Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The one great corruption to which all religion is exposed is its separation from morality, and of all religions that of Israel was pre-eminently open to this danger. It was one of the main functions of the prophetical office to maintain the opposite truth—the inseparable union of morality with religion. This psalm takes rank with the prophets in such a proclamation. It makes it under a highly poetical form, a magnificent vision of judgment, in which, after summoning heaven and earth as His assessors, God arraigns before Him the whole nation, separated into two great groups; sincere but mistaken adherents to form; hypocrites, to whom religious profession is but a cloak for sin. The rhythm is fine and fairly well sustained.
Title.—Asaph was a Levite, son of Berachiah, and one of the leaders of David’s choir (1Chronicles 6:39). He was also by tradition a psalm writer (2Chronicles 29:30, Nehemiah 12:46). It is certain, however, that all the psalms ascribed to Asaph (73-83) were not by the same hand, or of the same time (see Introduction to Psalms 74); and, as in the case of the Korahite psalms, probably the inscription, “to Asaph,” only implies the family of Asaph, or a guild of musicians bearing that name (1Chronicles 25:1; 2Chronicles 20:14; Ezra 2:41).
A Psalm of Asaph. The mighty God, even the LORD, hath spoken, and called the earth from the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof.(1) The mighty God, even the Lord.—Heb., El Elohîm, Jehovah, a combination of the Divine names that has been very variously understood. The Authorised Version follows the rendering of Aquila and Symmachus. But the Masoretic accents are in favour of taking each term as an appellative. Hitzig objects that this is stiff, but it is so on purpose. The poet introduces his vision of judgment in the style of a formal royal proclamation, as the preterite tenses also indicate. But as in this case it is not the earthly monarch, but the Divine, who is “Lord also of the whole earth,” the range of the proclamation is not territorial, “from Dan even unto Beersheba,” as in 2Chronicles 30:5, but is couched in larger terms, “from sunrise to sunset,” an expression constantly used of the operation of Divine power and mercy. (Comp. Psalm 103:12; Psalm 113:3; Isaiah 41:25; Isaiah 45:6.)
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.(2) Perfection of beauty—i.e., Zion, because the Temple, the residence of Jehovah, was there. (Comp. Psalm 48:2; Lamentations 2:15; 1 Maccabees 2:12.)
Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him.(3) Our God shall come . . . shall devour . . . shall be.—Better, comes . . . devours . . . is. The drama, the expected scene having been announced, now opens. The vision unfolds itself before the poet’s eye.
He shall call to the heavens from above, and to the earth, that he may judge his people.(4) He shall call.—Better, He calls. The poet actually hears the summons go forth calling heaven and earth as witnesses, or assessors (comp. Micah 6:2), of the judgment scene. (Comp. Deuteronomy 4:26; Deuteronomy 32:1; Isaiah 1:2; Micah 1:2; 1 Maccabees 2:37.)
Israel, politically so insignificant, must have been profoundly conscious of the tremendous issues involved in its religious character to demand a theatre so vast, an audience so august.
Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.(5) My saints.—This verse is of great importance, as containing a formal definition of the word chasîdîm, and so a direction as to its interpretation wherever it occurs in the Hebrew hymn book. The “saints” are those in the “covenant,” and that covenant was ratified by sacrifices. As often, then, as a sacrifice was offered by an Israelite, it was a witness to the existence of the covenant, and we are not to gather, therefore, from this psalm that outward acts of sacrifice were annulled by the higher spirit taught in it; they were merely subordinated to their proper place, and those who thought more of the rites that bore testimony to the covenant than of the moral duties which the covenant enjoined, are those censured in this part of the psalm.
And the heavens shall declare his righteousness: for God is judge himself. Selah.(6) The heavens.—Here is an exceedingly fine touch. In obedience to the Divine summons the heavens are heard acknowledging the right of God to arraign the nations before Him in virtue of His moral sway. Render the verb in the present: And the heavens declare. The verse is adapted to Psalm 97:6.
In the language of modern thought, order and law in the physical world are an evidence of an ordered moral government, and the obedience of the unconscious stars to that sway which, as Wordsworth says, “preserves them from wrong,” is a challenge to man to submit himself consciously to the same will.
Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God.(7) Hear.—The actual judgment now opens, God asserting in impressive tones His right to preside: God, thy God, I . . . the Elohistic form of the more usual “Jehovah, thy God.”
I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt offerings, to have been continually before me.(8) I will not . . .—Better, Not on account of thy sacrifices do I reprove thee, nor thy burnt offerings, which are always before me. This part of the nation is judged not for neglect of ritual, but for mistaken regard for it. (See Introduction to this psalm.)
As usual in such visions of judgment (comp. Matthew 25:32) the arraigned nation is separated into two classes when brought before the bar of the judge, and the better part is first reproved.
I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he goats out of thy folds.(9-18) Notice the fine tone of irony that pervades this rebuke, the best weapon against ritualistic errors.
For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.(10) A thousand hills.—Literally, mountains of a thousand, an expression for which there is no analogy, but which might conceivably mean, “mountains where the cattle are by thousands;” but surely the LXX. and Vulg. are right here, in rendering “oxen” instead of “a thousand,” and we should read “hills of oxen.”
I know all the fowls of the mountains: and the wild beasts of the field are mine.(11) Wild beasts.—Literally, that which moveth. (Comp. Psalm 80:13.)
Offer unto God thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the most High:(14) Offer.—Gratitude, and the loyal performance of known duties, are the ritual most pleasing to God. Not that the verse implies the cessation of outward rites, but the subordination of the outward to the inward, the form to the spirit. (See Psalm 51:17-19.)
But unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?(16) But.—The psalm here turns to address a worse class, those who, while undisguisedly wicked, shelter themselves under the name of the covenant.
What hast thou to do?—i.e., how darest thou?
When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him, and hast been partaker with adulterers.(18) Thou consentedst with him—i.e., hast pleasure in. (Comp. Job 34:9.)
Thou givest thy mouth to evil, and thy tongue frameth deceit.(19) Givest.—Literally, lettest loose.
Frameth.—Literally, weaves. So LXX. To weave snares is a common figure in all languages. Comp.
“My brain, more busy than the labouring spider,
Weaves tedious snares to trap mine enemies.”
SHAKSPERE: 2 Henry VI. 3:2.
Thou sittest and speakest against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother's son.(20) Sittest.—Rather, as in Psalm 10:8; Psalm 17:12, lurkest.
Slanderest.—Literally, givest a thrust; but, from the parallelism, used of words that often hurt more than blows.
Mother’s son.—In a country where polygamy was practised, this marks a closer relationship than the more general “brother” would do. (See Song of Solomon 1:6, Note.)
These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself: but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes.(21) The forbearance of God (intended to give room for repentance, Romans 2:4) is misconstrued. Men come to think the Divine Being as indifferent to evil as themselves.
That I was altogether.—We might render, that I was actually.
And set them in order.—The insertion of “them,” referring back to “these things,” is rather confusing. Better supply thine offences. All the sins of the wicked are marshalled before them.
Whoso offereth praise glorifieth me: and to him that ordereth his conversation aright will I shew the salvation of God.(23) Offereth praise.—Better, sacrificeth thanksgiving, as in Psalm 50:14; the poet here sums up what he has previously said. This clause must therefore be considered as addressed to the sincere formalist, the next to the openly wicked.
To him that ordereth . . .—Literally, as the text stands, placeth his way, which is hardly intelligible. The version of Symmachus suggests the reading tam, instead of sam, “to him who walks uprightly.” But being plainly intended for the ungodly, we want in this clause some mention of amendment; and if the poet wrote shab, we get, literally, him who has turned his way, i.e., who has changed his course of life.