Psalm 79: Seeking Vengeance, Finding Conviction

I’ve always been intrigued by those drawings where the picture changes depending on the way in which it is seen. The first one I think I saw was in elementary school when the teacher tried to get us to realize that not every situation is as clear cut as we might first think it to be. We were told to step back from our problems, life events, and new ideas to see if we had been biased or myopic in our own point of view. Since that time, whether due to that particular lesson or not, I have frequently questioned my point of view and sought out the opposing point of view to make sure I wasn’t looking at things too one-sidedly.

When reading Psalm 79 it is easy to see that Asaph cries to the Lord about all the troubles the nation has gone through. He writes about how their temple has been defiled, their city reduced to rubble, and their people killed and scattered. Quite clearly, Asaph refers to the destruction of Jerusalem during the times of the last kings of Israel as he wonders why God allows such evil to continue. He pushes God on this point and prays that those nations responsible for the destruction will be brought to justice. Asaph’s call for vengeance is partly rooted in his desire that the nations observing these events will know that God has not broken his promises nor forgotten his people. Asaph concludes Psalm 79 by saying that even if God were to delay his justice he and the people of Israel will continue to be followers of God and praise him forever.

Given the context of Asaph’s time, some would say this Psalm describes how to maintain a steady walk with God even in the midst of troubles, and they may be right. But as I’ve studied this psalm I think there might be another way in which Psalm 79 could be understood.

In II Kings 21, we are told about Manasseh and atrocious sins he committed as King. He defiled the temple by placing idols to foreign gods in it (21:3-5, 7), he burnt his own son alive as a sacrifice to the gods (21:6), and he killed so many innocent people that their blood filled Jerusalem from end to end (21:16). As such, due to Manasseh’s sins, God declared he would not only abandon Israel but would judge them so harshly that they would be taken from their land of promise (21:10-15).

What I find interesting is that the very things Asaph describes as having been done to the city in Psalm 79 are the very same things that Manasseh and the Israelites had done to the city in II Kings. Maybe it is just a coincidence, but I think there is more here than first meets the eye. If we shift our focus just a bit, we will see that the prayer of Asaph, seen in one way as a prayer about the wicked men defiling Israel, can also be read as an indictment by God upon Israel for they were the ones who defiled the city, the temple, and the people in the first place.

I wonder who of that time could read Asaph’s description of the atrocities committed in Jerusalem by the invading armies and not remember that the king of Israel once did the very same things? Who could read these words and not realize they are the no different than the ones who were presently committing the atrocities? And who could read these words and not fall on their knees in repentance?

This same shift of focus appears in Romans 1 and 2 as well. In chapter 1, Paul tells the Romans how awful all the other people in the world are. (Note the extensive use of the pronouns “them,” “they,” and “their” in Chapter 1), but in chapter 2, he shifts his focus as he opens with the word “you,” a pronoun found twelve times in five verses, to let the reader know he is not immune to the chapter 1 accusation. Clearly, God wants us to realize that the sins we see in the world are no different than the sins we find in our own hearts.

I remember hearing a story years ago about the Nuremberg trials and a woman placed on the stand to identify one of the Nazi soldiers. When he was brought into the courtroom, the woman broke down in such uncontrollable tears that the proceedings had to be stopped so as to allow her to regain her composure. As the tears subsided, a reporter asked her if it was the presence of the Nazi criminal that caused her to cry, to which she replied that her tears came, not because of the Nazi’s vileness but because when she looked into his eyes she realized there was no difference between her and him: they both had hearts filled with wickedness and evil.

Asaph concludes Psalm 79 by saying he will sing God’s praise for all of eternity. From one perspective this praise rises from seeing God’s inevitable just vengeance, but from another perspective, we see something different. We find praise coming from a place of humility, convicted that we deserve his justice but exultant that we are instead the recipients of God’s great mercy.

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