I’ve been captivated by Ps 44 for years, not because of any complexity of its language or historical riddles in its text. What captivates me is the maturity of its perspective on suffering. I remember the shock I felt when I first stumbled over the turn at v. 9 and contemplated the author’s interpretation of his suffering at v. 22. I’m still amazed by these.
The opening (vv. 1-8) is a standard rehearsal of the great things God did in the past, feats our grandparents recall from ‘back in the day’ (vv. 1-3). But it’s another thing to have your own stories to tell about God’s presence in your life, and the author has that too (vv. 4-8). It’s an entirely different thing, however, for your story to be the story that begins in v. 9. There’s nothing in vv. 1-8 that prepares you for what starts in v. 9.
9 But now you have rejected and humbled us;
you no longer go out with our armies.
10 You made us retreat before the enemy,
and our adversaries have plundered us.
11 You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale.
13 You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.
15 I live in disgrace all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
16 at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
17 All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.
18 Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
19 But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
you covered us over with deep darkness.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21 would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
22 Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
It’s not easy to decide where in history to locate this psalm. Being “scattered among the nations” (v. 11) and having become “a byword among the nations” (v. 14) suggest a post-exilic setting. But the description of standing armies (v. 10) suggests a pre-exilic date. One could suppose (as some do) that the psalm was a work in progress spanning both periods. I’m not sure it matters. It’s the fact that such a perspective on suffering arose at all that is so amazing.
Consider – the covenant-making God committed himself to an agenda of all-embracing prosperity and blessing for Israel (Deut 28). If Israel obeys God, she will be blessed in the city, in the country, coming in and going out, her barns will be full, her livestock will be healthy and multiply, her enemies will flee in fear. You get the point. Hence the bewilderment of the author of Ps 44. He and his community were faithful covenant partners (vv. 17-18), and yet defeat and suffering overwhelmed them. Had they forsaken the covenant (vv. 20-21), the author acknowledges, their shame would be justified. But that isn’t their story. Their story is: We’re faithful to God and life sucks. We loved and worshiped God and got trampled underfoot.
One would think this would precipitate a review of God’s covenant-keeping abilities. Perhaps Israel should find herself a new God. But while the author asks the question ‘Why do you sleep?’ (v. 23), he does so assuming the truth of God’s ‘unfailing love’ (v. 26). The scapegoated victim is confident of final vindication. To trust God’s unfailing love, then, does not mean one never wonders why, never complains to God. To lament is to ask and wonder, but to ask at all is in some measure to trust.
Faith’s perspective appears in v. 22:
Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
Now that is a truly amazing thing to say. Let it sink it; life did not look like it was being administered by God in terms of the covenant conditions of Deut. 28. So why not accuse God of wrongdoing? If we are faithful to the conditions of covenant but suffer like those judged for disobedience, why not at least assume something is wrong with God or the terms of the covenant? We’ve been faithful to God and life is crushing us. The covenant terms were fairly explicit in outlining the rewards of obedience and the consequences of disobedience. What’s to be concluded? More importantly, how is the author of this psalm able to relate himself and his suffering to God outside the explicit terms of Deuteronomy? If Deuteronomy defines the scope and limits of the Covenant, where does the author get the idea that those who are faithful to the Covenant might “for you sake face death all day long”? One has to appreciate how stunning is the perspective that produces v. 22.
It should be noted that there was an awareness within Israel that even a covenant-keeping God tests people to determine or to expose what is hidden in the heart. Hezekiah comes to mind. We’re told that with respect to Hezekiah entertaining envoys from Babylon that “God left Hezekiah alone only to test him, to know all that was in his heart” (2Chron 32.31). God “left him alone.” But our psalmist doesn’t go there. He doesn’t assume God is testing Israel. That’s not in view in v. 22. To say “for your sake, God, we face death all day long” is not to say “God is putting us to the test.”
It is finally St. Paul who brings Ps 44 into the light of day in Rom 8.35-37:
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
This is not an instance of ‘divine testing’. Yes, all suffering and trials put faith to the test (Jam 1), but that’s not to say all trails are devised by God to test us. Rather, identifying with God in a fallen world exposes us to the world’s rejection of God, its hatred for God (in addition to suffering that is the common lot of all people in a fallen world), and thus we suffer “for [his] sake.” This is why Paul interprets the Christian’s suffering in light of Ps 44, as a species of the same thing. In arguing that Christ is where and how God’s covenant-love for humanity is fulfilled, Paul does not suppose its fulfillment in this life to be inconsistent with our experiencing “trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword.” If God’s covenant love is ours to enjoy, it is ours to enjoy within suffering, not just when we’re rescued from suffering.
Paul views his suffering as “filling up in [his] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body” (Col 1.24), and he describes our suffering as “carrying around in our body the death of Jesus” (2Cor 4.10). He also wants to “participate in Christ’s sufferings becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3.10). Thus, Christ’s Cross represents suffering we are called to participate in, which makes perfect sense of why he calls upon Ps 44.
This brings me to my real point, to wit, that we mistake the Cross when we define it as a kind of suffering from which we are excluded because Christ suffers there God’s judgment we deserve and from which we are freed. When we read his suffering this way (as penal substitution) we place the Cross out of the reach of participation, for a Cross which is divine judgment poured out is not a Cross we can carry, But we are called to carry it. I’m not sure Paul could be any more explicit – the Cross isn’t Christ dying instead of us (however legitimately talk of ‘substitution’ may expresses a perspective on what’s happening), it is Christ dying ahead of us. Christ showing us how to die, not how to avoid dying; how to know God’s love in the midst of the world’s rejection of you, and also how to suffer redemptively as a victim of the world’s violence for the sake of its salvation (as Paul also understood his suffering). Rather than being a place of godforsakenness and estrangement (except so far as the world considers the violence they do to us evidence of our godforsakenness), the Cross is where all estranging narratives, including narratives of the Cross as estrangement (which are the vast majority of Evangelical readings of the Cross), are exposed as false precisely because they do not offer us a suffering we can participate in, a death to which we must conform.
Returning to Ps 44 then. The amazing thing about the author’s perspective is that he does not reason from his suffering, based on the promises of Deut 28, that something is wrong with God or wrong with the covenant. He views his sufferings as a participation in God’s rejection by the world. And as I say, that is an amazing perspective to have given the author’s location in the progression of Israel’s faith and worldview. He sees that it is for God’s sake that he suffers, and Paul sees that the psalmist perceives this. So what Israel experiences in Ps 44 constitutes a prequel, a prophetic anticipation, of the Cross and our continued participation in it. They are the same species of scapegoat suffering. Christ could as easily have quoted from Ps 44 as from Ps 22 as he hung on the Cross. Hence he warned that “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jn 15.20) and that we “will be hated by everyone on my account” (Mt 10.22). And so it is “on your account” or “for you sake,” O God, that we face death all day long.
Still, Deut 28 is with us, and we should try to be more explicit about how those (like the author of Ps 44) who came along generations after Deut 28 would have re-evaluated the terms of the covenant and thus re-negotiate faith’s appropriation of such promises. I wonder if Deut 28 represents an immature Israel convinced that their covenant represented iron-clad guarantees for obedience and the 1,000 year itch for law-breakers. That’s the sort of world a nation whose identity is newly constituted by its special relationship to God might wish for. As Israel matures, however, and as blessing doesn’t always follow obedience, the faithful have to think through life again, and that’s what Ps 44.22 represents. I see passages like Ps 44 as offering a fundamental reassessment of what it means to be Israel. The clear-cut demarcation in Deut 28 between blessings that must follow the righteous and misery that invariably plagues the faithless does not describe the terms in which faith can survive. Deut 28 no longer expresses the terms in which Israel can identify herself as God’s covenant partner. What’s amazing is that this realization comes within the Old Testament itself.
Perhaps we should remember that the text of Deut 28 very likely takes its final shape in exile among those reflecting on their suffering and the disobedience that landed them in Babylon. So it’s not surprising that we get the same clean lines (“Had we kept the rules, we’d be back in Israel eating fruit from our own trees. But we sinned, so we’re here in exile, because that’s how things work). But in Ps 44 that’s not how things always work. This is why I’m tempted to think Ps 44 reflects a post-exilic perspective, when a faithful remnant remains under the heel of misfortune, occupation and suffering. What does faith then mean? We were exiled for our sins, fine. But it’s not the case now that we have broken covenant, and yet we suffer. Why? The answer now (an answer that could not have been the case during exile): “For your sake, O God, we face death all day long.” As I said, what an amazing thing to say at any time before Christ. No wonder Paul calls Ps 44 to the stand in Rom 8.35-37.