This psalm is ascribed to Asaph. Its contents suggest that the composer may have been a descendant of the prominent Levite musician during King David’s reign. The events portrayed in Psalm 79 appear to fit the time when the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem.
The land the Israelites inhabited was a God-given inheritance. Into this inheritance, which the psalmist identified as God’s inheritance, the nations had come. They defiled God’s holy temple and reduced Jerusalem to ruins.
During the military campaign, many were slain and left on the ground for scavenger birds and beasts to consume. The psalmist referred to those who were killed as God’s “servants” and his “holy ones.”
All around Jerusalem, the invading forces poured out the blood of the inhabitants like water (indicative of the large number who were killed). No one gave the dead a decent burial. Neighboring nations gloated, reproaching, mocking, and deriding the Israelites.
In view of the horrific calamity, the psalmist was moved to ask how long YHWH’s anger would continue. Would it be “forever” (“to the end,” LXX)? Would his jealous wrath continue to burn like fire?
The psalmist petitioned YHWH to pour out his anger on the nations who did not know or recognize him as God and on the kingdoms who did not call on his name or did not look to him as God. These would have been nations or kingdoms that had revealed themselves to be vicious enemies of the Israelites.
Like a wild beast, the foe had devoured Jacob or the people descended from Jacob. Their abode had been desolated.
The psalmist asked God not to hold against his people the record of sin their ancestors had made. Having been reduced to a very low state, the Israelites desperately needed to be shown compassion. The psalmist prayed that YHWH would let his compassion speedily come to them.
“Help us,” the psalmist continued, “God of our salvation.” YHWH alone could deliver his people from their dire distress. The psalmist petitioned God to act for the “glory” of his name. By coming to the aid of his people, he would maintain his matchless reputation as a savior and helper. Besides appealing to be delivered, the psalmist prayed that God, for the sake of his name, would forgive his people’s sins. If the Israelites did not have their sins pardoned and remained under divine wrath, the people of other nations would wrongly conclude that YHWH was powerless to help his own people, detracting from his glorious name.
Among other nations, the question would then be raised, “Where [is] their God?” Therefore, the psalmist asked YHWH to avenge the blood of his servants, bringing retribution upon the enemy.
The psalmist wanted God to hear the groaning of captives of war and to reveal his great power (his “mighty arm”) by preserving alive those who were doomed to die. Possibly the condition of those carried into exile is here portrayed as living death, and the plea that God would preserve them alive may be an appeal for release from exile.
The gloating neighboring nations who reproached God by taunting his people are the ones who should experience divine retribution. For God to repay them “sevenfold” would signify their experiencing a complete recompense. The “bosom” referred to the upper fold of a garment (wherein items could be carried), and so the full repayment for their hateful course would be given to them (as if placed in the upper fold of a garment).
At the time for divine retribution, God’s people, the flock of his pasture (like sheep under his guidance, care, and protection as their shepherd), would give thanks to him for all time to come. From generation to generation, they would recount his praise, acknowledging what he had done for them.
Note: Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.