Exploring Psalm 147

Recognising God’s care, provision and power

Frost

Psalm 147 doesn’t get the same airtime as the more well known psalms, e.g. 1, 22, 23, 51, and 110, and yet there is much that we can learn from it that is of value today. In this post we’ll work through the psalm looking at its history, structure, and teaching. But before we get into that we’re first going to look at the psalm’s position in the various Old Testament textual traditions.

The Septuagint (‘LXX’) treats Psalm 147 as two separate psalms: 146 (corresp. 147:1-11) & 147 (corresp. 147:12-20). In the LXX both 146 & 147 begin with the title, “A hallelujah of Haggai and Zechariah.”1

Psalm 147 is preserved in two Dead Sea Scrolls (‘DSS’): 11QPsa/11Q5 and 4QPsd/4Q86. In the former the psalm appears after psalm 104 and before 106 (the wider sequence being 101, 102, 103, 112, 109, 113, 114, 115, 116, 118, 104, 147, 106, 105, 146, 148, 120, 121, 122…)2, but in the latter it appears before 104 (106, 147, 104).3

As for differences between the textual traditions, the only point of note is that the DSS, LXX, and Aramaic Targums substitute “and he [Yahweh] has not shown them his ordinances” for “and they do not know his ordinances,” in v20.45

There is consensus among scholars that psalm 147 is the result of combining an older psalm with a newer; the older being vv. 12-20, the newer being vv. 1-11.6

A final thing to note: in the Masoretic Text (‘MT’) the book concludes with a final arrangement of 5 psalms (146-150), each one praising God and beginning with “Hallelujah”. It’s clear though that this is a very late arrangement – the DSS do not follow the same sequence.

Setting

Like all the other psalms, this psalm was written in Hebrew during the period of the Old Testament. Israelites with this background would have listened to it being sung or performed, and, like many of the other psalms it would have stirred their hearts. Their appreciation of it would have been greater than ours because it spoke to them in their context. Therefore, to try to feel the same impact we need to try to enter their world – the world of both the writer and hearer of this psalm.

The Psalms were written over a period lasting hundreds of years and in that time Israel’s culture, language, and situation changed. So to experience the impact of the psalm as fully as possible we need to work out just which Israelites’ shoes we need to step into. To do that out we need to figure out when it was written.

The psalm offers a few clues that help establish the era it was composed in:

  1. v2a states that “Yahweh builds up Jerusalem”, and v13a that “[Yahweh] strengthens the bars of your gates”. The psalmist is referring to a Jerusalem that is currently standing, and that God is responsible for its construction.
  2. v2b also states that “[Yahweh] gathers the outcasts of Israel”, so the psalmist has in mind the return of Israel from somewhere outside their land.
  3. That this gathering of Israelite outcasts has occurred is suggested from v13b which mentions God’s blessing on “the children within [Jerusalem]”.

There is only one point in Israel’s OT history when they had been outcasts from their land, gathered back to it, and built Jerusalem and that’s the return from Babylon. Add to this the LXX’s view that the psalm is from the time of Haggai and Zecheriah and it becomes clear that the psalm’s final form is likely a product of the early post-exilic period.7 The “bars of your gates” that Yahweh had strengthened are possibly a mention of the same gates that Nehemiah wrote about here8:

Ne 7:1–3 Now when the wall had been built… I gave my brother Hanani charge over Jerusalem, along with Hananiah the commander of the citadel… And I said to them, “The gates of Jerusalem are not to be opened until the sun is hot; while the gatekeepers are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors.”

It is easy to imagine the psalm being sung during the dedication of Jerusalem’s rebuilt city wall at the end of the fifth century BCE:

Ne 12:27–33 Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with rejoicing, with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, harps, and lyres… Then I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall, and appointed two great companies that gave thanks and went in procession. One went to the right on the wall to the Dung Gate; and after them went Hoshaiah and half the officials of Judah, and Azariah, Ezra, Meshullam…9

Structure

Though originally two psalms joined together, psalm 147 is made up of 3 sections.

