Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The affliction out of which the mournful cry of this psalm rises is presented in such general terms that there is no single indication by which to refer it to one period more than another. As the consolation is sought entirely in the history of national deliverance, and not in any display of divine goodness toward the author individually, it is safe to conclude that the troubles described are also national rather than personal. At all events, for the time the poet’s individuality is entirely merged in the sense of public calamity. The question whether the psalm, or Habakkuk 3:10-15, which at its close it resembles, is the original, would, if it could be decided, be some guide in ascertaining the date of the composition. But there appear arguments equally strong on both sides of this question. There is a striking change of rhythm at Psalm 77:16, otherwise the structure is regular.
Title.—See title Psalms 4, 39
To the chief Musician, to Jeduthun, A Psalm of Asaph. I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice; and he gave ear unto me.(1) I cried . . .—Better, following the Hebrew literally,
“My voice to God—and let me cry;
My voice to God—and He hears me.”
The Authorised Version has followed the LXX. and Vulg. in neglecting the striking changes in mood running through this psalm. Soliloquy and narrative alternate as the poet’s mood impels him—now to give vent to his feelings in sobs and cries, now to analyse and describe them.
In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted.(2) My sore ran . . .—The text of this verse is evidently faulty. As it stands it is unintelligible. My hand was poured out and grew not dull (like a corpse).
The LXX. and Vulg. have, “with my hands against Him, and I was not deceived,” pointing to a different reading. Symmachus has, however, “my hand was stretched out,” which may be a possible meaning of the Hebrew, though a comparison with Lamentations 3:49 (comp. Lamentations 2:18) suggests that eye was written instead of hand. The Authorised Version’s sore comes from the Rabbins, who thought of the hand beating the breast, and rendered, “my blows were poured out.” Though the probable text may be beyond recovery, the feeling of the verse is quite palpable. It expresses the anguish of the poet’s soul—
“His vows in the night, so fierce and unavailing,
Stings of his shame and passion of his tears.”
I remembered God, and was troubled: I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Selah.(3) I remembered.—Better,
“If I remember God I must sigh;
I meditate, and my spirit faints.”
“Let me remember God, and sigh;
I must complain, and my spirit faints.”
Thou holdest mine eyes waking: I am so troubled that I cannot speak.(4) Thou holdest mine eyes waking.—Rather, Thou hast closed the guards of my eyes—i.e., my eyelids. The Authorised Version mistakes the noun. guards, for a participle, and mistranslates it by the active instead of the passive. For the verb hold in the sense of shut, see Nehemiah 7:3, and Job 26:9, where God is described as veiling His throne in cloud, and so shutting it up, as it were, from the access of men.
I am so troubled.—The verb is used elsewhere of the awestruck state into which the mind is thrown by a mysterious dream (Genesis 41:8; Daniel 2:1; Daniel 2:3), and once (Judges 13:25) of inspiration, such as impelled the judges of old to become the liberators of their country. The parallelism here shows that it is used in the first connection. The poet has been struck dumb (the verb is rendered strike in the Lexicons) by a mysterious dream; he is too overawed to speak.
I call to remembrance my song in the night: I commune with mine own heart: and my spirit made diligent search.(6) I call to remembrance.—Better,
“Let me recall my harpings in the night;
Let me complain in my own heart,
And my spirit questions and questions.”
Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more?(7-9) The self-questionings here follow as they rise sigh after sigh in the poet’s heart. God’s silences have always been more appalling to the human spirit than even the most terrible of His manifestations. To the pious Israelite, to whom the past history of his race appeared one scene of opportune interpositions to save at the moment when distress became too intolerable, it seemed as if the divine protection was altogether withdrawn when the misery was protracted and the sign of help withheld.
And I said, This is my infirmity: but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High.(10) And I said . . .—The word rendered “infirmity” may, by derivation, mean “wounding” or “piercing.” So Symmachus, “my wound;” Aquila, “my sickness.” Gesenius says, “that which makes my sickness.” If we keep this meaning we must understand mental sickness or “madness,” and understand the poet to say that to indulge in despairing cries is mere madness (comp. King Lear’s, “Oh! that way madness lies”), he will recall God’s ancient deliverances, and so re-establish his faith. But it seems more natural to take a sense which the cognate verb very commonly bears (Leviticus 19:8; Ezekiel 36:22; Psalm 74:7; Psalm 89:39), and render, “I said this (such despair) is on my part profanation, profanation of the years of the right hand of the Most High.” To despair of continued help from One who had been so gracious in the past is a kind of blasphemy. The word “profanation” must be understood as repeated for the sake of the grammar.
I will remember the works of the LORD: surely I will remember thy wonders of old.(11) I will remember.—The written text is, “I will celebrate.” The intention is the same in both cases. Instead of continuing to despair, the poet resolves on seeking encouragement for his faith in grateful praise of God for past mercies, and especially for the ancient deliverance from Egypt, which occupies the prominent place in his thoughts; “works” and “wonders” should be in the singular, referring to this one mighty deliverance.
Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary: who is so great a God as our God?(13) In the sanctuary.—Rather, with the holy, i.e., with “Israel,” the “saint” of God.
The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled.(16-20) The prominence given to Joseph is a feature common to the Asaphic psalm. With this magnificent lyric of the passage of the Red Sea comp. Habakkuk 3:10-11. The narrative in Exodus says nothing of a storm, but Josephus has preserved the tradition (Ant., 2:16. 3). Philo also mentions the storm.
(16) The waters saw thee.—Possibly alluding to the “look” which troubled the Egyptians (Exodus 14:24).
Were afraid.—Better, writhed, as in travail pains.
Went abroad—i.e., darted hither and thither. The arrows are the lightnings.
The voice of thy thunder was in the heaven: the lightnings lightened the world: the earth trembled and shook.(18) In the heavens.—Literally, in the vault. The Hebrew, galgal, from gālal, “to roll,” has the same derivation as “vault” (volutum, from volvo). It is strange that this rendering, which so well suits the parallelism, should have been set aside by modern scholars in favour of “whirlwind” or “rolling chariot wheels.” The LXX. and Vulg. have “wheel,” but possibly with reference to the apparent revolution of the sky. The word, where it occurs in Isaiah 17:13, means something rolled by the whirlwind, not the whirlwind itself.
Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.(19) Are not known.—“We know not, they knew not, by what precise means the deliverance was wrought; we know not by what precise track through the gulf the passage was effected. We know not; we need not know. The obscuring, the mystery, here as elsewhere, was part of the lesson. . . . All that we see distinctly is, that through this dark and terrible night, with the enemy pressing close behind, and the driving sea on either side, He led His people like sheep by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Stanley, Jewish Church, i. 128).
To some minds the abruptness of the conclusion of the psalm marks it as unfinished. But no better end could have been reached in the poet’s perplexity than that to which he has been led by his musings on the past, the thought of the religious aids ready to his hand, in the faith and worship left by Moses and Aaron. We are reminded of him who recalled the thoughts of the young man, searching for a higher ideal of duty, back to the law and obedience. Or if the psalm is rather an expression of the feeling of the community than of an individual, there is a pointed significance in the conclusion given to all the national cries of doubt and despair—the one safe course was to remain loyal and true to the ancient institutions.