I am assuming that you are familiar with the famed Aesop’s Fables. Written long ago, Aesop’s purpose was to teach life lessons to the younger generation to equip them for the various circumstances and challenges of life. They were for the purpose of developing character. In this study, I want to familiarise and to energise you to become one of “Asaph’s Faithfuls.” In Psalm 79, Asaph wrote to equip his generation to be faithful, with the anticipation that generations that followed would likewise be faithful. This seemed to be a burning desire of this psalmist (cf. Psalm 78:5–8).
It is clear from the way that the psalm opens, and most notably how it closes, that Asaph was faith-full. If we take his inspired words to heart then we will be amongst Asaph’s Faithfuls.
Previously, we looked at Psalm 78, also written by Asaph, and I noted there that he was a contemporary of David. I based this on the mention of Asaph in 1 Chronicles 25 as one appointed by David to serve amongst the musicians in the temple.
However, if Asaph of Psalm 78 is the same as the Asaph of Psalm 79, then I doubt this is the same man as mentioned in 1 Chronicles. That does not materially change our interpretation of Psalm 78, except that the writer is looking back to David, rather than to David, as a faithful shepherd in order to encourage God’s people to remain faithful under its current leaders.
The reason for my change of view is because of the content of Psalm 79. It is quite clear that the events informing this psalm surrounded the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. That event, of course, occurred long after the reign of David. Further, there was no temple in Jerusalem in David’s day, and therefore it could not be destroyed. Quite evidently, there was more than one Asaph in biblical history.
So though I am not certain of the exact identity of the psalmist named Asaph, nevertheless I am quite confident that what he wrote is from God. It was written to the seventh century BC Jews and it is for the church of Jesus Christ today.
The Setting of the Psalm
It is clear from the opening verses that Jerusalem has been invaded by “the nations,” resulting in the desecration and destruction of the temple. The people of God had been defeated, disregarded, defamed and “dissed” as irrelevant; they were distressed. But the worst of this is that they were a mockery to the enemies, with the result that God’s name was defamed. Asaph, it would appear, was writing as an eyewitness of this prophesied chastening by God of His people.
The psalm is both a dirge and a challenge to faithful prayer about a glorious future. It opens with deep sorrow, and with even a seeming touch of despair, yet it closes with praise. The journey from v. 1 to v. 13 is one of faith, and one strengthened by faith as well. If there was ever a time, in our time, when we needed to pray Psalm 79, that time is now.
By recent democratic vote, Ireland announced that, as a nation, they are officially reprobate. They have proclaimed by the ballot box that the church is irrelevant. They have democratically proclaimed their defiance of God’s order for marriage and the family. They have repudiated God’s Word.
The United States has been doing so, slowly and slitheringly surely, for decades now; and the US Supreme Court is soon most likely going to give such reprobate repudiation legal sanction. The evangelical church there will face unprecedented challenges.
South Africa perhaps has never been more chaotic than it is now. Our government, regardless of the political party, is leading us as a nation from disorder to disorder. Justice is a mockery, righteousness is determined not by God’s standards but rather by the whims of social constructs.
But I would suggest that these political and social devolutions are not the biggest burden and challenge we face. No, the problem lies perhaps more at the door of churches than anywhere else. The pagans have come into our inheritance and God’s holy temple—His church—has been defiled. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
In the United States, only three percent of the population is homosexual, while some thirty percent is evangelical. Yet homosexuality rules the day while the church is largely considered irrelevant. In South Africa, abortion on demand enjoys legal protection, despite the facts that 89% of the ruling party’s membership opposed the legislation when it was opposed. The voice of the church was ignored—if, indeed, it was voiced—as infanticide was embraced.
As Christians, we are often quick to cry, “What’s wrong with the world?” Perhaps the most honest, yet most painful, answer is, “The church!”
Well, Psalm 79 honestly exposes the problem we face, but it also hopefully anticipates a future that is much brighter.
When Adoniram Judson was suspended upside down in a Burmese prison, one of his fellow inmate sneeringly asked, “Where is your God now?” Judson confidently replied, “The future is as bright as the promises of God.” The psalmist had similar faith.
We will work through this psalm breaking it down into five stanzas. My goal is the same as the author’s: faith-filled prayer and faith-fuelled perspective about a fruitful prospect.
An Honest Assessment
Asaph opens his poem with an honest assessment:
O God, the nations have come into Your inheritance; Your holy temple they have defiled; they have laid Jerusalem in heaps. The dead bodies of Your servants they have given as food for the birds of the heavens, the flesh of Your saints to the beasts of the earth. Their blood they have shed like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them. We have become a reproach to our neighbours, a scorn and derision to those who are around us.
The city of God had been desecrated by the enemy (v. 1). The temple had been defiled and the city destroyed.
The people of God have been disrespected (vv. 2–3). The text speaks of dead bodies being scavenged upon by birds. VanGemeren notes the significance of this when he writes, “The lack of burial was considered a terrible fate in the ancient Near East.”1
The people had been derided, disregarded and defamed by the surrounding society (v. 4).
To fully appreciate the burden of the psalm, we would do well to heed the instructive words of Boice, who comments,
None of us has been witness to a disaster of this magnitude. Bad things happen to us sometimes. We get sick or someone close to us dies or a fire destroys our home or we lose a job. But here everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Everything that could possibly be destroyed has been destroyed. The destruction was political, because the nation no longer existed. There was no king, no counselors, no people in authority, no army. The destruction was economic, because the land was devastated. No one could earn a living, and there was no one to buy anything that might be produced. The destruction was social, because entire families were wiped out and there was no one who had not lost a husband, son, father, mother, wife, or children in the conflict. Worst of all, the destruction was religious, for there was no temple and the worship of God had ceased throughout the land.2
In sum, God’s people had been dismissed as insignificant and irrelevant. They were a laughing stock. They had become saltless salt. And in fact, salt had been rubbed into their wounds. They were fruitless and therefore were seemingly being discarded—much like the church in Ireland recently; much like the church in the United States; much like the church here in South Africa.
But there is something more, something that does not meet the eye in the text before us. Namely, all of this “dissing” has come about fundamentally because the people of God in the city of God were being disciplined by God. They were disrespected, defiled, destroyed, defamed, dismissed and in deep distress because they are being disciplined by God (cf. Deuteronomy 28; Jeremiah 25; 29:10ff). Their disobedience to their God-mandated kingdom responsibilities was the reason that all of this was brought upon them. You cannot be relevant for God in the world if at the same time you are being irreverent toward God and His Word. Relevance is directly proportional to how seriously we respond to God’s revelation of truth.
A Heartfelt Anger
In vv. 5–7, Asaph expresses some heartfelt anger at the distress of Judah:
How long, Lord? Will You be angry forever? Will Your jealousy burn like fire? Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You, and on the kingdoms that do not call on Your name. For they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his dwelling place.
This stanza records what is often our initial response to suffering and distress: imprecatory inquiry. That is, we ask, “How long will this be?” while at the same time imploring God to do a work of judgement on those who have wronged us. Of course, this is not necessarily wrong, but it can be. It all depends on our attitude.
Leupold fairly acknowledges,
Though we well know that the feelings of revenge could dominate such a prayer, there are other possibilities, objectives that are not unworthy of God’s people. One such may be that the evil-doer might be checked; another that he might receive his due reward. To adopt the least charitable view is scarcely warranted when one is charging others with lack of charity.3
The point is that, properly motivated, such prayers are very righteous. And this is not the first time Asaph has made such an appeal, as a reading of Psalm 74 will show.
Such a cry is legitimate as long as it is confessional. That is, as long as it acknowledges that the sovereign Lord (Yahweh) is acknowledged as the one behind the distress, and as long as an attitude of submission is at its heart.
Yes, it was Yahweh who ultimately was behind this destruction and distress for it was the LORD who was disciplining His people.
Asaph mentions God’s jealous anger. As we saw previously, Yahweh is a jealous God because He is, in fact, the only God. He will tolerate no rivals. But His people had set up idols, both in their hearts and elsewhere. They were guilty and so they should not have been surprised by His chastening hand.
Asaph moves from heading towards confession to imprecatory pleading concerning the enemy (v. 7). He does so, in my opinion, pretty quickly—perhaps too quickly?
Do you not find that it is far easier to see the wrongs of others than the wrongs for which you are guilty? Surely you and I do. And perhaps this honesty is recorded here for all subsequent believers to take note of in order to take to heart.
