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Superscription.—“To the Chief Musician for the sons of Korah, Maschil.” See introduction to Psalms 42:0.
We have no means of determining who was the author of the psalm. Nor are we able to ascertain with certainty upon what occasion it was composed. The various speculations and conjectures on the subject are not amongst the most satisfactory things with which we are acquainted. Looking at the psalm from the homiletic standpoint, we have: a well-founded assurance (Psalms 44:1-8); a painful experience (Psalms 44:9-16); and an earnest appeal and prayer (Psalms 44:17-26).
A WELL-FOUNDED ASSURANCE
In the consideration of the Psalmist’s confidence in God, founded upon His former doings on behalf of His chosen people, many points will arise which, without any forced interpretation, will illustrate His work for and in the soul of the Christian believer, and which are fitted to encourage our confidence in Him. We have here—
I. A commemoration of God’s former and glorious doings.
1. The nature of these doings. “Thou didst drive out the heathen with Thy hand, and plantedst them; Thou didst afflict the people, and cast them out.” The Psalmist here sets forth
(1) The expulsion of the Canaanites and the establishment of the Israelites in their land. By the Divine power the original inhabitants of Canaan were driven from that country, and the chosen people planted therein. The figure of planting a nation or a people is frequent in both literature and conversation. We meet with it in Exodus 15:17 and Psalms 80:8. The figure-suggests the ideas of life, growth, and fruitfulness. It is with a view to these that we plant trees.
(2) The affliction of the Canaanites, and the growth of the Israelites. “Thou didst afflict the people, and cast them out.” Upon the heathens the Lord brought calamities, while He blessed His own people with increase in the land. The words “cast them out,” or “spread them abroad,” refer not to the Canaanites, but to the Israelites. God had extended them like the branches of a tree. We meet with the same idea in Psalms 80:11. “It sent out its boughs to the sea, and its branches to the river.” Barnes says that “the parallelism here clearly demands” this interpretation. This view is adopted by Alexander, Hengstenberg, Luther, De Wette, Tholuck, et al. Now, whether we view this work in relation to the nation expelled or to the nation planted and increased, it is a great work; and illustrates His work in us. It is He that casts out our spiritual foes, our inbred sins; that plants us in the kingdom of His grace; and that enables us to grow in grace. The beginning and the progress of spiritual life are with Him:
2. The Author of these doings. “Work Thou didst,” &c.
(1) Negatively. “They got not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them.” It was by neither their might nor their courage that they dispossessed the Canaanites and took their land.
(2) Positively. “But Thy right hand, and Thine arm, and the light of Thy countenance.” He favoured them and fought for them, or they would have fought in vain. How true is this in spiritual life! The foes of our soul-life laugh to scorn our unaided efforts to conquer them. God alone has the power to quicken us into spiritual life, enable us to grow, and vanquish our foes.
3. The reason of these doings. “Because Thou hadst a favour unto them.” The Israelites did not merit the glorious doings of God on their behalf. We discover little merit in them, but much demerit. They owed all to God’s free and sovereign favour. “Not for thy righteousness,” said Moses, “or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land; but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that He may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand, therefore, that the Lord thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it for thy righteousness; for thou art a stiffnecked people.” God’s work in us, for our salvation, is entirely due to His own free, unmerited, sovereign favour. “By grace are ye saved.”
4. The obligation of every generation to transmit to posterity an account of the doings of God in their day. “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us,” &c. Generation after generation had been thrilled with the narration of God’s glorious deeds of former times. “Those that went before us told us what God did in their days, we are bound to tell those that come after us what He has done in our days, and let them do the like justice to those that shall succeed them; thus shall one generation praise His works to another, the fathers to the children shall make known His truth.”
5. The obligation of every generation to profit by the experiences of those who have gone before. We are the “heirs of all the ages,” and ought to be wiser, braver, holier than those who have gone before us. History is charged with
(1) Admonition as to the evil of sin, &c.
(2) Encouragement to trust in God, to serve humanity for Him, &c. Are we heeding its teachings?
II. A declaration of confidence in God. (Psalms 44:4-8). This confidence is set forth, and is worthy of imitation in several respects.
1. In the ground on which their faith rested. It rests on what He had done for their fathers and for them in former times. Out of what He has done, their faith in what He will do grows. There is implied here belief in His unchangeableness and faithfulness. He had fulfilled His promises to their fathers; will He not fulfil them to them also? He had done glorious things for their fathers; will He not do glorious things for them also? Is He not The Immutable? God’s past doings in and for us should encourage us to put strong confidence in Him. We are “confident of this very thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
2. In the relationship which He sustained to them. “Thou art my King, O God.” “They had taken God for their sovereign Lord, had sworn allegiance to Him, and put themselves under His protection.” He who as the King of their fathers did put forth His power and glory on their behalf, is appealed to by the Psalmist and people as their King in expectation of protection and victory for them. As Hengstenberg puts it, “As certainly as God is the King of Israel—this His past deeds plainly testify—so certainly must these deeds again revive, must He also at the present time dispense salvation to His people.” If God is our King, we may look for protection from Him.
3. In the petition which they present to Him. “Command deliverances for Jacob.” Notice here
(1) The extent of their desires. “Deliverances.” Not one; but as many as are needed for their complete salvation.
(2) The greatness of their faith. “Command.” Michaelis says: “Because he had named God his King, he makes use of a word which points to kingly authority and irresistible power.” He has but to command it, and their salvation shall be accomplished. He speaks, and it is done. We are reminded of the centurion and our Lord. “Speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” Let us honour God by a like faith in His power to save.
4. In the renunciation of other objects of trust. “I will not trust in my bow, neither shall my sword save me.” In Psalms 44:3 the Psalmist declares that it was not their power or weapons that had saved them, but God alone, and in this verse he announces their abandonment of all confidence except that which is fixed in God. In the spiritual life our faith must be fixed in Christ alone for all things, for pardon, power, purity, victory, glory. From first to last we have no Saviour but Jesus, and He is all-sufficient.
5. In their assurance of victory. “Through Thee will we push down our enemies; through Thy name will we tread them under that rise up against us.… Thou savest us from our enemies, and dost put to shame them that hate us.” The idea of the 5th verse is that of a conqueror with his foes completely vanquished, and prostrated and powerless before him. And the 7th verse should be translated and interpreted not in reference to their past but present foes; not to what God had done for them, but what He would do for them. They were confident of complete victory through Him. In the Christian life and conflict we may confidently anticipate victory through our Lord. “The God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly.” “We are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.”
6. In their praise of God. “In God we boast all the day long, and praise Thy name for ever.” “Boast” is not a good rendering. Praise would express the meaning. Or as Hengstenberg translates: “God we extol continually, and Thy name we praise for ever.” They extolled Him as their God, their King, in whom they confidently trusted for salvation. They resolve to praise Him,
(1) Continually. “All the day long.”
(2) Perpetually. “For ever.”
CONCLUSION. Surely this well-founded assurance in God, rising out of the recollection and celebration of His glorious doings for His people in former days, and exercised in the midst of such dark and distressing circumstances, is a thing to be emulated by us. Let every Christian believer seek to tread the path of life, perform its duties, bear its trials, and fight its battles, singing,—
“This God is the God we adore,
Our faithful, unchangeable Friend;
Whose love is as great as His power,
And knows neither measure nor end.
’Tis Jesus, the First and the Last,
Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home;
We’ll praise Him for all that is past,
And trust Him for all that’s to come.”
A PAINFUL EXPERIENCE
We here come at once upon a complete change of sentiment. In this and the preceding section of the psalm we have a double contrast. Here is a contrast between the exultant confidence in God expressed by the poet as the mouthpiece of the people in the former section and the sorrowful complaint of their miseries in this section. Here also is a contrast between what God had done for them and for their fathers in time past and what He was doing for them now. Consider,—
I. The miseries of which they complain. Of these there are several
1. Their rejection by God. “But Thou hast cast off, and put us to shame, and goest not forth with our armies.” The word translated “cast off” means rejected, forsaken. We are not to suppose that the Psalmist believed that God had utterly abandoned them. With the previous section of the psalm in our mind such a supposition is impossible. But judging from their outward and visible circumstances they seemed forsaken by God. The usual tokens of His favour and presence with them were altogether wanting. One of these tokens is here mentioned, “Thou goest not forth with our armies.” In former times they went forth to war confident of His presence with them, and returned victorious. Now they go forth not realising His presence, and return defeated and “put to shame.” (We will not attempt to decide what battles and other events in Jewish history are here referred to. Such attempts as have been made in this direction are of little worth.)
2. Their defeat in battle and its consequent evils. “Thou makest us to turn back from the enemy.” They had no courage. They did not fight like brave men. They acted as mere mercenaries of war and cowards. “O Lord, what shall I say, when Israel turneth their backs before their enemies?” Defeat was followed by—
(1) Slaughter. “Thou hast given us like sheep appointed for meat.” Hengstenberg: “Like sheep for slaughter.” Margin: “As sheep of meat.” M. Henry: “They make no more scruple of killing an Israelite than of killing a sheep; nay, like the butcher, they make a trade of it, they take a pleasure in it as a hungry man in his meat.”
(2) Spoiling. “They which hate us spoil us for themselves.” “The enemies had plundered according to their heart’s desire, and without any effective restraint.”
(3) Captivity or Slavery. “Thou hast scattered us among the heathen. Thon sellest Thy people for nought, and dost not increase Thy wealth by their price.” We do not affirm that the people had been literally taken captive into other lands, or sold into slavery. But some of the results of their defeat in battle had been such that they may fitly be so described. On Psalms 44:12 Hengstenberg says—“The sense is: Thou hast given Thy people into the power of their enemies without trouble, without causing the victory even to be dearly bought, as one who parts with a good for any price, which he despises and hates, desiring merely to get rid of it; so that there is an abbreviated comparison. Parallel is Jeremiah 15:13, ‘thy substance and thy treasures will I give to the spoil without price.’ ”
3. The reproaches of their enemies. “Thou makest us a reproach to our neighbours,” &c., Psalms 44:13-14. According to Psalms 44:13, the surrounding nations treated them with contempt, as a people forsaken by God, and powerless to defend themselves against their foes. מָשָׁל, here translated “byword,” properly signifies a similitude. So Hengstenberg translates it here, and explains it thus: “The misery of Israel is so great, that people would figuratively call a miserable man a Jew, just as liars were called Cretans, wretched slaves, Sardians. So far are the people from being now ‘the blessed of the Lord,’ in whom, according to the promise, all the heathen are to be blessed.” The “shaking of the head” means that their enemies shook their heads at them in scorn and derision.
4. Their own shame. “My confusion is continually before me, and the shame of my face hath covered me,” &c., Psalms 44:15-16. Notice here—
(1) The reason of this shame. “For the voice of him that reproacheth and blasphemeth; by reason of the enemy and avenger.” The people were slandered, God was blasphemed, and their enemies were about to wreak their vengeance upon them; therefore were they ashamed.
(2) The greatness of this shame. “The shame of my face hath covered me.” “The shaming is ascribed to the countenance, because it always betrays itself, especially there.” So great was the shame of the Psalmist, who speaks in the name of the people, that he represents himself as “covered” with blushes.
(3) The incessancy of this shame. “My confusion is continually before me.” There was no intermission from the sense of disgrace which they felt. Such are the deep miseries of which they complain to God.
II. The author of their miseries. “Thou hast cast me off,” &c. Six times in as many verses they attribute all their suffering and shame to God. He has done it all. Now a statement of this kind needs to be weighed, and its exact meaning ascertained before it is accepted. We know that “He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.” His great aim is to promote the well-being of His creatures. To this end all His plans and workings tend. That He should forsake His people who trust in Him is inconceivable, impossible. How, then, can He be said to be the Author of their miseries? In this way we understand it: “the meritorious cause” must have been in the people. God never forsakes His people unless they first forsake Him. There must have been some important defection on their part in their relation to God ere He would have allowed these miseries to come upon them. This being the case we can understand how the inflicting of the calamities was of the Lord. Their enemies were but the instruments by which their troubles were effected; and they could have had no power against them unless, at the least, it had been permitted them from above. And that power would not have been permitted them had there not been some defection on the part of the chosen people in their relation to God. This, then, we take to be the meaning of the Psalmist,—Thou hast done it by withdrawing the light of Thy presence and the shield of Thy protection.
