74 O God, why do you cast us off forever?
Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?
2 Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old,
which you have redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage!
Remember Mount Zion, where you have dwelt.
3 Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins;
the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary!
4 Your foes have roared in the midst of your meeting place;
they set up their own signs for signs.
5 They were like those who swing axes
in a forest of trees.[b]
6 And all its carved wood
they broke down with hatchets and hammers.
7 They set your sanctuary on fire;
they profaned the dwelling place of your name,
bringing it down to the ground.
8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”;
they burned all the meeting places of God in the land.
9 We do not see our signs;
there is no longer any prophet,
and there is none among us who knows how long.
10 How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
Is the enemy to revile your name forever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the fold of your garment[c] and destroy them!
12 Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
13 You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the sea monsters[d] on the waters.
14 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
15 You split open springs and brooks;
you dried up ever-flowing streams.
16 Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.
17 You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth;
you have made summer and winter.
18 Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and a foolish people reviles your name.
19 Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild beasts;
do not forget the life of your poor forever.
20 Have regard for the covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence.
21 Let not the downtrodden turn back in shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
22 Arise, O God, defend your cause;
remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!
23 Do not forget the clamor of your foes,
the uproar of those who rise against you, which goes up continually!
Psalm 74, like many of the psalms, begin with the despair of the psalmist. This is a cry of a holy man against the world. He is distraught by how God’s sanctuary is profaned; he is troubled by the fact that God’s signs are replaced with worldly signs; that God’s prophet is replaced by a worldly seer. If we think that the Maskil of Asaph (simply meaning an instructive psalm by Asaph) sounds like it is a product of its time, stop and consider this: we are in a world which treats not God’s sanctuary with the same level of respect as the Temple or tabernacle had received.
As Spurgeon says:
“Alas, poor Israel! No Urim and Thummim blazed on the High Priest’s bosom, and no Shechaniah shone from between the cherubim. The smoke of sacrifice and cloud of incense no more arose from the holy hill; solemn feasts were suspended, and even circumcision, the covenant sign, was forbidden by the tyrant. We, too, as believers, know what it is to lose our evidences and grope in darkness; and too often do our churches also miss the tokens of the Redeemer’s presence, and their lamps remain untrimmed. Sad complaint of a people under a cloud! There is no more any prophet. Prophecy was suspended. No inspiring psalm or consoling promise fell from bard or seer. It is ill with the people of God when the voice of the preacher of the gospel fails, and a famine of the word of life falls on the people. God sent ministers are as needful to the saints as their daily bread, and it is a great sorrow when a congregation is destitute of a faithful pastor. It is to be feared, that with all the ministers now existing, there is yet a dearth of men whose hearts and tongues are touched with the celestial fire. Neither is there any among us that knoweth how long. If someone could foretell an end, the evil might be borne with a degree of patience, but when none can see a termination, or foretell an escape, the misery has a hopeless appearance, and is overwhelming. Blessed be God, he has not left his church in these days to be so deplorably destitute of cheering words; let us pray that he never may. Contempt of the word is very common, and may well provoke the Lord to withdraw it from us; may his long suffering endure the strain, and his mercy afford us still the word of life.”
The enemy strikes at the heart of our faith, because the enemy knows that the sanctuary is our place of refuge, our place of worship. It is not different today: the debates that take place within the church, even amongst believers, demonstrate that the enemy’s plans are still very much in operation. We profane his House when we do not even preach His Word faithfully; we fall to the evil one’s temptations when we cater to the desires and concerns of man, rather than faithfully bear witness to God’s plans this day. On a daily basis, the church is being torn down – brick by brick; not physically, but spiritually. Every day, our beliefs are being eroded by the worldly agenda; and Jesus becomes that much more distant and less real to us. “Thus sayeth the LORD” is slowly, but surely, being replaced by “Thus sayeth the man” – the man whom the world respects, the philosopher who frequently denounces His Lordship, the teacher whose musings distract us from the truth, the scientist who forces on us evidence which purportedly support the theories which, apparently, contradict His Word.
However, at all times, Asaph does not lose sight of God’s absolute sovereignty. The enemy creates this chaos only because God has allowed it. The chapter opens not with a ‘woe-to-me’ expression in response to the enemy’s acts; rather, the chapter opens with O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why do You, with a capital Y – indeed, it is the LORD who is doing the casting off, rather than the evil one. Why does Your anger smoke against the sheep, against the congregation whom He has purchased of old (v2)?
Asaph recognizes that both blessing, and judgment, comes from the same God. He is no Marcionist; he believes that God’s capacity, ability, and discernment in judging is tied to his act of loving; there is no schizophrenia, or dichotomy, between the God of the Old or New Testaments. Jesus is as much the sacrificial lamb, as He is the one who returns to judge the world (see John 5:22-30, 9:39; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 19:11).
This theme, and understanding, of sovereignty stretches through to the remainder of the chapter. Starting from v12, Asaph pleads the creation argument; this God who has the power to allow evil to roam (a mystery which only He can unveil to us), is the same God who has been working salvation in the midst of the earth, from of old (v.12). He divides (v.13), he crushes (v.14), he splits (v.15), he dries (v.15), he established (v.16), he fixed (v.17) – this is a God whose actions are never-ending.
Do we react to our troubles in the same way? Do we resort to our own actions to defend our faith, defend our church, use a worldly form of apologetics and philosophy to ‘explain away’ Christianity to those who poke at our beliefs? Or do we understand that we are dealing in the realm of spiritual warfare, waging a war that only spiritual tools can address (see 2 Corinthians 10:3-5)?
Ultimately, we must put our own faith, our sanctification, our livelihood, our very salvation in the hands of God. We plead the covenant that He made with those whom he purchased (vv.2, 20), the covenant of blood sealed by Christ on the cross; for if He is for us, who can be against us? In the words of Spurgeon:
“What a mighty plea is redemption. O God, canst thou see the blood mark on thine own sheep, and yet allow grievous wolves to devour them? The church is no new purchase of the Lord; from before the world’s foundation the chosen were regarded as redeemed by the Lamb slain; shall ancient love die out, and the eternal purpose become frustrate? The Lord would have his people remember the paschal Lamb, the bloodstained lintel, and the overthrow of Egypt; and will he forget all this himself? Let us put him in remembrance, let us plead together. Can he desert his blood bought and forsake his redeemed? Can election fail and eternal love cease to glow? Impossible. The woes of Calvary, and the covenant of which they are the seal, are the security of the saints.”
If only those who recognize and paint the blood of the lamb on their door are saved, then what will happen to the scoffers who remain so until their dying breath? Time will tell, but the enemy who has been destroying our sanctuaries will, himself, not experience any sanctuary himself. There is but only one defender of the faith, He who is sovereign above all, and has the authority to determine where we are born and where we go.