The Third Book Of Psalms.
The Book of Psalms divides up into five sections, of which this is the third. Each of these five sections ends with a special ‘blessing’. These are as follows:
Note the pattern. After ‘blessing YHWH’ the first three books end in ‘Amen and Amen’. After the fourth has blessed YHWH and the fifth has praised YHWH, the final two end in ‘Praise you YHWH’
The third book of Psalms covers Psalms 73-89. It is mainly composed of eleven ‘Psalms of Asaph’ (73-83) and four ‘Psalms of the sons of Korah’ (84-85, 87-88), with one Psalm of David intertwined (86), whilst the whole closes with one Psalm ‘of Ethan the Ezrahite’ (89).
Asaph was one of David’s three chief musicians, the other two being Heman and Jeduthun (Ethan). They were seen as prophets in a secondary way (1 Chronicles 25.1-3). Along with the other two Asaph was also called ‘the seer’ (2 Chronicles 29.30; 35.15; 1 Chronicles 25.5). ‘The sons of Asaph’ continued throughout the generations to provide music for the Temple (2 Chronicles 20.14; 29.13; 35.15. See also Ezra 2.41; 3.10; Nehemiah 7.44; 11.22), and the reference to ‘of Asaph’ probably indicates that at least some were composed by ‘the sons of Asaph’, rather than by Asaph himself (compare those by ‘the sons of Korah’). Psalm 50 was also a Psalm of Asaph.
The Psalms of Asaph tend to use the title Elohim (El) translated God, but see 73.28; 75.8; 76.11; 77.11; 78.4, 21; 81.10, 15 where YHWH or YHWH Elohim are used. They are thus not exclusively Elohistic. The titles ‘Lord’ (adonai) and Most High (elyon) also appear.They are mainly characterised by:
The Psalms of Asaph are followed by five Psalms by the ‘sons of Korah’. These use both Elohim and YHWH. Previously, in section two, there have been eight Psalms, namely Psalms 42-49. The sons of Korah were Levites who had important responsibilities, first with respect to the Tabernacle and then with respect to the Temple. Originally they had acted as sentinels for the camp of the Levites, then as warders of the sacred Tent erected by David to contain the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH when it was brought into Jerusalem, and then as gatekeepers of the Temple, an important position which they resumed on their return from Babylon (1 Chronicles 9.17 ff; 26.1 ff; Nehemiah 11.19). It was they who determined who were to be allowed into the Temple, and the chief gatekeepers had responsibility for a number of other important Temple functions.
They were also prominent in connection with sacred song in the Temple. Heman, who was one of the three principle musicians appointed by David, was a ‘son of Korah’ (1 Chronicles 6.31-33), and his sons were leaders of fourteen of the twenty four courses of musicians in the Temple (1 Chronicles 25.4 ff). In the time of Jehoshaphat, along with the sons of Kohath, they are mentioned for their singing role. There is, however, no mention of this singing role after the Exile.
Some of their Psalms certainly breathe a spirit of strong devotion to the Temple, and of joy in its services, as we might expect, and they refer to the city of Jerusalem as the city which He has chosen for His own dwellingplace, and where He reigns as King. But they are equally certainly not unique in this, and their Psalms contain much else besides. It would indeed be wrong to narrowly categorise their Psalms as a specific type, for they include intensely personal Psalms (42-43; 84), national Psalms (44; 46-48; 85), and a miscellany of Psalms with a distinctive flavour (45; 49; 87; 88). We might well see Psalms 42-49 as part of ‘the hymnbook of the first Temple’, although this must not be seen as excluding some later Psalms as also being sung in the first Temple. They were, however, later clearly incorporated into the larger collection which includes Exilic and post-Exilic Psalms, which were used in ‘the second Temple’.
73.1a ‘A Psalm of Asaph.’
As mentioned above the Psalm is connected with the sons of Asaph. It may well have been written by Asaph himself who was one of David’s three leading singers, as it has its basis in wisdom teaching which was prevalent in the days of David and Solomon. He was one of ‘the king’s seers’. It was seemingly held dear by the sons of Asaph, possibly forming part of an initial collection of Asaphite Psalms before being introduced into the Temple collection.
The theme of the Psalm is of a good man who was baffled because he was undergoing such trials, at the same time as the wicked rich prospered. He did not understand how or why it could happen. Surely the opposite should have been true. But then he went into the Sanctuary of God and came to recognise that the wicked rich would finally receive their deserts. It ends with him enjoying the wonder and joy of the presence of God.
It can be divided up as follows:
Note that in A he expresses his full confidence in God, and in the parallel his full confidence concerning the way he will take. In B his faith falters, and in the parallel his faith is fully restored. Centrally in C he acknowledges his folly, and in the parallel does the same.
Opening Conclusion And Expression Of Confidence (73.1b).
This introductory verse is his conclusion consequent on his philosophising as described in the Psalm. It is an expression of total confidence in God. He has thought and prayed his way through to a sure faith.
His opening words express the confidence that he feels in God as a consequence of his ensuing meditations, and from verse 2 onwards will contrast this with his previous folly. He has come to recognise that despite outward appearances, those whose hearts are pure towards God will come to fully experience His goodness. As Jesus Himself would later say, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’ (Matthew 5.8). It is they who are the true Israel.
Note the indication of a ‘true Israel’ within Israel (compare Romans 9.5). The true Israel are not all who call themselves Israel, but those of Israel who are pure in heart. As Paul would say, ‘he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a (true) Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God’ (Romans 2.28-29). This circumcision of heart was a requirement of those who would call themselves His people (Deuteronomy 10.16; 30.6; Jeremiah 4.4; 9.26). It is the equivalent of the birth ‘from above’ (John 1.12-13; 3.1-6; 1 Peter 1.23).
In A Vivid Description He Contrasts The Prosperity And Careless Attitude Of The Unrighteous With His Own Sore Trials Despite His Genuine Response To God (73.2-14).
The Psalmist gives testimony to the fact that he had not always had this confidence. He describes the trial of faith that he had experienced when he considered the seeming peace, prosperity and untouchablenss of the haughty unrighteous.
This subsection divides up into parts:
The Psalmist Admits That He Had Almost Lost Faith (verse 2)
He admits that he had not always had the confidence in God that he revealed in verse 1. There had been a time when he had looked at the world around him, and it had made him wonder whether God was really good. He had seen the unrighteous flourish, and true saints trodden under, and he had become envious of those who lived as they liked and got away with it. It had almost resulted in his becoming unbelieving. His feet had almost gone from under him, bringing him down with a crash, and his steps had slithered and almost caused him to fall. He had found himself walking in ‘slippery places’ (contrast 17.5). His walk had become unsteady and unsure.
He Gives As His Reason The Seeming Peace, Prosperity And Untouchableness Of The Wealthy Unrighteous (verse 3-9).
In a vivid cameo picture he describes the outward peace and prosperity of the well-to-do who lived unrighteously, and the consequences of it in their pride, violence and oppressiveness against those less fortunate than themselves, as well as against God. He finds it difficult to understand why it is so.
Why had he nearly lost faith? It was because while the righteous were suffering he had seen those who were arrogant and unrighteous, becoming rich, enjoying peace and fancying themselves as superior to others. They had become boastfully presumptious. They appeared to ride over the problems of life, and die peaceful deaths and remain strong through it all. Nothing restrained them (‘no bands’) in their deaths. They passed on at peace. It was as though they were given immunity from life’s troubles. Unlike other men, who constantly faced problems, their lives were trouble free, and they appeared to enjoy a charmed life as far as disease and trials were concerned.
And what was the consequence of their good fortune? They were proud, and thought of themselves as superior to others. Indeed, they insolently wore their pride like someone shows of a necklet, not hiding it but letting all see their adornment. And as can so often happen, their pride and arrogance led on to violence, for people, especially servants and minions, meant nothing to them and were seen as simply there to be abused. They saw themselves as having a right to treat people as they liked.
Moreover their wealth and prosperity shone out from their eyes. Wherever they went men could read from their eyes their wealth and self-satisfaction. For they possessed more than the heart could wish. Everything life had to offer seemed to have been laid out for them, and you could see it in their faces. They appeared to be life’s favourites.
Alternately there may be a reference here to their eyes peering out from their bloated faces, ‘their eyes stare forth out of their fatness’ (But the parallel suggests we should see in it a positive image).
Once again, instead of it making them better people, their good fortune caused them to be scornful of others. In their self-satisfied state they revealed the truth about themselves. Because they were unrighteous within, their mouths spoke of wickedness, and of the oppression of the humble and poor, of whom they spoke with lofty contempt. They saw themselves as superior and untouchable. And it had seemed as though they were untouched.
They had become so uplifted in their own eyes that they thought that they could control heaven and earth by what they said. To set their mouth in the heavens may indicate that they thought that they could dictate to God, or it may be thinking of manoeuvring false gods. Alternately it may mean that they thought that they could speak down to men as though they were God. Their tongue walking through the earth suggests that they thought that they could talk people into anything. They had total confidence in the efficacy of their words.
As A Consequence Common People Praise Them And Partake With Them In Their Activities, Questioning Whether God Really Knows What Is Happening (verses 10-11).
Not only were they well-to-do, they were also admired by others, and thus also turned them away from God..
‘His people.’ The thought here may be that those who saw themselves as ‘God’s people’ were nevertheless led astray and returned to their old ways as exemplified in the godless wealthy. They drank to excess the activities and ways and sensual pleasures of the rich in their godless ease (compare Jeremiah 2.12). They followed them in all that they did. Alternately ‘his’ may indicate the wealthy seen as a composite whole (we would translate as ‘their’), with ‘their people’ indicating those who followed them. What they drank in so fully may have been their godless ideas, or their godless ways, or their godless desires and enjoyments. They were wholly absorbed in imitating them.
And as they do so they slid deeper and deeper into sin, but they thought that it did not matter because they assured themselves that God did not know, and that He was not aware of their behaviour. They shut their eyes to the certainty of God’s omniscience. They forgot that all things are open to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do (Hebrews 4.13). The amplification of ‘God’ (El) by ‘the Most High’ (Elyon) exemplifies their folly. They thought that they could even deceive God Most High.
As A Further Consequence Even The Psalmist Had Begun To Think That He Was Wasting His Time In Seeking To Be Righteous In The Face Of The Ease And Wealth Of The Unrighteous (verses 12-14).
The Psalmist had thus begun to think that he had chosen the wrong path. It is so easy when the going gets tough to look at the world around, seemingly at ease, and to ask whether following their ways might have been a better option. In other words, he was asking himself, is ‘righteousness’ worth all the trouble? Those had been the thoughts that had been going through the Psalmist’s mind.
As he continues to gaze enviously at the unrighteous he points out that though they were unrighteous, they always appeared to be at ease and to increase in riches. (The speaker in this case is unlikely to be the sycophants, for they would not speak of those they idolised as ‘wicked’). Such people appeared to enjoy all the good things in life. And it made him ask himself why then he should have purified his heart, and indulged in the ways of innocence and purity, abstaining from the ways of the godless (compare 26.5-6). For what had it brought him? Only trouble and chastening. It had even begun to look to him as though he had made a bad choice.
‘And washed my hands in innocency,’ The picture is taken from the washing of hands over the carcase of a heifer in the case of an unsolved murder in order to demonstrate innocence (Deuteronomy 21.6). (It was also a process carried out by the priests after offering sacrifices but before going into the Sanctuary - Exodus 30.17 ff). It was a declaration of innocence. But he was not intending to be taken literally. What he is saying is that he had cleansed his heart by abstaining from all evil. He had ‘washed his hands’ by being obedient to God in all things, as far as he was able. The idea has more in mind the thought of Isaiah 1.16 where they were to ‘wash themselves’ by putting away evil and being obedient to God. In other words by living free from sin as best as he was able, he had kept his hands clean.
And he asked himself, what good had his purity and innocence done him? All that had resulted from it had been trouble, and daily chastening. He had suffered under divine afflictions. All he could think of at the time was how much he had undergone, and that the world’s way seemed easier. He had lost sight of what God was accomplishing in his life through it. He had for a moment forgotten that, ‘the LORD chastens those whom He loves, as a father the son in whom he delights’ (Proverbs 3.12). Instead he was feeling neglected and forsaken.
The Psalmist Finds His Solution In Recognising The End Of The Unrighteous, And In Experiencing A Renewed Personal Knowledge Of God Himself (73.15-26).
Fortunately a visit to the Sanctuary of God brought him to his senses. He suddenly realised what he was doing, and that by doing it he was being treacherous towards those who walked in the way of righteousness. But it was still a problem to him until he went into the Sanctuary of God, and it was there that God brought home to him that the latter end of the unrighteous was in fact not pleasant at all. All that awaited them was desolation and destruction. Thus he came to himself, berated himself for his previous brute-like attitude, and acknowledged that as a consequence of being one of the righteous he enjoyed something better, the continual sense of the presence of God, and the assurance of His continual guiding hand, and that before being received into the glory of His presence.
He Brings Himself Up Shortly And Recognises That By His Thoughts He Is Betraying God’s Righteous Children And Overlooking The Deserved Judgment That Is Coming On The Unrighteous (73.15-20).
He stresses that he had not as yet put his thoughts into words, acknowledging that had he done so he would have been betraying a whole generation of God’s righteous children, God’s righteous ones in his own generation. He would have undermined the faith of some, and made life even more difficult for the remainder.
This is one of only two places in the Old Testament where Israelites are spoken of as ‘God’s children’, and here the assumption must be that it is the righteous Israelites only who are spoken of God’s children. For it is they who would have been betrayed by such foolish words. As in verse 1 we have a conception of an Israel within Israel. But this concept is latent throughout the Old Testament. It is the Israel which walks within the covenant which is the true Israel. Those who do not do so are cast off. Thus whilst ‘all Israel’ whilst submitting to the covenant could nominally be seen as true Israel, God Who knows men’s hearts knew who were truly His.
The only other reference is in Deuteronomy 14.1 where Moses says to Israel, ‘you are the children of YHWH your God’, a people chosen to be holy to YHWH and to be His own possession out of all the nations of the world. Otherwise it is Israel as a whole are called ‘God’s son’ as a composite being, in for example Exodus 4.22; Hosea 11.1. The idea of each one being individually a ‘son of God’ is reserved for the New Testament (Romans 8.14-17; Galatians 3.26), the only exception being the king as God’s anointed son (e.g. Psalm 2.7).
But his wisdom in keeping silent concerning his doubts did not prevent it being a real problem to him. Why should God’s righteous ones be the ones who suffered? He was desperately trying to understand it, but it was causing him real trouble. And then he found his solution in the place where many solutions are found, in the true sanctuary of God.
It happened one day, when he went into the Sanctuary of God (the plural for sanctuaries including the whole building and its precincts) that he considered their latter end. Possibly he had stopped and looked around him, and seen the outwardly pious behaviour of the unrighteous with his thoughts racing concerning his intellectual problem. But it was at that moment that the truth came home to him. He was made to recognise their ‘latter end’. At any time they could be made to face destruction, and desolation, and terror (verse 18-19), and in death they would fail to be recognised by God (verse 20). They would be deserted in Hades, that shadowy world of the dead.
He now saw that these unrighteous, self-satisfied, godless men were themselves set in slippery places. Their lives were not as secure as they seemed. At any time they could be undermined, either by physical disaster, disease or invasion. And because their satisfaction lay in the things of this world, they had most to lose. They would be brought to ruin.
Note the parallel with verse 2 where the Psalmist himself had well nigh slipped. It had seemed to him that his way of life was about to collapse under the weight of his doubts. His position had been precarious, in total contrast with seeming peace and ease of the wealthy godless. But now he saw that it was their way which was precarious, for they had nothing and No One to fall back on. And life was uncertain even for them.
As he prayed in the Temple courts it dawned on him that far from being at ease in death, the godless rich often experienced desolation that came suddenly on them, and were often consumed with terrors. It was far more difficult for them to flee to the mountains when invaders came, they had too much to lose, and the wealthy were the targets on whom the invader set their sights. Furthermore it was the wealthy who were carried away in chains into captivity. Lesser men were left to tend the land. Nor was death easy for them. In Job 18.5-21 we have a vivid description of the death of the wicked, and in some way what lay beyond death must be included, for the Psalmist knew perfectly well that many of the godless rich did not experience desolations and terrors in this life.
Furthermore, whilst we do not know how far he saw the afterlife as playing a part in their desolation, for then men did not have a formulated idea about judgment and punishment beyond the grave, we do know that they also did not believe in the complete cessation of existence. They saw their ‘shadows’ as passing on into the shadowy grave world (compare Ezekiel 32.14-30; Isaiah 14.15-20), leaving everything behind for the emptiness and darkness which lay ahead. The thought of this would certainly for many have caused desolation and terror at death. That this may have been in the Psalmist’s mind is suggested by his own awareness of some kind of future for himself as hinted at in verses 23-24. He is not anticipating emptiness and darkness for himself, but being received into ‘glory’.
Indeed, just as when a man has had a dream, and then wakes up, he dismisses the images in his dream with derision, so when the Lord ‘arouses Himself’ on the death of the godless rich, he sees their remaining ‘image’ as something dreamlike, to be dismissed with derision. He has no thoughts for them in death. They have passed on and are but forgotten shadows.
He admits How Foolish He Has Been And Shamefacedly Recognises That God Has In Fact Been With Him All The Time (73.21-24).
Having been made aware of the desolations and terrors awaiting the godless rich he recognises how much he has been misjudging God. Instead of thinking spiritually he has been thinking ignorantly like a brute beast, and must have appeared as such to God. But he realises thankfully that his folly has not cut him off from God. He recognises that all the time he has half unconsciously been continually with Him, and that in fact God has kept firmly hold of his right hand. God has not deserted him as he deserved. And he now knows that God will continually guide him with His wisdom and counsel, and will afterwards receive him to glory, a stark contrast to the empty darkness awaiting the unrighteous.
He describes his own folly unmercifully. At the philosophical problem that had seemed so pressing (the thought of the godless prospering while the righteous suffered grievous trials) his soul had been grieved, his heart had been wounded. But now he recognised that that had been because he had been thinking like a brute beast whose only thought was food and sleep, and who had no spiritual sense of God. (Compare how in Daniel and Revelation the nations were seen as brute beasts in contrast with Israel who were seen as ‘the son of man’). All his doubts had been due to his own blind folly.
‘Pricked in my reins.’ The ‘reins’ described that which controlled. We would say ‘mind’ or ‘heart’, that which controls our thoughts and emotions.
For he recognised that during the whole time when he had thought that God had deserted him, he had actually been continually with God. God had been with him in spite of his folly He had learned that God does not forsake His own even when they are having grave doubts. And what was more God had not only been with him, but had also continually kept hold of his right hand. He had guided him aright. Compare 63.8. The thought is probably of a father holding tight to his young son’s hand when dangers appear to lie ahead.
So now he was confident that, as he was no longer behaving like a brute beast, God would continue to lead him by his right hand, would continue to guide him with His wisdom and advice, and that He would afterwards ‘receive him to glory’ (or ‘honour’). We might see here that whilst again there was no formulated view of an afterlife, he had gained the certainty that after death he would come into the presence of the glory of God, rather than into the dark, misty shadows of the grave. This is what is surely in mind in 49.15, ‘for God will ransom my life from the power of Sheol (the grave world; Hades) , for He will receive me’. For this type of expectancy of a kind of afterlife compare 16.9-11; 17.15, 23.6 where we have similar indications that death is not the end, and that the presence of God awaits for those who are truly His. It would find support from the experience of Enoch in Genesis 5.24.
This interpretation is favoured by the fact that the three previous lines have all referred to personal experience of God Himself in increasing measure. We expect this therefore to refer to the climax of this personal experience. He has been with him, He has held his right hand, He has guided him with His counsel, and now He has ‘received him to glory, in other words to where He is enthroned in His glory so that His glory is all around. The ‘glory’ is in direct contrast to the darkness, desolation and terrors that the ungodly faced at death. That ‘the glory of God’ is a regular description of God’s presence comes out in Exodus 16.10; 24.16; 29.43; 33.18, 22; 40.34-35; Leviticus 9.6, 23; Numbers 14.10; 16.19; 20.6; 1 Samuel 4.22; 2 Chronicles 5.14; 7.1-3; Ezekiel 3.12, 23. And the Sanctuary was the place where such a revelation was likely to come, for it was in the Temple that everyone spoke of ‘glory’ (29.9), and where he might well be thinking of the glory of God ‘hidden’ in the Holiest Place. We can well see how the revelation could come to him that in some way God would receive him to glory.
On the other hand many simply see it as indicating his confidence that in the end God would vindicate him at death so that he was honoured by his people. ‘Chabod’ often means ‘reputation, honour’. But that would be somewhat of an anticlimax, and not be taking ‘receive me’ in its fullest senses. To enter the grave world was not seen as being received by God, but rather as being separated from God and His glory. However, in his own case he expected to experience that glory. Some would see the issue as decided in favour of this interpretation by the next verses where he thinks of ‘having God in Heaven’ and of having God as ‘his portion for ever’. He did not see himself now as limited to earth or as losing touch with God in death.
The Psalmist now asserts that God is everything to him, whether things in Heaven or things on earth. And whilst his flesh and his heart may fail he is confident that God will strengthen his heart, and will be his portion for ever. Thus whilst those who are far from God will perish, it is his intention to draw ever nearer to God, for he has made ‘the Lord YHWH’ his refuge, so that he may proclaim all that God has done for him to others.
The question ‘Whom have I in heaven but you’ gains added meaning if the Psalmist is thinking of one day experiencing that ‘Heaven’. Just as he desires YHWH above all who on earth while he is resident on earth, so when he is received to glory he will desire YHWH above all which is in Heaven. He wants it known, and he wants God to know, that God is now filling his horizon whether in this world or the next.
He recognises that his weak, sinful flesh, and his own mind, will and emotions (his ‘heart’) have failed him, and are failing him, and will continue to fail him. But now he has no fear for God is the rock on which his heart is founded so that it will finally stand firm, and God is all that he looks forward to. God is his portion ‘for ever’, that is, into the distant future. This last also assumes that he will live on after death.
His Way Is Now Certain In Contrast With The Ways Of The Evildoers Who Had Nearly Caused Him To Lose Faith (73.27-28).
The Psalm ends with a contrast between those who are far from God and have ‘played the harlot’ (seen idols as their refuge), thus departing from Him, and those who like the Psalmist have drawn near to God and have made Him their refuge.
He sums up his thoughts in the Psalm by recognising the latter end of those who live godless lives and go after idols. Being ‘far from God’ they will perish. Because they have ‘departed from God’ and ‘played the harlot’ (partly an indication that they have rejected YHWH as their ‘husband’ and gone after idols (Hosea 1-3; Isaiah 54.5-6; etc) and partly a reference to the debased nature of Canaanite religion with its religious prostitutes and catamites - Jeremiah 2.20; 3.1, 6; etc) they will be destroyed. God will no longer watch over them and protect them, but will rather bring catastrophe on them, with its consequences. (They will have nothing good to proclaim).
In contrast is the Psalmist (and all those who truly trust in YHWH). He recognises now that it is good for him to draw near to God, and indeed to make the Lord YHWH his refuge. For as a consequence he will have grounds again and again for boasting concerning what God has done for him, and ‘telling of all His works’. As he had declared at the beginning (verse 1), to the Israel which is pure in heart, God will be good.
For us, of course, this message comes with even greater power, for we have the New Testament revelation of eternal life and eternal judgment. We live our lives in the light of the things that are unseen (2 Corinthians 4.18), and recognise that the things which are seen will perish. We are thus urged not to love this present world with its desires and false aims (1 John 2.15-17), but to count all such things as unprofitable for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3.6), reaching out for the things which are unseen and eternal. We have a much clearer understanding than they had of the benefits of living for God. It was to their credit that they stood so firm.
74.1a ‘A Maschil of Asaph.’
The Psalm is described as a maschil of Asaph. It is not, however, likely that it was written by Asaph himself as it refers to the destruction of the Sanctuary. We may thus see it as the composition of one or more of ‘the sons of Asaph’, the Temple musicians, those who carried on the family tradition.
Thirteen Psalms are called Maschils, but we do not know precisely why. Some have suggested that it means a didactic (teaching) Psalm but as that is not true of all the Psalms described as Maschils the idea must be partly discounted. It is true that the word maschil could relate to the idea of instruction (compare the use of the cognate verb in 32.8, ‘I will instruct you’), but it could equally refer to having ‘understanding’ (maschil - 47.8) or be indicating that it is a meditation. Thus applying all three ideas we can see it as instructing us so that we gain an understanding of God and His ways through meditation. It has been posited that it indicated a particularly tricky musical rendering, but the fact that some Psalms are described as ‘a Maschil of David’ might tend to counter this suggestion.
Whilst it does not alter the significance of the Psalm the question naturally arises as which destruction of the Temple is referred to in the Psalm, and we should note that it was clearly a time of great distress. But there is no mention of Exile, nor is there an indication of the type of externally enforced apostasy typical of the activities of Antiochus IV. Even so opinions tend to be mainly divided between the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC, and the partial destruction of the Temple by Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) in 170-165 BC, mainly because of the emphasis on the destruction of the Temple. An alternative suggestion is to connect it with a destruction of the Temple during the Persian period, but if it is correct the destruction is not testified to historically, even though we know that the Jews had rebelled against Artaxerxes Ochus (c. 350 BC) and were put down with great severity.
However, there is nothing in the Psalm which may not have occurred any time that the Temple was despoiled by invaders and seen loosely as ‘destroyed’, depending on how literally we interpret certain poetic phrases. Thus it would be unwise to be dogmatic. As we have claimed it will be noted that there is no mention of exile, nor is there any reference to determined attempts to destroy the faith of Israel. This might well be seen as throwing doubt on the most popular interpretations.
The basic facts are that:
Taken literally this would certainly point to 587 BC. It was only on that occasion that both the Temple and Jerusalem were utterly destroyed (2 Kings 25.9-10). But the problem with this view is that there is in the Psalm no clear indication of Exile for the people, which would be quite remarkable if that period was in mind. On the other hand these descriptions could, if seen hyperbolically, describe something any invader who captured Judah and Jerusalem might have done, where the Temple and the city were despoiled and the consequences lasted for some time. And we must remember that Jerusalem was taken a number of times (e.g. 1 Kings 14.25; 2 Kings 12.17-18; 14.13-14), even though we are given few details.
But whichever our choice the main lesson of the Psalm is that Israel/Judah had suffered some catastrophe through invasion and were left in dire straits, something which they acknowledged was their own fault. Nevertheless the Psalmist called on God to remember that He was their Shepherd and to note the oppressive attitude of their enemies. Furthermore he called on Him to remember how He had delivered them from Egypt to be the people of His inheritance, and again to act accordingly. As he advances his plea it is noteworthy that his attitude becomes one of concern for the besmirching of the Name of YHWH because of what had happened, and his great concern that YHWH might be vindicated. Thus in the end he sought first and foremost the glory of God. The Psalm may be divided up into three sections as follows:
Section 1). A Plea For God To Remember His Chosen People And To Note What Their Enemies Have Done To His Sanctuary, And As A Consequence To Act With Power On Their Behalf (74.1-11).
This first section commences with a recognition of guilt. The people recognise that they have been deservedly cast off, and that God has had good cause to be angry with them. They acknowledge that they have failed Him as His people. But they nevertheless call on Him to show mercy on them because they are His sheep, and because they are the people to whom He has given His inheritance. Let him also remember Mount Zion which is His dwelling place, and which these evil enemies have violated. The words read like those of a people still in the land. This would not exclude the time of the Exile, for many did remain, and some may well have been Levites (sons of Asaph). And they may well have made such a plea. But it might be seen as making it less likely. On the other hand it is not inconceivable that the words came from someone who had himself suffered exile and was now longing for God’s deliverance.
This section is presented chiastically:
Note that in A we have the appeal for God to act, and the same in the parallel. In B reference is made to the ENEMY who has done evil in the Sanctuary, and in the parallel reference is made to the ENEMY who have blasphemed His Name. In C the adversaries roared in the midst of the Assemblies and set up SIGNS, and in the parallel they burn up the Assemblies and Israel have no SIGNS. In D the enemy smash up the carved work in the Temple and in the parallel they make havoc there. Centrally in E the Sanctuary is set on fire and the dwelling place of God is cast to the ground.
The initial section can further be divided into three subsections:
1a). A Call For God To Abate His Anger And To Remember The People Whom He Has Chosen, And His Dwelling Place In Mount Zion Which Has Been Destroyed (74.1-2).
Their first appeal is a cry of despair, and basically an admission of guilt (they felt that they had been ‘cast off for ever’). They seemingly recognised that they had deserved to be ‘cast off, and that God was deservedly angry with them. But being still conscious that they are the people whom He redeemed from Egypt in such a mighty way, they cannot therefore understand why they are cast off for ever. Surely He will forgive those whom He has chosen as His sheep? Surely He has not really cast them off forever? Are they not His sheep whom He had called to dwell in the land? Is He not their Shepherd? Why then does His anger continue to smoulder against them? In the midst of their distress we find an indication of the faith that they have in God because of past promises. They still feel that they have grounds to expect Him to act for them because He is a merciful God and because He has chosen them. It goes without saying that this can only be if they are truly repentant. (Although this is an unstated assumption, it clearly lies behind their cry).
‘Why does your anger smoke.’ His anger was seen as like a burning fire producing smoke. It had been revealed in the burning down of the Temple and of Jerusalem from which smoke would have arisen as a thick cloud. It had been revealed in the burning of their whole land with its meeting places. Invasions always resulted in fire and thick clouds of smoke.
‘The sheep of your pasture.’ God’s people are regularly portrayed as sheep both in the Old and the New Testament and here as the sheep for whom He had provided pasture, in other words His own sheep for whom He was responsible (see also for the phrase, 79.13; 100.3; Jeremiah 23.1; Ezekiel 34.31). For God as Shepherd of His people see in the Old Testament 80.1; 77.20; 78.52; Isaiah 40.11; Jeremiah 31.10; Ezekiel 34.11 (the seeking Shepherd); Zechariah 13.7 (the smitten Shepherd); Psalm 23.1 (the personal Shepherd); and often.
In their anguish they call on Him to remember three things;
We should note that there is no hint in this that they thought that they deserved what they were asking. They knew only too well what they deserved. It is rather a reminder to Him of what He had in His compassion revealed to be His own purpose. It was He Who had made Himself their Shepherd. It was He Who had set them apart as a people. It was He Who had redeemed them for Himself. And it was He Who had chosen to come and dwell among them. Would He not thus continue with His purpose? Their hope was thus in His continuing purpose of love and compassion.
When we have sinned we come to God on similar terms as they did. We come because we are the people whom He has established as His own (1 Peter 2.9). We come because He has redeemed us through the blood of the cross ( Ephesians 1.7; Colossians 1.14; Revelation 5.9). And we come because in His graciousness He has come to dwell within us and among us (2 Corinthians 6.15 ff.). We also have no merit of our own.
1b). They Describe What Their Enemy Have Done To God’s Sanctuary And To Various Meeting Places Throughout The Land Where He Was Worshipped (74.3-8).
They call on God, both at the commencement of the subsection and the end, to, as it were, stand up and pull His hands out of His pockets and actively set about putting right ‘all the evil which the enemy had done in the Sanctuary’. What the enemy had done is then portrayed in some detail. It is as the Psalmist considers these things that his plea changes from one which is simply desiring deliverance to one which is concerned for the slight that it has brought on God’s Name.
‘Lift up your feet’ means basically, ‘become active, stride out and do something, direct your steps’. And the prayer is that God would look on what the enemy had done to the Sanctuary as it stood there in ‘perpetual ruins’ and do something about it. The impression is of a Temple wholly destroyed which would point to the Babylonian invasion of 587 BC. On the other hand it might simply be hyperbole because of the ruined state that the Temple was in. That it was the consequence of an invasion comes out in the next verse.
In a vivid description seen as taking place at the time when he speaks, the Psalmist depicts their adversaries as breaking in on the worship of Judah in the courts of the Sanctuary (their meeting places) with loud roars, and setting up their own standards, with their idolatrous implications, as signs to be looked to, and then, acting like men who raise their axes exuberantly to attack a great thicket of trees, setting to work on the carved work in the Temple, and breaking it down with hatchets and sledgehammers, despoiling the Temple. There may be in mind the ‘palm trees and open flowers’ of 1 Kings 6.29 as being attacked like a forest thicket.
They then set fire to the Temple, and profaned even the Holiest Place where God’s Name dwelt, casting it to the ground. The chiasm brings out that this is the height of their blasphemy. This appears to be a description of the destruction of the Temple in a similar way to Jesus’ description of ‘not one stone being left on another’. If we see it like that it points very firmly to Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Temple in 587 BC (1 Kings 25.9-10). But it may be that the Psalmist only had in mind a partial destruction which could fit other times when the Temple was seized by invaders and despoiled. The main point, however, is that the description is a plea to God to note what has been done to His Sanctuary by ungodly men and to react accordingly.
And the enemy had not only done this to the Temple. They had determined in their hearts to make total havoc throughout the land, burning up all the places where men met together to worship God and consider His word. This suggests a time when such meeting places existed, and that has caused some to see this as referring to later synagogues which appeared after the Exile. But the Septuagint does not think here in terms of synagogues and by ‘meeting places’ there is every reason to think of the squares, and especially the gatehouses, where people did no doubt meet throughout the land in order to discuss, pass judgments, and consider the Torah. This would enable fathers to fulfil the requirements of the Torah by learning the Torah in order to teach it to their children. They would also be places where the young were taught to read the Torah. The emphasis is again on the fact that the enemy have attacked the very roots of Yahwism by destroying the places where men gathered together, or at least that that is how the Psalmist saw it.
1c). A Cry For Him To Note Their Parlous Religious Condition And To Act With His Mighty Right Hand For The Sake Of His Own reputation (74.9-11).
The consequence of all this was spiritual barrenness. ‘Our signs’ may well have been the regular Feasts and sacrifices and new moons and sabbaths which had now been interrupted, or may even have ceased altogether (Lamentations 1.4; 2.6). This could well point to the Exile, or indeed to any time when invasion had resulted in spiritual barrenness. It may also include the thought of the lack of prophets who were a sign that God was speaking to His people. Note how these signs which are missing contrast with the signs which the enemy had set up (verse 4). False signs had replaced true signs.
‘There is no more prophet.’ This stark statement goes along with the spiritual barrenness previously revealed. It reveals a situation when God’s voice was silent. But this had occurred at various times throughout Israel’s history. From the time of Solomon onwards there had been times throughout the history of Israel when no prophet had appeared to speak the word of God, and none moreso as when Jeremiah had passed from the scene, and Ezekiel had died, while the people awaited the rise of men like Haggai and Zechariah. These silences had occurred at times throughout their history, at times when they were in spiritual declension, and they were certainly silent in the days of Antiochus IV. Thus whilst this cry indicates the barrenness of the time when the Psalm was written, it does not help us to pinpoint when it was written.
‘Nor is there any among us who knows how long.’ It is clear that this was written towards the end of a period of hopelessness. Such periods would occur after devastating invasions when the people were still reeling and wondering when things would get back to normal.. Some would say that this could not have been said by people who had heard Jeremiah’s prophecy of restoration after seventy years. But it is one thing to look back at it and highlight it and see it fulfilled. It would have been quite another to regard it at a time when Jeremiah’s prophecy may not have been easily available, and when men were at their most despondent. They may well have doubted Jeremiah’s words, even if they had heard of them, as they looked around with despair at their own position. Compare how the angel who knows of the seventy years could still cry out, ‘how long?’ (Zechariah 1.12)
But the main point is that the destruction of the foundations of their religion, whenever it was, had left them empty and void, and without a sign or a word from God. It was a period of spiritual hopelessness.
Therefore their cry was ‘how long?’. How long would God allow His and their enemy to reproach His Name? Would He allow them to blaspheme His name for ever by preventing His people from worshipping Him again and by pointing to their success in destroying Yahwism? In their despair God’s people still had their confidence placed in the fact that He could do something, if only He would.
Such situations have occurred for the people of God throughout the centuries, both before and since the coming of Christ. Persecution, destruction of their means of worship, the silencing of prophetic voices, a seeming end to their hopes, with Satan appearing to have prevailed, were things that happened again and again. Many a time the people of God have appeared to be at the end of themselves. But when they felt that they have been able to turn to this Psalm for hope and encouragement. It was the situation reflected again in Revelation 6.10 where the martyred saints also asked, ‘how long?’ It is a reminder that because of our sinfulness God often has to withdraw His blessings in order that we might be made to wake up and seek Him again.
The subsection closes as it opened with a cry to God for deliverance. Out of their despair sprang faith, a confidence that God could and would do something, however dark the outlook appeared. They knew that their situation arose from the fact that God had drawn back His hand, even His powerful right hand, and had not used it to protect them. And now they called on Him and asked Him why He had done so. We know the answer. It was a time of chastening, and God was seeking to bring them to their senses.
And then they called on God once again to pluck His right hand from His bosom where He was resting it (we might say ‘to pull His hands out of His pockets’) in order to act with His mighty right hand and consume His and their enemies. But their prayer could only be heard if there was genuine repentance and faith.
Section 2). A Reminder To God Of His Feats At The Exodus And Of His Creative Power And Kingship (74.12-17).
What gave them hope and certainty that He could and would do something was their remembrance of the past. The God who had parted the Reed Sea in order to deliver His people, Who had fed them from water creatures and had cleft rocks in the desert so that they could drink, and had dried up the Jordan in full flow so that they could pass through, was well able to deliver them now. Why even the day and the night were His for He had created them, and it was He who had established the whole earth and had determined the seasons, things which no man could do. What then was He not able to do?
Note the chiastic formation:
Note that the chiasmus centralises on the defeat of the sea monsters and Leviathan, in other words on the defeat of Israel’s enemies. There is possibly a triple entendre intended here;
Thus God is seen as having delivered them from fearsome creatures, as delivering them from the Egyptians, and as delivering them from the unseen forces at work in the world. No matter what they faced, God had dealt with them all.
The ‘yet’ is a turning point in their praying as they remember back into their past. It was what followed that now gave them hope, memories of what God had done for His people in the past. The ‘my’ is seeing Israel as one people (we could translate as ‘our’). Thus they were reminded that God was Israel’s king of old (Deuteronomy 33.5; 1 Samuel 8.7), and that He had not ceased to be so despite their treatment of Him. And He was not only so, but was also a King Who had worked salvation and deliverance in the sight of the whole earth. For He was the great Deliverer from Egypt, and controller of the whole earth.
The ‘You’ here is emphatic. The idea is that none other could have done it. The first line refers to the dividing of the Reed Sea so that the people could pass through, whilst those who hunted them down were destroyed, even though they had represented mighty Egypt (Exodus 14-15). It indicates His power to deal with their enemies.
The next three lines reveal both His power to deal with fearsome enemies (both supernatural and natural) and at the same time to feed His people through them. Where we lay the emphasis will depend on how we interpret ‘You gave him to be food to the people inhabiting the wilderness.’ If we see this as referring to His people being fed by these creatures as they made their way through the wilderness by way of the Reed Sea we will see the emphasis as being on natural fearsome creatures which God enabled them to use for food. But if we see ‘the people inhabiting the wilderness’ as referring to creatures of the desert (on the analogy of the ants who were called a people in Proverbs 30.25-26), we will lay the emphasis on the defeat of the Egyptian forces whose bodies were washed up on the shore to be consumed by scavengers.
Thus we may see the sea snakes and Leviathan as representing:
Thus the picture is of great deliverance, and the stamping under foot of all God’s enemies. God had defeated wild beasts, natural enemies, and supernatural enemies all at the same time.
Note On Leviathan.
The word is probably based on a root lawa which in Arabic means ‘twist’. It is used twice in Isaiah 27.1 of a ‘twisting serpent’ where it probably refers to the Tigris and the Euphrates as symbolic of Mesopotamian empires. In Psalm 104.26 it is probably the whale. In Job 41.1-34 it probably refers to the crocodile. At Ugarit the cognate Lotan represented the seven headed monster, ‘the fleeing serpent, the writhing serpent’ killed by Baal. Thus Leviathan could arouse a number of thoughts in the minds of ancient peoples.
End of note.
And not only had God delivered His people initially through water, and defeated their enemies, and fed His people in the wilderness, He had also cloven rocks in the wilderness and produced water for them to drink (Exodus 17.6; Numbers 20.8-13), and had dried up mighty rivers, when He had stopped up the Jordan and its tributaries in full flow so that His people could cross into the land (Joshua 3.15-17).
Furthermore as the Creator of all things He had made and controlled the night and the day (this may have partly had in mind that God had controlled the length of the day in the time of Joshua), and had created the light and the sun which enabled men to live out their lives in bright daylight (Genesis 1.3, 16). For at night men were like moving shadows, and life was limited. On the other hand the parallel with the first line may indicate that by ‘the light’ he meant the luminaries at night paralleled with the sun by day.
And He had determined the extent of the earth, and the seasons which enabled them to grow their crops. Thus as King over all the earth (‘YHWH reigns’ - 47.2; 48.2; 93.1; 97.1; 99.1-3) He had been responsible for the whole basis of life. The setting of all the borders of the earth may include not only determining the extent of land in contrast with sea, itself seen as an act of power (104.9; Job 38.10-11), but also the setting of the boundaries of the nations (Deuteronomy 32.8; Acts 17.16). All was in His hands. Such a mighty God could not be restricted.
Section 3. He Calls On God For Him To Respond To The Blasphemy Of His And Their Enemies And To Remember His Oppressed People And His Covenant And Act Accordingly In Order That They May Praise Him And His Name May Be Vindicated (74.18-23).
Encouraged by the thought of how God had delivered His people in the past, and controlled the elements of nature and the disposition of the world, the Psalmist humbles himself and his people before Him (describing them as ‘your poor/lowly ones’) and calls on God to arise and do it again, as He Himself thinks on the way that their enemies have mocked His Name. The Psalmist is now equally concerned with the vindication of God’s reputation.
This final subsection is also presented chiastically:
In both opening and closing verses God is called on to remember the reproaches of the enemy, and sandwiched within these verses is a dual call for deliverance based on that fact. The Psalmist recognises that His people do not deserve it, and thus he calls on God to deliver them, not for their sakes, but in order to vindicate His own Name. Note here the centrality of the covenant. It is only mentioned this once but the chiasmus designedly centres attention on it. It was that covenant which was the basis of his hopes.
He calls on YHWH to remember what the enemy have done. They have brought reproach on His Name. Note the rare use of YHWH in an Asaphic Psalm demonstrating that it is to be seen as having emphatic significance. YHWH was God’s covenant name, and the Psalmist is about to call on the covenant. But it is also because it is as YHWH, the God of Israel, that He has been brought into reproach by the enemy in their destroying of His people. Superficially what has happened has represented Him as unable to deliver. Only the discerning would realise that the lack was because of the covenant disobedience of His people. Thus he wants to stir YHWH into action to clear His Name.
The Psalmist rightly sees the attitude of their enemies as foolish. For he knows that to blaspheme the Name of YHWH can only result in evil consequences because of Who and What YHWH is. So his main aim is to awaken YHWH to what the enemy have done to His Names in order to spur Him on to act.
74.19 ‘Oh do not deliver the soul of your turtle-dove to the wild beast, :
But at the same time he reminds YHWH that His people are His turtle-dove, that is, they are weak and helpless and dependent on Him, and are seen as precious and beloved in His sight. And he calls on YHWH not to allow His turtle-dove to fall into the paws of wild beasts (as the Egyptians had). And whilst it may be that for the moment He has allowed His lowly ones to be captured by the enemy (because of their undeserving), he asks Him not to forget their lives for ever. All his emphasis is on their undeserving (they are lowly ones) and on God’s gracious love for them as His weak and helpless ‘turtle-dove’.
Then he comes to the crunch of his argument. Let YHWH have respect to His covenant, the promises that He has made to His people if they would truly be His people. Whilst His people have broken the covenant and ignored it, surely YHWH will not do so, for He is the One Who ‘will be (yahweh) what He will be’, the One Who is sovereign over all. And he stresses how necessary that covenant is for His people, for they live in a world which is full of dark places in which violent men live. (Some translate as ‘the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence’, seeing the Psalmist and his fellow-Israelites as hiding from the enemy in the hills, in caves and holes where if they are caught they will suffer violence).
There was, of course, a twofold covenant. The one given to the patriarchs which was unconditional, and the one given at Sinai which was conditional. Here he is basically appealing to the unconditional covenant. Let YHWH respond despite their undeserving.
So he calls on YHWH for His covenant’s sake not to let those who have been oppressed (His people) return (turn back) ashamed because He has failed to hear them and help them. Rather let them as His lowly and needy people have cause to praise Him because He has delivered them.
There is a reminder in all this of how we should seek God in prayer. Not pointing to our own merit, but admitting our lowliness and, desiring His glory, looking for Him to fulfil His covenant promises because of Who He is.
He closes the section as he opened it by calling on God to act, not for their sakes but for His own Name’s sake. Let Him arise and plead His own cause by acting in a way that vindicates Him. Let Him remember the reproaches of the foolish (the enemy) which they utter all the day, and act to counter them. Let Him not forget the voice of His adversaries, (the enemy who destroyed His Sanctuary), for their tumult arises against Him and ascends to Him continually. They constantly speak against Him and deride His Name. Let Him therefore hear it and act by delivering His people. Thus in the end the Psalmist’s expressed concern is for the honour of YHWH’s Name. It hurts him to think that God has been dishonoured.
This Psalm and the following one appear to have been deliberately made to follow Psalm 74. In Psalm 74 the cry had gone up ‘how long’ before God acts? In this Psalm and in the next we see God acting in spectacular judgment against the nations. But it is the ideas which are chronological, not necessarily the time of writing of the Psalms. It is an assurance that God does hear His people’s cry of ‘how long?’ In this Psalm the nations are warned against arrogance on the grounds that God will severely deal with those who arrogantly stand against God so that His people might praise Him. Many see it as reflecting the destruction of the Assyrians when they came against Jerusalem in the days of King Hezekiah and Isaiah the Prophet.
75.1a ‘For the Chief Musician; set to ‘Do Not Destroy’ (Al-tashheth). A Psalm of Asaph, a Song.
This Psalm is dedicated to the Chief Musician and is set to the tune of ‘Do Not Destroy’. It is a Psalm of Asaph. and a recognised Song. It was thus possibly both used in worship and as a ‘popular’ song. In it, after an opening giving of thanks, God speaks directly to the nations warning that He will judge them. This theme is then taken up by the Psalmist who warns the nations not to be arrogant or belligerent on the grounds that it is only God as the Judge of all men Who lifts up men and nations, and it is He Who makes them drink whatever He desires, ensuring that the wicked drink up the dregs. It then ends with praise for the One Who humbles the wicked, and exalts the righteous.
The Psalm may be analysed as follows:
Israel Give Thanks For The Nearness To Them Of God, As The One Whose Wondrous Works Are Well Known (75.1b).
The Psalm commences with Israel seen as giving twofold thanks to God because ‘His Name is near’. In other words they are sure that He, in the glory of what He is, is standing by them at the ready in order to help them (see 34.18; 145.18), and in order to bring judgment on their enemies (Isaiah 30.27). This gives them cause for thanks because His wondrous works are well known among men who tell of them openly. Thus they are confident that He will also act on their behalf with those same wondrous works.
For ‘His Name is near’ compare Isaiah 30.27. ‘Behold the Name of YHWH comes from far, burning with His anger’ in order to ‘sift the nations with the sieve of vanity’. His Name in this case represents His active self, acting in judgment against the Assyrians.
God Declares That As The Founder And Upholder Of The Earth He Will At The Appointed Time Judge The Nations, Who Will Melt Away Before Him (75.2-3).
God declares that whenever He considers it to be the appointed time He, and He alone, will act and judge uprightly. In the words ‘I will judge’ the word I is emphatic. ‘I and I alone will judge’. And when He does so the world and all its inhabitants will melt away before Him because it is He Who has established its pillars, that is has determined its moral order and moral basis (compare 11.3), as well as being the Founder of it. None can stand before Him. Compare Revelation 20.11. As always in the Psalms His judgment is seen as something acted out in this world on the objects of His judgment.
‘Selah.’ A musical interlude drawing attention to the point.
The Psalmist Calls On All Men And Warns Them Not To Exalt Themselves Or Be Arrogant Because Exaltation And Putting Down Comes From God Who Is The Judge Of All Men And Who Holds The Cup Of Judgment In His Hands And Makes Men Drink Of It (75.4-8).
In the light of God’s assurance that He will act in judgment against men when the right time comes, The Psalmist warns the arrogant and sinful, not to be foolish or arrogant. Let them recognise that men stand or fall as God determines.
The Psalmist’s warning goes out to those who are arrogant and to those who are proud and stiffnecked, and therefore obstinate. He calls on them not to be arrogant, and not to speak with a stiff neck. This last phrase makes it clear that ‘the lifting up of the horn’ (the forehead) has in mind an attitude of independence from God and an unwillingness to bend. Arrogance and a stiff neck are typical of the godless who know little of humility and lowliness. They think themselves above men and God. And he will warn them that such an attitude before God is foolish, because their futures are in His hands.
‘Do not lift up the horn.’ The metaphor is based on the way a stag or a bull would toss its head in defiance and pride. Typical of this arrogance of men was the behaviour of the Assyrian messengers before Jerusalem in 2 Kings 18.19-25, 32-35. They saw themselves as above YHWH. They were soon to learn differently.
He points out that if men are to be exalted it will not come from other earthly sources, whether east, west or south. (This points to men in the north being in mind, possibly suggesting Assyria). Whatever they might achieve in their conquests it would not finally exalt them. For exaltation comes from God alone. God is the One Who is the final Judge, and He decides whom He will put down and whom He will lift up.
It was a reminder to the nations that whilst they might think that their activities were determined by themselves, really they were God-determined. As Isaiah would declare, Assyria were successful because they were the Rod of His Anger, doing God’s will, even though they did foolishly choose to take things too far (Isaiah 10.5-11, 15). He raised up Assyria and put down Israel because He was chastening Israel. When the time came he would, and did, equally put down Assyria.
In the light of the fact that it is the ‘wicked’ of the earth who drink of the cup we must see this cup as the cup of God’s judgment, and of His wrath (Isaiah 51.17). The cup is in YHWH’s hand (a rare use of the Name YHWH in this section of the Psalms). The wine in it foams, and it is full of mixture (intoxicating herbs and spices), and He pours out from it. Thus God’s planned judgment is actively foaming and His cup of judgment is full and intoxicating. And it is this that He will pour out for His adversaries. He will make them drink it to the full. Its dregs will be drained by the wicked of the earth. They will experience His judgment to its bitter depths. They are wicked because they are acting against God’s purposes, and against His people.
The Psalmist Sings Praises To The God of Jacob Who Cuts Off The Horns Of The Wicked And Exalts The Horns Of The Righteous (75.9-10).
The Psalmist closes the Psalm by indicating that he will ‘declare for ever’ what God has done (that is, as long as he lives). And forever he will sing praises to the God of Jacob. And why will he do this? It is because of what God has promised. And he presents these promises in final words of YHWH (compare for such a sudden change 46.10). He had begun the Psalm with praise (verse 1), followed by words of YHWH (verses 2-3). He ends in the same way.
So the Psalm ends, as it began, with praise followed by direct words of YHWH giving assurance to His people, as He declares that He will cut off the horns of the wicked, rendering them powerless, but will lift up the horns of the righteous, making them effective. In the end it is the righteous who will triumph.
Cutting off the horns was a way of making wild beasts powerless. It made them safe to handle (in the same way they would draw the teeth of captured lions for the same reason). The righteous, in contrast, would be able to ‘toss their horns’ in freedom and victory because God had lifted them up. They could be trusted with ‘horns’. We notice that it is ‘the righteous’ who are mentioned not ‘His people’. Those who will be vindicated in the end, and will truly receive His promises are the truly righteous. As the history of Israel testifies many of ‘His people’ were not.
This Psalm was almost certainly written in order to celebrate the great deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrians in the time of King Hezekiah when the angel of YHWH ‘went forth and smote the camp of the Assyrians’ (2 Kings 19.35).
76.1a ‘For the Chief Musician, on stringed instruments. A Psalm of Asaph, a Song.’
The Psalm is dedicated to the Chief Musician and may have formed part of a collection in his name. It was to be played on stringed instruments, and was a Psalm of Asaph and a popular song. It divides up into four stanzas of three verses each:
God, Who Dwells In Zion, Has Made Himself Known By Breaking The Power Of The Assyrians (verses 1-3).
The Psalmist celebrates the fact that God dwells among His people in Mount Zion, and has made His greatness known in Israel by breaking the power of the enemy,
The Psalmist points out that God has made Himself known in Judah, and that His Name is great in Israel, because of what He has done in delivering Jerusalem. When the whole city was in fear He had brought about the impossible. Note how the terms Israel and Judah can both be applied to Hezekiah’s kingdom. His influence had reached out beyond the borders of Judah.
He rejoices in the fact that God is in ‘His Tabernacle’ (the Temple), dwelling in Mount Zion. He probably saw this as the reason why God had delivered Jerusalem (Salem). Such an idea would result in the false idea that God would not allow Jerusalem to be destroyed because He dwelt there. Jeremiah had to combat such an idea. But it was certainly a comfort to His people that He was present in the Temple in terms of His ‘Name’ being there (Deuteronomy 12.5). There was a sense in which He was directly among them. The ‘name’ to an Israelite represented what someone was.
The words could equally be translated, ‘in Salem also is His covert, and His lair in Zion’ (as the Lion of Judah) and it is this double entendre which helps to explain ‘the mountains of prey’ in verse 4. See the usages in 10.9, ‘He lurks in secret like a lion in his covert’; 104.22, ‘the young lions lie down in their lairs’; Amos 3.4. God is dwelling among His people as the Lion of Judah.
And it was there that He had broken the power of the enemy. This is depicted in terms of the breaking of their weapons. But He broke those weapons by rendering them useless rather than by destroying them. Their lightning like arrows, their shield and their swords, were rendered useless. It was those who used those weapons whom He destroyed, although many such weapons were no doubt left behind by those of the Assyrians who were left alive and able to retreat, and were smashed by the Israelites. ‘And the battle’ may indicate the siege weapons (the battle engines) or the battle formation, or may simply be summing up by saying He broke all who had come against Judah in battle. He destroyed their attack.
‘Selah.’ A musical pause or crescendo follows, indicating ‘think about that’.
He Has Revealed His Glory And Excellence By Leaping On The Enemy And ‘Putting Them To Sleep’ (verses 4-6).
As we saw verse 2 could be seen as describing God as being ‘in His covert and lair’ as the Lion of Judah, and it is this thought that leads on to God being ‘glorious and excellent’ in ‘the mountains of prey’ (the place where prey is to be found). He had, as it were, been in the mountains of prey, prowling in glory and excellence, waiting to leap on His prey from there (see Isaiah 14.25 and compare for the simile Isaiah 31.4). In this case the mountains of prey were the mountains around Judah on which the Assyrians had been encamped, unaware of what was about to leap on them and that they were the prey.
And when the Lion of Judah had leaped, the stouthearted soldiers of Assyria had been made a spoil, they had ‘slept their sleep’, the repetition indicating the finality of their sleep. The might men had been rendered helpless (they could not find their hands).
Indeed, as a consequence of the rebuke of the God of weak and helpless Jacob, all the Assyrian chariots and horses had been cast into a deep sleep. They too had been rendered inoperative.
God Is To Be Feared Because Of His Mighty Judgment As Revealed On The Assyrians (verses 7-9).
In a vivid picture the Psalmist sees God as seated on His Judgment Throne in Heaven, angry and irresistible, passing sentence against the Assyrians in the hearing of the world so that all the world waited in awe, and then as arising in judgment to save ‘all the meek of the earth.’
After considering what God had done to the Assyrians, the Psalmist declares that God is to be feared, because when He is angry no one can stand in His sight. He is all-powerful and irresistible. ‘You, even you’ emphasises that this was true of God, and of God alone.
For when God caused His sentence to be heard from Heaven, the whole world stood in awe, watching and waiting in stilled silence for God to act. Note that although His Name was among His people on earth, He Himself as Judge was seated in Heaven. God could not be limited to an earthly dwellingplace.
And then God did act in judgment in order to save ‘all the lowly ones of the earth’. Notice how the situation has become generalised. God’s concern is not only for lowly Judah, but for all who are lowly on whose behalf He will one day act, the ‘meek and lowly in heart’ (Matthew 11.28-30). This deliverance of Judah was the forerunner to God’s deliverance of all who wait on Him..
God Is To Be Honoured By All As The Great Deliverer (10-12).
God is the One Who turns all men’s puny efforts of wrath to His own ends. He utilises them to bring praise to His Name, and wears what remains as a sign of His sovereignty. Thus all should submit to Him and offer Him tribute, because He is the One Who is over all princes and kings.
The point here is that when men exercise their wrath on earth God turns it to His glory, as He had done with the Assyrians. Man’s puny efforts to obtain vengeance fail in the face of God’s power. What remains of their wrath God will use as clothing in order to manifest His glory.
The thought is that in the time of trouble the people had made vows to God. Now they are to make their vows good, and pay to YHWH their God what they vowed. The use of the Name YHWH emphasises the personal nature of what they are to do. They are to pay what they vowed as to Judah’s covenant God. All who are round about Him, living in and around Jerusalem, are to bring their tribute ‘to the Fear’, that is to their awesome God Who strikes terror into the hearts of their enemies. That they did so is testified to in 2 Chronicles 32.23, where it also probably included gifts from surrounding nations.
An it was wise to fear Him. For even princes and kings are not safe from Hs hand. He cuts off the spirit of Princes (causes them to die) and is terrible to the kings of the earth, who are right to fear Him.
The whole Psalm is testimony to the fact that God watches over the weak and lowly and deals severely with those who would harm them.
77.1a ‘For the Chief Musician; after the manner of Jeduthun. A Psalm of Asaph.
This Psalm is again a ‘Psalm of Asaph’, dedicated for the purpose of Temple worship to the Chief Musician. Jeduthun, (also named Ethan, unless Ethan suddenly died and was replaced by Jeduthun - 1 Chronicles 15.17 ff.; 16.41, 42), along with Asaph and Heman, was a leader in Tabernacle worship in the time of David, directly under the order of the king (1 Chronicles 25.6), singing and playing on the brazen cymbals (1 Chronicles 16.41, 42; 25.1, 3, 6). He continued to hold this position in the time of Solomon (2 Chronicles 5.12). His descendant officiated in the time of Josiah, and was the king’s seer (2 Chronicles 35.15). ‘After the manner of’ may indicate that the family of Jeduthun was responsible for the setting or musical composition of the Psalm.
The Psalm is very much one of the triumph of faith over adversity, a faith expressed strongly in verse 1. For although from the Psalm we learn that his heart and soul were deeply troubled as it appeared as though God had forgotten His people, he also remembered God’s goodness of long before so that he could still commence by saying with confidence, ‘I will cry to God -- and He will give ear to me’. He was sure that although things looked dark, and he had only the past to go on, God could not fail His people in the end. Thus he would go on praying ‘in the dark’ sure that in the end God would hear and respond.
Thus, the whole Psalm hinges on verse 1. It is his statement of faith there which triumphs over all that follows. In the face of all his dark experience described in verses 2-10 he is determined to hold on to the fact that God does hear him (verse 1), a certainty which he sees as confirmed by the fact that God had in the past safely delivered His people (11-20). Surely He must then at some stage respond and do it again?
The Cry Of Assurance In The Face Of Adversity (77.1b).
Against all past evidence the Psalmist declares his faith that God will hear him at some time in the future.
We must not under-appreciate the deep faith of the Psalmist in the face of inscrutability of God, for the Psalm commences with a declaration of total trust in God as the answerer of prayer. And he does this despite what he will go on to say about his having agonised in the past in seemingly hopeless prayer, in the face of adversity, without any clear response. Despite that he declares his confidence that, when he cries to God with his voice, God will hear him however bleak the future looks.. He will not allow the past and his seeming unanswered prayer to blight his faith. He will go on praying confidently. This is not simply a trite saying about prayer which makes him sounds spiritual. It is a certainty hammered out in the midst of the darkest of circumstances.
Whilst his praying might appear to have failed in the past, and he has spent much time in soul searching and tears without response. Nevertheless he is still confident that God will hear in the future. he will battle on in prayer until it is so. Many a believer goes through this dark night of the soul when God for a while appears to be unresponsive. But through it all such a believer must be like the Psalmist and recognise that God does still hear, however much past experience may suggest otherwise. ‘He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him’ (Hebrews 11.6), whatever the past may suggest.
A Description Of The Psalmist’s Previous Wrestling In Prayer Concerning His Day Of Trouble When He Was Sorely Disturbed And Overwhelmed (77.2-3).
He now describes how in the day of his trouble he sought the Lord, only to be troubled and overwhelmed in spirit.
He asserts how diligently he had sought the Sovereign Lord, stretching out his hand unwaveringly, refusing in his inner heart to be comforted with anything less than God’s wholehearted response. He was desperate. He was determined to receive an answer. He would accept nothing less.
In vivid words that bring the past into the present he makes clear that he had remembered God, and yet he had continued to be troubled. He had pondered the situation facing him and his people and his spirit had been overwhelmed. Why did God not do something?
‘Selah.’ A musical pause or crescendo that said, ‘think on that’.
In His Insomnia And Despair He Looks Back To Good Times And Wonders Where He Has Gone Wrong (77.4-6).
Unable to sleep in the face of adversity he is so troubled that he is rendered speechless, and his mind goes back to when prayer had been a joy and there had been a song in his heart. Search as he will he cannot find an answer to his present situation..
He continues to describe his despair in prayer. God has kept his eyes awake. His nights were sleepless and he has been so troubled that he could not even speak. He simply did not know what to say. All he could think was, “Oh God, where are you?’
In his darkness he looked back at the past. He considered past times. and the years that had gone by. He remembered the times when in his heart there had been a song in the night, and he talked to his heart about it and searched his spirit diligently. But he found no answer. What had changed so that he was now in such despair? Where had he gone wrong? Why had he lost his song in the night? Why was everything so blank?
He Cannot Understand Why God Does Not Hear And Respond. Has He Really Finished With His People? (77.7-9).
As he thinks about God he is brought to a sense of God’s inactivity. He is filled with a threefold fear:
In his despair he has even begun to question God. Will the Sovereign Lord cast off His people for ever? Will He be favourable to them no longer? Does He no longer look on them as His people for whom He is responsible? Will He not help them in their day of trouble?
Has their covenant God forgotten His love expressed and revealed in the covenant, so that that love has vanished for ever? Is His promise (to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) no longer valid? Will it never again be effective?
Worst of all was the fear that the God of mercy had ceased to know how to show compassion towards His people. Had He forgotten how to be gracious? Had He in His anger closed His heart towards His people so that He no longer showed them lovingkindness? Had He abandoned them?
‘Selah.’ Once more the music draws attention to what has just been said.
He Declares His Grief At God’s Recent Lack Of Activity (77.10).
The question here is as to whether the difficult verse 10 is a final declaration of his fears, or is the first verse introducing the new hope. On the face of it, it appears to be the former.
One problem we have is how to translate ‘shenoth’. It can indicate ‘has changed’ or it can signify ‘the years of’. Thus we can see this as saying that the Psalmist’s great grief is that the years (shenoth) of the right hand of the Most High which have just passed have no longer been profitable for His people. Rather they have been spent in inactivity. God has no longer been active on their behalf.
Or, taking another possible meaning of shenoth, we could read as ‘this is my grief (affliction), the changing (shenoth) of the right hand of the Most High’. Following on from the previous verses concerning the possibility of God having turned away from His people, the idea would then be that his great grief (his affliction - chalah) was that the right hand of the Most High has changed in the way He has described. It has ceased to be active on behalf of His people. Both would be saying the same thing in a slightly different way.
Others, by reading a possible ‘entreaty’ instead of ‘grief, affliction’, see it as rather introducing the hopefulness which follows in the following verses, rendering it as something like, ‘this is my entreaty (concerning, with respect to) the years of the right hand of the Most High’. Then his entreaty is basically that God will work again as He did of old. Or alternately, by inserting ‘I will remember’, we would have ‘this is my entreaty, (I will remember) the years of the right hand of the Most High’.
Our initial suggestion saw this verse as a final completion of the description of the hopelessness of the situation, an interpretation which goes best with the thought of the word ‘grief’ or ‘affliction’. The years have passed by and the right hand of the Most High has been inactive, or alternately the right hand of the Most High has changed so that it is inactive. The switch from negative in verse 10 to positive in verse 11 would parallel the switch from positive in verse 1 to negative in verse 2. The second suggestion sees it as the commencement of the hope arising from his entreaty. He makes his entreaty and remembers the previous activity of the right hand of God. This would tie in with his assertion in verse 1 that God would hear his prayer. He has now heard his entreaty. The problem with this suggestion is that it requires additional wording which is not obvious, and which alters the direction of the argument in order to make sense of it, always a questionable tactic.
On the whole then it appears best to see this verse as a last despairing look at God’s silence prior to the more positive outlook of verses 11-12.
He Looks Back To When God Did Act For His People (77.11-15).
At this point his hopes arise as he thinks back to what has been in the past. In the blackness of his despair, when all appears lost, he turns his thoughts back to the days of old when God did act on behalf of His people, and hope springs up within his heart. He remembers Who God is and what He has done of old.
Out of his gloom he takes a positive glance at the past. He will declare the deeds of YHWH (YAH) and will bring to mind His wonders of old. He will meditate on all that He has done in the past, and ponder His great exploits. Thus use of the shortened form YAH would bring o mind the deliverance from Egypt (78.4; Exodus 15.2).
This then brings him to recognise that God acts in holiness and uniqueness, in such a way that it reveals Him as greater and more righteous than all gods. What He has done in the past has revealed Him as far above all, so that there is none as great as He. For ‘Who is a great God like God?’ compare Exodus 15.11, where the phrase is similarly connected with the holiness of God..
And this verdict arose from what He had accomplished at the Exodus, when He had performed great wonders and had made known His might among the nations (Exodus 15.14-15). It had been a never to be forgotten feat.
Then with His mighty arm He had redeemed His people from bondage in Egypt, ‘the sons of Jacob and Joseph’. The combination of Jacob and Joseph again pointed to the time in Egypt when Joseph was prominent, along with Jacob. The Egyptians would have connected Israel with ‘Jacob and Joseph’. But note that in Obadiah 18 the two are also named together as indicating all Israel. Joseph was, of course, the father of the two great tribes Ephraim and Manasseh, who were grandsons of Jacob.
‘Selah.’ Once again the music, or silence from it, indicates an important moment.
He Recalls God’s Mighty Deliverance At The Exodus When He Shook The World (77.16-19).
The introduction of the Exodus deliverance now leads on to a description of the never to be forgotten experience at the Sea of Reeds, described in poetic imagery in terms of a mighty storm.
On the amazing day all of nature had been aware of the presence of God. The waters saw Him and were afraid, and drew back. The very depths trembled. Note the change of tense to make it more vivid. The clouds poured out water when needed, the skies thundered, lightning flashed on every side. God was there in the midst of the storm. The description is, of course, poetic licence, bringing out the glory of God’s mighty intervention and presence. (As far as we know there was no storm, although it is always possible).
The great wind that divided the waters has become a whirlwind, in which also, as it swirled around, was the sound of God’s thunder. Lightnings lit up the world. The earth trembled and shook, as it might well at the presence of the Almighty. For the description compare 97.4. The point is that God was revealed in all His power.
What had been sea became dry land so that His people could pass. He made a way in the sea. He made paths in the great waters. And then He covered it all up by bringing in the sea again. No trace of His footsteps were left. Next morning it was as though none of it had ever been apart from the debris of the Egyptian army. None would know that God had passed by. But Israel would never forget.
The remembrance of the redemption of Israel in such a powerful way aroused faith in the Psalmist’s heart. Surely the God Who had done this for His people would not forget them? This is what gives him his confidence in verse 1.
His Final Thought Is On The Glory Of What Followed The Red Sea Crossing As His People Were Led Forward In Peace (77.20).
And the consequence of His mighty deliverance was that God, as Shepherd of His people, led them like a flock under His under-shepherds Moses and Aaron. The mighty storm had subsided and all was peace as He led His people through the wilderness.
The abrupt ending is intended. All was now well. His people were being led in safety. And in the same way the Psalmist was confident that, after the tumult of his prayer life, God would hear his prayer and deliver His people again. For, whatever the tumult of the present circumstances, this was clearly His intention for His people. After the storm came peace. Thus his confidence expressed in verse 1.
78.1a ‘Maschil of Asaph.’
A Maschil is a Psalm giving instruction and understanding. In this Psalm the Psalmist reveals his intention to make clear to Israel and Israel’s children the wonders of what God had done for their fathers in the past in order that they might walk in obedience before Him by learning from the past. It covers in some detail the deliverance from Egypt, the journey through the wilderness with all its problems, the constant failure of His people because they had forgotten what God had done for them, a description of what had happened in Egypt that they had forgotten, their treacherous behaviour in the land that He had given them, His consequent rejection of the house of Ephraim and His subsequent choice of David of the house of Judah to be their righteous king, and of Mount Zion as the Temple Mount.
Central to the question as to the dating of the Psalm is the description of Israel as ‘the children of Ephraim’ (Ephraim became the largest and most influential tribe in Northern Israel and in time was seen as representing them). This phrase would in context appear to signify the main body of Israel. But the first indication we have that the phrase ‘the children of Ephraim’ could signify ‘all Israel’ (in contrast with Judah) is found in 2 Chronicles 25.7 attributed to the reign of Amaziah (796-767 BC). See a further reference in 2 Chronicles 28.12. If we accept that the Chronicler used an ancient source, as is probable, this would take us back to 8th century BC. It may be significant that it was in that century that Hosea also referred to Israel as ‘Ephraim’. Furthermore, if we consider that the title ‘the Holy One of Israel’ (verse 41) was initially coined by Isaiah, it might also be seen as pointing to 8th century BC. But the phrase is also found in 2 Kings 19.22 and in Psalm 89.18, and may have been in vogue before Isaiah found it useful for his purpose. All in all, with its ending with David as Shepherd of His people it may well be dated in the reign of Hezekiah who was seen as ‘another David’ (2 Kings 18.3; 2 Chronicles 29.2).
