<To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Maskil.>
1 We have heard with our ears, O God, our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old:
2 you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free;
3 for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory;
but your right hand, and your arm, and the light of your countenance, for you delighted in them.
4 You are my King and my God; you command victories for Jacob.
5 Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down our assailants.
6 For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
7 But you have saved us from our foes, and have put to confusion those who hate us.
8 In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
9 Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies.
10 You made us turn back from the foe, and our enemies have gotten spoil.
11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.
13 You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.
15 All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face
16 at the words of the taunters and revilers, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
17 All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant.
18 Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way,
19 yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god,
21 would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22 Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24 Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
Psalm 44 is an audacious psalm of a community that dares to articulate their disappointment with God’s perceived faithfulness. The psalm moves sequentially from the plural voice of the speaking community to the singular voice of a leader in a responsive plea as we move through the psalm. The community remembers the past, the stories they heard of how God did act in powerful ways in the days of their ancestors and contrasts the promises of their ancestors with their experience of God’s inattention to the covenant God made with the people. The people, amid their crisis, have expected more of God in the present and boldly demand more of God for the future.
Working through books like the Psalms and Jeremiah have made me realize how impoverished much Christian spirituality is because of our unfamiliarity with the protests of the prophets and the laments of the psalmists. Our Jewish ancestors and contemporaries in the faith tend to speak more openly in protest to God when unjust suffering is felt by the individual or by the nation. The Hebrew scriptures have the entire book of Job which wrestles with, but never truly answers, the question of unjust suffering. The faithful need a way to express their anger, disappointment and perplexity when the unfairness of the world causes the faithful to suffer when they have done nothing to merit that suffering. They need to trust that God can hear and will act on these audacious cries of the community.
As I was reflecting on this Psalm I was reminded of the powerful and painful words of Zvi Kolitz’s fictional Jewish man dying in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in Yosl Rakover Talks to God:
I die at peace, but not pacified, conquered and beaten but not enslaved, bitter but not disappointed, a believer but not a supplicant, a lover of God but not His blind Amen-sayer.
I have followed Him, even when he pushed me away. I have obeyed his commandments, even when He scourged me for it. I have loved him, I have been in love with Him and remained so, even when He made me lower than dust, tormented me to death, abandoned me to shame and mockery…
Here, then, are my last words to You, my angry God: None of this will avail you in the least! You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I lived, an unshakable [sic] believer in You. (Davis, 2001, p. 134)
In this psalm the Jewish ancestors, who handed on their tradition and faith to Zvi Kolitz, have continued to believe and trust in God when God appears to have abandoned them to shame and mockery. The psalmist can love God but is not pacified and will not be God’s blind amen speaker. They call upon the traditions and stories of their people, the resilience of their faith and their covenant with God and demand that God be the God that the covenant promised.
The first three verses of the psalm are spoken in the assembled voice of a community demonstrating that the actions of God in the past have been handed on from generation to generation to the present community. The specific memory recalled is the memory of the book of Joshua when the people of Israel is brought into the promised land by the strength of God’s action rather than their own military prowess. God is remembered as the one who uprooted their enemies and planted them in a land that they now consider their home. God acted on their behalf and against their enemies. In the fourth verse an individual speaks of their allegiance to God and their reliance upon the strength of God. In verse five the community responds that it is through God’s power that they can triumph over their foes and adversaries. Verse six returns to the voice of an individual stating that their own weapons of war cannot deliver them. Verses seven and eight conclude this liturgical back and forth in the voice of the people stating that God has saved them, confused those who hate them and in response they have boasted and given thanks. The first eight verses echo with the sounds of remembrance, praise and thanks but something has changed in the community’s life that will reverberate in the remaining two thirds of the psalm. Something has turned the community that boasts in God and gives thanks into a community that will accuse God.
Yet becomes the pivot point of the psalm. In verse nine we abruptly pivot from adoration to abandonment. God was the one who was trustworthy in the past for the ancestors of the psalmist, but God seems to have left the people on their own in their current crisis. In a conversation when you have a string of compliments followed by a ‘but’ or in this case a ‘yet’ everything before recedes into the background. In the psalm the ‘yet’ allows the action of God for God’s people in the past to recede from view as the current experience of rejection and abandonment comes forward to occupy the central position in the community of the speaker. The present has overwhelmed the past. The experience of God’s absence at this critical time in the community’s life highlights several difficult questions.
Rabbinic tradition links Psalm 44 to the time of the persecutions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned as a part of the Seleucid Empire between 168 and 164 BCE. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 409) If this is the case it would make it one of the later pieces of the Hebrew Scriptures, written in a similar time to the book of Daniel in most scholars estimation. The reason this time period would be significant in the story of the people of Jerusalem is that it also marks one of the points when a foreign empire would attempt to disrupt the worship of the God of Israel and force the Jewish people to conform to the Hellenistic beliefs and practices of the empire. Those who remained faithful were subject to persecution or execution as Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted use military force to enforce conformity. The Jewish uprising in 167 or 168 BCE would eventually be successful allowing the reestablishment of the temple and a brief period of independence for the Judean people. The rededication of the temple after this revolt is celebrated in Hanukkah each year and is told in the narratives of 1 and 2 Maccabees, which is a part of the apocrypha for many Christians.
Whether the situation in the psalm refers concretely to the persecution under Antiochus IV or another situation of crisis it brings the community to the point where they wrestle with the perceived absence of God in a critical situation. The psalm moves beyond lament and into accusation. As Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Jr. can state insightfully: “Verses 9-12 describe the defeat of Israel with a series of “you” statements that fix the blame singularly on YHWH, from whom better had been expected.” (Brueggeman, 2014, pp. 209-210) The accusations are told in terms of a military defeat with the language of plunder, in the agricultural language of sheep led to slaughter, in the language of the marketplace where the people are sold for a small price showing their insignificance to their master, and finally in the language of honor where the people’s honor is mocked by their neighbors and they have become a byword, a pithy example, of shame among the nations. In this psalm their God has failed to be the warrior they could trust in, the good shepherd who would lead them faithfully, the God who held them as a treasured possession, and the one who by honoring the name of God would allow them to be honored among the nations. At this critical moment God has failed to live up to the terms of the promises God made to the people. The pain and disappointment of the moment has transformed into a “moral claim against God.” (Brueggeman, 2014, p. 211)
Even though it appears that God has broken faith with the people the people have not broken faith with God. As the poet and their community wrestle with why they are suffering unjustly they look and examine if they have turned away from God in some manner and their answer is ‘No.’ They have not forgotten, they have remembered. The psalmist is confident that they have remained faithful to the covenant that God made with them and so they utter these words in protest at the way God appears to have defaulted on the covenant. Yet, even during the accusations and disappointment the psalmist knows that the resolution relies upon God’s action. They demand God rouse, awake, cease hiding, remember and redeem. They have been sold yet they can be bought again, they have experienced death, but they trust that God can bring life, they have experienced defeat but if God again fights for them, they will experience victory. They call upon the hesed (steadfast love) of God as their only hope of redemption.
This experience of isolation is brought into one of the great expressions of God’s unwavering faithfulness when the twenty second verse of this psalm is placed in the middle of the Paul’s triumphal statement that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord in Romans 8: 31-39. Paul argues to the early Christians that even when they experience situations where they may perceive their own weakness and their distance from God that God’s steadfast love, experienced in Christ, will not be broken. One of the gifts of having both Psalm 44 and Romans 8 is being able to hold faith and experience in tension. There may be times where it feels like God is absent or has failed to uphold God’s promises to the individual or the community and yet the faith insists that God’s steadfast love will ultimately overcome the separation. If this is the psalm of a community that endured the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanies IV it would also be the psalm of a community that would see that tyrants reign end and their redemption come. They saw God’s redemption and could see their circumstances transformed from dishonor to honor. Yet, not every situation has a happy ending and there may be some within the people of faith who can utter at the end the fictional words quoted above:
You have done everything to make me lose my faith in You, to make me cease to believe in You. But I die exactly as I lived, an unshakable [sic] believer in You
One of the gifts of the scriptures we have is that they are broad enough to accommodate the various experiences of the faithful ones and give language for their prayers in the times of isolation and celebration. Psalm forty-four is a prayer from the place of isolation that boldly demands that God uphold God’s promises and has the courage to accuse God based upon the faithful one’s experience of suffering.