Psalm 79: Hell on Earth

O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance;
    they have defiled your holy temple,
    they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.
They have left the dead bodies of your servants
    as food for the birds of the sky,
    the flesh of your own people for the animals of the wild.
They have poured out blood like water
    all around Jerusalem,
    and there is no one to bury the dead.
We are objects of contempt to our neighbours,
    of scorn and derision to those around us.

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Psalm 79

At the time of writing a team from the church is visiting Rwanda as part of our partnership with Tearfund. As a fellowship we have had a link, through Eric Singirankabo, with Rwanda for the best part of 30 years. It is a country that has witnessed horrendous evils. The genocide of 1994 was a stain not just on Rwanda but on the rest of the world which stood by and did nothing. At the height of the slaughter the front cover of Time Magazine reported the words of a missionary who blunted stated ‘There are no devils left in Hell.  They are all in Rwanda.’

Psalm 79 also witnesses to hell on earth. Like Psalm 74 it is a lament written after the destruction of Jerusalem. A later edition of Time Magazine led with a gruesome cover photo depicting a carpet of trampled corpses, refugees stampeded to death at the border between Rwanda and the crossing to Goma, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The headline cited one resident of Goma who said, ‘This is the beginning of the final days. This is the apocalypse.’

For the writer of Psalm 79 the fall of Jerusalem must also have seemed like the end of the world. So much of what he loved had been destroyed. The temple where God had made ‘his home on earth’ had been defiled (v. 1), his servants, denied even the dignity of burial (v. 3), had become carrion for birds of prey (v. 2) and his people had become the object of derision (v. 4).

The first thing that is worth noting in all this is the psalmist’s honesty. None of his words are sugar-coated. This frankness isn’t a lack of trust but rather a trust that God is big enough to cope with his questions and his hurts. We don’t need to protect God from how we feel. Eugene Peterson says, ‘Praying isn’t being nice before God. The psalms aren’t pretty. They’re not nice. Faith often isn’t smooth, nice, or pretty, but it’s honest, and I think we’re trying for honesty in our faith, which is very hard in our culture.’

Secondly there is an implicit appeal to God’s grace. The psalmist acknowledges that the community is not without fault (v. 9). Indeed, prophets like Jeremiah had made it clear that God’s people were heading for disaster because of the way they were living. They were not guiltless but God is bigger than their sin. Even in their rebellion the psalmist can appeal to God because he is compassionate and merciful (v. 8).

Related to that is the appeal to God’s honour (v. 9). If God’s people deserve to be punished, then so be it. But what about those dishing out the punishment, those men whose motivation is less than godly, who inflict atrocities and rack up the suffering? If God is a God of justice then he must deal with those who are unjust, who imprison and kill God’s servants (vv. 10, 11). The psalmist’s call to God to pay back his enemies stands in contrast to Jesus’ words to love and pray for them (Matthew 5:43–8) but it is only as we admit to our feelings that we might move beyond them to forgiveness.

Finally, to those of us who live comfortable lives, these experiences may seem remote but this lament helps us to empathise with and pray for those communities around the world which are suffering and in pain. The Psalms give us a way not only to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’ but to ‘mourn with those who mourn’ (Romans 12:15).