continuing my tranlsation of Psalms 73 -89, the third book of Psalms
PSALM 79 An Asaph Psalm
The pagans, O God –
They have invaded your territory;
They have polluted your holy palace;
They have razed Jerusalem into ruinous heaps.
They have handed the bodies of your servants as food to the birds of the heavens;
The flesh of your faithful to the living creatures of the earth.
They poured out their blood like water around Jerusalem
and there was no-one to bury them.
We have become a joke for our neighbours
Scorn and derision for those around us.
How long are you going to be angry Yahweh? Forever?
How long will your jealousy flame like fire?
Pour out your poison on peoples that do not know you,
on the kingdoms that do not call on your name!
For they have eaten Jacob and left his home empty.
Do not hold against us our former wrongdoing,
but let your compassion come quickly to meet us,
for we are very weak.
Help us, rescuing God, for the reputation of your name;
Save us and forgive our sin for your name’s sake.
Why should the godless say,” Where is their God?”
Let the nations know that you avenge the blood your servants shed-
Do it before our eyes!
Let the cries of the captive reach you!
In the magnitude of your might
preserve those who are doomed to die!
Return to our neighbours seven times more bitter scorn
than they have levelled, Lord, at you.
Then we your people, the flock you pasture, will praise you forever;
To all generations we shall recount your glory.
GOYA DISASTERS OF WAR (“They have no one to help them”)
This psalm is recited still in Israel at the western wall on Fridays. Its prayer for God’s wrath is used as part of the Passover liturgy. That suggests that we should not see it as simply a complaint to God with many commonplace phrases.
- It may have been composed in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple in 586 BCE and the removal to Babylon of many Jews. The outrage of faithful Jews at the desecration of the temple is expressed in the opening verse. I have translated ther Hebrew “hekal” as palace rather than the more usual “temple” because it was seen as God’s palace, the dwelling where God welcomed his guests.
- The crimes of the Babylonians are summed up in verses 2 and 3. Their slaughter involves the heavens (birds) earth (its creatures) and water (blood poured out like) hinting how the pollution of the temple pollutes the whole creation. The Hebrew “shafak” to pour is used also for the pouring out of God’s anger/ poison in verse 6. The psalmist believes in reciprocal justice.
- The modern abuse of the internet has reminded us how mockery and scorn can threaten the will to live, as in this psalm.
- The question, “How long?” is common in psalms of complaint, but we should not neglect its frank criticism of God’s administration. Verse 6 points out a more suitable target for God’s anger. Without the faith that God has deliberately punished his people, rather than being simply incompetent, how could people still believe?
- In verse 7 the psalmist links the “eating” of the people by the enemy with the desolate “emptiness” of the shattered city. This is original and powerful poetry.Unusually in a psalm of complaint the psalmist mentions the elephant in the room: the repeated wrongdoing of his people. He does not try to justify them but calls for God’s compassion; surely God knows how weak they are! Still, even if God’s compassion is not roused, he should attend to his own reputation, as the pagans will certainly ask, “Where is your God?”
- The vengeance of God on the Babylonians should not only be done, it should be seen to be done by his faithful people. It’s easy to pass this demand over as if it beloings to a primitive sort of faith. I may not want to make it, but I have lived a fortunate life. But if I was a Rohingya in Myanmar, or a Christian in Pakistan or a Muslim in China I might well make it as the price of my faith in any kind of justice or God.
- The victims desrve God’s attention; their lives can still be rescued
- God’s action should bring bitter mockery on the people who mocked. The “seven times more” may hark back to punishment of Cain, the murderer. It is very difficult to translate the Hebrew ” return into their bosom” (“Chek”) which indicates the intimate place that hurts most. My lame translation tries to indicate this with the word “bitter”.
- The psalm ends with the imagined restoration of justice which includes fhe relationship of God as shepherd to Israel/ Judah as flock. The glory of God has been communicated from one generation to the next; surely God will not let it come to an end in the destruction of the present generation!
- The psalm turns out to be a tough prayer suitable for people who are experiencing terrible suffering at the hands of others.