It is true that the phrase the ‘children of Ephraim’ (verse 9) does not play a central role in the Psalm, but the ‘children of Ephraim’ are undoubtedly part of a sub-theme explaining why God did not choose ‘Ephraim’ (verse 67) but rather chose Judah as the leading tribe, and subsequently David as king of all Israel, and why He chose Mount Zion on the borders of Judah as His earthly dwellingplace (replacing Shiloh). It was apparently because of Ephraim’s initial failure to measure up. The lack of mention of Ephraim’s subsequent sad history may also point to an earlier rather than a later date.
The crucial verses in this regard are verses 9-11, ‘the children of Ephraim, being armed and carrying bows, turned back in the day of battle. They did not keep the covenant of God, and refused to walk in His Law, and they forgot His doings and the wondrous works that He had showed them’, and this in the context of the generation that came out of Egypt (verse 8). This could only refer to Israel’s failure to enter Canaan at the first opportunity due to the cowardice of the people (Numbers 13-14), an opportunity out of which only Judah came out with credit because of Caleb (Numbers 14.24). Joshua’s part seems to have been relatively ignored (although see Numbers 14.30, 38). This was no doubt why Judah led the first foray into the land (Judges 1.2), a foray which is specifically connected with Caleb (Judges 1.11-15, 20). Meanwhile the remainder of Israel were not performing so well. They were seemingly not as enthusiastic as Judah in advancing the conquest but were more content with the status quo (Judges 1.22-36). This triumph of Judah had already been prophesied in Genesis 49.8-12.
We must now look at the Psalm in detail. It can be divided up as follows:
The Psalmist Calls On The People To Listen As He Draws Lessons From The Past, Including The Giving Of The Law, So That Those Lessons Might Be Passed On To Future Generations (78.1b-7).
The Psalmist calls on his people to pay heed to his instruction and listen to the words of his mouth, because he intends to bring home to them an illustration from the past (a parable), bringing to light things that are hidden. ‘Dark sayings’ apparently indicates sayings which bring light on the mysteries of the past. There is nothing sinister about them. Thus the second two lines are paraphrased by Matthew as, ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world’ (Matthew 13.34-35). Matthew is saying that Jesus was following the Psalmist in His method of teaching, and filling to the full what the Psalmist had said. So he clearly saw the Psalmist’s intention as being to open up the past to his listeners. And that will include God’s covenant which includes God’s Law and Testimony which unfold His hidden wisdom. They were ‘dark sayings’ because they were hidden from the majority of mankind.
Note here that the ‘dark sayings’ are things which have been ‘heard and known’. They are not secret. They are revelations from the past, things which their fathers have told them. They are ‘dark’ because they reveal the ways of a mysterious God. The nations of the world are in the dark about them, but they are openly revealed to His people.
The Psalmist stresses that they will not hide them from their children. They are ‘mysteries’ to be opened up and passed on to their (the fathers’) children, telling from one generation to another the praises of YHWH and letting them know of His might, and the wonderful things that He has done for His people. The truth about God and His wonderful works must not be kept hidden but must be declared everywhere. And it is these wonderful things which the Psalm will be all about.
Among these wondrous works was the giving of the Law and the Testimony which He established in Jacob and appointed in Israel. The Law was not seen as a burden, but as a revelation. It was a testimony to God’s gracious activity on behalf of His people. And the Law and the Testimony were given as commands to their fathers with a view to them being made known to their children, so that they might hear them and respond. (The Law only became a burden when it became a method of earning God’s favour, rather than a joyous response to His love).
Some, however, see this testimony and law as referring specifically to the law that the fathers should teach their children, and they their children (Exodus 10.2; 12.26, 27; 13.8 ff; 14; Deuteronomy 4.9; 6.20; 11.19; etc.). But that interpretation leaves the meaning of ‘them’ open to question. Such interpreters refer back to verse 3 and 4 but it is not very satisfactory.
The Covenant, of which the Law and the Testimony were a part, was intended to be passed on from generation to generation, so that all might set their hope in God and not forget His works, but might observe His commandments. It was a sacred trust and responsibility. The Law and Testimony, of course, included both the history of God’s working on behalf of His people (His works) and His legal requirements which He expected from them as His redeemed people (His commandments). But both were connected with His redeeming love. We must never forget that His commandments were an essential part of a covenant treaty that He had made with them as their Deliverer from Egypt (Exodus 20.1-17).
They Were Not To Be As Their Fathers Who Had Quickly Forgotten What God Had Done And Had Rebelled And Drawn Back From Doing His Will When Danger Threatened When They Sought To Enter The Land (78.8-11).
The Psalmist was concerned that his hearers, and the children yet unborn, might not behave in the way in which their fathers had. For as the history will make clear, their fathers had been a stubborn and rebellious generation, who did not set their heart aright and whose spirit was not steadfast with God. It was because their hearts were wrong that they had constantly grumbled, doubted God, blamed Him for not giving them what they wanted, and been disobedient to His requirements, and that in spite of His amazing deliverance of them from Egypt.
‘Stubborn and rebellious’, indicating an unwillingness to listen to God in spite of His pleadings, are the words used in Deuteronomy 21.18 of the son who would not listen at any price. The idea of rebellion occurs constantly throughout the Psalm (verses 17, 41, 56).
The prime example of this was that all Israel, when faced with the problems lying ahead in the land, had, in spite of being armed (and having the assurance that God was with them), turned back at the very thought of battle (Numbers 13-14). Only Caleb had stood firm on behalf of Judah (Numbers 14.24). The Psalmist saw this as crucial in deciding their future.
‘The children of Ephraim’ clearly means ‘all Israel’ in 2 Chronicles 25.7; 28.12, whilst Hosea can also speak of Northern Israel as ‘Ephraim’ (Hosea 4.18; 5.3; and often). This would place the Psalm in the context of 8th century BC when Israel had become known by that name. That it here refers to all Israel (as opposed to Judah) is apparent from verses 67-68, and from the context which looks back to the generation which died in the wilderness. It was they who had turned back when God had commanded them to go forward.
It was part of the covenant that His people would go forward when He told them to go forward, but they did not do so. They failed to ‘walk in His instruction’. They held back and said ‘no’. In the face of present realities they forgot His past doings, and the wondrous works which He had shown them in the past. Their refusal, arising from doubt and fear, determined that for the future God would look to the house and tribe of Caleb (Numbers 14.24; Joshua 15.13-20; Judges 16-20). And that was why in Judges 1 Judah led the onslaught into Canaan (Judges 1.2-11), whilst the other tribes held back from a full onslaught (Judges 1.21-36). This was the view of the Psalmist (he probably saw Joshua as above all this). And he saw it as vindicated when God chose David to be His righteous King, and Mount Zion as His earthly dwellingplace (verse 68). This in accordance with God’s promise in Genesis 49.8-12.
The Psalmist Describes God’s Wondrous Works On Their Fathers’ Behalf And How In Spite Of Them Their Fathers Had Sinned (78.12-32).
Strictly speaking what immediately follows did not take place within this area. If therefore this is intended to be a summary of them, describing where they occurred, it is geographically very loose. Indeed, in verse 43 this phraseology has in mind especially the plagues of Egypt. And those certainly fit better into the context described, the land of Egypt and the field of Zoan. For what immediately follows took place mainly outside the land of Egypt, and certainly not in the field of Zoan (Tanis) which was by one of the branches of the Nile and was the northern capital of Egypt, and the capital of the Hyksos dynasty. This was the area where most of the plagues were initiated.
But here he goes on to speak of the more positive benefits that God piled on His people mainly after they had left Egypt. Perhaps the Psalmist intended this verse to sum up the great initial acts of deliverance, prior to what he then describes, deciding later that those acts deserved dealing with in depth. On this basis verse 12 has in mind the ten plagues, including especially the slaying of the firstborn.
What follows indicates a detailed knowledge of the Exodus as found in Exodus and Numbers.
The first incident described is the dividing of the Reed Sea in order that Israel might escape through it. Previously Israel had watched as God dealt with the Egyptians, although there had been instances of preservation. But now God acted directly in their deliverance. ‘He made the waters of the Reed Sea ‘to stand as a heap’. This is described in Exodus as, ‘the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left’ (Exodus 14.22). Thus God made a way for them through the Reed Sea, only for the Egyptian charioteers who followed them to be destroyed.
A further manifestation of God’s saving presence with them was the sign of His presence in the cloud by day and the fire by night. In this way they were aware of His visible presence with them. See Exodus 13.21-22; 14.19-20; 40.38; Numbers 9.16-23; 10.11-12; Deuteronomy 1.33. The pillar of cloud accompanied them for a number of years (Numbers 9.22), and was a regular manifestation of God’s presence in the Tabernacle.
These words describe two incidents where God produced water for His people in abundant quantities from ‘rocks’. In Exodus 17.6 God stood on the rock (tsur) in Horeb and Moses smote it and water came out. In Numbers 20.8-11 it was from the craggy rock (sela‘) when he should not have smitten it, but did. But in both cases God gave them drink abundantly, and caused water to run down like rivers. The amount of water must have been considerable for it was sufficient for the people and their cattle.
And yet in spite of these manifestations of God’s power and care they went on still to sin against Him, and ‘to rebel against the Most High in the desert’. Their rebellion lay in the fact that instead of being satisfied with God’s supply, they expected Him to fulfil their desires. Indeed, they put God to the test in their hearts by asking for food ‘in accordance with their desire’. They were constantly at loggerheads with the God Who had been so good to them. This idea of rebelling against God and putting Him to the test occurs regularly. See also verses 41, 56. It is a theme of the Psalm. The rebellion produced murmuring, and through their murmuring and dissatisfaction they were testing God.
Essentially this is referring to Numbers 11 where the people, sick of God’s provision of manna, murmured because they wanted flesh to eat. Then they ‘spoke against God’ and asked, ‘Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? He gave us water to drink by the smiting of a rock so that we had abundant water, can He also give us desirable food? Instead of being grateful to the God Who had delivered them from bondage in Egypt and had provided them with manna, they were dissatisfied in their hearts because His provision was not seen as good enough. They had become choosy. If He could give them water, why could He not give them flesh to eat? It was not a cry of need, but of greed and presumption.
God heard their cry and was angry. He felt that they should have been grateful for what He had provided for them. As a consequence He sent fire on them. ‘The fire of YHWH burned among them’ (Numbers 11.1-3). This may indicate that there was destructive lightning, or that the Pillar of fire had turned against them. They had brought on themselves God’s wrath. The smoke from the fire ‘went up’ as a demonstration of God’s anger. And the fire only eased when Moses interceded for them.
And at the root of His anger was their lack of faith. It was because they ‘did not believe in God’. In other words they did not trust Him fully. They were not satisfied with the way in which He was delivering them. His salvation was not good enough. They wanted the luxuries, not just the necessities. It is a reminder how quickly we can move from being grateful for His activity on our behalf, to becoming disgruntled and dissatisfied, and wanting that something extra.
This dissatisfaction and disgruntlement was in spite of what God had previously done for them. That was what made them without excuse. He had previously seen their need and had ‘opened the doors of Heaven’ (a metaphorical description. No one thought that what came from above came through doors) and had rained down manna from Heaven on them (as He had said in Exodus 16.4, ‘Behold I will rain bread from Heaven for you’). But it had not been good enough for them. They had become sick of it.
That this was seen as offensive by the Psalmist comes out in the words, ‘Mere man had eaten heavenly food’. He was bringing out that instead of being grateful for an amazing provision ‘from Heaven’ the people had been dissatisfied, despite the fact that God had sent them all the food that they needed. ‘The bread of the mighty’ indicates its source among the mighty in Heaven. Later it would be spoken of as ‘angel’s food’ (Wisdom 16.20).
The verbs are translated as pluperfects because this is a glance back at what God had already done. In Hebrew there is no pluperfect, only a tense which indicates that an action has been completed (often called the ‘perfect’ tense, that is the tense that indicates that something has been completed). But what is described here had been completed prior to the murmuring of verses 19-20. And in English that requires the pluperfect. (Chronology was less important to Israel than to us).
God heard their cry, but He was not pleased at their request. Nevertheless by use of the south east wind He brought to the camp a large flock of quails, which landed in and around where they were encamped, so that they only had to leave their tents to catch them (Numbers 11.31 ff.). And there were so many that all the people had sufficient to eat and more. God had had answered their prayer and seemingly fulfilled their desire. But as often when we are obstinate and seek what is not good for us there was a price to pay.
‘They were not estranged from their desire’, in other words they ‘got what they wanted’. But it was at a cost. For God had a bitter lesson to teach them. He was angry at their greed and thanklessness, and thus among the birds were many which were infected and poisonous, so that ‘whilst the food was yet in their mouths’ (Numbers 11.33 says, ‘while the flesh was still in their teeth, before it was chewed’) many became ill and even died. God ‘slew the fattest of them (the greediest or healthiest), and smote down the young men of Israel’. If only they had been satisfied with God’s provision of manna, a perfectly safe food, it would not have happened. But they preferred quails, and they had therefore to accept the risk that eating the flesh of birds involved. It was God’s judgment on them.
And yet in spite of all that God had done for them, and this harsh warning to them, they still sinned and murmured. They ‘did not believe in His wondrous works’. In other words, despite His wondrous works, they continued to seek their own way rather than trusting in Him and obeying Him.
As A Direct Consequence Of Their Lack Of Trust And Obedience They Went Trough Years Of Ups And Downs, Sometimes Relying On God As Their Rock, And At Other Times Seeking To Deceive Him Because Their Hearts Were Not Right, But In All This He Was Patient With Them And Remembered That They Were Only Mere Mortals (78.33-39).
The Psalmist now describes their years in the wilderness consequent on their having failed to obey Him and enter Canaan.
He points out that they were days of emptiness for thirty eight years as they wandered aimlessly from one place to another, when they should have been taking possession of Canaan (we have no details of this barren period). And they were days of terror as they constantly faced obstacles and problems, the main one of which of which we know was the rebellion of Korah with its awful consequences described in Numbers 16.1-17.13. (Note their terror in Numbers 16.34; 17.12-13. See also Numbers 21.7). Until they were ready to consider entering Canaan again, the Scripture is mainly silent about these years.. They were not Israel’s best time.
During these years they went through periods of chastisement as in the aftermath of their anger at what had happened to Korah and his supporters (Numbers 16.45, 49); during the time when they by-passed Edom (Numbers 21.4-6); and as a consequence of their failure at Baal-peor (Numbers 26.3-4, 9). And each time they would return and seek God earnestly, and remember that God was their Rock, their sure Foundation, and that the Most High God was their Redeemer and Deliverer.
But their protestations of reliance on Him turned out to be flattery and lies, for whilst they honoured Him with their mouths, their hearts were far from Him, and they were not faithful to His covenant. They neither remained faithful to the Aaronic priesthood (Numbers 16.3, 21, 40, 41, 45), nor kept themselves from idols (Numbers 25.2-3). These would be just two examples of their many failures in those hidden years.
And yet time and again God was merciful to them and forgave their iniquity. He did not destroy them as they deserved. He turned His anger away from them and did not stir up His deepest anger.
For He remembered that they were only mere mortals, made of flesh and, like the wind, transient and temporary. Or it may mean containing breath which soon passed away and never returned.
He Draws Out That Their Failure And Rebellion Was In The Face Of The Miracles He Had Performed Against Their Enemies In Order To Redeem Them From Egypt (78.40-51).
In spite of God’s forbearance (verse 18) they did not repent, but instead continually rebelled against Him and vexed Him in the wilderness..
They turned their backs on previous repentance, turning again to rebellion and continually putting God to the test, provoking ‘the Holy One of Israel’. They were obstinate and intransigent, and continually disobeyed Him. This is the second time that their rebellion and testing of God has been emphasised. See verses 17-18. It is one of the threads that run through the Psalm.
The use of the title ‘the Holy One of Israel’ brings out the heinousness of their behaviour. On the one hand a sinful, rebellious and ungrateful people, on the other the pure, and high and holy God Of Israel Who demanded purity and full obedience. It was no ordinary god that they were provoking.
And they had done all this in the face of what He had done for them, in stretching out His hand in Egypt and performing miracles. And they had forgotten that amazing day when He had delivered them from their adversary. Those wonderful events will now be given in detail.
Drawing attention to what he had already said in verse 12 the Psalmist again reminds the people how God had worked unforgettable signs and winders in Egypt, in the area of Tanis (Zoan), the city restored by Raamses II, where they had been in slavery. They had been part of the enslaved labour force used in the restoration of that city with nothing to look forward to but more slavery, when God intervened. For the phraseology compare Exodus 10.1-2, ‘My signs which I have set among them’.
He had turned the rivers of the Egyptians (the Nile and its tributaries) into blood and had made the streams from that river undrinkable. See Exodus 7.17 ff. The word for ‘rivers’ is particularly used for the Nile and its tributaries. Strictly speaking what had happened was that the higher than usual Nile had become saturated with fine red dust nearer to its source, which had swept down in the powerful flow making the river look blood red.
He had sent among them swarms of venomous flies of a kind known in Egypt. These would largely have multiplied because of the decaying fish and vegetation in the dust saturated Nile and its surrounds (Exodus 8.20-32), which would have caused multiple sickness and death.
‘And frogs which destroyed them.’ The frogs (Exodus 7.25) would have been escaping from the putrid waters of the Nile and its tributaries, which were no longer suitable for them, seeking to find shelter in Egyptian houses. The Egyptians found frogs everywhere, destroying their peace and wellbeing. The sudden demise of the frogs suggests that they were infected with a form of internal anthrax.
God had also caused Egypt to be saturated with locusts, who would eat all that the people had laboured to produce, and who would produce young locusts who would add to the devastation (Exodus 10.1-20).
