God bless our native land, firm may she ever stand, through storm and night. When the wild tempests rave, Ruler of wind and wave, do Thou our country save, by Thy great might (ELH #602, verse 1).
That song, often sung during summer, is a prayer, isn’t it? A prayer for God’s help in the storms and darkness our nation faces, both the literal and the figurative.
Psalm 79 is usually used in the summer months. The traditional psalm for the fourth Sunday after Trinity, it is usually heard from late June to mid-July and is often paired with Christ’s words about the blind leading the blind and about seeing specks of sin in others while overlooking the logs of sin in ourselves (Luke 6:36-42).
Written by Asaph, a contemporary of both David and Solomon, the psalm describes days of national calamity and defeat, days when wild tempests rave. Unbelieving forces profane God’s temple and slaughter God’s people…
O God, the nations have come into Your inheritance; Your holy temple they have defiled; They have laid Jerusalem in heaps. The dead bodies of Your servants— They have given as food for the birds of the heavens, The flesh of Your saints to the beasts of the earth. Their blood they have shed like water all around Jerusalem, And there was no one to bury them. We have become a reproach to our neighbors, A scorn and derision to those who are around us. (Psalm 79:1-4)
When Moses blessed the tribes of Israel just before he died, he said: Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, the shield of your help and the sword of your majesty (Deuteronomy 33:29).
But where would that shield be when Asaph prophesies of godless invaders? Why didn’t God unsheathe His sword to defend His people then?
Part of the cause and the problem would be with His people. The blind presuming to know the way, pretending there aren’t planks and logs sticking out of their own eyes.
In verses 5-8, Asaph leads the people in confession, teaches them what to say and how to say it:
How long, Lord? Will You be angry forever? Will Your jealousy burn like fire? Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You, And on the kingdoms that do not call on Your name. For they have devoured Jacob, And laid waste his dwelling place. Oh, do not remember former iniquities against us.
As the centuries passed, Asaph’s words would be fulfilled when Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon desecrated and finally destroyed the temple. Persia would allow them to rebuild it, but it would be damaged and defiled again by the Greeks, the Ptolemies, and the Seleucids.
Rome would rebuild and remodel it, especially under Herod the Great, but that work was hardly finished when Rome desecrated, then destroyed it. Almost 2,000 years later, it remains as the Roman army left it in A.D. 70.
“Our iniquities,” says Asaph as he catalogues how we suffer because of the sin of the world around us as well as our own. Yet God’s people are not left without hope. A transition begins in verse 8…
Oh, do not remember former iniquities against us! Let Your tender mercies come speedily to meet us, For we have been brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, For the glory of Your name; And deliver us, and provide atonement for our sins, For Your name’s sake!
Confessing our “former iniquities,” Asaph admits that these things are the consequence of “our sins.”
He pleads God to forget, “do not remember.” Do not hold them in Your heart, O Lord.
God’s “tender mercies” are appealed to, compassion that originates from deep within the person. Twice in verse nine, we hear that God’s name is the cause, the occasion, for the help we need.
Matthew 1:21 shines the clearest light on God’s name. There the angel Gabriel says this to Joseph: “And you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
“Jesus” means “Savior,” and in these verses, the Lord Himself is called “God of our salvation.”
More light shines on this as Asaph says He will “provide atonement for our sins.”
“Provide atonement” means “purge, cover, forgive.” Psalm 79 calls on God to mercifully rescue, not remember iniquities, and cover sins for the sake of His own name.
Convinced of his own forgiveness and deliverance and atonement, Asaph now says:
Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Let there be known among the nations in our sight The avenging of the blood of Your servants which has been shed. Let the groaning of the prisoner come before You; According to the greatness of Your power Preserve those who are appointed to die; And return to our neighbors sevenfold into their bosom Their reproach with which they have reproached You, O Lord (10-12).
God Bless Our Native Land is a prayer for our nation. In Psalm 79, the Church prays for His protection and deliverance. Those imprisoned pray for release. Those slated for execution look to Him for help.
Nations like ours rise and fall. Buildings, even temples, crumble. The Church’s confidence is eternal.
Remember the cause for the Church’s confidence:
So we, Your people and sheep of Your pasture, Will give You thanks forever; We will show forth Your praise to all generations (79:13).
Rev. Tony Pittenger