Psalm 74
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm and Psalms 79 are closely connected in thought and language[37], and reflect the same historical situation. If they are not from the same pen, they must at least belong to the same period, and must be considered together.

[37] Comp. Psalm 74:1; Psalm 74:9-10 with Psalm 79:5, how long, for ever: Psalm 74:3; Psalm 74:7 with Psalm 79:1, the desecration of the sanctuary: Psalm 74:1 with Psalm 79:5, God’s wrath: Psalm 74:1 with Psalm 79:13, sheep, of thy pasture: Psalm 74:2 with Psalm 79:1, thine inheritance: Psalm 74:10; Psalm 74:18; Psalm 74:22-23 with Psalm 79:4; Psalm 79:12, the reproaches of the enemy: Psalm 74:7; Psalm 74:10; Psalm 74:18; Psalm 74:21 with Psalm 79:6; Psalm 79:9, God’s name.

The circumstances under which they were written stand out clearly. The holy land has been overrun by heathen enemies; the Temple has been desecrated and burnt to the ground; Jerusalem is in ruins; numbers of Israelites have been slaughtered, and their bodies left unburied; Israel is the scorn of neighbouring nations; the outward ordinances of religion are suspended; Jehovah seems permanently to have cast off His people, and its fortunes seem destined to know no recovery; no one can foresee the end of its humiliation.

It has generally been thought that there are two periods, and only two, to which this description can apply:—the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans in b.c. 586, and the oppression of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes in b.c. 170–165. Almost all commentators who admit the existence of Maccabaean Psalms in the Psalter at all agree in referring these Psalms to the latter occasion, and we may consider it first. Antiochus IV, surnamed Epiphanes, became king of Syria in b.c. 175. After his second expedition to Egypt, b.c. 170, he invaded Jerusalem, plundered the Temple of its treasures, and massacred thousands of the people. “All the house of Jacob was covered with confusion” (1Ma 1:20-28). Two years later, after his fourth Egyptian campaign, Antiochus sent a force under his general Apollonius to occupy Jerusalem. He seized the city by treachery, plundered it and set it on fire, massacred many of the people, sold many women and children as slaves, and fortifying the city of David, established a Syrian garrison there (1Ma 1:29 ff.). Antiochus next resolved to stamp out the Jewish religion. He promulgated an edict prohibiting the practice of all its distinctive ceremonies upon pain of death, and ordering the Jews to take part in heathen rites. The Temple was desecrated; an idol altar set up on the altar, and sacrifices offered upon it to Zeus Olympios; all the copies of the Law that could be found were destroyed or defaced, and their possession was made a capital offence. Many Israelites turned apostate, but many preferred death to the abnegation of their religion. The resistance inaugurated by Mattathias at Modin was crowned with success. Under the heroic leadership of his son Judas the Jews recovered their liberty, and in b.c. 165 the Temple was cleansed and re-dedicated with great rejoicings (1Ma 4:36 ff.).

In many respects these Psalms appear remarkably to reflect the circumstances of this period; they illustrate and are illustrated by the narrative in 1 and 2 Maccabees in a number of details; and in particular the complaints put into the mouth of Mattathias (1Ma 2:6 ff.) and Judas (2Ma 8:2 ff) present many points of resemblance. The special arguments urged in favour of the Maccabaean date are (1) that the absence of prophets spoken of in Psalm 74:9 was a marked characteristic of the Maccabaean times (1Ma 4:46; 1Ma 9:27; 1Ma 14:41), whereas Jeremiah and Ezekiel survived the destruction of Jerusalem for many years, and the former had predicted the duration of the captivity: (2) that the existence of synagogues (Psalm 74:8) points to a late period of Jewish history: (3) that the language of the Psalms implies that Israel was suffering a religious persecution (Psalm 74:10; Psalm 74:18; Psalm 74:22): (4) that the ‘signs’ of the heathen in the Temple and the absence of Israel’s ‘signs’ (Psalm 74:4; Psalm 74:9) clearly refer to the introduction of idolatrous emblems and the attempt to destroy the Jewish religion.

Upon these grounds these Psalms have very generally been assigned to the period between b.c. 170 and b.c. 165, or more particularly between the desecration of the Temple in b.c. 168 and its re-dedication in b.c. 165. At first sight the arguments appear to be convincing. But it has already been pointed out in the introduction to Psalms 44 that the history of the growth of the Psalter makes the presence of Maccabaean Psalms in the Elohistic collection highly improbable. In view of this improbability it is necessary further to examine the arguments alleged in proof of the Maccabaean date. Now (1) though Jeremiah and Ezekiel lived for several years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the complaint of Psalm 74:9 is intelligible, if the Psalm was written, as it may well have been, after their death. It finds at least a partial parallel in Lamentations 2:9. Further, though the question ‘How long’ may seem strange in the face of Jeremiah’s prediction of the duration of the Captivity, it could still be asked even after the first Return (Zechariah 1:12). (2) It will be shewn in the notes on Psalm 74:8 that the LXX, the oldest authority for the text and interpretation of the passage, finds no allusion in it to synagogues, but understands it of the solemn feasts, the suspension of which is deplored in Lamentations as one of the great calamities of the Exile. (3) Every war against Israel was in a sense a religious war, and the language is no more than might have been used with reference to any occasion when the humiliation of Israel gave the heathen opportunity to speak contemptuously of Israel’s God. (4) The ‘signs’ of the enemy may equally well mean the military ensigns of the Chaldeans, and the absence of Israel’s ‘signs’ may refer to the suspension of festivals and other outward ordinances of religion.

Thus the special arguments for the Maccabaean date break down upon examination. But further, there are allusions which fit the earlier date better than the later, and there are some marked features of the Maccabaean period which are conspicuously absent.

(1) The description of the burning and destruction of the Temple and the demolition of the city agrees with the account of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans (2 Kings 25:9-10), whereas in the Syrian troubles only the gates of the Temple were burnt and some of the subordinate buildings destroyed (1Ma 4:38), and though the city had suffered, it does not seem to have been laid in ruins.

(2) The prolonged desolation of the city and humiliation of Israel point decidedly to the earlier occasion. The interval from the outrage of Antiochus to the re-dedication of the Temple was only three years, and even from his first invasion of Jerusalem only five years, a short period, surely, to account for the strong expressions in Psalms 74.

(3) The mockery of the neighbouring peoples was a conspicuous feature at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (Psalms 137; Ezekiel 25). (4) The parallels with Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel are at least as striking as those with 1 Maccabees[38].

[38] Comp. Psalm 74:4 with Lamentations 2:6-7; Psalm 74:7 with Lamentations 2:2; Psalm 74:9 with Lamentations 2:6; Lamentations 2:9; Psalm 79:6-7 with Jeremiah 10:25; Psalm 74:1; Psalm 79:13 with Jeremiah 23:1; and further references in the notes.

Arguments from silence are no doubt precarious, but it must be noted that these Psalms contain no reference to some prominent features of the Maccabaean times. There is no allusion to the intrigues which had disgraced the hierarchy, or to the religious divisions of the time and the apostasy of many of the people, or to the deliberate attempt of Antiochus to enforce idolatry and destroy the Jewish religion.

On the whole, then, the view which seems most in accordance with the evidence is that these Psalms were written some fifteen or twenty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, about the same time as the Lamentations. The author might have been an eye-witness of the destruction of the Temple, which he describes so graphically, while at the same time the exile had lasted long enough to make it seem as though, in spite of Jeremiah’s predictions of restoration, God had permanently rejected His people. This hypothesis we may at any rate take as the basis of our study, referring to the Book of Maccabees only for illustration.[39]

[39] On the question of Maccabaean Psalms generally, see Introd. p. xliv ff.

It has been suggested that these Psalms, though originally written with reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, were re-touched to adapt them to the circumstances of the later struggle. The possibility may be borne in mind, but the conjecture does not admit of proof. Naturally the Psalms would have been favourites at that time, and this may account for many of the coincidences of thought and expression.

It may indeed be the case that it has been too hastily assumed by the majority of commentators that these Psalms must refer to one or other of the periods above mentioned. Ewald would connect them, together with 44, 60, 80, 85, with disasters which befel the restored community in the earlier part of the fifth century b.c., to which reference is made in Nehemiah 1:3. But it must be noted that Nehemiah’s concern is for the city only: there is no mention of any desecration of the Temple.

Robertson Smith (Old Test. in Jewish Ch., ed. 2, p. 438) prefers Ewald’s earlier view, and connects them with the rebellion of the Jews under Artaxerxes Ochus (circa b.c. 350), which was put down with great severity. Our knowledge of the history of that period is, however, extremely scanty, and the hypothesis lacks evidence.

Psalms 74 may be divided into three stanzas, thus:

i. The Psalmist expostulates with God for abandoning His people, and entreats Him to come to their help, enforcing his appeal by a vivid description of the havoc which the enemy had wrought in the sanctuary, and the despair which is seizing upon Israel (Psalm 74:1-9).

ii. He renews his expostulation, bidding God remember that His honour is at stake, and recalling, at once by way of pleading with God and for his own consolation, the sovereignty of Israel’s King in history and in nature (Psalm 74:10-17).

iii. Repeating the arguments he has already used, he once more urgently entreats God not to abandon His people to the mercy of their foes, or any longer to endure the insults which are heaped upon Him daily (Psalm 74:18-23).

On Maschil see Introd. p. xix.

Maschil of Asaph. O God, why hast thou cast us off for ever? why doth thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?
1. for ever] God’s rejection of His people seems to have become permanent. The same thought recurs in Psalm 74:3; Psalm 74:10; Psalm 74:19, Psalm 79:5. Cp. Lamentations 5:20; Psalm 44:23; Lamentations 3:31.

smoke] A metaphor for the outward signs of the fire of wrath. Cp. Psalm 18:8; Psalm 80:4; Lamentations 2:3-4.

the sheep of thy pasture] The exact phrase recurs only in Psalm 79:13; Psalm 100:3; Jeremiah 23:1; Ezekiel 34:31; but cp. Psalm 95:7. The title implies that Israel has a right to claim God’s loving care in virtue of His relation to it: a relation which Psalm 74:2 points out was initiated by God Himself. The representation of God as Israel’s shepherd is common. See Psalm 80:1; Psalm 77:20; Psalm 78:52; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 31:10; Ezekiel 34:11 ff.

1–3. An appeal to God, Who seems to have abandoned and forgotten the people and city of His choice.

Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt.
2. Remember] Cp. Psalm 74:18; Psalm 74:22; Lamentations 5:1; Isaiah 62:6.

purchased … redeemed] Reminiscences of the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:13; Exodus 15:16). Cp. Psalm 77:15; Psalm 78:35; Deuteronomy 32:6.

the rod &c.] Render with R.V.,

Which thou hast redeemed to be the tribe of thine inheritance.

The nation is called a tribe, as in Amos 3:1 it is called a family. So too in Jeremiah 10:16 (= Psalm 51:19); cp. Isaiah 63:17.

this mount Zion] Omit this: the pronoun here serves for the relative.

dwelt] Cp. Psalm 68:16. The verb is that from which later Judaism derived the term Shechinah to denote the abiding Presence of God among His people.

Lift up thy feet unto the perpetual desolations; even all that the enemy hath done wickedly in the sanctuary.
3. Lift up thy feet] Bestir Thyself: come in might and majesty to visit and deliver. the perpetual desolations] R.V. the perpetual ruins: a word found elsewhere only in Psalm 73:18. Cp. the threat, Jeremiah 25:9, and the promises, Isaiah 58:12; Isaiah 61:4.

even all &c.] Better as R.V., All the evil that the enemy hath done in the sanctuary; or R.V. marg., The enemy hath wrought all evil.

