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Psalms 73 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

THE PSALMS

BOOK III

Psalms 73-89

THE THIRD BOOK OF PSALMS

Twelve Psalms in the Psalter are entitled Psalms “of Asaph,” of which one (Psalms 50) stands by itself between the Korahite and Davidic groups in Book ii, and the remainder stand together in a group at the beginning of Book iii. It has been conjectured (see Introd. p. liv, note [35] that the isolated position of Psalms 50 is due to a transposition of the divisions of Books ii and iii, and that the original arrangement was (1) Davidic Psalms , 51-72; (ii) Levitical Psalms, (1) of the sons of Korah, 42 49; (2) of Asaph, 50, 73 83. But it is at least as probable that Psalms 50 owes its position to its connexion with Psalms 49 on the one hand and Psalms 51 on the other, and was intentionally placed by the compiler between the Psalms which he took from the Korahite collection and those which he took from the Davidic collection.

[35] It has been conjectured by Ewald that Psalms 51-72 originally stood after 41, so that the arrangement was (1) Davidic Psalms , 1-41; Psalms 51-72 : (2) Levitical Psalms: ( a) Korahite, 42 49; ( b) Asaphite, 50, 73 83; ( c) Korahite supplement, 84 89. The hypothesis is ingenious. It brings the Davidic Psalms together, and makes the note to Psa 72:20 more natural; and it connects the isolated Psalm of Asaph (50) with the rest of the group.

But it is clear that Books II and III formed a collection independent of Book I: and the editor may have wished to separate the mass of the Asaphite Psalms from the Korahite Psalms by placing the Davidic Psalms between them, while he put 50 next to 51 on account of the similarity of its teaching on sacrifice. The note to Psa 72:20 is true for his collection; and it does not necessarily imply that none but Davidic Psalms have preceded. Cp. Job 31:40.

Asaph was one of David’s three chief musicians. Along with Heman and Ethan (who seems to have been also called Jeduthun, see p. 348, and Intr. to Psalms 88) he was selected by the Levites to lead the music when David brought up the Ark to Jerusalem (1Ch 15:16-19). He was appointed by David to preside over the services of praise and thanksgiving in the Tent where the Ark was placed (1Ch 16:4-5; 1Ch 16:7; 1Ch 16:37), while Heman and Jeduthun ministered in the Tabernacle at Gibeon (1Ch 16:41-42). His sons, under his superintendence, were leaders of four of the twenty-four courses of musicians (Psa 25:1 ff.), and they are mentioned as taking part in the Dedication of the Temple (2Ch 5:12). In later times Asaph was ranked with David as the author of sacred songs, and along with Heman and Jeduthun, he bore the title of “the king’s seer” ( 2Ch 29:30 ; 1Ch 25:5; 2Ch 35:15).

The “sons of Asaph,” that is, the Levitical family or guild of his descendants, are further mentioned in the reign of Jeho-shaphat (2Ch 20:14), in connexion with Hezekiah’s reformation (2Ch 29:13), and as taking part in the Passover celebrated by Josiah (Psa 35:15). Among the exiles who returned with Zerubbabel were “the singers, the sons of Asaph,” in number 128 (Ezr 2:41), or (according to Neh 7:44) 148, and they conducted the service of praise and thanksgiving when the foundation of the Temple was laid (Ezr 3:10). In the time of Nehemiah they are once more mentioned as holding the same office (Neh 11:22).

It is clear that all the Psalms which bear the name of Asaph cannot have been written by David’s musician, if indeed any of them were, for some unquestionably belong to the time of the Exile or even a later period. Probably the title does no more than indicate that they were taken by the compiler of the Elohistic Psalter from a collection of Psalms preserved and used in the family or guild of Asaph, and bearing his name. Why one Levitical hymn-book should have been named from the sons of Korah, and the other from Asaph rather than the sons of Asaph can only be conjectured. Possibly tradition connected the name of Asaph himself more closely with it as the founder of the collection or the author of some of the Psalms in it, but it must have remained open to additions in successive periods.

The Psalms of Asaph are marked by distinctive characteristics. How is this to be accounted for, if they belong, as seems certainly to be the case, to widely different periods? It may best be explained by the supposition that a certain type or style of composition, derived possibly from Asaph him self, was traditional in the family of Asaph, rather than by the supposition that they were selected on account of their particular characteristics.

