The Hebrew expression natsách (preceded by the preposition “to”) is commonly thought to signify “to the musical director” or “leader.” In the Septuagint, the rendering is “to the end.” An ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter reads victori (“to the victor”), probably because of linking the Hebrew expression to a root meaning “to defeat.” This suggests that considerable uncertainty exists about the significance of the Hebrew expression.
This psalm, called a song in the superscription, is attributed to the sons of Korah, probably meaning the descendants of the Levite who rebelled against the divinely granted authority of Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 16:1-3; 26:10, 11)
There is uncertainty about the significance of the Hebrew expression “according to alamoth.” The Hebrew term commonly transliterated “alamoth” is plural and feminine gender. The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, based on the meaning “[voice of] young women,” takes the expression to denote the soprano of young women or the falsetto of boys. An ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter reads pro iuventutibus (“for youths”). The Septuagint rendering “secret things” or “hidden things” probably arose from linking “alamoth” to a root meaning “conceal.”
As a refuge, God provides safety and protection. He is also the source of strength for his people, sustaining them in difficult times. During their distresses, he is their help. In the Masoretic Text, the two words after “distresses” have the basic sense of being “easily found,” indicating that God’s aid is readily available or near, not far away. According to the Septuagint, God proved to be the helper during the distresses that befell (“found”) the people to an exceeding degree.
With God as their refuge, strength, and help, the people would not yield to fear. This would be the case even if the earth or land were to “change” (as when rocked by a severe quake) and the mountains were to shake. The expression “in the heart of the seas” could denote the “midst” or “depth” of the seas. Land areas and mountains appear to rise out of the sea. Accordingly, the sense of the Hebrew regarding the mountains could be like that conveyed in The New American Bible, “and mountains quake to the depths of the sea.” Another possible meaning, found in numerous translations, is that mountains would tumble into the sea. The Septuagint could be translated to denote the transferring of mountains into the “hearts [depths] of the seas.”
Although waters might roar and foam (as during severe storms) and mountains shake at the raging of the sea (Hebrew, “at its pride”; LXX, “in its might”; or, “by his might,” that is, by God’s power). The basic thought of this verse (3) and the preceding one is that no upheaval would give rise to fear. In view of what follows, the psalmist apparently used vivid language from the physical world to portray political disturbances that would affect his people.
The words about “a river, the streams of which gladden the city of God,” seem to find a parallel in Isaiah 33:21, where YHWH is portrayed as being “a place of rivers” providing protection from enemy ships. Though not stated specifically, God (in this psalm also) is like a protective river, and this provides the basis for the inhabitants of Jerusalem to rejoice. Because the temple (God’s representative dwelling place) occupied an elevated site there, the city is referred to as the “holy tabernacle of the Most High.”
God’s being in the midst of the city in a representative way assured that Jerusalem would not be moved or would remain secure. He would help the city. The Masoretic Text concludes with the words “to turn the morning.” This may be understood to mean that God would come to the rescue, transforming the distressing darkness into morning dawn.
“Nations raged [were troubled, LXX]; kingdoms tottered.” The implication may be that, despite these political upheavals, God’s people would be secure. At the sound of his voice, the “earth” or land “melted” (“was shaken,” LXX). The “voice” is probably to be understood as meaning thunder. As thunder is associated with storms, the melting of the land could be descriptive of landslides or soil erosion on account of heavy downpours.
The designation “YHWH of hosts [forces, LXX]” indicates that mighty forces of angels are under his direction. Being with his people, he, the God of Jacob (the forefather of the Israelites), was their refuge or secure height (“helper,” LXX). (See the identical concluding verse.)
The invitation is given for people (likely including non-Israelites) to come in order to see YHWH’s works. These “works,” according to the parallel expression, are the fearful things (“wonders,” LXX) he has performed in the earth or land and evidently relate to his acts of deliverance and the astonishing defeat of the enemies of his people.
Evidently the manner in which YHWH makes wars to cease to the ends of the earth (the land the psalmist meant to designate) is by bringing about the defeat of the enemy and destroying their weapons. He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in pieces (“shatters the weapon,” LXX), rendering them useless. He burns chariots or wagons used for transport (“shields,” LXX) in the fire. Whereas his people destroyed the weapons of the enemy, they gave the credit to him for the victory and the destruction of the war equipment.
The psalmist next represents God as speaking, “Refrain, and know that I am God.” Those addressed were apparently to desist from warring against his people and acknowledge YHWH as the God to whose will they must submit. His action in delivering his people is evidently the basis for his being exalted “among the nations” and “in the earth” (land areas beyond the borders of Israel).
The psalm concludes with the confident expression, “YHWH of hosts [is] with us; the God of Jacob [is] our refuge [helper, LXX].” (The identical words appear in verse 7.)
Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.
In view of the seeming parallel between verse 4(5) of this psalm and Isaiah 33:21, the composition may come from the period of Hezekiah’s reign. At that time, God did put an end to war, using his angel to slay 185,000 of the Assyrian host, forcing King Sennacherib to abandon his plan to capture Jerusalem. (Verse 9; 2 Kings 19:35, 36)
There is uncertainty about the significance of “selah,” the Hebrew expression at the end of verses 3(4), 7(8), and 11(12). The Septuagint rendering diápsalma is thought to mean “pause” or “musical interlude.”