This is the first of the Asaph psalms, and is separated from the other eleven (Psalms lxxiii.-lxxxiii.) for reasons that do not appear. Probably they are no more recondite than the verbal resemblance between the summons to all the earth at the beginning of Psalm xlix. and the similar proclamation in the first verses of Psalm l. The arrangement of the Psalter is often obviously determined by such slight links. The group has certain features in common, of which some appear here: e.g. , the fondness for descriptions of theophanies; the prominence given to God's judicial action; the preference for the Divine names of El, Adonai (the Lord), ElyOn (Most High). Other peculiarities of the class--e.g. , the love for the designation "Joseph" for the nation, and delight in the image of the Divine Shepherd--are not found in this psalm. It contains no historical allusions which aid in dating it. The leading idea of it--viz., the depreciation of outward sacrifice--is unhesitatingly declared by many to have been impossible in the days of the Levite Asaph, who was one of David's musical staff. But is it so certain that such thoughts were foreign to the period in which Samuel declared that obedience was better than sacrifice? Certainly the tone of the psalm is that of later prophets, and there is much probability in the view that Asaph is the name of the family or guild of singers from whom these psalms came rather than that of an individual.
The structure is clear and simple. There is, first, a magnificent description of God's coming to judgment and summoning heaven and earth to witness while He judges His people (vv. 1-6). The second part (vv. 7-15) proclaims the worthlessness of sacrifice; and the third (vv. 16-21) brands hypocrites who pollute God's statutes by taking them into their lips while their lives are foul. A closing strophe of two verses (22, 23) gathers up the double lesson of the whole.
The first part falls again into two, of three verses each, of which the former describes the coming of the judge, and the latter the opening of the judgment. The psalm begins with a majestic heaping together of the Divine names, as if a herald were proclaiming the style and titles of a mighty king at the opening of a solemn assize. No English equivalents are available, and it is best to retain the Hebrew, only noting that each name is separated from the others by the accents in the original, and that to render either "the mighty God" (A.V.) or "the God of gods" is not only against that punctuation, but destroys the completeness symbolised by the threefold designation. Hupfeld finds the heaping together of names "frosty." Some ears will rather hear in it a solemn reiteration like the boom of triple thunders. Each name has its own force of meaning. El speaks of God as mighty; Elohim, as the object of religious fear; Jehovah, as the self-existent and covenant God.
The earth from east to west is summoned, not to be judged, but to witness God judging His people. The peculiarity of this theophany is that God is not represented as coming from afar or from above, but as letting His light blaze out from Zion, where He sits enthroned. As His presence made the city "the joy of the whole earth" (Psalm xlviii. 2), so it makes Zion the sum of all beauty. The idea underlying the representation of His shining out of Zion is that His presence among His people makes certain His judgment of their worship. It is the poetic clothing of the prophetic announcement, "You only have I known of all the inhabitants of the earth; therefore will I punish you for your iniquities." The seer beholds the dread pomp of the advent of the Judge, and describes it with accessories familiar in such pictures: devouring fire is His forerunner, as clearing a path for Him among tangles of evil, and wild tempests whirl round His stable throne. "He cannot be silent." The form of the negation in the original is emotional or emphatic, conveying the idea of the impossibility of His silence in the face of such corruptions.
The opening of the court or preparation for the judgment follows. That Divine voice speaks, summoning heaven and earth to attend as spectators of the solemn process. The universal significance of God's relation to and dealings with Israel, and the vindication of His righteousness by His inflexible justice dealt out to their faults, are grandly taught in this making heaven and earth assessors of that tribunal. The court having been thus constituted, the Judge on His seat, the spectators standing around, the accused are next brought in. There is no need to be prosaically definite as to the attendants who are bidden to escort them. His officers are everywhere, and to ask who they are in the present case is to apply to poetry the measuring lines meant for bald prose. It is more important to note the names by which the persons to be judged are designated. They are "My favoured ones, who have made a covenant with Me by (lit. over) sacrifice." These terms carry an indictment, recalling the lavish mercies so unworthily requited, and the solemn obligations so unthankfully broken. The application of the name "favoured ones" to the whole nation is noteworthy. In other psalms it is usually applied to the more devout section, who are by it sharply distinguished from the mass; here it includes the whole. It does not follow that the diversity of usage indicates difference of date. All that is certainly shown is difference of point of view. Here the ideal of the nation is set forth, in order to bring out more emphatically the miserable contrast of the reality. Sacrifice is set aside as worthless in the subsequent verses. But could the psalmist have given clearer indication that his depreciation is not to be exaggerated into entire rejection of external rites, than by thus putting in front of it the worth of sacrifice when offered aright, as the means of founding and sustaining covenant relations with God? If his own words had been given heed to, his commentators would have been saved the blunder of supposing that he is antagonistic to the sacrificial worship which he thus regards.
But before the assize opens, the heavens, which had been summoned to behold, declare beforehand His righteousness, as manifested by the fact that He is about to judge His people. The Selah indicates that a long-drawn swell of music fills the expectant pause before the Judge speaks from His tribunal.
The second part (vv. 7-15) deals with one of the two permanent tendencies which work for the corruption of religion--namely, the reliance on external worship, and neglect of the emotions of thankfulness and trust. God appeals first to the relation into which He has entered with the people, as giving Him the right to judge. There may be a reference to the Mosaic formula, "I am Jehovah, thy God," which is here converted, in accordance with the usage of this book of the Psalter, into "God (Elohim), thy God." The formula which was the seal of laws when enacted is also the warrant for the action of the Judge. He has no fault to find with the external acts of worship. They are abundant and "continually before Him." Surely this declaration at the outset sets aside the notion that the psalmist was launching a polemic against sacrifices per se. It distinctly takes the ground that the habitual offering of these was pleasing to the Judge. Their presentation continually is not reproved, but approved. What then is condemned? Surely it can be nothing but sacrifice without the thanksgiving and prayer required in vv. 14, 15. The irony of vv. 9-13 is directed against the folly of believing that in sacrifice itself God delighted; but the shafts are pointless as against offerings which are embodied gratitude and trust. The gross stupidity of supposing that man's gift makes the offering to be God's more truly than before is laid bare in the fine, sympathetic glance at the free, wild life of forest, mountain, and plain, which is all God's possession, and present to His upholding thought, and by the side of which man's folds are very small affairs. "The cattle" in ver. 10 are not, as usually, domesticated animals, but the larger wild animals. They graze or roam "on the mountains of a thousand"--a harsh expression, best taken, perhaps, as meaning mountains where thousands [of the cattle] are. But the omission of one letter gives the more natural reading "mountains of God" (cf. Psalm xxxvi. 6). It is adopted by Olshausen and Cheyne, and smooths the construction, but has against it its obliteration of the fine thought of the multitudes of creatures peopling the untravelled hills. The word rendered "whatever moves" is obscure; but that meaning is accepted by most. Cheyne in his Commentary gives as alternative "that which comes forth abundantly," and in "Orig. of Psalt.," 473, "offspring." All these are "with Me"--i.e., present to His mind--a parallel to "I know" in the first clause of the same verse.
Vv. 12, 13, turn the stream of irony on another absurdity involved in the superstition attacked--the grossly material thought of God involved in it. What good do bulls' flesh and goats' blood do to Him? But if these are expressions of thankful love, they are delightsome to Him. Therefore the section ends with the declaration that the true sacrifice is thanksgiving and the discharge of vows. Men honour God by asking and taking, not by giving. They glorify Him when, by calling on Him in trouble, they are delivered; and then, by thankfulness and service, as well as by the evidence which their experience gives that prayer is not in vain, they again glorify Him. All sacrifices are God's before they are offered, and do not become any more His by being offered. He neither needs nor can partake of material sustenance. But men's hearts are not His without their glad surrender, in the same way as after it; and thankful love, trust, and obedience are as the food of God, sacrifices acceptable, well-pleasing to Him.
The third part of the psalm is still sterner in tone. It strikes at the other great corruption of worship by hypocrites. As has been often remarked, it condemns breaches of the second table of the law, just as the former part may be regarded as dealing with transgressions of the first. The eighth, seventh, and ninth commandments are referred to in vv. 18, 19, as examples of the hypocrites' sins. The irreconcilable contradiction of their professions and conduct is vividly brought out in the juxtaposition of "declare My statutes" and "castest My words behind thee." They do two opposite things with the same words--at the same time proclaiming them with all lip-reverence, and scornfully flinging them behind their backs in their conduct. The word rendered in the A.V. "slanderest" is better taken as in margin of the R.V., "givest a thrust," meaning to use violence so as to harm or overthrow.
Hypocrisy finds encouragement in impunity. God's silence is an emphatic way of expressing His patient tolerance of evil unpunished. Such "long-suffering" is meant to lead to repentance, and indicates God's unwillingness to smite. But, as experience shows, it is often abused, and "because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, the heart of the sons of men is throughly set in them to do evil." The gross mind has gross conceptions of God. One nemesis of hypocrisy is the dimming of the idea of the righteous Judge. All sin darkens the image of God. When men turn away from God's self-revelation, as they do by transgression and most fatally by hypocrisy, they cannot but make a God after their own image. Browning has taught us in his marvellous "Caliban on Setebos" how a coarse nature projects its own image into the heavens and calls it God. God made man in His own likeness. Men who have lost that likeness make God in theirs, and so sink deeper in evil till He speaks. Then comes an apocalypse to the dreamer, when there is flashed before him what God is and what he himself is. How terror-stricken the gaze of these eyes before which God arrays the deeds of a life, seen for the first time in their true character! It will be the hypocrite's turn to keep silence then, and his thought of a complaisant God like himself will perish before the stern reality.
The whole teaching of the psalm is gathered up in the two closing verses. "Ye that forget God" includes both the superstitious formalists and the hypocrites. Reflection upon such truths as those of the psalm will save them from else inevitable destruction. "This" points on to ver. 23, which is a compendium of both parts of the psalm. The true worship, which consists in thankfulness and praise, is opposed in ver. 23 a to mere externalisms of sacrifice, as being the right way of glorifying God. The second clause presents a difficulty. But it would seem that we must expect to find in it a summing up of the warning of the third part of the psalm similar to that of the second part in the preceding clause. That consideration goes against the rendering in the R.V. margin (adopted from Delitzsch): "and prepares a way [by which] I may show," etc. The ellipsis of the relative is also somewhat harsh. The literal rendering of the ambiguous words is, "one setting a way." Graetz, who is often wild in his emendations, proposes a very slight one here--the change of one letter, which would yield a good meaning: "he that is perfect in his way." Cheyne adopts this, and it eases a difficulty. But the received text is capable of the rendering given in the A.V., and, even without the natural supplement "aright," is sufficiently intelligible. To order one's way or "conversation" is, of course, equivalent to giving heed to it according to God's word, and is the opposite of the conduct stigmatised in vv. 16-21. The promise to him who thus acts is that he shall see God's salvation, both in the narrower sense of daily interpositions for deliverance, and in the wider of a full and final rescue from all evil and endowment with all good. The psalm has as keen an edge for modern as for ancient sins. Superstitious reliance on externals of worship survives, though sacrifices have ceased; and hypocrites, with their mouths full of the Gospel, still cast God's words behind them, as did those ancient hollow-hearted proclaimers and breakers of the Law.