Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This is a piece of storm-music which the poetry of no country or age has surpassed, so vividly, or rather audibly, is the tempest—and an Oriental tempest—presented to us. To the Hebrew a storm, at once terrible and magnificent, was the direct manifestation of the grandeur of God, and here the poet gives the liveliest expression to that feeling by representing all the phenomena as the immediate result of the Divine utterance—consequent on, if not produced by, the thunder, the Divine voice. The very form—in the monotone of its short, incisive, strictly parallel clauses—has been rightly supposed to be intended as an echo of successive peals of thunder, always equal, and always terrible. Some commentator has suggested that this hymn was composed by David to be sung during a thunderstorm. But it wants no such inept conjecture to discern the fitness of the psalm to take its place in a religious service. The poet himself has prepared for such an adaptation by his conception. Two scenes are presented—one on earth, where we see the storm sweeping majestically along from the north to the south over the length of Palestine; the other in heaven, where the “sons of God”—i.e., all the angelic intelligences and powers—stand as spectators of the grand drama below, and at the invocation of the poet raise the cry, “Glory,” in praise of the Divine greatness and power. The versification is perfectly regular, but presents instances of that step-like progression which characterises Deborah’s song, and the psalms of Degrees. The two concluding lines are evidently a liturgic addition, and did not form part of the original ode. (See Note.)
A Psalm of David. Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty, give unto the LORD glory and strength.(1) Ye mighty.—Heb., benê-elîm. Literally, sons of gods (not sons of God, since elîm is never used by itself like Elohîm for God). If, however, which is possible, it is used in a general sense for beings of supernatural power, but inferior to God, the expression benê-elîm for angels would be intelligible, i.e., for angels (comp. Job 1:6; Isaiah 6:3) in the widest sense as ministers of God, and so including the lightning and storm. (Comp. Psalm 104:4.) The poet calls on the grand forces of nature themselves to offer praise to their Divine Master, for the glory which they have been commissioned to reveal. It is they who at the beginning and end alike of the psalm sing the praises of Him, who summoned them to speak to men in His name, and make His voice to be heard. The Prayer Book version, “bring young rams,” comes from the LXX. and Vulg. The reading probably arose from a marginal gloss. It is the reading of five MSS. of Kennicott and five of De Rossi.
Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.(2) In the beauty of holiness.—Better, in holy attire; an image borrowed from the splendid vestments of the priests and Levites (2Chronicles 20:21; Psalm 110:3). So the presences that attend the courts of heaven are bidden to be robed in their most magnificent attire, as for a high and sacred ceremony.
The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the LORD is upon many waters.(3) The voice.—The invocation to the angels over, the storm bursts, and seven successive peals of thunder mark its course of fury and destruction. It is first heard rolling over the waters from the west (comp. 1Kings 18:44), unless the “waters” and “many waters,” as in Psalm 18:11-12, refer to the gathered masses of rain-cloud, when we might compare
“Then broke the thunder
Like a whole sea overhead.”
BROWNING: Pippa Passes.
The Hebrew kôl (“voice”), used also of any loud sound (2Samuel 15:10, of the trumpet; Ezekiel 1:24, of water), is sometimes used (Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 52:8) to call attention, like our “Hark !” So Ewald here. Others refer it to the thunder, as in Psalm 77:18; but it seems better to take it for the combined noise of the storm, thunder, wind, and rain, as in Shakespeare—
“The gods who keep this pudder o’er our heads.”
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.(4) Powerful; full of majesty.—Better literally, as in LXX. and Vulg., in might, in majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaketh the cedars; yea, the LORD breaketh the cedars of Lebanon.(5) The voice of the Lord breaketh.—Better more literally, The voice of Jehovah breaking the cedars, and Jehovah hath shivered the cedars of Lebanon. (The verb in the second clause is an intensive of that used in the first.) The range of Lebanon receives the first fury of the storm. Its cedars, mightiest and longest-lived of Eastern trees, crash down, broken by the violence of the wind. (For cedar, see 2Samuel 7:2.) It has been objected that the thunder should not be made the agent in the destruction; but comp. Shakespeare—
“And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack Nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once.
That make ingrateful man!”—King Lear, Acts 3, sc. 2.
He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.(6) Those trees that are not snapped off, bending to the storm, and swaying in the wind, seem to bound like wild buffaloes. (Comp. Psalm 114:4.)
Sirion,according to Deuteronomy 3:9 (which see), was the Sidonian name of Hermon. Here the whole of the range of Anti-Libanus.
Unicorn.—See Psalm 22:21, Note.
There is some ambiguity about the suffix, them. It may relate to the mountains instead of the cedars, and some commentators divide the clauses thus: “He maketh them skip; like a calf Lebanon, and Sirion like a young buffalo.” It is not, however, necessary to suppose, with some, that an earthquake accompanies the storm; the apparent movement of the hills beingintroduced to heighten the effect of the violence of the tempest.