The word for caterpillar almost certainly refers to the young locust in its earliest form which would feast on their vegetation and crops. The full grown locusts, which produced the young locusts, would descend in a huge cloud, covering the land and eating everything which was edible. The vast numbers would have occurred because of the unusual height of the Nile which would provide conditions in which they could proliferate.
God had caused unusually large hailstones to destroy their produce (Exodus 9.13-35). ‘It ‘shattered every tree in the countryside’ (Exodus 9.25). It also slew men and beasts who had not taken shelter. Hailstones have been known to fall which were the size of rocks.
The cattle which had not taken shelter had also been killed by the huge hailstones, and hot thunderbolts had smitten their flocks. The hail had been accompanied by flashing lightning (Exodus 9.24).
This verse summarises what has gone before. What had been poured on Egypt had been the fierceness of God’s anger because of their treatment of His people. He had poured on them wrath, and indignation and trouble (the threefoldness emphasising its severity). The messengers of evil may be a personifying of the plagues, or may be intended to indicate heavenly beings who had been God’s agents in the plagues. Compare the angel in Exodus 14.19 who protected Israel on the way to the Reed Sea. But no angel is otherwise mentioned in the Exodus narrative where all is imputed to YHWH.
His final wonder was the greatest and most terrible. Earlier plagues had resulted in deaths, but they had been circumstantial. Now God planned deaths. He ‘made a path for His anger’. That is, He prepared the way for it so that it would hit with full force. For He did not spare the lives of the Egyptians from death, but smote them with death-dealing pestilence, smiting all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, those who were the mainstay and strength of Egypt, the very source of their strength. He smote them ‘in the tents of Ham’, that is in their homes as descendants of Ham, the son of Noah (see Genesis 10.6).
He Describes How Israel’s Shepherd God Had Led Them Through The Wilderness, Had Delivered Them Through The Reed Sea, And Had Brought Them Safely Into The Country Which He Caused Them To Inherit (78.52-55).
In contrast with His treatment of the Egyptians who had enslaved His people, He led forth His own people as a shepherd leads his sheep. He guided them in the wilderness like a flock. As mentioned in the introduction to this section of the Psalms the picture of God as His people’s shepherd is a favourite one in the Psalms of Asaph. His aim now is to show how good God had been to them.
As their shepherd He led them safely through the Reed Sea so that they were not afraid that the sea would overwhelm them, but it was different with their enemies, for the sea did overwhelm them.
And He brought them to the border of the country which He had chosen as a sanctuary for them. ‘This mountain’ indicates the whole of the hill country of Israel (compare Exodus 15.17, where it is called God’s own mountain and a sanctuary). And He obtained it for them with His powerful right hand.
He obtained it for them by driving out the nations before them, allotting the land to them as an inheritance with clear borders to each inheritance (by line), and enabling Israel to dwell in it in safety in their tents. This is a very brief description of a much more complicated scenario, but it gets over the point. Under Joshua they obtained a secure place in the land, and subsequently enjoyed long periods of peace. Certainly by the time of David they dwelt very securely in their tents.
In Response To God’s Goodness Israel Again Put God To The Test And Rebelled Against Him By Erecting Idolatrous High Places And Making Graven Images So That God Was Again Angry And Forsook His Central Sanctuary At Shiloh And Allowed His People To Be Made Captive And Experience Bloodshed And Slaughter (78.56-64).
These verses have in mind the period under the Judges, when the people again put God to the test and rebelled against Him by erecting idolatrous high places and making graven images. As a consequence God was angry and forsook His Central Sanctuary at Shiloh, allowing the people to come under the heel of others, and to suffer continual bloodshed.
The ‘they’ are now the descendants of the Israel of the Exodus. Like their fathers had done they once again put God to the test and rebelled against ‘the Most High God’ (Elohim Elyon). They did not observe His testimonies.
Like their fathers had done they turned back from following God, and were as treacherous as their fathers had been. Like arrows from a bow that promises much but is off aim, they went astray. Alternately the bow may be seen as deceitful because its archer deliberately shoots at the wrong target, just as these people had deliberately aimed themselves in the wrong direction.
And what was it that they had done which was contrary to His testimonies, and was seen as so rebellious? They had provoked Him to anger by making sanctuaries for false gods, and by fashioning graven images in order to worship them. They had sought to the gods of the land, the Baals and the Asherim. High places were sanctuaries on mountain tops, and artificially made high places in towns and cities, usually in Canaan for the worship of Baal and Asherah. But God had forbidden the worship of false gods. They were thus insulting Him to His face.
When God heard of and saw their blatant idolatry He was angry and turned His back on His people. He wanted nothing more to do with them. For a while at least He was finished with them.
He deserted the Tabernacle at Shiloh, the tent which He had established among them, the place where He had established His Name, and which He had provided among His people as a centre for their worship.
This was especially significant in that He allowed the Ark of YHWH (His strength and glory) to be seized by the Philistines so that His presence was no longer seen as among them (1 Samuel 4.11 ff.). It was taken into captivity, something which must have devastated Israel who had probably thought that YHWH would never allow it. And although it was returned it was kept in a private house, almost totally ignored, until the time of David.
As a consequence of His rejection of them Israel experienced great slaughter (1 Samuel 4.1, 10, 17). Large numbers died at the hands of the Philistines. And this was because ‘He was angry with His inheritance’, that is, with those whom He had chosen for Himself and subsequently blessed.
The fire described here is the fire of war. Compare Numbers 21.28, ‘a fire has gone out of Heshbon, and a flame from the city of Sihon’, speaking of when they went to war against Moab. See also the description of God’s activity in Isaiah 10.17; 47.14; 66.15-16 where God will cause men to be burned up as stubble. The virgins would have no marriage song because there would be no young men available as husbands..
This has especially in mind the sons of Eli who perished in battle bearing the Ark (1 Samuel 4.17). Their widows made no lamentation for them because, as with Eli, they were too busy lamenting the loss of the Ark of YHWH (1 Samuel 4.18, 21-22).
But Let Them Never Forget That God Did Intervene In The End And Raised Up His Shepherd David To Deliver And Watch Over His People (78.65-72).
In a brief summary the Psalmist calls attention to how God ‘awoke as One out of sleep’. This may have in mind the days of Samuel and Saul, who delivered Israel from the Philistines. But the Philistines finally returned in the days of Saul and it may be that he simply refers to David who was the one who finally thoroughly and perpetually defeated them and put them to perpetual reproach.
This vivid Eastern metaphor may not suit our Western taste. It depicts God as awaking like One out of sleep, and stirring like a mighty warrior who awakes still under the influence of the wine he had drunk the night before, which is seen as giving him courage and invincibility as he shouts his war cries against the enemy. It is the vivid picture of awakening and going forth triumphantly that is in mind. It is not suggesting that God did either, although it possibly has in mind His period of ‘rest’ whilst the Ark was in private care.
The words cover His activity, first through Samuel and Saul, an then finally through David. After the travesty under Eli, He smote His adversaries and drove them backwards, and finally under David put them to perpetual reproach. As a consequence of his activities (commencing under Saul) they ceased to be a major threat.
He explains that God rejected the mighty Ephraim, head of the Northern tribes, together with the Sanctuary at Shiloh (‘the tent of Joseph’ in Ephraim), and chose Judah and established His Sanctuary in Mount Zion. We have seen in verses 9-10 what one of the chief causes of this was. It was because only the representative of Judah had encouraged entry into Canaan at the first opportunity (Numbers 14.24). And the consequence was that God chose Judah to spearhead the entry into the land under Caleb (Judges 1.2-20), whilst the Northern tribes were less diligent (Judges 1.21 ff.).. It had, however, already been prophesied by Jacob in his dying blessing (Genesis 49.8-12).
The point here is the permanence and longlastingness of the Sanctuary established by David, which grew into the Temple built by Solomon. ‘The heights’ were seen as permanently established on unmoveable foundations, in the same way as the very earth itself. In the same way God’s Sanctuary established by David was here portrayed as permanent and unmoveable. Such a thing could only have been said before the destruction of Jerusalem. It did, of course, survive for over four hundred years (for ever’ strictly means ‘into the hidden future’ so the Psalmist was not mistaken). It would be replaced by an even more permanent Sanctuary in our Lord Jesus Christ and His church (John 2.22; 2 Corinthians 6.16 ff.).
Jeremiah would later prophesy the fall of this Sanctuary also, likening it to the demise of Shiloh (Jeremiah 7.12, 14; 26.6, 9), something which infuriated his contemporaries, but proved right in the end.
And He chose David as His servant, raising him from being a shepherd over the sheepfold, tending the ewes which bore their lambs, to being the Shepherd under God of God’s people Jacob, God’s inheritance Israel. There were few who were called ‘His servant’ in this sense. They included Moses and Joshua, and of course the Great Suffering Servant Himself.
So in spite of all their testings and rebellions, through the mercy and compassion of God, God’s people ended up with a shepherd with a true heart, who guided them skilfully with his hands. And the call of the Psalmist was for them to remember the lessons of the past and be true to this shepherd who was their shepherd as God’s representative (78.1-7). David here, in a wider sense, indicated the Davidic house which in its best representatives were true followers of David.
79.1a ‘A Psalm of Asaph.’
Once again we have here a Psalm which arose out of a great catastrophe. But Israel/Judah faced many catastrophes through the centuries so that it is difficult to say which one is in mind here. If ‘they have laid Jerusalem in heaps’ is to be taken literally it would refer to the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC, but it may well simply be describing the consequences of a sacking of Jerusalem which was not quite so severe. Jerusalem was taken a number of times and soldiers were not noted or their gentleness. It does, however, describe a situation which caused immense sorrow and grief. Once again it will be noted that there is no mention of exile.
It may rightly be asked of what benefit such Psalms are for us today. We are fortunate in the West to live in a time of relative peace. But there are, of course places in the world today where Christians are suffering similar violence to what is found here. It should be an encouragement to them in their terrible circumstances that the people of God have similarly suffered in the past, and have come through it. It is a reminder that such circumstances do not mean that they are forgotten before God. It should also cause them to examine their lives similarly to the Psalmist here. That is one of the purposes of such trials. We must ‘through many tribulations enter under the Kingly Rule of God’ (Acts 14.22). Furthermore all Christians at some time or another find themselves engaged in spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6.10-18) which causes them great distress. The Psalm also contains lessons for them. They too feel beset by many difficulties and can to some extent share the Psalmist’s experience.
The Psalm divides into four sections:
A Description Of The Sacking Of Jerusalem Accompanied By Great Slaughter And Derision From Neighbouring Countries (79.1-4).
This description is clearly that of an invasion when Jerusalem was sacked sufficiently for it to be described as ‘in heaps’. The foreign ‘nations’ (deliberately contrasted with God’s ‘servants and holy ones’) have dared to enter God’s inheritance, the land that He had given to His people, and have defiled His holy Temple, and destroyed many buildings., turning them into heaps. They have also indulged in great slaughter, leaving the bodies of the dead lying around to be consumed by vultures, and by predators. Their blood had been shed liberally, and there were so many that there was no one to bury them.
Note the horror of the Psalmist at the thought that ‘God’s servants and holy ones’ have been subjected to such treatment by the godless nations (not strictly godless, of course. They had many gods. But they did not serve the true God). It added to the horror of what had happened. Sadly today God’s holy people (God’s Temple), that is true Christians, are suffering similar violence from similar ‘godless’ hordes. They can in such circumstances find in the Psalmist a fellow sufferer. Rivers of blood are very much what Christians in the Middle East are suffering today, and they must find it equally perplexing. And it should horrify us all that it is so. Our hearts and help should go out to them.
‘There was no one to bury them.’ This was never literally true as even in 587 BC people were left alive in Jerusalem who could have buried any dead bodies. What it suggests is that there were so many dead, that the people, who were taken up with their own troubles, had no thought to give to the burying of the dead until it was too late, and the scavengers had done their work. It is stressing the large number of dead, and the stress the people were under.
An additional burden was that the neighbouring nations were scoffing at them and deriding them because their God had not come up to expectations. This would, of course be true of any who remained after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. But it would also be true of those who lived in Judah at any time when Jerusalem had suffered a major catastrophe. They had boasted in God, and their God appeared to have let them down. The nations would not appreciate that it was because Judah had sinned against YHWH so that He was punishing them. They would see it simply as a failure on the part of their God. This too has modern application.
He Calls On YHWH To Have Compassion On His People And Take Revenge On The Nations Because Of What They Have Done To Those Who Call On His Name (79.5-8).
So once again the cry goes up, ‘how long?’ Compare 74.10; 80.4; 89.46; etc. Here the Psalmist was concerned that God’s anger seemed to be enduring ‘for ever’ (into the distant future), and God’s jealousy seemed to be ‘burning like fire’ which was never doused. ‘God’s jealousy’ is closely related to His people’s tendency to be faithless towards Him. Israel/Judah had been faithless in going after idolatry, and God was angry at this for their own sakes. God is equally concerned when His people allow other things to become their ‘gods’ and take them away from Him, for He recognises the harm that it does them. Thus because He loves us His jealousy burns towards us. That is why suffering and endurance are the lot of God’s people as they battle against the flesh and in a sinful world. And sometimes it can become especially hard to bear, and appear to be never ending.
So the Psalmist seeks to divert God’s wrath onto the nations who do not know Him and do not call on His Name, because of what they had done to His people in devouring them and laying waste to their land. Let God look at the true culprits. And, of course, God’s wrath was levelled at them because of their sin, and because of their antagonism towards the people of God. But those who proclaim themselves to be God’s servants and God’s saints (holy ones) must recognise that that privilege puts them under an even greater responsibility to be pure and holy, and brings them under His wrath even more when they fail to live up to their claims. This was what had happened to ‘Jacob’ (God’s covenant people).
Almost these exact words are reflected in Jeremiah 10.25. Depending on when the Psalm was written Jeremiah may well have in mind the words of the Psalm. Jeremiah turns the poetry into semi-prose which suggests that he is the borrower..
But the Psalmist is does not overlook the responsibility of God’s people. He does not deny that it was because of the sins of their fathers that all these troubles had come on them. He thus asks God to remember those sins no more as He had promised (Isaiah 43.25), and to turn His heart towards them in tender mercy and compassion so that they will meet up with it. He is confident that at some stage the God of compassion will restore His people. And to this end he points out how low they have been brought (as previously described).
It should be noted, as the next verse indicates, that he was not putting all the blame on their forefathers. He recognised that his own generation were also guilty. But he was conscious that the sins for which they were being punished had been long lasting, and that God had endured them patiently for a long time. He had not acted precipitately. It is a reminder to us that our sins can react on our children because it encourages them to walk in a similar way.
His Plea Is On The Basis That God’s Name Has Been Brought Into Disrepute By What Has Happened, And He Asks His Sovereign Lord To Remedy The Situation (79.9-12).
His prayer is that God will act, not because of their deserving, but for His own Name’s sake. He seeks the vindication of God as the One known to be the Great Deliverer. Let God now restore His reputation in men’s eyes by forgiving their sins (making atonement for them as He had done so often in the past) and delivering His unworthy people. Let Him do it for the glory of His Name.
‘Forgiving their sins.’ The word for forgive is caphar which includes the thought of forgiving by making atonement for.
For why should the godless nations be allowed to gloat and ask, with a sneer, ‘Where is their God of Whom they made such great boasts?’ It was in order to prevent this that he was now asking God to avenge the shedding of His people’s blood in such a way that all nations might see it, in accordance with Deuteronomy 32.43. In other words his cry was that God would remember what He had portrayed Himself to be, and act accordingly.
During all invasions large numbers of prisoners were taken, and very often many of the males among them would be put to death with a view to weakening the defeated nation and preventing it from retaliating. Too many living prisoners could be dangerous, whilst sending them back could be even more dangerous. We can compare how David, on taking Moabite prisoners, arranged for the execution of two thirds of them (2 Samuel 8.2). Thus the Psalmist prays for the prisoners who have been taken captive, and prays that they may be spared a worse fate.
His thoughts then turn to the surrounding neighbours who are grimly delighted at what has happened to Israel/Judah, and are gloating over it, and casting reproaches on the God of Israel. He prays that they may receive sevenfold punishment for what they have done. ‘Sevenfold’ was an expression which indicated the full amount that they deserved. We can compare how Cain would be avenged sevenfold (Genesis 4.15), in other words, to the fullest extent. Note again his concern because the Sovereign Lord (adonai) had undergone reproach at their hands.
‘Into their bosom.’ The folds of the robe around the waist acted as a kind of pocket or container. Soldiers would place their spoils that they had obtained. The Psalmist wanted God to take note and recompense accordingly, replacing the spoils with sevenfold vengeance.
He Assures God That Once He Has Acted To Deliver His People He Can Be Sure Of Their Eternal Gratitude And Praise (79.13).
The Psalmist assures God of the eternal gratitude of His people if He delivers them. He assures Him that they will give Him thanks for ever, and show forth His praise to all coming generations. The intention was genuine. But God must have said to Himself, ‘until the next time’. He had been there before.
Note the emphasis on ‘YOUR people’ and ‘the sheep of your pasture’ (the sheep you have taken on Yourself the responsibility to feed by bringing them into Your land). He was reminding God that He had chosen to take the obligation of them on Himself, and to be their Shepherd. This indeed was the basis of his confidence.
80.1a ‘For the Chief Musician; set to Shoshannim Eduth. A Psalm of Asaph.’
This is another Psalm of Asaph, dedicated to the chief musician or choirmaster, and set to the tune of ‘Lilies testimony’, which probably indicates that ‘the Testimony is like lilies’. Compare how Psalms 49 and 69 are set to the tune of ‘Shoshannim’ (lilies).