Broadly speaking, these Psalms are distinguished by their prophetic character. The theme of Psalms 50, which is a typical Psalm of Asaph, conspicuous for its vigour and originality, is the message reiterated by the prophets from Samuel onward, that merely formal sacrifices are worthless in the sight of God; and the following features occur with sufficient frequency to be regarded as characteristic of the collection [36] .

[36] Stähelin, who is followed by Bishop Perowne, reckons among the characteristics of these Psalms the interchange of the Divine names Jehovah and Elôhîm, and observes that Jehovah generally occurs towards the end of a Psalm where it passes into supplication. But if the predominant use of Elôhîm in the Elohistic collection is due to the hand of an editor ( Introd. p. lvi), the interchange cannot be set down as a peculiarity either of the Psalms of Asaph or of those of the sons of Korah.

El, ‘God’, and Elyôn, ‘the Most High’, occur with somewhat greater relative frequency, but the former is distributed over the whole Psalter, and the latter over the first four Books of it. In Book v it occurs only in Psa 107:11. Adônâi, ‘Lord’ (which however may often be due only to an editor or scribe, the word read in place of JHVH being actually written instead of it) occurs but six times, while in 68 alone it occurs seven times, and in 86 seven times.

(1) Like the prophets, they represent God as the Judge. Psalms 50 describes Him as coming to judge His people, demanding spiritual service, and rebuking unbelief. Psalms 75, 76 celebrate a signal judgement upon some blasphemous and insolent enemy of His people, probably Sennacherib. Psalms 82 represents Him as the Judge of judges, calling them to account for malversation of their office. And though God is not expressly called the Judge in Psalms 73, 78, 81, the judgements of God as exhibited in life and history for encouragement and warning form the subject of these Psalms. Of course the representation of God as the Judge is not confined to these Psalms, but it is so prominent in them as to constitute a distinctive feature.

(2) As in the prophets, God Himself is frequently introduced as the speaker, and that not merely by the way, but in solemn, judicial utterances. See 50, 75, 81, 82. Comp. Psa 60:6 ff. in the Davidic group.

(3) The didactic use of history is also a prophetical feature, for it was the function of prophecy not only to foretell the future, but to interpret the past. It is in the Psalms of Asaph that we first meet with frequent references to the ancient history of Israel. The allusion to the legislation at Sinai in Psalms 50 is merely general; but in Psa 74:12 ff., Psa 77:10 ff., Psa 80:8 ff, Psa 81:5 ff., Psa 83:9 ff, the past history of the nation is appealed to for encouragement or warning, and Psalms 78 is entirely devoted to the ‘parable’ of Israel’s history from the Exodus to the Building of the Temple. Such references are not found in Book i, and are rare in Book ii (Psa 44:1 ff., Psa 66:5 ff., Psalms 68); in the later books however they are more frequent (Psa 95:8 ff., Psa 103:7; Psalms 105; Psalms 106; Psalms 114; Psalms 132; Psalms 135; Psalms 136).

(4) Another feature, springing out of the last, is the frequency with which the relation of Jehovah to Israel is expressed by the figure of the Shepherd and His flock. It recalls Jehovah’s guidance of His people through the wilderness, and conveys the assurance that He will yet seek the lost and gather the scattered and guide them back into their own land. See Psa 74:1; Psa 77:20; Psa 78:52, cp. 70 72; Psa 79:13; Psa 80:1. It may be noted that this is a favourite figure with the prophets Micah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

(5) Connected with the tendency to look back to the early history of Israel may be the use of the combinations Jacob and Joseph (Psa 77:15), Joseph and Israel (Psa 80:1; Psa 81:4-5); cp. Psa 78:67-68. Cp. Amo 5:6; Amo 5:15; Amo 6:6; Oba 1:18; Zec 10:6; Eze 37:16; Eze 37:19; Eze 47:13. It seems to express the idea that the division of the nation is intolerable, and that the reunion of Israel is necessary to its full restoration. In this too the Asaphite Psalms agree with the prophets, who from the time of Amos onward predict the ultimate reunion of the nation.

The Asaphite Psalms are almost entirely national Psalms, of intercession, thanksgiving, warning, and instruction. The purely personal element is scarcely found among them. In the Psalms which have the most individual character (73, 77) the Psalmist speaks as the representative of a class, and the circumstances which cause him perplexity are social or national, not personal.

