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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 94

Verses 1-23

Psalms 94:1-23

THE theme of God the Judge is closely allied to that of God the King, as other psalms of this group show, in which His coming to judge the world is the subject of rapturous praise. This psalm hymns Jehovah’s retributive sway, for which it passionately cries, and in which it confidently trusts. Israel is oppressed by insolent rulers, who have poisoned the fountains of justice, condemning the innocent, enacting unrighteous laws, and making a prey of all the helpless. These "judges of Sodom" are not foreign oppressors, for they are "among the people"; and even while they scoff at Jehovah’s judgments they call Him by His covenant names of "Jah" and "God of Jacob." There is no need, therefore, to look beyond Israel for the originals of the dark picture, nor does it supply data for fixing the period of the psalm.

The structure and course of thought are transparent. First comes an invocation to God as the Judge of the earth (Psalms 94:1-2); then follow groups of four verses each, subdivided into pairs, -the first of these (Psalms 94:3-6) pictures the doings of the oppressors; the second (Psalms 94:7-11) quotes their delusion that their crimes are unseen by Jehovah, and refutes their dream of impunity, and it is closed by a verse in excess of the normal number. emphatically asserting the truth which the mockers denied. The third group declares the blessedness of the men whom God teaches, and the certainty of His retribution to vindicate the cause of the righteous (Psalms 94:12-15). Then follow the singer’s own cry for help in his own need, as one of the oppressed community, and a sweet reminiscence of former aid, which calms his present anxieties. The concluding group goes back to description of the lawless lawmakers and their doings, and ends with trust that the retribution prayed for in the first verses will verily be dealt out to them, and that thereby both the singer, as a member of the nation, and the community will find Jehovah, who is both "my God" and "our God," a high tower.

The reiterations in the first two verses are not oratorical embellishments, but reveal intense feeling and pressing need. It is a cold prayer which contents itself with one utterance. A man in straits continues to cry for help till it comes, or till he sees it coming. To this singer, the one aspect of Jehovah’s reign which was forced on him by Israel’s dismal circumstances was the judicial. There are times when no thought of God is so full of strength as that He is "the God of recompenses," as Jeremiah calls Him, {Jeremiah 51:56} and when the longing of good men is that He would flash forth, and slay evil by the brightness of His coming. They who have no profound loathing of sin, or who have never felt the crushing weight of legalised wickedness, may shrink from such aspirations as the psalmist’s, and brand them as ferocious; but hearts longing for the triumph of righteousness will not take offence at them.

The first group (Psalms 94:3-6) lifts the cry of suffering Faith, which has almost become impatience, but turns to, not from, God, and so checks complaints of His delay, and converts them into prayer. "How long, O Lord?" is the burden of many a tried heart; and the Seer heard it from the souls beneath the altar. This psalm passes quickly to dilate on the crimes of the rulers which forced out that prayer. The portrait has many points of likeness to that drawn in Psalms 73:1-28. Here, as there, boastful speech and haughty carriage are made prominent, being put before even cruelty and oppression. "They well out, they speak arrogance": both verbs have the same object. Insolent self-exaltation pours from the fountain of their pride in copious jets. "They give themselves airs like princes." The verb in this clause may mean to say among themselves or to boast, but is now usually regarded as meaning to behave like a prince-i.e., to carry oneself insolently. Vainglorious arrogance manifest in boasting speech and masterful demeanour characterises Eastern rulers, especially those who have risen from low origin. Every little village tyrant gave himself airs, as if he were a king; and the lower his rank, the greater his insolence. These oppressors were grinding the nation to powder, and what made their crime the darker was that it was Jehovah’s people and inheritance which they thus harassed. Helplessness should be a passport to a ruler’s care, but it had become a mark for murderous attack. Widow; stranger, and orphan are named as types of defencelessness.

