From Learning to Love the Psalms
The personal crisis of faith of the psalmist in Psalm 73 was resolved for him when he entered the temple. But the crisis of faith in Psalm 74 is a crisis for the whole nation, because the enemies of God’s people have destroyed the temple. The temple as God’s dwelling with his people and his promise of salvation seemed secure forever. That security was the promise of psalm 48. But now the temple is in ruins. The psalmist writes as if he observed the horror of the destruction: “Your foes have roared in the midst of your meeting place,” (v. 4a).
The destruction of the temple occurred at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 BC, more than four hundred years after David. This psalm must therefore be one of the later ones written for the collection of the book of psalms. Its place here near the center of the Psalter suggests that the final order of the book of psalms was settled at a rather late date. The whole Psalter seems to be arranged around the center of crisis, with Books Four and Five helping the people cope.
Even in crisis, however, Psalm 74 reminds us that the people of God never fully lose their faith. However confused they are and however distant God seems, still they cling to hope. At the center of Psalm 74, we find a strong affirmation of faith: “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the Earth,” (v. 12). No matter what the calamity, God is still king and he will bring his promised salvation to the whole world.
This faith in God as king may imply a realization that only a divine king is ultimately reliable in all the vicissitudes of history. We know that this king is Jesus, the Son of God and son of David.
Israel’s crisis evokes questions about the ways of God that are very real and important. The psalmist opens this psalm with an agonizing cry: “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?”
These questions drive the psalmist to prayer. The first response of the psalm (vv. 2-3) is prayer that asks God to remember his people and the holy hill on which he dwelt. It prays, “Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary,” (v. 3). This prayer appeals for God to come and see the devastation, but it may imply more. Perhaps the psalmist refers to the departure of the glory of God (Ezekiel 10, 11) and hopes that the Lord will return to live among his people.
In the second section, the psalmist surveys the devastation that the enemies have brought to the temple, (vv. 4-8). They desecrated the temple with their noise and their cymbals; they smashed its carving with their axes; they burned it to the ground. The psalmist then adds, “They burned all the meeting places of God in the land,” (v. 8b). This verse suggests that God was worshiped in more than one place in Judah. But God had insisted that the temple was the only place for sacrifice. This verse may mean that there were already synagogues in Judah where the faithful studied the scriptures and gathered for prayer. The origins of the synagogue are very uncertain, and here we may have an indication that they existed before the exile.
We should also notice that this psalm speaks of the temple as the place where God meets with his people, (v. 4). This reminds us that the simplest meaning of worship is meeting with God. Worship is not in the first place fellowship or instruction or evangelism. Still less is it entertainment. At the deepest level, worship is the meeting of the covenant people with their God through the means that he has ordained. The temple, of course, was a permanent expression of the tabernacle that accompanied the people through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. That tabernacle was known as the Tent of Meeting, (Exodus 33), and was the dwelling place of God among his people. The loss of this marvelous place where God met with and blessed the people is behind the misery of this psalm. When Jesus came, he became the true temple, the true meeting place of God and his people.
The next section of the psalm (vv. 9-11) returns to the kind of questions asked at the beginning. The basic question is, “How long?” How long will we be without prophet or sign? How long will the enemy mock God? How long will God withhold judgment against the wicked?
Here is a concern often repeated in the Psalter: Why does the Lord not act more promptly in response to the needs and prayers of his people? Why? First, we should notice that this questioning by the psalmist stands against the advice offered today by some well-meaning Christians who say that we should never ask why. Such advisers voice a kind of Christian stoicism, teaching that we must just grin and bear it. The psalmist, by contrast, gives strong expression to the depths of his emotions. Fear, anger, frustration – all are emotions that we find poured out in the Psalter. But we must remember that they are emotions expressed by a believer who still trusts his God. It is immediately after these questions that the psalmist asserts his faith in the words of verse 12.
The psalmist’s faith leads him on to reflect on the power of God that we see in nature, (vv. 13-17). God rules over the seas, splitting them open for his people and then closing them for the destruction of the Egyptians. God rules over the Heavenly lights and rules day and night and the seasons of the year. This power is perhaps summed up in the words, “It was you who set all the boundaries of the Earth.” This review of the power of God is meant to encourage faith: the God who sets the boundaries of nature also sets the boundaries of history. He is in charge of all that happens (this kind of reflection on the character of God revealed in creation is a frequent source of comfort in Book Four of the Psalter).
With renewed confidence, the psalmist returns to prayer, (vv. 18-23). The prayer first is that God would remember what was happening to his people. Remember how the enemy mocks you, O Lord. Remember the suffering of your afflicted people. Remember your covenant. This appeal to the covenant is an appeal to God’s own promise to save his own.
The prayer then goes on to appeal to the Lord to act. If he would remember, then he would save: “Arise, O God, defend your cause,” (v. 22a). The psalmist, of course, is not suggesting that the Lord does not know or has somehow forgotten. He does not believe that the Lord needs a reminder to help his memory. Rather, the psalmist is using expressions appropriate for human communication to pour out the intensity of his feelings and of his request. He is giving voice to his personal communion with God and praying as God commanded him to pray.
The psalm closes by returning to the theme of the noise of the enemy: “Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of those who rise against you, which goes up continually!” (v. 23) The cacophony of the wicked is a great offense of God and to his people. Their commotion drowns out the voice of the Lord that speaks in nature, (Psalm 1-4). It is a sign of the rebellion of the nations that ought to be silent before the Lord: “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the Earth!” (Psalm 46:10). Here, Psalm 74 appeals for God to arise and exalt himself in the eyes of the whole Earth. For Israel and for us, this appeal is answered ultimately in the first and second comings of Christ.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- How does Psalm 74 remind us that even in crisis, the people of God never fully lose their faith, and that however distant God seems, they still cling to hope?
- How do questions such as, “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” drive the psalmist to prayer? Why does the Lord not act more promptly in response to the needs and prayers of his people? Describe some questions that you have asked God in your prayers.
- What is the significance of this psalm’s speaking of the temple as the place where God meets with his people? How do both advents of Christ answer the appeal for God to arise and exalt himself in the eyes of the whole Earth?