Commentary on Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
Psalm 147 is part of a group of Psalms (146-150) which close the Psalter.
One word, Hallelujah, a plural imperative meaning “Praise Yah,” is a crucial component, found three times in this Psalm and ten times in Psalm 150. All five are praise Psalms, including the elements of and the reasons for praise. In our text, these reasons alternate between the Lord’s special activity for His people who need help and compassion, and God’s more general care for nature and the cosmos. Both are always themes in Israel’s worship.
When and by whom was this Psalm composed? One may suppose it was by someone connected to the Jerusalem Temple and its many worship services. We find references to the restored Temple and city, as well as to returnees from exile. Therefore, it fits in the same era as III Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66), with some recollections of II Isaiah too. The three plus three happy meter suggests a time, probably Persian, when hopes were higher (cf. Psalm 33). Praises to gods for their activity in nature are known in both Egypt and Mesopotamia.1 In all periods of its history Israel lived in a world where its neighbors’ faiths were well known, and even tempting. Consequently, the Psalmist makes very sure that each strophe begins with specific references to Yahweh, and the Psalm ends on the same note.
Strophe 1 (verses 1-6) begins with a call to praise Israel’s rescuer most likely from defeat, exile, and national destruction. Verses 2-3 show a God full of compassion toward those who have endured much pain and humiliation. Thus, the promises of Isaiah chapters 40-55 are being fulfilled. Regarding the cosmos (verses 4-5), which exiles no doubt learned much about in Babylon from its astrologers and astronomers, they are considered the arena of Yahweh’s activity, not of the gods of Babylon. Without city lights to outshine them, the planets and many stars must have impressed ancient people. No one could count them, though Yahweh, who created them, could call them forth each evening by name. If God has such power and knowledge, surely he can handle Israel’s problems on earth. Indeed, God’s power and wisdom are much greater than the people could imagine.
Verse 6 returns to the theme of verses 1-3: God’s compassion for the least fortunate of society. But here is added God’s justice, which will punish those who have brought misfortune on “the downtrodden” for whom he has special concern. God is not only wise and powerful; He is also just and compassionate.
The second strophe (verses 7-11) begins as did the first, with a call to worship. One of the musical instruments, the lyre (a small stringed harp), is named. As it is today, worship singing was accompanied by skilled musicians. Next (verses 8-9), we are immediately informed of more reasons to praise God. The rainy seasons are Yahweh’s special gift. One must put this in context and see the centuries-long competition between Baal, the storm god of the Canaanites, and Yahweh, who was the God of Israel’s long history. The temptation was to worship the chief gods of the land as well as the God of the Exodus and Sinai. But this poet rules this tendency out.
Not only the people and the domestic livestock are cared for by Yahweh, but also the wild animals that need grass and even the young ravens in the nest. Ravens were noted for their craftiness, but their food is a gift from God. God not only hears with joy Israel’s songs, he also heeds the nestlings’ call for food.
Finally (verses 10-11) we learn what is and is not pleasing to God. War horses were impressive since they were owned by kings and warriors, in contrast to the donkeys used in agriculture. Even today, we are impressed with athletes’ prowess. However, God apparently looks inward and weighs people’s hearts. Those who fear Yahweh and hope in Him are the ones who impress Him. It hearkens back to the first law of Sinai and the deepest expectations of Israel. Who is ultimately reliable? Self? Neighbor? The King? The Psalmist knows and confesses it. This world knows only one security: God.
The third strophe (verses 12-20) is not included in our text, except for the final Hallelujah. One naturally asks, why? Does it then become too long a reading? Is there something in these verses we would rather not discuss? We can only guess, but it happens regularly, and not only with Psalm 119!
As with the other two, this strophe begins with a call to praise. Why? Because God blesses the city and Israel’s children with Shalom and excellent food for all. Here (verses 15, 18, 19) it is God’s word which carries out His intents. What we might not expect, since it was rare in their climate, is a reference to snow, frost, and hail. These too are God’s doing, as is his melting of them. But, as always, nature is only one of the fields of God’s activity. Israel was covenanted to Yahweh at Sinai, and thus knows His will. Utterly unique among all the peoples of the earth is Israel, in the way they were chosen, and in how they should respond to this choosing, that is, through obedience to Yahweh’s will. Jews and Christians might each be tempted to take pride in their special privileges as God’s people, saying we alone know the true God. All other gods are but deified natural forces, heavenly bodies, or graven images. But as this Psalm underscores, with privilege comes responsibility. God is not impressed with our accomplishments. What really count are obedience, faith, and hope. Today, obedience is scarcely noted in most churches.
The end of the Psalter is replete with calls to worship and praise. This is our calling, too. Choosing the right hymns and adding choirs and instruments will do what this Psalm challenges us to do. Then, people will leave the service uplifted and prepared to face life.
1J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, 1955), 366.