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40. How often did they provoke him in the desert? Here the preceding sentence is confirmed, it being declared that, as they had in so many instances provoked God in the wilderness, by the vast accumulation of their sins, 342342 “They provoked God at least ten times, (Numbers 14:22,) during the first two years of their journey through the wilderness. 1. at the Red Sea, (Exodus 14:11, 12;) 2. at the waters of Marah, (Exodus 15:24;) 3. in the wilderness of Sin, (Exodus 15:2;) 4. when they kept the manna until the following day, (Exodus 16:10;) 5, when the manna was collected on the Sabbath, (Exodus 16:27;) 6. in Rephidim, where there was no water, (Numbers 20:2, 13;) 7. at Horeb, when a molten calf was made, (Exodus 32:1, etc.;) 8. at Taberah, (Numbers 11:1, 2, 3;) 9. when they lusted for flesh, (Numbers 11:4;) 10. when they murmured at the news brought by the men, who had been sent to search the land, (Numbers 14:1, etc.”) — Cresswell. they must of necessity have perished a thousand times, had not God as often shown himself favorable and merciful towards them. The interrogatory form of the sentence expresses more significantly that they continued sinning without intermission. The word wilderness includes in it the circumstance both of place and of time. By this it is intended, first, to reprove their ingratitude, in that the memory of God’s benefits, while still so fresh in their minds, and even the sight of them daily before their eyes, were not at least able to check them in their wickedness; and, secondly, to condemn their impetuous and infatuated recklessness, in heaping up such a multitude of sins within so short a period.
In the same sense it is added immediately after, (verse 41,) that they returned to their former ways, and tempted God. The word return does not here signify change, but a continued course of sinning. The heinous indignity which is done to God when men tempt him, is expressed by a beautiful metaphor. The Hebrew word תוה, tavah, signifies to mark out or describe. It is intimated, that when the people dared to limit the operations of God, according to their own pleasure, he was, as it were, shut up within bars of wood or iron, and his infinite power circumscribed within the narrow boundaries to which unbelief would confine it. And assuredly, whenever men do not go beyond their own understandings, it is as if they would measure God by their own small capacity, which is nothing else than to pull him down from his throne; for his Majesty must be brought into subjection to us, if we would have him to be regulated according to our own fancy.
42. They remembered not his hand. The sacred writer still continues to upbraid the Israelites; for the simple remembrance of God’s benefits might have restrained them, had they not wilfully and perversely forgotten whatever they had experienced. From this impious forgetfulness proceed waywardness and all rebellion. The hand of God, as is well known, is by the figure metonomy taken for his power. In the deliverance of the chosen tribes from Egypt here celebrated, the hand of God was stretched forth in a new and an unusual manner. And their impiety, against which the prophet now inveighs, was rendered the more detestable, from the fact that they accounted as nothing, or soon forgat, that which no length of time ought to have effaced from their memory. Farther, he recounts certain examples of the power of God, which he calls first signs, and then miracles, (verse 43,) that, by the recital of these, he may again rebuke the shameful stupidity of the people. By both these words he expresses the same thing; but in the second clause of the verse, the word miracles gives additional emphasis, implying that, by such strange and unheard-of events, the Egyptians had at that time been stricken with such terror as ought not to have vanished so speedily from the minds of the Israelites.
44. When he turned their rivers into blood. The Psalmist does not enumerate in their order the miracles by which God gave evidence of his power in the deliverance of his people. He considered it enough to bring to their remembrance the well-known histories of these events, which would be sufficient to lay open the wickedness and ingratitude with which they were chargeable; nor is it necessary for us to stay long on these things, since the narrative of Moses gives a more distinct and fuller account of what is here briefly stated. Only I would have my readers to remember that, although God often punished the sins of the heathen by sending upon them hail and other calamities, yet all the plagues which at that time were inflicted upon the Egyptians were of an extraordinary character, and such as were previously unheard-of. A variety of words is therefore employed to enhance these memorable instances of the vengeance of God, as that he sent upon them the fierceness of his wrath, fury, anger, and affliction This accumulation of words is intended to awaken minds which are asleep to a discovery of so many miracles, of which both the number and the excellence might be perceived even by the blind themselves.
In the last place, it is added that God executed these judgments by angels. Although God has, according as it has pleased him, established certain laws, both in heaven and on earth, and governs the whole order of nature in such a manner as that each creature has assigned to it its own peculiar office; yet whenever it seems good to him he makes use of the ministration of angels for executing his commands, not by ordinary or natural means, but by his secret power, which to us is incomprehensible. Some think that devils are here spoken of, because the epithet evil or hurtful is applied to angel. 351351 Aben Ezra supposes מלאכי רעים, malachey raim, to be Moses and Aaron, as messengers of evil to Pharaoh, who are so called because they previously warned him, and denounced the judgments of God against him, just as the Prophet Abijah makes use of a similar expression when the wife of Jeroboam came to him to inquire concerning her son: “I am a messenger to thee of hard things,” 1 Kings 14:6. Fry also reads “messengers of evil,” and has the following note: “Such is the literal meaning and exact rendering of מלאכי רעים, and not evil angels, which would be regularly מלאכים רעים. By these messengers of evil, I make no doubt, no more is meant than Moses and Aaron, who were charged with denunciations of wrath to Pharaoh, previously to the infliction of all the several plagues.” Archbishop Secker, however, observes, that although מלאכים רעים would be the proper expression for evil angels, yet the plural of לאכ is sometimes written defectively מלאכי. The LXX. has, ἀποστολὢν δἰ ἀγγελων πονηρῶν, “a message by evil angels.” This opinion I do not reject; but the ground upon which they rest it has little solidity. They say that as God dispenses his benefits to us by the ministry of elect angels, so he also executes his wrath by the agency of reprobate angels, as if they were his executioners. This I admit is partly true; but I deny that this distinction is always observed. Many passages of Scripture can be quoted to the contrary. When the army of the Assyrians laid siege to the holy city Jerusalem, who was it that made such havoc among them as compelled them to raise the siege, but the angel who was appointed at that time for the defense of the Church? (2 Kings 19:35.) In like manner, the angel who slew the first-born in Egypt (Exodus 11:5) was not only a minister and an executor of the wrath of God against the Egyptians, but also the agent employed for preserving the Israelites. On the other hand, although the kings of whom Daniel speaks were avaricious and cruel, or rather robbers, and turned all things upside down, yet the Prophet declares, (chapter 20:13,) that holy angels were appointed to take charge of them. It is probable that the Egyptians were given over and subjected to reprobate angels, as they deserved; but we may simply consider the angels here spoken of as termed evil, on account of the work in which they were employed, — because they inflicted upon the enemies of the people of God terrible plagues to repress their tyranny and cruelty. In this way, both the heavenly and elect angels, and the fallen angels, are justly accounted the ministers or executors of calamity; but they are to be regarded as such in different senses. The former yield a prompt and willing obedience to God; but the latter, as they are always eagerly intent upon doing mischief, and would, if they could, turn the whole world upside down, are fit instruments for inflicting calamities upon men.
50. He made a way to his anger. 352352 “He levelled a path to his anger פלס [the word for levelled] signifies to direct by a line or level; and when applied to a way, is understood to denote that the way is made straight and smooth, so as to leave no impediment to the passenger. See Poole’s Synopsis and Le Clerc. The sense will be much the same whether we thus interpret the phrase, or suppose the anger of God to have taken its direction, παρὰ στάθμην, in a straight line, and by a level; that is, in the shortest way, without delay or deviation.” — Merrick’s Annotations To take away all excuse from this ungrateful people, whom the most evident and striking proofs of the goodness of God which were presented before their eyes could not keep in their obedience to him, it is here again repeated that the wrath of God overflowed Egypt like an impetuous torrent. The miracle adverted to is the last which was there wrought, when God, by the powerful hand of his angel, slew, in one night, all the first-born of Egypt. According to a common and familiar mode of speaking in the Hebrew language, the first-born are called the beginning, or the first-fruits of strength. Although the old advance to death as they decline in years, yet as they are in a manner renewed in their offspring, and thus may be said to recover their decayed strength, the term strength is applied to their children. And the first-born are called the beginning or the first-fruits of this strength, as I have explained more at large on Genesis 49:3. The houses of Egypt are called the tents of Ham, because Misraim, who gave the name to the country, was the son of Ham, Genesis 10:6. Farther, there is here celebrated the free love of God towards the posterity of Shem, as manifested in his preferring them to all the children of Ham, although they were possessed of no intrinsic excellence which might render them worthy of such a distinction.
52. And he made his people to go forth like sheep. The Psalmist again celebrates God’s fatherly love towards the chosen people, whom, as we have elsewhere remarked, he compares to a flock of sheep. They had no wisdom or power of their own to preserve and defend themselves; but God graciously condescended to perform towards them the office of a shepherd. It is a singular token of the love which he bore towards them, that he did not disdain to humble himself so far as to feed them as his own sheep. What could a multitude who had never been trained up to the art of war do against powerful and warlike enemies? So far from having learned the art of war, the people, as is well known, had been employed, when in Egypt, in mean and servile occupations, as if they had been condemned to toil under the earth in mines or in quarries.
53. And he conducted them in safety, and they were not afraid. This does not imply that they relied on God confidently, and with tranquil minds, but that, having God for their guide and the guardian of their welfare, they had no just cause to be afraid. When at any time they were thrown into consternation, this was owing to their own unbelief. From this cause proceeded these murmuring questions to which they gave utterance, when Pharaoh pursued them, upon their leaving Egypt, and when they were “sore afraid:” “Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness,” (Exodus 14:11.) This security, then, is not to be referred to the feeling of this in the minds of the people, but to the protection of God, by which it came to pass that, their enemies having been drowned in the Red Sea, they enjoyed quiet and repose in the wilderness. Other benefits which God had bestowed upon them are here recited, and at the same time other transgressions with which they had been chargeable. This shows the more clearly their deep ingratitude. After having obtained possession of the inheritance which was promised them, as if they had been under no obligations to God, their hearts were always rebellious and untractable. The accomplishment, and, as it were, the concluding act of their deliverance, was the putting them in possession of the land of Canaan, from entering which they had precluded themselves, had not God determined, notwithstanding their wickedness, to complete, in all respects, the work which he had commenced. The land itself is called the borders of God’s sanctuary, (verse 54,) because God, in assigning it to his people, had also consecrated it to himself. This, it is manifest, exhibits in a more heinous and aggravated light the iniquity of the people, who brought into that land the same pollutions with which it had been anciently defiled. What madness was it for the people of Israel, who knew that the old inhabitants of the country had been driven from it on account of their abominations, to strive to surpass them in all kinds of wickedness? as if they had been resolved to do all they could to bring down upon their own heads that divine vengeance which they had seen executed upon others. The words this mountain are improperly explained by some as applying to the whole country of Judea; for although it was a mountainous country, there were in it plain and level grounds of large extent, both as to breadth and length. I have, therefore, no doubt, that by way of amplification the Psalmist makes honorable mention of mount Zion, where God had chosen a habitation for himself, and his chief seat. I indeed allow, that under this expression, by the figure synecdoche, a part is put for the whole; only I would have my readers to understand, that this place is expressly named, because from it, as from a source or fountain, flowed the holiness of the whole land. It is asserted that God, by his right hand, possessed or acquired this mountain; for the Hebrew verb קנה, kanah, may be understood in either of these senses: and this assertion is made, that the Israelites might not be lifted up with pride, as if they had achieved the conquest of the land, or had obtained the peaceable possession of it by their own power. As is stated in Psalm 44:3,
“They got not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them, but thy right hand, and thine arm, and the light of thy countenance, because thou hadst a favor unto them.” (Psalm 44:3)
55. He expelled the heathen from before them; and made them to fall into their part of the inheritance. These words are an explanation of the concluding sentence of the preceding verse: they describe the manner in which the land of Canaan was acquired, plainly intimating that the Israelites were not such a warlike race, nor those heathen nations so cowardly, as to render it an easy matter for the former to vanquish the latter, and that it would have been impossible for the former to have expelled the latter from the country, had they not been led on to victory under the conduct of God, and been aided by his power. Besides, it would have been unlawful for them to have taken possession of the country, had it not been the will of God that the first inhabitants should be deprived of it, and that strangers should be established in it in their room.