By Paul Knudtson
In a recent post I protested against the modern, secular idea of the absolute randomness of everything that renders life absurd and meaningless. Christian faith affirms that life is meaningful since it is defined and determined by God. Yet, as the Christian scriptures also bear witness, humans are often unable to perceive the meaning behind much that happens in life. This failure to discern God’s purposes and providential involvement in all that takes place can shake one’s faith in a good and trustworthy God.
Many of the Psalms in the Bible express the existential crisis arising from situations that do not make sense and in which God seems absent. Psalm 44 is just such a psalm that expresses consternation at the apparent absence of God.
We have heard with our ears, O God,
our ancestors 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 give them victory;
but your right hand, and your arm,
and the light of your countenance,
for you delighted in them.
4 You are my King and my God;
you command[a] victories for Jacob.
5 Through you we push down our foes;
through your name we tread down our assailants.
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 confusion those who hate us.
8 In God we have boasted continually,
and we will give thanks to your name forever.
9 Yet you have rejected us and abased us,
and have not gone out with our armies.
10 You made us turn back from the foe,
and our enemies 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 words of the taunters and revilers,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
17 All this has come upon us,
yet we have not forgotten you,
or 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 haunt of jackals,
and covered us with deep darkness.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God,
or spread out our hands to a strange god,
21 would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22 Because of you we are being killed all day long,
and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For we sink down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
This Psalm begins by recounting divine acts of love toward the ancestors of old in rescuing them from their enemies and in granting them a land of their own. But in 44:9-16 the writer describes the present situation of military defeat at the hands of Israel’s enemies. Such a situation does not make sense theologically. Though those described in the psalm have remained faithful to God, God has abandoned them.
“8In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. 9Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies.” Verse 11 goes on to say this to God: “You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations.” The Psalmist protests to God, “All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant” (44:17).
Israel had learned to expect that God could be trusted to protect and keep her so long as she in turn remained faithful and obedient towards God. Moses had said, “If you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you on high above all the nations of the earth . . . . The LORD will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you” (Deuteronomy 28:1, 7). The blessings for obedience extended beyond matters of military security to include prosperity in a fruitful, productive, and peaceful land (28:4-6, 8, 11-12). There was a logic to Israel’s faith; it granted meaning to life. Obedience to God brought abundant blessings; disobedience to God brought terrible curses.
Against the background of faith’s assertions of meaningfulness, Psalm 44 protests that Israel’s present military defeat at the hands of her enemies contradicts the promises of her scriptures and raise fundamental questions regarding God and the meaningfulness of faith.
Can God be trusted?
Is God reliable?
Does the life of faith make sense?
Near the end of Psalm 44, the question of meaning is raised as indicated by the threefold use of the word “why.” Verses 23-24 are addressed directly to God:
“23 Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression.”
The word “why” is asking for an explanation regarding the meaning of what has happened. To say that our faith (the Christian faith) makes life meaningful is to say that we reject any assertion that life is merely random and without meaning, that is, absurd.
What is significant, though, is that Psalm 44, like many other Psalms (see, for example, Psalms 10, 22, 74, 88), does not provide God’s answer to the question, “why?” What we may conclude from this, I suppose, is that while faith does make life meaningful and does answer many of the deepest questions and hungers of the human heart, there will also be faith-testing times in our lives in which questions will go unanswered and when the nature of God’s involvement in our lives will remain hidden from us.
Psalm 44 is prayer to God awaiting God’s answer. I suppose many of our questions in life will remain open-ended prayers to God. Such prayers will be characteristic of the life of faith, and may either be answered throughout our lives in a multitude of ways, or may await God’s final answer in the age to come. While this Psalm expresses the faith-challenging questions of present troubles, it ends with a faith-affirming reference to God’s steadfast love. “Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love” (44:26).