Psalm 44 is like many of the psalms of the Sons of Korah in that it is a lament. However, despite this fact, it is still one of the better known among the hymns of the Sons of Korah, in large part because it is a community lament and suitable to times of trial and tribulation where a community of believers is seeking restoration and redemption from their Lord God. As such moments are not uncommon, this psalm is one whose worth is easy to recognize.
Psalm 85 consists of several passages, which we will examine in turn, and each of these passages reflects concern about God’s deliverance, and a particular concern for military affairs. God’s favor is associated with victory in conflict, God’s judgment with defeat. The outcomes of wars is therefore seen, through godly eyes, as the result of God’s favor and judgment. The losers of wars are those whom God has judged unworthy, for whatever reason, and winners are those whom God has favored, for whatever reason. Given their understanding of divine favor (or disfavor), the Sons of Korah here have written a call for God to give them favor and no longer let them be a laughingstock to their enemies. The psalm therefore offers the sacrifice of a repentant heart for a stubborn and rebellious people and entreats God to act on their behalf to preserve His own name and reputation. It therefore remains a very valid examination of our own need to reflect on international and military affairs as reflecting the spiritual state of His people.
In Days Of Old
Psalm 44 begins with an examination of the favor which God showed to Israel in days of old, in Psalm 44:1-3: “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, the deeds You did in their days, in days of old: You drove out the nations with Your hand, but them You planted; You afflicted the peoples, and cast them out. For they did not gain possession of the land by their own sword, nor did their own arm save them; but it was Your right hand, Your arm, and the light of Your countenance, because You favored them.”
The Sons of Korah show in these verses an admirable understanding of history and divine providence. They recognized that the victories of Israel in gaining possession of the Holy Land (both in the times of Joshua and more recently) were not the result of the strength and might of the Israelites and Jews themselves, but through the strength and might and power of God Himself. The godly recognize that it is God’s strength that is decisive in conflicts, and not physical strength. By remembering past victories, the Sons of Korah also note that God has the power to deliver victory to His people if He chooses to do so. The question is, of course, does He choose to do so? These are vital and important lessons for us to remember, lest we take credit for our victories while blaming God for our defeats, as is the custom of the heathen.
Let us also note, briefly and in passing, that this particular psalm is one of many examples of “right-hand bias” within the scriptures, where God’s strength and power is connected with His “right hand.” Whether this reflects a right-handed bias within the scriptures themselves or the human tendency to favor and praise the right-handed as normal and glorious and slight the left-handed is not for me to say (as a left-handed person myself, I am not unbiased in the matter). Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile point to note, at least.
In God We Boast All Day Long
Psalm 44:4-8 continues the theme of divine providence: “You are my King, O God; command victories for Jacob. Through You we will push down our enemies; through Your name we will trample those who rise against us. For I will not trust in my bow, nor shall my sword save me. But You have saved us from our enemies, and have put to shame those who hated us. In God we boast all day long, and praise Your name forever. Selah.”
Here we see again that the Sons of Korah continue their plea to God to deliver them through His strength. We see that God is obeyed and respect as the real King of Israel (all human kings are at best viceroys). Again the pslamist comments that the military might of Israel–the sword and bow–is untrustworthy, and that it is only the power of God Himself that will deliver victory and defeat Israel’s foes. This accurate knowledge and humility is the sign of an obedient and repentant heart, and in contrast it is the proud and rebellious who think they prosper and succeed by their own strength and wisdom and fail to give credit where it is due.
But You Have Cast Us Off
Psalm 44:9-12 points out the current shameful state of Israel, however: “But You have cast us off and put us to shame, and You do not go out with our armies. You make us turn back from the enemy, and those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves. You have given us up like sheep intended for food, and have scattered us among the nations. You sell Your people for next to nothing, and are not enriched by selling them.”
Here we notice the current lamentable state of Israel. God no longer fights with the armies of His people, and so they are defeated shamefully, fleeing from their enemies. Their enemies take spoil from Israel, instead of Israel spoiling their enemies. Worst of all, the psalmist knows that these defeats and this shame is the result of divine judgment and divine discontent. Knowledge alone is not sufficient for deliverance, but the very help and assistance of God.
Additionally, we see that the fate of Israel has been a grim one, one that is recorded in melancholy passages in scripture about captivity, foreign domination, and scattering that occurred to both the northern tribes of Israel and to Judah. For their disobedience God made them sheep for the slaughter of the Syrians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and many other wicked and evil empires throughout history. For their disobedience and rebellion God sold them into slavery, not profiting from the sale Himself, and Israel and Judah were scattered throughout the heathen peoples for their refusal to repent of their sins and worship Him. Lamenting this fate, the Sons of Korah show their own repentance and seek God to reverse His condemnation of Israel and show mercy and forgiveness to them by redeeming His people.
You Make Us A Byword Among The Nations
Psalm 44:13-16 continues this theme: “You make us a reproach to our neighbors, a scorn and a derision to those all around us. You make us a byword among the nations, a shaking of the head among the peoples. My dishonor is continually before me, and the shame of my face has covered me, because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles, because of the enemy and the avenger.”
We see here a very descriptive picture of the shame and humiliation of Israel as a result of their defeats because of God’s anger and hostility towards His disobedient and rebellious people. National sin brings about the removal of God’s favor and blessings and God’s judgment for disobedience and rebellion against His laws and His ways, which brings Israel into shame and captivity for the nation around. Instead of being a positive example of godliness, God’s people become an object lesson in God’s judgment against the sin and corruption that run rampant in human societies.
