Psalm 36 – Mercy to the Heavens
This psalm is titled To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord. Only Psalm 18 also uses the phrase the servant of the Lord in the title, and John Trapp observed that Psalm 18 comes from David’s old age, and Psalm 36 comes from a younger David. From youth to old age, he was David the servant of the Lord and “He took more pleasure in the names of duty than of dignity.” (John Trapp)
A. A contrast between the wicked man and the righteous God.
1. (1-4) The wicked man.
An oracle within my heart concerning the transgression of the wicked:
There is no fear of God before his eyes.
For he flatters himself in his own eyes,
When he finds out his iniquity and when he hates.
The words of his mouth are wickedness and deceit;
He has ceased to be wise and to do good.
He devises wickedness on his bed;
He sets himself in a way that is not good;
He does not abhor evil.
a. An oracle within my heart concerning the transgression of the wicked: The sense in the original is that this is literally an oracle of transgression, as if David were divinely taught by the sins of others.
i. The same Hebrew word (neum) is used in many places describing an utterance from God (such as in the phrase says the Lord in Genesis 22:16 and Numbers 14:28). It is used to describe an oracle of David in 2 Samuel 23:11 (thus says David the son of Jesse). The use in Psalm 36:1 is interesting: it is “thus says transgression” or an oracle of transgression.
ii. “Men’s sins have a voice to godly ears. They are the outer index of an inner evil.” (Spurgeon)
iii. There is a secondary way to understand this: that the oracle of transgression is that which speaks in the heart of the sinner himself. “We have then a bold personification of ‘Transgression’ as speaking in the secret heart of the wicked, as in some dark cave, such as heathen oracle-mongers haunted…. This is the account of how men come to do evil: that there is a voice within whispering falsehood.” (Maclaren)
b. There is no fear of God before his eyes: This may be obvious but is often forgotten. The foundation of the wicked man’s character and deeds is a lack of the fear of God. He does not respect or reverence God as he should.
i. “It is likely that Paul had this psalm in mind as he composed the opening chapters of his great letter, since he quotes verse 1 in Romans 3:18.” (Boice)
ii. “The description of the evil man is graphic. He has by some means persuaded himself that God does not interfere with men. Consequently he has no fear of God, enthrones himself at the centre of his own being, and goes in the way of wickedness in thought and in action.” (Morgan)
c. He flatters himself in his own eyes: The wicked man lowers his estimation of God and raises his estimation of himself. He thinks of himself much more highly than he should both in regard to his sins (his iniquity) and his prejudices (hates).
i. The essence of flattery is found in words that say one is better than he or she actually is. We usually think of flattery as coming from others, but we are entirely able to tell ourselves that we are better than we actually are.
ii. Matthew Poole described several ways one may flatter oneself in regard to sin:
· That his sins “are not sins, which a mind bribed by passion and interest can easily believe.”
· That his sins “are but small and venial sins.”
· That his sins “will be excused, if not justified by honest intentions, or by outward professions and exercise of religion, or by some good actions, wherewith he thinks to make some compensation for them or some other way.”
iii. “He had not God before his eyes in holy awe, therefore he puts himself there in unholy admiration. He who makes little of God makes much of himself. They who forget adoration fall into adulation. The eyes must see something, and if they admire not God they will flatter self.” (Spurgeon)
iv. When he finds out his iniquity: “He vainly thinks his crimes may be concealed, or disguised, till a discovery breaks the charm, and disperses the delusion.” (Horne)
v. “Until God by some dreadful judgment undeceive him.” (Poole)
vi. He flatters himself when the sin is discovered. “To smooth over one’s own conduct to one’s conscience (which is the meaning of the Hebrew) is to smooth one’s own path to hell.” (Spurgeon)
d. He has ceased to be wise and to do good: The character of the wicked man is shown in his words (which are wickedness and deceit), in his plans (he devises wickedness), in his habits (sets himself in a way that is not good), and in his attractions (he does not abhor evil).
i. Iniquity and deceit: “This pair of hell dogs generally hunt together, and what one does not catch the other will; if iniquity cannot win by oppression, deceit will gain by chicanery.” (Spurgeon)
ii. He devises wickedness on his bed: “Which notes that he doth it, 1. Constantly and unweariedly, preferring it before his own rest. 2. Earnestly and seriously, when his mind is freed from all outward distractions, and wholly at leisure to attend that business about which it is employed, compare Psalm 4:4. 3. Freely, from his own inclination, when none are present to provoke him to it.” (Poole)
iii. “The evil person is not merely drifting into evil ways. He is inventing ways to do it, in contrast to the godly who spent the wakeful hours of the night meditating on God and his commandments [as in Psalm 1:2 and 63:6].” (Boice)
iv. On his bed…in a way: “The phrase ‘on his bed’ is parallel with ‘on the way’. The ungodly considers evil both in his lying down and in his walking.” (VanGemeren)
v. He sets himself in a way that is not good: “And there meaneth to keep him, as the word importeth; set he is, and he will not be removed, being every whit as good as ever he meaneth to be.” (Trapp)
vi. He does not abhor evil: “So far from having a contempt and abhorrence for evil, he even rejoices in it, and patronises it. He never hates a wrong thing because it is wrong, but he meditates on it, defends it, and practises it.” (Spurgeon)
vii. Sin is found in what we don’t do as well as in what we do. “A striking note in this description is the prominence of negative sins among the positive ones: viz. ceased…not good…spurns not.” (Kidner)
2. (5-6) The good and righteous God.
