It looks as if this psalm describes what happened to Jerusalem when it was completely destroyed by the Babylonians. So how is its authorship applied to Asaph who lived at the same time as David, several hundred years before the captivity in Babylon? Spurgeon suggested that Asaph was guided by God to write a prophecy of what would happen eventually to his beloved city.
The problem faced by Asaph is not that God allowed his city to be overcome. Rather his difficulty is that God seems to retain his anger for a long, long time. Yet the psalmist does not descend into fatalism and assume that he should do nothing about it. Fatalism is never an expression of faith. Nor does he use God’s sovereign dealings as a reason not to fulfil what God requires of him, and the divine requirement for him is that he should pray.
In verse 1, Asaph asks God why he is allowing his anger to continue. His question is not an expression of rebellion but is a way of expressing his sense of unease. Nevertheless he musters several arguments to use as he prays to God. Asaph asks the Lord to remember that previously he dwelt in Zion and urges him to go there, see the destruction for himself and listen to the words of his enemies (vv. 2-8). The psalmist does not mean that God is ignorant of what has happened to Zion. Instead Asaph wants God to presence himself in a gracious way in Zion. Yet he sees no evidence of God’s interest in Zion (v. 9). So he speaks very bravely to God and asks him to become active once more in his city (vv. 10-11). In this he is an example of how we should become reverentially brave as we speak to God about the mess his cause is in.
Asaph knows where to get comfort from. First, he goes to history and notes how the Lord divided the Red sea and the River Jordan (vv. 13-15); second, he goes to creation and recalls that the Lord is in charge of the heavenly bodies and of the providential outworking of the seasons (vv. 16-17).
In verses 18-25, Asaph considers a basic biblical theme – respect for God’s name and security for his people are intertwined. We should note the various names he gives to God’s people: they are a dove, they are poor and needy, and they are downtrodden. Whatever else these descriptions convey, it is clear that each of them depicts total weakness. So the psalmist takes an unlikely path to success when he tells the Lord that his people are incapable of doing anything.
Why should Asaph find encouragement in rehearsing the weakness of his people? He does so because he knows that the Lord is in covenant agreement with those who are marked by total spiritual inadequacy. It is impossible to come away from a meeting with God with the assumption that he needs any help from us; but it is also impossible to come away from a genuine meeting with God without the confidence that he will help us eventually. One of the consequences of praying for God’s help is the subsequent assurance that he will help us.
Thinking about God’s abilities (revealed in history and in creation) causes Asaph to plead that the Lord would defend his cause. He asks God to take note of those who rebel against him. We should do the same. When was the last time we asked the Lord to deal with the enemies of his cause and with the persistent rebellion of his creatures? The answer to this question reveals whether or not we are concerned about God’s kingdom.