Psalm 74 is much like the book of Lamentations; it is a mournful prayer for relief that is set against the background of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. And like the book of Lamentations, there is a point at which tears give way to praise, and the merciful nature of God, once remembered and proclaimed, gives much needed hope in the midst of an otherwise bleak landscape. But the first verse meets us like a hammer blow: “O God, why have You cast us off forever?”
The opening verses portray what must have been unthinkable to the ancient saints – the enemies of God celebrating among the temple ruins. The psalmist repeatedly asks God why He would allow this (vss. 1, 10, 11) although it was known through the prophets that the sin of Judah was what led to its downfall. The psalmist’s question is like Moses’ question to God after the golden calf incident: “Why does your wrath burn hot against your people?” (Ex. 32:11). It is obvious why God is angry. The question limits itself to the perspective of God’s stake in the covenant relationship, which He has established and maintained for the sake of His own glory. Psalm 74, just like Exodus 32, goes on to review the long history of God’s covenant mercy and the investment of grace that He has in His beloved people. Indeed, why would God now cast off His people? Will this longstanding covenant, this legacy of mercy, and this promise of eternal salvation now come to nothing? To ask such a question is to answer it. The psalmist’s “why?” is not born of doubt or ignorance, rather it is a prayerful reminder that God’s own glory is at stake in the salvation of His people. The psalmist says as much in conclusion: “Arise, O God, and plead Your own cause” (vs. 22). This point is as reassuring today as it was in those days: God may have every right and reason to punish, but He will save His people for His own sake. When God saves His own people He “pleads His own cause.” Why would He do otherwise? That is the heart of the psalmist’s question.
Verses 12-14 take a step back to remember the exodus deliverance and God’s miraculous provisions in the wilderness. This exhibit of past mercy becomes a point of present assurance. The psalmist is making the case – to himself as much as to God – that such mighty and miraculous mercy cannot now come to an inglorious end. God will finish the work He has begun (Phil. 1:6). Verses 16-17 take yet another step back to remember God’s might as Creator, specifically of night and day, and summer and winter. In context these opposites seem to represent more than just the natural cycle of days and seasons, but the changes and extremities of experience that constitute life in this world. The church was then in the dark of night and cold of winter, to use the psalmist’s imagery, but even these are in God’s hands, and the day follows night, as summer follows winter, just as surely as blessing follows hardship for His people (Rom. 8:18).
From the heights of this confession the psalmist blinks back to the present and concludes the psalm with a string of urgent petitions for deliverance. Though the psalmist saw the situation as dire, there are clear indications of his confidence that God would certainly deliver and save His people. Throughout the psalm he called the church by names of divine endearment, like “the sheep of Your pasture” (vs. 1), “Your congregation” and “Your inheritance” (vs. 2). To this list he now adds another, the most poignant and moving of all: “Your turtledove” (vs. 19). These terms of divine endearment put God’s eternal love in perspective and enable the psalmist to see through the present trial. This answers the psalmist’s question “why?” Why would God abandon His own sheep, His claimed inheritance, His beloved turtledove? Why indeed.
Life brings many challenges that may cause us to ask “why?” Psalm 74 invites us to ask that question, but ask from God’s perspective. Why would God abandon His beloved people, whom He has known and loved from all eternity, and for whom He gave His only Son? To ask the question is to answer it.