Calvin makes a number of remarks about good and bad princes in his comments on Psalm 76, and is insistent that all are subject to God’s providence and purposes.
First, in his remarks on v.4 he waxes Augustinian (City of God 4) on the violent and mischievous means by which many kingdoms have expanded. These are compared to “savage beasts”; but God always more powerful still:
It is farther added, (verse 4th,) that God is more glorious and terrible than the mountains of prey By the mountains of prey, is meant kingdoms distinguished for their violence and extortion. We know that from the beginning, he who exercised himself most in robbery and pillage, was the man who most enlarged his borders and became greatest. The Psalmist, therefore, here compares those great kings, who had acquired large dominions by violence and the shedding of human blood, to savage beasts, who live only upon prey, and their kingdoms to mountains covered with forests, which are inhabited by beasts inured to live by the destruction of other animals. The enemies of God’s ancient people had been accustomed to make violent and furious assaults upon Jerusalem; but it is affirmed that God greatly surpassed them all in power that the faithful might not be overwhelmed with terror.
Next, on v.8, he notes that “godly princes” too are a judgment of God, albeit one that men are frequently wont to ascribe to earthly causes rather than heavenly ones although we should be thankful for it:
8. From heaven thou hast made thy judgment to be heard. By the name of heaven, the Psalmist forcibly intimates that the judgment of God was too manifest to admit of the possibility of its being ascribed either to fortune or to the policy of men. Sometimes God executes his judgments obscurely, so that they seem to proceed out of the earth. For example, when he raises up a godly and courageous prince, the holy and lawful administration which will flourish under the reign of such a prince will be the judgment of God, but it will not be vividly seen to proceed from heaven. As, therefore, the assistance spoken of was of an extraordinary kind, it is distinguished by special commendation.
Finally, on the last verse (“He will cut off the spirit of princes: he is terrible to the kings of the earth”), Calvin notes that all earthly kingdoms are under God’s sway, to the extent that he will deprive the ungodly of their understanding and “inflict blindness” on those who seem wise in earthly terms. Though Calvin remarked above that a godly prince is indeed a blessing, he believes that most are “enemies to the Church of God.” The “cutting off” he applies to “tyrants and robbers.”
12. He will cut off the spirit of princes. As the Hebrew word בצר, batsar, occasionally signifies to strengthen, some think it should be so translated in this passage. But as in the two clauses of the verse the same sentiment is repeated, I have no doubt that by the first clause is meant that understanding and wisdom are taken away from princes; and that by the second, God is represented in general as terrible to them, because he will cast them down headlong from their loftiness. As the first thing necessary to conduct an enterprise to a prosperous issue is to possess sound foresight, in which the people of God are often deficient from the great perplexity in which they are involved in the midst of their distresses, while, on the other hand, the ungodly are too sharp-sighted in their crafty schemes; it is here declared that it is in the power of God to deprive of understanding, and to inflict blindness on those who seem to surpass others in acuteness and ingenuity. The majority of princes being enemies to the Church of God, it is expressly affirmed, that He is sufficiently terrible to subdue all the kings of the earth. When it is said, that their spirit is cut off, or taken away from them, it is to be limited to tyrants and robbers whom God infatuates, because he sees that they apply all their ingenuity and counsels to do mischief.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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