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The author of this psalm is unknown, and the occasion on which it was composed cannot be ascertained. Its structure is similar to that of the two preceding psalms, and it may have been written by the same author, and at the same time; but it is of so general a nature that it may be employed at all times, and in all lands. From the contents, it would seem not improbable that it may have been composed in view of some victory over the enemies of the Hebrew people, and especially over idolaters; but when this occurred, if the psalm had such an origin, it is impossile now to determine. Venema supposes that it had reference to the times of the Maccabees, but of that there is no proof. Many of the expressions in the psalm are taken from the older portions of the Scriptures; and it has been remarked (Hengstenberg) that none are taken from the writings after the return from the Babylonian captivity. From this it has been inferred that it must have been composed before the exile. Still, this inference is not certain, for a writer after the return from Babylon may have made his references solely to the more ancient writings of his country.
The author of the Septuagint version regarded this as a psalm of David, when the land was restored to peace. The title in that version is, Τῷ Δαυὶδ, ὅτ ̓ ἡ γῆ αὐτοῦ καθίσταται Tō Dauid, hot' hē gē autou kathistatai; “by David, when his land was restored,” (or, was at peace). The same title occurs in the Latin Vulgate. Luther entities it, “Of Christ and his kingdom.” The general subject of the psalm is the sovereignty or the supremacy of God, and the manifestation of that sovereignty or supremacy in vindicating his people, and in bringing to pass events which gave them ground of confidence and rejoicing in him.
Perhaps the most that can be said now on the origin and design of the psalm is, that these “six” psalms Ps. 95–100 seem to have been composed with reference to the same occasion, and may been designed to be used together. They are similar in their contents and structure; and they refer to the same thing - the sovereignty or the supremacy of God. Dr. Horsley regards these psalms as “one entire prophetic poem.” “Each psalm,” says he, “has its proper subject, which is some particular branch of the general argument, the establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom. Psalms 95:1-11 asserts Yahweh’s Godhead power over all nature, and exhorts people to serve him. In Psalms 96:1-13, all nations are exhorted to join in his service, because he cometh to judge all mankind, Jew and Gentile. In Psalms 97:1-12, Yahweh reigns over all the world, the idols are deserted, and the Just One is glorified. In Psalms 98:1-9, Yahweh hath done wonders, and performed deliverance for himself; he hath remembered his mercy toward the house of Israel; he comes to judge the whole world ...In Psalms 99:1-9, Yahweh, seated between the cherubim in Zion (the visible church), reigns over all the world, to be praised for the justice of his government. ...In Psalms 100:1-5, all the world is called upon to praise Yahweh the Creator, whose mercy and truth are everlasting.” There may be something fanciful in this position, but the views thus expressed the general course of thought in this group of psalms.
In this psalm Psalms 97:1-12 the particular point, then, is, that Yahweh is supreme over all the world; that the idols are proved to be nought; and that the righteous are vindicated.
The psalm embraces the following points:
I. A description of the majesty and glory of God as a sovereign, Psalms 97:1-6. Clouds and darkness are around him; fire goes before him; the lightnings play, and the earth trembles; the hills melt, and are dissolved; the heavens in their splendor declare his righteousness.
II. In view of this, all idol images and gods are confounded, and are shown to be nothing; and the friends of the true God have occasion for joy, Psalms 97:7-9.
III. The prosperity and happiness of the righteous under the reign of God, Psalms 97:10-12. God will deliver them; light is sown for them in darkness; gladness is their portion, and they are called on to rejoice and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.
The Lord reigneth - See the notes at Psalms 93:1. This is the general fact to be dwelt upon; this is the foundation of joy and praise. The universe is not without a sovereign. It is not the abode of anarchy. It is not the production of chance. It is not subject to mere physical laws. It is not under the control of evil. It is under the government of a God: a wise, holy, intelligent, just, benevolent Being, who rules it well, and who presides over all its affairs. If there is anything for which we should rejoice, it is that there is One Mind, everlasting and most glorious, who presides over the universe, and conducts all things according to his own wise and eternal plan.
Let the earth rejoice - The earth itself; all parts of it; all that dwell upon it. As the earth everywhere derives whatever it has of fertility, beauty, grandeur, or stability, from God - as order, beauty, productiveness are diffused everywhere over it - as it has received so many proofs of the divine beneficence toward it, it has occasion for universal joy.
Let the multitude of isles be glad thereof - Margin, “Many, or great isles.” The Hebrew is many. So the Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, the Chaldee, and the Syriac. The eye of the psalmist is evidently on the many islands which are scattered over the sea. Not merely the continents - the extended countries where nations dwell - have occasion for joy, but the beautiful islands - the spots of earth which have risen from the deep, and which are covered with fruits and flowers - these, too, have occasion to rejoice: to rejoice that God has raised them from the waters; that he keeps them from being overflowed or washed away; that he clothes them with beauty; that he makes them the abode of happy life; that he places them in the wastes of the ocean as he does the stars in the wastes of the sky, to beautify the universe. The idea in the verse is, that all the earth has cause to rejoice that Yahweh reigns.
Clouds and darkness are round about him - This is a description of the majesty of God, derived probably from the manner in which he manifested himself at Mount Sinai. Exodus 19:16-19. God is often thus represented as encompassed with clouds. Psalms 104:3; Daniel 7:13; Matthew 24:30; Revelation 1:7. See the notes at Psalms 18:7-15. The word rendered “clouds” is the common word to denote a cloud; the word translated “darkness” means properly “thick clouds, cloudy darkness, gloom.” It would refer to a cloud considered as dark, and as casting a gloom over the world. There is no reference here to the fact that the dealings of God are dark, mysterious, and incomprehensible, as if he were surrounded by clouds and darkness. This is indeed often true; but that is not the truth taught here. The meaning here is, that the character of God is suited to fill the mind with solemn awe, or with emotions of sublimity.
Righteousness and judgment - He is a righteous God; he is a God who will execute just judgment. Though he is encompassed with clouds, yet he is a just God; and this is suited to impress the mind with profound reverence. That he will do right we may be assured, even when he covers himself with clouds; the fact that he will thus do right is suited to calm the minds of those who love and obey him, and at the same time to fill the minds of the wicked with alarm.
Are the habitation of his throne - Margin, “establishment.” The Hebrew word means “place;” the place where one stands, or where one abides; a habitation, or a dwelling. It then means a foundation or basis, Psalms 89:14; Psalms 104:5. This would seem to be the idea here. His throne rests upon, or is sustained by, justice and righteousness. Nothing else would uphold the government of the universe; nothing else will sustain any government.
A fire goeth before him - See Psalms 18:13, note; Psalms 50:3, note.
And burneth up his enemies round about - Is especially directed against his foes. That is, he manifests himself as a just God, inflicting vengeance on his enemies. He comes to reign, and in his reign all his foes will be destroyed.
His lightnings enlightened the world ... - See the notes at Psalms 77:18. Compare Psalms 104:32; Habakkuk 3:6-10.
The hills melted like wax at the presence of the Lord - They seemed to flow down as if they were like melted wax: that is, they could not stand before him. The most firm, solid, lofty things were as nothing in his presence. Compare Revelation 20:11; Judges 5:5; Micah 1:4; Nahum 1:5. The object here is to describe the sublimity, the greatness, the majesty of God, as if nothing could stand before him; as if everything fled away when he approached. There is perhaps a general allusion to his glory and power as manifested at Sinai.
At the presence of the Lord of the whole earth - The Creator and Ruler of the entire world. The God who thus manifested himself is not a local Deity, or the God of a particular nation or country, but the God of the whole world, before whom all created things are as nothing.
The heavens declare his righteousness - See the notes at Psalms 50:6. Compare the notes at Psalms 19:1.
And all the people see his glory - As manifested in the heavens, and in the power which he puts forth on the earth. That is, (they have the opportunity of seeing it; it is made manifest in all his works. They see what in fact is a manifestation of his glory, to wit, his great and wondrous works. It is not affirmed that they “appreciate” all this, or that they see this to be a manifestation of his glory - which would not be true - but that they see what is in fact a revelation of his greatness, his wisdom, and his power.
Confounded be all they that serve graven images - Hebrew, “Let them be ashamed.” The idea is, that they would be disappointed. They would find that these were not real gods; that their trust in them was vain; and that they had evinced great folly in relying on that which could not aid them in the day of necessity. See Job 6:20, note; Psalms 22:5, note; Psalms 25:2, note. Compare Isaiah 20:5. What is here affirmed of the worshippers of idols will be found to be true at last of all who put their trust in anything but the true God.
That boast themselves of idols - That worship idols, and glory in them as if they could save; or, that glory in their own idol-gods as if they were more powerful than those of other people. It would not be unnatural that nations which worshipped idols should glory in them, or that one people should boast of their gods as more powerful - more worthy to be trusted - than those which were worshipped in other lands.
Worship him, all ye gods - Hebrew, אלהים 'Elohiym. The Septuagint and the Vulgate render this, “all his angels.” The original word אלהים 'Elohiym is that which is commonly applied to the true God (Genesis 1:1, et saepe), though it may be applied to angels, or to magistrates. See Psalms 82:1, note; Psalms 82:6, note. On the general meaning of this passage, and the question respecting its reference to the Messiah, see the notes at Hebrews 1:6. The reference here, according to the quotation in Hebrews 1:6, is to the angels. The original word will admit of this interpretation, and the entire structure of the psalm will justify its application to the Messiah.
