THE misery of the Jews is here at its deepest (Four Friends, p. 291). The psalmist describes Jerusalem as fallen into "perpetual ruins" (ver. 3). The temple is violated (ver. 3); its carved work is ruthlessly cut down (ver. 6); the aid of fire has been called in to destroy it, and its walls are cast down to the ground (ver. 7). Nor has Jerusalem alone suffered. The object has been to "make havoc" of Israel "altogether;" and the enemy have spread themselves, and "burnt up all the houses of God in the land" (ver. 8). The prophets have succumbed; their voices are heard no more (ver. 9). A blasphemous enemy lords it over the entire country (vers. 10, 23), and sets up its banners as signs of its dominion (ver. 4). Three periods have been assigned for the composition of the psalm:
(1) the time of the invasion of Shishak;
(2) that of the Babylonian conquest; and
(3) the early Maceabean period, or the reign of Judas Maccabaens.
In favour of the first is the ascription of the psalm in the "title" to Asaph. But all other considerations are against it. There is no evidence that Shishak ever entered Jerusalem. He certainly did not break down the carved work of the temple, or set the temple on fire, much less "cast it down to the ground." His invasion was a mere raid, and Rehoboam seems to have bought his retreat by the sacrifice of the temple treasury (2 Kings 14:25-28; 2 Chronicles 12:2-12). The circumstances described in the psalm are also unsuitable to the reign of Judas Maccabaeus, in whose time the temple suffered desecration at the hands of the Syrians, but was not seriously damaged, much less demolished. Thus the only date suitable for the composition of the psalm is that immediately following the capture of the city under Nebuchadnezzar. We must explain the "title" by the consideration that Asaph, like Jeduthun and Heman, became a tribe name, attaching to all the descendants of the original Asaph, and was equivalent to "sou of Asaph" (see Ezra 2:41; Ezra 3:10; Nehemiah 7:44; Nehemiah 11:22). The psalm consists of three portions:
1. A complaint to God, including a description of all the horrors of the situation (vers. 1-11).
2. An enumeration of God's mercies in the olden time, as a foundation for hope that he will yet rescue Israel (vers. 12-17).
3. An earnest prayer for relief and restoration, and the re-establishment of the covenant (vers. 18-23). Verse 1. - O God, why hast thou cast us off forever? It could only have been in the extremity of distress that a devout Israelite believed, even for a time, that Israel was "cast off forever" (comp. Psalm 79:5, which must have been written nearly at the same period as this). Why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture? God's anger "smokes" when it is hot and furious (see Psalm 18:8; Psalm 104:32; Psalm 44:5). It is now smoking "against the sheep of his pasture" - his own flock (Psalm 78:53), his peculiar people (comp. Jeremiah 23:4; Jeremiah 50:6, 17; and Psalm 79:13).
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.
Verse 2. - Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; or, which thou didst purchase of old. The reference is to the redemption out of Egypt (see Exodus 15:16). God is besought, though he has forgotten, once more to remember his people, and urged to do so by the memory of his former mercies (comp. vers. 12-17). The rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; rather, which thou didst redeem to be the tribe of thine inheritance; i.e. the people of thine inheritance. "The conventional expression, 'the tribes of Israel,' was not always used after the fall of the northern kingdom" (Cheyne); comp. Jeremiah 10:16; Jeremiah 51:19. This Mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt (comp. Psalm 73: 68). The expression, "this Mount Zion," implies that the psalm is composed either by one of the exiles before he is removed from the Holy Land, or by one of those who were left behind by the conquerors (2 Kings 25:12, 22; Jeremiah 42:10; Jeremiah 52:16).
Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual desolations; even all that the enemy hath done wickedly in the sanctuary.
Verse 3. - Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual desolations; or, the perpetual ruins. God is asked to visit and protect, or else to visit and inspect, the desolate ruins with which the Babylonians have covered Mount Zion. Even all that the enemy hath done wickedly in the sanctuary. The Babylonians had plundered the temple of all its treasures, breaking the precious Phoenician bronze work into pieces, and carrying off everything of value that was portable (2 Kings 25:13-17). They had also "burnt the house of the Lord "(ver. 9), and "broken down the walls of Jerusalem" (ver. 10) and the walls of the temple to a large extent (see below, ver. 7). It is quite certain that neither Shishak nor the Syrians under Antiochus Epiphanes created any such devastation.
