Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Two periods only in the history of the Jews offer possible place for the composition of this psalm—that immediately after the Chaldæan invasion, and that of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes (B.C 167). Against the former of these is the statement in Psalm 74:9 (see Note), which could not have been spoken while Jeremiah was alive. Hence, with a certainty allowed by no other of the psalms, this, with Psalms 79, can be referred to the year before the patriotic rise of the Asmoneans. Indeed, as Delitzsch remarks, their contents coincide with the prayer of Judas Maccabæus preserved in 2 Maccabees 8:1-4. The only argument of any weight against this conclusion is the expression in Psalm 74:3, “ruins,” which appears at first sight too strong a term for the mischief wrought by the Syrians at the command of Antiochus. But we must allow at such a crisis a little licence to patriotism and poetry; and, unless the words must be limited to the sanctuary (which is not absolutely necessary: see Note), the picture given in the Book of Maccabees of the state of the Holy City, is such as to bear out the psalm. The poetical form is irregular.
Title.—See titles, Psalms 32, 1.
Maschil of Asaph. O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?(1) Why hast . . .—Better, why hast thou never ceased abandoning us?
Anger.—Literally, nostril, as in Psalm 18:8, “there went a smoke from his nostril.”
The sheep of thy pasture.—An expression peculiar to the Asaphic psalms and Jeremiah 23:1.
Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt.(2) Purchased.—Or, as in LXX., acquired. This word, together with the word “redeemed” in the next clause, and “right hand” in Psalm 74:11, show that Exodus 15 was in the writer’s mind. (See especially Psalm 74:12-13; Psalm 74:16 of that chapter.)
The word “congregation” here, as in the Mosaic books, presents the people in its religious aspect, as the expression “rod (or, tribe) of thine inheritance” presents it in its political character.
The rod of . . .—Better, which thou hast redeemed as the tribe of thine inheritance, i.e., as thine own tribe.
The expression, “rod of thine inheritance,” comes from Jeremiah 10:16; Jeremiah 51:19. (Comp. Isaiah 63:17.) It refers not to the shepherd’s crook, but to the sceptre, or leading staff, of the prince of a tribe, and so passes into a term for the tribe itself (Exodus 28:21; Judges 20:2).
Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual desolations; even all that the enemy hath done wickedly in the sanctuary.(3) Lift up thy feet.—Better, Lift thy steps. A poetical expression. God is invoked to hasten to view the desolation of the Temple. A somewhat similar expression will be found in Genesis 29:1 (margin).
Perpetual desolations.—The word rendered “desolations” occurs also in Psalm 73:18, where it is rendered “destruction.” Here, perhaps, we should render ruins which must be ever ruins, or complete ruins, or possibly, taking the first meaning of netsach, ruins of splendour. Isaiah 11:4 does not offer a parallel, since the Hebrew is different, and plainly refers to the long time the places have been in ruins.
Even all . . .—Better, the enemy hath devastated all in the holy place. 1 Maccabees 1:38-40; 1 Maccabees 3:45 (“Now Jerusalem lay void as a wilderness”) give the best explanation of the verse, descriptive, as it is, of the condition of the whole of Zion.
Thine enemies roar in the midst of thy congregations; they set up their ensigns for signs.(4) Thine enemies . . .—As the text stands, render, Thine enemies have roared in the midst of thine assembly, but many MSS. have the plural as in Psalm 74:8, where see Note for the meaning of the word.
For “roared,” see Psalm 22:1, Note, and comp. Lamentations 2:7, where a similar scene is described. Instead of the voices of priest and choir, there have been heard the brutal cries of the heathen as they shouted at their work of destruction like lions roaring over their prey; or if, as some think, the reference in the next clause is to military ensigns, we have a picture of a wild soldiery exulting round the emblem of their triumph.
They set up their ensigns for signs.—The Hebrew for ensigns and signs is the same. Possibly the poet meant to have written some word meaning idols, but avoids it from dislike of mentioning the abominable things, and instead of places their idols as signs, writes, places their signs as signs.
A man was famous according as he had lifted up axes upon the thick trees.(5) The Authorised Version, with the ancient versions, has entirely mistaken the meaning of this verse, though, unlike the LXX. and Vulgate, it has the merit of being intelligible. Literally the words run, he (or it) is known like one causing to come in on high against the thicket of trees axes, which is generally understood, it seems as if men were lifting up axes against a thicket of trees. The ruthless destroyers go to work like woodcutters in a forest—the carved pillars are no more than so many trees to fell. But though this is intelligible, it does not read like Hebrew, and the contrast apparently intended between the signs of the heathen and the signs of Israel in Psalm 74:9 is not preserved. If, with the LXX., we read the verb in the plural, are known instead of is known, and supply the subject from the last clause, we get this contrast clearly brought out:
“They have set up their idols as signs,
They (these signs) are known in the lifting up on high.”
“These visible idols are easily seen and recognised as soon as set up, but (Psalm 74:9) we see not our signs.”
According as . . .—We have now, as so frequently, to supply the sign of comparison, and this clause with the next verse runs plainly enough—
“As in a thicket of trees with axes,
So now they break down all the carved work thereof with
axes and hammers.”
The “carved work” of Solomon’s Temple represented palm-trees and flowers (1Kings 6:29), and possibly these were imitated in the second Temple; if so, the image is very appropriate.
They have cast fire into thy sanctuary, they have defiled by casting down the dwelling place of thy name to the ground.(7) They have cast fire into.—Literally, They have cast into fire thy sanctuary. Probably a hyperbolic expression, and purporting to express the vastness of the conflagration. Others compare with the English “set on fire,” and French mettre à feu.
We learn from 1 Maccabees 4:38, and Josephus, Antt. xii., 7:6, that Judas Maccabæus, in coming to restore the Temple, found that the gates had been burnt.
They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land.(8) All the synagogues of God in the land.—This expression excludes from moed either of the meanings possible for it in Psalm 74:4, “the Temple” or “the assembly.” Buildings, and these places of worship, must be meant, and it is implied that they are scattered over the land, and can therefore mean nothing but synagogues. The “high places” would’ not be called God’s, nor would Bethel and Dan have been so called, being connected with irregular and unorthodox worship. Thus we have a clear note of time, indicating a period not only later than the rise of the synagogue in Ezra’s time, but much later, since it takes time for a new institution to spread over a country. Aquila and Symmachus actually render “synagogues.” Possibly the LXX. are right in putting the latter clause into the mouth of the enemies, “let us burn,” &c
We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet: neither is there among us any that knoweth how long.(9) We see not our signs . . .—It is natural to take this statement in direct contrast to what Psalm 74:4 (see Note) says of the heathen signs. While these abominations—rallying points of savage profanity—were visibly set up, the tokens of the invisible God’s presence, His wonders wrought for Israel, are no more seen.
There is no more any prophet.—This was the constant lament of the Maccabæan period (1 Maccabees 4:46; 1 Maccabees 9:27; 1 Maccabees 14:41), and suits no earlier time—at least none into which the rest of the psalm would fit. During the exile period Jeremiah and Ezekiel were prophesying, and the complaint took quite a different form then and probably for some time afterwards (Lamentations 2:9; Ezekiel 7:26). The full desolation of the situation is told in “Song of the Three Children,” Psalm 74:15; “Neither is there at this time prince, or prophet, or leader, or burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, or place to sacrifice before Thee or find mercy.”
Neither is there among us any that knoweth how long.—This, too, carries us on past the time of Jeremiah, who had given an exact date for the termination of the exile. Probably (if the arrangement of the words is right) we have here another expression of a widely-spread feeling—a feeling which inspired the apocalyptic literature, which had for its object partly to answer this question, how long? But it has been suggested, as more in the Hebrew style, to end the clause with the word know, and make it directly parallel with the preceding (“there is neither a prophet nor one who knows”), and carry on the interrogative to the next verse, where its repetition would add much to the force of the question there put. (Burgess.)
O God, how long shall the adversary reproach? shall the enemy blaspheme thy name for ever?(10-15) ln the true prophetic spirit, as Moses brought the cries of distress “by reason of their bondage” from the oppressed Israelites to God (Exodus 5:22), so this poet carries to the same God the pathos of this later cry, How long? how long? In answer, the deliverances of old rush into his mind. He recalls the right hand once stretched out to save (now thrust in inaction into the bosom), the wonders at the Red Sea, and all the long-continued providential guiding. Surely the same God will do the same wonders now!
Why withdrawest thou thy hand, even thy right hand? pluck it out of thy bosom.(11) Why withdrawest thou.—Literally, returnest, i.e., into the ample folds of the Eastern robe. The poet is thinking of Exodus 4:7.
