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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Psalm 79 - Unburied Grief and Unanswered Questions

I cringe when I hear people say they like the psalms because they’re “sooooooo comforting…”  When I hear that I have to restrain myself from asking, “What psalmody are you reading, exactly?”  Some of the biblical psalms – many of them – are hard, brutal, and if they are comforting, it’s a cold comfort.  And yet I read them because I love them.  Well – most of them.  I don’t like all of the psalms. (Honestly, Psalm 119 is about the dullest thing I’ve ever read.)  But I do like Psalm 79 (along with its companion psalm 74).

These two psalms were written in the same period by the same author (presumably), dealing with the horrific devastation inflicted by the invading Babylonian army in 586 BCE – Psalm 74 focusing more on the destruction of the Temple and Psalm 79 focusing on the destruction of the people.    Psalm 79 is a lament – a dirge.  We might call it a funeral song, except that the psalmist tells us that there have been no funerals.  The corpses of the dead have been left unburied, exposed to the elements and to scavenging birds and carrion eating beasts.

No worse fate could be imagined.  In the ancient world there was no more terrible curse to pronounce upon someone than, “May the earth not receive your corpse!”  Even the bodies of one’s enemies were to be dignified with burial (1 Kings 11:15).  When the prophet Jeremiah cursed King Jehoiakim, it was with the burial of an ass -   If the bodies could be buried, so to sleep with their ancestors, then the survivors could begin to move on, but the corpses were left exposed and survivors grief and guilt continued unabated.

The Psalmist (Asaph, whoever he may have been.  We know very little about him historically.)  pleads with God for relief from this suffering, and for the psalmist this relief would take two forms:

1)He seeks an end to their punishment.  He acknowledges that they and their forefathers have sinned, and asks for forgiveness and mercy to be granted.  And he asks, “How long?”  - How long must this suffering continue? 

2) The psalmist also seeks justice.  He wants to see those who inflicted this pain upon them get their fair share in return.  And the ethics might get a little fuzzy here.  The line between justice and revenge is sometimes blurred and hard to discern.  But there doesn’t seem to be in Psalm 79 the fierce, burning, angry desire for revenge that’s expressed at the end of Psalm 137.

And the psalmist doesn’t seem to be seeking this justice for his own self; it’s for God.  Notice how often he ‘prods’ at God – they invaded your inheritance…defiled your holy temple…left your servants unburied…they have insulted you…”  It’s almost as if the psalmist is trying to provoke God into action.  “Are you really going to let them get away with this?”  I see him as a man with a stick poking at a sleeping lion. 

But there is a sense in this psalm – and in all of Asaph’s collection of psalms – that God isn’t listening, or if he is, he’s not responding.  I wonder if this slowness to action on God’s part is a way of saying “I don’t have to immediately overwhelm my enemies with violent force to prove my power or protect my name.” It’s easy to describe my enemies as God’s enemies and to call down swift and immediate judgment upon them.  But is that what God wants?

I like Psalm 79.  There’s a lot going on in it. It brings up some difficult questions.  But it’s not one that preachers select as their text very often.  Perhaps that’s because there aren’t many answers - no good ones, and certainly no easy ones - to the questions that it raises.

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