This psalm is a cry for help against a world in arms. The failure of all attempts to point to a period when all the allies here represented as confederate against Israel were or could have been united in assailing it, inclines one to suppose that the enumeration of enemies is not history, but poetic idealisation. The psalm would then be, not the memorial of a fact, but the expression of the standing relation between Israel and the outlying heathendom. The singer masses together ancient and modern foes of diverse nationalities and mutual animosities, and pictures them as burying their enmities and bridging their separations, and all animated by one fell hatred to the Dove of God, which sits innocent and helpless in the midst of them. There are weighty objections to this view; but no other is free from difficulties even more considerable. There are two theories which divide the suffrages of commentators. The usual assignment of date is to the league against Jehoshaphat recorded in 2 Chron. xx. But it is hard to find that comparatively small local confederacy of three peoples in the wide-reaching alliance described in the psalm. Chronicles enumerates the members of the league as being the children of Moab and "the children of Ammon, and with them some of the Ammonites," which last unmeaning designation should be read, as in the LXX., "the Me'unim." and adds to these Edom (2 Chron. xx. 2, corrected text). Even if the contention of the advocates of this date for the psalm is admitted, and "the Me'unim" are taken to include the Arab tribes, whom the psalmist calls Ishmaelites and Hagarenes, there remains the fact that he names also Philistia, Amalek, Tyre, and Asshur, none of whom is concerned in the alliance against Jehoshaphat. It was, in fact, confined to eastern and south-eastern nations, with whom distant western tribes could have no common interest. Nor is the other view of the circumstances underlying the psalm free from difficulty. It advocates a Maccabean date. In 1 Macc. v. it is recorded that the nations round about were enraged at the restoration of the altar and dedication of the Temple after its pollution by Antiochus Epiphanes, and were ready to break out in hostility. Cheyne points to the occurrence in Maccabees of six of the ten names mentioned in the psalm. But of the four not mentioned, two are Amalek and Asshur, both of which had been blotted out of the roll of nations long before the Maccabees' era. "The mention of Amalek," says Cheyne, "is half-Haggadic, half-antiquarian." But what should Haggadic or antiquarian elements do in such a list? Asshur is explained on this hypothesis as meaning Syria, which is very doubtful, and, even if admitted, leaves unsolved the difficulty that the subordinate place occupied by the nation in question would not correspond to the importance of Syria in the time of the Maccabees. Of the two theories, the second is the more probable, but neither is satisfactory; and the view already stated, that the psalm does not refer to any actual alliance, seems to the present writer the most probable. The world is up in arms against God's people; and what weapon has Israel? Nothing but prayer.
The psalm naturally falls into two parts, separated by Selah, of which the first (vv. 1-8) describes Israel's extremity, and the second (vv. 9-18) is its supplication.
The psalmist begins with earnest invocation of God's help, beseeching Him to break His apparent inactivity and silence. "Let there be no rest to Thee" is like Isa. lxii. 6. God seems passive. It needs but His Voice to break the dreary silence, and the foes will be scattered. And there is strong reason for His intervention, for they are His enemies, who riot and roar like the hoarse chafing of an angry sea, for so the word rendered "make a tumult" implies (Psalm xlvi. 3). It is "Thy people" who are the object of their crafty conspiracy, and it is implied that these are thus hated because they are God's people. Israel's prerogative, which evokes the heathen's rage, is the ground of Israel's confidence and the plea urged to God by it. Are we not Thy "hidden ones"? And shall a hostile world be able to pluck us from our safe hiding-place in the hollow of Thy hand? The idea of preciousness, as well as that of protection, is included in the word. Men store their treasures in secret places; God hides His treasures in the "secret of His face," the "glorious privacy of light" inaccessible. How vain are the plotters' whisperings against such a people!
The conspiracy has for its aim nothing short of blotting out the national existence and the very name of Israel. It is therefore high-handed opposition to God's counsel, and the confederacy is against Him. The true antagonists are, not Israel and the world, but God and the world. Calmness, courage, and confidence spring in the heart with such thoughts. They who can feel that they are hid in God may look out, as from a safe islet on the wildest seas, and fear nothing. And all who will may hide in Him.
The enumeration of the confederates in vv. 6-8 groups together peoples who probably were never really united for any common end. Hatred is a very potent cement, and the most discordant elements may be fused together in the fire of a common animosity. What a motley assemblage is here! What could bring together in one company Ishmaelites and Tyrians, Moab and Asshur? The first seven names in the list of allies had their seats to the east and south-east of Palestine. Edom, Moab, Ammon, and Amalek were ancestral foes, the last of which had been destroyed in the time of Hezekiah (1 Chron. iv. 43). The mention of descendants of Ishmael and Hagar, nomad Arab tribes to the south and east, recalls their ancestors' expulsion from the patriarchal family. Gebal is probably the mountainous region to the south of the Dead Sea. Then the psalmist turns to the west, to Philistia, the ancient foe, and Tyre, "the two peoples of the Mediterranean coast, which also appear in Amos (ch. i.; cf. Joel iii.) as making common cause with the Edomites against Israel" (Delitzsch). Asshur brings up the rear--a strange post for it to occupy, to be reduced to be an auxiliary to the "children of Lot," i.e. Moab and Ammon. The ideal character of this muster-roll is supported by this singular inferiority of position, as well as by the composition of the allied force, and by the allusion to the shameful origin of the two leading peoples, which is the only reference to Lot besides the narrative in Genesis.
The confederacy is formidable, but the psalmist does not enumerate its members merely in order to emphasise Israel's danger. He is contrasting this miscellaneous conglomeration of many peoples with the Almighty One, against whom they are vainly banded. Faith can look without a tremor on serried battalions of enemies, knowing that one poor man, with God at his back, outnumbers them all. Let them come from east and west, south and north, and close round Israel; God alone is mightier than they. So, after a pause marked by Selah, in which there is time to let the thought of the multitudinous enemies sink into the soul, the psalm passes into prayer, which throbs with confident assurance and anticipatory triumph. The singer recalls ancient victories, and prays for their repetition. To him, as to every devout man, to-day's exigencies are as sure of Divine help as any yesterday's were, and what God has done is pledge and specimen of what He is doing and will do. The battle is left to be waged by Him alone. The psalmist does not seem to think of Israel's drawing sword, but rather that it should stand still and see God fighting for it. The victory of Gideon over Midian, to which Isaiah also refers as the very type of complete conquest (Isa. ix. 3), is named first, but thronging memories drive it out of the singer's mind for a moment, while he goes back to the other crushing defeat of Jabin and Sisera at the hands of Barak and Deborah (Judg. iv., v.). He adds a detail to the narrative in Judges, when he localises the defeat at Endor, which lies on the eastern edge of the great plain of Esdraelon. In ver. 11 he returns to his first example of defeat--the slaughter of Midian by Gideon. Oreb (raven) and Zeeb (wolf) were in command of the Midianites, and were killed by the Ephraimites in the retreat. Zebah and Zalmunnah were kings of Midian, and fell by Gideon's own hand (Judg. viii. 21). The psalmist bases his prayer for such a dread fate for the foes on their insolent purpose and sacrilegious purpose of making me dwellings (or, possibly, the pastures) of God their own property. Not because the land and its peaceful homes belonged to the suppliant and his nation, but because they were God's, does he thus pray. The enemies had drawn the sword; it was permissible to pray that they might fall by the sword, or by some Divine intervention, since such was the only way of defeating their God-insulting plans.
The psalm rises to high poetic fervour and imaginative beauty in the terrible petitions of vv. 13-16. The word rendered "whirling dust" in ver. 13 is somewhat doubtful. It literally means a rolling thing, but what particular thing of the sort is difficult to determine. The reference is perhaps to "spherical masses of dry weeds which course over the plains." Thomson ("Land and Book," 1870, p. 563) suggests the wild artichoke, which, when ripe, forms a globe of about a foot in diameter. "In autumn the branches become dry and as light as a feather, the parent stem breaks off at the ground, and the wind carries these vegetable globes whithersoever it pleaseth. At the proper season thousands of them come scudding over the plain, rolling, leaping, bounding." So understood, the clause would form a complete parallel with the next, which compares the fleeing foe to stubble, not, of course, rooted, but loose and whirled before the wind. The metaphor of ver. 14 is highly poetic, likening the flight of the foe to the swift rush of a forest fire, which licks up (for so the word rendered scorches means) the woods on the hillsides, and leaves a bare, blackened space. Still more terrible is the petition in ver. 15, which asks that God Himself should chase the flying remnants, and beat them down, helpless and panic-stricken, with storm and hurricane, as He did the other confederacy of Canaanitish kings, when they fled down the pass of Beth-Horon, and "Jehovah cast down great stones on them from heaven" (Josh. x. 10, 11).
But there is a deeper desire in the psalmist's heart than the enemies' destruction. He wishes that they should be turned into God's friends, and he wishes for their chastisement as the means to that end. "That they may seek Thy face, Jehovah," is the sum of his aspirations, as it is the inmost meaning of God's punitive acts. The end of the judgment of the world, which is continually going on by means of the history of the world, is none other than what this psalmist contemplated as the end of the defeat of that confederacy of God's enemies--that rebels should seek His face, not in enforced submission, but with true desire to sun themselves in its light, and with heart-felt acknowledgment of His Name as supreme through all the earth. The thought of God as standing alone in His majestic omnipotence, while a world is vainly arrayed against Him, which we have traced in vv. 5-7, is prominent in the close of the psalm. The language of ver. 18 is somewhat broken, but its purport is plain, and its thought is all the more impressive for the irregularity of construction. God alone is the Most High. He is revealed to men by His Name. It stands alone, as He in His nature does. The highest good of men is to know that that sovereign Name is unique and high above all creatures, hostile or obedient. Such knowledge is God's aim in punishment and blessing. Its universal extension must be the deepest wish of all who have for themselves learned how strong a fortress against a world in arms that Name is; and their desires for the foes of God and themselves are not in harmony with God's heart, nor with this psalmist's song, unless they are, that His enemies may be led, by salutary defeat of their enterprises and experience of the weight of God's hand, to bow, in loving obedience, low before the Name which, whether they recognise the fact or not, is high above an the earth.