and extends his care to things here below. The ungodly for the most part triumph; and although they deliberately stir up God to anger and provoke his vengeance, yet from his sparing them, it seems as if they had done nothing amiss in deriding him, and that they will never be called to account for it. On the other hand, the righteous, pinched with poverty, oppressed with many troubles, harassed by multiplied wrongs, and covered with shame and reproach, groan and sigh: and in proportion to the earnestness with which they exert themselves in endeavoring to do good to all men, is the liberty which the wicked have the effrontery to take in abusing their patience. When such is the state of matters, where shall we find the person who is not sometimes tempted and importuned by the unholy suggestion, that the affairs of the world roll on at random, and as we say, are governed by chance? This unhallowed imagination has doubtless obtained complete possession of the minds of the unbelieving, who are not illuminated by the Spirit of God, and thereby led to elevate their thoughts to the contemplation of eternal life. Accordingly, we see the reason why Solomon declares, that since |all things come alike to all, and there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked,| the hearts of the sons of men are full of impiety and contempt of God, (Ecclesiastes 9:2, 3;) -- the reason is, because they do not consider that things apparently so disordered are under the direction and government of God.
Some of the heathen philosophers discoursed upon, and maintained the doctrine of a Divine Providence; but it was evident from experience that they had notwithstanding no real and thorough persuasion of its truth; for when things fell out contrary to their expectation, they openly disavowed what they had previously professed. Of this we have a memorable example in Brutus. We can hardly conceive of a man surpassing him in courage, and all who intimately knew him bore testimony to his distinguished wisdom. Being of the sect of the Stoic philosophers, he spake many excellent things in commendation of the power and providence of God; and yet when at length vanquished by Antony, he cried out, that whatever he had believed concerning virtue had no foundation in truth, but was the mere invention of men, and that all the pains taken to live honestly and virtuously was only so much lost labor, since fortune rules over all the affairs of mankind. Thus this personage, who was distinguished for heroic courage, and an example of wonderful resolution, in renouncing virtue, and under the name of it cursing God, shamefully fell away. Hence it is manifest, how the sentiments of the ungodly fluctuate with the fluctuation of events. And how can it be expected that the heathen, who are not regenerated by the Spirit of God, should be able to resist such powerful and violent assaults, when even God's own people have need of the special assistance of his grace to prevent the same temptation from prevailing in their hearts, and when they are sometimes shaken by it and ready to fall; even as David here confesses, that his steps had well nigh slipped? But let us now proceed to the consideration of the words of the psalm.
1. Yet God is good to Israel. The adverb 'k, ach, does not here imply a simple affirmation certainly, as it often does in other places, but is taken adversatively for yet, notwithstanding, or some similar word. David opens the psalm abruptly; and from this we learn, what is worthy of particular notice, that before he broke forth into this language, his mind had been agitated with many doubts and conflicting suggestions. As a brave and valiant champion, he had been exercised in very painful struggles and temptations; but, after long and arduous exertion, he at length succeeded in shaking off all perverse imaginations, and came to the conclusion that yet God is gracious to his servants, and the faithful guardian of their welfare. Thus these words contain a tacit contrast between the unhallowed imaginations suggested to him by Satan, and the testimony in favor of true religion with which he now strengthens himself, denouncing, as it were, the judgment of the flesh, in giving place to misgiving thoughts with respect to the providence of God. We see then how emphatic is this exclamation of the Psalmist. He does not ascend into the chair to dispute after the manner of the philosophers, and to deliver his discourse in a style of studied oratory; but, as if he had escaped from hell, he proclaims, with a loud voice, and with impassioned feeling, that he had obtained the victory. To teach us by his own example the difficulty and arduousness of the conflict, he opens, so to speak, his heart and bowels, and would have us to understand something more than is expressed by the words which he employs. The amount of his language is, that although God, to the eye of sense and reason, may seem to neglect his servants, yet he always embraces them with his favor. He celebrates the providence of God, especially as it is extended towards genuine saints; to show them, not only that they are governed by God in common with other creatures, but that he watches over their welfare with special care, even as the master of a family carefully provides for and attends to his own household. God, it is true, governs the whole world; but he is graciously pleased to take a more close and peculiar inspection of his Church, which he has undertaken to maintain and defend.
This is the reason why the prophet speaks expressly of Israel; and why immediately after he limits this name to those who are right of heart; which is a kind of correction of the first sentence; for many proudly lay claim to the name of Israel, as if they constituted the chief members of the Church, while they are but Ishmaelites and Edomites. David, therefore, with the view of blotting out from the catalogue of the godly all the degenerate children of Abraham, acknowledges none to belong to Israel but such as purely and uprightly worship God; as if he had said, |When I declare that God is good to his Israel, I do not mean all those who, resting contented with a mere external profession, bear the name of Israelites, to which they have no just title; but I speak of the spiritual children of Abraham, who consecrate themselves to God with sincere affection of heart.| Some explain the first clause, God is good to Israel, as referring to his chosen people; and the second clause, to those who are right of heart, as referring to strangers, to whom God would be gracious, provided they walked in true uprightness. But this is a frigid and forced interpretation. It is better to adhere to that which I have stated. David, in commending the goodness of God towards the chosen people and the Church, was under the necessity of cutting off from their number many hypocrites who had apostatised from the service of God, and were, therefore, unworthy of enjoying his fatherly favor. To his words corresponds the language of Christ to Nathanael, (John 1:47,) |Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!| As the fear of God among the Jews was at that time well nigh extinguished, and there remained among them almost nothing else but the |circumcision made with hands,| that is to say, outward circumcision, Christ, to discriminate between the true children of Abraham and hypocrites, lays it down as a distinguishing characteristic of the former, that they are free from guile. And assuredly in the service of God, no qualification is more indispensable than uprightness of heart.
2. As for me, etc. Literally, it is, And I: which ought to be read with emphasis; for David means that those temptations, which cast an affront upon the honor of God, and overwhelm faith, not only assail the common class of men, or those who are endued only with some small measure of the fear of God, but that he himself, who ought to have profited above all others in the school of God, had experienced his own share of them. By thus setting himself forth as an example, he designed the more effectually to arouse and incite us to take great heed to ourselves. He did not, it is true, actually succumb under the temptation; but, in declaring that his feet were almost gone, and that his steps had well nigh slipped, he warns us that all are in danger of falling, unless they are upheld by the powerful hand of God.
3. For I envied the foolish Here he declares the nature of the temptation with which he was assailed. It consisted in this, that when he saw the present prosperous state of the wicked, and from it judged them to be happy, he had envied their condition. We are certainly under a grievous and a dangerous temptation, when we not only, in our own minds, quarrel with God for not setting matters in due order, but also when we give ourselves loose reins, boldly to commit iniquity, because it seems to us that we may commit it, and yet escape with impunity. The sneering jest of Dionysius the younger, a tyrant of Sicily, when, after having robbed the temple of Syracuse, he had a prosperous voyage with the plunder, is well known. |See you not,| says he to those who were with him, |how the gods favor the sacrilegious?| In the same way, the prosperity of the wicked is taken as an encouragement to commit sin; for we are ready to imagine, that, since God grants them so much of the good things of this life, they are the objects of his approbation and favor. We see how their prosperous condition wounded David to the heart, leading him almost to think that there was nothing better for him than to join himself to their company, and to follow their course of life. By applying to the ungodly the appellation of foolish, he does not simply mean that the sins which they commit are committed through ignorance or inadvertence, but he sets their folly in opposition to the fear of God, which is the principal constituent of true wisdom. The ungodly are, no doubt, crafty; but, being destitute of the fundamental principle of all right judgment, which consists in this, that we must regulate and frame our lives according to the will of God, they are foolish; and this is the effect of their own blindness.