By an almost complete agreement of commentators this psalm is descriptive of a caravan of Israelites either returning from exile to Jerusalem or on its way up to one of the regular feasts. It has so many points of resemblance to Psalms 42, 43 that it has been ascribed to the same author and referred to the same events. (See Notes to those psalms.) The singer, whether he speaks in his own name or that of Israel generally, is undoubtedly at present unable (see Psalm 84:2) to share in the Temple services which he so rapturously describes. The poetical structure is uncertain.
Title.—See titles Psalms 4, 8, 42
Tabernacles.—Better, perhaps, dwellings. (Comp. Psalm 43:3.) The plural is used poetically, therefore we need not think of the various courts of the Temple.
“Ambitione mala aut argenti pallet amore.”
HOR., Sat. ii. 3, 78.
Or we may perhaps compare Shakespeare’s
“Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
For a similar fervid expression of desire for communion with God, comp. Psalm 63:1.
Fainteth.—Or more properly, as LXX., faileth.
Courts.—This, too, seems, like tabernacles above, to be used in a general poetical way, so that there is no need to think of the court of the priests as distinguished from that of the people.
The living God.—Comp. Psalm 42:2, the only other place in the Psalms where God is so named.
Swallow.—Heb. derôr, which by its etymology implies a bird of rapid whirling flight. (See Proverbs 26:2, where this characteristic is especially noticed.) The ancient versions take the word as cognate with “turtle-dove.” In an appendix to Delitzsch’s Commentary on the Psalms, Dr. J. G. Wetzstein, identifies the tsippôr with the ôsfur of the Arabs, a generic name for small chirping birds, and derôr with dûri. which is specific of the sparrow.
Even thy altars.—Better, at or near thine altars, though even if taken as in the Authorised “Version the meaning is the same. There is no real occasion for the great difficulty that has been made about this verse. It is absurd indeed to think of the birds actually nesting on the altars; but that they were found in and about the Temple is quite probable, just as in Herodotus (i. 159) we read of Aristodicus making the circuit of the temple at Branchidæ, and taking the nests of young sparrows and other birds. (Comp. the story in Ælian of the man who was slain for harming a sparrow that had sheltered in the temple of Æsculapius.) Ewald gives many other references, and among them one to Burckhardt showing that birds nest in the Kaaba at Mecca.
The Hebrew poetic style is not favourable to simile, or the psalmist would have written (as a modern would), “As the birds delight to nest at thine altars, so do I love to dwell in thine house.”
(5) Blessed is the man.—Or collective, men, as the suffix, their hearts, shows.
Ways.—From a root meaning to cast up—and so highways marked by the heaps of stone piled up at the side (Isaiah 57:14). In Jeremiah 18:15 mere footways or bypaths are contrasted, and so the highway lends itself as a metaphor for the way of peace and righteousness (Proverbs 12:28), as it is taken here by the Chaldee and some modern expositors. But this moral intention is secondary to the actual desire to join the pilgrim band towards Sion, and this the verse describes in words which are echoed exactly in our own Chaucer:
“So pricketh hem Nature in her corages (in their hearts)
Than longen folk to go on pilgrimages.”
The well-known and deeply loved route to the sacred shrine is in their minds, their hearts are set upon it.
The rain also filleth the pools.—That rain is the right rendering of the Hebrew word here appears from Joel 2:23. The rendering pools follows the reading, berechóth; but the text has berachóth, “blessings,” as read by the LXX. and generally adopted now. Render yea, as the autumn rain covers (it) with blessings, i.e., just as the benign showers turn a wilderness into a garden, so resolution and faith turn disadvantage to profit. (Comp. Isaiah 35:6-8; Isaiah 43:18 seq.)
“And he who flagg’d not in the earthly strife,
From strength to strength advancing, only he
His soul well knit, and all his battles won,
Mounts, and that hardly, to eternal life.”
The marginal “from company to company” follows the alternative meaning of the Hebrew word, and suggests a picture of the actual progress of the various bands composing a caravan. But the expression in either sense is hardly Hebrew, and the text is suspicious. It emends easily to “They go to the Temple of the Living God, to see the God of gods in Zion” (Grätz).
“A pleasant task, O Phoebus, I discharge,
Before thine house in reverence of thy seat
Of prophecy, an honoured task to me.”
EURIPIDES, Ion, 128.