A SONG CONCERNING THE CONQUEST OF CANAAN
This psalm is allowed to be one of the most difficult in the Psalter; and the misunderstanding and abuse of it by the Catholic princes who brought on the Thirty Years War,F1 as well as abuses by the Protestant war-monger Thomas Munzer "who stirred up the `Peasants' War,"F2 have resulted in rejection and even enmity against this psalm. The facts noted here, "Have encouraged a hostile attitude toward Ps. 149 as though anything said in its defense is reprehensible."F3 We have studied the "interpretations" of dozens of scholars regarding this psalm, finding ourselves in almost total disagreement with all of them.
The interpretations offered by the scholars whose writings are available to us are loaded with all kinds of impossibilities, which we shall note in the notes below. Of course, in isolated instances, they have stated many helpful things.
The Occasion. The most probable occasion spoken of in the psalm is that shortly after the conquest of Jericho by the Children of Israel under Joshua, making the psalm not merely pre-exilic, but pre-monarchical also. The only thing in the psalm that might cast a doubt on this is the mention of "their King," (Psalms 149:2); but that is a reference to God (indicated by the capital letter "K" in the ASV), as in Ps. 145:1.
There are many who date the psalm in post-exilic times. Briggs said, "It is expressive of the vengeful military spirit of the Maccabean wars."F4 Barnes placed it, "After the return from the captivity."F5 Rawlinson declined to date it at all. Ballard wrote that, "The date is late";F6 but he admitted that, "We must allow that the psalm may have reference to some earlier event in Jewish history."F7 Dummelow allowed this psalm only a hundred words of comment, and McCaw finished his analysis in fifty-five words. There is certainly a lot of uncertainty about this psalm.
Maclaren placed the psalm after the captivity, stating that, "The restored Israel becomes the executor of God's judgments on those who will not join in the praise which rings from Israel."F8
This image of "restored Israel," in full possession of the favor of God, and as God's executor of judgments upon pagan nations is contradictory to everything in the Old Testament. During the post-exilic period, during all of it, racial Israel had lost their status as God's Chosen People, except in the very limited sense of Gomer's being protected as a slave and not as a wife (Hos. 2). During this period, Israel became "worse than Sodom and Gomorrah" (Ezek. 16); during this period, the total apostasy of Israel progressively developed into the terminal state of their judicial hardening, as explained by the apostle Paul (Rom. 2; Rom. 11). It simply is impossible to relate the great victory Israel had just enjoyed, and for which the early part of this psalm pours out praise and thanksgiving, and their joyful anticipation of many more victories, to anything that occurred after the captivity and prior to the First Advent of Christ.
The explanation of this psalm is possible only in the light of a full understanding of the prophecy of Hos. 2; Hos. 3; and Hos. 9. Those passages declare, in tones of thunder, the end of Israel's status as God's wife. If there should be any doubt of this, the reader is referred to our extensive comment on this subject in Hos. 9, in Vol. 2, of my minor prophets series, pp. 151-168.
We have not been able to find very much scholarly support of our conviction that the "occasion" extolled in this psalm is the "conquest of Canaan," except in piecemeal admissions here and there which collectively not only support, but prove, our view on this to be correct.
"This psalm was sung on the eve of a battle against the heathen nations. Therefore, Weiser appears to be correct in that `the verdict written' (Psalms 149:9) alludes to the destruction of the pagan nations of Canaan. In this interpretation the psalm would be of pre-Exilic origin."F9
There can be no denial of the truth that only the conquest of Canaan fits the picture that emerges here. We must admit that the, "children of Zion," (Psalms 149:2), which is a reference to Jerusalem, is a difficulty, because in the conquest of Canaan, Jerusalem had not been designated as God's Zion. However, our explanation of this is that the psalmist who wrote this (probably during the post-exilic period) used the terminology for Israel then in vogue. We freely admit that the psalm might indeed have been written at a very late time, our contention being only that the event he extolled in it was the conquest of Canaan.
If we attempt to answer the question of why such an ancient event was selected for the theme of his psalm, it may very well have been merely for the purpose of the encouragement of the returned captives.
It also appears as a near-certainty that the great majority of Israel grossly misunderstood the purpose of this psalm. They apparently believed, that Israel was destined to complete the destruction of "all Gentiles," after the manner of the conquest of Canaan, a destruction which God had surely commanded in that instance, and an instruction which they had not in any sense adequately obeyed. The returnees evidently thought that they saw in this psalm, "the chosen people of God in vigorous action to bring the whole world under the divine sway."F10
There are definitely overtones of eschatology in this psalm:
"Other scholars including Gunkel and Kittel believe the psalm is eschatological, that it was written to celebrate the great day in the future when Israel will, in fulfillment of the written promises of the prophets (Psalms 149:9), execute judgment on kings and nations that have oppressed them."F11
We disagree with this quotation, except in the sense that it accurately states exactly what the majority of the racial Jews of the post-exilic period mistakenly thought the psalm meant. That accounts for the popularity of the psalm and for its appearance in this final collection in the Psalter. We cannot tell whether the psalm was actually written in this post-exilic period, or if a much older psalm (which is probable) was reworked and moved to this place in the Psalter. This would account for the term "Zion" in Ps. 149:2.
Pertinent to the questions which arise here, are the following comments of Rolland Emerson Wolfe and W. J. Deane.
"The Jews looked for a new era in which the deity himself would be their special champion, miraculously intervening in history, subduing Israel's enemies permanently, ushering in an age of world dominion and grandeur for Israel."F12
A less elegant statement of that widespread Jewish opinion is that, "They expected God to show up on a white horse, kill all the Gentiles, or enslave them to the Jews, and turn the government of the whole world over to the chosen people."
"When the heathen should be thus judged, all the enemies of Israel defeated, then Israel would be exalted to the highest pitch of prosperity and dominion without regard to their moral condition."F13
It is easy to see how this psalm would have fed and encouraged such attitudes on the part of Israel. We may not suppose that the psalmist himself had any such errors in mind; but that something of that attitude certainly infected the people of Israel in the pre-Christian period cannot be denied. The only reason they rejected Christ is that he did not fit their false view of a Messiah who would rally the troops, kill all the Gentiles, and turn the world over to the Jews.
Praise ye Jehovah. Sing unto Jehovah a new song,
And his praise in the assembly of the saints.
Let Israel rejoice in him that made him:
Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
Let them praise his name in the dance:
Let them sing praise unto him with timbrel and harp.
For Jehovah taketh pleasure in his people:
He will beautify the meek with salvation."
"Many interpreters understand the closing verses of this psalm as eschatalogical rather than historical. However, the first four verses are clearly related to a present reality of God's deliverance."F14
Praise ye Jehovah. Sing unto Jehovah a new song, And his praise in the assembly of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in him that made him: Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. Let them praise his name in the dance: Let them sing praises unto him with timbrel and harp. For Jehovah taketh pleasure in his people: He will beautify the meek with salvation.
(Psalms 149:2). This means the children of Jerusalem, but depending upon the time when the psalm was written, or possibly adapted to the post-exilic period, it might have been a term developed later than the origin of the psalm.
Praise his name in the dance,. timbrel ... harp
(Psalms 149:3). Dancing to the accompaniment of timbrel and lyre (harp) was characteristic of the period of the exodus and the Judges (Exo. 15:20; Judg. 11:34).F15 That points not to post-exilic times, but to the period of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan.
(Psalms 149:3). The mention of percussive instruments means that the psalm has overtones of the martial.F16 Here again, the military assault upon Canaan is suggested rather than any event after the captivity. God did not send Israel back to Jerusalem with any kind of a military commission.
Jehovah taketh pleasure in his people
(Psalms 149:4). This may not appropriately be referred to the post-exilic period. Any thought of such a thing is absolutely forbidden by the prophet Malachi. The reference here is to that vigorous generation who crossed the Jordan on dry ground when the river was at flood stage and who captured Jericho.
Let the saints exult in glory:
Let them sing for joy upon their beds.
Let the high praises of God be in their mouth,
And a two-edged sword in their hand."
The joyful singing and exultation here are understood as due to the anticipation of many other victories coming soon, there being no example of such a string of victories for Israel in any other situation than in their conquest of Canaan.
Verses 5, 6
Let the saints exult in glory: Let them sing for joy upon their beds. [Let] the high praises of God [be] in their mouth, And a two-edged sword in their hand;
(Psalms 149:6). This points to an entire nation armed and engaged in a military campaign, marked by many great victories. The situation that this best fits is that of the destruction by military force of the pagan kingdoms of Canaan.
To execute vengeance upon the nations,
And punishments upon the peoples;
To bind their kings with chains,
And their nobles with fetters of iron;
To execute upon them the judgment written:
This honor have all the saints.
Praise ye Jehovah."
To execute vengeance upon the nations, And punishments upon the peoples; To bind their kings with chains, And their nobles with fetters of iron; To execute upon them the judgment written: This honor have all his saints. Praise ye Jehovah.
(Psalms 149:7). The vengeance spoken of here was not Israel's vengeance but God's, as evidenced by its having been written (Psalms 149:9). The kingdoms of Canaan had not oppressed Israel. Their horrible immoralities had incurred the wrath of God, and Israel was God's instrument of their punishment. The view of Israel taking vengeance upon the nations that had persecuted them, as alleged by some, is simply not in the picture at all.
Despite the view that, "It is most probable that the psalm is eschatological,"F17 we can see nothing in it that suggests that. The carnal weapons in view here are not those of the New Israel. The binding, fettering, and enslavement of kings suggests nothing that we can associate with the End Times. It appears that the eschatalogical interpretations have been forced by difficulties in the psalm, difficulties which disappear when the event to which the psalm points is properly understood as Israel's military defeat and occupation of Canaan.
The interpretation advanced by Addis, namely, that this paragraph means that, "Israel (as an earthly kingdom) is to punish and crush other nations."F18 is unacceptable. The earthly kingdom idea perished with the Advent of Christ whose `kingdom is not of this world.'
We admire the ingenuity and zeal of those interpreters who do their best to apply this psalm to the ultimate triumph of the Lord Jesus Christ in that hour when, "The kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever" (Revelation 11:15), finding in the two-edged sword of this psalm a prophecy of that "two-edged sword" in the mouth of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:15). We cannot see anything like that in this psalm.
What then, is this psalm? It is a hymn of victorious Israel as they began the conquest of the Promised Land. One great victory is behind them, probably the fall of Jericho, and they anticipate many other victories. They will indeed bind and fetter kings, and eventually cut off the thumbs of Adonibezek; but that all of this is a prophecy of what fleshly Israel would ever do upon another occasion is simply not true. That the psalmist either wrote this, or adapted a psalm already in existence, as an encouragement of the returnees from captivity, seems the best way to understand it. That fleshly Israel totally misunderstood it is fully in keeping with Israel's history.
To execute upon them the judgment written
(Psalms 149:9). Here we are upon solid ground indeed. Israel did indeed execute the judgment that God had written against the kingdoms of Canaan in this passage:
"When Jehovah thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, the Girgashite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; and when Jehovah thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them: thou shalt make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them, neither make marriages with them, Etc." (Deuteronomy 7:1-2).
This is the only passage in the Bible that envisions Israel punishing and destroying a number of nations; and therefore we conclude with a great deal of assurance that the event prophesied here in Deuteronomy has to be the event extolled in Ps. 149.
This honor have all his saints
(Ps. 149:9b). All Israel participated in the conquest, as for example, when they all marched around the walls of Jericho, and thus all of them shared in the honor God bestowed upon them in his removal of the pagan kingdoms of Canaan and giving the Promised Land to the Israelites as an inheritance.
Footnotes for Psalms 149
1: F. Delitzsch, Vol. V-C, p. 411.
3: H. C. Leupold, p. 1001.
4: International Critical Commentary, Vol. II, p. 542.
5: Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, a 1987 reprint of the 1878 edition), Vol. III, p. 335.
6: The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. IV, p. 757.
7: Ibid., IV, p. 758.
8: Alexander Maclaren, Vol. III, p. 454.
9: Mitchell Dahood in The Anchor Bible, Vol. III, p. 357.
10: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 546.
11: The Interpreter's Bible, op. cit., p. 757.
12: Roland Emerson Wolfe, Meet Amos and Hosea, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), p. 41.
13: W. J. Deane, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 14, Amos (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 85.
14: Wycliffe Old Testament Commentary, Old Testament, p. 551.
15: The Layman's Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, p. 191.
16: H. C. Leupold, p. 1000.
17: Leslie C. Allen, Vol. II, p. 319.
18: W. E. Addis, p. 396.