Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This magnificent ode is David’s, if anything at all of David’s has come down to us. Its recurrence in 2 Samuel 22, the mention of the monarch by name in the last verse (see, however, Note), and the general contents, in the eyes of all but one or two critics, bear out the tradition of the title.
 Grätz, the latest commentator, allows part of this psalm to be David’s.
If no other literary legacy had been left by the Hebrew race, we should have from this psalm a clear conception of the character of its poetic genius. Its wealth of metaphor, its power of vivid word-painting, its accurate observation of nature, its grandeur and force of imagination, all meet us here; but above all, the fact that the bard of Israel wrote under the mighty conviction of the power and presence of Jehovah. The phenomena of the natural world appealed to his imagination as to that of poets generally, but with this addition, that they were all manifestations of a supreme glory and goodness behind them.
In rhythm the poem is as fine as in matter.
Title.—See 2Samuel 22:1. The differences are such as might be expected between a piece in a collection of hymns and the same introduced into an historical book.
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, the servant of the LORD, who spake unto the LORD the words of this song in the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul: And he said, I will love thee, O LORD, my strength.(1) I will love thee.—Better, Dearly do I love thee. The line is wanting in Samuel.
My strength.—This strikes the keynote of the whole poem. The strong, mighty God is the object in David’s thought throughout. It is a warrior’s song, and his conception of Jehovah is a warrior’s conception.
The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower.(2) Rock.—Better here, cliff, keeping “rock” for the next clause. In the first figure the ideas of height and shelter, in the second of broad-based and enduring strength, are predominant.
Fortress.—Properly, mountain castle. We have the joint figure of the lofty and precipitous cliff with the castle on its crest, a reminiscence—as, in fact, is every one in this “towering of epithets”—of scenes and events in David’s early life.
My God . . .—Better, my God, my rock, I trust in Him. God is here El, “the strong one.” In Samuel, “God of my rock.”
Horn of my salvation.—The allusion seems to be not to a means of attack, like the horn of an animal, but to a mountain peak (called “horn” in all languages—so κέρας, Xen. Anab. v. 6; “Cornua Parnassi,” Statius, Theb. v. 532; and so in Hebrew, Isaiah 5:1, see margin), such as often afforded David a safe retreat. Render “my peak of safety.”
High tower.—The LXX. and Vulgate have “helper.” (Comp. Psalm 9:9.) The word comes in so abruptly, that doubtless the addition in Samuel, “and my refuge, my Saviour, thou savest me from violence,” was part of the original hymn, completing the rhythm.
I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies.(3) Presents a trifling verbal variation from Samuel.
The sorrows of death compassed me, and the floods of ungodly men made me afraid.(4) The sorrows of death.—The Hebrew word may mean either birth pangs (LXX. and Acts 2:24, where see Note, New Testament Commentary), or cords. The figure of the hunter in the next verse, “the snares of death,” determines its meaning there to be cords (see margin). It is best, therefore, to keep the same rendering here: but there can be little doubt that the version in Samuel, breakers, or waves, is the true one, from the parallelism—
“Waves of death compassed me,
And billows of Belial terrified me.”
For Belial, see Deuteronomy 13:13. Here the parallelism fixes its meaning, “ruin.” For the ideas of peril and destruction, connected by the Hebrews with waves and floods, comp. Psalm 18:16, also Psalm 32:6; Psalm 42:7; Psalm 69:1. Doubtless the tradition of the Flood and of the Red Sea helped to strengthen the apprehensions natural in a country where the river annually overflowed its banks. and where a dry ravine might at any moment become a dangerous flood. The hatred of the sea arose from quite another cause—viz., the dread of it as a highway for invasion.
The sorrows of hell compassed me about: the snares of death prevented me.(5) Hell.—Heb., sheôl. (See Note on Psalm 6:5.)
Prevented—i.e., suddenly seized upon. The poet seems to feel the cords already tightening on his limbe. He is not dead yet, but like to them who go down to sheôl. This verse has one verbal difference from Samuel.
In my distress I called upon the LORD, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears.(6) Out Of his temple.—Rather, Place—plainly, as in Psalm 11:4; Psalm 29:9, the heavenly abode of Jehovah.
My cry.—In Samuel only, “my cry in his ears.”
Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth.(7) The earth shook.—The sudden burst of the storm is the Divine answer to the sufferer’s prayer. For similar manifestations comp. Psalm 68:7-8; Psalm 77:14-20; Amos 9:5; Micah 1:3; Habakkuk 3:4; but here the colours are more vivid, and the language more intense. In fact, the whole realm of poetry cannot show a finer feeling for nature in her wrath. We first hear the rumbling of the earth, probably earthquake preceding the storm (for volcanic phenomena of Palestine see Stanley’s Sinai and Palestine, 124), or possibly only its distant threatening. Comp.
“Earth groans as if beneath a heavy load.”
Foundations also of the hills.—In Sam., “of the heavens”—i.e., the hills, called also “the pillars of heaven” (Job 26:11).
There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it.(8) A smoke.—Now the thunder-cloud forms—smoke, as it were, from the nostrils of God (comp. Psalm 74:1; Deuteronomy 29:20 : the literal rendering is, “there ascended smoke in his nostrils”)—and intermittent flashes of lightning dart forth and play about the distant summits, seeming to devour everything in its path. (Comp. the expression lambent flame.”)
Coals were kindled by it.—Rather, flaming coals blazed from it.
And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.(10) Cherub.—See Exodus 25:19. This passage alone would show how naturally the idea of winged attendants on the Divine Being grew out of the phenomena of cloud and storm. No doubt many features of the developed conception were derived from contact with Assyrian art, but for the poetry of this passage we have only to think of those giant pinions into which cloud so often shapes itself, this clause being in close parallelism with “wings of the wind.” The variation in Samuel, “appeared” for “did fly,” is, no doubt, a transcriber’s error. For the picture we may compare Oceanus’ approach in Prometheus Vinctus:—
“On the back of the quick-winged bird I glode,
And I bridled him in
With the will of a God.”
MRS. BROWNING’S translation.
It has been, however, conjectured that for kherûb we should read rekhûb, “chariot,” as in Psalm 104:3. Comp.
“And rushed forth on my chariot of wings manifold.”—ibid.
Always present to the Hebrew imagination, God is still invisible, veiled by thick clouds, and far withdrawn in His own ineffable brightness.
This verse gives suggestion of that momentary lull so common before the final fury of a storm bursts. In the Hebrew imagery Jehovah stays His winged car, and draws round Him, as if to take up His abode within them, thick curtains of cloud.
“We often see, against some storm,
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,
The bold winds speechless, and the orb below
As hush as death.”—SHAKSPEARE: Hamlet.
At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed, hail stones and coals of fire.(12) At the brightness.—This is obscure. Literally, From the brightness before him his clouds passed through (Heb., avar—LXX., διῆλθον; Vulg., transierunt) hail and fiery coals. In Samuel it is “From the brightness before him flamed fiery coals,” which is the description we should expect, and, doubtless, gives the sense we are to attach to our text. Through the dark curtain of clouds the lightnings dart like emanations from the Divine brightness which they hide. The difficulty arises from the position of avaiv, “his clouds,” which looks like a subject rather than an object to avrû. It has been conjectured, from comparison with Samuel, that the word has been inserted through error, from its likeness to the verb. If retained it must be rendered as object, “Out of the brightness of his presence there passed through his clouds hail and fiery coals.” And some obscurity of language is pardonable in a description of phenomena so overpowering and bewildering as “a tempest dropping fire.” A modern poet touches this feeling:—
“Then fire was sky, and sky fire,
And both one brief ecstasy,
Then ashes.”—R. BROWNING, Easter Day.
In the Authorised Version the thought is of a sudden clearing of the heavens, which is not true to nature, and the clause “hailstones and coals of fire” comes in as an exclamation, as in the next verse. But there it is probably an erroneous repetition, being wanting in Sam. and in the LXX. version of the psalm. Notice how the feeling of the terrible fury of the storm is heightened by the mention of “hail,” so rare in Palestine.
The LORD also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice; hail stones and coals of fire.(13) In the heavens.—The version in Samuel is from the heavens,” which is better. For the thunder as God’s voice see Psalm 29:3, and Note.
Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.(14) He sent out.—In the majesty of the storm we have almost forgotten its cause, the Divine wrath against the enemies of the poet. They are abruptly recalled to our remembrance in the suffix (“them”) of the verbs in this verse. So the LXX. and Vulg. Many ancient interpreters, however, understood by them “the lightnings,” while Ewald would carry the pronoun on to the “waters” in the next verse. Instead of “shot” (rab) many render as if it were the adjective “many,” “his numerous lightnings.” But comp. Psalm 144:6 and the verse in Samuel.
Then the channels of waters were seen, and the foundations of the world were discovered at thy rebuke, O LORD, at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.(15) The channels.—The description of the storm ends with the fury of the wind and the effects of the tempest on the earth’s surface. Comp. Psalms 29, and Milton:—
“Either tropic now
‘Gan thunder and both ends of heaven the clouds,
From many a horrid rift abortive pour’d
Fierce rain with lightning mix’d, water with fire,
In ruin reconciled; nor slept the winds
Within their stony caves, but rush’d abroad
From the four hinges of the world and fell
On the vex’d wilderness.”
—Par. Reg. iv. 409416.
Here, to suit the poet’s purpose (see next verse), the rage of the tempest is made to spend itself on the water-floods. The “channels” are either torrent beds (Isaiah 8:7; Psalm 42:1; Job 6:15), or as in Samuel (where for “waters” the text has “sea”) the depths of ocean. (Comp. Jonah 2:5.)
He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters.(16) He drew me.—By an exquisite transition from the real to the figurative the poet conceives of these parted waters as the “floods of affliction” (Psalm 18:5), from which Jehovah has rescued him by means of the very storm which was sent, in answer to his prayer, to overwhelm his enemies. Render at once more literally and forcibly, “He laid hold of me and drew me out of great waters.” The conception undoubtedly is that the “gates of death” are under these floods, and those being now parted, the sufferer can be reached and rescued.
Psalm 18:17-19 show trifling variations between the two copies of the psalm.
They prevented me in the day of my calamity: but the LORD was my stay.(18) Prevented.—Better, fell upon me unawares. See this use of the verb, generally however used in a good sense, in Psalm 18:5.
He brought me forth also into a large place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.(19) A large place.—Comp. Psalm 4:1. But there is direct historical allusion to the settlement of Israel in Canaan, as will be seen by a comparison of the Hebrew with Exodus 3:8, and Numbers 14:8.
The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands hath he recompensed me.(20-23) for this protestation of innocence comp. Psalms 7, 17 and Job, passim. Self-righteous pride and vindication of one’s character under calumny are very different things. If taken of the nation at large, comp. Numbers 23:21. Here, also, the text in Samuel offers one or two trifling variations from ours.
With the merciful thou wilt shew thyself merciful; with an upright man thou wilt shew thyself upright;(25-27) It is better to change all the futures into our present. We cannot explain this description of God’s attitude to man, as if the poet were merely dealing with the conception of the Divine formed in the breast. No doubt his words are amply true in this sense. The human heart makes its God like itself, and to the pure and just He will be a pure and just God, to the cruel and unjust, cruel and unjust. But the definite mention of recompense in Psalm 18:24, and the reference to active interposition in behalf of the just in Psalm 18:27, leave us no option but to understand by “shew thyself” in Psalm 18:25-26, not an inward conception, but an external manifestation. It is, in fact, nothing more than a re-statement of the truth of which the history of Pharaoh is the most signal historic declaration, and which we maintain whenever we speak of the natural consequences of sin as retributive justice, the truth which is summed up in the text, “whatsoever a mau soweth that shall he also reap.” We must at the same time remember that the form of the statement in the psalm is due to the view current in Israel before the development of the conception of Satanic agency, that all suggestions, evil as well as good, came from the mind of the Supreme Disposer of events.
(25) Man.—The text of Samuel has “hero” (gebôr instead of gebar).
“He that shuts love out, in turn shall be
Shut out from love.”—TENNYSON.
For thou wilt save the afflicted people; but wilt bring down high looks.(27) High looks.—See variation in Samuel.
The afflicted people.—Better, afflicted folk, with no distinctive reference to Israel, except, of course, I when the poem became adapted for congregational use.
For thou wilt light my candle: the LORD my God will enlighten my darkness.(28) For thou wilt.—Better, Thou makest bright my lamp. In Samuel, “It is thou Jehovah who art my lamp.” This obvious metaphor is common in Hebrew, as in all literature. Light is an emblem of prosperity, happiness, or life itself. (Comp. Job 18:6; Job 21:17; Proverbs 13:9, &c). It happens to be used very frequently of David and his family (1Kings 11:36; 1Kings 15:4; 2Kings 8:19). Comp. Psalm 132:17.
For by thee I have run through a troop; and by my God have I leaped over a wall.(29) Better with the verbs in the present—
“For by thee I scatter a troop,
By thee I scale walls.”
A graphic reminiscence of warlike exploits. Some, however, read from Samuel “break down,” instead of “leap over.”
As for God, his way is perfect: the word of the LORD is tried: he is a buckler to all those that trust in him.(30) Tried.—“Sterling gold,” not dross. (Comp. Psalm 12:6; and for “shield,” Psalm 5:12.) Proverbs 30:5 seems to be taken from this verse.
For who is God save the LORD? or who is a rock save our God?(31) Comp. Deuteronomy 32:31, where we see that “rock” was a common term among the tribes of Canaan for their divinities. Notice some trifling variations in Samuel.
It is God that girdeth me with strength, and maketh my way perfect.(32) The verse should run on closely from the last. The italics spoil it.
Girdeth.—The importance of the girdle in a country where the dress was loose and flowing is shown by many passages of Scripture. It is essential to the warrior as here (comp. Ephesians 6:14, and the Greek expression, “to be girt” = to be armed), but also for all active exertion.
Way.—Here, not of conduct, but the military path, the march. Notice the variation in Samuel.
