On of the reasons that John Calvin is a great theologian is because he is an accomplished exegete. Here’s his explanation of Psalm 143 as found on the free app of his commentaries.
1. Hear my prayer, O Jehovah! give ear to my supplication, in thy truth answer me, in thy righteousness.
2. And enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.
3. For the enemy hath persecuted my soul; he hath prostrated my life on the ground: he hath set me in dark places, as the dead of an age.
1. Hear my prayer, O Jehovah! It is evident that the oppression of his enemies must have been extreme, when David laments his case in such earnest and pathetic terms. The introductory words show that the grief he felt was great. His reason for speaking of the justice and faithfulness of God in connection we have shown elsewhere. Under the term justice, or righteousness, we are not to suppose that he speaks of merit, or hire, as some ignorantly imagine, but of that goodness of God which leads him to defend his people. To the same effect does he speak of God’s truth or faithfulness; for the best proof he can give of his faithfulness is in not forsaking those whom he has promised to help. In helping his people he shows himself to be a just and true God, both in not frustrating their expectation, and in so far as he shows in this extension of mercy what his nature is, that David very properly encourages himself in prayer by making mention of both.
2. And enter not into judgment, 249 etc. I have hinted already why he proceeds to pray for pardon. When overtaken by adversity, we are ever to conclude that it is a rod of correction sent by God to stir us up to pray. Although he is far from taking pleasure in our trials, it is certain that our sins are the cause of his dealing towards us with this severity. While those to whom David was opposed were wicked men, and he was perfectly conscious of the rectitude of his cause as regarded them, he freely acknowledged his sin before God as a condemned suppliant. We are to hold this as a general rule in seeking to conciliate God, that we must pray for the pardon of our sins. If David found refuge nowhere else than in prayer for pardon, who is there amongst us who would presume to come before God trusting in his own righteousness and integrity? Nor does David here merely set an example before God’s people how they ought to pray, but declares that there is none amongst men who could be just before God were he called to plead his cause. The passage is one fraught with much instruction, teaching us, as I have just hinted, that God can only show favor to us in our approaches by throwing aside the character of a judge, and reconciling us to himself in a gratuitous remission of our sins. All human righteousnesses, accordingly, go for nothing, when we come to his tribunal. This is a truth which is universally acknowledged in words, but which very few are seriously impressed with. As there is an indulgence which is mutually extended to one another amongst men, they all come confidently before God for judgment, as if it were as easy to satisfy him as to gain man’s approval. In order to obtain a proper view of the whole matter, we are first to note what is meant by being justified. The passage before us clearly proves that the man who is justified, is he who is judged and reckoned just before God, or whom the heavenly Judge himself acquits as innocent. Now, in denying that any amongst men can claim this innocence, David intimates that any righteousness which the saints have is not perfect enough to abide God’s scrutiny, and thus he declares that all are guilty before God, and can only be absolved in the way of acknowledging they might justly be condemned. Had perfection been a thing to be found in the world, he certainly of all others was the man who might justly have boasted of it; and the righteousness of Abraham and the holy fathers was not unknown to him; but he spares neither them nor himself, but lays it down as the one universal rule of conciliating God, that we must cast ourselves upon his mercy. This may give us some idea of the satanic infatuation which has taken hold of those who speak so much of perfection in holiness, with a view to supersede remission of sins. Such a degree of pride could never be evinced by them, were they not secretly influenced by a brutish contempt of God. They speak in high and magnificent terms of regeneration, as if the whole kingdom of Christ consisted in purity of life. But in doing away with the principal blessing of the everlasting covenant — gratuitous reconciliation — which God’s people are commanded to seek daily, and in puffing up both themselves and others with a vain pride, they show what spirit they are of. Let us hold them in detestation, since they scruple not to put open contempt upon God. This of itself, however, which we have stated, is not enough; for the Papists themselves acknowledge that were God to enter upon an examination of men’s lives as a judge, all would lie obnoxious to just condemnation. And in this respect they are sounder, more moderate and sober, than those Cyclopses and monsters in heresy of whom we have just spoken. But though not arrogating to themselves righteousness in the whole extent of it, they show, by obtruding their merits and satisfactions, that they are very far from following the example of David. They are always ready to acknowledge some defect in their works, and so, in seeking God’s favor, they plead for the assistance of his mercy. But there is nothing intermediate between these two things, which are represented in Scripture as opposites — being justified by faith and justified by works. It is absurd for the Papists to invent a third species of righteousness, which is partly wrought out by works of their own, and partly imputed to them by God in his mercy. Without all doubt, when he affirmed that no man could stand before God were his works brought to judgment, David had no idea of this complex or twofold righteousness, but would shut us up at once to the conclusion that God is only favorable upon the ground of his mercy, since any reputed righteousness of man has no significance before him.
