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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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Chapter 45
 
 
 
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PSALM 44

THE MYSTERY OF GOD'S SUFFERING SAINTS

We shall refrain from discussing the multiple opinions about when this psalm was written, by whom, and upon what occasion. This writer professes no special ability for resolving the problem of the divergent views; and, besides, in the great majority of instances, the resolution of such questions adds very little to the proper understanding and appreciation of what is written. "The deepest and most precious elements in the Psalms are very slightly affected by the answers to such questions."F1

This does not indicate any lack of appreciation on our part for the kind of research scholars do toward finding the true answers to such questions; it only means that we find many reasons for loving and appreciating the Psalms regardless of `When'? `Where'? `By whom'? and `Upon what occasion'? a particular psalm might have been written.

The dates for this psalm which have been seriously proposed by able scholars are as follows. (1) "The times of the Maccabees was the date preferred by Calvin and others. (2) The reign of Jehoiachin was advocated by Tholuck. (3) Canon Cook argued for the times of David. (4) The reigns of Jehoram or Joshua are chosen by some."F2 Ash included the "reign of Hezekiah"F3 as another proposed date.

Since the historical setting is apparently unknown and impossible of discovery, it seems a very futile exercise to "guess" at what it was and then to elaborate deductions based upon the "guess."

We believe the New Testament provides the key for understanding this remarkable psalm. The problem that dominates it was identified by McCaw as, "The problem of the undeserved sufferings of godly people,"F4 along with the astounding fact that such is in keeping with the will of God!

This mystery was pointed out by the apostle Paul who also provided the solution.

"For thy sake we are killed all the day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter" -- Rom. 8:36.

This quotation of Paul from Ps. 44:22 here states what the mystery is. And then he gave the solution: "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us" (Romans 8:37). Paul's quotation identifies the undeserved sufferings of 1st Century Christians with those of the Old Israel featured in this psalm.

This makes it evident that the study of the sufferings of both the Old Israel and the New Israel of God, along with the reasons that apparently lay back of them, will yield for us the greatest profit. The sufferings of both Israels are here said to be, "for God's sake," i.e., because God desired it to be so, a truth evident in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

RECORD OF GOD'S PAST MERCIES

Ps. 44:1-8

We have heard with our ears, O God,

Our fathers have told us,

What work thou didst in their days,

In the days of old.

Thou didst drive out the nations with thy hand;

But them thou didst plant:

Thou didst afflict the peoples;

But them thou didst spread abroad.

For they gat not the land in possession by their own sword,

Neither did their own arm save them;

But thy right hand, and thine arm, and the light of thy countenance,

Because thou wast favorable unto them.

Thou art my King, O God:

Command deliverance for Jacob.

Through thee will we push down our adversaries:

Through thy name will we tread them under that rise up against us.

For I will not trust in my bow,

Neither shall my sword save me.

But thou hast saved me from our adversaries,

And hast put them to shame that hate us.

In God have we made our boast all the day long,

And we will give thanks unto thy name forever."

The first three verses here are a thumb nail recapitulation of the victories of Israel in their conquest of Canaan. The psalmist frankly acknowledges that their victories were all the result of God's providential aid and that they themselves were not the ones who won Canaan; God gave it to them. It was God's work, not theirs.


 
Verses 1-8
We have heard with our ears, O God, Our fathers have told us, What work thou didst in their days, In the days of old. Thou didst drive out the nations with thy hand; But them thou didst plant: Thou didst afflict the peoples; But them thou didst spread abroad. For they gat not the land in possession by their own sword, Neither did their own arm save them; But thy right hand, and thine arm, and the light of thy countenance, Because thou wast favorable unto them. Thou art my King, O God: Command deliverance for Jacob. Through thee will we push down our adversaries: Through thy name will we tread them under that rise up against us. For I will not trust in my bow, Neither shall my sword save me. But thou hast saved us from our adversaries, And hast put them to shame that hate us. In God have we made our boast all the day long, And we will give thanks unto thy name for ever. [Selah
(Psalms 44:4). The marginal reading here for `deliverance' is `victories,' indicating that what the psalmist prayed for was more victories like those which marked Joshua's leading Israel into Canaan. He also desired to trample his enemies under foot.

We will tread them under
(Psalms 44:5). `Having pushed our foes to the ground, we shall then be able to tread them under,' The imagery is drawn from the practice of buffaloes and wild bulls.F5

The last four books of the Pentateuch are a record of what is summarized here in these 8 verses. The psalmist, and all Israel, were familiar with the historical delivery of Israel from Egyptian slavery and with God's replacing the pagan nations of Canaan with the Chosen People. These first eight verses conclude with what amounts to a prayer that "God will do it again" for Israel.

THE CURRENT EMERGENCY

But now thou hast cast us off, and brought us to dishonor,

And goest not forth with our hosts.

Thou makest us to turn back from our adversary;

And they that hate us take spoil for themselves.

Thou hast made us like sheep appointed for food,

And hast scattered us among the nations.

Thou sellest thy people for naught,

And hast not increased thy wealth by their price.

Thou makest us a reproach to our neighbors,

A scoffing and a derision to them that are round about us.

Thou makest us a byword among the nations,

A shaking of the head among the people.

All the day long is my dishonor before me;

And the shame of my face hath covered me,

For the voice of him that reproacheth and blasphemeth."

These verses describe the situation which so troubled the psalmist. The mention here of Israel's being scattered among the nations (Psalms 44:11) seems to indicate a post-exilic period; and that no doubt influenced Calvin's finding a date for this psalm in the times of the Maccabees; but that "guess" like all the others is unacceptable because nearly a century before the Maccabees, the LXX published this psalm about 250 B.C.

If the psalm was written by David, these central verses are a prophecy, describing what is in store for Christians in the era of the Messiah, and probably inspired by some events in David's reign with which we are not familiar. The terminology here could be partially based upon what occurred at that time. Paul's application of these words to conditions that certainly existed in the first century of the Christian era harmonizes with this view. The reign that fit all those which are in evidence here is of no significance. There are innumerable things that men of today do not know.

Leupold called attention to "a possible period" in David's reign when the psalm might have been written.

The conditions reflected by this psalm seem to be met by what is recorded in 2 Sam. 8:13-14. David was defeated by the Assyrians, allied with the Edomites; and 1 Kings 11:15 mentions Joab's burying the dead secretly to conceal the extent of his weakness from the enemy.F6

Despite such opinions, there is no evidence that Israel was at that time "scattered among the nations," and a byword all over the earth (Psalms 44:11,14).

Rawlinson was probably correct when he wrote that, "These verses imply not a single defeat, but a prolonged period of depression."F7 We believe that these verses represent `principles' that are fulfilled and illustrated many times over throughout the history of both the Old and the New Israel, as we shall more fully explain below.

THE ALLEGED INNOCENCE OF ISRAEL

All this has come upon us; yet have we not forgotten thee;

Neither have we dealt falsely in thy covenant.

Our heart is not turned back;

Neither have our steps declined from thy way,

That thou hast sore broken us in the place of jackals,

And covered us with the shadow of death.

If we have forgotten the name of our God,

Or spread forth our hands to a strange god;

Will not God search this out?

For he knoweth the secrets of the heart.

Yea, for thy sake are we killed all the day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter."

The marginal reading gives us `though' instead of the word `that' at the beginning of Ps. 44:19.

These five verses state the problem of the psalmist. "Israel had not been unfaithful to God, and yet afflictions had come upon her."F8 Furthermore, the problem was greatly aggravated by the evident fact that their faithfulness to God actually appeared to be "the reason why" they suffered. That is the meaning of the thundering words, "For thy sake" in Ps. 44:22. Of course, this is the very verse which Paul quoted in Rom. 8:36.


 
Verses 17-22
All this is come upon us; Yet have we not forgotten thee, Neither have we dealt falsely in thy covenant. Our heart is not turned back, Neither have our steps declined from thy way, That thou hast sore broken us in the place of jackals, And covered us with the shadow of death. If we have forgotten the name of our God, Or spread forth our hands to a strange god; Will not God search this out? For he knoweth the secrets of the heart. Yea, for thy sake are we killed all the day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
(Psalms 44:17). All these verses through Ps. 44:22 are a very vigorous profession by the psalmist of absolute innocence on the part of Israel. It is of course true that no such absolute innocence ever pertained to Israel at any time in her whole history. As Yates commented: This claim, repeated over and over here, that Israel had remained faithful was at no time in Israel's history literally true. The prophet must have had in mind a comparative fidelity based upon generalities.F9

Will not God search this out
(Psalms 44:21)? This appeal to God's omniscience surely indicates the sincerity of the prophet's claims of innocence for Israel; and perhaps we should allow this in the relative sense that Noah was righteous in his generation. Paul's making this prophecy a fair statement of the sufferings of Christians in his own times appears to prove this.

The fact remains that the sufferings of Israel could not all be described as a punishment for their sins. It was true of ancient Israel; and it is true of the New Israel today; and it is the problem which perplexed the psalmist who wrote this psalm. Why was it necessary that God's faithful people, either then or now, should be called upon to suffer "for his sake?"

THE SUFFERINGS OF THE OLD ISRAEL

It is not hard to discern the fact that the sufferings of ancient Israel may be explained as necessary to achieve goals that pertained to the ultimate will of God for his people; and, as far as we are able to see, those goals could not have been achieved without suffering.

(1) The centuries of captivity of Israel in Egypt as enslaved workers for their captors achieved these purposes of God's will for Israel. (a) It prevented their mingling racially with Egypt, because Egyptians despised shepherds, especially enslaved shepherds. (b) It gave time and opportunity for the development of Israel into a mighty nation, at the same time keeping them absolutely separate from Egypt.

(2) Their sufferings during the wilderness period hardened Israel into an effective fighting force. That period of sufferings also allowed a generation of unbelievers and murmurers to be replaced by a rejuvenated Israel who would honor and obey God (in a general sense) during the conquest of Canaan and throughout the generation of those who knew Joshua.

(3) Israel suffered from the shameless behavior of the great majority of their kings, who, with few exceptions were godless examples of debauchery, cruelty, and unbelief; but such sufferings finally led to God's taking away their kings; and there is no record of Israel's subsequent desire for a king, until that tragic moment when the chief representatives of the Chosen People cried, "We have no king but Caesar"!

(4) Israel's suffering under the captivity accomplished what a thousand years of priests, prophets and Levites could not do, that is, wean Israel from their beloved pagan gods. After the Babylonian captivity, Israel totally rejected idolatry; and it was never again practiced by them.

(5) The sufferings of Israel under the Greek period did not begin until after the times of Alexander of Macedon; but it recurred more bitterly than ever under some of Alexander the Great's successors, notably, Antiochus Epiphanes. Some of the mightiest and most significant developments in God's eternal purpose for Israel came during that very time. (a) There was the development of a world-language, the Greek, into which the Old Testament would be translated (the LXX), and in which the New Testament would be written. (b) The custom of building synagogues throughout the world was made necessary by the actions of Antiochus in closing and defiling the Temple; and those synagogues would, in time, become the centers from which Christianity would be preached all over the known world. (c) Antiochus' forbidding the reading of the Torah, led to the reading of "the prophets" every sabbath day, a custom that continued even after the Temple was cleansed and reopened; and this caused the Messianic prophecies of Christ to be read and known throughout the world of that era.

(6) Israel suffered under Rome, not because of their faithfulness to God but because of their unfaithfulness in their rejection of the Messiah; nevertheless even those sufferings glorified God and made vital contributions to the achievement of God's eternal purpose, namely, the redemption of mankind.

Those contributions were: (1) the destruction of the Temple, judged by the Judge of all the earth as a "Den of thieves and robbers." This was an absolute necessity, not only because of the moral depravity of the Temple crowd, but because it was being used as an effective device against the preaching of Christianity. (2) Another benefit was the permanent elimination of all the animal sacrifices of the Jewish system, which after the fall of Jerusalem were never resumed. (3) Perhaps the greatest contribution of all to Christianity and the ultimate realization of God's eternal purpose was the total defeat and permanent termination of Jewish efforts to prevent the preaching of the gospel. That defeat of the Jews in A.D. 70 meant that they would forever stop following New Testament evangelists around all over the world opposing the Truth, as they did against Paul.

THE SUFFERINGS OF THE NEW ISRAEL (WHICH IS THE CHURCH)

Likewise, the sufferings of "the faithful in Christ Jesus," caused not by their unfaithfulness but, on the contrary, by their fidelity, are to be expected; and they yield rich benefits to the sufferers.

If we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him (Romans 8:17).

Through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

They departed ... rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name (Acts 5:41).

We are pressed, perplexed, pursued, smitten down, always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus -- Why? That the life also of Jesus may be manifest in our body (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

Many other similar passages from the New Testament might be cited; but these are sufficient to show that the true followers of God are called to suffer "with Christ"; and the more they are like Christ the more they will suffer.

In becoming Christians, we have accepted the `Way of the Cross,' and we are pledged to `take up our cross daily' and follow Him. This is not the shame of Christianity, but the glory of it. Was not the blood of the martyrs the seed of the Church. History declares from her bloody pages that it is even so.

Can we cite any contributions toward the fulfilment of God's purpose that may be accredited to the suffering of his saints? Indeed yes.

(1) The sufferings of the first generation of Christians, especially of the apostles and evangelists, provided the fantastically convincing proof of the Christian religion. Its original witnesses and proponents sealed with their blood that testimony of the New Testament which is so vital for mankind.

(2) The suffering saints of all ages have been the most eloquent preachers of the gospel; and it continues to be true.

(3) The sufferings of Huss (1415 A.D.), Savanarola (1498 A.D.) and Tyndale (1536 A.D.) gave mankind the Bible in their native languages.

Of course, we should not have expected any Old Testament psalmist, not even David, to have been aware of the world-shaking truth of the New Testament. Yet there was a redeeming feature in the response of those Old Testament sufferers mentioned in this psalm. They did not have the inspiring example of Christ who prayed, "Not my will, but thine be done"; and we may not suppose that it ever entered their minds that God could have willed any suffering for them. Many of the perplexing questions of faith could not have been answered in the dim light of the Old Testament, which are revealed in the New Testament for those upon whom the Day Star has risen, and for whom the Light of the World has shined in their hearts.

THEIR RESPONSE

Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord?

Arise, cast us not off forever.

Wherefore hidest thou thy face,

And forgettest our afflictions and oppression?

For our soul is bowed down to the dust;

Our body cleaveth unto the earth.

Rise up for our help,

And redeem us for thy lovingkindness' sake."

This is a precious response, limited though it is. In the dark and tragic hours of undeserved suffering, they did not turn away from the Lord, but simply laid their sorrows upon his infinite bosom. They knew, of course, that, "He that keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep" (Psalms 121:4); but they still used the old anthropomorphic metaphor of "God's being asleep" to express their distress.

During the times of the Maccabees, there was a group of singers who had as their theme song, "Awake, Why Sleepest thou, O Lord?" These singers were called "The Wakers," indicating their purpose of waking up God. Such things as this, no doubt, influenced Calvin in accepting the times of the Maccabees as the date of this psalm.


 
Verses 23-26
Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? Arise, cast [us] not off for ever. Wherefore hidest thou thy face, And forgettest our affliction and our oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust: Our body cleaveth unto the earth. Rise up for our help, And redeem us for thy lovingkindness' sake.
(Psalms 44:26). Yes, they did exactly what every distressed soul should do; they brought the problem to God, pleading neither their innocence nor their merit, but basing their appeal upon the stedfast love and lovingkindness of God. In this particular, not even the blessed children of the Father in Jesus Christ today can do anything better.


Footnotes for Psalms 44
1: Alexander Maclaren, Vol. 1, Preface.
2: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 241.
3: Anthony L. Ash, Jeremiah and Lamentations (Abilene, Texas: A.C.U. Press, 1987), p. 157.
4: The New Bible Commentary, Revised. p. 479.
5: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 341.
6: H. C. Leupold, p. 346.
7: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 342.
8: H. C. Leupold, p. 346.
9: Wycliffe Old Testament Commentary, Old Testament, p. 311.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Psalm 44". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ps&chapter=044>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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