Whether the Prophet in this Psalm prays in his own name in particular, or represents the whole Church, it is manifest, that finding himself overwhelmed with adversities, he supplicates deliverance with passionate ardor. And while acknowledging that he is justly chastised by the hand of God, he encourages himself and all genuine believers to cherish good hope, since God is the everlasting deliverer of his people, and has always in readiness the means of effecting their rescue from death.
A Song of Degrees.
1. Out of the deep places have I cried to thee, O Jehovah 2. O Lord hear voice; let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my prayers 3. If thou, O God shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord who shall stand? 4. But with thee there is forgiveness that thou mayest be feared.
1. Out of the deep places have I cried to thee, O Jehovah! It is to be noticed that the Prophet speaks of himself as sending forth his voice, as it were from out of a deep gulf,1 feeling himself overwhelmed with calamities. As the miseries to which there is no prospect of a termination commonly bring despair in their train, nothing is more difficult than for persons, when involved in grievous and deep sorrow, to stir up their minds to the exercise of prayer. And it is wonderful, considering that whilst we enjoy peace and prosperity we are cold in prayer, (because then our hearts are in a state of infatuated security, how in adversities, which ought to quicken us, we are still more stupefied. But the Prophet derives confidence in coming to the time one of grace from the very troubles, cares, dangers and sorrow into which he was plunged. He expresses his perplexity and the earnestness of his desire both by the word cry, and by the repetition continued in the second verse. So much the more detestable then is the barbarous ignorance of the Papist's, in shamefully profaning this Psalm by wresting; it to a purpose wholly foreign to its genuine application. To what intent do they mumble it over for the dead, if it; is not that, in consequence of Satan having bewitched them, they may by their profanity extinguish a doctrine of singular utility? From the time that this Psalm was, by, a forced interpretation, applied to the souls of the dead, it is very generally believed to be of no use whatever to the living, and thus the world has lost an inestimable treasure.
3. If thou, O God! shoudst mark iniquities.2 Here the Prophet acknowledges that although grievously afflicted he had justly deserved such punishment, as had been inflicted upon him. As by his own example he gives a rule which the whole Church ought to observe, let no man presume to intrude himself into the presence of God, but in the way of humbly deprecating his wrath; and especially when God exercises severity in his dealings towards us, let us know that we are required to make the same confession which is here uttered. Whoever either flatters himself or buries his sins by inattention to them, deserves to pine away in his miseries; at least he is unworthy of obtaining from God the smallest alleviation. Whenever God then exhibits the tokens of his wrath, let even the man who seems to others to be the holies of all his fellows, descend to make this confession, that should God determine to deal with us according to the strict demands of his law, and to summon us before his tribunal, not one of the whole human race would be able to stand. We grant that it is one man only who here prays, but he at once pronounces sentence upon the whole human race. "All the children of Adam," he substantially says, "from the first to the last, are lost and condemned, should God require them to render up an account of their life." It is therefore necessary that even the holiest of men should pass under this condemnation, that they may betake themselves to the mercy of God as their only refuge. The Prophet does not however mean to extenuate his own fault by thus involving others with himself, as we see hypocrites do, who when they dare not altogether justify themselves, resort to this subterfuge, "Am I the first or the only man who has offended?" and thus, mingling themselves with a multitude of others, they think themselves half absolved from their guilt. But the Prophet, instead of seeking to shelter himself under such a subterfuge, rather confesses, after having thoroughly examined himself, that if of the whole human race not even one can escape eternal perdition, this instead of lessening rather increased his obnoxiousness to punishment. Whoever, as if he had said, shall come into the presence of God, whatever may be his eminence for sanctity, he must succumb and stand confounded,3 what then will be the case as to me, who am not one of the best? The right application of this doctrine is, for every man to examine in good earnest his own life by the perfection which is enjoined upon us in the law. In this way he will be forced to confess that all men without exception have deserved everlasting damnation; and each will acknowledge in respect to himself that he is a thousand times undone. Farther, this passage teaches us that, since no man can stand by his own works, all such as are accounted righteous before God, are righteous in consequence of the pardon and remission of their sins. In no other manner can any man be righteous in the sight of God. Very differently do the Papists think. They indeed confess that the deficiencies of our works are supplied by the lenity which God exercises towards us; but at the same time they dream of a partial righteousness, on the ground of which men may stand before God. In entertaining such an idea they go very far astray from the sense of the Prophet, as will appear more plainly from the sequel.
