This is a psalm of Asaph, but given the subject material it is likely “Asaphic”—of the school of Asaph, in the tradition of Asaph. The scenes described fit very well with Israel’s later history, and not really from the time of David or Solomon. A sonnet can be a Petrarchan sonnet without having been written by Petrarch.
“O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance; Thy holy temple have they defiled; they have laid Jerusalem on heaps. The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the heaven, the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth . . .” (Ps. 79:1-13).
Summary of the Text:
The psalm divides nicely into three sections. The first is the outpouring of complaint (vv. 1-4). The prayer that results from the complaint makes up the next section (vv. 5-12). The last section, the last verse, is the promise to praise God upon deliverance (v. 13).
The heathen have defiled the temple, and they have laid waste to Jerusalem (v. 1). God’s saints are slain, the birds of the air devour them, and there is no one available to bury them (vv. 2-3). The godly are a derision to their neighbors (v. 4).
The psalmist then turns from the disaster to the petition. How long are You going to angry, Lord (v. 5)? Pour out Your wrath on those nations that do not know You (v. 6), for they have devoured Jacob (v. 7). Remember not our earlier iniquities (v. 8), for we are completely thinned out. God, save us for the sake of Your glory—forgive us for Your name’s sake (v. 9). Why should the heathen be allowed to taunt us (v. 10)? Let the sighing of the prisoner be heard by You. Preserve those who are appointed to die, according to Your power (v. 11). Pay our enemies back sevenfold (v. 12).
And God, if You deliver us in this way, in the way we are asking, our praise will rise to You for all generations (v. 13). The psalmist is here promising what the psalm reveals as being of great importance to God—which is the glory of God.
A World of Layers
Notice the sovereignty of God in all of this. We have the same kind of thing here as was expressed by Job. Satan took most of his blessings away, and contemplating the handiwork of Satan, Job says “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Jesus is betrayed by Judas, accused by the Sanhedrin, taunted by Herod, and ineptly defended by Pilate (Acts 4:27-28). Whose will is He submitting to? The answer is the will of the Father (Matt. 26:42).
What do we see here? What are the heathen doing? Piling dead bodies everywhere, leaving them unburied, feeding them to the birds, defiling the temple, taunting the Jews, and so on. Everything is grim, and all appears to be lost. And how does the psalmist understand it? “How long, Lord? Wilt thou be angry for ever?” (v. 5). Regardless of who brings your trial to you, Your Father in Heaven is the one who sent it.
Justice is justice, and never injustice. The fact is that mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13), but this is not because justice is wrong. The psalmist here prays for a seven-fold return on the reproach of the heathen (v. 12). The apostle Peter thought he was doing something really magnanimous by forgiving a brother up to seven times (Matt. 18:21). But the Lord then upped the ante—it was not just a reversal of the seven, but then a multiplication of that seven by seventy (Matt. 18:22).
“Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: Mercy and truth shall go before thy face” (Ps. 89:14).
“I will sing of mercy and judgment: unto thee, O Lord, will I sing” (Ps. 101:1).
When we compare the miracles of the old creation with the miracles of the new creation, we are not being critical of the old. But note the stark difference in emphasis. The glory of the new is better, although both are glory. In the old creation, miracles destroyed cities, wiped out armies, consumed soldiers, brought wasting famine, and so on. In the new creation, Jesus fed the five thousand, raised the dead, turned water to wine, and healed leprosy. There were some constructive miracles in the old (e.g. the healing of Naaman’s leprosy), and some destructive miracles in the new (e.g. the withered fig tree). But look at the emphasis. What direction are we going?
Grace and Glory:
Corporate virtues tend to come and go, but our sins tend to accumulate. The psalmist here asks God to not remember the former iniquities of the people. One scholar reports that the ancient Jews had a saying that there is “no punishment happens to Israel, but there is an ounce in it for the sin of the calf.” This shows the need for grace and forgiveness, the kind of cleansing that goes back. God’s people here plead their misery and distress; they do not plead their righteousness.
But there is an argument here that prevails greatly with God. Remember that in the New Testament (1 Jn. 1:9) we are told that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. That seems to us an odd juxtaposition, but it is not odd at all. “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name” (v. 9). Consider the same thing in the second half of the same verse—“Deliver us, and purge away our sins, for thy name’s sake.”
“I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake” (1 John 2:12).
We are sometimes troubled by this, as though God’s zeal for His own glory revealed some kind of megalomania. Who does God think He is? But to be ultimate reality has to include the knowledge of that fact, and the corresponding knowledge that no finite creature could possibly find contentment and peace while at war with that reality.
If God were to be more greatly glorified by our condemnation, then there would be a tension in seeking His forgiveness. But there is not. When we seek our greatest forgiveness, when we are seeking salvation to the uttermost, we are seeking His greatest glory. That is because in Christ God saves sinners, and Christ is the visible glory of the invisible Father.