Expositor's Bible Commentary
To the chief Musician, A Psalm and Song of David. Praise waiteth for thee, O God, in Sion: and unto thee shall the vow be performed.Psalm 65:1-13THIS and the two following psalms form a little group, with one great thought dominant in each, namely, that God’s manifestations of grace and providence to Israel are witnesses to the world. They all reach out to "the ends of the earth" in yearning and confidence that God’s name will be adored there, and they all regard His dealings with His people as His appeals to mankind, which will not always be vain. Psalm 65:1-13 begins with that privilege of approach to God with which Psalm 66:1-20 ends. In both, iniquity in heart is regarded as hindering access to God; and, in both, the psalmist’s experience of answered prayer is treated as testimony for the world of the blessedness of worshipping Israel’s God. This psalm falls into three parts, which set forth a threefold revelation of God in His acts. The first (Psalm 65:1-4) deals with the most intimate privileges of the men who dwell in His house. The second (Psalm 65:5-8) points to His rule in nature, the tokens of God’s power in the mighty things of creation-mountains, ocean, day and night, the radiant east, the solemn sunset west. The third (Psalm 65:9-13) gives a lovely picture of the annual miracle which brings harvest joys. The underlying thought binding these three parts into unity seems to be the witness to God’s name which each set of His acts bears-a witness which "they that dwell in the uttermost parts" hear sounded in their ears. If this is the true view of the psalm, we may hear a reminiscence of it in Paul’s remonstrance with the rude Lycaonian peasants: "He left not Himself without witness, in that He did good, and gave you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness."
The first strophe is wholly concerned with the glory of God as answering prayer. It begins with enigmatical words, which, if the existing text is adhered to, carry a deep truth. There are two kinds of prayer-wordless submission of will and spoken vows. The former is truly praise. The same thought is found in Psalm 62:1-12. It goes down to the root of the matter. The true notion of prayer is not that of swaying God’s will to gratify ours, but that of bringing ours into unremonstrating acceptance of His. When the accents of eager desire or of impatient murmuring and vain sobs and weeping are hushed, the still soul enters into closeness of communion, else unattainable. Beautiful and profoundly true as this is, it is not indubitably the psalmist’s meaning; and there is much to be said for the rendering which is adopted from the LXX by many commentators, and which only requires a slight change in the vocalisation-namely, "Praise is meet for Thee." But that idea is expressed in Psalm 33:1 by a different word, and the meaning of the one used here is not to be suitable for, but to be like. So that we have to choose between altering the text and then imposing a somewhat unusual meaning on the word gained, and adhering to the present reading and gaining a meaning which is admitted to be "fine" but alleged to be "unbiblical." On the whole, that meaning seems preferable. The convictions that God accepts silent devotion and answers vows, so that the thank offering promised in trouble will be called for by deliverance, "fill the psalmist with a longing that all mankind may have recourse to the same Divine Friend" (Cheyne, in loc.). His experience of accepted prayers has taught him that it is God’s nature and property to be "the hearer of prayer" (the word is a participle, expressive of a permanent characteristic), and therefore he is sure that "all flesh," in its weariness and need of an ear into which to pour necessities and sorrows, will come to Him. His eye travels far beyond Israel, and contemplates mankind as coming to worship. But one black barrier rises between men and God, the separating power of which the singer has painfully felt. Sin chokes the stream that would flow from seeking hearts into the ocean of God. The very act of gathering himself up to pray and praise quickens the sense of sinfulness in the psalmist. Therefore his look turns swiftly inwards, for the only time in the psalm. The consciousness of transgression wakes the sense of personality and isolation as nothing else will, and for one bitter moment the singer is, as it were, prisoned in the awful solitude of individual responsibility. His words reflect his vivid sight of his sins in their manifoldness, for he says that "matters of iniquities" have overcome him. The exuberant expression is not tautological, but emotional. And then he passes into sunshine again, and finds that, though he had to be alone in guilt, he is one of a company in the experience of forgiveness. Emphatically he reduplicates "Thou" in his burst of confidence in God’s covering of sins; for none but God can cope with the evil things that are too strong for man. I can neither keep them out, nor drive them out when they have come in, nor cleanse the stains that their hoofs have made; but Thou, Thou canst and dost cover them. Is not that an additional reason for "all flesh" coming to God, and almost a guarantee that they will?
The strophe ends with an exclamation celebrating the blessedness of dwelling with God. That refers, no doubt, to Israel’s prerogative of access to the Temple; but the inward and outward are blended, as in many places in the Psalter where dwelling in the house of the Lord is yearned for or rejoiced in. The universalism of the psalm does not forget the special place held by the nation whom God "has chosen and brought near." But the reality beneath the symbol is too familiar and sweet to this singer for him to suppose that mere outward access exhausts the possibilities of blessed communion. It is no violent forcing more into his words than they contain, if we read in them deeply spiritual truths. It is noteworthy that they follow the reference to forgiveness, and, when taken in conjunction therewith, may be called an itinerary of the road to God. First comes forgiveness by expiation, for such is the meaning of "covering." Then the cleansed soul has "access with confidence"; then approaching, it happily dwells a guest in the house and is supplied with that which satisfies all desires. The guest’s security in the house of his host, his right to protection, help, and food, are, as usual, implied in the imagery. The prerogative of his nation, which the psalmist had in mind, is itself imagery, and the reality which it shadowed is that close abiding in God which is possible by faith, love, communion of spirit, and obedience of life, and which, wherever realised, keeps a soul in a great calm, whatever tempests rave, and satisfies its truest needs and deepest longings, whatever famine may afflict the outward life. Forgiven men may dwell with God. They who do are blessed.
The second strophe (Psalm 65:5-8) celebrates another aspect of God’s manifestation by deeds, which has, in like manner, a message for the ends of the earth. Israel is again the immediate recipient of God’s acts, but they reverberate through the world. Therefore in Psalm 65:5 the two clauses are not merely adjacent, but connected. It is because God is ever revealing Himself to the nation (for the tense of the verb "answer" expresses continuous action) that He is revealed as the trust of the whole earth. God’s grace fructifies through Israel to all. How clearly the psalmist had grasped the truth that God has limited the knowledge of Himself to one spot of earth in order to its universal diffusion!
The light is focused and set in a tower that it may shine out over sea and storm. The fire is gathered into a brasier that it may warm all the house. Some commentators take that strong expression "the trust of all the ends of the earth" as asserting that even the confidences of idolaters in their gods are at bottom trust in Jehovah and find their way to Him. But such a view of idolatry is foreign to the Old Testament, and is not needed to explain the psalmist’s words. God is the only worthy object of trust, and remains so whether men do in fact trust Him or not. And one day, thinks the psalmist, God’s patient manifestation of His grace to Israel will tell, and all men will come to know Him for what He is. "The remotest sea" is not translation, but paraphrase. The psalmist speaks in vague terms, as one who knew not what lay beyond the horizon of that little-traversed western ocean. Literally his words are "the sea of the remote [peoples]"; but a possible emendation has been suggested, reading instead of sea "regions" or "nations." The change is slight, and smooths an awkward expression, but destroys the antithesis of earth and sea, and makes the second clause a somewhat weak repetition of the first.
From the self-revelation of God in history the psalm passes to His mighty deeds in nature (Psalm 65:6-7 a), and from these it returns to His providential guidance of human affairs (Psalm 65:7 b). The two specimens of Divine power celebrated in Psalm 65:6-7, are suggested by the closing words of Psalm 65:5. "The ends of the earth" were, according to ancient cosmography, girdled by mountains; and God has set these fast. The dash of "the remotest seas" is hushed by Him. Two mighty things are selected to witness to the Mightier who made and manages them. The firm bulk of the mountains is firm because He is strong. The tossing waves are still because He bids them be silent. How transcendently great then is He, and how blind those who, seeing hill and ocean, do not see God! The mention of the sea, the standing emblem of unrest and rebellious power suggests the "tumult of the peoples," on which similar repressive power is exercised. The great deeds of God, putting down tyranny and opposition to Israel, which is rebellion against Himself, strike terror, which is wholesome and is purified into reverence, into the distant lands; and so, from the place where the sun rises to the "sad-coloured end of evening" where it sinks in the west, i.e., through all the earth; there rings out a shout of joy. Such glowing anticipations of universal results from the deeds of God, especially for Israel, are the products of diseased national vanity, unless they are God-taught apprehension of the Divine purpose of Israel’s history, which shall one day be fulfilled, when the knowledge of the yet more wondrous deeds which culminated in the Cross is spread to the ends of the earth and the remotest seas.
God reveals Himself not only in the sanctities of His house, nor in His dread "signs" in nature and history, but in the yearly recurring harvest, which was waving as yet unreaped, while the poet sang. The local colouring which regards rain as the chief factor in fertility and the special gift of God is noticeable. In such a land as Palestine, irrigation seems the one thing needful to turn desert into fruitful field. To "water" the soil is there emphatically to "enrich" it. The psalmist uses for "river" the technical word for an irrigation cutting, as if he would represent God in the guise of the cultivator, who digs his ditches that the sparkling blessing may reach all his field. But what a difference between men-made watercourses and God’s! The former are sometimes flooded, but often dry; His are full of water. The prose of the figure is, of course, abundant rain. It prepares the earth for the seed, and "so" in effect prepares the corn. The one is the immediate, the other the ultimate issue and purpose. Spring showers prepare autumn fruits. It is so in all regions of man’s endeavour and of God’s work; and it is practical wisdom to train ourselves to see the assurance of the end in His means, and to be confident that whatever His doings have a manifest tendency to effect shall one day be ripened and harvested. How lovingly and patiently the psalm represents the Divine Husbandman as attending to all the steps of the process needed for the great ingathering! He guides the showers, he fills the little valleys of the furrows, and smooths down the tiny hills of the intervening ridges. He takes charge of the germinating seed, and His sunshine smiles a benediction on the tender green blade, as it pricks through the earth which has been made soft enough for it to pierce from beneath. This unhesitating recognition of the direct action of God in all "natural" processes is the true point of view from which to regard them. God is the only force; and His immediate action is present in all material changes. The Bible knows nothing of self-moving powers in nature, and the deepest conception of God’s relations to things sensible knows as little. "There is no power but of God" is the last word of religion and of true philosophy.
The poet stands in the joyous time when all the beauty of summer flushes the earth, and the harvest is yet a hope, not a possibly disappointing reality. It is near enough to fill his song with exultation. It is far enough off to let him look on the whitened fields, and not on the bristly stubble. So he regards the "crown" as already set on a year of goodness. He sees God’s chariot passing in triumph and blessing over the land, and leaving abundance wherever its wheel tracks go. Out in the uncultivated prairie, where sweet grass unsown by man grows, is the flush of greenery, where, before the rain, was baked and gaping earth. The hills, that wear a girdle of forest trees halfway up towards their barren summits, wave their foliage, as if glad. The white fleeces of flocks are dotted over the vivid verdure of every meadow, and one cannot see the ground for the tall corn that stands waiting for the sickle, in each fertile plain. The psalmist hears a hymn of glad praise rising from all these happy and sunny things; and for its melody he hushes his own, that he and we may listen to
"The fair music that all creatures make
To their great Lord."