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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Psalms 74





Two periods only in the history of the Jews offer possible place for the composition of this psalm—that immediately after the Chaldæan invasion, and that of the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes (B.C 167). Against the former of these is the statement in Psalms 74:9 (see Note), which could not have been spoken while Jeremiah was alive. Hence, with a certainty allowed by no other of the psalms, this, with Psalms 79, can be referred to the year before the patriotic rise of the Asmoneans. Indeed, as Delitzsch remarks, their contents coincide with the prayer of Judas Maccabæus preserved in 2 Maccabees 8:1-4. The only argument of any weight against this conclusion is the expression in Psalms 74:3, “ruins,” which appears at first sight too strong a term for the mischief wrought by the Syrians at the command of Antiochus. But we must allow at such a crisis a little licence to patriotism and poetry; and, unless the words must be limited to the sanctuary (which is not absolutely necessary: see Note), the picture given in the Book of Maccabees of the state of the Holy City, is such as to bear out the psalm. The poetical form is irregular.

Title.—See titles, Psalms 32, 1.

Verse 1

(1) Why hast . . .—Better, why hast thou never ceased abandoning us?

Anger.—Literally, nostril, as in Psalms 18:8, “there went a smoke from his nostril.”

The sheep of thy pasture.—An expression peculiar to the Asaphic psalms and Jeremiah 23:1.

Verse 2

(2) Purchased.—Or, as in LXX., acquired. This word, together with the word “redeemed” in the next clause, and “right hand” in Psalms 74:11, show that Exodus 15 was in the writer’s mind. (See especially Psalms 74:12-13; Psalms 74:16 of that chapter.)

The word “congregation” here, as in the Mosaic books, presents the people in its religious aspect, as the expression “rod (or, tribe) of thine inheritance” presents it in its political character.

The rod of . . .—Better, which thou hast redeemed as the tribe of thine inheritance, i.e., as thine own tribe.

The expression, “rod of thine inheritance,” comes from Jeremiah 10:16; Jeremiah 51:19. (Comp. Isaiah 63:17.) It refers not to the shepherd’s crook, but to the sceptre, or leading staff, of the prince of a tribe, and so passes into a term for the tribe itself (Exodus 28:21; Judges 20:2).

Verse 3

(3) Lift up thy feet.—Better, Lift thy steps. A poetical expression. God is invoked to hasten to view the desolation of the Temple. A somewhat similar expression will be found in Genesis 29:1 (margin).

Perpetual desolations.—The word rendered “desolations” occurs also in Psalms 73:18, where it is rendered “destruction.” Here, perhaps, we should render ruins which must be ever ruins, or complete ruins, or possibly, taking the first meaning of netsach, ruins of splendour. Isaiah 11:4 does not offer a parallel, since the Hebrew is different, and plainly refers to the long time the places have been in ruins.

Even all . . .—Better, the enemy hath devastated all in the holy place. 1 Maccabees 1:38-40; 1 Maccabees 3:45 (“Now Jerusalem lay void as a wilderness”) give the best explanation of the verse, descriptive, as it is, of the condition of the whole of Zion.

Verse 4

(4) Thine enemies . . .—As the text stands, render, Thine enemies have roared in the midst of thine assembly, but many MSS. have the plural as in Psalms 74:8, where see Note for the meaning of the word.

For “roared,” see Psalms 22:1, Note, and comp. Lamentations 2:7, where a similar scene is described. Instead of the voices of priest and choir, there have been heard the brutal cries of the heathen as they shouted at their work of destruction like lions roaring over their prey; or if, as some think, the reference in the next clause is to military ensigns, we have a picture of a wild soldiery exulting round the emblem of their triumph.

They set up their ensigns for signs.—The Hebrew for ensigns and signs is the same. Possibly the poet meant to have written some word meaning idols, but avoids it from dislike of mentioning the abominable things, and instead of places their idols as signs, writes, places their signs as signs.

Verse 5

Verse 7

(7) They have cast fire into.—Literally, They have cast into fire thy sanctuary. Probably a hyperbolic expression, and purporting to express the vastness of the conflagration. Others compare with the English “set on fire,” and French mettre à feu.

We learn from 1 Maccabees 4:38, and Josephus, Antt. xii., 7:6, that Judas Maccabæus, in coming to restore the Temple, found that the gates had been burnt.

Verse 8

(8) All the synagogues of God in the land.—This expression excludes from moed either of the meanings possible for it in Psalms 74:4, “the Temple” or “the assembly.” Buildings, and these places of worship, must be meant, and it is implied that they are scattered over the land, and can therefore mean nothing but synagogues. The “high places” would’ not be called God’s, nor would Bethel and Dan have been so called, being connected with irregular and unorthodox worship. Thus we have a clear note of time, indicating a period not only later than the rise of the synagogue in Ezra’s time, but much later, since it takes time for a new institution to spread over a country. Aquila and Symmachus actually render “synagogues.” Possibly the LXX. are right in putting the latter clause into the mouth of the enemies, “let us burn,” &c

Verse 9

(9) We see not our signs . . .—It is natural to take this statement in direct contrast to what Psalms 74:4 (see Note) says of the heathen signs. While these abominations—rallying points of savage profanity—were visibly set up, the tokens of the invisible God’s presence, His wonders wrought for Israel, are no more seen.

There is no more any prophet.—This was the constant lament of the Maccabæan period (1 Maccabees 4:46; 1 Maccabees 9:27; 1 Maccabees 14:41), and suits no earlier time—at least none into which the rest of the psalm would fit. During the exile period Jeremiah and Ezekiel were prophesying, and the complaint took quite a different form then and probably for some time afterwards (Lamentations 2:9; Ezekiel 7:26). The full desolation of the situation is told in “Song of the Three Children,” Psalms 74:15; “Neither is there at this time prince, or prophet, or leader, or burnt offering, or sacrifice, or oblation, or incense, or place to sacrifice before Thee or find mercy.”

Neither is there among us any that knoweth how long.—This, too, carries us on past the time of Jeremiah, who had given an exact date for the termination of the exile. Probably (if the arrangement of the words is right) we have here another expression of a widely-spread feeling—a feeling which inspired the apocalyptic literature, which had for its object partly to answer this question, how long? But it has been suggested, as more in the Hebrew style, to end the clause with the word know, and make it directly parallel with the preceding (“there is neither a prophet nor one who knows”), and carry on the interrogative to the next verse, where its repetition would add much to the force of the question there put. (Burgess.)

Verses 10-15

(10-15) ln the true prophetic spirit, as Moses brought the cries of distress “by reason of their bondage” from the oppressed Israelites to God (Exodus 5:22), so this poet carries to the same God the pathos of this later cry, How long? how long? In answer, the deliverances of old rush into his mind. He recalls the right hand once stretched out to save (now thrust in inaction into the bosom), the wonders at the Red Sea, and all the long-continued providential guiding. Surely the same God will do the same wonders now!

Verse 11

(11) Why withdrawest thou.—Literally, returnest, i.e., into the ample folds of the Eastern robe. The poet is thinking of Exodus 4:7.

Pluck it out of thy bosom.—Literally, out of the midst of thy bosom consume. For the same absolute use of this verb comp. Psalms 59:13. The clause is an instance of pregnant construction (comp. Psalms 74:7), and is plainly equivalent to, Why dost thou not pluck out thy right hand to consume?

Verse 12

(12) For.—Better, and, or and yet.

My king.—The poet speaks for Israel. (Comp. Psalms 44:4; Habakkuk 1:12.)

In the midst of the earth.—Or, as we might say, “on the great theatre of the world.” Certainly we must not render here land instead of earth, since the wonders of Egypt, &c, are the theme.

Verse 13

(13) Thou.—Verse after verse this emphatic pronoun recurs, as if challenging the Divine Being to contradict.

Divide.—Literally, break up.

Dragons.—Hebrew, tannînîm, not to be confounded with tannîm (Psalms 44:19, where see Note). It is the plural of tannín, which always indicates some aquatic monster. In Genesis 1:21 it is translated whale, so here by Symmachus. The LXX. (comp. Vulgate) have rendered this word and leviathan (in the next verse) by δράκων, and, indeed, the parallelism indicates monsters of a similar, if not the same, kind. About leviathan the minute and faithful description of the crocodile in Job 41 does not leave a doubt, and therefore we conclude that the tannin, here as in Ezekiel 29:3; Ezekiel 32:2 (margin), Isaiah 27:1; Isaiah 51:9 (where it is also, as here, joined with leviathan), an emblem of Egypt, was some great saurian, perhaps the alligator. The derivation from a root implying extend, favours this explanation. (Tristram, Nat. Hist. of the Bible, pp. 260, 261.) Besides its abundance, another fact leading to the crocodile becoming an emblem of Egypt, was the adoration paid to it. (See Herod., ii. 69.)

In the waters.—Literally, on the waters.

Verse 14

(14) Leviathan.—See last note.

And gavest him . . .—The crocodile was eaten by the people of Elephantine (Herod. ii. 69), but there is no allusion here to that custom, nor to the Ichthyophagi mentioned by Agatharchides, nor to the Æthiopians (as in the LXX.). It is the Egyptian corpses thrown up by the Red Sea that are to be devoured (comp. Ezekiel 29:3-5) by the “wild beasts,” called here “people,” as the ants and conies are (Proverbs 30:25-26).

Verse 15

(15) Thou didst cleave . . .—Another pregnant expression for “thou didst cleave the rock, and a fountain came forth.”

Flood.—Better, brook. Heb., nâchal.

Mighty rivers.—See margin. But, perhaps, rather. rivers of constant flow, that did not dry up in summer like the “brooks.” The same word is used of the sea (Exodus 14:27), to express the return to the regular flow of the tide.

The verb “driest up” is that used (Joshua 2:10) of the Red Sea, and Joshua 4:23; Joshua 5:1 of the Jordan.

Verse 16

(16) The light and the sun.—Evidently from Genesis 1:14; Genesis 1:16, where the same word occurs for the heavenly luminary generally, and then for the sun as chief.

Verses 16-18

(16-18) An appeal from the God of history to the God of nature. Not only did He work wonders, but even the universe is the work of His hand.

Verse 17

(17) All the borders of the earth—i.e., earth in all directions, and to its utmost bounds; as we say, “from pole to pole.”

Verse 18

(18) Remember this.—Emphatical; the object of the enemy’s reproach is the Being who has done all these mighty works, and is the author of all this wonderful world.

Verse 19

(19) O deliver.—To guide to the meaning of this verse, the word chayyah occurs in each clause, and it is presumable in the same sense (unless there is a purposed play on words). It may have one of three meanings: “life,” “animal,” “troop.” Psalms 17:9 suggests that chayyath nephesh go together in the sense of “greedy band,” and we get—

“Deliver not to the greedy band thy dove;

Forget not the band of the afflicted for ever.”

Verse 20

Verse 21

(21) Oppressed.—Literally, crushed. (See Psalms 9:9; Psalms 10:18.)

Verse 22-23

(22, 23) These verses show that the psalm was actually composed amidst the dark days it describes. It ends in expostulatory prayer, with as yet no brighter gleam of hope than prayer itself implies—and that when seemingly directed to deaf ears.


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 74:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

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Tuesday, May 21st, 2019
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