I am reading Nahum Sarna’s On the Book of Psalms. He dealt with a handful of psalms that he felt were representative. Today we look at his treatment of Psalm 94.
This psalm contains a prayer that God set right evils that men have done to one another.
The NRSV has verse 1 saying, “O LORD, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth!”
What! A God of vengeance.
Vengeance for what? What have people been doing to one another? Specifically, according to verse 6 they have killed widows, strangers, and the fatherless (see also v. 21). Thus, the psalm is not talking about systemic oppression or something. It it is talking about murder. If we look for a historical occasion, Sarna referred us to the reign of King Manasseh of which 2 Kings 21:16 records:
“Furthermore Manasseh killed so many innocent people, he stained Jerusalem with their blood from end to end” NET Bible
The systemic oppression part–I really am suspicious of that whole spiel today because it usually comes with a power grab by people who just want to cloak their cause in the social justice idea –derives from these particular victims having no family to seek justice for them. In the more barbaric times in Israel the family was duty-bound to kill someone who killed a family member. Later, the family could seek justice from the community or the monarchy.
But if you did not have family, if you were a widow; an orphan; or a displaced person who would seek justice for you? And if someone like Manasseh was king . . .?
The later verses of the 94th Psalm (16 ff.) seem to be more personal. The psalmist may have been falsely accused. He may have been put on trial for his life. He seems to have had a crisis of faith, but experienced some kind of deliverance (v. 17).
Murderers, however, still seemed to evade justice.
There was religious consolation in the idea of a vengeful God.
When applied to God, though, Sarna thought retribution was a better word than vengeance. This word implies justice, or pay back. People have to pay for what they do. Both criminal and civil law hold up this principle. But when there is no one to speak for the wronged, who demands that the responsible party pay? The idea here is that we may pray to a God of pay-back.
So he is not a God of vengeance in the way some Christians think of the violent Old Testament God. Instead he is a God who demands pay-back on behalf of those who otherwise have no voice.
Sarna said that vengeance is essentially anti-social. But retribution meant restoring the social order, not just retaliation.
So this is a prayer for God to act. The psalmist has in mind action in the near future, not at some far-off prophesied time. But does God even know about the murder of people as insignificant at widows and refugees? In verse 7 the murderers say that God doesn’t even take notice. In vs. 9-10 the psalmist bases his prayer on the logic that says the one who implants (Sarna’s translation) the ear hears, and the one who forms the eye sees. Those who think to escape divine judgment do not understand who God is.
So this is a prayer, not a prophesy. Yet the psalmist believes this prayer will be answered because that is the kind of God he prays to.