Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Man’s toil, and skill, and care would be all unavailing were there not a “Divinity shaping our ends.” This is the thought common in Hebrew literature (see Notes), now so expressed as to include not only the greater purposes of human activity, but even the homeliest duty of every-day life. All fall under the same benign and watchful surveillance. The smallest details, as the largest concerns of life, are objects of the Divine regard; and in little things, as well as great, the great lesson to learn is that man cannot of himself command success, though it awaits the weakest who has the Divine blessing. If any particular set of circumstances must be sought for this expression of a truth so firmly planted in Israel, it is natural to look for them during the troubles and anxieties which accompanied the restoration and rebuilding of Jerusalem. Possibly the haste to rebuild the private houses before the public necessities were supplied (comp. Haggai 1:2; Haggai 1:4) may have given the motive of the poem, though it is but in the most delicate way, and under figures universally applicable, that the people are reminded that home, and family, and property alike depend on God. The rhythm is fine and varied.
Title.—“For Solomon.” The rendering is wrong even if the inscription be admitted. Rather, of Solomon, which is the usual form of ascribing authorship. It is not difficult to account for this addition to the usual title, “Song of degrees,” an addition wanting in the LXX. Not only was it natural to think of Solomon, the great builder, in connection with the opening of the psalm, but in the words “his beloved” there was to Jewish ears a suggestion of the name “Jedidiah,” and the resemblance to the Book of Proverbs, both in form and sentiment, is marked. See, for example, Proverbs 10:22, which sums up the prevailing thought of the psalm,
A Song of degrees for Solomon. Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.(1) House.—A house, any house, not the Temple. The thought is a general one. Even in the common labours of men, it is the Divine blessing which contributes the success. An Gottes Segen ist alles gelegen.
Waketh.—Perhaps better, watcheth. The house that has been built with such toil, the city which has been planned with such skill, may suddenly fall before the midnight attack of the robber or the enemy, in spite of the strictest police, unless God’s vigilant providence preserve it.
It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.(2) It . . . sleep.—This verse, of the literal rendering of which there is no question, has met with many different interpretations. About the first clause there is no difference. Early rising, to pursue the business of the day, is vain without the Divine blessing on the labour. The next two clauses admit two different interpretations. Some connect the sitting down with the meal: “delaying to sit down and eat the bread of cares” (or sorrow), i.e., so immersed in business as to allow hardly time for meals. But it seems far more natural to take the Hebrew in its more extended sense of resting, and so explain, nearly as the Authorised Version:—
“It is in vain to rise early;
To delay the hour of rest,
To eat the bread that has been won by toil;
At His pleasure He giveth to His beloved (in) sleep.”
As to the last clause, it seems right, from its use in Genesis 1, “it was so,” to give so the sense “at His pleasure,” this being also indicated by the general drift of the psalm. The word “sleep” may be either the direct object, as in the LXX. and Vulg., or the accusative used adverbially, “in sleep,” “while they sleep.” That the latter suits the context best there can be no question. The whole intention of the psalm is to assert the truth which the Book of Proverbs sums up in one sentence (Proverbs 10:22): “The blessing of Jehovah maketh rich, and toil can add nothing thereto,” the truth which was so impressively taught in the Sermon on the Mount, by the contrast of man’s restless ambition with the unconscious dependence on the Divine bounty of birds and flowers. To say that what others toil for from morning till night in vain, God gives to His beloved without all this anxiety and exertion, while they sleep, puts this truth forcibly, and with that disregard of apparent paradox which was natural to a Hebrew, and which appears so prominently in our Saviour’s treatment of the subject. Labour is decried as unnecessary neither here nor in the Sermon on the Mount, but “carking care” is dismissed as unworthy those who, from past experience, ought to trust the goodness of the great Provider. The Greek proverb, “The net catches while the fisher sleeps,” and the German, “God bestows His gifts during the night,” bring common expressions to confirm this voice of inspiration, which was, in almost so many words, recalled in our Lord’s parable (Mark 4:27). But old association pleads for the equally true and equally beautiful rendering which makes sleep the gift of God. If there is one thing which seems to come more direct from Heaven’s bounty than another, that in its character is more benign, in its effects more akin to the nature of God, it is the blessing of sleep. In all times men have rendered thanks to Heaven for this boon. The ancients not only spoke of sleep as “most grateful of known gifts,” but made itself a god. The psalmist unconsciously, but most truly, teaches us the further lesson that it is not only a Divine blessing, but a proof of Divine love:
“Of all the thoughts of God that are
Borne inward unto souls afar,
Across the psalmist’s music deep,
Now tell me if that any is
For gift or grace surpassing this—
He giveth His beloved sleep.”
Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.(3) Children.—With the true patriarchal feeling of the blessing of a numerous offspring, the poet here directly alludes to Genesis 30:2. “Heritage of Jehovah” is, of course, “heritage from Jehovah,” i.e., a promise granted by Him, just as Israel itself was a possession He made for Himself.
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.(4) Children of the youth—i.e., the offspring of an early marriage. Aquila, “sons of young and vigorous parents.” The young man, with his numerous family around him, is like the vigorous warrior with his quiver full of arrows.
Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.(5) They.—Not the sons. There is here one of the sudden changes of number in which Hebrew poetry abounds. (See especially Psalm 107:43.) Parents who have large families of sons are evidently intended. From the figure of the warrior and the arrows we should expect here, too, a martial image. They shall not be discomfited, but they shall challenge their enemies in the gates. In illustration may be quoted:
“Therefore men pray to have around their hearth,
Obedient offspring, to requite their foes
With harm, and honour whom their father loves;
But he whose issue is unprofitable,
Begets what else but sorrow to himself,
And store of laughter to his enemies?”
SOPH.: Antig., 641
On the other hand, it is the habit of Hebrew poetry to accumulate metaphors, and the gate is so commonly spoken of as the place of public resort, where legal cases were decided (Isaiah 29:21; Amos 5:12, &c), that it is quite as likely that the allusion here is to the support which a man’s just cause would receive when evidently backed up by a long retinue of stalwart sons. This view certainly receives support from Job 5:4, where we have the very opposite picture of a tyrant’s sons, not only unable to support their father, but themselves “crushed in the gate;” and the phrase “speak with their enemies” in this same verse may be illustrated from Joshua 20:4; Jeremiah 12:1.