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Psalms 68 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

The theme of this magnificent Psalm is the march of God to victory. It traces the establishment of His kingdom in Israel in the past; it looks forward to the defeat of all opposition in the future, until all the kingdoms of the world own the God of Israel as their Lord and pay Him homage.

Every conceivable occasion and date have been suggested for this Psalm, from the age of Joshua to that of the Maccabees. Those who accept the title, and maintain the Davidic authorship, or at any rate the Davidic date, are by no means agreed as to the particular period of David’s reign to which it should be referred. Some suppose it to have been written for the translation of the ark to Zion (2 Samuel 6): others, for the triumphal procession of thanksgiving for some victory; while others again regard it as celebrating David’s victories in general, with retrospective allusion to the translation of the Ark, and prospective anticipation of the building of the Temple. Others have connected it with the translation of the Ark to Solomon’s Temple. Others find an appropriate occasion for it in the victory of Jehoshaphat and Jehoram over Moab, or in the repulse of the Assyrians in the reign of Hezekiah. Others place it in the closing years of the Babylonian Exile, and others after the Return from Babylon, at a date decidedly later than the time of Nehemiah. Others think that it was written during the wars between Egypt and Syria for the possession of Palestine towards the close of the third century b.c.; and others place it later still, connecting it with the war between Ptolemy Philometor and Alexander Balas, b.c. 146 (1 Maccabees 11).

The obvious inference from this wide variety of opinion is that the data are really insufficient for forming a definite conclusion. It is impossible to speak positively; but the grounds for assigning it to the same period as Isaiah 40-66, i.e. the last decade of the Babylonian exile, seem so far to preponderate, and the circumstances of that time appear so far to give the best background for the explanation of the Psalm as a whole, that this view has been provisionally adopted as the basis of the present commentary. The following are the chief grounds for it.

(1) Language is no doubt a precarious criterion; but there are features in the Psalm which point to a late rather than an early date. Thus e.g. the word for prosperity ( Psa 68:6) is derived from a root found only in late books (Esth. Eccl.), though common in Aramaic: the nearest parallel to the word for parched land ( Psa 68:6) is in Ezekiel; the word for scatter ( Psa 68:30) is not the ordinary Heb. word, but half Aramaic in form.

(2) The literary affinities of the Psalm point decidedly in the same direction. Not only is it dependent on the Blessing of Moses (Deuteronomy 33) [28] and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5) [29] , but it contains parallels with Isaiah 40-66 which seem to indicate either that the writer was acquainted with those prophecies, or else that his language had been formed in the same atmosphere of thought and hope. Thus e.g. the summons of Psa 68:4, “Cast up a highway for him that rideth through the deserts” at once reminds us of Isa 40:3, “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God”; and the very same word “cast up a highway” is used in Isa 57:14; Isa 62:10, and nowhere else in this sense. With Psa 68:6 compare Isa 42:7; Isa 49:9; Isa 61:1; and with Psa 68:31 cp. Isa 45:14. There are also parallels with the Prayer of Habakkuk [30] , but they are not in themselves such as to prove that the Psalmist was indebted to it.

[28] Cp. Psa 68:17 with Deu 33:2; Psa 68:19-20 with Deu 33:29; Psa 68:26 with Deu 33:28; Psa 68:4; Psa 68:33-34 with Deu 33:26-27.

[29] Cp. Psa 68:4 with Jdg 5:3: Psa 68:7-8 with Jdg 5:4-5; Psa 68:12 with Jdg 5:30; Psa 68:13 with Jdg 5:16; Psa 68:18 with Jdg 5:12; Psa 68:27 with Jdg 5:14; Jdg 5:18.

[30] Cp. Psa 68:7 with Hab 3:12-13; Psa 68:10 with Hab 3:14; Psa 68:21 with Hab 3:13-14.

On the other hand the dependence of the Psalm on Isaiah 24-27 (probably to be dated after the Return from Babylon, perhaps about b.c. 500 480), which is maintained by some commentators, certainly cannot be proved.

(3) Clear and definite historical references are wanting; but many of the allusions can best be explained from the circumstances of the closing years of the Exile.

(1) The opening verses in each of the main divisions of the Psalm (1 3; 19 23) seem to contemplate an approaching manifestation of God’s power on behalf of His people which will bring salvation and joy to them, shame and destruction to their enemies, and appear to point (cp. Psa 68:5-6 ; Psa 68:20) to the present need of such an interposition. The same juxtaposition of Redemption and Judgement is prominent in Isaiah 40-66.

(2) The characteristic attributes of God in Psa 68:4-6 no doubt include a reference to the Exodus from Egypt and the settlement in Canaan; but the parallels already quoted from Isaiah 40 ff give good ground for thinking that the Exodus from Babylon and the resettlement of Israel in Canaan were also is the Psalmist’s mind.

(3) Psa 68:7-18 are a historical retrospect; and there is nothing to shew that the poet was contemporary with the point to which he carries it. If he wrote in view of the approaching return of God to His ancient dwelling-place, His original entry into it was a natural point to which to bring down his survey.

(4) It has been maintained that Psa 68:24-27 are the description of an actual procession which the Psalmist himself has witnessed, and that the mention of Zebulun and Naphtali along with Judah and Benjamin carries the Psalm back to a date before the separation of the kingdoms. But, as will be shewn in the notes, the connexion of thought points rather to an occasion beyond the deliverance spoken of in Psa 68:19-23 as still future; in other words to an ideal procession which rises before the poet’s imagination as the celebration of the great triumph over Israel’s enemies to which he looks forward; and if this is the case, the mention of Northern as well as Southern tribes as taking part in it can be best explained as the anticipation of the fulfilment of the numerous prophecies which predict the reunion of Israel and Judah.

(5) Psa 68:29 does not necessarily presuppose the existence of the Temple. It may look forward to its restoration, just as, on the hypothesis of the Davidic date, it must look forward to its erection. The importance of the Temple to the age of the Restoration is a prominent thought in Haggai and Zechariah; and its significance in relation to the nations appears from Isaiah 60, &c.

(6) The reference to Egypt in Psa 68:30 is too obscure to be made the ground of argument. There probably, as in Psa 68:31, Egypt is mentioned as the typical enemy of Israel. At any rate it gives no support to the Davidic date. There is no hint that Israel was in any way threatened by Egypt during the reign of David.

It has been argued that the triumphant tone of the Psalm furnishes a conclusive refutation of the hypothesis that it was composed during the Exile. But if the approaching Return was the occasion of some of the grandest prophecies in the O.T., it cannot be impossible that it should also have been the occasion of one of the grandest Psalms in the Psalter. In appearance and to the outward eye the Return from Babylon was a “day of small things”: in reality and to the eye of faith it was one of the most momentous crises in the history of the Chosen People, nay, of the world, comparable only to the Exodus. For if the Exodus from Egypt was the birthday of the nation of Israel, the Exodus from Babylon was the birthday of the Jewish Church. The parallel between the first and the second Exodus is constantly present to the mind of the prophets. This poet-seer looks away from the actual circumstances which surround him to the true meaning and the ultimate issues of that new march of God through the deserts which he is about to witness, and he sees the analogy and the guarantee for it in the past history of the nation. There are parts of Isaiah 40-66 (e.g. ch. 60) which betray no trace of weakness or misgiving. Why may not the age which could produce such a prophecy have produced such a Psalm? At least the occasion was worthy of a Psalm which has been well described as “the most buoyant, the most powerful, the most animated, which is to be found in the Psalter.”

Whatever may have been its origin and date, the grandeur of the Psalm remains the same, and its inspired and inspiring assurance of the certainty of the final triumph of God and the universal recognition of His sovereignty is unaltered. It has always been the favourite Psalm of those who felt (whether rightly or wrongly) that their cause was the cause of God, and that in His strength they were sure to conquer. 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; it has supplied words for the expression of their heartfelt convictions.

The choice of the Psalm for use in the service of the Synagogue at Pentecost was doubtless determined by the allusion in Psa 68:7-8 [31] to the giving of the Law at Sinai, which is commemorated at that Festival. Its selection as a Proper Psalm for Whitsunday was probably suggested partly by the Jewish usage, partly by St Paul’s application of Psa 68:18 to the spiritual gifts bestowed by the risen and ascended Christ upon the Church. But the appropriateness does not depend upon a single verse. No Psalm could be fitter for the “birthday of the universal Church” than the Psalm which celebrates the triumphs of God in the history of His people, and looks forward to the extension of His kingdom throughout the world.

[31] The Targum introduces references to the giving of the Law in several other passages: e.g. Psa 68:11, “The Lord gave the words of the Law to the people”: Psa 68:15, “Mount Sinai was chosen for the giving of the Law”: Psa 68:18, see note.

It is most truly a Messianic Psalm; for though it contains no direct prophecy of Christ’s coming, it is full of the thought of the presence and dwelling of God among His people, which is most fully realised in the Incarnation; and it is animated by the consciousness that all God’s mighty works for Israel were but the means to a higher end, the spiritual conquest of the world, and the universal establishment of His kingdom.

The following is an outline of the contents of the Psalm, which consists of a prelude, and two main divisions, which may be subdivided into stanzas of 3, 4, and 5 verses.

i. The Prelude (Psa 68:1-6).

1. God is about to manifest His presence and power to the discomfiture of His foes and the joy of His people (Psa 68:1-3).

2. The Psalmist calls upon his countrymen to welcome the advent of their God and prepare the way for it; bidding them remember what He is the helper of the helpless and oppressed, the liberator of the captive (Psa 68:4-6).

ii. A survey of Israel’s history in proof of God’s victorious power and gracious love (Psa 68:7-18).

1. The Exodus from Egypt and the Entry into the Promised Land. His majesty was manifested at Sinai, His goodness in the preparation of Canaan to be the home of the long-oppressed Israelites (Psa 68:7-10).

2. The conquest. He gave them victory over the mighty kings of Canaan (Psa 68:11-14).

3. The choice of Zion. He chose Zion for His earthly abode, and returned to heaven as a triumphant conqueror, having received the submission and homage of men (Psa 68:15-18).

iii. From the past the Psalmist turns to the present and the future (Psa 68:19-35).

1. God is an ever-present Saviour of His people: He will take vengeance on their enemies (Psa 68:19-23).

2. Once more the victory of God will be celebrated by a reunited Israel (Psa 68:24-27).

3. The Psalmist prays that God will display His power and subdue all opposition, and sees the nations hastening to pay Him homage (Psa 68:28-31).

4. All nations are summoned to join in the praise of Israel’s God, and the Psalm closes with their confession of His gracious sovereignty (Psa 68:32-35).

Consult other comments:

Psalms 68:0 - Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible

Psalms 68:0 - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Psalms 68:0 - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)

Psalms 68:0 - John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

Psalms 68:0 - Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary

Psalms 68:0 - Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible

Psalms 68:0 - Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament

Psalms 68:0 - English Annotations on the Holy Bible by Matthew Poole

Psalms 68:0 - Whedon's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges