You wouldn’t think a psalm on God not answering prayer and leaving people suffer could be positive but the gritty reality presented in Psalm 44 is encouraging in an alternative kind of way. In considering this psalm of lament we are reminded that:
- This is how life is. It is not all chocolates and roses, there is pain
- God expects and accepts the strained questioning of people who do not understand the pain in their life
- Bewilderment and concern is a valid part of a faithful life and is not something we should bottle up and hide
God has called us to be disciples – He knows what his children endure and Psalm 44 demonstrates not only His knowledge but also His acceptance of the response to trial in the lives of the faithful.
Background – Psalms are a collection
The book of Psalms is a collection of works which were accumulated over a long period of time. As some commentators note, it is clear from hints within Psalms itself that various collections arose which were at some point consolidated into a “collection of collections” as we have today.1 Evidence of this is clear in Psalm 72:20 which says, “the prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended” yet the collection of Psalms has further Davidic compositions. The Jewish Midrash states:
“Moses gave to the Israelites the five books of the Torah, and coordinate therewith David gave them the five books of the Psalms” (Midr. Ps. 1:1).2
In addition to the division into five books there are clearly sub-collections like the Songs of Ascent.
The transmission of the text seems assured by the enduring popularity of the Psalms. Their popularity today as a source of inspiration and worship music continues a long tradition, which goes back to the ancient time. There are some minor anomalies which gently prod some of our assumptions about the text and its transmission. For example, in the LXX, psalm 9 and 10 are one as are 114- 115. On the other-hand 116 and 147 are both split into two.3 There is also the repetition of Psa 18 in 2 Sam 22 with “numerous minor divergencies”.4
What does this demonstrate? That the Psalms were collections which, in their arrangement if not composition, were modified for the needs of the faithful over time. As Luther said:
“[T]he greatest thing in the Psalter [is] this earnest speaking amid these storm winds of every kind…Where does one find finer words of joy than in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving? There you look into the hearts of all the saints, as into fair and pleasant gardens…On the other hand, where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the heart of all the saints…5
The following representation of the Psalms is from Faithlife6 and shows the Psalms by author and genre (blue represents lament, red praise, green thanksgiving, orange royal and yellow are wisdom psalms).
What is immediately apparent is that David, the man after God’s own heart (i.e. thinking) and is credited with nearly a third of the psalms, dominates the lament category. This simple visual representation powerfully makes the point expressed by Moberly that:
the predominance of laments at the very heart of Israel’s prayers means that the problems that give rise to lament are not something marginal or unusual but rather are central to the life of faith.…the experience of anguish and puzzlement in the life of faith is not a sign of deficient faith, something to be outgrown or put behind one, but rather is intrinsic to the very nature of faith.7
These are fine words which everyone intellectually agrees with. But when someone is chased by the demons of their past into questioning God and their faith how do we react? Do we default to seeing their struggle as a normal part of discipleship or do we write them off (and worse cut them off) as a spiritual failure? Lament and questions are normal. This means we need to demonstrate patience and learn to think the best of a struggling fellow. So too in our own life we must accept sometimes our faith will be heavy, the road long and light at the end of the tunnel invisible. The psalms reflect this reality in the life of saints past. Our unchanging God models how we should personally and collectively accept and react to the laments life brings.
The specific background to Psalm 44
The Psalm yields few clues as to the timing of its composition. Some features which provide broad clues (some of which are admittedly the absence of evidence):
- The historical saving acts of God include the exodus and conquest, nothing else. V2-3
- Both the leader (v4,6 & 8) and the community (v17-19) was confident in their covenantal faithfulness
- There is no mention of the Davidic line or covenant
- There is no mention of Jerusalem or the temple
This gives us a wide remit of possible times where the Psalm could fit into the history of Israel/Judah. Dating is further complicated by the incomplete historical record in Samuel/Kings and Chronicles. These books had theological rather than historical purposes, so are historically incomplete. Known examples of missing history include:
- Major victories by unfaithful kings are not reported on, for example Ahab’s major contribution in pushing back the Assyrian’s in 853BC8 in the battle of Qarqar.
