Psalm 79 (NIV)
1 O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple,
they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.
2 They have left the dead bodies of your servants
as food for the birds of the sky,
the flesh of your own people for the animals of the wild.
3 They have poured out blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there is no one to bury the dead.
4 We are objects of contempt to our neighbors,
of scorn and derision to those around us.
5 How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever?
How long will your jealousy burn like fire?
6 Pour out your wrath on the nations
that do not acknowledge you,
on the kingdoms
that do not call on your name;
7 for they have devoured Jacob
and devastated his homeland.
Before our eyes, make known among the nations
that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants.
11 May the groans of the prisoners come before you;
with your strong arm preserve those condemned to die.
12 Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times
the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord.
13 Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture,
will praise you forever;
from generation to generation
we will proclaim your praise.
Scripture teaches that “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). This means that the life of faith is sustained because of who God is and the surety of his promises, rather than the visible circumstances we sometimes find ourselves in. This is the clear message of Psalm 79, written by Asaph.
The Psalms fall into a range of categories, including praise, history, imprecation, penitence, and so forth. This psalm falls into a category known as “lament.” To lament something is to express deep sorrow or grief. It is clear from the very first verse of Psalm 79 that this is a lament: “O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble. They have given the dead bodies of your servants as food to the birds of the air” (vv. 1–2). Asaph is lamenting, but more importantly, he is enshrining this lament in an act of worship for the people of God and, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for all of us through the history of the church! Why is this?
One important reason can be found in the important difference between lament and despair. Sometimes the language of despair and the language of lament can be quite similar, but the difference is the destination of the journey. The destination of despair is hopelessness. The destination of lament is hope. Despair leads us to cynicism, or even suicide. Lament leads us to deep trust and learning to “live by faith, not by sight.” Asaph would not be lamenting before God unless he had hope in God’s promises and the future prospects for the people of God.
We know he is lamenting, and not despairing, because toward the end of the lament he prays, “Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake” (v. 9). That is a prayer of hope in the midst of pain. In our own lives, may we learn to embrace lament, not despair, because lament is the song of hope. For Christians, all of life is framed with hope because our deepest lament and God’s greatest victory meet at the cross of Jesus Christ.