Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
If we may be allowed to compare this Psalm with the former ones, and the next, which is the last, the only difference is, that while the author of the Psalm, whoever he was, has hitherto spoken of God’s special care and protection of his Church in connection with the common providential government of the world, here he speaks of his benefits to the Church exclusively. In the next Psalm mention is only made of the power of God in general.
1. Sing ye to Jehovah a new song: his praise is in the congregation of the merciful. 2. Let Israel rejoice in his Maker: let the sons of Zion rejoice their king. 300 3. Let them praise his name on the pipe, 301 on the timbrel 302 and the harp let them sing psalms to him. 4. Because Jehovah hath taken pleasure in his people; he will glorify the poor unto salvation.
1. Sing to Jehovah a new song. This exordium proves what I have just said, that the exhortation now given is addressed only to God’s people; for the singular goodness which is particularly extended to them affords more ample matter of praise. The probable conjecture is, that the Psalm was composed at the time when the people were begun to rejoice, or after they had returned to their native country from the Babylonish captivity. We will see from the context that a promise is given of recovery from their ruined condition. The object, I think, of the Psalmist, is to encourage them to expect the full and complete deliverance, some prelude of which had been suddenly and unexpectedly given in the permission to return. As the Church was not fully restored at once, but was with difficulty and only after a long period brought to a state of vigor, comfort such as this was much needed. The Spirit of God would also furnish a remedy for evils which were afterwards to break out; for the Church had scarcely begun to respire when it was again harassed with various evils, and oppressed by the cruel tyranny of Antiochus, which was followed up by a dreadful dispersion. The Psalmist had good reason therefore for animating the godly to look forward for the full accomplishment of the mercy of God, that they might be persuaded of divine protection until such time as the Messiah should arise who would gather all Israel. He calls this a new song, as we have noticed elsewhere, to distinguish it from those with which the saints commonly and daily praised God, for praise is their continued exercise. It follows that he speaks of some rare and unusual benefit, demanding signal and particular thanksgiving. And I am disposed to think that whoever may have been the author of the Psalm, he alludes to that passage in Isaiah, (Isa 42:10,) “Sing unto the Lord a new song,” when he speaks of the future restoration of the Church, and the eternal kingdom of Christ. In the second clause of the verse there is a promise implied. For though he proceeds to exhort the Lord’s people to sing God’s praises together, he hints along with this that the Church would coalesce again into one body, so as to celebrate God’s praises in the solemn assembly. We know that so scattered were the Israelites, that the sacred songs ceased to be sung, as elsewhere they complain of being called upon to sing —
“How shall we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land?” (Ps 137:4.)
He bids them prepare therefore after this sad dispersion for holding their sacred assemblies again.
2. Let Israel rejoice in his Maker. He insists upon the same point, that the Lord’s people should rest firmly persuaded that their family had not been chosen out in vain from the rest of the world, but that God would be mindful of his covenant, and not allow the mercies which he had extended to them to fail or become extinct. Although they had been temporarily deprived of the inheritance of the land of Canaan, which was the pledge of their adoption, the Psalmist calls God their Maker, and king of the sons of Zion, to remind them that when adopted to a pre-eminency above other nations, this was a species of new creation. So in Ps 45:6, the Israelites are called “the work of God’s hands,” not merely because they were like other men created by him, but because he had formed them anew, and distinguished them with a new honor, that, of being separated front the whole human race. The name king has a wider signification, intimating that as this people was at first formed by God, so it was with the view of their being ever governed by his power. The musical instruments he mentions were peculiar to this infancy of the Church, nor should we foolishly imitate a practice which was intended only for God’s ancient people. But the Psalmist confirms what has been already mentioned, that their religious assemblies which had been for a time interrupted would soon be restored, and they would call upon the name of the Lord in the due order of his worship.
4. For God hath taken pleasure in his people. We have spoken elsewhere of the verb רצה, ratsah here it means free favor, the Psalmist saying that it was entirely of his good pleasure that God had chosen this people to himself. From this source flows what is added in the second clause, that God would give a new glory of deliverance to the afflicted. In the Hebrew ענוים, anavim, means poor and afflicted ones, but the term came afterwards to be applied to merciful persons, as bodily afflictions have a tendency to subdue pride, while abundance begets cruelty. The Psalmist accordingly mitigates the sadness of present evils by administering seasonable consolation, that God’s people, when oppressed by troubles, might look forward with hope to the glorious deliverance which was yet unseen. The sum of the passage is — that God, who had fixed his love upon his chosen people, could not possibly abandon them to such miseries as they now suffered under.
