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Here we go.
Psalm 44:1-8 is a remembrance of God’s many victories for Israel. The psalmist is reflecting back on Israel’s history and the many stories handed down to them of God winning their wars for them. It speaks of God’s power and his love for his people. The psalmist boasts of God and says he and the people will praise God forever.
“But now…” begins verse 9, and everything completely changes. But now you have rejected and humbled us; you no longer go out with our armies…our adversaries have plundered us…You gave us up to be devoured like sheep and have scattered us among the nations. You sold your people for a pittance…I live in disgrace all day long…at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me.
At this point, Psalm 44 is playing out a predictable Old Testament pattern that follows the old covenant. The old covenant was an agreement between God and his people that if they obeyed, he’d bless them and if they disobeyed, he’d curse them (Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28). You see this all throughout the narratives of the Old Testament. Israel stays faithful to God and they receive his blessing. Living within blessing causes them to get overly comfortable and they stray away from God, worshiping the idols of neighboring nations. God then punishes / curses them for worshiping idols. Then they eventually wear out from the pain of the curses and they come back to God in repentance, and the cycle continues.
That’s what you’d expect to see here. You’d expect to see the next section of Psalm 44 be about repentance for breaking the covenant and asking God to forgive them and bring them back into his blessing. But that’s not what we see. Verse 17 is very explicit when it says, “All this came upon us, though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path.”
According to the psalmist, Israel hadn’t broken her end of the deal. “But you crushed us…” But you crushed us anyway. But God was breaking his end, according to the perspective of the psalmist. Verse 20 goes back to the theme of the covenant, again giving evidence that they had not forgotten God or worshiped idols.
There is a doom and gloom to this psalm, and one that is even worse than the actual suffering of the psalmist. The psalm ends with a description of facing death all day long, being as sheep to be slaughtered, accusing God of sleeping on the job, being rejected by God forever, God forgetting their misery and oppression, being brought down to the dust, bodies clinging to the ground, and a final cry to God to rise up and help, to rescue because of his unfailing love.
And that’s it. There’s no good news beyond this. There’s no final triumphant verse of, “And then you rose up and vindicated us! You showed your great love by rescuing us from our enemies. Praise be to the name of the Lord!” That verse and that ending simply isn’t here.
This psalm feels like it was written someone during or after Israel’s exile to Assyria and/or Bablyon because it speaks (verse 11) of being scattered among the nations and the imagery of being a byword among the nations. It gives the impression of holding no political or military power, which would certainly fit that extended era as well. Unlike the psalmist’s defense plea, Israel certainly had broken their covenant with God by that point, which is why they were removed from the Promised Land by God. But the point is, the psalmist and his people were suffering mightily during the period of this writing and there seemed to be no help on the horizon. They were serving him faithfully at this point and nothing was changing. God had made promises to them and he wasn’t fulfilling those promises. This psalm is like the hard-to-watch second movie of a hero trilogy. In most hero trilogies, the second movie or book is the one where the bad guys flex their muscles and gain significant victory. Hence the title of the second Star Wars movie: The Empire Strikes Back. And they do. Most of The Empire Strikes Back is filled with victories by the Empire (the bad guys!) and the feeling that nothing could defeat such a powerful foe. This is also the feeling in the Old Testament after the exile and before the Messiah. We can look back on the Old Testament with the lens of victorious Jesus, but the people experiencing this level of suffering and what felt like being forsaken by God did not have that lens. They awaited a Messiah to save them, but they had no timeline whatsoever for an event that took many generations to finally come about. (And it certainly came about in a way they weren’t expecting)
But better than George Lucas or Steven Spielberg could have written it, did verse 22 ring any bells for you as you read?
Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
The quotation of this verse can be found in Romans 8, which is in my opinion the most triumphant gospel passage in the entire Bible. It can be found smack in the middle of the third movie of the hero trilogy. The movie where the hero shows up, rescues humanity, and flexes his absolute authority over the forces of evil, bringing their utter ruin. Here is Romans 8:35-39. Read and pay attention to how divergent a path the story takes following the “sheep to be slaughtered” line, in contrast to Psalm 44:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul (the author of Romans) literally just writes: No. Yeah you’ve heard Psalm 44 before, you thought that’s how the story ended. NO. That’s not how it ends. Yeah all that stuff happened and continues to happen: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, et al. But it doesn’t get the last word. It doesn’t get the final victory. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. And guess what? Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
God hadn’t abandoned his people. God hadn’t abandoned his promises. The answer was Jesus. And the answer still is Jesus. The primary purpose of the Old Testament is to bring Jesus and to point people to Jesus. It’s to see our utter need for Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior we are in desperate need of. The greatest blessing in the world is not land or affluence or military victory or even alleviation of suffering, it is Jesus. He came to this earth, walked on this dirt, died on a cross for our sins to save all those who will believe in him, and resurrected from the dead three days later. Jesus is the answer to the psalmist’s pain in Psalm 44 and he is the answer to my pain and to your pain.
“And then you rose up and vindicated us! You showed your great love by rescuing us from our enemies. Praise be to the name of the Lord!”
Invitation to reflection:
Prayer for the day: Jesus, thank you! Thank you for saving me. Thank you for saving the world. Thank you for conquering Satan and evil. Thank you for your authority over the grave. Help me to rejoice in the joy of my salvation and in the peace of your presence, even in the midst of my daily struggle and suffering. Bring peace and deliverance to those who are suffering. May your name be known through my life and throughout the earth.
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