Psalm 1
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

The Psalms.






I. Preliminary.—The Psalms appear in the earliest classification we have of the Hebrew Scriptures, viz., that of the New Testament, as one of the three great divisions of sacred literature, side by side with the Law and the Prophets. In the more elaborate arrangement of the Talmudic Canon, they lose their distinctive title in the more general one of Hagiographa or sacred writings (in Hebrew, Kethubim),[1] at the head of which they stand, in the order adopted in the Hebrew Bibles.[2] In the Septuagint this threefold division, not having been settled at the time of that translation, does not of course appear, and the Psalms there are classed with the poetical and didactic books, as in our English Bibles. It is often assumed that the title Psalms in Luke 24:44 means the whole of the Hagiographa, the whole being named after its most important part. It is, however, more probable that the pre-eminence there given to the Psalms is due to another reason. The threefold division into Law, Prophets, and Psalms, was not a popular mode of designating the Scriptures as a whole, but an arrangement arising out of the use of the synagogue, where the Psalms supplied the lesson for the afternoon, as the Prophets did for the morning, of the Sabbath. The collection in its present form bears evidence of adaptation to the exigencies of the synagogue services.[3] It was, however, originally made for the (Second) Temple service, and for musical purposes. It was the Jewish hymnal. This appears in the names by which it was known. In Hebrew the book is that of the Tehillîm, or shortly, Tillîm,[4] that is, praises. The Greek name is in one Codex ψαλμοί, in another ψαλτήριου? (the Lyre), from which comes Psalter.[5] The Hebrew word for psalm (mizmôr), whatever be the root idea of the term, apparently denotes a composition, not merely lyric, like shir, and so capable of being sung, but one actually set to music and accompanied by music.

[1] This term, which simply means “writings,” no doubt came gradually into use after the Canon, as far as the Law and Prophets were concerned, was formed, and seems to indicate that the books included in it were at first held in less esteem.

[2] This arrangement is not universal in Hebrew MSS. The Spanish MSS. and the Masorah place the Chronicles at the head of this division. Ruth took the place of honour according to one Jewish Canon, and according to another Job preceded the Psalter, as in the LXX., Vulgate, and our Bible.

[3] Grätz has pointed out that the number of Psalms in the collection was not invariably a hundred and fifty, but sometimes only a hundred and forty-seven. This variation was due to the fact that, like the Pentateuch, the Psalter was read through in three years, and the number of Sabbaths that do not clash with a festival varies from a hundred and forty-seven to a hundred and fifty in different periods of three years.

[4] The full form was sepher tehillîm, which was gradually abbreviated to tehillîm, tillîm, tillîn, tillî.

[5] Comp. the frequent use of the words to denote books of poetry.

Another indication that the choral service of the Temple or the Synagogue was the object of the compilation of the Psalms, and indeed of the composition of many of them, is found in the titles prefixed to a great number of the hymns. The meaning of these titles, and their bearing upon the difficult questions of date and authorship, will be discussed in the individual psalms. Here it is only necessary to call the reader’s attention to the musical character of many of them. Some, for instance, convey directions to the choir or choir-master: in the Authorised Version,” To the chief musician” (Psalms 11, 13, &c.). To this is sometimes added the kind of instruments to be employed (Psalms 5, 6, 54, &c.), or the name of a musician or designation of a body of musicians (Psalms 62, 77). Others apparently indicate the tune to which the psalm is to be sung, or the compass of the voices for which it is suitable (Psalms 9, 22, 56, 6, 12). Others, again, bring the Psalter into close connection with the Levitical guilds or families, the Asaphites and the Korahites (Psalms 1, 73-83, 42-49), whose connection with the Temple worship is elaborately described in the Book of Chronicles.

But there is, besides, ample historical testimony which corroborates what the nature of many of the Psalms, as well as the titles of others, would lead us to conclude—that the whole collection was intended for public worship. That the use of the Psalter in the various branches of the Christian Church is a continuation of its original purpose and use in the Jewish Church, is proved by Talmudic directions,[6] and that the use had begun at an early time and continued unbroken through all the fortunes of Israel is shown by notices in the historical books, in the apocryphal books, and in the New Testament.

[6] Tradition, as embodied in the Talmud, has preserved the liturgical form in use in the Herodian Temple, and it is confirmed by notices in Josephus, who was an eye-witness. Psalms were sung by Levites to a musical accompaniment after the presentation of wine on the altar, when all the congregation were on their bended knees.

Its character as the Jewish hymnal once recognised, the Psalter will be found to answer, so to speak, frankly and openly the many questions that can and must be asked of its composition, arrangement, &c., even if on all points the answer cannot be so complete as we could wish. For instance we see at once from the analogy of hymn-books of modern churches that the collection is likely to turn out to be a compilation of works of different authors and different times, composed with various purposes, and on a vast variety of subjects, and only so far connected as being capable of use in the public worship of the Church; and this the most cursory glance at the Book of Psalms is sufficient to establish.

There is, however, this important difference between the Jewish and other hymn-books; it is rare that into one of the latter a poem not having a distinct religious end is introduced. We do not in Christian hymn-books light upon old battle pieces, or patriotic ballads, or village songs of harvest and vintage and it is rare that among the authors of church hymns we find a name of one recognised as great in poetry. In our own literature, though there is hardly one of our really great poets who has not written some poetry which we may call sacred, not one has contributed to the many collections of hymns. Even Milton left nothing, save translations of Psalms, that is sung in church; Wordsworth’s ecclesiastical sonnets have not found their way into hymn-books; nor are Coleridge’s hymns “To the Earth” or “In the Vale of Chamouni,” embodied in any church hymnal. The case was wholly otherwise in the hymnal of Israel. There, not to depart from the traditions embodied in the titles, we find historic pieces, records of personal adventure, songs of travel and tempest, of fight and festival, and at least one song of love; and these, or many of them, are, according to tradition, from the pens of some of the greatest bards the country produced. The reason of this difference is of course the acknowledged fact that poetical and religious inspiration were in Israel one and the same. With the one exception of the Song of Solomon, nothing has been preserved which was not religious either in tone or intention. Rarely could the muse of Hebrew song find a voice till moved by religious feeling and fervour: rarely was the religious purpose absent. There are many pieces of poetry actually preserved in the Canon which were not made use of by the collectors of hymns. and yet the same sacred character marks them. Such, for instance, is David’s elegy over Saul (2Samuel 1:17-27), and such his last words (2Samuel 23:1-7). Deborah’s magnificent ode (Judges 5) is another example, and the many hymns scattered up and down the prophetical books. To form the hymnal of the Jewish Church, then, it was not necessary to bespeak hymns for this or that occasion, for a temple dedication, a thanksgiving for victory, for the marriage of a king, for harvest or vintage festival. Enough were there ready to the collector’s hand, sung at the village gathering, chanted by exulting soldiers, carolled forth at high festival with accompaniment of harp or horn. Some, no doubt, had a distinctive liturgical origin, but more were adapted for liturgic use. Many were put together entirely from older songs, to serve better than the originals for the Temple service; but more were taken just as they were, or, as hymn collectors have always allowed themselves a license in this respect, with slight alterations and additions. Having thus the whole poetic wealth of the nation from which to draw, the psalm collectors eagerly ransacked it. Indeed, the Psalter has sometimes been described as an anthology of Hebrew poetry. This it is not, for there is certainly as much of poetical matter in the rest of Scriptures as in the Psalms, but there is, it may be said with equal certainty, as truly great and noble poetry within the collections as we find in any of the other books. We cannot say that Isaiah contributed any of the Psalms, or the author of the Book of Job. Moses only by a suspicious title and Jeremiah only by the conjectures of critics, have a place in these collections. But there are psalms worthy of the pen of the greatest of these. And so truly is the Psalter representative of Hebrew poetry, that there is not one of the styles in which the bards of Israel made either successful or tentative efforts of which specimens are not to be found in it. Not only does it supply the greatest examples of lyric song, but of the best that Israel else produced. That which was almost its peculiar creation—Didactic or Gnomic poetry—that species of poetry which its distinguishing genius, prophecy, made its own, the nearest approach it ever made to the Epos, and even what steps it took in dramatic art, are all worthily represented in the books arranged for public worship. It can hardly be doubted that some at least of the power which the Psalter has exercised, and still exercises, is due to this poetic character.[7] And if poetically the psalms compare so favourably with modern hymns in that which forms their chief and most important characteristic, they not only compare to advantage with ancient literature, but present themselves as unique at the time of their origin. Even among other nations of a Semitic origin there was nothing like them. Hymns to the gods of Greece have been preserved, but how vast is their difference from the Psalms. Let the reader compare one of those translated by Shelley, with any song out of the Psalter. Pretty compliments, and well turned flatteries intended to propitiate, he will find, set, indeed, in melodious verse that celebrates the birth of gods and demi-gods; but no wrestling in prayer with tearful eyes and downcast head, and the full assurance of faith, such as has made the Psalms for all time the expression of the devotional feelings of men.

[7] The distinguished commentator on the Psalms, Grätz (Kritischer Commentar zu den Psalmen nebst Text und Uebersetzung Von Dr. H. Grätz, Breslau, 1882), says that, taken as a whole, the Psalms lack the qualifications of poetry of the highest order, viz., unity, depth of imagination, loftiness of speech, and an elegant rhythm. He probably stands alone in his opinion. For the poetical form see below, § 5. The only unity possible in a collection of separate lyric pieces is one of purpose and spirit, and the religious history of the Psalter, the hold it has taken on the heart of the world, is sufficient evidence of the existence of such unity, as the influence it has had on the poetry of Christendom is sufficient proof of the depth of its imagination and the power of its speech.

