Israel had recently experienced defeat. Though perhaps an exilic context, it probably reflects a military defeat in the pre-exilic period (e.g., the invasion of Zerah the Cushite during the reign of righteous Asa in 2 Chron 14:9-10, the invasion of the Moabites during the reign of righteous Jehoshaphat in 2 Chron 20:1, or some other unknown battle). The protestation of innocence does not fit the exilic community (cf. Lamentations). Though the voice of the Psalmist is sometimes singular (44:4, 15-16), the plural indicates it’s communal character though perhaps led by one who represents the people. The king or priest speaks for the people. Israel is bewildered by Yahweh’s hostility and indifference despite their own relative faithfulness, but they nevertheless trust in God’s own ultimate faithfulness to Israel because this is God’s history with Israel. Their communal lament confronts God with complaint and accusation but at the same time appeals to Yahweh’s faithful love.
Psalm 44 may be divided into five stanzas.
- Praise: Memory of God’s Past Acts (1-3)
- Trust: Present Community’s Orientation (4-8)
- Complaint: God’s Unfaithfulness Towards the Community (9-16).
- Protestation of Innocence: The Community’s Faithfulness (17-22)
- Appeal: Divine Aid in the Present (23-26).
The Psalm begins with the past history of God’s faithful acts and the community’s trust in their faithful God. At the center of the Psalm, however, is a complaint directed at God’s seeming unfaithfulness. God has acted against Israel even though the covenant community had been faithful throughout the episode. Despite this incongruence, Israel appeals to their God for redemption. Psalm 44 is the communal lament of a people who, though bewildered, even angry, nevertheless invoke the faithful love of Yahweh.
The stories of God’s mighty acts in Israel’s history shape this poem. They are the background for the communal lament. As Crow comments, “In Israelite thought the Heilsgeschichte [history of salvation, JMH] was not merely a story about the past, but a mythos [a narrative worldview that shaped understanding, JMH] which touched the life of every person.” Israel’s story as a corporate people shapes the individual lives of each person. Israel’s story is their story. But more importantly, it is God’s story. To rehearse God’s acts is not only a mode of praise, but it also evokes expectation of divine action in the present and reminds God of the covenant made with Israel. Kraus rightly notes that the motive clause in verse 3 (“for you loved them”) is a “hidden appeal.”
In contrast with God’s past history with Israel, the present stands in radical contrast (the adversative in verse 9—“but now”). The series of second-person addresses in 9-14 presents God as the actor in the disaster that befell Israel. “The verbal presentation of God as taking drastic action against his people,” Crow states, “is so surprising as to be doubly forceful. Its value is primarily shock.” Israel accuses God and blames God!
The protestations of innocence (17-18, 20-21) are each followed by an adversative (“yet”) that describes God as the responsible party in their suffering (19, 22). The appeal is relational. It is not simply a matter of Israel’s covenant faithfulness, but it is an appeal to the relationship that the covenant formalizes and embodies. The appeal might be characterized as not only the logic of covenant obligations but also the emotional appeal of betrayed relationships. Israel feels betrayed. God has not been faithful to the covenant.
The tension is highlighted by the phrase “all the day” or “all the time” in verses 8, 15 and 22. Israel boasts in God “all day long,” but now their disgrace is before them “all day long” despite the fact that they have faced death for God’s sake “all day long.” Despite Israel’s “all day long” praise and sacrifice, they presently experience disgrace “all day long.” Israel is disappointed with Yahweh. This is also highlighted by the shepherd/sheep motif. The Shepherd watches the sheep slaughtered (44:11, 22), and this creates the question: “where is God?” (44:23-24).
The community appeals to their sleeping giant who is no longer pictured as the aggressor but is inattentive. The appeal, however, is made from the posture of “prostration or self-abasement” where the belly cleaves to the ground (25-26). As Israel prostrates itself, God is exhorted to “arise” on their behalf. “Falling to the ground is the posture taken after Israel lost against Ai (Joshua 7:6), while the six men in Ezekiel’s vision were killing the people of Jerusalem (Ezek. 9:8), and when Pelatiah son of Benayah died (Ezek. 11:13). In all these cases the posture is accompanied by fervent prayer to Yahweh not to destroy his people.”
The final appeal to God’s love brings God’s past salvific acts into the present as the motive or rationale for the petition. The appeal for redemption uses the language of the Exodus (cf. Exod 13:12; Deut 13:6; Micah 6:4; 1 Chron 17:21). God’s story is the norm by which God should act. God will eventually act out faithfulness to that norm which is Yahweh’s faithful love. The petitions (23, 26) frame the questions (24-25). The petitions remind Israel of God’s forever love for them, and this shapes the nature and function of their complaint. Israel complains, but it complains in faith as it appeals to God’s faithful love.
The Psalm is filled with rhetorical and theological tension. “God as the only savior (king) (2-9) is in tension with God as initiator of the disaster which the people experience (10-15).” The covenant faithfulness of the people (18-19, 21-22) is in tension with God’s hiddenness (10-17, 20). This creates an appeal filled with questions, but yet rooted in God’s character.
National or communal disaster evokes disillusionment and disappointment. It should also arouse introspection and self-examination as a communal process. In the process, the community laments—sometimes perhaps in penitent confession, but sometimes (as in Psalm 44) with protestations of innocence. Doubt, frustration, bewilderment, questioning, and complaint often arise in the hearts and prayers of the faithful people of God when they suffer.
The confidence of God’s people is God’s own history with the covenant people. The history of salvation testifies to God’s faithfulness to the covenant even when Israel is disappointed or disillusioned. That history climaxes in Jesus Christ who is the testimony of God’s covenant loyalty. Nothing—no communal or individual disaster or tragedy—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This is how Paul applies Psalm 44 to the new situation that Christ creates. God has demonstrated faithfulness to the divine redemptive intent through Jesus Christ (Romans 8:35-39).
Israel probably read Psalm 44 in times of national distress when there was no seeming reason for the disasters that befell them as in the days of Asa or Jehoshaphat. Narratizing Psalm 44 in the life of Israel is a helpful way of contextualizing it, and it provides a link with our own narrative. Psalm 44 could have been proclaimed, sung and prayed at the Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, MS during June, 1964. On the 17th of that month the African-American church was burned, and on the 21st James Cheney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by seven members of the KKK.
Psalm 44 could have been proclaimed, sung and prayed by Christian churches in southern Sudan where the African Dinka people living in Bahr-El-Ghazal were raided in January 1996. Several of their daughters were taken into slavery.
Psalm 44 might be prayed by Syrian and Iraqi Christians are driven out or slaughtered by the Islamic State in the Middle East.
Psalm 44 is even now proclaimed, sung and prayed in memory of millions who died during the Nazi Holocaust, especially the six million Jews—a million of whom were children. The following is a contemporary Midrash on Psalm 44:
“You desert and shame us” — as they cut our beards and mass-rape our women.
“You do not go out with our armies” — with our resistance.
“You put us to flight from our enemies” — in mass exodus and transports.
“Those who hate us tear us to pieces at will” — using our skins for lampshades and our flesh for soap.
“You hand us over like sheep to be devoured” — in the gas chambers, crematoria, and gang burning-pits.
“You cast us among the nations” — as stateless and displaced persons.
“You sell Your people for nothing” — we are worth less than slaves, less than animals.
“You do not make a profit on their sale price” — our value is precisely calculated for work, starvation, and death.
“You make us an object of shame for our neighbors” — so that no one touches us, in the camps and even after liberation.
“A thing of scorn and derision for those around us” — they toss scraps of bread into the trains of our starving people; they make us defecate in our clothing.
“You make an example of us to the nations” — of degradation and dehumanization, a sign par excellence and a symbol of Jew-hatred.
“An object of head-shaking among the peoples” — in disbelief that something like this is happening to anyone, much less to us, Your chosen people.
In the midst of communal tragedy, the people of God are bewildered by God’s absence. We protest God’s inaction or, more potently, God’s violence against the covenant people, just as Israel did. However, as Israel models for us, we also remember God’s past redemptive deeds and appeal to them. We remember God’s faithful track record.
However, the present seems so incongruent with that past. Why does God sleep? Why does not the shepherd protect the sheep? Has God forgotten the covenant? The present and the past do not line up, and something seems terribly wrong, even wrong with God. Nevertheless, the people of God maintain their covenant commitment as they appeal to God’s faithful love. Given God’s track record, the bewildered and confused community trusts even as it accuses.
The homiletic point is that in the midst of our distress we lament God’s apparent hiddenness, but yet we appeal to the unfailing love that characterizes Yahweh. Our God has a track record—that history with Israel reveals God’s love, particularly the demonstration of that love in Jesus Christ.
Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC 19 (Dallas: Word, 1983), 332.
Based on Loren D. Crow, “The Rhetoric of Psalm 44,” Zeitschrift fur die Altestamentliche Wissenschaft 104 (1992), 394-401 and Ingvar Floysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 59.
Crow, “Rhetoric,” 395.
Hans-Jocahim Kraus, Psalms 1-59 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), 446.
Crow, “Rhetoric,” 397.
Crow, “Rhetoric,” 399-400.
Floysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia, 1997), 57.
J. H. Coetzee, “The Functioning of Elements of Tension in Psalm 44,” Theologia Evangelica 21 (March 1988), 4.
David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox: 1993) 99-100; available at http://www.emory.edu/UDR/BLUMENTHAL/MidrashPs44.html;
*This is part of an essay that first appeared in Performing the Psalms (Chalice Press, 2005), edited by Dave Bland and David Fleer.