Nothing in this strophe indicates that these oppressors are foreigners. Nor does the delusion that Jehovah neither saw nor cared for their doings. which the next strophe (Psalms 94:7-11) states and confutes imply that they were so. Cheyne, indeed, adduces the name "God of Jacob," which is put into their mouths, as evidence that they are pictured as knowing Jehovah only as one among many tribal or national deities; but the name is too familiar upon the lips of Israelites, and its use by others is too conjectural, to allow of such a conclusion. Rather, the language derives its darkest shade from being used by Hebrews, who are thereby declaring themselves apostates from God as well as oppressors of His people. Their mad, practical atheism makes the psalmist blaze up in indignant rebuke and impetuous argumentation. He turns to them, and addresses them in rough, plain words, strangely contrasted with their arrogant utterances regarding themselves. They are "brutish" {cf. Psalms 73:22} and "fools." The psalmist, in his height of moral indignation, towers above these petty tyrants, and tells them home truths very profitable for such people, however dangerous to their utterer. There is no obligation to speak smooth words to rulers whose rule is injustice and their religion impiety. Ahab had his Elijah, and Herod his John Baptist. The succession has been continued through the ages.

Delitzsch and others, who take the oppressors to be foreigners, are obliged to suppose that the psalmist turns in Psalms 94:8 to those Israelites who had been led to doubt God by the prosperity of the wicked; but there is nothing, except the exigencies of that mistaken supposition, to show that any others than the deniers of God’s providence who have just been quoted are addressed as "among the people." Their denial was the more inexcusable, because they belonged to the people whose history was one long proof that Jehovah did see I and recompense evil. Two considerations are urged by the psalmist, who becomes for the moment a philosophical theologian, in confutation of the error in question. First, he argues that nothing can be in the effect which is not in the cause, that the Maker of men’s eyes cannot be blind, nor the Planter of their ears deaf. The thought has wide applications. It hits the centre, in regard to many modern denials as well as in regard to these blunt, ancient ones. Can a universe plainly full of purpose have come from a purposeless source? Can finite persons have emerged from an impersonal Infinity? Have we not a right to argue upwards from man’s make to God his maker, and to find in Him the archetype of all human capacity. We may mark that, as has been long ago observed, the psalm avoids gross anthropomorphism, and infers not that the Creator of the ear has ears, but that He hears. As Jerome (quoted by Delitzsch) says, "Membra sustulit, efficientias dedit."

The teaching of the strophe is gathered up in Psalms 94:11, which exceeds the normal number of four verses in each group, and asserts strongly the conclusion for which the psalmist has been arguing. The rendering of b is, "For (not That) they (i.e. men) are but a breath." "The ground of the Omniscience which sees the thoughts of men through and through is profoundly laid in the vanity, i.e. the finiteness, of men, as the correlative of the Infiniteness of God" (Hupfeld).

In the strophe Psalms 94:12-15 the psalmist turns from the oppressors to their victims, the meek of the earth, and changes his tone from fiery remonstrance to gracious consolation. The true point of view from which to regard the oppressors’ wrong is to see in it part of God’s educational processes. Jehovah, who "instructs" all men by conscience, "instructs" Israel, and by the Law "teaches" the right interpretation of such afflictive providences. Happy he who accepts that higher education! A further consolation lies in considering the purpose of the special revelation to Israel, which will be realised in patient hearts that are made wise thereby-namely, calm repose of submission and trust, which are not disturbed by any stormy weather. There is possible for the harassed man "peace subsisting at the heart of endless agitation."

If we recognise that life is mainly educational, we shall neither be astonished nor disturbed by sorrows. It is not to be wondered at that the schoolmaster has a rod, and uses it sometimes. There is rest from evil even while in evil, if we understand the purpose of evil. Yet another consolation lies in the steadfast anticipation of its transiency and of the retribution measured to its doers. That is no unworthy source of comfort. And the ground on which it rests is the impossibility of God’s forsaking His people, His inheritance. These designations of Israel look back to Psalms 94:5, where the crushed and afflicted are designated by the same words. Israel’s relation to Jehovah made the calamities more startling; but it also makes their cessation, and retribution for them on their inflicters more certain. It is the trial and triumph of Faith to be sure, while tyrants grind and crush, that Jehovah has not deserted their victims. He cannot change His purpose; therefore, sorrows and prosperity are but divergent methods, concurring in carrying out His unalterable design. The individual sufferer may take comfort from his belonging to the community to which the presence of Jehovah is guaranteed forever. The singer puts his convictions as to what is to be the upshot of all the perplexed riddles of human affairs into epigrammatic form, in the obscure, gnome-like saying, "To righteousness shall judgment return," by which he seems to mean that the administration of justice, which at present was being trampled under foot, "shall come back to the eternal principle of all judicial action, namely, righteousness,"-in shorter words, there shall be no schism between the judgments of earthly tribunals and justice. The psalmist’s hope is that of all good men and sufferers from unjust rulers. All the upright in heart long for such a state of things and follow after it, either in the sense of delight in it ("Dem Recht mussen alle frommen Herzen zufallen"-Luther), or of seeking to bring it about. The psalmist’s hope is realised in the King of Men, whose own judgments are truth, and who infuses righteousness and the love of it into all who trust in Him.

The singer comes closer to his own experience in the next strophe (Psalms 94:16-19), in which he claims his share in these general sources of rest and patience, and thankfully thinks of past times, when he found that they yielded him streams in the desert. He looks out upon the multitude of "evildoers," and, for a moment, asks the question which faithless sense is ever suggesting and pronouncing unanswerable: "Where shall I find a champion?" As long as our eyes range along the level of earth, they see none such. But the empty earth should turn our gaze to the occupied throne. There sits the Answer to our almost despairing question. Rather, there He stands, as the proto-martyr saw Him, risen to His feet in swift readiness to help His servant. Experience confirms the hope of Jehovah’s aid; for unless in the past He had been the singer’s help, he could not have lived till this hour, but must have gone down into the silent land. No man who still draws breath is without tokens of God’s sufficient care and ever-present help. The mystery of continued life is a witness for God. And not only does the past thus proclaim where a man’s help is, but devout reflection on it will bring to light many times when doubts and tremors were disappointed. Conscious weakness appeals to confirming strength. If we feel our foot giving, and fling up our hands towards Him, He will grasp them and steady us in the most slippery places. Therefore, when divided thoughts (for so the picturesque word employed in Psalms 94:19 means) hesitate between hope and fear, God’s consolations steal into agitated minds, and there is a great calm.

The last strophe (Psalms 94:20-23) weaves together in the finale, as a musician does in the last bars of his composition, the main themes of the psalm-the evil deeds of unjust rulers, the trust of the psalmist, his confidence in the final annihilation of the oppressors and the consequent manifestation of God as the God of Israel. The height of crime is reached when rulers use the forms of justice as masks for injustice, and give legal sanction to "mischief." The ancient world groaned under such travesties of the sanctity of Law; and the modern world is not free from them. The question often tortures faithful hearts, "Can such doings be sanctioned by God, or in any way be allied to Him?" To the psalmist the worst part of these rulers’ wickedness was that, in his doubting moments, it raised the terrible suspicion that God was perhaps on the side of the oppressors. But when such thoughts came surging on him, he fell back, as we all have to do, on personal experience and on an act of renewed trust. He remembered what God had been to him in past moments of peril, and he claimed Him for the same now, his own refuge and fortress. Strong in that individual experience and conviction, he won the confidence that all which Jehovah had to do with the throne of destruction was, not to connive at its evil, but to overthrow it and root out the evildoers, whose own sin will be their ruin. Then Jehovah will be known, not only for the God who belongs to, and works for, the single soul, but who is "our God," the refuge of the community, who will not forsake His inheritance.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 94". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".