3. For the enemy hath persecuted my soul. Having acknowledged that he only suffered the just punishment of his sins, David comes now to speak of his enemies; for to have begun by speaking of them would have been a preposterous order. Their cruelty was shown in their not resting satisfied but with the destruction of one who was a saint of God; he declares that he must even now perish unless God should help him speedily. The comparison is not merely to a dead man, but a putrid corpse; for by the dead of an age 250are meant those who have been long removed from the world. Such language intimates that he not only trusted in God as he who could heal him of a deadly disease, but considered that though his life should be buried, as it were, and long out of mind, God could raise it again, and restore his very ashes.
4. And my spirit is perplexed within me, my heart within me is astonished.
5. I remembered the days of old, I meditated upon all thy works; I meditated upon the work of thy hands.
6. I spread out my hands to thee, my soul is to thee as the earth without water. 251Selah.
7. Hasten, answer me, O Jehovah! my spirit faileth: hide not thy face from me, because I shall be like to those descending into the pit.
4. And my spirit, etc. Hitherto he has spoken of the troubles that were without, now he acknowledges the feebleness of his spirits, from which it is evident that his strength, vas not like that of the rock, imperturbable or without feeling, but that, while overwhelmed with grief as to the feeling of the flesh, he owed his support entirely to faith and the grace of the Spirit,. We are taught by his example not to throw up the conflict in despair, however much we may be weakened, and even exanimated by afflictions, as God will enable us to surmount them, if we only rise to him with our hearts amidst all our anxieties.
In the next verse David mentions that he had diligently sought means whereby to mitigate his grief. It is not to be wondered at, that many who spontaneously give themselves up to inaction, should sink under their trials, not using means to invigorate themselves by calling to remembrance the grace of God. Sometimes, it is true, our trials are only more keenly felt when we recall the former kindness which God may have shown to us, the comparison tending to awaken our feelings, and render them more acute; but David proposed a different end than this to himself, and gathered confidence from the past mercies of God. The very best method in order to obtain relief in trouble, when we are about to faint under it, is to call to mind the former loving-kindness of the Lord. Nor does David mean such as he had experienced from childhood, as some have thought, adopting in my judgment too restricted a sense; for the word קדם, kedem, has a more extensive signification. I have no doubt, therefore, that he includes past history, as well as his own personal experience, it being easy to discover proofs there of God’s continued goodness to his people. We should ourselves learn by his example, in reflecting upon personal favors received from God, to remember also how often he has assisted those that served him, and improve the truth for our own benefit. Should this not immediately or at once abate the bitterness of our grief, yet the advantage of it will afterwards appear. In the passage before us, David complains that he did not get relief from his anxieties and cares from this consolatory source, but he prosecuted his meditations in expectation of finding the good result in due time. The verb שוה, suach, I have elsewhere observed, may mean either to declare with the tongue, or to revolve in the mind. Some accordingly read — “I have discoursed of thy works.” But as the verb הגה, hagah, means to meditate, I consider that the Psalmist repeats the same thing twice, and this in token of earnestness. We will often upon a slight exercise of the thoughts upon God’s works, start aside from them almost immediately; nor is it matter of surprise, that, in this case, there results no solid comfort. That our knowledge may be abiding we must call in the aid of constant attention.
6. I have stretched forth my hands to thee. Here appears the good effect of meditation, that it stirred David up to pray; for if we reflect seriously upon the acting’s of God towards his people, and towards ourselves in our own experience, this will necessarily lead out our minds to seek after him, under the alluring influence of his goodness. Prayer, indeed, springs from faith; but as practical proofs of the favor and mercy confirm this faith, they are means evidently fitted for dissipating languor. He makes use of a striking figure to set forth the ardor of his affection, comparing his soul to the parched earth. In great heats we see that the earth is cleft, and opens, as it were, its mouth to heaven for moisture. David therefore intimates, he drew near to God with vehement desire, as if the very sap of life failed him, as he shows more fully in the verse which follows. In this he gives another proof of his extraordinary faith. Feeling himself weak, and ready to sink into the very grave, he does not vacillate between this and the other hope of relief, but fixes his sole dependence upon God. And heavy as the struggle was that he underwent with his own felt weakness, the fainting of spirit he speaks of was a better stimulant to prayer than any stoical obstinacy he might have shown in suppressing fear, grief, or anxiety. We must not overlook the fact, how in order to induce himself to depend exclusively upon God, he dismisses all other hopes from his mind, and makes a chariot to himself of the extreme necessity of his case, in which he ascends upwards to God.
