George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

Psalm 12

1. Outline

The shape of the psalm is essentially simple:

A prayer for help, and why
God’s reassurance

2. Historical background

One reputable commentary asserts that “the tradition of the Davidic authorship must be discarded here” — or is it such bald presumption that must be discarded? The most likely historical setting is Absalom’s rebellion, which must have been prepared and accompanied by a vigorous campaign of false rumor and character assassination. The only alternative seems to be the hostility of Doeg the Edomite, based on Psalm 52:2-4. In either case the basic theme is the debasing of the currency of words, through systematic lying propaganda — in this sense the psalm has almost a modern quality.

3. Absalom’s rebellion (2 Samuel 15 and 16)

Help, Lord; for the godly man ceaseth. Many supporters, whom David thought he could count on, evidently fell away. Otherwise, would he have abandoned Jerusalem?
They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak. Absalom’s organized denigration of the king, which could do so much in weaning supporters away from him: 2 Sam. 15:1-6.
The tongue that speaketh proud things. The confidence of the rebels that they will succeed.
Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail: our lips are our own: who is lord over us? A comparable confidence in the power of their propaganda.
For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the Lord: I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him. All will yet turn out well. There is a reassuring pronouncement, through a prophet or from the high priest (by Urim and Thummim?).

Set him in safety refers to Mahanaim (2 Sam. 17:27), where David knew that he could count on the protection, not only of loyal followers, but also of a host of angels of the Lord: Psa. 34:7; Gen. 32:1,2.
These words of the Lord (v. 5) are compared to refined silver because they imply redemption: Exod. 30:12,13; 38:26,27. David would be delivered, or redeemed, out of his trials.
Keep them. LXX and RSV have “us”.
The vilest men exalted. Ahithophel?

The wicked....on every side. Ziba, Shimei?

4. Messianic reference

Help is nearly the word “Messiah”. This verse implies a serious falling away of disciples from close loyalty to Jesus, in the last days of the ministry: John 6:60,66; Matt. 26:56.
They speak vanity. A systematic propaganda campaign against Jesus. Or Judas’ kiss of betrayal: Matt. 26:49.

With a double heart (mind) they do speak. A reference to their deceitful talk in temple discussions: Matt. 22:16.
The Lord shall cut off. The parable of the vineyard: Luke 20:16.
Who is lord over us? The rulers who rejected Jesus were essentially atheists. Note John 11:48: our place (i.e. temple) and our nation!
Oppression....sighing. The willfull opposition and malicious criticism of his adversaries were to Jesus worse than physical persecution. But at last he was set in safety.
The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. The words of the Old Testament were an invaluable source of strength to him.
Thou shalt preserve....for ever. The assurance of resurrection.

This generation. Matt. 12:39-45.

5. Other details

They speak vanity every one with his neighbour. Paul quotes these words in Eph. 4:25, making a powerful contrast by the drastic change of one word: i.e. “vanity” to “truth”! Compare the flattery of Tertullus with the sincerity of Paul in Acts 24:1-10.

With a double heart. Literally, “with a heart and a heart” (AV mg.; cp. 1 Chron. 12:33). This context suggests that James 1:8 refers not to the well-meaning doubter but to the willful traitor. “A man without a heart is a wonder; but a man with two hearts is a monster” (Thomas Adams).
Flattering lips. Hebrew: “lips of smoothness” (cp. 55:21; Isa. 30:10).

Speaketh proud things. James 3:5. True of human nature to the very end: Dan. 7:20,25.
Our lips are our own. Meaning either: (a) they are our chief resource, or (b) we have a right to say what we like. Literally: “our lips are with us”; contrast “Immanuel” (God is with us). “Speaking great swelling words “ (Jude 16) of boastful arrogance (2 Pet. 2:10-12). This is the absolute contrast to 1 Cor. 6:20, where Paul tells us that our bodies, and every member thereof, belong to God.
The poor....and needy, as in Psa. 9:18.

Oppression means plundering: the rebels at work. LXX: s.w. James 5:1; 4:9.

Sighing: s.w. 79:11; 102:20; Rom. 8:26.

Now will I arise. That God will do so is a constant prayer: Psa. 3:7; 7:6; 9:19; 10:12. Compare Exod. 2:23-25; 3:7-9.

Saith the Lord. The interesting phenomenon of a revelation embodied in a later inspired Scripture. So also in Psa. 60:6-8; 81:5-14; 95:8-11; 132:11-18.

Him that puffeth at him could be read as a separate sentence: Let him (i.e. the oppressor) puff at him. Or, as RV mg., very differently: In the safety he panteth for (42:1,2).
The words of the Lord, with primary reference to v. 5; a sharp contrast with v. 4.

Pure words. Prov. 30:5. This word is used many times of a man pronounced clean under the Law of Moses (Lev. 13:13,17,37,39-41; etc.), e.g. the healed leper. Apply to the Word of the Lord.

Read: Words of earth (i.e. human words), purified seven times, as silver is tried in a furnace. For “silver”, see note in Par. 3. For the purifying effect of fiery trials, see 1 Pet. 1:7; Prov. 17:3; 27:21; Job 23:10; Mal. 3:3.
When the vilest men are exalted (Prov. 28:12,18; 29:2). “The vilest of the sons of Adam”; i.e. Cain, who slew his brother: Gen. 4:8; 1 John 3:12.

6. Postscript

Help, Lord, for godly men hath took their flight
        And left the earth to be the wicked’s den;
Not one that standeth fast to truth and right,
        But fears, or seeks to please, the eyes of men:
When one with other falls in talk apart,
        Their meaning go’th not with their words in proof,
But fair they flatter with a cloven heart,
        By pleasing words, to work their own behoof.
But, God, cut off the lips that are all set
        To trap the harmless soul, that peace hath vowed;
And pierce the tongues that seek to counterfeit
        The confidence of truth, by lying loud:
Yet so they think to reign, and work their will
        By subtile speech, which enters everywhere;
And say: Our tongues are ours, to help us still:
        What need we any higher power to fear?
Now, for the bitter sighing of the poor,
        The Lord hath said, I will no more forbear
The wicked’s kingdom to invade and scour,
        And set at large the men restrained in fear.
And sure the word of God is pure and fine,
        And in the trial never loseth weight;
Like noble gold, which, since it left the mine,
        Hath seven times pass’d through the fiery strait.
And now thou wilt not first thy word forsake,
        Nor yet the righteous man that leans thereto;
But wilt his safe protection undertake,
        In spite of all their force and wiles can do.
And time it is, O Lord, thou didst draw nigh;
        The wicked do enlarge their bands;
And that which makes them follow ill a vie,
        Rule is betaken to unworthy hands.

Paraphrase by Francis Bacon
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