Psalm 89
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

This long psalm comes evidently from a time of great national depression and trouble. The idolatries that led to the Captivity, and the Captivity itself, are already in the past, and the poet can think only of the splendid promises of God to the race, and the paradox that while made by a God of truth and faithfulness, they have yet been broken; for Israel lies prostrate, a prey to cruel and rapacious foes, and the cry, “How long?” goes up in despair to heaven. The “servant” and “anointed” (Psalm 89:38-39) need not necessarily be a prince of the house of David—Rehoboam or Jehoiachim, or another; but the whole nation individualised and presented in the person of one of the Davidic princes, as in that of David himself (Psalm 132:17). The time of the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes suits best all the conditions presented by the psalm. The poetical form is nearly regular, and the parallelism well marked.

Title.—For “Maschil” see title, Psalms 32.

Ethan the Ezrahite.—Probably to be identified with the man mentioned (1Kings 4:31) as among the celebrated sages surpassed by Solomon, and called Ezrahites, as being of the family of Zerah (1Chronicles 2:6; see Note to title to last psalm). Probably when the titles were prefixed this sage had become confused with Ethan (or Jeduthun), the singer.

Maschil of Ethan the Ezrahite. I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever: with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.
(1) I will sing.—This lyric purpose soon loses itself in a dirge.

For ever.—The Hebrew (‘ôlam) has properly neither the abstract idea of negation of time, nor the concrete (Christian) idea of eternity, but implies indefiniteness, and looks either backwards or forwards.

With my mouthi.e., aloud, or loudly.

For I have said, Mercy shall be built up for ever: thy faithfulness shalt thou establish in the very heavens.
(2) Mercy . . . faithfulness.—These words, so often combined, express here, as commonly in the psalms, the attitude of the covenant God towards His people. The art of the poet is shown in this exordium. He strikes so strongly this note of the inviolability of the Divine promise only to make the deprecation of present neglect on God’s part presently more striking.

Shall be built up for ever—Better, is for ever being built up. Elsewhere figured as a “place of shelter,” a “tower of refuge,” God’s faithfulness is here presented as an edifice for ever rising on foundations laid in the heavens. (Comp. Psalm 119:89.) The heavens are at once the type of unchangeableness and of splendour and height. Mant’s paraphrase brings out the power of the verse:—

“For I have said, Thy mercies rise,

A deathless structure, to the skies;

The heavens were planted by Thy hand,

And as the heavens Thy truth shall stand.”

And Wordsworth has sung of Him:—

“Who fixed immovably the frame

Of the round world, and built by laws as strong

The solid refuge for distress,

The towers of righteousness.”

(Comp. Psalm 36:6.)

I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant,
(3) I have sworn.—The prophetic passage (2Samuel 7:12, seq.) is in the poet’s mind.

And the heavens shall praise thy wonders, O LORD: thy faithfulness also in the congregation of the saints.
(5) The heavens.—Having repeated the Divine promise, the poet appeals to nature and history to confirm his conviction of the enduring character of the truth and grace of God. The heavens are witnesses of it as in Psalm 1:4; Psalm 1:6; Psalm 97:6.

Shall praise.—The present tense would be better.

Wonders.—In the original the word is singular, perhaps as summing up all the covenant faithfulness as one great display of wonder.

Saints.—Here, apparently, not spoken of Israel, but of the hosts above. (See next verse; comp. Job 4:18; Job 15:15 for the same term, “holy ones,” for angels.)

For who in the heaven can be compared unto the LORD? who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the LORD?
(6) Sons of the mighty.—Rather, sons of God—i.e., angels. (Comp. Psalm 29:1.)

God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him.
(7) It is better to take this verse in apposition with the foregoing:

“God sublime in the council of the holy ones,

And terrible among those surrounding him.”

For a picture of the court of heaven see Job 1:6.

O LORD God of hosts, who is a strong LORD like unto thee? or to thy faithfulness round about thee?
(8-13) Not only is God incomparable in heaven, He is also the only mighty and lofty one in nature or history.

(8) O Lord.—The Hebrew marches more grandly than the Authorised Version:

“Jehovah, God of Hosts,

Who as Thou is mighty, Jah?

And Thy faithfulness surrounds Thee.”

Or the last clause may be rendered, and what faithfulness is like that round about thee? We must either think of the attendant throngs of loyal angels, or of God clothed as it were with faithfulness.

