Theme: The Psalm’s Historical Setting
In this week’s lessons we see the need for continual trust and worship, even during times of trouble and uncertainty.
Scripture: Psalm 74:1-23
Singing of the psalms was extremely important to the Huguenots, those persecuted Protestants who were driven out of France in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The power of the psalms to bless and fortify them must have been especially feared by their persecutors, for under Louis XIII and Louis XIV many edicts were passed forbidding the use of the Psalter. These brave people, however, merely hid their books while carrying on their singing in mountain caves or forests, since they knew the psalms by heart.
One psalm from which they gained particular strength was Psalm 74. In 1686, one year after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which removed their protection under the earlier laws of France, the Protestants of Vaud were driven from their homes and dispossessed of their property. They crossed the Alps, many dying on the way, and at last entered Geneva, the City of Refuge. There, their voices choked by exhaustion and misery, they sang the opening verses of this psalm, while scores of refugees who had already reached Geneva as the result of earlier persecutions joined in.
Three years later, in 1689, the same psalm was chanted in triumph by seven hundred of these exiles who, led by their pastor, Henri Arnaud, had fought their way back to their homes. When they met at last in their own homeland in one of their own churches the joy and enthusiasm were inexpressible, and once again Psalm 74 was sung.1
One of the problems every interpreter faces when coming to the psalms is to try to find an historical context for them. This is not always easy, even when an historical context is indicated, as it often is in the psalms’ titles. Psalm 74 has no historical reference, although there can be little doubt about the setting. It is the state of Jerusalem after its fall to the armies of Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.
The important point is the destruction of Jerusalem, which is referred to pointedly and poignantly. This fits the time of the Babylonian invasion nicely. Yet some scholars feel that a setting in the time of the Maccabees, when the temple was desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes, is more accurate. One of the arguments for this later period is that Psalm 74:9 says that “no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.” These scholars point out that Jeremiah and Ezekiel were still living after the city’s fall and that Jeremiah had prophesied clearly that the captivity would last seventy years (Jer. 25:11; 29:10).
In my judgment these are not decisive arguments. When Jerusalem fell Jeremiah was himself carried off to Babylon and in that sense was no longer around. And how many would have known his prophecy regarding the seventy years? What should be decisive is that Antiochus Epiphanes did not destroy the temple, but only profaned it, and Psalm 74 is clearly about the sanctuary’s destruction.2
The only thing that is really puzzling about the title of Psalm 74 is that it is called “a maskil of Asaph.” The Asaph we know was a contemporary of David,3 and he obviously did not live until the early sixth century B.C., when Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Therefore, either this is a later Asaph, which is not unlikely since the name might have been perpetuated among the temple musicians, or, which is more likely, the name was affixed to many psalms produced by this body of musicians. We know that the “descendants of Asaph” were functioning as late as the reign of Josiah (2 Chron. 35:15).
Whoever he was, this writer grieved for the fallen city and its temple, and in this psalm cries out passionately to God to hear, answer and move to reestablish his fallen but covenanted people. For us, Psalm 74 is a helpful prayer model. It is direct, passionate and honest, as the prayers of Asaph tend to be. But the prayer is also respectful and wise. Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote, “We have here before us a model of pleading, a very rapture of prayer. It is humble, but very bold, eager, fervent and effectual. The heart of God is always moved by such entreaties.”4
1See Rowland E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1904), pp. 217, 218.
2For a fuller discussion of this problem, see Alexander Maclaren, The Psalms, vol. 2, Psalms 39-89 (New York: A. C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), pp. 349, 350; J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 2, pp. 22, 23; and Marvin E. Tate, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 20, Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word, 1990), pp. 246, 247.
3For more information on Asaph, see the introduction to Psalm 73 in the August 1994 issue of God’s Word Today.
4Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 2a, Psalms 58-87 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), pp. 275, 276.
Why does Dr. Boice not believe that the historical setting for this psalm is that of the Maccabean period?
Who is Asaph? From the study, what explanation is given for how the psalm’s ascription to Asaph would fit with the historical setting?
What qualities of Psalm 74 enable it to function as a prayer model for us?
Application: How is the experience of the Huguenots like the suppression of Christian expression in our culture?
For Further Study: In good times and bad, we can trust God to work out his perfect will for us. And in the Psalms we see moving examples of ways in which God’s people suffer, and how God acts in faithfulness and mercy. If you would like to have James Boice’s complete three-volume study on the Psalms, it is available at the special price of 25% off the regular price.