O God, why have you rejected us for ever?
Why does your anger smoulder against the sheep of your pasture?
Remember the nation you purchased long ago,
the people of your inheritance, whom you redeemed –
Mount Zion, where you dwelt.
Turn your steps towards these everlasting ruins,
all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.
I read a few months ago of a Christian musician who had ‘lost’ her faith as a result of visiting Auschwitz. She simply could not reconcile the horrors of the death camp with what she had been taught about God. Something like that seems to have happened here, an event so calamitous and so traumatic that it had completely shaken the Psalmist’s faith in God. Everything has fallen apart.
The book of Lamentations gives a chilling account of Jerusalem besieged by the Babylonians and the Psalmist looks back on its aftermath, on a city that had been stormed, ransacked, where the Temple that had been his delight (Lamentations 73:17) had been left a smouldering heap of ruins.
In the midst of this suffering the writer cries out to God but the heavens are silent, there is no reply, no response. The silence feels like it could go on forever (vv. 9–10, 1a).
All that he has seen and experienced is focussed in the anguished cry that opens the Psalm, ‘O God, have you rejected us forever?’ We probably haven’t watched a dying city, we probably haven’t witnessed the horrors of war close up, but the Psalmist’s question is a cry, to some extent or another, that many of us can relate to.
The psalm pivots in verse 12 when the writer remembers who God is and what he has done in the past. God is sovereign (v. 12), so ultimately whatever happens, even when we don’t understand, is somehow under his control. He is also the God who brings salvation to the earth (v. 12) so his purposes, perplexing as they might seem, are nonetheless good (John 3:16).
In particular the Psalmist recalls how the Egyptian charioteers were swept away when God rescued the Israelites from slavery. The imagery of sea monsters was prevalent in many ancient near eastern accounts of creation and its appearance in the psalm hints at the malignant spiritual forces embodied in Pharaoh’s forces. God is sovereign over forces of evil, visible or invisible. And the God who demonstrated his power over nature (vv. 13–15) continues to rule over creation. Just as he set boundaries for night and day, so he has set boundaries for human behaviour: evil will not go unchecked.
It is perhaps significant that in verse 18 there is a switch from the general term, ‘God’, to the specific name YHWH (translated in most English translations as ‘LORD’). YHWH is the God who remembered the covenant that he had made with Abraham, who rescued Israel from Egypt and who renewed that covenant at Sinai. In the Exodus YHWH defeated human evil and the spiritual powers lurking behind it, something that would have been celebrated each year at Passover. YHWH freed his people and the Psalmist calls upon him to do it again. He pleads passionately, appealing to God’s own honour (vv. 20–23), calling him to remember (v. 18). It’s not that God needs reminding (his memory is better than ours!) but the Psalm says it’s okay to remind him.
Psalm 74 is written from a very low place, where the pain and the questions are raw and the answers aren’t exactly flowing. The Gospel is not that bad things won’t happen – they will. The Gospel is not that you won’t feel abandoned – you might. The Gospel is you won’t be abandoned whatever you feel, that there is part of God that has experienced something of that pain and hopelessness (Matthew 26:46). The Gospel is that Good Friday is real but so is Easter Sunday.