Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The motive of this historical psalm differs from that of the last as it does from that of Psalms 78. Its survey of the past is neither hymnic nor didactic, but penitential. Though the first of the series of “Hallelujah” psalms, it is closely related to these long liturgical confessions of national sins which are distinctly enjoined in Deuteronomy 26, where the type form of them is given, and of which the completest specimen is retained in Nehemiah 9.
But this example sprang from particular circumstances. It evidently dates from the exile period, and may well, both from its spirit and from its actual correspondence of thought and language in some of the verses, have been composed by Ezekiel, to encourage that feeling of penitence from which alone a real reformation and restoration of the nation could be expected. The verse is mostly synthetic.
Praise ye the LORD. O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.(1-5) These verses form an introduction to the psalm, and make it evident that while the writer spoke as one of a community, and for the community, he still felt his personal relation to Jehovah.
(1) This formula of praise in the Jewish Church occupied, as a choral refrain, a similar position to the Gloria Patri in Christian worship. The precise date of its first appearance cannot be ascertained. The chronicler includes it in the compilation from different psalms, which he introduces as sung when the Ark was brought to Zion (1Chronicles 16:34): and represents it not only as chanted by the procession of priests and Levites, but as bursting spontaneously from the lips of the assembled multitudes at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (2Chronicles 7:3). He mentions it also in connection with Jehoshaphat’s revival of choral music. And it is probable that he was not guilty of any great anachronism in giving it this early existence; for Jeremiah speaks of it as a refrain as familiar as those customary at weddings (Jeremiah 33:11), and, indeed, foretells its revival as of a practice once common, but long disused. But the fact that it is found in four liturgical hymns, besides Psalms 136, where it becomes a refrain after every verse, as well as its express mention in Ezra 3:11 as used at the dedication of the second Temple, shows that its use became more general after the Captivity; and it was in use in the Maccabæan period (1 Maccabees 4:24).
Who can utter the mighty acts of the LORD? who can shew forth all his praise?(2) Praise.—Tehillah, a term that has become technical for a liturgic hymn. (Tehillîm is the general Hebrew word for the psalter. See Gen. Introduction.) The psalmist asks in this verse who is worthy or privileged to sing a tehillah, and replies himself that loyalty to the covenant confers this privilege.
That I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance.(5) The tone of this verse indicates a prospect of a speedy advent of good.; and serves itself to give a probable date to the psalm.
We have sinned with our fathers, we have committed iniquity, we have done wickedly.(6) We.—Regard must be paid to the fact that the confession includes the speaker and his generation, as well as the ancestors of the race. The psalm proceeds from the period of the Captivity, when the national conscience, or at all events that of the nobler part of the nation, was thoroughly alive to the sinfulness of idolatry.
Our fathers understood not thy wonders in Egypt; they remembered not the multitude of thy mercies; but provoked him at the sea, even at the Red sea.(7) At the sea.—LXX., “going up to the sea.” (12) An epitome of Exodus 14:31; Exodus 14:15
They soon forgat his works; they waited not for his counsel:(13-33) These twenty verses cover the desert wanderings, beginning with the discontented spirit mentioned in Exodus 15:23.
(13) They waited not . . .—They could not wait for the natural and orderly outcome of the counsel of God.
But lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert.(14) Lusted.—See margin.
And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.(15) Leanness.—The LXX., Vulg., and Syriac read “satiety.” As Mr. Burgess points out, by accepting this reading, and giving nephesh its very usual signification of “lust” (comp. Psalm 78:18, where also the word rendered “request” occurs) we get two exact synthetical clauses:—
“And he gave them their request,
And sent satiety for their lust.”
They envied Moses also in the camp, and Aaron the saint of the LORD.(16-18) The poet has Numbers 16, 17 in his mind.
(16) Saint.—The holy one. The complaint of the disaffected party was that Moses and Aaron usurped this title, which belonged to all the congregation (Numbers 16:3-5).
The earth opened and swallowed up Dathan, and covered the company of Abiram.(17) The omission of Korah is in keeping with the historical accounts, which indicate a difference both in the attitude of Korah and his family from that of Dathan and Abiram, and also a difference of fate. (Comp. Numbers 16:23, seqq.; Deuteronomy 11:6; Numbers 26:10.)
They made a calf in Horeb, and worshipped the molten image.(19) In Horeb.—This expression, which is Deuteronomic (see Deuteronomy 4:15; Deuteronomy 5:2, &c), shows that Deuteronomy 9:8-12, as well as Exodus 32, was before the poet.
Thus they changed their glory into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass.(20) Their glory—i.e., Jehovah, as shown by Jeremiah 2:11.
They forgat God their saviour, which had done great things in Egypt;(21) Forgot God their saviour.—With evident allusion to Deuteronomy 6:12.
Wondrous works in the land of Ham, and terrible things by the Red sea.(22) Land of Ham.—A synonym for Egypt, peculiar to the historic psalms (Psalm 78:51; Psalm 105:23; Psalm 105:27).
Therefore he said that he would destroy them, had not Moses his chosen stood before him in the breach, to turn away his wrath, lest he should destroy them.(23) Stood before him in the breach . . .—This is generally explained after Ezekiel 22:30, where undoubtedly it is an image taken from the defence of a besieged town. (Comp. Ezekiel 13:5.) But it is possible that we should render, “Had not Moses stood before him (i.e., submissively; see Genesis 41:46; Deuteronomy 1:38) in the breaking forth (of his anger),” since the verb from which the substantive here used comes is the one employed (Exodus 19:22), “lest the Lord break forth upon them.” So the LXX. seem to have understood the passage, since they render here by the same word, which in Psalm 106:30 does duty for “plague.” (Comp. Vulg., refractio.)
Yea, they despised the pleasant land, they believed not his word:(24-27) The rebellion that followed the report of the spies.
Therefore he lifted up his hand against them, to overthrow them in the wilderness:(26) Lifted up his hand.—Not to strike, but to give emphasis to the oath pronounced against the sinners. (See Exodus 6:8, margin; Deuteronomy 32:40; comp. Psalm 144:8.) The substance of the oath here referred to is given in Numbers 14:28-35.
To overthrow their seed also among the nations, and to scatter them in the lands.(27) Overthrow.—This verse is evidently copied from Ezekiel 20:23, but the psalmist has either intentionally or accidentally changed the prophet’s verb “scatter” into “overthrow,” just used in Psalm 106:26. The error, if an error, is as old as the LXX. version.
They joined themselves also unto Baalpeor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead.(28-31) The licentious character of the cult of Baal-peor in Numbers 25 is expressed in the word “joined,” better, yoked. LXX. and Vulg., “were initiated,” i.e., by prostitution.
(28) Ate the sacrifices of the dead—i.e., the sacrifices of a dead divinity. Numbers 25:2, “and they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods,” shows that here we must not see any allusion to necromantic rites, such as are referred to in Deuteronomy 18:11; Isaiah 8:19, and the parallelism shows that the “god” in question is Baal-peor.
Carcases of idols.—This phrase is actually used in Leviticus 26:30; here no doubt the plural is used poetically for the singular.
Then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgment: and so the plague was stayed.(30) Executed judgment.—The Prayer Book has “prayed,” following the Chaldee and Syriac. The LXX. and Vulg. have “appeased.”
They angered him also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sakes:(32, 33) The insurrection against Moses and Aaron at Meribah Kadesh, entailing on the Lawgiver the forfeiture for himself of entering into Canaan. (See references in the margin.)
Because they provoked his spirit, so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips.(33) They provoked his spirit.—The natural interpretation is to take this of Moses’ spirit. So LXX. and Vulg., “they embittered his spirit.” The usage of the phrase is, however, in favour of referring the words to the temper of the people towards God,” they rebelled against His spirit.”
Spake unadvisedly.—Compare the same verb with the same addition, “with the lips,” in Leviticus 5:4. This interpretation of the fault of Moses is partial. A comparison of all the historical narratives shows that it was rather for a momentary lapse into the despairing spirit of the people, than for addressing them as rebels, that Moses was excluded from the Promised Land.
They did not destroy the nations, concerning whom the LORD commanded them:(34-39) The national sin after the settlement in Canaan.
Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils,(37) Devils.—Literally, lords, meaning, of course, the false deities. The word is, no doubt, chosen to represent the meaning of the heathen gods’ names Ba’alîm, Adonîm. For the same Hebrew word, see Deuteronomy 32:17 (Judges 2:11, Baalim).
The Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew word became in Spain the Cid, and exists still in the Moorish sidi, i.e., “my lord.”
And shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed unto the idols of Canaan: and the land was polluted with blood.(38) Innocent blood.—Human sacrifice, and especially that of children, was a Canaanite practice. It seems to have been inherent in Phoenician custom, for Carthage was, two centuries after Christ, notorious for it. (See Sil. Ital., iv. 767.)
Therefore was the wrath of the LORD kindled against his people, insomuch that he abhorred his own inheritance.(40-43) Having made review of the sinful past, the poet briefly but impressively describes the punishment which once and again had fallen on the nation. But as his purpose is to make his generation look on the Captivity as a supreme instance of this punishment, and to seek for deliverance by repentance, he mentions only the judgments inflicted by foreign foes.
He made them also to be pitied of all those that carried them captives.(46) Made them also to be pitied.—Literally, gave them for companions, a phrase found in Solomon’s prayer (1Kings 8:50, and also in Daniel 1:9, Heb.).
Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the heathen, to give thanks unto thy holy name, and to triumph in thy praise.(47) Save us.—For this prayer the whole psalm has prepared the way.
Blessed be the LORD God of Israel from everlasting to everlasting: and let all the people say, Amen. Praise ye the LORD.(48) Blessed . . .—The doxology, which is only slightly altered from that at the end of the second book, is quoted as part of the psalm in 1Chronicles 16:36—an indication that by that time this book was complete, if not the whole collection.