Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
i. In a time of national humiliation Israel supplicates Jehovah to vindicate the honour of His name by raising His people from their degradation. Why should the heathen be allowed to mock, when Israel knows Him to be supreme and omnipotent (Psalm 115:1-3)?
ii. How utterly different is He from the speechless, powerless idols which the heathen make and call gods: gods which must drag down their worshippers to their own level of senselessness and impotence (Psalm 115:4-8).
iii. Exhortations to trust Jehovah and await His blessing (Psalm 115:9-13).
iv. Prayers for blessing and resolves to praise Jehovah (Psalm 115:14-18).
This Psalm was probably composed for use in the Temple services after the Return from Babylon, perhaps when the first flush of enthusiasm had died away, and the little community in Jerusalem realised how contemptibly weak it was in the eyes of its neighbours (Ezra 3:3; Ezra 4:1 ff.), perhaps at a later period (Nehemiah 4:1-5); but the sarcastic description of idols in Psalm 115:4 ff. points rather to the earlier time, when the memories of Babylonian idolatry were still fresh. Israel’s sense of its own weakness adds strength to its faith in Jehovah, to Whom alone it can look for help and protection.
The precise manner in which the Psalm was intended to be sung cannot be determined with certainty. Psalm 115:1-8 may have been sung by the choir of Levites; Psalm 115:9 a, 10 a, 11 a by the precentor, answered in Psalm 115:9 b, 10 b, 11 b by the choir; and Psalm 115:12-18 by the choir. But it is not improbable that Psalm 115:12-15 at any rate were distributed between the two halves of the choir. An allusion to such antiphonal singing is found in Ezra 3:11. The priests and Levites “sang one to another (lit. answered) in praising and giving thanks unto Jehovah.” Cp. Nehemiah 12:40.
The opening words of the Psalm, though properly a prayer, have commonly been used as a thanksgiving, as by Henry V after Agincourt:
 “The king … gathering his armie togither, gaue thanks to almightie God for so happie a victorie; causing his prelats and chapleins to sing this psalme: ‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’: and commanded euerie man to kneele downe on the ground at this verse: ‘Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam.’ ” Holinshed, quoted by Verity, Henry V, p. 227. In the Vulg. Psalms 114, 115 are one Psalm; the first part would have been sung for the dead and dying (see above, p. 680), and the second part as a thanksgiving.
“Do we all holy rites;
Let there be sung ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum.’ ”
Shakespeare, Henry V., iv. 8. 128.
In some Heb. MSS and in the LXX and versions dependent on or influenced by it (Vulg., Arab., Aeth., Syr., Theodotion, Jerome) this Psalm is united with Psalms 114. But in tone, structure, and style the two Psalms are quite distinct and cannot originally have been one.
Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake.1. Not unto us] Strictly speaking, this is not a deprecation, but a protestation. ‘Not for ourselves or for our own sake do we ask.’ We have no merits of our own to plead; we do not ask for our own aggrandisement. But unto thy name give glory: work mightily on behalf of Thy people, and vindicate Thine honour, for if they are despised, Thy name is dishonoured. Cp. the similar plea in Daniel 9:18-19; and see Isaiah 48:9; Isaiah 48:11; Ezekiel 20:9; Ezekiel 20:14; Ezekiel 36:21-23.
for thy lovingkindness, and for thy truth’s sake] If Jehovah does not interfere on behalf of His people, it must seem as though His fundamental attributes of love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6), exemplified in His choice of Israel (Deuteronomy 7:7-8), had vanished. Cp. Psalm 77:8-9.
1–3. An appeal to God to vindicate His honour by succouring His people.
Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?2. So Psalm 79:10. Cp. Psalm 42:3; Psalm 42:10; Exodus 32:12; Numbers 14:13 ff.; Joel 2:17; Micah 7:10. Now does not mean at the present time as contrasted with the past, but is a particle emphasising the question, where, prithee?
But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.3. But] Or, Whereas. Though its outward circumstances may seem to give ground for the taunts of the heathen, Israel knows that its God is supremely exalted and omnipotent. If His people suffer, it is because He wills it, not because He lacks power to help them. He does whatsoever He wills in chastisement (Isaiah 53:10) and in redemption (Isaiah 55:11). Cp. Wis 12:18, “Thou, being sovereign over thy strength, judgest in gentleness, and with great forbearance dost thou govern us; for the power is thine whensoever thou hast the will.”
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.4. Their idols] i.e. the idols of the nations, as Psalm 135:15, and the LXX and Jerome here, read.
4–8. Do the heathen taunt us with the impotence of our God? What are their own gods? Nothing but their own handiwork, destitute of ordinary human senses, though represented with organs of sense. For similar sarcastic descriptions of idols and the contrast between them and the living God, see Isaiah 44:9-20; Jeremiah 10:1-16 Deuteronomy 4:28; Isaiah 2:20; Habakkuk 2:18-19; Wis 15:15. The passage recurs in Psalm 135:15-18. Observe how completely the Psalmist identifies the god with the image: it has no separate existence.
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:5, 6. They cannot teach their worshippers (Habakkuk 2:19) or see their needs; they cannot hear prayers offered to them or smell the sweet savour of sacrifices. Jehovah, though He has no bodily form, can truly be said to speak (Isaiah 1:20) and see (Psalm 113:6) and hear (Psalm 6:8) and smell (Genesis 8:21).
They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.8. Like unto them shall their makers become,
Even everyone that trusteth in them.
Such gods drag down their worshippers to the same level of senseless stupidity: they must perish, for their protectors are powerless. Cp. 2 Kings 17:15; Isaiah 44:9-10; Jeremiah 2:5; Romans 1:21-23.
O Israel, trust thou in the LORD: he is their help and their shield.9. Israel] The LXX and Syr. have house of Israel, as in Psalm 135:19; hence the P.B.V.
he is their help and their shield] At first sight the transition to the third person seems awkward, and some of the Ancient Versions (LXX, Syr., Jer.) read the verb in the preceding line with different vowels in the third person, The house of I. trusteth in the Lord. But this is less forcible, and the change of person may be explained by supposing that the first line in each of these verses was sung by the precentor, and that this refrain was the answer of the choir.
help and shield as in Psalm 33:20; cp. Deuteronomy 33:29; Psalm 3:3; Psalm 28:7.
The threefold division ‘Israel,’ ‘house of Aaron,’ ‘fearers of Jehovah,’ recurs in Psalm 118:2-4 : in Psalm 135:19 ff. ‘the house of Levi’ is added. Israel as a whole is first addressed, then the religious leaders of the people, then the inner circle of those who are truly God-fearing; or perhaps the Psalmist assumes the reality of their devotion and addresses people and priests together as ‘fearers of Jehovah.’ Many commentators however hold that by ‘fearers of Jehovah’ are meant Gentile proselytes (1 Kings 8:41; Isaiah 56:6). In the N.T. God-fearing Gentiles, who had attached themselves more or less closely to the faith and worship of Israel, are designated as ‘those who fear,’ or ‘reverence, God’ (οἱ φοβούμενοι τὸν Θεόν, οἱ σεβόμενοι τὸν Θεόν, or οἱ σεβόμενοι) simply: Acts 13:16; Acts 13:26; Acts 16:14; Acts 18:7; Acts 17:17). But the general usage of the O.T., and of the Psalter in particular, makes it improbable that the phrase ‘fearers of Jehovah’ has this sense here. In the closely parallel passage, Psalm 22:23, it certainly denotes Israelites, whether it be understood as synonymous with the ‘seed of Israel’ or as designating an inner circle of true believers. The question is discussed by Prof. A. B. Davidson in the Expository Times, 1892, pp. 491 ff., who comes to the conclusion that “any reference to a Gentile element in the Palestinian community is wholly without probability.” It seems evident from the words “both small and great” of Psalm 115:13 that it is not “some small section like Gentile proselytes” that is meant: and “the intensely national and even local spirit” of this and kindred Psalms (Psalm 115:14; Psalm 135:21) forbids us to suppose that the Psalmist intended to include all who in every place acknowledged Jehovah.
9–13. An exhortation to Israel to trust Jehovah, Who will surely bless His people.
O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD: he is their help and their shield.
Ye that fear the LORD, trust in the LORD: he is their help and their shield.
The LORD hath been mindful of us: he will bless us; he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron.12. Jehovah who hath remembered us will bless (us)] By bringing them back from Babylon Jehovah proved that He had not forgotten His people (Isaiah 49:14-15; Psalm 98:3; Psalm 136:23), and the Psalmist points to this deliverance as a pledge that He will still further bless them.
He will bless them that fear the LORD, both small and great.13. both small and great] One and all without distinction of rank or condition. Cp. Jeremiah 6:13; Jeremiah 16:6; Jeremiah 31:34.
The LORD shall increase you more and more, you and your children.14. The Lord shall increase you] Jehovah increase you, add to your numbers (Deuteronomy 1:11), a specially appropriate prayer for the little community of the returned exiles.
14–18. Prayers for blessing and resolves to employ life in Jehovah’s praise.
Ye are blessed of the LORD which made heaven and earth.15. The prayer is still continued, Blessed be ye of Jehovah. The designation Maker of heaven and earth is characteristic of the later Psalms (Psalm 121:2; Psalm 124:8; Psalm 134:3; Psalm 146:6). It contrasts Jehovah the omnipotent Creator with the powerless idols of the heathen (Jeremiah 10:11; and often in Isaiah 40-66). Here it also implies that He has the power to dispense the blessings of earth. Cp. also Isaiah 37:16; Psalm 96:5; Nehemiah 9:6.
The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD'S: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.16. The closing words of Psalm 115:15 are developed. The heaven is Jehovah’s heaven; He has made it for His own dwelling-place (Psalm 115:3; Psalm 2:4); He is “the God of heaven” (Psalm 136:26; and often in the Aramaic of Ezra and Daniel). The LXX renders ungrammatically, ‘the heaven of heaven’ (Vulg. caelum caeli); hence P.B.V. ‘all the whole heavens.’
the earth &c.] Cp. Isaiah 45:18.
The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.17. From heaven the poet passes to earth, and from earth to Sheol, which here, as in Psalm 94:17, is termed ‘silence.’ The dead raise no Hallelujahs; they are cut off from communion with God and from the power of rendering Him service of lip and life. For this gloomy view of the state of the dead cp. Psalm 6:5; Psalm 30:9; Psalm 88:4-5; Psalm 88:10-12; Isaiah 38:11; Isaiah 38:18; and many passages in Job, e.g. Job 7:9; Job 10:21 ff.; Job 10:14 : and see Introd. pp. xciii ff.
The verse is partly a stimulus to employ life rightly; partly (in effect) a plea, for if Jehovah suffers his people to perish, He will lose their praises.
But we will bless the LORD from this time forth and for evermore. Praise the LORD.18. But we (emphatic), we the living (as the LXX adds), will bless Jah. Cp. Psalm 118:17; Isaiah 38:18 ff.
for evermore] In the spirit of faith the congregation sees no limit to the continuance of its existence or to its tribute of praise. What in the O.T. is a national hope becomes in the N.T. a personal hope.
The LXX and Jer. transfer the concluding Hallelujah to the beginning of Psalms 116.