At first sight this war song is one praising God for victory. But look at the context: The tabernacle is in Salem (later renamed Jerusalem) which dates it to David’s reign or early Solomon. From the bringing of the arc to Salem in 2 Samuel 6 to the finishing of the temple the arc of the covenant was in a tent to the design of the tabernacle that came from Sinai to the promised land in the Exodus.
Psalm 76 — Psalms of Asaph
Asaph had a long career. Appointed by David as one of the chief musicians in the Temple, and still serving under Solomon. Asaph’s role was prophetic, his job was to listen to the prayers concerns and laments of the people, and to give God’s relpy. The Psalms of Asaph, Psalms 50 and 73–83 are both communal laments and words of prophesy
For the director of music. With stringed instruments. A psalm of Asaph. A song.
1 God is renowned in Judah;
in Israel his name is great.
2 His tent is in Salem,
his dwelling-place in Zion.
3 There he broke the flashing arrows,
the shields and the swords, the weapons of war.
4 You are radiant with light,
more majestic than mountains rich with game.
5 The valiant lie plundered,
they sleep their last sleep;
not one of the warriors
can lift his hands.
6 At your rebuke, God of Jacob,
both horse and chariot lie still.
7 It is you alone who are to be feared.
Who can stand before you when you are angry?
8 From heaven you pronounced judgment,
and the land feared and was quiet –
9 when you, God, rose up to judge,
to save all the afflicted of the land.
10 Surely your wrath against mankind brings you praise,
and the survivors of your wrath are restrained.
11 Make vows to the Lord your God and fulfil them;Psalm 76 NIV UK
let all the neighbouring lands
bring gifts to the One to be feared.
12 He breaks the spirit of rulers;
he is feared by the kings of the earth.
This psalm was recited on the 1st day of Sukkot, the feast of tabernacles, the psalm is a prayer thanking God for victory and looking forward to God’s final victory. There were many victories in the time of David, to which this could apply, but I find significance in the use of the name Salem for Jerusalem. This polnts to a defeat. The reason the ark of the covenant was in Salem was because the people had asked for the ark to be present with the army in battle against the Philistines. 1 Samuel chapter 4 tells of how the ark was brought from Shiloh to be with the Israelite army, but that did not make any difference, the Israelites suffered an even bigger defeat with significant losses and the ark was captured.
The ark, where God was physically present made no difference. Nowhere in the passage did God or a prophet of God say that the ark was to be present with the army, in bringing the ark out to the battle was disobedience and superstition. Asaph, a worship leader at the (Jeru)Salem tabernacle and later the temple would have been aware of this recent history when he wrote, ‘It is you alone who are to be feared.’ This song is about the victory of God on behalf of his people and not the victory of the people on behalf of God. We cannot just add the name of God to what we are doing and expect success, we need to be doing God’s will to share in his victory.
Matthew Henry in his commentary has the psalm divided into four sections:
- I. The psalmist congratulates the happiness of the church in having God so nigh (v. 1-3).
- II. He celebrates the glory of God’s power, which this was an illustrious instance of (v. 4-6).
- III. He infers hence what reason all have to fear before him (v. 7-9). And,
- IV. What reason his people have to trust in him and to pay their vows to him (v. 10-12).
I find Henry’s use of ‘church’ for the Israelites quaint.
In the Greek Septuagint version of the psalm there are additional words in the introduction, “regarding the Assyrian” which has led some to believe that this was written by someone at the tome of King Hezekiah using Asaph’s name. While this is possible the Hebrew use of repetition in poetry would have Asaph referring to Judah and Israel as the same thing. When the Assyrian King Sennacherib was attacking Judah, Israel had fallen. “In Israel [God’s] name is great” does not sound like suitable words to commemorate a defeat, not would Judah and Israel be used for the same thing in those times.
But putting this psalm in the time of Asaph, in the reigns of David and Solomon has another problem, Judah and Israel became separate countries after the reign of Solomon, how could this be by Asaph? But 2 Samuel 2 and 3 tells of civil was at the beginning of David’s reign, the tribe of Judah announced David as king whilst Israel announced Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth as king. David’s men win the conflict. To announce Judah and Israel are the same fits with being a uniting political statement that fits in with David’s reign To say, “God is renowned in Judah; in Israel his name is great.” is saying that ut is God and not David that unites the country.
Whenever the psalm was written and whoever wrote it, I believe we should see the praise here. praising God for a victory but stopping short of sabre rattling. God is the bringer of peace, the destroyer of the weapons of the enemy, the arrows, shields swords and weapons of war.