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Bible Commentaries

Coffman Commentaries on the Bible

Psalms 79

Verse 1




George DeHoff called this psalm, "The Funeral Anthem of a Nation."[1]

Charles M. Miller's analysis of this psalm points out that it exhibits several elements found in other psalms: (1) Psalms 79:5,7,10a are lamentation; (2) Psalms 79:6,10b,12 are imprecations; (3) Psalms 79:8-9 are pleas for forgiveness; (4) Psalms 79:11 pleads for deliverance; and (5) Psalms 79:13 carries a pledge of praise and thanksgiving following deliverance.[2]

Three possible occasions identified with this psalm were proposed by Halley, namely, "The invasion of Shishak, the fall of the northern kingdom, and the Babylonian captivity."[3] Delitzsch suggested the time of the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes.[4]

To this writer, the only logical selection is that of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the final captivity of the residue of the people that accompanied the capture and deportation of Zedekiah to Babylon. There are many reasons for this choice.

(1) There is the fact that for eighteen centuries, "The Jews have recited this psalm upon the 9th day of the Jewish month Ab, commemorating the two destructions of Jerusalem (by the Babylonians in 587 B.C., and by the Romans in A.D. 70). This practice may point to an old tradition associating this psalm with the Babylonian period."[5]

(2) Shishak never entered Jerusalem. (2) Antiochus Epiphanes did not destroy either the temple or the city of Jerusalem. (3) The mention of the people's captivity (Psalms 79:11) points squarely to the Babylonian era. (4) The complete destruction of Jerusalem (Psalms 79:1) occurred only once in pre-Christian history, namely in 587 B.C.; and (5) many of the ablest scholars we have consulted agree on the Babylonian date and occasion.

"The only time which adequately fits this description is the exilic period after the burning of Jerusalem and the temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 B.C.[6] The Babylonian destruction seems most appropriate.[7] `Jerusalem in heaps' is truer of the Babylonian captivity than of the times of Antiochus Epiphanes.[8] It seems best to assign it to the period of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans.[9] The general voice of commentators is that the psalm must be referred to the time of the Babylonian conquest."[10]

The psalm naturally falls into two divisions. First, there is a description of the disaster (Psalms 79:1-4). The remaining nine verses are a prayer for deliverance, forgiveness, vengeance upon enemies, etc.

Psalms 79:1

"O God, the nations have come into thine inheritance;

Thy holy temple have they defiled;

They have laid Jerusalem in heaps."

"The nations, " "the Gentiles." It was an especially bitter thing for the Jews that a pagan nation was permitted to triumph over them. "It is the height of reproach when a father casts upon a slave the task of beating his son. Of all outward judgments against Israel, this was the sorest."[11]

"They have laid Jerusalem in heaps." Some writers have made too much of the fact that it is not stated here that the temple was destroyed, but `defiled.' However, the destruction of it would have been indeed a defilement; and besides that, how could it be imagined that with the whole city in "heaps" the temple would not have suffered the same fate as the rest of the city?

Verse 2

"The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be food unto the birds of the heavens,

The flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth."

The commentators who refer this to the murder of some sixty priests by Antiochus Epiphanes overlook the fact that there is not a word here about any priests. Also, the fact of there being no one available to bury the dead bodies speaks of a time when the people were being deported to Babylon. Certainly, those pagan captors would not have allowed any time for burying the dead. "Hyenas and jackals would dispute the flesh of the slain with vultures and crows"[12]

Verse 3

"Their blood have they shed like water round about Jerusalem;

And there was none to bury them."

"There is no event in the history of the Hebrews to which this description would be more applicable than to the Babylonian invasion."[13] With most of the population being carried into captivity, there would have been no one left to bury the thousands of the slain.

"This whole verse happens to be quoted in 1 Maccabees 7:17; but priority in point of time obviously belongs to this psalm"[14]

Verse 4

"We are become a reproach to our neighbors,

A scoffing and a derision to them that are round about us."

Psalms 79:10 should be noted in this connection. The object of the taunting neighbors was to claim a triumph over the God of Israel. "Where is thy God?" Among all the nations of antiquity, any disaster that overcame a people was always considered as proof that the God or gods worshipped by that people had no power to protect them. See more on this under Psalms 79:10, below.

Verse 5

"How long, O Jehovah? Wilt thou be angry forever?

Shall thy jealousy burn like fire?"

"How long ...?" The Jewish people had already been told by Jeremiah that the captivity would last for seventy years; but there were many of the people who did not know this. There can be no doubt that they were in a big hurry to get the tragic experience behind them, as indicated by Psalms 79:8, where they cried for a "speedy" resolution of the problem. However, it was not the will of God that any quick end would come to Israel's punishment.

"Shall thy jealousy burn like fire?" The psalmist here indicates that he knew the reason that lay back of the nation's destruction; it was the jealousy of God, continually provoked by Israel throughout their previous history by their worshipping false gods in the pagan shrines of Canaan. God had already tried every other possible means of curing this shameful "sickness" of Israel, before bringing about their captivity.

The terrible defeat and captivity that followed it accomplished God's purpose; because, Israel never again resorted to the worship of the pagan gods.

Verse 6

"Pour out thy wrath upon the nations that know thee not,

And upon the kingdoms that call not upon thy name."

As a nation, Israel had become one and the same as the pagan kingdoms around them. Oh yes, they knew God's name; and, in times of emergency they loved to call upon God for help; but the people as a whole had become even worse than Sodom and Gomorrah (Ezekiel 16). If God's moral character was to be established as a fact in the minds of mankind, something drastic had to be done about Israel and their gross wickedness.

