<A Maskil of Asaph.>
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 acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage. Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell.
3 Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.
4 Your foes have roared within your holy place; they set up their emblems there.
5 At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes.
6 And then, with hatchets and hammers, they smashed all its carved work.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it 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 emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no one 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; why do you keep your hand in your bosom?
12 Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth.
13 You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
15 You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.
16 Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun.
17 You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.
18 Remember this, O LORD, how the enemy scoffs, and an impious people reviles your name.
19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals; do not forget the life of your poor forever.
20 Have regard for your covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
21 Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Rise up, O God, plead your cause; remember how the impious scoff at you all day long.
23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.
This is one of several places in scripture where poets and prophets wrestle, together with the rest of the people of God, over the loss of the temple and the transport into exile. Some of these reflections engage with the deep hurt and anger at the loss of their home, like Psalm 137. Others, like Jeremiah or 2 Kings, point to the unfaithfulness of the people in their relationship with God as being responsible for the disaster. Psalm 74 also attempts to make sense of the destruction and violence that has been encountered and wonders how long it will be before God acts to restore the people and fulfill God’s portion of the covenant. In the aftermath of a defeat at the hands of an enemy which has destroyed both their military resistance and the symbols of their faith the psalmist calls upon God to act and restore the people and the house where God’s name dwells.
The defeat of Jerusalem by Babylon and the destruction of the temple causes a crisis of identity for the people of Judah. The temple, more than just a building but a symbol of their faith, the Davidic king, promised to reign perpetually, and the land have all been taken away and those who have attempted to remain faithful to the covenant now have to reshape their identity without these central aspects of their life. Unlike in the prophets or in the narration of Israel’s history, there is no confession of guilt here. Perhaps the psalm comes from a place still too fresh for that type of reflection, or the psalmist may view that they and those around them have remained faithful. They do not question the justice of God’s action against the people of Judah, but they turn back to the covenant and God’s action to claim them as a people and ask for God’s restoration and forgiveness. The cause of their disaster is God’s anger and casting off of the people and their restoration can only be found in God’s turning back toward them.
The appeal is to God’s sovereignty. Although there is no confession of guilt and no declared acts of repentance the psalmist believes their enemy has gone too far. God’s anger should be kindled against them because they have burned the holy place, smashed, and vandalized the building, have placed their emblems and symbols in the places where only the name of God should dwell and have burned any place where the people could gather. The enemy’s triumph has caused not only the people of God to be scoffed, but God’s name to be dishonored. With no holy place or holy people to bear a message from God the people can only shout ‘how long’ and hope in the silence for a word from God to answer their question.
I believe that the enemies in this psalm are the Babylonians who conquered Jerusalem in 598 BCE and the language in the second half of the psalms reflects a polemic against the religion of the Babylonians that we are familiar with through the Enuma Elish where Marduk kills the great multi-headed dragon Tiamat (Leviathan) and sea monsters (dragons). In contrast it is the LORD, the God of Israel, who triumphed over the chaotic forces of the sea in the creation and who subdued the great monsters that threatened creation. This God who created the day and night, sun and stars, springs, and streams, and fixed the boundaries of the earth can act on behalf of this conquered people. The God who formed a covenant with the people in the Exodus and overcame Egypt can now overcome Babylon. The God who hears the poor and the vulnerable can now hear their cry from their oppression and will deliver. But if none of these reasons are suspicious, the psalmist calls upon God to defend God’s name from the impious who scoff at God’s power. The enemy who conquered the people has arrayed themselves against God and the people wonder aloud how long they will wait before they see God’s response to the adversaries of this generation.
Psalm seventy-four ends without a resolution and those speaking it enter into the space of waiting for God’s answer. Even in the midst of crisis the faithful ones continue the conversation with God and call upon God to act. The Babylonian exile does not end the crises that will arise for the faithful people, and this psalm has been a resource in times where national or personal identity has been challenged among the faithful. The picture above is from a memorial for the main synagogue in Munich, which was destroyed during Kristallnacht on November 10, 1938 and the center of the memorial uses Psalm 74:18 as the Jewish people would once again ask God, “how long” while an impious people in their actions destroyed the holy places of the people and in words and actions reviled the name of God.