5. The merciful shall rejoice in glory; they shall shout for joy upon their couches. 303 6. The high praises of God are in their throat 304 and a two-edged sword is in their hand: 7. To execute vengeance upon the nations, castigations upon the peoples: 8. To bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with iron fetters: 9. To execute upon them the judgment written: this honor is to all his merciful ones. Hallelujah.
5. They shall rejoice. In making mention here of joy, jubilee, and the high praises of God, he shows still more clearly from the effects which it would produce, that he does not speak of a common benefit of God; for had not the deliverance of the people been of a remarkable kind, there would have been no occasion for such joy, and even triumph. And by these expressions he intimates that the people would not be brought back from exile to be immediately dispersed again, but to flourish in the enjoyment of every species of blessing. He on this account makes mention of couches, teaching them to expect daily rest under the divine protection. He declares that they would be furnished with arms and power, not only to ward off enemies, but to put them to flight on every side, so as to reduce to subjection kings and nations which formerly ruled over them. By swords of a double-mouth, or two-edged, are meant such as cut on both sides, for at that time swords had but one edge.
7. To execute vengeance, etc. Both during their exile and after their return from it, this might seem to be altogether incredible. Nor did it take place before the advent of Christ; for though the Machabaei and their posterity reduced the neighboring nations to subjection, this was but a faint prelude and earnest to direct the thoughts of the Lord’s people to what was approaching. But as Haggai prophesied that the glory of the second Temple would be greater than of the first, so here there is promised a more prosperous state than had ever existed. (Hag 2:9.) Reduced as the Jews were in numbers, and low as was the state of things among them, the Psalmist announces to all nations which opposed and troubled them, that they would have the ascendancy. As they were yet tributary, and dwelt at Jerusalem only by sufferance, they were called to exercise faith in a promise which, to the judgment of sense, might appear visionary, and to raise their thoughts to the infinite power of God, which triumphs over all worldly obstacles. The vengeance spoken of is such as the Israelites would take, not under the influence of private resentment, but by commandment of God; and this we mention that none may infer that they are allowed to take vengeance for personal injuries.
The next verse, where mention is made of kings and nobles, is an amplification; for had he only spoken of peoples and nations, this might have been restricted to the common people and men of low condition. Here is something much greater — that kings and others of noble rank would be dragged to punishment in chains. But it is to be remembered, as I have just hinted, that but a small part of this splendid prospect was realized until Christ appeared; for any small increase of prosperity which the people enjoyed under the Machabaei was not worthy of any consideration, except in so far as by this help God sustained the drooping spirits of the people up to Christ’s advent. Here the prediction of Jacob is to be noticed —
“the scepter shall not depart from Judah, until Shiloh come.” (Ge 49:10.)
But the Machabaei sprung from another tribe. We must, infer, therefore, that the regular order was then interrupted, and that to make the prosperous state of the people to have been based upon their victories, is building a castle in the air. And God would appear designedly to have removed the government from the tribe of Judah, lest this success should intoxicate the minds of his people; for most of them, through pride in these signal victories, overlooked the true and substantial deliverance. As the Psalmist treats here of the perfection of the prosperity of the people, it follows that he refers to the Messiah, that their expectation and desire of him might never cease either in their prosperity or adversity.
