Psalms 74 Summary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

This Psalm and Psalms 79 are closely connected in thought and language [37] , and reflect the same historical situation. If they are not from the same pen, they must at least belong to the same period, and must be considered together.

[37] Comp. Psa 74:1; Psa 74:9-10 with Psa 79:5, how long, for ever: Psa 74:3; Psa 74:7 with Psa 79:1, the desecration of the sanctuary: Psa 74:1 with Psa 79:5, God’s wrath: Psa 74:1 with Psa 79:13, sheep, of thy pasture: Psa 74:2 with Psa 79:1, thine inheritance: Psa 74:10; Psa 74:18; Psa 74:22-23 with Psa 79:4; Psa 79:12, the reproaches of the enemy: Psa 74:7; Psa 74:10; Psa 74:18; Psa 74:21 with Psa 79:6; Psa 79:9, God’s name.

The circumstances under which they were written stand out clearly. The holy land has been overrun by heathen enemies; the Temple has been desecrated and burnt to the ground; Jerusalem is in ruins; numbers of Israelites have been slaughtered, and their bodies left unburied; Israel is the scorn of neighbouring nations; the outward ordinances of religion are suspended; Jehovah seems permanently to have cast off His people, and its fortunes seem destined to know no recovery; no one can foresee the end of its humiliation.

It has generally been thought that there are two periods, and only two, to which this description can apply: the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans in b.c. 586, and the oppression of the Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes in b.c. 170 165. Almost all commentators who admit the existence of Maccabaean Psalms in the Psalter at all agree in referring these Psalms to the latter occasion, and we may consider it first. Antiochus IV, surnamed Epiphanes, became king of Syria in b.c. 175. After his second expedition to Egypt, b.c. 170, he invaded Jerusalem, plundered the Temple of its treasures, and massacred thousands of the people. “All the house of Jacob was covered with confusion” ( 1Ma 1:20-28 ). Two years later, after his fourth Egyptian campaign, Antiochus sent a force under his general Apollonius to occupy Jerusalem. He seized the city by treachery, plundered it and set it on fire, massacred many of the people, sold many women and children as slaves, and fortifying the city of David, established a Syrian garrison there ( 1Ma 1:29 ff.). Antiochus next resolved to stamp out the Jewish religion. He promulgated an edict prohibiting the practice of all its distinctive ceremonies upon pain of death, and ordering the Jews to take part in heathen rites. The Temple was desecrated; an idol altar set up on the altar, and sacrifices offered upon it to Zeus Olympios; all the copies of the Law that could be found were destroyed or defaced, and their possession was made a capital offence. Many Israelites turned apostate, but many preferred death to the abnegation of their religion. The resistance inaugurated by Mattathias at Modin was crowned with success. Under the heroic leadership of his son Judas the Jews recovered their liberty, and in b.c. 165 the Temple was cleansed and re-dedicated with great rejoicings ( 1Ma 4:36 ff.).

In many respects these Psalms appear remarkably to reflect the circumstances of this period; they illustrate and are illustrated by the narrative in 1 and 2 Maccabees in a number of details; and in particular the complaints put into the mouth of Mattathias (1Ma 2:6 ff.) and Judas ( 2Ma 8:2 ff) present many points of resemblance. The special arguments urged in favour of the Maccabaean date are (1) that the absence of prophets spoken of in Psa 74:9 was a marked characteristic of the Maccabaean times ( 1Ma 4:46 ; 1Ma 9:27 ; 1Ma 14:41 ), whereas Jeremiah and Ezekiel survived the destruction of Jerusalem for many years, and the former had predicted the duration of the captivity: (2) that the existence of synagogues (Psa 74:8) points to a late period of Jewish history: (3) that the language of the Psalms implies that Israel was suffering a religious persecution (Psa 74:10; Psa 74:18; Psa 74:22): (4) that the ‘signs’ of the heathen in the Temple and the absence of Israel’s ‘signs’ (Psa 74:4; Psa 74:9) clearly refer to the introduction of idolatrous emblems and the attempt to destroy the Jewish religion.

Upon these grounds these Psalms have very generally been assigned to the period between b.c. 170 and b.c. 165, or more particularly between the desecration of the Temple in b.c. 168 and its re-dedication in b.c. 165. At first sight the arguments appear to be convincing. But it has already been pointed out in the introduction to Psalms 44 that the history of the growth of the Psalter makes the presence of Maccabaean Psalms in the Elohistic collection highly improbable. In view of this improbability it is necessary further to examine the arguments alleged in proof of the Maccabaean date. Now (1) though Jeremiah and Ezekiel lived for several years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the complaint of Psa 74:9 is intelligible, if the Psalm was written, as it may well have been, after their death. It finds at least a partial parallel in Lam 2:9. Further, though the question ‘How long’ may seem strange in the face of Jeremiah’s prediction of the duration of the Captivity, it could still be asked even after the first Return (Zec 1:12). (2) It will be shewn in the notes on Psa 74:8 that the LXX, the oldest authority for the text and interpretation of the passage, finds no allusion in it to synagogues, but understands it of the solemn feasts, the suspension of which is deplored in Lamentations as one of the great calamities of the Exile. (3) Every war against Israel was in a sense a religious war, and the language is no more than might have been used with reference to any occasion when the humiliation of Israel gave the heathen opportunity to speak contemptuously of Israel’s God. (4) The ‘signs’ of the enemy may equally well mean the military ensigns of the Chaldeans, and the absence of Israel’s ‘signs’ may refer to the suspension of festivals and other outward ordinances of religion.

