Saturday, March 23, 2013

Notes on the Psalms – Psalm 44

Psalm 44 is labeled as a “Maskil,” a Hebrew word that can refer to an instructional or contemplative song. It's probably safe to say that Psalm 44 combines instruction and contemplation as it reflects on the victories of Israel's history and laments Israel's current trials. 

The psalm's first eight verses provide a meditation on God's past support for Israel. “We have heard with our ears, O God, our ancestors have told us, what deeds You performed in the days of old:” Listening was very important to the Israelites. They wanted to know their heritage. They valued their ancestors and the stories they could tell. These stories of common memory, passed down from parent to child, were the fabric of Israelite society. Why? Because the Israelites understood that God was active in their history. Knowing history led to knowing God. Understanding past events led to understanding God's will. The Hebrew word for “have heard” is shâma‛, and it suggests not just a passive hearing but an active, intelligent, attentive, discerning listening that leads to obedience. Listening to the stories of the past helped the Israelites determine how to respond to the events of the present. 

Hearing about God's deeds in history, then, allowed the Israelites to grasp the power of God and His care for them. What were these deeds of God? The psalmist tells us in the next two verses. God drove out the nations so He could plant the Israelites in the Promised Land. He punished the people currently living in the land, people who worshiped other “gods” with murderous and impure rites, and He set the Israelites free that they might worship the one true God in the home He had given them. The psalmist is very clear: the Israelites did nothing on their own, “for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory...” (verse 3). They would not have been powerful enough to conquer the well-established tribes on their own. They were far too small and far too weak. But they had a “secret weapon”; they had God. It was His “right hand,” His arm, and the light of His face that brought them victory. His power did it. His care. His concern. His presence. Why? Because God delighted in His people. He was pleased with them. He loved them. He wanted to show them His favor. 

In verses 4-8, the psalmist personally accepts the truths he has been relating, for he resumes the use of first person pronouns. God has not merely done great things for the psalmist's ancestors; He has also performed amazing deeds for the psalmist and his generation. “You are my King and my God,” he proclaims. In God and through the power of His Name (Hebrew shêm, authority, honor, and character as well as name), the psalmist and his fellow warriors have battled against their opponents and put to shame those who attacked them. The psalmist realizes that these victories would not have been won but for God's intervention. “For not in my bow do I trust,” he asserts, “nor can my sword save me.” No, it was God Who saved the psalmist and his fellow Israelites from their enemies. They boast only in God and His power, and they offer Him perpetual thanksgiving. The Hebrew word for “boast” has all kinds of interesting connotations. It can mean everything from celebrate, praise, and glory to shine forth and make a show. The Israelites are doing all these things when it comes to boasting in God. They are celebrating His deeds, praising His Name, glorying in His love, shining forth His power, and making a show of the wonderful things He has done for them. 

At verse 9, however, the psalmist drastically changes his tone. After all of the wonderful things God has done for the Israelites in the past, now it seems like He has abandoned them. “Yet You have rejected us and abased us,” the psalmist complains, “and have not gone out with our armies.” The Israelites have been forced to retreat. The enemy has captured spoil, slaughtered the people, and taken captives. The Israelites are the laughingstock of their neighbors, who deride them and scorn them. They are in complete disgrace; the name “Israel” is a mere joke.

The psalmist feels like God has sold them out...and for a very meager price at that. He is ashamed and confused. He just doesn't understand, for he can't see how the Israelites have deserved this. “All this has come upon us,” he tells God, “yet we have not forgotten You, or been false to Your covenant.” You can hear the hurt behind the words. Why God? Why do bad things happen to good people? It's an age-old question, one that has been asked millions, even billions, of times since the beginning of history. Why God, the psalmist asks, have “You broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness”? We feel abandoned, God. We feel like we're in the wilderness, alone in the dark. 

The psalmist continues his lament and his questioning in verses 20-22: “If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god, would not God discover this? For He knows the secrets of the heart.” The Israelites have not forgotten God, as the first part of the psalm asserts so clearly. They have given God the honor and praise and glory due to Him. God knows that. He must, for He knows everything, even their deepest, darkest secrets. Yet “because of You,” the psalmist whines, “we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” 

The psalm ends with a prayer. “Rouse yourself!” the psalmist prays. “Why do You sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!” God, he cries, don't forget us in our misery! We're so low right now, down in the dust, clinging to the ground. Wake up; help us! “Redeem us for the sake of Your steadfast love.” It's all about love, after all, God's love. No matter what kinds of hardships we face, we can be 100% sure that God loves us. Even when we think He isn't paying attention to us, even when we think He's letting us flounder in our pain and weakness, even when we're positive He doesn't care, God loves us. The psalmist knows this, too, for God has proven it over and over again throughout salvation history. Christians can be even more certain, for God Himself came as a Man to save us from our sins and open the way to Heaven. Jesus Christ suffered and died for us and rose again that we may be with Him in Heaven for all eternity. Now that's love. We know it in history; we know it in trials and troubles; we know it now and forever.

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