Psalm 79 Words of Pain and Hope in a National Crisis

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

Psalm 79

<A Psalm of Asaph.>

1 O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2 They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3 They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.
4 We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us.
5 How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6 Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.
7 For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.
8 Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.
9 Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.
10 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes.
11 Let the groans of the prisoners come before you; according to your great power preserve those doomed to die.
12 Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord!
13 Then we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.

Most of the Psalms of Asaph in this section are likely written in the aftermath of the devastation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and emerge in a space of broken dreams and deep pain. The placement of this psalm immediately after Psalm 78, with its condemnation of Northern Israel and its belief that God’s love and protection focused on Judah and the sanctuary at Mount Zion, highlights the hopes that are now in pieces after the experience of the surviving the destruction caused after a long siege. The Davidic monarchy is shattered, the temple lies in ruins, the people are being forced into exile, and the land has languished under the violence of Babylon’s campaigns against Judah. The Babylonians have defiled the things the people of Judah believed would endure forever under God’s protection. In a space of national defeat and humiliation where God’s hand has not protected them the psalmist narrates the trauma of the survivors as they walk among unburied corpses in the shattered city calling on God for a response to the violence that has been done to them.

Prophets like Jeremiah had indicated that Babylon was God’s instrument of judgment, but the Asaph who narrates this psalm may have been one of those who would have considered Jeremiah’s words dangerous at best and traitorous at worst. Jeremiah and other prophets may have warned about the failure of the people to live according to God’s covenant with them and that their trust in the Davidic king and the temple were misplaced without this covenant faithfulness. One of the gifts of scripture is bringing together multiple voices and experiences around these critical times of crisis as the individuals and the people navigate who they are and how they are to live in the face of national disaster. This psalm comes from a place of shock, anger, and grief about the plight of the people and God’s apparent lack of action on their behalf.

The psalm tries to appeal to God’s honor and glory and the ways in which Babylon’s actions have defiled that. Instead of the peoples’ inheritance or the temple of Solomon the things that are broken are God’s. The corpse of God’s servant[1] is left unburied for the birds and wild animals to scavenge and with the imagery of the blood being poured out like water it is poetically like the Babylonians in their act of war have made a mockery of the sacrificial offerings of Judah. Now Israel itself has become the sacrifice laid upon the altar of the shattered stones of the city and no one is able to begin the process of undoing this desolation. Their situation is one of devastation and disgrace. Babylon made them an example of the cost of defiance of the might of their empire so that other nations might see and respond in fear.

Yet, the devastation has not turned the psalmist from their trust in God and it is to God they cry from their anguish. There is in the psalm an awareness that it is God’s anger that has allowed the devastation to occur and there is an awareness that God is justified in his anger over the sins of the past. Yet, in the psalmist’s view, the punishment far exceeds the crime and the license extended to the Babylonians has not brought dishonor not only to Israel but to God’s name. Moses used a similar argument after the golden calf to get God to turn away from God’s wrath towards the people, and here the psalmist appeals both to the nations’ perception of the God of Israel but also to the compassion of God that demonstrated when God responded to the cries of the oppressed in the past. They ask God to open God’s hearing to the cries of the prisoner[2] and to deliver the condemned[3] and to repay their enemies sevenfold[4] for the violence they have done and the dishonor they have done to God’s name.

The psalm ends in a place of hope where the broken people will praise God from generation to generation. Most of this psalm dwells in trauma and brokenness as the psalmist cries out in anger to God asking for vengeance but it does not end there. The hurt and pain eventually turn to praise, the deep wounds of the present heal, and the anger recedes as hope emerges out of the devastation. Times of national crisis change us. In my lifetime we thankfully have not experienced the depth of disaster that the Babylonian exile would have been, but September 11, 2001, the Covid Pandemic, the uncertainty of January 6, 2020, and many other events have caused me to cry out to God asking questions and wondering about my perception of God’s action or lack of action in these moments. Times of crisis force us to ask hard questions about our beliefs and to refine them. My instructor in Hebrew Bible two decades ago, Ann Fritschel, once said that the answer to almost any historical question in reference to the Hebrew scriptures was the Babylonian exile. That event caused both a great reconsideration of what the covenant faith in the LORD the God of Israel meant and a gathering and consolidation of the stories, poems, reflections, and words of the prophets to form the scriptures to ensure the tradition could be handed down. We stand as the inheritors of these voices that have come together to reflect upon the life of faith in both times of peace and times of conflict. These words spoken in trauma yet ending in hope may give words to our anger, grief, and mourning but they may also allow us to hope for a time when healing allows us to lift our voices in praise.

[1] This is singular in Hebrew. The Septuagint and most English translations make this plural, but it probably is used here like the servant in Isaiah which may refer collectively to Israel.

[2] Again, singular in Hebrew but also is probably used as a collective to refer to Judah.

[3] Literally the ‘sons of death’.

[4] Possibly an allusion to the words of God in protection of Cain in Genesis 4:13.

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