Grace Expectations (Psalm 44:1–26)

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My parents joined the church in which I was raised when I was about three years old. At the time, the church had a membership of about one hundred. Over years, God added to the church, and by the time I was a teenager church membership stood around one thousand, and the building that had housed us for years was now too small. God had graciously provided another facility for us, and we were preparing to move to it.

On the last Sunday at our old facility, our pastor asked our youth pastor to close the service in prayer. I can clearly remember the conclusion to that prayer. Drawing his prayer to a close, our youth pastor passionately cried to God, “Do it again!” God had blessed our church tremendously, and our youth pastor was pleading in anticipation for God to bless us again.

As Christians, we often entertain great expectations. We witness the success of the gospel and we anticipate more. We expect God to do great things in terms of church planting and evangelism. In our own spiritual growth, we experience God taking us from strength to strength, and so we anticipate more—both for ourselves and for new converts. We are blessed as God answers prayer in our lives, and so we anticipate great things as we continue to pray for unsaved loved ones, for pressing needs (or what we perceive to be needs) in our lives, for our children, for our marriages or for our health. We anticipate God’s work in our lives in terms of relational harmony.

But sometimes our great expectations morph into grievous experiences. Marriages go bad, relationships sour, friends become foes, churches are persecuted, disease worsens, loved ones die, tragedies occur, and societies deteriorate.

When this happens, what do we do? How do we handle it? Psalm 44 provides some necessary perspective. In this psalm, we read of the response of a faithful people whose great expectations turn into grievous experiences—yet they hope for grace. As we study this psalm together, I pray that we will learn from the psalmist and apply what we learn to our lives.

Great Expectations

In vv. 1–8 we read of the psalmist’s great expectations. A marvellous past seemed to promise a marvellous future.

We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, the deeds You did in their days, in days of old: You drove out the nations with Your hand, but them You planted; you afflicted the peoples, and cast them out. For they did not gain possession of the land by their own sword, nor did their own arm save them; but it was Your right hand, Your arm, and the light of Your countenance, because You favoured them. You are my King, O God; command victories for Jacob.

Through You we will push down our enemies; through Your name we will trample those who rise up against us. For I will not trust in my bow, nor shall my sword save me. But You have saved us from our enemies, and have put to shame those who hated us.

(Psalm 44:1–7)

What They Heard

The writer speaks of wonderful historical facts that he and his fellow believers had heard, which had affected what they expected.

They had heard of God’s marvellous miracles in the distant past (vv. 1–4). The psalmist speaks of what God had done for Israel when He delivered them from Egyptian bondage. Clearly, he was a man who had familiarised himself with the biblical accounts of God’s work in the past. We don’t know who the writer was but, whoever he was, he knew the importance of biblical storytelling.

As something of a side note, let us notice the importance of this ourselves. It is a wonderful testimony to brag to your children of what God has done in your life. It teaches them to expect great things from God. Are you familiar with God’s works in ancient times? Does His grace to His people in the past empower your expectations for the present?

The writer is engrossed with God-centred history. As he addresses God, he uses “You” or “Your” some fourteen times in vv. 1–8. He recognises that what God did in the past was an act of grade: God did it because He “favoured” them.

It is good for us to review, remember and reflect on God’s grace to us in the past. It is good for us to marvel at God’s work in biblical history. It is good for us to have a grasp on God’s gracious providence in post-biblical history. We can take heart from God’s work in various awakenings throughout history, in the Reformation, and in the lives of great missionaries. The missionaries of the New Testament “reported all that God had done with them” (Acts 14:27), and we would do well to do the same.

It is good for us to recognise God’s gracious hand of providence in our lives. A church member recently did so in a testimony in our church, which proved to be a great blessing to me. His wife was due to have a major surgical procedure on a Friday, and the Tuesday of that week she was doing some shopping. In the shops, a stranger approached her to ask if she was pregnant. This stranger explained that she had been overcome suddenly with a craving for a crème soda flavoured milk. She said that this craving had only ever struck her twice before: once when her sister fell pregnant, and the other time when her sister-in-law fell pregnant. Overcome with this craving, she noticed our church member standing in the next aisle, and went and told her this story.

Our church member laughed it off and told the stranger that she was not pregnant. She paid for her goods and went to her car. As she was about to drive off, she went back into the shop on a whim and purchased a pregnancy test. The test returned a positive result. Stunned, she purchased another test—a different brand—which again returned a positive result. In disbelief, she drove straight to her doctor and had a blood test, which confirmed that she was in fact pregnant.

As I listened to that story, I was struck by God’s providence in her life. The procedure would certainly have ended the life growing in her womb, but God used a complete stranger, with a craving for flavoured milk, to warn her not to have the procedure and to save a life. I am certain that this family will remember God’s work in their lives for as long as they live.

For the psalmist, God’s grace in the distant past motivated him in the immediate present (vv. 5–7). He reflected on the work of the God of his fathers, but he recognised that the same God was his God too. Rather than relegate God’s distant, gracious providence to a time before he was born, he took heart that he could trust this God too. The same God who had saved the nation on Moses’ day had “saved us from our enemies” (v. 7). God had worked in his day as surely as he had worked “in days of old” (v. 1).

It is good for us to remember God’s work in Bible times. It is good for us to remember His work in the Reformation and in the days of Andrew Murray. It is good for us to remember His gracious work in the lives of our parents and grandparents. But that should drive us to remember His work in our own lifetime. The God of “days of old” is our God too; therefore, we can expect great things from God.

What They Expected

Not only did the writer and his fellow believers rejoice in God’s providence in times past, they also expected Him to repeat what He had previously done. “In God we boast all day long, and praise Your name forever. Selah” (v. 8).

As we reflect on God’s grace in the past—by means of reading biography, listening to narrative preached, and hearing testimonies from older saints—we are encouraged to believe God for great things in the present. This is good, but we must be prepared for what may well follow. Our boasting must be in the Lord, not in what the Lord has done, or else our faith will falter when we experience the realities of vv. 9–26.

Once our praise has been determined, we are prepared for the problems that have been predestined.

Grievous Experiences

The second part of the psalm—the bulk thereof—recounts the grievous experiences of the psalmist:

But You have cast us off and put us to shame, and You do not go out with our armies. You make us turn back from the enemy, and those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves. You have given us up like sheep intended for food, and have scattered us among the nations. You sell Your people for next to nothing, and are not enriched by selling them.

You make us a reproach to our neighbours, a scorn and a derision to those all around us. You make us a byword among the nations, a shaking of the head among the peoples. My dishonour is continually before me, and the shame of my face has covered me, because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles, because of the enemy and the avenger.

All this has come upon us; but we have not forgotten You, nor have we dealt falsely with Your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from Your way; but You have severely broken us in the place of jackals, and covered us with the shadow of death. If we had forgotten the name of our God, or stretched out our hands to a foreign god, would not God search this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart. Yet for Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Arise! Do not cast us off forever. Why do You hide Your face, and forget our affliction and our oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our body clings to the ground.

Arise for our help, and redeem us for Your mercies’ sake.

(Psalm 44:9–26)

The writer and his colleagues experienced the reality of Christian living. They expected conquest, but experienced calamity. They expected a repeat of God’s gracious providence, but experienced reproach. The marvellous past on which they hopefully reflected was followed by a miserable present. The historical record was a long what from their present reality.

Misery is something that believers experience. The biblical record is replete with examples of this (see Judge 10:16; Job 3:20; 10:15; 11:16; 20:22; Ecclesiastes 8:6; Jonah 4:6). We do well to note these experiences, for they may well be ours.

What They Experienced

Despite their great expectations, these saints experienced failure, foes, a sense of being forsaken, and great frustration.

Their Condition

In vv. 9–16 the writer highlights the twofold condition of him and his colleagues.

First, they were cast off.

But You have cast us off and put us to shame, and You do not go out with our armies. You make us turn back from the enemy, and those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves. You have given us up like sheep intended for food, and have scattered us among the nations. You sell Your people for next to nothing, and are not enriched by selling them.

(Psalm 44:9–12)

These saints were more than defeated; they were completely demoralised. They had experienced a complete loss of confidence.

The word “but” as used in Scripture can often be a word of wonderful contrast (see Romans 3:21; Ephesians 2:4). That is not the case here. Here, the past had not moved to the present. The past had been glorious; the present was less so. And yet, even in calamity, the writer remained God-centred. The writer uses “You” or “Your” six times in these verses, highlighting the fact that God was just as involved in calamity as He was in blessing. Whereas He showed His providence “in days of old” by working for His people, He now showed His providence in seemingly working against them.

Have you ever felt this way? Can you relate? Have you ever wondered why God allowed the geyser to burst and flood your entire house? Have you ever wondered why God allowed you to face a dread disease? Have you ever wondered why He allowed you to be retrenched? The writer and his colleagues felt forsaken.

But, second, they were contemptible in addition to being cast off.

You make us a reproach to our neighbours, a scorn and a derision to those all around us. You make us a byword among the nations, a shaking of the head among the peoples. My dishonour is continually before me, and the shame of my face has covered me, because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles, because of the enemy and the avenger.

(Psalm 44:13–16)

These saints were living with shame. Their neighbours considered them to be contemptible. They found no favour in society.

The church is sometimes, in some places, in this very condition. The world watches the church with eagle eye and takes advantage of any opportunity to bring God’s people into derision. As one recent example, consider the delight of the world as self-professed faith healer T. B. Joshua’s church building collapsed, killing and injuries many inside. Joshua professed to have miraculous powers, but he could do nothing about the structural collapse that injured and killed many who had come to him for healing. The world loves it, and flings all sorts of insults at Christianity because of it.

