Two periods only correspond to the circumstances described in this psalm and its companion (lxxix.)--namely, the Chaldean invasion and sack of Jerusalem, and the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes. The general situation outlined in the psalm fits either of these; but, of its details, some are more applicable to the former and others to the later period. The later date is strongly supported by such complaints as those of the cessation of prophecy (ver. 9), the flaunting of the invaders' signs in the sanctuary (ver. 4), and the destruction by fire of all the "meeting-places of God in the land" (ver. 8). On the other hand, the earlier date better fits other features of the psalm--since Antiochus did not destroy or burn, but simply profaned the Temple, though he did, indeed, set fire to the gates and porch, but to these only. It would appear that, on either hypothesis, something must be allowed for poetical colouring. Calvin, whom Cheyne follows in this, accounts for the introduction of the burning of the Temple into a psalm referring to the desolation wrought by Antiochus, by the supposition that the psalmist speaks in the name of the "faithful, who, looking on the horrid devastation of the Temple, and being warned by so sad a sight, carried back their thoughts to that conflagration by which it had been destroyed by the Chaldeans, and wove the two calamities together into one." It is less difficult to pare down the statement as to the burning of the Temple so as to suit the later date, than that as to the silence of prophecy and the other characteristics mentioned, so as to fit the earlier. The question is still further complicated by the similarities between the two psalms and Jeremiah (compare ver. 4 with Lam. ii. 7, and ver. 9 with Lam. ii. 9). The prophet's well-known fondness for quotations gives probability, other things being equal, to the supposition that he is quoting the psalm, which would, in that case, be older than Lamentations. But this inference scarcely holds good, if there are other grounds on which the later date of the psalm is established. It would be very natural in a singer of the Maccabean period to go back to the prophet whose sad strains had risen at another black hour. On the whole, the balance is in favour of the later date.
The psalm begins with a complaining cry to God (vv. 1-3), which passes into a piteous detail of the nation's misery (vv. 4-9), whence it rises into petition (vv. 10, 11), stays trembling faith by gazing upon His past deeds of help and the wonders of His creative power (vv. 12-17), and closes with beseeching God to vindicate the honour of His own name by the deliverance of His people (vv. 18-23).
The main emphasis of the prayer in vv. 1-3 lies on the pleas which it presents, drawn from Israel's relation to God. The characteristic Asaphic name "Thy flock" stands in ver. 1, and appeals to the Shepherd, both on the ground of His tenderness and of His honour as involved in the security of the sheep. A similar appeal lies in the two words "acquire" and "redeem," in both of which the deliverance from Egypt is referred to,--the former expression suggesting the price at which the acquisition was made, as well as the obligations of ownership; and the latter, the office of the Goel, the Kinsman-Redeemer, on whom devolved the duty of obtaining satisfaction for blood. The double designations of Israel as "Thy congregation" and as "the tribe of Thine inheritance" probably point to the religious and civil aspects of the national life. The strongest plea is put last--namely, God's dwelling on Zion. For all these reasons, the psalmist asks and expects Him to come with swift footsteps to the desolations, which have endured so long that the impatience of despair blends with the cry for help, and calls them "everlasting," even while it prays that they may be built up again. The fact that the enemy of God and of His flock has marred everything in the sanctuary is enough, the psalmist thinks, to move God to action.
The same thought, that the nation's calamities are really dishonouring to God, and therefore worthy of His intervention, colours the whole of the description of these in vv. 4-9. The invaders are "Thine adversaries." It is "in the place where Thou didst meet us" that their bestial noises, like those of lions over their prey, echo. It is "Thy sanctuary" which they have set on fire, "the dwelling-place of Thy name" which they have profaned. It is "Thy meeting-places" which they have burned throughout the land. Only at the end of the sad catalogue is the misery of the people touched on, and that, not so much as inflicted by human foes, as by the withdrawal of God's Spirit. This is, in fact, the dominant thought of the whole psalm. It says very little about the sufferings resulting from the success of the enemy, but constantly recurs to the insult to God, and the reproach adhering to His name therefrom. The essence of it all is in the concluding prayer, "Plead Thine own cause" (ver. 22).
The vivid description of devastation in these verses presents some difficulties in detail, which call for brief treatment. The "signs" in ver. 4 b may be taken as military, such as banners or the like; but it is more in accordance with the usage of the word to suppose them to be religious emblems, or possibly idols, such as Antiochus thrust upon the Jews. In vv. 5 and 6 a change of tense represents the action described in them, as if in progress at the moment before the singer's eyes. "They seem" is literally "He is known" (or makes himself known), which may refer to the invaders, the change from plural to singular being frequent in Hebrew; or it may be taken impersonally, = "It seems." In either case it introduces a comparison between the hacking and hewing by the spoilers in the Temple, and the work of a woodman swinging on high his axe in the forest. "And now" seems to indicate the next step in the scene; which the psalmist picturesquely conceives as passing before his horror-stricken sight. The end of that ill-omened activity is that at last it succeeds in shattering the carved work, which, in the absence of statues, was the chief artistic glory of the Temple. All is hewed down, as if it were no more than so much growing timber. With ver. 7 the tenses change to the calmer tone of historical narration. The plundered Temple is set on fire--a point which, as has been noticed above, is completely applicable only to the Chaldean invasion. Similarly, the next clause, "they have profaned the dwelling-place of Thy name to the ground," does not apply in literality to the action of Antiochus, who did indeed desecrate, but did not destroy, the Temple. The expression is a pregnant one, and calls for some such supplement as is given above, which, however, dilutes its vigour while it elucidates its meaning. In ver. 8 the word "let us crush them" has been erroneously taken as a noun, and rendered "their brood," a verb like "we will root out" being supplied. So the LXX. and some of the old versions, followed by Hitzig and Baethgen. But, as Delitzsch well asks,--Why are only the children to be rooted out? and why should the object of the action be expressed, and not rather the action, of which the object would be self-evident? The "meeting-places of God in the land" cannot be old sanctuaries, nor the high places, which were Israel's sin; for no psalmist could have adduced the destruction of these as a reason for God's intervention. They can only be the synagogues. The expression is a strong argument for the later date of the psalm. Equally strong is the lament in ver. 9 over the removal of the "signs"--i.e., as in ver. 4, the emblems of religion, or the sacrifices and festivals, suppressed by Antiochus, which were the tokens of the covenant between God and Israel. The silence of prophecy cannot be alleged of the Chaldean period without some straining of facts and of the words here; nor is it true that then there was universal ignorance of the duration of the calamity, for Jeremiah had foretold it.
Vv. 10 and 11 are the kernel of the psalm, the rest of which is folded round them symmetrically. Starting from this centre and working outwards, we note that it is preceded by six verses dilating on the profanations of the name of God, and followed by six setting forth the glories of that name in the past. The connection of these two portions of the psalm is obvious. They are, as it were, the inner shell round the kernel. The outer shell is the prayer in three verses which begins the psalm, and that in six verses which closes it. Ver. 10 takes up the despairing "How long" from the end of the preceding portion, and turns it into a question to God. It is best to ask Him, when ignorance pains us. But the interrogation does not so much beg for enlightenment as to the duration of the calamity as for its abbreviation. It breathes not precisely impatience, but longing that a state of things so dishonouring to God should end. That aspect, and not personal suffering, is prominent in the verse. It is "Thy name" which is insulted by the adversaries actions, and laid open to their contempt, as the name of a Deity powerless to protect His worshippers. Their action "reproaches," and His inaction lets them "despise," His name. The psalmist cannot endure that this condition should drag on indefinitely, as if "for ever," and his prayer-question "How long?" is next exchanged for another similar blending of petition and inquiry, "Why dost Thou draw back Thy hand?" Both are immediately translated into that petition which they both really mean. "From the midst of Thy bosom consume," is a pregnant phrase, like that in ver. 7 b, and has to be completed as above, though, possibly, the verb stands absolutely as equivalent to "make an end"--i.e., of such a state of things.
The psalmist's petition is next grounded on the revelation of God's name in Israel's past, and in creative acts of power. These at once encourage him to expect that God will pluck His hand out from the folds of His robe, where it lies inactive, and appeal to God to be what He has been of old, and to rescue the name which He has thus magnified from insult. There is singular solemnity in the emphatic reiteration of "Thou" in these verses. The Hebrew does not usually express the pronominal nominative to a verb, unless special attention is to be called to it; but in these verses it does so uniformly, with one exception, and the sevenfold repetition of the word brings forcibly into view the Divine personality and former deeds which pledge God to act now. Remembrance of past wonders made present misery more bitter, but it also fanned into a flame the spark of confidence that the future would be like the past. One characteristic of the Asaph psalms is wistful retrospect, which is sometimes the basis of rebuke, and sometimes of hope, and sometimes of deepened sorrow, but is here in part appeal to God and in part consolation. The familiar instances of His working drawn from the Exodus history appear in the psalm. First comes the dividing of the Red Sea, which is regarded chiefly as occasioning the destruction of the Egyptians, who are symbolised by the "sea-monsters" and by "leviathan" (the crocodile). Their fate is an omen of what the psalmist hopes may befall the oppressors of his own day. There is great poetic force in the representation that the strong hand, which by a stroke parted the waters, crushed by the same blow the heads of the foul creatures who "floated many a rood" on them. And what an end for the pomp of Pharaoh and his host, to provide a meal for jackals and the other beasts of the desert, who tear the corpses strewing the barren shore! The meaning is completely misapprehended when "the people inhabiting the wilderness" is taken to be wild desert tribes. The expression refers to animals, and its use as designating them has parallels (as Prov. xxx. 25, 26).
In ver. 15 another pregnant expression occurs, which is best filled out as above, the reference being to cleaving the rock for the flow of water, with which is contrasted in b the drying up of the Jordan. Thus the whole of the Exodus period is covered. It is noteworthy that the psalmist adduces only wonders wrought on waters, being possibly guided in his selection by the familiar poetic use of floods and seas as emblems of hostile power and unbridled insolence. From the wonders of history he passes to those of creation, and chiefly of that might by which times alternate and each constituent of the Kosmos has its appointed limits. Day and night, summer and winter, recur by God's continual operation. Is there to be no dawning for Israel's night of weeping, and no summer making glad the winter of its discontent? "Thou didst set all the bounds of the earth,"--wilt Thou not bid back this surging ocean which has transgressed its limits and filled the breadth of Thy land? All the lights in the sky, and chiefly the greatest of them, Thou didst establish,--surely Thou wilt end this eclipse in which Thy people grope.
Thus the psalmist lifts himself to the height of confident though humble prayer, with which the psalm closes, recurring to the opening tones. Its centre is, as we have seen, a double remonstrance--"How long?" and "Why?" The encircling circumference is earnest supplication, of which the keynote is "Remember" (vv. 2 and 18).
The gist of this closing prayer is the same appeal to God to defend His own honour, which we have found in the former verses. It is put in various forms here. Twice (vv. 18 and 22) God is besought to remember the reproach and contumely heaped on his name, and apparently warranted by His inaction. The claim of Israel for deliverance is based in ver. 19 upon its being "Thy turtle dove," which therefore cannot be abandoned without sullying Thy fame. The psalmist spreads the "covenant" before God, as reminding Him of His obligations under it. He asks that such deeds may be done as will give occasion to the afflicted and needy to "praise Thy name," which is being besmirched by their calamities. Finally, in wonderfully bold words, he calls on God to take up what is, after all, "His own" quarrel, and, if the cry of the afflicted does not move Him, to listen to the loud voices of those who blaspheme Him all the day. Reverent earnestness of supplication sometimes sounds like irreverence; but, "when the heart's deeps boil in earnest," God understands the meaning of what sounds strange, and recognises the profound trust in His faithfulness and love which underlies bold words.
The precise rendering of ver. 19 is very doubtful. The word rendered above by "company" may mean life or a living creature, or, collectively, a company of such. It has been taken in all these meanings here, and sometimes in one of them in the first clause, and in another in the second, as most recently by Baethgen, who renders "Abandon not to the beast" in a, and "The life of thine afflicted" in b. But it must have the same meaning in both clauses, and the form of the word shows that it must be construed in both with a following "of." If so, the rendering adopted above is best, though it involves taking the word rendered "greed" (lit., soul) in a somewhat doubtful sense. This rendering is adopted in the R.V. (margin), and is, on the whole, the least difficult, and yields a probable sense. Delitzsch recognises the necessity for giving the ambiguous word the same meaning in both clauses, and takes that meaning to be "creature," which suits well enough in a, but gives a very harsh meaning to b. "Forget not Thy poor animals for ever" is surely an impossible rendering. Other attempts have been made to turn the difficulty by textual alteration. Hupfeld would transpose two words in a, and so gets "Give not up to rage the life of Thy dove." Cheyne corrects the difficult word into "to the sword," and Graetz follows Dyserinck in preferring "to death," or Krochmal, who reads "to destruction." If the existing text is retained, probably the rendering adopted above is best.