III. The instruction which their miseries are fitted to afford. Three lessons, at least, stand out prominently here to which we shall do well to give heed.
1. That God, in perfect consistency with His faithfulness and love to His people, may under certain circumstances withdraw from them the signs of His presence and favour, and for a time apparently abandon them to their enemies. He may do so
(1) As a chastisement for their sins. “It his children forsake My law, and walk not in My judgments, if they break My statutes, and keep not My commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.”
(2) For the perfecting and showing forth of their character. The case of Job is an example of this.
2. That when the professed people of God lose the signs of His presence and favour, they are held in contempt by the world. Of this the Psalmist complains. When Samson had proved unfaithful, and forfeited the Divine favour, he became an object of scoffing and ridicule to those who had formerly trembled at the mere mention of his name. “If the salt have lost his savour, it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.” Here is solemn warning for us.
3. That the people of God when bereft of His presence and help, and suffering at the hand of their enemies, do well to carry their complaints to God Himself.
(1) Because the effort to draw near to Him is good and helpful. It relieves the troubled heart, lessens the conscious distance between Him and their soul, &c.
(2) Because He only is able to restore the strength and joy which they have lost. “Come, and let us return unto the Lord; for He hath torn, and He will heal us; He hath smitten, and He will bind us up. After two days will He revive us; in the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live in His sight.”
AN EARNEST APPEAL AND PRAYER
I. An earnest appeal. Psalms 44:17-22.
This appeal of the people to God is based on the ground that they had not apostatised from Him. In it there are several prominent points. They assert that they have—
1. Not broken His covenant. “We have not forgotten Thee, neither have we dealt falsely in Thy covenant.” By this we understand the Psalmist to mean, that there had been in the history of the people no marked forgetfulness of God, nor had there been any conspicuous or prevalent departure from the covenant which He made with their fathers.
2. Not lapsed into idolatry. They assert that they have not “forgotten the name of their God, or stretched out their hands to a strange God.” The stretching out of the hands is significant of worship or prayer. The force of this verse is, that they have not apostatised either by worshipping a strange god, or forgetting the God of their fathers.
3. Not backslidden from God either in heart or in life. “Our heart is not turned back, neither have our steps declined from Thy way.” They had not departed from Him in their heart. They were still loyal to Him in their affections. And in their goings they followed the path which He had prescribed for them.
4. They appeal to the Omniscience of God in proof of this. “Shall not God search this out? for He knoweth the secrets of the heart.” The “this” denotes the apostacy of which they had protested that they were not guilty. The force of the verse is, that if as a nation there had been any considerable departure from God, if in their hearts they had apostatised from Him unto idols, He would have known it, for He knoweth all things, even the secrets of the heart. Thus the verse is a very solemn declaration that they had not forsaken God.
5. As additional proof that their miseries had not come upon them because of their departure from God, the Psalmist says that they were suffering severely and constantly because of their attachment to Him. “For Thy sake are we killed all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter.” The most conclusive proof that they have not fallen away from God is, “that they are persecuted for the very sake of God.” That which perplexed the Psalmist was, that they should suffer so severely although there had not been any prevalent departure from God. Can we reconcile this protestation of their faithfulness with their miseries? Our statement on “the author of their miseries” in the preceding homily appears irreconcileable with the statements made by the poet in this appeal. Can we explain this? and how? Matthew Henry says: “Though we cannot deny but that we have dealt foolishly, yet we have not dealt falsely in Thy covenant, so as to cast Thee off and take to other gods.” “Tholuck accuses the Psalmist of a superficial view of sin (comp. on the other hand the impressive reference to the heart, Psalms 44:18-21), whereby he was led to charge God with breach of fidelity, instead of seeking the blame in the Church. The following remarks, it is hoped, will remove the difficulty:—
(1) When the Church here maintains that she had not broken God’s covenant, this manifestly refers only to fidelity in the main, as to the chief matter, and manifold smaller infidelities and weaknesses are not thereby excluded. These smaller deviations justify the chastisements of God, faithfulness in the main excludes a total rejection.
(2) When the Church regards the suffering that had come upon her as an anomaly, she does so only in so far as this appears to carry the aspect of continuance,—comp. the words: ‘Cast us not off for ever,’ in Psalms 44:23. The whole of the last strophe shows, that the temptation will be at an end the moment God has, in point of fact, removed this appearance. But this would not have been the case if the suffering had formed in itself a stone of stumbling for the Church.
(3) It is not to be overlooked, that we have here before us a didactic psalm. What is declared in the form of history, forms at the same time indirectly an impressive admonition.
(4) We must not expect that every psalm shall fully exhibit all particular points of truth, and so render all misapprehension impossible. They rather, on the contrary, require somewhat to be supplied.”—Hengstenberg.
II. An Earnest Prayer (Psalms 44:23-26). We have here—
1. Believing expostulations. “Awake, why sleepest Thou, O Lord?” “Why” seems to imply the impossibility of any reason being assigned for His sleep, and the assurance that He will speedily awake. “Faith,” says David Dickson, “doth not allow nor subscribe unto carnal sense, but in presenting the objections thereof unto God, really refuteth them, by avowing that such misregarding of His own cause and servants, as sense and temptation vented, is inconsistent with His nature, covenant, promises, and practices towards His people; for, ‘why sleepest Thou,’ is as much as, it is not possible that Thou sleepest; and ‘why’ here is not a word of quarreling, but a word of denying, that any reason can be given for such a thought, as God sleepeth.” “Wherefore hidest Thou Thy face, and forgettest our affliction and oppression?” Sense says, God is asleep and hath cast off His people for ever. Faith replies, If so, “why” is it so? Sense says, God hath forgotten the affliction of His people. Faith replies with a persistent “Wherefore?”
2. Urgent entreaties. “Awake, arise, cast us not off for ever. Arise for our help, and redeem us for thy mercies’ sake.” This is a prayer that God, who had seemed to take no interest in them, would speedily evince an interest in them and arise and save them. In Psalms 44:12 they had complained that God had sold them; in Psalms 44:26 they entreat Him to redeem them. “If He sell us, it is not any one else that can redeem us.”
3. Effective pleas.
(1) Their misery. “For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly cleaveth unto the earth.” The expression of the former clause denotes great grief and fear, and the figure of the latter clause extreme prostration and affliction and inability to assist themselves.
(2) God’s mercy. “Redeem us for Thy mercies’ sake,” i.e., in maintenance and illustration of His character as a God of mercy. Or, as the word is plural, “mercies,” may it not mean for the sake of the long line of mercies He had bestowed upon them and their fathers? Let not the long series of Thy mercies to Thy people fail, and let them not perish by reason thereof. In any case, it is an appeal to God on the ground of His unmerited grace to save His afflicted people.
CONCLUSION.—There are here some practical points of great importance, which we shall do well to ponder in their relation to our own life.
1. The completeness of the Divine scrutiny of human life. There is no province of our life which escapes His examination. There is no flaw or sin, however cleverly disguised, that will escape detection when He searches us (Psalms 44:21).
2. The great support afforded by a clear conscience in the time of affliction. It was no small thing for the people that in this the day of their distress they were able to appeal to God as they did (Psalms 44:17-22). In his unparalleled afflictions, Job received immeasurable support and comfort from the possession of “a conscience void of offence toward God and men” (Job 13:15). And Shakespeare represents Wolsey as thus sustained in the depth of his misfortunes, and as saying of himself that he was
“Never so truly happy.…
I know myself now; and I feel within me
A peace above all earthly dignities,
A still and quiet conscience.”
3. A grand inspiration and consolation in the difficulties and disappointments of Christian life and work. “For Thy sake.” What is there that we cannot dare, or do, or suffer for the sake of our Lord, when we love Him supremely?
4. In the whole of this section of the Psalm we have a splendid example of Faith fighting. Here it is attacking doubt, repudiating the conclusions of sense, scrutinising life and conduct, expostulating and pleading with God. Such faith must come out of conflict victorious. Such faith may be ours Let us seek it.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Psalms 44". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany