Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This Psalm also incites the people of God to praise him upon two accounts; first, for the display of his power, goodness, wisdom, and other perfections in the common government of the world, and the several parts of it, the heavens and the earth, but more particularly for his special goodness in cherishing and defending the Church which he has chosen of his free grace, in restoring it when fallen down, and gathering it when dispersed. 289
1. Praise ye God; for it is good to sing praises unto our God, for it is pleasant, and praise is comely. 2. Jehovah building up Jerusalem, will gather the dispersed of Israel: 3. Healing the contrite in heart, and binding up their griefs: 4. Numbering the multitude of the stars, giving names to each of them. 5. Great is our Lord, and plenteous in power, there is no figure for his understanding. 6. Jehovah raiseth up the miserable, and casteth the wicked down to the ground.
Praise ye God, etc. Though the benefits he speaks of are such as God extends to all men indiscriminately, it is plain that he addresses more especially God’s people, who alone behold his works in an enlightened manner, whereas stupidity and blindness of mind deprive others of their understanding. Nor is his subject confined to the common benefits of God, but the main thing which he celebrates is his mercy, as shown to his chosen people. That the Church may address itself to the praises of God with more alacrity, he states that this kind of exercise is good, delightful, and pleasant, by which he indirectly censures a sin which is all but universal of becoming wearied at the very mention of God, and counting it our highest pleasure to forget both God and ourselves, that we may give way to unrestrained indulgence. To teach men to take a delight in this religious exercise, the Psalmist reminds them that praise is comely, or desirable. For the term נאוה, navah, may be rendered either way.
2. Jehovah building up, etc. He begins with the special mercy of God towards his Church and people, in choosing to adopt one nation out of all others, and selecting a fixed place where his name might be called upon. When he is here called the builder of Jerusalem, the allusion is not so much to the outward form and structure, as to the spiritual worship of God. It is a common figure in treating of the Church to speak of it as a building or temple. The meaning is, that the Church was not of human erection, but formed by the supernatural power of God; for it was from no dignity of the place itself that Jerusalem became the only habitation of God in our world, nor did it come to this honor by counsel, industry, effort or power of man, but because God was pleased to consecrate it to himself. He employed the labor and instrumentality of men indeed in erecting his sanctuary there, but this ought never to take from his grace, which alone distinguished the holy city from all others. In calling God the former and architect of the Church, his object is to make us aware that by his power it remains in a firm condition, or is restored when in ruins. Hence he infers that it is in his power and arbitrament to gather those who have been dispersed. Here the Psalmist would comfort those miserable exiles who had been scattered in various quarters, with the hope of being recovered from their dispersion, as God had not adopted them without a definite purpose into one body. As he had ordered his temple and altar to be erected at Jerusalem, and had fixed his seat there, the Psalmist would encourage the Jews who were exiles from their native country, to entertain good hope of a return, intimating that it was no less properly God’s work to raise up his Church when ruined and fallen down, than to found it at first. It was not, therefore, the Psalmist’s object directly to celebrate the free mercy of God in the first institution of the Church, but to argue from its original, that God would not suffer his Church altogether to fall, having once founded it with the design of preserving it for ever; for he forsakes not the work of his own hands. This comfort ought to be improved by ourselves at the present period, when we see the Church on every side so miserably rent asunder, leading us to hope that all the elect who have been adjoined to Christ’s body, will be gathered unto the unity of the faith, although now scattered like members torn from one another, and that the mutilated body of the Church, which is daily distracted, will be restored to its entireness; for God will not suffer his work to fail.
In the following verse he insists upon the same truth, the figure suggesting that though the Church labor under, and be oppressed by many diseases, God will speedily and easily recover it from all its wounds. The same truth, therefore, is evidently conveyed, under a different form of expression — that the Church, though it may not always be in a flourishing condition, is ever safe and secure, and that God will miraculously heal it, as though it were a diseased body.
4. Numbering the multitude, etc. As the gathering together of the people of whom the Psalmist spoke might appear to be an impossibility, there seems some ground for the opinion of those who think that he confirms it in this verse. The connection they give to the Psalmist’s words is this — that as it is at least not more difficult to gather men together who are outcast and scattered, than to number the stars, there was no reason why the wandering exile Israelites should despair of their return, provided they should resort with one consent to God as their only head. There is some probability, too, in the conjecture that the Psalmist may allude to that promise —
“Look now towards the stars of heaven, if thou canst tell them,
so shall thy seed be.” (Ge 15:5.)
But as the Psalmist immediately afterwards treats of the order of things in nature generally, the simplest rendering, I think, is to understand this verse with reference to the admirable work of God to be seen in the heavens, where we behold his matchless wisdom, in regulating, without one degree of aberration, the manifold, complex, winding courses of the stars. To each of them he assigns its fixed and distinct office, and in all the multitude there is no confusion. He therefore exclaims immediately — Great is God, and boundless, both in power and understanding. We learn from this that there cannot be greater folly than to make our judgment the measure of God’s works, displaying in these, as he often does, his incomprehensible power and wisdom.
6. Raising up, etc. The ascription of this to God fitly tends to confirm our hope under affliction, and prevent our souls from fainting under the cross. From this we may infer that although our fathers who lived under the Law were more gently dealt with, they knew something at least of that warfare with which God daily exercises us, in order to make us seek our true rest elsewhere than in this world. Should a doubt steal upon the minds of those who have been brought under heavy afflictions, as to the forthcoming of that help which God has promised to extend, let the truth recur to our remembrance, that we are brought low that God may lift us up again. And if upon seeing the prosperity of the wicked we are smitten and inflamed with envy, let the words of the Psalmist come into our mind, That they are lifted up that they may be cast down into destruction. When he speaks of their being cast down even to the earth, there can be no doubt that he passes an indirect censure upon their pride which leads them to exalt themselves on high, as if they belonged to some superior order of beings.
7. Sing to Jehovah in thanksgiving, sing psalms to our God upon the harp. 290 8. Who covereth the heavens with clouds, prepareth rain for the earth, maketh grass to germinate on the mountains. 291 9. Who giveth to the cattle their food, to the young ones of the ravens which cry to him. 10. Not in the strength of the horse will he take pleasure, nor in the legs of man will he delight. 11. Jehovah delighteth in those who fear him, who hope in his mercy.
7. Sing to Jehovah in thanksgiving Again he exhorts to sing the praises of God, intimating at the same time that abundant matter was not wanting, since new proofs still meet our eyes of his power, goodness, and wisdom. First he tells us that he covers the heavens with clouds, and this change would awaken our attention, were we not chargeable with so much thoughtlessness. Various as are the marvels to be seen in the heavens above us, were the same serenity always to continue, we would not have so wonderful a display of his power as when he suddenly veils them with clouds, withdrawing the light of the sun, and setting a new face as it were upon the world. He afterwards hints that in this way provision is made for all living creatures, for thus the herbs germinate, and the earth is supplied with the moisture which makes it fertile. Thus in connection with the proofs of his power God sets before our eyes those of his mercy and fatherly consideration for the human family; nay, he shows that he does not overlook even the wild beasts and cattle. Philosophers discover the origin of rain in the elements, and it is not denied that clouds are formed from the gross vapors which are exhaled from the earth and sea, but second causes should not prevent us from recognizing the providence of God in furnishing the earth with the moisture needed for fructification. As the earth chapped with heat shows its thirst by opening its mouth, so God on his part in sending rain distills drink for it. He might in other ways of a more secret kind give it strength to preserve it from failing, but this irrigation is something which passes before our eyes to image forth the continual care which he has over us.
9. Who gives to the cattle their food By giving an instance he explains more clearly what he had said, of God’s providing food for every living creature. When he speaks of the cattle and the ravens being fed, and not of men, this is to give more emphasis to his argument. We know that it was for man’s sake the world was made at all, and endued with fertility and plenty; and in proportion as we are nearer in the scale of existence to God, he shows us the more of his goodness. But if he condescends to notice the brute creation, it is plain that to us he will be a nurse and a father. For the same reason he names the ravens, the most contemptible of all birds, to teach us that the goodness of God extends to every part of the world. When he says that their young cry unto God, he no doubt refers to their natural cry, but hints at the same time that they own that they must be in want unless God give them meat from heaven. As to the Jewish fable that the ravens desert their young ones as soon as put forth, and that worms are bred in the barks of the trees to feed them, this is one of their customary stories, never scrupling as they do, nor being ashamed, to invent anything, however unfounded, when a difficulty comes in the way. 292 It is enough for us to know that the whole system of nature is so regulated by God, that not even the young ravens want their food, when with hoarse outcry they confess that they are in need, and that they cannot have it supplied except by God.
10. Not in the strength of the horse, etc. After the Psalmist has shown that there is proof of the divine goodness in every part of the world, he takes particular notice that men have no strength but what is given them from above, and this he adds with the express purpose of checking the pride by which almost all men are inflamed, and which leads them to trust in their own strength. The meaning of the passage is, that let man come in the preparation of his own strength, and with all the assistance’s that seem to him most prevalent, this will only issue in smoke and vanity; nay, that in arrogating the very least to himself, this will only be a hindrance in the way of the mercy of God, by which alone we stand. The strength of the horse is mentioned by synecdoche to denote any kind of protection. Not that God is displeased with those things in themselves considered which he has given us as helps, but it is necessary that we be withdrawn from a false confidence in them, for very commonly when any resource is at hand, we are foolishly intoxicated and lifted up with pride. He opposes the fear of God therefore to the strength both of men and of horses, and places his hope in his mercy, intimating that it is highly incumbent upon us to show our moderation in worshipping God with reverence and holiness, and depending upon his grace. Hence we learn that he only condemns that strength which would take from God the honor due to him.
12. Celebrate Jehovah, O Jerusalem! praise thy God, O Zion! 13. For he strengthens the bars of thy gates, he blesses thy children in the midst of thee. 14. Who maketh thy borders peace; with the fatness of the corn he satifieth thee.
12. Celebrate Jehovah, O Jerusalem! Having spoken in general of the mercies of God, he again addresses his discourse to the Lord’s people, who alone, as we have remarked already, can appreciate them, calling upon them to recognize with thanksgiving the blessings which others riot upon without acknowledgment. Under the name of Jerusalem, he comprises the whole Church, for in that place the faithful then held their religious assemblies, and flowed together as it were to the standard of the Lord. Although he will take occasion afterwards again to speak of the government of the world at large, he here commemorates the goodness of God as manifested to his own people, in protecting his own Church, bountifully cherishing it, enriching it abundantly with all blessings, and preserving it in peace and safety from all harm. When he says that the bars of the gates are strengthened by God, he means that the holy city was perfectly guarded by him from all fear of hostile attack. To the same effect is the other expression which comes after — that all its bounds were made peace Enemies were under divine restraint so as to cause no disturbance or confusions. Not that the Church is always in a state of peace throughout its whole extent, and exempt from attack, but that God in a visible manner stretches forth his hand to repel these assaults, and it can securely survey the whole array of its enemies. A more extensive meaning indeed may be given to the term peace, which is often taken to signify a happy and prosperous condition. But as mention is made of bounds, the former sense seems most appropriate. The blessing of God enjoyed within is next spoken of, consisting in this, that the citizens dwell prosperously and happily in it, and are fed bountifully, even to satiety; which does not mean that the children of God always wallow in abundance. This might be the means of corrupting them, prone as our nature is to wantonness; but it suggests that they recognize the liberality of God in their daily food more clearly than others who want faith, and whom either abundance renders blind, or poverty vexes with deplorable anxiety, or covetousness inflames with a desire that never can be satisfied. God’s paternal favor was shown more particularly to our fathers under the law in the abundance of temporal provision, it being necessary to lead them forward to something higher by what was elementary.
15. While he sends forth his word to the earth, his word runneth very swiftly. 16. Who giveth snow like wool, 293 and scattereth the hoar frost as ashes. 17. He casteth forth his ice like morsels: 294 before his cold who can stand? 295 18. He shall send his word, and shall melt them: his breath shall blow, the waters shall flow. 19. He announces his words to Jacob, his edicts and his judgments to Israel. 20. He hath not done so to every nation, and his judgments he hath not showed them. Hallelujah.
15. While he sends forth, etc. He again touches upon some instances of the operation of God, everywhere to be seen in the system of nature. And as the changes which take place in the air, and upon the earth, and which should be considered evidences of his power, may perhaps be regarded by the world as the effect of chance, the Psalmist, before proceeding to speak of the snow, hoar frost, and ice, expressly declares, that earth is governed by his power and control. The sending forth of his word is nothing else than the secret influence by which he regulates and governs all things, for without his orders and appointment no movement could take place among the elements, nor could they be borne, now one way and now another, upon their own spontaneous impulse without his foregoing secret decree. He says, that his word runneth quickly, because, when once God has intimated his will, all things concur to carry it into effect. If we do not hold fast by this principle, however acutely we may investigate second causes, all our perspicacity will come to nothing. It is thus that Aristotle, for example, has shown such ingenuity upon the subject of meteors, that he discusses their natural causes most exactly, while he omits the main point of all, upon which the merest child, at least having any religion, has the superiority over him. He must have little discernment who, in the sudden snows and hoar-frosts, does not perceive how quickly the word of God runs. If, then, we would avoid a senseless natural philosophy, we must always start with this principle, that everything in nature depends upon the will of God, and that the whole course of nature is only the prompt carrying into effect of his orders. When the waters congeal, when the hail spreads through the air, and hoar frosts darken the sky, surely we have proof how effectual his word is. But if all these wonders produce no effect upon most men, at least the piercing cold which benumbs our bodies, should force us to recognize the power of God. When the heat of the sun scorches us in summer, and again, upon the succession of winter, all things are bound up, such a change as this, which must have appeared incredible had we not been accustomed to it, cries out loudly that there is a being who reigns above.
19. He announces his words to Jacob, etc. Here it is another word that is spoken of than what was formerly mentioned; for God speaks in a different way to the insensate works of his hands, which he silently subordinates to his will by secret laws impressed upon them, than he does to men who are endued with understanding, for these he teaches with articulate language, that they may obey him intelligently and with consent. Although the blessings formerly mentioned are not to be depreciated, they fall far short of this, that he has condescended to be the teacher of his chosen people, by communicating to them that religious doctrine which is a treasure of everlasting salvation. How little would it avail the Church that it were filled with the perishing enjoyments of time, and protected from hostile violence, did not its hope extend beyond this world. This, accordingly, is the grand proof of his love, that he has set before us in his word the light of eternal life. On this account it is appropriately mentioned here as the crowning part of true solid happiness. And let us learn from this, that we should not only receive the doctrine of God with reverential and holy obedience, but embrace it with affection, for we can conceive of nothing more delightful and desirable than that God should undertake our salvation, and give testimony of this by stretching out his hand to bring us to himself. For this is the design with which the doctrine has been given to us, that amidst the thick darkness of this world, and the devious errors into which Satan misleads the children of men, the great Father of us all may by it cast a foregoing light upon our path before gathering us to the inheritance of heaven. We are to notice, that the part which was sustained by Moses and the Prophets according to divine appointment is here ascribed to God himself, for we only put due honor upon the doctrine of religion, and estimate it at its proper worth when we rise to the consideration of God, who, in using the instrumentality of men, still claims to be considered our chief and only teacher. Thus its due majesty is assigned to the word from the person of its author. Again, he enhances the mercy shown by stating a comparison, intimating that this had not been done for other nations For if it be asked why God preferred one people to others, this pre-eminence will certainly lead us to gratuitous election as its source, since we will find that the children of Israel did not differ from others in any excellency attaching to themselves, but because God passed by others and condescended to adopt them into his favor.
In the Hebrew text, and in the Chaldee and Vulgate versions, this Psalm is without a title, but in the Septuagint it is assigned to the days of Haggai and Zephaniah, the title being — Αλλελουια Αγγαιου και Ζαχαριου; and this may be regarded as a probable reference. In Ps 147:2 and Ps 147:13 there seems to be an allusion to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Bishop Horsley entitles it — “Thanksgiving of the returned captives. Perhaps composed for a Pentecost or Feast of Trumpets, after the Restoration.” “Eben Ezra, and other Jewish writers, think that it foretells the future rebuilding of Jerusalem, and the restoration of the Jews from their present captivity, and refer it to the times of Messiah.” — Dr. Gill.
The Hebrew word here is כנור, kinnor. It is uniformly translated “harp” by Calvin, and also by the translators of our English Bible. But as is supposed by Calmet and others, it more probably corresponded with the lyre of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In the Septuagint it is usually either thrown into the Greek form κινυρα, cinyra, or rendered κιθαρα, cithara, one of the various names by which the principal varieties of the ancient lyres were distinguished. And where these are not the words by which it is rendered in that version, it is rendered by other names which the Greeks gave to different forms of the lyre. From this it is evident that the translators of the Greek version believed that כנור kinnor, denoted the lyre, although from their translating it by different words, each signifying a particular variety of that instrument, they were uncertain as to the particular species of lyre. “The brief intimations in Scripture are in full accordance with this statement; for it is not described as such an instrument — large, heavy, and resting on the ground when played — as the word ‘harp’ suggests to our minds; but as a light portable instrument, which the player carried in his hand or on his arm, and might walk or dance the while. In fact, Scripture describes the kinnor as being used in such a manner and on such occasions as we know the lyre to have been by the ancients, who indeed had not, so far as we know, any harps large and resting on the ground like ours. We speak only of the Greeks and Romans, however, for the Egyptians had large standing harps; from which we shall in a future note take occasion to conclude that such were also known to the Hebrews, while we retain our impression that the lyre is denoted by the kinnor.” — Illustrated Commentary upon the Bible. The kinnor is an instrument of the highest antiquity, being one of those two invented by Jubal before the flood. Ge 4:21. It was used at an early period on festal occasions, as appears from the next instance in which it is mentioned in Scripture, six hundred years after the deluge, namely, in Laban’s words to Jacob, as recorded in Ge 31:27. It was also used by the prophets in their sacred music, as we learn from the next instance in which it is noticed — in the time of Samuel, 1Sa 10:5. The notes of the kinnor might be mournful, (Isa 16:11;) but they were also cheerful, (Job 21:2; Job 30:31; 1Sa 16:23; Ps 137:2.) This musical instrument was constructed of wood, 1Ki 10:12; and it no doubt was to be found among the Hebrews of different forms and power, and varying in the number of strings. The ancient lyres were either played with the fingers, or struck with a plectrum, an instrument which appears generally to have consisted of a piece of ivory, polished wood, or metal, in the form of a quill.
“After this clause the Vulgate, the Septuagint, AEthiopic, Arabic, and Anglo-Saxon add, ‘and herb for the service of man.’ It appears that a hemistich or half line has been lost from the Hebrew text, which, according to the above version, must have stood as in Ps 104:14.” — Dr. Adam Clarke.
“Car quant a la fable que les Juifs racontent, que les corbeaux laissent leur petits si tost qu’ils sont esclos,” etc. — Fr.
We learn from Chardin in a manuscript note on this passage, as quoted by Harmer in his Observations, that towards the Black Sea, in Iberia and Armenia, and therefore he imagines in other countries also, “the snow falls in flakes as big as walnuts; but not being either hard or very compact, it does no other harm than presently to cover and overwhelm the traveller.” The inspired writer had probably seen flakes of equal size on the mountains of Judea; and this would suggest to his mind the strikingly appropriate figure, “He giveth his snow like wool.”
Walford translates, “He casteth down his ice in hail-stones.” “The expression, ‘like morsels,’” says he, “is a literal version of the Hebrew, but it gives so imperfect and obscure a representation of the meaning, as to induce the substitution which is here found. There can be no doubt but that hail is the thing intended: in this the critics are unanimous. It is most likely that the Hebrew term, which is translated ‘morsels,’ means small pieces of some substance, which we cannot now determine.”
“The cold is sometimes extremely severe and even mortal in Palestine and the neighboring countries. Fulchirius Carnotensis, as cited by Mr. Harmer, ‘saw the cold prove deadly to many. Jacobus de Vitriaco informs us, that the same thing happened to many of the poorer people, engaged in an expedition in which he himself was concerned, against Mount Tabor: they had suffered severely the preceding days by cold; but on the 24th of December it was so sharp that many of the poor people, and of the beasts of burden, actually died. Albertus Acquensis tells us the same thing happened to thirty of the people that attended King Baldwin I., in the mountainous districts of Arabia by the Dead Sea, where they had to conflict with horrible hail, with ice, and unheard of snow and rain.’ These citations, as Harmer appositely remarks, may remove our wonder at such passages as that here commented on, in a hymn composed in those warmer climates.” — Mant.