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Year C: Pentecost 17
September 19, 2010
Psalm 79:1-9

Psalm 79 is a communal lament over the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In Book II of the Book of Psalms (Pss 43-72) we read of the transition from King David to his son Solomon. Book III deals with the historical realities of the period after Solomon in a quasi-historical fashion, with references to the destruction of the temple (Psalms 74; 79, 87), the earlier destruction of Yahweh’s northern kingdom Israel (Psalm 78), and the end of the Davidic dynasty (Psalms 78; 89). Things are not presented in their historical order but rather in such a way that hope is also present in this dismal story.

At the end of Psalm 78 we read confident statements about Zion and God’s servant David. However, in Psalm 79 these are negated in strong terms. Jerusalem lies in ruins, the temple has been defiled and God’s ‘servants’ have become food for the birds. No more bitter lament could be uttered by this community. In vv. 1-4 and vv. 10-13, the latter section being outside the portion of the psalm set for this week, there are references to the nations, the people as Yahweh’s servants, blood, Jerusalem, neighbours, and the taunts of the peoples. These two sections, which express concern for the future of God’s people with their common terms provide an inclusio for the psalm, surrounding the middle section. These middle verses, vv. 5-9, contain the lament proper with its familiar expression of ‘How long, O Yahweh’ (v. 5; cf. Pss. 6.3; 13.1-2; 74.10 etc.). This section asks God whether the sin of people will affect God’s response as a saving god (v. 8; cf. Ps. 78.18-19). God’s reputation and faithfulness are as much at stake as the people’s future.

Any of the attacks on Jerusalem could be behind Psalm 79 but the severity of this attack and connections with Jeremiah (e.g. vv. 2-3, cf. Jer. 7.33; 14.16; v. 6, cf. Jer. 10.25 etc.) suggest foremost the destruction of 586 BCE, through which Jeremiah lived. While both Psalms 74 and 79 speak of the same event, Psalm 79 is more concerned with human suffering, the role of sin and God’s honour. Psalm 74 deals with the cosmic significance of the destruction.

The psalms telling of temple destruction (Psalms 74 and 79) surround Psalm 78 which describes the failure of the northern kingdom, Israel, and the divine election of Judah, Zion and David. The positioning of Psalm 78 suggests that the destruction described in Psalm 74 is not the end of God’s dealing with Israel, despite the historical anachronism. On the other hand, the placement of Psalm 79 argues that Psalm 78’s positive end did not conclude the matter either. Psalm 79 begins a second sequence of psalms (Psalms 79-82) leading from lament through divine pronouncement (Psalm 81) to God’s sovereignty in the divine council (Psalm 82), a sequence similar to that of Psalms 74-76. The cycle of lament and hope will continue, even in the gravest situations. Several terms and expressions associated with God connect Psalms 79 and 78 confirming the forward movement, namely ‘wrath’, ‘memory and compassion’ and ‘shepherd’ (cf. 79.5, 8-9, 13 with 78. 38-39, 52, 59). Like Jeremiah the psalmist here preaches about the intricate and necessary relationship between God’s judgment upon a wayward people and God’s strong desire to shepherd the people to a safe place.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship

The lament over the destruction of the temple is not easy to incorporate into our weekly worship where such dramatic events do not always occur. The central verses vv. 8-9, however, would make a very suitable conclusion to the prayer of confession which could be said in responsorial fashion as here, or read to the congregation by the one leading worship:

Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name's sake.
Old Testament Reading: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

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