As with Psalm 42, this psalm is titled To the Chief Musician. A Contemplation Of the sons of Korah. These sons of Korah were Levites, from the family of Kohath. By David’s time it seems they served in the musical aspect of the temple worship (2 Chronicles 20:19).
Psalm 44 speaks of the nation of Israel in a season of great defeat, calling out to God for rescue. Some have thought it to be a psalm of the exile period or even afterwards in the days of the Maccabees. Yet there is reason enough to keep this psalm in the days of Israel’s monarchy.
Derek Kidner notes that Thomas Cranmer’s Anglican Litany (1544) put together the first and last lines of this psalm “as declaration and petition.” In Cranmer’s Litany the priest said, O god, we have heard with oure eares, and our fathers have declarid unto us the noble workes that thou dyddest in their dayes, and in the olde tyme. The choir was to respond, O lorde, arise, help us, and delyver us for thy honour. Kidner observed, “It was treating the prayer as a Christian inheritance, not merely an Israelite relic.”
A. The great victories of God for Israel, in the past and present.
1. (1-3) God’s victory for Israel in the days of Joshua’s conquest.
We have heard with our ears, O God,
Our fathers have told us,
The deeds You did in their days,
In days of old:
You drove out the nations with Your hand,
But them You planted;
You afflicted the peoples, and cast them out.
For they did not gain possession of the land by their own sword,
Nor did their own arm save them;
But it was Your right hand, Your arm, and the light of Your countenance,
Because You favored them.
a. Our fathers have told us, the deeds You did in their days: The psalmist received a special legacy from his fathers, from their elder generation. Those fathers were careful to tell them what God did in generations past.
i. “They made their mouths as it were books, wherein the noble acts of the Lord might be read to his praise, and to the drawing of their children’s hearts unto him.” (Trapp)
b. You drove out the nations with Your hand, but them You planted: Those of the elder generation told the psalmist of the great work God did when He drove out the Canaanites and planted Israel in the land promised to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
c. They did not gain possession of the land by their own sword…but it was Your right hand: In reading the story of the conquest in the days of Joshua, there were times when Israel did nothing – God alone did the work (Joshua 24:12-13). There were other times when Israel had to fight, but their fighting would have accomplished nothing without the right hand of God on their behalf.
d. The light of Your countenance, because You favored them: This was more important than and prior to having the right hand or arm of the Lord for them. It was more important to have the face and favor of God for them.
i. We note that these were battles and conquests that happened long before the generation immediately before the time of the psalmist. The fathers of Psalm 44:1 spoke not only of what they personally had experienced of God, but they also taught what God did many generations before.
ii. “Our equivalent of this memory would be reflections on our spiritual heritage, on events like the Protestant Reformation, the Wesleyan Revivals, or the Great Awakenings.” (Boice)
2. (4-8) Confident prayer for God’s victory for Israel in the psalmist’s own day.
You are my King, O God;
Command victories for Jacob.
Through You we will push down our enemies;
Through Your name we will trample those who rise up against us.
For I will not trust in my bow,
Nor shall my sword save me.
But You have saved us from our enemies,
And have put to shame those who hated us.
In God we boast all day long,
And praise Your name forever. Selah
a. You are my King, O God; command victories for Jacob: The psalmist received a gift from his fathers – telling of God’s great work in the past. There was a price for that gift; it made the psalmist dissatisfied with any sense that God wasn’t doing the same works in his own day. Therefore he prayed that God command victories for Jacob in the present day, as well as in the stories of the past.
b. Through You we will push down our enemies: The prayer was prayed with faith. With confidence, the psalmist anticipated the answers to his prayers as if already done.
i. We will push down our enemies: “Literally ‘We will toss them in the air with our horn;’ a metaphor taken from an ox or bull tossing the dogs into the air which attack him.” (Clarke)
ii. Push down…trample: “The vivid image of Psalm 44:5 is taken from the manner of fighting common to wild horned animals, buffaloes and the like, who first prostrate their foe by their fierce charge and then trample him.” (Maclaren)
c. I will not trust in my bow, nor shall my sword save me: Speaking on behalf of Israel, the psalmist assured God that their faith was in God and His power, not in their own strength or skill.
i. “In spiritual, as well as temporal warfare, the appointed means are to be used, but not ‘trusted in’; man is to fight, but God giveth the victory; and to him must be ascribed the praise, and the power, and the glory.” (Horne)
d. You have saved us from our enemies: This implies thanks for past victories. The psalmist didn’t speak as if God had done nothing like this before in his own generation.
e. In God we boast all day long, and praise Your name forever: We may suppose that this praise was both for what God had done (in the distant and recent past) and in anticipation for what God would do in answer to the present prayer.
i. “At this point we would expect the psalm to be a thanksgiving psalm, a praise psalm, or a psalm of confidence.” (Boice) The first word of Psalm 44:9 will change the tone completely.
ii. Selah: “A pause comes in fitly here, when we are about to descend from the highest to the lowest key. No longer are we to hear Miriam’s timbrel, but rather Rachel’s weeping.” (Spurgeon)
B. Israel’s crisis, disappointment, and ultimate trust.
1. (9-16) Israel’s defeat and crisis, and the hand of the Lord in it.
