The outstanding peculiarity of this psalm is its sudden transitions of feeling. Beginning with exuberant thanksgiving for restoration of the nation (vv. 1-3), it passes, without intermediate gradations, to complaints of God's continued wrath and entreaties for restoration (vv. 4-7), and then as suddenly rises to joyous assurance of inward and outward blessings. The condition of the exiles returned from Babylon best corresponds to such conflicting emotions. The book of Nehemiah supplies precisely such a background as fits the psalm. A part of the nation had returned indeed, but to a ruined city, a fallen Temple, and a mourning land, where they were surrounded by jealous and powerful enemies. Discouragement had laid hold on the feeble company; enthusiasm had ebbed away; the harsh realities of their enterprise had stripped off its imaginative charm; and the mass of the returned settlers had lost heart as well as devout faith. The psalm accurately reflects such a state of circumstances and feelings, and may, with some certitude, be assigned, as it is by most commentators, to the period of return from exile.
It falls into three parts, of increasing length,--the first, of three verses (vv. 1-3), recounts God's acts of mercy already received; the second, of four verses (vv. 4-7), is a plaintive prayer in view of still remaining national afflictions; and the third, of six verses, a glad report by the psalmist of the Divine promises which his waiting ear had heard, and which might well quicken the most faint-hearted into triumphant hope.
In the first strophe one great fact is presented in a threefold aspect, and traced wholly to Jehovah. "Thou hast turned back the captivity of Jacob." That expression is sometimes used in a figurative sense for any restoration of prosperity, but is here to be taken literally. Now, as at first, the restored Israel, like their ancestors under Joshua, had not won the land by their own arm, but "because God had a favour unto them," and had given them favour in the eyes of those who carried them captive. The restoration of the Jews, seen from the conqueror's point of view, was a piece of state policy, but from that of the devout Israelite was the result of God's working upon the heart of the new ruler of Babylon. The fact is stated in ver. 1; a yet more blessed fact, of which it is most blessed as being a token, is declared in ver. 2.
The psalmist knows that captivity had been chastisement, the issue of national sin. Therefore he is sure that restoration is the sign of forgiveness. His thoughts are running in the same line as in Isa. xl. 2, where the proclamation to Jerusalem that her iniquity is pardoned is connected with the assurance that her hard service is accomplished. He uses two significant words for pardon, both of which occur in Psalm xxxii. In ver. 2 a sin is regarded as a weight pressing down the nation, which God's mercy lifts off and takes away; in ver. 2 b it is conceived of as a hideous stain or foulness, which His mercy hides, so that it is no longer an offence to heaven. Ver. 3 ventures still deeper into the sacred recesses of the Divine nature, and traces the forgiveness, which in act had produced so happy a change in Israel's position, to its source in a change in God's disposition. "Thou hast drawn in all Thy wrath," as a man does his breath, or, if the comparison may be ventured, as some creature armed with a sting retracts it into its sheath. "Thou hast turned Thyself from the glow of Thine anger" gives the same idea under another metaphor. The word turn has a singular fascination for this psalmist. He uses it five times (vv. 1, 3, 4, 6--lit., wilt Thou not turn, quicken us?--and 8). God's turning from His anger is the reason for Israel's returning from captivity.
The abruptness of the transition from joyous thanksgiving to the sad minor of lamentation and supplication is striking, but most natural, if the psalmist was one of the band of returning exiles, surrounded by the ruins of a happier past, and appalled by the magnitude of the work before them, the slenderness of their resources, and the fierce hostility of their neighbours. The prayer of ver. 4, "Turn us," is best taken as using the word in the same sense as in ver. 1, where God is said to have "turned" the captivity of Jacob. What was there regarded as accomplished is here conceived of as still to be done. That is, the restoration was incomplete, as we know that it was, both in regard to the bulk of the nation, who still remained in exile, and in regard to the depressed condition of the small part of it which had gone back to Palestine. In like manner the petitions of ver. 5 look back to ver. 3, and pray that the anger which there had been spoken of as passed may indeed utterly cease. The partial restoration of the people implied, in the psalmist's view, a diminution rather than a cessation of God's punitive wrath, and he beseeches Him to complete that which He had begun.
The relation of the first to the second strophe is not only that of contrast, but the prayers of the latter are founded upon the facts of the former, which constitute both grounds for the suppliant's hope of answer and pleas with God. He cannot mean to deliver by halves. The mercies received are incomplete; and His work must be perfect. He cannot be partially reconciled, nor have meant to bring His people back to the land, and then leave them to misery. So the contrast between the bright dawning of the Return and its clouded day is not wholly depressing; for the remembrance of what has been heartens for the assurance that what is shall not always be, but will be followed by a future more correspondent to God's purpose as shown in that past. When we are tempted to gloomy thoughts by the palpable incongruities between God's ideals and man's realisation of them, we may take a hint from this psalmist, and, instead of concluding that the ideal was a phantasm, argue with ourselves that the incomplete actual will one day give way to the perfect embodiment. God leaves no work unfinished. He never leaves off till He has done. His beginnings guarantee congruous endings. He does not half withdraw His anger; and, if He seems to do so, it is only because men have but half turned from their sins. This psalm is rich in teaching as to the right way of regarding the incompleteness of great movements which, in their incipient stages, were evidently of God. It instructs us to keep the Divine intervention which started them clearly in view; to make the shortcomings, which mar them, a subject of lowly prayer; and to be sure that all which He begins He will finish, and that the end will fully correspond to the promise of the beginning. A "day of the Lord" which rose in brightness may cloud over as its hours roll, but "at eventide it shall be light," and none of the morning promise will be unfulfilled.
The third strophe (vv. 8-13) brings solid hopes, based upon Divine promises, to bear on present discouragements. In ver. 8 the psalmist, like Habakkuk (ii. 1), encourages himself to listen to what God will speak. The word "I will hear" expresses resolve or desire, and might be rendered Let me hear, or I would hear. Faithful prayer will always be followed by patient and faithful waiting for response from God. God will not be silent, when His servant appeals to Him with recognition of His past mercies, joined with longing that these may be perfected. No voice will break the silence of the heavens; but, in the depths of the waiting soul, there will spring a sweet assurance which comes from God, and is really His answer to prayer, telling the suppliant that "He will speak peace to His people," and warning them not to turn away from Him to other helps, which is folly. "His favoured ones" seems here to be meant as coextensive with "His people." Israel is regarded as having entered into covenant relations with God; and the designation is the pledge that what God speaks will be "peace." That word is to be taken in its widest sense, as meaning, first and chiefly, peace with Him, who has "turned Himself from His anger"; and then, generally, well-being of all kinds, outward and inward, as a consequence of that rectified relation with God.
The warning of ver. 8 c is thought by some to be out of place, and an emendation has been suggested, which requires little change in the Hebrew--namely, "to those who have turned their hearts towards Him." This reading is supported by the LXX.; but the warning is perfectly appropriate, and carries a large truth--that the condition of God's speaking of peace is our firm adherence to Him. Once more the psalmist uses his favourite word "turn." God had turned the captivity; He had turned Himself from His anger; the psalmist had prayed Him to turn or restore the people, and to turn and revive them, and now He warns against turning again to folly. There is always danger of relapse in those who have experienced God's delivering mercy. There is a blessed turning, when they are brought from the far-off land to dwell near God. But there is a possible fatal turning away from the Voice that speaks peace, and the Arm that brings salvation, to the old distance and bondage. Strange that any ears, which have heard the sweetness of His still small Voice whispering Peace, should wish to stray where it cannot be heard! Strange that the warning should ever be required, and tragic that it should so often be despised!
After the introductory ver. 8, the substance of what Jehovah spoke to the psalmist is proclaimed in the singer's own words. The first assurance which the psalmist drew from the Divine word was that God's salvation, the whole fulness of His delivering grace both in regard to external and in inward evils, is ever near to them that fear Him. "Salvation" here is to be taken in its widest sense. It means, negatively, deliverance from all possible evils, outward and inward; and, positively, endowment with all possible good, both for body and spirit. With such fulness of complete blessings, they, and they only, who keep near to God, and refuse to turn aside to foolish confidences, shall be enriched. That is the inmost meaning of what God said to the psalmist; and it is said to all. And that salvation being thus possessed, it would be possible for "glory"--i.e., the manifest presence of God, as in the Shechinah--to tabernacle in the land. The condition of God's dwelling with men is their acceptance of His salvation. That purifies hearts to be temples.
The lovely personifications in vv. 10-13 have passed into Christian poetry and art, but are not clearly apprehended when they are taken to describe the harmonious meeting and co-operation, in Christ's great work, of apparently opposing attributes of the Divine nature. No such thoughts are in the psalmist's mind. Loving-kindness and Faithfulness or Troth are constantly associated in Scripture as Divine attributes. Righteousness and Peace are as constantly united, as belonging to the perfection of human character. Ver. 10 seems to refer to the manifestation of God's Loving-kindness and Faithfulness in its first clause, and to the exhibition of His people's virtues and consequent happiness in its second. In all God's dealings for His people, His Loving-kindness blends with Faithfulness. In all His people's experience Righteousness and Peace are inseparable. The point of the assurance in ver. 10 is that heaven and earth are blended in permanent amity. These four radiant angels "dwell in the land." Then, in ver. 11, there comes a beautiful inversion of the two pairs of personifications, of each of which one member only reappears. Troth or Faithfulness, which in ver. 10 came into view principally as a Divine attribute, in ver. 11 is conceived of as a human virtue. It "springs out of the earth"--that is, is produced among men. All human virtue is an echo of the Divine, and they who have received into their hearts the blessed results of God's Faithfulness will bring forth in their lives fruits like it in kind. Similarly, Righteousness, which in ver. 10 was mainly viewed as a human excellence, here appears as dwelling in and looking down from heaven, like a gracious angel smiling on the abundance of Faithfulness which springs from earth. Thus "the bridal of the earth and sky" is set forth in these verses.
The same idea is further presented in ver. 12, in its most general form. God gives that which is good, both outward and inward blessings, and, thus fructified by bestowments from above, earth yields her increase. His gifts precede men's returns. Without sunshine and rain there are no harvests. More widely still, God gives first before He asks. He does not gather where He has not strawed, nor reap what He has not sown. Nor does He only sow, but He "blesses the springing thereof"; and to Him should the harvest be rendered. He gives before we can give. Isa. xlv. 8 is closely parallel, representing in like manner the co-operation of heaven and earth, in the new world of Messianic times.
In ver. 13 the thought of the blending of heaven and earth, or of Divine attributes as being the foundation and parents of their human analogues, is still more vividly expressed. Righteousness, which in ver. 10 was regarded as exercised by men, and in ver. 11 as looking down from heaven, is now represented both as a herald preceding God's royal progress, and as following in His footsteps. The last clause is rendered in different ways, which all have the same general sense. Probably the rendering above is best: "Righteousness shall make His footsteps a way"--that is, for men to walk in. All God's workings among men, which are poetically conceived as His way, have stamped on them Righteousness. That strong angel goes before Him to clear a path for Him, and trace the course which He shall take. That is the imaginative expression of the truth--that absolute, inflexible Righteousness guides all the Divine acts. But the same Righteousness, which precedes, also follows Him, and points His footsteps as the way for us. The incongruity of this double position of God's herald makes the force of the thought greater. It is the poetical embodiment of the truth, that the perfection of man's character and conduct lies in his being an "imitator of God," and that, however different in degree, our righteousness must be based on His. What a wonderful thought that is, that the union between heaven and earth is so close that God's path is our way! How deep into the foundation of ethics the psalmist's glowing vision pierces! How blessed the assurance that God's Righteousness is revealed from heaven to make men righteous!
Our psalm needs the completion, which tells of that gospel in which "the Righteousness of God from faith is revealed for faith." In Jesus the "glory" has tabernacled among men. He has brought heaven and earth together. In Him God's Loving-kindness and Faithfulness have become denizens of earth, as never before. In Him heaven has emptied its choicest good on earth. Through Him our barrenness and weeds are changed into harvests of love, praise, and service. In Him the Righteousness of God is brought near; and, trusting in Him, each of us may tread in His footsteps, and have His Righteousness fulfilled in us "who walk, not after the flesh, but after the spirit."