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the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 107

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-43

Psalms 107:1-43

NOTWITHSTANDING the division of Books which separates Psalm evil from the two preceding, it is a pendant to these. The "gathering from among the heathen" prayed for in Psalms 106:41 has here come to pass (Psalms 107:3). The thanksgiving which there is regarded as the purpose of that restoration is here rendered for it. Psalms 105:1-45 had for theme God’s mercies to the fathers. Psalms 106:1-48 confessed the hereditary faithlessness of Israel and its chastisement by calamity and exile. Psalms 107:1-43 begins with summoning Israel as "the redeemed of Jehovah," to praise Him for His enduring lovingkindness in bringing them back from bondage, and then takes a wider flight, and celebrates the loving Providence which delivers, in all varieties of peril and calamity, those who cry to God. Its vivid pictures of distress and rescue begin, indeed, with one which may fairly be supposed to have been suggested by the incidents of the return from exile; and the second of these, that of the liberated prisoners, is possibly coloured by similar reminiscences; but the great restoration is only the starting point, and the bulk of the psalm goes further afield. Its instances of Divine deliverance, though cast into narrative form, describe not specific acts, but God’s uniform way of working. Wherever there are trouble and trust, there will be triumph and praise. The psalmist is propounding a partial solution of the old problem-the existence of pain and sorrow. They come as chastisements. If terror or misery drive men to God, God answers, and deliverance is assured, from which fuller-toned praise should spring. It is by no means a complete vindication of Providence, and experience does not bear out the assumption of uniform answers to prayers for deliverance from external calamities, which was more warranted before Christ than it is now; but the essence of the psalmist’s faith is ever true-that God hears the cry of a man driven to cry by crushing burdens, and will give him strength to bear and profit by them, even if He does not take them away.

The psalm passes before us a series of pictures, all alike in the disposition of their parts, and selected from the sad abundance of troubles which attack humanity. Travellers who have lost their way, captives, sick men, storm-tossed sailors, make a strangely miscellaneous company, the very unlikenesses of which suggest the width of the ocean of human misery. The artistic regularity of structure in all the four strophes relating to these cannot escape notice. But it is more than artistic. Whatever be a man’s trouble, there is but one way out of it-to cry to God. That way is never vain. Always deliverance comes, and always the obligation of praise lies on the "redeemed of Jehovah."

With Psalms 107:33 the psalm changes its structure. The refrains, which came in so strikingly in the preceding strophes are dropped. The complete pictures give place to mere outline sketches. These diversities have suggested to some that Psalms 107:33-43 are an excrescence; but they have some points of connection with the preceding, such as the peculiar phrase for "inhabited city" (Psalms 107:4, Psalms 107:5, Psalms 107:36), "hungry" (Psalms 107:5, Psalms 107:36), and the fondness for references to Isaiah and Job. In these latter verses the psalmist does not describe deliverances from peril or pain, but the sudden alternations effected by Providence on lands and men, which pass from fertility and prosperity to barrenness and trouble, and again from these to their opposites. Lovingkindness, which hears and rescues, is the theme of the first part; lovingkindness, which "changes all things and is itself unchanged," is the theme of the second. Both converge on the final thought (Psalms 107:43), that the observance of God’s ways is the part of true wisdom, and will win the clear perception of the all-embracing "lovingkindness of Jehovah."

New mercies give new meaning to old praises. Fresh outpourings of thankfulness willingly run in well-worn channels. The children can repeat the fathers’ doxology, and words hallowed by having borne the gratitude of many generations are the best vehicles for today’s praise. Therefore, the psalm begins with venerable words, which it bids the recipients of God’s last great mercy ring out once more. They who have yesterday been "redeemed from captivity" have proof that "His lovingkindness endures forever," since it has come down to them through centuries. The characteristic fondness for quotations, which marks the psalm, is in full force in the three introductory verses. Psalms 107:1 is, of course, quoted from several psalms. "The redeemed of Jehovah" is from Isaiah 62:12."gathered out of the lands" looks back to Psalms 106:47, and to many prophetic passages. The word rendered above "distress" may mean oppressor, and is frequently rendered so here, which rendering fits better the preceding word "hand." But the recurrence of the same word in the subsequent refrains (Psalms 107:6, Psalms 107:13, Psalms 107:19, Psalms 107:28) makes the rendering distress preferable here. To ascribe to distress a "hand" is poetical personification, or the latter word may be taken in a somewhat wider sense as equivalent to a grasp or grip, as above. The return from Babylon is evidently in the poet’s thoughts, but he widens it out into a restoration from every quarter. His enumeration of the points from which the exiles flock is irregular, in that he says "from north and from the sea, " which always means the Mediterranean, and stands for the west. That quarter has, however, already been mentioned, and, therefore, it has been supposed that sea here means, abnormally, the Red Sea, or "the southern portion of the Mediterranean." A textual alteration has also been proposed, which, by the addition of two letters to the word for sea, gives that for south. This reading would complete the enumeration of cardinal points; but possibly the psalmist is quoting Isaiah 49:12, where the same phrase occurs, and the north is set over against the sea-i.e., the west. The slight irregularity does not interfere with the picture of the streams of returning exiles from every quarter.

The first scene, that of a caravan lost in a desert, is probably suggested by the previous reference to the return of the "redeemed of Jehovah," but is not to be taken as referring only to that. It is a perfectly general sketch of a frequent incident of travel. It is a remarkable trace of a state of society very unlike modem life, that two of the four instances of "distress" are due to the perils of journeying. By land and by sea men took their lives in their hands, when they left their homes. Two points are signalised in this description, -the first, the loss of the track; the second, the wanderers’ hunger and thirst. "A waste of a way" is of singular expression, which has suggested various unnecessary textual emendations. It is like "a wild ass of a man," {Genesis 16:12} which several commentators quote as a parallel, and means a way which is desert. {compare Acts 8:26} The bewildered, devious march leads nowhither. Vainly the travellers look for some elevation,

"From whence the lightened spirit sees

That shady city of Palm Trees."

No place where men dwell appears in the wide expanse of pathless wilderness. The psalmist does not think of a particular city, but of any inhabited spot, where rest and shelter might be found. The water skins are empty; food is finished; hopelessness follows physical exhaustion, and gloom wraps their souls; for Psalms 107:5 b, literally translated, is, "Their soul covered itself"-i.e., with despondency. {Psalms 77:3}

The picture is not an allegory or a parable, but a transcript of a common fact. Still, one can scarcely help seeing in it a vivid representation of the inmost reality of a life apart from God. Such a life ever strays from the right road. "The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to come to the city." The deepest needs of the soul are unsatisfied; and however outward good abounds, gnawing hunger and fierce thirst torment at times; and however mirth and success seem to smile, joys are superficial, and but mask a central sadness, as vineyards which clothe the outside of a volcano and lie above sulphurous fires.

The travellers are driven to God by their "distress." Happy they who, when lost in a desert, bethink themselves of the only Guide. He does not reject the cry which is forced out by the pressure of calamity; but, as the structure of Psalms 107:6-7, shows, His answer is simultaneous with the appeal to Him, and it is complete, as well as immediate. The track appears as suddenly as it had faded. God Himself goes at the head of the march. The path is straight as an arrow’s flight, and soon they are in the city.

Psalms 107:6 is the first instance of the refrain, which, in each of the four pictures, is followed by a verse (or, in the last of the four, by two verses) descriptive of the act of deliverance, which again is followed by the second refrain, calling on those who have experienced such a mercy to thank Jehovah. This is followed in the first two groups by a verse reiterating the reason for praise-namely, the deliverance just granted; and, in the last two, by a verse expanding the summons. Various may be the forms of need. But the supply of them all is one, and the way to get it is one, and one is the experience of the suppliants, and one should be their praise. Life’s diversities have underlying them identity of soul’s wants. Waiters on God have very different outward fortunes, but the broad outlines of their inward history are identical. This is the law of His providence-they cry, He delivers. This should be the harvest from His sowing of benefits-"Let them give thanks to Jehovah." Some would translate Psalms 107:8, "Let them thankfully confess to Jehovah His lovingkindness, and to the children of men [confess] His wonders"; but the usual rendering as above is better, as not introducing a thought which, however important, is scarcely in the psalmist’s view here, and as preserving the great thought of the psalm-namely, that of God’s providence to all mankind.

The second scene, that of captives, probably retains some allusion to Babylon, though an even fainter one than in the preceding strophe. It has several quotations and references to Isaiah, especially to the latter half (Isaiah 40:1-31; Isaiah 41:1-29; Isaiah 42:1-25; Isaiah 43:1-28; Isaiah 44:1-28; Isaiah 45:1-25; Isaiah 46:1-13). The deliverance is described in Psalms 107:16 in words borrowed from the prophecy as to Cyrus, the instrument of Israel’s restoration. {Isaiah 45:2} The gloom of the prison house is described in language closely resembling Isaiah 42:7; Isaiah 49:9. The combination of "darkness and the shade of deepest gloom" is found in Isaiah 9:2. The cause of the captivity described is rebellion against God’s counsel and word. These things point to Israel’s Babylonian bondage; but the picture in the psalm draws its colour rather than its subject from that event and is quite general. The psalmist thinks that such bondage, and deliverance on repentance and prayer, are standing facts in Providence, both as regards nations and individuals. One may see, too, a certain parabolic aspect hinted at, as if the poet would have us catch a half-revealed intention to present calamity of any kind under this image of captivity. We note the slipping in of words that are not required for the picture, as when the fetters are said to be "affliction" as well as "iron." Psalms 107:12, too, is not specially appropriate to the condition of prisoners; persons in fetters and gloom do not stumble, for they do not move. There may, therefore, be a half-glance at the parabolic aspect of captivity, such as poetic imagination, and especially Oriental poetry, loves. At most it is a delicate suggestion, shyly hiding while it shows itself, and made too much of if drawn out in prosaic exposition.

We may perceive also the allegorical pertinence of this second picture, though we do not suppose that the singer intended such a use. For is not godless life ever bondage? and is not rebellion against God the sure cause of falling under a harsher dominion? and does He not listen to the cry of a soul that feels the slavery of subjection to self and sin? and is not true enlargement found in His free service? and does He not give power to break the strongest chains of habit? The synagogue at Nazareth, where the carpenter’s Son stood up to read and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me. He hath sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives." warrants the symbolical use of the psalmist’s imagery, which is, as we have seen, largely influenced by the prophet whose words Jesus quoted. The first scene taught that devout hearts never lack guidance from God. The second adds to their blessings freedom, the true liberty which comes with submission and acceptance of His law.

Sickness, which yields the third type of suffering, is a commoner experience than the two preceding. The picture is lightly sketched, emphasis being laid on the cause of the sickness, which is sin, in accordance with the prevailing view in the Old Testament. The psalmist introduces the persons of whom he is to speak by the strongly condemnatory term "foolish ones," which refers not to intellectual feebleness, but to moral perversity. All sin is folly. Nothing is so insane as to do wrong. An ingenious correction has been suggested and is accepted by Cheyne in the wake of Dyserinck, Graetz, and others, by which "sick men" is read for "foolish men." But it does not appear to the present writer to be so impossible as Cheyne thinks to "conceive the psalmist introducing a fresh tableau by an ethical term such as fools." The whole verse (Psalms 107:17) lays more stress on the sin than on the sickness, and the initial designation of the sufferers as "fools" is quite in harmony with its tone. They are habitual evildoers, as is expressed by the weighty expression "the way (or course) of their transgression." Not by one or two breaches of moral law, but by inveterate, customary sins, men ruin their physical health. So the psalmist uses a form of the verb in Psalms 107:17 b which expresses that the sinner drags down his punishment with his own hands. That is, of course, eminently true in such gross forms of sin as sow to the flesh, and of the flesh reap corruption. But it is no less really true of all transgression, since all brings sickness to the soul. Psalms 107:18 is apparently quoted from Job 33:20-22. It paints with impressive simplicity the failing appetite and consequent ebbing strength. The grim portals, of which Death keeps the keys, have all but received the sick men; but, before they pass into their shadow, they cry to Jehovah, and, like the other men in distress, they too are heard, feeble as their sick voice may be. The manner of their deliverance is strikingly portrayed. "He sent His word and healed them." As in Psalms 105:19, God’s word is almost personified. It is the channel of the Divine power. God’s uttered will has power on material things. It is the same great thought as is expressed in "He spake and it was done." The psalmist did not know the Christian teaching that the personal Word of God is the agent of all the Divine energy in the realm of nature and of history, and that a far deeper sense than that which he attached to them would one day be found in his words, when the Incarnate Word was manifested, as Himself bearing and bearing away the sicknesses of humanity, and rescuing not only the dying from going down to the grave, but bringing up the dead who had long lain there. God, who is Guide and Emancipator, is also Healer and Life-giver, and He is all these in the Word, which has become flesh, and dwelt and dwells among men.

Another travel scene follows. The storm at sea is painted as a landsman would do it; but a landsman who had seen, from a safe shore, what he so vividly describes. He is impressed with the strange things that the bold men who venture to sea must meet, away out there beyond the point where sea and sky touch. With sure poetic instinct, he spends no time on trivial details, but dashes on his canvas the salient features of the tempest, -the sudden springing up of the gale; the swift response of the waves rolling high, with new force in their mass and a new voice in their breaking; the pitching craft, now on the crest, now in the trough; the terror of the helpless crew; the loss of steering power; the heavy rolling of the unmanageable, clumsy ship; and the desperation of the sailors, whose wisdom or skill was "swallowed up," or came to nothing.

Their cry to Jehovah was heard above the shriek of the storm, and the tempest fell as suddenly as it rose. The description of the deliverance is extended beyond the normal single verse, just as that of the peril had been prolonged. It comes like a benediction after the hurly burly of the gale. How gently the words echo the softness of the light air into which it has died down, and the music which the wavelets make as they lap against the ship’s sides! With what sympathy the poet thinks of the glad hearts on board, and of their reaching the safe harbour, for which they had longed when they thought they would never see it more! Surely it is a permissible application of these lovely words to read into them the Christian hope of preservation amid life’s tempests, -

"Safe into the haven guide,

O receive my soul at last."

God the guide, the emancipator, the healer, is also the stiller of the storm, and they who cry to Him from the unquiet sea will reach the stable shore. "And so it came to pass, they all came safe to land."

As already observed, the tone changes with Psalms 107:33, from which point onwards the psalmist adduces instances of Providential working of a different kind from those in the four vivid pictures preceding, and drops the refrains. In Psalms 107:33-38 he describes a double change wrought on a land. The barrenness which blasts fertile soil is painted in language largely borrowed from Isaiah." Psalms 107:33 a recalls Isaiah 1:2 b; Psalms 107:33 b is like Isaiah 35:7 a" (Delitzsch). The opposite change of desert into fertile ground is pictured as in Isaiah 41:18. The references in Psalms 107:36 to "the hungry" and to "an inhabited city" connect with the previous part of the psalm, and are against the supposition that the latter half is not originally part of it. The incidents described refer to no particular instance, but are as general as those of the former part. Many a land, which has been blasted by the vices of its inhabitants, has been transformed into a garden by new settlers. "Where the Turk’s horse has trod, no grass will grow."

Psalms 107:39 introduces the reverse, which often befalls prosperous communities, especially in times when it is dangerous to seem rich for fear of rapacious rulers. "The pressure" referred to in Psalms 107:39 is the oppression of such. If so, Psalms 107:40, which is quoted from Job 12:21; Job 12:24, though introduced abruptly, does not disturb the sequence of thought. It grandly paints the judgment of God on such robber princes, who are hunted from their seats by popular execration, and have to hide themselves in the pathless waste, from which those who cry to God were delivered (Psalms 107:41 b and 4 a). On the other hand, the oppressed are lifted, as by His strong arm, out of the depths and set on high, like a man perched safely on some crag above high-water mark. Prosperity returning is followed by large increase and happy, peaceful family life, the chief good of man on earth. The outcome of the various methods of God’s unvarying purpose is that all which is good is glad, and all which is evil is struck dumb. The two clauses of Psalms 107:42 which describe this double fect, are quoted from two passages in Job-a from Job 22:19, and b from Job 5:16.

The psalm began with hymning the enduring lovingkindness of Jehovah. It ends with a call to all who would be wise to give heed to the various dealings of God, as exemplified in the specimens chosen in it, that they may comprehend how in all these one purpose rules, and all are examples of the manifold lovingkindnesses of Jehovah. This closing note is an echo of the last words of Hosea’s prophecy. It is the broad truth which all thoughtful observance of Providence brings home to a man, notwithstanding many mysteries and apparent contradictions. "All things work together for good to them that love God"; and the more they love Him, the more clearly will they see, and the more happily will they feel, that so it is. How can a man contemplate the painful riddle of the world, and keep his sanity, without that faith? He who has it for his faith will have it for his experience.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 107". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-107.html.
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