Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This psalm is peculiar for its title, which stands quite alone among the inscriptions. It is neither historical nor musical in its reference; but describes the character of the psalm, and the circumstances amid which it would be found useful. That it was, therefore, affixed at a late time, when the collection had come to be employed, not merely for liturgical purposes and in public worship, but in private devotion, there can be little doubt. But the composition of the psalm must be referred to national rather than individual feeling. It is true the suppliant speaks from personal experience of distress actually pressing upon him; but this distress has not an individual character, but is of that general kind which is felt under national calamity and misfortunes. It is natural, from Psalm 102:14-15, to refer the composition to the exile period. With this also agree the many points of coincidence with the prophecies of the second part of Isaiah. But it must be remarked that the causes which the prophets of the exile assign to the national captivity or catastrophe do not appear here. There is no expression of repentance or contrition; nor yet of the deeper insight which, towards the end of the exile, brought into prominence the doctrine of vicarious suffering. Those in whose name the psalmist writes are the servants of Jehovah, and have never been anything else. He does not distinguish them as an exception to the mass of the people, who are guilty and deserve the destruction in which the whole universe is to be involved. For this reason many critics bring the psalm down to the Antiochean period, when Jerusalem suffered so much, and at one time presented a desolation like that mourned in the psalm (1 Maccabees 1:38-39). The verse-structure is irregular.
A Prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, and poureth out his complaint before the LORD. Hear my prayer, O LORD, and let my cry come unto thee.(1) Prayer.—Like love and all emotion, prayer has its own language, and this assumes here the forms of expression that meet us in other psalms. (See, e.g., in addition to the reference in margin, Psalm 31:2; Psalm 39:12; Psalm 56:9; Psalm 59:16; Psalm 143:7.)
Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily.(2) This verse may be better arranged, Hide not . . . in the day of my trouble. Incline . . . in the day when I call. Answer me speedily.
For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth.(3) Like smoke.—Or, in smoke. (See margin. Comp. Psalm 37:20.)
My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread.(4) Smitten.—As by the sun. Exactly as in Hosea 9:16.
By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin.(5) Skin.—See margin. In Lamentations 4:8, more correctly, “my skin cleaveth to my bones;” a picture of emaciation, the result of fasting.
I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.(6) Pelican.—See Leviticus 11:18. “It has been objected that the pelican is a water-bird, and cannot, therefore, be the kâath of the Scriptures—“the pelican of the wilderness”—as it must of necessity starve in the desert; but a midbar (wilderness) is often used to denote a wide open space, cultivated or uncultivated, and is not to be restricted to barren spots destitute of water; moreover, as a matter of fact, the pelican after filling its capacious pouch with fish, molluscs, &c, often does. retire to places far inland, where it consumes what it has captured. Thus, too, it breeds on the great sandy wastes near the mouths of the Danube. The expression ‘pelican in the wilderness,’ in the psalmist’s pitiable complaint, is a true picture of the bird as it sits in apparently melancholy mood with its bill resting on its breast (Bible Educator, iv. 8).
Owl.—Heb., khôs. (See Leviticus 11:17.) The bird is identified with the “owl” by the Hebrew in this passage, which should be rendered, “owl of the ruins.” Some, however, would identify this bird with the pelican, since khôs means “cup,” rendering “the pelican, even the pouch-bird.” (See Bible Educator, ii. 346.) LXX., Aquila, Theodotion, all have “screech-owl;” Symmachus, the “hoopoe.”
I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.(7) I watch—i.e., am sleepless,
Sparrow.—See Note, Psalm 84:3. Here render, like a lonely bird. Some MSS. read, “a wandering bird.”
Mine enemies reproach me all the day; and they that are mad against me are sworn against me.(8) Sworn against me.—Rather, swear by me, i.e., make his name a byeword of execration, to be explained by Isaiah 65:15; Jeremiah 29:22. LXX. and Vulg., “were swearing against me.”
For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping,(9) Ashes like bread.—Lamentations 3:16. A figurative expression, like “dust shall be the serpent’s meat” (Isaiah 65:25; comp. Genesis 3:14). With the last clause comp. Psalm 42:3, “tears have been my meat day and night.” So too, as an emblem of disappointment, a modern poet:—
“But even while I drank the brook, and ate
The goodly apples, all these things at once
Fell into dust, and I was left alone.”
TENNYSON: Holy Grail.
Because of thine indignation and thy wrath: for thou hast lifted me up, and cast me down.(10) Indignation and thy wrath.—Comp. Psalm 90:7. The last part of the clause is a figure taken from the action of a whirlwind. (Comp. Job 27:20-21; Job 30:22.)
My days are like a shadow that declineth; and I am withered like grass.(11) A shadow that declineth.—Rather, a lengthening shadow, growing longer as the day declines, and therefore soon to vanish altogether. (Comp. Psalm 109:23.)
“And now the sun had stretched out all the hills.”
See also Note, Song of Solomon 2:17.
But thou, O LORD, shalt endure for ever; and thy remembrance unto all generations.(12) For ever.—The eternity of God, which must survive the world itself, is a pledge of the truth of the national hopes, in spite of the vicissitudes of individuals, and the swift succession of generations. For the word “remembrance,” see Psalm 30:4. It is explained by Exodus 3:15, “This is my name for ever, and this is my memorial through all generations.” The generations come and go, and the memory of man perishes, but the name “Jehovah” endures still, the object of adoration and praise.
Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Zion: for the time to favour her, yea, the set time, is come.(13-16) The prospect (Isaiah 40:1-5) that the restoration of Jerusalem will take place simultaneously with the coming of Jehovah in glory, is here re-echoed from the prophet in a lyric form. “The set time” must not be rigidly explained by the “seventy years” of Jeremiah 25:11. The expression is general: “The hour is come.” (Comp. Isaiah 40:2.)
For thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and favour the dust thereof.(14) Stones . . . dust.—This touching description of the devotion of the Jews to their ruined city is best illustrated by the actual history in Nehemiah 3, 4, and by the scenes so often described by travellers at the “wailing place” in modern Jerusalem.
So the heathen shall fear the name of the LORD, and all the kings of the earth thy glory.(15) Heathen.—The same result of the restoration of the Holy City, viz., the recognition of Jehovah’s power and glory by the heathen, occupies the great prophecy, Isaiah 40-46.
He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer.(17) The destitute.—Literally, the naked one. Here the exiled people, stripped of home and religious rites. The word is only found once more, in Jeremiah 17:6 (comp. Jeremiah 48:6 for a kindred form), where it is translated “heath,” and in Arabic it is to this day the name of a stunted bush that grows in Palestine.
This shall be written for the generation to come: and the people which shall be created shall praise the LORD.(18) Written.—This is interesting as being the only place in the Psalms where the memory of great events is said to be preserved in writing. Oral tradition is mentioned in Psalm 22:30; Psalm 44:1; Psalm 78:2.
Shall be created.—See Psalm 22:31, “a people that shall be born”—the coming generation (as the parallelism shows) for whom the world will be regenerated.
To hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death;(20, 21) Comp. Isaiah 61:1-2, and generally the whole magnificent cycle of prophetic songs at the close of Isaiah.
Appointed to death.—See margin. LXX. and Vulg., “the sons of the slain.”
He weakened my strength in the way; he shortened my days.(23) In the way—i.e., in the course of life. Others render, “by reason of the way,” but the meaning is the same. The clause is exactly parallel to “shortened my days.”
I said, O my God, take me not away in the midst of my days: thy years are throughout all generations.(24) Take me not away.—The fear of not living to see the restoration of his race prompts the psalmist to this prayer to the God whose years are not, like man’s, for one generation, but endure from age to age.
Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.(25) Comp. Isaiah 44:24; Isaiah 48:13.
They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed:(26) Perish.—Compared with man, the victim of incessant change and visible decay, the fixed earth and the uplifted mountains are often employed as symbols of endurance and perpetuity, but compared with God’s eternal existence, they are but like a vesture that wears out. The source of the image is Isaiah 51:6. (Comp. Isaiah 34:4.) For the use made of the passage in Hebrews 1:10; Hebrews 1:12, see New Testament Commentary. The terms employed for “garment” and “vesture” (beged, lebûsh) are synonyms for the outer cloak worn by the Jews. The imagery of the text no doubt supplied Goëthe with the thought in his fine lines
“’Tis thus at the roaring loom of time I ply,
And weave for God the garment thou seest Him by!”
which in turn suggested to Carlyle the “Philosophy of Clothes.” “Why multiply instances? It is written, the heavens and the earth shall fade away like a vesture, which, indeed they are—the time vesture of the Eternal.”—Sartor Resartus, I. 11
It is interesting to think how the science of geology confirms the image of the psalmist, showing how time has been literally changing the so solid-seeming earth, stripping off the robe that covers the hills, to fold it down at some river mouth, or at the bottom of the ocean bed.
The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee.(28) Continue.—Rather, dwell, i.e., in the land of Canaan. (Comp. Psalm 37:22; Psalm 69:36.)