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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Psalms 147

 

 

Introduction

CXLVII.

Composed of three pieces, without any regular rhythmical structure, and only loosely connected by the same general thought and method of expression, this psalm yet deserves to rank high in the poetry of the Bible. While freely using existing materials, especially Psalms 33, 104; Isaiah 40; and the book of Job, the author gives proof of his own powers in the keenness of his observation of nature, and in his sympathy with the life and movement of the world, as well as by the free play of his fancy round each phenomenon that attracts him.

The evident allusion to a rebuilding of Jerusalem has been referred both to the great restoration under Nehemiah and to the repairs and fortifications of Hyrcanus (1 Maccabees 16:23).


Verse 1

(1) Psalms 135:3 is plainly before the poet in this verse; and yet, since Psalms 33 is in other respects his model, it is extremely doubtful whether we ought to change the reading, so as to make a complete correspondence between the verses, or suppose that the alteration was intentional, in accordance with “praise is comely for the upright” in Psalms 33:1. (See Notes on both the passages; comp. also Psalms 92:1.)


Verse 2

(2) Build up—i.e., of course, “rebuild.” The word “outcasts,” which is that used in Isaiah 11:12; Isaiah 56:8, shows that the rebuilding after the captivity is intended. The LXX. and Vulg. have “dispersion;” Symmachus, “those thrust out.”


Verse 3

(3) Broken in heart.—As in Psalms 34:18. (Comp. Isaiah 61:1.)

Wounds.—See margin, and comp. Job 9:28; Proverbs 15:13.


Verse 3-4

Tenderness and Power

He healeth the broken in heart,

And bindeth up their wounds.

He telleth the number of the stars;

He giveth them all their names.—Psalms 147:3-4

The old Hebrew Psalmist, by placing in striking contrast the infinitely great and the infinitely little, brings out, in the most effective way possible, the providence of God as at once comprehensive enough to superintend the interests of the collective universe, and kindly and careful enough not to neglect the smallest individual. While His omniscient eye numbers the innumerable stars, His gentle touch heals the broken heart. While His spoken word holds the glistening planets to their spheres, His tender hand binds up our bleeding wounds. These are old, very old thoughts, the imaginings of ancient Hebrew men, who little dreamed of the strange secrets hidden in the earth beneath their feet, or in the heaven above their heads; but, though between their day and ours lie centuries crowded with the most splendid discoveries man has made, yet neither science nor philosophy has ever proclaimed a truth that can match in sublimity, equal in beauty, or rival in its wealth of eternal human interest, this old Hebrew faith—“He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds. He telleth the number of the stars; he giveth them all their names.”

I

Broken Hearts and Countless Stars

1. The Psalmist brings together here countless stars and broken hearts. It is not easy for us to get these two thoughts into our minds at the same time. Still harder is it for us to think them as one thought. It seems such a far cry from all the stars of heaven to one poor bleeding heart, from those myriad points of fire to a few human tears. We see the sweep of the stars, and we walk in the shadow of pain; but in the bitter things we suffer, how little use we make of the great things we see! One idea excludes another that really belongs to it. We have not a large enough mental grasp. We look up at the stars and we forget our little world; we look out upon our little world and we forget the stars. We lose the years in the thought of the hour, and the hour in the thought of the ages. We seem unable to hold on to a great thought when we are in one of life’s narrow places; yet it is just in that narrow place that the great thought can do most for us. We live by hours, and so we count by hours. We are pilgrims, so our standard of measurement is a step. In our fragmentary thinking we draw dividing lines across the undivided, and fail to see that the limited and the illimitable are not two things but one. But the Psalmist brought stars and broken hearts together.

I think I am not far wrong in saying that, whatever science or revelation may have to tell us about God’s relation to the sun and to the stars, there are many points in men’s and women’s lives when such things lose all their interest in the presence of personal anxieties that will take no denial. There are moments—we all, or most of us, know them too well—when even one slight physical pain obtrudes itself upon our attention and succeeds in spoiling our work, as a grain of sand might stop some delicate machine, or a little rift spoil the music of a lute. How much more, then, when the frame of a strong man is bowed down with utter and uncontrollable grief, or the woman’s heart stands still at news of loss that so long as sun shall roll or stars give forth their shining shall never, never be forgotten! The heart does not measure things by algebra, or weigh such things in the balance of a cool and reasonable computation. The affections live, as it were, outside of time, and dwell in eternity alone with God. You may tell me, therefore, the number of the stars; but under bereavement I am not comforted. You may catalogue them all by their names; but my bitter pain refuses to be assuaged thereby, my broken heart refuses to be interested.1 [Note: Canon Curteis.]

2. But the Psalmist brings stars and broken hearts together, because to him heart-break is not to be regarded as a rare and tragic episode in the human story. This world knows sorrow only as an incident. It is, for it, a cloud upon the sun, sometimes darkening all the after day. It is a voice of weeping or a choked silence in the shadow dusk of the river’s edge. But, the last true sorrow of life is not on this wise. It is not dealt out to one here and another there as a bitter judgment or a wholesome discipline. It is inwoven into life. To miss it is to miss life. It is the price of the best. It is the law of the highest. When, after what we sometimes call the long farewell, you have seen a sorrow-stricken man bearing a bleeding heart out to the verge of the world, beyond the last outpost of earthly sympathy and beyond the kindly kingdom of human help, you have seen something for which earth has no healing, but you have not learned anything approaching the whole truth concerning heart-break. There is the broken and the contrite heart, the heart that is seeking sainthood, and fainting and falling and aching in the quest. There is the broken and the yearning heart, that strains and throbs with lofty longings and the burden of the valley of vision. And to find healing for such sorrow a man must find God. And He must be the God who counts the stars.

Perhaps no man ever stood in the presence of a great trouble without being driven by his own deepest instincts to seek strength and comfort from a Being mightier than himself. Many a hitherto godless mariner, battling with the wild waves, has called with simple and fervid faith on the God whose name the child had loved to reverence before the man had learned to profane. Many a poor burdened woman, whose heart was well-nigh breaking in the presence of a sorrow she could not bear alone, has grown calm and strong as her agony rose into a great cry after God. Instincts like these, characteristic of man the wide world over, tell that the Creator has planted within the human spirit the faculty to which, when danger from within or without threatens, the faith is native that He who healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds, also delighteth to hear and answer the prayer of His afflicted creatures.1 [Note: A. M. Fairbairn, Christ in the Centuries, 209.]

An astronomer, known to me, divides his heart between the stars and his home—in the latter a dying boy; both know that the God of the stars has knit their hearts together and binds them up. The spiritual man is apt to come among scientists as into an ice-house, the scientist into church as into a tropical house. The recognition of God’s presence and work in both is necessary to worthy thought of Him.1 [Note: Morlais Jones.]

3. Broken hearts appeal to God in a way that the most brilliant stars cannot do. The planets whirl through space, but do not know it. They are safe but blind, deaf, inert masses. They respond to the will of their Creator, but they are not conscious of a Father’s love. Amid those vast glories our Father can find no room for His pity, no response to His love, nothing that He can bend over to heal and to bless. The stars are not the true sphere of God, but the heart. The heart is the sphere of His love, the realm of His pity. What God does is seen among the stars, but what God is, that only the broken heart can know.

From a purely speculative and intellectual point of view, I defy any man to preach a gospel of comfort from the text, “He telleth the number of the stars.” Many a man has felt his helplessness and his loneliness beneath the stars. He has said, God is immeasurably remote from my little life down here among the shadows. Is it likely that amid the vast and intricate calculations of the universe He will take account of an insignificant fraction like my life? How should He think upon me when He has all the stars to count? How should He miss me from the fold when He is shepherding all the heavenly hosts? Thus for some the greatness of God has been made to spell the loneliness of man. That is the shivering logic of an intellectual conception of the Deity. The Psalmist who spoke of star-counting and heart-healing in the same breath had got beyond that. The deep, persistent needs of his life had brought him there. It was not by a mere chance that he chose to speak of heart-break when he sought to link earth with heaven and to lift the fretful mind of man up to the thought of God’s eternal presence and power. Heart-break is not an idea; it is an experience. Yes, and it is an experience that only the stars can explain and only Divinity can account for.2 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, The Pilgrim Church, 30.]

In Luke Fildes’ well-known picture of “The Doctor,” we see the physician in the cottage seated by the bedside of a sick child, watching with a tender and painful solicitude. All his experience, all his skill, and all his patience are concentrated upon that little child. His whole heart, mind, and soul are drawn out to it. God is more at home with the broken heart than with the stars.3 [Note: H. Ford, Sermons with Analyses, 63.]

II

Heart-healing and Star-counting

The singer of this song linked together the healing of man’s broken heart with a profound and transcendent conception of God. There was a time when the preacher used to give out for his text, “Behold, the nations are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.” He preached the glory and the wisdom and the power of God until men saw the universe as but one ray of all that glory, one word of all that wisdom, one deed of all that power. And with that tremendous background he preached the effectual comfort of the everlasting Father. Some are getting afraid of that background. And we require to remind ourselves that the human heart needs it and demands it, and will never be truly satisfied with anything else. There is nothing else large enough for us to write upon it the meanings and the sanctions and the purposes of God’s healing mercy. But to look at it from man’s side, the gospel that is to bring availing and abiding comfort to a world like ours needs a tremendous background: it needs a transcendent sweep. If we have a doctrine of the Divine immanence that veils the stars, that seems to make the truth of God a more familiar and compassable thing, that silences the challenge of God’s lonely sovereignty and His transcendent and mysterious glory, we have not the doctrine that will meet your deepest needs or win a response from the depths of other hearts. This shame-stricken, yearning world needs the glory of God as much as it needs His mercy.

You know quite well that the greater the power, the more arresting does gentleness become. As might advances and energy increases, so always the more notable is gentleness. It is far more striking in a mailed warrior than in a mother with her woman’s heart; far more impressive in the lord of armies than in some retired and ineffectual dreamer. The mightier the power a man commands, the more compelling is his trait of gentleness. If he be tyrant of a million subjects, a touch of tenderness is thrilling. And it is when we think of the infinite might of God, who is King of kings and Lord of lords, that we realize the wonder of our text. It is He who calleth out the stars by number, and maketh the pillars of the heaven to shake. And when He worketh, no man can stay His hand or say to Him, What doest Thou? And it is this Ruler, infinite in power, before whom the princes of the earth are vanity, who is exquisitely and for ever gentle.1 [Note: G. H. Morrison, The Weaving of Glory, 181.]

1. “He telleth the number of the stars, he giveth them all their names.” One would think that if He were busy building, and gathering together, and healing the broken in heart, and binding up their wounds, He would have no time to attend to the framework of the universe. Yet here is the distinct declaration that the universe is taken care of at every point. There is not one little wicket-gate that opens into the meadow of the stars that is not angel-guarded. God has no postern gates by which the thief can enter undiscovered. The word “telleth” is a singular word; what is it when reduced to the level of our mother tongue? “He telleth” is equal to “He numbereth”; He looketh night after night to see that every one is there.

We have sometimes heard the shepherd muttering to himself as the sheep came home in the gloaming—one, two, three, four. Why this enumeration? Because he has so many, and he must know whether every one is at home or not. What does one matter in fifty? Everything. It is the missing one that makes the heart ache; it is the one thing wanting that reduces wealth to poverty; it is the one anxiety that drives our sleep away. I have a thousand blessings; on that recollection I will fall to slumber. Yet I cannot. Why not? Because of the one anxiety, the one pain, the one trouble, the one child lacking, the one friend grieved, the one life in danger, the one legitimate aspiration imperilled and threatened with disappointment. But I have a thousand blessings; why not pillow my head upon these and rest? I cannot: nature is against me; reason may have a long argument, but the one anxiety arises and sneers it down. So the Lord telleth, counteth, goeth over the number, as it were one by one, to see that every little light is kindled, every asteroid at home. The very hairs of your head are all numbered. He makes pets of the stars—He calls them by their names. He treats them as if they were intelligent; He speaks to them as if they could answer Him.2 [Note: J. Parker, Studies in Texts, vi. 84.]

2. The God of the multitude is also the God of the individual soul. He attends to the innumerable host and to the single unit. Where we hear but a distant murmuring He hears the separate beating of every heart. This is one great distinction between natural and revealed religion, for the one thing that natural religion cannot do is to assure us of the individual care of God. The god of natural religion is like the driver of some eastern caravan; and he drives his caravan with skill unerring over the desert to the gleaming city. But he never halts for any bruised mortal, or waits to minister to any dying woman, or even for a moment checks his team to ease the agonies of any child. That is the god of natural religion—the mighty tendency that makes for righteousness. Imperially careful of the whole, he is sovereignly careless of the one. And over against that god, so dark and terrible, there stands for ever the God of revelation, saying in infinite and individual mercy, “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” He, too, is making for a city which hath foundations, and whose streets are golden. But He has an ear for every feeble cry, a great compassion for every bruised heart, and a watchful pity, like a mother’s pity, for lips that are craving for a little water. It was a great thought which St. Peter uttered when he said to all who read, “He careth for you.” But St. Paul was nearer the heart of the Eternal when he said, “He loved me, and gave himself for me.”

