Psalms For Life
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Yahveh Elohim hear our prayers

Psalm 79

From Jerusalem’s rubble

Evil has long asserted its dominance in our world, bringing us untold brokenness, shame, and violence. It sometimes seems things just go from bad to worse, making us ask, How long, O Lord, how long?

An Asaph psalm.

O God, pagans have invaded your land.
They’ve defiled your holy Temple
and reduced Jerusalem to a pile of rubble.
2 They’ve fed your servants’ corpses
to the birds of the sky
the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.
3 They’ve poured out their blood like water
all over Jerusalem
leaving no one alive to bury their remains.
4 We’ve become a disgrace to our neighbors
the scorn and derision of all around us.
5 How long, YHWH?
Will you hold onto your anger forever
letting your jealousy burn like wildfire?

6 Pour out your anger on the pagans
who don’t acknowledge you
the nations that don’t call on your name.
7 Because they’ve devoured Jacob
and devastated his home.
8 Don’t hold our past sins against us.
May your compassion intervene quickly
because we’ve sunk very low.
9 Help us, God our deliverer
for the honor of your name.
Rescue us and atone for our sins
because your reputation is at stake.
10 Why let these pagan nations scoff:
“Where is their God?”
Let us see the godless nations learn
that you avenge the blood of your servants.
11 Let the groans of the captives reach you.
By your strong arm
rescue those condemned to die.
12 Pay our neighbors back to the nth degree
for all the insults they’ve hurled at you.

13 Then we, your people
the sheep you yourself take care of
will give you thanks forever.
From one generation to the next
we’ll sing your praise.

Jerusalem’s temple was the symbol of Israel’s national identity in much the same way that the Capitol Building and White House are to American identity. The razing of Jerusalem would be akin to the razing of Washington DC, including all its national symbols. It’s easy to judge Asaph’s harshness, yet even without suffering such wholesale devastation, Washington reacted to 9/11 by invading Afghanistan. But Jerusalem’s temple was far more than just an identity marker. It was the one place where heaven came to earth. So its desecration and destruction implied the thwarting of God’s entire plan of redemption.

This psalm describes the same national disaster Psalm 74 surveyed—the apparent end of God’s plan, his people massacred. The stench of rotting flesh fills the air as vultures, dogs, and hyenas tear at the bodies of God’s faithful littering Jerusalem’s blood-soaked streets. The psalmist may be one of the groaning captives mentioned, who must endure the pagans’ vicious mockery: “Where is their God?”

The psalmist is scandalized by that, but that’s not his question. He knows the devastation evidences not God’s absence, but his presence—his judgment over Israel’s sins. The question eating the psalmist is how long God will continue punishing his people while leaving his enemies unpunished. He urges him to punish the atrocities’ perpetrators, not their victims, and he alternates between asking God to rescue his people and judge his enemies because God is both merciful and just. Asaph also asks him to forgive his people’s past sins, implying that they’ve repented of them. Since God is their shepherd and they bear his name in the world, their desolation reflects very badly on him. So he asks God to rescue and restore them.

Despite Asaph’s overall bleakness, his final word is “your praise.” He thus ends with hope, picturing the day when God restores his people and their sad laments give way to endless praise.

Lord, thank you for welcoming our honesty even when we can barely handle our pain. I cry with the psalmist, “How long till you put everything to rights?” Forgive my sins, rescue and bless me for the honor of your name. Help me believe your love will yet have the last word. Amen.

In your free moments today, meditate on these words:

Help us, God our deliverer
for the honor of your name.
Rescue us and atone for our sins
because your reputation is at stake.

Why YHWH?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.