- Defeats/reversals by faithful kings are not necessarily included. For example, David experienced defeat and feared the future in his battles in Edom according to Psalm 60 but 2 Sam 10 and 1 Chron 19 we only read of a glorious and uncomplicated victory.
Some commentators state the psalm is dated by Rabbinic sources to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes9, whose cruel persecutions led to the Maccabean revolt. However, while this fits what clues the psalm yields, certainty is beyond us. The psalm could quite possibly have had many reworkings in any case if it was first oral then written.
The important point from the background is exactly that the timing is not known. This makes it applicable to everyone. There is no historical context where we can finalise a consideration of the psalm by seeing that ‘God made everything all right in the end’. No. The psalm is true to its message of inexplicable, continued suffering. Thereby God has given his people a piece which fully reflects the pain of unresolved trials.
Title and structure
Waltke highlights the highly stylised structure of the psalm, noting it consists of four essential parts each of which has two strophes. Part one, their declaration of faith contains two strophes each of 5 lines. The second complaint of suffering has two strophes each of 4 lines. The third section of their protests of innocence contains three lines per strophe. The final section of their petitions contains two lines for each strophe.10Such intricacies are hidden from the English reader, we must rely on the experts to detect them.
The Psalm alternatives between the voice of a leader (we cannot tell if this is a king or a tribal chief or war captain) and the general community. This change in voice is evident in the shift from plural to singular through the psalm.
What all of this demonstrates is that Psalm 44 is no improvised composition but a considered structured appeal. It was a community lament rather than an individual one.
Praise for past intervention v1-8
The psalm commences with a declaration of faith in God. The community states they have heard of God’s assistance given to Joshua. This points to the quality of this community immediately. Deut 6 instructed Israel to pass on the oral traditions about God’s dealing with the nation. They were to “keep these words…recite them to your children when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” Deut 6:6-7. This community affirm they have deep roots in the faith – they have inherited and maintained these oral traditions. Furthermore, they affirm that God have given Joshua victory and their ancestors the promised land. This is consistent with the explicit promises of the Torah e.g. Deut 6:18-19
Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised
This community affirm God had done as He promised. Furthermore, they anticipate that with God’s aid they will push down’ their enemies. The Hebrew is “a verb meaning to gore, to push. It is used of the goring of a horned animal”11 Interestingly one of the blessings on the two half tribes of Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) in Deut 33:17 was that they would be:
A firstborn bull—majesty is his! His horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he gores the peoples, driving them to the ends of the earth;
However, this was a common metaphor, so we shouldn’t read too much into it (e.g. 2 Chron 18:10). More importantly these people praise God for blessings past and present. In Western society with our typical high locus of control this is an unusual attitude. While maybe more common in the Ancient Near East it was still not universal. Even Joshua (the focus of their historical praise) omitted to seek God before the abortive attack on Ai in Joshua 7 due to perhaps too much self-confidence.
If the psalm ended at verse 8 we would have a wonderful positive psalm, a testimony to the faith of this community as they remembered God’s miracles for them. It would no doubt be the basis of some lovely hymns. But the psalm doesn’t stop….
The lament v9-16
The community instead discuss their awful current reality. They have been defeated badly in war. Many have been sold into slavery and those speaking are the pitiful remnant, a weak mocked rump of the nation. In this context the praise of v1-8 takes on new meaning; achieves new significance. As Walter Brueggemann states commenting on the lament psalms:
The praise has power to transform the pain. But conversely the present pain also keeps the act of praise honest…As praise recontextualizes pain, so pain refocuses praise12
While praise may well transform the pain, it doesn’t make it go away. The pain is real. Sometimes when pain comes the act of shallow sympathy can worsen the problem, by adding a feeling of isolation. Cheery bible quotes, short postcard slogans of God’s enduring love may be well meant but far from being a cold compress are more likely to be another metaphorical brick dropped on the head of the troubled.