Part 1: God’s care for Jerusalem (vv. 1-6)

The psalm begins with an exclamation of praise to God: “Hallelujah”. The psalmist immediately pauses to consider the value of praising God. The CEB renders the sense well:

Ps 147:1 Praise the LORD! Because it is good to sing praise to our God! Because it is a pleasure to make beautiful praise! (CEB)10

This idea that praising God is good and pleasurable is a common theme in the psalms; a well known example is found in the opening of psalm 92:

Ps 92:1–3 It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre.

What follows in vv. 2-6 are the reasons given for why it is good to praise God – his care for Jerusalem and its post-exilic population. The psalmist recognises the helpless position that those who’d returned from exile were in:

  • “outcasts”, v. 2
  • “brokenhearted”, v. 3
  • wounded, v. 3
  • “downtrodden”, v. 6

The Jews had lost their kingdoms of Israel and Judah in circumstances that in its final stage had them eating their own children:

La 4:10 The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.

They’d been taken into Babylon and had lived there for decades as a tiny immigrant population, surrounded by their powerful captives. When they returned they found their old capital city in total disrepair. The report which inspired Nehemiah describes it like this:

Ne 1:3 The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.

He described their situation as “disgrace”:

Ne 2:17 “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.”

There was nothing glamorous about the situation that the Jews found themselves in. Yet, they recognised God’s provision for them in rebuilding the altar, the Temple, and the walls of Jerusalem. God is described as:

  • building up, v. 2
  • gathering, v. 2
  • healing, v. 3
  • binding up, v. 3
  • lifting up, v. 6

Even in their grim circumstances in Jerusalem, the immigrant Jewish community recognised the work of God in their establishing themselves in the land of their ancestors. The language of vv. 2-6 reflects that of Is 40-66, a section of scripture that spoke to the post-exilic Jews.

Psalm 147 Isaiah
Ps 147:3 He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. Is 61:1 The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted
Ps 147:4 He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Is 40:26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
Ps 147:5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. Is 40:28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

 

As well as God’s care for his people, the psalmist in v. 2 attributed the building of Jerusalem to God, “The LORD builds up Jerusalem”. He saw God as the power that enabled the city’s reconstruction. This view reflects the ancient Near Eastern understanding that important cities were founded by gods – something the Jews would have been aware of given their recent history. As Walton explains:

The most important aspect of the role of cities is to be found in their relationship to the temples and the gods. The patron deity of a city was typically considered the one who founded, built, and sustained the city. So the prominence and prosperity of the city and its god were inextricably intertwined.11

Yahweh, the Israelite God had appeared to have been vanquished by both the Assyrians and Babylonians. An example of this reasoning can be seen in the words of Sennacherib’s messengers to Hezekiah:

2 Ch 32:14–15 Who among all the gods of those nations that my ancestors utterly destroyed was able to save his people from my hand, that your God should be able to save you from my hand? Now therefore do not let Hezekiah deceive you or mislead you in this fashion, and do not believe him, for no god of any nation or kingdom has been able to save his people from my hand or from the hand of my ancestors. How much less will your God save you out of my hand!”

In claiming that God was behind the building of Jerusalem the psalmist acknowledged what the Babylonians would not – that Yahweh was not overcome but remained in control.

The God that knows all the stars by name (v. 5) is the same God that built Jerusalem and that cared for the embryonic Jewish population in Jerusalem. The mention in v. 4 of God knowing all the stars and having named them is another allusion to the Babylonian understanding of the relationship between deities and the cosmos. Marduk, the God of Babylon, was thought to have absolute power over the Gods because he had control over the stars.12 This can be seen in Enuma Elish (IV, 17–28):

(19) Having placed in their midst a constellation,
(20) They addressed themselves to Marduk, their son:
(21) “Thy fate, Bel, is supreme among the gods,
(22) Only speak to wreck or create; it shall be.
(23) Through your word let the constellation vanish,
(24) Speak again, and the constellation shall reappear.”
(25) At the word of his mouth the constellation vanished,
(26) He spoke again, and the constellation was restored.
(27) When his divine fathers saw (the fruit) of his words,
(28) Joyfully they did homage: “Marduk is king!”

Any post-exilic Jew would not have missed the point – it is their god who had named the stars and counted them all that was in control; not Marduk or any of the other Babylonian or Persian gods that the Jews would have encountered in the decades previous to their return to Jerusalem.

Part 2: God cares for all but takes pleasure in those who fear him (vv. 7-11)

This section describes God’s operation in the world, and how though he is the power that cares for all living it is the trust of humans that brings him joy.

Verses 7 and 8 describe the extent that God goes to to feed the animals and ravens. He is described as sending clouds to provide rain, which when it falls causes the grass to grow, the grass being food for the animals13. The psalmist’s message is clear: it is his God who feeds all animals, even down to the despised ones, i.e. the raven.

Ravens in the Jewish mind were regarded with contempt. The law had little time for them:

Le 11:13–15 These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination… every raven of any kind…

That God feeds ravens is an indication of his universal love for his creation – he loves and provides for the clean and the unclean, bringing to mind his life-altering message to Peter:

Ac 10:11–15 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down… In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

The post-exilic Jewish would not have missed another point – it is God, not Baal, that provides the rain. Whereas previously the Israelites were instructed to “Ascribe to Yahweh” the fertility of the land as brought about by storms (Ps 29) there is now no question of which deity is responsible for the rain. It is not a question in the psalmist’s mind; it is a presupposition that God provides the rain, and that he provides it for all.

Having established God’s credentials as the all-powerful provider, the psalmist continues with an explanation of what God likes to see in humanity. He begins with what he thinks God isn’t interested in:

Ps 147:10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner…

“The strength of the horse” and “speed of a runner”/“legs of a man” are examples of military language. The psalmist makes the point that it is not the strength of man’s armies that delights God; quite the opposite. Similar sentiments are found in psalm 33:

Ps 33:16–21 A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save. Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.

As psalm 33 explains, it not military might or physical strength that impresses God – if he controls the stars and feeds all life, why would he be impressed by an army dependent on the food he provides?

It is those who fear God, those who realize their dependence on him and place their trust in his loving nature that he delights in. The response the psalmist suggests is to “Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre.” (v. 7)

Part 3: God the lawgiver (vv. 12-20)

The final section begins by instructing Jerusalem to praise God, and gives the reasons why she should. The reasons in vv. 13-14a are about the safety he’d provided.

The “bars of your gates” (v. 13), as mentioned above, are possibly a reference to the same bars mentioned in Nehemiah’s record of the building of the walls of Jerusalem. The psalm would therefore be demonstrating a very practical principle: God works through our actions. For example in Nehemiah 3:3 we are informed that it was the sons of Hassenaah who built the Fish Gate, laid its beams and set up its doors, its bolts, and its bars. However the psalm expresses trust in God as being the strength behind these bars. Fatalism is evidently not something the psalmist accepted – God, in his view, worked through the actions of humanity. The peace provided by God’s strength provided peace within Jerusalem’s borders; a blessing on her inhabitants.

These verses again reflect the post-exilic context of a passage in Isaiah:

Is 60:17c–18 I will appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.

That God “fills you with the finest of wheat” (vv. 14b) is a reminder of what has gone before in this psalm, i.e. vv. 8-9, that spoke of God’s provision of food for all creation. The post-exilic situation was one of low crop yields, as reported in Haggai:

Hag 1:5–6 Now therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.

God promised that this situation would be reversed (Hag 2:19), a statement which helps date vv. 12-20 of psalm 147 to a period after the famine.

The psalm turns to God’s activity in the natural world (vv. 15-20). It begins by explaining that God’s power is embodied in his word, or command. The result of his word is snow, frost, hail, and the natural processes that cause snow, frost, and hail to melt. He makes the wind blow and the water flow.

The word is the instrument of God. But what is described as being the result of his word? Natural processes. God at the beginning of time created order, created systems, created a self-sustaining set of processes that he doesn’t need to intervene in or operate directly. Yet he stands behind them all. It is not only in the miraculous that we should see God’s actions; this psalm explains that we see the activity of God in nature in the day-to-day, natural processes. For this reason we should not be concerned when what appears to be a miracle of nature (parting of the Red Sea, drying up of the River Jordan, Joshua’s long day) can be “explained” by a commonplace natural event, or be shown to be speaking of something which isn’t an event seen in nature at all. Such explanations don’t diminish God’s power, because as the psalmist explains his power is seen in the commonplace natural phenomena.

The climax of the psalm is reached in the final two verses. The “word”, which in the previous four verses was the label given to God’s power as seen in nature, is now used to speak about his “statutes and ordinances” that he’d given Israel. The language used is very similar to that found throughout Deuteronomy, e.g:

Dt 4:5–8 I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

The final verse, far from being self-satisfied or proud, is an exclamation of wonder. The psalmist, in full knowledge of the state of the Jews in Jerusalem. He knew they had nothing to be proud of – they’d suffered famine, they were few in number, the temple they’d rebuilt was shameful compared to Solomon’s, and the city they’d rebuilt was very small. There was no reason that God should have chosen them over any other nation. Similar sentiments are found earlier in Israel’s history:

Dt 7:7–11 It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today.

Conclusion

Psalm 147 celebrates the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. It recognises God’s power and strength in arranging their return, in the safety and security of the capital, in his provision for all, in his activity in nature, and finally in his providing his people with his statutes and ordinances.

Further reading

  • Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101–150 (ed. Klaus Baltzer; trans. Linda M. Maloney; Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 618–628.
  • Hans-Joachim Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Psalms 60–150 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 554–559.
  • Robert L. Jr. Hubbard and Robert K. Johnston, Psalms (ed. W. Ward Gasque, Robert L. Hubbard Jr., and Robert K. Johnston; Understanding the Bible Commentary Series; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012), 512–514.

Footnotes

  1. Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012), Ps 146 & 147.
  2. 11Q5 Psalms a (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2010)
  3. 4Q86 Psalms D (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2010)
  4. Rick Brannan and Israel Loken, The Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible (Lexham Bible Reference Series; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), Ps 147:20. For details see Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101–150 (ed. Klaus Baltzer; trans. Linda M. Maloney; Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 628.
  5. It is always worth checking the LXX and DSS textual traditions. E.g. in the acrostic Psalm 145, v13’s stanza associated with the letter ‘nun’ is missing – but it is preserved in the LXX and DSS textual traditions. See Wendy Widder, Textual Criticism (ed. Douglas Mangum; Lexham Methods Series; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013), 93–97.
  6. For the reasoning see Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101–150 (ed. Klaus Baltzer; trans. Linda M. Maloney; Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible; Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 620–621.
  7. See Hans-Joachim Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Psalms 60–150 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 556; Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101–150 (Revised) (vol. 21; Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 385; and Adele Berlin, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Michael Fishbane, eds., The Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1443.
  8. Ne 3:3, 6, 13, 14, 15 mention the “doors, bolts, and bars” of the Fish, Old, Valley, Dung, and Fountain gates constructed as part of the building of Nehemiah’s wall
  9. All scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989) unless otherwise noted.
  10. Common English Bible (Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2011)
  11. John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 277.
  12. Op. cit. Hossfeld and Zenger, 623–624.
  13. Whether בְהֵמָה in this context is a reference to cattle or animals is not clear

Author: Nat Ritmeyer

Nat lives in London with his wife and son. His main interests are the Ancient Near Eastern background to the bible, the Iron Age I period, and travelling through the Modern Near East. He is also scared of geese.