Psalm 74 is a psalm of the exile, a song of lament over the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. It’s a psalm of corporate grief, of communal mourning. To be sure, it is a song that points us to the ultimate hope we have in our covenant-keeping God. But not before the agony of lament is fully felt and expressed.
The Bible is God’s story, and because God wins in the end, there is hope. But biblical hope is not naïve. It’s not unrealistic. It doesn’t ignore pain. Instead, the Bible is unflinchingly realistic and so very honest about suffering and the brokenness of our lives and our world. And as a result, it’s filled with lament, with grief, with mourning—in ways that so many of us evangelicals are not.
And so when we ask the difficult questions—How do we respond to terrorist bombs in Boston, beheadings in Libya, cancer deaths in the pediatric ward and Alzheimer’s theft of our mother?—Psalm 74 gives us a crucial part of the answer. Psalm 74 tells us that if we’re to be as honest and real and authentic as the Bible, we need to be a people of lament.
In Psalm 74, Asaph the psalmist is grieving over the deportation of the people of Israel and the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The enemies of God were intense; they were hostile. According to verses 5-7, they were filled with such rage that they behaved like crazy men, wielding axes and smashing the paneling of the temple and everything else that made it beautiful. They burned Yahweh’s sanctuary to the ground and defiled the dwelling place of His name.
But more is going on than just enemies conquering a city. Their actions occurred after God, in His anger, had rejected His people. And this reality prompts the emotions of this lament.
Asaph begins Psalm 74 by laying bare his heart. He asks, “O God, why have You rejected us forever? Why does Your anger smolder against the sheep of Your pasture?” His questions are not so much a plea for answers as a cry of agony.
The pain Israel was enduring seemed to Asaph to be permanent. Truly, the suffering is always the most intense when we don’t know when or if it will ever end. The uncertainty is unbearable.
Asaph comes back to this point in verse 9, after he describes what has happened. You see, it wasn’t just the temple that was gone. No, the messengers of God, the prophets, were gone as well. And so God was silent: “We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left.” And worst of all: “None of us knows how long this will be.”