This is not the place to discuss Joshua’s obviously fraudulent claims to miraculous power, but it does illustrate the fact that the world loves to deride Christianity and hold Christians in contempt. The church, by God’s design, lives in cultural exile, and God-centred heartache is hard to bear.

Their Confusion

The writer clearly expressed his confusion, and that of his colleagues, in vv. 17–22. Once again, this section begins with that important conjunction: “But.”

The writer was confused at God’s mysterious providence because he and his people had been faithful (vv. 17–19). Unlike some of the other psalms, God’s frowning providence was not here the result of sin. It is not that the people had remained sinless, but they were in a sense innocent. They had not been covenantally unfaithful, yet it appeared as if God was punishing them. They were therefore in profound confusion and disillusionment. They had done some serious self-examination and had concluded that they were innocent. Why, then, had God frowned on them?

The reality of the Christian life is that winter sometimes unseasonably arrives in spring. God’s frowning providence is not always the result of sin in our lives.

The second reason that the writer and his colleagues were confused was because, even as they were faithful, they knew that God is faithful (vv. 20–22). Why would a faithful God allow His faithful people to experience adversity? It made no sense. They had sought to be faithful, “yet” (v. 22) they were being slaughtered.

It is important to remember that adversity does not always mean that we have been unfaithful. Paul actually quotes v. 22 in the Romans 8 to make this very point.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:

“For Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Romans 8:31–39)

The gospel does not always remove the “yets,” but it does empower us through them. I have been greatly burdened in recent days to hear reports of Christian martyrdom in the Middle East at the hands of the ISIS terrorists. Reports have emerged of even children being beheaded before their parents because they will not deny Christ. Why does God allow this to happen? Why does He not supernaturally intervene to stop this? I don’t have all the answers for that, but it is a reality that is taught clearly in Scripture.

What They Expressed

In the closing verses, the writer, on behalf of his colleagues, expresses faith in God.

Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Arise! Do not cast us off forever. Why do You hide Your face, and forget our affliction and our oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our body clings to the ground. Arise for our help, and redeem us for Your mercies’ sake.

(Psalm 44:23–26)

The writer’s great expectation had turned into grievous experience, but that resulted in a glorious expression of faith. You may wonder how this can be considered a glorious, God-centred expression of faith. The answer is, they took God seriously!

This was, in the first place, a faithful confession of boldness, dependence, confession and humility (vv. 23–25).

God wants to be taken seriously and wants His Word to be taken seriously. One of the most pressing questions in Bible study is, how are we to understand the imprecatory psalms? The imprecatory psalms are those psalms in which God’s people pray God’s judgement upon God’s enemies. This is what the writer is essentially doing here—though in other psalms the language is far stronger.

The fact is, this writer was claiming the promises of God. God had promised to vindicate His people against those who persecuted them. The writer was asking God to do what He had promised. He was asking God to fulfil His Word. He was not praying out of a sense of personal vengeance. Like the glorified martyrs in Revelation 6:9–12, He was, in faith, asking God to vindicate Himself by vindicating His people. This was a prayer of reverent boldness. It was a confession of God’s “ultimacy.”

Are you bold in your prayers? Of course, this requires that you know what to be bold about. It requires that you know God’s Word and His promises so that you can pray for Him, in great anticipation, to keep those promises. We can boldly pray for God’s will as revealed in His Word. We can boldly pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The fact is, unbelief is all too often masked as piety. We tend to hide our unbelief beneath the veneer of “God willing.” We pray, not really believing that God will answer, and so we preface our unbelieving prayers with “God willing.” Jesus prayed, “Not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42) and then proved this resolve by rising and going to the cross.

Do you believe as you pray for the knowledge of the glory of the Lord to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14)? If so, what are you doing to see that prayer become a reality? Is your prayer for the success of the gospel through missions backed up by you sacrificing to support missions? If we believe, we will act.

But the writer’s response was also, secondly, a faithful response of belief, devotion, confidence and hope (v. 26). “Arise for our help, and redeem us for Your mercies’ sake.” His great expectations were fuelled by expectations of grace. The word translated “mercies’” is the Hebrew word hesed. This is a frequent word in the New Testament, which drips with grace.

Throughout the psalm, we have witnessed the writer’s God-centredness. “You” or “Your” is found some 21 times in these 26 verses. The writer was convinced of God’s sovereign greatness, glory and grace. He expected God to do great things because he knew that God is a gracious God.

Believer, even in your adversity, you can—you must—have great expectations again fuelled by expectations of grace. The best days are not all behind us. Let us believe God, for He will redeem us for His mercies’ sake.