The Silence of God: Psalm 74

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Today’s Sunday Psalms entry is written by Timothy Tennent.

Psalm 74 (NIV)

O God, why have you rejected us forever?
    Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?
Remember the nation you purchased long ago,
    the people of your inheritance, whom you redeemed—
    Mount Zion, where you dwelt.
Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins,
    all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.

Your foes roared in the place where you met with us;
    they set up their standards as signs.
They behaved like men wielding axes
    to cut through a thicket of trees.
They smashed all the carved paneling
    with their axes and hatchets.
They burned your sanctuary to the ground;
    they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
They said in their hearts, “We will crush them completely!”
    They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.

We are given no signs from God;
    no prophets are left,
    and none of us knows how long this will be.
10 How long will the enemy mock you, God?
    Will the foe revile your name forever?
11 Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
    Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!

12 But God is my King from long ago;
    he brings salvation on the earth.

13 It was you who split open the sea by your power;
    you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
14 It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
    and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.
15 It was you who opened up springs and streams;
    you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.
16 The day is yours, and yours also the night;
    you established the sun and moon.
17 It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;
    you made both summer and winter.

Sing this psalm with the Seedbed Psalter today! Visit the resource here.

CONSIDER THIS

In this psalm, Asaph calls us to experience robust faith even in the face of the silence of God. The people of God have long felt the tension between, on the one hand, the biblical affirmation of the goodness and the omnipotence of God and, on the other hand, the obvious presence of evil and suffering. If God is all-powerful, then why doesn’t he act? If God is all-good, then why does he allow so much evil to run rampant in the world? Our answer to this haunting question is sometimes known as a theodicy—that is, a way to reconcile the goodness and power of God with the presence of evil in the world. This is the theme of this psalm, which insists that God is both all-powerful (vv. 13–17) and all-good (vv. 18–21).

Psalm 74 is written from the perspective of the exile. The Jews, God’s covenant people, had experienced an invasion of a terrible, wicked army. They had watched as these invaders entered the sacred Jewish temple and “smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets” (v. 6) and “burned your sanctuary to the ground” (v. 7).

In the face of this evil, God seemed silent and passive: “We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be” (v. 9). The questions keep pouring forth relentlessly and with raw emotion: “How long will the enemy mock you?” (v. 10). “Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?” (v. 11).

Most of us have experienced in our lives (or have observed things in the world) that made us wonder why God seemed so silent. We wondered why he hasn’t intervened and set the record straight, cut the legs out from underneath the wicked, or brought relief to some horrific suffering. We have some of the same questions that we hear the psalmist asking. For the psalmist, the destruction of the temple was the destruction of everything that was held dear. It doesn’t get any worse than this. In our own lives, we can look around and see the destruction of our culture. So many of our institutions or values (government, family, schools, churches, etc.) have been torn down, discredited, or weakened. The problems are so vast, there is no human answer, and yet God seems to be silent. What is the answer?
The solution, or theodicy, of this psalm doesn’t wash away all the questions or resolve the tensions. The Bible doesn’t set forth a single explanation-type theodicy, at least not in the way that many of us might expect, or hope for.

Psalm 74 finds resolution by looking back. Beginning in verse 12 the psalmist takes us on an incredible journey of remembrance. He remembers God’s faithfulness when he “split open the sea” (v. 13). He even remembers God’s creation of the “sun and moon” (v. 16), and both “summer and winter” (v. 17). He recalls God’s past action against enemies that, in this psalm, are spoken of metaphorically as crushing the head of the great monsters of the sea (v. 14). Remembering God’s past acts of faithfulness is a great encouragement when we look upon situations that trouble us.

We, too, should take our cue from Psalm 74 and look back. However, we have the sacred privilege of also looking back on the cross, which was still in the future of the psalmist. We know that Jesus Christ is the only truly innocent sufferer. We know that, on the cross, Jesus bore the silence of the Father. We know that Jesus took upon himself all the evil, wickedness, and suffering of a sinful world. In the end, God does not offer any technical explanation for the presence of evil and suffering. Instead, he offers up himself. His answer is a person. His answer is Jesus Christ upon the cross. His answer is the power of love to conquer all hate. He answers suffering by bearing it. Sometimes God speaks in silence. Surely, we can look back and know that in the silence of Christ’s sufferings on the cross, God was speaking the even more powerful word of love, grace, and forgiveness.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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