Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Two widely different accounts have been given of this psalm; one, that it describes historically the dangers and sufferings of the return from captivity, and the Divine power and guidance which brought the redeemed safely through them; the other, that it presents a general picture or group of pictures of the vicissitudes of human life and the interposition of Divine Providence. The true explanation probably lies intermediate between these two. Psalm 107:2-3 leave no room for question that the poet had the Return primarily in his mind. Indications in the same direction are supplied by the many expressions and figures taken from the later chapters of Isaiah, among which is prominent the phrase “the redeemed of Jehovah.” But, on the other hand, the series of vivid pictures of which the greater part of the poem is composed are not directly historical, notably the sea-piece (Psalm 107:23-32).
While, therefore, the psalm may properly be regarded as a lyric embodiment of the lessons of the Captivity, it applies these lessons to the human lot generally, and travels over the whole experience of human life for the pictures under which it presents them. The fortunes of his own race were uppermost in the psalmist’s mind, but the perils depicted are typical of the straits into which men of all lands and all times are driven; and he had learnt that the goodness and wisdom which at the cry of prayer come to extricate and save are not confined to one race, but are universal and continuous.
Critics unite in assigning a late date for the composition of this poem, and no one doubts that it was intended for liturgic use. The beautiful double refrain marks the division of its somewhat irregular versification.
Of the unity of the poem there is considerable doubt. The piece beginning at Psalm 107:33 is not only in form very different from the first, but bears marks of greatly inferior poetical power. (See Note to Psalm 107:33.)
O give thanks unto the LORD, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.(1) For this doxology see Note, Psalm 106:1.
Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he hath redeemed from the hand of the enemy;(2) Redeemed of the Lord.—See for this grand expression, for which so high a destiny was prepared, Isaiah 62:12; and comp. Isaiah 63:4; Isaiah 35:9.
And gathered them out of the lands, from the east, and from the west, from the north, and from the south.(3) Gathered them.—The usual prophetic word for the Restoration. (See references in margin, and with the verse comp. Isaiah 49:12.)
From the south.—See margin. The sea here can hardly be any sea but the Mediterranean, and therefore ought, according to general use (see Genesis 12:8, &c), to stand for the west. But as this makes the enumeration of the points of the compass imperfect, several emendations have been proposed, the best of which is yamin (the “right hand,” and so “south”) for yam.
Or is the text right, and instead of looking for a complete compass, ought we to connect this general statement with the four tableaux of misery presently painted, and so take “out of the sea” literally in reference to Psalm 107:23-30?
They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in.(4-9) The wanderers.
(4) They.—It seems more natural to understand the subject of the verb wandered from the preceding clauses, than to supply a general subject, they; but this is by no means a certain interpretation. It depends on the view we take of the poem. (See Introduction.)
A solitary way.—Better, in a desert track. (Comp. Acts 8:26.) There is a grammatical difficulty, but this does not affect the general intention of the verse. Whether it represents an historical fact, or merely draws an imaginary picture, the reference to the dangers of Eastern travel is equally clear and distinct.
City to dwell in.—Literally, city of habitation, as rendered in Psalm 107:7.
“Boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”—SHELLEY.
Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them.(5) Fainted.—Literally, let itself be covered. (See Psalm 77:3.)
And he led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation.(7) By the right way.—Better, in a straight way. Even in the pathless wilderness “there is a hand that guides.”
Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!(8) Oh that men.—The subject is rather to be supplied from the preceding clauses, “let them praise,” &c. Some, however, render “they praise,” &c
On the other hand, the insertion of “for” in each clause of the Authorised Version is correct (so LXX. and Vulg.).
For he satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.(9) Longing soul.—Or, thirsty, as in Isaiah 29:8. (Comp. Psalm 107:5.) The word originally applies to an animal running up and down in search of food or water. (See Joel 2:9; Proverbs 28:15.)
Such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron;(10-16) The prisoners.
This description, applicable to prisons in all ages but the most modern, was especially suitable for those of the ancients, who admitted no light at all; e.g., the Mamertine prison at Rome. Comp. Virgil, Æn. vi. 734:
Dispiciunt clausæ tenebris et carcere cæco.”
In affliction and iron.—Both words are found also in Psalm 105:18, but distributed into the two clauses of the verse—hurt, iron. (Comp., too, Job 36:8, “bound in fetters and holden in cords of affliction.”) The LXX. and Vulg. have “in poverty and in iron.”
Because they rebelled against the words of God, and contemned the counsel of the most High:(11) Contemned.—This word is an old Mosaic designation for the provocation offered by the chosen people (Numbers 14:11; Numbers 14:23), as well as for the abhorrence shown by Jehovah for their sin (Deuteronomy 32:19). Certainly this verse is more closely applicable to violation of the Theocratic relations of Israel to Jehovah than of heathen opposition to God.
Therefore he brought down their heart with labour; they fell down, and there was none to help.(12) Brought down.—Literally, made them bend.
Fell down.—Better, stumbled.
The whole verse presents a picture of men staggering under the forced labour which was the usual fate of captives under the great Oriental monarchies.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and brake their bands in sunder.(14) Break their bands in sunder.—See Psalm 2:3.
Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!(15) Oh that . . .—The subject is the participle in Psalm 107:10, “such as sit,” a fact which bears upon the proper subject in Psalm 107:8.
For he hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder.-16Isaiah 45:2 was present to the poet’s mind.
Virgil’s picture of the shrine of war (Æn. vii. 607) has been compared to this.
Fools because of their transgression, and because of their iniquities, are afflicted.(17-22) The sick.
(17) Fools—i.e., infatuated in wickedness. (Comp. the noun foolishness in Psalm 38:5 with the same ethical sense; and comp. Job 5:3 and the frequent connection of folly with sin in the book of Proverbs.) Another Hebrew word is used in the same way (Psalm 14:1).
Because of their transgressions.—Better more literally, because of way of transgression, or, their course of sin, indicating a settled habit.
Are afflicted . . .—Properly, brought (or bring) affliction on themselves. LXX. and Vulgate, “were humbled;” and some understand “afflict themselves”—i.e., grieve for their sins. This would explain the distaste for food in the next verse equally well as actual sickness. But the analogy of the other stanzas is not in favour of indicating repentance before the emphatic “then they cry,” &c.
Their soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they draw near unto the gates of death.(18) Soul.—The Hebrew word for soul is very commonly used for strong appetite (see Psalm 107:9), so that we might paraphrase,” their appetite is turned to loathing.” Comp. this verse with Job 33:20.
He sent his word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions.(20) He sent His word.—In history (see Psalm 105:19), as in the natural world (Psalm 147:18), God’s word is His messenger. (Comp. Isaiah 55:10-11.)
Destructions.—This follows the LXX., who derive as in Psalm 103:4. A better derivation, however, gives “pits,” either with metaphorical allusion to the “depths” of suffering, or literally, of the “graves” to which the sufferers had drawn near.
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;(23-32) Storm-tossed mariners.
(23) They that go down to the sea.—An expression so exactly opposite to the ancient equivalent for embarking that we feel we have the very Hebrew feeling. From the high lands of Judæa it was a literal descent to the shores of the Mediterranean. So Jonah went down to Joppa (Jonah 1:3). (Comp. Isaiah 42:10.)
Do business.—Probably with allusion to commercial enterprise.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.(25) He commandeth.—Literally, He speaks. The Almighty fiat, as in Genesis 1.
They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.(26) They mount up.—
“Tollimur in cœlum curvato gurgite, et idem
Subducta ad Manes imos desedimus unda.”
VIRGIL: Æn. iii. 564.
Their soul is melted.—The recollection of seasickness is the best comment on this and the next verse.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits' end.(27) Reel to and fro.—Or more exactly, spin round and round.
Are at their wit’s end.—An admirable paraphrase of the Hebrew, “all their wisdom swalloweth itself up.” The poet, from the expressions employed, is possibly writing under the influence of Psalm 22:14; but he has evidently himself been to sea and experienced the dangers and discomforts he so graphically describes. Ovid (Trist. i. 2) has been quoted in illustration:
“Me miserum, quanti montes volvuntur aquarum
Jamjam tacturos sidera summa putes.
Quantæ diducto subsidunt æquore valles:
Jamjam tacturas Tartura nigra putes
Rector in incerto est, nec quid fugiatve petatve
Invenit: ambiguis ars stupet ipsa malis.”
See on this passage Addison in Spectator, No. 489.
Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses.(28) Then they cry.—There is a saying,
“Qui nescit orare, discat navigare.”
Let them exalt him also in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.(32) Let them exalt.—The addition of this to the refrain, as of 22 to that of the last stanza, clearly points to a liturgical use in the psalm.
He turneth rivers into a wilderness, and the watersprings into dry ground;(33) The change in character and style of the psalm at this point is so marked as to suggest an addition by another hand. It is not only that the artistic form is dropped, and the series of vivid pictures, each closed by a refrain, succeeded by changed aspects of thought, but the language becomes harsher, and the poet, if the same, suddenly proclaims that he has exhausted his imagination.
A fruitful land into barrenness, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein.(34) Barrenness.—Better, a salt marsh, as in LXX. and Vulg. (See Job 39:6.)
He turneth the wilderness into a standing water, and dry ground into watersprings.(35) Standing water.—Or, a pool of water. (See Isaiah 35:7; Isaiah 41:18-19; Isaiah 42:15.)
The dependence of this psalm on these passages in Isaiah is indubitable. But the images are employed in a different manner. The prophet only thinks of the joy of returning Israel (Psalm 107:39-41). But here the thought is that in the reverses of fortune, which even the chosen nation must be prepared for, God will intervene to protect and save. But the construction is very awkward, owing to the mode in which, in Psalm 107:40, two clauses from Job 12:21; Job 12:24 are introduced.
Yet setteth he the poor on high from affliction, and maketh him families like a flock.(41) Like a flock.—This figure of a rapid increase of population is also borrowed from Job 21:11.
The righteous shall see it, and rejoice: and all iniquity shall stop her mouth.(42) Again the dependence on the book of Job is seen. (See marginal reference.)
Whoso is wise, and will observe these things, even they shall understand the lovingkindness of the LORD.(43) The psalm ends in the style, and almost in the very words, of the prophecy of Hosea. (Comp. Hosea 14:9.)