The title of this psalm is To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David. A Song. Most commentators believe this psalm is connected with the coming of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), celebrating not only that event, but also the faithfulness of God to give Israel victory over her enemies, and to make Jerusalem secure enough to bring the ark into the city.
George Horne described how this psalm was assigned to Pentecost in the Anglican liturgy, no doubt because it describes gifts given upon ascension and is quoted in Ephesians 4. “This beautiful, sublime, and comprehensive, but very difficult Psalm, is one of those which the church has appointed to be used on Whitsunday.”
The composition of this psalm makes it a challenge for commentators, both from the Hebrew and in translation. Adam Clarke wrote, “I know not how to undertake a comment on this psalm: it is the most difficult in the whole Psalter.”
A. The God of triumph.
1. (1-3) God triumphs over His enemies.
Let God arise,
Let His enemies be scattered;
Let those also who hate Him flee before Him.
As smoke is driven away,
So drive them away;
As wax melts before the fire,
So let the wicked perish at the presence of God.
But let the righteous be glad;
Let them rejoice before God;
Yes, let them rejoice exceedingly.
a. Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered: Using the phrasing of Numbers 10:35, David proclaimed the triumph of God over all His enemies. When God goes forth, no opponent can stand against Him. They are all scattered. Since Moses said those words when the ark of the covenant led Israel from Mount Sinai, David knew it was appropriate to say the same words as the ark came to Jerusalem, its resting place.
i. As David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), he made a dramatic historical connection. To relate it to American history, it would be like a modern American President beginning a speech with the phrase, Four score and seven years ago – which would immediately be recognized as the first few words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, originally spoken in 1863.
ii. Numbers 10 describes the departure of Israel from Mount Sinai toward the Promised Land. As they marched, the ark of the covenant led the way. So it was, whenever the ark set out, that Moses said: “Rise up, O LORD! Let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.” (Numbers 10:35)
iii. The idea was simple, both with Moses in the exodus and David with Israel in the land. It expressed the confidence and the need of God’s people: “God, go before us and take care of our enemies. It’s too dangerous ahead without You.” This spirit of confident dependence is appropriate for every believer.
iv. This is also a fitting prayer by which to remember the glory and strength of the resurrected Jesus. When Jesus rose up, all His enemies scattered. None dared oppose Him. If we are set in Jesus, they scatter before us also because all our victory is found in His resurrected glory.
v. Let those also who hate Him flee before Him: “Athanasius telleth us that evil spirits may be put to flight by the psalm; and that Antony, the hermit, fought against the devil with this verse, and worsted him.” (Trapp)
b. As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: God’s enemies have no ability to stand against Him, shown by the images of vanishing smoke and melting wax. David prayed that the wicked would perish just as easily.
i. “Wax is hard by itself, but put it to the fire, how soft it is. Wicked men are haughty till they come into contact with the Lord, and then they faint for fear; their hearts melt like wax when they feel the power of his anger.” (Spurgeon)
ii. Ephesians 6:10-18 is the great New Testament passage on spiritual conflict and how God equips the believer for success in that conflict. A repeated theme in that passage is the idea of standing against spiritual attack and opposition (that you may be able to stand…that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand…stand therefore). What David described here with vanishing smoke and melting wax is the exact opposite of standing in the sense Ephesians 6 meant it.
c. But let the righteous be glad: What is disaster and calamity for the wicked is gladness and extra rejoicing for the righteous. We can’t help but be glad in God’s victory.
2. (4-6) Singing praise to the God of triumph.
Sing to God, sing praises to His name;
Extol Him who rides on the clouds,
By His name YAH,
And rejoice before Him.
A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows,
Is God in His holy habitation.
God sets the solitary in families;
He brings out those who are bound into prosperity;
But the rebellious dwell in a dry land.
a. Sing to God, sing praises to His name: There is an aspect of this that is the simple repetition and parallelism of Hebrew poetry. Yet there is a slightly more developed thought in the phrase sing praises to His name, having the idea of praising God with knowledge of His character, and knowing Him personally.
b. Extol Him who rides on the clouds, by His name YAH, and rejoice before Him: David gave us two specific reasons to rejoice in God. He rides on the clouds, in victory and triumph over all the earth. Also, He has revealed Himself to humanity in the name Yahweh, showing His love and loyalty to His people.
i. Extol Him: “The root s-l-l [extol] usually denotes the act of constructing a road or highway (cf. Isaiah 57:14; 62:10), but is used here metaphorically with the sense of ‘lift up’ or ‘extol.’” (VanGemeren)
ii. Who rides on the clouds: “By the ascription ‘who rides on the clouds,’ the psalmist contrasts the all-sufficiency of the God of Israel with the powers of Baal whom the Canaanites worshipped as ‘the Rider on the clouds.’” (VanGemeren)
iii. “The name JAH [YAH] is an abbreviation of the name Jehovah; it is not a diminution of that name, but an intensified word, containing in it the essence of the longer, august title. It only occurs here in our version of Scripture, except in connection with other words such as Hallelujah.” (Spurgeon)
iv. “Yah, probably a contraction of the word Yehovah; at least so the ancient versions understood it. It is used but in a few places in the sacred writings. It might be translated The Self-existent.” (Clarke)
c. A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows: God’s greatness isn’t only defined by military-like triumphs. It is also seen in His compassionate concern and care for the weak and needy. The name Yahweh is connected to God as the Becoming One (Exodus 3:13-14), the God who becomes what His people need. The fatherless need a father; Yahweh is there. The widows need a defender; God is there.
i. “He is the God who acts on behalf of those who look for protection and vindication: the fatherless, the widows, the lonely (NEB [New English Bible], ‘the friendless’), and the exiles (‘prisoners’) [those who are bound].” (VanGemeren)
ii. “The kings and other rulers of this world do not act like this. They surround themselves with the noblest and richest of their lands, those who can enhance their glory and strengthen their power. The highest glory of God is that he cares for the miserable and surrounds himself with them.” (Boice)
iii. “Does not James 1:27, refer to this verse, for we have ‘the fatherless,’ ‘the widow,’ and then the ‘holiness,’ of the God we serve?” (Bonar, cited in Spurgeon)
d. God sets the solitary in families: God sees those who live without a close family connection and cares to provide them with families. They may be without husband or wife, without father or mother, or without brother or sister nearby; God cares and has family connections among His people for the solitary.
i. Since this is God’s will for the solitary, they should look for and cultivate such relationships.
e. He brings out those who are bound into prosperity; but the rebellious dwell in a dry land: God can help even those who in their poverty have been subjected to some kind of bondage or servitude; God can bring them into prosperity. This is not a promised blessing for the rebellious.
i. “The most oppressed in Egypt were chained and imprisoned, but the divine Emancipator brought them all forth into perfect liberty. He who did this of old continues his gracious work.” (Spurgeon)
B. God wins the battle for His people.
1. (7-10) The mighty presence of God with Israel in the wilderness.
O God, when You went out before Your people,
When You marched through the wilderness, Selah
The earth shook;
The heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God;
Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
You, O God, sent a plentiful rain,
Whereby You confirmed Your inheritance,
When it was weary.
Your congregation dwelt in it;
You, O God, provided from Your goodness for the poor.
a. O God, when You went out before Your people: Having introduced the idea in the first line of the psalm, David continued his thoughts on God’s presence with and care for Israel through the wilderness on the way to Canaan. You went out before Your people emphasizes the idea that God was with Israel; He did not abandon them despite the many ways they provoked Him.
i. Marched through the wilderness: “We may speak, if we will, of the ‘wanderings of the children of Israel,’ but we must not think them purposeless strayings; they were in reality a well-arranged and well considered march.” (Spurgeon)
b. The earth shook: As God was with Israel in the wilderness, they were protected. His might was on their side. No other nation could defeat them when they walked with God.
c. The heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God: As God was with Israel in the wilderness they were provided for. They would never suffer hunger or thirst as they walked in God’s presence.
i. As part of that provision, God sent them a plentiful rain in a needy time. This care for them was a way God confirmed the special place Israel had in His heart and plan. They were His inheritance.
ii. “Send a plentiful rain; either, 1. In the wilderness, where they oft wanted water, and were by God’s extraordinary care supplied with it. Or rather, 2. In the land of Canaan, which he calls God’s inheritance in the next words.” (Poole)
d. Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God: As God was with Israel in the wilderness, they experienced the revelation of His power and glory. Mighty mountains shook at the very presence of God.
i. “Verse 8 quotes the allusion to Sinai from the Song of Deborah, Judges 5:4f.” (Kidner)
2. (11-14) Proclaiming God’s victory over the kings.
The Lord gave the word;
Great was the company of those who proclaimed it:
“Kings of armies flee, they flee,
And she who remains at home divides the spoil.
Though you lie down among the sheepfolds,
You will be like the wings of a dove covered with silver,
And her feathers with yellow gold.”
When the Almighty scattered kings in it,
It was white as snow in Zalmon.
a. Kings of armies flee, they flee, and she who remains at home divides the spoil: This was the word of victory that God gave, the word of triumph that was proclaimed by a great company of people. The message was that God has won a great victory over mighty enemies (kings), and His people, even His weak people, benefited even though they did not directly fight (she who remains at home divides the spoil).
i. This is the message of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. God won a great victory through the Person and work of Jesus Christ, and His people gain everything through that victory in a battle they did not directly fight. This is the message that we as a great company are to proclaim.
ii. “The words in the original are very significant, and do note two things. First, the word which you read ‘company,’ in the Hebrew it is ‘army…great was the army of preachers.’ An army of preachers is a great matter; nay, it is a great matter to have seven or eight good preachers in a great army; but to have a whole army of preachers that is glorious.” (Bridge, cited in Spurgeon)
iii. Great was the company: “The Hebrew word is of the feminine gender, because it was the manner of the Hebrews, that when the men returned victorious from the battle, the women went out to meet them with songs of triumph.” (Poole)
iv. The text tells us a great…company of women proclaimed the good news of God’s victory. It is significant that God chose women to be the first messengers of the good news of the victory of Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 28:1-10, Luke 24:1-10). The New Testament says that women should not be in positions of doctrinal authority (1 Timothy 2:9-14), but they certainly can and should proclaim the good news of God’s victory in Jesus Christ.
v. She who remains at home divides the spoil: “Thus, in the spiritual war, apostles, confessors, and martyrs went out to the battle, fought and conquered…the benefits of victory extended to thousands and millions, who, without being exposed to their conflicts and torments, have enjoyed the fruit of their labours.” (Horne)
b. You will be like the wings of a dove covered with silver: The people of God come from humble circumstances (they lie down among the sheepfolds), but they share in God’s great victory over their enemies and are graced with great blessings and gifts.
i. “The wings of a dove, flashing silver and gold, have been taken to refer to Israel basking in prosperity (Delitzsch), to the enemy in flight (Briggs), to the glory of the Lord manifested at the battle (Weiser), or even to a particular trophy seized from the enemy (cf. New English Bible); but could it not depict the women of Psalm 68:12b preening themselves in their new finery, peacocking around, as we might have put it?” (Kidner)
c. It was white as snow in Zalmon: Zalmon is another name for Mount Ebal in central Israel, which many would consider more of a high hill than an actual mountain. The meaning of this line is not entirely clear and has been the source of much speculation.
i. “According to Judges 9:48, Zalmon (‘the Dark One’) is one of the mountains by Shechem.” (VanGemeren)
ii. “Whether the rout of kings there was caused by a blizzard, or whether the battlefield was ‘snowed’ with weapons and garments (or, later, with bones), or the fleeing armies compared to snowflakes, we cannot tell.” (Kidner)
iii. “Others take the point of comparison to be the change from trouble to joy which follows the foe’s defeat, and is likened to the change of the dark hillside to a gleaming snow field.” (Maclaren)
3. (15-18) Victory on the mountains.
A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan;
A mountain of many peaks is the mountain of Bashan.
Why do you fume with envy, you mountains of many peaks?
This is the mountain which God desires to dwell in;
Yes, the LORD will dwell in it forever.
The chariots of God are twenty thousand,
Even thousands of thousands;
The Lord is among them as in Sinai, in the Holy Place.
You have ascended on high,
You have led captivity captive;
You have received gifts among men,
Even from the rebellious,
That the LORD God might dwell there.
a. A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan: Bashan was farther north in Israel, in the region of what today is called the Golan Heights. Bashan was an impressive mountain, even a mountain of God and part of Israel’s heritage. Yet it and the other mountains seem to fume with envy when they see how God has favored Zion.
i. “In comparison with these, Mount Zion was the merest hill: yet Zion, as if to their baleful envy, was God’s choice.” (Kidner)
b. This is the mountain which God desires to dwell in: God chose Jerusalem even though there were higher and more spectacular mountains. Yet as He often chooses the weak to confound the strong and the foolish to mystify the wise, He chose Zion over Bashan.
i. “This low, little, barren hill of Zion; and God’s election maketh the difference, as it did of Aaron’s rod from the rest, and doth still of the church from the rest of the world. The Lamb Christ is on Mount Zion.” (Trapp)
c. The chariots of God are twenty thousands: By God’s command (Deuteronomy 17:16), ancient Israel never had many chariots. They were still protected because God fought for Israel and He had power greater than thousands of thousands of chariots.
i. “The presence of God is the strength of the church; all power is ours when God is ours. Twenty thousand chariots shall bear the gospel to the ends of the earth; and myriads of agencies shall work for its success.” (Spurgeon)
d. You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive: David had in mind God’s victory over the people and what happened after the battle was over. After the battle was over, God dealt with His enemies (led captivity captive) and He received gifts of tribute and submission from them. This was an even greater confirmation of God’s ownership of the land (that the LORD God might dwell there).
i. “The expression is emphatical. He has conquered and triumphed over all the powers which held us in captivity, so that captivity itself is taken captive.” (Newton, cited in Spurgeon)
ii. With the direct leading of the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul quoted Psalm 68:18 and applied it to Jesus, keeping the context but changing one key word. Paul quoted, When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men (Ephesians 4:8). Paul applied this to the ascension of Jesus into heaven and His sending of the power and the gifts of the Holy Spirit to His Church. The one word Paul changed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was received gifts to gave gifts.
C. Praise to the God who wins the battle for His people.
1. (19-23) God’s rescue in battle and victory over the enemy.
Blessed be the Lord,
Who daily loads us with benefits,
The God of our salvation! Selah
Our God is the God of salvation;
And to GOD the Lord belong escapes from death.
But God will wound the head of His enemies,
The hairy scalp of the one who still goes on in his trespasses.
The Lord said, “I will bring back from Bashan,
I will bring them back from the depths of the sea,
That your foot may crush them in blood,
And the tongues of your dogs may have their portion from your enemies.”
a. Blessed be the Lord, who daily loads us with benefits: It is undeniably true that God daily gives benefits to His people. Yet many think the sense of this verse is more accurately translated, Blessed be the Lord, who daily beareth our burden (Revised Standard Version).
b. Our God is the God of salvation; and to GOD the Lord belong escapes from death: This psalm speaks much of the ark coming to Jerusalem, but that only happened after David defeated Israel’s surrounding enemies. David thought of how God rescued him in those conflicts. In doing so He used the somewhat uncommon but wonderful phrasing of Yahweh Adonai (GOD the Lord).
c. God will wound the head of His enemies: In describing God’s victory, David used an image from Genesis 3:15 where God promised that the Messiah would strike a fatal head wound against Satan. The victory would be total, with God’s people walking as winners over the field of battle (that your foot may crush them in blood).
i. “The hairy scalp, i.e. his most fierce and terrible enemies. For in ancient times many people used to wear long and shaggy hair, that their looks might be more terrible to their enemies.” (Poole)
2. (24-27) The procession of the ark.
They have seen Your procession, O God,
The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary.
The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after;
Among them were the maidens playing timbrels.
Bless God in the congregations,
The Lord, from the fountain of Israel.
There is little Benjamin, their leader,
The princes of Judah and their company,
The princes of Zebulun and the princes of Naphtali.
a. The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary: After the great triumph over their enemies, David and Israel could bring the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). This was not David’s parade, but Your procession, O God. Honor went to Him.
i. “As the ark, the throne of the invisible God, leads the procession up to its resting place, its progress is a victory march completing the exodus.” (Kidner)
ii. From the fountain of Israel: “Reuchlin was wont to say, that the Latins drank out of cisterns, the Greeks out of ponds, but the Hebrews out of the fountain itself.” (Trapp)
b. There is little Benjamin, their leader: In the procession of the ark, the small tribe of Benjamin had a prominent role. This showed wonderful grace on David’s part because his predecessor King Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, and many kings of David’s day would refuse to give them any honor at all.
i. “Little Benjamin. That tribe is called little, partly because it was the youngest, as being descended from Jacob’s youngest son Benjamin; and principally because it was exceedingly diminished, and almost extinguished, under the judges.” (Poole)
ii. “The fact that there are only four tribes may be explained by the principle of poetic selectivity.” (VanGemeren)
3. (28-31) Confidence for future victories.
Your God has commanded your strength;
Strengthen, O God, what You have done for us.
Because of Your temple at Jerusalem,
Kings will bring presents to You.
Rebuke the beasts of the reeds,
The herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples,
Till everyone submits himself with pieces of silver.
Scatter the peoples who delight in war.
Envoys will come out of Egypt;
Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God.
a. Strengthen, O God, what You have done for us: David was grateful for the wonderful victory but also knew that many challenges were still ahead. He prayed that God would pour strength into the victory of the past, using it as a foundation for what He would do in the future.
b. Because of Your temple at Jerusalem, kings will bring presents to You: David was confident that in the end, God and His covenant people would survive and thrive despite their enemies among the nations. In the end others would come in tribute to Israel, not the other way around.
i. Ultimately, this speaks of “A time still in the future when Jesus will actually reign on earth, the millennium, though there is certainly a kind of fulfillment now through Christians’ obedience to the Great Commission and the resulting advance of worldwide Christianity.” (Boice)
c. Rebuke the beasts of the reeds: Since reeds were often associated with the Nile River, David prayed that God would keep them safe against the Egyptians and Ethiopians. He asked God to do that until they, like all the nations, come in submitted tribute to Jerusalem (till everyone submits himself with pieces of silver…envoys will come out of Egypt).
i. “The ‘beast’ and the ‘bulls’ denote the oppressors, troublers, and seducers of the nations. They must come to an end, as the nations that have loved warfare and tribute will be ‘humbled’ and despoiled.” (VanGemeren)
ii. “Egypt, Ethiopia: he names only these, as the great and ancient enemies of God, and of his people, and as a most wicked, and idolatrous, and incorrigible sort of men; see Jeremiah 13:23, Amos 9:7; but by them he synecdochically understands all other nations and people of the like character.” (Poole)
iii. “Old foes shall be new friends. Solomon shall find a spouse in Pharaoh’s house. Christ shall gather a people from the realms of sin. Great sinners shall yield themselves to the sceptre of grace, and great men shall become good men, by coming to God.” (Spurgeon)
4. (32-35) All the kingdoms of the earth praise the God of Israel.
Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth;
Oh, sing praises to the Lord, Selah
To Him who rides on the heaven of heavens, which were of old!
Indeed, He sends out His voice, a mighty voice.
Ascribe strength to God;
His excellence is over Israel,
And His strength is in the clouds.
O God, You are more awesome than Your holy places.
The God of Israel is He who gives strength and power to His people.
Blessed be God!
a. Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth: Knowing the ultimate victory of God, David invited the nations to worship Him now. It was far better for them to do it now out of a willing, surrendered heart than to do it later as conquered enemies of God.
i. “We have too much sinning against God, but cannot have too much singing to God.” (Spurgeon)
ii. The heaven of heavens, which were of old: “This Hebrew word [of old] answers to olam, which looks not only backward to time past; but forward to the future.” (Poole)
b. Ascribe strength to God; His excellence over Israel: The nations would only benefit from recognizing and surrendering to God’s strength and noting His rule over Israel.
c. O God, You are more awesome than Your holy places: David thought of the land of Israel as God’s holy place, belonging to Him in a special way. Yet David had the sophistication to understand that God was greater than any holy place, whether it be land, a mountain, or a temple.
d. The God of Israel is He who gives strength and power to His people: The God who is actively involved in the life and victory of His people is worthy of praise.
i. This psalm has been much loved by generals and soldiers: “To the Crusaders, setting out for the recovery of the Holy Land; to Savonarola and his monks, as they marched to the ‘Trial of Fire’ in the Piazza at Florence; to the Huguenots, who called it ‘The song of battles’; to Cromwell, at Dunbar, as the sun rose on the mists of the morning and he charged Leslie’s army.” (Kirkpatrick, cited in Morgan)
ii. Whatever victory they may have won and inspiration they received from this psalm, their victories did not last. The lasting victory still waits for the Messiah’s great kingdom.
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – email@example.com