Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Jerusalem has been in great peril from some coalition either of neighbouring monarchs or of the tributary princes of one of the great world-powers, and has been delivered through some unexplained sudden panic. With this event the poet of this psalm is contemporary. So much is clear from Psalm 48:4-8 (see Notes); but on what precise event we are to fix is not so clear. There are resemblances to the deliverance of Jehoshaphat (2Chronicles 20:25), resemblances to the fate of Sennacherib’s host (2 Kings 19), resemblances to other signal changes of fortune in later times of Israel’s history.
But if we can enter into the spirit of blended piety and patriotism which makes the poem so expressive of the whole better feeling of the best times of the nation, the recovery of the precise date of its production is immaterial.
The rhythm is remarkable. In no poem is the rapid lyric movement more striking.
Title. See Psalms 41
A Song and Psalm for the sons of Korah. Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness.(1) To be praised.—See Psalm 18:3, Note.
Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King.(2) Situation.—Heb., nôph. A word only found here, but explained from a cognate Arabic word to mean elevation. And this feature is quite distinctive enough of Jerusalem to lend confirmation to this explanation—“Its elevation is remarkable.” (See Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 170.)
On the other hand, an adverbial use—highly beautiful or supremely beautiful (comp. Lamentations 2:15, “The perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole earth”) may be all that the poet intends.
Sides of the north.—A common phrase, generally taken to mean the quarter or region of the north (see Ezekiel 38:6; Ezekiel 38:15; Ezekiel 39:2; Isaiah 14:13), but which, from the various uses of two words making it up, might mean northern recesses or secret recesses, according as we adopt the derived or the original meaning of tsāphôn.
With the former of the two meanings we should see a reference to the relative position of the Temple and its precincts to the rest of the city. For the identification of the ancient Zion (not to be confounded with the modern Zion) with the hill on which the Temple stood, see Smith’s Bib. Dict., art. “Jerusalem.”(Comp. Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 171.)
If, on the other hand, we elect to render secret, or hidden, or secure recesses, we have a figure quite intelligible of the security and peace to be found in God’s holy city:
Beautiful for elevation,
The whole earth’s joy;
Mount Zion, a secure recess,
City of the great King.
And the thought is taken up in the word refuge in the next verse. (Comp. Ezekiel 7:22, where the Temple is actually called “Jehovah’s secret place.”)
God is known in her palaces for a refuge.(3) Refuge.—See Note, Psalm 46:1. Prominence should be given to the idea of security from height. We might render, “God among her castles is known as a high and secure tower.”
For, lo, the kings were assembled, they passed by together.(4) The kings.—With the striking picture of the advance and sudden collapse of a hostile expedition that follows, comp. Isaiah 10:28-34; possibly of the very same event.
The kings.—Evidently known to the writer, but, alas! matter of merest conjecture to us. Some suppose the kings of Ammon, Moab, and Edom, who attacked Jehoshaphat (2Chronicles 20:25); others, the tributary princes of Sennacherib. In his annals, as lately deciphered, this monarch speaks of setting up tributary kings or viceroys in Chaldæa, Phoenicia, and Philistia, after conquering these countries. (See Assyrian Discoveries, by George Smith, p. 303.) Others again, referring the psalm to the time of Ahaz, understand Pekah and Rezin (2Kings 15:37). The touches, vivid as they are, of the picture, are not so historically defined as to allow a settlement of the question.
Assembled.—Used of the muster of confederate forces (Joshua 11:5).
Passed by—i.e., marched by. So, according to the time reading, the LXX. A frequent military term (Judges 11:29; 2Kings 8:21; Isaiah 8:8). Others, “passed away,” but it is doubtful if the verb can have this meaning.
Together.—Notice the parallelism, they came together, they passed by together.
They saw it, and so they marvelled; they were troubled, and hasted away.(5) They saw.—A verse like Psalm 46:6, vivid from the omission of the conjunctions, wrongly supplied by the Authorised Version. It has reminded commentators of Caesar’s Veni, vidi, vici.
They looked, even so were terrified, bewildered, panic-struck.
Hasted away.—Or, sprung up in alarm.
Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind.(7) Breakest.—It is natural at first sight to connect this verse immediately with the disaster which happened to the fleet of Jehoshaphat (1Kings 22:48-49; 2Chronicles 20:36). And that event may indeed have supplied the figure, but a figure for the dispersal of a land army. We may render:
With a blast from the east
Thou breakest (them as) Tarshish ships.
With a blast from the east
(Which) breaketh Tarshish ships (thou breakest them),
according as we take the verb, second person masculine, or third person feminine.
Shakespeare, in King John, compares the rout of an army to the dispersion of a fleet—
“So, by a roaring tempest on the flood,
A whole Armada of convicted sail
Is scattered and disjoined from fellowship.”
This is preferable to the suggestion that the seaboard tribes were in the alliance, whose break-up the psalm seems to commemorate, and that the sudden dispersion of their Armada ruined the enterprise. Tarshish ships, a common term for large merchantmen (comp. East Indiamen), from their use in the Tarshish trade, are here symbols of a powerful empire. Isaiah, in Isaiah 33, compares Assyria to a gallant ship. For the “east wind,” proverbially destructive and injurious, and so a ready weapon of chastisement in the Divine hand, see Job 27:21; Isaiah 27:8; and Ezekiel 27:26, where its harm to shipping is especially mentioned.
As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God: God will establish it for ever. Selah.(8) As we have heard.—The generations of a religious nation are “bound each to each by natural piety.” Probably here the ancient tale of the overthrow of Pharaoh and his host recurred to the poet’s mind.
God will establish it.—Better, God will preserve her for ever, i.e., the holy city. This forms the refrain of the song, and probably should be restored between the parts of Psalm 48:3.
We have thought of thy lovingkindness, O God, in the midst of thy temple.(9) Thy temple.—This verse seems to indicate a liturgic origin for the psalm.
According to thy name, O God, so is thy praise unto the ends of the earth: thy right hand is full of righteousness.(10) According to thy name . . .—“Name” here has plainly the meaning we give it in the phrase, “name and fame.” God’s praise was up to the reputation His great deeds had won. (Comp. Psalm 138:2.)
Thy right hand is full of righteousness.—Not like Jove’s, as heathen say, full of thunderbolts, but of justice.
Let mount Zion rejoice, let the daughters of Judah be glad, because of thy judgments.(11) Daughters of Judah.—Not the maidens of Jerusalem, but the towns and villages of Judah.
Judgments.—Perhaps here, as in Psalm 119:132, with prominent idea of God’s customary dealings with His people.
Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof.(12) Walk about Zion.—Notice here the strong patriotic feeling of Hebrew song. The inhabitants of the city are invited to make a tour of inspection of the defences which, under God’s providence, have protected them from their foes. We are reminded of the fine passage in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which gratefully recalls “the natural bravery” of our own island home, or of the national songs about our “wooden walls.” Comparison has also been drawn between this passage and a similar burst of patriotic sentiment from the lips of a Grecian orator (Thuc. Ii. 53); but while the Greek thinks only of the men who made Athens strong, the Hebrew traces all back to God.
(12) Tell—i.e., count. So in Milton, “Every shepherd tells his tale,” i.e., counts his sheep.
Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following.(13) Consider.—The Hebrew word is peculiar to this passage. The root idea seems to be divide, and the natural sense of divide her palaces is, take them one by one and regard them.
For this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death.(14) Unto death.—The words (‘al mûth) are proved by the ancient versions and various readings to be really a musical direction, either placed at the end instead of the beginning, as in Habakkuk 3:19, or shifted back from the title of the next psalm. See Psalms 9 title, ‘alamôth.