I think it’s hard for us to understand what a horrific event this was. Maybe it would be akin to some foreign nation ransacking our country and burning Washington, D.C. to the ground. Enough of us view America as protected by God that the comparison could be apt. But, unlike America, Israel actually had reason to believe God was protecting them and, further, they assumed he would never abandon Jerusalem, the home of his temple. For the country to be leveled, Jerusalem sacked and the temple destroyed would have been shattering, notwithstanding the subsequent deportation of the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens hundreds of miles to Babylon.
Needless to say, Psalm 74, written in this context, asks God some hard questions:
1 God, why have you abandoned us forever?
Why does your anger smolder at the sheep of your own pasture?
2 Remember your congregation that you took as your own long ago,
that you redeemed to be the tribe of your own possession—
remember Mount Zion, where you dwell.
3 March to the unending ruins,
to all that the enemy destroyed in the sanctuary.
4 Your enemies roared in your own meeting place;
they set up their own signs there!
5 It looked like axes raised
against a thicket of trees.
6 And then all its carvings
they hacked down with hatchet and pick.
7 They set fire to your sanctuary, burned it to the ground;
they defiled the dwelling place of your name.
8 They said in their hearts, “We’ll kill all of them together!”
They burned all of God’s meeting places in the land.
9 We don’t see our own signs anymore.
No prophet is left.
And none of us know how long it will last.
10 How long, God, will foes insult you?
Are enemies going to abuse your name forever?
11 Why do you pull your hand back?
Why do you hold your strong hand close to your chest?
The psalmist then turns abruptly to the quality and character of God, specifically his power, and he does so by telling a creation myth, one different from the myths told in Genesis 1-2 yet no less striking.
Note especially the water-based imagery, which is something about which I’ll post more later. But one of the themes of the Old Testament is God’s battle with water, which in the ancient Near East was representative of chaos and uncreation. Gen. 1:1 describes a pre-created world covered by water. God destroys the world with the waters of uncreation in Genesis 7, he leads his people safely through the water in Exodus 14. Our creative God tames chaos, and doing so requires an immense amount of raw, unchecked power.
12 Yet God has been my king from ancient days—
God, who makes salvation happen in the heart of the earth!
13You split the sea with your power.
You shattered the heads of the sea monsters on the water.
14 You crushed Leviathan’s heads.
You gave it to the desert dwellers for food!
15 You split open springs and streams;
you made strong-flowing rivers dry right up.
16 The day belongs to you! The night too!
You established both the moon and the sun.
17 You set all the boundaries of the earth in place.
Summer and winter? You made them!
The psalmist now has a dilemma. God is all-powerful, powerful enough to defeat the monsters of chaos and create the world, yet his temple is destroyed and his people scattered. The unspoken question remains: Why? Ultimately, the psalmist chooses not to answer this question, either because he cannot or chooses not to. Instead, he unleashes a primal cry for vengeance:
18 So remember this, LORD: how enemies have insulted you,
how unbelieving fools have abused your name.
19 Don’t deliver the life of your dove to wild animals!
Don’t forget the lives of your afflicted people forever!
20 Consider the covenant!
Because the land’s dark places are full of violence.
21 Don’t let the oppressed live in shame.
No, let the poor and needy praise your name!
22 God, rise up! Make your case!
Remember how unbelieving fools insult you all day long.
23 Don’t forget the voices of your enemies,
the racket of your adversaries that never quits.
So the psalm ends. No resolution. No words of praise, like we find in other psalms of lement. Simply confusion and a desperate call: Don’t forget us forever! Consider the covenant! Rise up! Make your case!
And the only response is none at all.