Does God Hear and Help in Times of Need?

Christians go through times when we feel as if God does not hear our prayer or answer when we need him.  We are not alone!  The Psalms of Lament in the Old Testament express the Israelites feelings and frustrations when they felt abandoned by God.  However, there is much we can learn from how they express their frustration and how they remain faithful.

Psalm 74 – Problems of Poetry

The Psalms have played an enormous role in the church for the past 3,000 years.  The Psalter has been the song book and prayer book of the ancient Israelites as well as Christians.  However, as one move further away from the Psalms, in terms of time and cultural similarity, one cannot appreciate fully what they are reading because they do not know the context from which the psalm has been written.  There are other times that the reader is confused because poetic language is used or metaphors are being used that were understandable to the original audience but are hard to understand for the modern reader.  Therefore, if one wants to fully appreciate the Psalter it is important to study the Psalms in more detail to have a better foundation from which to interpret and apply them.

Psalm 74 is such a psalm that seems to be confusing at first glance.  Without the proper knowledge of the background of the psalm along with adequate knowledge of the imagery being used, this psalm can seem to be flat and confusing.  However, after a little digging, this psalm can come to life with vivid imagery and can provide rich insight into the life of faith of ancient Israel.

     Psalm 74 is a communal lament, which is a cry out to God in the midst of a national disaster.  This communal lament accuses God of putting Judah in their present situation and it appeals to God to act to get them out of their dismal circumstances.  Although they accuse God of wrongdoing, this lament is an act of faith because they turn to God during their despair knowing that only God is able to help them.[1]  It is very possible that as this psalm was recited the people fasted and prayers were offered up to God, as frequently happened when they made requests of God (cf. 1 Sam. 7:5ff; Zech. 7:1-6; 8:18; 1 Chron. 20:1-19).[2]  The common structure of communal laments is broken up into six possible sections: 

A. Introductory petition,

B. Lament,

C. Expression of Trust,

D. Prayer for Deliverance,

E. Vow, F. Hymn of Praise.[3] 

Psalm 74 can be broken down into five different parts: 

vv. (1-3) Call to God for help (introductory petition;

(4-8) Description of destruction of Holy Place (lament);

(9-11) Lamentation to God (lament);

(12-17) Expression of Trust in King (expression of trust);

(18-23) Final Petition (Prayer for deliverance).[4]

Psalm 74 – Dating the Psalm

     When trying to date this psalm there are four options to consider.  The most popular option is to date this psalm after the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in 586 B. C.  The second option is to date this psalm during the reign of Artaxerxes Ochus (359-338 B. C.).  The third, is to date it during the Maccabean period (186 B. C.), and the fourth is an ahistorical interpretation that says this psalm was used in a New Year Festival and there is not an event that is the setting for this psalm.  The 586 B. C. date relating the destruction of the temple to the Babylonians is most likely, but was probably edited later when it was compiled into the Psalter for more widespread use.[5]  Mays believes that this psalm was probably recited during the exilic period when the Israelites were mourning over the destroyed temple (vv. 3-7).[6]  It is likely that this psalm was written 15-20 years after the destruction of the temple in 586 B. C. for phrases like “cast off forever” (v. 1), “perpetual ruins” (v. 3), and “How long” (v. 9) could be written and make sense to those who were using it.[7]  This psalm has the same marks of the events that produced Lamentations and Psalm 79 and Psalm 137 (e. g. the Destruction of the temple in 586 B. C.) further proving the strong relationship of this psalm to the 586 B. C. dating.[8]

A textual note that has a large impact on the dating of this psalm is verse eight when it speaks of the enemy burning all the “meeting places” (mw‘dy-’l) in the land.  The difficulty with this word is that if this psalm is discussing the destruction of the temple in 586 B. C. the psalm would not talk of burning multiple “meeting places.”  There were no synagogues at that  time (since they had not yet been in exile) and everyone met in the temple which then would make that word singular and it would be assumed that the word should say “meeting place.”

