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Commentary On Psalms Volume 3 by Jean Calvin

Psalm 79:5-9

5. How long, O Jehovah! wilt thou be wroth for ever? Shall thy jealousy burn like fire? 6. Pour out thy fury upon the heathen [or the nations] who have not known thee, and on the kingdoms which call not upon thy name.7. For they have devoured Jacob, and made desolate his dwelling. 8. Remember not against us the iniquities of former times: make haste, let thy compassions prevent us; for we are exceedingly afflicted.9. Help us, O God of our salvation! for the glory of thy name; and deliver us, and be merciful to our sins, for thy name's sake.

5 How long, O Jehovah! wilt thou be wroth for ever? I have already observed that these two expressions, how long and for ever, when joined together, denote a lengthened and an uninterrupted continuance of calamities; and that there is no appearance, when looking to the future, of their coming to a termination. We may, therefore, conclude that this complaint was not ended within a month or two after persecution against the Church commenced, but at a time when the hearts of the faithful were almost broken through the weariness produced by prolonged suffering. Here they confess that the great accumulation of calamities with which they are overwhelmed, is to be traced to the wrath of God. Being fully persuaded that the wicked, whatever they may plot, cannot inflict injury, except in so far as God permits them -- from this, which they regard as an indubitable principle, they at once conclude, that when he allows such ample scope to their heathen enemies in persecuting them, his anger is greatly provoked. Nor would they, without this persuasion, have looked to God in the hope that he would stretch forth his hand to save them; for it is the work of Him who hath given loose reins to draw in the bridle. Whenever God visits us with the rod, and our own conscience accuses us, it especially becomes us to look to His hand. Here his ancient people do not charge him with being unjustly displeased, but acknowledge the justice of the punishment inflicted upon them. God will always find in his servants just grounds for chastising them. He often, however, in the exercise of his mercy, pardons their sins, and exercises them with the cross for another purpose than to testify his displeasure against their sins, just as it was his will to try the patience of Job, and as he vouchsafed to call the martyrs to an honorable warfare. But here the people, of their own accord, summoning themselves before the Divine tribunal, trace the calamities which they endured to their own sins, as the procuring cause. Hence it may, with probability, be conjectured that this psalm was composed during the time of the Babylonish captivity. Under the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes, they employed, as we have previously seen, a different form of prayer, saying,

|All this is come upon us; yet have we not forgotten thee, neither have we dealt falsely in thy covenant. Our heart is not turned back, neither have our steps declined from thy way,|
(Psalm 44:17, 18.)

We are not to suppose that, in the passage now quoted, the faithful murmured against God, but they employ this language because they knew that he had another end in view than simply to punish their sins; for, by means of these severe conflicts, he prepared them for the prize of their high calling.

6. Pour out thy fury upon the heathen, who have not known thee. This prayer is apparently inconsistent with the rule of charity; for, while we feel anxious about our own calamities, and desire to be delivered from them, we ought to desire that others may be relieved as well as ourselves. It would seem, therefore, that the faithful are to be blamed in here wishing the destruction of unbelievers, for whose salvation they ought rather to have been solicitous. But it becomes us to bear in mind what I have previously stated, that the man who would offer up such a prayer as this in a right manner, must be under the influence of zeal for the public welfare; so that, by the wrongs done to himself personally, he may not suffer his carnal affections to be excited, nor allow himself to be carried away with rage against his enemies; but, forgetting his individual interests, he must have a sole regard to the common salvation of the Church, and to what conduces thereto. Secondly, he must implore God to grant him the spirit of discretion and judgment, that in prayer he may not be impelled by an inconsiderate zeal: a subject which we have treated more at large in another place. Besides, it is to be observed, that the pious Jews here not only lay out of consideration their own particular advantage in order to consult the good of the whole Church, but also chiefly direct their eyes to Christ, beseeching him to devote to destruction his enemies whose repentance is hopeless. They, therefore, do not rashly break forth into this prayer, that God would destroy these or other enemies, nor do they anticipate the judgment of God; but desiring that the reprobate may be involved in the condemnation which they deserve, they, at the same time, patiently wait until the heavenly judge separate the reprobate from the elect. In doing this, they do not cast aside the affection which charity requires; for, although they would desire all to be saved, they yet know that the reformation of some of the enemies of Christ is hopeless, and their perdition absolutely certain.

The question, however, is not yet fully answered; for, when in the seventh verse they arraign the cruelty of their enemies, they seem to desire vengeance. But what I have just now observed must be remembered, that none can pray in this manner but those who have clothed themselves with a public character, and who, laying aside all personal considerations, have espoused, and are deeply interested in, the welfare of the whole Church; or, rather, who have set before their eyes Christ, the Head of the Church; and, lastly, none but those who, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, have elevated their minds to the judgment of God; so that, being ready to forgive, they do not indiscriminately adjudge to death every enemy by whom they are injured, but only the reprobate. With regard to those who make haste in demanding the execution of the Divine vengeance before all hope of repentance is lost, Christ has condemned them as chargeable with inconsiderate and ill-regulated zeal, when he says,

|Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of,|
(Luke 9:55.)

Moreover, the faithful do not here simply wish the destruction of those who so wickedly persecuted the Church, but, using that familiarity which God allows them in their dealings with him, they set forth how inconsistent it would be did he not punish their persecutors, and reason thus: Lord, how is it that thou afflictest us so severely, upon whom thy name is invoked, and sparest the heathen nations who despise thee? In short, they mean to say, that God has sufficient ground for executing his wrath elsewhere, since they were not the only people in the world who had sinned. Although it does not become us to prescribe to God the rule of his conduct, but rather patiently to submit to this ordination,

|That judgment must begin at the house of God|
(1 Peter 4:17;)

yet he permits his saints to take the liberty of pleading, that at least they may not be worse dealt with than unbelievers, and those who despise him.

These two sentences, who have not known thee, and which call not upon thy name, it is to be observed, are to be taken in the same sense. By these different forms of expression, it is intimated that it is impossible for any to call upon God without a previous knowledge of him, as the Apostle Paul teaches, in Romans 10:14,

|How, then, shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?| (Romans 10:14)

It belongs not to us to answer, |Thou art our God,| till He has anticipated us by saying, |Thou art my people,| (Hosea 2:23;) but he opens our mouths to speak to him in this manner, when he invites us to himself. Calling on the name of God is often synonymous with prayer; but it is not here to be exclusively limited to that exercise. The amount is, that unless we are directed by the knowledge of God, it is impossible for us sincerely to profess the true religion. At that time the Gentiles everywhere boasted that they served God; but, being destitute of his word, and as they fabricated to themselves gods of their own corrupt imaginations, all their religious services were detestable; even as in our own day, the human invented religious observances of the blind and deluded votaries of the Man of Sin, who have no right knowledge of the God whom they profess to worship, and who inquire not at his mouth what he approves, are certainly rejected by Him, because they set up idols in his place.

8 Remember not against us the iniquities of former times. The godly Jews here confirm the sentiment which they had before briefly and obscurely touched upon, namely, that they had justly deserved the chastisements which had been inflicted upon them. And they present this prayer, because they could only get relief from their calamities by obtaining reconciliation with God. This is the sovereign remedy for every kind of adversity; for so long as he is angry with even our prosperity turns out to be unproductive of advantage and happiness. By the iniquities of former times, some understand the sins committed by the fathers. Others think that the sins which the suppliants themselves committed in their childhood and youth are intended. But the expression, I presume, has a more extensive signification, containing a confession not only of one offense or two, and these only recently committed, but an acknowledgement that they had for a long time been involved, along with their fathers, in manifold and old transgressions. Thus they acknowledge a long continued stubbornness, in which they had hardened themselves against God. This acknowledgement corresponds with the rebukes which the prophets administered to them; for sacred history bears testimony that the punishment of the captivity was suspended until God had proved from experience that their perversity was incurable. Nor should it excite our surprise to find the children praying that God would not impute to them the iniquity of their fathers, when we consider that the law declares that God casts the sins of the fathers into the bosom of their children, and takes vengeance upon their iniquities unto the third and fourth generation, (Exodus 20:5.) The contrast between the expressions, make haste, and the iniquities of former times, is worthy of notice. Had God called the Israelites to a strict account for all the sins which they had committed during three or four hundred years before, the time of their deliverance would have been long delayed. The faithful, therefore, beseech him to forget their former offenses, and to make haste to succor them. As their sins proved the great obstacle and cause of delay, we may see the propriety with which they farther implore that the compassions of God might speedily meet them.

9 Help O God of our salvation! They again repeat in this verse, that whatever afflictions they endured were to be traced to the anger of God, and that they could have no comfort under them unless He were reconciled to them. Being deeply sensible that they had committed many transgressions, to strengthen their hope of obtaining pardon, they employ a variety of expressions. In the first place, as an argument to induce God to show them favor, they address him as the God of their salvation. In the second place, they testify that they bring nothing of their own to influence him to have mercy upon them; and that the only plea which they present before him is his own glory. From this we learn, that sinners are not reconciled to God by satisfactions or by the merit of good works, but by a free and an unmerited forgiveness. The observation which I have made a little before, and which I have explained more at length on the sixth psalm, is here to be kept in mind, -- That when God visits us with the rod, instead of being merely desirous to be relieved from external chastisements, our chief concern ought to be to have God pacified towards us: nor should we follow the example of foolish sick persons, who are anxious to have merely the symptoms of their disease removed, and make no account of being delivered from the source and cause of it. With respect to the word kphr, chapper, which expositors translate, Be merciful, or propitious, I have had an opportunity of speaking in another place. It properly signifies to cleanse, or expiate, and is applied to sacrifices. Whenever, therefore, we desire to obtain the favor of God, let us call to remembrance the death of Christ; for |without shedding of blood is no remissions| (Hebrews 9:22.)

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