Today was another Hebrew readings group. This time Psalm 74. It’s a Psalm with some tricky verses, but the general theme is pretty clear.
74 A Maskil of Asaph.
O God, why do you cast us off forever?
Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?
2 Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old,
which you have redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage!
Remember Mount Zion, where you have dwelt.
3 Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins;
the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary!
4 Your foes have roared in the midst of your meeting place;
they set up their own signs for signs.
5 They were like those who swing axes
in a forest of trees.
6 And all its carved wood
they broke down with hatchets and hammers.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they profaned the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it down to the ground.
8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”;
they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.
9 We do not see our signs;
there is no longer any prophet,
and there is none among us who knows how long.
10 How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
Is the enemy to revile your name forever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the fold of your garment and destroy them!
These were the verses we read today. The way in which the Psalmist addresses God struck me. He is unafraid to question: “Why have you rejected us?” He calls on God to act: “Remember your people!” And he calls on God to come and see: “Direct your steps!” He wants God to come and look at the desecration of the sanctuary, at the way the enemy has scoffed at God and mocked his name. The silence and inaction of God moves the Psalmist to urgent prayer. I’m irrevererantly reminded of my eldest’s frantic cries “Daddy! come quickly! Daddy he’s destroying my bridge/tunnel/traintrack” – when I can hear exactly what is going on – but he wants action, he wants order restored. It’s reassuring to think that even if I pray out of a similar panic at life’s chaos God will still listen and act.
It’s easy to think that the Psalmist is overdoing it. Perhaps he has forgotten, maybe he doesn’t know, that God promised judgement on the people’s disobedience. But that would be to jump to conclusions. Plenty of disasters happened to Israel and Judah that caught innocent lives up with the guilty. Plenty of times it seemed like the land was ruined. It is even conceivable that this Psalm comes during a time when the King is apostate, and himself playing the role of an enemy. Maybe a godly person could have prayed some such prayer as this during the reign of Manasseh or similar?
The point is that the land is a state of ruin, that God’s places of worship are desecrated and God is doing nothing. Another rationalisation in such times is that perhaps God can’t really do anything. Perhaps his hands are tied and he is powerless for one reason or another. Asaph knows better. He knows God’s right hand is powerful, powerful enough to destroy, because it is the hand that created the world and rescued out of Egypt. Here are the next lines:
12 Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
13 You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
15 You split open springs and brooks;
you dried up ever-flowing streams.
16 Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.
17 You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth;
you have made summer and winter.
God is the God who has power over the chaos of the water, the God who creates order and rhythm. This is the creator God who works salvation. He brings out of the chaos a new order. And so inspired by this the prayer continues:
18 Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and a foolish people reviles your name.
19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild beasts;
do not forget the life of your poor forever.
20 Have regard for the covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence.
21 Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Arise, O God, defend your cause;
remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!
23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes,
the uproar of those who rise against you, which goes up continually!
Maybe I should take a lesson or two in prayer from Asaph. It is OK to question. Asking God to come and have a look is a legitmate request. Asking him to roll up his sleeves and take action is part of our prayers. In the midst of all this do not forget v12-17 – God is King from of old. From everlasting to everlasting he is God, and he is the King who has power.
And remarkably he is also the God who does indeed come down to see. His feet have trodden this earth. He has personal knowledge of mocking and torture. As we pray to this God let us remember that he not only receives and welcomes our cries to him, but he knows from our side tears and scars. That should encourage us all the more to pray and cry out to God in our personal lives, and as we look on our church and world today.
A different way to pray the Psalm would be with this hymn of Isaac Watts based on Psalm 74:
Will God for ever cast us off?
His wrath for ever smoke
Against the people of his love,
His little chosen flock?
Think of the tribes so dearly bought
With their Redeemer’s blood;
Nor let thy Zion be forgot,
Where once thy glory stood.
Lift up thy feet and march in haste,
Aloud our ruin calls;
See what a wide and fearful waste
Is made within thy walls.
Where once thy churches prayed and sang,
Thy foes profanely roar;
Over thy gates their ensigns hang,
Sad tokens of their power.
How are the seats of worship broke!
They tear the buildings down,
And he that deals the heaviest stroke
Procures the chief renown.
With flames they threaten to destroy
Thy children in their nest;
“Come, let us burn at once,” they cry,
“The temple and the priest.”
And still, to heighten our distress,
Thy presence is withdrawn;
Thy wonted signs of power and grace,
Thy power and grace are gone.
No prophet speaks to calm our woes,
But all the seers mourn;
There’s not a soul amongst us knows
The time of thy return.
How long, eternal God, how long
Shall men of pride blaspheme?
Shall saints be made their endless song,
And bear immortal shame?
Canst thou for ever sit and hear
Thine holy name profaned?
And still thy jealousy forbear,
And still withhold thine hand?
What strange deliv’rance hast thou shown
In ages long before!
And now no other God we own,
No other God adore.
Thou didst divide the raging sea
By thy resistless might,
To make thy tribes a wondrous way,
And then secure their flight.
Is not the world of nature thine,
The darkness and the day?
Didst thou not bid the morning shine,
And mark the sun his way?
Hath not thy power formed every coast,
And set the earth its bounds,
With summer’s heat, and winter’s frost,
In their perpetual rounds?
And shall the sons of earth and dust
That sacred power blaspheme?
Will not thy hand that formed them first
Avenge thine injured name?
Think oh the cov’nant thou hast made,
And all thy words of love;
Nor let the birds of prey invade,
And vex thy mourning dove.
Our foes would triumph in our blood,
And make our hope their jest;
Plead thy own cause, Almighty God,
And give thy children rest.