Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
The Psalmist reminds the Lord’s people, that unless they were assiduous in his praises, they were chargeable with defrauding him of what was justly due to him for his benefits. And, in mentioning each benefit, he takes particular notice of the mercy of God, to teach us how necessary it is to the proper celebration of his praises that we own everything which we receive from him to be bestowed gratuitously. 170
1. Praise Jehovah, for he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever. 2. Praise the Cod of gods, for his mercy endureth for ever. 3.. Praise the Lord of Lords, 171 for his mercy endureth for ever. 4. Who alone hath done great wonders, for his mercy endureth for ever, 5. Who made the heavens by his wisdom, [or, intelligently,] for his mercy endureth for ever. 6. Who stretcheth out the earth above the waters, for his mercy endureth for ever. 7. Who made the great lights, for his mercy endureth for ever. 8. The sun for rule by day, for his mercy endureth for ever. 9. The moon and stars for rule by night for his mercy endureth for ever.
1. For his mercy, 172 etc. The insertion of this clause again and again in so many short and abrupt sentences, may seem a vain repetition, but verses repeated by way of chorus are both allowed and admired in profane poets, and why should we object to the reiteration in this instance, for which the best reasons can be shown, Men may not deny the divine goodness to be the source and Fountain of all their blessings, but the graciousness of his bounty is far from being fully and sincerely recognised, though the greatest stress is laid upon it in Scripture. Paul in speaking of it, (Ro 3:23,) calls it emphatically by the general term of the glory of God, intimating, that while God should be praised for all his works, it is his mercy principally that we should glorify. It is evident from what we read in sacred history, that it was customary for the Levites. according to the regulation laid down by David for conducting the praises of God, to sing by response, “for his mercy endureth for ever.” The practice was followed by Solomon in the dedication of the Temple, (2 Chr. 7:3, 6,) and by Jehoshaphat in that solemn triumphal song mentioned in 2Ch 20:21, of the same book. [Before proceeding to recite God’s works, the Psalmist declares his supreme Deity, and dominion, not that such comparative language implies that there is anything approaching] Deity besides him, but there is a disposition in men, whenever they see any part of his glory displayed, to conceive of a God separate from him, thus impiously dividing the Godhead into parts, and even proceeding so far as to frame gods of wood and stone. There is a depraved tendency in all to take delight in a multiplicity of gods. For this reason, apparently, the. Psalmist uses the plural number, not only in the word אלהים, Elohim, but in the word אדונים, Adonim, so that it reads literally, praise ye the Lords of Lords: he would intimate, that the fullest perfection of all dominion is to be found in the one God.
4. Who alone hath done great wonders Under this term he comprehends all God’s works from the least to the greatest, that he may awaken our admiration of them, for notwithstanding the signal marks of inconceivably great wisdom and divine power of God which are inscribed upon them we are apt through thoughtlessness to undervalue them. He declares that whatever is worthy of admiration is exclusively made and done by God, to teach us that we cannot transfer the smallest portion of the praise due to him without awful sacrilege, there being no vestige of divinity in the whole range of heaven and earth with which it is lawful to compare or equal him. He then proceeds to praise the wisdom of God, as particularly displayed in the skill with which the heavens are framed, giving evidence in a surprising degree of the fine discrimination with which they are adorned. 173 Next he comes to speak of the earth, that he may lead us to form a proper estimate of this great and memorable work of God, stretching forth as it does a bare and dry superficies above the waters. As these elements are of a spherical form, the waters, if not kept within their limits, would naturally cover the earth, were it not that God has seen fit to secure a place of habitation for the human family. This philosophers themselves are forced to admit as one of their principles and maxims. 174 The earth’s expanded surface, and the vacant space uncovered with water, has been justly considered therefore one of the great wonders of God. And it is ascribed to his mercy, because his only reason for displacing the waters from their proper seat was that regard which he had in his infinite goodness for the interests of man.
7. Who made the great lights, etc. — Moses calls the sun and moon the two great lights, and there is little doubt that the Psalmist here borrows the same phraseology. What is immediately added about the stars, is, as it were, accessory to the others. It is true, that the other planets are larger than the moon, but it is stated as second in order on account of its visible effects. The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and, in proposing instruction meant to be common to the simplest and most uneducated persons, he made use by Moses and the other Prophets of popular language, that none might shelter himself under the pretext of obscurity, as we will see men sometimes very readily pretended an incapacity to understand, when anything deep or recondite is submitted to their notice. Accordingly, as Saturn though bigger than the moon is not so to the eye owing to his greater distance, the Holy Spirit would rather speak childishly than unintelligibly to the humble and unlearned. The same remark may be made upon what the Psalmist adds regarding God’s having assigned the sun and moon their respective parts, making the one to rule the day, and the other to rule the night, by which we are not to understand that they exercise any government, but that the administrative power of God is very manifest in this distribution. The sun in illuminating the earth through the day, and the, moon and stars by night, may be said to yield a reverential homage to God.
10. Who smote the Egyptians in their first-born, for his mercy endureth for ever. 11. And brought out Israel from, the midst of them, for his mercy endureth for ever: 12. With a strong hand, and with a stretched out arm, for his mercy endureth for ever. 13. Who divided the Red Sea into divisions, for his mercy endureth for ever, 14. And made Israel to pass through the midst of it, for his mercy endureth for ever. 15. And cast Pharaoh and his host headlong into the Red Sea, for his mercy endureth for ever. 16. And led his people through the wilderness, for his mercy endureth for ever.
10. Who smote the Egyptians in, their first-born Some read with their first-born, but the other rendering reads better. As we do not mean to sermonize upon the passage, it is unnecessary to detain the reader here with many words, as nothing is mentioned but what has been treated elsewhere. Only we may notice that the Egyptians are well said to have been smitten in their first-born, because they continued in their outrageous obstinacy under the other plagues, though occasionally terrified by them, but were broken and subdued by this last plague, and submitted. As it was not intended to recount all the wonders successively done in Egypt, the whole is summed up in one word when it is said, that he led his people forth from the midst of it with a mighty and a stretched out arm. For pressed down as they were on every side, it was only by a wonderful display of divine power that they could effect an escape. The figure of an outstretched arm is appropriate, for we stretch out the arm when any great effort is required; so that this implies that God put forth an extraordinary and not a common or slight display of his power in redeeming his people. 175
13. Who divided the Red Sea I have already (Ps 106:7) spoken of the word סוף, suph, and have not therefore hesitated to render it the Red Sea The Psalmist speaks of divisions in the plural number, which has led some Jewish authors to conjecture that there must have been more passages than one — an instance of their solemn trifling in firings of which they know nothing, and of their method of corrupting the Scriptures entirely with their vain fancies. ‘We may well laugh at such fooleries, yet we are to hold them at the same time in detestation; for there can be no doubt that the Rabbinical writers were led to this by the devil, as an artful way of discrediting the Scriptures. Moses plainly and explicitly asserts that the heaps of waters stood up on both sides, from which we infer that the space between was one and undivided. 176 But as the people passed through in troops, and not one by one, the pathway being so broad as to admit of their passing freely men and women, with their families and cattle, the Psalmist very properly mentions divisions, with a reference to the people who passed through, this circumstance not a little enhancing the mercy of God, that they saw large depths or channels dried up, so that they had no difficulty in advancing in troops abreast. Another circumstance which confirmed or enhanced the mercy shown, was, that Pharaoh was shortly afterwards drowned; for the very different issue proved that it could not be owing to any hidden cause of a merely natural kind, that some should have perished, while others passed over with entire safety. The distinction made afforded a conspicuous display of God’s mercy in saving his people. Much is included in the single expression that God was the leader of his people through the wilderness. It was only by a succession of miracles of various kinds that they could have been preserved for forty years in a parched wilderness, where they were destitute of all the means of subsistence. So that we are to comprehend, under what is here stated, the various proofs of divine goodness and power which are mentioned by Moses as having been vouchsafed, in feeding his people with bread from heaven — in making water to flow from the rock — in protecting them under the cloud from the heat of the sun — giving them a sign of his presence in the pillar of fire — preserving their raiment entire — shielding them and their little ones in their exile wanderings under tents of leaves, 177 with innumerable other instances of mercy which must occur to the reader.
17. Who smote great kings, for his mercy endureth for ever. 18. And slew famous kings, for his mercy endureth for ever. 19. Sihon, king of the Amorites, for his mercy endureth for ever. 20. And Og, king of Bashan, for his mercy endureth for ever. 21. And gave their land for an heritage, for his mercy endureth for ever. 22. An heritage to Israel his servant., for his mercy endureth for ever. 23. Who remembered us in our humiliation, for his mercy endureth for ever. 24. And hath rescued us from our oppressors, for his mercy endureth for ever. 25. Who giveth food to all flesh, for his mercy endureth for ever. 26. Make acknowledgments to the God of heavens, for his mercy endureth for ever.
23. Who remembered us in our humiliation The six verses taken from the previous Psalm I pass over without observation; and I shall only touch very briefly upon the others, which do not need lengthened consideration. We may just observe that the Psalmist represents every age as affording’ displays of the same goodness as had been shown to their fathers, since God had never failed to help his people by a continued succession of deliverances. It was a more notable proof of his mercy to interpose for the nation at a time when it was nearly overwhelmed by calamities, than to preserve it in its entire state and under a more even course of affairs, there being something in the emergency to awaken attention and arrest the view. Besides, in all the deliverances which God grants his people, there is an accompanying remission of their sins. In the close he speaks of the paternal providence of God as extending not only to all mankind, but to every living creature, suggesting that we have no reason to feel surprise at his sustaining the character of a kind and provident father to his own people, when he condescends to care for the cattle, and the asses of the field, and the crow, and the sparrow. Men are much better than brute beasts, and there is a great difference between some men and others, though not in merit, yet as regards the privilege of the divine adoption, and the Psalmist is to be considered as reasoning from the less to the greater, and enhancing the incomparably superior mercy which God shows to his own children.
This Psalm is called by the Jews, the Great Thanksgiving.
“The three first verses of this Psalm contain the three several names of the Deity, which are commonly rendered Jehovah, God, and Lord, respectively; the first having reference to his essence as self-existent, and being his proper name; the second designating him under the character of a Judge or of an all-powerful being, if Aleim be derived from Al; and the third, Adoni, representing him as exercising rule.” — Cresswell.
Jebb observes, that “the 136th Psalm is altogether peculiar in its construction, as it has the recurrence of the same words, ‘For everlasting is his mercy,’ at the end of every distich.” He adds, that “this elaborate artifice of construction seems characteristic of that later period which comprised the captivity and restoration;” although he at the same time admits, that it is to be found in Psalms of an earlier date than the Baby-lonish captivity, quoting a passage in the account of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, which informs us, that the whole choir of Israel united in praising God “for he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever:” and observing that this expression forms the.commencement of three other Psalms, the Psalm 106, Psalm 107, and Psalm 118. In his remarks on the Psalm 119, after adverting to the alphabetical character of that Psalm, he adds, “There are other artifices of construction observable in the Psalms and Hymns composed in these later ages of the Church. For example, that repetition of the same words and clauses, and the frequent recurrence of a characteristic word, so frequent in the Greater Hallel, [from the Psalm 111 to Psalm 118th, inclusive,] and in the Songs of Degrees: and in a continually recurring burden, in each distich, as in the Song of the three Children, and Psalm 136, which latter is unique in the Psalter. It has been the tendency of the poetry of most countries, in the progress of time, to make its characteristic features depend less upon the exactness of sentimental arrangement, and more upon some external artifice, whether this be prosodial metre, alliteration, rhyme, assonance, or the recurrence of a burthen. Now, though the poetry of the Scriptures, because it was inspired, never declined from the perfection of its sentimental construction, still those artificial contrivances, practiced, indeed, in earlier times, seem to have been more prevalent at the time of the captivity, and the time immediately following, than heretofore. It was probably so ordained, for the purpose of assisting the memories of the Jews, who at Babylon were excluded from the open exercise of their religion, and from public teaching, and, therefore, required more private helps, which could be more easily communicated orally from parents to children, or from masters to disciples.” — Jebb’s Translation of the Psalms, etc., volume 2.
“Les cieux sont composez d’un si excellent et bel artifice, qu’ils crient que c’est d’une facon admirable qu’ils ont este ornez d’une si plaisante distinction.” — Fr.
“De mettre ceci entre lents principes et maximes.” — Fr.
“Dieu en deliverant son peuple n’a point monstre une petite puissance,” etc. — Fr.
“Dont nous pouvons bien recueillir que l’espace d’entre deux estoit sans aucune separation.” — Fr.
“Sous des logettes de feuilles.” — Fr.