Text: Psalm 44
A friend of mine from seminary posted a video on his Facebook page this last week. In the video, a teenager performs a song in which he talks about the many problems he faces as one who lives in the First World. He complains about how hard the ice cream is to scoop out, not being able to hear over the vacuum cleaner, not having the right connections for his media player in the sports car he drives, having to get up to cross the room to get the charger and cord because his laptop battery is running low, constant texts on his cell phone while he is trying to play a game, and an incessant beep from some device – is it the automatic Roomba vacuum cleaner in his room, the convection oven, the microwave, the coffee pot, or his sister’s telephone? Then he talks about killing a spider with a dollar bill because he didn’t have a tissue nearby.
The video pokes fun at the kinds of things we complain about in our society, things that other people in the world only wish they had an opportunity to complain about. Certainly, the video is over-the-top, and hopefully most of us have matured beyond the level of complaining that the song speaks of, but it also reveals something about or society.
We are accustomed to prosperity, success, freedom, ease, and peace – even if we do have tens of thousands of troops stationed in active conflict in various parts of the world, the conflict is not here. We can no longer even imagine life without them. We justify our expectation of them by telling ourselves that they are the blessings of God given to us as a divine right because we are a Christian nation that desires (or at least desired at one time) to propagate that throughout the world. Two Great Awakenings in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries led to the establishment of mission agencies and boards – including our own Southern Baptist Convention We have done so well by God, we tell ourselves, so of course He is going to bless us.
The prosperity gospel and certain readings of Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez have comforted us with a theology that if we do our part – if we believe enough, give enough, serve enough, love enough, attend church enough, read the Bible enough, pray enough, and so on, then God is virtually obligated by His promises to unleash the floodgates of His blessings on us for us to enjoy. The very blessings that we, like the Israelites in the desert about their manna, start to take for granted and then, like the first world song, begin all too readily to complain about.
We are justified in our belief that God desires to bless us. We believe it because we were taught about God’s desire to bless us by no less than God Himself. Consider Jesus’ own words from Matthew 7:7-11. He says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?”
And then there is this verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The verse that we flock to when things we don’t understand and that don’t seem to mesh with the good life we expect from God start happening to us or around us. It is Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God indeed wants good things for us. He even insures that all things that happen to us turn out good in the end for we who believe. He promises to bring better good out of them than we can begin to think or imagine.
So it is right – even Scriptural – for us to expect for God to act in our favor, for our good. God blesses those He loves, and He loves the ones who love Him. We know this. And the people of Israel in the days that Psalm 44 describes also knew this. Verses 1-3 declare how they had heard the great stories from days gone by about the things God had performed for their forbears. The call of Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans, the trip to Egypt by Joseph and then his brothers, the Exodus with its many miraculous signs, the desert wanderings and murmurings, the triumphs of Joshua. All of these things they had heard and were enjoying the fruits of them. And they recognized that the victories of their fathers did not come by their own might, as verse 3 makes clear. “For not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them.”
It is the leader of the people – the king himself, if the psalm comes from the era of the monarchy – who speaks the words of verses 4-8. And the king recognizes that salvation for Israel is from Israel’s God alone and no other power or might. Every victory is a testimony to God. Bows and swords cannot ensure safety. Any trust placed in such things is misplaced trust. The only true salvation is in God. And the people of Psalm 44 have themselves experienced God’s saving hand before. Verse 7, “But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us.”
The people have their theology right. They do their praise and thanksgiving right. They honor God correctly. They worship him appropriately. They attribute to God all of the things that are His alone. They hold nothing back for themselves. Verse 8, “In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever.” These people aren’t perfect. They don’t claim to be. But they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. They understand their lives and safety are from God, and they praise Him for His protection and honor Him for His provision.
This is a picture of the covenant operating just as it should. God loving and protecting His people, Israel, and Israel loving, worshipping, and thanking God for His constant care and guidance. Do they still need the sacrifices and the Day of Atonement for their righteousness? Yes, of course they do, they are under the Mosaic Law and covenant and they are still sinners. But they are upholding their end of the bargain. They are doing their part of the covenant. They are fulfilling what they have been told is their obligation to fulfill in order to stay in the good will of God. They are doing everything that they are supposed to do. And because of that, they expect God to uphold His end of the deal, too. They expect God to provide, to guide, to guard, to fight, and to do all of the things that God promised to them that He would do for them. That’s what they are expecting and looking for.
So we come to two of the most challenging words in Scripture. Any time you see these words in Scripture, pay attention, because the unexpected is about to happen. Verse 9, “But you.” In other places, it’s “But God.” Amidst all of the great expectations of God, there is this: “But you.” And in this case, the rest of the psalm is entirely inexplicable based on what we have learned of God’s people in verses 1-8.