It is divided up into five eight line sections of which the first ends in ‘Turn us again, O God, and cause your face to shine, and we will be saved’, the second ends in ‘Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause your face to shine, and we will be saved’, and the fifth ends in, ‘Turn us again, O YHWH God of hosts, cause your face to shine, and we will be saved.’ Note the advance from ‘O God’, to ‘O God of hosts’, to ‘O YHWH God of hosts’, indicating a growing confidence in God’s power (of hosts) and covenant willingness (O YHWH) to act, although it should be noted that the name YHWH, God of hosts also occurs in verse 4. The third and fourth sections reveal Israel as God’s vine which He planted and caused to flourish, and then allowed to be ravaged, and they end with a plea for God’s vengeance on the ravager.
The period in which the Psalm was written is questionable, but there is good reason for dating it to the time of Hezekiah. It makes its plea on behalf of Joseph (the Northern tribes) and specifically names Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin, the remnants of Northern Israel which were left after the annexation of the more northerly tribes as an Assyrian province. And the longing is that they be restored as part of all Israel. Benjamin in fact partly belonged to Northern Israel, and partly to Judah. The Benjamite city of Bethel was a leading city in Northern Israel. This also fits well with the ‘man of Your right hand’ (verse 17) being Hezekiah, as a forerunner of the Messiah. (But see on that verse).
Others see it as having the Exile in mind, seeing ‘Joseph’ as representing all Israel, and see it as a plea for restoration.
A Call To God As The Shepherd Of Israel To Deliver His People Joseph, And To Restore Them Back To His Light (80.1b-3).
The Psalmist’s heart was moved at the thought of the remnant of Northern Israel, overrun by the Assyrians, and yearned that they might become part of all Israel once again, and might enjoy the light of God’s countenance under His chosen King Hezekiah, whom He had delivered and blessed. Here God is addressed as the Shepherd of Israel (note how the last Psalm ended with the idea of Israel being shepherded) Who leads Joseph like a flock. In Psalm 78.9 Northern Israel had been spoken of as ‘the children of Ephraim’. Here the Northern Israel which remained was seen as ‘the children of Joseph’, that is as Ephraim and Manasseh, and his brother Benjamin (the sons of Rachel).
The combination was an ancient one, for Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh had been the three tribes who marched together immediately behind the Ark as ‘the camp of Ephraim’ (Numbers 2.18-24). Later Benjamin had been divided into two by the division of the kingdoms, part going with Judah and part with Northern Israel. But some of Benjamin’s major cities were in Northern Israel in the time of Jeroboam I who set up one of his images in the Benjamite city of Bethel. So the Psalmist’s prayer is that these tribes (representing Northern Israel) might be brought back into the light of YHWH, something later achieved, at least for a while, by Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 30.1 ff.; 31.1). Notice the unique reference to Benjamin as distinctive from ‘all those who were present in Jerusalem’ in 2 Chronicles 34.32 demonstrating that it was somehow distinctive.
The Psalmist calls on ‘the Shepherd of Israel’, Who leads ‘Joseph’ (what was left of the Northern tribes) like a flock. Though they have failed Him He has not ceased to watch over them. He also refers to Him as ‘the One Who sits above the Cherubim’. This description of YHWH as sitting above the Cherubim as bearers of His throne in His glory as King is spoken of in Psalm 99.1, and as such the earth is to tremble before Him (see also Isaiah 37.16). The Cherubim were the guardians of God’s holiness and bore His throne. Compare the picture in Ezekiel 10.1-20. Thus the Psalmist is here describing the heavenly reality of YHWH. The Cherubim portrayed on each side of the Ark in the Holy of Holies were but earthly manifestations of this glorious heavenly reality.
So the Psalmist calls on God as their Shepherd and King to ‘shine forth’ before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh in order to reveal His power and glory towards them and draw them to Him, so that they will gather with Judah in the worship of YHWH at the Temple.
As a consequence of the Assyrian invasion of Samaria what remained of the Northern tribes were in dire circumstances. And the Psalmist calls on God to stir up His might and come to save ‘us’. This suggests that the Psalmist was himself of a family of Levites who had once dwelt in a city in Northern Israel and identified himself closely enough with them to feel a part of them. He asks God to ‘turn us again’ from a misspent past, and to ‘cause your face to shine’ (manifest His power and His glory), for then ‘we will be saved’. He longs for his fellow Northern Israelites to be restored to the worship of YHWH in Jerusalem, in other words to true worship.
He Calls On God As YHWH Of Hosts To Bring The Northern Tribes To Repentance, Delivering Them From Their Parlous Situation (80.4-7).
As in Psalm 79.5 his cry goes up ‘How long?’ It has now been many decades, even centuries, that Northern Israel have worshipped falsely so that their prayers simply caused Him to be angry. And it was as a consequence of that they had eaten and drunk of tears to the full. Tears had been their bread and their wine.
Note that He is now addressed, not just as God, but as YHWH, God of hosts. He is bringing to mind that they are a part of His covenant people, and that He is strong to save.
Furthermore their situation was so bad that their neighbours contended with each other over what they could possess of their land and laughed among themselves at Northern Israel’s parlous position. They who had been so powerful (in alliance with Syria) were now an object of derision and greed to the neighbouring nations because of their desertion of YHWH.
And so he cries again to God as the God of hosts, that He will bring them to true repentance so that they turn towards Him. That He will cause His face to shine (reveal Himself in power and glory). Then he knows that they will truly be delivered. The last two lines are a repetition of verse 3 with the addition of ‘of hosts’.
A Description Of How God Had Planted Them In The Past As A Choice Vine (80.9-11).
God had brought them as a vine out of Egypt, and had driven out the nations before them. He had planted them, and prepared room for them in the land of Canaan (compare Isaiah 5.2), and they had taken deep root and had filled the land.
Indeed they had grown and flourished. Like a huge vine covering the mountains with its shadow because of its size, and with strong branches which were like ‘the cedars of God’ (the very choicest and strongest cedars) they had possessed the land. And they had extended from the Great Sea to the River Jordan (or the River Euphrates - 1 Kings 4.24 - but if the following note is correct it is probably the Jordan).
There may here be a reference to the dimensions of the land. The mountains to the south, the cedars of Lebanon to the north, the Great Sea to the west, and ‘the River’ to the east.
A Description Of How God Has Subsequently Ravaged The Vine Accompanied By A Plea That He Will Restore It (80.13-15).
This is really a rhetorical question. He knows very well why God has broken down the walls so that all who pass by can help themselves to their possessions (pluck their fruit). It is because they had deserted Him. And his picture is vivid. ‘The boar out of the wood’ (Assyria) has ravaged it, and the wild beasts of the field (their belligerent neighbours) have fed on it. Boars were notorious for not only seizing the fruit of vines, but for digging up their roots and shoots, leaving the remnants to scavengers.
Previously in verses 3 and 7 he has called on God to turn His people towards Him. Now he calls on God to Himself turn towards His people. Let Him look down from His throne in Heaven among the Cherubim, and see what has happened to his vine, and visit it in mercy. Let Him remember that it is His vine, and of His planting. For its stock is the stock which God’s right hand had planted, and its branch (literally ‘son’, that is, what has grown from it) had been made strong by God Himself. His dependence is on the fact that God will finish the work that He has begun.
A Final Appeal That God Will Enable His Anointed One To Restore Them As He Himself Causes His Face To Shine On Them To Save Them (80.16-19).
He now directly applies his illustration to Northern Israel. The vine had been burned with fire and had been cut down. The people of Northern Israel had perished at ‘the rebuke of His countenance’. God had turned His face on them in rebuke which was why Assyria had been able to destroy them. His face had no longer shone towards them.
The next two lines present us with an interpretation problem. The question is whether God is talking of Israel as the man of His right hand (Benjamin means ‘the son of the right hand’), or whether He is speaking of Hezekiah, His anointed, or whether He is speaking of the Messiah. Let us consider the options:
Taking the primary meaning of verse 17 as referring to God’s anointed one, Hezekiah (and in essence to the Messiah Himself) the Psalmist is confident that despite the past (verse 17), with the King strengthening them they will not, once they have turned to YHWH again, go back from Him. So he again calls on YHWH as the God of hosts (and thus of might) to bring them to repentance and cause His face to shine on them so that they might be saved (compare verses 3 & 7).
There is a reminder in these words to us that our salvation too depends on the Man of God’s right hand, Jesus Christ, and on Him shining His face toward us, revealing His power and His glory.
81.1a ‘For the Chief Musician; set to the Gittith. A Psalm of Asaph.’
This is another Psalm of Asaph, dedicated to the chief musician or choirmaster, and set to ‘the Gittith’. This may refer to musical instruments from Gath (or Gath-hepher in Zebulun, the birthplace of Jonah - Joshua 19.13; 2 Kings 14.25), or alternately a Gittite tune. The Targum speaks of ‘the harp which David brought from Gath’, but that may simply be on the basis of tradition. There were many Gittites among David’s men who probably had their own tunes (2 Samuel 15.18).
The Psalm would appear to be a Psalm celebrating the Feast of Trumpets, on the first day of the seventh moon period of the religious year (Numbers 29.1; Leviticus 23.24) which heralded the approaching Day of Atonement (tenth day) and Feast of Tabernacles (fifteenth day - Leviticus 23.39). The Feast of Tabernacles was especially recognised as a joyous feast (verse 1b-2). The new moon trumpet (ram’s horn) would be blown on the first day of the month, the full moon trumpet on the fifteenth day (verse 3). Tabernacles was the feast celebrating God’s provision through the year, and this Psalm is full of promises of God’s provision. Deliverance and life-giving water (verses 6-7, the filling of their mouths with good things (verse 10) and the feeding of them with the finest of the wheat (verse 16).
Some, however, refer it to the opening of the year at the new moon and to Passover and unleavened bread on the grounds of the references to the deliverance from Egypt (verses 5a-7; 10). But there is also reference to Him going out over the land of Egypt (verse 5a), to His delivering of them from slavery (verse 6) and to the giving of the Sinai covenant (verses 9-10). These references weaken the argument, for the first two are general and the giving of the Law, which was specifically related to the deliverance from Egypt, did not occur in the first moon period. The Psalm thus includes a quick and brief survey of Israel’s (Joseph’s) early history and from that point of view is not time specific.
We may divide the Psalm up as follows:
1). The Psalmist Calls On The People To Rejoice And Sing, Play Sacred Music On Their Instruments, And Blow The Ram’s Horn At The Great Feast In Accordance With God’s Statute And Ordinance (81.1b-4).
The Psalmist calls on the people to celebrate a great feast in accordance with God’s statute and ordinance. It was probably the Feast of Tabernacles which celebrated all the harvests of the year, and commenced with the blowing of the ram’s horn on the first day of the seventh moon period, and continued on the fifteenth day with the blowing of the trumpets at the full moon. Alternately it could have been the Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread, commencing with the blowing of the trumpets on the first day of the first moon period (the new year) and continuing with the blowing of the trumpets on the first day of Unleavened Bread, the fifteenth day of the moon period.
The call is to sing aloud to God Who is the source of the people’s strength, and to make a joyful noise to Him as the God of Jacob. In the Psalms Israel is regularly called Jacob, as their forefather had been, and the title may contain an indication that like Jacob their forefather, Israel were not all that they should be. There may be a hint in it of how Jacob wrestled with God and discovered God’s strength and his own weakness (Genesis 32.24-32). Thus ‘Jacob’ had good cause to rejoice as they thought of His strength and their own weakness. (See verses 6-7, 14-15).
Sacred music was one of the principle means of worshipping God and the people, and especially the Levite musicians, were called on to raise a song, and play on their musical instruments, making a joyful noise to the Lord.
They were also called on to blow the ram’s horn on the first day of the moon period, and at the full moon when the actual feast commenced. The festal moon period at which the ram’s horn was commanded to be blown on the first day of the moon period (the new moon) was the seventh, which also contained the Feast of Tabernacles (Numbers 29.1). But it was also blown on the commencement of each moon period, especially the first (new year’s day). See Numbers 10.10. It was, however, only concerning the seventh moon period that it was a special statutory requirement. The blowing was probably celebratory and joyful. The seventh moon period indicated the end of the agricultural year and of the series of harvests.
The Psalmist draws attention to the statutory requirement by God to sound the trumpet, which would appear to confirm that the reference is to the blowing on the seventh moon period. Note the use of ‘the God of Jacob’ to connect verse 1 and verse 4.
2). A Brief Reminder Of God’s Dealings With His People In Egypt And The Wilderness And Of How He Met Their Needs And Tested Them (81.5-7).
In order to appreciate the meaning of these verses we have to see them together. ‘He appointed it’ would appear to refer to the blowing of the ram’s horn, which suggests that the practise was already carried out in Egypt long prior to the giving of the Law. This makes the blowing of the ram’s horn at the new moon a testimony from the God of Jacob during their stay in Egypt, especially towards the end. When it was blown it was a reminder to the people that YHWH was their God (compare verse 10), and that He was present with them, going out over the land of Egypt to watch over them. He had not left them alone. Note his use of the term Joseph to represent His people. They were, of course, at that time initially under Joseph’s protection.
What follows is expressed vividly. It is God Who suddenly starts speaking. He declares that as He went out among His people He ‘heard a language that He did not know’, in other words that He did not acknowledge (for this use of know compare Amos 3.2). Where He had expected to hear Hebrew, He heard Egyptian. And this brought home to Him that something was wrong. What were Egyptians doing among His people? (All this is, of course, deliberate anthropomorphism). He soon discovered the answer. They were acting as taskmasters. The shoulders of His people were being burdened. Their hands were laden with baskets. (Egyptian inscriptions reveal that slaves regularly bore baskets containing building materials). So He stepped in to deliver them. He removed the burdens from their shoulders, and the baskets out of their hands, setting them free from slavery. And He had done this because they had called to Him in their trouble and He had heard them.
He ‘answered them in the secret place of thunder’. In other words He answered them thunderously from Heaven where He secreted His thunder. Thunder was one way by which God revealed His presence. When He acted in power ‘YHWH also thundered in the Heavens, and the Most High uttered His voice, hailstones and coals of fire’ (Psalm 18.13). By thunder and hailstones (Exodus 9.23, 28) He plagued the Egyptians. When they were pursuing His people He discomfited them through His pillar of fire and cloud (Exodus 14.24). He caused the Reed Sea to divide ‘by the blast of His nostrils’ (Exodus 15.8). See the vivid description of the event in Psalm 77.18-19 where it is likened to thunder. And by His thunder He revealed Himself at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19.16; 20.18). From His secret place in Heaven where He stored His thunder He revealed Himself again and again on behalf of His people.
And finally ‘He proved them at the waters of Meribah.’ Having left Egypt some time before, and after experiencing terrible thirst in the hot, dry wilderness, His people were tested and failed because they lacked water. They doubted God’s presence with them. But in His mercy God revealed Himself on the Rock of Horeb, and when Moses struck it water gushed out sufficient for them all (Exodus 17.2-7). This took place at Meribah (meaning ‘strife’). Thus He was to be seen as the God Who provides and gives life. They had drunk water out of the springs of salvation (Isaiah 12.3). The reason for mentioning this incident may well be because the provision of water was seen as connected with the Feast of Tabernacles. So the emphasis is on the fact that YHWH delivered His people in power from bondage and gave them ample, lifegiving water to drink, bringing about a double deliverance.
3). A Call By God For Israel To Respond To The Covenant Of Sinai And Not Have Other Gods Than YHWH Their God, Then He Would Fill Them (81.8-10).
God now calls on His people Israel to listen to Him, as He testifies to them. As has just been described, when they had called on Him He had delivered them (verse 7). If they will only respond to Him once more He will hear them again, just as He had before.
81.9 ‘There shall no strange god be in you,
And what He wanted them to learn was that nothing must come before Him. No strange god was to possess their hearts. Nor should they worship any false God. This is basically what was said in the first ‘word’ of the covenant, ‘you shall have no other gods before Me’ (Exodus 20.3). That the Sinai covenant was directly in mind comes out in the next verse which repeats the opening words of the covenant. So God was turning their minds back to the Sinai covenant, and promising that if they would fulfil their part, He would fulfil His. Following after idols was one of the basic faults that God had against Israel. Compare Deuteronomy 32.12, 16-17..
These words repeat the opening words of the Sinai covenant. ‘I am YHWH your God Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’ (see Exodus 20.2). And now He is promising that if they listen to Him and respond to Him as the great Deliverer from Egypt and as their covenant God by responding to His words He will provide them with all that they need, He will satisfy them with good things (the message of the Feast of Tabernacles). It was He Who had relieved their bondage. It was He Who had subsequently satisfied them at the waters of Meribah. It is He Who can act on their behalf again.
So His promise was that if they responded to Him in the way described, Israel had only to open their mouths wide and He would fill them. All good things would be theirs.
God Regrets That In Spite Of His Covenant With Them And His Pleas They Had Not Listened To His Voice And That He Had Therefore Had To Leave Them To Their Own Ways (81.11-12).
But in spite of what He had done for them, and in spite of His strong appeals, they had turned their backs on Him. They had gone after other gods. And they had therefore had to suffer the consequences.
Despite His appeals Israel did not listen to His voice, and did not want to have anything to do with Him. (Of course they still put up a pretence, but that was all it was, a pretence).
So God had let them go. He had let them follow the stubbornness of their own hearts, so that they walked in their own counsel and wisdom, and not in His. He had let them discover their folly the hard way, by experience. Deuteronomy pictures them as saying, ‘I will have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart’ (Deuteronomy 29.19), and that in the light of turning to idolatry. But the comment there is that ‘YHWH will not pardon such a man -- the anger of YHWH and His jealousy will smoke against that man’.
It seems almost unbelievable that after all that God had done for them they became stubborn and headstrong. That is until we look at ourselves and recognise ourselves in them, when we too stubbornly resist God’s will and choose our own way, in spite of what He has done for us through the cross and resurrection of Christ.
5). He Yearns That They Might Yet Turn To Him And Promises Them That If They Do He Will Deal With Their Enemies, Make Them Secure, And Meet All Their Needs And Fill Them (81.11-16).
God continues to plead with His people and tells them of the firm consequences that will follow if they listen to Him and walk in His ways. He would subdue their enemies, cause those who hated Him to submit themselves to Him for ever, and would feed His people with fresh honey and the finest of the wheat.
“Oh that my people would listen to me.” It is clear from the words that this is the desire of His heart. He longs for His people Israel to respond to Him and walk in His ways (rather than in their own counsel and wisdom). It is not God Who is unwilling, but man. He wants them to come to Him. He wants them to walk in the ways which will be beneficial for them. He wants to subdue their enemies. But it requires their response. If only, however, they will respond then He will subdue their enemies (as He had the Egyptians) and turn His own mighty hand against their adversaries. Once again they would dwell secure.
And the consequence of His people being in continual peace under His hand would be that those who hated YHWH (the nations) would come and submit themselves to Him in everlasting submission. Israel would have been a light to the nations as YHWH’s servant, and the nations would have flocked to Him and found hope. This was what God had always intended His people to be, a light to the nations. Sadly it failed in its duty as YHWH’s servant, and another Servant of YHWH had to come to fulfil the task for them.
The Psalm closes with the thought that has been present all through, the ample provision of God to those who walk with Him. Having provided them with life-giving water from a rock (verse 7), and having filled their mouths with good things (verse 10), He will feed them with the finest of the wheat, and will satisfy them with fresh wild honey taken from the bees’ nests in the rock).
82.1a ‘A Psalm of Asaph.
Of this Psalm we are told only that it was a Psalm of Asaph. It is a Psalm which has its own unique difficulties. Any interpretation of the Psalm must take into account Jesus’ words concerning it. ‘Is it not written in your Torah, ‘I said you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came, and the Scripture cannot be broken, do you say to Him Whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world ‘you are blaspheming’ because I said I am the Son of God?” The only problem here is that we do not know for sure to whom Jesus was applying the words. He was simply using it as an argument that others than God could be called gods. Thus Jesus may have been speaking of angels or of men.
The crux of the matter is as to what the word elohim means in its various contexts in the Psalm. From elsewhere we know that elohim (a plural word as the ending -im signifies) regularly with a singular verb means God seen in His majesty (the ‘plural of majesty’). But it can also refer to supernatural beings (1 Samuel 28.13). This latter usage is confirmed by Psalm 8.5 which in the New Testament is translated as ‘a little lower than the angels’ (Hebrews 2.7).
In the first line of the Psalm it clearly applies to God. It is used with a singular verb. In the second line it refers either to the angelic court or to men acting as God’s representatives as judges. In verse 6 the same applies. In this regard:
The first alternative would make good sense, and especially because it explains why elohim is used of earthly judges in verse 6. It is because, being themselves of the nature of the elohim (Genesis 1.27), they are being likened to the angelic court, the ‘sons of God’ (Job 1.6) who were also elohim, mentioned in verse 1. Thus the earthly judges, too in their capacity as judges (of Israel?), are seen as elohim and sons of the Most High. And supporting this is the fact that man was ‘made in the image of the elohim’ (Genesis 1.27) to whom YHWH had spoken as ‘us’ in Genesis 1.26. This takes verse 1b as an introductory sentence, required in order to establish a context, and in order to explain verse 6. Verse 2 is then seen as being addressed to those spoken of in verse 6. This requires that we see the ‘congregation of El’ as signifying the heavenly court. Compare 1 Kings 22.19. Israel are never described as the congregation of El. They are seen as the congregation of YHWH. Such an abrupt change of tack as we see between verses 1 & 2 when God speaks directly is found regularly in the Psalms of Asaph. Consider fore example 75.1-2; 81.5-6 in other Psalms of Asaph.
The second alternative is not held by many, but is based on the idea that the angels are directly involved with man’s affairs, and direct the activities of men. The idea then is that those in the Psalm who are judging unjustly are angels, their judgments then being reflected in the judgments of men. We can compare for this idea how Daniel 10 shows the activities of angels as affecting men’s affairs on earth directly. Against this view is that it would provide the only place in Scripture where angels were seen as ‘dying like men’ (verse 7). Besides the descriptions which follow suggest the application of the requirements of the covenant of Moses, and theses would not be binding on a heavenly court.
The third alternative is to see the elohim in the second line as referring to Israel’s judges as representative of Elohim (God). From our viewpoint one problem with this is that to describe earthly judges as elohim without providing any grounds for it is not an idea with which we are familiar from Scripture. Exodus 21.6; 22.8-9 (where AV translated elohim as judges) have been cited as possible examples, but in each case ‘God’ is a more acceptable translation, stressing that what happened was seen as happening in the presence of God. AV translators were almost certainly influenced by memories of this Psalm. The strongest argument for this view is that it makes God’s words specifically applicable to those previously mentioned in verse 1. But as we have seen, when God is introduced as speaking directly a sudden break often occurs.
According to view 1 this is speaking of the heavenly court when God is seated on His throne ‘in the congregation of El’ (the mighty unknowable God), and the angels gather around Him as He sits in judgment (1 Kings 22.19). Compare the vivid picture in Revelation 4. This is describing God’s ‘throne room’. He is not judging the elohim (heavenly beings, angels), but passing His judgments in their presence. ‘Stands’ is not intended to be overpressed. He is ‘standing in judgment’ while seated on His throne. Note the lack of definite article on elohim (in both uses). Not all His angels would be present. Many would be abroad doing His will. Had view 3 been intended we might have expected the definite article (although we must remember that this is poetry).
Had view 3 been intended we might also have expected ‘the congregation of YHWH’ (the usual way of describing Israel as a congregation) or ‘the congregation of Israel’ or, at a minimum, ‘the congregation of ELOHIM. But if we do take view 3 the idea is that God is actually standing to pass judgment on the judges.
Speaking in the presence of the heavenly court God subjects the earthly judges of Israel to interrogation (unless we take view 2 that He is interrogating heavenly judges). He asks them how long they intend to go on judging unjustly and respecting the persons of the wicked (the rich and powerful). Asked in the presence of watching angels, Seraphim (Isaiah 6.1-6) and Cherubim (‘living creatures’ - Revelation 4), the question comes over with powerful force. The hearers know that no excuse will be accepted. They are being interrogated in front of heavenly witnesses. But the ‘how long’ would indicate to them that they were yet to be given an opportunity to alter their ways. The purpose of the Psalm is to make them change their ways if they would escape judgment.
Respecting the persons of the rich and powerful, and inevitably deciding in their favour, was strongly denounced in the Torah, as was falsely respecting the person of the poor or responding to a bribe. Strict impartiality was required. See Exodus 23.2-3, 6-8; Leviticus 19.15; Deuteronomy 1.17; 16.18-20).
The positive injunctions are now stated. God’s purpose with His appointed judges was that they deliver the innocent out of the hand of the wicked. ‘Judge’ means ‘judge rightly’. They are to judge fairly, to ensure justice and to rescue men from powerful people who would wrongly seek to have them convicted (10.14.17-18; Isaiah 1.17; 10.1-3; Exodus 22.22-24; Deuteronomy 10.17-18). This was God’s ideal, and it will be fulfilled in the everlasting kingdom under God’s righteous King (Isaiah 11.3-4).
God declares (to the heavenly council?) the truth about these judges. Although they present themselves as wise and knowing, they merely by their verdicts indicate that they lack true knowledge and wisdom, they really have no understanding. They fool themselves into thinking that they will get away with what they are doing. They are in fact walking to and fro in darkness, and because of their false judgments the very foundations of the earth are being shaken. They are going against all that God intended for the world. The very basis of creation is being destroyed by their actions. And yet they no doubt boasted that they were the representatives of YHWH. How foolish clever men can be.
Paul puts it expressively in Ephesians 4.18. ‘Being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their hearts.’
“I said.” In the Hebrew the ‘I’ is emphatic. God points out to them that it was He Who had decreed that they should represent on earth the justice of the heavenly court. He had set them on a par with that court. Like the angels they too were ‘elohim’, moral and spiritual beings. “Let us make man in our image and after our likeness, -- and God created man in His own image, in the image of the elohim He created him” (Genesis 1.26-27). And that is why they were expected to judge as moral and spiritual beings. Why! Did they not realise that they had been appointed as ‘sons of the Most High’ (compare 2.7). And in fact they probably boasted about the fact. But although they had been exalted by God on earth, they had failed to live up to their appointment. Therefore they would die like men, and would fall like any foreign prince. In passing their false sentences they had passed sentence on themselves. All they could look forward to was the darkness and shadowy existence of Sheol.
Turning from the sad and depressing picture of the ‘fallen judges’ the Psalmist now turns back to God in His heavenly court. He calls on Him to arise and directly judge, not only Israel but also the whole earth. For He is not just the God of Israel, but the God Who will inherit all nations. This, in the end, is the only hope for true justice. And today we already see this as fulfilled to some extent in that God is watching over His people and executing righteousness among them. He has inherited the nations in the persons of His earthly people. And He is our Saviour and Judge, ministering His activity through His servants..
83.1a ‘A Song, a Psalm of Asaph.’
This is the final Psalm of Asaph in the series. ‘A song’ may suggest a special arrangement or purpose.
It is not possible to pinpoint at what time in history the events described in the Psalm took place. The nearest parallel we have is found in 1 Chronicles 20 in the days of Jehoshaphat, when Israel was invaded by Moab, Ammon and ‘Mount Seir’, who were in some way connected with Aram (Syria) (1 Chronicles 20.1-2). ‘Mount Seir’ could well cover a number of Arabian tribes, who were peripatetic. These might have included Edom, the Hagarenes (Hagrites - 1 Chronicles 5.10, 19), the Ishmaelites, Gebal and Amalek. But the impression gained from 1 Chronicles was that that invasion was from the east and the south. There was no thought of involvement by Philistia or Tyre, and certainly not by Assyria, even playing a minor part (although apparently Aram was involved). However, the Psalmist describes them as plotting, and says nothing about when the invasion took place. So it may be that Philistia, Tyre and Assyria withdrew from the plot before it materialised.
The minimal part to be played by Assyria as helpers of Moab and Ammon suggests a time prior to the Assyrian empire, whilst mention of Amalek also points to an early date. They were finally exterminated in the time of Hezekiah (1 Chronicles 4.41-43). On the other hand it must have been during or after the time of David assuming that the attribution to Asaph is correct. But our knowledge of early Israelite history is limited enough to leave plenty of room for an unmentioned invasion of the kind described. We do not have to assume large forces from each nation mentioned, and indeed the threatened invasion by all the nations mentioned may not have materialised..
The Psalm divides into two sections. The first section (verses 1-8) is an appeal to God because neighbouring tribes and nations have gathered together against Israel with the purpose of eradicating them. It is attempted genocide. The second section (verses 9-18) calls on God to act as He had with similar peoples in the past, and firmly deal with their enemies.
Section 1. An Appeal To God Because Neighbouring Tribes And Nations Have Gathered Together Against Israel With The Purpose Of Eradicating Them (83.1-8).
This section divides up into two part of eight lines each. The first describes the plans being made by a number of nations to exterminate Israel, the second details the nations involved.
The Psalmist Prays For God’s Intervention In The Face Of Plans By Neighbours To Exterminate Them (83.1-4). .
His prayer is that God will not remain inactive in view of the threat that Israel are facing. Israel would appear to be watching in trepidation the plots being hatched by their neighbours, and the Psalmist is concerned at God’s apparent inactivity. He calls on God as the mighty El Who is over all not to stand by, but to act.
For those who are plotting against Israel are thereby plotting against God, and have become His enemies too. They have lifted up their heads (become active) because they hate both Israel and Israel’s God. They are plotting to destroy Yahwism. That is why they are ‘raising a tumult’, calling on all Israel’s enemies to unite against them in unison and cause mayhem.
Indeed God’s enemies are meeting in conference and plotting together cunning things with a view to defeating Israel, and the purpose of their consultation is to destroy those who belong to God and whom He has hidden under the shadow of His wings.
Their aim is nothing less than genocide. They are talking about cutting Israel off from being a nation, so that Israel will eventually be forgotten, blotted out of world history. Many had sought to do it in the past (some of their names are recalled in verses 9-11), and many would seek to do it in the future. And the reason for their behaviour is their hatred of God’s people and of the true God Himself.
The Psalmist Details The Names Of The Enemies Involved And They Are Wide-Ranging (83.5-8).
The nations involved have come together with one consent, to consult with each other about Israel’s destruction, and to make a covenant against Israel and against God. It is the God of Israel Who is their main target.
The list of nations is pretty comprehensive. They come from North, South, East and West. To the south is Edom, who would prove regular enemies of Israel, and united with them were the Ishmaelites, who roamed the deserts with their tribes. To the East were Moab, and along with them the Hagarenes (or Hagarites). These latter were desert tribesmen in the territory east of Gilead (1 Chronicles 5.10, 19-20: ), who regularly harassed Israel east of Jordan. Jaziz the Hagarite was David’s chief shepherd over all his flocks (1 Chronicles 27.31). United with them were Gebal, Ammon, and the remnant of the Amalekites. The latter were later finally exterminated in Mount Seir where they had settled, as described in 1 Chronicles 4.41-43. That this Gebal is found among the eastern enemies suggests that it is not the Gebal which was a prominent city in Phoenicia. We know nothing else about them apart from the fact that they might be the Gebalene mentioned by Pliny. Ammon was Moab’s co-partner in many ventures, containing mainly semi-wild tribesmen under their chieftains who owed loyalty to the king of Ammon. Moab were more sophisticated and more united.
Philistia was Israel’s constant enemy, although occasionally allying with them when a greater enemy such as Assyria and Babylon threatened, and they made constant incursions across Israel’s border through the centuries. Tyre were to the north of Philistia, a prominent and wealthy state based on the seaport of Tyre, who were usually at peace with Israel. But here they appear to have joined in the general conspiracy. Most noticeable is that Assyria joined in with them. But this would not have been Assyria in its heyday. The Psalmist sees them as helpers of Moab and Ammon, something only conceivable when they were not so well known. These would be the Arameans from across the River who at times joined with their fellow Arameans south of the River to harass Israel (2 Samuel 10.16). Interestingly most of the major players are mentioned in 2 Samuel 8.12. But the non-mention of the Arameans of Damascus in the above list suggests a time when Aram (Syria) was weak, or even in alliance with Israel.
These nations probably did not form one huge invading army, but rather attacked from all sides, some probably with more enthusiasm than others who wanted to be in at the kill as long as the initial invasions were successful. They may well have dropped off when Israel proved that they could successfully defend themselves. A situation in the time of David commends itself, for it was then that Israel was probably initially seen as destructible, and when he was successful against the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites and the Arameans (2 Samuel 8.1-3, 12), together with their satellites, it might well have made Troy think again.
‘The children of Lot’ were basically Moab and Ammon (compare Genesis 19.37-38). It would seem that they were the leaders of the conspiracy, which may in fact have partially collapsed when it came down to actual action. Troy and Assyria may have thought twice. But we can see why such a gathering of enemies on all sides had thrown the Psalmist into panic.
Section 2. The Psalmist Calls On God To Act In The Same Way As He Had With Similar Peoples In The Past, And To Firmly Deal With Their Enemies (83.9-18).
This section divided into two parts, the first, of eight lines, calling on God to do what He has done in the past as evidenced in Israel’s history (verse 9-12), and the second, of ten lines, calling on God to finally humiliate their enemies so that they may acknowledge His Name.
The Psalmist Calls On God To Act Again For Israel As He Has In The Past (83.9-12).
That the incidents described are limited to early ones may be seen as confirming that we are in the time of David. It will also be noted that it covers enemies from the north and east.
The first example given is of the eastern conspiracy defeated by Gideon, composed of the Midianites, the Amalekites and the ‘children of the East’ (Judges 6.3). Further detail is given in verse 11. The second given is of the northern conspiracy under the generalship of Sisera in the time of Deborah (Judges 4.12-13), which was defeated at the River Kishon . Both conspiracies were wide ranging and must have appeared insuperable. Endor is not mentioned in Judges, but was in the right region being near the valley of Megiddo. To become ‘as dung for the earth’ means that they died and decomposed and became mere manure.
The leaders of the Midianite conspiracy were Oreb and Zeeb, slain by the Ephraimites as they sought to flee across the Jordan (Judges 7.25). The princes Zeba and Zalmunna managed to flee further, but were overtaken by Gideon and captured (Judges 8.12) being later executed by him. In all cases the victory had been given by God in spite of the superiority in numbers of the enemy.
This may be saying that these enemies too had said, “Let us take to ourselves in possession the habitations of God.” In other words they had wanted to take possession of God’s land of Israel. Or it may be describing the current enemy who have a similar idea. In other words let those who said this (the current conspiracy) be as these men whom God dealt with in the past.
The Psalmist Calls On God To Finally Humiliate Their Enemies So That They May Acknowledge His Name
Both descriptions describe what is insubstantial. The dust whirls around in the wind and then settles and appears to have gone for ever.. The stubble is blown away before the wind, a regular picture of how God deals with what is worthless. There may be in mind the globular heads of the wild artichoke which are light as a feather and are irresistibly blown for miles across the plain The idea is that the enemy will be caught up by God’s wind, and be blown away and become nothing.
The second picture is of God’s fire (lightning) which burns down forests, and sets mountains on fire. In the same way God is to treat their enemies, pursuing them with a terrifying stormy tempest, filling them with confusion so that they cry out to YHWH, recognising Him for what He is, acknowledging His Name. They seek His Name because they are terrified and cry for deliverance, not because they want to worship Him..
His cry is that their enemies might be put to shame and be dismayed into the distant future. He wants them to be confounded, and perish. Thus will they learn that YHWH alone is the Most High over all the earth.