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"Then I Understood Their End" (Psalms 73-74) August 23-25

Book III of the Psalter, as the Zondervan NIV Study Bible explains, "consists of three groupings of psalms, having an overall symmetrical pattern (six psalms {73-78}, five psalms {79-83}, six psalms {84-89}) and at its center (Ps 81) an urgent exhortation to fundamental covenant loyalty to the Lord" (note on Psalms 73-78). Of the 17 psalms in this book, the titles of the first 11 (these psalms constituting the first two clusters of the three mentioned above) bear the name of Asaph, one of David's three choir directors-Asaph evidently being the primary director among the three. We earlier read Psalm 50, another psalm of Asaph that may have been detached from a full grouping of 12 to be placed in Book II during a later process of arrangement.

As mentioned earlier, le-Asaph could either mean that the psalms were written by Asaph or for him to perform. The former seems more likely, though there is some difficulty with respect to Asaph's authorship or even performance of the psalms bearing his name. A number of the psalms of Book III deal with a time of national invasion and devastation. Indeed, two of Asaph's psalms (74 and 79) concern an enemy invasion of Jerusalem and the ravaging of the temple. This helps to establish a link, as explained in the Bible Reading Program's introduction to Psalms, between Book III of the Psalter and the third of the five Festival Scrolls, the book of Lamentations, read annually by the Jews during their fast on the ninth of Ab in commemoration of the Babylonian and Roman destructions of the temple. Asaph, though, lived centuries before the Babylonian destruction.

It is perhaps possible that Asaph did live to see Pharaoh Shishak's invasion during the reign of Solomon's son Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:25-28; 2 Chronicles 12). But Asaph would have been extremely old then if he were still alive. Consider that he was given his appointment when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem shortly after David's establishment there (see 1 Chronicles 15:17-19; 16:5). Asaph would then have been over 30, as David's change to allow Levitical service at a younger age did not come until the end of the king's reign (compare Numbers 4:2-3, 22-23, 29-30; 1 Chronicles 23:3, 25-27). Shishak's invasion came about 78 years after David took over Jerusalem, so Asaph would have been 108 or older. While seemingly unlikely, this is not impossible.

However, other solutions have been put forward. Perhaps the most popular is the general rejection of the superscriptions in the book of Psalms as unreliable. But then we are left with the great mystery of how these scribal attributions arose. If oral tradition, did not the tradition have some basis?

Others would argue that Asaph wrote the psalms in question in a form we no longer have and that later editors rewrote these to fit their later circumstances. This could be, but in such a case it would seem that the particular psalms would have been chosen for revision because they concerned similar circumstances, in this case national invasion, yet no such invasion took place in Asaph's time prior to Shishak's.

Some believe that "references to Asaph in these titles must sometimes include descendants of Asaph who functioned in his place" (Zondervan, note on Psalm 73 title). It is true that Asaph's descendants remained as temple singers in later centuries (see 2 Chronicles 35:15; Ezra 2:41; Nehemiah 7:44; 11:17). But why would the titles not say "sons of Asaph," as others say "sons of Korah"?

Another very real possibility is that Asaph was writing prophetically. He is referred to in 2 Chronicles 29:30 as "Asaph the seer." Indeed, many of the psalms are understood to be prophetic, but usually this means that some present circumstance was being written about that reflected future events in a dual sense. Indeed if Asaph did witness, and was writing about, Shishak's invasion, his words were also likely prophetic of future destruction-that is, of the ancient Babylonian and Roman destructions as well as the end-time destruction yet to come. However, it could be that God gave Asaph a vision of the future disconnected from his immediate circumstances. He may have been writing of what he saw with his mind and not with his eyes. We simply don't know for sure. In any event, we will assume Asaph himself as the author of the psalms bearing his name, as this seems most likely despite the apparent difficulty.

We begin, then, with the first cluster of Book II, Psalms 73-78. This "first group is framed by psalms of instruction. Ps 73 is a word of godly wisdom based on an individual's life experience, while Ps 78 is a psalm of instruction based on Israel's communal experience in its historical pilgrimage with God. Within this frame, Ps 74 (a communal prayer) is linked with Ps 77 (a prayer of an individual) by the common experience of seeming to be rejected by God (see 74:1; 77:7) and by an extended evocation of God's saving act in Israel's exodus from Egypt (see 74:13-15; 77:16-19). At the center, two psalms (75; 76) express joyful assurance that Israel's God (His 'Name is near,' 75:1; 'his name is great in Israel,' 76:1) calls the arrogant wicked to account and rescues their victims; he cuts off 'the horns of the wicked' (75:10) and breaks 'the spirit of rulers' (76:12 [NIV])" (note on Psalms 73-78).

