Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
“It is no easy task,” writes Hitzig of this psalm, “to become master of this Titan.” The epithet is apt. The psalm is Titanic not only in its unmanageable resistance to all the powers of criticism, but also in its lyric force and grandeur. It scales too, Titan-like, the very divinest heights of song.
In the case where there is still room for so many contradictory theories, it is best to confine an introduction to certainties. Psalms 68 will no doubt remain what it has been called, “the cross of critics, the reproach of interpreters;” but it tells us some facts of its history and character that are beyond question.
1. The mention of the Temple in Psalm 68:29, in a context which does not allow of the interpretation sometimes possible, palace, or heavenly abode, brings down the composition to a period certainly subsequent to Solomon.
2. The poet makes free use of older songs. Indeed M. Renan calls the psalm “an admirable series of lyric fragments” (Langues Sémitiques, p. 123). Most prominent among these references are those to Deborah’s magnificent ode (Judges 5) which is with the writer throughout, inspiring some of his finest thoughts.
3. The ode, while glancing ever and anon back over Israel’s ancient history, is yet loud and clear with the “lyric cry” of the author’s present. See Psalm 68:4-7; Psalm 68:21, (where there is probably a veritable historic portrait), Psalm 68:22, Psa_68:30 seqq.
4. The interest of this present, though we lack the key to its exact condition, centred, as far as the poet was concerned, in the Temple, which is represented as the object of the reverence and regard of foreign powers, who bring gifts to it.
5. Notwithstanding the warlike march of the poem, and the martial ring of its music, it appears from Psalm 68:5; Psalm 68:10; Psalm 68:19-20, not to have been inspired by any immediate battle or victory, but by that general confidence in the protection of God which Israel’s prophets and poets ever drew from the history of the past.
These few features, obvious on the face of the poem, lend probability to the conjecture which sees in this psalm a processional hymn of the second Temple. That Temple needed gifts and offerings from the Persian monarchs, and was rising into completion at a time when Israel could boast of no military greatness, but found its strength only in religion. The poetical form is irregular, varying with the subject and tone.
Title.—See titles, Psalms 4, 66
To the chief Musician, A Psalm or Song of David. Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him.(1) Let God arise.—A reminiscence of the battlecry raised as the ark was advanced at the head of the tribes (Numbers 10:35). For interesting historical associations with this verse, see Gibbon (chap. 58), and Carlyle, Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (Vol. II, 185).
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.(2) Smoke.—The figure of the vanishing smoke has occurred before (see Psalm 37:20); for that of the melting wax see Psalm 97:5. Both figures are too obvious to need reference to the cloud and fire of the ancient encampment.
Sing unto God, sing praises to his name: extol him that rideth upon the heavens by his name JAH, and rejoice before him.(4) Sing praises . . .—Better, play on the harp.
Extol him that rideth upon the heavens.—Rather, cast up a highway for him that rideth on the steppes. (Comp. Isaiah 40:3, of which this is apparently an echo.) The poet’s voice is the herald’s who precedes the army of God to order the removal of all obstructions, and the formation of cairns to mark the road. Isaiah 57:14; Isaiah 62:10, are passages alluding to the same custom.
The translation, “upon the heavens,” rests on a rabbinical interpretation of ‘arabôth.
By derivation it means “a dry sandy region,” a “steppe.” The singular of the noun forms with the article a proper name designating the Jordan valley. (In the poetical books, however, any wild tract of country is called ‘Arabah—Isaiah 35:1; Isaiah 35:6.) The plural often designates particular parts of this region, as the plains of Moab or Jericho (2Kings 25:4-5). Such a restricted sense is quite in keeping with the allusions to the early history which make up so much of the psalm.
By his name JAH.—Better, his name is Jah. This abbreviated form of Jehovah is first found in Exodus 15:2. No doubt the verse is a fragment of a song as old as the Exodus.
It may be noticed here that the dependence of this psalm on older songs is nowhere more conspicuous than in the very various use of the Divine names, Elohim, Adonai, El, Shaddai, Jehovah, Jah.
