We often read the Bible asking the question, “What should I think?” We come to the Bible expecting to increase our accurate beliefs and/or decrease our inaccurate beliefs. There is nothing wrong with that approach to reading the Bible. It serves us well when our focus is sound doctrine, or our problem is inaccurate/incomplete doctrine.
But as we’ve mentioned, that is not the focus of this series. We are seeking to process painful experiences. We are seeking to assuage raw, hot emotions. The Bible helps with that too. One of the richest places in the Bible for this emotional processing content is the Psalms. The Psalms are poetry. They are written, in large part, to appeal to and shape our emotions.
We will look at Psalm 44. It is a roller coaster psalm. It starts up, dives low, twists through confusion, and abruptly ends with a jolt of exasperation. Psalms are written to provide models of communication with God in a variety of circumstances. Psalm 44 is uniquely tailored to the subject of this series – processing hard experiences we don’t understand and helping us grapple with unpleasant emotions towards God.
This guided tour through Psalm 44 is meant to be an invitation. An invitation first given by God when he inspired this psalm to be written. Secondly, an invitation to explore this psalm together to map our disoriently painful experiences onto this offer from God to hear our hearts.
Good Times (v. 1-8)
As you read these first eight verses, you would have no reason to anticipate the turmoil ahead. The author of the psalm is enjoying life and giving God credit for every good thing in his life. These first eight verses are a model of how to respond to blessings with humility and gratitude. The faithfulness of the psalmist to give God credit for the good in his life only further confuses us when the psalm pivots.
1 O God, we have heard with our ears,
our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old:
2 you with your own hand drove out the nations,
but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples,
but them you set free;
3 for not by their own sword did they win the land,
nor did their own arm save them,
but your right hand and your arm,
and the light of your face,
for you delighted in them.
4 You are my King, O God;
ordain salvation for Jacob!
5 Through you we push down our foes;
through your name we tread down those who rise up against us.
6 For not in my bow do I trust,
nor can my sword save me.
7 But you have saved us from our foes
and have put to shame those who hate us.
8 In God we have boasted continually,
and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
We should note something about pain, grief, and anger from these first eight verses. Good times often makes hard times more painful. Knowing what it is to have wealth makes poverty more painful. Knowing what it is to have good companionship makes loneliness more isolating. Having a felt sense of God’s presence makes the feeling that God has abandoned us feel more betraying.
Bad Times (v 9-16)
It is not clear what happened after the “selah,” an indicator in Hebrew poetry that a transition has taken place. But whatever it was, it flipped the script on the psalmist’s life. Verses 9-16 are the perfect inversion of verses 1-8. In the first section God gets all the credit for every good thing. In the second section God gets the blame for every bad thing.
9 But you have rejected us and disgraced us
and have not gone out with our armies.
10 You have made us turn back from the foe,
and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter
and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You have sold your people for a trifle,
demanding no high price for them.
13 You have made us the taunt of our neighbors,
the derision and scorn of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations,
a laughingstock among the peoples.
15 All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face
16 at the sound of the taunter and reviler,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
The words that best capture your experience may be different, but they don’t need to be any less honest. The psalmist is only going to get more honest as we continue. Remember, the psalms are a model for communication in various circumstances, a template for talking to God when our experience matches the experience of the psalm. God wants to hear from you, and you don’t have to filter your pain. We may not always be right in what we say, but God will meet us where we are and begin his work from there.
Confusion (v. 17-22)
You can tell the psalmist is now grappling with the question, “WHY?!?!?” He is thinking through what could have caused this calamity. “Did I turn my back on God? No. Did I forget and neglect God? No. Am I just deceiving myself into thinking I am better than I am? No, God can’t be fooled.” This soul searching absolves his conscience, but it doesn’t relieve his vexation. None of this makes any sense.
17 All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not been false to your covenant.
18 Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way;
19 yet you have broken us in the place of jackals
and covered us with the shadow of death.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21 would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22 Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
Many of the psalms are written with this kind of mid-journey perspective. When the psalm ends, we won’t know how the calamity was resolved. These kinds of psalms are written to give us words for situations where we are genuinely and devastatingly confused. God is not offended by these kinds of prayers either; they are not off limits to his “sensitive ears.” God knew we would have midjourney heartaches which would need a permission slip for honest communication because the boiling of our minds seems to border on blasphemy.Psalms 44 was written to give us words for situations where we are genuinely and devastatingly confused. God knew we would have midjourney heartaches which would need a permission slip for honest communication. Click To Tweet
Angry, Heretical Mic Drop (v. 23-26)
This section appears to cross the line into blasphemy. If it wasn’t in the Bible, we would condemn it. The psalmist is yelling (hence the exclamation points) false things about God to God. He is accusing God of being asleep, of rejecting his people, and forgetting. All of these are inaccurate statements about God. But they were the only explanation the psalmist can come up with. After a demand for things to change, the psalm ends… awkwardly and abruptly. There is no closure.
23 Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
26 Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
The natural questions are, “Why is it okay for the psalmist to talk this way? Why did God put heresy in the Bible? What is going on that is constructive and redemptive for the reader?” That last question unlocks the other two. Remember, the psalms are an invitation to and template for conversation with God. The reader can know, “I can come to God with these kinds of things too. God is durable enough to hear me when my heart feels like this. God is not avoiding me. I don’t have to pretend.”
God knew that sometimes heresy (i.e., false statements about God and reality) would sometimes, seemingly make better sense of life than truth. Psalm 44 tells us that we don’t have to hide from that internal tension.
Think of this psalm like a parent talking to a preteen, “There are going to be times when every wise thing I taught you seems pointless and a killjoy. Your friends are going to mock you. I know it will be hard to stick to what is wise and godly.” This parental acknowledgement helps prepare the preteen for the emotional disorientation that will come when peer pressure is fierce. Psalm 44 prepares us for the emotional disorientation that comes when we feel like coffee beans getting ground up between the pieces of a broken world.
The point of this reflection is simply this: be honest with God about your pain – the good times that made it harder, the bad times, the confusion, and even the inaccurate thoughts about God that feel convincing. The hope of this psalm isn’t in the content. It ends with nothing but a desperate plea. The hope of this psalm is in the relationship that the dialogue reveals. The fact that the psalmist is so mad at God reveals that the psalmist hasn’t given up on God. In moments like these, our hope is in who we continue to dialogue with even when the thoughts and emotions that boil in our mind or theologically inaccurate.
Questions for Reflection
- If you personalized your own version of Psalm 44 what would it say? What would the content of these four sections sound like if they told your story?
- How does it make you feel to view Psalm 44 as a template for talking to God about profoundly painful and disorienting experiences?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.