David, who was now settled upon the throne, and had gained several signal victories, tending to confirm him in the kingdom, in this Psalm exalts the goodness of God, that he might at once express his gratitude, and by conciliating the favor of such as still stood out against his interests, unite the community, which had been rent into factions. Having first adverted to the clear indications of the Divine favor, which proved that God had chosen him to be king, he more particularly calls the attention of the faithful to the oracle itself, in order to convince them that they could only comply with the mind of God, by yielding their consent and approbation to the anointing which he had received from Samuel. Prayers also are offered up throughout the psalm, urging God to perfect what he had begun.
To the chief musician upon Shushan-eduth, Michtam1 of David, to teach; when he strove with the Syrians of Mesopotamia, and with the Syrians of Zoba, and when Joab returned, and smote of the Edomites in the valley of Salt twelve thousand.
Of the first part of this title I have spoken in another place, and shall not insist upon it further than to repeat, that Shushan-eduth, the lily of witness, 2 or of beauty, seem to have been the first words of some song which was commonly known at the time. It is added, to teach; and this, as some have thought, because the psalm was given to the Levites, that they might learn it. But others have very properly rejected this idea, as we cannot suppose that a title, which is equally applicable to all the psalms, would have been here used as a term of distinction. More probably it points at a particular instruction or doctrine, which would be taught by the following psalm. We may suppose that David, who had gained so many decisive victories, but had not the satisfaction, as yet, of seeing the kingdom finally settled under him, employs the word to denote that he had a special lesson to enforce, which was, the duty of all who had hitherto opposed him to put an end to factions, and, after such convincing evidences, acknowledge that he was their divinely-appointed king. Let experience, at least, as if he had said, prove that the sovereignty which I hold meets with the approbation of God, crowned, as it is, in the eyes of all, with so many tokens of his favor. The psalm is described as being a kind of triumphal song for victories obtained over the Syrians and other allied nations. As the Jews reckon Mesopotamia, and other countries, to be included in Syria, which they call Aram, they are forced subsequently to distinguish it into different parts, as here we find Syria Naharim put for Mesopotamia, which some of the Latins have named Interamnis, (or, between two rivers,) following the Greek etymology; for Mesopotamia in Greek means between two rivers, that is, between the Tigris and Euphrates.3 Next, we have Syria Soba mentioned, which some have considered upon good grounds to be Sophene, because adjacent to the bank of the Euphrates; and David is said (2 Samuel 8:3) to have smitten Rehob, king of Soba, as he went to recover his border at the river. In the same passage, we read of a third Syria, that of Damascus, nearer to Judea, and almost touching upon it. Syria is, in other places of Scripture, represented as still more extensive, and has epithets attached to it according to the different territories which are meant to be pointed out. As David had war with the more adjacent part of Syria, and routed the army which had come out from it to the assistance of the Ammonites, it may be asked why he speaks only of the inhabitants of Mesopotamia and Soba. I think it probable that he specifies the more distant nations, as being the most formidable, and as affording a more illustrious proof of the Divine favor which accompanied his arms. For this reason, he passes over the more neighboring nations, and mentions those which were situated at a distance, the terror of which was known only by report, and whose overthrow was something unheard of, and almost incredible. In the inspired history, two-and-twenty thousand are said to have been slain,4 (1 Chronicles 18:12,) in the title of this psalm only twelve thousand; but the apparent inconsistency is easily explained. It is Abishai whom the history represents as defeating the forces, which are here said to have been overthrown by Joab. We are to consider that the army was divided between the two brothers. Abishai being inferior in rank and authority, we need not wonder that the praise of the victory is ascribed to him who was the chief commander, although both had a share in gaining it; as in 1 Samuel 18:7, David is described as having the whole honor of the victory, because he was the individual under whose auspices it had been accomplished. It is probable that about half the number mentioned in the history fell during the main engagement, and that the rest having fled from the field, were put to the sword by Joab in their retreat.5
1 Michtam is prefixed to six psalms, of which this is the last. The others are, the 16th, 56th, 57th, 58th, and 59th.
2 What that means it is not easy to ascertain: from the lily being a six-leafed flower, it has been supposed that the word may also mean a six-stringed instrument.
3 We have here adopted the French version, which is fuller than the Latin, "laquelle aucuns des Latins a l'imitation des Grecs (car Mesopotamie en Grec signifie entre les fleuves, pource qu'elle est entre Tigris et Euphrates) ont nommee Interamnis."
4 It should be eighteen thousand.
5 There is another way in which this difference as to number may be reconciled besides that in which Calvin attempts to do it. "If the Hebrew numbers here," says Street, "have been ever expressed by letters used as numerals, the variation might be accounted for;
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