A Psalm of Asaph.
1 O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2 They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3 They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
4 We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
mocked and derided by those around us.
5 How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6 Pour out your anger on the nations
that do not know you,
and on the kingdoms
that do not call on your name.
7 For they have devoured Jacob
and laid waste his habitation.
8 Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
9 Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and forgive our sins,
for your name’s sake.
10 Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants
be known among the nations before our eyes.
11 Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;
according to your great power preserve those doomed to die.
12 Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors
the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord!
13 Then we your people, the flock of your pasture,
will give thanks to you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise.
Last week, I mentioned in passing the most popular psalm of all–Psalm 23. I preached a sermon on that psalm two years ago, so for this series (and for the sake of balance) I had an idea to preach on the least popular psalm. Yes, that’s today (lucky you!).
It’s easy enough to determine the most popular psalm–all you have to do is ask 10 people what their favorite psalm is, and 8 of them will tell you it’s Psalm 23. But it’s a bit harder to determine the opposite. If I ask you what your least favorite psalm is, would you even know? Right. And while there are plenty of “top ten lists” out there for the “best,” “favorite,” or “most popular” psalms…I was actually surprised to find that no one (at least to my knowledge and 30 minutes of intense google searching) has ever compiled a list of “worst,” “least favorite,” or “least popular” psalms. My wife Amy tells me that perhaps there’s a good reason for that.
Not to be dissuaded, a year ago when I was planning this sermon series, I took matters into my own hands, and with a little help from Google’s analytic tools, set out to answer this question.
When you want to read a particular psalm, you probably do one of two things: You grab your bible and flip to the number of the psalm you want to read. There’s really no good way to analyze that. But more and more these days, when you want to read a psalm, you might actually pull out your phone, your tablet, or your laptop and google search for it. And there is a good way to analyze that, because Google keeps track of all the key words and phrases that people search for across the globe, at least from the year 2004 to the present day. And they are kind enough to share that information.
So…one by one, I entered all 150 psalms by number (Psalm 1, Psalm 2, Psalm 3, etc.) into Google’s search trend analysis tool, and figured out how many people around the world have searched for each psalm in the past fourteen years. No surprise, Psalm 23 is far and away the most searched for psalm of all. But I was looking for which Psalm people searched for the least…which psalm people are the least interested in finding.
And it came down to a very close, near tie between two psalms: Psalm 76 and Psalm 79, both psalms of Asaph. I’m not entirely certain who Asaph was, but clearly he was no David. When I initially did this comparison, about a year ago, the least popular psalm (barely) was Psalm 79. So I put it down in my sermon planning calendar for today’s sermon, titled as “The Least Popular Psalm.” But then a funny thing happened. This psalm has so few people interested in it, and there are so few searches for it, that as I was researching Psalm 79 this past week (using yes, Google to search for more information about it) I actually singlehandedly increased its popularity just enough to the point where it has now surpassed Psalm 76 and is now technically, according to Google, the second least popular Psalm.
So what I need you all to do right now is to pull out your cell phones and do a quick google search for Psalm 76 to make that psalm just a little more popular so that my sermon title will not be incorrect.
If that’s not enough to show you just how neglected this Psalm is, turn in your Bibles to Psalm 151 and let’s read that one together. This is what Psalm 151 says: Absolutely nothing, because there is no Psalm 151. But according to Google, more people search online for Psalm 151 than for Psalm 79, meaning that a non-existent psalm is more popular than the least popular psalm.
So why is Psalm 79 so unpopular, so uninteresting, so neglected?
Maybe it’s the part about unburied corpses being fed to the birds of the air and the wild beasts. Maybe it’s the cry for God to avenge the people and pour out wrath on the surrounding nations. Maybe it’s the utter despair that this psalm communicates. We turn to the psalms for comfort and consolation in times of distress, for beautiful, soothing poetry–still waters and green pastures like those found in Psalm 23.
