The third book of psalms ( 73-89) translation and comment
A Maskil of Asaph
Why, God, did you spit us out so forcefully?
Why does your anger smoke over your very own sheep?
Bring to mind your family adopted in ancient times
Bought by you as the tribe to inherit your bounty;
And this hill of Zion, your dwelling place.
Turn back towards the splendid ruins
And all the enemy’s evil in the sanctuary:
Your adversaries roar through your meeting place
Setting up their standards as signs of conquest.
From above they attack the wooden pillars with axes,
now smash down its carvings with hatchet and hammers,
Burn your sanctuary to the ground,
Pollute the dwelling place of your name.
They say to themselves, Let’s wipe them out thoroughly,
So they burn all the shrines in the land.
None of our signs are seen, no prophets any more
And there is none among us who knows how long.
How long, O God, will the enemy deride us?
Will they hold your name in contempt forever?
Why do you restrain your hand?
Why sheath your right hand in your robe?
Yet God is my king from the old time,
Author of Rescue throughout all the earth.
You cracked open the seas by your strength
You smacked open the heads of the monsters on the waters
You smashed the heads of Leviathan
You served him as food to the desert people
You opened channels for springs and rivers
You dried up established streams.
Yours is the day and the night also is yours
You set up the light and the sun
You fixed all the bounds of the earth
Summer and winter, you made them.
Remember this O Lord: the enemy mocks,
And a foolish people reviles your name.
Do not give the soul of your dove to the wild beasts!
The life of your poor, do not forget it forever!
Look to our covenant Lord,
For the secret haunts of the land
Are filled with houses of violence.
Don’t let the downtrodden depart in shame
But cause the destitute to praise your name!
Rise up, O God, represent your case,
Remember how idiots scorn you all day.
Do not forget the voice of your foes
The unceasing riot of those who oppose you.
Destroyed Church in Aleppo
Most scholars date this psalm in the 6th century BCE at the time when great numbers of Jewish people were taken as slaves to Babylon. My guess is that it dates from much later, in the 3rd century BCE when Israel was conquered by the Greeks, and Antiochus 4 held sacrifices to Zeus in the Temple.
God is reminded that he is dealing with people he has chosen. Given that this status as God’s chosen people is the basis of faith, the psalmist’s language is blunt: God has “spat them out,” like food He found distasteful. The details of God’s rejection are the details of the destruction of the temple by invaders. God is being asked if he wants to accept responsibility for the brutal desecration of his own sanctuary. It is clear from the details given that the conqueror’s desecration was deliberate, a victory in the spiritual realm to add to their victory in battle, destroying the will of the people to mount any resistance.
The detail about “burning all the shrines in the land” is interesting as the official propaganda of post- exilic Judaism claimed that there was only one shrine, at Jerusalem. Scholars are recognising how much of what is recounted in biblical history is theology rather than fact.
The condition of the conquered people is summed up in their lack of “signs” (buildings etc that symbolise their faith) and prophets ( who speak God’s word) , leaving no one who “knows how long” But the psalmist refuses to give in, reminding God of his glorious past, in his acts of creation, which are described in words that hint also at the miracles of the exodus – Leviathan may be a characterisation of the defeated Egyptians, the dried up streams those of the Red Sea. The history of the creator God with his chosen people is being used against his present abandonment of them.
But even if God is not persuaded by this history, he is urged to take account of the conquerors’ insulting arrogance towards him as the God of a defeated people. The psalmist reminds God of the “Covenant” (“I will be your God and you will be my be my people”). Mysterious words about the “houses of violence” may indicate either the complete breakdown of communal life based on the Torah, or the development of Jihadi groups ready to carry on an armed struggle.
Out of this desolation the psalmist issues an appeal to the God who cares for the poor and the oppressed. Surely it’s time for divine action! But he adds a final mention of the bitter mockery of the enemy. The constant complaints, both personal and communal, against God in the psalms, indicate a gap between what can legitimately be expected of a God, and what this God has actually supplied. In fact, these complaints fill that gap with powerful words, holding out against the reasonable conclusion that God is either not up to task or non-existent. In this situation, the people’s complaints against God are the only evidence for his existence.