Will you be angry for ever? — Psalm 79:5

Psalm 79 — Psalms of Asaph

This psalm, attributed to Asaph is clearly not by the worship leader from the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, the events are too late. Unlike previous psalms with Asaph’s name this does mentioned the Temple and Jerusalem in ruins. The destruction of the Temple when Judah was taking into exile in Babylon is the most likely contender for the psalms context, even though the exile was not mentioned, others being the reigns of Queen Athaliah and King Manasseh.

Whenever this psalm was written the kingdom of Judah were serial offenders against God.

Solomon’s Temple and the Temple Mount
picture from Wikimedia Commons

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 reply. The Psalms of Asaph, Psalms 50 and 73–83 are both communal laments and words of prophesy.

Psalm 79

A psalm of Asaph.

O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance;
    they have defiled your holy temple,
    they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.
They have left the dead bodies of your servants
    as food for the birds of the sky,
    the flesh of your own people for the animals of the wild.
They have poured out blood like water
    all around Jerusalem,
    and there is no one to bury the dead.
We are objects of contempt to our neighbours,
    of scorn and derision to those around us.

How long, Lord? Will you be angry for ever?
    How long will your jealousy burn like fire?
Pour out your wrath on the nations
    that do not acknowledge you,
on the kingdoms
    that do not call on your name;
for they have devoured Jacob
    and devastated his homeland.

Do not hold against us the sins of past generations;
    may your mercy come quickly to meet us,
    for we are in desperate need.
Help us, God our Saviour,
    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?’

Before our eyes, make known among the nations
    that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants.
11 May the groans of the prisoners come before you;
    with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die.
12 Pay back into the laps of our neighbours seven times
    the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord.
13 Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture,
    will praise you for ever;
from generation to generation
    we will proclaim your praise.

Psalm 79 NIV UK

In Les Miserables, Valjean is sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. Because he keeps on escaping he winds up serving 19 years. Victor Hugo made this injustice one of the main plot elements in his novel. Even at 5 years the sentence is excessive with regard to the crime. God’s law, given to the Jews, was far more lenient. The maximum sentence for theft, except in the case of livestock, was twice the cost of whatever was stolen. If God’s laws had applied in France, the most that Valjean should have been sentenced to was the cost of two loaves, plus twice the cost of repairing the window he broke to steal the bread.

God’s law never speaks about the sentence exceeding the crime. In the case of theft you pay back what you stole and then are fined an equal amount. Or less, there is always room for leniency, our God is a forgiving God. So what are we to make of this psalms call for God to repay 7 times on Judah’s oppressors?

The song is a lament. We hear both sorrow and anger in these words, the anger is not restrained, nor should it be, we need to listen not only to the words of what people say but also to their anger. These days the biggest problem is not protesters Black Lives Matter protests, but refusal of people to listen to them because they are angry, often the people who have angered them. Angry people often exaggerate, this is understandable where being reasonable is easily dismissed. There is more to this psalm, however than angry ranting and hyperbole.

It is confession as well. “Do not hold against us the sins of past generations;” says the psalmist,recognising and admitting to his countries failures. Any moving forward from a setback needs an objective, realistic looking back at the cause of the failure and to own your mistakes and those of a group you are part of, even if you were not responsible.

This psalm is a companion to the previous one, Psalm 78 was about the historical disobedience of the Israelites in the desert, this psalm is a continuation of that to the psalmists own day. Still they disobey.

The words of confession come in the middle of a bleak psalm. Penitence, as always, clears the road for hope to travel.

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