Your mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens;
Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the great mountains;
Your judgments are a great deep;
O Lord, You preserve man and beast.
a. Your mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens: We sense that David has thought long enough about the wicked man. Now he turns to the great mercy and faithfulness of Yahweh (the Lord), the covenant God of Israel.
i. The translation of mercy here is inconsistent, for the same Hebrew word hesed is translated as lovingkindness in both Psalm 36:7 and 36:10. This wonderful word speaks of God’s love and mercy, especially to His covenant people.
ii. “The most important of the attributes from the perspective of this psalm is hesed, usually translated ‘unfailing love’ or ‘lovingkindness.’” (Boice)
iii. “One can easily imagine that the psalm was written on some natural height from which the singer looked out on a far-stretching scene in which he saw symbols of truth concerning his God. Note the sweep of vision: the heavens, the skies or clouds, the mountains, the great deep, the river, and over all, the light.” (Morgan)
iv. Your mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens: “Like the ethereal blue, it encompasses the whole earth, smiling upon universal nature, acting as a canopy for all the creatures of earth, surmounting the loftiest peaks of human provocations, and rising high above the mists of mortal transgression.” (Spurgeon)
b. Mercy…faithfulness…righteousness…judgments: David can only describe these attributes of God with the biggest things he can think of – the heavens, the clouds that fill the sky, the great mountains, and the great deep of the sea.
i. Reaches to the clouds: Hebrew, “ad shechakim, to the eternal regions; above all visible space.” (Clarke)
ii. Great mountains: In Hebrew, “mountains of God…. David, that is, after the manner of the Hebrew tongue, which, when it would magnify anything, addeth the name of God.” (Trapp)
c. O Lord, You preserve man and beast: The goodness of God is shown in the way He cares for His creatures. The ecosystem of His creation has enough to provide for the needs of those He has created, both man and beast.
B. Looking to the God of mercy for help against wicked men.
1. (7-9) Thanks for the goodness of God toward His people.
How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God!
Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.
They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house,
And You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures.
For with You is the fountain of life;
In Your light we see light.
a. How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God: Considering the care of God for His people and His creation, David felt the mercy of God to be a precious and personal thing.
i. “The word precious establishes at once the change of scale from the immense to the intimate and personal.” (Kidner)
ii. The repeated use of the word lovingkindness is instructive. It “needs both emphases: that of verse 5 as too great to grasp, and of verse 7 as too good to let slip.” (Kidner)
b. Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings: The merciful God is a place of rest and protection for the people of God. God invites all among the children of men to find this refuge of trust in Him.
i. There are two main ways that commentators understand the figure shadow of Your wings. Some take it to mean the wings of the cherubim represented in His tabernacle and the later temple. Cherubim wings were depicted on the lid of the ark of the covenant, which was the representation of God’s throne. Others take it in the sense that a hen covers her young chicks under her wings to protect, hide, and shelter them.
ii. “These…are the two wings of the Divine goodness, under which the children of men take refuge. The allusion may be to the wings of the cherubim, above the mercy-seat.” (Clarke)
iii. “As chickens in a storm, or when the puttock threateneth, hover and cover under the hen.” (Trapp)
iv. “The picture of taking refuge in the shadow of thy wings was used of Ruth by Boaz (Ruth 2:12), and of Jerusalem by Jesus (Matthew 23:37); it shows an aspect of salvation which is as humbling as it is reassuring.” (Kidner)
c. They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house: God cares for and protects those who trust in Him as a gracious and honorable host would for anyone in his house. The fullness of God’s house is enough to satisfy anyone, offering a virtual river of…pleasures in Him.
i. They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house: The word fullness here is literally fatness, and its use is suggestive. “The fattest is esteemed the fairest and the most excellent food; therefore the saint was enjoined to offer the fat in sacrifice under the law. As God expects the best from us, so he gives the best to us.” (Swinnock, cited in Spurgeon)
ii. The fullness of Your house: Spurgeon cited a story by Arnot regarding a man who moved his family to a much larger and better equipped home. His young son kept running through the house yelling, “Is this ours, father? And is this ours?” Arnot observed: “The child did not say [Is this] ‘yours;’ and I observed that the father while he told the story was not offended with the freedom. You could read in his glistening eye that the infant’s confidence in appropriating as his own all that his father had, was an important element in his satisfaction.” This will be one of our great joys in heaven when we come to our Father’s house. With unmeasured satisfaction we will have the right to roam heaven and say, “Is this ours? And is this ours?” and say it unto eternity.
iii. The river of Your pleasures: “Union with Him is the source of all delight, as of all true fruition of desires. Possibly a reference to Eden may be intended in the selection of the word for ‘pleasures,’ which is a cognate with that name.” (Maclaren)
iv. The river of Your pleasures: “Some drops from the celestial cup are sufficient, for a time, to make us forget our sorrows, even while we are in the midst of them. What then may we not expect from full draughts of those pleasures which are at thy right hand, O Lord, for evermore?” (Horne)
v. “Augustine tells us that one day, when he was about to write something upon the eighth verse of the thirty-sixth Psalm, ‘Thou shalt make them drink of the rivers of thy pleasures,’ and being almost swallowed up with the contemplation of heavenly joys.” (Brooks, cited in Spurgeon)
vi. “The psalmist’s conception of religion is essentially joyful. No doubt there are sources of sadness peculiar to a religious man, and he is necessarily shut out from much of the effervescent poison of earthly joys drugged with sin. Much in his life is inevitably grave, stern, and sad. But the sources of joy opened are far deeper than those that are closed.” (Maclaren)
d. With You is the fountain of life; in Your light we see light: The satisfaction and pleasures found in God are connected to life and light. They heal and build, giving life; they are full of the light of truth and goodness.
i. A fountain speaks of “1. Causality. It is in God as in a fountain, and from him is derived to us. 2. Abundance. 3. Excellency. Water is sweetest in the fountain.” (Poole)
ii. “Of all the abundant and varying life, He is the Source or Fountain, and the sunshine of His face is the light on everything.” (Morgan)
iii. In Your light we see light: “‘Tis but a kind of dim twilight comparatively, which we enjoy here in this world. While we are hid in this prison-house we can see but little; but our Father’s house above is full of light.” (Cruso, cited in Spurgeon)
iv. In Your light we see light is similar in thought to what John wrote in the opening words of his Gospel: Jesus was the true Light which gives light to every man (John 1:9). “It is hard to doubt that John was thinking of Psalm 36:9 as he composed the prelude.” (Boice)
2. (10-12) Prayer for continued blessing and protection.
Oh, continue Your lovingkindness to those who know You,
And Your righteousness to the upright in heart.
Let not the foot of pride come against me,
And let not the hand of the wicked drive me away.
There the workers of iniquity have fallen;
They have been cast down and are not able to rise.
a. Continue Your lovingkindness to those who know You: Having received the good mercy and righteousness of God, David rightly prays that it would continue for himself and all those who know God in right relationship.
i. Continue Your lovingkindness: “The Hebrew is, draw forth, or draw out thy lovingkindness: a metaphor either taken from vessels of wine, which being set abroach once, yield not only one cup, but many cups; so when God setteth abroach the wine of his mercy, he will not fill your cup once, but twice and seven times.” (Greenhill, cited in Spurgeon)
ii. “Learn from this verse, that although a continuance of mercy is guaranteed in the covenant, we are yet to make it a matter of prayer.” (Spurgeon)
iii. We note the parallelism between those who know You and the upright in heart. David naturally thought that those who genuinely knew God would be upright in heart.
b. Let not the foot of pride come against me: David earlier praised God as the one who protects and blesses His people (Psalm 36:7). Now David prayed that God would fulfill this aspect of His character, protecting His servant against both the foot and the hand of the wicked.
c. There the workers of iniquity have fallen: David considered the end of the wicked men that he thought of at the beginning of this psalm. They are fallen, and so much so that they are not able to rise. Unlike the righteous who may fall seven times yet rise up again (Proverbs 24:16), the workers of iniquity remain in the dust as God protects His servants.
i. “From his serene shelter under the wing, the suppliant looks out on the rout of baffled foes, and sees the end which gives the lie to the oracle of transgression and its flatteries. ‘They are struck down,’ the same word as in the picture of the pursuing angel of the Lord in Psalm 35.” (Maclaren)
ii. There is some emphasis on the word there in this phrase. Some think it refers to the pride mentioned in the previous verse, ans others to the place where the workers of iniquity practiced their sin.
iii. “THERE, has been applied by many of the fathers to the pride spoken of in the preceding verse. There, in or by pride, says Augustine, do all sinners perish.” (Clarke)
iv. “There, where they come against me, and hope to ruin me. He seems as it were to point to the place with his finger.” (Poole)
v. “There, where they plotted or practised the downfall of the righteous; as Henry III of France was stabbed in the same chamber where he and others had contrived the Parisian massacre.” (Trapp)
(c) 2019 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org