A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in his holy habitation.(5) The LXX. and Vulg. prefix to this verse, “They shall be troubled by the face of Him who is,” &c, which seems to indicate that the abrupt introduction of this description of God is due to some loss in the text.
A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows.—These epithets of God seem to have become at a very early period almost proverbial.
God setteth the solitary in families: he bringeth out those which are bound with chains: but the rebellious dwell in a dry land.(6) Solitary . . .—This might refer to the childless (comp. Psalm 113:9), but it is better, in connection with the next clause, to think of the exiles scattered and dispersed, and who are by the Divine arm brought home.
With chains.—The Hebrew word is peculiar to this passage, and is derived by the Rabbis from a root meaning to bind. Modern scholars give “to prosper” as the meaning of the root, and render, he bringeth the captives into prosperity.
Rebellious.—As in Psalm 66:7; stubborn, refractory.
In a dry land.—Or, desert.
It is natural, remembering the connection between the imagery of Psalm 68:4 and parts of the great prophet of the Return, to refer its expressions to those who were left behind in Babylon when the restoration took place.
(7–10) We come now to the first of three unmistakable historic retrospects—the rescue from Egypt, the conquest of Canaan, and the establishment of Jerusalem as the political and religious capital. In these patriotic recollections the poet is naturally inspired by the strains of former odes of victory and freedom. The music especially of Deborah’s mighty song (Judges 5), which, directly or indirectly, coloured so much of later Hebrew poetry (see Deuteronomy 33:2; Habakkuk 3) is in his ears throughout.
Wentest forth . . . didst march.—The parallel clauses as well as the words employed have, in the sound and sequence, a martial tread. The latter word, “didst march,” is peculiar to Judges 5, Habakkuk 3, and this psalm.
Even Sinai itself.—Better, this Sinai. (See Note, Judges 5:5, where the clause completing the parallelism, here omitted, is retained, and shows us that the predicate to be supplied here is melted.)
“The mountain melted from before Jehovah,
This Sinai from before Jehovah, God of Israel.”
The demonstrative “this Sinai” appears more natural if we suppose the verse, even in Deborah’s song, to be an echo or fragment of some older pieces contemporary with the Exodus itself. Such fragments of ancient poetry actually survive in some of the historical books—e.g., Numbers 21:17-18; Exodus 15:1-19.
Thou, O God, didst send a plentiful rain, whereby thou didst confirm thine inheritance, when it was weary.(9, 10) Thou, O God . . .—The text of these two verses literally runs, A rain of gifts thou shakest out, O God, on thine inheritance, and when exhausted didst refresh it. Thy living creatures dwell therein; thou makest provision of thy goodness for the afflicted, O God. The rain of gifts has been variously explained as actual showers, blessings of prosperity, outpourings of the Holy Spirit. Both the latter might no doubt be implied in the expression, but some particular material blessing seems indicated, and in connection with the desert wanderings the rain of manna suggests itself. By thine inheritance we understand God’s people, as in Deuteronomy 4:20; Psalm 28:9, &c. The “living creatures” in the next verse will then probably be the quails; and a slight emendation, lately suggested, carries conviction along with it. It consists in bringing “thy living creatures” into Psalm 68:9, and, by the insertion of a letter, to read instead of “they dwell therein”—they are satisfied with it (comp. Psalm 78:24-25). This gives the rendering, and when it was exhausted thou didst refresh it with thy living creatures; they are satisfied therewith. (Burgess.)
Thy congregation hath dwelt therein: thou, O God, hast prepared of thy goodness for the poor.(10) Thy congregation.—See above. If the emendation there adopted seems unnecessary, we may render here, Thy life dwells in her, i.e., in the people of Israel. (Comp. Psalm 143:3.) The vigour consequent on the heavenly food might be called the Divine life, and conceal a higher application.
The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.(11-14) These verses refer to the conquest of Canaan, the long history of which is, however, here crowded into one supreme and crowning moment: a word from God, and all was done.
(11) The Lord gave . . .—Literally, The Lord gives a word. Of the women who bring the news, the host is great. The Hebrew for a word is poetical, and used especially of a Divine utterance (Psalm 19:4; Psalm 77:8; Habakkuk 3:9). Here it might mean either the signal for the conflict, or the announcement of victory. But the custom of granting to bands of maidens the privilege of celebrating a triumph (Exodus 15:20-21; Judges 5, Judges 11:34; 1Samuel 18:6; 2Samuel 1:20), here evidently alluded to, makes in favour of the latter.
By the “great company,” or host, we are apparently to think, not of one large body of women celebrating some one particular victory, but successive and frequent tidings of victory following rapidly on one another—
“Thick as tale
Came post with post.”
The LXX. and Vulg. renderings have been the source of the erroneous view which makes this verse prophetic of a numerous and successful Christian ministry: “The Lord shall give the word to them that evangelise with great might.”
Kings of armies did flee apace: and she that tarried at home divided the spoil.(12) Kings of armies did flee apace.—Better, Kings of armies flee, flee. This and the two next verses wear the air of being a fragment of those ancient battle-songs sung by the women after the defeat of the foe. The fact that they have thus been torn from their original context accounts for the great obscurity which hangs over them.
And she that tarried . . .—i.e., the woman keeping the house; so the Hebrew. (Comp. Judges 5:24, “Women of the tent;” and the fond anticipations of Sisera’s mother, Psalm 68:29.) So the Greeks called the mistress of the house οὶκουρός. (Eur. Herc. Fur. 45.)
Though this sense thus gives a general description of war, and the women waiting eagerly for the victorious home-coming is a picture true to life, yet the next verse indicates that we must suppose a latent reference to some tribe or party who shirked the dangers of battle, and played the part of the stay-at-home.
Though ye have lien among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold.(13, 14) The agreement of the ancient versions in rendering these difficult verses shows that their obscurity does not arise, as in the case of so many passages of the Psalms, from any corruptions in the text, but from the fact that they are an adaptation of some ancient war-song to circumstances to which we have no clue. If we could recover the allusions, the language would probably appear clear enough.
“Why rest ye among the sheepfolds?”
“A dove’s wings are (now) covered with silver, and her
feathers with the sheen of gold.”
“When the Almighty scattered kings there,
It was snowing on Tsalmon.”
Even in our ignorance of these allusions we at once recognise in the first member of this antique verse the scornful inquiry of Judges 5:16, addressed to the inglorious tribe that preferred ease at home to the dangers and discomforts of battle.
The word here rendered “sheepfolds” (in the Authorised Version pots, a meaning which cannot represent the Hebrew word or its cognates in any other place) is cognate to that used in Judges 5:16, and occurs in its present form in Ezekiel 40:43, where the margin renders, “andirons, or two hearthstones.” The derivation from to set would allow of its application to any kind of barrier.
Whether Reuben, as in Deborah’s song, or Issachar, as in Genesis 49:14, where a cognate word occurs (“burdens”), were the original stay-at-home, does not matter. The interest lies in the covert allusion made by the psalmist in his quotation to some cowardly or recreant party now playing the same disgraceful game.
The next clause, which has caused so much trouble to commentators, appears perfectly intelligible if treated as the answer made to the taunting question, and as simply a note of time:—they stayed at home because all nature was gay and joyous with summer. There is no authority for taking the rich plumage of the dove as emblematic of peace or plenty. The dove appears, indeed, in the Bible as a type, but only, as in all other literature, as a type of love (Song of Solomon 2:14); whereas the appearance of this bird was in Palestine, as that of the swallow with us, a customary mark of time. (See Note, Song of Solomon 2:12; Song of Solomon 2:14.) And a verse of a modern poet shows how naturally its full plumage might indicate the approach of summer:—
“In the spring a lovelier iris changes on the burnished dove.”
—TENNYSON: Locksley Hall.
This reply calls forth from the first speaker a rejoinder in companion terms. The inglorious tribe plead summer joys as an excuse for ease. The reply tells of the devotion and ardour of those who, even amid the rigour of an exceptional winter, took up arms for their country: When the AImighty scattered kings there, it was snowing on Tsalmon. (For the geography of Tsalmon, see Judges 9:48.) Whether intentionally or not, the sense of the severity of the snowstorm—rare in Palestinian winters—is heightened by the contrast implied in the name “Dark” or “Shadow Hill.”
The peculiarity of the position of the locative there (literally, in it), coming before the mention of the locality itself, is illustrated by Isaiah 8:21.
The hill of God is as the hill of Bashan; an high hill as the hill of Bashan.(15-18) A third retrospect follows—the third scene in the sacred drama of Israel’s early fortunes. It sets forth the glory of God’s chosen mountain. A finer passage could hardly be found. The towering ranges of Bashan—Hermon with its snowy peaks—are personified. They become, in the poet’s imagination, envious of the distinction given to the petty heights of Judæa. (Perhaps a similar envy is implied in Psalm 133:3.) The contrast between the littleness of Palestine and the vast extent of the empires which hung upon its northern and southern skirts, is rarely absent from the minds of the prophets and psalmists. (See Isaiah 49:19-20.) Here the watchful jealousy with which these powers regarded Israel is represented by the figure of the high mountain ranges watching Zion (see Note below) like hungry beasts of prey ready to spring. And what do they see? The march of God Himself, surrounded by an army of angels, from Sinai to His new abode.
(15) The hill of God is . . .—Better,
“Mountain of God, mount Basan;
Mountain of peaks, mount Basan.”
Even if the range of Hermon were not included, the basalt (basanite, probably from the locality) ranges, always rising up before the eyes of those looking eastward from Palestine, must have been doubly impressive from their superior height, and the contrast of their bold and rugged outlines with the monotonous rounded forms of the limestone hills of Judæa. And it is quite possible that, in a poetic allusion, the term “mountains of Bashan” might include all the heights to the eastward of Jordan, stretching southward as well as northward. There would then be an additional propriety in their introduction as jealously watching the march of Israel from Sinai to take possession of the promised land. Why these trans-Jordanic ranges should be styled “mountains of God” has been much discussed. Some explain the term to denote ancient seats of religious worship; others take it simply as a general term expressing grandeur—“a ridge of god-like greatness.”
Why leap ye, ye high hills? this is the hill which God desireth to dwell in; yea, the LORD will dwell in it for ever.(16) Why leap ye?—The verb occurs only here, but is explained by Delitzsch, by comparison with an Arabic root, to express the attitude of a beast crouching down for a spring on its prey; a fine image: the jealous hills lying, like panthers, ready to spring on the passing Israelites. Or does the old feeling of jealousy of the tribes on the other side of Jordan still show itself lurking in this verse? Browning has an image some what similar:—
“Those two hills on the right
Crouched like two bulls.”
Others make the meaning simply “to look enviously on.” The older versions have caught the sense, “Why watch with suspicion?” We may translate the verse, Why, mountains of many peaks, glare ye at the mountain which God hath desired for a residence? Yea, Jehovah will dwell there for ever.
The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the holy place.(17) The chariots.—As the text stands, this verse can only be brought into harmony with the context by a certain violence to grammar. Its literal reading is, God’s chariots, two myriads of thousands, and again myriads of thousands (literally, of repetition), the Lord among them, Sinai in holiness; which, by strict rule, must mean: “God’s chariots are innumerable, and the Lord rides in them to Sinai, into the holy place.” But this rendering is quite against the whole tenor of the passage, which is descriptive of a march from, not to, Sinai. Hence some suggest the rendering, “The Lord is among them—a Sinai in holiness,” meaning that Zion has become Sinai, a common enough figure in poetry (comp. In medio Tibure Sardinia est—Mart. 4:60), but only discovered here by a roundabout process. There can hardly be a question as to the propriety of the emendation suggested by Dr. Perowne, The Lord is with them; He has come from Sinai into the holy place. (Comp. Deuteronomy 32:2, which was undoubtedly in the poet’s mind.)
Of angels.—This rendering arose from a confusion of the word which means repetition with a word which means shining. LXX., “of flourishing ones”; Vulg., “of rejoicing ones.” But the mistake is a happy one, and Milton’s sonorous lines have well caught the feeling and music of the Hebrew:—
“About His chariots numberless were poured
Cherub and seraph, potentates and thrones,
And virtues, winged spirits and chariots winged,
From the armoury of God, where stand of old
Myriads.” Paradise Lost, vii. 196.
Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them.(18) Thou hast ascended on high.—Or, to the height, i.e., Mount Zion, as in Psalms 24 (Comp. Jeremiah 31:12; Ezekiel 20:40.)
Captivity captive.—Or, captives into captivity. (See Judges 5:12, Note.)
For men.—This rendering is inadmissible. Literally, in man, which is equivalent to our of men. Gifts of men are therefore captives or hostages, viz., the rebellious in the next clause, i.e., the heathen, whom the poet describes as subjected to Jehovah, and their land made His dweiling-place. (For St. Paul’s citation of this verse, or its original, see Note, Ephesians 4:8, New Testament Commentary.)
Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits, even the God of our salvation. Selah.(19-23) The abrupt transition from the scene of triumph just described to the actual reality of things which the psalmist now for the first time faces, really gives the key to the intention of the poem. It is by God’s favour and might, and not by the sword, that deliverance from the enemies actually threatening the nation is to be expected.
(19) The verb, as the italics of the Authorised Version show, is of somewhat indefinite use. It appears to have both an active and passive sense, meaning to lay a burden, or to receive a burden. Here the context seems to require the latter: who daily takes our burden for us, i.e., either the burden of trial or of sin. (Comp. a somewhat similar passage, Psalm 99:8, “thou art a God who liftest for us,” i.e., as Authorised Version, “forgivest us.”) But it is quite possible to render, if any put a burden on us, God is our help.
He that is our God is the God of salvation; and unto GOD the Lord belong the issues from death.(20) He that is.—The insertion is unnecessary. Render, God unto us (i.e., our God) is a God of salvation.
Issues from death.—Literally, for death goings out. The same word rendered issues in Proverbs 4:23, there means sources. Here it will mean sources of death, or escapes from death as we connect the clause with what precedes or follows; Jehovah would provide an issue out of death for Israel, but a source of death to Israel’s enemies. The LXX. and Vulgate apparently take it in the former connection.
But God shall wound the head of his enemies, and the hairy scalp of such an one as goeth on still in his trespasses.(21) Hairy scalp.—Literally, crown, or top, or head of hair. The word is rendered “pate” in Psalm 7:16. This is probably a portrait of some historical person hostile to Israel. Others take it as a type of pride and arrogance, comparing the use of the Greek verb κομαν. The word “scalp,” properly shell (comp. “skull”), was a word in common use at the time of the translation of the English Bible—
“White beards have armed their thin and hairless scalps
Against thy majesty.”
SHAKSPERE: Richard II.
The Lord said, I will bring again from Bashan, I will bring my people again from the depths of the sea:(22) I will bring.—The meaning of this verse is very obscure. It is plainly another fragment of some ancient song quoted, we can hardly doubt, with reference to the return from captivity. “Bashan” and the “depths of the sea” (comp. Amos 9:1-10) may, in the quotation, only stand generally for east and west, the sea being here the Mediterranean. But most probably the original verse referred to the passage of the Red Sea and the contest with the king of Bashan.
That thy foot may be dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and the tongue of thy dogs in the same.(23) That thy foot.—This makes an unnecessary transposition of a very involved sentence. The image is perfectly clear, though the syntax, as often happens in all languages, goes tripping itself up. The conqueror, after wading in the blood of his enemies, is met by the dogs, who lick his gory feet. With a change of one letter we may render, “That thou mayest wash thy foot in blood—yea, the tongue of thy dogs in (the blood of) thine enemies.
They have seen thy goings, O God; even the goings of my God, my King, in the sanctuary.(24-27) These hopes of national deliverance are kept alive in the worship of the sanctuary, which the poet now proceeds to describe. A solemn procession advances to the Temple, and we have a description of it by one evidently as interested in this ritual as familiar with it.
(24) Goings.—Better, processions. (Comp. Psalm 42:4.)
In the sanctuary.—Rather, into the sanctuary.
The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after; among them were the damsels playing with timbrels.(25) Players—i.e., harpers.
Bless ye God in the congregations, even the Lord, from the fountain of Israel.(26) Bless ye.—Apparently these words are part of the processional hymn. But in Judges 5:9 a similar outburst of praise appears to come from the poet.
