Sermon preached on Psalm 44 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/2/2017 in Novato, CA.
“Accounted as Sheep for the Slaughter”
Too often today when the gospel is shared to a non-Christian, the emphasis can be put on how a relationship with Jesus can improve your life. Now, it is true, a relationship with Jesus does improve your life in many ways. Ultimately, Jesus saves us from the punishment of hell and gives to us a blessed eternal life in glory. That certainly is Jesus improving your life! And the benefits of a saving relationship with Jesus are not only for eternity, but come in various ways in this life too. But without some clarification, we run the danger of giving people a false impression of what life will be like as a Christian. Becoming a Christian won’t save you from hardships that are common to this life, things like sickness, disease, poverty, etc, etc. In fact, becoming a Christian will surely bring you additional hardships unique to being a Christian. And so yes, the gospel is wonderful good news to people and we want everyone to hear the gospel, believe in Jesus, and be saved. But we don’t want to falsely sell the gospel as something that it is not. The primary way Jesus saves us is to save us from our sins, and from the hell those sins have earned; not to save us from all the troubles in this life.
This is a truth that comes to us as we consider Psalm 44 today. If becoming a Christian is so wonderful and life changing; if our sins are forgiven and we’ve been set free from God’s wrath and curse; if we’ve been given a new life and the hope of blessed eternal life; if we have such victory in the Lord, then why do Christians so often today suffer and struggle? Why do we sometimes struggle specifically because we are Christian? Our psalm for today gets us to consider this question and look to the Scriptures for an answer. And so then, I’ll begin today by briefly walking us through the content of this psalm, and then in application deal specifically with this question about why Christians suffer in this life.
So, let’s begin to walk through the content of this psalm. Looking after the first three verses, we see the psalmist acknowledging the historical saving acts of God. “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, the deeds You did in their days, in days of old.” The psalmist goes on to reflect on how God drove out the nations from before God’s people. It speaks of how God saved them from the enemy nations around them. Recall that at this time, in the Old Testament, the only people who really followed God were the Israelites, whereas the nations all around them worshipped false gods. These Gentiles often would afflict God’s people and try to subjugate them. And so, verses 1-3 recall how so many times in the past God worked savingly in the history of Israel to deliver them from these enemy nations. Remember Egypt and the Exodus. Remember how he planted Israel in the Promised Land, driving out the wicked Caananites; like how he made the walls of Jericho fall down onto the city. Remember the deliverances he brought against the Philistines and the Moabites and so many others. Think of all the wonders and miracles God often used to give such victories for Israel. What the people should have concluded way back then is what verse 3 asserts. It wasn’t the people and their own strength that brought them victory over these enemies. It was God and his strength and might! God had put his favor on his people and delivered them time and again from all these enemies. God be praised!
That’s the first section in this psalm; it recounts these might historical saving acts of God. The second section is verses 4-8. Here the psalmist asserts his trust in God as their king and deliverer. Clearly this is rooted in the facts of the first section. Their current trust in God as their king and deliverer is based on the historical precedence that God had already set with his people. God’s past deliverances for Israel is why the psalmist at that time was putting his trust in God. So, as verse 5 says, “Through you [Oh God] we will push down our enemies”. And in verse 6, the psalmist affirms that it won’t be his own bow or sword that will give the victory. God would need to give the continued victories over the enemy pagan nations all around them. And so, in verse 8 the psalmist can say, “In God we boast all day long, and praise your name forever!”
That’s the second section of the psalm; it asserts the people’s trust in God as their current king and deliverer. Now if the psalm ended there, we would label this a psalm of praise. But the psalm does not end there. There is a sudden and dramatic change of tone that begins in verse 9. This sudden changes reveals to us that this was actually a psalm of lament. Verse 9, “But you have cast us off and put us to shame.” This third section runs from verses 9-16. It is an extended description of how the current state of God’s people is not good. The key theme in this section is the shame and reproach that has come upon the people. Specifically, this is in conjunction with the other nations. Instead of Israel being delivered from the enemy nations, they have suffered defeat to them. Verse 9 says that God does not go out with them in battle. Verse 10 says that God has made them retreat in battle. Verse 11 says that God has given up his people like sheep for food; in these defeats, God has scattered his people among the nations. Verse 12 says that God has sold his people for nothing. Verses 13-16 especially bring out how the enemy nations now taunt and revile God’s people because of this. You could imagine what they might say. They might say things like, “Where is your God now that you so trust in? Let him deliver you if he can!” We see this ridicule described here and the result according to verse 15 is dishonor and shame. These verses describe quite a state of shame and sorrow and difficulty for God’s people. What’s particularly interesting is how the psalmist credits God for all this. Even in their defeats, he doesn’t credit the strength of the pagan nations. No, repeatedly the psalmist credits God in it all. In good times or bad, the psalmist recognizes the sovereignty of God.
