The writer of this psalm recognized YHWH as a just God who would not leave unrighteous deeds unpunished. Therefore, he referred to YHWH as a “God of vengeance” or retribution. The psalmist’s appeal for the “God of vengeance” to “shine forth” evidently is a petition that YHWH would reveal himself as the avenger of those who have been treated unjustly.
The Most High is the Judge of the earth or the human inhabitants of the land. They are accountable to him for their deeds. So, the psalmist petitioned YHWH to rise (assuming a position for taking action) and render just deserts to the proud oppressors. In referring to them as “the proud,” the psalmist was apparently calling attention to the arrogant or high-handed manner in which they dealt unfairly. Because these wicked ones had seemingly been getting by with their lawless deeds for a considerable time, he asked how much longer they would be able to “exult” or rejoice over their success in exploiting disadvantaged ones.
As from a spring, boastful words flowed from the mouths of the wicked. Doubtless they boasted about how they had gotten the better of others. They crushed God’s people, his inheritance, those who were under his special care by reason of their defenseless condition. Instead of feeling pity for those in great need, the hateful ones oppressed the widow, the resident alien, and the orphan to such a degree that it was tantamount to murder.
The ruthless oppressors imagined that YHWH neither saw nor knew what they were doing. The fact that they are represented as saying “Yah” and “the God of Jacob” implies that they were Israelites, not foreigners.
The psalmist pointed out the folly of their reasoning, rightly referring to them as dullards and fools and asking them when they would become wise. How could they think that the one who made the ear could not hear, and the one who fashioned the eye could not see?
Evidently because the oppressors were aware of YHWH’s acting against other nations, disciplining or chastising them, the psalmist asked whether the One who thus disciplined could not also judge. The implication is that God would render an adverse decision respecting the lawless ones. The cruel oppressors imagined that the Most High did not perceive or notice what they were doing. Hence, the psalmist’s question may be, How could the one who teaches man not know? Examples of translations that convey this significance are the following: “He is the teacher of us all—hasn’t he any knowledge?” (TEV) “The teacher of mankind, has he no knowledge?” (REB) “The one who teaches humans not have knowledge”? (NAB) This meaning, however, depends upon whether the Hebrew is indeed elliptical [he who teaches man...knowledge] and justifies adding words for clarification. Other translations basically follow the word order of the Hebrew. “Shall He who disciplines nations not punish, He who instructs men in knowledge?” (Tanakh)
Contrary to the fallacious reasoning of the hateful oppressors, YHWH even knows the thoughts of man. In this context, man is evidently to be understood as a mere earthling whose thoughts are not elevated but focused on satisfying sensual desires. In the case of the lawless ones, their objective was to attain their selfish ends. Whenever this is the sole focus of the mind, the thoughts are like an exhaled breath. They are empty or vain, leading to nothing that is good.
When referring to the man whom he pronounced fortunate, the psalmist did not use the same word for man as in the previous statement. This man is not a mere earthling to whom noble thoughts are foreign. He is happy, fortunate, or in an enviable state by reason of receiving YHWH’s correction and accepting it appreciatively. Such a man is one whom YHWH instructs out of his law, providing him with the precious guidance that he needs. Until such time as the lawless one experiences retribution (the lead-up to such retribution being likened to the digging of a pit into which the lawless one would fall), the man who accepts YHWH’s discipline and the teaching of his law would have respite from distressing days. This is so because he would enjoy an inner calm during trying times, knowing that the Most High would judge those who afflict and oppress others.
The psalmist expressed the confidence that YHWH would never forsake his true people, leaving them at the mercy of cruel oppressors without hope of any help. As his possession, his own, or his heritage, YHWH would never abandon them. Thus, the psalmist voiced his unwavering faith that the Most High would take action on behalf of all who are his people.
Since the oppressors had not been pronounced guilty by the existing judicial arrangement but were permitted to continue ruthlessly exploiting the defenseless, the judgments rendered were not in harmony with justice. The psalmist’s next statement may be understood to mean that this would change. “Judgment shall again accord with justice.” (Tanakh) “Justice will again be found in the courts.” (TEV) “Judgment shall again be just.” (NAB) The psalmist’s words may, however, also be understood to mean that, “to the righteous, justice will return.” Instead of being dealt with unfairly, the righteous would become the recipients of just verdicts. Those who are upright in heart, that is, in their deep inner selves, would likewise “return” to justice. This thought has been variously rendered: “...all the upright shall rally to it.” (Tanakh) “...all righteous people will support it.” (TEV) ...all the upright in heart will follow it.” (NRSV)
The psalmist had found himself among the oppressed. Therefore, he asked who would take his side against the wicked, and who would stand up for him against wrongdoers. His answer was, YHWH. The psalmist realized that, if it had not been for YHWH’s help, he (his “soul”) quickly would have become a dweller in silence (Hades, according to the Septuagint) or been numbered among the dead. When it appeared to him that he was on unstable ground as if his foot was about to slip, YHWH’s compassionate care or steadfast love (Hebrew, chésed) was there to help him, giving him the support that he needed. When he was plagued with many disturbing or anxious thoughts on account of what he saw or experienced, YHWH’s consolations or assurances cheered him (his “soul”). Apparently he sensed a soothing or calming effect that brought him joy.
The psalmist next raised a question that required an emphatic “no” for the answer. Can the “throne” or seat of “destruction” (destructive injustice) be in partnership with YHWH, the very “throne” (the judicial authority it represents) that “frames mischief” or sanctions wrong by statute? The situation apparently was one where corrupt judges developed regulations that served the interests of the oppressors. Thus, lawless action came under the protection of the law. Whenever righteous persons stood in the way of corrupt aims, the judges apparently banded together to condemn such upright ones to death, thereby shedding innocent blood.
In the face of this deplorable situation, the psalmist looked to YHWH, the One who was as a protective stronghold or a secure refuge to him and a massive rock where he was on a solid footing and thus safe. Confidently, he concluded with the thought that YHWH would cause the evil of the corrupt ones to recoil upon them, wiping them out for their wickedness.
Unlike the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint does include a superscription: “Psalm to David; on the fourth [day] of the weeks.” The plural of sábbaton is here commonly understood to mean “weeks,” not sabbaths.
After verse 15, the Septuagint has the designation that translates “selah,” but it is missing in the Masoretic Text. For the possible significance of “selah,” see Psalm 3.
Regarding the meaning of chésed and the corresponding Septuagint rendering éleos, see Psalm 5.
For a discussion of the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.