II. Contents and formation of the Psalter.—BOOK I., Psalms 1-41, all ascribed to David, except Psalms 1, 2, 10, 33, where the omission of an inscription is easily accounted for. The name Jehovah is principally, but not exclusively, used throughout this book.

BOOK II., Psalms 42-72, comprising the following groups: Psalms 42-49, Korahite; 43, which is anonymous, is properly part of 42; Psalms 1., Asaphic; Psalms 51-65, Davidic; Psalms 66, 67, anonymous; Psalms 68-70, Davidic; Psalms 71, anonymous; Psalms 72, Solomonic. The use of the name Elohim is characteristic of this book.

BOOK III., Psalms 73-89, comprising: Psalms 73-83, Asaphic; Psalms 84, 85, Korahite; Psalms 86, Davidic; Psalms 87, 88, Korahite, the latter having a supplementary inscription “to Heman the Ezrahite,” Psalms 89 ascribed to Ethan. Though used an almost equal number of times, the name Jehovah is plainly not so congenial to this book as Elohim.

BOOK IV., Psalms 90-106, comprising: Psalms 90, ascribed to Moses; Psalms 91-100, anonymous; Psalms 101, Davidic; Psalms 102, “A prayer of the afflicted;” Psalms 103, Davidic; Psalms 104-106, anonymous. The divine names are used here and in the next book indifferently.

BOOK V., Psalms 107-150, comprising: Psalms 107, anonymous; Psalms 108-110, Davidic; Psalms 111-119, anonymous Psalms 111, 112, 113, have Hallejuhah in the place of an inscription; Psalms 120-134 “Songs of degrees” (of these Psalms 122, 124, 131, 133 are in the Hebrew Bible, but not in the LXX., ascribed to David, and Psalms 127 to Solomon); Psalms 135-137, anonymous; Psalms 135 being inscribed “Hallejuhah, a psalm of praise;” Psalms 138-145, Davidic

Psalms 146-150, anonymous, each beginning with “Hallejuhah.”

This arrangement does not correspond with that of the LXX. and Vulg., which put together Psalms 9, 10, 114, 115, and separate Psalms 116, 147 into two. There are also considerable variations in the titles. The LXX. ascribe seventeen to David, which have no author named in the Hebrew, one to Jeremiah (Psalms 137), four to Haggai and Zechariah (Psalms 138, 146-148) making at the same time the omissions noticed above, while other less important variations show themselves.

The complete absence of any perspicuous method in this table is the first point that strikes us. It is told that in the first century of our era an ambitious scribe wished to classify the Psalms and arrange them on some more intelligible plan, but was met by the objection that it would be impiety to meddle with what David had left in such confusion. Modern scholars have not been so scrupulous, and many attempts at classification have been made, none, perhaps, with complete success, but even the worst with this result—to show how entirely without plan the last compiler of the Psalter worked, or rather to suggest that he made no attempt at classification, but found certain collections or groups already formed, and merely attached others to them so as to serve for the purpose of public worship, without either endeavouring to improve on a previous system or invent one of his own. That such collections previously existed there can hardly be a doubt. Just so much plan appears in the arrangement of the whole as to show it, for surely no collector would have taken the trouble to bring all the Davidic psalms which occur in the first and second books together, unless he were intending to make, as far as he could, a complete collection of such psalms. Indeed, the compiler of Books I. and II. himself declares he has effected this object by the statement, “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended,” which can mean nothing else than that there were, in the writer’s knowledge, no more to be found. We may even perhaps assume that before the bulk of the others bearing the inscription “of David” were discovered, not only Books I. and II., but also III. and IV., had taken their present shape, or surely the last redactor would have placed those occurring in Book V. nearer the others of the same reputed authorship.

The position of groups called from their titles Asaphic and Korahite psalms in Books III. and IV., points to the same conclusion. Unless the last compiler had found them already spread over two books, he surely would have grouped them together. Another distinct group, which seems to owe its arrangement to some previous hand, appears under the title “songs of degrees.”

The groups, too, known as the Hallel psalms, were evidently formed for purposes of public singing, and not on any system affecting the whole collection of psalms.

The general conclusion is, that the Psalter owes its shape chiefly to what we may call the accidents of growth. Whenever the last redaction was made, individual psalms, nay, whole groups of psalms, may have been inserted, or added; but the addition was made without regard to any definite system, either chronological or artistic. The previous grouping may even have been interfered with, and to some extent disordered, by the latest hand that touched the Psalter.

On the other hand, so much of chronological sequence as naturally must show itself in a collection of compositions which has grown with time, may have been so far recognised and continued as that most of the very late psalms occur towards the end, while the earlier Books I. and II. were—except in one particular—but very slightly, perhaps from the same motive, interfered with.

