Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha



"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 your 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 neighbours,
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 neighbours
the taunts with which they have 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."

This is another psalm which is a cry to God from the midst of great trouble and distress. It is not, however, the cry of an individual, but of the nation. We see their plight vividly described, we hear their prayer, and then the psalm finishes with a promise.

The plight

Probably the time was 587 B.C. when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. The city was left in ruins (verse 1). So many people died when the city was taken that their bodies were left unburied - a terrible thing to Hebrew people as to people of many other cultures (verses 2-3). The nations around them - such as Edom and Ammon and Moab - laughed at them and rejoiced at their defeat (verse 4, and see Ezekiel 25 and the little book of Obadiah). The people of Israel's distress was not just because of their personal sorrows and the loss of independence for them as a nation. The worst thing, as this psalm puts it, was the challenge to their faith in Yahweh, their God. They believed that the Lord would never leave them or forsake them, but people of other nations were saying, "Where is their God?" suggesting that he was powerless to help them (verse 10). It was God's "holy temple" that was defiled, God's "inheritance" that had been invaded (verse 1).

The prayer

Realising what defeat had meant to them, in personal distress, in their pride as a nation, and above all in their faith, they prayed. They could realise, as prophets like Jeremiah had warned them (see Jeremiah 16:16-18, 19:7-8 and also Micah 3:9-12), that defeat would result from their unfaithfulness to their God and their neglect of his law. So they knew that they had to ask God for the forgiveness of their sins and the sins of earlier generations that had led to all their troubles (verses 8-9). They deserved God's righteous anger, but they could only ask, "How long?" must they suffer for their sins (verse 5). Weren't the sins of the nations who did not serve God at all much worse (verses 6-7)? Shouldn't they be the ones who suffered most under God's righteous anger? These people laughed at the true and living God as if he were not able to do anything. This seemed a fair argument. But the truth is that God shows no partiality, and from those to whom he has committed much, he expects much. Israel had been blessed with the knowledge of God's law, and they should have given a lead to others in obedience to God.

Realising the fact of his people's responsibility, the psalmist had to give up any claim of his people being superior to other nations in God's sight. In fact, none of us have any right to receive blessings from God. As Christians, we ask God's mercy on the basis of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. So the psalmist prayed for mercy from a holy and righteous God, asking that he would hear "the groans of the prisoners" and the cries of those "doomed to die" (verse 11). God had acted in justice, so now they begged, "let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low" (verse 8).

As we have seen often in the study of the Psalms, we who know the way of Jesus must not pray a prayer like that of verse 12 for sevenfold vengeance and the utter destruction of our enemies. We must seek the salvation and not the judgment of those who have not known the reality of the true God. Yet at the same time we should notice that the people's concern here was not just for themselves, but for God's name and God's honour and glory. "Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name's sake" (verse 9). Take action in response to "all the insults they have hurled at you" (verse 12 Good News Bible). The psalmist's concern here has changed from self-pity to the desire to see God's name hallowed and glorified. This should be the spirit of our prayer for it to be pleasing to God, as Jesus taught us to pray, "Hallowed be your name; your kingdom come" (Matthew 6:9-10).


In spite of all the trouble Israel experienced and deserved to experience, the psalmist knew that prayer to God would never be in vain. When Israel turned to God, they knew that they could always say, we are "your people, the flock of your pasture" (with verse 13 see Psalms 95:7 and 1:3). So they promised that they would give thanks to God forever. They wanted the generations yet unborn to know the mighty works of God and to honour him. So the psalm that began with complaint ends with "praise", as the prayers of those who truly know God should always do. Nor was this an attempt to 'bribe' or persuade God to answer his prayer. He sincerely wanted God's name to be glorified, as should be our motive in prayer, especially having in mind the vows or promises we make when we are in difficult situations.

Meditation When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, remember that he taught them to pray first, "May your name be hallowed".

For further thought and study

a Think of the way that the people must have felt when Jerusalem was captured by their enemies and they remembered the warnings given by the prophets. Then their prayer was "how long?" must they suffer under God's chastening judgment. With verse 5 consider Psalms 6:1-4 and 13:1-2. What should we do if we find ourselves suffering in any way because of our own failure and wrongdoing or wrong habits?

b. How should the attitude of Christians be different from those shown in this psalm to people of other nations who have not had the opportunity that we have had to know God? See especially Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8 and Romans 10:14-17. Notes

1. There are a number of parts of this psalm that are closely similar to passages in other psalms or in the prophets, showing that the psalmist was echoing prayers and prophecies that he and his people were familiar with. As well as those mentioned above, with verse 2 see Jeremiah 19:7, with verse 4 see Psalm 44:13, with verses 6-7 see Jeremiah 10:25, with verse 10 see Psalms 42:3 and 115:2 and Joel 2:17, and with verse 12 see Psalm 89:50-51.

2. When God's jealousy is spoken of in the Bible, as in verse 5, it is not like human jealousy that is self-centred and seeks evil for others. It is in reference to his holiness and his being above all others that the second commandment speaks of the Lord as "a jealous God" (Exodus 20:5). He alone should be worshipped, as he is Creator and Lord of all. When we put any other (person or thing) in the place of God, we harm our own lives and all our relationships.

3. The prayer in verse 10 that God should avenge the slaughter of human lives "before the eyes" of others should be understood not as showing a desire to see personal revenge, but the desire that God's justice would be recognised and seen to be done "among the nations".