Psalm 79 seems (at least on the surface) to have none of these things. It is a type of psalm known as a Psalm of Lament. It is a cry for help, an acknowledgment of sadness and grief. This may surprise you, but approximately one third of all the psalms are psalms of lament–there are more of this kind of psalm than any other kind, including psalms of praise, thanksgiving, or wisdom.
Today, I hope to convince you that Psalms of Lament–and Psalm 79 in particular–are (like their counterparts) beautiful, poetic, prayerful, and…filled with faith, hope, and love.
Like many Psalms, Psalm 79 is divided into roughly three sections. The first part, verses 1-4, describes the situation. And it is a bleak situation. We read in verse one that foreign armies have invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple. Worse yet, in verses 2 and 3 we read that they have slaughtered countless people, such that there are not enough left to even give a decent burial to the dead. Literally adding insult to injury, in verse 4, all of the surrounding nations (supposedly the allies of Jerusalem) instead of helping their neighbors, have responded by mocking and taunting them.
In a way, I think we have to acknowledge that it is difficult for us, in 21st century America, to completely identify with this situation. We recently celebrated our 242nd birthday as a nation, and in that time our capitol city has only been sacked once, during the war of 1812, and that lasted only 26 hours, with only one death and three injuries. Since then we have certainly lost thousands of American lives on foreign shores, but we really don’t know what it’s like to be utterly and completely defeated as a nation.
Still…there is a sense in which the kind of violence described in these verses is not completely unfamiliar to us. In recent years, we have experienced terrorist attacks, school shootings, racial and ethnically motivated brutality, the chaos and destruction of natural disasters, and plenty of mocking, derisive and hateful rhetoric from all sides of our national discourse.
This is a good time to point out that Psalm 79, in addition to being a Psalm of Lament, is also what’s known as a communal or national psalm. It uses the pronoun “we” instead of “I” to describe the collective experiences and emotions of the people through prayer.
And so in verses 5-12, we come to the second part of Psalm 79: Having described the situation, the Psalmist cries out to God, on behalf of the people.
“How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire? Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.”
That angry, vengeful sentiment may seem harsh to us, coming from the same Bible where Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, our enemies, and those who persecute us. But remember that the Psalmist is not Jesus…he is us. In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, we too expressed a desire for someone, somewhere to pay for what was done to us. In personal tragedies, we too, often express a desire for justice to be done (according to our own human ideas of what constitutes justice and fairness). An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life.
But hidden deep within these very fallible, very human sentiments is something very profound, and a little bit surprising: Faith. Faith that God is still there, that God is still listening, and that God still has the power to intervene. Why is that surprising?
Because in the 6th Century BCE, when Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylonian armies, monotheism didn’t exist yet. Yes, eventually the Jewish people would be among the first to introduce the concept of Monotheism, that there is only one God, but in the 6th century BCE, they would be more accurately described as “henotheists.” There are many gods, but our god is the strongest, the best, the most powerful of them all. Most nations in the 6th century BCE were henotheistic. And when they went to war against each other, they believed that their respective gods went to war against each other, too. And if your god was truly the strongest, the best, the most powerful, then of course, your god… and your army… would prevail. And when your army (and your god) lost, the logical thing to do was to convert to belief in the god who won–the strongest, best, most powerful god. That meant abandoning your god, as dead, weak, or never really having existed at all. That was the way of the ancient world.
By all rights, belief in Yahweh, the God of Jerusalem, should have ceased with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. No temple, no Yahweh. But against all odds, amidst the chaos, the rubble of their city, their slaughtered children, and their ruined way of life, those who remained lifted up their eyes to heaven and prayed to their God once more: You are still our God, and we are still your people. That’s incredible faith.
How often, when we look around at our world and see all the tragedy, the suffering, the violence, how often do we say to ourselves, “Where is God in all this? Is he still there? Is he even real? And then when tragedy strikes closer to home, how many abandon God altogether? How many say, “I can no longer believe in a loving and powerful God who would allow this to happen to me, or to someone I love?”