Pluck it out of thy bosom.—Literally, out of the midst of thy bosom consume. For the same absolute use of this verb comp. Psalm 59:13. The clause is an instance of pregnant construction (comp. Psalm 74:7), and is plainly equivalent to, Why dost thou not pluck out thy right hand to consume?
For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.(12) For.—Better, and, or and yet.
In the midst of the earth.—Or, as we might say, “on the great theatre of the world.” Certainly we must not render here land instead of earth, since the wonders of Egypt, &c, are the theme.
Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.(13) Thou.—Verse after verse this emphatic pronoun recurs, as if challenging the Divine Being to contradict.
Divide.—Literally, break up.
Dragons.—Hebrew, tannînîm, not to be confounded with tannîm (Psalm 44:19, where see Note). It is the plural of tannín, which always indicates some aquatic monster. In Genesis 1:21 it is translated whale, so here by Symmachus. The LXX. (comp. Vulgate) have rendered this word and leviathan (in the next verse) by δράκων, and, indeed, the parallelism indicates monsters of a similar, if not the same, kind. About leviathan the minute and faithful description of the crocodile in Job 41 does not leave a doubt, and therefore we conclude that the tannin, here as in Ezekiel 29:3; Ezekiel 32:2 (margin), Isaiah 27:1; Isaiah 51:9 (where it is also, as here, joined with leviathan), an emblem of Egypt, was some great saurian, perhaps the alligator. The derivation from a root implying extend, favours this explanation. (Tristram, Nat. Hist. of the Bible, pp. 260, 261.) Besides its abundance, another fact leading to the crocodile becoming an emblem of Egypt, was the adoration paid to it. (See Herod., ii. 69.)
In the waters.—Literally, on the waters.
Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.(14) Leviathan.—See last note.
And gavest him . . .—The crocodile was eaten by the people of Elephantine (Herod. ii. 69), but there is no allusion here to that custom, nor to the Ichthyophagi mentioned by Agatharchides, nor to the Æthiopians (as in the LXX.). It is the Egyptian corpses thrown up by the Red Sea that are to be devoured (comp. Ezekiel 29:3-5) by the “wild beasts,” called here “people,” as the ants and conies are (Proverbs 30:25-26).
Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood: thou driedst up mighty rivers.(15) Thou didst cleave . . .—Another pregnant expression for “thou didst cleave the rock, and a fountain came forth.”
Flood.—Better, brook. Heb., nāchal.
Mighty rivers.—See margin. But, perhaps, rather. rivers of constant flow, that did not dry up in summer like the “brooks.” The same word is used of the sea (Exodus 14:27), to express the return to the regular flow of the tide.
The day is thine, the night also is thine: thou hast prepared the light and the sun.(16-18) An appeal from the God of history to the God of nature. Not only did He work wonders, but even the universe is the work of His hand.
Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter.(17) All the borders of the earth—i.e., earth in all directions, and to its utmost bounds; as we say, “from pole to pole.”
Remember this, that the enemy hath reproached, O LORD, and that the foolish people have blasphemed thy name.(18) Remember this.—Emphatical; the object of the enemy’s reproach is the Being who has done all these mighty works, and is the author of all this wonderful world.
O deliver not the soul of thy turtledove unto the multitude of the wicked: forget not the congregation of thy poor for ever.(19) O deliver.—To guide to the meaning of this verse, the word chayyah occurs in each clause, and it is presumable in the same sense (unless there is a purposed play on words). It may have one of three meanings: “life,” “animal,” “troop.” Psalm 17:9 suggests that chayyath nephesh go together in the sense of “greedy band,” and we get—
“Deliver not to the greedy band thy dove;
Forget not the band of the afflicted for ever.”
Have respect unto the covenant: for the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.(20) Habitations.—The word thus rendered is so consistently used of the “quiet resting-places” of God’s people that it seems quite impossible that the psalmist should have used the expression, “resting- places of cruelty.” A slight change in the text gives, “Look upon the covenant, for they have filled (Thy) land with darkness, Thy quiet dwelling with violence” (Burgess, Notes on the Hebrew Psalms.)
O let not the oppressed return ashamed: let the poor and needy praise thy name.(21) Oppressed.—Literally, crushed. (See Psalm 9:9; Psalm 10:18.)
Arise, O God, plead thine own cause: remember how the foolish man reproacheth thee daily.(22, 23) These verses show that the psalm was actually composed amidst the dark days it describes. It ends in expostulatory prayer, with as yet no brighter gleam of hope than prayer itself implies—and that when seemingly directed to deaf ears.