Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
This psalm, one of the "Songs of Degrees," is, like Psa 122:1-9, ascribed to David. See the Introductory Notes to that psalm. There is nothing in the one before us to render it improbable that it was composed by him, but it is now impossible to ascertain on what occasion it was written. It would be appropriate to be sung on the return from Babylon, and there is no improbability in the supposition that it may have been used on that occasion. But there is nothing in it to prove that it was composed then, or to make it applicable to that occasion alone. Very many were the occasions in the Jewish history when such a psalm was applicable; very many have been the occasions in the history of the Christian church; very many, also, in the lives of individual believers.
The idea in the psalm is, that deliverance from trouble and danger is to be ascribed wholly to God; that the people of God are often in such circumstances that there is no human help for them, and that the praise of theft deliverance is due to God alone.
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side - Unless it was Yahweh who was with us. The idea is, that someone had been with them, and had delivered them, and that such was the nature of the interposition that it could be ascribed to no one but Yahweh. It bore unmistakeable evidence that it was his work. The deliverance was of such a kind that it could have been accomplished by him only. Such things often occur in life, when the intervention in our behalf is so remarkable that we can ascribe it to no one else but God.
Now may Israel say - May well and truly say. The danger was so great, their helplessness was so manifest, and the deliverance was so clearly the work of God, that it was proper to say that if this had not occurred, ruin would have been inevitable and entire.
If it had not been the Lord who was on our side - Repeating the idea, since the mind was full of it, and carrying the thought forward. This is one of the instances of an ascent of thought in these psalms, from which it has been supposed that the title "Songs of Degrees" was given to this collection. See, however, Introduction to Psa 120:1-7.
When men rose up against us - When we were assailed by our enemies. On what occasion this occurred, it is now impossible to determine.
Then they had swallowed us up quick - There was no other help, and ruin - utter ruin - would have soon come upon us. The word quick here means alive; and the idea is derived from persons swallowed up in an earthquake, or by the opening of the earth, as in the case of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Num 16:32-33. Compare Psa 106:17. The meaning here is, that they would have been destroyed as if they were swallowed up by the opening of the earth; that is, there would have been complete destruction.
When their wrath was kindled against us - Hebrew, In the kindling of their wrath against us. Wrath is often represented in the Scriptures as burning or heated - as that which consumes all before it.
Then the waters had overwhelmed us - Our destruction would have been as if the waves of the ocean had overwhelmed us.
The stream had gone over our soul - The torrent would have swept us away. Compare Psa 18:4, Psa 18:16.
Then the proud waters had gone over our soul - Over us. The word proud here is applied to the waters as if raging, swelling, rolling, tumultuous; as if they were self-confident, arrogant, haughty. Such raging billows, as they break and dash upon the shore, are a striking embIem of human passions, whether in an individual, or in a gathering of men - as an army, or a mob. Compare Psa 65:7. This is again an amplification, or an ascent of thought. See the notes at Psa 124:2. It is, however, nothing more than a poetical embellisment, adding intensity to the expression.
Blessed be the Lord - The Lord be praised; or, We have reason to praise the Lord because we have been delivered from these calamities.
Who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth - The figure is here changed, though the same idea is retained. The imago is now that of destruction by wild beasts - a form of destruction not less fearful than that which comes from overflowing waters. Such changes of imagery constantly occur in the Book of Psalms, and in impassioned poetry everywhere. The mind is full of a subject; numerous illustrations occur in the rapidity of thought; and the mind seizes upon one and then upon another as best suited to express the emotions of the soul. The next verse furnishes another instance of this sudden transition.
Our soul is escaped - We have escaped; our life has been preserved.
As a bird out of the snare of the fowlers - By the breaking of the snare, or the gin. The bird is entangled, but the net breaks, and the bird escapes. See the notes at Psa 91:3.
The snare is broken ... - It was not strong enough to retain the struggling bird, and the captive broke away. So we seemed to be caught. The enemy appeared to have us entirely in his power, but escape came to us as it does to the bird when it finds the net suddenly break, and itself again at large.
Our help is in the name of the Lord - In the Lord; in the great Yahweh. See Psa 121:2.
Who made heaven and earth - The great Creator; the true God. Our deliverances have led us up to him. They are such as can be ascribed to him alone. They could not have come from ourselves; from our fellow-men; from angels; from any or all created beings. Often in life, when delivered from danger, we may feel this; we always may feel this, and should feel this, when we think of the redemption of our souls. That is a work which we of ourselves could never have performed; which could not have been done for us by our fellow-men; which no angel could have accomplished; which all creation combined could not have worked out; which could have been effected by no one but by him who "made heaven and earth;" by him who created all things. See Col 1:13-17.