Thine enemies roar in the midst of thy congregations; they set up their ensigns for signs.
4. Render, Thine adversaries roared in the midst of thy meeting place. Mô’çd may mean either the place or the time at which God meets His people, as of old He met them at “the tent of meeting” (Exodus 29:42-44). Here probably the Temple is meant. Its courts were filled with heathen foes instead of reverent worshippers: they rang with wild shouts of triumph instead of the praises of Israel. Cp. Lamentations 2:6-7.

they set up their ensigns for signs] Lit., their signs as signs. Probably their military ensigns or standards (Numbers 2:2) are meant. The erection of these in the Temple itself was a visible sign of its desecration, and of the completeness of the triumph of the heathen. Many commentators however suppose that religious emblems and ceremonies are meant, and those who regard this Psalm as Maccabaean suppose that the idolatrous altars erected and rites celebrated by command of Antiochus are referred to. See 1Ma 1:45-49; 1Ma 1:54; 1Ma 1:59; 1Ma 3:48.

4–9. A graphic picture of the desecration of the Temple by the heathen enemies of Israel.

A man was famous according as he had lifted up axes upon the thick trees.
5, 6. The R.V. gives the probable sense of these verses, but does not reproduce the pictorial tenses, which represent the work of destruction as though it were going on before the reader’s eyes. Render:

They seem as men that lift up

Axes upon a thicket of trees.

And now the carved work thereof together

They are battering down with hatchet and hammers.

The enemy are compared to wood-cutters hewing down a forest (Jeremiah 46:22-23); and the simile may have been suggested by the fact that the carved work on the Temple walls represented “palm trees and open flowers” (1 Kings 6:29).

The P.B.V., “He that hewed timber afore out of the thick trees was known to bring it to an excellent work. But now they break down &c.,” introduced into the Great Bible from Münster, gives a suggestive contrast between the skill of the artist and the vandalism of the destroyer; but the present Heb. text cannot bear this meaning.

But now they break down the carved work thereof at once with axes and hammers.
They have cast fire into thy sanctuary, they have defiled by casting down the dwelling place of thy name to the ground.
7. They have set thy sanctuary on fire;

They have profaned the dwelling place of thy name even to the ground. (R.V.)

The verse appears to speak of a complete destruction of the Temple by fire. This was done by Nebuzaradan (2 Kings 25:9-10) but not by the emissaries of Antiochus, for Judas found the main building standing, though the gates had been burned and the priests’ chambers pulled down (1Ma 4:38). Comp. the stress which Ezekiel lays on the desecration of the sanctuary (Ezekiel 7:21-22; Ezekiel 7:24). See also Lamentations 2:2.

For the dwelling place of thy name cp. Deuteronomy 12:11; Deuteronomy 16:2; Deuteronomy 16:6; Deuteronomy 16:11, &c.; Jeremiah 7:12; Psalm 26:8.

They said in their hearts, Let us destroy them together: they have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land.
8. They said in their heart, Let us crush them altogether:

They burned up all the meeting places of God in the land.

For the form of expression cp. Psalm 83:4.

The interpretation of this verse is specially important in its bearing on the date of the Psalm. It would be a strong argument for the late date if it really contained an allusion to synagogues. Though the origin of these buildings for purposes of worship and instruction is hidden in obscurity, it can hardly have been earlier than the post-exilic period. (See Schürer, Hist. of the Jewish People, Div. ii. § 27, E.T. ii. ii. 54.) But it is doubtful whether there is any such allusion. The word translated synagogues is the same as that used in Psalm 74:4, meaning either place or time of meeting. In the plural it always has the latter meaning. Now if the Psalm were Maccabaean and the passage referred to synagogues, it might be expected that the LXX translators, working no long time afterwards, would have so understood it. But they do not; and apparently they had a different text before them, for they render: Come, let us cause the feasts of the Lord to cease out of the land. Similarly the Syriac. These versions then understand the words to refer to the festivals or solemn assemblies. Now the cessation of the festivals is one of the points mentioned in the Lamentations (Psalm 1:4; Psalm 2:6) as a special calamity; and in Hosea 2:11. the Heb. word presumed by the LXX here is used in the prediction of the cessation of religious festivals in the Captivity. This reading and interpretation suit the context. The stated festivals were among the ‘signs,’ the symbols of God’s presence and favour, of which Psalm 74:9 speaks.

We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet: neither is there among us any that knoweth how long.
9. our signs] The outward and visible symbols of our religion, such as sabbath and festival, which God “had caused to be forgotten in Zion” (Lamentations 2:6). The sabbath is spoken of as a sign in Exodus 31:13; Exodus 31:17; Ezekiel 20:12; Ezekiel 20:20. The words would of course be specially appropriate to the time at which Antiochus attempted to suppress all the distinctive ordinances of the Jewish religion (1Ma 1:45-46; 1Ma 1:60-61). Note the contrast with the ‘signs’ of hostile domination, Psalm 74:4.

there is no more any prophet] A characteristic of the Maccabaean age (1Ma 4:46; 1Ma 9:27; 1Ma 14:41): but the complaints of the exile are not dissimilar (Lamentations 2:9; Ezekiel 7:26); and even after the Return the angel in Zechariah’s vision (Zechariah 1:12) asks ‘How long?’

O God, how long shall the adversary reproach? shall the enemy blaspheme thy name for ever?
10. How long] Taking up the last words of Psalm 74:9, the Psalmist begins the second division of the Psalm with an appeal parallel to that in Psalm 74:1-3. There he entreats God to have pity on His people’s need, here to have regard to His own honour.

reproach … blaspheme] In act and word. Like the Assyrians, Isaiah 10:7 ff; Isaiah 37:23 ff.; and Syrians, Daniel 7:8; Daniel 7:25; Daniel 11:36; 1Ma 2:6.

10, 11. Once more the Psalmist expostulates with God for His inaction.

Why withdrawest thou thy hand, even thy right hand? pluck it out of thy bosom.
11. Why drawest thou back thy hand, even thy right hand?

(Pluck it) out of thy bosom (and) consume (them).

The right hand which in days of old was stretched out to annihilate the Egyptians (Exodus 15:12), is now as it were thrust idly into the folded garment. Cp. Lamentations 2:3.

For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.
12. For] Better as R.V., Yet. In spite of His present inactivity God has been and still is Israel’s King. The Psalmist speaks in the name of the nation. Cp. Exodus 15:18; Psalm 44:4; Habakkuk 1:12.

salvation] Lit. salvations, manifold and great acts of deliverance.

in the midst of the earth] As in Exodus 8:22, the phrase implies that His wonders are wrought in the sight of all the nations and attest His claim of universal sovereignty (Psalm 77:14).

12–17. Yet God’s mighty works of Redemption and Creation attest His power to interpose for the deliverance of His people. Cp. Psalm 77:10 ff.

Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength: thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.
13. Thou] Psalm 74:13-15; Psalm 74:17 all begin with an emphatic Thou; Psalm 74:16 with Thine. It is Thou and none other, Who didst and doest all these things. The Asaphite Psalms are full of references to the Exodus.

by thy strength] Cp. Psalm 77:14; Exodus 15:13. The dragons or sea monsters, and leviathan, either the crocodile or some vague mythological monster, are symbolical of Egypt. Cp. Isaiah 27:1; Isaiah 51:9; Ezekiel 29:3.

in the waters] Lit. upon the waters, the symbolical monsters being imagined as floating upon the surface of the water. The reference of course is to the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.

Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness.
14. Thou brakest &c. Thou didst crush … thou didst give him &c. The dead bodies of the Egyptians were cast up on the shore (Exodus 14:30) to be devoured by the wild beasts of the desert. Cp. Ezekiel 29:3-5. For ‘people’ applied to animals cp. Proverbs 30:25-26.

Thou didst cleave the fountain and the flood: thou driedst up mighty rivers.
15. Thou didst cleave fountain and torrent:

Thou didst dry up perennial rivers.

God’s omnipotence was shewn alike in cleaving the rock so that water flowed out (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:8; Psalm 78:15; Isaiah 48:21), and in drying up the perennial stream of the Jordan (Joshua 3; Joshua 4:23).

The day is thine, the night also is thine: thou hast prepared the light and the sun.
16. The day &c.] Thine is the day and the night is thine.

the light and the sun] Possibly equivalent to ‘the moon and the sun’ (Psalm 104:19); but more probably ‘the luminaries and especially the sun.’ Cp. Genesis 1:14; Genesis 1:16.

16, 17. All the fixed laws and ordinances of the natural world were established and are maintained by God.

Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter.
17. the borders of the earth] The divisions of land and sea (Psalm 104:9; Job 38:8 ff.; Jeremiah 5:22), and the apportionment of the land among the nations (Deuteronomy 32:8; Acts 17:26).

Remember this, that the enemy hath reproached, O LORD, and that the foolish people have blasphemed thy name.
18. the foolish people] R.V. a foolish people. The epithet denotes the moral perversity of opposition to God. Cp. Psalm 14:1, note. It is applied to the heathen in Deuteronomy 32:21.

18–23. Emboldened by his contemplation of the power of God in history and in nature the Psalmist returns to prayer.

O deliver not the soul of thy turtledove unto the multitude of the wicked: forget not the congregation of thy poor for ever.
19. The rendering of R.V., O deliver not the soul of thy turtle-dove unto the wild beast, is preferable to that of R.V. marg., O deliver not thy turtledove unto the greedy multitude. The dove is an emblem of the defenceless people.

forget not &c.] Forget not the family of thine afflicted ones for ever: or, the life of thine afflicted ones. There is a play upon the different senses of the word chayyath: in the first line it means wild beast (living creature), in the second family (or life). For the meaning family see note on Psalm 68:10.

Have respect unto the covenant: for the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.
20. the covenant] With the patriarchs, Genesis 9:9 ff; Genesis 17:2 ff.; with the nation at the Exodus, Exodus 24:8; with David, Psalm 89:3; Psalm 89:39.

the dark places of the earth] The heathen lands where Israel was in exile. We might also render, the dark places of the land, i.e. the caves and hiding-places where the persecuted Israelites took refuge, and where they were tracked out and butchered (1Ma 1:53; 1Ma 2:27 ff.).

are full of the habitations of cruelty] R.V. violence. If the text is right, the sense seems to be ‘places where violence makes its home.’ But the expression is a strange one, and the emendation are full of insolence and violence, adopted by many commentators, which requires a very slight change in the consonants of the text, is plausible. Cp. Psalm 73:6; Genesis 6:11; Genesis 6:13.

O let not the oppressed return ashamed: let the poor and needy praise thy name.
21. O let not the oppressed &c.] Let not the crushed or down-trodden (Psalm 9:9; Psalm 10:18) turn back from Thee unanswered and disappointed.

let the poor &c.] Let the afflicted have cause to praise Thee for answered prayer.

Arise, O God, plead thine own cause: remember how the foolish man reproacheth thee daily.
22, 23. A final appeal. Elsewhere the Psalmist prays ‘plead my cause’ (Psalm 43:1), but Israel’s cause is God’s cause: His honour is at stake.

the foolish man] The fool, the members of ‘the foolish people,’ Psalm 74:18. The Targ. paraphrases, “the reproach of thy people from the foolish king,” but there is nothing to shew that this meant Antiochus rather than Nebuchadnezzar. daily] All the day (R.V.).

Forget not the voice of thine enemies: the tumult of those that rise up against thee increaseth continually.
23. thine enemies] Thine adversaries, as in Psalm 74:4.

increaseth] Rather, ascendeth (R.V.), to heaven, challenging Thee to act. Cp. Isaiah 37:29.

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