Prayer for the Nation!
A Maskil of Asaph.
Last week we studied Psalm 73 which dealt with a personal crisis of faith. Psalm 74 is different because it moves to the national scene and focuses on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587–86 b.c. The author is obviously not the Asaph of David’s day but a namesake among his descendants. Psalm 79 is a companion psalm, and you will find parallel passages in the book of Lamentations (4/2:6–7; 7/2:2; 9/2:6, 9) and Jeremiah (6–7/10:25; 1, 13/23:1). Even though the prophets had warned that judgment was coming (2 Chron. 36:15–21), the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple were catastrophic events that shook the people’s faith. As he surveyed the situation, Asaph moved from despair to confidence and in the end affirmed that all was not lost.
“The Lord Has Rejected Us!” (vv. 1–11)
1 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!
This was a logical conclusion anyone would draw from beholding what the Babylonians did to the city and the temple (Lam. 5:20–22). But the Lord had promised not to abandon His people (Deut. 4:29–31; 26:18–19), for they were His precious flock (77:20; 78:52; 79:13; 100:3; Num. 27:17), and after all, He was the Shepherd of Israel (80:1). Israel was the tribe of His inheritance, and the future of the Messianic promise depended on their survival. He had redeemed them from Egypt and made them His inheritance (Ex. 19:5; 34:9; Deut. 32:9), and He had come to dwell with them on Mt. Zion. The word “remember” (v. 2) doesn’t mean “call to mind,” because it’s impossible for God to forget anything. It means “to go to work on behalf of someone.” Why did God permit a pagan nation to defeat the Jews and destroy their holy city and sacred temple, and why was He doing nothing about it?
The people of Judah thought that the presence of the temple was their guarantee of security no matter how they lived, but the prophet Jeremiah refuted that lie (Jer. 7). Jeremiah even used the phrase “everlasting (perpetual) ruins” (v. 3; Jer. 25:9) and warned that the temple would be destroyed and the nation taken into captivity. Many times in the past, God had intervened to save Israel, but now He seemed to be doing nothing. Asaph prayed, “Lift up your feet! Take your hand out of your garment! Get up and plead our cause!” (vv. 1, 11, 22). Do something!
Shouting their battle cries, the Babylonian soldiers brought their pagan ensigns into the holy precincts of the temple and began to chop at the gold-covered panels of the walls (see 1 Kings 6:18–22). The sanctuary was where God had met with His people (Ex. 29:42), yet He didn’t come when they needed Him. The word “the meeting places,” in verse 8 (kjv) means “synagogues.” There were no synagogues until after the Jews returned to their land following the captivity. There was only one temple and one altar for sacrifices, but there must have been other places where the people met to be taught the Scriptures and to pray. Babylon was determined to show its power over the God of Israel. God’s messengers had already warned the leaders and the people that judgment was coming, but they refused to listen. Therefore, the Lord didn’t raise up any new prophets (Lam. 2:9). As far as the captivity was concerned, the question “How long?” (vv. 9–10) was answered by Jeremiah (25; 29:10). As far as the length of Babylon’s destroying and disgracing Israel’s capital city and temple, there was no answer. The people felt that they were cast off forever (v. 1), desolate forever (v. 3), humiliated forever (v. 10), and forgotten forever (v. 19). If we had been there, perhaps we might have felt the same way.
“The Lord Reigns!” (vv. 12–17)
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.
Verse 12 is the central verse of the psalm and the turning point in Asaph’s experience. He lifted his eyes by faith from the burning ruins to the holy throne of God in the heavens and received a new perspective on the situation. (The Asaph who wrote 73 had a similar experience. See 73:17.) No matter how discouraging his situation was, Asaph knew that God was still on the throne and had not abdicated His authority to the Babylonians. Jeremiah came to the same conclusion (Lam. 5:19) “Thou/You” is the important pronoun in this paragraph. God brings “salvations” (plural) on the earth (v. 12; see 44:4), so Asaph reviewed the “salvation works” of God in the past. The Lord orchestrated Israel’s exodus and the defeat of the “monster” Egypt (vv. 13–14; Ex. 12–15). He provided water in the wilderness (15a; Ex. 17; Num. 20) and opened the Jordan River so Israel could enter Canaan (15b; Josh. 3–4). Asaph even reached back to creation (v. 16; compare 136:7–9; Gen. 1–2) and the assignment of territory to the nations (v. 17a; Gen. 10–11; Acts 17:26). What a mighty God! What a mighty King! When the outlook is bleak, try the uplook.
“The Lord Remembers Us!” (vv. 18–23)
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!
Since righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne (89:14), it was logical for Asaph to move in his thoughts from God’s throne to God’s covenant with Israel (Lev. 26; Deut. 28–30). Asaph knew the terms of the covenant: if Israel obeyed the Lord, He would bless them; if they disobeyed, He would chasten them; if they confessed their sins, He would forgive them. If the Babylonians were mocking the Lord as they destroyed the city and temple, the Jews had mocked the prophets that God sent to them to turn them from their idolatry (2 Chron. 36:16). Israel had not honored God’s name but had turned His temple into a den of thieves (Jer. 7:11). Asaph saw the nation as a defenseless dove that had no way of escape. Had the kings and leaders listened to their prophets and led the nation back to the Lord, all this carnage and destruction would have been averted. But the Lord was paying attention to His covenant! That was why He was chastening His people. Asaph was concerned about the glory of God’s name and the survival of God’s people. It was God’s cause that was uppermost in His mind. The prophet Jeremiah had preached about the dependability of God’s covenant (Jer. 33:19–26), and Asaph was asking God to fulfill His purposes for the nation.
The nation had been ravaged, the city of Jerusalem had been wrecked, and the temple had been destroyed and burned—but the essentials had not been touched by the enemy! The nation still had Jehovah God as their God, His Word and His covenant had not been changed, and Jehovah was at work in the world! God is at work in our world today, and we need not despair.