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A Study by Scott Sperling
Psalm 76 – God’s Miraculous Protection
For the director of music. With stringed instruments.
A psalm of Asaph. A song.
1 God is renowned in Judah;
in Israel his name is great.
2 His tent is in Salem,
his dwelling place in Zion.
3 There he broke the flashing arrows,
the shields and the swords,
the weapons of war.
4 You are radiant with light,
more majestic than mountains
rich with game.
5 The valiant lie plundered,
they sleep their last sleep;
not one of the warriors can lift his hands.
6 At your rebuke, God of Jacob,
both horse and chariot lie still.
7 It is you alone who are to be feared.
Who can stand before you
when you are angry?
8 From heaven you pronounced judgment,
and the land feared and was quiet—
9 when you, God, rose up to judge,
to save all the afflicted of the land.
10 Surely your wrath against mankind
brings you praise,
and the survivors of your wrath
11 Make vows to the Lord your God
and fulfill them;
let all the neighboring lands
bring gifts to the One to be feared.
12 He breaks the spirit of rulers;
he is feared by the kings of the earth.
This psalm and the previous one can be viewed as a paired set. Psalm 75 praises God, in general, for his righteous character, and his protection in the past of his people, anticipating God’s intervention in the future. This psalm, Psalm 76, praises God for the righteous victory he brought about on behalf of his people, as Jerusalem was under siege. So, Psalm 75 can be read as a prayer for God’s deliverance; Psalm 76 as a prayer of thanks after God’s deliverance. It is good and proper to seek God in prayer at all times, at every step of the way, before, during and after every event of our lives.
We can’t be certain of which conflict or battle is commemorated in this psalm, but many commentators believe it refers to when the Assyrian king Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem (see II Kings 18:17-19:37). Before they could attack, most of the army were mysteriously and miraculously killed in the night: “That night the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!” (II Kings 19:35). Specifically, verses 5 and 6 of this psalm seem to support that the psalm specifically commemorates the siege by Sennacherib, and God’s miraculous deliverance that ended it.
In any case, though this psalm seems to commemorate a specific event, “it is a psalm proper for a thanksgiving-day, upon the account of public successes, and not improper at other times, because it is never out of season to glorify God for the great things he has done for his church formerly, especially for the victories of the Redeemer over the powers of darkness, which all those Old Testament victories were types of” [Henry, 817].
The Psalmist begins: “God is renowned in Judah; in Israel his name is great” (vs. 1). While God is revealed all over the world, to peoples of all nations, by the revelation of his great works and creation, God had made himself known in a special way to the people of Israel. He spoke directly to them; he gave them his law; he raised up prophets to instruct and guide his people; he directed his people to make a “dwelling place in Zion” (see vs. 2) for him. “It is true that God is known, or makes himself known everywhere; but it is also true that he does this in some places, and at some times, in a more marked and striking manner than he does in other places and at other times. The most clear and impressive displays of his character are among his own people,—in the church” [Barnes, 278]. “Although Judah and Israel were unhappily divided politically, yet the godly of both nations were agreed concerning Jehovah their God; and truly whatever schisms may mar the visible church, the saints always appear as one in magnifying the Lord their God” [Spurgeon, 302]. It is a supreme act of grace, and should be a source of great pride, that God chose to directly reveal himself to his people.
God not only revealed himself to the people of Israel, he chose to dwell there: “His tent is in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion” (vs. 2). “Salem” is the old, pre-Israel name of Jerusalem. The word “Salem” literally means “peace”, so by using this term for the city of God, the Psalmist reminds God’s people of the peace that could be had after God’s intervention and protection on their behalf. And if, indeed, this psalm is commemorating Jerusalem’s victory over Sennacherib, then evoking “peace” would be appropriate, because no weapon had to be raised to defeat them (Sennacherib’s army died in their sleep).
By referring to “Salem”, the Psalmist is also evoking another episode in the history of God’s people where God intervened. The only other use of the word “Salem” in the Old Testament is in Genesis 14, just after Abraham routed (with the help of God) the troops of four kings to save his nephew Lot, who was being held captive. God’s protection of his people in that episode can be compared to his same work of protection here in this psalm.
“There he broke the flashing arrows, the shields and the swords, the weapons of war” (vs. 3). God miraculously intervened on behalf of his people. Foolish they are who fight against God. Defeat is certain. Whatever mighty weapons man can shape are worthless in the face of an all-powerful God.
The Psalmist continues, speaking of God’s glory and power: “You are radiant with light, more majestic than mountains rich with game” (vs. 4). The Psalmist, in speaking of God’s “radiance” and “majesty”, seems to struggle to come up with words, in our limited human vocabulary, to describe the infinite glory and power of God.
“The valiant lie plundered, they sleep their last sleep; not one of the warriors can lift his hands. At your rebuke, God of Jacob, both horse and chariot lie still” (vss. 5-6). The strongest and bravest of men, the “valiant” and “the warriors”, are no match for God’s power. Their weakness is laughable in comparison to God’s might. God’s mere “rebuke” stills their “horses” and “chariots”. “Whatsoever strength, courage, wit, or any other point of perfection any man hath, God who gave it, can take it away when he pleaseth” [Dickson, 182]. “The best appointed armies, the most magnificent warlike preparations under God's rebuke soon come to naught” [Plumer, 736]. “With thy mighty word of command, and without any more ado, God can nod men to destruction” [Trapp, 590].
“It is you alone who are to be feared. Who can stand before you when you are angry?” (vs. 7). We fear much in this world, but it is God “alone” whom we should fear, and then trust that he can get us through any dire situation. Surely, the seeing of the army of Sennacherib stricken in their sleep would spur on the Israelites to a “fear” of the Lord. “When the Lord doth smite the wicked, he doth warn his own people to stand in awe” [Dickson, 183]. And certainly, if we would truly “fear” the Lord—be in awe of his power and might, have a deep and knowledgeable respect for his law, strive preeminently to carry out his will in our lives—our lives would be transformed for the better, for God only desires the best for us. “It would be an unspeakable mercy to this world if it were possible to bring the minds of all its inhabitants directly and powerfully under the control of the fear of God” [Plumer, 736].
The Psalmist rhetorically gives a reason for fearing the Lord: “Who can stand before you when you are angry?” (vs. 7). This is a question for any and all who dwell on earth. At some point in our existence, each and every one of us will, in effect, stand before God in judgment. And at that time, we will become painfully away that we have fallen extremely short of the holiness God prescribes, and we will realize just how much we deserve the anger of God. But God, in his great mercy, has provided away for us to “stand before him when he is angry.” If we clothe ourselves with Christ, by accepting his gift of sacrifice which paid the price of our sins, only then can we “stand before God.”
The Psalmist continues: “From heaven you pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet—when you, God, rose up to judge, to save all the afflicted of the land” (vss. 8-9). When men stand in the presence of the mighty works of God, the result is stunned silence. Here, the stunned silence occurred when “God rose up to judge, to save all the afflicted of the land.” The wording here can’t help but evoke Christ’s work, as he also “rose up,” not in judgment, but that we may escape God’s judgment. Christ too “rose up, to save all the afflicted of the land.”
“Surely your wrath against mankind brings you praise, and the survivors of your wrath are restrained” (vs. 10). The mighty works of God affect different people in different ways. The beneficiaries of it turn to “praise”, the “survivors” of it “are restrained.”
“Make vows to the Lord your God and fulfill them; let all the neighboring lands bring gifts to the One to be feared” (vs. 11). No doubt, as the great invading army surrounded Jerusalem, the Israelites made “vows to the Lord.” It is in man’s nature to turn to God in times of great distress. We say, “Lord! If you will get out of this, I will do such and such.” The Psalmist reminds the people: “Fulfill the vows.” “God keeps his promises, let not his people fail in theirs. He is their faithful God and deserves to have a faithful people” [Spurgeon, 304].
The Psalmist concludes: “He breaks the spirit of the rulers; he is feared by the kings of the earth” (vs. 12). Before the accolades of men, “rulers” have no fear, and are intoxicated with the power that they wield. Before the mighty works of God, even the most powerful rulers stand in awe and in fear. What a better place this world would be, if its “rulers” and “kings” lived in fear of the Lord.
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Alexander, Joseph Addison. The Psalms Translated and Explained. Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1864.
Barnes, Albert. Notes on the Book of Psalms. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishing, 1871.
Bonar, Andrew. Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860.
Calvin, John. A Commentary on the Book of Psalms. 3 Vols. Oxford: D. A. Talboys, 1840. (Originally published in Latin in 1557).
Clarke, Adam. The Holy Bible with a Commentary and Critical Notes. Vol. III. London: William Tegg & Co., 1854. (Originally published in 1831).
Cowles, Henry. The Psalms with Notes, Critical, Explanatory and Practical. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1872.
Darby, John Nelson. Practical Reflections on the Psalms. London: Robert L. Allan, 1870.
Delitzsch, Franz. Biblical Commentary on the Psalms. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1892. (Originally published in 1860).
Dickson, David. An Explication of the Other Fifty Psalms, from Ps. 50 to Ps. 100. Cornhill, U.K.: Ralph Smith, 1653.
Exell, Joseph S. and Henry Donald Spence-Jones, eds. The Pulpit Commentary. Vols. 17, 18, & 19. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1884.
Henry, Matthew. An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament. Vol. II. London: W. Baynes, 1806. (Originally published in 1710).
Horne, George. A Commentary on the Book of Psalms. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1854.
Jamieson, Robert; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. A Commentary: Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments. Glasgow: William Collins, Queen’s Printer, 1863.
Lange, John Peter, ed. and Philip Schaff, trans. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical. New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1865.
Perowne, J. J. Stewart. The Book of Psalms: A New Translation with Explanatory Notes. London: George Bell & Sons, 1880.
Plumer, William S. Studies in the Book of Psalms. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1872.
Spurgeon, Charles. The Treasury of David. 6 Vols. London: Marshall Brothers, Ltd., 1885.
Tholuck, Augustus; trans. by Rev. J. Isador Mombert. A Translation and Commentary of the Book of Psalms. Philadelphia: William S. & Alfred Martien, 1858.
Many of these books (those in public domain) can be downloaded free of charge from: