4. Return, O Lord, deliver my soul; save me for thy mercy's sake. 5. For in death there is no remembrance of thee; and in the grave who shall acknowledge thee?1
4. Return, O Lord. In the preceding verses the Psalmist bewailed the absence of God, and now he earnestly requests the tokens of his presence, for our happiness consists in this, that we are the objects of the Divine regard, but we think he is alienated front us, if he does not give us some substantial evidence of his care for us. That David was at this time in the utmost peril, we gather from these words, in which he prays both for the deliverance of his soul, as it were, from the jaws of death, and for his restoration to a state of safety. Yet no mention is made of any bodily disease, and, therefore, I give no judgment with respect to the kind of his affliction. David, again, confirms what he had touched upon in the second verse concerning the mercy of God, namely, that this is the only quarter from which he hopes for deliverance:Save me for thy mercy's sake. Men will never find a remedy for their miseries until, forgetting their own merits, by trusting to which they only deceive themselves, they have learned to betake themselves to the free mercy of God.
5. For in death there is no remembrance of thee. After God has bestowed all things freely upon us, he requires nothing in return but a grateful remembrance of his benefits. To this gratitude reference is made when David says, that there will be no remembrance of God in death, nor any celebration of his praise in the grave. His meaning is, that if, by the grace of God, he shall be delivered from death, he will be grateful for it, and keep it in remembrance. And he laments, that if he should be removed out of the world, he would be deprived of the power and opportunity of manifesting his gratitude, since in that case he would no longer mingle in the society of men, there to commend or celebrate the name of God. From this passage some conclude, that the dead have no feeling, and that it is wholly extinct in them; but this is a rash and unwarranted inference, for nothing is here treated of but the mutual celebration of the grace of God, in which men engage while they continue in the land of the living. We know that we are placed on the earth to praise God with one mind and one mouth, and that this is the end of our life. Death, it is true, puts an end to such praises; but it does not follow from this, that the souls of the faithful, when divested of their bodies, are deprived of understanding, or touched with no affection towards God. It is also to be considered, that, on the present occasion, David dreaded the judgment of God if death should befall him, and this made him dumb as to singing the praises of God. It is only the goodness of God sensibly experienced by us which opens our mouth to celebrate his praise; and whenever, therefore, joy and gladness are taken away, praises also must cease. It is not then wonderful if the wrath of God, which overwhelms us with the fear of eternal destruction, is said to extinguish in us the praises of God.
From this passage, we are furnished with the solution of another question, why David so greatly dreaded death, as if there had been nothing to hope for beyond this world. Learned men reckon up three causes why the fathers under the law were so much kept in bondage by the fear of death. The first is, because the grace of God, not being then made manifest by the coming of Christ, the promises, which were obscure, gave them only a slight acquaintance with the life to come. The second is, because the present life, in which God deals with us as a Father, is of itself desirable. And the third, because they were afraid lest, after their decease, some change to the worse might take place in religion. But to me these reasons do not appear to be sufficiently solid. David's mind was not always occupied by the fear he now felt; and when he came to die, being full of days and weary of this life, he calmly yielded up his soul into the bosom of God. The second reason is equally applicable to us at the present day, as it was to the ancient fathers, inasmuch as God's fatherly love shines forth towards us also even in this life, and with much more illustrious proofs than under the former dispensation. But, as I have just observed, I consider this complaint of David as including something different, namely, that feeling the hand of God to be against him, and knowing his hatred of sin,2 he is overwhelmed with fear and involved in the deepest distress. The same may also be said of Hezekiah, inasmuch as he did not simply pray for deliverance from death, but from the wrath of God, which he felt to be very awful, (Isaiah 38:3.)