Psalm 74

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Asaph, the contemporary of David, could not have composed this psalm, as it relates to events that occurred centuries later. Likely the ascription to Asaph should be understood to refer to a descendant or a member of his house.

The composition is called a “maskil,” the significance of this transliterated Hebrew expression being unknown. In the Septuagint, the corresponding term is synéseos, meaning “of understanding” or “of intelligence.”


Psalm 74 may have been composed after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. The psalm provides a vivid portrayal of the destruction of the temple, which would not fit the later invasion and desecration of the sanctuary in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. The book of 1 Maccabees (1:21-23, NAB) reports that Antiochus “insolently invaded the sanctuary and took away the golden altar, the lampstand for the light with all its fixtures, the offering table, the cups and the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the golden ornament on the façade of the temple. He stripped off everything, and took away the gold and silver and the precious vessels; he also took all the hidden treasures he could find.” About two years later, he sent a force against Jerusalem, which plundered the city and set it on fire, but the sanctuary was not burned as stated in Psalm 74:7. (1 Maccabees 1:29-31, NAB) Soon thereafter Antiochus Epiphanes determined to force the Jews to abandon their faith. The temple was profaned and dedicated to the Olympian Zeus. According to 2 Maccabees (6:4, 5, NAB), “The Gentiles filled the temple with debauchery and revelry; they amused themselves with prostitutes and had intercourse with women even in the sacred court. They also brought into the temple things that were forbidden, so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws.”

It appeared that God had rejected his people, making the “sheep of [his] pasture” the object of his burning anger. Apparently because some time had already passed and nothing indicated that a change for the better was at hand, the psalmist raised the question about why God had cast off his people forever. They were like sheep who depended on the Most High for guidance and protection. Therefore, the psalmist referred to the Israelites as the “sheep of [God’s] pasture.”

Long before the time of the psalmist, God had acquired the congregation of Israel upon redeeming the people (“the tribe of his inheritance”) or liberating them from enslavement in Egypt. They were his inheritance, for he was both their God and their Owner. (See the Notes section on verse 2.)

Centuries later, after King David transferred the ark of the covenant to the location of his royal residence, Mount Zion came to be God’s representative place of dwelling. For God to remember his congregation and Mount Zion would have signified his turning his favorable attention to the remnant of his people and the sanctuary site, which would have meant their being restored to the land and again having a temple in Zion or Jerusalem.

The psalmist prayed that God would direct his attention to the perpetual ruins as if raising his feet to walk to the desolated temple site. In the sanctuary, the enemy forces had destroyed everything, treating nothing with respect. (Regarding the Septuagint rendering of verse 3, see the Notes section.)

There, in the temple complex, they had “roared,” the loud shouts of enemy soldiers resounding like the roar of beasts of prey. The psalmist referred to the enemy as God’s foes, for they had defiled his temple. In the “holy place,” where they had no right to be, the warriors set up “their signs for signs.” These “signs” may have been banners or emblems signifying that they had triumphed. (See the Notes section for the Septuagint rendering of verse 4.)

The extant Hebrew text for verse 5 is obscure (“it is known as coming to the stair, on the thicket of wood with axes”). It appears that the reference is to the enemy force wielding axes in the sanctuary. The Septuagint (including part of verse 6) reads, “As into the entrance above, as in a thicket of trees, they cut down its doors with axes.” Translations vary widely in their interpretive renderings, often including wording from the Septuagint. “It is like men wielding axes against a gnarled tree.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes.” (NRSV) “They hacked away like foresters gathering boughs, swinging their axes in a thicket of trees.” (NAB) “They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees.” (NIV)

With a “[woodcutter’s] ax” and “crowbars” (a “stone-cutter’s tool,” LXX), the warriors broke down the carved panels (literally, “engravings,” which the Septuagint translator seems to have read as the Hebrew word for “doors”).

They burned the sanctuary and desecrated it (“the tabernacle of [God’s] name” or God’s representative dwelling place). Translators have variously rendered the words “to the ground” to mean burning the sanctuary to the ground, leveling the “tabernacle of [God’s] name” to the ground, or reducing this tabernacle to a low state of dishonor. “They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.” (NIV) “They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground.” (NRSV) “They set fire to your sanctuary, profanely rased to the ground the dwelling-place of your name.” (NJB) “They made Your sanctuary go up in flames; they brought low in dishonor the dwelling-place of Your presence.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition])

There is a measure of uncertainty about the significance of verse 8. The Septuagint translator apparently understood the Hebrew term ninám as a form of the noun nin (“descendant” or “offspring”) and rendered it as syngéneia (“kinsfolk”). The Septuagint reads, “They said in their heart, their kinsfolk together, ‘Come and let us eradicate [literally, burn] all the festivals of God from the land.’” With some exceptions, modern translations represent the Hebrew term as a form of the verb yanáh (“oppress”) and use words like “crush” and “destroy.” “They said to themselves, ‘Let us crush them at one stroke!’ They burned down every sacred shrine in the land.” (NJB) “They resolved, ‘Let us destroy them altogether!’ They burned all God’s tabernacles in the land.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “They said in their hearts, ‘We will crush them completely!’ They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.” (NIV) “They said in their hearts, ‘Destroy them all! Burn all the shrines of God in the land!’” (NAB; the placement of quotation marks in this translation indicates that the expression of the enemy is longer than in the other translations.)

Possibly the psalmist expressed what the enemies had determined in their “heart” or within themselves. They wanted to oppress or crush his people altogether. In the land itself, the invaders burned all the “meeting places of God,” destroying everything that had a sacred status.


In the Scriptures, the past deliverances the Almighty effected for his people, his manifestation of power, and the sabbaths are called “signs.” (Exodus 7:3; 10:1, 2; 31:13, 17; Numbers 14:11, 22; Deuteronomy 4:34; 6:22; 7;17-19; 26:8) So the psalmist’s reference to not seeing “our signs” could include the absence of divine intervention, the inability of the people to observe the sabbaths and festivals, and the nonexistence of the temple and all that was associated with worship there. It appeared as though no token of God’s presence with his people remained.

Primarily before the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah and Ezekiel repeatedly proclaimed the word of YHWH. During the period of the exile, their activity ended, and the role of Daniel is not portrayed as a prophet who announced God’s message to fellow Israelites. Between the time John the Baptist appeared on the scene and the last postexilic prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi), about five centuries passed without the activity of a single prophet. The situation with reference to the prophetic office is reflected in the words of the psalmist about no longer having any prophet. No one among the people could provide an answer as to how much longer their afflicted condition would continue. According to the Septuagint, the Most High no longer knew or recognized the Israelites as his people.

Only God could provide the answer to the psalmist’s troubling question. He therefore directed the question to the Most High as to how long the foe would be able to taunt. Any reproach directed against the Israelites would be directed against God, as they were his people and so it would appear to other nations that he could not protect or help his worshipers. For this reason, the psalmist could also raise the question, “Will the enemy revile your name [that is, the bearer of the name, God himself] forever?”

The Almighty’s refraining from taking action suggested to the psalmist that he was keeping his “right hand” in his bosom (as if letting it remain idle in the upper fold of a garment) instead of manifesting his power. This raised the troubling question, Why? The last word in verse 11 is kaláh, meaning “complete,” “end,” “finish,” “accomplish,” “destroy,” or “consume.” There being no specific context to indicate how this term relates to the rest of the verse, translators have rendered kaláh as “destroy” and added “them,” or have not used a corresponding term for this Hebrew verb. “Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!” (NIV) “Why do You hold back Your hand, Your right hand? Draw it out of Your bosom!” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “Why draw back your right hand, why keep it idle beneath your cloak?” (NAB)

Despite his not seeing any evidence of divine intervention, the psalmist did not waver in his faith in God as the true King or Sovereign from of old, who had formerly brought about deliverances on the earth.

With his might, the Almighty had divided the sea, parting the Red Sea to let the Israelites cross over to the other side. But the “heads of the monsters” (“dragons,” LXX), a designation for Pharaoh and his host, he “broke,” overwhelming them with the water and drowning them.

“Leviathan,” possibly a name applying to the crocodile, here appears to denote Egypt as a mighty power. With the destruction of the Egyptian host in the Red Sea, the “heads” of this great power were crushed. God’s giving Leviathan as food for the “people” could mean that the Israelites were able to “feast” on the deliverance he had effected for them, liberating them from the Egyptian threat. The carcasses of the Egyptian warriors may also have become food for scavenger animals. The Septuagint rendering appears to reflect a misunderstanding of the Hebrew text. “You crushed the heads of the dragon. You gave him as food to the peoples, to the Ethiopians.”

God’s “cleaving” springs and torrents likely refers to his providing water for the Israelites when twice opening up a crag in the wilderness. (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:11) His drying up perennial rivers probably describes the damming up of the Jordan at flood stage to allow the Israelites to cross. (Joshua 3:14-17)

“Yours is the day; also yours is the night,” said the psalmist. In attributing day and night as belonging to God, he may have meant that they were under his control. The “luminary” that God established may either be the moon or the sun, depending on whether the Hebrew conjunction preceding “sun” is to be understood as signifying either “and” or “even.” Translators have conveyed both meanings. “It was You who set in place the orb of the sun.” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “Thou hast prepared a light giver — the sun.” (Young) “You set the moon and sun in place.” (NAB)

The “bounds” or “boundaries” of the earth or land could refer to the way in which seas and rivers are kept in their place. Jeremiah 5:22 (NRSV) provides an example of this meaning for “boundary” when portraying God as speaking, “I placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail.” It is also possible that the reference includes rivers, mountains, and other geographical features that form borders or boundaries for areas of land. The psalmist attributed the change in the seasons to God and therefore spoke of him as making summer and winter (“summer and spring,” LXX).

For YHWH to “remember” the reproach of the enemy would mean for him to hold an accounting, not allowing their taunting to continue. The psalmist also referred to the enemy as “senseless people.” This designation indicates that they were morally corrupt, having no regard for YHWH. They reviled his name or him as the bearer of the name, treating his people with the utmost contempt.

The expression “soul of your dove” denotes the life of the nation of Israel. As a nation, the people appeared like a defenseless dove in desperate need of God’s kindly intervention. The “living thing” (“beasts,” LXX) to which the psalmist pleaded that God would not deliver the life of his “dove” would be the beastly enemy. This was an appeal for mercy. “Do not forever forget the life of your afflicted people,” the psalmist prayed, begging for the time to come when God would turn his favorable attention to them and bring an end to their distress. The extant text of the Septuagint presents the psalmist’s appeal somewhat differently. “Do not deliver the soul of the one acknowledging you to the beasts; do not completely [literally, to (the) end] forget the souls of your poor.”

For God to “look upon the covenant” would denote his giving his attention to or having regard for the covenant promises directed to the Israelites. The psalmist’s words constituted an appeal for relief from the distressing circumstances or for the kind of divine intervention set forth in the covenant with Israel. Possibly the “dark places of the land” designate secluded locations where Israelites, when in flight from enemy forces, tried to find refuge. Instead of places of safety, these locations proved to be “habitations of violence [lawlessness, LXX].”

The psalmist prayed for the time when God would cease letting the downtrodden experience disgrace, and when the lowly and the needy would praise his name (or him) for what he would do for them.

For God to “arise” would mean for him to rise as from a seated position in order to take action. The enemies had reproached the Most High, providing ample reason for initiating his legal case against them. All day or continually, these “senseless ones” had made God the object of their reproach when taunting his people. For him to remember the reproach would signify his turning his attention to those who showed no regard for him and executing his judgment against them.

It was only right that the adversaries face a day of reckoning. Therefore, the psalmist asked that God not forget their “voice,” or the blasphemous expressions they had made, and their “uproar” (probably including hateful shouts) or “pride” (LXX) that continually mounted up from them.


In verse 2, the Hebrew word for “tribe” (shévet) can, depending upon the context, mean “rod.” This explains why “rod” (rhábdos) is the rendering in the Septuagint.

The extant text of verse 3 in the Septuagint differs considerably from the Masoretic Text. “Raise your hands against their arrogant deeds to completion inasmuch as the enemy acted wickedly in your holy places.” The term for “arrogant deeds” is the plural of hyperephanía, meaning “arrogance” or “pride.” There is a possibility that the words rendered “in your holy places” could mean “among your holy ones.”

The extant Septuagint text for verse 4 departs considerably from the Masoretic Text. “Those hating you have boasted in the midst of your festival. They have set up their signs as signs, and they did not know” or they failed to recognize the seriousness of their defiling actions in God’s holy place.

In verse 18, fourth-century Codex Vaticanus reads, “Remember this your creation.”