The Psalms, as we have already seen in recent weeks, cover all of life’s experiences.
The Psalms are beautiful, powerful prayers…. they address God with a deep honesty, frankness and urgency…. They give voice to our inner thoughts and inner turmoil…
As we consider Psalm 44 today – this is especially true.
Psalm 44 addresses God with a heartfelt honesty and transparency.
Now I just want us to imagine this situation….
Imagine you have a very good friend, someone who knows you well, someone who has known you for a long time, someone who has helped you out with all sorts of things in the past.
A month ago, you rang them, but they weren’t in. You were upset and sad, but you left them a message asking for help. Now in the weeks that have gone by you have heard nothing…
What does it feel like to have no response? Maybe you’ve started to wonder what is wrong? Maybe you’re questioning why they’ve not responded, after all they would normally get back to you?
Maybe you started thinking you’ve perhaps done something to offend them? Maybe you think they’re being rude or forgetful?
You probably feel hurt, confused and sad. Why is your friend silent? Maybe you’re thinking what’s the point?
And that brings me to Psalm 44.
Israel sang this Psalm regularly in the Temple to voice a faith that was hanging by a thread. It begins well by noting how God had brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt into the Promised Land, driving out the Hittites, Hivites, and Jebusites in the process.
Verse 1 says: O God, our ancestors have told us what deeds you performed…in the days of old: you…drove out the nations, but them you planted…not by their own sword did they win the land…but [by] your right hand…
As Psalm 44 opens, it reads like a Psalm of praise for a God who saved his people from slavery. Things started well for Israel; and in the following centuries, though Israel didn’t always stick with God, God stuck with Israel.
Psalm 44 expresses gratitude for God’s faithfulness.
A Temple worship leader voices it in these words: You are my King and my God; you command victories for Jacob…not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But you have saved us from our foes…In God we have boasted…we will give thanks to your name forever.
Trusting a faithful God, Israel had learnt to rely, not on its own resources, but on God.
So far, so good!
But at v.9, there’s a dramatic change in the Psalm, which you may have noticed. It turns abruptly from praise to complaint:
“God, we’re your people. But ‘you have rejected us…abased us, and have not gone out with our armies…You have made us like sheep for the slaughter…sold [us out] for a trifle …made us a laughingstock…Because of you we are being killed’” [vs. 9,11, 14, 22].
Relying on God, Israel expected victory; instead, the nation has been crushed and shamed. We don’t know the particular battle to which the Psalm refers. What we do know is things started well for Israel, but ended in a debacle; prisoners had been taken, the army decimated, the nation now a joke.
It was incomprehensible. According to the Psalm, Israel had been faithful to God. If the nation had defied its covenant God; or if Israel had started to worship idols, punishment may have been appropriate.
But Israel wasn’t guilty: v.17: ‘this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way’. And so, a perplexed Psalmist demands an explanation.
We live at a great distance from Israel’s pain described in Psalm 44; but if your faith is at all serious, it too will be shaken to the core at some time. You may have already been confronted by an incomprehensible God who doesn’t always supply answers.
Two/three generations ago, after 2 world wars in which much devastation and evil was seen, many gave up on God…. For those living in the post war years, their experience was a disaster that reduced faith to rubble.
Maybe you listen to the news reports – disaster after disaster, war after war, tragedy after tragedy, famine after famine….and wonder what is going on?
For others, the decline in influence of the Church of England in national affairs raises questions, after all we are currently closing churches month after month as elderly saints die. And though many continue to worship, some feel like the battle has been lost, and that there’s no point trying to pass on the faith to our children and neighbours. We can wonder, where is God – what is happening to our nation? Is God silent?
Perhaps the pain in your life has been much more personal. You started out well, maybe even as a happy Christian. But then came one heartache after another- a betrayal, a health crisis, a death. Though you fought bravely for a while, you now feel like giving up, convinced that God has passed you by. Where is God? What is happening? Is God silent?
How do we respond to what feels like defeat?
In defeat, Israel refusing to stifle its disillusionment by singing happy psalms. Israel fought back, using an angry psalm like Psalm 44 as a weapon in the fight. Though it begins as a psalm of praise, it becomes a damning indictment of God.
It accuses God relentlessly: ‘you rejected us…You…made us…sheep for slaughter… You have sold your people…You have made us the taunt of our neighbours…You’re to blame for our defeat, and we want an explanation. God, if you’re asleep, rouse yourself; wake up, and tell us, why”.
Have you noticed that when their faith hung by a thread, biblical people as often as not, fought with God? In the UK, on the whole, we’re too polite to pray like that. When our faith hangs by a thread, we’re more likely to sulk and then slink away.
Israel fought back in Psalm 44, and even preserved this angry Psalm for later use!
The Psalm, notes Old Testament scholar John Goldingay, places all the blame on God, and exempts others.
Scapegoats could presumably have been found: – a failure on the part of the generals, or insufficient weaponry. But Psalm 44 ignores all human factors, convinced that with God in charge, nothing happens without his knowledge.
If we believe that God is ultimately sovereign over all things, then, no matter what pain we face, we’re likely to end up blaming God, as did Israel.
Psalm 44 is bold in its rage at God for what’s been lost. Is that how you and I pray? We’re reluctant to voice our anger at God, afraid to use words that might shock God.
Biblical prayer isn’t as reticent; it begs, roars, It complains, demands, and tells God: “we don’t deserve what’s happening to us. Do something!”
Psalm 44 is like the Book of Job. In his pain and loss, Job demanded of God, “Explain yourself!”
But the truth is that in the Book of Job, as here in Psalm 44, God doesn’t explain himself; as you may have discovered, our pain is sometimes met by divine silence. That’s why Psalm 44 is almost never read in church, and why it doesn’t show up very often in our hymn books, and why preachers tend to avoid it. It appears to offer no good news when things go badly.
So is that it when faith hangs by a thread? When God is silent… How about this: a disaster or failure at least forces us to reassess our faith?
We want faith to reward us; “God, I believe in you”, we say, “but I want you to look after me, such that if trouble comes, it will be minimal”. A conditional faith like that explains why, when trouble comes, some people give up on God and walk away from the church.
But faith in Psalm 44 isn’t conditional; it’s unconditional. That is: it’s a faith that’s ready to fight, that hangs on at any cost, and that endures agony in the absence of a miracle or any sign of God’s presence.
You hear this faith that hangs by a thread in Jesus’ final, chilling cry from the cross, when all seemed to be lost: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
At the lowest moment in his life, Jesus experienced God’s absence. And yet in that hellish moment he still cries out to God, unwilling to let go.
There’s maybe one more sliver of hope in Psalm 44. Its last verse addresses God like this: ‘Rise up…Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love’. The Psalm ends by appealing to what Israel had been taught about what lay at the core of God’s character, steadfast, abounding, love.
Every visible proof of God’s power and protection had disappeared. “But Lord”, cries the Psalmist, “if your love has gone, there’s nothing left. If you are still steadfast love, redeem us”. And that’s the Psalm’s final word.
But it’s not the Bible’s final word.
Israel’s painful cry for redemption was heard; the biblical narrative moves on from the darkness of Psalm 44 to the coming of Christ, and from the devastation of Israel’s defeat to a Saviour’s empty grave.
Though Psalm 44 reflects the fact that faith may hang by a thread, learn to hold on and wait for Jesus, who died in agony, but rose in victory. It’s by looking steadily to him that some of the mystery that surrounds God will be unveiled.
Time to reflect….
At times life is really difficult,
and we feel like all hope is gone and you are silent.
For those of us who face such times now,
help us to hang on through the silence and the darkness,
knowing that ultimately Jesus has won the victory
and that one day this will be unveiled for all to see,
and all of creation will be restored and renewed.
Helps us to look steadily to Him and trust in your steadfast love.