This one particular relates to Psalms 1, 2. That these were by the Rabbis regarded as one composition, and were placed at the head of the collection with a purpose (see Introduction, Psalm 1:2) can hardly now be questioned. It is also probable that they owe their position to the latest, or, at all events, a very late hand. The collector of the Davidic psalms of Book I. would hardly have begun his collection with an orphan psalm, as the Rabbis call those wanting inscriptions; whereas a late compiler, who had already under his hand many such, would not pay any regard to a point of the kind. Wishing to strike at once the key-note of the whole collection, and to place at the opening of the Psalms a composition presenting the covenant relation in both its aspects, as affecting the individual towards ungodly individuals and the nation towards uncovenanted nations, and at the same time to bring into prominence the dignity of the written law, and the glory of the Messianic hope, he would select the two hymns most strikingly suiting his purpose, and weld them into one inaugurating psalm.

III. The titles of the Psalms.—Preliminary to any attempt at discussion of the authorship of the Psalms or the date of the composition and collection, the titles or inscriptions found at the head of so large a number of them claim notice, as being apparently the only guide followed in the arrangement of the Psalter as it has come down to us.

In the Hebrew Bible 116 psalms have inscriptions of some kind. The rest, 34 in number, are called by the Rabbis “orphan” psalms. In the Greek Bible no psalm has been left without a heading, except the first and second. An indication of the difference of opinion as to the value of these headings is supplied by the numbering of the verses. When the text of the Hebrew Bible received its present shape they were evidently regarded as an integral part of the Psalms, forming in many cases the first verse, to the great inconvenience in reference, since in all versions they have been treated as prefatory and not as part of the composition. That this opinion was not as old as the ancient versions is shown by the liberties the translators took with the inscriptions. They evidently did not, like the Fathers and later Jews, regard them as of equal importance with the text of the Psalms; and this very fact prepares the way for that criticism to which they have been in modern times subjected.

On the other hand, the fact that the LXX. found the inscriptions in their copies, proves that they were not the invention of those who incorporated them with the Psalms. Nay, it is often argued that because the translators were so perplexed by some of the musical directions as to have made hopeless nonsense of them, these at least, and by implication the titles generally, must be of an antiquity considerably greater than the version of the LXX., lapse of time having rendered these musical terms obscure. They may, however, have been obscure not from antiquity but from novelty. Newly-invented technical terms offer as much difficulty to a translator as obsolete words, and the musical system of Palestine was not improbably quite unknown at Alexandria long after it had come into use. On the other side it must be noticed that the translators allowed themselves considerable license with the titles even when they understood them, both changing and supplementing them, and generally treating them not as authoritative, but merely as convenient, finding them in many points defective, and often capable of improvement. This mode of treatment is not confined to the LXX. The Syriac allows itself the same freedom, and in one case prefixes a most interesting, but at the same time most tantalising heading, “from an ancient document.”

Since such was the point of view of the old versions, it may justly be claimed by modern scholarship, that the inscriptions are open ground, coming to us with no kind of external authority, and to be judged in each separate case on their merits. They may here embody a tradition, here merely represent a clever guess, but whether due to popular tradition or Rabbinical adventure, the value of each inscription depends on the support it receives from the contents of the Psalm to which it has been affixed, and not to any authority from its age or position.

The meaning of the many obscure and perplexing musical inscriptions will be discussed as they present themselves. But one inscription, since it designates a whole group of psalms calls for notice here. It is that prefixed to the fifteen Psalms , 120-134, “a song of degrees.” This translation comes through the Vulgate, canticum graduum; but song of steps or ascents would more nearly represent the Hebrew. The inscription was plainly intended to describe either the purpose for which the Psalms were composed, or some use to which they were adapted, for we may dismiss the theory that it describes a peculiarity of rhythm, a step-like progression, which is indeed audible in some of them, but only very faintly or not at all in most.[8]

[8] The peculiarity is really nothing more than a variety of Hebrew verse, not confined to these Psalms (Comp. Psalms 93, 96; Isaiah 17:12, seq. Isaiah 26:5, seq.; and especially Judges 5:3; Judges 5:5-6, &c.) in accordance with which the sense is carried to a climax by the repetition of some prominent word, eg., in Psalm 121:3-4.

He will not suffer thy foot to move,

Thy keeper will not slumber,

Behold slumbereth not and sleepeth not

The keeper of Israel.

This device is hardly apparent in Psalms 120, 127, 129, 131, and not at all in Psalms 128, 132.

Three accounts have been given of these psalms.

(1). They were composed to celebrate the return from the Captivity, and the title means “songs of going up.” This view, however, must be abandoned. Some of the poems may very probably have been composed in honour of this event, but others of them (Psalms 120, 122, 134) have nothing to do with the march homewards from exile. Nor does the inscription really refer to that event. It is true that the verb from which the noun is formed is the usual word for journeying from the Babylonian low country to Palestine, and in Ezra 7:9 the very noun in the singular is used of the return, but the plural cannot well refer to it.

