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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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PSALM 74

A LAMENT FOLLOWING THE FALL OF JERUSALEM

This is another of the Psalms accredited to Asaph. However, "Asaph, like Jeduthun and Heman, became a tribe-name, attaching to all the descendants of the original Asaph, and was equivalent to `the son of Asaph.'"F1

The occasion for this Psalm has been assigned to three different dates: "These identifications are (1) the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. (2 Kings 24), (2) the suppression of a Jewish insurrection by a Persian King Artaxerxes Ochus in 351 B.C., and (3) the profaning of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 B.C.F2 Despite the skillful arguments of Delitzsch who favored the Maccabean date, our conclusion is that only the total destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 fills the bill as the correct date for this psalm.

There are apparently some powerful arguments against this in the psalm itself, which we shall discuss in the notes below.

The determining factor in this question is that this psalm represents the temple itself as having been burned; and that definitely did not occur either in the times of Shishak or those of the Maccabeans.

An example of how scholars can go "overboard" for an incorrect conclusion, based upon a few facts, is that of Addis.

"Synagogues are everywhere in the land, and no prophet has arisen... Everything points to the composition of the Psalm between 168 B.C. and 165 B.C."F3

Such a conclusion is in error, because the Second Temple was never burned, until the rebuilt version of it by Herod the Great was burned by the soldiers of Vespasian and Titus in the year 70 A.D. Addis' arguments, however, are important, and we shall examine them more closely in the text below.

A very significant peculiarity of this psalm was pointed out by Spurgeon. "There is not a single mention of either personal or national sin in this psalm; and yet one cannot doubt that the writer was fully aware of the sins and iniquities of Israel that had brought all of this misery upon them."F4

Leupold, Rawlinson and Ash, along with most present day scholars, agree that the most likely date is that following the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C. As McCullough stated it, "None of the suggested dates is free from difficulty, but the first (that of 587 B.C.) is most likely."F5

Ps. 74:1-2

O God, why hast thou cast us off forever?

Why dost thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?

Remember thy congregation, which thou hast gotten of old,

Which thou hast redeemed to be the tribe of thine inheritance;

And mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt."

The plight of Israel at this time was indeed pitiful. Their sins had finally reached a level that required their captivity and the dissolution of their earthly kingdom. The true people of God, after this time, were no longer to be found in the land of Israel, but in Babylon. The Israelites still remaining in "the land" did not understand this.


 
Verses 1, 2
O God, why hast thou cast [us] off for ever? Why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture? Remember thy congregation, which thou hast gotten of old, Which thou hast redeemed to be the tribe of thine inheritance; [And] mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt.
(Psalms 74:1)? The kingdom in the sense of an earthly monarchy, was indeed cast off forever. It had never been God's will in the first place; and the reprobacy, idolatry, and wickedness of Israel's kings had at last made their removal absolutely necessary.

Remember thy congregation
(Psalms 74:2). God did indeed remember the congregation, which at that time had been transferred to Babylon; but the psalmist was apparently still in Jerusalem, from which God's presence had been removed, and in which the temple itself had been profaned, plundered, desecrated and burned to the ground. God was forever finished with that earthly kingdom of Israel. Pitiful indeed was the plight of the few true children of God who, along with the psalmist, were still left among that conceited, rebellious, and soon to be destroyed residue of the people that yet remained in Jerusalem.

Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual ruins,

All the evil that the enemy hath done in the sanctuary.

Thine adversaries have roared in the midst of thine assembly;

They have set up their ensigns for signs."


 
Verses 3, 4
Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual ruins, All the evil that the enemy hath done in the sanctuary. Thine adversaries have roared in the midst of thine assembly; They have set up their ensigns for signs.
(Psalms 74:3). Expressions of this kind force the conclusion that the period following the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was the time of the psalm, because in no other period of Jewish history was there anything like this. Solomon's Temple lay in ruins for generations after 586 B.C.

