This psalm is entitled Maschil—a psalm to give instruction, for it was penned in a day of affliction, which is intended for instruction; and this instruction in general it gives us, That when we are, upon any account, in distress, it is our wisdom and duty to apply to God by faithful and fervent prayer, and we shall not find it in vain to do so. Three things the people of God here complain of:—
I. The displeasure of God against them, as that which was the cause and bitterness of all their calamities. They look above the instruments of their trouble, who, they knew, could have no power against them unless it were given them from above, and keep their eye upon God, by whose determined counsel they were delivered up into the hands of wicked and unreasonable men. Observe the liberty they take to expostulate with God (Ps. 74:1), we hope not too great a liberty, for Christ himself, upon the cross, cried out, My God my God, why hast thou forsaken me? So the church here, O God! why hast thou forsaken us for ever? Here they speak according to their present dark and melancholy apprehensions; for otherwise, Has God cast away his people? God forbid, Rom. 11:1. The people of God must not think that because they are cast down they are therefore cast off, that because men cast them off therefore God does, and that because he seems to cast them off for a time therefore they are really cast off for ever: yet this expostulation intimates that they dreaded God’s casting them off more than any thing, that they desired to be owned of him, whatever they suffered from men, and were desirous to know wherefore he thus contended with them: Why does thy anger smoke? that is, why does it rise up to such a degree that all about us take notice of it, and ask, What means the heat of this great anger? Deut. 29:24. Compare Deut. 29:20; where the anger of the Lord and his jealousy are said to smoke against sinners. Observe what they plead with God, now that they lay under the tokens and apprehensions of his wrath. 1. They plead their relation to him: “We are the sheep of thy pasture, the sheep wherewith thou hast been pleased to stock the pasture, thy peculiar people whom thou art pleased to set apart for thyself and design for thy own glory. That the wolves worry the sheep is not strange; but was ever any shepherd thus displeased at his own sheep? Remember, we are thy congregation (Ps. 74:2), incorporated by thee and for thee, and devoted to thy praise; we are the rod, or tribe, of thy inheritance, whom thou hast been pleased to claim a special property in above other people (Deut. 32:9), and from whom thou hast received the rents and issues of praise and worship more than from the neighbouring nations. Nay, a man’s inheritance may lie at a great distance, but we are pleading for Mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt, which has been the place of thy peculiar delight and residence, thy demesne and mansion.” 2. They plead the great things God had done for them and the vast expense he had been at upon them: “It is thy congregation, which thou hast not only made with a word’s speaking, but purchased of old by many miracles of mercy when they were first formed into a people; it is thy inheritance, which thou hast redeemed when they were sold into servitude.” God gave Egypt to ruin for their ransom, gave men for them, and people for their life, Isa. 43:3, 4. “Now, Lord, wilt thou now abandon a people that cost thee so dear, and has been so dear to thee?” And, if the redemption of Israel out of Egypt was an encouragement to hope that he would not cast them off, much more reason have we to hope that God will not cast off any whom Christ has redeemed with his own blood; but the people of his purchase shall be for ever the people of his praise. 3. They plead the calamitous state that they were in (Ps. 74:3): “Lift up thy feet; that is, come with speed to repair the desolations that are made in thy sanctuary, which otherwise will be perpetual an irreparable.” It has been sometimes said that the divine vengeance strikes with iron hands, yet it comes with leaden feet; and then those who wait for the day of the Lord, cry, Lord, lift up thy feet; exalt thy steps; magnify thyself in the outgoing of thy providence. When the desolations of the sanctuary have continued long we are tempted to think they will be perpetual; but it isa temptation; for God will avenge his own elect, will avenge them speedily, though he bear long with their oppressors and persecutors.
II. They complain of the outrage and cruelty of their enemies, not so much, no, not at all, of what they had done to the prejudice of their secular interests; here are no complaints of the burning of their cities and ravaging of their country, but only what they had done against the sanctuary and the synagogue. The concerns of religion should lie nearer our hearts and affect us more than any worldly concern whatsoever. The desolation of God’s house should grieve us more than the desolation of our own houses; for the matter is not great what becomes of us and our families in this world provided God’s name may be sanctified, his kingdom may come, and his will be done.
1. The psalmist complains of the desolations of the sanctuary, as Daniel, Dan. 9:17. The temple at Jerusalem was the dwelling-place of God’s name, and therefore the sanctuary, or holy place, Ps. 74:7. In this the enemies did wickedly (Ps. 74:3), for they destroyed it in downright contempt of God and affront to him. (1.) They roared in the midst of God’s congregations, Ps. 74:4. There where God’s faithful people attended on him with a humble reverent silence, or softly speaking, they roared in a riotous revelling manner, being elated with having made themselves masters of that sanctuary of which they had sometimes heard formidable things. (2.) They set up their ensigns for signs. The banners of their army they set up in the temple (Israel’s strongest castle, as long as they kept closely to God) as trophies of their victory. There, where the signs of God’s presence used to be, now the enemy had set up their ensigns. This daring defiance of God and his power touched his people in a tender part. (3.) They took a pride in destroying the carved work of the temple. As much as formerly men thought it an honour to lend a hand to the building of the temple, and he was thought famous that helped to fell timber for that work, so much now they valued themselves upon their agency in destroying it, Ps. 74:5, 6. Thus, as formerly those were celebrated for wise men that did service to religion, so now those are applauded as wits that help to run it down. Some read it thus: They show themselves, as one that lifts up axes on high in a thicket of trees, for so do they break down the carved work of the temple they make no more scruple of breaking down the rich wainscot of the temple than woodcutters do of hewing trees in the forest; such indignation have they at the sanctuary that the most curious carving that ever was seen is beaten down by the common soldiers without any regard had to it, either as a dedicated thing or as a piece of exquisite art. (4.) They set fire to it, and so violated or destroyed it to the ground, Ps. 74:7. The Chaldeans burnt the house of God, that stately costly fabric, 2 Chron. 36:19. And the Romans left not there one stone upon another (Matt. 24:2), rasing it, rasing it, even to the foundations, till Zion, the holy mountain, was, by Titus Vespasian, ploughed as a field.
2. He complains of the desolations of the synagogues, or schools of the prophets, which, before the captivity, were in use, though much more afterwards. There God’s word was read and expounded, and his name praised and called upon, without altars or sacrifices. These also they had a spite to (Ps. 74:8): Let us destroy them together; not only the temple, but all the places of religious worship and the worshippers with them. Let us destroy them together; let them be consumed in the same flame. Pursuant to this impious resolve they burnt up all the synagogues of God in the land and laid them all waste. So great was their rage against religion that the religious houses, because religious, were all levelled with the ground, that God’s worshippers might not glorify God, and edify one another, by meeting in solemn assemblies.
III. The great aggravation of all these calamities was that they had no prospect at all of relief, nor could they foresee an end of them (Ps. 74:9): “We see our enemy’s sign set up in the sanctuary, but we see not our signs, none of the tokens of God’s presence, no hopeful indications of approaching deliverance. There is no more any prophet to tell us how long the trouble will last and when things concerning us shall have an end, that the hope of an issue at last may support us under our troubles.” In the captivity in Babylon they had prophets, and had been told how long the captivity should continue, but the day was cloudy and dark (Ezek. 34:12), and they had not as yet the comfort of these gracious discoveries. God spoke once, yea, twice, good words and comfortable words, but they perceived them not. Observe, They do not complain, “We see not our armies; there are no men of war to command our forces, nor any to go forth with our hosts;” but, “no prophets, none to tell us how long.” This puts them upon expostulating with God, as delaying, 1. To assert his honour (Ps. 74:10): How long shall the adversary reproach and blaspheme thy name? In the desolations of the sanctuary our chief concern should be for the glory of God, that it may not be injured by the blasphemies of those who persecute his people for his sake, because they are his; and therefore our enquiry should be, not “How long shall we be troubled?” but “How long shall God be blasphemed?” 2. To exert his power (Ps. 74:11): “Why withdrawest thou thy hand, and dost not stretch it out, to deliver thy people and destroy thy enemies? Pluck it out of thy bosom, and be not as a man astonished, as a mighty man that cannot save, or will not,” Jer. 14:9. When the power of enemies is most threatening it is comfortable to fly to the power of God.