This thought of God is countersigned in the clearest way by Christ. The God of Christ, in communistic ages, is the asylum of individuality. It is true that there was something in a crowd that stirred our Saviour to His depths. He was moved with compassion when He saw the multitude, as a flock of sheep without a shepherd. And when He came over against the city of Jerusalem, where the murmur of life was, and where the streets were thronged, looking, He was intensely moved, and wept. There was a place for the all within that heart of His. He “saw life steadily, and saw it whole.” There was not a problem of these teeming multitudes but had its last solution in His blood. Yet He who thus encompassed the totality in a love that was majestic to redeem, had a heart that never for an instant faltered in its passionate devotion to the one. Living for mankind, He spoke His deepest when His whole audience was one listener. Dying for mankind, His heart was thrilled with the agonized entreaty of one thief. For one coin the woman swept the house; for one sheep the shepherd faced the midnight; for one son, and him a sorry prodigal, the father in the home was broken-hearted. That is complete assurance that our God is the God of individuals. “Thou art as much His care, as if beside, nor man nor angel moved in heaven or earth.” He is Almighty, and takes the whole wide universe into the covering hollow of His hand, yet He is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.

3. The God who counts the stars is the only sufficient healer of broken hearts. Only He, in virtue of His Deity, can read the secret sorrows of the heart, to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” This is the prerogative of God, and of God alone. And none but He, in virtue of His Humanity, can lay His hand upon the broken heart to mollify and heal its wounds. How often there are deep down in the heart feelings too sad and too sacred for utterance to mortal ears, when we crave for a higher sympathy than that which man can give, and the soul finds relief only in reaching out in prayer to God. And there is no limit to God’s sympathy. It is bound only by the horizon of human need and human suffering. The heart broken with contrition for sin, the heart bruised with the sorrows of life, the heart bleeding with the anguish of bereavement—these all find a response in the heart of God, for this is the sphere of His pity, of His compassion, and of His love. There is no human sorrow but appeals to Him.

Think you He cannot sympathize with our worst sorrows, who shielded from scorn the broken-hearted who could only smite upon his breast; who stood like a God between their victim and the hell-hounds who were baying for their prey, till they cowered at His feet and slunk away; who could forgive a coward, and select the alien and heretic as a type of the neighbour who is to be loved; who was peculiarly sensitive to the charm of woman’s society and its soothing gentleness; who wept for temporary grief; who was considerate for the tired disciples and the hungry multitude; whose chosen home was the house of the publican and sinner; who bore contempt with majestic dignity—is that a trifle?—who felt keenly, as His own touching words witness, the pain of homelessness? Oh, can you say that He could not enter into our worst sorrows, or that His trials were in “show”? Comprehend that heart, containing all that was manliest and all that was most womanly. Think what you will, but do not mistake Him, or else you will lose the one great certainty to which, in the midst of the darkest doubt, I never ceased to cling—the entire symmetry and loveliness, and the unequalled nobleness of the humanity of the Son of Prayer of Manasseh 1:1 [Note: Life and Letters of the Rev. F. W. Robertson, 233.]

4. What is this wonderful ligament with which Christ binds the wounds of the once broken heart? It is the sympathy with another’s pain; it is the remembrance that I suffer not alone. The sympathy with my brother restrains my personal outflow. It takes away the egotism of my grief. I no longer feel that a strange thing has befallen me. I no longer resent the raincloud as a special wrong. I feel that it is not special—that it is universal. It is the thought of this that stops the outward bleeding of my heart. It makes me refuse to show my wound. It forbids me to cry out in the streets as if I were a solitary sufferer. It says, “Think what your brother must feel; he has the same pains as you!” It bids me count the burdens of the passers-by; and, as I count, I forget to remember my own.

The actual conditions of our life being as they are, and the capacity for suffering so large a principle in things, and the only principle always safe, a sympathy with the pain one actually sees, it follows that the constituent practical difference between men will be their capacity for a trained insight into those conditions, their capacity for sympathy; and the future with those who have most of it. And for the present, those who have much of it have (I tell myself) something to hold by, even in the dissolution of a world, or in that dissolution of self, which is for everyone no less than the dissolution of the world it represents for him. Nearly all of us, I suppose, have had our moments in which any effective sympathy for us has seemed impossible, and our pain in life a mere stupid outrage upon us, like some overwhelming physical violence; and we could seek refuge from it at best, only in a mere general sense of goodwill, somewhere perhaps. And then, to one’s surprise, the discovery of that goodwill, if it were only in a not unfriendly animal, may seem to have explained, and actually justified, the existence of our pain at all.

There have been occasions when I have felt that if others cared for me as I did for them, it would be not so much a solace of loss as an equivalent for it—a certain real thing in itself—a touching of that absolute ground among all the changes of phenomena, such as our philosophers of late have professed themselves quite unable to find. In the mere clinging of human creatures to each other, nay! in one’s own solitary self-pity, even amidst what might seem absolute loss, I seem to touch the eternal.1 [Note: Walter Pater.]

Literature

Ainsworth (P. C.), The Pilgrim Church, 28.

Blackley (T.), Practical Sermons, ii. 82.

Fairbairn (A. M.), Christ in the Centuries, 205.

Ford (H.), Sermons with Analyses, 61.

Harper (F.), A Year with Christ, 47.

Holden (J. S.), Life’s Flood-Tide, 106.

Matheson (G.), Times of Retirement, 206.

Parker (J.), Studies in Texts, vi. 79.

Parker (J.), The City Temple, iii. 217.

Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), Day by Day Duty, 36.

Christian World Pulpit, xxvii. 338 (Canon Curteis).

Sunday Magazine, 1895, p. 353 (W. J. Foxell).


Verse 4

(4) Stars.—This proof of God’s power to help, by reference to the stars of heaven, which are beyond man’s power to count, much more to name, but which the Almighty both numbers and names, seems rather abruptly introduced, but the train of thought is clear. To assemble the dispersed of Israel, however numerous and scattered, was easy to the ruler of the hosts of heaven. The original promise to Abraham was, of course, in the poet’s mind, but still more Isaiah 40:26-28, from which the expression may have been taken. The dramatic “Lift your eyes on high and behold” supplies the link needed in the abrupt entrance of the thought of the psalm.


Verse 5

(5) Of great power.—Literally, abounding in power.

Infinite.—Literally, without number. (See Note, Psalms 145:3, and Isaiah 40:28; that prophetic passage being still in the poet’s mind, though the expression is changed.)


Verse 6

(6) The meek.—Or, the afflicted. (See Note Psalms 22:26.)


Verse 7

(7) Sing.—Literally, answer, which some think suggests an antiphonal arrangement. Though the strophic arrangement is only loosely marked, the psalm takes a new departure here, with a fresh invocation to praise, going on to fresh proofs from nature of the Almighty Power.


Verse 9

(9) Comp. Psalms 104:14; Psalms 145:15; Job 38:41; Luke 12:24.

The proper attitude towards one who is thus “great to grant as mighty to make,” is not conceit of wisdom and strength, but humble dependence and trust.


Verse 10

(10) Strength of the horse . . . legs of a man.—This somewhat strange antithesis has been explained to refer to cavalry and infantry, but the much more expressive passage, Psalms 33:16-17, which was plainly before this poet, would hardly have been altered so strangely. The horse as a type of strength and endurance was of course common. (Comp. especially Job 39:19-25.) And we have before seen that Eastern nations naturally select fleetness of foot as the typical quality in a vigorous warrior. (See Psalms 18:33.)

The constant epithet “swift-footed Achilles,” suggests the best explanation of the second clause of the verse. (Comp. 2 Samuel 2:18).


Verse 12

(12) Praise.—For this verb, properly stroke, or soothe, see Psalms 63:5.


Verse 13

(13) For he hath strengthened.—An allusion to the new fortifications of the restored city is probable, though the expression is plainly figurative of security and peace.

With the second clause comp. Isaiah 60:17-18.


Verse 14

(14) Maketh peace.—Or, placing as thy border peace.

Finest of the wheat.—Literally, fat of wheat. (See Psalms 81:16.)


Verse 15

(15) Psalms 33 is still in the poet’s thought, and Psalms 147:6-7 especially; but some extraordinary season of frost seems to have kindled his inspiration, so that he not only elaborates but improves on his model. The word of God is personified as a messenger who runs swiftly forth to do his bidding, at first in binding the earth and sheaves up with frost, and then (Psalms 147:18) in suddenly thawing and releasing them.


Verse 16

(16) Like wool.—Both in whiteness and fleecy texture. “The snow falls in large flakes, equal in size to a walnut, and has more resemblance to locks of wool than it has in our country” (Niven, Biblical Antiq., p. 21).

“A spice quam densum tacitarum vellus aquarum Defluat.

MART., Ep. iv. 3.


Verse 17

(17) Morsels.—Or, crumbs. (Genesis 18:5; Judges 19:5.) Doubtless the allusion is to hail.


Verse 19

(19) Jacob . . . Israel.—As in the other two pieces into which the psalm divides (Psalms 147:6-11), the thought passes from the grandeur of God revealed in nature to the divine protection and favour accorded to Israel.


Verse 20

(20) Any nation.—This boast in Israel’s peculiar and exclusive privilege may be compared with Deuteronomy 4:7; Deuteronomy 32:32-41.

Judgments.—Here plainly not manifestations of wrath; but, as so frequently in Psalms 119, the display of righteousness towards Israel.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 147:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/psalms-147.html. 1905.

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Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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