Zion heard, and was glad - The good news came to Zion that all the idols of the pagan were confounded or were overcome: that is, that the Lord reigned. There was joy in Zion that the evils and abominations of idolatry were at an end, and that the worship of Yahweh had taken the place of idol-worship. The idea is, that the displacement of idols, or the fact that they had ceased to be worshipped, was a cause of joy to the worshippers of the true God. Whatever tends to remove the worship of idols from the world, and to extend and establish the worship of the living God, is an occasion of gladness.
And the daughters of Judah rejoiced ... - See the notes at Psalms 48:11. Woman has special occasion to rejoice in the spread of the true religion. It is that only which has lifted her from a state of deep degradation; which has elevated her to be a companion instead of a slave; which has made her the intelligent wife and mother, rather than the mere inmate of a harem.
For thou, Lord, art high above all the earth - See the notes at Psalms 83:18.
Thou art exalted far above all gods - See the notes at Psalms 95:3.
Ye that love the Lord, hate evil - Show your love for the Lord “by” hating all that is evil; that is, all that he hates, or that is evil in his sight. There can be no true love for God where evil is not hated in all its forms, since it is the object of the divine abhorrence. We cannot be like God unless we love what he loves, and hate what he hates. There is nothing more clearly affirmed in the Scriptures than that in order to the love of God there must be the hatred of all that is wrong, and that where there is the love of sin in the heart, there can be no true religion. Compare the notes at Isaiah 1:16-20.
He preserveth the souls of his saints - The lives of his saints, or his holy ones. That is, he guards them from danger, and watches over them with a careful eye. See Psalms 3:8; Psalms 37:39.
He delivereth them out of the hand of the wicked - That is, he often does this; they may expect that he will do it. He does not, indeed, always deliver them from the temporal calamities which wicked people bring upon them - for they are not unfrequently persecuted and wronged; but ultimately he will deliver them altogether from the power of the wicked. In heaven none of the machinations of wicked people can reach them. At the same time it is also true that God often interposes in behalf of his people, and delivers them as such from the designs of the wicked: that is, he delivers them because they are righteous, or because they are his friends. Compare the notes at Daniel 3:16-17, notes at Daniel 3:24-25; notes at Daniel 6:18-23.
Light is sown for the righteous - That is, There is light for the righteous; or, they shall be brought into light, though they may be for a time in darkness. The word rendered “sown” - זרע zâra‛ - is from a verb which properly denotes to scatter, to disperse - as seed is scattered or dispersed when sown in a field. It is hence used with reference to moral subjects, as to sow righteousness, Proverbs 11:18; to sow iniquity, Proverbs 22:8; to sow mischief, Job 4:8; that is, these things are scattered or sown, as seed is in a field, and produce a corresponding harvest. Thus light is scattered abroad, and will produce an appropriate harvest - a harvest of joy. It will spring up around the righteous, and he shall reap that which light tends to produce - happiness, intelligence, and peace. The figure of sowing light is an unusual one, but the meaning is plain. It is, that the righteous will not always be in darkness; that there is in preparation for him a harvest of joy; that it will as certainly be produced as a harvest will from grain that is sown; that though there may be present calamities, there will be ultimate peace and triumph.
And gladness for the upright in heart - The word gladness here - joy, or rejoicing - is parallel to the word light. Joy or gladness is sown for the righteous; that is, arrangements are made for producing joy, as preparations are made by sowing seed for a harvest. The world is full of arrangements for conferring happiness on the righteous.
Rejoice in the Lord, ye righteous - See the notes at Psalms 33:1.
And give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness - Margin, “to the memorial” (compare Psalms 30:4). The idea is, “to the memory of his holiness;” that is, when his holiness comes before the mind; when it is remembered; when it is thought of. Give thanks or rejoice,
(a) that God is holy; that he is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity; that there is One eternally pure who presides over the universe; that there is One who will always do what is right;
(b) that such a Being is our God - our covenant-keeping God; that we may look to him, trust in him, enjoy him.
Wicked people do not rejoice that there is a God at all, and especially that God is a “holy God;” but it is one of the characteristics of true piety to rejoice in the thought that there is a God, and that he is perfectly holy, and hence, to feel conscious happiness whenever his name is mentioned, and whenever his attributes are referred to. The highest source of joy for man is that there is a God, and that God is exactly what he is, pure and holy. It would be a source of deepest sorrow if there were no God, or if God were in any respect, even the slightest, a different being from what he is.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 97". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27