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Commentary On Psalms Volume 2 by Jean Calvin

Psalm 49:13-15

13. This their way is foolishness in them, and their posterity will acquiesce in their sayings, [literally, in their mouth.] Selah.14. Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning, and their strength shall wax old; the grave shall receive them from their dwelling.15. But God shall redeem my soul from the hand of the grave; for he hath taken me up. Selah

13 This their way is foolishness As this verse has been variously rendered, I shall briefly, before giving my own sense of it, state the views which have been taken by others. As the Hebrew word ksl, kesel, which I have translated foolishness, occasionally means the kidneys, some refine upon the term, and consider it to be here taken for fat; as if this imagination of theirs were, so to speak, fat which stupified and rendered their senses obtuse. But this reading is too forced to bear examination. Others read, This their way is their folly; that is, the reason why they pursue such a line of conduct is, that they are destitute of sound judgment; for, were they not utterly devoid of it, and did they possess one spark of intelligence, would they not reflect upon the end for which they were created, and direct their minds to higher objects? I rather conceive the Psalmist simply to mean, that the event proves them to be wholly destitute of wisdom, in placing their happiness upon earthly objects, and brands them, notwithstanding all the pretensions they make to foresight and shrewdness, with ridicule and contempt. And this he states, to show in a more aggravated light the madness of their posterity, who will not be instructed by the fate of their predecessors. The last clause of the verse has also been variously rendered, and I may state the views which have been taken of it by others. The Hebrew verb rtsh, ratsah, which I have translated to acquiesce, they render, to walk, and the noun phy, phi, translated mouth or sayings, they take to mean a measure, thus understanding the Psalmist to say, that the children walked by the same rule with their fathers; and they change the letter v, beth, into k, caph, the mark of similitude which is sufficiently common in the Hebrew language. This view of the passage comes near to the proper meaning of it. Some conceive that there is an allusion to the beasts of the field; but this is improbable. It seems best to understand with others that the word mouth denotes principles or sayings; and the verb rtsh, ratsah, may be taken in its more ordinary and most generally received sense, which implies consent or complacency. I have therefore translated it to acquiesce. The boasted confidence of the ungodly proving vain in the issue, and exposing them justly to ridicule, it argues a monstrous infatuation in their posterity, with this example before their eyes, to set their affections upon the same trifles, and to feel and express themselves exactly in the same manner as those who went before them. If men reflect at all upon the judgments which God executes in the world, we might expect that they would particularly consider his dealings with their immediate predecessors, and when, wholly insensible to the lessons which should be learned from their fate, they precipitate themselves into the same courses, this convincingly demonstrates their brutish folly.

14 Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed them The figure is striking. They go down into the grave as sheep are gathered into the fold by the shepherd. The entire world might not seem vast enough for men of a haughty spirit. They are so swollen with their vain imaginations, that they would engross universal nature to themselves. But the Psalmist, finding the wicked spread as it were far and wide, in the boundless pride of their hearts, collects them together into the grave, and hands them over to death as their shepherd. He intimates, that whatever superiority they might affect over their fellow-creatures, they would feel, when too late, that their boasting was vain, and be forced to yield themselves up to the irresistible and humiliating stroke of death. In the second part of the verse, the Psalmist points out the very different fate which awaits the children of God, and thus anticipates an obvious objection. It might be said, |Thou tellest us that those who place their confidence in this world must die. But this is no new doctrine. And why convert into matter of reproach what must be considered as a law of nature, attaching to all mankind? Who gave thee a privilege to insult the children of mortality? Art thou not one of them thyself?| This objection he meets effectually, by granting that on the supposition of death being the destruction of the whole man, he would have advanced no new or important doctrine, but arguing that infidel worldlings reject a better life to come, and thus lay themselves justly open to this species of reprehension. For surely it is the height of folly in any man for a mere momentary happiness -- a very dream -- to abdicate the crown of heaven, and renounce his hopes for eternity. Here it must be apparent, as I already took occasion to observe, that the doctrine of this psalm is very different from that taught by the philosophers. I grant that they may have ridiculed worldly ambition with elegance and eloquence, exposed the other vices, and insisted upon the topics of our frailty and mortality; but they uniformly omitted to state the most important truth of all, that God governs the world by his providence, and that we may expect a happy issue out of our calamities, by coming to that everlasting inheritance which awaits us in heaven. It may be asked, what that dominion is which the upright shall eventually obtain? I would reply, that as the wicked must all be prostrated before the Lord Jesus Christ, and made his footstool, His members will share in the victory of their Head. It is indeed said, that he |will deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father,| but he will not do this that he may put an end to his Church, but |that God may be all in all,| (1 Corinthians 15:24.) It is stated that this will be in the morning -- a beautiful and striking metaphor. Surrounded as we are by darkness, our life is here compared to the night, or to a sleep, an image which is specially applicable to the ungodly, who lie as it were in a deep slumber, but not inapplicable to the people of God, such being the dark mist which rests upon all things in this world, that even their minds (except in so far as they are illuminated from above) are partially enveloped in it. Here |we see only as through a glass darkly,| and the coining of the Lord will resemble the morning, when both the elect and reprobate will awake. The former will then cast aside their lethargy and sloth, and being freed from the darkness which rested upon them, will behold Christ the Sun of Righteousness face to face, and the full effulgence of life which resides in him. The others, who lie at present in a state of total darkness, will be aroused from their stupidity, and begin to discover a new life, of which they had previously no apprehension. We need to be reminded of this event, not only because corruption presses us downwards and obscures our faith, but because there are men who profanely argue against another life, from the continued course of things in the world, scoffing, as Peter foretold, (2 Peter 3:4,) at the promise of a resurrection, and pointing, in derision, to the unvarying regularity of nature throughout the lapse of ages. We may arm ourselves against their arguments by what the Psalmist here declares, that, sunk as the world is in darkness, there will dawn ere long a new morning, which will introduce us to a better and an eternal existence. It follows, that their strength, or their form, (for the Hebrew word tsvrh, tsurah, is susceptible of either meanings) shall wax old If we read strength, the words intimate, that though at present they are in possession of wealth and power, they shall speedily decline and fall; but I see no objection to the other meaning, which has more commonly been adopted. Paul tells us, (1 Corinthians 7:31,) that |the fashion of this world passes away,| a term expressive of the evanescent nature of our earthly condition; and the Psalmist may be considered as comparing their vain and unsubstantial glory to a shadow. The words at the close of the verse are obscure. Some read, The grave is their dwelling; and then they make m, mem, the formative letter of a noun. But the other interpretation agrees better both with the words and scope of the psalm, that the grave awaits them from his dwelling, which is put for their dwelling; such a change of number being common in the Hebrew language. They reside at present in splendid mansions, where they rest in apparent security, but we are reminded that they must soon come out of them, and be received into the tomb. There may be a covert allusion to their goings abroad to places of public resort with gaiety and pomp. These, the Psalmist intimates, must give place to the sad procession by which they must be carried down to the grave.

15 But God will redeem my soul The Hebrew particle, 'k, ach, may be also translated, surely, or certainly. The psalmist had made a general assertion of the great truth, that the righteous shall have dominion in the morning, and now he applies it to himself for the confirmation of his own faith. This verse may, therefore, be regarded as a kind of appendix to the former; in it he makes a personal application of what had been said of all the righteous. By the word, the hand, is to be understood the dominion and power, and not the stroke, of the grave, as some have rendered it. The prophet does not deny his liability to death; but he looks to God as He who would defend and redeem him from it. We have here a convincing proof of that faith in which the saints under the Law lived and died. It is evident that their views were directed to another and a higher life, to which the present was only preparatory. Had the prophet merely intended to intimate that he expected deliverance from some ordinary emergency, this would have been no more than what is frequently done by the children of the world, whom God often delivers from great dangers. But here it is evident that he hoped for a life beyond the grave, that he extended his glance beyond this sublunary sphere, and anticipated the morning which will introduce eternity. From this we may conclude, that the promises of the Law were spiritual, and that our fathers who embraced them were willing to confess themselves pilgrims upon earth, and sought an inheritance in heaven. It evinced gross stupidity in the Sadducees, educated as they were under the Law, to conceive of the soul as mortal. The man must be blind indeed who can find no mention of a future life in this passage. To what other interpretation can we wrest the preceding verse, when it speaks of a morning altogether new and peculiar? We are sufficiently accustomed to see the return of morning, but it points us to a day of an extraordinary kind, when God himself shall rise upon us as the sun, and surprise us with the discovery of his glory. When the Psalmist adds, Assuredly God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, does he not contemplate a special privilege, such as could not be shared by all other men? If deliverance from death, then, be a privilege peculiar to the children of God, it is evident that they are expectants of a better life. We must not overlook, (what I have already noticed,) that the sure method of profiting by the divine promises is, to apply to ourselves what God has offered generally to all without exception. This is done by the prophet, for how could he have arrived at an assured promise of the redemption of his soul, except by the general fact known to him of the future glory awaiting the children of God, and by concluding himself to be amongst their number? The last clause of the verse runs in the Hebrew literally, for he will take me up Some, however, resolve the causal particle ky, ki, which we render for, into the adverb of time when, and the verb lqch, lakach, which we translate to receive or to take up, they translate to cut off, or take away from this world, giving to the passage this sense, When God shall have called my soul out of this world to himself, he will rescue it from the power of the grave. I am afraid that this is rather too strained an interpretation. Those seem to take a juster view of the words who consider that the future tense has been substituted for the perfect, and who retain the proper signification of the causal particle, reading, for he has taken me up The prophet did not consider that the ground of his hope for a better resurrection was to be found in himself, but in the gratuitous adoption of God who had taken him into his favor. There is no need, however, why we should suppose a change of tense, and not understand the Psalmist as meaning that God would redeem his soul from death, by undertaking the guardianship of it when he came to die. The despairing fears which so many entertain when descending to the grave spring from the fact of their not commending their spirit to the preserving care of God. They do not consider it in the light of a precious deposit which will be safe in his protecting hands. Let our faith be established in the great truth, that our soul, though it appears to evanish upon its separation from the body, is in reality only gathered to the bosom of God, there to be kept until the day of the resurrection.

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