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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 97

Psalms 97

The Lord appears for judgment in terrible majesty; Psalms 97:1-3, and this judgment is exercised by him: all nations behold his glory, Psalms 97:4-6. This serves to put to shame the worshippers of false gods, but it affords to Zion heartfelt joy, for her God shows himself therein as the God of the whole earth, as infinitely exalted above the gods whom the world serves, Psalms 97:7-9. In looking forward to such a future, may Sion, in the midst of trying trouble, continue to hate what is evil, Psalms 97:10-12.

The twelve verses of the Psalm fall into two halves, each of which consists of two strophes of three verses. In the first we have the appearing of God and his deeds, and in the second we learn how these should be received by men on their approach, and how believers in looking at them should conduct themselves.

The text here consists of the words of Isaiah, “the Lord reigneth,” placed at the head of the Psalm, and to which the Psalmist looks on the eve of a time of great oppression, as to a clear light, which shines at the end of a long dark cavern, and which he opposes to the cry of the world, which may be soon expected, “the king of Babylon reigns,” or “Bell and Nebo reign.” He brings forward, however, a new view of the reign of the Lord. The language here does not apply to the conversion of the worshippers of idols to the living God, but singly and alone to judgment on the idolatrous world, by which its pride will be completely humbled, and with which Sion’s salvation is connected. This figure of the indignant judge meets us in the whole of the first half. Nothing but shame is the portion of the worshippers of idols in Psalms 97:7. Sion, according to Psalms 97:8, only hears of it and is glad.

The beginning of the fulfilment of the hopes expressed here took place at the destruction of Babylon, and the deliverance of Israel connected with it; comp. Isaiah 46. These hopes, however, in their main import, are Messianic. The appearance of Christ was of the nature of a judgment even for those among the heathen who became obedient to the gospel; the nullity of their whole previous existence became thereby apparent, and, in place of their pride and high-minded contempt of Sion, there appeared deep shame. While, however, behind the judgment, which is alone brought prominently forward in our Psalm, the grace was concealed, which comes clearly forward in other passages, and especially in the preceding Psalm, the view which is here the only predominant one, comes forward, in other passages, alone in its power, for those who, like Julian for example, will know nothing of “the Lord reigneth.” Even in our day the hopes here expressed are in the act of fulfilment. The exclamation, “the Lord reigneth,” always sounds forth anew; the church will continue to call it out to the naked and to the clothed world, to the worshippers of wooden and of imaginary gods, till it shall have reached to full and absolute truth, and all the kingdoms of the earth have become the kingdom of the Lord and his Anointed.

The prophetic character of the Psalm has been acknowledged in many ways. There has always been an inclination to generalize its contents. Thus, according to Köster and Maurer, the import of Psalms 97:1-6 is merely: “Jehovah is king and judge of the world.” This view depends upon an incorrect sense of the clause, “the Lord reigneth,” and is set aside by the reference to the appearances at the giving of the law, and to the fundamental passages in Psalms 18 and in Micah. This reference shows that the language applies to a future appearance of the Lord to judgment. Finally, “Sion hears, &c.,” in Psalms 97:8, leads very decidedly to facts or events.

According to Ewald, Psalms 93 and the one before us are “joyous-leaping overflowings of the clear, far-looking, lively disposition” of the times immediately after the return from the captivity, “songs of praise upon the now well-grounded and eternally-abiding dominion of Jahve;” he interprets historically Psalms 97:4 ss. and refers these to the divine manifestation which had just taken place. This construction may be easily disposed of; it destroys the organization of the Psalm, overlooks the real ground of the transition from the preter. to the fut. (compare Psalms 97:4), and receives its fatal blow from the weapon which Amyraldus wielded against the reference made by several expositors [Note: “These contained truly great and brilliant materials for celebrating divine virtues in splendid and magnificent words. Yet if they are compared with the magnificent things contained in this Psalm, the difference is such, as if a comparison were instituted would be the case if such a triumph were decreed to a general for having stormed a little town, as was celebrated by Julius Caesar upon conquering Gaul. There is, most assuredly, no proportion between these things.”] to the victories of David. Still, even though the Psalm be considered as purely prophetic, it cannot belong to the times shortly after the return from the captivity. The disposition of the people was not then so “bright and full of life,” that the Psalm could be considered as its product. The deliverance at that time was far behind their expectation, and the prophets had enough to do to combat the despondency and the murmuring obstinacy which got possession of men’s minds. But (what is decisive), our Psalm leans throughout, and to a greater extent than the preceding and following Psalms, upon quotations from the more ancient sacred scriptures; it may be said to be distinctively a piece of Mosaic work; it points, by this intelligent string of old sayings, to the comprehensive character of the approaching revelation of the Lord, in which all the traits of the earlier history and prophecy were about to meet. Now all these numerous references are taken from writings earlier than the captivity; there is all the less probability in this being accidental, as the whole series of Psalms, of which the one before us forms a part (Psalms 91-100), leads to the same result.

The more exact consideration of the allusions and quotations in this Psalm, and of the whole little collection to which it belongs, is of importance in another point of view. It shows how false is the idea which Ewald, in particular, has pushed to extremities, of a general loss of sacred literature. We can follow, in this Psalm, the references from verse to verse; no verse remains without its manifest fundamental passage. This can be explained only by the fact, that the sacred writings have come down to us entire.

Verses 1-6

Ver. 1. The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice, let the multitude of the islands be glad. Ver. 2. Clouds and darkness are round about him, righteousness and right are the basis of his throne. Ver. 3. Fire goes before him and burns up his enemies round about. Ver. 4. His lightnings enlightened the world: the earth saw and trembled. Ver. 5. T he mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of the whole earth. Ver. 6. The heavens declare his righteousness, and all nations see his glory.

In reference to the abrupta regni a deo suscepti proclamatio, “the Lord reigneth,” in Psalms 97:1, comp. at Psalms 93:1; Psalms 96:10, and “may the earth rejoice,” at Psalms 96:11. The exhortation to the earth to triumph, and to the islands to rejoice, leads, at first sight, to the inference, that the reign of the Lord will bring salvation also to the heathen. [Note: Calvin: “By inviting men to joy he sufficiently declares, that wherever God reigns, salvation and full felicity, at the same time, shine forth. In calling, however, the whole world to a common joy, he means that the kingdom of God, which at that time had been shut up within the narrow boundaries of Judea, would become much more wide, as it would extend even to the Gentiles.”] But such exhortations not unfrequently occur in cases where reference is made directly only to salvation for Sion (comp. Deuteronomy 32:43, at Ps. 93:49, Psalms 47); and, in our Psalm, the heathen nowhere appear as the objects of salvation, but as the objects of judgment on the part of God. The expression, “let the earth rejoice,” assuredly opens up, indirectly, even for the heathen, a joyous prospect. For it takes for granted, that the God of Israel is the God of the whole earth, who must have compassion upon all, whose deeds on behalf of any particular part are always prophecies for the whole, who can only bless his people in order that all the nations of the earth may be blessed in them. The איים on the basis of Genesis 10:5, and especially of Psalms 72:10, is a favourite expression of Isaiah, particularly in the second part, (in the first part Isaiah 24:15); who dwells with peculiar delight upon the relation of the heathen world to the approaching glorious revelations of the Lord. Chapter Isaiah 44:10, Isaiah 44:12, is particularly appropriate where the islands and their inhabitants are exhorted to sing to the Lord because of his deeds on behalf of Israel, while in other passages the islands themselves appear as participators of the salvation.

The first clause of Psalms 97:2 is taken from Deuteronomy 5:19, “these words spake the Lord to the whole congregation on the mount out of the midst of the fire of the cloud and of the darkness,” comp. Exodus 19:16, Exodus 19:18, Psalms 18:9, Psalms 18:11. The appearances at the giving of the law had a symbolical character. They were intended to fill the heart with holy awe in presence of the heavenly judge, revealing as they did behind the foreground of words of rebuke, a background of deeds of retribution, comp. Psalms 50:3. This prophecy contained in these appearances is now in the way of being fulfilled. The Lord appears surrounded by dark clouds which make known his wrath and hold out to view the breaking forth of a storm of lightning and thunder. The appearances at the giving of the law form in particular a commentary on the words of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me: thou shalt not make any graven image. . . . thou shalt not bow down to them nor serve them, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God.Psalms 97:7 of this Psalm is to be compared with this. The wrath of God then threatened in words and in symbol to the worshippers of false gods and images, is here made manifest. The second half of the verse, “righteousness and right are the basis of his throne,” is from Psalms 89:14. If the dominion of God exists on the domain of right and righteousness, the heathen may well tremble, because they have trampled right and righteousness under foot in their relations to the Israelites: a righteous judgment is for them a destroying judgment.

The first clause of Psalms 97:3 is from. Psalms 50:3, “fire burns before him;” comp. what is observed on that passage upon fire as a symbol of the divine wrath. In the second clause, the expression, “and burns up his enemies round about,” is to be understood only virtually, “as soon as they present themselves before him,” (comp. at Psalms 18:8, Delitzsch on Habakkuk 3:5), for Psalms 97:1-3 have to do only with the appearance of the Lord; in itself the effects which flow from it are first described in Psalms 97:4-6.

Psalms 97:4 is from Psalms 77:18, “lightnings lightened the world, the earth trembled and shook.” The reference to the fundamental passage has here and in Psalms 97:5 occasioned the transition from the future to the preterite, which stands as a prophet. pret. Even this transition shows that our passage is borrowed, and that Ps. 57:18 is the original passage. On ראתה comp. Ps. 57:16.

On Psalms 97:5 comp. Micah 1:4, “and the mountains flowed down under him and the valleys were cleft, as wax before the fire.” The preter. stands there also proph. The words which there belong to the declaration of the judgment upon Israel are here employed as part of the description of the judgment upon the heathen world, of which that upon Israel was a matter-of-fact prophecy, comp. 1 Peter 4:17. The mountains are named individually as being the foremost and the highest parts of the earth. Berleb: “Even the mountains of human height and pride, the heights of human intellect and vanity, and also the kingdoms of the world.” The expression, “the Lord of the whole earth,” is from Micah 4:13.

The first half of Psalms 97:6 is from Psalms 50:6. The heavens make known the righteousness of God there, in so far as his judging word making known his righteousness, and here in so far as his judging deed proceeds from them. Arnd: “The heavens made known his righteousness when brimstone and fire were rained from heaven upon Sodom.” The righteousness of God is here also the attribute according to which he gives to every one his own, to his people salvation, to his and their enemies destruction. The second clause is from Isaiah 40:5, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it;” comp. Isaiah 66:18, Isaiah 35:2. All nations behold the glory,—the glory of the Lord in the revelations of his being, through the deeds of righteousness and grace.

Verses 7-12

Ver. 7. All who worship images shall be ashamed, and boast themselves of nullities, worship him all ye gods. Ver. 8. Sion hears it and is glad, the daughters of Judah shout for joy, because of thy judgments, O Lord. Ver. 9. For thou, Lord, art the Most High over the whole earth, highly exalted over all gods. Ver. 10. Ye who love the Lord hate what is evil, he preserveth the souls of his saints, he delivereth them from the hand of the wicked. Ver. 11. Light is sown for the righteous, and for the upright joy. Ver. 12. Rejoice, ye righteous in the Lord, and praise his holy memorial.

On Psalms 97:7, comp. Isaiah 42:17: “they turn back (in consequence of the glorious future revelation of the Lord), and are ashamed, that trust in the image, that say to the molten work, thou art our God,” Isaiah 44:9. השתחוו is, according to Psalms 96:9, the imperat., not the preter. The exhortation, according to the Psalmist, here also, as there, is addressed to the heathen, The false gods are called upon to worship through the medium of their servants. The gods are also, in other passages, frequently viewed poetically, as gifted momentarily with life and feeling (comp. the immediately preceding אלילים , and the observations made at Psalms 96:5), only for the purpose of exhibiting the Lord as triumphing over them; comp. Exodus 12:12, Numbers 33:4, “and upon their gods has the Lord executed judgment;” Isaiah 19:1, “behold the Lord rideth upon a swift cloud, and cometh to Egypt, and the gods of the Egyptians are moved at his presence.” The Septuagint could not understand this representation, and substituted angels instead of gods, to whom what was said could apply only by an inference, as a majori ad minus; if the proud gods of the heathen cannot measure themselves with the Lord, how much less may the angels, Hebrews 1:6. As decisive against the direct reference to the angels, may be mentioned the whole connection and tendency of the Psalm, which is to animate the people of God in prospect of the approaching victory of the false gods, and also the usus loquendi, as Elohim never signifies angels.

In Psalms 97:8, we have the contrary effect, which the appearance of the Lord to judgment produces on Sion. This verse depends upon Psalms 48:11 of the (Psalms 48) 48th Psalm, which celebrates the great deliverance under Jehoshaphat, which shall again live in the deliverance of the future; “Mount Sion rejoices, the daughters of Judah shout because of thy judgments,” to which passage, also, Isaiah alludes in chap. Isaiah 40:9. Hears it, namely, that the Lord judges, as he did on a former occasion, under the king, whose name was so gloriously verified. The daughters of Judah are only in opposition to Sion, the remaining cities of Judah. On the words which allude to the name of Jehoshaphat, “because of thy judgments, O Lord,” we are not to comp. Psalms 96:13. The discourse there is of an entirely different judgment.

On the first half of Psalms 97:9, comp. Psalms 83:18, from which it is taken word for word: our passages serves to confirm the interpretation there given. On the second half, comp. Psalms 47:9, “the princes of the nations are gathered together to the nation of the God of Abraham, for the shields of the earth are God’s: he is highly exalted.” The conclusion is borrowed from both Psalms. It is very remarkable that the Psalmist alludes, in a manner full of meaning, to the three Psalms which, according to our view, refer to the deliverance under Jehoshaphat, and which have been separated from each other by modern criticism. Our view is thus strongly confirmed:

The “evil” in the exhortation, founded on the prophecy in Psalms 97:10, is neither idolatry, nor, as Calvin supposes, specially revenge, but wickedness and unrighteousness; comp. Psalms 34:13, Romans 12:9, 2 Timothy 2:19. The prosperity of wickedness easily seduces to wickedness, because it shakes our faith in God, and in his providence, and therefore throws down the only floodgate which can restrain the floods of wickedness. In opposition to this temptation, the Psalmist points the servants of the Lord to the salvation of the future. Before “he preserveth,” there is, in reality, a “for” to be understood.

A sure standard by which to interpret Psalms 97:11, is furnished by the parallel passage, Psalms 112:4, “light arises, זרה , for the upright in darkness.” This shows that “to be sown,” is “to be scattered abroad;” the point of comparison being only the richness of the gift. [Note: Ven.: “Now light is said to be scattered when the rising sup spreads his rays plentifully in every direction.”]

The first half of Psalms 97:12 is from Psalms 32:11, which, in that passage, also forms the conclusion; and the second half from Psalms 30:4.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 97". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-97.html.