9. To perform the judgment, etc. He qualifies what he had said in the previous verses, in which he might have appeared to arm the Lord’s people for deeds of warlike cruelty. At first sight it might appear strange, that they who were called the merciful ones of God, should be sent out with drawn swords to commit slaughter, and pour out human blood; for what evidence was here of mercy? But when God himself is the author of the vengeance taken, it is just judgment, not cruelty. When mention is made of the judgment written, the Psalmist reminds the Jews that they were called to liberty by command of God — to that liberty which had been unjustly wrested from them by’ foreigners and tyrants, and that they could not be blamed for executing judgment written. Any exposition of the passage is faulty which does not proceed upon this as being the Psalmist’s design, that he would have the Jews to consider the divine mandate, not to proceed under the influence of private resentment, and to throw a rein over passion; saying upon the matter, that God’s children may not execute vengeance but when called to it, there being an end of all moderation when men yield themselves up to the impulse of their own spirits. Another question might arise here by way of objection. Christ is said to have come without crying or lifting up his voice, that he might not break the bruised reed, (Mt 12:20,) and he inculcates the same character upon his followers. The answer is obvious, that Christ is also armed with an iron scepter, by which to bruise the rebellious, and is elsewhere described as stained with blood, as slaying his enemies on every side, and not being wearied with the slaughter of them. (Isa 63:2.) Nor is it surprising, considering the obstinacy which universally prevails in the world, that the mercy which is treated with such indignity should be converted into severity. Now the doctrine laid down in the passage admits of being rightly applied to our practice, in this way, that what is here said of the two-edged sword, applies more especially to the Jews, and not properly to us, who have not a power of this kind permitted; except, indeed, that rulers and magistrates are vested by God with the sword to punish all manner of violence; but this is something peculiar to their office. 305 As to the Church collective, the sword now put into our hand is of another kind, that of the word and spirit, that we may slay for a sacrifice to God those who formerly were enemies, or again deliver them over to everlasting destruction unless they repent. (Eph 6:17.) For what Isaiah predicted of Christ extends to all who are his members, —
“He shall smite the wicked with the word of his mouth,
and shall slay them with the breath of his lips.”
If believers quietly confine themselves within these limits of their calling, they will find that the promise of vengeance upon their enemies has not been given in vain. For when God calls us, as I have said above, to judgment written, he puts a restraint both upon our spirits and actions, so as that we must not attempt what he has not commanded. When it is said, in the close of the verse, that this honor is to all the merciful ones of God, he not only exhorts to the practice of piety, but gives us a support for our encouragement, lest we should think that we might be losers by exercising mercy and patience, as most men give vent to fury and rage, under the idea that the only way to defend their life is by showing the savageness of wolves. Although God’s people, therefore, have nothing of the strength of the giant, and will not move a finger without divine permission, ‘and have a calm spirit, the Psalmist declares, that they have an honorable and splendid issue out of all their troubles.
“The Jewish government was a Theocracy, which commenced at the time of the departure from Egypt; and continued in some degree till the coming of Christ, as had been foretold by Jacob, Ge 49:10.” — Dimock.
In our English Bible it is in the text, “in the dance;” and on the margin, “or with the pipe.” מחול machol, the Hebrew word employed, is often in our authorized version rendered “dance”; but this is not its meaning. It denotes, as Parkhurst states, “some fistular wind instrument of music, with holes, as a flute, pipe or fife, from חל, chal to make a hole or opening.” “I know no place in the Bible.” Says Dr. Adam Clark, “where מחול, mechol, and מחלת, mechalath, mean dance of any kind; they constantly mean some kind of pipe.”
The Hebrew name for this kind of this musical instrument is תף, toph. The timbrel, tympanum, or tambourine, was used chiefly by women, and was employed in choral dances, or occasions of religious or festal processions. Thus we read in Exod. 15:20, 21, “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” The principle of the פף, toph, or timbrel was that of a prepared skin stretched upon a hoop or frame. There were various kinds or forms of this instrument. “Our common tambourine, with small cymbals inserted in the frame, also appears in some paintings, [of Egyptian and European antiquity,] and is now very common in Western Asia. We are told that the frame was either of metal or wood and that the ass’s skin was usually employed for the covering. They were not always played by the naked hand; but were sometimes struck with small batons, or with a knotty whip with many thongs, instead of which, on particular festivals, a sprig of some tree or plant, considered suitable to the occasion, was sometimes employed.” — Illustrated Commentary upon the Bible. The timbrel is evidently of oriental origin. From the reference to it in Ge 31:27, where תף is translated “tabret,” we learn that it was known in the time of Jacob, that is, ages previous to the existence of the great European nations of antiquity; and both the Greeks and Romans confessed that their instruments of this class were derived from Egyptians and Syrians. See volume 3
The people of the East sat on couches in their private parties, banquets, etc., as well as reposed on them during night. The language here may, therefore, be expressive of the praise they would ascribe to God at their festal banquets and in their private companies. An exhortion has previously been given (Ps 149:1) to praise God in the public assembly. Green supposes that the reference is to the couches on which they reclines when they partook of the eucharistical sacrifices.
“The original is בגרונם, in their throats. It is probable the Hebrew, when a living language, was extremely guttural, as the Arabian language now is.” — Fry.
“Qui est ici dit du glaive trainchant des deux cotes, appartient specialment aux Juifs, et ne peut pas estre approprie an nous,” etc. — Fr.