8. Cause me to hear thy loving-kindness in the morning, for in thee have I hoped; show me the way in which I may walk, for I have lifted up my soul to thee.
9. Deliver me, O Jehovah! from my enemies; I have hidden with thee.
10. Teach me that I may do thy will, for thou art my God; let thy good Spirit lead me into the right land.
11. For thy name’s sake, O Lord! thou wilt quicken me: in thy righteousness bring my soul out of trouble.
12. And in thy mercy thou wilt scatter my enemies, and thou wilt destroy 252 all them that afflict my soul, for I am thy servant.
8. Cause me to hear thy loving-kindness. In this verse he again prays that God would show him his favor visibly and effectually. The expression cause me to hear, may seem not very proper, as the goodness of God is rather felt than heard; but as the mere perception of God’s benefits, without a believing apprehension and improvement of them, would do us little good, David very properly begins with hearing. We see how wicked men riot in the abundance of them, while yet they have no sense of the Lord’s goodness, through want of attention to the word, and a believing apprehension of God as a father. The adverb in the morning some confine to a reference to sacrifices — which is a meager interpretation — in allusion to the well-known fact that sacrifices used to be offered twice, in the morning and in the evening. Others give a more strained sense, understanding that when God deals in a more favorable way with his people, he is said to form a new day. 253 Others consider it to be a metaphor for a prosperous and happy condition, as an afflicted and calamitous time is often denoted by darkness. I wonder that there should be such a search after extraneous meanings for this word, by which he is simply to be considered as repeating his former prayer to God — make haste. In the morning means the same with speedily or seasonably. He founds a reason here, as elsewhere, upon his having hoped in God, this being something by which, in a sense, we lay God under obligation to us, for in making a liberal offer of himself to us, and promising to sustain the relationship of a father, he gives what men would call a pledge. This, accordingly, is a species of obligation. But so far is this from implying any worthiness or merit on our part, that the hope we entertain rather proves our nothingness and helplessness. His prayer that a way might be opened up for him to walk in, refers to the anxieties which perplexed him. He intimates that he was dismayed, and brought to a stand, unable to move a step, if God did not open a way, by his divine power; that all the desires of his soul terminated upon him; and that he looked for counsel from him to procure relief in his perplexity.
9. Deliver me, O Jehovah! from my enemies. This prayer is to the same effect, his enemies being so earnestly bent upon his destruction as to leave no outgate for him. The verb כסיתי, chisithi, some render to hope: the proper meaning is to cover, and I am unwilling to depart from it. The explanation some give is, that David upon perceiving the imminent danger to which he was exposed, betook himself to the covert of God’s shadow, and concealed himself under the protection of it. This seems a very natural rendering, at least I prefer it to another which has recommended itself to some as being ingenious — that David, instead of having recourse to various quarters for relief, was satisfied to have God cognizant of his case, and called upon him in a hidden manner and apart.
10. Teach me that I may do thy will. He now rises to something higher, praying not merely for deliverance from outward troubles, but, what is of still greater importance, for the guidance of God’s Spirit, that he might not decline to the right hand or to the left, but be kept in the path of rectitude. This is a request which should never be forgotten when temptations assail us with great severity, as it is peculiarly difficult to submit to God without resorting to unwarrantable methods of relief. As anxiety, fear, disease, languor, or pain, often tempt persons to particular steps, David’s example should bad us to pray for divine restraint, and that we may not be hurried, through impulses of feeling, into unjustifiable courses. We are to mark carefully his way of expressing himself, for what he asks is not simply to be taught what the will of God is, but to be taught and brought to the observance, and doing of it. The former kind of teaching is of less avail, as upon God’s showing us our duty we by no means necessarily follow it, and it is necessary that he should draw out our affections to himself. God therefore must be master and teacher to us not only in the dead letter, but by the inward motions of his Spirit; indeed there are three ways in which he acts the part of our teacher, instructing us by his word, enlightening our minds by the Spirit, and engraving instruction upon our hearts, so as to bring us observe it with a true and cordial consent. The mere hearing of the word would serve no purpose, nor is it enough that we understand it; there must be besides the willing’ obedience of the heart. Nor does he merely say, Teach me that I may be capable of doing, as the deluded Papists imagine that the grace of God does no more than make us flexible to what is good, but he seeks something to be actually and presently done.
He insists upon the same thing in the next clause, when he says, Let thy good Spirit lead me, etc., for he desires the guidance of the Spirit not merely as he enlightens our minds, but as he effectually influences the consent of our hearts, and as it were leads us by the hand. The passage in its connection warns us of the necessity of being sedulously on our guard against yielding to inordinate passions in any contests we may have with wicked persons, and as we have no sufficient wisdom or power of our own by which to check and restrain these passions, that we should always seek the guidance of God’s Spirit, to keep them in moderation. More generally, the passage teaches us what we are to think of free will; for David here denies the will to have the power of judging rightly, till our hearts be formed to a holy obedience by the Spirit of God. The term leading, which I have already adverted to, proves also that David did not hold that middle species of grace which Papists talk so much about, and which leaves man in a state of suspension or indecision, but asserts something much more effectual, agreeably to what Paul says, (Philippians 2:13,) that
“it is God who works in us both to will and to do
of his good pleasure.”
By the words right hand, I understand, figuratively, uprightness; David’s meaning being, that we are drawn into error whenever we decline from what is agreeable to the will of God. The term Spirit is tacitly opposed to that corruption which is natural to us; what he says being tantamount to this, that all men’s thoughts are polluted and perverted, till reduced to right rule by the grace of the Spirit. It follows that nothing which is dictated by the judgment of the flesh is good or sound. I grant that wicked men are led away by an evil spirit sent from God, for he executes his judgments by the agency of devils, 254 (1 Samuel 16:14😉 but when David in this place speaks of God’s good Spirit, I do not imagine that he has any such strained allusion, but rather that he takes here to himself the charge of corruption, and assigns the praise of whatever is good, upright, or true, to the Spirit of God. When he says, Because thou art my God, he shows that his confidence of obtaining his request was founded entirely upon the free favor and promises of God. It is not a matter lying within our own power to make him our God, but it rests with his free preventing grace.
11. For thy name’s sake, O Jehovah! etc. By this expression he makes it still more clear that it was entirely of God’s free mercy that he looked for deliverance; for, had he brought forward anything of his own, the cause would not have been in God, and only in God. He is said to help us for his own name’s sake, when, although he discovers nothing in us to conciliate his favor, he is induced to interpose of his mere goodness. To the same effect is the term righteousness; for God, as I have said elsewhere, has made the deliverance of his people a means of illustrating his righteousness. He at the same time repeats what he had said as to the extraordinary extent of his afflictions: in seeking to be quickened or made alive, he declares himself to be exanimated, and that he must remain under the power of death, if the God who has the issues of life did not recover him by a species of resurrection.
12. And in thy mercy, etc. In this verse he repeats for the fifth or sixth time that he looked for life only of God’s free mercy. Whatever severity may appear on the part of God when he destroys the wicked, David affirms that the vengeance taken upon them would be a proof of fatherly mercy to him. Indeed these two things often meet together — the severity and the goodness of God; for in stretching out his hand to deliver his own people, he directs the thunder of his indignation against their enemies. In short, he comes forth armed for the deliverance of his people, as he says in Isaiah,
“The day of vengeance is in mine heart,
and this is the year of my redemption.” (Isaiah 63:4.)
In calling himself The servant of God, he by no means boasts of his services, but rather commends the grace of God, to whom he owed this privilege. This is not an honor to be got by our own struggles or exertions — to be reckoned among God’s servants; it depends upon his free choice, by which he condescends before we are born to take us into the number and rank of his followers, as David elsewhere declares still more explicitly —
“I am thy servant, truly I am thy servant,
and the son of thine handmaid.” (Psalm 116:16.)
This is equivalent to making himself God’s client, and committing his life to his protection.
I read this Psalm this morning and it is a perfect description of the state of my soul.