There are four different interpretations for “meeting place” and the way the word is translated could have an effect of the dating of the psalm:  1) the word could be viewed as the last of successive meeting places of God that began at Shiloh (cf. Exodus 20:24; Psalm 78:60-64); 2) it could refer to a synagogue which would argue for a date in the Maccabean period; 3) the Septuagint translates this term as “appointed feast” which is a possible translation of that word but it would require a different verb to go with it; or 4) it could refer to the multiple buildings at the site of the temple.[9]  Gelston argues that the “meeting places” being talked about are places of prayer in the land of Judah that were precursors to the synagogue of the exilic community.  Although, there was still a restriction to sacrifice at the temple there was still a need to practice their religion at the local level with the reading of scripture, teaching, communal praise, and prayer.  This local practice of the cult could have warranted the building of “meeting places,” one for every city or area where the people of God gathered.

There is a possible reference to a local cult center at the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 1 Macc. iii 46 where it mentions there having been formerly a “place of prayer” (τόπος προσευχής) at Mizpah which further warrants this interpretation.[10]  Further evidence for the dating of this psalm to 586 B. C. would include the prologue to Ben Sira which indicates that the Psalter was already compiled by the middle of the second century which would rule out a Maccabean dating.  Also, Psalm 74:7 refers to the temple burning which relates to account of the destruction of the temple in 2 Kings 25:9 which speaks of the temple burning at its fall in 586 B. C.  Furthermore, there is no mention of the temple burning in the Maccabbean period.[11]  For these reasons, it can be concluded that this Psalm was written during the exilic period pertaining to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B. C.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller, (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1995), 76.  There has been a tendency within the church not to use the Psalms of Lament.  Brueggemann asserts that we need to use the Psalms of Lament within the practice of the church.  Cf.  Walter Brueggemann “The Costly Loss of Lament,” JSOT 36(1986): 57-71.  Cf. Logan C. Jones, “The Psalms of Lament and the Transformation of Sorrow,” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 61 no 1-2 (Spr-Sum 2007):  47-58.

  Bonhoeffer shows how to use the Psalms as prayers. Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, (Minneapolis:  Augsburg, 1970).  John Endres shows how one can use Psalm 74 as a base for prayer and meditation on biblical texts for growth in their spiritual life. Cf. John C. Endres, “Praising god the Creator,” Ex Audito, 108-111. Cf. also Claude F. Mariottini, “Response to Endres,” Ex Auditu 18 (2002):  116-119.

[2] Anderson, The Book of Psalms, gen ed. Ronald E. Clements, (Greenwood, South Carolina:  Attic Press, 1972), 537.

[3] Christoph F. Barth, Introduction to the Psalms, trans. By R. A. Wilson, (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996), 19.

[4] Anderson, Book of Psalms, 538.  Cf. There is a general consensus that this is the structure of this psalm, cf. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms, (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1959), 536-541.  To see a grammatical analysis of this psalm see Mitchell Dahood, Psalms II:  51-100 Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, New York:  Doubleday and Co. Inc, 1968), 198-208.  To see how Theodore of Mopsuestia interpreted Psalm 74 which  is an indication of the Antiochene interpretation of this psalm see Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Psalms 1-51, Trans with an introduction and notes by Robert C. Hill, (Atlanta:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2006).

[5] Anthony L. Ash and Clyde M. Miller, Psalms, in The Living Word Commentary (Austin, Texas:  Sweet Publishing Co., 1980), 248.  Artur Weiser says we cannot be sure if the events are talking about the destruction of the temple in 586 B. C. by the Babylonians or by Antiochus of the Maccabbean period in 168 B. C.  cf. Artur Weiser, The Psalms:  A Commentary, (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1962), 518.  Gunkel believes Psalm 74 is talking about the defeat of Antiochus Epiphanies.  Cf. Hermann Gunkel, Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Period and the Eschaton:  A Religio-historical Study of Genesis 1 and Revelation 12, trans. by K. William Whitney Jr, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2006), 60.  Eaton asserts psalm 74 speaks of destruction of 587, John Eaton, The Psalms:  A Historical and Spiritual Community with an Introduction and New Translation, (New York:  T and T Clark International, 2003), 269.

[6] James Luther Mays, Psalms, Interpretation Commentary, (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1986), 244.

[7]Leupold, 533.

[8] Derek Kidner, Psalm 73-150:  A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms, (London:  Intervarsity Press, 1975), 264-265.

[9] Kidner, 267.

[10] Gelston, Anthony. “A Note on Psalm 74:8.”  Vetus Testamentum XXXIV 1 (1984):  85.

[11] Gelston, 83.

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