23 June 2012

Psalm 74

"Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage. Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell." (v. 2)


Psalm 74 calls on both God and the community of faith to do the painful work of remembering in order to recover a relationship of care and praise.

Although praise is central to this psalm, it is in fact a lament or song of complaint. This is unsurprising, since there are more laments than any other type of psalm.

The psalm recalls a catastrophic event in Israel's history, the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC by the Babylonians who took the leaders of Israel into exile (2 Kings 24-25). This was not simply the loss of a beautiful building, but represented a separation from God, since the temple was understood to be the place of encounter with God. And yet, the psalm claims God is still present, even if at a distance. In some ways this is an important reminder that God is not bound by institutional religion. Indeed, elsewhere there is some ambivalence towards the temple, built using forced labour during the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 5:13-14).

Walter Brueggemann describes this psalm as one of disorientation, revealing a tension between what should be and what is. It asks how God's lack of action can be explained in light of all that is known of God.

The lament is interrupted by a hymn (verses 12-17) recalling God's awesome power over the sea and the desert, the mythical forces of chaos in the ancient Near East imagination; and at the same time alluding to God's delivery of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14) and the desert wilderness, into the land of Canaan. The remembrance of God's saving acts places further pressure on God to act and what follows is a chain of petitions demanding specific actions (verses 18-23).

Unusually for a lament, Psalm 74 does not end with praise. The pressure on God is not lessened. If praise is the purpose of human existence, then it is up to God to ensure that, rather than mockery reverberating around the temple ruins, the praise of the poor and righteous is heard once more.

To Ponder

When faced with sorrow or injustice, how far does complaining or lamenting help?

In what buildings or places do you find it easier to encounter God? Why?

Bible notes author

Rachel Starr

Rachel Starr is the Methodist tutor at The Queen's Foundation for ecumenical theological education in Birmingham, where she teaches studies in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Before that she spent three years in Buenos Aires completing doctoral studies at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (Instituto Universitario ISEDET).