As regards the date of the Psalms in this group, some belong to the period of the monarchy (75, 76); some to the Exile (74, 79, 80); and some perhaps to the post-exilic period. But the predominant impression gained from reading the collection as a whole is that of a cry out of the Exile, pleading that God will visit and restore His people Psalms of thanksgiving for past deliverances, such as 75, 76, 81, follow Psalms of supplication, as reminders of the marvellous works wrought by God for His people in times past, and pledges that He can and will once more deliver them. That the collection contains Maccabaean Psalms appears to the present writer improbable, in spite of the general opinion to the contrary. See Introd., p. xlvi, and the introduction to Psalms 74.

Psalms 73

This Psalm is a touching confession of faith sorely tried but finally victorious. It falls into two equal divisions: in the first, the Psalmist relates his temptation; in the second, the conquest of his doubts.

i. He had all but lost belief in God’s goodness towards the righteous (Psa 73:1-2), as he gazed with envy on the prosperity and influence of the wicked, who seem to enjoy immunity from sickness and trouble, and go on unchecked in a career of pride and violence and blasphemy, seducing the mass of men to follow them in denying God’s rule in the world (Psa 73:3-11). He was tempted to think that all his endeavours after holiness had been worse than wasted labour, for they had only brought him suffering (Psa 73:12-14).

ii. He felt that to proclaim such a view of life would have been an act of treachery towards his fellow-Israelites, but the more he pondered on the problem, the more cruel did it seem (Psa 73:15-16), until in the Temple the truth was revealed to him, that all the pomp of the wicked is but a hollow show, doomed to sudden and irreparable destruction (Psa 73:17-20). To envy it was indeed irrational stupidity, when in the fellowship and guidance and favour of God he possessed the highest good of which man is capable (Psa 73:21-26). For desertion of God leads to death; drawing near to Him is happiness (Psa 73:27-28).

The double problem of the prosperity of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous weighed heavily on the minds of many in ancient Israel, who only knew of this world as the scene of God’s dealings with men, and missed the clear evidence of God’s sovereign justice which they desired to see in the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. In Psalms 37 we have a simple exhortation to patience and faith in view of the prosperity of the wicked, for the triumph of the wicked will be short-lived, while the reward of the righteous will be sure and abiding. In Psalms 49 the impotence and the transitoriness of wealth are insisted on, and contrasted with God’s care for the righteous and the final triumph of righteousness. In this Psalm the problem is still approached from the side of the prosperity of the wicked, though there is a side-glance at the sufferings of the righteous ( Psa 73:14). It represents a deeper and probably later stage of thought: the difficulty has become more acute, and the solution is more complete; for the Psalmist is led to recognise not only the instability of worldly greatness, but the supreme blessedness of fellowship with God as man’s highest good. In the Book of Job the problem is approached from the side of the suffering of the righteous, but it is fully discussed in its manifold aspects. A further step is made towards the conclusion implicitly contained in the faith of this Psalm, that this world is but one act in the great drama of life.

Whether the Psalmist in Psa 73:24 ff. looks beyond this life or not, is a question of interpretation on which opinion will probably always be divided. But it is clear, as Delitzsch observes, that he does not rise from pointing to the retribution which awaits the wicked in this world, to anticipate a solution of the contradictions of life in the world beyond, and the exceeding glory which infinitely outweighs the sufferings of this present time still lies beyond his horizon. But the dimmer his view of a future life, the more wonderful is the triumphant faith, which surrenders all and cleaves to God, and the pure love, which counts all in the universe as nothing in comparison of Him.

It is impossible to speak with confidence as to the date of the Psalm. It does not belong to the Exile, for the Temple was standing ( Psa 73:17). The problem was debated in pre-exilic times (Jer 12:1 ff.; Hab 1:2 ff.); as well as after the Return (Psa 94:3 ff; Psa 92:7 ff.; Mal 3:13 ff.; Ecc 8:11 ff.; &c.). The relation of the Psalm to Job (cp. especially ch. 21) and Proverbs (Pro 23:17-18; &c.) does not enable us to fix its date. It should be noted that here, as in Psalms 37, 49, the thoughts and language of the ‘Wisdom’ or religious philosophy of Israel, find a place in the Psalter.

Consult other comments:

Psalms 73:0 - Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible

Psalms 73:0 - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Psalms 73:0 - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)

Psalms 73:0 - John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

Psalms 73:0 - Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary

Psalms 73:0 - Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible

Psalms 73:0 - Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament

Psalms 73:0 - English Annotations on the Holy Bible by Matthew Poole

Psalms 73:0 - Whedon's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges