Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.
This is a lament-Psalm, similar in tone to Ps 74 (on which, cf. the earlier study). The setting is the Exilic period, as is clear from the reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in v. 1. Verses 2-3 are apparently quoted in 1 Maccabees 7:17, being applied to the context of an event that took place during the Maccabean wars; however, the Babylonian conquest of the late-7th/early-6th century almost certainly provides the original setting for the Psalm. One might propose a date in the first half (or first quarter) of the 6th century, when the destruction of Jerusalem was still fresh in memory.
There would seem to be three-part structure for this Psalm (cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 302f):
- Vv. 1-4—A lament over the fate of Jerusalem, focusing on the wicked acts of destruction by the “nations”
- Vv. 5-9—A plea to YHWH, calling on God to act, helping His people and bringing judgment against the nations
- Vv. 6-10—A imprecatory request for the destruction of the nations that attacked Israel/Judah, along with the restoration of God’s people—reversing the situation described in section 1.
The meter of Psalm 79 is quite irregular; mention will be made of the meter for each verse below.
Part 1: Verses 1-4
“(The) nations have come within your inheritance!
They have defiled (the) palace of your holiness,
(and) they have set Yerušalaim to ruins!”
The Psalm opens with a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon that well expresses the reason for the Psalmist’s lament. The “nations” presumably is a comprehensive way of referring to the invading Babylonians (and their allies). The noun hl*j&n~ refers to an inherited property or allotment of territory; here the reference is to the land of Israel—specifically the Judean territory and the city of Jerusalem—as YHWH’s own possession (cf. the recent note on Psalm 78:68-69). By describing the land this way, the Psalmist no doubt wishes to spur YHWH to action—so as to defend His property.
The invaders have destroyed the city of Jerusalem (lit. set it to ruins [<yY]u!]) and have destroyed the Temple (lit. palace of [YHWH’s] holiness) in the process; in so doing, they have defiled (vb am*f*) the Temple, desecrating its holiness. Compare the description in Ps 74:2-3ff.
“They gave (the) withered bodies of your servants
(as) food for (the) flying (birds) of the heavens,
(the) flesh of your devoted (one)s for (the) beasts of (the) earth.”
The slaughter of the people of the city is described in this verse. The specific reference is to the faithful ones among the people, whose death, in particular, should move YHWH and prompt Him to take action. Their loyalty is indicated by the adjective dys!j* (“good,” spec. in the sense of faithful/loyal), by which is meant that they are YHWH’s good servants—i.e., they are faithful to the covenant and to the Torah regulations (the terms of the covenant). The dead bodies are left as carrion for the birds and wild animals to feed on.
This verse, like v. 1, is a three-beat (3+3+3) tricolon.
“They poured forth their blood like the(y would) water,
all around Yerušalaim,
and with no (one) burying (them)!”
The death of the people (spec. YHWH’s faithful servants among them) was bloody, with the blood pouring (and spraying) out like water all over the city. The final line repeats the idea expressed in v. 2—viz., that the bodies of the dead were left unburied, as food for the birds and beasts. For the dead to be treated this way, without proper burial, was a sign of abject dishonor.
This verse is a 3+2+2 tricolon (cp. vv. 1-2), with the shorter second and third lines producing a sharp rhythmic shift. It expresses, in poetic terms, the violence and disgrace being described by the Psalmist in this verse.
“We have become an object of scorn for (those) dwelling near us,
(of) derision and mocking for (those) round about us!”
The opening (lament) section of the Psalm closes with a 3-beat (3+3) couplet; following the tricola of vv. 1-3, the rhythmic shift has a dramatic, climactic feel, which fits the sense of the verse. The Psalmist is no longer talking about events of the past, but of the condition of YHWH’s faithful servants in the present. As noted above, this almost certainly relates to the setting of the Psalm in the period of the Exile (in the 6th century).
The surrounding nations now have reason to mock and taunt God’s people; the implication is that their trust in YHWH is foolish and misplaced—i.e., look what has happened to these people! The Psalmist uses three nouns with overlapping meaning for this idea of scornful, derisive taunting: hP*r=j#, gu^l^, and sl#q#, which I translate above as “scorn,” “derision,” and “mocking,” respectively.
Part 2: Verses 5-9
“Until when, O YHWH?
Will you be angry to the end?
Shall your jealous (rage) burn like fire?”
The dual-particle expression hm*-du^ typically functions as an interrogative, as it does here; it means “until what..?”, i.e. “until what (time/moment)…?”, which, for poetic concision, is best rendered in English as “until when…?”. The same despairing question is essentially asked at the beginning of Psalm 74 (v. 1), which has the same historical context for its lament—viz., the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The question is intended to spur God to action: how long will He let His city (and holy Temple) remain destroyed, defiled, and unavenged?
The destruction of Jerusalem was naturally seen as a sign of YHWH’s anger against the people (for their sin and unfaithfulness); the burning of the city serves as a graphic demonstration of God’s burning anger/rage. In the ancient Near East, military conquest was viewed as a means by which the deity would act out his/her rage, bringing judgment upon a people and their land. Even though the Babylonians, on one level, functioned as YHWH’s servants in this regard, enacting the judgment against Judah/Jerusalem, they are themselves to be judged for their wicked and brutal acts of violence and desecration (cf. above, and beginning with v. 6 below). YHWH’s anger is described as a jealous rage, with His jealousy (ha*n+q!) for His people (and His covenant-bond with them) featuring as a regular theme in the Scriptures, most frequently in the Prophets (ha*n+q! occurs relatively often in Isaiah and Ezekiel).
The meter of this verse is that of an irregular (2+2+3) tricolon. The terseness of the opening lines fits the sense of despairing impatience expressed by the Psalmist.
“Pour out your burning (anger)
onto the nations
that do not know you,
and upon (the) kingdoms
that do not call on your name!”
Metrically, this verse is highly irregular; it is perhaps best divided into five short lines, the first four of which have two beats. The obvious parallelism—
- onto the nations
| that do not know you
- upon the kingdoms
| that do not call on your name
- onto the nations
argues strongly against Dahood’s suggestion (II, p. 251) that la should be read as la@ (“Mighty [One],” i.e., God) vocative, rather than the preposition la# as vocalized by the MT (“[un]to,” or here “onto”).
The Psalmist asks that the anger which has burned against God’s own people should now be turned against the nations—specifically those which attacked Israel/Judah, and took advantage of the people’s misfortune. These nations are not God’s people—they neither know Him nor call on His name, worshiping other (false) deities instead. And yet these are the ones who invaded Jerusalem and desecrated YHWH’s holy temple!
“For they have devoured Ya’aqob
and devastated his abode!”
This irregular (3+2) couplet further explains the reasons why the nations (spec. the Babylonian conquerors and their allies/supporters) should now face the brunt of YHWH’s anger: it is because of their cruelty in “devouring” (lit. eating [up]) God’s people (called Jacob [= Israel]) and destroying the land (lit. their habitation/abode [hw#n`]).
“Do not keep in mind against us
(the) crooked deeds of (those) before;
O swift (One), let your mercy come before us,
for we have been brought so very low!”
The basic idea in lines 1 & 3 is that of God keeping a record of the people’s sins/crimes. That is the connotation here of the verb rk^z` (“remember, keep in mind, bring to mind”). Dahood (II, p. 252) is doubtless correct in explaining rhm (which he vocalizes rh!m* [= ryh!m*] instead of MT rh@m*) as a shorthand for the expression ryh!m* rp@os in Ps 45:2. YHWH is functioning as a recording scribe whose ‘pen’ (i.e. ability) is “swift” (that is, skillful). Dahood mentions an Egyptian papyrus (Anastasi I, 18:4), where mahir, apparently as a Semitic loanword, clearly designates the activity of a scribe. It is possible to retain this association and imagery, even if the MT rh@m* (“swiftly”) is followed; the third line would then read:
“let your mercy swiftly come before us”
In any case, the Psalmist’s request is that the faithful/loyal ones today should not continue to be punished for the sins of those who came before (<yn]v)ar!). This has been taken as an indicator that the Psalm was written a good many years after the Babylonian conquest (and Exile) took place, putting the date of composition more properly in the post-Exilic period. The people of the Psalmist’s generation have been brought low (vb ll^D*) by the judgment that occurred in the past, and he asks that this situation not be allowed to continue. His request thus hints at the restoration of Israel/Judah, and the return of the people to the land.
“Give us help, O Mighty (One) of our salvation,
over (the) word of weight of your name,
and snatch us (up) and wipe over our sins,
for (the) sake of your (great) name!”
The second part of the Psalm concludes with a pair of 3+2 couplets (slightly irregular in rhythm), in which the Psalmist fully calls on YHWH to deliver His people from their current situation (in exile). In the first couplet (line 1), the request is for God to “give help” (vb rz`u*); in the second couplet (line 1), two verbs are used in tandem:
- lx^n` (Hiphil stem), which literally means “snatch away”; when YHWH is the subject, and His people (spec. the righteous ones) the object, this verb is used in the positive sense of snatching someone out of danger; here the context suggests that YHWH would snatch His people away from the nations where they are currently dispersed (and often under threat, cf. v. 11 below).
- rp^K* (Piel stem), with preposition lu^, meaning “wipe/rub over”, i.e. erase; it is specifically the people’s sins that are to be wiped away; in light of verse 8a (cf. above), this could be a reference to YHWH no longer holding the sins of a prior generation against His faithful/loyal ones today.
The Psalmist appeals specifically to the name of YHWH, and to its honor (lit. “weight,” dobK*)—that is, to YHWH’s own honor, which is imperiled the longer His faithful/righteous ones continue to live in their lowly state, in exile among the nations. YHWH’s honor requires that His people be restored and raised to an exalted position once more. Cf. the thought expressed in the following verses 10ff.
Part 3: Verses 10-13
“For what (reason) should the nations say,
‘Where (is) their Mighty (One)?’
Let it be known among the nations before our eyes,
an avenging of (the) blood of your servants th(at) they poured out!”
The initial couplet essentially summarizes the mocking taunts by the nations, mentioned in verse 4 (cf. above), and points again to the need for YHWH to act in defense of His honor. Only by avenging (<qn) the cruel violence and desecration wrought by the conquerors can the situation be rectified. Indeed, the Psalmist calls for a reversal of the situation described in Part 1: destructive judgment should come upon the nations, instead of upon God’s people; now it is their blood that will be poured out! (cf. on verse 3, above).
Metrically, this verse is comprised of a 3+2 couplet followed by a 3+3 couplet.
“Let come before your face
(the) cry of (the one) bound;
according to (the) greatness of your arm,
let remain (alive the) sons of death.”
The motif in this verse is that of people in bondage (lit. “bound” rys!a*), particularly prisoners who are sentenced to die. The idiom “sons of death” uses the noun /B# (“son”) in the abstract sense of belonging to a group (or category)—here, e.g., those condemned to die. The imagery may be representative of life in exile, which also can entail the specific condition(s) of bondage/slavery, imprisonment, and the prospect of being put to death. Certainly, a sense of oppression against God’s people (spec. the righteous) by the nations is in view.
The verb rt^y` has the basic meaning “be left over, remain”; in the Hiphil stem, the sense is “cause to remain”, which in context clearly refers to remaining alive.
The meter of this verse is irregular; I treat it as a quatrain (2+2+2+3).
“And return to (those) dwelling near us seven-fold into their lap
(for) their scorn, (with) which they scorned you, my Lord!”
The rather more complex syntax of this verse justifies treating it as a longer-lined (4+4) couplet. The Psalmist’s prayer here turns into an imprecation, along the lines indicated above—i.e., a reversal of the situation described in Part 1 (vv. 1-4, cf. above). The scorn heaped on God’s people (and thus on YHWH Himself) by the surrounding nations (v. 4, cf. also v. 10a above) will come back (vb bWv, “turn back, return”) upon them. The Psalmist asks that this judgment should literally fall “into their lap” (<q*yj@-la#). On the motif of a seven-fold revenge, cf. the famous line in the song by Lamech (Gen 4:24).
“But we, your people, and (the) flock of your pasture,
shall throw (praise) to you into (the) distant (future)—
unto circle and circle we shall recount your praise.”
The fate of the nations (according to the Psalmist’s imprecation, v. 12) is here contrasted with that of God’s people. On the shepherding motif—with God as herder, and the people as His flock/herd—cf. the recent notes on Ps 78:52-53ff and 70-72. The promise given to YHWH is that the Psalmist, representing all the faithful/loyal ones of the people, will continually give (lit. throw/cast) praise to God, and will also recount (vb rp^s*) for future generations the reasons for this praise. I translate roD according to its fundamental meaning (“circle, cycle”), though it is typically understood as referring to the people living during a particular circle/cycle of time (i.e., a ‘generation’).
Many Psalms deal with the theme of fulfilling a vow made to YHWH, in response to His (expected) answer to prayer. Given the context of Psalmist as a poet-composer, it is not surprising that this vow-fulfillment is often described in terms of making music and giving praise to God. That is essentially the idea we see here at the close of Psalm 79 as well.
The meter of this final verse is again irregular: a 4+3+4 tricolon.
References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).