1. O God! we have heard with our ears, our fathers have declared to us, the work which thou hast done in their days, even in the days of old. 2. Thou hast expelled the heathen [or nations1] with thy hand, and planted them2 thou hast wasted the peoples3 and multiplied them, [or made them4 to spread.] 3. For they got not possession of the land by their own sword, and their own arm did not save them, but thy right hand, and thy arm, and the light of thy countenance, because thou hadst a favor for them.
1. O God! we have heard with our ears. The people of God here recount the goodness which he had formerly manifested towards their fathers, that, by showing the great dissimilarity of their own condition, they may induce God to alleviate their miseries. They begin by declaring that they speak not of things unknown or doubtful, but that they related events, the truth of which was authenticated by unexceptionable witnesses. The expression, We have heard with our ears, is not to be considered as a redundant form of speech, but one of great weight. It is designed to point out that the grace of God towards their fathers was so renowned, that no doubt could be entertained respecting it. They add, that their knowledge of these things was handed down from age to age by those who witnessed them. It is not meant that their fathers, who had been brought up out of Egypt, had, a thousand and five hundred years after, declared to their posterity the benefits God had conferred upon them. The import of the language is, that not only the first deliverance, but that also the various other works which God had wrought from time to time in behalf of his people, had come down, as it were, from hand to hand, in an uninterrupted series, even to the latest age. As, therefore, those who, after the lapse of many ages, became witnesses and heralds of the grace which God had exercised towards this people, spake upon the report of the first generation, the faithful are warranted in saying, as they here do, that their fathers have declared to them that which they certainly knew, because the knowledge of it had not been lost by reason of its antiquity, but was continually preserved by the remembrance of it from the fathers to the children. The sum of the whole is, that God had manifested his goodness towards the children of Abraham, not only for ten or twenty years, but that ever since he had received them into his favor, he had never ceased to bestow upon them continued tokens of his grace.
2. Thou hast expelled the heathen with thy hand. This is an illustration of the preceding verse: for the inspired writer had not yet expressly referred to that work of God, the fame of which had been preserved by their fathers. He therefore now adds, that God with his own hand expelled the heathen, in order to plant in their room the children of Abraham: and that he wasted and destroyed them, that he might increase and multiply the seed of Abraham. He compares the ancient inhabitants of the land of Canaan to trees; for, from long continued possession of the country, they had, as it were, taken root in it. The sudden change, therefore, which had happened to them, was as if a man plucked up trees by the roots to plant others in their stead. But as it would not have been enough for God's ancient people to have been planted at first in the country, another metaphor is here added, by which the faithful testify that the blessing of God had caused this chosen people to increase and multiply, even as a tree, extending it roots and its branches far and wide, gains still greater strength in the place where it has been planted. Besides, it is necessary to observe for what purpose it is that the faithful here magnify this manifestation of the grace of God. It often happens that our own hearts suggest to us grounds of despair, when we begin to conclude that God has rejected us, because he does not continue to bestow upon us the same benefits which in his goodness he vouchsafed to our fathers. But it were altogether inconsistent, that the faithful here disposing their hearts for prayer, should allow such an obstacle to prevent them from exercising the confidence which is proper in prayer. I freely admit, that the more we think of the benefits which God has bestowed upon others, the greater is the grief which we experience when he does not relieve us in our adversities. But faith directs us to another conclusion, namely, that we should assuredly believe that we shall also in due time experience some relief, since God continues unchangeably the same. There can be no reason to doubt, that the faithful now call to remembrance the things which God had formerly done for the welfare of his Church, with the view of inspiring their minds with stronger hope, as we have seen them acting in a similar manner in the beginning of the twenty-second psalm. They do not simply state the comparison, which would tend to draw a line of separation between those who have in former times been preserved by the power of God, and those who now labored and groaned under afflictions; but they rather set forth the covenant of God as the bond of holy alliance between them and their fathers, that they might conclude from this, that whatever amount of goodness the Church had at any time experienced in God pertained also to them. At first, indeed, they use the language of complaint, asking why it is that the course of God's fatherly favor towards his people is, as it were, interrupted; but straightway they correct their mistake, and take courage from a new consideration -- the consideration that God, who had adopted them as well as their fathers, is faithful and immutable. It is, however, no great wonder if the faithful, even in prayer, have in their hearts divers and conflicting affections. But the Holy Spirit, who dwells in them, by assuaging the violence of their sorrow, pacifies all their complaints and leads them patiently and cordially to obey. Moreover, when they here say that their fathers have declared to them the deliverances which God had accomplished in behalf of his Church, what the fathers did in this respect corresponds with the precept of the law, by which the fathers were commanded to teach their children. And all the faithful ought to reflect that the same charge is enjoined upon them by God even to this day. He communicates to them the doctrine of salvation, and commits it to their charge for this purpose -- that they may transmit it to their posterity, and, as much as in them lies, endeavor to extend its authority, that his worship may be preserved from age to age.
3. For they got not possession of the land by their own sword. Here the sacred writer confirms by contrast what he has just said; for if they obtained not possession of the land by their own power and skill, it follows that they were planted in it by the hand of another. The multitude of men who went out of Egypt was very great; but not being trained to the art of war, and accustomed only to servile works, they would soon have been defeated by their enemies, who far excelled them in numbers and strength. In short, there were not wanting evident signs by which the people were made to know as well their own weakness as the power of God; so that it was their bounden duty to confess that the land was not conquered by their own sword, and also, that it was the hand of God which had preserved them. The Psalmist, not content with mentioning thy right hand, adds, thy arm, to amplify the matter, and give greater weight to his discourse, that we may know that they were preserved in a wonderful manner, and not by any ordinary means. The light of thy countenance is here taken, as in other places, for the manifestation of the divine favor. As, on the one hand, when God is afflicting us severely, he seems to frown upon us, and to overshadow his face with thick clouds; so, on the other, when the Israelites, sustained by his power, overthrew their enemies without any great difficulty, and pursued them in every direction far and near, it is said, that then they beheld the face of God serene and placid, just as if he had manifested himself in a visible manner near them. Here it is necessary to observe the mode of reasoning which the prophet employs, when he argues that it is by the free gift of God that the people obtained the land in heritage, seeing they had not acquired it by their own power. We then truly begin to yield to God what belongs to him, when we consider how worthless our own strength is. And certainly, the reason why men, as it were through disdain, conceal and forget the benefits which God has conferred on them, must be owing to a delusive imagination, which leads them to arrogate somewhat to themselves as properly their own. The best means, therefore, of cherishing in us habitually a spirit of gratitude towards God, is to expel from our minds this foolish opinion of our own ability. There is still in the concluding part of the verse another expression, which contains a more illustrious testimony to the grace of God, when the Psalmist resolves the whole into the good pleasure of God: Thou hadst a favor for them. The prophet does not suppose any worthiness in the person of Abraham, nor imagine any desert in his posterity, on account of which God dealt so bountifully with them, but ascribes the whole to the good pleasure of God. His words seem to be taken from the solemn declaration of Moses,
"The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; (for ye were the fewest of all people;) but because the Lord loved you," (Deuteronomy 7:7, 8.)
Special mention is here made of the land of Canaan; but the prophet has stated the general principle why it was that God vouchsafed to reckon that people for his flock and peculiar heritage. And certainly, the source and origin of the Church is the free love of God; and whatever benefits he bestows upon his Church, they all proceed from the same source. The reason, therefore, why we are gathered into the Church, and are nourished and defended by the hand of God, is only to be sought in God. Nor does the Psalmist here treat of the general benevolence of God, which extends to the whole human race; but he discourses of the difference which exists between the elect and the rest of the world; and the cause of this difference is here referred to the mere good pleasure of God.