Psalm 73 explores the dilemma of the wicked seeming to prosper while the godly suffer so much. It is thematically tied in this respect to Psalm 49. Like that song, Psalm 73 gives the clarity of vision that comes from realizing people's future destiny. "Placed at the beginning of Book III, this psalm voices the faith (confessed {v. 1}, tested {vv. 2-26} and reaffirmed {vv. 27-28}) that undergirds the following collection. It serves in Book III as Ps 1-2 serve in Book I" (note on Psalm 73).

Asaph knows that God is good to those in Israel who are pure in heart (verse 1), but he had struggled to understand why the wicked prosper-being nearly tripped up by this as he started to envy their strength, abundance and carefree lives (verses 2-5, 7, 12). It seemed they could do and say whatever they want (verses 8-9). How is it that they could defy God and everything still go so well for them? (verses 11-12). Was it pointless to obey God? (verses 13-14). Besides the personal quandary of Asaph detailed here, this song probably found meaning to the nation at large in later years when wicked enemy nations seemed to freely defy God and prosper while God's own nation suffered greatly at their hand.

In verse 15 Asaph says to God, "If I had really spoken this way, I would have been a traitor to your people" (New Living Translation). Thus he was so far only entertaining these thoughts. He had not yet succumbed to actually believing them. But the confusion was very uncomfortable (verse 16).

Until one day, that is, while he was in God's sanctuary (the tabernacle or temple)-perhaps performing his duties leading prayerful and worshipful music-that it hit him. He realized the end of the wicked (verse 17)-they will perish (verse 27). "He rediscovered something that he probably already knew but had not really considered: The prosperity of the wicked will not last. Their wealth will have no value in the next life" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verses 15-18). Indeed, more than in just this ultimate sense, he realized that without God's overseeing care their demise could come at any moment (verses 18-19; compare Luke 13:1-5). The middle statement of Psalm 73:19, "They are utterly consumed with terrors," means either that terrible events would destroy them (see NIV) or that, deep down, the wicked are really filled with fear of what might happen to them because they do not have the assurance of faith the godly have. Verse 20 says that when God finally does decide to deal with the wicked, they will disappear like a bad dream-the phrase "despise their image" here in context meaning to disregard the sight of them as unreal (compare Isaiah 29:5-8).

Asaph was then rather upset with himself (Psalm 73:21) for being so stupid-like an ignorant beast (verse 22; compare Job 18:3)-in thinking the way he had. Nevertheless, God didn't desert him in his foolishness but enlightened his perspective to keep him on the road to glory (Psalm 73:23-24). Nothing in the universe can compare to a relationship with God (verse 25). Physical life ends, but with Him is eternal life and reward (verse 26). Those who forsake God for unfaithfulness are on the road to death (verse 27).

Contrary to his earlier consideration of serving God being futile (verse 13), Asaph concludes just the opposite: "It is good for me to draw near to God" (verse 28). He trusts God and will proclaim to others-as this song does-that what God does for us makes our devotion to Him more than worth it.

According to its superscription, Psalm 74 is a maskil (instructional psalm or, as in the NKJV, "contemplation") of Asaph. As mentioned earlier, it, like Psalm 79, concerns a time of national invasion and devastation, including the ransacking of the temple in Jerusalem-the sanctuary (verses 3-4, 7) at Mount Zion (verse 2). The psalm is a lamenting plea for relief from the godless invaders and oppressors.

As mentioned before, it is possible that Asaph lived to see Pharaoh Shishak's invasion of Judah around 925 B.C., which included the looting and defiling of the temple (1 Kings 14:25-28; 2 Chronicles 12). However, it is just as possible that Asaph was given a vision of the future-of events beyond his death, possibly Shishak's invasion but perhaps one long afterward, such as the Babylonian invasion of 586 B.C. or the Roman invasion of A.D. 69-70 (or perhaps the end-time invasion still ahead).

Whatever he saw, the utter sense of shock and misery in Psalm 74 is clear: "Why...? Why...?" he asks (verse 1). "How long...?" and "Why...?" (verses 10-11). He realizes that the invasion is a result of God's judgment (verse 1)-but is stunned at what God has permitted the enemy to do. Asaph implores God to restore His relationship with His people and act to preserve His own reputation against the blasphemous actions of the wicked invaders. "Lift up your feet" in verse 3 is a call for God to walk-to come and see what the enemy is doing.

In verse 5-6, enemy troops are shown hacking with axes and hammers at the temple's carved work-its paneling or other d├ęcor-and then in verse 7 they are described as setting fire to the sanctuary, defiling it to the ground. It is not clear what this means. If this means setting fires in parts of the temple as part of utterly defiling it, this could possibly refer to Shishak's invasion. But if it means that the enemy has burned the temple to the ground (as the NIV translates it), we should realize that such calamity only happened during the Babylonian and Roman invasions.

The statement in verse 9 that "there is no longer any prophet" is interesting in light of the fact that Asaph himself was a seer (2 Chronicles 29:30). This may support the argument that Asaph did not actually live to witness the devastation he is writing about. Yet considering what follows in the verse, this may simply mean that there is no prophet who knows how long the enemy oppression will last. Based on the same verse, the identification of the invasion as that of the Babylonians is problematic because God's prophet Daniel lived through the entire Babylonian captivity. And Jeremiah remained in Judah until he was taken by the remnant of the country to Egypt (after which only a few peasants were left in the land). And Jeremiah even gave a time frame for the dominion of Babylon.

Asaph urges God to take action against the evil adversary (verse 11) and then recounts the mighty acts God accomplished for His people in the past-when He delivered them from Egypt and led them to the Promised Land. (Asaph also reflects on this deliverance in Psalms 77, 78 and 81.)

God divided the Red Sea, opened fountains of water for the people in the wilderness and dried up the Jordan River so the Israelites could cross (74:13, 15). The breaking of the heads of the sea serpents, of Leviathan, in pieces (verses 13-14) refers in one sense to the devastation brought against Egypt at that time. Leviathan, the sea serpent of Job 41, is representative of Satan the devil, the true ruler of this world. He is portrayed in Revelation 12:3 as having multiple heads-in that case the heads being those of prophetic Babylon (a succession of world-ruling empires) shown as springing from him (see Revelation 13; 17). Yet he was also the power behind the thrones of Egypt and the other nations Israel defeated in their wilderness wanderings. Indeed, the Egyptian pharaoh is portrayed in the book of Ezekiel as a crocodilian river monster or sea monster (29:3; 32:2). The heads of Leviathan being given as food to the Israelites in the wilderness would seem to refer to their looting of the Egyptians and the carrying away of Egypt's substance as well as the plunder of other Satan-led nations on the way to the land of Canaan.

In Psalm 74:16-17, Asaph points out God's power to determine day and night, the earth's borders (perhaps the division of land and sea) and the seasons. He is essentially saying, "You can do anything. You are in control of everything." And on that basis, He again pleads with God to consider what the enemy has done (verses 18) and the need of His people (verses 19-21).

The reference to God's people as "Your turtledove" (verse 19) is probably a term of endearment, showing the people as God's beloved (see Song of Solomon 2:14; 5:2; 6:9). In Psalm 74:20 Asaph asks that God would have respect to the covenant-wherein God had said that if the people repented and called on Him for help that He would deliver them.

The Contemporary English Version renders the latter part of verse 20 this way: "Violent enemies are hiding in every dark corner of the earth." That is, enemy forces are set to ambush God's people all over the place-emphasizing the urgent need for help. This also reminds us of the fact that God's people today are constantly pursued by spirit enemies, about which Paul wrote in Ephesians 6:12: "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the world's rulers, of the darkness of this age, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Modern King James Version).

Asaph further calls the people "Your poor" (Psalm 74:19), "the oppressed" and "the poor and needy" (verse 21)-as they have been humbled and are the kind of people God says He will care for and rescue.

Verses 22-23 contain a final plea for God to act against the enemies. While God has permitted them to attack His people for the sake of judgment, these wicked invaders have assaulted and blasphemed God Himself and continue to do so. They must be stopped-and they will be.

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