(2). They are pilgrim songs which were chanted by the caravans as they journeyed to Jerusalem to the yearly feasts. This view is more natural, but against it is the fact that some of the hymns seem in no way suitable for such a use, and there is no historical authority (though strong probability) that any such custom prevailed. The form of the noun is also, in the opinion of many scholars, against this theory.

(3). They were psalms chanted by the Levites at the feast of Tabernacles as they stood during the water-drawing on the steps leading from the court of the men to that of the women. They are in fact literally “step songs.” In favour of this view there is the fact that the number of the steps so occupied was fifteen, corresponding with the number of the Psalms. It is gathered also from the Talmud that these very Psalms were actually sung in this position. The inscription “songs of steps” not only exactly suits this explanation, but is what we should expect a rubrical title to be. (Comp. the Graduale of the Romish Church). This is also the explanation given by the Rabbinical authorities, on which we have to rely for our knowledge of Jewish ritual.

IV. Authorship and Date of the Psalms.—The discovery that little historical value was to be attached to the titles, at once opened up the difficult question as to the authorship and date of every part of the collection, and, unfortunately, without knowing the principle on which the collectors worked in prefixing the titles, we are without the benefit of profiting by their errors. That they thought they were working on materials extending through the whole possible period of the nation’s literature, is shown by the ascription of one Psalm (90) to Moses. That, however, they did not work with the intention of making their collection representative of all the different ages of greatest literary vigour in that long period, is evident from the exclusion of the Song of Deborah, and the Psalm of Hannah, which would have served as examples of the times of the Judges. Nor are more than two Psalms allotted to the prolific age of Solomon (Psalms 32, 127), and none at all to the revivals under Hezekiah and Josiah.

Apparently the first purpose was to collect and edit only Davidic psalms. Others, of Levitical origin, were soon added. But the tendency to attribute more and more of the hymns to David becomes evident as the collection goes on, and shows itself more decidedly still in the LXX.[9] By the time of Christ the whole Psalter had acquired the name of the royal poet and in the phraseology of the Eastern and Western churches alike, it is simply called “David,” while the Æthiopic version closes with the words “David is ended.” Modern criticism has gone as far or even farther in the opposite direction. Ewald refers to David and his time only seventeen psalms; Grätz, a more recent commentator on the Psalms, grudgingly allows him part of one, the xviiith. The question of authorship, in so far as data exist for it, must be discussed with every individual psalm. Doubtless a very large part of the collection is due to the Lévites. The inscriptions point that way, as well as the musical associations of the psalter. Within this body not only were the rites of the national religion preserved and continued, but its best spirit, as we know from the histories, was kept alive by them. In times when even the priests were carried away by the idolatrous influences of the court, Levites were found more “upright in heart,” to struggle against the corrupt tendencies of the times, or throw themselves into any movement for reform (2Chronicles 29:34; 2Chronicles 34:8-13). Professionally a religious body, they were certain to be the first victims of religious persecution, and we cannot doubt that they were generally among that better part of the community whose voice is so constantly lifted up in the psalms, now in plaintive prayer, now in fierce denunciation against the prevailing idolatries and apostacies. Add to this that they often suffered from negligence in paying the tithes, and were therefore literally among those poor afflicted ones, whose constancy to the Theocratic ideal is to be rewarded as in Psalms 22, 37, which console the true seekers of God with the hope of temporal as well as spiritual blessings.[10]

[9] The LXX. allot to David Psalms 10, 33, 43, 67, 71, 91, 93-99, 104, 137. On the other side it omits the Davidic inscription in 122, 124, 131, 133 (The numbers refer to the Hebrew Bible.)

[10] Grätz has worked out this theory fully, and even goes so far as to adopt from the Hebrew (anavîm) a name for this class of Psalm-writing Levites. He justly observes that while poor in material things, they were intellectually and morally far above the rest of the nation.

The task of discovering individual authors for the Psalms must be given up; that of ascertaining the date of composition is hardly less difficult since so many have no strongly marked individuality, and greatly resemble one another. Critics have, however, placed the largest number of the Psalms in four periods of history.

(1). Before the Captivity.

(2). During the Captivity.

(3). From the Captivity to the Maccabees.

(4). In the Maccabean (or subsequent) age.

Still, within limits so large it is often next to impossible to decide on the precise date of a psalm. Certain general features, however, present themselves as tests, and these have been followed here, and will be found noticed in the particular introductions.

The most important question with regard to these periods relates to the Maccabean age. In the controversy as to the existence of psalms of this period, critics of the greatest eminence are found on each side. If (see below) it can be proved that the Canon, as far as regards the Psalter, was not closed till after the reign of the Asmonean Queen Alexandra (Salome) then there is no external argument against Maccabean Psalms, while there is in many cases strong internal evidence in their favour. Nay, there is the strongest a priori probability that times so stirring, and marked by such a striking revival of patriotic and religious sentiment, should have given birth to poetry.

The question of the close of the Psalter has received a new light from the discovery of Grätz, that, according to tradition embodied in the Talmud, the night service, alluded to in Psalms 134, did not become part of Jewish ritual before the re-inauguration of the Water Libation during the Feast of Tabernacles by Queen Alexandra. This, if certain, brings the composition of that psalm, and, by implication, others of the “songs of degrees,” down to the middle of the first century before Christ, and gives for the whole range over which the Psalter extends, counting from David, a period of eight hundred years.

V. Nature of the verse.—Of quantity and metre, in the sense a Greek would have used the words, Hebrew poetry knows nothing.

It is even doubtful whether any regard was paid to the number of syllables in a line, as distinguished from words. Nor did rhyme lend its charm to Hebrew verse† Its music is heard [11] rather in the succession of sentences than the succession of words. Single lines show no certain indication of a rule of quantity or accent, guiding and regulating the flow of thought, but when two or more are taken together, there is found to be a rhythmical proportion or symmetry between them, which has received various names, but is most usually, after Bishop Lowth’s terminology, called Parallelism[12] This term, though mathematical rather than poetic, serves well to express the essential peculiarity of Hebrew verse, in which the lines are so balanced one against the other, that thought corresponds to thought, in repetition, amplification, contrast or response. We might make a rough analogy by comparing the rhythmic movement of verse to the time beats of a clock or watch. Other languages divide the verses into measured feet, as a watch ticks off the seconds; but Hebrew offers line to line with the longer, more solemn, and more majestic beat of the pendulum of a large clock. If one sentence balances another, so that voice and sense stop together, the natural cadence thus produced satisfies the Hebrew ear, though, very generally, the effect is improved by an actual equality in the number of words in the two clauses.

[11] Instances of assonance indeed are common, and the appearance of the same suffix, sometimes in five or six words together, shows that the Hebrew ear was pleased with a frequent repetition of identical sounds. Some of the Liturgical Psalms, e.g., 106, show a special tendency to this device.

[12] Other names are “rhyme of sentiment;” “thought rhythm;” “sentence rhythm.”

It is convenient to speak of parallelism as simple or complex according as the verse formed by it consists of two members or more than two.

The perfect form exhibits a symmetry both in form and expression; there is a balance not only in the sense, but in the order and arrangement of the words, the lines being of equal length and identical in structure, verb answering to verb, and noun to noun, as in Psalm 19:2.

“Day to day uttereth speech,

And night to night sheweth knowledge.”

This form is variously called the synonymous or cognate parallelism. The second line may be an exact echo or repetition of the first, as in Job 42:1 of the same psalm.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,

And the sky sheweth his handy-work.”

But generally it either explains and illustrates the first line, as in Psalm 18:14.

“Yea, he sent out his arrows and scattered them.

And he shot out his lightnings and discomfited them.”

Or it gives a new turn to the thought, and carries it on, as Psalm 77:1.

“My voice is unto God, and I cry aloud,

My voice is unto God, and he will hearken unto me.”

The Psalms offer endless modifications of this perfect form. Sometimes the similarity of sense is dropped, while that of form remains. Often a graceful diversity is introduced by inverting the order of the words, as in the example above given, from Psalm 119:1, where in the Hebrew the clauses run

“The heavens declare the glory of God,

And the works of his hands shews the sky.”

a figure which the Greeks called chiasmus, and which in Hebrew poetry is often called introverted parallelism. Comp. Psalm 107:9; Psalm 107:16, where the English partially repeats the figure.

Often again the principal element is not one of resemblance, but of progression, as in Psalm 129:3.

“The ploughers ploughed upon my back,

And made long furrows.”

Here the echo is not so much in the sense as in the construction of the clauses. The balance is maintained in the number and order of the words employed, though an entirely new thought is introduced. Indeed, sometimes, the rhythm almost disappears. There is still a manifest intention of parallelism, but the charm of the echo is gone. We are very near prose in such verses as Psalm 107:38, &c.

“He blesseth them so that they multiply exceedingly,

And suffereth not their cattle to decrease.”

For this kind of parallelism the name synthetic was adopted by Lowth, but epithetic has been suggested as an improvement.

The alphabetical poems, presently to be noticed, show how the Hebrew poets of the later ages tried to supply to this kind of verse something of the definiteness wanting from the lax nature of their parallelism.

If contrast between the two clauses takes the place of resemblance, we get the second of the two principal forms of parallelism, the antithetic or, as it has been called from its prevalence in the Book of Proverbs, the gnomic or sententious rhythm. Here, as in the former case, the degrees of the antithesis are various. Sometimes the opposition extends to all the terms, as

“They are bowed down and fallen,

But we are risen and stand.”—Psalm 20:8.

Sometimes it is confined to one, and sometimes it discovers itself only as a contrast of sentiment without extending to the several terms. The Psalms do not afford many examples for this kind of verse, but the following fall more or less distinctly under it, Psalm 1:6; Psalm 15:4.

The poetic mood, however, does not at all times submit to the constraint of fixed metre, and even the simple style of Hebrew has to allow of many a licence to be elastic enough for the passion of lyric song.

In the development from the simple rhythm, the complex forms of verse followed the analogy of rhymed stanzas in English and other modern poetry. Just as the original rhyming couplets have developed into verses of every possible variety, so the simple Hebrew rhythm has undergone countless variations and numerous combinations. The rhyme of thought has been treated like the rhyme of sound. In this way grew up what is generally called the strophe system of the Psalms.

That a division of Psalms into stanzas, or strophes, is not an arbitrary arrangement, is proved by the occurrence of two marked features. The first of these is the Refrain, which itself in many of the hymns serves to mark the verse structure. This feature may, perhaps, be traced to the liturgical use of the Psalms, the chorus alone being sung by the full choir, while the priest or Levite chanted the rest. The most perfect examples are offered by Psalms 42, 43, 46, 48, 57, 80.

The other, which still more convincingly points to the fact that psalms were composed in stanzas is afforded by the alphabetical or acrostic psalms.[13] In these compositions, which are (counting Psalms 9, 10 as one) eight in number, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are used as the letters of names and words are used in modern acrostics. There are as many as five variations in the mode and its use in the Psalter.

[13] This species of poem is not confined to the Psalter. Four out of the five chapters of the Lamentations and part of the last chapter of the Book of Proverbs are alphabetical.

In the Psalms 111, 112, each line has its own initial letter, and in the original each line consists generally of three words.

In Psalms 25, 34, 145, which are arranged in couplets, only the first line of the couplet shows the initial letter.

Psalms 37 is arranged in stanzas of four lines, the first line only of each having the initial letter.

The author of Psalms 9, 10, apparently intended to begin every line of his quatrains with the same letter, but abandoned it for a simpler plan after the first stanza (comp. Lamentations 3)

In the 119th. Psalm the alphabetic system has been carried out most completely and elaborately. It consists of twenty-two long stanzas, composed each of eight couplets, each of the eight beginning with the same letter. This laboured result first suggested to Bishop Lowth his examination into the principle of Hebrew poetry. It certainly furnishes a proof of the existence of a verse structure and a guide for dividing other poems into their constituent stanzas.

VI. The purpose and scope of the Psalms.—The covenant ideal in its bearing on individuals and on the nation at large in its relation to other nations (prominently put forward in the first two Psalms) may be said to furnish its purpose to the Psalter. This theocratic ideal was not born into the heart of the people at once, but was developed by a long and painful discipline after many failures and much suffering; and all this finds its reflection in the Psalms.

According to the two aspects under which it is viewed, this covenant ideal appears in the portrait of the perfectly just and upright individual, or in the picture of a prosperous and happy nation. The latter, however, is often represented in the person of its anointed king, or Messiah, to whom, even in the darkest and saddest days, the eyes of the race can hopefully turn. This identification of the ideal people with the ideal sovereign must always be borne in mind in reading the Psalms. It follows of necessity from the locus standi so commonly assumed by the writers, who, under their own personality, really present the fortunes of the community, its sufferings and trials, its hopes and fears. Thus the changeful destinies of the race are represented as involved in the fortunes of one individual, and this individual is very often the perfect King. It is in consequence of this that we can find in the Psalms, not only the Jews’ Messiah, but the Christians’ Christ, not only the victorious and triumphant monarch, but the despised and suffering Son of Man.

Another point in regard to the covenant ideal as presented in the Psalter must be noticed. The character of the upright individual is described from a religious rather than a moral point of view. The highest moral standard is touched in the Psalms, but it is, so to speak, touched from above, not from below; it is conceived of by reference to God and the requirements for one who would tread His courts, not by reference to the moral excellence of the qualities themselves that go to make up the perfect character. Hence proceeds a far stricter ethical sentiment than that which attends a merely moral code, a sentiment which regards a breach of the law not only as a lapse from the right, but as treason against God. Where, therefore, a moral standard would demand accusation and condemnation, the standard of the Psalmist cries for denunciation as of a recreant and apostate to a great cause. What are called the imprecatory psalms may possibly, sometimes, combine with their religious and patriotic vehemence some elements less pardonable. Party and even personal bitterness may sometimes lend the words a sting. They are certainly not so suited for Christian worship as the prayers and praises which form the greater part of the Psalter. But their difficulty, as component part of a Jewish book of devotion, vanishes when we reflect that the wicked, on whose head the curses fell, were at once foes to their nation and apostates from their religion, and in many cases actually represented public enemies such as churches and states even of Christian times have thought it right to denounce with anathemas.

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
(1) Blessed.—The Hebrew word is a plural noun, from the root meaning to be “straight,” or “right.” Literally, Blessings to the man who, &c.

