The most striking feature of this psalm is the transition from the plural "we" and "our," in vv. 1-12, to the singular "I" and "my," in vv. 13-20. Ewald supposes that two independent psalms have been united, but ver. 12 is as abrupt for an ending as ver. 13 is for a beginning; and the "Come, hear," of ver. 16 echoes the "Come, and see," of ver. 5. It is possible that "the 'I' of the second part is identical with the 'we' of the first; in other words, that the personified community speaks here" (Baethgen); but the supposition that the psalm was meant for public worship, and is composed of a choral and a solo part, accounts for the change of number. Such expressions as "my soul" and "my heart" favour the individual reference. Of course, the deliverance magnified by the single voice is the same as that celebrated by the loud acclaim of many tongues; but there is a different note in the praise of the former--there is a tone of inwardness in it, befitting individual appropriation of general blessings. To this highest point, that of the action of the single soul in taking the deliverances of the community for its very own, and pouring out its own praise, the psalm steadily climbs. It begins with the widest outlook over "all the earth," summoned to ring forth joyous praise. It ends focussed to one burning point, in a heart fired by the thought that God "has not turned away his loving-kindness from me." So we learn how each single soul has to claim its several part in world-wide blessings, as each flower-calyx absorbs the sunshine that floods the pastures.
The psalm has no superscription of date or author, and no clue in its language to the particular deliverance that called it forth. The usual variety of conjectures have been hazarded. The defeat of Sennacherib occurs to some; the return from Babylon to others; the Maccabean period to yet another school of critics. It belongs to a period when Israel's world-significance and mission were recognised (which Cheyne considers a post-exilic feature, "Orig. of Psalt.," 176), and when the sacrificial worship was in full force; but beyond these there are no clear data for period of composition.
It is divided into five strophes, three of which are marked by Selah. That musical indication is wanting at the close of the third strophe (ver. 12), which is also the close of the first or choral part, and its absence may be connected with the transition to a single voice. A certain progress in thought is noticeable, as will appear as we proceed. The first strophe calls upon all the earth to praise God for His works. The special deeds which fire the psalmist are not yet mentioned, though they are present to his mind. The summons of the world to praise passes over into prophecy that it shall praise. The manifestation of God's character by act will win homage. The great thought that God has but to be truly known in order to be reverenced is an axiom with this psalmist; and no less certain is he that such knowledge and such praise will one day fill the world. True, he discerns that submission will not always be genuine; for he uses the same word to express it as occurs in Psalm xviii. 44, which represents "feigned homage." Every great religious awakening has a fringe of adherents, imperfectly affected by it, whose professions outrun reality, though they themselves are but half conscious that they feign. But though this sobering estimate of the shallowness of a widely diffused recognition of God tones down the psalmist's expectations, and has been abundantly confirmed by later experience, his great hope remains as an early utterance of the conviction, which has gathered assurance and definiteness by subsequent Revelation, and is now familiar to all. The world is God's. His Self-revelation will win hearts. There shall be true submission and joyous praise, girdling the earth as it rolls. The psalmist dwells mainly on the majestic and awe-inspiring aspect of God's acts. His greatness of power bears down opposition. But the later strophes introduce other elements of the Divine nature and syllables of the Name, though the inmost secret of the "power of God" in the weakness of manhood and the all-conquering might of Love is not yet ripe for utterance.
The second strophe advances to a closer contemplation of the deeds of God, which the nations are summoned to behold. He is not only "dread" in His doings towards mankind at large, but Israel's history is radiant with the manifestation of His name, and that past lives on, so that ancient experiences give the measure and manner of to-day's working. The retrospect embraces the two standing instances of God's delivering help--the passage of the Red Sea and of Jordan--and these are not dead deeds in a far-off century. For the singer calls on his own generation to rejoice "there" in Him. Ver. 6 c is by some translated as "There did we rejoice," and more accurately by others, "Let us rejoice." In the former case the essential solidarity of all generations of the nation is most vividly set forth. But the same idea is involved in the correct rendering, according to which the men of the psalmist's period are entitled and invoked to associate themselves in thought with that long-past generation, and to share in their joy, since they do possess the same power which wrought then. God's work is never antiquated. It is all a revelation of eternal activities. What He has been, He is. What He did, He does. Therefore faith may feed on all the records of old time, and expect the repetition of all that they contain. Such an application of history to the present makes the nerve of this strophe. For ver. 7, following on the retrospect, declares the perpetuity of God's rule, and that His eyes still keep an outlook, as a watchman on a tower might do, to mark the enemies' designs, in order that He may intervene, as of old, for His people's deliverance. He "looked forth upon the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of cloud" (Exod. xiv. 24). Thus He still marks the actions and plans of Israel's foes. Therefore it were wise for the "rebellious" not to rear their heads so high in opposition.
The third strophe comes still closer to the particular deliverance underlying the psalm. Why should all "peoples" be called upon to praise God for it? The psalmist has learned that Israel's history is meant to teach the world what God is, and how blessed it is to dwell under His wing. No exclusiveness taints his enjoyment of special national privileges. He has reached a height far above the conceptions of the rest of the world in his day, and even in this day, except where the Christian conception of "humanity" has been heartily accepted. Whence came this width of view, this purifying from particularism, this anticipation by so many centuries of a thought imperfectly realised even now? Surely a man who in those days and with that environment could soar so high must have been lifted by something mightier than his own spirit. The details of the Divine dealings described in the strophe are of small consequence in comparison with its fixed expectation of the world's participation in Israel's blessings. The familiar figures for affliction reappear--namely, proving and refining in a furnace. A less common metaphor is that of being prisoned in a dungeon, as the word rendered "net" in the A.V. and R.V. probably means. Another peculiar image is that of ver. 12: "Thou hast caused men to ride over our head." The word for "men" here connotes feebleness and frailty, characteristics which make tyranny more intolerable; and the somewhat harsh metaphor is best explained as setting forth insolent and crushing domination, whether the picture intended is that of ruthless conquerors driving their chariots over their prone victims, or that of their sitting as an incubus on their shoulders and making them like beasts of burden. Fire and water are standing figures for affliction. With great force these accumulated symbols of oppression are confronted by one abrupt clause ending the strophe, and describing in a breath the perfect deliverance which sweeps them all away: "Thou broughtest us out into abundance." There is no need for the textual alteration of the last word into "a wide place" (Hupfeld), a place of liberty (Cheyne), or freedom (Baethgen). The word in the received text is that employed in Psalm xxiii. 5. "My cup is overfulness" and "abundance" yields a satisfactory meaning here, though not closely corresponding to any of the preceding metaphors for affliction.
The fourth strophe (vv. 13-15) begins the solo part. It clothes in a garb appropriate to a sacrificial system the thought expressed in more spiritual dress in the next strophe, that God's deliverance should evoke men's praise. The abundance and variety of sacrifices named, and the fact that "rams" were not used for the offerings of individuals, seem to suggest that the speaker is, in some sense, representing the nation, and it has been supposed that he may be the high priest. But this is merely conjecture, and the explanation may be that there is a certain ideal and poetical tone over the representation, which does not confine itself to scrupulous accuracy.
The last strophe (vv. 16-20) passes beyond sacrificial symbols, and gives the purest utterance to the emotions and resolves which ought to well up in a devout soul on occasion of God's goodness. Not only does the psalmist teach us how each individual must take the general blessing for his very own--of which act the faith which takes the world's Christ for my Christ is the supreme example--but he teaches us that the obligation laid on all recipients of God's mercy is to tell it forth, and that the impulse is as certain to follow real reception as the command is imperative. Just as Israel received deliverances that the whole earth might learn how strong and gracious was Israel's God, we receive His blessings, and chiefly His highest gift of life in Christ, not only that we may live, but that, living, we may "declare the works of the Lord." He has little possession of God's grace who has not felt the necessity of speech, and the impossibility of the lips being locked when the heart is full.
The psalmist tells his experience of God's answers to his prayer in a very striking fashion. Ver. 17 says that he cried to God; and while his uttered voice was supplication, the song extolling God for the deliverance asked was, as it were, lying under his tongue, ready to break forth,--so sure was he that his cry would be heard. That is a strong faith which prepares banners and music for the triumph before the battle is fought. It would be presumptuous folly, not faith, if it rested on anything less certain than God's power and will.
"I find David making a syllogism in mood and figure. . .. 'If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me: but verily God hath heard me; He hath attended to the voice of my prayer.' Now, I expected that David would have concluded thus: 'Therefore I regard not wickedness in my heart. But far otherwise he concludes: 'Blessed be God, who hath not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me.' Thus David hath deceived but not wronged me. I looked that he should have clapped the crown on his own, and he puts it on God's head. I will learn this excellent logic." So says Fuller ("Good Thoughts in Bad Times," p. 34, Pickering's ed., 1841). No doubt, however, the psalmist means to suggest, though he does not state, that his prayer was sincere. There is no self-complacent attribution of merit to his supplication, in the profession that it was untainted by any secret, sidelong looking towards evil; and Fuller is right in emphasising the suppression of the statement. But even the appearance of such is avoided by the jet of praise which closes the psalm. Its condensed brevity has induced some critics to mend it by expansion, as they regard it as incongruous to speak of turning away a man's prayer from himself. Some would therefore insert "from Him" after "my prayer," and others would expand still further by inserting an appropriate negative before "His loving-kindness." But the slight incongruity does not obscure the sense, and brings out strongly the flow of thought. So fully does the psalmist feel the connection between God's loving-kindness and his own prayer, that these are, as it were, smelted into one in his mind, and the latter is so far predominant in his thoughts that he is unconscious of the anomaly of his expression. To expand only weakens the swing of the words and the power of the thought. It is possible to tame lyric outbursts into accuracy at the cost of energy. Psalmists are not bound to be correct in style. Rivers wind; canals are straight.