Everything that Asaph says here is true. The nations have wilfully rejected the knowledge of God and therefore they do not acknowledge Him. “‘Not to know’ Him implies the guilty rejection of the Almighty. So it is not a case of asking punishment upon the innocent but upon the guilty, and that in proportion to the wrong that they have done.”4
Kidner notes the fundamental issue here when he writes, “What has happened is more than tragedy: it is sacrilege.”5
The heathen do not call on the name of the Lord; they had “devoured Jacob, and laid waste his dwelling place.” But we need to ask, and Asaph and his contemporaries needed to ask, what of us? There was a reason for this “waste,” and it was the wickedness of God’s people. Those who did acknowledge God were practically denying Him, hence His jealous anger.
When we are burdened over the obvious trampling on God’s people, and particularly the trampling on God’s name, then we should cry out to God. This psalm invites us to. A prayer for justice is right. But, as we need to see, this should be accompanied by a prayer for forgiveness. After all, quite literally in this psalm we have the record of judgement beginning at the house of God (see 1 Peter 4:17).
A Healthy Awareness
In vv. 8–9 Asaph displays a healthy awareness: “Oh, do not remember former iniquities against us! Let Your tender mercies come speedily to meet us, for we have been brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and deliver us, and provide atonement for our sins, for Your name’s sake!”
Perhaps after praying the previous stanza the proverbial penny was beginning to drop. Asaph, and perhaps others of the remnant, were now moving from consideration of themselves and their situation to consideration of their sin and the sacrilege their sins have been before God. The result is a bit of change in tune—or at least a change in lyrics at this point. The psalm moves from a cry for just judgement to a cry for personal mercy.
Leupold sees this very clearly and so comments, “After the forgiveness has been obtained help becomes possible. The greater evil is first to be removed.”4
This portion of the psalm reminds us of the Lord Jesus’ instruction concerning prayer given to His disciples (Matthew 6:5–15; Luke 11:1–4). The hallowing of God’s name is now front and centre, accompanied by the acknowledgement that God’s people have fallen short of doing so.
Cover-ups are generally not a good thing. But our text appeals for a cover-up that we all need: the covering of the atonement (v. 9).
The word “atonement” fundamentally carries the idea of “covering over” that which alienates. God prescribed various sacrifices under the old covenant to temporarily accomplish this (Leviticus 17:11). Of course, it was by the blood of such substitutionary sacrifices that the people could experience forgiveness. They could be granted pardon and therefore could be reconciled to God. Literally, through the offering of these sacrifices, they could experience “at-one-ment” with God. The writer here, on behalf of the remnant, pleads for this. But there is a problem—a really big problem: The place where sacrifices were offered, the place of atonement, had been destroyed. The Babylonians had razed the temple. Hence the plea, “provide atonement for our sins.” They needed another way, for there was no other way unless God provided it. And He did. In fact, He always had: the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God (Revelation 13:8).
God was not dependent on a building for granting forgiveness. He had established a way long before the construction of that place: the blood of His Son. And, for His name’s sake, they could be sure that God would atone for their sins. And we can have the same confidence. There is therefore hope.
The church needs revival. But it needs repentance first. And when repentance and revival are granted then reformation will take place to the glory of God’s name. Let us pray for this. Let us faithfully hope for this. Let us labour for this.
Our sins have brought us “very low.” But God can raise us up. In fact, we can be sure that He will. After all, His name is on the line.
I do not mean to tempt us to presumption. Rather, I want to challenge each disciple of Jesus Christ to be honest to God with a corresponding hope in God. We therefore can expect help from God.
This is what gospel-driven praying looks like: guilt overcome by grace for the glory of God and for the good of His people. This brings us to the next stanza.
A Hope for Avenging
In vv. 10–12 Asaph expresses his hope that God will avenge His people for His name’s sake:
Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let there be known among the nations in our sight the avenging of the blood of Your servants which has been shed. Let the groaning of the prisoner come before You; according to the greatness of Your power preserve those who are appointed to die; and return to our neighbours sevenfold into their bosom their reproach with which they have reproached You, O Lord.
This stanza could as well be part and parcel of the previous one. At the very least, the pleas of the previous stanza logically lead to the pleas of these next three verses.
