they have defiled you holy temple,
they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble. (Ps 79:1)
The psalmist writes this opening line from exile. The verses that follow describe the horrors that filled their last visions of the promised land. The dead becoming food for birds, the Temple destroyed, much blood pooled everywhere; there was no end to the desecration of the Lord’s land or people.
And all of Israel knew that they were responsible for bringing it to the land.
How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?
How long will your jealousy burn like fire? (v4)
Was it appropriate to question the length their exile from God’s protection? The covenant shaped the boundaries of their relationship with Yahweh. He had upheld His end of the agreement and Israel had, time after time after time, utterly failed at hers. God had no responsibility to restore them to His fold, no covenant requirement to return them to the land and to prosperity.
Except that He loved them, just as He loves you today. Despite your many faults and failures. Despite your tendency to worship at other altars as the mood suits you. Despite the fact that you believe your sin to hide behind and opaque curtain. Despite the fact that your faithfulness to Him is questionable. He still loves you as a parent loves a wayward child.
The conditional structure of the psalm is disturbing to the Christian who is raised on the image of a merciful God. Calling for the crushing and destruction of one’s enemies does not normally occur to us (though we may privately entertain such thoughts.) It is the structure of the requests that trouble us. “Destroy them, curse them” says Israel and then we will worship you forever. Our modern eyes must read this carefully. The acts of destruction and carnage described are, above all, affronts to God. The call for retribution is a call to restore his Holy Name against those who demean it through their acts.
Psalm 79 speaks to responsibility. If we are lacking blessing, we need to return to the shadow of the cross so that, with sun blocked, we can see our own sin more clearly. Repenting, we can seek His mercy and praise Him once again.
Grace and peace to you.