Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The tradition assigning this psalm to David is accepted by some of the greatest of modern scholars, but it is difficult to assign it to any known period of his history. Both in his troubles under Saul and in the rebellion of Absalom, he adopted the flight which this poet scorns as unworthy of one whose conscience is clear, and whose faith in Jehovah is sure; and yet the tone of the psalm is too personal to allow it to be taken as merely representative of a type of character, though it certainly stands as a rebuke for ever to those pusillanimous friends who are always ready to counsel flight or compromise, even when the very principles of right and wrong are at stake.
The poetical form is irregular.
To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. In the LORD put I my trust: how say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain?(1) Put I my trust.—Better, as in Psalm 7:1, I find my refuge.
Flee as a bird.—Literally, flee ye a bird. The plural verb, with the singular noun, offers a difficulty which is not obviated by the reading which changes the verb to the singular, since your mountain has the plural suffix. We may supply the sign of comparison, as elsewhere sometimes omitted (Psalm 22:14); “flee ye like a bird;” or we may, with Ewald, take the noun as collective—a flock of birds. The idea of trepidation is conveyed in the original by the verb, which suggests the hurried flap of wings. Dr. Thomson, in The Land and the Book, finds in the habits of the dove an illustration of the passage; and compares Psalm 55:6, “Oh that I had wings as a dove!”
For, lo, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string, that they may privily shoot at the upright in heart.(2) Privily.—See margin, which preserves the image of the archer lurking in a dark corner.
If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?(3) The foundations.—By this word must be understood the principles of morality, which are the foundation of society. Symmachus and Jerome render “laws.” But the rendering “What could the righteous do?” is doubtful. The image is of a house shattered by an earthquake (comp. Psalm 82:5); in such a case how find safety? The LXX. and Vulg. have “Since they have destroyed what thou hast established, what has the righteous done?” The order of the Hebrew words seems to support this rendering, “While morality has been overthrown, the righteous what has he done?” A suggested emendation, involving but a slight change in the Hebrew letters, would produce, however, a far better sense: “If the foundations be destroyed, what will become of the tower, or superstructure?”
The LORD is in his holy temple, the LORD'S throne is in heaven: his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men.(4) Temple.—Here, plainly from the parallelism, not any earthly building, but the heavenly palace of the Divine King. One thought of God’s supreme righteousness, high above earth’s anarchy and sin, is enough to reassure the psalmist and make him strong. “God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world.”—Browning, Pippa Passes.
Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup.(6) Rain snares.—Or nooses. (Comp. 1Corinthians 7:35.) This is certainly an extraordinary figure, and various emendations have been suggested. Ewald’s “coals of fire” (pecham for pachîm) is the best (comp. Psalm 18:13, where the Hebrew word, however, is gechalîm, “live, or red coals”; while pecham is used in Proverbs 26:21 as fuel for fire, in contrast with live coals: but in Isaiah 44:12; Isaiah 54:16 it is itself plainly burning coal.) He arranges the clauses thus: “Causeth to rain upon wicked men coals of fire with brimstone; a glowing blast is the portion of their cup.”
“Put we our quarrel to the will of Heaven,
Who, when he sees the hours ripe on earth,
Will rain hot vengeance on offenders’ heads.”
—SHAKESPEARE: Rich. II., i. 2.
Horrible tempest.—Literally, wind of heats; “Vulg., spiritus procellarum; Targum, storm and whirlwind; as in Latin, aestus combines the ideas of heat and violent motion; so the Hebrew word here. Probably, therefore, we must think of a hot, poisonous wind—the simoom.
Or may we see one more reminiscence of the fate of Sodom and Gomorrha stamped indelibly on the Hebrew mind?
For the righteous LORD loveth righteousness; his countenance doth behold the upright.(7) His countenance.—Better, the upright shall behold His countenance. This beautiful religious hope finds its highest expression in the beatitude on the pure in heart. The beatific vision in Dante is its most glorious poetical development. By the vision of God the Hebrew poet means triumph of right and the acknowledgment of his innocence—light and peace after darkness and trouble, as in Job 33:26. (Comp. Psalm 17:15; Psalm 41:12.)