This sermon is part of the sermon series "Really?". See series.
Americans complain a lot. The Pilgrims and Puritans came over here because they were complaining about religious authority. We fought for our independence complaining about political authority. And not only is it in our history; it's our fundamental right to complain. John F. Kennedy first articulated our four basic consumer rights in a 1950 speech, and Congress went on to enact them in law. One of those rights is the right to complain. We don't just complain as individual consumers. Americans are really good at complaining as groups. Somewhere along the way we, as a society, figured out that we can get more done by complaining—from the political action of women seeking voting rights to the labor union movement to the civil rights movement. Time and again, we Americans have demonstrated that collective complaining, solidarity in grievance, is an incredibly powerful tool. It holds authority accountable for making changes.
We see this in class action lawsuits—the Tea Party movement, Occupy Wall Street, and current debates over gay marriage or public sector unions. When a group of people begin to define themselves by a common complaint, authorities are forced to take notice.
What if that power is God? Do we have a right to complain about the way God is running things? Recently I heard of a young man who asked God to keep his parents from divorcing, and when God didn't come through for him, he decided he'd had enough of God. I'm sure there are many in this room who can relate to his feeling, even if you haven't gone that far. You have found yourself questioning how God's been governing your life. Can we complain collectively? Does the church have the right to complain when it seems like God doesn't come through for us? He says that he'll give us good shepherds. But in the last decade, the news has told story after story of pedophilic priests and sexually immoral pastors. Can we complain about that? God says the meek will inherit the earth. But it looks like it's the rich do most of the inheriting. He says he'll never leave his people. Do you think persecuted congregations in Africa feel God's presence and protection?
It seems like the church is increasingly besieged, even here in America, by believers and nonbelievers. Sometimes you may feel that God doesn't keep his word. He says one thing, but life seems to work a different way.
We've been looking at the psalms of Asaph—12 psalms written by the director of one of David's three choirs. Some of these psalms, including our text for today, were actually written by one of Asaph's descendants.
In exploring these psalms, we'll discuss some of the misconceptions some people—both inside and outside the church—have about Christianity. Today, we're discussing Psalm 74. This psalm is something like a class-action lawsuit brought by the people of God against God. Israel is complaining that God isn't keeping his word.
O God, why have you rejected us forever?
Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?
Remember the nation you purchased long ago,
the people of your inheritance, whom you redeemed—
Mount Zion, where you dwelt.
Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins,
all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.
Your foes roared in the place where you met with us;
they set up their standards as signs.
They behaved like men wielding axes
to cut through a thicket of trees.
They smashed all the carved paneling
with their axes and hatchets.
They burned your sanctuary to the ground;
they defiled the dwelling place of your Name.
They said in their hearts, "We will crush them completely!"
They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.
We are given no signs from God;
no prophets are left,
and none of us knows how long this will be.
How long will the enemy mock you, God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.
It was you who split open the sea by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.
It was you who opened up springs and streams;
you dried up the ever-flowing rivers.
The day is yours, and yours also the night;
you established the sun and moon.
It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;
you made both summer and winter.
Remember how the enemy has mocked you, LORD,
how foolish people have reviled your name.
Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beasts;
do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever.
Have regard for your covenant,
because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land.
Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace;
may the poor and needy praise your name.
Rise up, O God, and defend your cause;
remember how fools mock you all day long.
Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries,
the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually.
Right away several things become clear about this psalm. First, as I mentioned, it was not written by Asaph. Asaph lived during the reigns of David and Solomon around 1,000 B.C. This was clearly written after the Babylonians destroyed the temple and deported the
people of Israel into exile in 587 B.C. So this is one of the reasons we know that the Psalms of Asaph generally were written for Asaph's choir, either by Asaph himself or by one of his descendants who prophetically carried on the direction of that choir as we know from Scripture.
Second, the problem has not been resolved yet. This psalm ends with the enemies continuing to roar and mock, and God still hasn't done anything about it. This psalm was written during Israel's exile. And the thrust of the psalm is meant to move God to act.
Third, this isn't just one man's opinion. This isn't a crank complaint. Most of the psalm uses the words we and us. This is a corporate complaint designed to move God to action in response to the greatest tragedy Israel had ever known: the destruction of Solomon's temple and the exportation of the people to exile. This is a class-action lawsuit brought by the people of God against God, but with a twist. Though this psalm complains, it does not doubt.
I want us to be able to answer three questions from this psalm. First, how do God's people appropriately complain to God? The answer to that question is found in verses 1 through 11. Second, how do God's people trust in God, particularly since he's a God that we bring complaints against? The answer for this is found in verses 12 through 17. Finally, how do we argue with God? That answer is found in verses 18 through 23.
Complaining to God
Let's look at the complaints again, in verses 1 through 11:
Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? Remember the people you purchased of old, the tribe of your inheritance, whom you redeemed—Mount Zion, where you dwelt. Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins, all this destruction the enemy has brought on the sanctuary.
Your foes roared in the place where you met with us; they set up their standards as signs. They behaved like men wielding axes to cut through a thicket of trees. They smashed all the carved paneling with their axes and hatchets. They burned your sanctuary to the ground; they defiled the dwelling place of your Name. They said in their hearts, "We will crush them completely!" They burned every place where God was worshiped in the land.
We are given no miraculous signs; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be. How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
How do God's people complain to God? Not by piously pretending that there's nothing to complain about. Not by sugar-coating the problem. If we can say nothing else about verses 1 through 11, we can say that God's people complain with honesty. From the start, the psalmist wants to know: Why, God, have you rejected us? Why have you walked away? And he reminds God: We're not just anybody. We're your sheep, we're your clan, we're your inheritance. We are your people. And Mount Zion isn't just any place. No, it's your place, God. It's the place where you dwell among your people.
The language of verses 1 and 2 alludes to the Exodus, where God fulfilled his promises to Abraham, where he redeemed Israel, and when he promised that he would love them forever and dwell among them. God made promises to Israel in the Exodus. And the psalmist is asking on behalf of the whole nation: God, have you changed your mind? Have you forgotten your promise? Have you abandoned us?
We need to see from the psalms, and this psalm in particular, that God is big enough for our emotions. God is big enough for our honest feelings. I don't know what your piety causes you to think about God, but sometimes we treat God like he is some emotionally fragile, codependent God that we have to be careful not to offend, lest we hurt his feelings.
Brothers and sisters, God knows how you feel. Hiding your feelings out of "piety" doesn't change anything. He's omniscient. You can fool yourself about how you feel, but you can't fool him. If we're going to complain, let's at least show God the respect that he deserves by complaining with honesty. I think this is one of the purposes of the psalms. Sometimes the psalms are encouraging and sometimes they are disturbing. They are brutally honest and uncensored. How do we think about the psalms? They are inspired by the Spirit and they are inerrant. They are the Word of God, and they have, by his grace, come to us through the emotions of real people who really believed in God and who trusted him. The psalms teach us what to do with our emotions. Don't stuff them down. Don't deny them. Don't pretend they aren't there. Rather, train them in the context of faith. There's a raw honesty to the psalms, and God uses them to teach us what to do with our feelings.
But God's people aren't just honest in their complaining; they are also specific. In verse 3, the psalmist says, "Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins." The psalmist basically says: God, you've walked away. Come back over here and look. Would you just look at what has happened? Come and look at the evidence of how bad things are?
You can read about the historical event in 2 Kings 25 or 2 Chronicles 36. In this psalm, we're not given a historical-chronological record of the temple's destruction. We're given powerful emotional images of pure mayhem. Mayhem is not pretty.
I was reminded of this last night. I took my older boys to see The Avengers. It was a lot of fun. It had a lot of cartoon mayhem. No dead bodies. Yeah, that's not the way real mayhem works. It's gruesome, terrible.
Foreign soldiers had come into the temple and set up their standards. The psalmist compares their behavior to ferocious wild animals—men wielding their axes indiscriminately, hacking through a thicket, taking people and objects down with those axes, and burning everything to the ground. But the psalmist doesn't just want God to see what they did. He wants God to see what they intended. Their actions were meant to crush Israel. How were they going to do that? By proving that Israel's God—because warfare in the ancient Near East was ultimately a warfare between the gods of the peoples, not just the peoples—was impotent, helpless, nothing in comparison to the Babylonian god. That's why they burned every place where God was worshipped.
But there's even more troubling evidence with which the psalmist wants to confront God, and it doesn't come from the Babylonians. It comes from God. Verse 9 says, "We are given no miraculous signs. No prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be." That's the worst evidence that they can muster that God has forgotten them, that God has broken his promises, that God has left them. It's the radio silence from heaven. No word, no sign that everything was going to be okay in the end. Nothing but the taunts and the mocking of the enemy, which echoed through the air that awful day and continued to echo in their minds and in their memories and in their emotions.
The specificity, the concreteness of this complaint, the evidence that they offer is significant. This is not the vague dissatisfaction of life not going the way you want it to go. This isn't the kind of annoyance that you take to the complaint desk. No, this is evidence of a breach of contract. This is evidence of official negligence, a dereliction of duty on God's part. Note what they're saying here. The psalmist is not saying that God let something bad happen to that shouldn't have. He's saying: God, your name has been mocked; God, your temple has been defiled; God, your holiness has been violated and you're doing nothing about it.
There's no use complaining to God that life is not going the way we want it to because he never promised it would. That's what a lot of our complaints are about: life not going the way we want it to go. That's not what God promised. But God has made promises. He's made a bunch of them. He's promised to glorify his name through his people. He's promised time and again to be with his people. He's promised to speak to his people.
So when we complain, we need to be specific. If we're going to complain, we need to complain about promises that he's actually made that he seems not to be fulfilling. That's what's going on here. They complain honestly. They complain specifically about promises that he made that seem unfulfilled. Most importantly, they complain directly. You never once hear Israel complaining about God to somebody else, hoping that God will overhear and then do something. That's often the way we complain. When I don't like something, it's uncomfortable and risky to go directly to the source of the problem. It's so much easier to complain through gossip, hoping that your complaint will finally get back to the real source of the problem. That's not what they do. They take it directly to the source. And is risky, because when you complain directly to God, he's likely to have an answer for you, and you might not like the answer. Notice, too, that they do it humbly in faith. It's not so much that the psalmist, on behalf of the nation, brings an accusation in which they've already passed judgment on God. They're asking honest questions. Where are you, God? Why aren't you doing something, God? Have you really rejected us, God?
This is a corporate complaint, so I want to speak to us corporately. Does this kind of honest, specific, humble, direct complaint characterize us? You might feel uncomfortable with that. You might think that God's people should never complain. They do here, and it was inspired. Does our complaint look like this? Or do we tend to complain that our lives aren't comfortable enough, that life isn't going the way we'd like it to go? Our complaints should sound more like this: God, you said that the gospel is the power of God to save sinners from an eternity in hell. Why don't we see more people coming to faith in Jesus Christ? Or like this: God, you promised that you would not abandon your people. Why does it feel like the church is under siege in our culture? You promised that the gospel would go into the entire world. So why don't we see more young people and old people and retired people and middle-aged people throwing their lives away, taking the gospel to the whole world? God, you promised that you would come back. Where are you? Does that feel a little raw? It should. Sadly, I think it feels very foreign to us. I think all the rawness of our emotions is consumed with ourselves, and we are not consumed with these kinds of complaints. What must change in our lives? What must change in our hearts?
Trusting in God
If it seems like God is not keeping his promises, then how in the world do we trust him? When the Israelites looked around, it seemed like all the promises were broken. How do we trust God in the midst of that? Verses 12 through 17 say:
But you, O God, are my King from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth.
It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert. It was you who opened up springs and streams; you dried up the ever-flowing rivers. The day is yours, and yours also the night; you established the sun and the moon. It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth; you made both summer and winter.
We don't trust God because of our current circumstances. We don't trust God because we can see him doing all that we want him to do right here, right now. We trust because of what God has already done in history.
In verses 13 through 15, the psalmist looks back at two defining events. He thinks back to what God had already done to create Israel as a people. He parted the Red Sea. He crushed Egypt. The psalmist is using symbolic poetic language here, describing Egypt as Leviathan. God led his people through the wilderness. And when he got them to the Promised Land, they crossed over on dry ground as the Jordan River was dried up. Then in verses 16 through 17 he looks even further back, past the creation of Israel to the creation of the world, to God's very acts of creation, setting the boundaries of the earth, the seasons, showing that God controls all things, including the destruction of the temple. And it's in that context, looking back—not looking around—remembering what God has done, remembering who he is: Creator and Redeemer. The psalmist can declare in verse 12, "But you, O God, are my King from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth."
In the midst of pain and disaster, in the midst of what looks like unfulfilled promises, the people of God lay out their complaint and then they look back. They don't stop with their complaint. The silence seems deafening. The circumstances seem to contradict everything, but God's people look back at what God has already done, and on that basis—knowing that their God does not change—they trust him. They trust him for the present, and they trust him for the future.
Here's the trust test of faith: It's easy to confess our collective faith in God in the midst of prosperity, when the building's full and the budget's overflowing, when all of our kids are coming to know Christ, and then going off into the mission field. But how do we know that's actually faith in God and not just faith in prosperity, or just faith in nostalgia?
We want to be a people of faith, not a people of glory days. We want to be people who do not look to our circumstances—good or bad. No, we want to look at what God has done, and in that context confess him as King. What does that mean for us? Well, from her lowest point in the exile, Israel looked back to the Exodus and she knew that God could be trusted. But as God's people today, we look back. We don't look back to the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s. We don't look back to the glory days of the 1920s or the 1930s. No, we look much further back. It's what we know God has done. We look back to what the Exodus was pointing forward to: the redemption that Jesus Christ accomplished for his people on the Cross. This psalm is focused on whether the destruction of the temple meant God had abandoned his people. It doesn't address why the destruction happened in the first place (other psalms do that). It happened because God's people had abandoned God first. They'd rebelled against him. The abomination of those foreign soldiers wasn't the first abomination that showed up in the temple. Israel's kings had set up all sorts of idols inside that temple. So it turns out that God's people deserve judgment just as much as the wicked do.
That's why Jesus Christ came. He came to be the faithful people of God. He came to be the obedient Son, the true Israel, and then to offer his life as a sacrifice for sinners. On the Cross, Jesus was abandoned by God. This wasn't because of anything he had done. Jesus Christ suffered the abandonment that we deserve. On the Cross, Jesus Christ was crushed in death, but not because he deserved it. On the Cross Jesus Christ was crushing sin and Satan. Through his death, God's wrath was poured out on his people in Christ. It satisfied, it exhausted. And through his resurrection, three days later, he got up from the grave, and a true and final Exodus was accomplished. This was not an Exodus from some country. No, this was an Exodus from the place of our true enslavement, an Exodus from sin, an Exodus from death. God did this so that we could be truly free, and this is what we look back to.
If you are not a Christian, you need to understand that what I just explained is the gospel. That's the good news of Christianity, and you must respond to it in repentance and in faith. It's not something you respond to simply by being part of a church. No, each one of us individually must declare that God is King, that he has declared that in Jesus Christ, and that we have salvation in him alone. Your parents can't do it for you. Your heritage can't do it for you. If you are a Christian, this is the truth of what God has done, that we continue to turn to today. Today, 2,000 years after Christ got up from the dead, we don't have answers for every specific complaint we might have. But we have the Cross. We have the Resurrection. So we have enough to turn to in order to trust him, despite our complaints.
Arguing with God
Trust, though, doesn't lead to passivity. If anything, it constantly fuels our desire for change. So if God's people complain honestly, specifically, directly, and trust God because of what he's done, then how do God's people argue with God so that things will change, so that God will act?
Verses 18 through 23 say:
Remember how the enemy has mocked you, O Lord, how foolish people have reviled your name. Do not hand over the life of your dove to wild beats; do not forget the lives of your afflicted people forever. Have regard for your covenant, because haunts of violence fill the dark places of the land. Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name. Rise up, O God, and defend your cause; remember how fools mock you all day long. Do not ignore the clamor of your adversaries, the uproar of your enemies, which rises continually.
God's people are bold. Over and over, the psalmist pleads his case with God. But he's not begging. Nine times in those few verses, he tells God what to do: remember, don't hand over, don't forget, have regard, don't let, rise up, defend, remember, don't ignore. Every single time, he uses an imperative directed to God. We're used to God telling us what to do. We're used to imperatives coming to us from God: "thou shalt," and "thou shalt not." But God's people should be equally bold with God.
Notice carefully what this psalmist is commanding God to do. The psalm began with the concern that God had abandoned his people. But having laid out the complaint, being reminded of why he trusts God, the psalmist's concern has changed. Now he's demanding that God be concerned for his own glory, for the glory of his name. He's exhorting God to defend his cause: "Not my cause, but your cause, O God." He's insisting that God keep his promises, the covenant that God made with his people. And when in the midst of this, he actually does plead for God's people, it's not at all because they deserve to be delivered, it's because he knows that their deliverance is actually going to result in God's praise. So asking God to deliver his people is another way of asking God to glorify himself. Could we be so bold with God to tell him what to do? Absolutely.
Now, if we were asking or telling God to give us more money or easier lives, or that we need more comfort and better reputations for ourselves, I hope we'd be embarrassed and hang our heads in shame. But that is not the argument we press on God as God's people, for we know that our future, our deliverance, our good is not found finally in more treasure in this world. Our good is found in God's glory. This is not the "name it and claim it" prosperity gospel. It's a claim on God for our prosperity. But the real prosperity gospel that's taught in Scripture is God's prosperity—naming, claiming, demanding, and insisting on the prosperity of God, his name, his glory, and his cause. We need more of that kind of "prosperity" gospel in the church.
Collectively, are our prayers filled with demands for God's glory, or are we caught up in the trivia of our lives? To be clear, God is glorified even in the trivia of our lives. I'm not suggesting that we not pray about those things. Rather, I am asking us to look at the balance. What consumes our prayers? What captures our passions? Do our prayers treat God mainly as our butler: "Fetch me this, God. By the way, God, I need this for tomorrow. Would you take care of it?" Or are our prayers boldly insistent, demanding, exhorting, that God serve his own glory, that God defend his own cause? It's an honest question, and it's not just directed at you. I was deeply convicted all week long, even as I thought about my own prayerlessness, and when I do get around to praying, what I pray about. So I have two challenges for us.
First, I recommend you read D.A. Carson's book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation. Carson walks through Paul's prayers and shames us, in a good way, for the pettiness, the smallness, and the parochialness of our prayers.
Second, come to the Sunday evening prayer meeting. I can't require you to do that. Not once in the Bible are we told to go to church twice on Sunday. We are told to go once. Hebrews 10:25 says, "Do not neglect the gathering of yourselves together." If you're here this morning, you fulfilled that duty of love. I'm asking you to take on a work of super irrigation, a work above and beyond. I'm challenging you to do it. Come to the Sunday evening prayer meeting.
The purpose of our Sunday evening prayer meeting is to plead with God to glorify his name, to prosper the gospel through his church and around the world. We don't pray for people in the hospital at the prayer meeting on Sunday nights. We don't pray for the concerns of particular individuals and particular families on Sunday evenings at prayer meeting. Those things are important, and I trust that those are happening through our prayer chain and other prayer gatherings. But we have another focus on Sunday nights—that God would prosper his gospel through his church, not only in this city, but around the world. Do you have room for that in your life? Can you take an hour once a week to gather with God's people to argue with God for the advancement of the gospel?
This psalm ends unanswered, unresolved. Look in verse 23. The last thing we hear is the uproar of God's enemies rising continually. This is the prayer of a people in exile, a people whose exile had no end in sight. The day would come when the exiles would return, when the temple would be rebuilt, but it would quickly become apparent that the exile, even though they were back in the land, wasn't over. The spiritual exile did not end until Jesus came, until God came to be with us. On the Cross, Jesus silenced the enemies of God. And now, through the Spirit, he actively dwells in his people, not just Jews, but Jews and Gentiles together, all who are united to Jesus Christ. But in a very real sense, this prayer is our prayer, because the exile continues. Not the exile that began in 587 B.C., but the exile that began in Genesis 3, when humanity was exiled from the presence of God. We have Christ, we have the Spirit, but we are not yet in the Promised Land. We are not yet in the unadulterated presence of God. The world continues to revile and mock both God and his people. Like the psalmist, we continue to wait. And like the psalmist, none of us knows how long this will be. It's been 2,000 years. How much longer, God?
Do we understand ourselves to be exiles like these exiles? Do we understand ourselves the way Peter described us in 1 Peter 1? Do we understand ourselves the way Hebrews describes us, as aliens and strangers on earth? Too often we live like our hope is in politics, cultural relevance, cultural dominance, or just acceptance. We live like our hope is in visible prosperity. But that's not our hope. Like the psalmist, we need to understand that if God does not deliver us, if God does not save sinners, if God does not prosper and defend his church, if God does not judge wickedness, then nothing else will.
Exiles who have given up hope of returning to their true home settle down. They make themselves at home where they are. They cease being exiles and they become immigrants, residents, and eventually citizens. Of course, we want to be good neighbors. We want to see good things happen in our city and in our nation. But we are exiles at the end of the day, and we have no illusions that we can do anything that's going to usher in God's kingdom. We are longing for something better, something that only God can do, a kingdom that only he can bring, and he will bring it. So until that day comes—even to hasten that day—let's press our case. Let's bring our lawsuit honestly, faithfully, boldly. We don't pretend that everything's okay, but we know that God has promised that the day will come when all things are made right, and he and his glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. We know that he keeps his word. We have the death and Resurrection of Christ to prove it.
Michael Lawrence is pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and author of "Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church" (Crossway).