This psalm is closely related to Psalms cv.-cvii.
Like them, it treats the history of Israel, and especially the Exodus and wilderness wanderings, for purposes of edification, rebuke, and encouragement. The past is held up as a mirror to the present generation. It has been one long succession of miracles of mercy met by equally continuous ingratitude, which has ever been punished by national calamities. The psalm departs singularly from chronological order. It arranges its contents in two principal masses, each introduced by the same formula (vv. 12, 43) referring to "wonders in Egypt and the field of Zoan." But the first mass has nothing to do with Egypt, but begins with the passage of the Red Sea, and is wholly occupied with the wilderness. The second group of wonders begins in ver. 44 with the plagues of Egypt, touches lightly on the wilderness history, and then passes to the early history of Israel when settled in the land, and finishes with the establishment of David on the throne. It is difficult to account for this singular bouleversement of the history. But the conjecture may be hazarded that its reason lies in the better illustration of continual interlacing of mercy and unthankfulness afforded by the events in the wilderness, than by the plagues of Egypt. That interlacing is the main point on which the psalmist wishes to lay stress, and therefore he begins with the most striking example of it. The use of the formula in ver. 12 looks as if his original intention had been to follow the order of time. Another peculiarity is the prominence given to Ephraim, both in ver. 9 as a type of faithlessness, and in ver. 67 as rejected in favour of Judah. These references naturally point to the date of the psalm as being subsequent to the separation of the kingdoms; but whether it is meant as rebuke to the northern kingdom, or as warning to Judah from the fate of Ephraim, is not clear. Nor are there materials for closer determination of date. The tone of the closing reference to David implies that his accession belongs to somewhat remote times.
There are no regular strophes, but a tendency to run into paragraphs of four verses, with occasional irregularities.
Vv. 1-4 declare the singer's didactic purpose. He deeply feels the solidarity of the nation through all generations--how fathers and children are knit by mystic ties, and by possession of an eternal treasure, the mighty deeds of God, of which they are bound to pass on the record from age to age. The history of ancient days is "a parable" and a "riddle" or "dark saying," as containing examples of great principles, and lessons which need reflection to discern and draw out. From that point of view, the psalmist will sum up the past. He is not a chronicler, but a religious teacher. His purpose is edification, rebuke, encouragement, the deepening of godly fear and obedience. In a word, he means to give the spirit of the nation's history.
Vv. 5-8 base this purpose on God's declared will that the knowledge of His deeds for Israel might be handed down from fathers to sons. The obligations of parents for the religious training of their children, the true bond of family unity, the ancient order of things when oral tradition was the principal means of preserving national history, the peculiarity of this nation's annals, as celebrating no heroes and recording only the deeds of God by men, the contrast between the changing bearers of the story and the undying deeds which they had to tell, are all expressed in these verses, so pathetic in their gaze upon the linked series of short-lived men, so stern in their final declaration that Divine commandment and mercy had been in vain, and that, instead of a tradition of goodness, there had been a transmission of stubbornness and departure from God, repeating itself with tragic uniformity. The devout poet, who knows what God meant family life to be and to do, sadly recognises the grim contrast presented by its reality. But yet he will make one more attempt to break the flow of evil from father to son. Perhaps his contemporaries will listen and shake themselves clear of this entail of disobedience.
The reference to Ephraim in vv. 9-11 is not to be taken as alluding to any cowardly retreat from actual battle. Ver. 9 seems to be a purely figurative way of expressing what is put without a metaphor in the two following verses. Ephraim's revolt from God's covenant was like the conduct of soldiers, well armed and refusing to charge the foe. The better their weapons, the greater the cowardice and ignominy of the recreants. So the faithlessness of Ephraim was made darker in criminality by its knowledge of God and experience of His mercy. These should have knit the tribe to Him. A general truth of wide application is implied--that the measure of capacity is the measure of obligation. Guilt increases with endowment, if the latter is misused. A poor soldier, with no weapon but a sling or a stick, might sooner be excused for flight than a fully armed archer. The mention of Ephraim as prominent in faithlessness may be an allusion to the separation of the kingdoms. That allusion has been denied on the ground that it is the wilderness history which is here before the psalmist's mind. But the historical retrospect does not begin till ver. 12, and this introduction may well deal with an event later than those detailed in the following verses. Whether the revolt of the Ten Tribes is here in view or not, the psalmist sees that the wayward and powerful tribe of Ephraim had been a centre of religious disaffection, and there is no reason why his view should not be believed, or should be supposed to be due to mere prejudiced hostility.
The historical details begin with ver. 12, but, as has been noticed above, the psalmist seems to change his intention of first narrating the wonders in Egypt, and passes on to dilate on the wilderness history. "The field of Zoan" is the territory of the famous Egyptian city of Tzan, and seems equivalent to the Land of Goshen. The wonders enumerated are the familiar ones of the passage of the Red Sea, the guidance by the pillar of cloud and fire, and the miraculous supply of water from the rock. In vv. 15, 16, the poet brings together the two instances of such supply, which were separated from each other by the forty years of wandering, the first having occurred at Horeb in the first year, and the second at Kadesh in the last year. The two words "rocks," in ver. 15, and "cliff," in ver. 16, are taken from the two narratives of these miracles, in Exod. xvii. and Numb. xx.
The group of four verses (13-16) sets forth God's mighty deeds; the next quartet of verses (17-20) tells of Israel's requital. It is significant of the thoughts which filled the singer's heart, that he begins the latter group with declaring that, notwithstanding such tokens of God's care, the people "went on to sin yet more," though he had specified no previous acts of sin. He combines widely separated instances of their murmurings, as he had combined distant instances of God's miraculous supply of water. The complaints which preceded the fall of the manna and the first supply of quails (Exod. xvi.), and those which led to the second giving of these (Numb. xi.) are thrown together, as one in kind. The speech put into the mouths of the murmurers in vv. 19, 20, is a poetic casting into bitter, blasphemous words of the half-conscious thoughts of the faithless, sensuous crowd. They are represented as almost upbraiding God with His miracle, as quite unmoved to trust by it, and as thinking that it has exhausted His power. When they were half dead with thirst, they thought much of the water, but now they depreciate that past wonder as a comparatively small thing. So, to the churlish heart, which cherishes eager desires after some unattained earthly good, past blessings diminish as they recede, and leave neither thankfulness nor trust. There is a dash of intense bitterness and ironical making light of their relation to God in their question, "Can He provide flesh for His people?" Much good that name has done us, starving here! The root of all this blasphemous talk was sensuous desire; and because the people yielded to it, they "tempted God"--that is, they "unbelievingly and defiantly demanded, instead of trustfully waiting and praying" (Delitzsch). To ask food for their desires was sin; to ask it for their need would have been faith.
In ver. 21 the allusion is to the "fire of the Lord," which, according to Numb. xi. 3, burnt in the camp, just before the second giving of quails. It comes in here out of chronological order, for the sending of manna follows it; but the psalmist's didactic purpose renders him indifferent to chronology. The manna is called "corn of heaven" and "bread of the Mighty Ones"--i.e., angels, as the LXX. renders the word. Both designations point to its heavenly origin, without its being necessary to suppose that the poet thought of angels as really eating it. The description of the fall of the quails (vv. 26-29) is touched with imaginative beauty. The word rendered above "made to go forth" is originally applied to the breaking up an encampment, and that rendered "guided" to a shepherd's leading of his flock. Both words are found in the Pentateuch, the former in reference to the wind that brought the quails (Numb. xi. 31), the latter in reference to that which brought the plague of locusts (Exod. x. 13). So the winds are conceived of as God's servants, issuing from their tents at His command, and guided by Him as a shepherd leads his sheep. "He let it fall in the midst of their camp" graphically describes the dropping down of the wearied, storm-beaten birds.
Vv. 30-33 paint the swift punishment of the people's unbelief, in language almost identical with Numb. xi. 33. The psalmist twice stigmatises their sin as "lust," and uses the word which enters into the tragical name given to the scene of the sin and the punishment--Kibroth-Hat taavah (the graves of Lust). In vv. 32, 33, the faint-hearted despondency after the return of the spies, and the punishment of it by the sentence of death on all that generation, seem to be alluded to.
The next group of four verses describes the people's superficial and transient repentance, "When He slew them they sought Him"--i.e., when the fiery serpents were sent among them. But such seeking after God, which is properly not seeking Him at all, but only seeking to escape from evil, neither goes deep nor lasts long. Thus the end of it was only lip reverence, proved to be false by life, and soon ended. "Their heart was not steadfast." The pressure being removed, they returned to their habitual position, as all such penitents do.
From the midst of this sad narrative of faithlessness, springs up, like a fountain in a weary land, or a flower among half-cooled lava blocks, the lovely description of God's forbearance in vv. 38, 39. It must not be read as if it merely carried on the narrative, and was in continuation of the preceding clauses. The psalmist does not say "He was full of compassion," though that would be much, in the circumstances; but he is declaring God's eternal character. His compassions are unfailing. It is always His wont to cover sin and to spare. Therefore He exercised these gracious forbearances towards those obstinate transgressors. He was true to His own compassion in remembering their mortality and feebleness. What a melancholy sound, as of wind blowing among forgotten graves, has that summing up of human life as "a breath that goes and comes not again"!
With ver. 40 the second portion of the psalm may be regarded as beginning. The first group of historical details dealt first with God's mercies, and passed on to man's requital. The second starts with man's ingratitude, which it paints in the darkest colours, as provoking Him, grieving Him, tempting Him, and vexing Him. The psalmist is not afraid to represent God as affected with such emotions by reason of men's indifference and unbelief. His language is not to be waved aside as anthropomorphic and antiquated. No doubt, we come nearer to the unattainable truth, when we conceive of God as grieved by men's sins and delighting in their trust, than when we think of Him as an impassive Infinitude, serenely indifferent to tortured or sinful hearts. For is not His name of names Love?
The psalmist traces Israel's sin to forgetfulness of God's mercy, and thus glides into a swift summing up of the plagues of Egypt, regarded as conducing to Israel's deliverance. They are not arranged chronologically, though the list begins with the first. Then follow three of those in which animals were the destroyers: namely, the fourth, that of flies; the second, that of frogs; and the eighth, that of locusts. Then comes the seventh, that of hail; and, according to some commentators, the fifth, that of the murrain, in ver. 49, followed by the tenth in ver. 51. But the grand, sombre imagery of ver. 49 is too majestic for such application. It rather sums up the whole series of plagues, likening them to an embassy (lit., a sending) of angels of evil. They are a grim company to come forth from His presence--Wrath, Indignation, and Trouble. The same power which sent them out on their errand prepared a way before them; and the crowning judgment, which, in the psalmist's view was also the crowning mercy, was the death of the first-born.
The next quartet of verses (vv. 52-55) passes lightly over the wilderness history and the settlement in the land, and hastens on to a renewed narration of repeated rebellion, which occupies the next group (vv. 56-59). These verses cover the period from the entrance on Canaan to the fall of the sanctuary of Shiloh, during which there was a continual tendency to relapse into idolatry. That is the special sin here charged against the Israel of the time of the Judges. The figure of a "deceitful bow," in ver. 57, well describes the people as failing to fulfil the purpose of their choice by God. As such a weapon does not shoot true, and makes the arrow fly wide, however well aimed and strongly drawn, so Israel foiled all Divine attempts, and failed to carry God's message to the world, or to fulfil His will in themselves. Hence the next verses tell, with intense energy and pathos, the sad story of Israel's humiliation under the Philistines. The language is extraordinarily strong in its description of God's loathing and rejection of the nation and sanctuary, and is instinct with sorrow, blended with stern recognition of His righteousness in judgment. What a tragic picture the psalmist draws! Shiloh, the dwelling-place of God, empty for evermore; the "Glory"--that is, the Ark--in the enemy's hands; everywhere stiffening corpses; a pall of silence over the land; no brides and no joyous bridal chaunts; the very priests massacred, unlamented by their widows, who had wept so many tears already that the fountain of them was dried up, and even sorrowing love was dumb with horror and despair!
The two last groups of verses paint God's great mercy in delivering the nation from such misery. The daring figure of His awaking as from sleep and dashing upon Israel's foes, who are also His, with a shout like that of a hero stimulated by wine, is more accordant with Eastern fervour than with our colder imagination; but it wonderfully expresses the sudden transition from a period, during which God seemed passive and careless of His people's wretchedness, to one in which His power flashed forth triumphant for their defence. The prose fact is the long series of victories over the Philistines and other oppressors, which culminated in the restoration of the Ark, the selection of Zion as its abode, which involved the rejection of Shiloh and consequently of Ephraim (in whose territory Shiloh was), and the accession of David. The Davidic kingdom is, in the psalmist's view, the final form of Israel's national existence; and the sanctuary, like the kingdom, is perpetual as the lofty heavens or the firm earth. Nor were his visions vain, for that kingdom subsists and will subsist for ever, and the true sanctuary, the dwelling-place of God among men, is still more closely intertwined with the kingdom and its King than the psalmist knew. The perpetual duration of both is, in truth, the greatest of God's mercies, outshining all earlier deliverances; and they who truly have become the subjects of the Christ, the King of Israel and of the world, and who dwell with God in His house, by dwelling with Jesus, will not rebel against Him any more, nor ever forget His wonders, but faithfully tell them to the generations to come.