Walketh . . . standeth . . . sitteth.—Better, went, stood, sat. The good man is first described on the negative side. In the short summary of evil from which he has been saved, it is the custom of commentators to see an epitome of the whole history of sin. But the apparent gradation was a necessity of the rhythm. The three terms employed, however, for evil have distinctive significations. (1) The ungodly. Properly, restless, wanting in self-control, victims of ungoverned passion, as defined in Isaiah 57:20. (2) Sinners. General term for wrong-doers. (3) Scornful. A proverbial word, defined in Proverbs 21:24 : Aquila has “mockers;” Symmachus “impostors;” the LXX. “pests;” Vulgate “pest.” The words expressing the conduct and the career, “counsel,” “way,” are aptly chosen, and correspond with “went,” “stood.” Possibly “seat” should be “assembly.” (Comp. Psalm 107:32.) It has an official sound, and without unduly pressing the language, we think of the graduation in vice which sometimes ends in deliberate preference for those who despise virtue. (Comp. Psalm 26:4-5.)

But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
(2) But.—The Hebrew is an elliptical expression implying a strong contrast, “nay but,” “on the contrary.”

The positive side of a good man’s character is now described according to the standard which prevailed when the written law first came truly into force.

In the law of Jehovah is his delight.—Or, to the law of Jehovah is his inclination. The Hebrew word means primarily “to bend.”

Meditate.—Literally, murmur (of a dove, Isaiah 38:14; of men lamenting, Isaiah 16:7; of a lion growling, Isaiah 31:4; of muttered charms, Isaiah 8:19). (Comp. Joshua 1:8, which might have suggested this).

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
(3) And he.—Better, So is he. For the image so forcible in an Eastern clime, where vegetation depends on proximity to a stream, comp. Psalm 52:8; Psalm 92:12; Isaiah 44:4; and its development in Jeremiah 17:7-8. The full moral bearing of the image appears in our Lord’s parabolic saying, “a good tree cannot bring forth corrupt fruit, nor an evil tree good fruit.” The physical growth of a tree has in all poetry served as a ready emblem of success, as its decay has of failure. (Recall Wolsey’s comment on his fall in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.) Nor has the moral significance of vegetable life been ignored. “If,” says a German poet, “thou wouldest attain to thy highest, go look upon a flower, and what that does unconsciously do thou consciously.” In Hebrew poetry a moral purpose is given to the grass on the mountain side and the flower in the field, and we are taught that “there is not a virtue within the widest range of human conduct, not a grace set on high for man’s aspiration, which has not its fitting emblem in vegetable life.”—Bible Educator, ii, p. 179.

For the general comparison of a righteous man to a tree, comp. Psalm 3:8 (the olive), Psalm 128:3 (vine); Hosea 14:6 (olive and cedar). Naturally the actual kind of tree in the poet’s thought interests us. The oleander suggested by Dean Stanley (Sinai and Palestine, 146), though answering the description in many ways, fails from its want of fruit to satisfy the principal condition. For, as Bishop Hall says, “Look where you will in God’s Book, you shall never find any lively member of God’s house, any true Christian, compared to any but a fruitful tree.” Probably the palm meets all the conditions best. (Comp. Psalm 92:12.)

The last clause, “Whatsoever he doeth, it shall,” &c, is obscure in construction. The best rendering is, all that he doeth he maketh to prosper, which may mean either “the righteous man carries out to a successful end all his enterprises,” or “all that he begins he brings to a maturity.”

The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
(4) The ungodly.—Better, Not so the ungodly.

But are like.—They shall be winnowed out of the society of the true Israel by the fan of God’s judgment. The image is a striking one, although so frequent as almost to have become a poetical commonplace (Habakkuk 3:12; Joel 3:14; Jeremiah 51:33; Isaiah 21:10). (See Bible Educator, iv. 4.)

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
(5) Therefore.—Notice contrast with Psalm 1:1. Those who had deliberately chosen the assembly of the scornful will have no place in that of the good.

Shall not stand.—Properly, shall not rise. Probably like our phrase, “shall not hold up his head.” Will be self-convicted, and shrink away before God’s unerring scrutiny, like the man without a wedding garment in our Lord’s parable (Matthew 22:12). The LXX. and Vulg. have “rise again,” as if with thought of an after state.

The congregation of the righteous.—A phrase repeating itself in different forms in the Psalms. It implies either Israel as opposed to the heathen, or faithful Israel as opposed to those who had proved disloyal to the covenant. In theory all the congregation was holy (Numbers 16:3), but we meet in the Psalms with the feeling expressed in the Apostle’s words, “They are not all Israel that are of Israel.”

For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.
(6) Knowethi.e., recogniseth with discriminative discernment and appreciation. (Comp. Psalm 31:7; Psalm 144:3; Exodus 2:25; also John 10:14. So Shakespeare, As You Like It: “I know you are my eldest brother, and in the gentle condition of blood you should so know me.”)

The way of the ungodly shall perish.—This is explained by Psalm 112:10, “the desire of the wicked shall perish;” all his plans and ambitions shall come to nought. The metaphor is illustrated by Job 6:18, where an unjust course is compared to a stream that suddenly dries up and disappears.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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