Let us further note that those who are morally sensitive feel the shame and reproach of God’s judgment, and are filled with sorrow and grief over their shameful state. They recognize that God has used defeat and captivity in vengeance for the disobedience of God’s people, and feel humiliated by the scorn and hostility of other nations, who wag their fingers and taunt the helpless captives and defeated prisoners of God’s people, saying that their God has abandoned them and that they are worthless chattel. This shame and humiliation burns within the psalmist of the Sons of Korah, the knowledge of the treatment of captives and the horror of captivity causing great anguish and discomfort.
Nor Have We Dealt Falsely With Your Covenant
Psalm 44:17-19 brings up an intriguing contrast, though: “All this has come upon us; but we have not forgotten You, nor have we dealt falsely with Your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from Your way; but you have severely broken us in the place of jackals, and covered us with the shadow of death.”
Here the psalmist of the Sons of Korah calls out to God for the deliverance of the righteous remnant, of which he is a part of. He says that he is among those who have not betrayed God’s covenant, have not behaved treacherously or disobediently, and yet despite this faithfulness to God he (and others like him) have been cast in the wilderness and covered with the threat of an inglorious death.
We should therefore note from this passage that the palmist recognize that had he disobeyed God and rejected His covenant, and had he turned back in his heart towards the idolatry and sin of Egypt (as the older generation in the wilderness turned back with the Golden Calf and when the spies returned from their espionage mission), then he would deserve the harsh judgment of God and destruction. Indeed, the psalmist, by pointing out his righteousness and obedience, is calling upon God to be faithful to His covenant and deliver him (and those like him) from destruction. Why should the righteous be destroyed with the unrighteous? Why should God’s people be slain like sheep without pity, and die the death of a fool? Why should they suffer shame and dishonor? Why, indeed.
For He Knows The Secrets Of The Heart
Psalm 44:20-22 continues: “If we had forgotten the name of our God, or stretched out our hands to a foreign god, would not God search this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart. Yet for your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
This particular passage was quoted in Romans 8:36 by Paul as a sign that the righteous of God often suffer grave misfortunes to show the injustice and evil of the world. It is in light of this injustice that this psalm must be viewed. Those who suffer unjustly will be rewarded for having borne their suffering patiently, but it is no credit to those who are patient if they are beaten for their own faults. Those who suffer without a cause follow the example of Jesus Christ, who was killed for our transgressions, beaten for our faults, yet was without sin or blemish Himself.
Therefore the psalmist, in calling out to the God who knows the heart and mind of every man, is pointing out that God is judging the righteous with trials and tribulations, knowing that they are pure of heart and obey Him. Therefore the sufferings of the godly, in exposing the wickedness and unrighteousness of the world, put us in the same place as Jesus Christ was put in suffering unrighteously and without a cause, and therefore brings us (in the future) to far greater blessings. That is the other side of this gloomy and melancholy picture presented by the psalmist.
Arise! Do Not Cast Us Off Forever
Psalm 44:23-26 closes the psalm as follows: “Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Arise! Do not cast us off forever. Why do You hide Your face, and forget our affliction and our oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our body clings to the ground. Arise for our help, and redeem us for Your mercies’ sake.”
This closing shows that the people of God, when faced with the trials of oppression and captivity, see God as asleep and not working on their behalf, and they long for God to rise up and avenge them, to show His mercy to His people once again, as He has so often before in history. This intense longing helps make Psalm 44 such a moving and eloquent psalm. By asking God not to cast off His people forever, they are showing their concern for eternal destiny, show a knowledge of God’s salvation and plan for redemption, and long for God to rule over His creation in righteousness. We all ought to share that longing, and it ought not to require us to be in captivity and suffering abuse and humiliation for us to see the need for God’s righteous rule.
The Purpose of Psalm 44
Psalm 44, as a community lament, has the purpose of calling to God during times of captivity and trouble for God to deliver His righteous remnant from the judgment that has come upon the unrighteous and rebellious among His people. Throughout history there have been many occasions where the state of sinfulness and rebellion to God’s laws has brought Israel into judgment, and this psalm, in speaking with the voice of the righteous remnant, calls upon God to distinguish them from the ungodly and show mercy to those who faithfully obey despite the shame and humiliation of defeat for national sin. For God’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save, but our sins have cut us off from God, removed our glory in battle, and brought us into shame and humiliation to the nations around us. Will we repent and seek His grace and mercy to cover us?
The Relative Popularity of Psalm 44
Unlike many of the Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Psalm 44 is relatively well known. Though many of the arrangements of this hymn have focused on the positive and not on the gloom and misery of the psalmist (such as “O God We Have Heard”), thus slanting the psalm a slight bit and making its sufferings less acute, nonetheless the recognition of the importance of God’s power rather than our own is a point that is sufficiently easy to see for Psalm 44’s value to be well-recognized and celebrated. The connection between national sin and national judgment in military and economic terms (through military defeat, captivity, and slavery) is an important one to recognize, and the relative popularity of this psalm demonstrates that at least some people have been able to see the hand of God in the workings of military affairs, international relations, and the state of nations.
Let us therefore note that this psalm makes some very strong and worthwhile points for us to consider. For one, it is the strength of God and not our own strength that is decisive in military conflict. God has delivered us in the past, and if we repent of our sins and call on Him, we will deliver us again according to His will (and not our own), and His timing (and not our own). God judges nations (and not only people) for sins and their cultural corruption, and the shame of national collapse falls upon those who have remained righteous and do not deserve such humiliation. Yet the righteous have often suffered without a cause in this cruel and unjust world, and in bearing such suffering patiently we follow the example of our Lord and Savior who was killed for our sakes that we might be redeemed from the death penalty due for our sins against God. But let God relent His judgment against us, so that we shall be saved.