- A psalm of Asaph.1 An enlightening psalm.2
Jerusalem is a pile of ruins
- 1 God, why did you leave us?
Are you ever coming back?
Why are you so angry with the lambs of your flock?
- 2 Remember the people you chose as your own.
You saved us and own us. We are your tribe.
And remember Mount Zion,3 your home on earth.
- 3 Take a walk through the ruins that can’t be repaired.
The enemy leveled the Temple and everything in it.4
- 4 In the most sacred rooms of your home
Your enemies shouted for joy
And raised their flags in victory.
- 5 They came like a lumberjack armed with an axe
Bound for a forest of trees.
- 6 They smashed your house into splinters of wood
With axes and hatchets and pikes on a pole.
- 7 They burned your Temple to the dirt.
They desecrated your holy ground.
- 8 They wickedly said, “Let’s crush them completely.”
And crush us completely they did.
In all of the land, there’s nothing left
Of the meeting places of God.
- 9 There’s no sign of us left
And the prophets are gone
So, there’s no one to tell us how long.
- 10 How long, dear God?
How long will you let them insult you?
How long will they treat you with utter contempt?
How long? Will it be forever?
God, will you lift a finger to help?
- 11 Why won’t you lift a finger to help us?
Give us a hand. Wipe them out.
- 12 God, you’re part of our ancient history.
You’ve been our king that long.
You’ve rescued us on land.
- 13 You’ve parted the water for our escape.
You defeated the huge sea creatures.
- 14 You crushed the skulls of sea monster Leviathan.5
And carried its carcass to the desert
As a feast of dead meat for the scavengers.
- 15 You fill springs and streams.
You make rivers run dry.
- 161 You own the day and the night.
You turn on the light and send the sun.
- 17 You set the size of the earth.
You made summer and winter.
God, remember who’s insulting you
- 18 Remember, LORD, it’s you they insult.
It’s you these fools dishonor.
- 19 We’re the ones you love.
Don’t release your turtledove
To creatures of the wild.
Don’t forget your suffering people forever.
- 20 Remember the agreement5 you made with us.
We live in a dark land of chaos
Among people evil and violent.
- 21 Don’t leave your people humiliated.
Give them praise songs to sing about you.
- 22 Get moving, God. Stand up for yourself.
Don’t forget how the fools insult you,
For they do it all day long.
- 23 Don’t forget what your enemies are saying.
Because they’re saying it about you.
They fill every day with their insults.
The subtitle wasn’t part of the original psalm. And the possible byline “of Asaph,” isn’t necessarily a byline. The vague phrase could mean the song was written by Asaph, about Asaph, or was inspired by Asaph. Asaph led a musical family in the tribe of Levi, one of the 12 tribes that made up the original nation of Israel. Levite families worked as priests and worship leaders and worship assistants for the Jewish nation. Asaph was a leader of worship music during the time of King David (1 Chronicles 16:5). His family carried on the musical tradition, showing up five centuries later, when a Jewish man named Nehemiah, in the 500s BC, helped rebuild Jerusalem after Babylonian invaders from what is now Iraq leveled Jerusalem in 586 BC.
“An enlightening psalm” is a guess. The original Hebrew word is maskil (mass-KEEL). Scholars say they aren’t sure what it means. They say they don’t even know if the word refers to the lyrics or the music. Maskil sounds a bit like another Hebrew word, askilkha, which means “let me enlighten you.” Some scholars associate maskil with a root word, sakal, which generates a lot of words with various meanings such as: thoughtful, instructive, wise, and proper. One theory is that the word relates to both lyrics and music. It could, for example, describe the lyrics as “thoughtful” and the music as a harmony fit for that theme.
“Zion” is a term of endearment, and another name for Jerusalem. It’s a bit like “The Big Apple” for New York City, “The City of Love” for Paris.
This psalm seems a Jewish response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, when Babylonian invaders from what is now Iraq overran the Jewish nation and wiped it off the map as a political entity. Many survivors were exiled and scattered throughout the Babylonian empire, so they couldn’t resurrect the Jewish nation. This was one of the worst tragedies in Jewish history. The book of Lamentations further describes the feelings of Jewish survivors banished from their homeland. A few decades later, in about 537 BC, Persians from what is now Iraq, defeated the Babylonians and released the political prisoners. Some Jews returned home to rebuild Jerusalem. Others stayed where they were, since it had been their home for more than a generation.
There was an ancient myth in Canaan, in what became the Jewish nation, that a seven-headed monster creature lived in the sea: Leviathan. The name shows up in Job 3:8; 41:1 and in Isaiah 27:1. The psalm writer uses the name to argue that God is stronger than the strongest creatures we can imagine. It’s unclear if Jews of ancient times believed the stories. But they lived by the Mediterranean Sea and they seemed to prefer herding and farming to sea travel or saltwater fishing. Phoenicia in what is now Lebanon was the seafaring nation. Israel seemed to lean more toward sea-fearing. In fairness, they didn’t have a natural harbor on the coast. King Herod the Great, a thousand years after King David, built a huge harbor at Caesarea, north of what is now Tel Aviv.
The covenant God made with the Jewish nation at the time of Moses involved God protecting and prospering the nation. But the Jews had to obey him. That was their part of the agreement. Idolatry and other sins led to God allowing invaders to destroy both Jewish nations: Israel in the north and Judah in the south.