Take a common example, Jeremiah 29:11 “I know the plans I have for you”. The well-meaning sharers of this passage (usually set on a pretty nature scene) seem not to realise the good plans God had for the original audience of this message included:
- Living with the knowledge some of your family were dead at the hands of the cruel Babylonians. And some of them were about to be made eunuchs
- They would spend 70 years in Babylon and die there never seeing their land again
- Their city Jerusalem was going to be razed soon and their temple burnt
- Any surviving relatives in Jerusalem would probably die of famine, torture or sword
- And people will keep bugging you to sing the songs of Zion in cheery tones…
The point is in Jer 29:11 their suffering was for their collective intergenerational good, according to God’s plan. But it was no happy postcard, not for the hearers.
Yes, maybe praise recontextualizes pain and sure pain refocuses praise but pain is pain. Assurance that this horrendous circumstance is part of God’s good plan is most likely salt in the wounds of most sufferers. Tellingly there is no cloyingly sweet solution in this psalm either. Reality is acknowledged and faithfully responded to.
Such is the darkness of the situation that Abraham Heschel, a twentieth-century Jewish theologian drew a connection between the psalm and the situation of the Holocaust.13
The events which have struck this group – capable of the model prayer – are bewilderingly identical to the curses on the nation if they were unfaithful to the covenant:
- The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies; you shall go out against them one way and flee before them seven ways Deut 28:25
- You shall become an object of horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples Deut 28:37
- You shall have sons and daughters, but they shall not remain yours, for they shall go into captivity Deut 28:41
- the Lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction Deut 28:63
All of these curses are present according to the lament. The problems of others are so easily diagnosed with a bible in hand. The situation demonstrates the root cause of the problem. For example, if your child is spoilt then the rod must have been spared (unlike my child is the oft unspoken implication or conclusion of such diagnoses!). You reap what you sow (Gal 6:7) is another standby line of those who seek simple causality in preference to deeper scripture context. Sadly you and I can easily accidentally become part of the ridicule and mocking the suffering endure by buying into the error of cause and effect. Other times we don’t need Job’s friends to voice these seemingly logical but incorrect thoughts. We hear the accusatory tones in our own head as our prayers are unanswered.
Psalm 44 is a resolute inspired rejection of such simple and unattractive solutions to the problem of pain.
C. S. Lewis could quite rightly say that pain “is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”.14 However sometimes self-examination comes up blank – there is no simple cause for the pain.
As Christians we are theoretically prepared for suffering. Such was the lot of the saints according the Lord in Matt 5:10 (and in many other places) and Paul is explicit that it is part of being a child of God – Heb 12:6-10. The Old Testament believers had the example of Job perhaps but there was much in Deuteronomy which quite explicitly promised national blessings for covenantal faithfulness – e.g. “Choose life that you may live long in the land” Deut 30:19 and Deut 6 previously referred to. It would be wishful to think we don’t share the same simple causality preferences of Job’s friends and find contradictions of that preference any less challenging than Job did. Just as the community of Psalm 44, such theological trials (added to the physical ones) should engender additional sympathy not condemnation.
The protest of the innocent v 17-21
In summary the community protest to God that they are innocent and God should know that and is welcome to verify it. Now of course these people were not perfect, however they confidently proclaim their covenantal faithfulness in a manner reminiscent of a young David.
They felt like all of God’s purpose with them had been undone. Interesting verse 19 refers to wild dogs/jackals (depending on the translation). Others state the:
word tannîm [should be translated as] sea monster—a singular noun—is preferable in this context, since in many instances in the Psalter, the sea is viewed as a place of chaos. See, e.g., 46:2–3; 65:7; 74:14; 89:9; and 148:7.15
The near east mythology spoke of the sea monster/god of chaos, which was destroyed by Baal in creation. This imagery is sometimes appropriated to the God of Israel (see for example Clines & Davies16 and the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary17). In effect the community is describing themselves as being taken back to the beginning of Gen 1:2 when the earth was watery chaos and in darkness.
Regardless of the hopelessness of the imagery they employ, one thing is clear. This community is faithful and God is not intervening.
The request or demand v22-26
The community concludes they are being killed because of God. He has the power to intervene, they have not broken the covenant so punishment is undeserved. Therefore God’s lack of intervention makes Him responsible.
In contrast to the thoughts of Luther and others, I do not see this as any kind of martyr’s prayer. But these people are not reframing their deaths as service to God. While yes, it is true that:
verse 22 offers us the opportunity to transform our meaningless pain into an opportunity to glorify God. How we choose to respond to undeserved pain is a “kingdom moment,” a moment to reflect values that are not of this world but come only by the power and strength of God.18
This feels like taking the verse out of its context. The people are complaining about God’s inaction, not transforming this into a moment of “suffering for God praise”. Reading the verse as a martyr’s prayer minimises the power of the verse – an inspired honest complaint, the spirit of which speaks clearly to many bewildered by suffering. Rather than transform the passage we should instead take comfort from seeing God accept and preserve such communication as an acceptable response of his suffering people to the troubles of life.
Paul’s use of the passage in Rom 8:35-36 demonstrates this simpler meaning is the better one. Paul uses the passage to demonstrate that the sword will come to the faithful, nothing more or less, in his broader dialogue about the love of God remaining with us regardless of our circumstances.
In their complaint to God they also echo the taunts of Elijah on Mt Carmel toward Baal. This “sleeping deity,” a depiction found in other texts in the ancient Near East.19 To our ear such language sounds borderline blasphemy. Psa 121:3 is clear that God definitely does not slumber or sleep. So here we have an inspired prayer which contradicts other scripture. Surely this demonstrates His tolerance towards people under pressure. While the tone is essentially faithful, it is clearly bewildered and frustrated. ‘Where are you?’ is the question of the people. ‘How does this match your promises and purpose?’ God preserves a prayer where people get right to the edge of faith, challenging God on why He is absent in their time of need.
We saw in the first 8 verses that these people are faithful. We can only conclude God is happy to engage in such dialogue, as Futato says:
When we experience mysterious suffering in the service of the Kingdom, let us take full advantage of the freedom God has given us in Psalm 44, freedom to honestly admit our perplexity, to lament our situation, and to pray for help, depending all the while on God’s unfailing love.20
There is no ‘aha’ moment of restoration in the psalm. We have no happy ending either in the psalm or broader certain context. This lack of a neat conclusion is a blessing, the psalm maintains the power of its suffering and wrestling with God without the pretty resolution which would dilute its power to speak to the suffering.
the recontextualization and transformation in this psalm is incomplete; the speaker is at the threshold of a new understanding but has not entered, and the reader is left to ponder his or her own willingness to enter. The speaker and the reader wait for a new revealing of the unperceived steps of God through the great waters (v 20), which will become a new mystery, a reality not discoverable by ordinary observation. The psalm invites us as readers to ponder the mystery of the “unknown tracks” of God in the midst of our distress. Has his loyal-love (v 9) failed? Can we still trust his promises? Vv 12–21 give us the basis for an affirmative answer, but the decision is ours.21
Ideally we will allow suffering to enhance our endurance, character, and hope, so we are filled with love (despite suffering) per Rom 5:3-5. This requires a long-term view, one which present pain usually makes impossible. Furthermore, it suggests to us that love should silence such pat answers in a friend’s time of need. It is a longer-term truth for the day of recovery, not the day of pain.
