Theme: Faith in the midst of Calamity
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
Verses 1 and 2 form the first stanza of the psalm and at once strike the sad, wailing tone of this lament. Jerusalem has been destroyed, the temple is in ruins, and the psalmist can see no end to the wretchedness he has experienced and observed. In these verses he asks God if his rejection of his people is going to last forever (“Why have you rejected us forever, O God?”), and he asks God to remember and therefore help both his redeemed people and Jerusalem.
There is only one other psalm that is quite like this, and that is Psalm 79, which is also identified as a psalm of Asaph. Whoever they are, the two Asaphs must be the same individual, because Psalm 74 and Psalm 79 are so much alike. They use similar imagery, and both ask, “Will you be angry forever” (Pss. 74:1; 79:5)? Although different in tone, one other psalm, Psalm 137, and parts of Lamentations, especially 2:5-9, also lament the fall of Jerusalem.
While the psalm we are studying is particularly grim, we should not overlook the fact that it, too, like Psalm 73, is a psalm of faith and that this is indicated from the beginning, just as Psalm 73 both began and ended by confessing that God is good. In Psalm 74 God is asked to remember his “purchased” and “redeemed” people, that is, those he has already set apart to himself. This reminder of the electing work of God tempers the opening question and lays the groundwork for the petition still to come.
The second stanza, verses 3-8, presents a description of the ruined city, asking God to take a long look at what Israel’s enemies have done to it. What chiefly concerns the psalmist here is that they have destroyed the temple, the sanctuary where God met with his worshipers. This is the major difference between Psalm 74 and Psalm 79, which also describes the terrible ruin brought about by Israel’s enemies. In Psalm 79, Asaph worries about the people who have been scattered, imprisoned and killed. In Psalm 74 he is distressed that it is the house of God that has been devastated.
This is very vivid poetry, because we can almost visualize Asaph taking God by the hand to lead him through the twisted rubble left by the invaders. “Look, that is where they broke in,” he seems to be saying. “Over there is where they set up their military standards. This is where they attacked the carved paneling, as if they were merely hacking their way through a thicket of trees. Then they burnt the temple. Look at those ashes. That is all that is left. And then, as if the damage to the temple itself were not bad enough, they went through the whole land and destroyed every place where you were worshipped. They said, ‘We will crush them completely!’ And they have! Do you see it? Do you care?” This is a fierce complaint, bordering just possibly on impropriety as an address to God. But we should not miss the fact that it is directed to God. When we complain, it is more often the case that we just complain, either to ourselves or to other people. It is better to complain to God.
Verse 8 uses the plural to refer to “all the assemblies,” translated “every place where God was worshiped” by the New International Version. This has been used as an argument for dating the psalm from the days of the Maccabees, because we do not know of any synagogues or legalized places of worship in Israel until after the Jews returned from their seventy-year-long Babylonian exile. However, it has also been suggested that the plural might be used to denote the several parts, courts, storehouses and chambers of the one great temple. Both arguments are probably unnecessary. Although there was only one place appointed for Israel’s worship, because it alone housed the altar for the appointed burnt sacrifices, and although the formation of formal synagogues seems to date from a later time, there must, as biblical commentator J. J. Stewart Perowne says, “surely have been some public worship beyond the limits of the family, and if so, places, houses for its celebration.”1
This is what the psalmist points out for God to see. God had allowed the destruction to be total. How can there be public worship of God if there are no remaining places for worship in the land?
1J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 2, p. 28.
How is the emphasis in Psalm 74 different from that in Psalm 79?
Why can this poetry be called vivid?
What does it mean to be purchased and redeemed?
Is a structure, or building, important to worship? Why or why not?
Reflection: How does faith temper your dark days?
Dictionary: Lament: a formal expression of sorrow or mourning, especially in verse or song.