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A Song of Degrees.
If we suppose David to have been the author of this Psalm, as is very probable, he declares how diligently he engaged in prayer, when, to escape the cruelty of Saul, he wandered as an exile from place to place. But he especially complains of wicked informers, who unjustly and calumniously charged him with crimes of which he was altogether innocent. If a different supposition is preferred, the language will be a simple and general complaint against false reports. This Psalm, and the immediately subsequent fourteen, are called Psalms of Degrees; but for what reason is not agreed upon, even among the Hebrew doctors. Some conceive that there were fifteen steps to that part of the Temple which was allotted for the men, whereas the women remained beneath 4242 This opinion was held by Rabbi David Kimchi; and he asserts that the Psalms, entitled Songs of Ascents or Steps, were so entitled because the Levites sang one of them upon each of the fifteen steps, which, says he, separated the court of the women from that of the men in Solomon’s Temple. This Calvin justly characterizes as a “silly conjecture;” and such an explanation is now generally rejected. Jebb, after stating several of the attempted solutions of the title of these Psalms, observes — “On these notions it is unnecessary to dwell, and still less upon that Jewish fable mentioned by Rabbi David, that these Psalms were sung on ascending the fifteen steps, which were imagined to lead from one of the outer courts of the Temple to that of the Levites. No trace in history, or authentic tradition, can be found of these steps, which owe their construction solely to the accommodating fancy of the Rabbins, who, as usual, imagined facts, in order to support their preconceived theories.” — Jebb’s Literal Translation of the Psalms, with Dissertations, volume 2. It is an additional objection to this Rabbinical conceit, that David, whose name several of these Psalms bear — and others of which have evident reference to his time and circumstances — lived in the time of the tabernacle, which had no steps. but this is a silly conjecture, for which there is no foundation; and we know the liberties which the Jews, in obscure and uncertain matters like this, take of giving forth as an explanation whatever comes into their own fancy. Some translate Psalms of Ascents; and by ascent they understand the return of the Jews from the Babylonish captivity 4343 The Syriac version calls them “Songs of Ascent out of Babylon;” and such is the interpretation of several modern critics, among whom is Calmet, who has given an able analysis of what has been written on this title in his Dissertation sur les quinze Psaumes Gradue After stating numerous explanations, and characterizing many of them as “vaines et frivoles conjectures,” he adopts it as the most probable supposition, that they were sung during the journey of the returning captives from Babylon to Jerusalem. — an interpretation which is altogether forced; for it is manifest that the greater part of these Psalms were composed, either by David or Solomon; and it is easy to gather from their contents, that such of them as were written by David, were, sung in the Temple, while he was alive and on the throne. Others think that the word ascents refers to the tones of music 4444 This is the opinion of Aben Ezra. Some also affirm that it was the beginning of a song. This being a matter of small moment, I am not disposed to make it the subject of elaborate investigation; but the probable conjecture is, that this title was given to these Psalms, because they were sung on a higher key than others. The Hebrew word for degrees being derived from the verb צלה, tsalah, to ascend or go up, I agree with those who are of opinion that it denotes the different musical notes rising in succession. 4545 While Calvin leans to this as the most probable explanation, he has before admitted that it is only a conjecture; and after all that has been said since his time on the subject, it is still involved in obscurity, and perhaps it is now impossible to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. The Psalms, however, which bear this title, have a striking resemblance to each other, and are different in style from the other divine Poems in this book. They are all very short, and in several of them there is a gradation of meaning, and a degree of point towards the dose, which may be called epigrammatic. Hence Gesenius suggests that the title may mark a peculiar species of Hebrew composition. “The construction of the songs” [of degrees,] says Jebb, “is such as to reduce the evidently to a class. They are all short compositions, sententious, eminently fitted for lyrical use, in the highest degree poetical, and, as Calmet justly remarks, epigramrustic; using this term in its highest sense as concinnate, terse, and abounding in turns expressed with the most exquisite brevity. Two remarkable characteristics they possess, which, though found occasionally in other Psalms, seem to enter into the very texture of these — I mean the frequent recurrence of a characteristic word, and that figure which the rhetoricians call Epanaphora, or the repetition of the same idea or expression. As to the characteristic words: In Psalm 121 this is the word keep (שמר); in Psalm 122 the word Salem, and others of a like sound; in Psalm 123 the word eyes, עיני, in Psalm 126 the words turn and captivity, which in Hebrew are almost the same, םרב and שיבה in Psalm 127 vain, שרא; in Psalm 133 the word descend, ירר; and bless, ברך in Psalm 134 ” — Jebb’s Literal Translation of the Psalms, with Dissertations, volume 2.
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