God challenges us to enlarge our perspective. God declares he knows the end from the beginning in Isa 46:10 – what to us may be unanswered and unanswerable may well rest within his broader context. His objective and timeframe is our eternal wellbeing. In this longer context his objective is to make us “super conquerors” per Romans 8:37. Recognising this entails that accepting relief is usually not coming in the present age. An understandable demand for immediate answers and relief is essentially looking for a transactional God, one made in our image. Such a deity might be well suited to the simple exchange of law, and short term obedience would equate to guaranteed short term relief from oppression. This is not God’s operating model. He reaches to us with an offer of eternal life and relief – this is the predominant arena of divine intervention today. The suffering of the faithful, whether specifically at God’s intervention or part of the “time and chance” inherent in God’s created order (Eccl 9:11), is ultimately part of His order whereby “he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness” Heb 12:10.
The psalm presents a rather bleak picture of the immediate future of the covenant community. It also highlights the acceptability of robust cries to God rooted in faith but driven by bewilderment and concern at His inaction. In all it challenges our neat preconceptions and preferences with the stark reality of discipleship. This side of the kingdom life can hurt.
- Craigie, P. C. (2004). Psalms 1–50 (2nd ed., Vol. 19, p. 28). Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference & Electronic.
- Ridderbos, N. H., & Craigie, P. C. (1979–1988). Psalms. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 3, p. 1030). Wm. B. Eerdmans.
- Craigie, P. C. (2004). Psalms 1–50 (2nd ed., Vol. 19, p. 42). Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference & Electronic.
- Craigie, P. C. (2004). Psalms 1–50 (2nd ed., Vol. 19, p. 171). Nashville, TN: Nelson Reference & Electronic.
- Ngien, D. (2015). Fruit for the Soul: Luther on the Lament Psalms (p. xxii). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
- Witthoff, D., Lyle, K. A., & Nerdahl, M. (2014). Psalms Form and Structure. (E. Evans, Ed.). Bellingham, WA: Faithlife.
- Waltke, B. K., Houston, J. M., & Moore, E. (2014). The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary (p. 1). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Thiel, W. (1992). Ahab (Person). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), D. M. Elliott (Trans.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1, p. 103). New York: Doubleday.
- deClaissé-Walford, N., & Tanner, B. (2014). Book Two of the Psalter: Psalms 4272. In E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, & R. L. Hubbard Jr. (Eds.), The Book of Psalms (p. 409). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Waltke, B. K., Houston, J. M., & Moore, E. (2014). The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary (pp. 188–189). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Baker, W., & Carpenter, E. E. (2003). The complete word study dictionary: Old Testament (p. 705). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.
- Brueggemann, W. (1988). Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (p. 139). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
- deClaissé-Walford, N., & Tanner, B. (2014). Book Two of the Psalter: Psalms 4272. In E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, & R. L. Hubbard Jr. (Eds.), The Book of Psalms (pp. 409410). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Lewis, C. S. The problem of pain
- deClaissé-Walford, N., Jacobson, R. A., & Tanner, B. L. (2014). The Book of Psalms. (E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, & R. L. Hubbard Jr., Eds.). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Ed Clines & Davies (2002) Yahweh and the Gods and Goddess of Canaan Journal for The Study of The Old Testament Supplement Series 265 London UK, Sheffield Academic Press
- Day, J. (1992). Dragon and Sea, God’s Conflict With. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 2, p. 228). New York: Doubleday.
- Wilson, G. H. (2002). Psalms (Vol. 1, p. 697). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- deClaissé-Walford, N., & Tanner, B. (2014). Book Two of the Psalter: Psalms 4272. In E. J. Young, R. K. Harrison, & R. L. Hubbard Jr. (Eds.), The Book of Psalms (p. 414). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Futato, M. D. (2009). The Book of Psalms. In Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 7: The Book of Psalms, The Book of Proverbs (p. 164). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.
- Tate, M. E. (1998). Psalms 51–100 (Vol. 20, p. 276). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.