Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
This psalm is entitled simply "Song of Degrees." See the notes at the title of Psa 120:1-7. Nothing is intimated in regard to the authorship of the psalm, or to the occasion on which it was composed. The only circumstance which throws any light on its origin is the statement in Psa 123:4, that the author and his friends - the people of God referred to in the psalm - were exposed to derision and contempt for their attachment to religion, especially the contempt and reproach of those who were in circumstances of ease and affluence, or who were in the more elevated ranks of life. This might accord well with the condition of the exiles returning from Babylon, or with the condition of the returned captives when rebuilding the walls of the city, and when they met with scorn and contempt from the Samaritans and the Ammonites; from Sanballat and Tobiah; from the Arabians and the Ashdodites Neh 4:1-8; but there is no certain evidence that the psalm was composed on that occasion. The pious Hebrews of antiquity - David and others - and the people of God at all times have been too much exposed to this kind of treatment to make the mere applicability of the psalm to that particular time a reason for concluding that it must have been composed then; and it is now impossible to determine by whom, or on what occasion it was composed. It refers to what may occur in any age of the world; and it expresses the proper feelings of piety at all times when we are, on account of our religion, exposed to "the scorning of those that are at ease, and to the contempt of the proud."
Unto thee - To God.
Lift I up mine eyes - In supplication and prayer. Nature prompts us to look up when we address God, as if he dwelt above us. It is the natural prompting of the heart that he must be the most exalted of all beings, dwelling above all. See Psa 121:1.
O thou that dwellest in the heavens - Whose home - whose special home - is in heaven - above the sky. This is in accordance with the common feelings of people, and the common description of God in the Bible, though it is true also that God is everywhere. Compare Psa 2:4; Psa 11:4.
Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters ... - Or, are to the hands of their masters; or, regard the hands of their masters. That is, we look to God with the same spirit of deference, dependence, and readiness to mark the will of God, which is evinced by servants in regard to their masters, and by maidens in regard to the will of a mistress. There has been some difference of view in regard to the meaning of this comparison. Some have supposed that the allusion is to the fact that servants, when in danger, look to their masters for protection; others, that they look to them for the supply of their needs; others, that when they have been guilty of an offence they look to them alone for pardon. See Rosenmuller, in loc. The true idea, however, seems to be, that they look to them with deference and respect; that they attentively mark every expression of their will; that they are ready to obey their commands on the slightest intimation of their wishes - standing in a waiting posture, with no will of their own - their own wills absorbed in the will of the master or the mistress.
The following extracts from Oriental travelers may illustrate the idea here: Maundrell (Reise von Aleppo nach Jerusalem, s. 13), speaking of an interview with the Pasha at Tripoli, says, "The servants all stood in great numbers with the utmost respect, and in profoundest silence, and served the guests with the utmost attention and respect." Pococke remarks that in Egypt the slaves stand in the profoundest silence at the end of the table, their hands laid cross-wise over one another, and that they mark with the deepest attention the slightest movement of their master, who conveys his wishes to them through signs and winks. Savary, in his Letters from Egypt (p. 135), says, "The slaves stand with their hands laid cross-wise over their breasts, silent, at the end of the hall. "Their eyes are directed to the master," and they are attentive to the slightest indication of his will." See other illustrations in Rosenmuller, Morgenland, ii. 109, 110. It is to such a custom as this that the psalmist refers; and the idea is, that his eyes were directed to God, in his troubles, in profound silence, and with deep attention, resembling that of servants waiting in stillness on their master, and catching the slightest intimation of his will - a movement of the head or hand - or anything which would indicate his pleasure.
Until that he have mercy upon us - We have nothing to do but wait. We have no other resource. We can do nothing if we turn away from him. Our only hope and expectation is there, and if we ever find relief, it must be there. The surest - the only - hope of relief is to wait on God; and it is the purpose of our souls to do this until we find help and deliverance. This is the attitude in which the earnest prayer in the next verse is offered.
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us - The language of earnest pleading, repeating with emphasis the object of the prayer. The supplicants are represented as standing and urging this petition, feeling that help could come only from God; looking only to him; and watching his countenance, as servants do their master's.
For we are exceedingly filled - The Hebrew word used here means to be saturated; to have the appetite fully satisfied - as applied to one who is hungry or thirsty. Then it comes to mean to be entirely full, and the idea here is, that as much contempt had been thrown upon them as could be; they could experience no more.
With contempt - Contempt has been shown us in every possible way. We are thoroughly despised.
Our soul is exceedingly filled - Thoroughly sated. This verse states the nature and the source of the contempt which they were called to bear.
With the scorning of those that are at ease - According to one view of these "Psalms of Degrees" (see the Introduction to Psa 120:1-7) this would be an instance of an "ascent" in the sense, or of the going up of the thought, where in Psa 123:3 there was mention made in general of "contempt," and in this verse the thought is carried onward and upward, or there is an additional idea which gives intensity to it. It is the scorn proceeding from those who are at ease; that is, the frivolous, the affluent, the proud. The word scorning means derision, mockery. The idea in the Hebrew is derived from stammering, which the word properly means; and then, mockery, as repeating over the words of another, or imitating the voice of one in derision. Compare Psa 2:4; Job 22:19. The phrase "those that are at ease" properly refers to those who are tranquil or quiet, Job 12:5; Isa 32:18; Isa 33:20; and then it is used of those who are living at ease; those who are living in self-indulgence and luxury, Amo 6:1; Isa 32:9, Isa 32:11. Here it would seem to refer to those who, in our language, are "in easy circumstances;" the affluent; those who are not compelled to toil: then, the frivolous, the fashionable, those in the upper walks of life. The contempt was aggravated by the fact that it came from that quarter; not from the low, the ignorant, the common, but from those who claimed to be refined, and who were distinguished in the world of gaiety, of rank, and of fashion. This, even for good people (such is human nature), is much more hard to bear than contempt is when it comes from those who are in the lower walks of life. In the latter case, perhaps, we feel that we can meet contempt with contempt; in the former we cannot. We disregard the opinions of those who are beneath us; there are few who are not affected by the opinions entertained of them by those who are above them.
And with the contempt of the proud - Those who are lifted up; either in rank, in condition, or in feeling. The essential idea is, that it was the contempt of those to whom mankind look up. Religious people have always had much of this to encounter, and often it is in fact a more severe test of the reality and power of religion than the loss of goods, or than bodily pains and penalties. We can bear much if we have the respect - the praise - of those above us; it is a very certain test of the reality and the power of our religion when we can bear the scorn of the great, the noble, the scientific, the frivolous, and the fashionable. Piety is more frequently checked and obscured by this than it is by persecution. It is more rare that piety shines brightly when the frivolous and the fashionable flown upon it than when princes attempt to crush it by power. The church has performed its duty better in the furnace of persecution than it has in the "happy" scenes of the world.