Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This glorious anthem, as it has been the model of countless hymns of praise, is best appreciated and understood by comparison with some of these. The “song of the three children,” found in the LXX. Version of Daniel, is no doubt an imitation, but in its elaboration and its artificial style loses much of the lyric fire of the original. And of the rest, Isaac Taylor truly says: “It is but feebly and as afar off, that the ancient liturgies—except so far as they merely copied their originals—came up to the majesty and wide compass of the Hebrew worship, such as it is indicated in the 148th Psalm. Neither Andrews, nor Gregory, nor the Greeks, have reached or approached this level. And in tempering the boldness of their originals by admixtures of what is more Christian and spiritual, the added elements sustain an injury which is not compensated by what they bring forward of a purer or less earthly kind: feeble, indeed, is the tone of these anthems of the ancient church; sophisticated or artificial is their style.”
The motive of the psalm, too, is quite different from that sympathetic feeling for nature which enters so largely and powerfully into modern poetry. Not that this feeling was entirely unknown to the Hebrew mind. It makes itself felt elsewhere; but here it is not because the poet wants nature to join him in praise that he summons the universe to his choir, but that he may, in the last verse, enhance the glory and privilege of Israel. All nature has reason to praise the Creator who called it into being, and gave it its order so fair and so established, and poetically the universe may be imagined full of adoring creatures, but in reality, praise as a privilege belongs only to Israel. It is not here a contrast between inanimate and animate, rational and irrational creation. Still less does there show itself the feeling that motives Keble’s
“All true, all faultless, all in tune.”
On the contrary, it is the covenant people that alone possess the privilege. Expression is piled on expression to establish this fact. “His people,” “His saints,” “a people near unto Him.”
The immediate occasion of the psalm may very probably have been some victory, but conjecture cannot recover it.
Praise ye the LORD. Praise ye the LORD from the heavens: praise him in the heights.(1) From the heavens . . . in the heights.—Some would render ye of the heavens, but the parallelism is in favour of the Authorised Version. “Heavens” and “heights” in this verse, and “angels” and “hosts” in the next, are analogously parallel. The heights contain the heavens (comp. Job 16:19; Job 25:2), as the hosts embrace the angels or messengers of God (Joshua 5:14); the larger term being in such case placed synthetically last. The prepositions thus keep their full meaning. From the heavens, or from a choir in the heights, comes the burst of angelic praise.
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens.(4) Heavens of heavens.—See Psalm 68:33, and references. Before passing downwards to the earth the invocation pauses to combine all the heights, which have been before addressed in the expression which denotes their position relatively to the earth; the highest heaven of all, and then the world of water which, in the Hebrew conception of the Cosmos, was supposed to be the foundation, while itself rests on the firmament or heavenly vault. (See Psalm 104:3.)
He hath also stablished them for ever and ever: he hath made a decree which shall not pass.(6) Stablished.—Literally, made to stand, i.e., set them up.
He hath made . . .—Rather, he hath made an ordinance, and will not transgress it. This is more obvious and natural than to supply a new subject to the second verb, “and none of them transgress it.” This anticipates, but only in form, the modern scientific doctrine of the inviolability of natural order. It is the imperishable faithfulness of God that renders the law invariable. See the remarkable passages, Jeremiah 31:36; Jeremiah 33:20, from winch we conclude that a covenant was supposed to have been made between God and nature as between Jehovah and Israel, the one being as imperishable as the other. A comparison of the two passages referred to shows that the Hebrew words ordinance and covenant might be used synonymously. The Authorised Version, which, following the LXX. and Vulg., makes the ordinance itself imperishable, violates the usage of the Hebrew verb.
Praise the LORD from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps:(7) Earth·—The invocation now passes downwards, and the first sound of terrestrial praise is to come, according to the order of Creation in Genesis 1, from the sea-monsters (for which see Note, Psalm 74:13; Psalm 91:13), the “deeps” being added to include all great waters in which such creatures are found.
Fire, and hail; snow, and vapour; stormy wind fulfilling his word:(8) Fire.—Lightning, as in Psalm 18:12; Psalm 105:32. where it is also found with “hail.”
Vapours.—The same Hebrew word in Genesis 19:28 and Psalm 119:83 is rendered “smoke,” and from the use of the cognate verb is certainly connected with “burning.” Hence we probably have here the figure chiasmus (fire and hail, snow and smoke), the smoke answering to the fire, as the snow to the hail. On the other hand, from Psalm 18:8, Psa_144:5, it is plain that the driving mists of a storm were regarded as smoke. (Comp. “The smoky mountain tops.”—TENNYSON.)
This invocation of the powers of the air is a fine poetic touch, and shows the freedom of lyric treatment of the story of Creation, which in Genesis passes at once from the monsters of the deep to the land and its creatures. To the poet there is another region of life and power; other voices, which, though wild and fierce, may yet join in the grand anthem of praise.
Mountains, and all hills; fruitful trees, and all cedars:(9) Mountains, and all hills.—The invocation now alights on the crests of the highest mountains, and passes downward to the lower hills where vegetable life begins.
Fruitful trees.—Rather, fruit trees; the fruit-bearing tree being representative of one division of the vegetable world, planted and reared by man, the cedars of the other, which are (Psalm 104:16) of God’s own plantation.
Beasts, and all cattle; creeping things, and flying fowl:(10) So here we have wild animals and domesticated animals. (See Note, Psalm 50:10.)
Creeping things.—This seems to include all the smaller creatures that move on the ground, in contrast with the birds that fly above it.
Kings of the earth, and all people; princes, and all judges of the earth:(11) All people.—And now the whole animate and inanimate universe having been summoned, man takes his place as leader of the choir; and here the poet’s language is couched so as to include all, all ranks and nations, of every age, and each sex.
Let them praise the name of the LORD: for his name alone is excellent; his glory is above the earth and heaven.(13) Excellent.—Rather, exalted. As in Isaiah 12:4. So LXX. and Vulg.
Above the earth and heaven.—There is a fine artistic touch in the order of the words in this. All heaven and earth have been summoned to the chorus of praise, of Him who is now declared to be above earth and heaven.
He also exalteth the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him. Praise ye the LORD.(14) He hath . . .—Render, and he hath raised a horn for his people. Praise is for all His saints, for the sons of Israel, a people near Him.
The raising of the horn evidently implies some victory, or assurance of victory, which, no doubt, gave the first impulse for this song of praise. (See Introduction). For the figure see Note, Psalm 75:4-5.
The verse is a repetition of a frequent statement of the Psalms. While poetically all the universe, inanimate as well as animate, all men, heathen as well as Hebrews, can be called to sing “hallelujah,” it remains as it has ever been, the covenant privilege of Israel. This explanation disposes at once of the charge which has been brought against this verse of narrowing a grand universal anthem, and ending the psalm with an anti-climax.