Thine enemies roar in the midst of thy congregations; they set up their ensigns for signs.
Verse 4. - Thine enemies roar in the midst of thy congregations; or, have roared; i.e. have created disturbances, or raised tumults. The temple did not pass into the enemy's hands without fighting and bloodshed; the battlecry of the assailants and their shouts of triumph when victorious resounded through it (comp. Lamentations 2:7) They set up their ensigns for signs. Probably for tokens of victory and dominion. Scarcely as objects of worship, since their intention was to destroy the temple and leave Jerusalem desolate.
A man was famous according as he had lifted up axes upon the thick trees.
Verse 5. - A man was famous according as he had lifted up axes upon the thick trees; rather, they seemed as men that plied aloft hatchets in a thicket of trees (so Kay, Canon Cook, Professor Cheyne, and the Revised Version); i.e. they plied their hatchets with as little reverence as if they had been hewing timber in a copse of wood.
But now they break down the carved work thereof at once with axes and hammers.
Verse 6. - But now they break down the carved work thereof at once with axes and hammers. The "carved work" (pittuchim) of the temple consisted of the cherubim and palm trees and open flowers which formed the decoration of the temple walls (see 1 Kings 6:29, where the same word, pittuchim, is used). This superficial carved work may have been broken down for the sake of the gold with which it was overlaid (1 Kings 6:22, 32, 35).
They have cast fire into thy sanctuary, they have defiled by casting down the dwelling place of thy name to the ground.
Verse 7. - They have cast tire into thy sanctuary; or, they have set thy sanctuary fire (Revised Version). The temple of Solomon was burnt by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:9; 2 Chronicles 36:19). That of Zerubbabel was never burnt, but was entirely rebuilt, and on a much larger scale, by Herod the Great. That of Herod the Great was burnt in the siege by Titus. They have defiled by casting down the dwelling place of thy Name to the ground (comp. Lamentations 2:6; Lamentations 4:1). The very foundations of the second temple had to be laid by Zerubbabel (Ezra 3:6, 12).
They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land.
Verse 8. - They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them altogether. It was, no doubt, the intention of Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Israel as a nation. Hence the complete destruction of the city and temple (2 Kings 25:9, 10; 2 Chronicles 36:19; Lamentations 2:1-9, etc.); hence the deportation of all the strength of the nation (2 Kings 24:14-16; 2 Kings 25:11), and their settlement in the far off region of Babylonia; hence the desolation, not only of Jerusalem, but of "all the habitations of Jacob" (Lamentations 2:2), all the "strongholds of the daughter of Judah" (Lamentations 2:2, 5). They have burnt up all the synagogues of God in the land. The synagogue system was first introduced by Ezra, according to Jewish tradition; and it has been argued that the mention of "synagogues" here - literally, "sacred meeting places" - proves the psalm to be Maccabean. But meeting places for worship, other than the temple, always existed in Palestine, both before and after its erection. Mesha speaks of having plundered a "house of Jehovah" in his war with Ahab ('Records of the Past,' vol. 11:p. 167); and it is plain from 2 Kings 4:23 that religious meetings were held by the prophets, probably in houses devoted to the purpose, during the period of the divided monarchy. Hezekiah's destruction of the high places (2 Kings 18:4) is not likely to have interfered with the use of these buildings, to which no savour of idolatry can have attached in the mind of the most violent iconoclast. I should therefore believe, with Leopold Low, that buildings existed before the Exile, in which religious instruction was given by authorized teachers.
We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet: neither is there among us any that knoweth how long.
Verse 9. - We see not our signs. Some suppose "standards" to be meant, as in ver. 4, where the same word is used; but it is, perhaps, better to understand, with Dr. Kay, "Divine ordinances, which were standing signs of God's presence - as the tabernacle, the sacrifices, the sabbaths." There is no more any prophet. It has been said that this shows the psalm not to have been written on the occasion of the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, since Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel were, all of them, then living. But the writer only means to say that there are no prophets in Palestine, where he is residing. Jeremiah in Egypt, Ezekiel on the banks of Chebar, Daniel in Babylon, are nothing to him, even if he knows of their existence, and in no way fill up the gap whereof he complains. Neither is there among us any who knoweth how long. Jeremiah's prophecy of the seventy years (Jeremiah 25:11, 12) did net remove the doubt, since it was uncertain from what event the seventy years were to be counted. Jeremiah's prophecies, moreover, were not yet, in all probability, collected into a volume, and so may not have been known to the psalmist.
O God, how long shall the adversary reproach? shall the enemy blaspheme thy name for ever?
Verse 10. - O God, how long shall the adversary reproach? shall the enemy blaspheme thy Name forever? There is no contradiction between these two clauses. The psalmist wishes to ask two things:
1. Is the present distress to continue forever?
2. And if not, how long is it to endure? It is true that he inverts the natural order of the questions; but this is so common a mode of speech, that grammarians have given it a name, and call it ὔστερον(πρότερον.
Why withdrawest thou thy hand, even thy right hand? pluck it out of thy bosom.
Verse 11. - Why withdrawest thou thy hand, even thy right hand? Why dost thou keep back the right hand of thy power, hiding it in thy besom? Why not show forth thy power, and consume them, as it were, in a moment? (See the next clause.) Pluck it out of thy bosom; rather, out with it frown thy bosom, and consume them. The psalmist sees no reason why the Babylonians should not be consumed, and Israel delivered, at once. He has an insufficient sense of the greatness of Israel's sin.
For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.
Verses 12-17. - Comfort springs from the thought of God's previous deliverances of his people, and of his other great mercies. The deliverance from Egypt has the foremost place (vers. 13,14), as the most striking. Then the deliverance from the wilderness, and the passage of Jordan (ver. 15). From these the poet passes to God's mercies in nature - day and night, light and sun, set bounds of earth and sea, alternations of the seasons - all formed and arranged by the Almighty (vers. 16, 17). Verse 12. - For God is my King of old (comp. Psalm 44:4). As "King," he has power to perform all that he wills, to set up and to cast down, to give into the enemy's hand and to deliver. Working salvation in the midst of the earth. Not in any imaginary earth centre, but, as Professor Cheyne says, "quite broadly, in various parts of the earth" (comp. Exodus 8:22).
Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.
Verse 13. - Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength. A clear reference to Exodus 14:21 (comp. Psalm 77:16; Psalm 78:13; Psalm 106:9). Thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. The dragon (tannim) is frequently used as a symbol of Egyptian power (see Isaiah 51:9; Ezekiel 29:3; Ezekiel 32:2). The allusion here is to the destruction of Pharaoh's host in the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:27-30; Exodus 15:4).
Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.
Verse 14. - Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces. Here the metaphor is only slightly varied, leviathan, "the crocodile," being substituted for tannim, "the dragon," or "sea monster," as the representative of the might of Egypt. And gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness. The corpses of the Egyptians thrown up upon the Red Sea shores (Exodus 14:30) are certainly the "meat" intended. Whether the "people of dwellers in the wilderness" are cannibal tribes, or jackals and hyenas, is perhaps doubtful.
Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood: thou driedst up mighty rivers.
Verse 15. - Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood; rather, and the torrent (comp. Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:11). Thou driedst up mighty rivers; i.e. the Jordan (Joshua 3:13, et seqq.).
The day is thine, the night also is thine: thou hast prepared the light and the sun.
Verse 16. - The day is thine, the night also is thine; thou hast prepared the light and the sun (see Genesis 1:5, 15, 16); rather, thou hast prepared him light and sun. "Luminary" (מָאור) is probably a class name for the heavenly lights generally. The sun is then particularized, as so much the most important of the luminaries. But the result is "an imperfect parallelism" (Cheyne).
Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter.
Verse 17. - Thou hast set all the borders of the earth. The "borders of the earth" are the boundaries of land and sea, which are ascribed to God in Genesis 1:9 (comp. Job 26:10; Job 38:8; Psalm 33:7; Proverbs 8:29; Jeremiah 5:22). Thou hast made summer and winter; literally, summer and winter thou didst form them; i.e. they are the result of thy arrangement of creation.
Remember this, that the enemy hath reproached, O LORD, and that the foolish people have blasphemed thy name.
Verses 18-23. - In conclusion, the psalmist prays earnestly that God will deliver his people from their wicked oppressors (vers. 18, 19), that he will remember his covenant (ver. 20), cause the oppressed ones to praise him (ver. 21), and assert himself against those who insult and oppose him (vers. 22, 23). Verse 18. - Remember this, that the enemy hath reproached, O Lord, and that the foolish people have blasphemed thy Name (comp. Lamentations 1:7; Lamentations 2:7, 157 16). Every nation of idolaters is a "foolish people" to the sacred writers, whatever cleverness or intellectual capacity it may possess. Nabal, the word translated "foolish," designates a folly that is closely akin to wickedness.
O deliver not the soul of thy turtledove unto the multitude of the wicked: forget not the congregation of thy poor for ever.
Verse 19. - O deliver net the soul of thy turtle-dove unto the multitude of the wicked; rather, O deliver not thy turtle dove unto the greedy multitude (Revised Version margin). Israel is beautifully compared to a pet dove, the gentlest and tenderest of birds. The Babylonians are the "greedy multitude" ready to kill and devour it. Forget not the congregation (or, the multitude) of thy poor forever. The "multitude of God's poor" is being carried off into a cruel captivity, or else left as a miserable remnant in an exhausted and desolated land - in either ease needing much God's protection and "remembrance."
Have respect unto the covenant: for the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.
Verse 20. - Have respect unto the covenant. The "covenant" intended is probably that made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whereby Canaan was assured to their descendants, as "the lot of their inheritance." Israel is being deprived of its inheritance, and dragged off into "dark places." Will not "respect for his covenant" induce God to interpose, and even now at the last gasp deliver his afflicted ones? For the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty. Israel is being dragged into "dark places of the earth" - benighted lands, where there is no glimmer of the light of God's truth - and lands, moreover, which are "full of habitations of cruelty," abodes, i.e., where captives taken in war are treated with harshness and violence.
O let not the oppressed return ashamed: let the poor and needy praise thy name.
Verse 21. - O let not the oppressed return ashamed; i.e. let not this oppressed nation turn their back on thee in shame and confusion at thy forsaking them. Rather, let the poor and needy praise thy Name; i.e. show them some mercy, some deliverance, which may turn their shame into joy, and call forth from them songs of praise.
Arise, O God, plead thine own cause: remember how the foolish man reproacheth thee daily.
Verse 22. - Arise, O God, plead thine own cause; i.e. assert thyself, show forth thy power, avenge thyself on thine enemies. Remember how the foolish man reproacheth thee daily (comp. ver. 18, and see the comment ad loc.). In the ancient world the conquest of a people was always regarded as a triumph over the people's god or gods. Naturally, insults to the god found a place in the victor's songs of triumph (see 2 Kings 19:10-13; Isaiah 10:8-11).
Forget not the voice of thine enemies: the tumult of those that rise up against thee increaseth continually.
Verse 23. - Forget not the voice of thine enemies. God does not forget insults of this kind, but punishes them (see 2 Kings 19:28, "Because thy rage against me, and thy tumult, is come up into my ears, therefore I will put my hook in thy nose, and my bridle in thy lips, and I will turn thee back by the way by which thou earnest"). He punished Babylon after a time with extreme severity (see Jeremiah 50 and 51). The tumult of those that rise up against thee increaseth continually; rather, ascendeth continually - goes up before God's throne, crying for vengeance (comp. Genesis 4:10; Genesis 18:20, 21; Exodus 3:9, etc.).