4. But with thee there is forgiveness. This verse leads us farther. Though all men confess with the mouth that there is no human being in the world whom God may not justly adjudge to everlasting death, should it so please him, yet how few are persuaded of the truth which the Prophet now adds, that the grace of which they stand in need shall not be denied them? They either sleep in their sins through stupidity, or fluctuate amidst a variety of doubts, and, at length, are overwhelmed with despair. This maxim, "that no man is free from sin," is, as I have said, received among all men without dispute, and yet the majority shut their eyes to their own faults, and settle securely in hiding places to which, in their ignorance, they have betaken themselves, if they are not forcibly roused out of them, and then, when pursued close by the judgments of God, they are overwhelmed with alarm, or so greatly tormented as to fall into despair. The consequence of this want of hope in men, that God will be favorable to them, is an indifference about coming into the Divine presence to supplicate for pardon. When a man is awakened with a lively sense of the judgment of God, lie cannot fail to be humbled with shame and fear. Such self-dissatisfaction would not however suffice, unless at the same time there were added faith, whose office it is to raise up the hearts which were cast down with fear, and to encourage them to pray for forgiveness. David then acted as he ought to have done when, in order to his attaining genuine repentance, he first summons himself before God's judgment seat; but, to preserve his confidence from failing under the overpowering influence of fear, he presently adds the hope which there was of obtaining pardon. It is, indeed, a matter which comes under our daily observation, that those who proceed not beyond the step of thinking themselves deserving of endless death, rush, like frenzied men, with great impetuosity against God. The better, therefore, to confirm himself and others, the Prophet declares that God's mercy cannot be separated or torn away from himself. "As soon as I think upon thee," he says in amount, "thy clemency also presents itself to my mind, so that I have no doubt that thou wilt be merciful to me, it being impossible for thee to divest thyself of thy own nature: the very fact that thou art God is to me a sure guarantee that thou wilt be merciful." At the same time let it be understood, that he does not here speak of a confused knowledge of the grace of God, but of such a knowledge of it as enables the sinner to conclude with certainty, that as soon as he seeks God he shall find him ready to be reconciled towards him. It is not therefore surprising that among the Papists there is no steady calling upon God, when we consider that, in consequence of their mingling their own merits, satisfactions, and worthy preparation as they term it with the grace of God, they continue always in suspense and doubt respecting their reconciliation with God. Thus it comes to pass, that by praying they only augment their own sorrows and torments, just as if a man should lay wood upon a fire already kindled. Whoever would reap profit from the exercise of prayer, must necessarily begin with free remission of sins. It is also proper to mark the final cause as we say for which God is inclined to forgive, and never comes forward without showing himself easy to be pacified towards those who serve him; which is the absolute necessity of this hope of obtaining forgiveness, to the existence of piety, and the worship of God in the world. This is another principle of which the Papists are ignorant. They, indeed, make long sermons4 about the fear of God, but, by keeping poor souls in perplexity and doubt, they build without a foundation. The first step to the right serving of God unquestionably is, to submit ourselves to him willingly and with a free heart. The doctrine which Paul teaches concerning alms-deeds, 2 Corinthians 9:7, that "God loveth a cheerful giver," is to be extended to all parts of the life. How is it possible for any man to offer himself cheerfully to God unless he rely upon his grace, and be certainly persuaded that the obedience lie yields is pleasing to him? When this is not the case all men will rather shun God, and be afraid to appear in his presence, and if they do not altogether turn their back upon him, they will catch at subterfuges. In short, the sense of God's judgment, unless conjoined with the hope of forgiveness, strikes men with terror, which must necessarily engender hatred. It is no doubt true, that the sinner, who, alarmed at the Divine threatenings, is tormented in himself, does not. despise God, but yet lie shuns him; and this shunning of him is downright apostasy and rebellion. Whence it follows, that men never serve God aright unless they know that he is a gracious and merciful being. The other reason to which I have adverted must also be remembered, which is, that unless we are assured that what we offer to God is acceptable to him, we will be seized with indolence and stupidity which will keep us from doing our duty. Although unbelievers often show a great deal of earnestness, just as we see the Papists laboriously occupied with their superstitions, yet, from their not being persuaded that God is reconciled to them, they do not all the while render to him any voluntary obedience. Were they not held back by a slavish fear, the horrible rebellion of their heart, which this fear keeps hidden and suppressed, would soon manifest itself externally.