Advent Psalm reading for December 4, 5, & 6: Psalm 79
An Asaph Psalm of Lament
In this psalm from the Asaph collection, we hear the despair of the psalmist as he laments over the destruction in his city. The Asaph Psalter is a collection of twelve psalms within the Hebrew Bible Psalter which are attributed to Asaph. Most of the Asaph psalms are considered to have been composed very early in a Northern Israelite context; however, this particular psalm, Psalm 79, refers to events later in Israel’s history, the destruction of Jerusalem. This may be because in the ancient world, sometimes author attributions do not signify an actual personage, but a school of thought, or tradition.
In Psalm 79, everything has been destroyed, and the psalmist is afraid there will be nothing left of God’s people or land and he is concerned. In his desperation, he calls upon God (Elohim).
O God, heathens have entered Your domain,
defiled Your holy temple,
and turned Jerusalem into ruins.
His negotiation appeals to God’s sense of pride and reputation among the nations. The psalmist starts by trying to convince God to take revenge on their enemies, but ultimately, he turns toward an appeal to God’s compassion. Perhaps once he vents his initial frustrations and lament, he realizes that God will not be moved by vengeance, but it is a better strategy to appeal to God’s sense of compassion. After all, compassion moves the hand of God much more often than vengeance. The psalmist asks God for two things in this psalm: compassion and vengeance.
The Psalmist Informs God about the Devastation
In the first section, the psalmist makes God aware that the portion of land and people that belong to God has been defiled and overrun by people who do not worship God. Moreover, they slaughtered God’s people and left the bodies to rot so they would not go to their rest in death. And the blood polluted the earth in Jerusalem, the holy city.
They have left Your servants’ corpses
as food for the fowl of heaven,
and the flesh of Your faithful for the wild beasts.
Their blood was shed like water around Jerusalem,
with none to bury them.
The psalmist appeals to God’s sense of pride as he points out that the nations who are their neighbors mock them. Will God defend the people and land to save God’s own reputation?
We have become the butt of our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
The Psalmist Appeals to God’s Reputation
The psalmist recognizes that God must be angry and introduces an idea: why doesn’t God pour out anger on the nations who worship other gods? Should not God destroy those who destroy God’s people and land? This is a common justification for leaders to make. Even today, people try and justify their anger and vengeance in God’s name. I think it is very telling that God does not seem to respond to this sort of appeal.
How long, O LORD, will You be angry forever,
will Your indignation blaze like fire?
Pour out Your fury on the nations that do not know You,
upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name,
for they have devoured Jacob
and desolated his home.
The Psalmist Changes Strategy
The psalmist must recognize that his strategy is not yielding results, so he appeals instead to God’s compassion. In the face of such violence, why should God hold our sins against us? What is left to do except repent and ask for God’s mercy to release them from the burden they carry? This request does not ease the suffering imposed by enemy nations, but perhaps the psalmist recognizes his need for internal calm—the need of the people to find stability of thought within themselves.
Do not hold our former iniquities against us;
let Your compassion come swiftly toward us,
for we have sunk very low.
The psalmist again returns to a case that addresses God’s reputation. How will it look to the other nations if God does not protect and forgive his own people?
Help us, O God, our deliverer,
for the sake of the glory of Your name.
Save us and forgive our sin,
for the sake of Your name.
Let the nations not say, “Where is their God?”
Before our eyes let it be known among the nations
that You avenge the spilled blood of Your servants.
They should be saved, not only for their sake but for the sake of the glory of God’s name. The nations should not have to wonder why our God is not fighting back.
Let the groans of the prisoners reach You;
reprieve those condemned to death,
as befits Your great strength.
Pay back our neighbors sevenfold
for the abuse they have flung at You, O Lord.
God should be ready to avenge his own people and land. Do this for the prisoners and the lowly. Do this because you are strong. Avenge their neighbors because they have mocked God and sullied your reputation.
Only at the very end of the psalm does the psalmist sign off with a promise to submit to God and sing praises. His statement is not conditional, but it does sound a little reciprocal since the psalmist has just made a list of demands.
Then we, Your people,
the flock You shepherd,
shall glorify You forever;
for all time we shall tell Your praises.
This psalm demonstrates a movement toward a response of peace and mindful awareness. The psalmist vents his frustrations but then realizes that he must seek inner peace and reconciliation with God before he can invoke movement toward justice.
As readers, we are left to wonder why God does not interfere with such violent injustice. The way of the ancient gods was to exact vengeance on the enemies of their people so that their national God would be lifted up. But Israel’s God does not work that way. The most moving appeal in this psalm is toward God’s compassion. The psalmist seems to know that it is more likely that God will be moved to save the lowly and captive than to stretch out a hand in vengeance. So why petition for vengeance? The psalmist cannot help it. He is grieved at the destruction and death of his people. When will God pay attention?
In the Advent season, we anticipate the coming of Christ, God incarnate, who demonstrates an ultimate act of love. Through Christ, God confirms that our priority should not be vengeance but peace, love, and compassion.
Some Modern Implications
I cannot help but think about the current conflicts going on around the world. Terrible devastations where innocent children and bystanders are being slaughtered in the wake of destruction as more powerful people fight for their own reputation and calculate their own vengeance.
We are often like the psalmist, crying out for God to slaughter our enemies. We can see the horrifying damage that is being done, the destruction of land and people, bodies unburied, and blood flowing through the streets. How can God do nothing?!
Like the psalmist, we might be first inclined to demand vengeance. But, in the end, the psalmist is right to appeal to God’s compassion. That is what is most likely to move God. Throughout the Psalter and the rest of the scriptures, God is more likely to respond with compassion than vengeance. God’s mercy is more often given than destruction. The psalmist is like us, imagining God cares about reputation and war-making the way other gods did. May we reflect on our motives during this Advent season and charge ourselves with a meditation on compassionate justice.
Coming Up on An Advent Psalm Reflection
Part 2 of this Advent reflection on Psalm 79 will look at Psalm 79 in light of the accompanying liturgical reading of Micah 4-5. Micah brings us a vision of hope that takes us out of the doom the psalmist presents.
You can find the entire series, along with a link to the readings on the Advent Psalm Reflections page.
*The translations are JPS from Sefaria.org
Dr. Erica Mongé-Greer, holding a PhD in Divinity from the University of Aberdeen, is a distinguished researcher and educator specializing in Biblical Ethics, Mythopoeia, and Resistance Theory. Her work focuses on justice in ancient religious texts, notably reinterpreting Psalm 82’s ethics in the Hebrew Bible, with her findings currently under peer review.
In addition to her academic research, Dr. Mongé-Greer is an experienced University instructor, having taught various biblical studies courses. Her teaching philosophy integrates theoretical discussions with practical insights, promoting an inclusive and dynamic learning environment.
Her ongoing projects include a book on religious themes in the series Battlestar Galactica and further research in biblical ethics, showcasing her dedication to interdisciplinary studies that blend religion with contemporary issues.