Having been convinced and convicted of their sins, having confessed them, and having been cleansed of them, the writer seems even more passionate about the glory of God. He is deeply concerned that God be honoured. He desires his great God to be revealed both to His own people and to those who reproach God and His people. And he seems to have the assurance that God will do so. He is obviously of the persuasion that “such suffering of His covenant people is not a matter of indifference to God.”7
The Revelation of God
There is an apparent burden here that God be revealed and seen to be the great God that He is. “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’”
The beleaguered writer desires the revelation of the glory of God that all will reverently acknowledge Him. And as far as he is concerned, God rescuing His people, while bringing just retribution on His and their enemies, is a marvellous means of God’s self-revelation. VanGemeren concurs, “The judgment must be equal to the severity of the reproach of God’s name! Certainly the people of God looked for restoration, but the restoration is directly related to their being a witness to the glory of God.”8
This is not a mean-spirited desire on the part of Asaph. Rather, when our hearts are right, this can be a very godly plea. In fact, Revelation 6 records Christians throughout old covenant and early new covenant history doing this very thing. And Jesus answered!
A pastor in our city recently called me to discuss the Olivet Discourse. He was planning to preach Mark 13, and knowing that I had previously preached Matthew 24, he called to ask about some matters of application. Convinced that Jesus was speaking in the Olivet Discourse about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, he wondered how the text applies to Christian readers today, nearly two thousand years after the event.
My answer to him was simple: The fact that Christ judged His enemies in 70 AD as He said He would serves to encourage us that He is faithful to His Word. As He Himself said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Mark 13:31). If He could be trusted to fulfil His promises regarding the destruction of Jerusalem, we can trust Him to fulfil His promises in our day too. There are yet promises in Scripture that remain to be fulfilled, and considering His faithfulness to His Word in the past encourages us that He will fulfil His promises for the future.
For example, God promises that there will come a time in space-time history when the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14). Daniel’s little stone will grow into a mountain that covers the entire earth. While statisticians tell us that Christianity is receding, we need not fear, for we know that God is faithful to His Word.
Practically, this knowledge should inform our prayers. Christians need to be praying that the knowledge of the true God will be revealed as the enemies of Christ—like members of ISIS and Boko Haram—are converted. But this does not preclude us also praying that, if it will bring God more glory, may His retributive-justice be poured out on them. Yes, to the glory of God!
Oh to see God’s power (v. 11) displayed in our day—primarily through gospel conversions, but also through God’s vengeance. The silencing of fools and the saving of the faithful are both a means of God being honoured rather than reproached.
A Happy Assurance
Asaph brings the psalm to a close by expressing a happy assurance: “So we, Your people and sheep of Your pasture, will give You thanks forever; we will show forth Your praise to all generations” (v. 13).
Though the psalm begins with a heart cry it ends with a happy confidence. Boice helpfully notes, “The secret of his confidence is in what verse 13 talks about—the people will always be God’s people, the sheep of his pasture.”9
Asaph takes comfort in the knowledge that he and his people are God’s sheep and therefore there is every reason to be confident that the Lord will not forsake them. In fact, there is every reason to believe that the Lord will care for them.
Asaph, along with the faithful remnant, relied on the promises of God that He would one day return them to the land and remove their reproach. They trusted the Lord for better generations. Asaph fully expected that one day God’s people would show forth His praise. This, as Kidner observes, was a display of deep faith in God: “To look back to verse 1 is to wonder at the faith which enabled such a psalm, from such distress, to end, even if only in anticipation, with such a word as praise.”10
It is just such faith that was the intent of the psalm. And I would maintain that if we will have such faith then we need the same process. We must honestly assess our condition and then move from a heartfelt, holy anger to a healthy awareness of our own failure before the Lord. As we do so then, in our desire for God’s avenging power, we will find ourselves with a happy assurance that our great and good Chief Shepherd will care for our souls. He will save many souls and will glorify Himself throughout society. Our expectation therefore will be that God’s church will be faithful. And such faithfulness will yield showing forth God’s praises for generations.
May God grant us the grace to hear these words, and then to pray because of these words, resulting in our generation becoming one of Asaph’s faithfuls to the glory of God.
- Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:520. ↩
- James Montgomery Boice, Psalms: An Expositional Commentary, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 2:655. ↩
- H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1969), 576. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 576. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press), 1973, 286. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 576. ↩
- Leupold, Exposition of Psalms, 575. ↩
- VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:523. ↩
- Boice, Psalms, 658. ↩
- Kidner, Psalms, 288. ↩