I believe that kind of decision is understandable, even if it is unfortunate. Because those who walk away from God in a crisis of faith… often never get to experience the hope and the love that can eventually grow out of lifelong commitment to God, the kind of commitment that says, in the final section of Psalm 79, (verse 13) “Then we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.”
The best analogy I can think of for the relationship between God and God’s people is the marriage relationship. We know, sadly, that not all marriages work out. But pretty much everyone at least enters into that commitment, that relationship, with the hope that when things get hard, when tragedy strikes, that my partner will not abandon me, and I won’t abandon my partner. That’s why we promise to love each other “for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.”
But that’s easier said than done. We often make that promise when we are young and naive, with no real idea of what it’s like to endure hardship, disaster, or even profound disagreement.
Marriage, like the world we live in, is not always balanced, fair, or just. In 18 years of marriage I have learned that you sometimes have to apologize for something you believe with all your heart you did not do and that you weren’t responsible for. Or something you did six months ago that you don’t even remember. Incidentally, this is what the psalmist and his people do in verses 8 and 9.
Sometimes in marriage, we have unrealistic or unfair expectations of each other (like when the people of Jerusalem expect God to avenge them among their enemies–or perhaps like when God expects them to be perfect and follow all the rules all the time).
Always in marriage, communication is essential. Honest, open communication that doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects, emotions, doubts, fears, and hurts… sometimes in the face of devastating circumstances.
I think that’s the message of Psalm 79. It’s a love song from a hurting people to the God they love faithfully during a time of trials. And so it’s a little bit one sided. But I also believe that God hears, God listens, and ultimately answers with a love song, too. It’s later in the book, in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
When Amy and I were dating in high school and in college, I used to write (and sing to her) love songs. They were romantic, idealistic, and promised the moon and the stars. In fact, just a few days after our first date, I wrote her a song called “Forever.” We were 16, so it really kind of freaked her out at the time. I wasn’t dishonest about any of the things I said in those songs–they expressed how I felt at the time–but I was pretty unrealistic in my idea about what love, commitment, and long-term relationship were like.
After we had been married for about seven years, were in our 30s, had one kid and another on the way, and had lived through some pretty intense disagreements and even some dark days, I wrote her a song called “Imperfect Love Song.” To this day, it’s my favorite (although Amy still misses the songs where I promised her the world!).
I’m not going to sing the song to you, but I do want to close by reading the words. It was a song written about marriage, but actually I don’t want you to hear it that way, except as an analogy. I want you to hear the words to this song in the same light as those written by Asaph and his people to God in Psalm 79–the least popular psalm. I want you to hear the words and think of your relationship with God… or better yet, think of our relationship with God, as people who have lived through some pretty trying times recently, and might be doubting that commitment, that connection, that love. The message of the song–and of Psalm 79–is to talk it out, to be honest, to forgive, to love despite our imperfections… and to stay.
Imperfect Love Song (Neal Locke)
It’s ok to say, “I don’t love you so much today.”
It’s alright when we fight and stay angry all through the night.
And although we don’t know how this crazy love story will go
When our words run away…I will stay.
Just because I once was so passionately into us
Doesn’t mean that you’ve seen perfect love at the age of sixteen
And somehow, even now, I remember the words of a vow:
Rich or poor, young or gray…I will stay.
And I am not a perfect man
I don’t want a perfect wife
I don’t need a perfect love
To share with you my life
Promise then, if and when, we break each other’s hearts again
That we’ll let our regret just fade into time and forget
And in turn, we both learn that true love isn’t something you earn
When it’s given — given away…
When there’s nothing left to say…
When this whole world has faded away…
…We will stay.
Recording of “Imperfect Love Song” (also available at https://archive.org/embed/ImperfectLoveSong)