This psalm is titled A Song of Ascents. Of David. Psalm 122:4 mentions that the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to give thanks. Here we see David leading Israel in giving thanks to God for past help and expressing confidence in His continuing help.
Despite the attribution to David, several commentators connect this psalm with exiles returning from Babylon. James Montgomery Boice answered this well: “The expressions of the psalm (‘when men attacked us,’ ‘swept us away,’ ‘escaped like a bird’) sound more like a military attack and deliverance from it than captivity.” It is best to keep the connection with David, considering it an earnest plea for Israel to thank God for deliverance past and present.
“In the year 1582, this Psalm was sung on a remarkable occasion in Edinburgh. An imprisoned minister, John Durie, had been set free, and was met and welcomed on entering the town by two hundred of his friends. The number increased till he found himself in the midst of a company of two thousand, who began to sing, as they moved up the long High Street, ‘Now Israel may say,’ etc. They sang in four parts with deep solemnity, all joining in the well-known tune and Psalm. They were much moved themselves, and so were all who heard; and one of the chief persecutors is said to have been more alarmed at this sight and song than at anything he had seen in Scotland.” (Horatius Bonar, cited in Charles Spurgeon)
A. Gratitude for God’s help.
1. (1-2) The help of God when under the threat of men.
“If it had not been the LORD who was on our side,”
Let Israel now say—
“If it had not been the LORD who was on our side,
When men rose up against us,”
a. If it had not been the LORD who was on our side: Twice in the first two verses of this psalm, David called Israel to recognize that their help was in God alone. It wasn’t just that Yahweh was present, but that He actively worked on behalf of His people (on our side).
i. “The phrase ‘had been on our side’ (hayah lanu) is the past tense of Immanuel (‘God is with us’). Thus the community confesses that God has been with them in their past history.” (VanGemeren)
ii. “Here is an If which cannot be an if. It is never a matter of uncertainty whether the Lord will be on our side or not. For the Lord Jesus in His incarnation and death has taken His place beside us forevermore. He is always on our side, so long as we keep His paths and walk in His ways.” (Meyer)
iii. “This repetition is not in vain. For whilst we are in danger, our fear is without measure; but when it is once past, we imagine it to have been less than it was indeed. And this is the delusion of Satan, to diminish and obscure the grace of God.” (Luther, cited in Spurgeon)
b. Let Israel now say: David thought it necessary that all God’s covenant people recognize this. It wasn’t enough for he or a few others to do this; it was the duty of all Israel to know and to say that God was their absolutely essential help.
c. When men rose up against us: There were many times in David’s reign and before when this was true, but perhaps the most likely time referred to here was when the Philistines threatened to overwhelm Israel at the start of David’s reign (2 Samuel 5:17-25). When men opposed the people of God, God stepped in to help.
i. “As a psalm of David, this gives us a rare insight into the early peril of his kingdom, particularly from the Philistines, who had thought to see the last of Israel when they shattered the kingdom of Saul. 2 Samuel 5:17ff. shows how serious the threat was, and how little confidence David placed in his own power to survive it.” (Kidner)
ii. “It is easy to see how a psalm praising God’s protection from the early days of Israel’s national history might be incorporated into the songs pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem, which David had made his capital.” (Boice)
2. (3-5) The disaster that could have happened had not God helped.
“Then they would have swallowed us alive,
When their wrath was kindled against us;
Then the waters would have overwhelmed us,
The stream would have gone over our soul;
Then the swollen waters
Would have gone over our soul.”
a. Then they would have swallowed us alive: Continuing the thought from the emphatic repetition in the first two verses (if God had not helped Israel), David tells of what have happened: they would have been destroyed by their enemies. Yahweh wasn’t one of many possible solutions to their problem; He and He alone was their savior.
i. “One thought runs through it all, that the sole actor in their deliverance has been Jehovah. No human arm has been bared for them; no created might could have rescued them from the rush of the swelling deluge.” (Maclaren)
ii. “We have often involved ourselves in entanglements, through our own disobedience; but we have never been able to extricate ourselves from them. Escape has always come by His action.” (Morgan)
iii. Their wrath was kindled against us: “Anger is never more fiery than when the people of God are its objects. Sparks become flames, and the furnace is heated seven times hotter when God’s elect are to be thrust into the blaze.” (Spurgeon)
b. Then the waters would have overwhelmed us: David poetically described their potential ruin. The danger was like being swallowed alive by a giant beast, or like being drowned when waters overwhelmed.
i. “The metaphor of water as a destructive force is common in the Old Testament (cf. Psalm 18:16; 42:7; 69:1-2, 15; Isaiah 8:7-8; Lamentations 3:54) because of the destructive torrential rains known to that part of the world.” (VanGemeren)
c. Then the swollen waters: The idea here is of a rushing river, not the rising flood. In the poetic picture, they were in danger of being swept away by the torrent.
d. Gone over our soul: David again used repetition to emphasize the idea that the danger was not only political or economic; it had to do with the very soul, with life at the deepest levels. From these great dangers, God was their deliverer.
i. David poetically described many of the troubles that face our soul:
· Sometimes our troubles swallow and devour us.
· Sometimes our troubles overwhelm us like a flood.
· Sometimes our troubles sweep us away like a torrent.
B. Praise to the LORD who helps.
1. (6-7) Praise for the help received.
Blessed be the LORD,
Who has not given us as prey to their teeth.
Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers;
The snare is broken, and we have escaped.
a. Blessed be the LORD: As in other places in the Book of Psalms, the thought is not bestowing a blessing upon Yahweh, but on thanking, praising, and announcing Him as blessed. It is a powerful expression of thanks and praise.
i. “When we look back on life, as the psalmist does here, we become aware of the myriad instances of Divine protection. We were not so vividly conscious at the time; we might even have had fits of depression and counted ourselves bereft. But if we narrowly consider the perils from which we have been rescued, when we were about to be swallowed up quick, we become convinced that He was there.” (Meyer)
ii. “The redeemed are astonished, upon looking back, at the greatness of the danger to which they had been exposed.” (Horne)
b. Who has not given us as prey to their teeth: David again described their danger poetically – first as being delivered from a beast with grinding teeth, then as deliverance from a trap (snare) set for birds. With God’s help, the people of God were safe from destruction and loss of liberty.
i. Prey to their teeth: “This is not quite the same figure as that of Psalm 124:3. In these jaws we feel the slower agonies of defeat, like the tearing and grinding of the prey.” (Kidner)
ii. As a bird from the snare: “The comparison of the soul to a bird is beautiful [Psalm 11:1]. It hints at tremors and feebleness, at alternations of feeling like the flutter of some weak-winged songster, at the utter helplessness of the panting creature in the toils.” (Maclaren)
iii. “Fowlers have many methods of taking small birds, and Satan has many methods of entrapping souls. Some are decoyed by evil companions, others are enticed by the love of dainties; hunger drives many into the trap, and fright impels numbers to fly into the net.” (Spurgeon)
iv. “As the bird could not get out of the snare, so the soul cannot escape from temptation; but God can bring it out, and he works the rescue. Hear this, ye that are slaves to drunkenness: God can deliver you. You that have fallen into licentiousness hear it – God can deliver you. Whatever the sin that has birdlimed [trapped] you, that gracious hand which once was nailed to the cross can set you free.” (Spurgeon)
v. “Save us, O God, from the rage and the subtlety of our spiritual adversary; save us from his teeth, when he would devour; from his snares, when he would deceive.” (Horne)
vi. Here are two more poetic pictures of that which may trouble our soul:
· Sometimes our troubles grind us to powder.
· Sometimes our troubles capture us like a trap or snare.
2. (8) Confidence in the continuing help of God.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
a. Our help is in the name of the LORD: We sense a bit of defiance in this declaration. The nations find their supposed help in their supposed deities; God’s people confidently find their help in the name of the LORD.
i. “Experience should breed confidence…write up experiences therefore, oft rub them over, and then conclude as here.” (Trapp)
ii. “The great lesson of this Psalm, from the beginning to the end…is that for every deliverance, whether of a temporal or spiritual nature, we should, in imitation of the saints above, ascribe ‘Salvation to God and the Lamb.’” (Horne)
iii. “If Jehovah had not helped, how great would have been the calamity! But He has helped, and the sigh which trembles with the consciousness of past peril, merges into the glad song: Blessed be Jehovah.” (Morgan)
b. Who made heaven and earth: It was not a vain confidence. The same God who created heaven and earth was mighty to help His people.
i. “When we worship the Creator let us increase our trust in our Comforter. Did he create all that we see, and can he not preserve us from evils which we cannot see?” (Spurgeon)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org