Thus the special arguments for the Maccabaean date break down upon examination. But further, there are allusions which fit the earlier date better than the later, and there are some marked features of the Maccabaean period which are conspicuously absent.

(1) The description of the burning and destruction of the Temple and the demolition of the city agrees with the account of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldeans (2Ki 25:9-10), whereas in the Syrian troubles only the gates of the Temple were burnt and some of the subordinate buildings destroyed ( 1Ma 4:38 ), and though the city had suffered, it does not seem to have been laid in ruins.

(2) The prolonged desolation of the city and humiliation of Israel point decidedly to the earlier occasion. The interval from the outrage of Antiochus to the re-dedication of the Temple was only three years, and even from his first invasion of Jerusalem only five years, a short period, surely, to account for the strong expressions in Psalms 74.

(3) The mockery of the neighbouring peoples was a conspicuous feature at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (Psalms 137; Ezekiel 25). (4) The parallels with Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel are at least as striking as those with 1 Maccabees [38] .

[38] Comp. Psa 74:4 with Lam 2:6-7; Psa 74:7 with Lam 2:2; Psa 74:9 with Lam 2:6; Lam 2:9; Psa 79:6-7 with Jer 10:25; Psa 74:1; Psa 79:13 with Jer 23:1; and further references in the notes.

Arguments from silence are no doubt precarious, but it must be noted that these Psalms contain no reference to some prominent features of the Maccabaean times. There is no allusion to the intrigues which had disgraced the hierarchy, or to the religious divisions of the time and the apostasy of many of the people, or to the deliberate attempt of Antiochus to enforce idolatry and destroy the Jewish religion.

On the whole, then, the view which seems most in accordance with the evidence is that these Psalms were written some fifteen or twenty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, about the same time as the Lamentations. The author might have been an eye-witness of the destruction of the Temple, which he describes so graphically, while at the same time the exile had lasted long enough to make it seem as though, in spite of Jeremiah’s predictions of restoration, God had permanently rejected His people. This hypothesis we may at any rate take as the basis of our study, referring to the Book of Maccabees only for illustration. [39]

[39] On the question of Maccabaean Psalms generally, see Introd. p. xliv ff.

It has been suggested that these Psalms, though originally written with reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, were re-touched to adapt them to the circumstances of the later struggle. The possibility may be borne in mind, but the conjecture does not admit of proof. Naturally the Psalms would have been favourites at that time, and this may account for many of the coincidences of thought and expression.

It may indeed be the case that it has been too hastily assumed by the majority of commentators that these Psalms must refer to one or other of the periods above mentioned. Ewald would connect them, together with 44, 60, 80, 85, with disasters which befel the restored community in the earlier part of the fifth century b.c., to which reference is made in Neh 1:3. But it must be noted that Nehemiah’s concern is for the city only: there is no mention of any desecration of the Temple.

Robertson Smith ( Old Test. in Jewish Ch., ed. 2, p. 438) prefers Ewald’s earlier view, and connects them with the rebellion of the Jews under Artaxerxes Ochus (circa b.c. 350), which was put down with great severity. Our knowledge of the history of that period is, however, extremely scanty, and the hypothesis lacks evidence.

Psalms 74 may be divided into three stanzas, thus:

i. The Psalmist expostulates with God for abandoning His people, and entreats Him to come to their help, enforcing his appeal by a vivid description of the havoc which the enemy had wrought in the sanctuary, and the despair which is seizing upon Israel (Psa 74:1-9).

ii. He renews his expostulation, bidding God remember that His honour is at stake, and recalling, at once by way of pleading with God and for his own consolation, the sovereignty of Israel’s King in history and in nature (Psa 74:10-17).

iii. Repeating the arguments he has already used, he once more urgently entreats God not to abandon His people to the mercy of their foes, or any longer to endure the insults which are heaped upon Him daily (Psa 74:18-23).

On Maschil see Introd. p. xix.

Consult other comments:

Psalms 74:0 - Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible

Psalms 74:0 - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Psalms 74:0 - Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers (Old and New Testaments)

Psalms 74:0 - John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

Psalms 74:0 - Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary

Psalms 74:0 - Jamieson, Fausset and Brown's Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible

Psalms 74:0 - Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament

Psalms 74:0 - English Annotations on the Holy Bible by Matthew Poole

Psalms 74:0 - Whedon's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges