The contents of the psalm indicate that it concerns the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (v. 1). It is obvious from the psalm that, in addition to the place of God’s worship being destroyed (the temple was defiled), his servants were slain and their dead bodies treated with contempt and not given a burial (vv. 2-3). The surrounding nations, such as Moab and Edom, derided God’s people and mocked them because of what had happened (v. 4).
God’s people have often identified themselves with the situation depicted in this psalm. During the time of the Huguenots in France, ten Protestants sang this psalm as they went to their martyrdoms in 1556, and they sang it until the fires silenced their tongues.
The destruction of the city and the slaughter of its inhabitants required a response from God’s people who survived the onslaught. And this psalm is the response of those who led God’s praise. Michael Travers summarises the psalm by saying in it ‘Asaph extends empty hands to Yahweh and asks for help.’ James Boice, when describing a similar situation in Psalm 74, likens it to Asaph walking God through the ruins of the city and pointing out the different places where the enemy performed particular atrocities. This is what prayer is – speaking precisely to God about specific situations. Addressing God in such a manner reveals where a person’s heart concerns are. General petitions often hide an unconcerned heart.
Asaph’s response included the recognition that God was angry with his people. It is interesting how Asaph reacted to the expression of God’s anger. The psalmist did not suggest it was inappropriate for God to be angry. Instead he considered two other aspects: first, he asked God how long his anger would last (v. 5); second, he asked God to be angry with those who did not serve him and had destroyed his people (vv. 6-7). We can see that Asaph was prepared to argue with God in prayer, which is something that we should do as well.
What can we say about the psalmist’s request that God punish those who had destroyed Jacob (the people of God)? This kind of request is found in several psalms and they are called ‘imprecatory psalms’. First, we can see that the psalmist did not take vengeance into his own hands but left it with God, which is what Paul says God’s people should do (Rom. 12:19-20). Second, the psalmist’s desire was for a world in which everyone will worship God and in which cruel behaviour will be unknown. Asaph knows that before that world will arrive the Day of Judgement will take place and at that Judgement the cruel nations that afflicted Israel would be dealt with by God. We should keep both these responses in mind when we see cruel activities taking place against God’s church in different parts of the world.
Asaph also realised that the reason God was angry with his people was because of their sins (v. 8). Yet he knows that the Lord can show them mercy very quickly (because atonement could be made for their sins), and therefore he asks that God would deliver them from their very low spiritual state (v. 9). We can learn from Asaph what to do when living in days of divine judgement, which we are in at present. God could easily expand his church, but instead it is decreasing. Why? It has sinned in various ways. What should be the response of the church? It should pray for restoration based on the atoning work of Jesus. And it should pray for a restoration that would be God-glorifying, that would shut the mouths of those who treat his cause with contempt, and that would deliver his people from bondage (vv. 10-12).
The outcome initially in the psalm would be expressions of gratitude from the restored community (v. 13). They would praise God once he had restored them to their pastureland (Canaan) and where future generations would experience his provision for them. The return from the captivity in Babylon was a great display of divine power, but is nothing in comparison to the deliverance we can know from the power of sin at conversion and from the power of spiritual stagnation in which the church is in Britain at present. Therefore we should pray that God would cease to be angry.
Where is your God, the enemy asked? The answer to their question is, ‘He is listening to our prayers.’ But what are we praying about?