The Historical Background of Psalm 74–75: A Case for Reading Psalms with 1–2 Chronicles

the-psalms.jpgIn 2017 I preached a sermon on Psalms 73–89. In it, I argued the historical background of Book 3 followed the historical events of 2 Chronicles (as this image illustrates). From this reading, Psalms 74–75 find a historical connection in Shisak’s invasion recorded in 2 Chronicles 10–12 (ca. 930 BC).

Many commentators place the “temple-smashing” description of Psalm 74 at the Babylonian destruction of the temple (ca. 586 BC). Surely, the later dating is plausible, but in my reading the textual evidence is equally, if not more, plausible for an earlier reading. And I tried to show that in the sermon.

This week, we recorded a new Via Emmaus podcast and the question about history came up again. So what follows are a few notes on Psalm 74–75 and why I believe it is best to read Psalms 73–89 in parallel with 2 Chronicles.

Take time to read, consider, and let me know what you think. If Chronicles runs parallel to the Psalms and vice-versa, then it opens large vistas in how to understand both books.

Historical Considerations from 2 Chronicles for Psalms 74–75

The strongest evidence that Psalm 74 speaks of the later, greater destruction of the temple comes from verse 3: “Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary” (ESV). From this version, it sounds like the temple is absolutely razed. However, there are plenty of historical reasons for withholding this immediate judgment.

  1. Second Chronicles 11 reports Rehoboam created 15 fortress cities (vv. 5–12), to overrun them would take massive, violent force.
  2. Shishak took these cities and came as far as Jerusalem (12:4). The threat on God’s dwelling place was imminent and would lead to national panic.
  3. Asa had to rebuild these cities (ch 14:6). Moreover, he had to repair the altar of the Lord (15:8). Had this altar been in ruins since Rehoboam? Abijah boasted of the priests in 2 Chronicles 13, over against Israel’s false priests. He doesn’t boast in the temple. This is a bit odd. Later, Judah would often boast in the temple, unless it was in disrepair. Also, we know that the Passover was not regularly keep in Israel from Solomon to Hezekiah. Why? Might it be from attacks on the temple?
  4. Shishak came with 60,000 horsemen, 1,200 chariots, and men without number (12:3). Even Ethiopia’s one million men (14:9) were counted. Was this more? That it was too many to count indicates an enormous army ravaging the landscape of Israel. Going further, Shishak’s plunder of gold and silver was enormous, as archaeological evidence demonstrates.
  5. The king and the princes humbled themselves (12:6). What did that sound like? Might not the priests in Judah play a part in that confession and petition? When Hezekiah’s life was threatened he ran to Isaiah and the temple, might not the son of Solomon do the same? If so, what would that priestly prayer sound like? Would it sound different than Psalm 74? A psalm and an historical account will not be perfectly the same (cf. Judges 4–5), and thus the apparent difference between Psalm 74 and 2 Chronicles 12 must also consider the difference in genre.
  6. When the Lord saw he said he would not destroy (12:7). Psalm 74 picks up the same language, or at least provides the genesis of Psalm 74’s language. Only verse 3 uses different word for destruction (which more literally means to do evil). The Egyptian did extensive damage (NASB) to the temple, but it was not fully destroyed. In 2 Chronicles 12, destroy (v. 7) and everything (v. 9) conflate into the description we find in Psalm 74:3ff. Additionally, the fact that not everything was destroyed is not an indication of God’s covenant. Throughout the Old Testament God threatens absolute destruction (think Nineveh). To this, a man or a nation repents, and God spares them. The explanation for this is found in passages like Jeremiah 18—the vessel at the potter’s house. That’s probably how we should understand the connection here. God was going to abandon Judah (12:5), but he stopped short because of Rehoboam’s repentance.
  7. Therefore, God’s deliverance is partial; the nation would now serve Egypt (12:8). Still what was it like the last time Israel served Egypt? This would be a fierce kind of submission. It certainly included massive plundering of the house of the Lord. One of Shishak’s sons received 383 tons of gold and silver from his father. Where would this come from? The best answer is from the nation of the Lord and the gold of the temple.
  8. Shishak did not make complete destruction, because God heard his people’s repentance (2 Chronicles 12:9–12; cf. Psalm 75:1). The story of David’s house continues but the removal of gold and the replacement of bronze indicates a downgrade in the temple (12:11). Moreover, is Rehoboam really concerned about Yahweh’s house or his own? Verses 10–11 almost indicate that Rehoboam used the guards for his house, not the Lord’s.
  9. This would be fitting, as we know Rehoboam was a wicked king (12:14). Hence the only indication is that this king protected himself and not the Lord’s house. No mention is made of rebuilding the temple after Shishak “took everything away”. In a book highlighting temple (re)construction, the silence of rebuilding in 2 Chronicles is significant.
  10. Finally, might not the extreme language of Psalm 74 actually include an expression of sorrow for two things – Shishak’s invasion and Rehoboam’s self-interest. Surely, God did not destroy Jerusalem entirely, but neither did things go back to normal. What effect did this have on the nation of Judah? If the temple was the place where Israel gathered to meet God, what did this mean for Israel? How desperately did they need a righteous king, like the one portrayed in Psalm 72?

In short, a careful reading of 2 chronicles 10–12 seems to run parallel to Psalm 74–75. But what about the evidence found in Psalms. Let’s consider Psalm 74–75 to see. 

Psalm 74­–75 

If the historical data gives us reason to consider Psalm 74–75 in relationship to Shishak’s invasion, we must also consider what the Psalms say themselves. And again, by reading these psalms together we learn a great deal about meaning of their message.

74:ss – The name Asaph, which is associated with David (2 Chronicles 6:39), speaks of someone who could have been present in the days of Rehoboam. Likewise, in the context of Book 3, because Psalm 79 reports another attack on the temple and Psalm 89 reports its final destruction, concurrent with the fall of David, I believe a chronological reading of Book 3, which is supported by the bookends of Psalm 72 (the pinnacle of David’s throne) and Psalm 89 (the end of David’s throne), is optimal.

74:1 – Surely the army of Shishak produced more than a little smoke when they ripped through 15 fortress cities. These cities were meant to protect Judah, but they failed. This indicates the force and power of Shishak’s army. Moreover, because Rehoboam had just divided the nation with his harshness towards Jeroboam, who had taken shelter in Egypt, Shishak came at Judah with increasing ferocity.

74:3 – The word “everything” matches the statement in 2 Chronicles 12:9. The word translated “destruction” is better translated “has done evil” or “has damaged” (NASB). The ESV wrongly depicts the temple as obliterated, whereas the word “done evil” indicates how an evil enemy has come into the sanctuary of God. In fact, the word sanctuary could also be rendered, “the holy place.”

74:4–8 – Asaph describes destruction of wood in the temple, but the temple is made of stone. Theoretically the wood could be all burned and the stone building remain. If this is the case, it would explain verse 3—the temple was horribly damaged by not razed.

74:9 – What are the signs? Could those be the furniture pieces in the temple? We know that the altar was destroyed at some point and in need of repair (2 Chronicles 15). Would this be the sign?

74:9–11 – This begins a petition for God to act in mercy and to judge the nations.

74:12–17 – Confidence is expressed in the God who is king of old. What follows is a description of God’s defeat of Egypt. What would give Judah confidence in this period of Egyptian threat? A remembrance of God’s defeat of Egypt would be fitting. Moreover, Egypt becomes a key figure throughout Book 3 and in the history of that time period is a place that continues to pop up (cf. Jeremiah’s deportation to Egypt).

74:19–23 – Completes the petition for salvation.

74:20–21 – Makes an apt description of the people of Israel (the sheep v. 1) attempting to find refuge in Zion and having to turn around, because the city is unsafe. At least, it doesn’t not provide refuge.

74:22–23 – The clamor echoes through the land, the boasts of the foes who ransack the land on the way to Jerusalem. Remember the numbers are staggering—1200 chariots, 60,000 horsemen, and a million men? Only God could stop them.

75:ss – Which is what he does and what is celebrated by Psalm 75, according to “do not destroy.” Because superscripts give historical, thematic, and authorial information, this weighs heavy in consideration for what is going on.

75:1 – The thanksgiving of Psalm 75 stands in sharp contrast to Psalm 74, and it lends credence to the idea that God stood to defend Israel from their total destruction. The people who cried for mercy have been saved; the temple has been damaged but not destroyed.

75:2–5 – Additionally, the imagery of God keeping steady the pillars of the earth employ temple imagery. Just as the world upholds the earth (metaphorically set on pillars), so the Lord can uphold the temple—a microcosm of creation. In these verses also, we see God’s speech to the boastful– a response to the proud speech of the wicked (Egyptians?) in 74:8.

75:6–8 – Asaph captures the same theological point made in 2 Chronicles 10:15; 11:4. The Lord is king over Israel, he brings judgment and when he does none can stop him but his own hand.

75:9–10 – The Psalm gives further praise to God who cuts off the wicked. In historical context, we can see how these verses fit the events of Rehoboam’s kingdom.

From all that we find here, therefore, I believe there is good reason for placing Psalm 74–75 at the time of Shishak’s invasion and Rehoboam’s kingdom. Incidentally, this reading of Psalm, with its historical footing in Shishak’s attack, is the same position that Jim Hamilton takes in his sermon on Psalm 74. (His commentary on the Psalms is coming out soon).

Reading Psalms and Chronicles Better

All in all, such a reading of Psalms and Chronicles teaches us one more way the Scripture is unified. It helps us to make sense of the Psalms message and it leads us to study the Bible more carefully, so that the historical and literary contexts inform our understanding.

To that end, may we continue to study God’s Word and see how the whole Bible is given to bolster our faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds