Old Testament Exegetical: Psalm 74 Essay, Research Paper
Old Testament Exegetical Paper: Psalm 74
For my Old Testament exegetical paper I have chosen Psalm 74. This passage was hard for me to read because it rebukes God for letting temples and other holy places be destroyed. In this paper I hope to gain a better understanding of this chapter. I will define two terms that I find to be key to understanding this passage. Reading two commentaries on Psalm 74 I will discuss the authorship, date and place of writing, audience and purpose of this passage.
The term congregation is defined by The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary as a gathering of various types. More specifically congregation is defined as the popular assembly or the Israelite religious community (Meyers 232). The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible says that congregation expresses the assembly of the people of Israel (Carey 939). Congregation is used 138 times in the Old Testament (Kohlenberger 265).
I examined five other passages outside of Psalms to try to gain a better understanding of the term. All the passages I Kings 8, 2 Chronicles 5, 7, 24, and Ezra 10 use the term congregation to describe a specific group of people. Ezra 10 is the only passage that does not use congregation to describe the people of Israel.
The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible defines deliver as the saving, rescuing, redeeming, or setting free of material and temporal things, but also of spiritual and eternal things (Barker 89). W. R. F. Browning uses deliverance to describe the saving of God’s people, as well as the giving over of traditions (96). In the Old Testament the word deliver or one of its derivatives is used 107 times, predominantly in Psalms (Kohlenberger 319).
I read Genesis 32, Exodus 3, Deuteronomy 32, Amos 6, and Micah 5 to find out how the term is used in other passages throughout the Bible. In Genesis 32 Jacob uses deliver as a plea. He says, “Deliver me, please, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him.” God uses deliver to describe his preserving of the Israelites from Egypt in Exodus 3. However in Deuteronomy 32 God uses deliver to say that no one can be saved from his judgment. Micah 5 uses a metaphor with a young lion amongst the sheep with no one to deliver or save the sheep. God refuses to protect the inhabitants of earth from evil in Zechariah 11.
Derek Kidner breaks Psalm 74 down into 5 parts. Verses 1 – 3 deal with the cast-off heritage, 4 – 8 speak of the pillaged temple, verses 9 – 11 convey the impenetrable silence. In verses 12 – 17 the ancient exploits are reviewed and 18 – 23 concentrate on the continuing ordeal (264).
‘1 O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? 2 Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage. Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell. 3 Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.’ The psalm takes as its starting-point the protest of the people against their God, a protest based on their belief in their election (Weiser 518). It is faith, more than doubt, that precipitates the shower of questions which begins and ends this half of the psalm, since the real perplexity is not over the bare fact of punishment but over its apparent finality. ‘Is it for ever?’—yet how can it be when this is ‘thy pasture…thy congregation…thy heritage (Kidner 265)?’ With the sanctuaries in ruin, the enemy laying siege to the land of the Israelites they question their faith in God’s promises in verses 1 – 3.
Verses 4 – 8 show the destruction and violation of the sanctuaries of God. ‘4 Your foes have roared within your holy place; they set up their emblems there. 5 At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes. 6 And then, with hatchets and hammer, they smashed all its carved work. 7 They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground. 8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.’ But ‘roared’ was probably meant to convey a comparison with wild beasts. The emblems would be military emblems. ‘They seemed as men that lifted up axes upon a thicket of trees.’ It is a picture of furious destructive energy. I Kings 6:21 reveals that the carved work was overlaid with gold. If any of the plating remained, verse 6 may describe its stripping off before the burning of the woodwork. Verse 8 sees the Jerusalem temple as the last of God’s successive meeting places, all of which had now been destroyed (Kidner 266). But they do not let him go, though everything points to God’s having forsaken his people (Weiser 518).
Kidner describes verses 9 – 11 as the impenetrable silence. ‘9 We do not see our emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no one among us who knows how long. 10 How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? 11 Why do you hold back your hand; why do you keep you hand in your bosom?’ I believe he calls this the impenetrable silence because the Israelites are asking God all these questions, yet receiving no answers. The lack of any ‘sign of favour’ let alone any word through a prophet, are deeper wounds than the enemy’s (267). There was no sign of divine presence, no comforting word spoken by a prophet, no counsel of a wise man which could have saved the people from their gloomy despair. And once more they ask the tormenting question ‘Why?’ and impatiently enquire ‘How long?’ (Weiser 519).
Verse 12 begins a new attitude in this passage, changing it from one of lament to one of praise. Verses 12 – 17 describe the great works of God on behalf of the Israelite people. The unflinching contending for God in prayer, which notwithstanding everything does not let him go, is not denied the blessing which is inherent also in prayer of that kind (Weiser 519). ‘12 Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth. 13 You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. 14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. 15 You cut openings for the springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.’ The parting of the Red Sea and the crushing blow to Egypt, that dragon of the deep, but here verses 12 – 15 survey the earthly scene, clothing the exodus events in its lively imagery (Kidner 268). Later verses 16 and 17 give all of creation to God. ‘16 Yours is the day, yours also is the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. 17 You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.’ Now the thought takes wings, to God as Creator, not only as Redeemer. The psalmist gives no sign of speaking figuratively. Nevertheless he is claiming the whole created order for God (Kidner 269).
In the verses 18 – 23 the psalmist once again goes back to his cry for help. He once again reminds God of his promises to the Israelite people. ‘18 Remember this, O LORD, how the enemy scoffs, and an impious people reviles your name. 19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals; do not forget the life of your poor forever. 20 Have regard for your covenant, for the ark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence. 21 Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name. 22 Rise up O God, plead your cause; remember the impious scoff at you all day long. 23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.’ The suffering remains, and the psalm ends with a stream of urgent prayers. But, perhaps significantly, the questions of verses 1 – 11 have ceased (Kidner 269). This supplication expresses the unshakable belief in God, who has shown himself in the creation of the universe to be Lord over the chaos, has now also the power to suppress the revolt of the chaotic powers and that in view of his covenant promise he will not allow his downtrodden people to become the defenceless prey of cruel lust for the power of these enemies (Weiser 520).
I must admit when I first read this passage it confused me to even think about it. However, upon reflection and inquiry into other works, biblical encyclopedias, commentaries, and concordances, I have a grasp on how this passage was interpreted by its original readers. The people of Israel see themselves as a chosen people, which they are. Then they find themselves in the midst of turmoil with their places of worship sacked and looted. They believe their God has abandoned them, so they pray for his return to have him take their burdens and suffering away. They pray for him to vanquish their foe and take back what is theirs. They remind him of the promises he made in the covenants. Lastly they remind him that the enemy laughs at him and his chosen people. It is strange, first they rebuke God, then ask for his saving grace, and then remind him of his obligations to them. I believe the people of Israel and especially this psalmist was searching for answers to the events that were going on around him. Simply searching for an explanation of the suffering and pain.
Allen C. Meyers, et al, eds. “Congregation.” The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987. 232.
Barker, K. L. “Deliver (Deliverance).” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Eds. Merrill C. Tenney and Steven Barabas. Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1975. 89 – 90.
Browning, W. R. F. “Deliverance.” A Dictionary of the Bible. Eds. Richard Coggins and Graham N. Stanton. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. 96.
Carey, G. L. “Congregation of Assembly.” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Eds. Merrill C. Tenney and Steven Barabas. Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1975. 939 – 941.
Kidner, Derek. Psalms 73 – 150: A Commentary on Books III – V of the Psalms. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1975.
Kohlenberger, John R. “Congregation.” The NRSV Concordance Unabridged. Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1991. 265 – 267.
Kohlenberger, John R. “Deliver.” The NRSV Concordance Unabridged. Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1991. 319.
Weiser, Artur. The Psalms: A Commentary. Philadelphia: S. C. M. Press Ltd., 1962.