Theme: God Will Judge
In this week’s lessons, God is displayed as the righteous Judge who demonstrates his wrath toward sinners, but mercy toward his chosen people.
Scripture: Psalm 76:1-12
In spite of the way I have handled this first stanza, using it to ask who God is and where knowledge of the true God may be found, we must not think that the subject matter of this psalm is theoretical. This is not a matter for polite debate with little or no consequences attached. According to this psalm, this true God is a righteous Judge whose wrath is constantly hanging over those who are enemies both of himself and of his people.
This is the theme of the psalm, and it is suggested even in the opening stanza, though this is not apparent in the English translation. The word translated “tent” in verse 2 is actually “lair.” (It also occurs in Psalm 10:9, where it is rendered “cover.”) Similarly, “dwelling” is used in Psalm 104:22 of a “den” of lions. This means that the picture of God in stanza one is of a lion crouching on Mt. Zion, ready to pounce. In other words, he is to be reckoned with, to be feared. This led two commentators on Psalm 76 to title it “Lion of Judah” and “The Mighty God of Judgment.”
Stanza two, which is the main body of Psalm 76, runs from verse 4 to verse 10. It has two themes which overlap each other to some degree: first, a description of a great victory in which a powerful enemy of Israel was defeated; and second, a reflection on that victory suggesting quite possibly the final judgment.
The first theme of this main body of the psalm is the defeat of some great enemy of the Jews, a defeat so complete that no one of the enemy was able even to raise a hand against them. The text says, “Valiant men lie plundered, they sleep their last sleep; not one of the warriors can lift his hands. At your rebuke, O God of Jacob, both horse and chariot lie still.”
What great defeat of Israel’s enemy was this? The Hebrew title of the poem fails to tell us, and the body of the psalm is not detailed enough to fix the occasion of this defeat with certainty. However, of the events we know about, the one that suits it best is the destruction of the invading armies of Sennacherib by the angel of the Lord, as described in 2 Kings 18, 19 and Isaiah 36, 37.
In the year 701 B.C. Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, invaded Judah and encircled Jerusalem. Hezekiah was Judah’s king. Sennacherib sent a message to him, reminding him of all the cities and nations he had subdued. They all had their gods, but their gods had not saved them, he said. Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden—all fell before him. Why should the Jews expect their God to deliver them? Why not surrender now? Hezekiah went into the temple and spread this communication before the Lord. “It is true,” he said. “The Assyrian kings have laid waste these nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by men’s hands. Now, O LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O LORD, are God” (2 Kings 19:17-19; Isa. 37:18-20).
This was a believing prayer, and God answered Hezekiah. He sent the prophet Isaiah with an announcement that the mighty army of Sennacherib would be overthrown and the king would return to Assyria as he had come. That night, we are told, “The angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there” (2 Kings 19:35, 36; Isa. 37:36, 37).
As I said earlier, nothing in Psalm 76 proves that it is the defeat of the army of Sennacherib that is referred to. However, the words fit the account well, and this is the most likely reference. The translators of the Septuagint (LXX) thought this is what was being referred to, because they added as a title to Psalm 76 the words, “concerning the Assyrian,” who is Sennacherib.
So, for that matter, did George Gordon, more commonly known as Lord Byron. He wrote one of his best-known poems on the defeat of the Assyrian armies, part of which draws on the description in Psalm 76. Byron wrote:
For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass’d;
And the eyes of the sleepers wax’d deadly and chill;
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still.
And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there roll’d not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
As cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.
And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail.
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpets unblown.
What are the consequences of ignoring God?
Give other meanings of the word “tent.”
Describe the picture given of God.
Name the two themes of verses 4-10.
Which enemy of Israel may the psalm be describing? What defeat is described?
Reflection: Reflect on a defeat you have faced. How has God answered your prayers?