Bible Commentary: Psalm 147

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Psalm 147

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Psalm 147, the second of the final five Hallelujah Psalms, praises the Almighty Creator and Provider for His special devotion to His chosen nation, thanking Him for gathering Israel's exiles to Jerusalem, blessing them with peace and abundance and teaching them His statutes and judgments. The Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible divides the composition into two separate psalms (verses 1-11, 12-20). However, besides the unity maintained in the Hebrew text tradition and the cohesiveness of the subject matter, it has been argued that there is "a good defense for the unity [of the work] by a careful analysis of the structural components, repetition, and parallelism" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, introductory note on Psalm 147).

Thanking God in a psalm for the gathering of Israel's outcasts (verse 2) would seem to suggest some actual experience of this as a present reality when the song was composed. The return of exiles here is paired with the "building up" of Jerusalem (see same verse), which probably refers to increasing population in addition to the restoration of buildings and institutions. Many commentators believe this psalm was composed following the return of the Jewish exiles from captivity in Babylon, which seems a reasonable conclusion. A number try to further pin down the setting, believing that the reference to Jerusalem's gates being strengthened in verse 13 hints at the work of Nehemiah in rebuilding the city walls and gates. Some even suggest that this psalm was the one sung at the dedication of the rebuilt walls (see Nehemiah 12:27-43). There is, however, no way to know this, especially as God's strengthening of Zion's gates may be a figurative expression of His protection.

Even with a historical context for Psalm 147, the return of Israel's outcasts should not be limited to the small Jewish return from ancient Babylon. Rather verse 2 is evidently meant in an ongoing sense. As time went on, God would further build up Jerusalem and gather the exiles--including those not only of Judah but of all Israel. As we know from other passages, this would happen in stages. Outcasts of Israel would first return to God in a spiritual sense--the forerunners in this return forming spiritual Zion or Jerusalem, the Church of God. Romans 11 explains that the Israelites were broken off from God's covenant nation for disobedience, yet they would be grafted back in, in a spiritual return, through repentance--along with gentiles who would also become part of Israel spiritually. As also explained in that chapter, those returning are the elect according to grace--again, God's Church. And this is a forerunner of a greater return of all Israel in the future--that return being both spiritual and geographic--as shown in numerous prophecies. There is no way to know whether the psalmist himself understood all this--but God, who inspired the psalm, certainly did.

The future gathering of all Israel to the Promised Land will occur when Jesus Christ returns in power and glory: "For the LORD shall build up Zion; He shall appear in His glory. He shall regard the prayer of the destitute, and shall not despise their prayer. This will be written for the generation to come, that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD" (Psalm 102:16-18). Psalm 147:3 speaks similarly of God healing the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds--God's most important rebuilding work being within the human heart. In an ultimate sense these words apply to the wonderful time of God's intervention to come. Yet there was a vital measure of application for the returned exiles at the time of the song's composition--and so it is with us today. Indeed, this was part of the mission of the Messiah (Isaiah 61:1-2), and Jesus has already embarked on this mission (Luke 4:16-21) as He builds His Church, spiritual Zion, the Israel of God.

The psalm then abruptly turns to the matter of just who is doing this great work. It is the same One who made the vast universe and who also takes care of it (Psalm 147:4-9). Verses 4-6 are evidently taken in part from Isaiah 40, which mentions God counting the stars and calling them all by name (verse 26), as well as His understanding being unsearchable (verse 28) and His giving power to the weak who wait on Him (verses 29-31). As noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Isaiah 40:26, the concept of God counting and naming all the stars is staggering beyond comprehension. For given that there are at least a hundred billion galaxies of a hundred billion stars each, naming each star at a rate of one per second would take more than 21,000 times the 15-billion-year age that scientists claim for the universe. "Great [indeed] is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite" (Psalm 147:5).

Thus He certainly knows how to care for those in need and render judgment on those who defy Him (compare verse 6). This contrast of verse 6--lifting the humble (tying back to verse 3) and casting down the wicked--parallels statements in the previous two psalms (Psalm 145:14-20; Psalm 146:7-9).

Psalm 147:7-9 calls for thanks to God for not only His creation but for causing life to flourish through His care and provision. Giving food to the animals (verse 9a) recalls God providing for all living things in Psalm 145:15-16. The imagery of feeding the crying young ravens (Psalm 147:9b) is drawn from God's own words in Job 38:41. As the Beyond Today Bible Commentary covered on that verse, Job was to understand that God's point was about more than animals. Rather, as Jesus said to human beings about God providing for the birds, "Are you not of more value than they?" (Matthew 6:26).

The next verse, Psalm 147:10, should not be taken to mean that God doesn't enjoy horses and their powerful strength or that he is unhappy with His creation of human legs. Rather, these things are elements in which people placed undue trust--horses and the strength and endurance of men's legs being military assets. Consider Psalm 33:16-17: "No king is saved by the multitude of an army; a mighty man is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a vain hope for safety; neither shall it deliver any by its great strength." There is only one reliable source of deliverance: "Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the LORD our God" (Psalm 20:7). The point of Psalm 147:10-11 is that God is not looking for powerful people or armies to prop Him up. He doesn't need that at all. Instead, He wants humble people who realize their need for Him--who properly fear Him and rely on His hesed, His mercy or loving devotion.

For the exiles who returned from ancient Babylon this was a sorely needed message. They were weak militarily and beset by neighboring enemies. God says essentially: "Look, you don't need to be some elite fighting force to be My people. You just look to Me, and I'll take care of whatever needs to be taken care of." We see this in the next verses, where the people of Jerusalem are told to praise God--for He has strengthened their gates, He has blessed their children, He gives them peace on their borders and He abundantly provides them with the best crops (Psalm 147:12-14).

Verses 15-18 illustrate again God's rule over nature, the imagery in this case being one of winter weather. Stress is put on the elements of creation being immediately responsive to God's commands (verses 15, 18)--a pattern that should be followed by God's people, as implied in verses 19-20. There are perhaps other spiritual lessons here as well. It is hard to bear the bitter cold (verse 17). But in God's time, seasonally, warm breezes come, the cold is broken, ice accumulation melts and water flows (verse 18)--again demonstrating God's providence, and this on His time schedule. This is something to consider when times are hard. Know that there's a point to it and that circumstances will ultimately vastly improve, culminating in refreshment and fulfillment.

Finally, far more important than the physical help and sustenance God has given to Israel is the blessing of His instruction--the code of conduct laid out in His Word. The words in verses 19-20 (coupled with the last verse of the next song, Psalm 148:14) echo those of Moses in Deuteronomy 4:7-8: "For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?" God has not blessed any other nation in this way. In fact, for other nations to participate in this exclusive relationship, they must become part of Israel in a spiritual sense.

Of course, just understanding God's laws is not enough. We must, as the natural realm, obey the commands God gives if they are to do us any good. Yet in our case He has given us the choice of whether to obey Him or not. Rejection of God's commands excludes a person from God's chosen covenant nation. Thus, for the returning outcasts, true return to God resulting in His healing and help requires embracing God's laws and living by them. The same applies to us.