Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm is the appeal of the nation to God in a time of unmerited disaster and humiliation.
i. It begins by recalling the mighty deeds of God for His people in the days of old. It was God Himself who drove out the nations from Canaan, and planted Israel in their place. By His might and not by their own valour was the victory won (Psalm 44:1-3).
ii. From the past they have been wont to draw assurance for the present. To Him they still trust for victory and not to themselves, for He is their King and they are His loyal subjects (Psalm 44:4-8).
iii. But facts contradict faith. God has surrendered them to their enemies, and abandoned them to the scorn and derision of neighbouring nations (Psalm 44:9-16).
iv. And this suffering is undeserved. No faithlessness on their part accounts for it as a punishment. Nay, it is for His sake that they are being persecuted (Psalm 44:17-22).
v. The Psalm closes with an urgent appeal for speedy help (Psalm 44:23-26).
This Psalm is one of those which have most generally and most confidently been assigned to the Maccabaean period. It is argued that the general tone of the Psalm and the reference to the dispersion of the nation (Psalm 44:11) prove it to be post-exilic; that we know of no earlier time in the post-exilic period when the nation possessed an army (Psalm 44:9); that then, as never before, it could plead its fidelity to Jehovah. The persecution of Antiochus was preeminently a religious persecution, in which the Jews were slaughtered and sold into slavery by thousands for their faith’s sake. They were fighting not only for their lives but for their laws.
Those however who assign the Psalm to the Maccabaean period are not agreed as to the particular occasion to which it refers. The most plausible suggestion is that which connects it with the reverse sustained by Judas at Beth-Zachariah, which was followed by the surrender of Beth-zur, and the reduction of the defenders of the Temple to the greatest extremities (1Ma 6:28 ff.). It cannot refer to the early days of the persecution of Antiochus, for then the Jews had no army: nor to the defeat of Joseph and Azariah at Jamnia (1Ma 5:56 ff.), for that defeat was the result of self-willed disobedience, and arrogant self-assertion (1Ma 5:61): nor to disasters after the death of Judas (1 Maccabees 9), for the alliance which he had just contracted with Rome (1 Maccabees 8) was incompatible with that exclusive reliance upon Jehovah which the Psalmist so emphatically professes.
No doubt many of the features of the Psalm seem to reflect the circumstances of the Maccabaean period. But the closeness of the correspondence has been exaggerated. Could the Psalmist protest that the nation was faithful to its God, when the high-priest Jason had but recently introduced Greek customs into Jerusalem, and been followed by a multitude of willing apostates (1Ma 1:11 ff.)? Moreover, although an argument from silence is precarious, it would certainly be strange that a Psalm of the Maccabaean period should contain no reference to the desecration of the Temple, or to the attempt to destroy the national religion and enforce heathen customs.
The most convincing argument however against a Maccabaean date for this Psalm is to be derived from the history of the formation of the Psalter. The ‘Elohistic’ collection in which it is found was certainly anterior to the collections contained in Books iv and v (Introd. pp. lvi. ff.), and must on any hypothesis have been formed earlier than the Maccabaean age, while the subordinate collections which are incorporated in it carry us back to an earlier date still. Now while it is possible that a Maccabaean Psalmist might have “thrown himself into the spirit of the original collector and made his additions Elohistic to correspond to the earlier Psalms,” and might even have furnished the Psalm with a title which no longer had any meaning, it is, to say the least, extremely improbable. The internal indications of a Maccabaean date must be overwhelming in order to justify such a bold hypothesis.
 See Robertson Smith, Old Test. in Jewish Church, ed. 2, pp. 207, 437. Sanday, Bampton Lectures, pp. 256, 270, draws out in detail the number of steps implied between the original composition of the Hebrew Psalm and the Greek Version of the Psalter, and shews that if, as many believe, the Greek Version of the Psalter is not later than b.c. 100, it is almost incredible that they can have been compressed into a space of seventy years.
It is however easier to arrive at the negative conclusion that the Maccabaean date is untenable than to suggest a satisfactory alternative. Delitzsch connects this Psalm with Psalms 60, and accepting the title of that Psalm as trustworthy, supposes that the occasion of both Psalms was an Edomite raid upon Judah while David was occupied with his campaign against the Ammonites and Syrians. There is certainly a remarkable affinity between this Psalm and Psalms 60; and in David’s reign the people could boast of their faithfulness to Jehovah in marked contrast to the repeated apostasies of the age of the Judges. Lagarde points to the close resemblance between Psalm 44:16 and Isaiah 37:6; Isaiah 37:23-24, and assigns the Psalm to the time of Sennacherib’s invasion. Robertson Smith (O.T. J. C., ed. 2, p. 207) refers it, along with Psalms 74, 79, 80, to the rebellion of the Jews under Artaxerxes Ochus (circa 350 b.c.), which was put down with great severity.
It is impossible to decide with certainty; but the Psalm produces a strong impression that it belongs to the time when Israel had still an independent existence as a nation, and was accustomed to make war upon its enemies. If so, it must be assigned to the period of the Monarchy, for at no time after the exile, so far as we know, down to the Maccabaean period, was Israel in a position to make war. The exile is not necessarily presumed by Psalm 44:11. All that the verse need mean is that prisoners had been taken and sold for slaves, as was the case in the eighth century (Amos 1:6; Amos 1:9), and doubtless in earlier times.
The Psalm stands alone in its confident assertions of national fidelity to Jehovah, which may be contrasted with the confessions of national guilt in Isaiah 63, 64, and Lamentations 3. But it must be noticed carefully that it is not an absolute but a relative assertion of innocence. It resembles that of Job. He made no claim of absolute sinlessness, but protested that he was conscious of no exceptional sin which would account for his exceptional afflictions on the current theory of retribution; and the Psalmist is conscious of no national apostasy which would account for Jehovah’s desertion of His people as a justly merited punishment.
The parallels with Psalms 60 should be carefully studied. The situation is similar: in both Psalms the thought of God, not man, as the deliverer is prominent: and there are several parallels of language. Comp. Psalm 44:9; Psalm 44:23 with Psalm 60:1; Psalm 60:10; Psalm 44:5 with Psalm 60:12; Psalm 64:3 with Psalm 60:5. Several links of connexion with Psalms 42, 43 will also be found in the notes.
On the title, which should be rendered with R.V., For the Chief Musician; (a Psalm) of the sons of Korah. Maschil, see Introd. pp. xix, xxi, xxxiii; and p. 223.
To the chief Musician for the sons of Korah, Maschil. We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work thou didst in their days, in the times of old.1. our fathers have told us] In obedience to the often repeated injunction to hand on the memory of God’s marvellous works on behalf of His people. See Exodus 10:2; Exodus 12:26 f.; Exodus 13:8; Exodus 13:14; Deuteronomy 6:20; Joshua 4:6; Joshua 4:21. Cp. Jdg 6:13; Psalm 78:3. Observe the importance attached to oral tradition as a means of perpetuating the memory of the past. Much of the early history of Israel was doubtless preserved by oral tradition for a long period before it was committed to writing.
in the times of old] Better, even the days of old. Cp. Isaiah 37:26 (A.V., of ancient times).
1–3. A retrospect. Not their own valour but God’s help and favour gave Israel possession of the land of Canaan.
How thou didst drive out the heathen with thy hand, and plantedst them; how thou didst afflict the people, and cast them out.2. With thine own hand didst thou dispossess nations, and plant them in,
Didst afflict peoples, and cause them to spread abroad.
Thou with thy hand are the first words of the verse in the Heb., emphasising by their position the prominent thought of this stanza, that Israel owed its possession of Canaan not to its own courage but to Jehovah’s help. The metaphor of planting is frequently applied to the establishment of Israel in Canaan (cp. Exodus 15:17; 2 Samuel 7:10), and it is continued in the next line, where the rendering cause them to spread abroad is commended by the usage of the word and by the parallelism. Israel is compared to a tree which struck root and spread its branches far and wide. Cp. Psalm 80:8 ff, Psalm 80:11. Note the artistic parallelism, the first clause in each line referring to the nations, the second to Israel.
For they got not the land in possession by their own sword, neither did their own arm save them: but thy right hand, and thine arm, and the light of thy countenance, because thou hadst a favour unto them.3. The thought of the preceding verse is still further emphasised.
For not by their own sword gat they possession of the land,
Neither did their own arm give them victory:
But thy right hand, &c.
Cp. Psalm 60:5; Joshua 4:24.
the light of thy countenance] Cp. Psalm 4:6; Psalm 31:16; Psalm 80:3; Psalm 80:7; Psalm 80:19; and the Aaronic benediction in Numbers 6:24 ff.
hadst a favour unto them] God’s free choice, not Israel’s merit, was the ground of His intervention on their behalf. Cp. Deuteronomy 4:37; Deuteronomy 8:17-18; Deuteronomy 9:4; Deuteronomy 9:6.
Thou art my King, O God: command deliverances for Jacob.4. my King] Cp. Psalm 47:6; Psalm 74:12; 1 Samuel 12:12. The Psalmist speaks in the name of the nation. Cp. Psalm 44:6.
command] Cp. Psalm 42:8. It is the duty of a king to defend his people (1 Samuel 10:19); and the authority of the divine King is supreme. He has but to speak the word and it must needs be obeyed.
deliverances] R.V. deliverance, marg., victories (cp. Psalm 44:3). The Heb. word is plural, denoting deliverance full and complete. Cp. Psalm 18:50; Psalm 42:5 (note).
4–8. The recollection of the past gives confidence for the present and the future. God’s strength must still avail for the deliverance of His people, and in Him alone do they trust.
Through thee will we push down our enemies: through thy name will we tread them under that rise up against us.5. push down) Perhaps a reminiscence of Deuteronomy 33:17; but metaphors from horned animals are common. Cp. 1 Kings 22:11.
our enemies) R.V. our adversaries, and similarly in Psalm 44:7; Psalm 44:10, the Heb. word being different from that in Psalm 44:16.
through thy name] Relying upon all that Thou hast revealed Thyself to be as the God of Israel:—an emphatic alternative for through Thee. The Name of God is the compendious expression for His revealed character and attributes. See Oehler’s O.T. Theology, § 56. Cp. Psalm 5:11; Psalm 20:1; Acts 3:16.
For I will not trust in my bow, neither shall my sword save me.6. Cp. Psalm 20:7; Psalm 33:16; Psalm 60:11 f; 1 Samuel 17:47; Hosea 1:7; and the noble speech of Judas Maccabaeus (1Ma 3:17 ff.); “The victory of battle standeth not in the multitude of an host, but strength cometh from heaven.”
But thou hast saved us from our enemies, and hast put them to shame that hated us.7. But] Or, For. Past experience justifies the confidence of Psalm 44:6.
them … that hated us] R.V., them … that hate us. Cp. Psalm 44:10.
In God we boast all the day long, and praise thy name for ever. Selah.8. Of God have we made our boast all day long,
And unto thy name will we give thanks for ever.
God has been the object of their praises in the past, and to Him they are resolved to give thanks (Psalm 42:5) continually.
A musical interlude marks the conclusion of the first main division of the Psalm.
But thou hast cast off, and put us to shame; and goest not forth with our armies.9. But now] The conjunction is peculiar, and implies surprise. And then, after all these proofs of Thy good will, and in spite of our loyalty to Thee, hast thou cast us off and dishonoured us, and goest not forth with our hosts; leading them to victory as in the days of old, as the God of the armies of Israel. Almost the same words recur in Psalm 60:10. In ancient times the Ark was carried to battle as the symbol of Jehovah’s presence. See Numbers 10:35; Joshua 6:6; 1 Samuel 4:3; 2 Samuel 11:11. Cp. also Jdg 6:14; 2 Samuel 5:24.
9–16. But the present circumstances of the nation contradict these expressions of faith based upon past experience. Israel is abandoned to be the scorn and prey of its foes. Comp. the transition in Psalm 89:38.
Thou makest us to turn back from the enemy: and they which hate us spoil for themselves.10. the enemy] R.V., the adversary.
spoil for themselves] Or, plunder at their will.
Thou hast given us like sheep appointed for meat; and hast scattered us among the heathen.11. Some of God’s people are butchered like sheep (cp. Psalm 44:22); others are sold as slaves. It is evidently not a deportation of the nation that is meant, but the sale of prisoners of war for slaves. Cp. Joel 3:2; Joel 3:6; Amos 1:6; Amos 1:9. To the Israelite with his love of freedom and attachment to his own land such a fate seemed little better than death.
Thou sellest thy people for nought, and dost not increase thy wealth by their price.12. Thou sellest thy people] Handing them over to their enemies (Deuteronomy 32:30; Jdg 2:14; Isaiah 50:1); and that for nought, as though they were worthless in Thy estimation (Jeremiah 15:13): and hast made no gain by their price; a bold ‘anthropopathy,’ or ascription to God of human motives and feelings, as though the surrender of His people might have seemed more justifiable if He had received some equivalent for them. Comp. the plea in Psalm 30:9.
