IT IS APPROPRIATE TO REFLECT ON Psalm 74 at this stage of our reading of the major prophets. It sounds as if it was written at a time of national disaster, perhaps the devastation of 587 B.C. (compare Pss. 79, 137; Lam. 2:5-9). The worst blow of all is that all the prophets are silent (Ps. 74:9). Then suddenly in the midst of the gloom and havoc is a breath of praise (Ps. 74:12-17), before the darkness descends again (Ps. 74:18-23). The interruption is dramatic, and reinforced by a sudden switch from the first person plural (“we,” “us”) to the first person singular: “But you, O God, are my king from of old” (Ps. 74:12). Noteworthy features include:
(1) The anguish of this chapter emerges out of faith, not skepticism, still less cynicism. These people know God, but cannot see what he is doing. They are not so much protesting his punishment of them as its duration: they act as if they know the punishment is deserved, but is it open-ended? Is there no relief? “Why have you rejected us forever, O God?” (Ps. 74:1). “Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins” (Ps. 74:3). “How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever?” (Ps. 74:10).
(2) There is a powerful emphasis on God’s “remembering”—or, more precisely put, on appealing to God to remember. It is not as if the psalmist thinks something may have slipped God’s mind, and that he must be reminded of a few basics which, under the press of ruling the universe, he may have accidentally overlooked. The appeal to God to remember is explicit in Psalm 74:2, 18, 22 and implicit often—e.g., “Have regard for your covenant” (Ps. 74:20). These passages provide some insight into what this “remembering” means: it is an appeal to God to act in the light of his ancient covenantal association with his people, the people he “purchased of old” (Ps. 74:2), the tribe of his inheritance that he himself redeemed (Ps. 74:2). It is a plea that, in the midst of wrath, he would “remember” mercy.
(3) Verses 4-8 sound as if they arise from an eyewitness view of the temple being destroyed, from a memory indelibly etched with sorrow. This was the place, the psalmist tells God, “where you met with us” (Ps. 74:4). The following verses are nauseous with grief.
(4) Now, perhaps, we are better placed to reflect on the role of verses 12-17 in the psalm. Precisely when there seems little hope, it is most important for individual believers to recall the power of God both in creation (Ps. 74:16-17) and in redemption (Ps. 74:13-15). How should such a stance work out in our lives?