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The title of the psalm is, “A song and psalm for the sons of Korah.” The “two” appellations, “song” and “psalm,” would seem to imply that it was intended to “combine” what was implied in both these words; that is, that it embraced what was usually understood by the word “psalm,” and that it was intended also specifically to be “sung.” Compare the notes at the titles to Psalms 3:1-8 (notes); 18 (notes); 30 (notes): In Psalms 30:1-12 the two are combined as they are here. On the phrase “For the sons of Korah,” see the notes at the title to Psalms 42:1-11.
The “occasion” on which the psalm was composed cannot be ascertained. Prof. Alexander and some others suppose that it was composed on the same occasion, or with reference to the same event, as the previous psalm - the overthrow of the enemies of Judah, under Jehoshaphat, 2 Chronicles 20:0. Others, as DeWette, suppose that it was on occasion of the overthrow of the army of Sennacherib, 2 Kings 19:35. The circumstances of the case best agree with the former of these suppositions, though it is not possible to ascertain this with absolute precision.
The contents of the psalm are as follows:
I. An ascription of praise to God, especially as dwelling in a city which was for its beauty and strength an appropriate dwelling-place of such a God, Psalms 48:1-3. The psalmist “begins” with a statement that God is worthy to be praised, Psalms 48:1; he then, in the same verse, refers to the abode of God, the city where he dwelt, as a holy mountain; he describes the beauty of that city Psalms 48:2; and he then adverts to the fact that God is “known in her palaces,” or that he dwells in that city as its protector. Its beauty, and its security in having God as a dweller there, are the first things to which the attention is directed.
II. A reference to the danger of the city on the occasion referred to, and the fact and the manner of its deliverance, Psalms 48:4-7. The psalmist represents the “kings” as assembling with a view to take it, but as being awe-struck with its appearance and as hastening away in consternation, - driven away as the ships of Tarshish are broken with an east wind.
III. The psalmist sees in these events a confirmation of what had been before affirmed of Jerusalem, that it would stand forever, or that God would be its protector, Psalms 48:8-10. There were on this subject ancient records, the truth of which the present event confirmed Psalms 48:8, and the psalmist says Psalms 48:9 that those records were now called to remembrance, and Psalms 48:10 that the effect would be that the name of God would be made known to the ends of the earth.
IV. A call on Jerusalem to rejoice, and a call on all persons to walk around and see the matchless beauty and strength of the city thus favored by God, Psalms 48:11-14. Its towers, its bulwarks, its palaces, were all such as to show its strength; the certainty of its permanence was such that one generation should proclaim it to another. God’s interposition had been such as to furnish proof that he would be their God forever and ever, and that even unto death he would be the guide of those that trusted Him.
Great is the Lord - That is, he is high and exalted; he is a Being of great power and glory. He is not weak and feeble, like the idols worshipped by other nations. He is able to defend his people; he has shown his great power in overthrowing the mighty forces that were gathered together against the city where he dwells.
And greatly to be praised - Worthy to be praised. In his own nature, he is worthy of adoration; in interposing to save the city from its foes, he has shown that he is worthy of exalted praise.
In the city of our God - Jerusalem. In the city which he has chosen for his abode, and where his worship is celebrated. See the notes at Psalms 46:4. This praise was especially appropriate there:
(a) because it was a place set apart for his worship;
(b) because he had now interposed to save it from threatened ruin.
In the mountain of his holiness - His holy mountain; either Mount Zion, if the psalm was composed before the building of the temple - or more probably here Mount Moriah, on which the temple was reared. The names Zion, and Mount Zion, however, were sometimes given to the entire city. Compare the notes at Isaiah 2:2-3.
Beautiful for situation - The word rendered “situation” - נוף nôph - means properly “elevation, height,” (Ges. Lexicon); and the idea here is, that the mountain referred to is “beautiful for elevation;” that is, it rises gracefully. The allusion here is to Jerusalem as it would appear to one approaching it, and especially as it appeared to the “kings” Psalms 48:4 who came to invest it, and who were so impressed with its marvelous beauty and strength, that they were afraid to attack it, and turned away Psalms 48:5.
The joy of the whole earth - Either the whole “land” of Palestine, or the whole world. Most probably the former is the meaning; and the idea is that, as a place of beauty and strength, and as a place where the worship of God was celebrated, and where the people of the land were accustomed to assemble, it was a source of national joy.
Is Mount Zion - The term used here would seem to denote the whole city, Jerusalem, as it often does. Mount Zion was the most conspicuous object in the city, the residence of the king, and for a long time, until the temple was built, the place where the ark reposed, and where the worship of God was celebrated, and hence, the term came to be used to denote the whole city.
On the sides of the north - That is, probably, the houses, the palaces, on the north sides of the Mount Zion. These were eminently beautiful; they struck one in approaching the city from that quarter, as impressive and grand. The natural and usual approach to the city was from the north, or the northwest. On the west was the valley of Gihon, on the south the valley of Hinnom; and on the east the valley of Jehoshaphat and of the brook Kidron; and it was only as the city was approached from the north that there would be a complete view of it; or, that was the only quarter from which it could be assailed. The “kings,” therefore Psalms 48:8, may be supposed to have approached it from that quarter; and thus approaching it, they would have a clear and impressive view of its beauty, and of the sources of its strength - of the walls, towers, and bulwarks which defended it, and of the magnificence of the buildings on Mount Zion. Dr. Thomson (Land and the Book, vol. ii., p. 476), says of the situation of Mount Zion, “What is there or was there about Zion to justify the high eulogium of David: “Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King?” The situation is indeed eminently adapted to be the platform of a magnificent citadel.
Rising high above the deep valley of Gihon and Hinnom on the west and south, and the scarcely less deep one of the Cheesemongers on the east, it could only be assailed from the northwest; and then “on the sides of the north” it was magnificently beautiful, and fortified by walls, towers, and bulwarks, the wonder and terror of the nations: “For the kings were assembled; they passed by together. They saw it, and so they marveled; they were troubled, and hasted away.” At the thought of it the royal psalmist again bursts forth in triumph: “Walk about Zion, and go round about her; tell the towers thereof; mark ye well her bulwarks; consider her palaces, that ye may tell it to the generation following.” Alas! her towers have long since fallen to the ground, her bulwarks have been overthrown, her palaces have crumbled to dust, and we who now walk about Zion can tell no other story than this to the generation following.” It was actually on the northern side of Mount Zion that most of the edifices of the city were erected. (Reland, Pales., p. 847.)
The city of the great King - That is, of God; the place where he has taken up his abode. Compare the notes at Psalms 46:4.
God is known in her palaces - The word rendered “palaces” here means properly a fortress, castle, or palace, so called from its height, from a verb, ארם 'âram, meaning to elevate, to lift up. It may be applied to any fortified place, and would be particularly applicable to a royal residence, as a castle or stronghold. The word “known” here means that it was well understood, or that the point had been fully tested and determined that God had chosen those abodes as his special residence - as the place where he might be found.
For a refuge - See the notes at Psalms 46:1. That is, there was safety or security in the God who had chosen Jerusalem as his special abode.
For, lo, the kings were assembled - There is evidently allusion here to some fact that had occurred; some gathering together of kings and their armies, with a view to besiege or attack Jerusalem. The kings referred to, if the allusion here is, as is supposed, to the time of Jehoshaphat, were the kings of Ammon and of Moab, and of Mount Seir, and perhaps others, not particularly mentioned, who came up against Jehoshaphat, 2 Chronicles 20:1, 2 Chronicles 20:10.
They passed by together - That is, they were smitten with consternation; they were so impressed with the beauty, the majesty, the strength of the city, that they passed along without venturing to attack it. Or, perhaps, the meaning may be, that they were discomfited and overthrown as suddenly “as if” the mere sight of the city had filled their minds with dread, and had made them desist from their intended assault. Compare 2 Chronicles 20:22-25.
They saw it - That is, they looked on it; they contemplated it; they were struck with its beauty and strength, and fled.
And so they marveled - It surpassed their expectations of its strength, and they saw with wonder that any attempt to conquer it was hopeless.
They were troubled - They were filled with anxiety and confusion. They even began to have apprehensions about their own safety. They saw that their preparations had been made in vain, and that all hopes of success must be abandoned.
And hasted away - They fled in confusion. The idea in the whole verse is that of a “panic,” leading to a disorderly flight. This “may” have occurred in the time of Jehoshaphat, 2 Chronicles 20:0, when the kings of Moab, Edom, and others, came up to attack Jerusalem, though the immediate cause of their overthrow was a conflict among themselves 2 Chronicles 20:22-25. It may have been, however, that they approached the city, and were dismayed by its strength, so that they turned away before the internal conflict occurred which ended in their ruin. But it is not “necessary” to adjust these accounts one to another, or even to suppose that this was the event referred to in the psalm, though the general ideas in it accord well with all which occurred on that occasion.
Fear took hold upon them there - Trembling seized them; they were filled with sudden consternation. That is, as soon as they saw the city, or had a distinct view of it, they became alarmed.
And pain - Distress; anguish. The distress arising from disappointed hopes, and perhaps from the apprehension of their own safety. They were filled with dismay.
As of a woman in travail - This comparison is often used in the Scriptures to denote the severest kind of pain. Compare Jeremiah 4:31; Jeremiah 6:24; Jeremiah 13:21; Jeremiah 22:23; Jeremiah 30:6; Jeremiah 49:24; Micah 4:9-10; Isaiah 53:11.
Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish - On the ships of Tarshish, see the notes on Isaiah 2:16. The allusion to these ships here may have been to illustrate the power of God; the ease with which he destroys that which man has made. The ships so strong - the ships made to navigate distant seas, and to encounter waves and storms - are broken to pieces with infinite ease when God causes the wind to sweep over the ocean. With so much ease God overthrows the most mighty armies, and scatters them. His power in the one case is strikingly illustrated by the other. It is not necessary, therefore, to suppose that there was any actual occurrence of this kind particularly in the eye of the psalmist; but it is an interesting fact that such a disaster did befall the navy of Jehoshaphat himself, 1 Kings 22:48 : “Jehoshaphat made “ships of Tarshish” to go to Ophir for gold; but they went not: “for the ships were broken” at Ezion-geber.” Compare 2 Chronicles 20:36-37. This coincidence would seem to render it not improbable that the discomfiture of the enemies of Jehoshaphat was particularly referred to in this psalm, and that the overthrow of his enemies when Jerusalem was threatened called to remembrance an important event in his own history, when the power of God was illustrated in a manner not less unexpected and remarkable. If this was the allusion, may not the reference to the “breaking of the ships of Tarshish” have been designed to show to Jehoshaphat, and to the dwellers in Zion, that they should not be proud and self-confident, by reminding them of the ease with which God had scattered and broken their own mighty navy, and by showing them that what he had done to their enemies he could do to them also, notwithstanding the strength of their city, and that their “real” defense was not in walls and bulwarks reared by human hand, anymore than it could be in the natural strength of their position only, but in God.
As we have heard, so have we seen - That is, What has been told us, or handed down by tradition, in regard to the strength and safety of the city - what our fathers have told us respecting its sacredness and its being under the protection of God - we have found to be true. It has been shown that God is its protector; that he dwells in the midst of it; that it is safe from the assaults of man; that it is permanent and abiding. All that had ever been said of the city in this respect had been found, in this trial when the kings assembled against it, to be true.
In the city of the Lord of hosts - The city where the Lord of hosts has taken up his abode, or which he has chosen for his dwelling-place on earth. See the notes at Isaiah 1:24; notes at Psalms 24:10.
In the city of our God - Of Him who has shown himself to be our God; the God of our nation.
God will establish it for ever - That is, this had been told them; this is what they had heard from their fathers; this they now saw to be verified in the divine interposition in the time of danger. They had seen that these combined armies could not take the city; that God had mercifully interposed to scatter their forces; and they inferred that it could be taken by no human power, and that God intended that it should be permanent and abiding. What is here said of Jerusalem is true in a sense more strict and absolute of the Church - that nothing can prevail against it, but that it will endure to the end of the world. See the notes at Matthew 16:18.
We have thought of thy loving-kindness, O God - We have reflected on, or meditated on. The word used here literally means “to compare, to liken;” and this idea is perhaps always implied when it is used in the sense of thinking on, or meditating on. Perhaps the meaning here is, that they had “compared” in their own minds what they had heard from their fathers with what they had now seen; they had called all these things up to their remembrance, and had compared the one with the other.
In the midst of thy temple - See the notes at Psalms 5:7. The allusion here most probably is to the “temple,” properly so called, as these transactions are supposed to have occurred after the building of the temple by Solomon. The expression here also would make it probable that the psalm was composed after the defeat and overthrow of the armies referred to, in order that it might be used in the temple in celebrating the deliverance.
According to thy name, O God, so is thy praise - That is, as far as thy name is known, it will be praised; or, the effect of knowing it will be to inspire praise. A just view of thy character and doings will lead people to praise thee as far as thy name is known. This seems to have been said in view of what had occurred. Events so remarkable, and so suited to show that God was a just, a powerful, and a merciful Being, would claim universal praise and adoration.
Unto the ends of the earth - In every part of the world. The earth is frequently represented in the Scriptures as an extended plain, having ends, corners, or limits. See the notes at Isaiah 11:12; Revelation 7:1.
Thy right hand is full of righteousness - The right hand is the instrument by which we accomplish anything. The idea here is, that in what God had done it seemed as if his hand - the instrument by which this bad been accomplished - had been “filled” with justice. All that had been manifested had been righteousness, and that had been in abundance.
Let mount Zion rejoice - Let Jerusalem, the holy city, rejoice or be glad. Mount Zion is evidently used here to designate the city; and the idea is, that the city of God - the holy city - had occasion for joy and gladness in view of the manifestation of the divine favor.
Let the daughters of Judah be glad - The phrase “daughters of Judah” “may” denote the smaller cities in the tribe of Judah, that surrounded Jerusalem as the “mother” city - in accordance with an usage quite common in the Hebrew Scriptures. See the notes at Isaiah 1:8. Perhaps, however, the more obvious interpretation is the correct one, as meaning that the women of Judah had special occasion to rejoice on account of their deliverance from so great danger, and from the horrors which usually attended the siege or the conquest of the city - the atrocities which commonly befall the female sex when a city is captured in war. The “daughters of Judah” are those descended from Judah, or connected with the tribe of Judah. Jerusalem was in the bounds of that tribe, and the name Judah was given to all those that remained after the removal of the ten tribes.
Because of thy judgments - Thy righteous interposition in delivering the city and people.
Walk about Zion - This is a call on all persons to go round the city; to take a survey of it; to see how beautiful and how strong it was - how it had escaped all danger, and was uninjured by the attempt to destroy it - how capable it was of resisting an attack. The word “walk” here means simply to go around or surround. The other word used has a more direct reference to a solemn procession.
And go round about her - The word used here - from נקף nâqaph - to fasten together, to join together, means to move round in a circle, as if persons joined together (see the notes at Job 1:5), and would refer here properly to a solemn procession moving round the city, and taking a deliberate survey of its entire circuit.
Tell the towers thereof - That is, Take the number of the towers. See how numerous they are; how firm they remain; what a defense and protection they constitute. Cities, surrounded by walls, had always “towers” or elevated portions as posts of observation, or as places from which missiles might be discharged with advantage on those who should attempt to scale the walls. Compare Genesis 11:4-5; 2 Chronicles 26:9-10; Isaiah 2:15.
Mark ye well her bulwarks - Margin, as in Hebrew, “Set your heart to her bulwarks.” That is, Pay close attention to them; make the investigation with care, not as one does whose heart is not in the thing, and who does it negligently. The word rendered “bulwarks” - חיל chêyl - means, properly, a host or army, and then a fortification or entrenchment, especially the “ditch” or “trench,” with the low wall or breastwork which surrounds it: 2 Samuel 20:15; Isaiah 26:1. (Gesenius, Lexicon) The Septuagint translates it here: δύναμις dunamis, power; the Vulgate, “virtus,” courage; Luther, “Mauern” - walls.
Consider her palaces - The word “palaces” here refers to the royal residences; and, as these were usually fortified and guarded, the expression here is equivalent to this: “Consider the “strength” of the city; its power to defend itself; its safety from the danger of being taken.” The word rendered “consider” - פסגוּ pasegû - is rendered in the margin “raise up.” The word occurs nowhere else in the Bible. According to Gesenius (Lexicon), it means to “divide up;” that is, to walk through and survey them; or, to consider them accurately, or in detail, one by one. The Vulgate renders it “distribute;” the Septuagint, “take a distinct view of (Thompson);” Luther, “lift up.” The idea is, “examine attentively” or “carefully.”
That ye may tell it to the generation following - That you may be able to give a correct account of it to the next age. The “object” of this is to inspire the next generation with a belief that God is the protector of the city; that it is so strong that it cannot be vanquished; that there is safety in such a city as that. As applied to the church now, or at any time, it means that we are to take such views of its being a true church of God; of its being fixed on firm foundations; of its being so able to resist all the assaults of Satan, and of its being so directly under the divine protection, that it has nothing to fear. It will and must stand to all coming time, a place of absolute safety to all who seek protection and safety within it. The following remarks of Dr. Thomson (Land and the Book, vol. ii., 474, 475), may furnish an illustration of what the ancient defenses in the city may have been, and especially of the word “towers” in this passage in the Psalms: “The only castle of any particular importance is that at the Jaffa Gate, commonly called the Tower of David. The lower part of it is built of huge stones, roughly cut, and with a deep “bevel” round the edges.
They are undoubtedly ancient, but the interspersed patch-work proves that they are not in their original positions. I have been within it, and carefully explored all parts of it that are now accessible, but found nothing which could cast any light upon its history. It is believed by many to be the Hippicus of Josephus, and to this idea it owes its chief importance, for the historian makes that the point of departure in laying down the line of the ancient walls of Jerusalem. Volumes have been written in our day for and against the correctness of this identification, and the contest is still undecided; but, interesting as may be the result, we may safely leave it with those who are now conducting the controversy, and turn to matters more in unison with our particular inquiries. Everything that can be said about this grand old tower will be found in the voluminous works of Williams, Robinson, Schultz, Wilson, Fergusson, and other able writers on the topography of the Holy City.”
For this God is our God forever and ever - The God who has thus made his abode in the city, and who has manifested himself as its prorector. It is our comfort to reflect that such a God is “our” God; that he has manifested himself as our friend; that we may habitually feel that he is our own. And he is not only our God now, but he will be such for ever and ever. A feeling that the true God is “our” God - that he is ours and that we are his - always carries with it the idea that this is to be “forever;” that what is true now in this respect, will be true to all eternity. He is not a God for the present only, but for all time to come; not merely for this world, but for that unending duration which awaits us beyond the tomb.
He will be our guide even unto death - The Septuagint and the Vulgate render this “he will rule or govern ποιμανεῖ poimanei - reget) forever.” The more correct rendering, however, is that in our version, which is a literal translation of the Hebrew. Some have translated it upon death, על־מות ‛al-mûth; others, beyond death; but the true idea is that he will be our guide, or will conduct us all along through life; that he will never forsake us until the close has come; that he will accompany us faithfully to the end. The thought does not, of course, “exclude” the idea that he will be our guide - our protector - our friend - beyond death; but it is simply that as long as we live on the earth, we may have the assurance that he will lead and guide us. This he will do in behalf of those who put their trust in him
(a) by the counsels of His word;
(b) by the influences of His Spirit;
(c) by His providential interpositions;
(d) by special help in special trials;
(e) by shedding light upon our path when in perplexity and doubt; and
(f) by support and direction when we tread that dark and to us unknown way which conducts to the grave.
Man needs nothing more for this life than the confident assurance that he has the Eternal God for his guide, and that he will never be left or forsaken by Him in any possible situation in which he may be placed. If God, by His own hand, will conduct me through this world, and lead me safely through the dark valley - that valley which lies at the end of every traveler’s path - I have nothing to fear beyond.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 48". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany