PSALM 44 IS AN IMPORTANT FOIL for the themes we have been digesting from the prophets. The major prophets keep drawing a tight link between the sins of Israel and the destruction that God inflicted upon them: the people get what they deserve. Of course, we have come across innocent suffering before, especially in Job and in some Psalms. But here in Psalm 44 is the suffering of an innocent nation.
There were defeats and even deportations (Ps. 44:11) before the exile (see Amos 1:6, 9), so we cannot be certain when this psalm was written. Defeat was not unknown even to good kings (e.g., Ps. 60). Here the psalmist begins by reviewing the past. When the nation was called into existence, everything depended on God’s strong intervention: “it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them” (Ps. 44:3). The psalmist is not looking back to national heroes and bemoaning their contemporary absence. He looks back to God’s power in the past, and insists the nation still relies on God (Ps. 44:6-8). So why the disastrous defeats (Ps. 44:9-16)? Unlike the gross sin denounced by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, here fidelity still triumphs: “All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant. Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path” (Ps. 44:17-18).
At least two hints toward the end of the psalm, though they do not provide “solutions,” invite the reader to reflect on the direction taken by later biblical writers. (1) Sometimes God’s apparent sleep, his withdrawal (Ps. 44:23ff.), is not overt wrath poured out on our sin, but his own timing. He refuses to be hurried, and his “unfailing love” (Ps. 44:26) will triumph in the end. The ebbs and flows of Christian history support the same stance: they do not always correspond with differing degrees of loyalty or different methods. As one commentator (F. D. Kidner) has finely put it, “Although its picture of the sleeping Lord may seem naive to us, it was acted out in the New Testament, to teach a lesson which we still find relevant: cf. verse 23 with Mark 4:38.” (2) More stunningly, the psalmist says it is “for your sake[that] we face death all day long” (Ps. 44:22, italics added). That point is not fully developed until Paul quotes the verse (Rom. 8:36ff.). But already it embraces the notion that some suffering is not the result of our sin but simply the result of being faithful to God in a world at war with him. In such cases suffering is not a sign of defeat but a badge of fidelity and fellowship, even of victory: we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).