Calvin says that the authorship of this psalm is uncertain, but that it is abundantly clear that it was composed by any one rather than David, and that its plaintive contents suit best the time when the savage tyranny of Antiochus raged. No period corresponds to the situation which makes the background of the psalm so completely as the Maccabean, for only then could it be truly said that national calamities fell because of the nation's rigid monotheism. Other epochs have been thought of, so as to avoid the necessity of recognising Maccabean psalms, but none of them can be said to meet the conditions described in the psalm. The choice lies between accepting the Maccabean date and giving up the attempt to fix one at all.
Objections to that late date based upon the history of the completion of the canon take for granted more accurate and complete knowledge of a very obscure subject than is possessed, and do not seem strong enough to negative the indications arising from the very unique fact, asserted in the psalm, that the nation was persecuted for its faith and engaged in a religious war. The psalm falls into four parts: a wistful look backwards to days already "old," when God fought for them (vv. 1-8); a sad contrast in present oppression (vv. 9-16); a profession of unfaltering national adherence to the covenant notwithstanding all these ills (vv. 17-22); and a fervent cry to a God who seems asleep to awake and rescue His martyred people (vv. 23-26).
The first part (vv. 1-8) recalls the fact that shone so brightly in all the past, the continual exercise of Divine power giving victory to their weakness, and builds thereon a prayer that the same law of His providence might be fulfilled now. The bitter side of the retrospect forces itself into consciousness in the next part, but here Memory is the handmaid of Faith. The whole process of the Exodus and conquest of Canaan is gathered up as one great "work" of God's hand. The former inhabitants of the land were uprooted like old trees, to give room for planting the "vine out of Egypt." Two stages in the settlement are distinguished in ver. 2: first came the "planting" and next the growth; for the phrase "didst spread them forth" carries on the metaphor of the tree, and expresses the extension of its roots and branches. The ascription of victory to God is made more emphatic by the negatives in ver. 3, which take away all credit of it from the people's own weapons or strength. The consciousness of our own impotence must accompany adequate recognition of God's agency in our deliverances. The conceit of our own power blinds our vision of His working hand. But what moved His power? No merit of man's, but the infinite free grace of God's heart. "The light of Thy face" is the symbol of God's loving regard, and the deepest truth as to His acts of favour is that they are the outcome of His own merciful nature. He is His own motive. "Thou hadst delight in them" is the ultimate word, leading us into sacred abysses of self-existent and self-originated Deity. The spirit, then, of Israel's history is contained in these three thoughts: the positive assertion of God's power as the reason for their victories; the confirmatory negative, putting aside their own prowess; and the tracing of all God's work for them solely to His unmerited grace.
On this grand generalisation of the meaning of past centuries a prayer is built for their repetition in the prosaic present. The psalmist did not think that God was nearer in some majestic past than now. His unchangeableness had for consequence, as he thought, continuous manifestation of Himself in the same character and relation to His people. To-day is as full of God as any yesterday. Therefore ver. 4 begins with an emphatic recognition of the constancy of the Divine nature in that strong expression "Thou Thyself," and with an individualising transition for a moment to the singular in "my King," in order to give most forcible utterance to the thought that He was the same to each man of that generation as He had been to the fathers. On that unchanging relation rests the prayer, "Command salvations for (lit. of) Jacob," as if a multitude of several acts of deliverance stood before God, as servants waiting to be sent on His errands. Just as God (Elohim) takes the place of Jehovah in this second book of the Psalter, so in it Jacob frequently stands for Israel. The prayer is no sooner spoken than the confidence in its fulfilment lifts the suppliant's heart buoyantly above present defeat, which will in the next turn of thought insist on being felt. Such is the magic of every act of true appeal to God. However dark the horizon, there is light if a man looks straight up. Thus this psalmist breaks into anticipatory pćans of victory. The vivid image of ver. 5 is taken from the manner of fighting common to wild horned animals, buffaloes and the like, who first prostrate their foe by their fierce charge and then trample him. The individualising "my" reappears in ver. 6, where the negation that had been true of the ancestors is made his own by the descendant. Each man must, as his own act, appropriate the universal relation of God to men and make God his God, and must also disown for himself reliance on himself. So he will enter into participation in God's victories. Remembrance of the victorious past and confidence in a like victorious future blend in the closing burst of praise and vow for its continuance, which vow takes for granted the future continued manifestation of deliverances as occasions for uninterrupted thanksgivings. Well might some long-drawn, triumphant notes from the instruments prolong the impression of the jubilant words.