Thou hast broken Rahab in pieces, as one that is slain; thou hast scattered thine enemies with thy strong arm.
(10) Rahab.—See Note, Psalm 87:4. The mention of the sea has carried the poet’s thoughts to the Red Sea and the deliverance from Egypt, which is represented as some huge monster conquered and crushed.

The north and the south thou hast created them: Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in thy name.
(12) Tabor and Hermon.—Introduced not only as standing roughly for west and east, but for their prominence and importance in the landscape. (Comp. Hosea 5:1.)

Shall rejoice.—Better, sing for joy.

Thou hast a mighty arm: strong is thy hand, and high is thy right hand.
(13) High is thy right hand.—The strong hand is supposed raised to strike. (Comp. Psalm 89:42.)

Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face.
(14) Habitation.—Rather, foundation, or pillars. Righteousness and judgment support God’s throne, and mercy and truth (“those genii of sacred history”) precede (present tense, not future) Him as forerunners precede a king.

Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound: they shall walk, O LORD, in the light of thy countenance.
(15) That know the joyful soundi.e., that are familiar with the shouting and music that accompanied the feasts of Israel.

They shall walk.—Better in the present; and so of the verb in the next verse. The light of Jehovah’s countenance of course means His favour.

For thou art the glory of their strength: and in thy favour our horn shall be exalted.
(17) Glory.—Better, ornament. The crown of a nation’s strength is not the triumphs it wins, nor the prosperity it secures, but the spirit in which these are used. Humility, and not pride, acknowledgment of God, and not conceit in her wealth or power, was the ornament of Israel’s strength, and made her greatness in her best days.

Our horn shall be exalted.—See Note, Psalm 132:17. Modern Eastern proverbs, such as “What a fine horn he has!” spoken of a great man, still preserve the figure.

For the LORD is our defence; and the Holy One of Israel is our king.
(18) For the Lord.—Or, rather—

“For of Jehovah is our shield,

And of Israel’s Holy One our king,”

“shield” and “king” being in synonymous parallelism. Jehovah is the source of the theocratic power.

Then thou spakest in vision to thy holy one, and saidst, I have laid help upon one that is mighty; I have exalted one chosen out of the people.
(19) The mention of the king allows the poet to bring still more into prominence the special promises made to Israel. The piece, which is couched in oracular language, is introduced by a prose statement recalling the sentences in Job which introduce a fresh speaker.

Holy one.—See Note, Psalm 16:10. Some MSS. (comp. LXX. and Vulg.) have the plural. The singular is correct, referring no doubt to Nathan, as is seen from 2Samuel 7:17; 1Chronicles 17:15. The oracular piece that follows (Psalm 89:19-37) is like Psalm 132:11-12, founded on this old prophetic passage; but while the original reference is to Solomon, here it is extended to all David’s posterity.

I have . . .—Better, I have placed help in a heroi.e., I have chosen a hero as a champion for Israel.

The enemy shall not exact upon him; nor the son of wickedness afflict him.
(22) Exact.—This meaning is possible, and is supported by the LXX. and Vulgate, “shall not get profit.” There may be an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:6, but perhaps it is better to take the verb in the same sense as the Hebrew margin of Psalm 55:15, “shall not surprise him;” Symmachus has, “lead him astray.”

And I will beat down his foes before his face, and plague them that hate him.
(23) Beat down.—Probably bray, as in a mortar.

Plague.—Or, smite.

But my faithfulness and my mercy shall be with him: and in my name shall his horn be exalted.
(24) Faithfulness and mercy, represented in Psalm 89:14 as God’s attendants, are here commissioned to act as a guard to David and his house.

I will set his hand also in the sea, and his right hand in the rivers.
(25) In the sea.—A reference, as in Psalm 72:8; Psalm 80:11, to the limits of the Solomonic kingdom, the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. For the figure we may compare a saying attributed by Curtius to some Scythian ambassadors, who addressed Alexander in these terms: “If the gods had given thee a body as great as thy mind, the whole world would not be able to contain thee. Thou wouldst reach with one hand to the east, and with the other to the west.”

He shall cry unto me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.
(26) He shall cry.—This verse is interesting in view of the theological development in the psalter. We might think that the poet was referring to an actual psalm of David, with whom the expression, “My God, the rock of my salvation,” was familiar (see Psalm 18:1-2, &c.), were it not for the word “Father,” a title for the Divine Being which the national religion did not frame till the exile period (Jeremiah 3:4; Jeremiah 3:19; Isaiah 63:16).

Also I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth.
(27) Firstborn.—Jesse’s youngest son became the firstborn, the favourite son of God. Here, of course, the epithet is extended to all the Davidic succession.

His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven.
(29) Days of heaven.Deuteronomy 11:21. (Comp. Psalm 72:5; and see below, Psalm 89:36.)

If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments;
(30-33) An elaboration of 2Samuel 7:14-15, and evidently made with a purpose. The poet acknowledges the sin of Israel in past times, but also regards the sufferings of the exile as having been the punishment foretold by them. Hence the sin has been expiated, and the perplexity arises why Israel is still afflicted.

It shall be established for ever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven. Selah.
(37) And as a faithful witness in heaven.—Rather, and there is a faithful witness in heaven, which the parallelism shows to be the moon, just mentioned. The moon (see Psalm 81:3) was to the Jews—as to the ancients generally—the “arbiter of festivals,” and the festivals were signs of the covenant, consequently that luminary might well be called “a witness in heaven.”

But thou hast cast off and abhorred, thou hast been wroth with thine anointed.
(38) But thou.—The poem takes a new departure here. God is reproached for violating the covenant, and the contrast between the actual condition of things in Israel at present, and the glorious destiny promised, is feelingly set forth.

The boldness of this expostulation has scandalised the Jewish expositors. But see exactly similar language, Psalm 44:9; Psalm 44:22. The point of the poem, indeed, is gone if we soften down these expressions. The stronger the conviction of the inviolability of God’s promises, the more vehement becomes the sense of right to expostulate at their seeming violation, the delay of the fulfilment of the covenant. We may illustrate by the Latin poet’s

“Hic pietatis honos, sic nos in sceptra reponis?”

VIRGIL: Æn. 1:25.

Thou hast made void the covenant of thy servant: thou hast profaned his crown by casting it to the ground.
(39) Made void.—Better, cast off, as the word is rendered in Lamentations 2:7, the only other place where it occurs. There the LXX. have “shook off;” here, “turned upside down.”

Thou hast profaned.—Comp. Psalm 74:7.

Thou hast also turned the edge of his sword, and hast not made him to stand in the battle.
(43) Edge of his sword.—The Hebrew is tsûr, i.e., rock, and a comparison with Joshua 5:2 (margin) suggests that we have here a reminiscence of the “stone age.” The word “flint” for the edge of a weapon might easily survive the actual use of the implement itself. So we should still speak of “a foeman’s steel” even if the use of chemical explosives entirely abolished the use of sword and bayonet. This is one of the cases where the condition of modern science helps us in exegesis of the Bible. The ancient versions, who knew nothing of the stone or iron ages, paraphrase, by “strength,” or “help.”

Thou hast made his glory to cease, and cast his throne down to the ground.
(44) Thou hast . . .—Literally, Thou hast made to cease from his brightnessi.e., the brightness of the sun, promised in Psalm 89:36.

To the ground.—From being as the sun in heaven.

How long, LORD? wilt thou hide thyself for ever? shall thy wrath burn like fire?
(46) How long.—With this persistent cry of the Maccabæan age (see Psalm 74:10), the poet shows that faith is not extinct, though it has a sore struggle with despair.

Remember how short my time is: wherefore hast thou made all men in vain?
(47) Remember.—The text of this clause runs, Remember I how duration, which might possibly be an incoherent sob, meaning remember how quickly I pass. But since the transposition of a letter brings the clause into conformity with Psalm 39:4, “how frail I am,” it is better to adopt the change.

Wherefore hast thou . . .—Literally, for what vanity hast thou created all men?

“Count all the joys thine hours have seen,

Count all the days from anguish free,

And know, whatever thou hast been,

’Twere something better not to be.”—BYRON.

What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave? Selah.
(48) What man.—Rather, What hero, or champion, or great man. The word is used of a king (Jeremiah 22:30; comp. Isaiah 22:17). The verse repeats a common poetic theme:—

“Pallida mors æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas,

Regumque turres.”—HORACE, I. Od. iv.

The hand of the grave.—Rather, of the underworld, “hand” being used for “power.”

Remember, Lord, the reproach of thy servants; how I do bear in my bosom the reproach of all the mighty people;
(50)The phrase, “bear in my bosom,” is explained by Psalm 79:12.

Wherewith thine enemies have reproached, O LORD; wherewith they have reproached the footsteps of thine anointed.
(51) Footsteps . . .—Every step taken by Israel was the subject of reproach. Rabbinical writers connect the verse with the delay of the Messiah, since it brings reproach on those who wait for him in vain.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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