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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Psalms 33

 

 

Verses 1-22

Psalms 33:1-22

This is the last of the four psalms in Book 1 which have no title, the others being Psalms 1:1-6; Psalms 2:1-12, which are introductory, and 10 which is closely connected with 9. Some have endeavoured to establish a similar connection between 32, and 33; but, while the closing summons to the righteous in the former is substantially repeated in the opening words of the latter, there is little other trace of connection, except the references in both to "the eye of Jehovah"; [Psalms 32:8; Psalms 33:18] and no two psalms could be more different in subject and tone than these. The one is full of profound, personal emotion, and deals with the depths of experience; the other is devoid of personal reference, and is a devout, calm contemplation of the creative power and providential government of God. It is kindred with the later type of psalms, and has many verbal allusions connecting it with them. It has probably been placed here simply because of the similiarity just noticed between its beginning and the end of the preceding. The reasons for the arrangement of the psalter were, so far as they can be traced, usually such merely verbal coincidences. To one who has been travelling through the heights and depths, the storms and sunny gleams of the previous psalms, this impersonal didactic meditation, with its historical allusions and entire ignoring of sins and sorrows, is indeed "a new song." It is apparently meant for liturgical use, and falls into three unequal parts; the first three verses and the last three being prelude and conclusion, the former summoning the "righteous" to praise Jehovah, the, latter putting words of trust and triumph and prayer into their mouths. The central mass (Psalms 33:4-19) celebrates the creative and providential work of God, in two parts, of which the first extends these Divine acts over the world (Psalms 33:4-11) and the second concentrates them on Israel (Psalms 33:12-19).

The opening summons to praise takes us far away from the solitary wrestlings and communings in former psalms. Now

"The singers lift up their voice,

And the trumpets make endeavour,

Sounding, ‘In God rejoice! In Him rejoice forever!’"

But the clear recognition of purity as the condition of access to God speaks in this invocation as distinctly as in any of the preceding. "The righteous" whose lives conform to the Divine will, and only they, can shout aloud their joy in Jehovah. Praise fits and adorns the lips of the upright" only, whose spirits are without twist of self-will and sin. The direction of character expressed in the word is horizontal rather than vertical, and is better represented by "straight" than "upright." Praise gilds the gold of purity and adds grace even to the beauty of holiness. Experts tell us that the kinnor (harp, A.V. and R.V.) and nebel (psaltery) were both stringed instruments, differing in the position of the sounding board, which was below in the former and above in the latter, and also in the covering of the strings (v. Delitzsch, Eng. transl. of latest ed. 1:7, n.). The "new song" is not necessarily the psalm itself, but may mean other thanksgivings evoked by God’s meditated on goodness. But in any case, it is noteworthy, that the occasions of the new song are very old acts, stretching back to the first creation and continued down through the ages. The psalm has no trace of special recent mercies, but to the devout soul the old deeds are never antiquated, and each new meditation on them breaks into new praise. So inexhaustible is the theme that all generations take it up in turn, and find "songs unheard" and "sweeter" with which to celebrate it. Each new rising of the old sun brings music from the lips of Memnon, as he sits fronting the east. The facts of revelation must be sung by each age and soul for itself, and the glowing strains grow cold and archaic, while the ancient mercies which they magnify live on, bright and young. There is always room for a fresh voice to praise the old gospel the old creation, the old providence.

This new song is saturated with reminiscences of old ones, and deals with familiar thoughts which have come to the psalmist with fresh power. He magnifies the moral attributes manifested in God’s self-revelation, His creative Word, and His providential government. "The word of Jehovah," in Psalms 33:4 is to be taken in the wide sense of every utterance of His thought or will ("non accipi pro doctrina, sed pro mundi gubernandi ratione," Calvin). It underlies His "works," as is more largely declared in the following verses.

It is "upright," the same word as in Psalms 33:1, and here equivalent to the general idea of morally perfect. The acts which flow from it are "in faithfulness," correspond to and keep His word. The perfect word and works have for source the deep heart of Jehovah, which loves "righteousness and judgment," and therefore speaks and acts in accordance with these. Therefore the outcome of all is a world full of God’s lovingkindness. The psalmist has won that "serene and blessed mood" in which the problem of life seems easy, and all harsh and gloomy thoughts have melted out of the sky. There is but one omnipotent Will at work everywhere, and that is a Will whose law for itself is the love of righteousness, and truth. The majestic simplicity and universality of the cause are answered by the simplicity and universality of the result, the flooding of the whole world with blessing. Many another psalm shows how hard it is to maintain such a faith in the face of the terrible miseries of men, and the more complex "civilisation" becomes, the harder it grows; but it is well to hear sometimes the one clear note of gladness without its chord of melancholy.

The work of creation is set forth in Psalms 33:6-9 as the effect of the Divine word alone. The psalmist is fascinated not by the glories created, but by the wonder of the process of creation. The Divine will uttered itself, and the universe was. Of course the thought is parallel with that of Genesis, "God said, Let there be and there was" Nor are we to antedate the Christian teaching of a personal Word of God, the agent of creation. The old versions and interpreters, followed by Cheyne, read "as in a bottle" for "as an heap," vocalising the text differently from the present pointing; but there seems to be an allusion to the wall of waters at the passage of the Red Sea, the same word being used in Miriam’s song; with "depths" in the next clause, there as here. [Exodus 15:8] What is meant, however, here, is the separation of land and water at first, and possibly the continuance of the same power keeping them still apart, since the verbs in Psalms 33:7 are participles, which imply continued action. The image of "a heap" is probably due to the same optical delusion which has coined the expression "the high seas," since, to an eye looking seawards from the beach, the level waters seem to rise as they recede; or it may merely express the gathering together in a mass. Away out there, in that ocean of which the Hebrews knew so little, were unplumbed depths in which, as in vast storehouses, the abundance of the sea was shut up, and the ever-present Word which made them at first was to them instead of bolts and bars. Possibly the thought of the storehouses suggested that of the Flood when these were opened, and that thought, crossing the psalmist’s mind, led to the exhortation in Psalms 33:8 to fear Jehovah, which would more naturally have followed Psalms 33:9. The power displayed in creation is, however, a sufficient ground for the summons to reverent obedience, and Psalms 33:9 may be but an emphatic repetition of the substance of the foregoing description. It is eloquent in its brevity and juxtaposition of the creative word and the created world. "It stood,"-"the word includes much: first, the coming into being (Entstehen), then, the continued subsistence (Bestehen), lastly, attendance (Dastehen) in readiness for service" (Stier).

From the original creation the psalmist’s mind turns over the ages between it and him, and sees the same mystical might of the Divine Will working in what we call providential government. God’s bare word has power without material means. Nay, His very thoughts unspoken are endowed with immortal vigour, and are at bottom the only real powers in history. God’s "thoughts stand," as creation does, lasting on through all men’s fleeting years. With reverent boldness the psalm parallels the processes (if we may so speak) of the Divine mind with those of the human; "counsel" and "thoughts" being attributed to both. But how different the issue of the solemn thoughts of God and those of men, in so far as they are not in accordance with His! It unduly narrows the sweep of the psalmist’s vision to suppose that he is speaking of a recent experience when some assault on Israel was repelled. He is much rather linking the hour of creation with today by one swift summary of the net result of all history. The only stable, permanent reality is the will of God and it imparts derived stability to those who ally themselves with it, yielding to its, counsels and moulding their thoughts by its. "He that doeth the will of God abideth forever," but the shore of time is littered with wreckage, the sad fragments of proud fleets which would sail in the teeth of the wind and went to pieces on the rocks. From such thoughts the transition to the second part of the main body of the psalm is natural. Psalms 33:12-19 are a joyous celebration of the blessedness of Israel as the people of so great a God. The most striking feature of these verses is the pervading reference to the passage of the Red Sea which, as we have already seen, has coloured Psalms 33:7. From Miriam’s song come the designation of the people as God’s "inheritance" and the phrase "the place of His habitation". [Exodus 15:17] The "looking upon the inhabitants of the earth," and the thought that the "eye of Jehovah is upon them that fear Him, to deliver their soul in death" (Psalms 33:14, Psalms 33:18), remind us of the Lord’s looking from the pillar on the host of Egyptians and the terrified crowd of fugitives, and of the same glance being darkness to the one and light to the other. The abrupt introduction of the king not saved by his host, and of the vanity of the horse for safety, are explained if we catch an echo of Miriam’s ringing notes, "Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath He cast into the sea. The horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea." [Exodus 15:4; Exodus 15:21]

If this historical allusion be not recognised, the connection of these verses is somewhat obscure, but still discernible. The people who stand in special relation to God are blessed, because that eye, which sees all men, rests on them in lovingkindness and with gracious purpose of special protection. This contrast of God’s universal knowledge and of that knowledge which is accompanied with loving care is the very nerve of these verses, as is shown by the otherwise aimless repetition of the thought of God’s looking down on men. There is a wide all-seeingness, characterised by three words in an ascending scale of closeness of observance, in Psalms 33:13-14. It is possible to God as being Creator: "He fashions their hearts individually," or "one by one" seems the best interpretation of Psalms 33:15 a, -and thence is deduced His intimate knowledge of all His creatures’ doings. The sudden turn to the impotence of earthly might, as illustrated by the king and the hero and the battle horse, may be taken as intended to contrast the weakness of such strength both with the preceding picture of Divine omniscience and almightiness, and with the succeeding assurance of safety in Jehovah. The true reason for the blessedness of the chosen people is that God’s eye is on them, not merely with cold omniscience nor with critical considering of their works, but with the direct purpose of sheltering them from surrounding evil. But the stress of the characterisation of these guarded and nourished favourites of heaven is now laid not upon a Divine act of choice, but upon their meek looking to Him. His eye meets with love the upturned patient eye of humble expectance and loving fear.

What should be the issue of such thoughts, but the glad profession of trust, with which the psalm fittingly ends, corresponding to the invocation to praise which began it? Once in each of these three closing verses do the speakers profess their dependence on God. The attitude of waiting with fixed hope and patient submission is the characteristic of God’s true servants in all ages. In it are blended consciousness of weakness and vulnerability, dread of assault, reliance on Divine Love, confidence of safety, patience, submission and strong aspiration.

These were the tribal marks of God’s people, when this was "a new song"; they are so today, for though the Name of the Lord be more fully known by Christ, the trust in it is the same. A threefold good is possessed, expected and asked as the issue of this waiting. God is "help and shield" to those who exercise it. Its sure fruit is joy in Him, since He will answer the expectance of His people, and will make His name more fully known and more sweet to those who have clung to it, in so far as they. knew it. The measure of hope in God is the measure of experience of His lovingkindness, and the closing prayer does not allege hope as meriting the answer which it expects, but recognises that desire is a condition of possession of God’s best gifts, and knows it to be most impossible of all impossibilities that hope fixed on God should be ashamed. Hands, lifted empty to heaven in longing trust, will never drop empty back and hang listless, without a blessing in their grasp.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 33:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/psalms-33.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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