Instead of being their protector and guardian, God has “rejected” and “disgraced” them. He has failed to go out with their armies and caused enemies to defeat and despoil them. They have been carried abroad, sold for nothing. They have been made a laughingstock in front of the nations. The king, according to verse 15, is utterly ashamed to even admit that he follows such a God. He covers his face. They are expecting first world blessings and getting the worst of third world persecution and hardship instead.
And so the people remind God beginning in verse 17, “All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way.” In verse 20 they understand, “If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.” The implication is that they have not done such things, or certainly God would already know about it and be justified in his abandoning of them. They would have every reason to expect the results they were seeing. But they had not abandoned, forgotten, or insulted God by committing adultery with foreign gods. Even so, “Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
So what do you do when you are doing everything you are supposed to do in order to remain in God’s favor and enjoy His blessings, but you are deprived of them just the same? What happens when you have faith greater than a mustard seed, but the mountain remains as immovable as ever? What happens when you trust that God will heal you, or that God will provide for you in the economic difficulties or the midst of job loss, and yet He does not? What do you do when you are doing everything righteous that you are supposed to be doing – tithing, reading the Bible, serving one another, evangelizing the lost, prayer consistently and deeply, teaching and leading at church – all the things a “good Christian” should be doing, and you wind up with nothing to show for it? What happens when your testimony of hardship isn’t the storybook ending we prefer to hear when someone gets up to talk about what God is doing in our lives?
What happens when our lives look a lot less like the amazing redemption of a drug-dealer turned preacher and a lot more like Job in Job 3, where he has lost everything and more, and he begins to lament his own birth? What happens when none of the promises of God that you claim ever come through, as if God is silent or asleep or ambivalent or even hostile to you?
It happens far more than we would like to admit. Too many prayers and petitions that go seemingly unanswered. Too many dead ends where the paycheck ran out and the mysterious benefactor’s check never appeared in the mailbox “just in the nick of time” as the stories tell us it will. These testimonies about God we never talk about or hear. The people hang their head, shaking it, wondering where this omnipresent and omnipotent and loving God is for them in the midst of their chronic debilitating disease, their years-long hunt for a job – any job, their constant bombardment by bad news and abuse from all sides. Perhaps you know this story all-too-well.
What happens when you do everything right, and everything right isn’t enough for God to notice you?
The people of Psalm 44 begin to do what Elijah taunted the prophets of Baal to do when that idol was refusing to send down fire for their offering. “Awake!” the people of Psalm 44 shout to God, “Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.” And then the last verse of the psalm, “Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!”
In the end, with nowhere to turn, not even to God, the people turn to the only place they can turn: they turn to God. They realize something. They realize that even though their understanding of God, their theology, cannot possibly make any sense out of what is going on. Even though their circumstances do not mesh with the stories they have heard about God, or the promises they have been taught to expect from God. Even though life with God is impossible, God is their trust. He is the only one to help them, even if He is the very one who has turned against them and brought them to this predicament.
Paul actually quotes from Psalm 44 in one of his letters. Let me read it to you in its context.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written [and here is the quote from Psalm 44], ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This section comes just three verses after what I quoted from Paul earlier in Romans 8:28, about all things working for good for those who believe. This is the end of Romans 8, verses 31-39.
Here then is the answer to the dilemma of what we do when God apparently turns away from us, even when we are desperately seeking Him. In such circumstances, we trust Him more. For the truth is still the truth. God is still God. His love for us does not end or change. Nothing takes it away, nothing separates us from it. The people of Psalm 44 in the end continued to seek God, even in their darkest trial that was physical, emotional, and theological. They persevered. So, too, must we.
There is a song that is being played regularly on the Contemporary Christian radio station by Laura Story. The ending chorus goes like this:
Cause what if Your blessings come through raindrops
What if Your healing comes through tears
And what if a thousand sleepless nights
Are what it takes to know You’re near
What if my greatest disappointments
Or the achings of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy
And what if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are Your mercies in disguise
We often cannot fathom thinking of hardships and difficulties in this way, as the continuing mercies of God. And yet they are just that. The best things, the greatest blessings, are not in this life. God is reserving those for our sin-free eternity with Him.
So in those dark moments when all seems lost and God seems silent and distant, remember this. He is not. His mercies run deeper than the darkest tunnel. They run right through the greatest hardship of blood shed on a cross and a body broken for you and for me. Remember this. And we remember this now, as we gather at the table of our Lord together.
Will you join me there?