Psalm 74 – Asking God to Remember His Destroyed Sanctuary
This psalm is titled A Contemplation of Asaph. It is a plea and a prayer in great sorrow from the destruction of the sanctuary (Psalm 74:3, 7). The majority of commentators believe this psalm followed the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians. Some argue that it is even later, following the desecration of the temple in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes. If these later dates are true, this Asaph is not the great singer and musician of David and Solomon’s era, unless Asaph composed this psalm prophetically, which was possible according to 1 Chronicles 25:1 and 2 Chronicles 29:30.
James Montgomery Boice explains the thinking of a later Asaph: “Either this is a later Asaph, which is not unlikely since the name might have been perpetuated among the temple musicians, or, more likely, the name was affixed to many psalms produced by this body of musicians. We know that the ‘descendants of Asaph’ were functioning as late as the reign of Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:15).”
There is another option: the Asaph of David and Solomon’s time composed this psalm on the occasion or the memory of the destruction of the tabernacle in Shiloh (1 Samuel 4). The word sanctuary used in Psalm 74:3, 7 is also used of the tabernacle (Exodus 25:8; Leviticus 12:4, 21:12; Numbers 10:21, 18:1).
A. The plea for help when the sanctuary is destroyed.
1. (1-2) Asking God to remember His people.
O God, why have You cast us off forever?
Why does Your anger smoke against the sheep of Your pasture?
Remember Your congregation, which You have purchased of old,
The tribe of Your inheritance, which You have redeemed—
This Mount Zion where You have dwelt.
a. O God, why have You cast us off forever? Asaph lived and served during the reigns of David and Solomon, which were generally times of security and blessing for Israel. Yet even within those generally good times, there were occasions of difficulty in the face of Israel’s enemies. Asaph wrote during such a season, or possibly with such a difficult time in mind. He wrote of the terrible sense that God had cast us off forever and is no longer for us.
i. This is a desperate psalm, yet “this is not the song of an atheist, but the wail of a believer.” (Morgan)
ii. “It is faith, more than doubt, that precipitates the shower of questions which begins and ends this half of the psalm.” (Kidner)
iii. “The questioner asks how God can be angry with his own people forever. He does not question the correctness of his judgment but uses the question and the lament as the basis for an appeal to God’s fatherly heart.” (VanGemeren)
iv. “When the heart is hot and restless, and it seems as though God had forsaken His own, he is a wise man who turns to God in song, even though the song be only a complaint.” (Morgan)
b. Why does Your anger smoke against the sheep of Your pasture? It wasn’t just that Asaph felt that God had stopped caring for Israel (cast us off). Added to that was the sense that God was angry at them, and in some sense working against them.
i. “This is a fierce complaint, bordering just possibly on impropriety as an address to God. When we complain it is more often the case that we just complain, either to ourselves or to other people. It is better to complain to God.” (Boice)
c. Remember Your congregation: From such despair Asaph asked God to change His apparent attitude toward Israel. It seems clear that Asaph understood that God’s indifference and anger was more in appearance than in fact; otherwise, the following appeals would be of no use.
· Asaph asked God to remember that Israel belonged to Him, and was His congregation.
· Asaph asked God to remember that Israel was His purchased people, bought out of the slave market of the nations.
· Asaph asked God to remember that Israel was His inheritance, His valued treasure.
· Asaph asked God to remember that He had purchased and redeemed Israel, and that from times of old.
· Asaph asked God to remember that He had dwelt among His people in Jerusalem (Mount Zion) in a special way.
i. We sense that Asaph thought, “If God would only remember His special care and connection with Israel, He would rescue us.” He therefore brought many reasons and appeals to God in prayer.
ii. “Pleading is wrestling: arguments are the grips, the feints, the throes, the struggles with which we hold and vanquish the covenant angel. The humble statement of our wants is not without its value, but to be able to give reasons and arguments why God should hear us is to offer potent, prevalent prayer.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Which You have purchased: “What a mighty plea is redemption. O God, canst thou see the bloodmark on thine own sheep, and yet allow grievous wolves to devour them?” (Spurgeon)
iv. Poole believed that the tribe of Your inheritance referred to “the tribe of Judah, which thou hast in a special manner chosen for thine inheritance, and for the seat of the kingdom, and for the birth of the Messiah. And thus here is an elegant gradation from the general to particulars; first the congregation, consisting of all the tribes; then the tribe of Judah.”
2. (3-7) The destruction of the sanctuary.
Lift up Your feet to the perpetual desolations.
The enemy has damaged everything in the sanctuary.
Your enemies roar in the midst of Your meeting place;
They set up their banners for signs.
They seem like men who lift up
Axes among the thick trees.
And now they break down its carved work, all at once,
With axes and hammers.
They have set fire to Your sanctuary;
They have defiled the dwelling place of Your name to the ground.
a. Lift up Your feet: Asaph asked God to run to their aid, because the sanctuary – the tabernacle or temple – had been invaded and ransacked. He hoped this would give God reason to move quickly for Israel’s good.
i. “God is represented as having withdrawn himself, and departed afar off; he is therefore entreated to return without delay, to view the long-lasting desolations of the once highly favoured city.” (Horne)
ii. We have no indication of the tabernacle or the temple being so abused by Israel’s enemies in the days of David or Solomon. Not long before David’s time, the tabernacle was overrun and ransacked at Shiloh when Eli was high priest (1 Samuel 4). There are a few different ways to explain Asaph’s description of these perpetual desolations.
· Asaph wrote of the catastrophe at Shiloh described in 1 Samuel 4, either being alive at that time or writing in the memory of it.
· Asaph wrote prophetically of a catastrophe that was still in the future.
· The Asaph who wrote this psalm was not the same Asaph associated with the reigns of David and Solomon, or this psalm came from his “school” and was written many years later.
iii. Among the far less likely possibilities are the suggestions that Asaph had only a symbolic sanctuary in mind, or that there was a devastating attack on the tabernacle or temple in the days of David and Solomon that was not recorded.
b. Your enemies roar in the midst of Your meeting place: Asaph asked God to defend His sanctuary, His tent of meeting. Those who oppose God had come with axes and hammers to destroy, and have set fire to Your sanctuary – and they destroy with furious energy.
i. Your enemies roar: “Instead of hearing the priestly benediction (Numbers 6:24-26), they heard the roaring of enemy voices.” (VanGemeren)
ii. They set up their banners up for signs: “The signs would be the military ensigns (cf. the same word in Numbers 2:2).” (Kidner)
iii. “As a Jew felt a holy horror when he saw an idolatrous emblem set up in the holy place, even so do we…when from pulpits, once occupied by men of God, we hear philosophy and vain deceit.” (Spurgeon)
iv. With axes and hammers they have set fire to Your sanctuary: Spurgeon thought of how modern critics try to destroy the church today. Their use of pretended objectivity and love of truth, ridicule, and debating tricks are like the axes and hammers that destroy a beautiful building made unto God’s glory.
3. (8-9) The destruction of places and prophets.
They said in their hearts,
“Let us destroy them altogether.”
They have burned up all the meeting places of God in the land.
We do not see our signs;
There is no longer any prophet;
Nor is there any among us who knows how long.
a. Let us destroy them altogether: Having successfully attacked the sanctuary of God, the enemies of the Lord wanted to destroy the people of God altogether. They hoped to do this when they burned up all the meeting places of God in the land.
i. The synagogue did not exist as an established institution until the Babylonian captivity. Yet it seems likely that there were meeting places of God throughout the land of Israel. When Israel was obedient, these were not places of sacrifice but places of prayer and hearing of the Scriptures. The Levites were commanded to teach Israelites the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 17:9-12, 33:10; Leviticus 10:8-11). It makes sense that there might have been meeting places of God in many communities even before the synagogue became an established institution.
ii. “It is supposed that there were no synagogues in the land till after the Babylonish captivity. How then could the Chaldeans burn up any in Judea? The word moadey, which we translate synagogues, may be taken in a more general sense, and mean any places where religious assemblies were held: and that such places and assemblies did exist long before the Babylonian captivity, is pretty evident from different parts of Scripture.” (Clarke)
iii. “Although there was only one place appointed for Israel’s worship, because it alone housed the altar for the appointed burnt sacrifices, and although the formation of formal synagogues seems to date from a later time, there must, as Perowne says, ‘surely have been some public worship beyond the limits of the family, and if so, houses for its celebration.’” (Boice)
b. We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet: The enemies of God and His people succeeded in gravely damaging the spiritual life of Israel.
i. In saying no longer any prophet and any among us, Poole thought this was some poetic hyperbole. “It is not unusual in Scripture, to say that there is none of a sort of persons or things, when there is a very great scarcity of them.” (Poole)
ii. “Our problem is not an absence of God’s Word or God’s teachers. Our problem is that we do not value this Word. We do not cherish it and study it. We do not memorize its important passages. Instead we allow countless lesser things (like television) to take the Bible’s place.” (Boice)
4. (10-11) How long?
O God, how long will the adversary reproach?
Will the enemy blaspheme Your name forever?
Why do You withdraw Your hand, even Your right hand?
Take it out of Your bosom and destroy them.
a. O God, how long will the adversary reproach? Asaph saw the destruction of the spiritual institutions and life of Israel, and with heart and logic he asked how long this low and afflicted state would last.
b. Why do You withdraw Your hand? Asaph did not lose confidence in the power or ability of God. He knew that if God put forth His hand of power against these enemies, He would destroy them.
B. The demonstration of God’s great power.
1. (12-17) Remembering the greatness of God.
For God is my King from of old,
Working salvation in the midst of the earth.
You divided the sea by Your strength;
You broke the heads of the sea serpents in the waters.
You broke the heads of Leviathan in pieces,
And gave him as food to the people inhabiting the wilderness.
You broke open the fountain and the flood;
You dried up mighty rivers.
The day is Yours, the night also is Yours;
You have prepared the light and the sun.
You have set all the borders of the earth;
You have made summer and winter.
a. God is my King from of old: Asaph meditated first on the royal authority of God and then upon His great power. The same God who divided the sea by His strength could rescue His people in the present crisis.
i. “Things could hardly be worse to the eyes of sight. Then came the declaration of what the eyes of faith beheld. In spite of all these apparent contradictions, God was seen as King, working for salvation.” (Morgan)
ii. “The man of faith is never blind to the desolation. He sees clearly all the terrible facts. But He sees more. He sees God. Therefore his last word is never desolation: it is rather salvation.” (Morgan)
b. You broke the heads of the sea serpents in the waters: In several places the Bible mentions sea serpents and Leviathan, and often in the context of creation. Usually Leviathan is considered to be a sea-monster or dragon that terrorized sailors and fishermen. Some consider these sea serpents and Leviathan real in history; others consider them to be legendary.
i. Most commentators see here remembrance of deliverance from Egypt (You divided the sea), and the references to sea serpents and Leviathan to be poetic references to Egypt. Yet this hymn of praise seems to have more references to creation (day and night, light and the sun). One can also see this as connected to creation rather than to the Exodus.
ii. In the ancient Middle East, there were many popular legends about the gods who combated different hostile deities in order to create the earth. Biblical authors showed that Yahweh is the hero. It is Yahweh who divided the sea, even though ancient legends said that Tiamat (the Deep) was the chaotic goddess defeated by the hero god Marduk (Bel), or Yam (the Sea) who was defeated by Baal. It is Yahweh who broke the heads of Leviathan in pieces, not Marduk or Baal.
iii. “The point here is that what Baal had claimed in the realm of myth, God had done in the realm of history – and done for His people, working salvation.” (Kidner)
iv. “The psalmist chose the language of Canaanite mythology to celebrate Yahweh’s victory over the nations.” (VanGemeren)
v. The name Leviathan means “twisting one” and is also used in many interesting places in Scripture.
· Psalm 74:12-14 refers to Leviathan as a sea serpent, and relates that God broke the head of the Leviathan long ago, perhaps at creation.
· Psalm 104:26 also refers to Leviathan as a sea creature.
· Isaiah 27:1 speaks of the future defeat of Leviathan, also associating it with a twisted serpent that lives in the sea.
· Isaiah 51:9 and Psalm 89:8-10 speak of a serpent associated with the sea that God defeated as a demonstration of His great strength, and identifies this serpent with the name Rahab, meaning proud one.
· Job 26:12-13 also refers to God’s piercing defeat of a fleeing serpent associated with the sea.
iv. Satan is often represented as a dragon or a serpent (Genesis 3; Revelation 12 and 13) and the sea is thought of as a dangerous or threatening place in the Jewish mind (Isaiah 57:20; Mark 4:39; Revelation 21:1). It’s possible that Leviathan is another serpent-like manifestation of Satan, whose resistance to creation was overcome.
v. It is important to note that the Hebrew Scriptures do not simply believe or adopt this Canaanite mythology; they take it and transform it, using it to exalt Yahweh in a way that the Canaanite myths never did. Elmer B. Smick notes this in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Job: “Here the sea that God subdues is not the deity Yam. Job depersonalized Yam by using the definite article (the sea), thus expressing his innate monotheistic theology…. Further, by his own wisdom, skill, and power he ‘cut Rahab to pieces’ and ‘pierced the gliding serpent,’ unlike Marduk who depended on the enablement of the father-gods.”
c. You broke open the fountain and the flood: Asaph recounted examples of God’s power and authority over nature. God has power over the waters, over day and night, and over all the seasons.
i. You: “The sevenfold repetition of the word brings forcibly into view the Divine personality and former deeds which pledge God to act now.” (Maclaren)
2. (18-21) Asking God to remember and respect His covenant.
Remember this, that the enemy has reproached, O LORD,
And that a foolish people has blasphemed Your name.
Oh, do not deliver the life of Your turtledove to the wild beast!
Do not forget the life of Your poor forever.
Have respect to the covenant;
For the dark places of the earth are full of the haunts of cruelty.
Oh, do not let the oppressed return ashamed!
Let the poor and needy praise Your name.
a. Remember this, that the enemy has reproached, O LORD: After declaring the unmatched power of God, Asaph then called upon God to take vengeance upon His enemies and to protect His people (do not deliver the life of Your turtledove to the wild beast).
i. Your turtledove: “Fitly compared to a turtle-dove, because of the great resemblance of their dispositions and conditions, being simple, and harmless, and meek, and faithful, and mournful, and exposed to manifold injuries, and unable to defend itself from them.” (Poole)
b. Have respect to the covenant: Asaph wisely and persuasively called upon God to act in view of His covenant with His people. In a dangerous world, full of the haunts of cruelty, God’s people could rely on God’s covenant promise.
i. “That which he mainly urgeth is the covenant, that hive of heavenly honey, as one calleth it.” (Trapp)
ii. “In every trial, when desiring any blessing, when the crushing blows of the adversaries’ hatchet are heard, turn to God, and say, ‘Have respect unto the covenant, of which Jesus is the Mediator and his blood the seal.’” (Meyer)
3. (22-23) Asking God to act in His own cause.
Arise, O God, plead Your own cause;
Remember how the foolish man reproaches You daily.
Do not forget the voice of Your enemies;
The tumult of those who rise up against You increases continually.
a. Arise, O God, plead Your own cause: Asaph approached God with concern for His own cause. He asked God to act not only out of compassion for His people, but also out of concern for His glory, to rebuke the foolish man who reproaches You daily.
i. “The Lord is begged to remember that he is himself reproached, and that by a mere man – that man a fool, and he is also reminded that these foul reproaches are incessant, and repeated with every revolving day. It is bravely done when faith can pluck pleas out of the dragon’s mouth, and out of the blasphemies of fools find arguments with God.” (Spurgeon)
b. The tumult of those who rise up against You increases continually: Asaph pressed the urgency of the plea. With wickedness on the increase, there was more reason for God to act sooner rather than later.
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org