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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 9

Verses 1-20

Psalms 9:1-20

Psalms 7:1-17; Psalms 9:1-20 are connected by the recurrence of the two thoughts of God as the Judge of nations and the wicked falling into the pit which he digged. Probably the original arrangement of the Psalter put these two next each other, and Psalms 8:1-9 was inserted later.

Psalms 9:1-20 is imperfectly acrostic. It falls into strains of two verses each, which are marked by sequence of thought as well as by the acrostic arrangement. The first begins with Aleph, the second with Beth, and so on, the second verse of each pair not being counted in the scheme. The fourth letter is missing, and Psalms 9:7, which should begin with it, begins with the sixth. But a textual correction, which is desirable on other grounds, makes the fifth letter (He) the initial of Psalms 9:7, and then the regular sequence is kept up till Psalms 9:19, which should begin with the soft K, but takes instead the guttural Q. What has become of the rest of the alphabet? Part of it is found in Psalms 10:1-18, where the first verse begins with the L, which should follow the regular K for Psalms 9:19. But there is no more trace of acrostic structure in 10 till Psalms 10:12, which resumes it with the Q which has already appeared out of place in Psalms 9:19; and it goes on to the end of the alphabet, with only the irregularity that the R strain {Psalms 10:14} has but one verse. Verses with the missing letters would just about occupy the space of the non-acrostic verses in Psalms 10:1-18, and the suggestion is obvious that the latter are part of some other psalm which has been substituted for the original; but there are links of connection between the non-acrostic and acrostic portions of Psalms 10:1-18, which make that hypothesis difficult. The resemblances between the two psalms as they stand are close, and the dissimilarities not less obvious. The psalmist’s enemies are different. In the former they are foreign, in the latter domestic. Psalms 8:1-9 rings with triumph; Psalms 10:1-18 is in a minor key. The former celebrates a judgment as accomplished which the latter almost despairingly longs to see begun. On the whole, the two were most probably never formally one, but are a closely connected pair. There is nothing to discredit the Davidic authorship. The singer’s enemies are "nations" and the destruction of these foreign foes is equivalent to "maintaining his cause." That would be language natural in the mouth of a king, and there were foreign wars enough in David’s reign to supply appropriate occasions for such a song. The psalm falls into two parts, Psalms 9:1-12 and Psalms 9:13-20, of which the second substantially repeats the main thoughts of the first, but with a significant difference. In the first part the sequence is praise and its occasion (Aleph and Beth verses, Psalms 9:1-4), triumphant recounting of accomplished judgment (Gimel Psalms 9:5-6), confident expectation of future wider judgment (amended He and Vav pairs, Psalms 9:7-10), and a final call to praise. {Psalms 7:12} Thus set, as it were, in a circlet of praise, are experience of past and consequent confidence of future deliverance. The second part gives the same order, only, instead of praise, it has prayer for its beginning and end, the two central portions remaining the same as in part 1. The Cheth pair (Psalms 9:13-14) is prayer, the deliverance not being perfected, though some foes have fallen; the past act of accomplished judgment is again celebrated in the Teth pair (Psalms 9:15-16), followed, as before, by the triumphant confidence of future complete crushing of enemies (Yod strain, Psalms 9:17-18); and all closes with prayer (Qoph pair, Psalms 9:19-20). Thus the same thoughts are twice dwelt on; and the different use made of them is the explanation of the repetition, which strikes a cursory reader as needless. The diamond is turned a little in the hand, and a differently tinted beam flashes from its facet.

In the first pair of verses, the song rushes out like some river breaking through a dam and flashing as it hurries on its course. Each short clause begins with Aleph; each makes the same fervid resolve. Wholehearted praise is sincere, and all the singer’s being is fused into it. "All Thy marvellous works" include the great deliverances of the past, with which a living sense of God’s working associates those of the present, as one in character and source. Today is as full of God to this man as the sacred yesterdays of national history, and his deliverances as wonderful as those of old. But high above the joy in God’s work is the joy in Himself to which it leads, and "Thy name, O thou Most High," is the ground of all pure delight and the theme of all worthy praise.

