George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 2

Psalm 44

1. Title

Allowing for the true pattern of superscription and subscription, as indicated by the isolated psalm in Habakkuk 3 (see Chapter 1 in the Introduction), we have here:

Superscription: For the sons of Korah (see notes, Psalms 42 and 43. Maschil.

Subscription (from heading of Psalm 45): To the chief Musician upon Shoshannim (as in Psalm 68 also).

2. Maschil

Maschil means ‘causing to understand’. It is practically equivalent to ‘explanation’. Three times the Passover law laid it upon the head of each household to explain what the purpose of the feast was and is (Exod. 12:26,27; 13:8,9,14-16). The purpose behind this commemoration must be kept fresh and clear in the minds of succeeding generations. It may be safely inferred that a similar practice was followed regarding other feasts of the Lord. The same word is used about the reading of the Law at the Feast of Trumpets (Neh. 8:1,7). Essentially the same word describes how Hezekiah “prospered” (2 Kings 18:7). Also, “Hezekiah spake to the minds of all the Levites that taught (hamaskilim) the good knowledge of the Lord” at this great Passover (2 Chron. 30:22).

3. Shoshannim

Thirtle provides good reasons for believing that lilies (shoshannim) were specially associated with the spring festival of Passover, and that the bells and pomegranates on the hem of the high priest’s robe (Exod. 28:34; 39:26) were actually symbolic flowers (lilies) and fruit (seed). Jewish coins of the Maccabean period feature the same symbolism.

It is, then, very satisfying to find clear examples in this psalm of Passover language:

The tradition handed down from the fathers.
The conquest of the Land under Joshua, at another Passover.
Slaughtered like Passover lambs.

4. Verbal links with Psalms 42 and 43


The light of thy countenance
Command deliverances
Thank God... for ever
Cast us off

Bowed down, cast down

5. Analysis

Faith builds on past experience
We too depend on God
Then why has God become an enemy?
We nevertheless depend on God
An appeal for help

And interspersed (with no apparent set pattern) are three intensely personal interjections: vv. 4, 6, and 15.

6. Historical setting

Without doubt, this is a Hezekiah psalm. The first person pronouns in vv. 4, 6, and 15 are his. The Passover background, already noted (Par. 3) is specially fitting because it was at a Passover when Hezekiah recovered from his great illness and when the Assyrian army was destroyed at the gates of Jerusalem (Isa. 30:29,31; 31:5; 33:19,20; cp. Isa. 26:20,21 with Exod. 12:22, and Isa. 37:36 with Exod. 12:23).

Note especially:

Through thee will we push down our enemies. Hezekiah’s faith that God would yet come to the rescue against the invaders. And note the corresponding negatives:
Not my bow, neither my sword, but...
In God we boast all the day long. This is the counterpoint to the sustained Assyrian tirade against the Lord: Isa. 36:7,15,18,20; 37:4, 16,17,23,24,28,29. See 2 Chron. 32:8. This was surely the only time until Antiochus Epiphanes in all their history when Israel suffered in the name of their God. See also v. 22.
Thou hast... put us to shame. Judah’s helplessness in the face of the Assyrian invasion.
Scattered us among the heathen. Sennacherib’s inscription boasts that in this campaign he took away 200,150 captives (v. 12 and Taylor’s prism). Mic. 4:10 says that he settled them in Babylon, which he had recently conquered.
A reproach... a scorn... a derision... a byword... a shaking of the head. There is no lack of evidence that surrounding nations (especially Edom and Moab) gloated over the discomfiture of Judah at this time.
Confusion... shame of face. Not only politically, but also personally — his dreadful disease.
Him that reproacheth and blasphemeth. Rabshakeh’s sustained propaganda and brutal railing against Jerusalem — its king, its people, and especially its God (cp. 123:3,4).
Yet have we not forgotten thee. There are plenty of vigorous passages in Isaiah denouncing the spiritual decay of the nation at this time. But here and in v. 18 the psalm speaks for the faithful remnant (e.g. Isa. 26:3,4,6-9,16; 33:2; 29:12-14; 30:15,18; etc.) who continued to observe Passover in the years after 2 Chron. 30 and who remained loyal to the king and his supporting prophets, Isaiah, Micah, and others.
Dragons. The commentators rather vaguely say jackals (tannim). But could there be confusion with tanninim, great beasts, alluding to elephants in the massive Egyptian army which Sennacherib defeated at El-tekeh (Taylor prism again)?
For thy sake are we killed all the day long, like so many Passover lambs. Reports were constantly coming in of massacres at captured towns and villages. One of Sennacherib’s favorite tactics was to impale his prisoners on rows of stakes. This would be done just outside Jerusalem with intent to frighten and demoralize the besieged populace.
Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? There is here an implication that normally God does come to the aid of His afflicted people. He does. And he did, in the middle of that Passover night (Isa. 37:36). Note Psa. 121:4, another Hezekiah psalm:
        “Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”

7. New Testament reference

At the end of Romans 8 Paul comes to his solution of the problem of evil — that there is no kind of hardship in life (v. 35) that can separate the disciple from the love of Christ. And in proof he cites (v. 36) the traumatic experiences summed up in Psalm 44. The background of that psalm establishes that, when circumstances are at their most adverse, and when God seems to have turned away heedlessly, at just such a time the hand of God saves His faithful ones, so that they find themselves “more than conquerors” (v. 37). But how is it possible in any war to be more than conquerors?

Nearly every war in history has ended with a defeated foe beaten to his knees but nevertheless remaining a resentful enemy, quietly vowing that one day he will have his revenge. But in this “war” which Paul describes the disciple is “more than conqueror” because he turns the hated foe into a friend. What was deemed to be a shattering of faith, now seems a fine friend, and a help to yet greater faith in Christ. It is “by means of all these things” (tribulation, distress, and so on) (v. 37) and the new perspective of God at work that, here and now in this life, the greatest enemies are made the greatest friends.

The paradox of Psalm 44 — God appearing to cast off and punish His people when they are faithful and trusting — is explained by the division of Hezekiah’s nation into a faithless decadent majority and a faithful remnant. The outcome of that crucial situation vindicated God as neither asleep (44:23) nor unjust. The outcome was right.

Now in Romans 8:35,36 and 11:1 Paul uses Psalm 44 to sort out two current problems: (1) the faithful appearing to suffer undeservedly, and (2) the casting away of Israel, God’s chosen. As in Hezekiah’s time, the faithful today are all the better for the trauma they have experienced; and corrupt Israel, whilst deserving their suffering, are yet to be brought through it to learn afresh the goodness of God. Romans 11:12 quotes and reapplies Psalm 44:9:

“Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles: how much more their fulness?”

The psalm proves the truth of Paul’s thesis — that wayward Israel will be restored — in the rest of Romans 11.

Psalm 44:16, set over against John 6:60,66,71, finds its counterpart in 6:67-69. Every great trial of God’s people produces both sterling declarations of renewed faith... and black, heartless denials and treacheries. Faithful disciples and “Judases” almost always exist side by side (Matt. 13:24-30,36-43; 25:1-12,14-28,31-34), until finally sorted out by the Great Judge.

8. Other details

Our fathers have told us. Note the same idea, much repeated, in 78:3-6.

In times of old implies written records; and the word for told, linked with sepher (a book), supports this.
How thou plantedst them, Israel, in preparation for 2 Sam. 7:10.

How thou didst afflict the people. Not Israel. This Hebrew word l’umim (in v. 14 also) usually means the Canaanite or Arab people.

And cast them out should be: and spread them (Israel) abroad, like the branches of a tree (s.w. 80:11; also cp. Jer. 17:8; Ezek. 17:6; 31:5).
They = the fathers (v. 1).

Not... by their own sword. Compare v. 6; Josh. 24:12 (Gen. 48:22).

By thy right hand: Exod. 15:6.

The light of thy countenance. Contrast v. 24; Isa. 6:2.
Thou art my king. King Hezekiah makes ready acknowledgment that there is a King higher than he. Psa. 20 is a coronation psalm. This verse (“king”... ”Jacob”) looks back to vv. 1,9 there.

Command deliverances. A splendid example of the intensive plural. Hezekiah was asking for only one deliverance, but that a very sensational one!
Through thee will we push down our enemies. Deut. 33:17 suggests the overpowering might of the Cherubim chariot of the Lord, as described in Ezekiel 1. Note also Isa. 37:16 and 1 Kings 22:11.
Thou hast saved us, i.e. on former occasions, in time of crisis, and especially in the overwhelming of the Egyptians at the Red Sea — at Passover!
Selah suggests God the Rock of protection (see Introduction, Chap-ter 7).
Thou hast cast us off. Not true: see 89:28.
RSV has sheep for the slaughter, as in v. 22. Also cp. Isa. 53:6,7.
Thou sellest thy people for nought. That is, He has not increased His wealth by one jot by the “price” He has received for them! See Isa. 52:3,4; Amos 1:6,9; Obad. 11,12; Jer. 15:13; Joel 3:1-7; Mic. 7:12,13. Contrast God’s action in Psa. 72:14; 116:15; Isa. 43:3.
Thou makest us a reproach to our neighbours, especially Edom: 137:7.
A byword: Deut. 28:37 (proverb); cp. Psa. 69:11; Jer. 24:9.

A shaking of the head. A “laughingstock” (RSV). But the tables were turned: 2 Kings 19:21.
My confusion. Does this refer to Hezekiah’s illness or to his seemingly pointless faith in God’s deliverance?

Continually is really all the day, as in v. 22. But contrast v. 8, s.w.

Shame hath covered me. Contrast 2 Chron. 32:21: Shame would ultimately cover the defeated Sennacherib, who made his ignominious retreat to Nineveh.
Him that reproacheth and blasphemeth. Six times this word “reproacheth” is used about Rabshakeh: 2 Kings 19:4,16,22,23; Isa. 37:4,17.

The enemy and the avenger. Here is another “David and Goliath” situation (cp. Psa. 8:2).
Our heart is not turned back. What a contrast with their fathers, who “told” them: v. 1; 78:41.
Thou hast... covered us with the shadow of death. Compare 23:4. Allusion to the destroying angel of the Passover (Exod. 12:23; Isa. 37:36)? Or to the pillar of cloud confounding the Egyptians (Exod. 14:19,20)?
If we have... stretched out our hands, as in prayer: Psa. 28:2; 68:31; 88:9; 134:2; 141:2.
He knoweth the secrets of the heart. How very often this truth is repeated in Holy Scriptures! And how little do men think about it!
Read: Nay, but for thy sake... in sharp contrast with the idea of disloyalty in v. 20. See details under v. 8 in Par. 6.
Awake, why sleepest thou? is plainly echoed in Mark 4:38 (and Matt. 8:24 and Luke 8:24): It is the appeal of frightened disciples in the midst of an awesome storm at sea: “They awake him, and say unto him, ‘Master, carest thou not that we perish?’ ” Of course he cared, and he would act — at the proper time, but not before.
Wherefore hidest thou thy face? Compare Isa. 45:15, and especially Isa. 6:2, to which most of such passages refer.
For our soul is bowed down to the dust: our belly cleaveth unto the earth. Seemingly they were under a curse, like the serpent: Gen. 3:14.

For thy mercies’ sake. So very often an allusion to God’s covenants of promise (v. 17), as in Mic. 7:20.
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