The Roman ExileBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Another Psalm by Asaf, this one is called a maskil, meaning a Psalm whose purpose is to impart wisdom. Asaf asks why G-d appears to have abandoned Israel in exile; will the Shepherd be forever angry at His sheep? Asaf asks G-d to recall His historical relationship with His people, from the Exodus to the Temple. May G-d instead direct His wrath at those who destroyed His Temple.
The invaders sought to disrupt the connection between G-d and Israel by desecrating the Temple. They intended to eradicate the pride of Jerusalem and set fire to the Temple. The kings of the invading nations conspired and then acted together to destroy the central gathering place of Israel, where they served G-d together. Signs of redemption are not yet visible and there is no prophet to give us any message, so we have no idea how long the exile will last. How long will our oppressors get away with insulting G-d and us?
Asaf asks why G-d does not immediately take action against the invaders. May He raise His hand against them! G-d is our king, as He has always been, and He always saves us. He split the sea when we left Egypt, and He left the pursuing army dead in our wake. (The Pharaoh and his army are compared here to sea serpents. If the metaphor is not self-evident, refer to Ezekiel 29:3, “Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great sea serpent that lies in his rivers.”) G-d brought water from rocks in the desert and He stopped the Jordan when the Jews entered the land of Israel. He made the sun and the moon and He controls the procession of all the celestial spheres. He made the different part of the world and all their unique climates, both hot and cold.
May G-d recall what the enemies have done to desecrate His Name. May He not allow Israel – compared here to a dove – to be devoured by these nations – compared to wild animals. (The Targum relates the word used here for a dove – Tor – to the word Torah, which the Jews observe.) May G-d remember the covenant He forged with our ancestors, because we are in for some dark times in exile and we’ll need His help. We hope that G-d defends His own cause, avenging the insults that have been hurled at Him by the nations that torment Israel.
(This Psalm speaks prophetically of a future exile; it would appear to be addressing primarily the Roman exile, which followed the destruction of the second Temple. The Roman exile – which is still ongoing – is much longer than the Babylonian exile was and we don’t have prophets, who still existed at the time of the Babylonian exile. Many such statements in this Psalm apply better to the current exile than to the previous one.)