The second stanza (Beth, Psalms 9:3-4) is best taken as giving the ground of praise. Render in close connection with preceding "because mine enemies turn back; they stumble and perish at [or from] Thy presence." God’s face blazes out on the foe, and they turn and flee from the field, but in their flight they stumble, and, like fugitives, once fallen can rise no more. The underlying picture is of a battlefield and a disastrous rout. it is God’s coming into action that scatters the enemy, as Psalms 9:4 tells by its "for." When he took His seat on the throne (of judgment rather than of royalty), they fled; and that act of assuming judicial activity was the maintaining of the psalmist’s cause.

The third pair of verses (Gimel, Psalms 9:5-6) dwells on the grand picture of judgment, and specifies for the first time the enemies as "the nations" or "heathen," thus showing that the psalmist is not a private individual, and probably implying that the whole psalm is a hymn of victory, in which the heat of battle still glows, but which writes no name on the trophy but that of God. The metaphor of a judgment seat is exchanged for a triumphant description of the destructions fallen on the land of the enemy, in all which God alone is recognised as the actor. "Thou hast rebuked"; and just as His creative word was all powerful, so His destructive word sweeps its objects into nothingness. There is a grand and solemn sequence in that "Thou hast rebuked; Thou hast destroyed." His breath has made; His breath can unmake. In Psalms 9:6 the rendering to be preferred is substantially that of the R.V: "The enemy are ended, [they are] ruins forever, and cities hast Thou rooted out; perished is their memory." To take "enemy" as a vocative breaks the continuity of the address to God, and brings in an irrelevant reference to the former conquests of the foe ("Thou hast destroyed cities") which is much more forcible if regarded as descriptive of God’s destruction of his cities. "Their memory" refers to the enemy, not to the cities. Utter, perpetual ruin, so complete that the very name is forgotten, has fallen on the foe.

In the fourth pair of verses a slight emendation of the text is approved of by most critics. The last word of Psalms 9:6 is the pronoun "they," which. though possible in such a position, is awkward. If it is transferred to the beginning of Psalms 9:7, and it is further supposed that "are perished" has dropped out, as might easily be the case, from the verb having just occurred in the singular, a striking antithesis is gained: "They perish, but Jehovah shall sit," etc. Further, the pair of verses then begins with the fifth letter; and the only irregularity in the acrostic arrangement till Psalms 9:19 is the omission of the fourth letter: Daleth. A very significant change in tenses takes place at this point. Hitherto the verbs have been perfects, implying a finished act; that is to say, hitherto the psalm has been dealing with facts of recent but completed experience. Now the verbs change to imperfects or futures, and continue so till Psalms 9:12; that is to say, "experience doth attain to something of prophetic strain," and passes into confidence for the future. That confidence is cast in the mould supplied by the deliverance on which it is founded. The smaller act of judgment, which maintained the psalmist’s cause, expands into a world wide judgment in righteousness, for which the preparations are already made. "He hath prepared His throne for judgment" is the only perfect in the series. This is the true point of view from which to regard the less comprehensive acts of judgment thinly sown through history, when God has arisen to smite some hoary iniquity or some godless conqueror. Such acts are premonitions of the future. and every "day of the Lord" is a miniature of that final dies ira. The psalmist probably was rather thinking of other acts of judgment which would free him and his people from hostile nations, but his hope was built on the great truth that all such acts are prophecies of others like them, and it is a legitimate extension of the same principle to view them all in relation to the last and greatest of the series.

The fifth pair (Vav stanza, Psalms 9:9-10) turns to the glad contemplation of the purpose of all the pomp and terror of the judgment thus hoped for. The Judge is seated on high, and His elevation makes a "lofty stronghold" for the crushed or downtrodden.

The rare word rendered "extremity" in Psalms 9:9 occurs only here and in Psalms 10:1. It means a cutting off, i.e., of hope of deliverance. The notion of distress intensified to despair is conveyed. God’s judgments show that even in such extremity He is an inexpugnable defence, like some hill fortress, inaccessible to any foe. A further result of judgment is the (growing) trust of devout souls (Psalms 9:10). To "know Thy name" is here equivalent to learning God’s character as made known by His acts, especially by the judgments anticipated. For such knowledge some measure of devout trust is required, but further knowledge deepens trust. The best teacher of faith is experience; and, on the other hand, the condition of such experience is faith. The action of knowledge and of trust is reciprocal. That trust is reinforced by the renewed evidence, afforded by the judgments, that Jehovah does not desert them that seek Him. To "seek Him" is to long for Him, to look for His help in trouble, to turn with desire and obedience to Him in daily life; and anything is possible rather than that He should not disclose and give Himself to such search. Trust and seeking, fruition and desire, the repose of the soul on God and its longing after God, are inseparable. They are but varying aspects of the one thing. When a finite spirit cleaves to the infinite God, there must be longing as an element in all possession and possession as an element in all longing; and both will be fed by contemplation of the self-revealing acts which are the syllables of His name.

Section 6, the last of the first part (Zayin, Psalms 9:11-12), circles round to section 1, and calls on all trusters and seekers to be a chorus to the solo of praise therein. The ground of the praise is the same past act which has been already set forth as that of the psalmist’s thanksgiving, as is shown by the recurrence here of perfect tenses (hath remembered; hath not forgotten). The designation of God as "dwelling" in Zion is perhaps better rendered, with allusion to the same word in Psalms 9:7, "sitteth." His seat had been there from the time that the Ark was brought thither. That earthly throne was the type of his heavenly seat, and from Zion He is conceived as executing judgment. The world wide destination of Israel’s knowledge of God inspires the call to "show forth His doings" to "the peoples." The "nations" are not merely the objects of destructive wrath, but are to be summoned to share in the blessing of knowing His mighty acts. The psalmist may not have been able to harmonise these two points of view as to Israel’s relation to the Gentile world, but both thoughts vibrate in his song. The designation of God as "making inquisition for blood" thinks of him as the Goel, or Avenger. To seek means, here to demand back as one who had entrusted property to another who had destroyed it would do, thence to demand compensation or satisfaction, and thus finally comes to mean to avenge or punish (so Hupfeld, Delitzsch, etc.). "The poor" or "meek" (R.V and margin) whose cry is heard are the devout portion of the Jewish people, who are often spoken of in the Psalms and elsewhere as a class.

The second part of the psalm begins with Psalms 9:13. The prayer in that verse is the only trace of trouble in the psalm. The rest is triumph and exultation. This, at first sight discordant, note has sorely exercised commentators; and the violent solution that the whole Cheth stanza (Psalms 9:13-14) should be regarded as "the cry of the meek," quoted by the psalmist, and therefore be put in inverted commas (though adopted by Delitzsch and Cheyne), is artificial and cold. If the view of the structure of the psalm given above is adopted, there is little difficulty in the connection. The victory has been completed over certain enemies, but there remain others; and the time for praise unmingled with petition has not yet come for the psalmist, as it never comes for any of us in this life. Quatre Bras is won, but Waterloo has to be fought tomorrow. The prayer takes account of the dangers still threatening, but it only glances at these, and then once more turns to look with hope on the accomplished deliverance. The thought of how God had lifted the suppliant up from the very gates of death heartens him to pray for all further mercy needed. Death is the lord of a gloomy prison house, the gates of which open inwards only and permit no egress. On its very threshold the psalmist had stood. But God had lifted him thence, and the remembrance wings his prayer. "The gates of the daughter of Zion" are in sharp, happy contrast with the frowning portals of death. A city’s gates are the place of cheery life, stir, gossip, business. Anything proclaimed there flies far. There the psalmist resolves that he will tell his story of rescue, which he believes was granted that it might be told. God’s purpose in blessing men is that they may open their lips to proclaim the blessings and so bring others to share in them. God’s end is the spread of his name, not for any good to Him, but because to know it is life to us.

The Teth pair (Psalms 9:15-16) repeats the thoughts of the Gimel Stanza (Psalms 9:5-6), recurring to the same significant perfects and dwelling on the new thought that the destruction of the enemy was self-caused. As in Psalms 7:1-17, the familiar figure of the pitfall catching the hunter expresses the truth that all evil, and especially malice, recoils on its contriver. A companion illustration is added of the fowler’s (or hunter’s) foot being caught in his own snare. Psalms 9:16 presents the other view of retribution, which was the only one in Psalms 9:5-6, namely that it is a Divine act. It is God who executes judgment, and who "snareth the wicked," though it be "the work of his own hands" which weaves the snare. Both views are needed for the complete truth. This close of the retrospect of deliverance which is the main motive of the psalm is appropriately marked by the musical direction "Higgaion. Selah," which calls for a strain of instrumental music to fill the pause of the song and to mark the rapture of triumph in accomplished deliverance.

The Yod stanza (Psalms 9:17-18), like the He and Vav stanzas (Psalms 9:7-10), passes to confidence for the future. The correspondence is very close, but the two verses of this stanza represent the four of the earlier ones; thus Psalms 9:17 answers to Psalms 9:7-8, while Psalms 9:18 is the representative of Psalms 9:9-10. In Psalms 9:17 the "return to Sheol" is equivalent to destruction. In one view, men who cease to be may be regarded as going back to original nothingness, as in Psalms 90:3. Sheol is not here a place of punishment, but is the dreary dwelling of the dead, from the gates of which the psalmist had been brought up. Reduction to nothingness and yet a shadowy, dim life or death-in-life will certainly be the end of the wicked. The psalmist’s experience in his past deliverance entitles him to generalise thus. To forget God is the sure way to be forgotten. The reason for the certain destruction of the nations who forget God and for the psalmist’s assurance of it is (Psalms 9:18) the confidence he has that "the needy shall not always be forgotten." That confidence corresponds precisely to Psalms 9:9-10, and also looks back to the "hath remembered" and "not forgotten" of Psalms 9:12. They who remember God are remembered by Him; and their being remembered- i.e. by deliverance-necessitates the wicked’s being forgotten, and those who are forgotten by God perish. The second clause of Psalms 9:18 echoes the other solemn word of doom from Psalms 9:3-6. There the fate of the evil-doers was set forth as "perishing"; their very memory was to "perish." But the "expectation of the poor shall not perish." Apparently fragile and to the eve of sense unsubstantial as a soap bubble, the devout man’s hope is more solid than the most solid-seeming realities, and will outlast them all.

The final stanza (Psalms 9:19-20) does not take Kaph as it should do, but Qoph. Hence some critics suspect that this pair of verses has been added by another hand, but the continuity of sense is plain, and is against this supposition. The psalmist was not so bound to his form but that he could vary it, as here. The prayer of this concluding stanza circles round to the prayer in Psalms 9:13, as has been noticed, and so completes the whole psalm symmetrically. The personal element in Psalms 9:13 has passed away; and the prayer is general, just as the solo of praise in Psalms 9:1 broadened into the call for a chorus of voices in Psalms 9:12. The scope of the prayer is the very judgment which the previous stanza has contemplated as certain. The devout man’s desires are moulded on God’s promises, and his prayers echo these. "Let not mortal man grow strong," or rather "vaunt his strength." The word for man here connotes weakness. How ridiculous for him, being such as he is, to swell and swagger as if strong, and how certain his boasted strength is to shrivel like a leaf in the fire, if God should come forth, roused to action by his boasting! Psalms 9:20 closes the prayer with the cry that some awe-inspiring act of Divine justice may be flashed before the "nations," in order to force the conviction of their own weakness home to them. "Set terror for them," the word terror meaning not the emotion, but the object which produces it, namely an act of judgment such as the whole psalm has had in view. Its purpose is not destruction, but conviction, the wholesome consciousness of weakness, out of which may spring the recognition of their own folly and of God’s strength to bless. So the two parts of the psalm end with the thought that the "nations" may yet come to know the name of God, the one calling upon those who have experienced his deliverance to "declare among the peoples His doings," the other praying God to teach by chastisement what nations who forget Him have failed to learn from mercies.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 9". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".