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Psalm 79:1-9

What is the community of faith to do when the world around them has crashed and burned, when all they held dear, everything that assured them God was with them, has been reduced to rubble? What do we do when our lives have been torn apart by our communal unfaithfulness and by death, loss, and despair? The response the Psalmist gives is lament. Cry out to God when all that is sacred has been stripped away.

Psalm 79 is just such a cry. The exiled community of Israel has experienced the devastating destruction of the location of God’s presence with them, the temple and the city of Jerusalem, and they have been driven from their homeland. And scores have been left dead along the way. According to the Psalmist, God, who had formed them out of nothing and journeyed with them through their formation as a nation under the rule of God’s shepherd king (Psalm 78 recounts the story), has allowed the nations to bring the people to ruin. The Psalmist recognizes this destruction as God’s warnings against the unfaithfulness of the people finally coming to fruition. The community’s constant covenantal carelessness has come with consequences. And in the face of death and loss and a perceived distance from God, the psalmist offers the community these words of lament to pray to God.

It is worth noting the strategy the Psalmist employees in this cry of desperation. Primarily, the Psalmist embraces a posture of humility by focusing on God. Even the people’s pain is framed in light of God’s relationship with the people of Israel—“your inheritance” and “your servants”—and with Jerusalem and the temple. Of course, the people’s distress is not far removed from God nor from the mind of the Psalmist. Nevertheless, in this time of dislocation and dismay for the people of Israel, the Psalmist emphasizes God’s concerns instead of the peoples’. Even the acts of vengeance and wrath against those who have “poured out [the people’s] blood like water” has been given over to God.

As a slight aside but also as a potential option for preaching on this text, it is worth noting that while the Psalmist does emphasize God and calls God to action for God’s own sake in this Psalm, he (or she) does not conceal his anger or feign a passionless response to the heinous acts of the people who have murdered God’s people. Most anyone who has truly suffered—in body, mind, and/or spirit—at the hands of another and have experienced real pain and loss will identify with the Psalmist here. The desire for wrongs to be righted, for justice to be fulfilled, for debts to be paid, even for vengeance is not something from which the Psalmist hides in sanctimonious pomposity—maybe the way some church folk are prone to do (myself included). Instead, it is expressed and given to God for the handling. While a preacher may want to point to Jesus’ call to enemy love, she should not do so without recognizing the extent to which enemy love depends on placing hoped for vengeance in God’s hands.

Recognizing and emphasizing both our human suffering and the centrality of God’s glory and purposes is a challenge for anyone desiring to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. Lament, as modeled throughout the Psalms, is a prime strategy and practice for just this thing. Lament allows us to bring all of who we are as individuals and as a community and all of our experiences of pain and suffering, of brokenness and sin, of despair and dismay into the context of our relationship with God. A preacher will do well to remind her people that God is great enough to receive our toughest questions (e.g., “How long, O Lord?” “Will you be angry forever?” “Where is their [our] God?”), our confessions of corporate sin (e.g., “Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors.”), and our most pain-filled expressions of rage (e.g., “Pour out your anger on nations you do not know and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name” and “Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord.”). We do not protect God by somehow trying to keep these things from God. Rather, we release ourselves from their control when we give them to God. When God is allowed to hold our deep questions and our communal brokenness and when God is allowed to be the executioner of judgment, we are freed to be people who, like the people of God throughout the ages, “will give thanks to [God] forever; from generation to generation we will recount [God’s] praise” (v. 13).