For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 44. Psalm 44 is about Israel looking back to the days when God drove out the Canaanites and planted the Israelites in the land (a story that the Israelites have heard from their fathers), and she wants God to deliver her from her enemies in the present—so that, with God’s help, she can tread down those her afflict her. Israel laments that God does not go out with her armies and that Israelites are being taken as captives to other lands (and they are sold cheaply, at that), and she does not feel that she deserves this, for she has neither forgotten God, nor worshiped another god. She says that God will search out if she has does wrong, for God knows the heart’s secrets.
Peter Craigie and Sigmund Mowinckel argue that this Psalm was pre-exilic and was used after the Israelites had lost a battle with a foreign enemy, resulting in the deportation of some Israelites to foreign lands. Others have dated the Psalm to Israel’s post-exilic—even Hasmonean—period, and there is a tradition in Babylonian Talmud Baba Sota 48a that part of Psalm 44 was utilized in the daily morning prayer during the time of the Maccabees. I agree that Psalm 44 is asking God to help the Israelites in battle, which implies that Israel has a land and an army. But I thought that some of orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s applications of this Psalm to Israel’s long period of exile were powerful. Hirsch learns from v 11 (in which the Israelites are likened to sheep appointed to meat) that there are times when murdering a Jew is considered to be no worse than killing a sheep, and Jews in those situations have had to move elsewhere. Regarding v 7, Hirsch affirms that the Jews’ survival in exile, notwithstanding their oppressors’ desire to eradicate them, is due to God’s salvation. That reminds me of Paul’s application of v 22 of this Psalm in Romans 8:36: that, even if God’s people are slaughtered, that does not separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Psalm 44:21 is odd because it says that God will search out if Israel has worshiped other gods, for God knows the secrets of the heart. But, if God already knows the secrets of the heart, why does God need to search them out? Augustine says that God searches out our hearts to cause us to know what is in them, and that is how Augustine interprets Genesis 22:12, in which God says that he now knows that Abraham fears God, on account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. For Augustine, God already knew that Abraham feared him, but he was using the akedah to cause Abraham to know it. I am skeptical about this interpretation because it does not strike me as faithful to the text. Perhaps Psalm 44:21 means that the Israelites are inviting God to search their hearts because they know that God has the ability to do so, since God can read minds.
Another interesting verse is Psalm 44:18, which the KJV translates: “Our heart is not turned back, neither have our steps declined from thy way”. In the Hebrew, there is no word for “neither” before “have our steps declined from thy way”. The translators of the KJV, and other English translations, may think that the only “lo” (“not”) in the verse applies to both clauses, but the LXX and the Targum for the Psalms do not assume this, for they view the verse as saying that Israel’s heart is not turned back, yet her steps have declined from God’s way. Their idea may be that God hasn’t given Israel a smooth path, even though she has been loyal to him, or that God is encouraging Israel to sin by not honoring her obedience to him and by abandoning her to her enemies.
In my opinion, this Psalm is valuable because it is rooted in real life, in which we may feel that we’re doing the right thing, and yet things are still going badly for us. In those times, we, like Israel, can cry out to God. Whether or not others value us, there is at least hope that God does.