1O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them.
4We have become a taunt to our neighbours, mocked and derided by those around us.
5How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name
7for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.
8Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.
9Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.
Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.
We continue through a period of lament, with not only Jeremiah, but also the psalmist bringing the desperation of the people into focus.
Once again, as with Psalm 14, the wording suggests, on the surface, that the cause of the problem is “the nations”. “They” have defiled the temple; “they” have laid waste to Jerusalem. ‘Who is “they”?’ we might ask. If we consider that “we” are doing, or trying to do, what God wants us to do, then “they” includes anyone who is not doing the right thing. In a world where the Hebrew people were supposed to set themselves aside from the peoples around them, and keep to the commandments – better translated as commitments – thought to have been brought to us by Moses, and not to be defiled by the ways of those other peoples, any moves to adopt the ways of non-Hebrews could be seen as going against the will of God. It was the role of the temple leaders to guide the Hebrews away from the pitfalls of other religions, and their way of life, but when the leaders failed to keep the people honest to their task disaster would befall the nation. Time and again the prophets would rail against bad leadership, and against the “false prophets” to whom some leaders turned for justification. If we take the line that failure to honour the commitment to God’s teaching will bring about disaster, then the destruction of the temple and the flattening of Jerusalem in 586BC, which is probably at the heart of this passage, shows that the people had strayed significantly from the ways of God, and the leadership was very much involved in that errant behaviour.
Scripture doesn’t just tell us what happened in the past, but it teaches us how to address issues which affect us today, many centuries after those passages were written. It’s more than a historical record of events from which we can learn: it’s an insight into how we can avoid the problems of the past revisiting us. Given that, what can we learn from this section of one psalm?
First, the Hebrew people were supposed to keep to their faith and not be influenced by the ways of life of those around them, where that would put them in conflict with God’s will. The people were required to be distinct from those around them. Customs associated with their faith took precedence over customs of the others, so mode of dress, days of worship, commitment to worship, decisions about what was good for the community had to be consistent with their faith teaching. Orthodox Jews still maintain a diet free from pork, even though the real reason for its exclusion in biblical times – the way it rapidly becomes unsafe to eat if not treated properly – has been overcome. As Christians, how often are we distinguishable from the rest of the community? How often have we stood up against incursions into the day of rest? When people come to church are they getting the same sort of experience as they would get in any other organisation around? Do we make a commitment to our faith journey such that others are touched by what can be achieved, or do we depend on the church establishment to provide everything, and expect it to be free? Are our churches any better at dealing with accusations of sexual misconduct than other organisations, or businesses? If the answer to any of those questions is “No” then we might be falling into the same pitfalls as the Hebrews were before the destruction of the temple, and we might find that our temple is destroyed. Are we prepared to stand up for our faith, and pick up the pieces after our church institutions come crashing down around us, or are we going to speak up, and act, to repent and change our ways before such destruction happens?
The section of Psalm 79 set for the 18th of September ends with a call to God to help us, to forgive our sins, and guide us back to a righteous relationship with our Creator. This should be an important part of our daily prayer life.