A Psalm for Desert-Like People
Psalm 74 is titled, “Plea for Help in Time of National Humiliation.” It is a desert-like psalm—a psalm of desert-like troubles. It is a psalm of barrenness and of inhospitable conditions. Verse 3 sums up the problem well: “Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary.” Verse 19 speaks of the soul of God’s dove (God’s beloved people) being delivered “to the wild animals.”
How can a people survive in a desert? How can a people survive amidst desert-like conditions?
Ray Vander Laan writes, “Community is essential in the desert. Survival in the desert literally demands that its people care for one another. Even today, Bedouin will say that the unbelievable commitment to hospitality expressed among desert tribes exists in part because as they travel through the barren wilderness they need to depend on others for food, shelter, and especially water. So the code of hospitality is very strong.
“In the desert, guests and complete strangers are welcomed and receive the best food and water a family has. Families will serve the last bit of flour they have or defend a guest in their tent with their lives—even if they just met that guest. This code of hospitality is quite foreign to many people in the Western world where privacy, competition, and a spirit of self-sufficiency prevail.
“Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that God chose the desert to be the place where he would prepare his people to be his community of priests who would reveal him to the world. He knew that at times his people would be in the desert, but that far more often they would suffer the intense pain and suffering of life’s desert experiences. He would provide manna, shade, and water so that his people would not only survive their desert experiences but as a community—numerous as the sand of the seashore—would share what God had provided them with other people who find themselves in the desert.”
Because this psalm is a desert-like psalm—a psalm of desert-like troubles—the psalm puts an emphasis on community. It begins with a plea for God’s protection and provision for the community of Israel: “O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage. Remember Mount Zion where you came to dwell.”
And in verses 20-21 (near the end of the psalm), the psalmist pleads for the most vulnerable in the nation: “Have regard for your covenant, for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence. Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise your name.”
The South African concept of Ubuntu shines forth in Psalm 74. Ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity,” is often translated as “I am because we are.” In a preface to Richard Stengel’s Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage, Nelson Mandela describes ubuntu as “the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world, it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”
May Psalm 74 remind us that we are desert-like people—people who are often facing desert-like circumstances along with others who are facing desert-like circumstances. And may Psalm 74 remind us to keep our hearts attuned to the whole community, practicing ubuntu care for one another, including the most vulnerable among us.