“God is Our King before the Ages”

During the mid-point of Great Lent, on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, the following verses are sung at the Alleluia just before the reading of the Gospel:  “Remember Thy congregation which Thou hast gotten of old.  God is our King before the ages; He hath worked salvation in the midst of the earth!”  The verses are from Psalm 74, which laments the destruction of the Temple in the sixth century BC.  It is a depressing psalm, containing a long catalogue of woe:  “Direct Thy steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy hast destroyed everything in the sanctuary.  Thy foes roared in the midst of Thy holy places.  At the upper entrance they hacked the wooden trellis with axes, and all its carved wood they broke down with hatchets and hammers.  They set Thy sanctuary on fire, to the ground they desecrated the dwelling place of Thy Name.  Let not the downtrodden be put to shame; let the poor and needy praise Thy Name.”  In this psalm we relive the horror of the destruction of the Temple as it perished in flame through the hatred of its enemies, and the despair it planted in the hearts of God’s people.

At our parish in Langley, British Columbia, this psalm is also chanted while the people venerate the Cross, with the verse “God is our King before the ages” as a repeated refrain.  As I was listening to the chanting of Psalm 74, I began to wonder why the Church chose this psalm—of all psalms—for the feast of the Cross and I asked myself, “What does the destruction of the Temple have to do with the Cross?”  The question almost answers itself: when Christ was asked by His foes by what authority He dared to cleanse the Temple, He replied,  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).  John gives us the obvious explanation of His words, commenting that He referred not to the Temple building, in which He was standing, but the temple of His body.  When His foes would destroy that temple on the Cross, after three days He would raise it up again.  This is why the Church chose Psalm 74 for its celebration of Christ’s cross, for when it read of the destruction of the Temple in Psalm 74, it thought of the destruction of Christ on the cross, and realized that it was there that God worked salvation in the midst of the earth.

We see in the fulfillment of the psalm how prophecy becomes history.  When the psalmist thought of the destruction of the Temple, he also remembered God’s power which He manifested of old.  He remembered how God proved Himself King before the ages, the world’s eternal sovereign, on the international stage, when He divided the Red Sea by His might and liberated His people from the slavery of Egypt (verse 12f).  He longed for God to manifest His might in public again, working on the open stage of history His saving might before the eyes of the watching world.  Let God arise and plead His own cause (verse 22); let Him deliver His people from their current slavery!  Let Him show His power in the midst of the earth, where all the nations could see!

On a hill in Palestine, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, God did just that.  Christ was crucified in the midst of the earth, lifted up on the cross before the whole watching world where all could see it.  The charge against Him was printed in all the international languages of that day, in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as befitted such a public act—and more fit than anyone then knew, for Christ offered Himself on that cross for all the nations of the world.  On that day God worked salvation in the midst of the earth, redeeming His people, His congregation which He had gotten of old.  Psalm 74 is truly about the Cross.  Through the Cross, the poor and needy of the earth can praise God’s Name.