All the evil that the enemy,…
(Psalms 74:3). The marginal reading here is, The enemy hath wrought all evil in the sanctuary.

They have set up their ensigns for signs
(Psalms 74:4). The military insignia and standards of the Babylonian conquerors were everywhere, even in the ruins of the temple.

They seemed as men that lifted up

Axes upon a thicket of trees.

And now all the carved work thereof

They brake down with hatchet and hammers."

These verses describe the destruction of the holy temple itself. The conquering enemy soldiers assaulted the sanctuary just like a company of woodsmen chopping down a grove of trees. "The interior walls of Solomon's Temple were paneled with cedar and decorated with carvings of cherubim, palm trees and flowers."F6 It was more than the mere instinct of vandals however that motivated all that chopping. "1 Kings 6:21f reveals that all that carved work was overlaid with pure gold."F7

They have set thy sanctuary on fire;

They have profaned the dwelling place of thy Name by casting it to the ground.

They said in their hearts,

Let us make havoc of them altogether:

They have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land."


 
Verses 7, 8
They have set thy sanctuary on fire; They have profaned the dwelling-place of thy name [by casting it] to the ground. They said in their heart, Let us make havoc of them altogether: They have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land.
(Psalms 74:7). The total destruction of the temple is indicated in these lines, a disaster that came only once, namely, in 586 B.C. at the end of the reign of Zedekiah.

They. burned up all the synagogues
(Psalms 74:8). There is hardly any doubt that this is a mistranslation. It is the only place in the Old Testament that synagogues are mentioned, synagogues usually being associated with the times after Antiochus Epiphanes had profaned the temple and forbade the reading of the Torah, cutting off the Temple worship. This verse is the big reason why some scholars refer this psalm to the times of that era.

"The RSV renders the word here translated `synagogues' as `holy places.'"F8 Jamieson suggested that such places as "the schools of the prophets"F9 may be meant. "The key word may also mean `appointed feasts,' but would require another verb for that meaning."F10 One thing is certain, "Synagogues" is not the correct rendition. As Kidner suggested, "Perhaps the Septuagint (LXX) has the key to the problem."F11 That rendition is, "Come, let us abolish the feasts of the Lord from the earth."F12 One thing that definitely favors the Septuagint (LXX) rendition is the fact that the abolition of the Jewish feast days was indeed accomplished by the Babylonians. They were not observed at all during the captivity!

We see not our signs:

There is no more any prophet;

Neither is there among us any that knoweth how long.

How long, O God, shall the adversary reproach?

Shall the enemy blaspheme thy name forever?"


 
Verses 9, 10
We see not our signs: There is no more any prophet; Neither is there among us any that knoweth how long. How long, O God, shall the adversary reproach? Shall the enemy blaspheme thy name for ever?
(Psalms 74:9). This does not appear to be a reference to that long inter-testamental period of Israel's history, during which the voice of prophecy in Israel was providentially silenced. As Ash suggested, we believe this refers to the time when there was no longer any prophet in Jerusalem and Judaea.F13

If this psalm was written after Jeremiah had been taken to Egypt, Ps. 74:9 and Ps. 74:10, below, would be properly understood as reference to the fact that there was no longer any prophet in "the land" of Israel. With Daniel and Ezekiel in Babylon, and with Jeremiah no longer in Jerusalem, there would indeed have been "no prophet" anymore. To us this appears to be the certain meaning of the passage. The rebellious residue of Israel that was still in Jerusalem were very conceited, believing that only they themselves were any longer the object of God's concern, whereas, in truth, God's true people at that time were in no sense whatever identified with Jerusalem, but with Babylon. The psalmist appears to be, in a class with Jeremiah, that is, a member of God's "true people." Thus with Jeremiah having been forcefully taken to Egypt, there would have been indeed "no prophet" available to the psalmist.

Certainly Ash's statement is correct that there are enough alternative explanations of what is meant by 'no prophet,' "To warrant the conclusion that this verse could refer to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 to 586 B.C."F14

Why drawest back thy hand, even thy right hand?

Pluck it out of thy bosom and consume them."

The anthropomorphic metaphor here depicts God as having withdrawn his right hand from its usual task of defending Israel, concealing it in his bosom instead. The psalmist appeals to God to use that right hand, and use it at once, in the defense of Israel. Alas, the Israel still remaining in Judaea was not destined to enjoy any such benefit. The whole nation had become so corrupt that pagan gods were being worshipped in the temple itself, as revealed by Ezekiel. Nevertheless, we may be sure that for faithful believers such as the psalmist, God no doubt kept them in the Book of Life. It was a sorrowful time for such as he.

Yet God is my King of old,

Working Salvation in the midst of the earth.

Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength:

Thou brakest the heads of the sea-monsters in the waters."


 
Verses 12, 13
Yet God is my King of old, Working salvation in the midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: Thou brakest the heads of the sea-monsters in the waters.
(Psalms 74:12). With the secular kingdom and the racial nation doomed, there was little the psalmist could do except to remember God's prior mercies and marvelous blessings wrought upon behalf of Israel; therefore, he turned to them.

Working salvation in the midst of the earth
(Psalms 74:12). This refers to God's deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery before the eyes of all the nations on earth.

Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength
(Psalms 74:13). This is undeniably a reference to God's deliverance of Israel from the armies of Pharaoh by dividing the sea and marching them across an extensive arm of the Indian Ocean on dry land.

Thou brakest the heads of the sea-monsters in the waters
(Psalms 74:13). The sea monsters here are figurative terms applicable to Pharaoh and to Egypt. They were indeed broken in the waters, when Pharaoh ordered his armies to follow Israel into the ocean.

Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces;

Thou gavest him to be food to the people inhabiting the wilderness.

Thou didst cleave fountain and flood:

Thou driedst up mighty rivers."

We reject as irresponsible the claims of certain radicals that we have in this passage references to, "Primitive creation mythology, the Akkadian creation myth, and to the mythical conflict between Marduk and Tiamat."F15 It may be freely admitted, of course, that some of the terminology here was also used in some of the ancient myths referred to; but as Kidner expressed it, "What Baal had done in the realm of myth, God had actually done in the realm of history, and had done it for his people, 'working salvation' (Psalms 74:12). What these verses survey is the Exodus and the crossing of the Jordan."F16

Rhodes reminds us that, "The Babylonians and Canaanites believed their myths to be true, but our psalmist did not. He used some of their language in referring to the Lord in order to state symbolically his power as the one true God and Creator."F17

As Dummelow pointed out, "The terms 'sea-monsters' and 'Leviathan' (or crocodile) are simply figures of speech for Egypt."F18


 
Verses 14, 15
Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces; Thou gavest him to be food to the people inhabiting the wilderness. Thou didst cleave fountain and flood: Thou driedst up mighty rivers.
(Psalms 74:14). This does not mean that Israel fed, literally, upon the bodies of Pharaoh's army washed ashore, but that Israel was armed with the weapons of the destroyed enemy. The dead bodies no doubt became the food of wild birds and beasts. Dummelow stated that the people here refers to the wild animals.F19

Thou driedst up mighty rivers
(Psalms 74:15). The plural is evidently used here for emphasis. Certainly, the primary reference is to Israel's crossing the Jordan at flood stage, and doing so upon dry land!

The day is thine, the night also is thine:

Thou hast prepared the light and the sun.

Thou hast set all the borders of the earth:

Thou has made summer and winter."

This psalm is called didactic, that is, a teaching psalm; and here the teaching relates to the basic truth that the God of Israel is the true Creator of everything, the day, the night, the sun, the winter, the summer, the land and the sea, everything! Significantly, this comes right after the use of that terminology from some of the ancient mythology believed by the pagan world of antiquity. We like what Baigent had to say about this:

"The vocabulary of ancient Near Eastern lore is here applied as metaphor to the Exodus. Pagan religious poets traditionally described their god's victory over the sea and monsters like Leviathan. Israel triumphantly claimed such language for what God did on their behalf when they crossed the Red Sea and when they crossed Jordan on dry land. The lord of sacred history is also the powerful God of creation and providence."F20

Remember this, that the enemy hath reproached, O Jehovah,

And that a foolish people hath blasphemed thy name.

Oh deliver not the soul of thy turtle-dove unto the wild beast:

Forget not the life of thy poor forever."


 
Verses 18, 19
Remember this, that the enemy hath reproached, O Jehovah, And that a foolish people hath blasphemed thy name. Oh deliver not the soul of thy turtle-dove unto the wild beast: Forget not the life of thy poor for ever.
(Psalms 74:18). Did God indeed remember to avenge himself upon Babylon? Indeed yes; but in the meanwhile, which included the days of the psalmist, God was using Babylon to discipline and correct his rebellious children of Israel.

A foolish people
(Psalms 74:18). The word `foolish,' both here and in Ps. 74:22 is the very same word that is rendered `fool' in Ps. 14:1 and Ps. 53:1.F21

Deliver not the soul of thy turtle-dove to the wild beast
(Psalms 74:19). This is the only place in the Bible where this metaphor is used of Israel.F22 Did God indeed deliver Israel? Yes, indeed. No, God did not deliver the rebellious Israel, but the true Israel, at that time, the captive remnant of the apostate nation who were captives in Babylon.

Have respect unto the covenant;

For the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of violence.

Oh let not the oppressed return ashamed:

Let the poor and needy praise thy name."


 
Verses 20, 21
Have respect unto the covenant; For the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of violence. Oh let not the oppressed return ashamed: Let the poor and needy praise thy name.
(Psalms 74:20). It was not God who needed to be reminded of the covenant, it was the apostate Israel; but the psalmist was correct in calling God to remember it. That remembrance resulted in blessing the Babylonian captives, not the conceited and arrogant residue of apostasy in Judaea.

The dark places of the earth
(Psalms 74:20). Most of the scholars seem to think this refers to the hiding places such as caves, etc., where people tried to hide from the Babylonian enemies, who, as this verse states, were systematically hunting them down wherever they could find them and killing them.

The oppressed. the poor
(Psalms 74:21). God never forgot those who loved him and called upon his name; but at a time when an entire kingdom was being cut off and destroyed completely, it was inevitable that many innocent and deserving people of God suffered.

Arise, O God, plead thine own cause:

Remember how the foolish man reproacheth thee all the day.

Forget not the voice of thine adversaries:

The tumult of those that rise up against thee ascendeth continually."

The wonder of this psalm is that the psalmist had resort to God in prayer. Nothing was going right; it was one of the most pitiful periods of human history; but he kept right on appealing to God, down to the very last word. No one can doubt that such devotion received its just recompense.


Footnotes for Psalms 74
1: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8-B, p. 83.
2: The Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 109.
3: W. E. Addis, p. 386.
4: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, p. 320.
5: The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. IV, p. 393.
6: Ibid., p. 395.
7: Derek Kidner, Vol. II, p. 266.
8: The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. IV, p. 395.
9: Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown's Commentary, p. 369.
10: Anthony L. Ash, Psalms (Abilene, Texas: A.C.U. Press, 1987), p. 250.
11: Derek Kidner, Vol. II, p. 267.
12: LXX, p. 742.
13: Anthony L. Ash, Psalms (Abilene, Texas: A.C.U. Press, 1987), p. 251.
14: Ibid.
15: The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. IV, p. 397.
16: Derek Kidner, Vol. 2, p. 268.
17: The Layman's Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, p. 110.
18: J. R. Dummelow's Commentary., p. 360.
19: Ibid.
20: The New Layman's Bible Commentary, p. 652.
21: The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. IV, p. 398.
22: Ibid.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalm 74". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ps&chapter=074>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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