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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 97

 

 

Verses 1-12

Psalms 97:1-12

THE summons to praise the King with a new song [Psalms 96:1-13] is followed by this psalm, which repeats the dominant idea of the group, "Jehovah is King," but from a fresh point of view. It represents His rule under the form of a theophany, which may possibly be regarded as the fuller description of that coming of Jehovah to judgment with which Psalms 96:1-13 closes. The structure of both psalms is the same, each being divided into four strophes, normally consisting of three verses each, though the last strophe of Psalms 96:1-13 runs over into four verses. In this psalm, the first group of verses celebrates the royal state of the King (Psalms 97:1-3); the second describes His coming as a past fact (Psalms 97:4-6); the third portrays the twofold effects of Jehovah’s appearance on the heathen and on Zion (Psalms 97:7-9); and the last applies the lessons of the whole to the righteous, in exhortation and encouragement (Psalms 97:10-12). The same dependence on earlier psalms and prophets which marks others of this group is obvious here. The psalmist’s mind is saturated with old sayings, which he finds flashed up into new meaning by recent experiences. He is not "original," and does not try to be so; but he has drunk in the spirit of his predecessors, and words which to others were antiquated and cold blaze with light for him, and seem made for his lips. He who reads aright the solemn significance of today will find it no less sacred than any past, and may transfer to it all which seers and singers have said and sung of Jehovah’s presence of old.

The first strophe is mosaic-work. Psalms 97:1 (lands = isles) may be compared Isaiah 42:10; Isaiah 51:5. Psalms 97:2 a-is from Exodus 19:9; Exodus 19:16, etc., and Psalms 18:9. Psalms 97:2 b is quoted from Psalms 89:14. Psalms 97:3 a recalls Psalms 1:3; Psalms 18:8. The appearance of God on Sinai is the type of all later theophanies, and the reproduction of its principal features witnesses to the conviction that that transient manifestation was the unveiling of permanent reality. The veil had dropped again, but what had been once seen continued always, though unseen; and the veil could and would be drawn aside, and the long-hidden splendour blaze forth, again. The combination of the pieces of mosaic in a new pattern here is striking. Three thoughts fill the singer’s mind. God is King, and His reign gladdens the world, even away out to the dimly seen lands that are washed by the western ocean. "The islands" drew Isaiah’s gaze. Prophecy began in him to look seawards and westwards, little knowing how the course of empire was to take its way thither, but feeling that whatever lands might lie towards the setting sun were ruled, and would be gladdened by Jehovah.

Gladness passes into awe in Psalms 97:2 a, -as the seer beholds the cloud and gloom which encircle the throne. The transcending, infinitude of the Divine nature, the mystery of much of the Divine acts, are symbolised by these; but the curtain is the picture. To know that God cannot be known is a large part of the knowledge of Him. Faith, built on experience, enters into the cloud, and is not afraid, but confidently tells what it knows to be within the darkness. "Righteousness and judgment"-the eternal principle and the activity thereof in the several acts of the King-are the bases of His throne, more solid than the covering cloud. Earth can rejoice in His reign, even though darkness may make parts of it painful riddles, if the assurance is held fast that absolute righteousness is at the centre, and that the solid core of all is judgment. Destructive power, symbolised in Psalms 97:3 by fire which devours His adversaries, the fire which flashed first on Sinai, is part of the reason for the gladness of earth in His reign. For His foes are the world’s foes too; and a God who could not smite into nothingness that which lifted itself against His dominion would be no God for whom the isles could wait. These three characteristics, mystery, righteousness, power to consume, attach to Jehovah’s royalty, and should make every heart rejoice.

In the second strophe, the tenses suddenly change into pure narrative. The change may be simply due, as Cheyne suggests, to the influence of the earlier passages descriptive of theophanies, and in which the same tense occurs; but more probably it points to some event fresh in the experience of Israel, such as the return from Babylon. In this strophe again, we have mosaic. Psalms 97:4 a-is quoted from Psalms 77:18. With Psalms 97:4 b may be compared Psalms 77:16. Psalms 97:5 a-is like Micah 1:4, and, in a less degree, Psalms 68:2. "The Lord of the whole earth" is an unusual designation, first found in a significant connection in Joshua 3:11; Joshua 3:13, as emphasising His triumph over heathen gods, in leading the people into Canaan, and afterwards found in Zechariah 4:14; Zechariah 6:5, and Micah 4:13. Psalms 97:6 a comes from the theophany in Psalms 1:6 : and Psalms 97:6 b has parallels in both parts of Isaiah-e.g., Isaiah 35:2; Isaiah 40:5; Isaiah 52:10 -passages which refer to the restoration from Babylon. The picture is grand as a piece of word painting. The world lies wrapped in thunder-gloom, and is suddenly illumined by the fierce blaze of lightning. The awestruck silence of Nature is wonderfully given by Psalms 97:4 b: "The earth saw and trembled." But the picture is symbol, and the lightning flash is meant to set forth the sudden, swift forth-darting of God’s delivering power, which awes a gazing world, while the hills melting like wax from before His face solemnly proclaim how terrible its radiance is, and how easily the mere showing of Himself annihilates all high things that oppose themselves. Solid-seeming and august powers, which tower above His people’s ability to overcome them, vanish when He looks out from the deep darkness. The end of His appearance and of the consequent removal of obstacles is the manifestation of His righteousness and glory. The heavens are the scene of the Divine appearance, though earth is the theatre of its working. They "declare His righteousness," not because, as in Psalms 19:1-14, they are said to tell forth His glory by their myriad lights, but because in them He has shone forth, in His great act of deliverance of His oppressed people. Israel receives the primary blessing, but is blessed, not for itself alone, but that all peoples may see in it Jehovah’s glory. Thus once more the psalm recognises the world wide destination of national mercies, and Israel’s place in the Divine economy as being of universal significance. The third strophe (Psalms 97:7-9) sets forth the results of the theophany on foes and friends. The worshippers, of "the Nothings" [Psalms 96:5] are put to confusion by the demonstration by fact of Jehovah’s sovereignty over their helpless deities. Psalms 97:7 a, b, Isaiah 42:17; Isaiah 44:9. As the worshippers are ashamed, So the gods themselves are summoned to fall down before this triumphant Jehovah, as Dagon did before the Ark. Surely it is a piece of most prosaic pedantry to argue, from this lash of scorn, that the psalmist believed that the gods whom he had just called "Nothings" had a real existence, and that therefore he was not a pure Monotheist.

The shame of the idolaters and the prostration of their gods heighten the gladness of Zion, which the psalm describes in old words that had once celebrated another flashing forth of Jehovah’s power. [Psalms 48:11] Hupfeld, whom Cheyne follows, would transpose Psalms 97:7 and Psalms 97:8, on the grounds that "the transposition explains what Zion heard, and brings the summons to the false gods into connection with the emphatic claim on behalf of Jehovah in Psalms 97:9." But there is no need for the change, since there is no ambiguity as to what Zion heard, if the existing order is retained, and her gladness is quite as worthy a consequence of the exaltation of Jehovah in Psalms 97:9 as the subjugation of the false gods would be. With Psalms 97:9 compare Psalms 83:18, and Psalms 47:2.

The last strophe (Psalms 97:10-12) draws exhortation and promises from the preceding. There is a marked diminution of dependence on earlier passages in this strophe, in which the psalmist points for his own generation the lessons of the great deliverance which he has been celebrating. Psalms 97:12 a-is like Psalms 32:11; Psalms 97:12 b is from Psalms 30:4; but the remainder is the psalmist’s own earnest exhortation and firm faith cast into words which come warm from his own heart’s depths. Love to Jehovah necessarily implies hatred of evil, which is His antagonist, and which He hates. That higher love will not be kept in energy, unless it is guarded by wholesome antipathy to everything foul. The capacity for love of the noble is maimed unless there is hearty hatred of the ignoble. Love to God is no idle affection, but withdraws a man from rival loves. The stronger the attraction, the stronger the recoil. The closer we cleave to God, the more decided our shrinking from all that would weaken our hold of Him. A specific reference in the exhortation to temptations to idolatry is possible, though not necessary. All times have their "evil," with which God’s lovers are ever tempted to comply. The exhortation is never out of place, nor the encouragement which accompanies it ever illusory. In such firm adherence to Jehovah. many difficulties will rise, and foes be made; but those who obey it will not lack protection. Mark the alternation of names for such. They are first called "lovers of God"; they are then designated as His "favoured ones." That which is first in time is last in mention. The effect is in view before it is traced to its cause. "We love Him because He first loved us." Then follow names drawn from the moral perfecting which will ensue on recognition and reception of God’s favour, and on the cherishing of the love which fulfills the law. They who love because they are loved, become righteous and upright hearted because they love. For such the psalmist has promise as well as exhortation. Not only are they preserved in and from dangers, but "light is sown" for them. Many commentators think that the figure of light being sown. as seeds are buried in the ground to shoot up in beauty in a future springtime is too violent, and they propose to understand "sown" in the sense of scattered on, not deposited in, the earth, "so that he, the righteous, goes forward step by step in the light" (Delitzsch). Others would correct into is risen" or arises." But one is reluctant to part with the figure, the violence of which is permissible in an Eastern singer. Darkness often wraps the righteous, and it is not true to experience to say that his way is always in the sunlight. But it is consolation to know that light is sown, invisible and buried, as it were, but sure to germinate and fruit. The metaphor mingles figures and offends purists, but it fits closer to fact than the weakening of it which fits the rules of composition. If we are God’s lovers, present darkness may be quieted by hope. and we may have the "fruit of the light" in our lives now, and the expectation of a time when we shall possess in fulness and in perpetuity all that light of knowledge, purity, and gladness which Jesus the Sower went forth to sow, and which had been ripened by struggles and sorrows and hatred of evil while we were here.

Therefore, because of this magnificent theophany and because of its blessed consequences for loving souls, the psalmist ends with the exhortation to the righteous to rejoice. He began with bidding the world be glad. He now bids each of us concentrate that universal gladness in our own hearts. Whether earth obeys Him or not, it is for us to clasp firmly the great facts which will feed the lamp of our joy. God’s holy memorial is His name, or His self-revealed character. He desires to be known and remembered by His acts. If we rightly retain and ponder His utterance of Himself, not in syllables, but in deeds, we shall not be silent in His praise. The righteous man should not be harsh and crabbed, but his soul should dwell in a serene atmosphere of joy in Jehovah. and his life be one thanksgiving to that mighty, never-to-be-forgotten Name.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 97:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-97.html.

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