Picture this: a city, once pulsing with the vibrant heartbeat of a people, lying in ruins, its heartbeat silenced. This was the fate of Jerusalem when the Jewish Temples were destroyed – a catastrophe so profound that it found its place not once, but four times within the Hebrew Scriptures. It wasn’t just a historical event; it was a cultural scar, a wound in the collective Jewish memory that still resonates through the ages.
As we delve into Psalm 79, we find ourselves confronting this sorrowful lamentation of a nation in the aftermath of King Nebuchadnezzar and his general, Nebuzaradan’s devastation of Jerusalem. The destruction was profound and total – the Temple defaced and incinerated, the city laid to waste, countless lives abruptly extinguished, and those remaining, exiled. It was a day that seared itself into the Jewish consciousness, a day of mourning that echoes through time.
The psalmist paints a haunting picture in verse 2, capturing the extent of this brutal onslaught by the Chaldeans. The slain were left unburied, their bodies fodder for birds and beasts of prey – a stark reminder of the cruel and inhumane treatment the Jews faced at the hands of the Babylonians:
“Your servants’ corpses were left as food for the birds of the sky, the flesh of Your devout ones to the beasts of the earth. Their blood flowed like water all around Jerusalem, and no one was left to bury them.” Psalms 79:2-3
Yet, even in the face of such atrocity, the psalmist’s faith remains steadfast. The closing verses of this psalm are a clarion call for divine retribution, a desire for the world to witness God’s justice, and for His name to continue to shine brightly. For though God may be angry and jealous, the psalmist believes He will not harbor this fury forever.
Intriguingly, the psalmist notes that Israel’s tribulations are a consequence of their own sins (79:9), yet also cautions that excessive punishment might cast a shadow over God’s honor in the eyes of other nations:
“Help us, God our Savior, for the glory of Your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for Your name’s sake. Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’ Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations in our sight.” Psalm 79:9-10
This psalm strikes a delicate balance between acknowledging culpability and affirming faith in the face of adversity. It resonates through the centuries, with its echoes finding relevance even today. Amid a 2,000-year exile, whispers of the covenant’s collapse and questions of God’s abandonment of the Jewish people have swirled. Yet, the psalmist’s voice rises above these doubts, reaffirming the timeless bond with God, despite the unrelenting exile. As the psalmist’s words resonate across time and space, we are reassured that no matter how dark the hour, faith will guide us to the dawn. For the covenant with God, like the human spirit, remains eternal, prevailing through the tumults of time.
In some Jewish communities, this poignant Psalm is recited on the ninth of Av, or Tisha B’Av. This day is one of deep mourning, marking the anniversary of multiple catastrophic events, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The recitation of Psalm 79 on this solemn day is highly fitting. The psalm vividly describes the events that occurred on that day and the psalm’s raw expression of grief and devastation mirrors the emotions felt on Tisha B’Av, giving voice to the collective mourning of a people. Its lamentations embody the shared history of loss, while its call for divine justice and affirmation of the enduring covenant serve as a potent reminder of the strength, resilience, and unshakeable faith of the Jewish community. Thus, the recitation of Psalm 79 on Tisha B’Av becomes a poignant testament to the community’s ability to endure and hope, despite suffering immense loss.