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Psalm 79

From Jerusalem’s rubble

Evil has long asserted its dominance in our world, bringing us untold brokenness, violence and shame. Sometimes it seems things just go from bad to worse, making us ask, How long, O Lord, how long?

An Asaph psalm.

O God, pagans have invaded your land.
They’ve defiled your holy Temple
and reduced Jerusalem to a pile of rubble.
2 They’ve fed the corpses of your servants
to the birds of the sky
the flesh of your faithful
to the beasts of the earth.
3 They’ve poured out their blood like water
all over Jerusalem
leaving no one alive to bury the dead.
4 We’ve become a disgrace to our neighbors
the scorn and derision of all around us.
5 How long, Yahveh?
Will you hold onto your anger forever
and your jealousy burn like wildfire?

6 Pour out your anger on the pagans
who don’t acknowledge you
on the kingdoms
that don’t call on your name.
7 Because they’ve devoured Jacob
and devastated his home.
8 Don’t hold our past sins against us.
May your compassion intervene quickly
because we’ve sunk very low.
9 Help us, God our deliverer
for the honor of your name.
Rescue us and atone for our sins
because your reputation is at stake.
10 Why let these pagan nations scoff:
“Where is their God?”
Let us see the nations learn
that you avenge the blood of your servants.
11 Let the groans of the captives reach you.
By your strong arm
rescue those condemned to die.
12 Pay our neighbors back to the nth degree[1]
for all the insults they’ve hurled at you.

13 Then we, your people
the sheep you yourself take care of
will give you thanks forever.
From one generation to the next
we’ll sing your praise.

This psalm describes the same national disaster Psalm 74 surveyed—Jerusalem destroyed, its Temple desecrated, its people massacred. The stench of rotting flesh fills the air as vultures and dogs tear at the corpses of God’s faithful littering the blood-soaked streets. The psalmist is likely one of the groaning captives mentioned, who must endure the pagans’ vicious mockery: “Where is their God?”

The psalmist is scandalized by that, but that’s not her question. She knows the devastation evidences not God’s absence, but his presence—his anger over Israel’s sins. The question eating her is how long God will continue punishing his people and leave his enemies unpunished. She urges him to punish the atrocities’ perpetrators, not their victims, and alternates between asking him to rescue his people and judge his enemies because he’s both merciful and just. She also asks God to forgive his people’s past sins, implying that they’ve repented of them. Since God is their shepherd and they bear his name in the world, their desolation reflects very badly on him. So she asks him to rescue and restore them.

Despite the psalmist’s overall bleakness, her final word is “your praise” (tehillateka).[2] She thus ends with hope, imagining the day when God restores his people and their sad laments give way to endless praise.

Lord, thank you for welcoming our honesty even when we’re barely able to handle our pain. I cry with the psalmist, “How long till you put everything to rights?” Forgive my sins, rescue and bless me for the honor of your name. And help me believe your love always has the last word. Amen.

In your free moments today, meditate on these words:

Help us, God our deliverer, for the honor of your name.
Rescue us and atone for our sins because your reputation is at stake.


[1] Literally, “seven times over.” Unless we’ve suffered what the psalmist is suffering, we shouldn’t judge her for asking God to repay his enemies (v. 12). Americans would have had a roughly equivalent situation after 9/11 had the terrorists razed Washington DC, including the White House and Capitol Building. Because Jerusalem’s Temple was the symbol of Israel’s national identity in much the same way that those buildings are to American identity. Yet even without suffering such wholesale devastation, America reacted to 9/11 by invading Afghanistan. On one hand, we should agree that asking God to put everything to rights is vital. On the other, Jesus takes the psalmist’s math in the opposite direction in Matt. 18:22. Brueggemann and Bellinger (2014) 346-47.

[2] Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100 (1991) 301.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.