We have emphasized before that the psalter is not just a collection of songs, but it is also a model for prayer. We do not ever want to get our prayers to the point where they are “holier” than the prayers offered up in the Bible. And we should not forget to mention that those same prayers are given to us as a template for us to use for ourselves (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). This includes all the psalms, all the way through. We not only learn what kinds of things to pray for, but we also learn what tone we should have.
“O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? Why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture? Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old . . .” (Ps. 74:1-23).
Summary of the Text:
This psalm of Asaph can basically be divided into two sections. The first (vv. 1-11) outlines the miseries the nation is going through, with particular attention paid to certain assaults on places of worship and devotion. The second section pleads with God to intervene, and the argument is based on the ways that God has previously done so (vv. 12-23). If God has delivered in the past, why wouldn’t He be willing to deliver now?
The Synagogue Problem:
This is one of the psalms of Asaph, but we have a synagogue problem. In 1 Chron. 6:39, David appoints Heman as the chief musician, and Asaph as his main assistant. Asaph also performed at the dedication of the Temple in Solomon’s reign (2 Chron. 5:12). This is the place of Asaph in the historical record. But Asaph was also apparently the head of a musical guild (1 Chron. 25:1), and it is conceivable that a psalm that came from this guild is attributed to him, as “in the style of.” The reason this comes up is that this psalm laments the destruction of all the synagogues throughout the land (v. 8), and it is generally held (for good reason) that the institution of the synagogue was not established until the time of Ezra and the return from the Exile. In addition, if there had been synagogues in Asaph’s day, there is no record of them being destroyed like this.
At the same time, synagogue just means “place for assembly,” and I think it is likely that the devout wanted to get together for various purposes prior to the formation of the institutional synagogue around the time of the Exile. In other words, there were likely proto-synagogues earlier in Israel’s history and they may have borne the name synagogue.
Antithesis is Real:
Nevertheless, God is angry with the sheep of His pasture (v. 1), and the way this is realized is through the anger of those who are ultimately angry with Him. The enemies of God hate His people because they are so closely associated with Him, and God chastises them because they have drifted so far away from Him. And both realities are true.
The blasphemy is directed at the name of God (v. 10). The targets of their spite are the synagogues of God (v. 8). At the same time, it is God who has cast off His sheep (v. 1). God uses the rod for our backs, and the rod itself is trying to strike the one who wields it.
The godless do not attack us for our sins. They do attack us with our sins, but it is not on account of them. Our sin is what we have in common with them. Those sins do, however, put distance between us and God. Thus it is that we have the worst of both worlds—persecuted for the sake of Christ, and not in possession of the consolations of Christ. Not a place you want to be.
When we are not being persecuted by the world, this is the odd circumstance. We think it is the normal state of affairs, but a glance at the history of the world, and a survey of what is happening around the world right now, should refute that suggestion forever.
But even when we see an outbreak of hostility, at surprising levels, we should not be surprised. We are right on schedule. Spurgeon put it this way: “Instead of being alarmed when bad men grow worse and more audacious, we may reasonably take heart, for the hour of their judgment is evidently near.”
Faith in the Rubble:
So everything has come apart. What are we to do? What are we called to do? Spurgeon (again) put it well when he said that “faith finds pleas in the worst circumstances, she uses even the fallen stones of her desolate palaces.” In other words, standing in the midst of rubble, looking around at the smoking ruin, the man of faith is invited to pick up any random piece of rock, and turn it into an argument that can be presented to God.
And the center of every argument, one that any ruined stone can fit into, is this. “Have respect unto the covenant: for the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty” (v. 20). Have respect for the covenant. God, if You didn’t want us to believe the promises, then why did You give them? If You didn’t want us to plead with You in these terms, then why did You give us these terms? And why did You command us to plead with You?
This is an argument that God loves. “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; And he will shew them his covenant” (Ps. 25:14). He shows us how to plead with Him successfully. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7; 9:10), and one of the things we come to know is the secret of the Lord. And when we come to know the secret of the Lord, He shows us His covenant. So we plead the covenant as a key for the lock, and the lock opens up into a room, and the room is the covenant.
If there is an argument that God loves, and if He has taught us to use it, and if our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all those covenant promises, then why wouldn’t we give ourselves to this? Why wouldn’t we plead Christ to God? Why wouldn’t we pray in the name of Jesus, knowing what we do?