Thou makest us a reproach to our neighbours, a scorn and a derision to them that are round about us.13. Repeated almost verbatim in Psalm 79:4; cp. Psalm 80:6. The neighbouring nations, Philistines, Edomites, Ammonites, Moabites, were always jealous of Israel, and ready to rejoice with a malicious delight at Israel’s humiliation.
Thou makest us a byword among the heathen, a shaking of the head among the people.14. the heathen … the people] Render with R.V., the nations … the peoples. They point to our fate as a proverbial instance of a people abandoned by its God, and make us the subject of taunting songs: they shake their heads at us in derision. Cp. Deuteronomy 28:37; 1 Kings 9:7; Jeremiah 24:9; Joel 2:17 (R.V. marg.); Psalm 22:7; and generally Lamentations 2:15 ff.
My confusion is continually before me, and the shame of my face hath covered me,15. My confusion &c.] Render with R.V., All the day long is my dishonour before me, as in Psalm 44:8; Psalm 44:22; Psalm 44:9. My disgrace is perpetually staring me in the face. Cp. Psalm 38:17.
the shame of my face &c.] Shame is said to cover or clothe a man (Job 8:22; Psalm 35:26; Psalm 69:7; Psalm 132:18); and the shame of my face is an emphatic synonym for my shame, inasmuch as the sense of shame betrays itself in the countenance. Cp. Ezra 9:6 ff; Jeremiah 7:19; Daniel 9:7-8.
For the voice of him that reproacheth and blasphemeth; by reason of the enemy and avenger.16. For the voice of him that reproacheth and blasphemeth] The word reproach is frequently used of a heathen enemy’s scornful defiance or mocking derision of Israel and Israelites, and by consequence of Israel’s God, as though He were unable or unwilling to defend His people (Psalm 42:10; Psalm 74:10; Psalm 74:18; Psalm 74:22; Psalm 79:4; Psalm 79:12; 1 Samuel 17:10 ff.); but the two words are found in combination elsewhere only of Sennacherib’s blasphemous defiance (Isaiah 37:6; Isaiah 37:23 = 2 Kings 19:6; 2 Kings 19:22).
by reason of] Render for the looks of, or, for the presence of, as a better parallelism to for the voice of. Isaiah alludes to the terror inspired by the grim looks of the Assyrian invaders (Psalm 33:19); and for voice cp. Isaiah 37:23; Nahum 2:13.
the enemy and the avenger] Cp. Psalm 8:2. The Heb. word for avenger suggests the idea of one who is taking a selfish vengeance, usurping, in his own interests, a function which belongs to God alone (Deuteronomy 32:35).
All this is come upon us; yet have we not forgotten thee, neither have we dealt falsely in thy covenant.17. All this &c.] Cp. Jdg 6:13.
yet have we not &c.] Although we have not forgotten Thee, as our fathers did so often. Cp. Psalm 78:7; Psalm 78:11; Psalm 106:13; Psalm 106:21; Jdg 3:7; Hosea 2:13; Hosea 4:6; Hosea 8:14; Hosea 13:6; Jeremiah 2:32.
neither &c.] Neither have we been false to thy covenant. Cp. Psalm 89:33; “Neither will I be false to my faithfulness.” God’s covenant with Abraham to be a God to him and to his seed after him (Genesis 17:7) was confirmed to the nation at Sinai (Exodus 19:5; Exodus 24:7-8). Its sacrament was circumcision (Genesis 17:2 ff): its outward symbol was the Ark of the Covenant (Numbers 10:33): and its fundamental charter was the Ten Words inscribed on the Tables of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 9:9).
17–22. The calamity is unmerited. No unfaithfulness to God’s covenant has called for punishment. Nay it is for His sake that His people are suffering.
Our heart is not turned back, neither have our steps declined from thy way;
Though thou hast sore broken us in the place of dragons, and covered us with the shadow of death.19. Though &c.] Comp. the vigorous paraphrase of P.B.V.; No, not when thou hast smitten us &c. But it is better to render
That thou shouldest have crushed us into a haunt of jackals.
The Psalmist’s argument is that there has been no national apostasy for which their present disasters would be a just punishment. A haunt of jackals is a proverbial expression for a scene of ruin and desolation, a waste, howling wilderness, tenanted only by wild beasts (Isaiah 13:22; Isaiah 34:13; Jeremiah 9:11; Jeremiah 10:22). Some commentators (on the hypothesis of the Maccabaean date) see a reference to the butchery of the Jews who had fled into the wilderness to escape from the persecution of Antiochus (1Ma 2:27-38). But more probably the phrase is a condensed expression, meaning ‘crushed us and reduced our country to a desert.’ There is some doubt however about the reading. The Sept. has, ‘humbled us in a place of affliction.’
the shadow of death] The word tsalmâveth is rendered thus in the Ancient Versions, and the present vocalisation assumes that this is the meaning. But compounds are rare in Hebrew except in proper names, and there are good grounds for supposing that the word is derived from a different root and should be read tsalmûth, and rendered deep gloom. It is however not improbable that the pronunciation of the word was altered at an early date in accordance with a popular etymology.
If we have forgotten the name of our God, or stretched out our hands to a strange god;20. stretched out] R.V., spread forth: the gesture of prayer being not, as with us, folded hands, but the hands extended with open palms: the Lat. ‘manibus passis.’ Cp. Psalm 143:6; 1 Kings 8:22; 1 Kings 8:38; 1 Kings 8:54; Isaiah 1:15.
Shall not God search this out? for he knoweth the secrets of the heart.21. It would be vain to attempt to conceal any faithlessness from the Searcher of hearts. Cp. Job’s protestations of innocence, ch. Psalm 31:4 ff.; and Psalm 139:1; Psalm 139:23; Jeremiah 17:10.
Yea, for thy sake are we killed all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter.22. Yea, for thy sake] Or, Nay, but for thy sake. Not only have we not been unfaithful to Thee, but we are actually suffering as martyrs for Thy sake. Such a protest was no doubt particularly true in the persecution of Antiochus, but not in that period only. Cp. the complaints of Psalm 69:7; Jeremiah 15:15.
This verse is quoted by St Paul in Romans 8:36, to encourage his converts in view of the possibility that they might have to face even death for Christ’s sake. If the saints of old time had to suffer persecution even to the death, they need not be surprised if a like fate should befall them. And the quotation is doubtless intended (as so often) to carry with it the thought of its context, and to remind them of the steadfastness of the Old Testament saints under the sharpest trial of their faith.
Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? arise, cast us not off for ever.23. Awake … arise] Bestir thyself … awake. Cp. Psalm 7:6, and many similar invocations. But nowhere else do we find so bold an expostulation as why sleepest thou? The nearest parallel is in Psalm 78:65. The Psalmists do not shrink from using human language in reference to God, though they well knew that the Watchman of Israel was one who neither slumbered nor slept (Psalm 121:3-4).
It is recorded in the Talmud that in the time of the high-priest John Hyrcanus (b.c. 135–107) certain Levites, called ‘Awakeners,’ daily ascended the pulpit in the Temple and cried, “Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord”? He put a stop to the practice, saying, “Does Deity sleep? Has not the Scripture said, ‘Behold he that keepeth Israel neither slumbereth nor sleepeth?’ ”
cast us not off for ever] Cp. Psalm 74:1; Psalm 77:7; Lamentations 3:31.
23–26. An urgent appeal for immediate help.
Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and forgettest our affliction and our oppression?24. hidest thou thy face] In anger or indifference, instead of shewing the light of Thy countenance in gracious help to Thy people (Psalm 44:3; Psalm 80:3).
our affliction and our oppression] Cp. Deuteronomy 26:7; Exodus 3:7; Exodus 3:9; 2 Kings 13:4; 2 Kings 14:26. The latter word occurs elsewhere in the Psalter only in Psalm 42:9, Psalm 43:2.
For our soul is bowed down to the dust: our belly cleaveth unto the earth.25. We lie utterly prostrate, crushed and helpless. Cp. Psalm 119:25.
Arise for our help, and redeem us for thy mercies' sake.26. Arise] R.V., Rise up. Cp. Psalm 3:7; Numbers 10:35.
for thy mercy’s sake] R.V., for thy lovingkindness’ sake. Jehovah has revealed Himself to be “a God … plenteous in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands” (Exodus 34:7-8), and the Psalmist intreats Him to be true to this central attribute of His character. Cp. Psalm 6:4; Micah 7:18; Micah 7:20. On the reading mercies’, found in many editions, see Scrivener, Auth. Ed. of the English Bible, p. 196.