So that’s the third section of this psalm, to describe Israel’s current state of shame because of their defeat to the enemy nations around them. The fourth section is in verses 17-22. Here there is yet another shocking turn in the psalm. Starting in verse 17 there is another sudden and especially unexpected change of tone in the psalm. What we might have expected to see at this point is a grand confession of sin with a pledge of repentance. We are used to seeing in the Old Testament Israel having the type of troubles described for them in the previous section when they had been spiritual wayward and disobedient to their God. We read for example the book of Judges and see time and time again that God delivers his people over to the enemy nations when they fell into idolatry and broke their covenant with God. Then God would deliver them up to the nations around them who would afflict them. Finally, this would awake the people to their sin and rebellion and they would confess their sin and turn back to God and call to him for help. Then God would deliver them and heal them.
Yet this is not what verse 17 tells us. No, this fourth section of the psalm is a bold confession of fidelity. In no uncertain terms, the psalmist is saying that Israel has remained faithful in this instance. Verse 17, “All this has come upon us; but we have not forgotten you, nor have we dealt falsely with your covenant.” Verse 18, “Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way.” In verses 20-21, the psalmist goes on to acknowledge that if they had broken the covenant, if they had gone after other gods; then the psalmist could understand why they had suffered such shame and defeat to the nations. But that was not the case at that time. The psalmist doubles down on this when he gets to verse 22. He says that it was for God’s sake that they were being killed all the day long and accounted as sheep for the slaughter. For God’s sake! That language is almost vicarious in nature. They are facing affliction from these enemy nations because they are God’s people and bear his name! What an unexpected statement here. We are so used to seeing Israel fall short in their keeping of the covenant, we are surprised to see all these troubles when they apparently are being faithful to the covenant. Time and again, God had to send prophets to Israel as covenant lawyers to give them notice of how they were in violation of the covenant. But here, if anything, the psalmist in the most humble way possible is bringing God on notice. That’s how verse 17 started out. The psalmist invoked the covenant. To be clear, the psalmist doesn’t accuse God of breaking the covenant. But surely there is a question raised here. In the final section, he will even describe God as being asleep in this.
So that’s the fourth section of the psalm, a confession of fidelity by the psalmist. The final section then is a call to God for help. There are such vivid words used here in this call for help. Awake! Arise! Do not cast us off forever! Don’t forget us! Help! Redeem us! I love the tone in how this psalm ends. It only further gives evidence to their claim of fidelity. In the midst of all their troubles, they have just simply cursed God and died. No, even now, in their challenging circumstances, they will look to God for help. They have hope that God will yet hear them and deliver them. The psalm ends with an appeal to God’s mercy and love, “for your mercies’ sake” as the Pew bible translates it. In the Hebrew it is the rich word hesed; the only usage of it in the psalm, and it’s the last word. The psalm ends with an appeal to God’s hesed; to his covenant faithfulness; to his steadfast love; to his great mercies.
And so that’s the psalm and its basic message. In our remaining time, I want to hone in on the question of verse 23. “Why do you sleep O Lord?” As we studied the psalm we saw that perplexing question. Why would God’s people suffer like this if they had remained faithful to the covenant? I want to address that question for them back then, but I will then bring this as application for us too. And so, the psalmist asks, “Why do you sleep O Lord?” In trying to address that question, let me start off by noting that this psalm itself does not answer this question. It raises the question, but doesn’t give an answer. It merely looks to God for help in the midst of the perplexing situation.
So then, what’s the answer to this question? Well, at first glance, I could see how some might address this by challenging the psalmist’s assertion. They might want to push back on verses 17-22 and say that surely Israel was not as faithful as the psalmist claims; in other words, since all humans are fallen in sin and completely worthy of God’s wrath and curse, God would be justified in this. And yet, though there is a truth to the fact that all humans are fallen in sin, that doesn’t do justice to the context here to answer so simplistically. There’s nothing in this text that would cause us to doubt the veracity of the psalmist’ claim here. Furthermore, the fallen nature of man was in view in the old covenant. That’s why there were sacrifices for sin under the old covenant. The old covenant took into account the general sinfulness of the Israelites, and made provisions for it. The psalmist isn’t claiming they are perfectly sinless; he’s claiming they’ve adhered to the terms of the covenant, at least in some sense. And so, I believe we need to take the psalm’s assertion at face value here, that they had suffered all this shame even while currently living in keeping with the covenant at least in a general way.
So again, the question comes, why did God then allow this suffering if that was the case? Well, since this psalm doesn’t give an answer to the question, we would do well to let Scripture interpret Scripture. Of note, Romans 8:36 quotes verse 22 of this psalm. There it applies this same idea to us Christians today. Obviously, we are under the new covenant now and not the old covenant. But Paul can find an application nonetheless. In Romans 8, he speaks of how Christians can find persecution even and especially because they are Christian. Paul in Romans 8 speaks of the hardships we may face as Christians; things like tribulation, distress, persecutions, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword. Yet despite this, despite that we are being killed all day long for God’s sake, Paul sees victory. He says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” He says defiantly as if to our enemies, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?” He says that not even death can separate us from God’s love! I wonder if that was in Hebrew if he would have said God’s hesed! Paul says in reference to verse 22 that for the Christian we are more than conquerors through him who loved us! And I love, by the way, in light of this psalm’s discussion about the Gentile nations, that in Romans 8 Paul applies this psalm even to Gentile converts to Christianity. Now under the new covenant, even Gentiles who previously were enemies to God’s people, have now by faith in Christ become part of God’s people. So then, when God’s people now face reviling from the nations, these Gentile converts to Christianity share in that shame and affliction.
Of course, Romans 8 still doesn’t directly answer the “why”. It merely adds our current experience to what was described in Psalm 44. In the old covenant, there were times when God’s people had to suffer affliction for God’s sake. And now especially under the new covenant there are times when God’s people have to suffer affliction for his sake. And though Romans 8 doesn’t answer “why”, 1 Peter 2 does give an answer. Listen to 1 Peter 2:21-25.
For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
That language rings so similar to today’s psalm. Christ suffered. Christ was reviled. He was a lamb led to the slaughter. If we should wonder why we suffer, how much more could we ask the question of Jesus? Jesus, sinless, perfect Jesus? Why should he suffer such shame and reproach? We know the answer. For us. To save us from our sins. On the cross, he took on all God’s wrath and curse to pay the penalty for our sins. He bore it in a way that only the God-man could do. He bore it so wonderfully and completely that the Bible says that whoever believes on him, who receives in faith the forgiveness he offers, then you will be completely forgiven of all your sins, past, present, and future.
So why did the righteous people of Psalm 44 (righteous by grace) endure such suffering? Why do we righteous by grace endure such suffering? It’s because of our union with Christ. Christ already vicariously suffered for us. Christ already for our sake bore such shame and suffering. God then calls us to share in that suffering in light of our union with Christ. Surely, we will never endure to the same degree what he endured for us. But God gives to us what is actually a high privilege, the opportunities to share in the sufferings of Christ. We certainly can appreciate all the more what Christ went through for us when we are privileged to suffer for his sake. And so, when you do suffer for Christ’s sake, know that you are blessed, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. When you do suffer for Christ’s sake, rejoice, for you know that great is your reward in heaven. For if you have united with Christ in his death, you will certainly be with him in his resurrection (c.f. Rom 6:5). We stand now able to answer the question of Psalm 44 because of the light of more revelation. Even back then the people under the old covenant had opportunities to share in the reproach of Christ (c.f. Heb 11:26). Now with the greater light of more revelation, we can recognize this for both them and us.
In conclusion, I leave us with a gospel call. If you are here today and have not yet put your faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, I urge you to do so today. I do not guarantee that if you do, you will have an easy life. As we’ve said today, you may even suffer more because you are a Christian. But should you do, rejoice because it’s evidence of your union with Christ. Christ came not ultimately to save us from all the troubles of this life, but he did come to save us. So then, in all these sufferings for Christ, we are more than conquerors. If the world should ridicule us today for being Christian, we are still more than conquerors. Even if we should suffer and die for Christ, we are still more than conquerors. For if we believe and trust in Christ, we will be saved from hell and eternal condemnation. We will ultimately be delivered unto eternal life in the glorious and blessed paradise that God has prepared for us his people. So, let the world mock. Let them hate us. Even now God has put his Spirit within us and is doing great things in our hearts and lives. So that no matter what the world does to us, we have confidence in that hope that cannot be shaken.
Saints be encouraged in these truths again today. And to those visitors who are here today considering Christ, turn to him today in faith, and be saved! Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.