From the fountain of Israel.—A comparison with Isaiah 48:1; Isaiah 51:1, certainly allows us to understand this in the congregations sprung from the head waters (as we say) of the races, i.e., the patriarchal ancestors. At the same time if there were any mode of taking the words literally instead of figuratively it would be preferable.
There is little Benjamin with their ruler, the princes of Judah and their council, the princes of Zebulun, and the princes of Naphtali.(27) There is . . .—The procession is apparently a representative one. and the conjecture is probable which refers the selection of Zebulun and Naphtali to their prominence in Deborah’s song. Benjamin may owe its position to the fact that it gave the nation its first king, and Judah would naturally figure in the pomp as the tribe of David. But other considerations besides may have had weight. The selection may have been made as representative of the two kingdoms.
Their ruler.—The Hebrew word has always a sense of a high-handed conqueror’s rule, with the possible exception of Jeremiah 5:31. There is probably still a reference to Saul and his conquests—“little Benjamin who conquered for thee,” or, possibly, here Benjamin takes the victor’s place as leader of the procession.
Their council.—The reading must certainly be changed in accordance with Psalm 55:14. Their crowd, or company.
Thy God hath commanded thy strength: strengthen, O God, that which thou hast wrought for us.(28) Thy God hath commanded.—Rather, with LXX. and the ancient versions generally, Ordain, O God, thy strength.
Because of thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto thee.(29) Kings.—This verse is a strong argument for referring the psalm either to the time of the rebuilding of the Temple, or its re-dedication after the pollution by Antiochus Epiphanes.
Rebuke the company of spearmen, the multitude of the bulls, with the calves of the people, till every one submit himself with pieces of silver: scatter thou the people that delight in war.(30) Rebuke . . .—See margin, which (if we change beasts to beast) gives the right rendering. So LXX. and Vulgate. The beast of the reed is undoubtedly symbolical of Egypt, whether it be the crocodile or the hippopotamus.
Bulls . . . calves.—These are possibly emblems respectively of the strong and the weak—the princes and the common people. (Comp., for a somewhat similar description of the Egyptians, Psalm 76:5-6.) But a slight emendation suggested by Grätz gives the herd of bulls despisers of the people, a reading quite in keeping with the ordinary use of this figure. (See Psalm 22:12; Jeremiah 1:11.) The figure in connection with the bull-worship of Egypt is especially significant.
Till every one submit.—This clause still waits for a satisfactory explanation. The Authorised Version is intelligible, but grammatically indefensible. The LXX. are undoubtedly right in taking the verb as a contracted infinitive preceded by a negative particle (comp. Genesis 27:1), and not as a participle. The meaning submit or humble (Proverbs 6:3) is only with violence deduced from the original meaning of the verb, which (see Daniel 7:7) means to stamp like a furious animal. One cognate is used (Ezekiel 34:18) of a herd of bulls fouling the pasture with their feet, and another means to tread. The form of the verb here used might mean to set oneself in quick motion, which is the sense adopted by the LXX. in Proverbs 6:3. Hence we get rebuke . . . from marching for pieces of silver, the meaning being that a rebuke is administered not only to Egypt, but also to those Jews who took the pay of Egypt as mercenaries, and oppressed the rest of the community, a sense in keeping with the next clause.
Scatter.—The verb, as pointed, means hath scattered, but the LXX. support the alteration to the imperative which the context demands.
Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.(31) Princes.—Or, magnates.
Ethiopia.—Literally, Cush shall make to run his hands to God, an idiom easily intelligible, expressing hasty submission.
(32–35) A noble doxology, worthy of the close of one of the finest Hebrew hymns.
Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth; O sing praises unto the Lord; Selah:(32) Sing praises . . .—Better, play and sing. The Selah, as in some other cases, is introduced where to our sense of rhythm it is quite out of place.
O God, thou art terrible out of thy holy places: the God of Israel is he that giveth strength and power unto his people. Blessed be God.(35) Out of thy holy places—i.e., out of Zion. The plural “places” occurs also in Ps. lxxiii, 17 (Heb.).