But You have cast us off and put us to shame,
And You do not go out with our armies.
You make us turn back from the enemy,
And those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves.
You have given us up like sheep intended for food,
And have scattered us among the nations.
You sell Your people for next to nothing,
And are not enriched by selling them.
You make us a reproach to our neighbors,
A scorn and a derision to those all around us.
You make us a byword among the nations,
A shaking of the head among the peoples.
My dishonor is continually before me,
And the shame of my face has covered me,
Because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles,
Because of the enemy and the avenger.
a. You have cast us off and put us to shame: The psalmist now stated his great present need. They felt that God did not fight for Israel and therefore they were without hope in battle. The key to prevailing over their enemies was to first prevail with God.
i. “Put us to shame; made us ashamed of our boasting, and trust in thee, which we have oft professed to the face of our enemies.” (Poole)
b. You have given us up like sheep intended for food: The psalmist understood that for Israel, as a covenant nation, victory or defeat was in the hand of the LORD. Therefore if they were defeated, scattered, sold into slavery, made a reproach or derision, it was because God’s hand was behind it in some way. Notice the repetition of the word You.
i. “The distress of God’s people deepens with every line of verses 10-12, with rout, spoil, slaughter, scattering and slavery.” (Kidner)
ii. You make us a byword among the nations: “We are evidently abandoned by thee, and are become so very miserable in consequence, that we are a proverb among the people: ‘See the Hebrews! see their misery and wretchedness! see how low the wrath of God has brought down an offending people!’” (Clarke)
iii. “The scattering among the nations (Psalm 44:11) and the people’s clear conscience about idolatry (Psalm 44:17ff.) seem at first sight to indicate post-exilic times for the composition of this psalm; but there were deportations before the exile (cf. Amos 1:6, 9), and such a psalm as the Davidic Psalm 60 (with strong similarities to the present one) is a reminder that defeat was not unknown in the reigns of loyal kings.” (Kidner)
c. My dishonor is continually before me, and the shame of my face has covered me: The psalmist was brought low, and not only because of the defeat and disgrace suffered from their enemies. Worse was the sense that it was because God had abandoned Israel, or perhaps was against them.
i. Reproaches and reviles: “It seems that from mocking the people of God, the adversaries advanced to reviling God himself, they proceeded from persecution to the sin which is next of kin, namely blasphemy.” (Spurgeon)
2. (17-19) The psalmist protests that Israel had kept faithful to God.
All this has come upon us;
But we have not forgotten You,
Nor have we dealt falsely with Your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
Nor have our steps departed from Your way;
But You have severely broken us in the place of jackals,
And covered us with the shadow of death.
a. All this has come upon us; but we have not forgotten You: The psalmist felt duty bound to tell God that despite the feeling they had been forsaken, they had not departed from God. They remembered Him and remained faithful to His covenant.
i. The mention of the covenant was of special purpose. Under the Old Covenant (sometimes known as the Mosaic or Sinai Covenant) God promised to bless an obedient Israel and curse a disobedient Israel (as in Deuteronomy 28). The psalmist implied that God must now be faithful to His part of the covenant because Israel had been faithful to their part.
ii. “The law of Moses had forewarned that disobedience to the covenant leads to God’s displeasure and ultimately to being defeated, despoiled, exiled, and dispersed among the nations (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).” (VanGemeren)
b. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from Your way: Without claiming sinless perfection, the psalmist insisted that as a whole, Israel was still committed to God in heart and in conduct (our steps).
i. We might call this an honest, anti-penitential psalm. Several psalms are deep with a sense of personal sinfulness and contrition. In Psalm 44 we sense the psalmist honestly (and not self-righteously) makes the case that their present distress was not due to unaddressed sin or rebellion.
ii. “The arresting fact is, that here is a song revealing an experience of defeat and humiliation, and consequently of suffering, for which no cause is to be found in the conduct of the sufferers.” (Morgan)
iii. “The psalm is exploring the baffling fluctuations that have their counterpart in Christian history: periods of blessing and barrenness, advance and retreat, which may correspond to no apparent changes of men’s loyalty or methods.” (Kidner)
c. But You have severely broken us in the place of jackals, and covered us with the shadow of death: In firm but polite protest, the psalmist insisted that Israel’s faithfulness to God had been answered by disaster sent by God.
i. Broken us: “Better to be broken by God than from God. Better to be in the place of dragons [jackals] than of deceivers.” (Spurgeon)
3. (20-22) Israel’s obedience answered with defeat.
If we had forgotten the name of our God,
Or stretched out our hands to a foreign god,
Would not God search this out?
For He knows the secrets of the heart.
Yet for Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
a. If we had forgotten the name of our God: The psalmist continued to insist that Israel had remained faithful. They had remembered the Lord and had not prayed to idols (stretched out our hands to a foreign god). If they had, God would know and there was no use in denying it (He knows the secrets of the heart).
i. Stretched out our hands to a foreign god: “It was customary among the ancients, while praying, to stretch out their hands towards the heavens, or the image they were worshipping, as if they expected to receive the favour they were asking.” (Clarke)
b.Would not God search this out: This means that as far as the psalmist was concerned, in his day there was no Achan moment as in Joshua 7, where calamity came to the people of God because of hidden sin. They had sincerely sought God for just such an understanding.
i. “The words ‘would not God have discovered it’ mean ‘would not God have discovered it to us.’ That is, ‘Wouldn’t God have told us what we have done wrong, if we had done wrong?’” (Boice)
c. Yet for Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter: Despite their claimed faithfulness to God, Israel was afflicted with death and was as helpless before their enemies as sheep for the slaughter.
i. “As if we were only meant to be killed, and made on purpose to be victims; as if it were as easy and as innocent a thing to slay us as to slaughter sheep.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “The routed fugitives are defenceless and unresisting as sheep, and their fate is to be devoured…the usual butchery of a defeated army.” (Maclaren)
iii. For Your sake are the important words. It means that they suffered in faithfulness to God, and because of their faithfulness to God. Without developing the thought, this psalm suggests a revolutionary concept to the Old Testament man or woman of God: suffering may not be a punishment, but a battle scar, “the price of loyalty in a world which is at war with God.” (Kidner)
iv. “They suffer for God’s sake…In their fidelity to the Lord, they receive greater abuse than if they had conformed to the pagan world.” (VanGemeren)
v. The Apostle Paul quoted Psalm 44:22 in Romans 8:35-36. The sense is that even in such terrible defeat and disgrace, none of this can separate us from the love of Christ or change our destiny as being more than conquerors in Him.
vi. “Thus we are reminded of the fact that those who are the people of God are called upon to endure suffering for which there is no explanation at the time, and certainly none in their own disloyalty. Such sufferings are part of the high and holy privilege of fellowship with God.” (Morgan)
4. (23-26) A plea and a hopeful prayer for help.
Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord?
Arise! Do not cast us off forever.
Why do You hide Your face,
And forget our affliction and our oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
Our body clings to the ground.
Arise for our help,
And redeem us for Your mercies’ sake.
a. Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Arise! Do not cast us off forever: The psalmist had the depth of relationship with God to speak this freely, and God had the love and grace to not only hear it, but also to record such a prayer in His word. The psalmist openly spoke his feeling that God had forsaken and forgotten a faithful Israel.
i. The psalmist did not actually believe that God was asleep, but it felt to him so. “This is a freedom of speech which can only be allowed to inspired men; and in their mouths it is always to be figuratively understood.” (Clarke)
ii. This feeling or sense was powerfully captured when Jesus slept in the boat on the stormy Sea of Galilee. The disciples feared they would perish as He slept and cried out for Jesus to awake. “Although the picture of the sleeping Lord may seem naïve to us, it was acted out in the New Testament.” (Kidner)
b. For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our body clings to the dust: In body and soul Israel was at the crisis point and in the dust of shame and defeat.
i. “They who are not brought into this state of humiliation by outward sufferings, should bring themselves into it by inward mortification and self-denial, by contrition and abasement, if they would put up such prayers as the Majesty of heaven will deign to accept and answer.” (Horne)
c. Arise for our help, and redeem us for Your mercies’ sake: The psalmist has stated Israel’s problem as clearly and strongly as possible. We might expect him to be angry with God or to lose hope. Instead the psalm leaves him with trusting God even in his pain and disappointment. He made his final appeal not on the basis of what Israel deserved, but for the sake of God’s mercy (lovingkindness).
i. Arise for our help: “A short, but sweet and comprehensive prayer, much to the point, clear, simple, urgent, as all prayers should be.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “We mentioned our sincerity and constancy in thy worship only as an argument to move thee to pity, and not as a ground of our trust and confidence, or as if we merited deliverance by it; but that we expect and implore only upon the account of thine own free and rich mercy.” (Poole)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org