He maketh my feet like hinds' feet, and setteth me upon my high places.(33) This verse is borrowed in Habakkuk 3:19. For swiftness as an essential of a warrior in Oriental esteem comp. 2Samuel 1:23, and the invariable epithet in Homer’s Iliad, “swift-footed Achilles.” For “hind” comp. Genesis 49:21. Observe “his feet” in Samuel.
My high places.—With allusion to the mountain fortresses the poet had scaled and won.
He teacheth my hands to war, so that a bow of steel is broken by mine arms.(34) So that a bow.—Better, and mine arms bend a bow of copper. For the copper bow comp. Job 20:24. Nechushah, χαλκὸς, is certainly not steel, whether the custom of hardening iron was known to the Jews or not (see Jeremiah 15:12, and art. “Steel,” in Smith’s Biblical Dict.). The LXX. and Vulgate have, “thou hast made mine arms a bow of copper.” For this test of strength we naturally compare the famous bow of Ulysses—
“So the great master drew the mighty bow,
And drew with ease.”—Odyssey, POPE’S trans.
Thou hast also given me the shield of thy salvation: and thy right hand hath holden me up, and thy gentleness hath made me great.(35) Thy gentleness.—Or, meekness, as in margin. We cannot afford to sacrifice this striking foreshadowing of His saying of Himself, “I am meek and lowly,” to the scare of a word like anthropomorphism. Why be afraid to speak of the Divine Being as meek any more than as jealous. The LXX. and Vulgate have “discipline,” probably through this timidity.
Thou hast enlarged my steps under me, that my feet did not slip.(36) Thou hast enlarged my steps.—Comp. Psalm 31:8, which explains the phrase; also Psalm 18:19 above.
I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them: neither did I turn again till they were consumed.(37-40) Another retrospective glance of the poet over his past wars. Notice slight variations in Samuel.
Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies; that I might destroy them that hate me.(40) Thou hast also given.—Literally, and as to mine enemies, thou gavest to me the back, which either means “turned to flight so that only their backs were visible” (Jeremiah 18:17 and Psalm 21:12), or alludes to the common symbolism of defeat—trampling on an enemy’s neck.
They cried, but there was none to save them: even unto the LORD, but he answered them not.(41) Cried.—Sam. 22 has “looked.”
Then did I beat them small as the dust before the wind: I did cast them out as the dirt in the streets.(42) Before the wind.—In Samuel, the weaker “of the earth.”
Cast them out—i.e., sweep them before me. In Samuel “stamp and tread them out.” So LXX. here “grind,” or “pound.”
Thou hast delivered me from the strivings of the people; and thou hast made me the head of the heathen: a people whom I have not known shall serve me.(43) People.—The parallelism favours the interpretation which takes “people” as equivalent to peoples—the Gentiles. But as in Samuel it is “my people,” explain it of the early political troubles of David. Notice also in Samuel “preserved,” instead of “made.”
As soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me: the strangers shall submit themselves unto me.(44) As soon as—i.e., at the bare mention of my victories. An actual instance is recorded (2Samuel 8:9, seq.). For the expression, comp. Job 42:5.
The strangers shall.—See margin. More literally, come with flattery. In Samuel the two clauses are transposed and slightly varied.
The strangers shall fade away, and be afraid out of their close places.(45) Fade away—i.e., wither like vegetation before a scorching blast.
Be afraid out of their close places.—Better, come trembling out of their castles. LXX. and Vulgate have “grow old and came limping from their paths.”
The LORD liveth; and blessed be my rock; and let the God of my salvation be exalted.(46-50) The psalm concludes with a burst of joyous praise, in which the previous figures are recalled in brief touches.
Therefore will I give thanks unto thee, O LORD, among the heathen, and sing praises unto thy name.(49) In Romans 15:9, St. Paul quotes this verse, together with Deuteronomy 32:43 and Psalm 117:1, as proof that salvation was not in God’s purpose confined to the Jews. It seems almost too magnificent a thought in David, that he could draw the surrounding nations within the circle of the religion as he had drawn them within the dominion of Israel. Nor is it likely that an individual would use such an expression. Israel as a nation might praise God “among the nations.” Therefore this verse is adduced as an argument by those who assign a later date to the psalm. But perhaps we are only to think of the nations as brought (see Psalm 18:44) an unwilling audience of the praises which the conqueror raises to his God for the strength that had subdued them.
Great deliverance giveth he to his king; and sheweth mercy to his anointed, to David, and to his seed for evermore.(50) This verse is by many treated as a late liturgical addition to the hymn. The change to the third person is certainly somewhat suggestive of this, but by no means conclusive.
The question of the relation of the two copies of this hymn to each other is far too complicated and difficult for discussion here. Each has been again and again claimed as the original. The best explanation of the variations is that the compositions were independent copies of some original, and that the psalm, like many others, was altered in preparation for the choir use.