Psalm 79 – A Prayer from Conquered Exiles
Psalm 79 is titled A Psalm of Asaph, though it was clearly written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian armies. This event was so traumatic and important in the scope of Jewish history that it is described four times in the Hebrew Scriptures: 2 Kings 25, 2 Chronicles 36:11-21, Jeremiah 39:1-14, and Jeremiah 52. Since the Asaph most prominent in the Old Testament lived and served during the reigns of King David and King Solomon, this is likely a later Asaph.
James Montgomery Boice (writing regarding Psalm 74) explains the concept 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).”
A. The devastation of Jerusalem.
1. (1-4) Jerusalem destroyed, the temple defiled.
O God, the nations have come into Your inheritance;
Your holy temple they have defiled;
They have laid Jerusalem in heaps.
The dead bodies of Your servants
They have given as food for the birds of the heavens,
The flesh of Your saints to the beasts of the earth.
Their blood they have shed like water all around Jerusalem,
And there was no one to bury them.
We have become a reproach to our neighbors,
A scorn and derision to those who are around us.
a. The nations have come into Your inheritance: The army that conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem was under the command of the king of Babylon. Yet like the armies of many ancient empires, it was made up of soldiers of many nations conquered by the Babylonians.
i. “It is the cry of amazement at sacrilegious intrusion; as if the poet were struck with horror. The stranger pollutes thine hallowed courts with his tread.” (Spurgeon)
b. Into Your inheritance: The psalmist had the land of Israel in mind with the words, Your inheritance. The conquering Babylonians came against the people of Judah, but into the land of Israel. That particular land was important to God, and therefore Asaph noted the crisis of that land being invaded by the pagan King Nebuchadnezzar and his armies.
c. Your holy temple they have defiled: The temple was holy, but now was defiled. Jerusalem once prospered, but now was laid in heaps. The servants of God were dead, and their corpses disgraced (given as food for the birds of heaven… with no one to bury them).
i. Your servants…Your saints: “Though famine, war, death, and exile were deserved punishments for Judah’s sins (Lamentation 1:8-9), the people are still spoken of as the people of God. They are called ‘your servants’ and ‘your saints.’” (VanGemeren)
ii. “To lie unburied was the final humiliation, as though one had departed unloved and of no account, as disposable as an animal.” (Kidner)
iii. “Either they denied them the honour of burial or else they mangled their dead bodies, and exercised their rage upon them, as the Papists did upon Huss and Zwinglius, and many of the English martyrs. A barbarous practice.” (Trapp)
d. We have become a reproach to our neighbors: The shocking and brutal fall of Jerusalem and Judah made the Israelites a disgrace, contemptible to the surrounding nations.
i. A scorn and derision: “To find mirth in others’ miseries, and to exult over the ills of others, is worthy only of the devil and of those whose father he is. Thus the case is stated before the Lord, and it is a very deplorable one.” (Spurgeon)
2. (5-7) A prayer to turn away the anger of God.
How long, LORD?
Will You be angry forever?
Will Your jealousy burn like fire?
Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You,
And on the kingdoms that do not call on Your name.
For they have devoured Jacob,
And laid waste his dwelling place.
a. How long, LORD: In the midst of the catastrophe of the conquest of Judah and Jerusalem, Asaph asked the question that many sufferers among God’s people ask. How long does not question the why of suffering, but in faith asks the when of suffering, and if it will last forever.
i. The disaster made Asaph question, but it did not make him an atheist. The question was still asked of God. “It was not easy to hold fast by the reality of God’s special relation to a nation thus apparently deserted, but the psalmist’s faith stood even such a strain, and is not dashed by a trace of doubt. Such times are the test and triumph of trust.” (Maclaren)
ii. “The very fact of the song is a revelation of the underlying confidence in God. In distress the heart seeks its way back to some hiding place, and finds it in the name of God.” (Morgan)
b. Will you be angry forever? Asaph expressed the heart of the devastated people of Judah after the fall of Jerusalem. In the years of Jeremiah’s ministry many false prophets had told them that deliverance would come. Because they ignored God’s true messenger (Jeremiah), judgment came upon His people and they were completely unprepared for it.
i. The good news was that God’s anger and jealousy would not burn against His people forever. Jeremiah foretold the judgment to come, but he also told of restoration that would follow.
c. Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You: God would answer Asaph’s prayer in time, when judgment came upon the Babylonian Empire and they were conquered by the Medes and Persians. Babylon devoured Jacob and was in turn devoured.
i. Verses 6 and 7 are remarkably similar to Jeremiah 10:25. It’s possible that Jeremiah influenced the author of this psalm.
ii. His dwelling place: Some take this as a reference to the temple, which was certainly destroyed in the conquest of Jerusalem. Yet it is more likely that it refers to the land of Israel itself, previously referred to as God’s inheritance (verse 1).
B. The plea for rescue.
1. (8-10) Rescue us for Your glory.
Oh, do not remember former iniquities against us!
Let Your tender mercies come speedily to meet us,
For we have been brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation,
For the glory of Your name;
And deliver us, and provide atonement for our sins,
For Your name’s sake!
Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Let there be known among the nations in our sight
The avenging of the blood of Your servants which has been shed.
a. Do not remember former iniquities against us: Speaking on behalf of the exiled survivors, Asaph humbled himself before God and admitted their sin against Him. They could no longer deny their sin; instead they could plead for forgiveness and for God’s tender mercies to come speedily.
i. “The people were suffering the destruction of their entire civilization – politically, economically, socially, and religiously. Yet there is not the slightest suggestion that they did not actually deserve it, or that they did not deserve it continuing as long as it had.” (Boice)
ii. The concept of former iniquities suggests a principle. “Sins accumulate against nations. Generations lay up stores of transgressions to be visited upon their successors; hence this urgent prayer.” (Spurgeon)
b. For we have been brought very low: Before they were brought very low, they did not humbly repent. Now they were in the place to do it.
c. For the glory of Your name: Asaph wisely appealed to the glory of God in his prayer for help. The glory of Judah and Jerusalem had been shattered, yet God might move for His people in the interest of His own glory.
d. Provide atonement for our sins: This was another appropriate and wonderful confession of sin and dependence upon God for His atonement. Asaph knew that any man-made atonement would be useless; God must provide atonement for our sins.
i. Provide atonement for our sins: When the psalmist prayed this, the temple and the altar were destroyed. The normal sacrifices were impossible. He looked for a greater atonement that God Himself would provide (Genesis 22:8-14).
e. Where is their God? Asaph made a slightly different appeal, still with an eye to God’s glory. Asaph considered the custom of the avenging of the blood in his ancient culture, where the murder of a family member would be answered by the work of the goel, the avenger of blood. He asked God to put the nations to silence and display His active presence by acting as the avenger of blood on behalf of His people.
i. Where is their God? “So Turks at this day (when they have the better of Christians) cry, Where is the Christian’s God?” (Trapp)
ii. “The singer sees God reigning and working salvation, but the nations cannot see this. Their only proof of God is that of the prosperity of His people. In the hour of their adversity the nations will say, Where is their God?” (Morgan)
iii. “Prayer is therefore here made by the faithful, that God, not to gratify any vindictive spirit of theirs, but to vindicate his own attributes, would break the teeth of the oppressor, and work a public and glorious salvation for his chosen.” (Horne)
2. (11-12) Have mercy on the condemned.
Let the groaning of the prisoner come before You;
According to the greatness of Your power
Preserve those who are appointed to die;
And return to our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom
Their reproach with which they have reproached You, O Lord.
a. Let the groaning of the prisoner come before You: Asaph considered the misery of his many countrymen who were prisoners in Babylon, asking God to hear their groaning and to act on their behalf.
i. “At the time of the Exodus, God had seen the affliction of his people and had heard their groanings (Exodus 2:24; 6:5). The people in exile were not unlike those in Egypt. They too groaned for the moment of their deliverance.” (VanGemeren)
b. Preserve those who are appointed to die: Asaph then considered those among the exiles in Babylon who were condemned to death, and asked that God preserve them.
i. Clarke says those who are appointed to die is literally “‘…sons of death.’ Either those who were condemned to death because of their crimes, or condemned to be destroyed by their oppressors. Both these senses apply to the Israelites: they were sons of death, i.e., worthy of death because of their sins against God; they were condemned to death or utter destruction, by their Babylonish enemies.” (Clarke)
c. Return to our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom: Asaph’s final request was that God deal with their conquerors with both justice and vengeance, returning to them sevenfold the agony they inflicted upon Judah and the same reproach they directed toward God Himself.
i. Sometimes sevenfold is simply a way of saying abundantly or in great measure (Genesis 4:15, Isaiah 30:26).
ii. “They denied thine existence, mocked thy power, insulted thy worship, and destroyed thy house; up, therefore, O Lord, and make them feel to the full that thou art not to be mocked with impunity. Pour into their laps good store of shame because they dared insult the God of Israel.” (Spurgeon)
3. (13) A vow to give thanks.
So we, Your people and sheep of Your pasture,
Will give You thanks forever;
We will show forth Your praise to all generations.
a. Your people and sheep of Your pasture: After praying for rescue, protection, and vengeance, Asaph ended this psalm with grateful dependence upon God. He properly recognized God’s place as Shepherd over His people and sheep.
b. We will give You thanks forever: As grateful sheep, they would declare their thanks and praise both now and in the future.
i. “This is rather a faith-filled anticipation of a brighter, future day when God’s people will once again praise him with full hearts and with fresh memories of what he has done for them.” (Boice)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org