Monday, September 10, 2007

Questioning God pt. VI - Psalm 74

Corporate Laments and Complaints
We do not tend to relate quite as easily to the communal laments and complaints for a number of reasons. Privatization of our faith caused in part by of our individualism, which I have already noted, renders our corporate identity nearly lost along with any capacity to think theologically about public issues and problems.[1] But the ekklesia is not a collection of isolated individuals consuming a private faith. The church is a public body with an alternative orientation in the world. These psalms remind us of that fact. We are participants within a broken world, a world at whose hands the church often suffers, and the same world we are to be reconciling to God in the name of Christ.

Westermann notes that there were typically two sorts of crisis which occasioned the lament: “a political crisis, such as war, enemy attack, destruction of the city or the sanctuary and the deportation of the inhabitants; and the other [being] natural catastrophes such as drought or a plague.”[2] Though within the communal laments, it is almost always the enemies that become the impetus for the psalmist. While the temple and the enemies may not be as easily relatable our context,[3] Brueggemann encourages that utilize a “dynamic analogy” for connecting points.[4] It is an opportunity to do contextualization of the Psalm for similar things on large scales such as war and its losses, destruction done by nature, or and epidemic. It is the language of these psalms that we may and must turn to in solidarity with both a broken humanity or creation and its covenanting Creator.

Psalm 74
Psalm 74 is a painful and yet beautiful expression of Israel’s longing for Yahweh and his saving actions after a great national tragedy. We have seen how the question “How long?” functions to express a human need as well as remind God to be God. The structure holds for this communal psalm.

Verse nine is a powerful recounting of the state of affairs. No longer did the temple and the beautiful things that accompanied it exist. The prophets were gone. And the remnant of those who remained to mourn the loss of that which oriented their whole life did not know how long they could endure these conditions. They had come to their limits. But in verse 10, the end of human tolerance, they cry out to God for that which they do not know, “How long?”

The prominence of memory, in both positive (remember) and negative (do not forget) assertions, is evident even in a cursory read. Verse two incites Yahweh to remember Israel, his chosen people, and Mount Zion, his chosen place as both have been defiled. Such is the state that gives rise to their cries. Verses 12-17 powerfully recall Yahweh’s sovereign power over primal creation wresting it from chaos. While these remembrances act on the one side as praise of God’s past action thus strengthening Israel’s hope. They also function out of a seething undercurrent of doubt and accusations flung God-ward. They are both praising and parading God’s past actions before him in the light of covenant faithfulness. This is perhaps the one of the strongest examples of the secondary text with the psalmist direct insistence that Yahweh, “Have regard for [his] covenant (vs. 20). If Yahweh does not act, it appears he is going back on his own covenant. It is a reminder to God that he once overcame the primordial chaos and that he can, and should do it on the basis of his character and covenant, once again for his chosen people.

It is interesting that the psalmist points out that the covenant is Yahweh’s covenant. It is extended by Yahweh and thus he is also subject to fulfilling it. But the “thou” or “your” theme, referring to Yahweh, is upheld through out the psalm. It is Yahweh’s foes and adversaries, and not Israel’s, who have pillaged Yahweh’s people and sanctuary. It is Yahweh’s name that has suffered derision. God’s honor is on the line.

But again, the secondary implications are indeed secondary to the hope Israel has in Yahweh. In one sense this psalm is about the temple and in another sense, it is not about the temple at all. Instead, it is a question of Who was to have been found there and the One who worked salvation so often in the past. Israel is claiming that Yahweh was powerful then, and despite the desecration of the temple, still is. Israel is not utterly crushed. They were still able to eek out an angry prayer to be laid at Yahweh’s throne.[5]

[1] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 67.
[2] Westermann, The Living Psalms, 22.
[3] I would suggest that this is also a dangerous endeavor in the U.S. considering the deeply enmeshed civil religion that many churchgoers participate in.
[4] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 68.
[5] Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 71.