The voice of the LORD divideth the flames of fire.(7) The voice . . .—Literally, the voice of Jehovah cleaving flames of fire. The word is used of hewingstone and wood (Isaiah 10:15). The reference to lightning in this verse is universally admitted, some even seeing an allusion to the brief and sudden flash in the single clause of which the sentence is composed. But the most various explanations are given of the image employed. One of these—that of beating out as from an anvil—may be set aside as clumsy and unworthy of the poet. But the comparison with Isaiah 51:9, and Hosea 6:5, where the same verb is used of God’s “judgments,” makes it possible that the lightnings here are regarded as “thought-executing fires,” and if language would allow, we might translate “hewing with flames of fire,” and illustrate by
“And ever and anon some bright white shaft
Burnt through the pine-tree roof, here burnt and there,
As if God’s messenger through the close wood screen
Plunged and replunged his weapon at a venture,
Feeling for guilty thee and me.”
BROWNING: Pippa Passes.
But this, though the usual ancient translation, is now generally rejected in favour of the allusion to “forked lightning,” as we call it, the ignes trisulci of Ovid, a natural metaphor by which to try to represent the “nimble stroke of quick cross-lightnings.” For the apparent physical mistake in making thunder the agent in producing the lightning, see Note on Psalm 29:5.
The voice of the LORD shaketh the wilderness; the LORD shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh.(8) The voice of the Lord shaketh.—Literally, maketh to tremble. The allusion is, doubtless, to the effect of the storm on the sands of the desert. The tempest has moved southward over Palestine, and spends its last fury on the southern wilderness, and the poet seizes on what is one of the most striking phenomena of a storm in such a district—the whirlwind of sand. “But soon Red Sea and all were lost in a sandstorm, which lasted the whole day. Imagine all distant objects entirely lost to view, the sheets of sand fleeting along the surface of the desert like streams of water, the whole air filled, though invisibly, with a tempest of sand, driving in your face like sleet” (Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 67). For Kadesh, see Numbers 13:26. Here the term appears to be used in a large and general sense for the whole southern desert.
The voice of the LORD maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests: and in his temple doth every one speak of his glory.(9) Maketh the hinds to calve.—Literally, maketh the hinds writhe (with pain). (See margin. Comp. Job 39:1, where the hind’s habit of hiding its young for safety is alluded to, a habit which the violence of the storm makes it forget.) Both Plutarch and Pliny notice the custom of shepherds to collect their flocks during a thunderstorm, for such as are left alone and are separated, are apt, through terror, to cast their young.
Discovereth the forests.—The word “discovereth” comes from the LXX. and Vulgate. Literally, peels or strips—the effects both of wind and lightning. Passing over the sands of the Arabah, the storm has reached the “acacias and palms and vegetation which clothe the rocks of granite and porphyry in the neighbourhood of Petra.” Forests may seem rather a large word for such vegetation, but Stanley remarks of the Arabah that “the shrubs at times give it almost the appearance of a jungle.” Similar effects of a storm upon a forest are described by Tennyson in Vivien:
“Scarce had she ceased when out of heaven a bolt
(For now the storm was close above them) struck,
Furrowing a giant oak, and javelining
With darted spikes and splinters of the wood
The dark earth round. He raised his eyes and saw
The tree that shone white-listed thro’ the gloom.”
In his temple.—Better, in his palace—i.e., the heavenly palace, as in Psalm 11:4; Psalm 18:6. (See Psalm 29:1.) The angelic spectators of the magnificent drama enacted below them cry (not merely speak of, as Authorised Version, but utter the word) each one, “Glory,” obeying the poet’s invocation in the prelude.
Notice that the effect of the storm on men is supposed to be all summed up in the poet’s own attitude of listening awe. There is no actual mention of this part of creation; but one feels from the poem that while inanimate nature trembles and suffers, and the godlike intelligences of heaven are engaged in praise, man listens and is mute.
The LORD sitteth upon the flood; yea, the LORD sitteth King for ever.(10) The Lord sitteth.—Better, Jehovah was throned upon the flood, and Jehovah will be throned a king for ever. The word translated “flood” is exclusively, except in this place, applied to the Deluge (Genesis 6, 7). Hence we must suppose that the poet was recalled to the thought of the great Flood by the torrents of rain now falling. Jehovah sat then upon the waters as their King, and so He will for ever be throned on high above the storms of earth. Or, perhaps, the Deluge may have passed into a proverbial term for any great rain.
The LORD will give strength unto his people; the LORD will bless his people with peace.(11) The Lord will give.—This verse appears to have been a liturgic addition, to give the poem a religious tone. (See Introduction.)