Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
That this is a late liturgical psalm all commentators agree, but the precise period of its composition cannot be ascertained. The belief that death cut the Hebrew off from all the privileges of the covenant seems to forbid so late a date as the Maccabæan age, though a psalm so priestly in its character, and which apparently celebrates some martial success, would else be appropriately ascribed to the Asmonean period. The psalm has a historic interest for Englishmen, having been chanted by order of Henry V. after the battle of Agincourt. The choric arrangement is indicated by the change of address.
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 . . .—This rejection of all self-praise is implied in all Hebrew poetry.
Mercy . . . truth . . .—Both a distinct reference to the covenant. Both these covenanted blessings were assailed by the heathen taunt, “Where is now their God?”
It is difficult for us to reproduce in imagination the apparent triumph, which the idolater, who could point to his deity, felt he had over the worshipper of the invisible God, when outward events seemed to be going against the latter. But we may estimate the strength of the conviction, which even under the apparent withdrawal of Divine favour, could point to the heavens as the abode of the Invisible, and to misfortune itself as a proof of the existence and power of One who could in everything do what pleased him.
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.(4-8) This passage cannot compare with the magnificent irony of Isaiah 44:9-20, but there is still a noticeable vein of sarcasm running through it, visible even more in the original than in the English. (Comp. Psalm 135:15-18.)
They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.(7) Neither speak they.—The Hebrew implies not only the want of articulate speech, but of utterance at all.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.(8) Every one that trusteth . . .—
“Who moulds in gold or stone a sacred face
Makes not the god; but he who asks his grace.”
O Israel, trust thou in the LORD: he is their help and their shield.(9) O Israel.—There is consummate art in this sudden change of address. It is like the pointed application of some general truth in a sermon. It is possible that in the liturgic use a change in the music was made here, the Levites and choir turning to the people with a loud burst of song.
He is their help and their shield.—The original form of this motto of trust appears in Psalm 33:20. Here the change of person suggests some musical arrangement. Apparently one part of the choir, or, it may be, one officiating priest, addressed successively the whole congregation with the charge, “trust in Jehovah,” and each time the full choir took up the refrain, “He is their helper and shield,” repeating to the priest the ground on which he urged confidence and loyalty. Then in Psalm 115:12-13 congregation and choir join, changing to the first person.
He will bless them that fear the LORD, both small and great.(13) Them that fear the Lord—i.e., all Israel.
The LORD shall increase you more and more, you and your children.(14) The Lord shall increase.—More literally,
“Jehovah shall heap blessings on you,
On you and on your children.”
The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.(17, 18) The connection of these verses with the rest of the psalm is far from plain. Why the psalmist should suddenly be struck with the dreadful thought that death broke the covenant relationship, and silenced prayer and praise, is not easy to see. Was the psalm first chanted after some victory? and was this suggested by the sight of the slain, who, though they had helped to win the triumph, could yet have no share in the praises that were ascending to Jehovah?
(17) Silence.—The land of silence is, of course, Sheôl, the under-world. (So the LXX., “Hades.”)