This is a sorrowful prayer, in which the faithful beseech God that he would be graciously pleased to succor his afflicted Church. To excite him the more readily to grant them relief in their distressing circumstances, they compare these circumstances with the condition of the Church in her beginnings, when the Divine favor was conspicuously manifested towards her.
To the chief musician upon Sosannim Eduth. A Psalm of Asaph.
This psalm is almost similar to the preceding; but, in my apprehension it was composed in behalf of the ten tribes, after that kingdom began to be wasted by various calamities. It is not without reason that mention is expressly made of Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh. Some expositors allege, that in this there is an allusion to the situation and order of the camps of the chosen tribes in the wilderness, as described by Moses in Numbers 2:18-21; for Manasseh and Ephraim marched together on one side.1 But it would have been strange to have passed over in silence the tribe of Judah, and also the holy city, and to have brought forward the tribes of Joseph, Manasseh, Ephraim, and Benjamin, had it not been intended to speak especially of the kingdom of Israel.2 If it is objected, that the ten tribes from the time when they were cut off from the house of David had become degenerate, and that the worship of God was corrupted among them, I answer, that there dwelt among them, notwithstanding, many devout worshippers of God, who had not bowed the knee before Baal, nor abandoned themselves to the prevailing superstition, (1 Kings 19:18.) Accordingly, Amos (Amos 6:6) finds fault with the hard-heartedness which existed in the tribe of Judah, because there was none among them who was "grieved for the affliction of Joseph." It is also well known, that during the time of this defection, some prophets were sent to them to inspire them with the hope of deliverance. Although, then, the vast proportion of them were apostates, yet God did not cease to exercise his care over the seed which remained in the midst of them. And as formerly he had mitigated coming calamities, by promising beforehand his grace; so now, by dictating to the people a form of prayer, he confirms and encourages them in the hope of obtaining his grace, until they found, from actual experience, that they had not been deceived by vain promises. From this, we perceive in what respect this and the preceding psalm differ from each other. If any one considers what I have now stated unsatisfactory, he is at liberty to adopt a different view. But I flatter myself, that whoever carefully weighs all the circumstances, will readily acquiesce in my opinion. I will not insist upon the words Sosannim and Eduth, having already, in Psalm 45th, stated the opinions of interpreters concerning them; nor is this a matter of so great importance as to render it necessary to expend much labor upon it. Besides, those who are most learned in antiquities adduce nothing but probable conjectures.
1 This is the opinion of Hammond, who supposes that this psalm "is a complaint of the troubles of God's Church and people, probably in time of captivity, or by way of prediction of it." "Why Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, and no other, are here named," says he, "must be learned from the order of the Israelites' march in the wilderness, Numbers 2. For there, next after the ark, the pledge of God's special presence and assistance, did these three tribes follow: 'Then the tabernacle of the congregation shall set forward,' etc., verse 17; 'On the west side (i.e., next behind it) shall be the standard of the camp of Ephraim,' verse 18; 'and his host,' etc., verse 19. 'And by him shall be the tribe of Manasseh,' verse 20; 'and his host,' etc., verse 21. 'Then the tribe of Benjamin, and his host,' verses 22, 23. Now the returning from the captivity, the desire whereof is the business of this psalm, being a parallel to the delivery from Egypt, God's 'leading them back, stirring up himself, and coming to save them,' is very fitly. begged, and described in a style resembling the former rescue." Merrick accounts for Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, being particularly specified, by supposing the psalm to have been written at a time when some enemy was advancing towards these tribes, which were contiguously situated, or was directing his march to Jerusalem, through their territories. "Such an occasion," he observes, "might make it very proper for the Psalmist to pray that the people of those tribes might particularly be made spectators of the divine interposition. If the psalm was not written on any such occasion, it may be most reasonable to suppose, that Benjamin, Joseph's only brother by the same mother, and Ephraim and Manasseh his sons, are in the second verse equivalent to Joseph; who, in the preceding verse, represents the whole posterity of Israel."
2 The argument which Calvin here adduces in support of the opinion, that this psalm relates to the ten tribes which constituted the kingdom of Israel, in contradistinction to the kingdom of Judah, is evidently inconclusive. He seems to have forgotten the fact that the tribe of Benjamin, which is expressly specified, did not belong to the kingdom of Israel, but formed a part of the kingdom of Judah, -- a fact which is altogether destructive of the argument by which he attempts to prove that the psalm relates exclusively or especially to the kingdom of Israel. The whole of God's ancient people seem therefore to be intended. It may farther be observed, that the calamities which are referred to are so extensive and general, as to render it in a high degree probable, that the entire body of that people are spoken of. This view is also confirmed, from the introduction of the similitude of a vine transplanted from Egypt. The subject of the psalm may be the same with that of the 79th -- the calamitous condition into which the chosen people were brought by the arms of Nebuchadnezzar.