Theme: How Long?
In this week’s lessons we learn that when hard times come, we are to wait upon and praise the Lord with expectant hope.
Scripture: Psalm 79:1-13
The next two stanzas (vv. 5-8 and 9-12) are best if they could be taken together, for they contain the substance of Asaph’s prayer to God following the lament in verses 1-4. They ask different questions. The first asks, “How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever? How long will your jealousy burn like fire” (v. 5)? This is the same question that was asked in Psalm 74:10. It emphasized the “forever.” The next stanza asks, “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” (v. 10).
But these questions are actually both appeals for God to help his people and punish their enemies, and the stanzas make these points jointly. There are four important questions, confessions or statements in these verses. We will look at the first two today.
1. How long will this punishment last? This is the big question, and it dominated Psalm 74 as well. In fact, it is often the question asked by God’s suffering or persecuted people. They do not complain that their treatment by God is unjust. They know they are sinners, and they know they have sinned repeatedly in thought, word and deed. They know that God has been merciful to them even in his judgments. That is, they have suffered much less than they actually deserve. God is merciful. Still they are hurting, and they are hoping that the punishment will not go on much longer. “How long, O LORD?” is their agonizing question.
Those who are innocent victims of persecution ask this question. The martyrs mentioned in the sixth chapter of Revelation ask: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood” (Rev. 6:10)?
Saint Augustine asked it during the hours of his deepest soul struggles prior to his conversion, probably quoting this very psalm. He had retired into a far corner of the garden of a friend’s estate in Milan, Italy, under great conviction, knowing the truth but yet being unable in himself to break with his old life of sin and commit himself to Jesus Christ. Here is how he describes it: “I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much unto thee: And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, Lord, wilt thou be angry for ever? [This is where he quotes Psalm 79.] Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them.”
It was immediately after this that Augustine heard the voice of a child singing the words Tolle lege! Tolle lege! (“Take up and read”), which he did. He picked up a Bible, which was there in the garden, opened it at random and came upon these words from Romans 13: “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (vv. 13, 14). Augustine did turn to Christ and was marvelously converted.1
The hand of God often does seem heavy upon us, and his workings in our lives seem slow. But it is not forever! Remember that. And it will not be more than you can bear (see 1 Cor. 10:13). So hang on. Trust God. The time will come when you will be able to praise him once again.
2. It is time to punish those who punished us. Whenever the Psalms ask God to punish the people’s enemies, we get uneasy because we have been taught to forgive our enemies and pray for those who use us badly (Matt. 5:38-47). We should feel uneasy, especially when we come upon language that is intemperate. We are told to be forgiving.
But we should remember two things. First, we err on the side, not of being too harsh with those who practice evil, but of being too lax. We treat both virtue and vice lightly, forgetting that virtue should be rewarded and that evil should be punished. So we are not so much more moral than these ancient Jews, as amoral. At least they were concerned about justice; we are not. Second, we need to remember that regardless of the attitude we take, justice is going to be done. God sees the evil and he will punish it. The blood of the martyrs will be avenged. Every good and evil deed will receive their different but most appropriate rewards.
Although this is indeed an age of grace, an age in which to proclaim the gospel of God’s free salvation from sin through the work of Jesus Christ, we should remember that it is not endless. Judgment will be done. Therefore, we should both warn people of this judgment and be diligent in taking the gospel to those who are without it.
1Saint Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. Edward B. Pusey, The Harvard Classics Millennium Edition (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1993), pp. 141, 142.
Why might the sufferers not complain of unjust treatment?
Why do the innocent ask “How long”?
How do forgiveness and punishment go together?
Reflection: List times God has lifted his judgment from you. In what ways were the people of this psalm more concerned with justice than you might be?
Key Point: The hand of God often does seem heavy upon us, and his workings in our lives seem slow. But it is not forever! Remember that. And it will not be more than you can bear (see 1 Cor. 10:13). So hang on. Trust God. The time will come when you will be able to praise him once again.