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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Psalms 89


This long psalm comes evidently from a time of great national depression and trouble. The idolatries that led to the Captivity, and the Captivity itself, are already in the past, and the poet can think only of the splendid promises of God to the race, and the paradox that while made by a God of truth and faithfulness, they have yet been broken; for Israel lies prostrate, a prey to cruel and rapacious foes, and the cry, “How long?” goes up in despair to heaven. The “servant” and “anointed” (Psalms 89:38-39) need not necessarily be a prince of the house of David—Rehoboam or Jehoiachim, or another; but the whole nation individualised and presented in the person of one of the Davidic princes, as in that of David himself (Psalms 132:17). The time of the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes suits best all the conditions presented by the psalm. The poetical form is nearly regular, and the parallelism well marked.

Title.—For “Maschil” see title, Psalms 32:0.

Ethan the Ezrahite.—Probably to be identified with the man mentioned (1 Kings 4:31) as among the celebrated sages surpassed by Solomon, and called Ezrahites, as being of the family of Zerah (1 Chronicles 2:6; see Note to title to last psalm). Probably when the titles were prefixed this sage had become confused with Ethan (or Jeduthun), the singer.

Verse 1

(1) I will sing.—This lyric purpose soon loses itself in a dirge.

For ever.—The Hebrew (‘ôlam) has properly neither the abstract idea of negation of time, nor the concrete (Christian) idea of eternity, but implies indefiniteness, and looks either backwards or forwards.

With my mouthi.e., aloud, or loudly.

Verse 2

(2) Mercy . . . faithfulness.—These words, so often combined, express here, as commonly in the psalms, the attitude of the covenant God towards His people. The art of the poet is shown in this exordium. He strikes so strongly this note of the inviolability of the Divine promise only to make the deprecation of present neglect on God’s part presently more striking.

Shall be built up for ever—Better, is for ever being built up. Elsewhere figured as a “place of shelter,” a “tower of refuge,” God’s faithfulness is here presented as an edifice for ever rising on foundations laid in the heavens. (Comp. Psalms 119:89.) The heavens are at once the type of unchangeableness and of splendour and height. Mant’s paraphrase brings out the power of the verse:—

“For I have said, Thy mercies rise,
A deathless structure, to the skies;
The heavens were planted by Thy hand,
And as the heavens Thy truth shall stand.”

And Wordsworth has sung of Him:—

“Who fixed immovably the frame
Of the round world, and built by laws as strong
The solid refuge for distress,
The towers of righteousness.”

(Comp. Psalms 36:6.)

Verse 3

(3) I have sworn.—The prophetic passage (2 Samuel 7:12, seq.) is in the poet’s mind.

Verse 5

(5) The heavens.—Having repeated the Divine promise, the poet appeals to nature and history to confirm his conviction of the enduring character of the truth and grace of God. The heavens are witnesses of it as in Psalms 1:4; Psalms 1:6; Psalms 97:6.

Shall praise.—The present tense would be better.

Wonders.—In the original the word is singular, perhaps as summing up all the covenant faithfulness as one great display of wonder.

Saints.—Here, apparently, not spoken of Israel, but of the hosts above. (See next verse; comp. Job 4:18; Job 15:15 for the same term, “holy ones,” for angels.)

Verse 6

(6) Sons of the mighty.—Rather, sons of God—i.e., angels. (Comp. Psalms 29:1.)

Verse 7

(7) It is better to take this verse in apposition with the foregoing:
“God sublime in the council of the holy ones,
And terrible among those surrounding him.”

For a picture of the court of heaven see Job 1:6.

Verse 8

(8) O Lord.—The Hebrew marches more grandly than the Authorised Version:

“Jehovah, God of Hosts,
Who as Thou is mighty, Jah?
And Thy faithfulness surrounds Thee.”

Or the last clause may be rendered, and what faithfulness is like that round about thee? We must either think of the attendant throngs of loyal angels, or of God clothed as it were with faithfulness.

Verses 8-13

(8-13) Not only is God incomparable in heaven, He is also the only mighty and lofty one in nature or history.

Verse 10

(10) Rahab.—See Note, Psalms 87:4. The mention of the sea has carried the poet’s thoughts to the Red Sea and the deliverance from Egypt, which is represented as some huge monster conquered and crushed.

Verse 12

(12) Tabor and Hermon.—Introduced not only as standing roughly for west and east, but for their prominence and importance in the landscape. (Comp. Hosea 5:1.)

Shall rejoice.—Better, sing for joy.

Verse 13

(13) High is thy right hand.—The strong hand is supposed raised to strike. (Comp. Psalms 89:42.)

Verse 14

(14) Habitation.—Rather, foundation, or pillars. Righteousness and judgment support God’s throne, and mercy and truth (“those genii of sacred history”) precede (present tense, not future) Him as forerunners precede a king.

Verse 15

(15) That know the joyful soundi.e., that are familiar with the shouting and music that accompanied the feasts of Israel.

They shall walk.—Better in the present; and so of the verb in the next verse. The light of Jehovah’s countenance of course means His favour.

Verse 17

(17) Glory.—Better, ornament. The crown of a nation’s strength is not the triumphs it wins, nor the prosperity it secures, but the spirit in which these are used. Humility, and not pride, acknowledgment of God, and not conceit in her wealth or power, was the ornament of Israel’s strength, and made her greatness in her best days.

Our horn shall be exalted.—See Note, Psalms 132:17. Modern Eastern proverbs, such as “What a fine horn he has!” spoken of a great man, still preserve the figure.

Verse 18

(18) For the Lord.—Or, rather—

“For of Jehovah is our shield,
And of Israel’s Holy One our king,”

“shield” and “king” being in synonymous parallelism. Jehovah is the source of the theocratic power.

Verse 19

(19) The mention of the king allows the poet to bring still more into prominence the special promises made to Israel. The piece, which is couched in oracular language, is introduced by a prose statement recalling the sentences in Job which introduce a fresh speaker.

Holy one.—See Note, Psalms 16:10. Some MSS. (comp. LXX. and Vulg.) have the plural. The singular is correct, referring no doubt to Nathan, as is seen from 2 Samuel 7:17; 1 Chronicles 17:15. The oracular piece that follows (Psalms 89:19-37) is like Psalms 132:11-12, founded on this old prophetic passage; but while the original reference is to Solomon, here it is extended to all David’s posterity.

I have . . .—Better, I have placed help in a heroi.e., I have chosen a hero as a champion for Israel.

Verse 22

(22) Exact.—This meaning is possible, and is supported by the LXX. and Vulgate, “shall not get profit.” There may be an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:6, but perhaps it is better to take the verb in the same sense as the Hebrew margin of Psalms 55:15, “shall not surprise him;” Symmachus has, “lead him astray.”

Verse 23

(23) Beat down.—Probably bray, as in a mortar.

Plague.—Or, smite.

Verse 24

(24) Faithfulness and mercy, represented in Psalms 89:14 as God’s attendants, are here commissioned to act as a guard to David and his house.

Verse 25

(25) In the sea.—A reference, as in Psalms 72:8; Psalms 80:11, to the limits of the Solomonic kingdom, the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. For the figure we may compare a saying attributed by Curtius to some Scythian ambassadors, who addressed Alexander in these terms: “If the gods had given thee a body as great as thy mind, the whole world would not be able to contain thee. Thou wouldst reach with one hand to the east, and with the other to the west.”

Verse 26

(26) He shall cry.—This verse is interesting in view of the theological development in the psalter. We might think that the poet was referring to an actual psalm of David, with whom the expression, “My God, the rock of my salvation,” was familiar (see Psalms 18:1-2, &c.), were it not for the word “Father,” a title for the Divine Being which the national religion did not frame till the exile period (Jeremiah 3:4; Jeremiah 3:19; Isaiah 63:16).

Verse 27

(27) Firstborn.—Jesse’s youngest son became the firstborn, the favourite son of God. Here, of course, the epithet is extended to all the Davidic succession.

Verse 29

(29) Days of heaven.Deuteronomy 11:21. (Comp. Psalms 72:5; and see below, Psalms 89:36.)

Verses 30-33

(30-33) An elaboration of 2 Samuel 7:14-15, and evidently made with a purpose. The poet acknowledges the sin of Israel in past times, but also regards the sufferings of the exile as having been the punishment foretold by them. Hence the sin has been expiated, and the perplexity arises why Israel is still afflicted.

Verse 37

(37) And as a faithful witness in heaven.—Rather, and there is a faithful witness in heaven, which the parallelism shows to be the moon, just mentioned. The moon (see Psalms 81:3) was to the Jews—as to the ancients generally—the “arbiter of festivals,” and the festivals were signs of the covenant, consequently that luminary might well be called “a witness in heaven.”

Verse 38

(38) But thou.—The poem takes a new departure here. God is reproached for violating the covenant, and the contrast between the actual condition of things in Israel at present, and the glorious destiny promised, is feelingly set forth.

The boldness of this expostulation has scandalised the Jewish expositors. But see exactly similar language, Psalms 44:9; Psalms 44:22. The point of the poem, indeed, is gone if we soften down these expressions. The stronger the conviction of the inviolability of God’s promises, the more vehement becomes the sense of right to expostulate at their seeming violation, the delay of the fulfilment of the covenant. We may illustrate by the Latin poet’s

“Hic pietatis honos, sic nos in sceptra reponis?”
VIRGIL: Æn. 1:25.

Verse 39

(39) Made void.—Better, cast off, as the word is rendered in Lamentations 2:7, the only other place where it occurs. There the LXX. have “shook off;” here, “turned upside down.”

Thou hast profaned.—Comp. Psalms 74:7.

Verse 43

(43) Edge of his sword.—The Hebrew is tsûr, i.e., rock, and a comparison with Joshua 5:2 (margin) suggests that we have here a reminiscence of the “stone age.” The word “flint” for the edge of a weapon might easily survive the actual use of the implement itself. So we should still speak of “a foeman’s steel” even if the use of chemical explosives entirely abolished the use of sword and bayonet. This is one of the cases where the condition of modern science helps us in exegesis of the Bible. The ancient versions, who knew nothing of the stone or iron ages, paraphrase, by “strength,” or “help.”

Verse 44

(44) Thou hast . . .—Literally, Thou hast made to cease from his brightnessi.e., the brightness of the sun, promised in Psalms 89:36.

To the ground.—From being as the sun in heaven.

Verse 46

(46) How long.—With this persistent cry of the Maccabæan age (see Psalms 74:10), the poet shows that faith is not extinct, though it has a sore struggle with despair.

Verse 47

(47) Remember.—The text of this clause runs, Remember I how duration, which might possibly be an incoherent sob, meaning remember how quickly I pass. But since the transposition of a letter brings the clause into conformity with Psalms 39:4, “how frail I am,” it is better to adopt the change.

Wherefore hast thou . . .—Literally, for what vanity hast thou created all men?

“Count all the joys thine hours have seen,
Count all the days from anguish free,
And know, whatever thou hast been,
’Twere something better not to be.”—BYRON.

Verse 48

(48) What man.—Rather, What hero, or champion, or great man. The word is used of a king (Jeremiah 22:30; comp. Isaiah 22:17). The verse repeats a common poetic theme:—

“Pallida mors æquo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas,
Regumque turres.”—HORACE, I. Od. iv.

The hand of the grave.—Rather, of the underworld, “hand” being used for “power.”

Verse 50


The phrase, “bear in my bosom,” is explained by Psalms 79:12.

Verse 51

(51) Footsteps . . .—Every step taken by Israel was the subject of reproach. Rabbinical writers connect the verse with the delay of the Messiah, since it brings reproach on those who wait for him in vain.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 89". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.