The name of God could not be used merely as a charm to get Israel out of every disaster; there positively had to be some moral integrity on the part of the people themselves. There were, no doubt, a few devout souls who sincerely called upon God and walked in his ways, among whom the psalmist here was surely numbered; but such as he were so few that no observer in that day could have told any moral difference between Israel and any other pagan nation of that era.

Verse 7

"For they have devoured Jacob,

And laid waste his habitation."

This and Psalms 79:6 occur almost word for word in Jeremiah 10:25. Many scholars vex themselves almost endlessly trying to figure out who quoted whom; but it is our opinion that in most cases, there is hardly any way to determine such questions. Is it impossible that God, through the Spirit, could have led different writers to use the same words? No one has ever proved such a proposition. As far as this particular instance is concerned, Rawlinson stated that, "It is difficult to say which writer quoted from the other?"[15]

Verse 8

"Remember not against us the iniquities of our forefathers:

Let thy tender mercies speedily meet us;

For we are brought very low."

"Remember not against us ... iniquity of our forefathers." It does not appear that the psalmist here intends to deny the wickedness of his own generation, for in Psalms 79:9, below, he acknowledges their sins in the petition asking for their forgiveness.

As a matter of fact, it was not solely the sins of the psalmist's generation that had brought about the calamity. It was the long established tradition of wickedness reaching back through many generations that also entered into the fact of God's decision to liquidate the kingdom of Israel.

"Let thy ... mercies speedily meet us." See under Psalms 79:5, above, for comment on this.

Verse 9

"Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name;

And deliver us, and forgive our sins, for thy name's sake."

Significantly, the psalmist pleads no merit of his wicked generation, basing his plea for forgiveness upon the character and glory of God Himself. This attitude must be hailed as profoundly correct. On account of the consciousness of sins so evident here, Leupold believed that Psalms 79:8a should be translated, "`Remember not against us our past iniquities,' instead of `Remember not against us the iniquity of our forefathers.'"[16]

Verse 10

"Wherefore should the nations say, Where is their God?

Let the avenging of the blood of thy servants which is shed

Be known among the nations in our sight."

The desire of the psalmist that he and his contemporaries might indeed live to see God's vengeance executed upon the pagan nations which God in their great calamity was using as his instruments in the punishment of Israel -that desire, alas, could not be realized. No short term punishment of rebellious Israel would have done any good. The wicked nation would be required to suffer in Babylon until the last vestiges of their conceit and false pride were purged away.

Another intention of God, it appears, was that Israel might be weaned away from their mad attachment to an earthly kingdom, but in that intention, the will of God was most certainly frustrated; because even in the times of Christ, racial Israel desired nothing in either heaven or upon earth quite so much as they desired the restoration of their evil earthly kingdom.

God did indeed execute the judgment of his righteous wrath upon Babylon and all of the pagan nations of that period; but he did not choose to do so "in the sight of" that generation. We believe that we can understand why.

In God's finally being compelled, through moral necessity, to destroy Israel's evil kingdom, the pagan nations of the whole world believed that Israel's God had been defeated and that they no longer should honor him. Therefore, the great accomplishment of God achieved in the plagues of Egypt and the delivery of Israel into Canaan after driving out the wicked nations before them, was in a measure lost through the necessity of Israel's destruction. It was for that very reason that not merely Babylon, but Egypt, and Tyre, and all the other pagan nations of the world were required to suffer God's punishment, some of which, no doubt, might have been unnecessary if it had not been for Israel's wickedness. Thus, the Israelites certainly did not deserve to witness God's judgment upon pagan nations.

Verse 11

"Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee:

According to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those that are appointed to death."

"The sighing of the prisoner." This is a clear reference to the fact of the nation being in captivity, servants of the king of Babylon.

"Those that are appointed to death." The margin here gives an alternative reading, "the children of death." The reference is to the many who would die under the rigors of Babylonian servitude, and especially those who would die during the hardship of the long journey on foot to Babylon.

Verse 12

"And render unto our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom

Their reproach wherewith they have reproached thee, O Lord."

Most of the commentators have softened this imprecation by interpreting it to mean, not actually sevenfold, but, "`Complete or full' vengeance; seven is one of the perfect numbers, and is used to denote `many.'"[17] "The expression does not mean `seven times as much as they have done,' but `completeness of retaliation.'"[18] Well, maybe so; but there is also the possibility that Dahood had it right when he declared that, "This is a demand for vengeance of the most thorough-going kind, in the spirit of Lamech, who in Genesis 4:24 assures his wives Adah and Zillah that, `If Cain is avenged seven times over, then Lamech seventy times seven.'"[19]

Verse 13

"So we thy people and sheep of thy pasture

Will give thee thanks forever:

We will show forth thy praise to all generations."

Leupold commented here that, "This verse is perhaps to be regarded less as a motive calculated to induce God to help them than as a natural promise to return thanksgiving and praise to God as soon as the deliverance is accomplished."[20]

We wish to conclude our study of this tragic psalm with the beautiful words of Baigent.

"All of the symbols of Israel's security were shattered - their nationhood, their capital, even the temple. Judah's erstwhile allies had deserted her; alone she had faced the foe - and lost! Survivors of the ensuing bloodbath looked to God, their only hope in a creel, friendless world. Behind them lay the grim tragedy of 587 B.C ... Ahead of them lay a question mark regarding both their own and their nation's survival. Heartbroken, they gathered around the mined shrine to lay their anguish before the God of Judah."[21]

Copyright Statement
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalms 79". "Coffman Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.