The song drops in the second part (vv. 9-16) from these clear heights with lyric suddenness. The grim facts of defeat and consequent exposure to mocking laughter from enemies force themselves into sight, and seem utterly to contradict the preceding verses. But the first part speaks with the voice of faith, and the second with that of sense, and these two may sound in very close sequence or even simultaneously. In ver. 9 the two verbs are united by the absence of "us" with the first; and the difference of tense in the Hebrew brings out the dependence of the second on the first, as effect and cause. God's rejection is the reason for the nation's disgrace by defeat. In the subsequent verses the thoughts of rejection and disgrace are expanded, the former in ver. 9 b to ver. 12, and the latter in vv. 13-16. The poet paints with few strokes the whole disastrous rout. We see the fated band going out to battle, with no Pillar of Cloud or Ark of the Covenant at their head. They have but their own weapons and sinews to depend on--not, as of old, a Divine Captain. No description of a fight under such conditions is needed, for it can have only one issue; and so the next clause shows panic-struck flight. Whoever goes into battle without God comes out of it without victory. Next follows plundering, as was the savage wont of these times, and there is no force to oppose the spoilers. The routed fugitives are defenceless and unresisting as sheep, and their fate is to be devoured, or possibly the expression "sheep for food" may be substantially equivalent to "sheep for the slaughter" (ver. 22), and may refer to the usual butchery of a defeated army. Some of them are slain and others carried off as slaves. The precise rendering of ver. 12 b is doubtful. Calvin, and, among the moderns, Hitzig, Ewald, Delitzsch, Cheyne, take it to mean "Thou didst not set their prices high." Others, such as Hupfeld, Baethgen, etc., adhere to the rendering, "Thou didst not increase [Thy wealth] by their price." The general sense is clear, and as bold as clear. It is almost sarcasm, directed against the Divine dealings: little has He gained by letting His flock be devoured and scattered. Hupfeld attaches to the bitter saying a deep meaning: namely, that the "sale" did not take place "for the sake of profit or other external worldly ends, as is the case with men, but from higher disciplinary grounds of the Divine government--namely, simply as punishment for their sins, for their improvement." Rather it may indicate the dishonour accruing to the God, according to the ideas of the old world, when His votaries were defeated; or it may be the bitter reflection, "We can be of little worth in our Shepherd's eyes when He parts with us so easily." If there is any hint of tarnish adhering to the name of God by His people's defeat, the passage to the second main idea of this part is the easier.
Defeat brings dishonour. The nearer nations, such as Edomites, Ammonites, and other ancestral foes, are ready with their gibes. The more distant peoples make a proverb out of the tragedy, and nod their heads in triumph and scorn. The cowering creature, in the middle of this ring of mockers, is covered with shame as he hears the babel of heartless jests at his expense, and steals a glance at the fierce faces round him.
It is difficult to find historical facts corresponding with this picture. Even if the feature of selling into captivity is treated as metaphor, the rest of the picture needs some pressure to be made to fit the conditions of the Maccabean struggle, to which alone the subsequent avowals of faithfulness to God as the cause of calamity answer. For there were no such periods of disgraceful defeat and utter devastation when once that heroic revolt had begun. The third part of the psalm is in full accord with the religious consciousness of that Indian summer of national glories; but it must be acknowledged that the state of things described in this second part does not fit quite smoothly into the hypothesis of a Maccabean date.
The third part (vv. 17-22) brings closely together professions of righteousness, which sound strangely in Christian ears, and complaints of suffering, and closes with the assertion that these two are cause and effect. The sufferers are a nation of martyrs, and know themselves to be so. This tone is remarkable when the nation is the speaker; for though we find individuals asserting innocence and complaining of undeserved afflictions in many psalms, a declaration of national conformity with the Law is in sharp contradiction both to history and to the uniform tone of prophets. This psalmist asserts not only national freedom from idolatry, but adherence in heart and act to the Covenant. No period before the exile was clear of the taint of idol worship and yet darkened by calamity. We have no record of any events before the persecutions that roused the Maccabean struggle which answer to the martyr cry of ver. 22: "For Thy sake we are killed all the day." It may, indeed, be questioned what is the relation in time of the two facts spoken of in vv. 17-19. Which comes first, the calamity or the steadfastness? Does the psalmist mean, "We are afflicted, and yet we are in affliction true to God," or "We were true to God, and yet are afflicted"? Probably the latter, as in the remainder of this part. "The place of jackals" is apparently the field of defeat referred to in the second part, where obscene creatures would gather to feast on the plundered corpses. The Christian consciousness cannot appropriate the psalmist's asseverations of innocence, and the difference between them and it should not be slurred over. But, on the other hand, his words should not be exaggerated into charges of injustice against God, nor claims of absolute sinlessness. He does feel that present national distresses have not the same origin as past ones had had. There has been no such falling away as to account for them. But he does not arraign God's government. He knows why the miseries have come, and that he and his fellows are martyrs. He does not fling that fact down as an accusation of Providence, but as the foundation of a prayer and as a plea for God's help. The words may sound daring; still they are not blasphemy, but supplication.
The fourth part is importunate prayer. Its frank anthropomorphisms of a sleeping God, forgetting His people, surely need little defence. Sleep withdraws from knowledge of and action on the external world, and hence is attributed to God, when He allows evils to run unchecked. He is said to "awake," or, with another figure, to "arise," as if starting from His throned calm, when by some great act of judgment He smites flourishing evil into nothingness. Injustice is surely done to these cries of the Ecclesia pressa when they are supposed to be in opposition to the other psalmist's word: "He that keepeth Israel slumbers not, nor sleeps." Some commentators call these closing petitions commonplace; and so they are. Extreme need and agony of supplication have other things to think of than originality, and so long as sorrows are so commonplace and like each other, the cries of the sorrowful will be very much alike. God is pleased with well-worn prayers, which have fitted many lips, and is not so fastidious as some critics.