Theme: Desperate for an Explanation
From this psalm we learn that although we sometimes may not understand what God is doing in the present, we know how God has helped us in the past, and can therefore confidently come to him in prayer for the future.
Scripture: Psalm 44:1-26
Perhaps God was temporarily looking the other way, and the people’s enemies used that moment to gain the upper hand. What about this explanation for the difference between what is happening to us in the present, as compared with how we have seen God at work in the past? That explanation might work for pagans, who know nothing of the true God. But it can never work for the followers of Jehovah. Jehovah is not indifferent. He is not sleeping, even though that seems to be the case. If he is not sleeping or is not indifferent or is not impotent, then he must be behind what is happening.
Note the repetition of the word “you.” “You have rejected and humbled us; you no longer go out with our armies. You made us retreat before the enemy….You gave us up to be devoured like sheep….You sold your people for a pittance….You have made us a reproach to our neighbors….You have made us a by-word among the nations….You crushed us” (vv. 9-14, 19). The people’s defeats are no accident. God is behind them, because God is responsible for all things.
This is what makes the problem so puzzling, however. A mere accident is not puzzling. A disaster is only puzzling if God is in control, is favorable to us, but lets it happen anyway. Nevertheless, although it makes the situation puzzling, the realization that God is in control is still both the proper way to approach such problems and the only possible way to find a solution to them. The secularist has nowhere to turn. Not only does he not have an answer, he does not even have a way of finding one.
As for the believer, he may not understand God’s ways, but he knows that the only way to proceed is by recognizing that God is as active in defeats as he is in victories and wait for his explanation.
Perhaps the defeat is not as bad as it appears, and the people are exaggerating. This is the second approach the psalmist is rejecting. It is the Pollyanna approach. It will not do here, because there is no escaping the magnitude of the disaster. The soldiers have been slaughtered like sheep and scattered (v. 11). Even worse, the people have been made a reproach to their neighbors; they have been disgraced and covered with shame (vv. 13-16).
Perhaps the people themselves are at fault, and God has sent defeat as a judgment for their sins. This is the best explanation so far since it takes both the sovereignty of God and the magnitude of the defeat at full value. What is more, the people often had sinned and had been judged for it. Their past history was as much a testimony to that fact as it was to the intervention of God on their behalf. The problem is that, at this point of their history, the people were keeping God’s covenant and following God’s way faithfully. At least that is what the psalmist says: “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” (vv. 17, 18). He is arguing that they were obeying God and yet were defeated.
Can this really be? We are conscious of sin in ourselves. Very few Christians would want to claim utter faithfulness in following after God, as the psalmist does. Perhaps the writer is mistaken. Perhaps the explanation of this tragic defeat is to be found in precisely this self-righteousness. That explanation does not work here for two reasons.
First, because of verses 20 and 21. These verses say, “If we had forsaken the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?” This does not mean merely, “If we had sinned, God would know about it since God knows everything.” That would lead to the conclusion, “Therefore, we must have sinned, since God is punishing us,” and that is not what the psalm is saying. There would be nothing puzzling under those circumstances. 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? Therefore, since he has not revealed any particularly outstanding sin to us, our sin cannot be the explanation of why we are suffering these military setbacks.” An example would be the defeat at Ai following the conquest at Jericho, where the cause of the defeat was revealed to be Achan’s disobedience (cf. Joshua 7).
The second reason why we cannot handle the text this way—which also brings it directly into our own experience—is that Paul quotes verse 24 in Romans as a confirming statement that the people of God suffer innocently. The quotation comes in Romans 8 in that powerful affirmation concerning the keeping love of God: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:35–37). Paul and other Christians had served God faithfully, yet they were made to face death all day long.
So, as easy as it would be to say that the people of God suffer defeat because they are being punished for their sins, this is not a fully adequate explanation, at least not in all instances, including Psalm 44 and Romans 8.
What is the proper way to approach a disaster that affects us? What do we need to remember?
Review the third possible explanation. Why does it not work in the case of the psalmist?
Application: Perhaps you are struggling to understand God’s working in your life in the present, especially considering things he has done for you in the past. What explanations have you considered that need to be dismissed? What truths do you need to remind yourself? What is the Lord teaching you through this puzzling time?