Psalms,  Sermon

Sermon: Psalm 44

Have you ever had a winning streak? Squash player, Jahangir Khan, once had a 555 game winning streak. From 1981-1985 he never lost a single game! Once in 1982, he won the International Squash Players Association Championship without losing a single point.

When you are on a winning streak—everything seems to be going perfectly—you do everything you can to stay on it. Winning streaks are marked by attention to doing the same thing, an attempt not to jinx the outcome:

In this pursuit of perfection, nothing was ever left to chance – Borg’s Wimbledon routine was the same every year: the same hotel in Hampstead, the same locker, the same chair, the same number of towels on Centre Court. The same abstinence from shaving and sex for the duration of the tournament. And the same result

When a winning streak ends, the player wonders what changed. What made him lose. After a six-game winning streak last year the Miami Dolphins were beaten by the Ravens in Baltimore. Listen to what one of them said:

The last few weeks we’ve been doing everything we’re supposed to be doing and finding a way to win,” defensive end Cameron Wake said. “Hopefully we figure out what it is (that went wrong) real quick…Exactly [what’s wrong] today is still a mystery, but we’ve got 36 hours to fix it and you’ve got to move forward and get ready for the next opponent.

Perhaps you too have experienced extended winning streaks, times when God seemed to be moving the world in accordance with your benefit. He provided you with a home, a wife, children, a good job, car, success! And perhaps you too have seen the winning streak come to an end. Perhaps abruptly: a job failure, an unfaithful friend or spouse, a decision that couldn’t have worked out worse. And you wonder: what changed, what ended the winning streak?

In Psalm 44 we have the same pondering: the writer looks back at the winning streak (vs 1-8), but then describes its terrible end (9-16). He wonders what has changed (17-22) and concludes that is not the people who have changed—they have kept their routine like Bjion Borg did—but it is God who has stopped giving them success. So, in the final verses, the psalmist appeals to God to awaken and deliver them, return them to success.

So, let me read the psalm pointing out to you the sections: First, the psalmist recounts past victories:

44:1 O God, we have heard with our ears,
our fathers 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 save them,
but your right hand and your arm,
and the light of your face,
for you delighted in them.

4 You are my King, O God;
ordain salvation for Jacob!
5 Through you we push down our foes;
through your name we tread down those who rise up against us.
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 shame those who hate us.
8 In God we have boasted continually,
and we will give thanks to your name forever.

Notice that past victories are dependent on the work of God. God ‘perfoms the mighty deeds’ that he knows about from his fathers. God plants the people in the land, he sets them free from affliction, God won the land for them, God’s mighty arm—not their’s—saved them because God delights in his people. In God’s power the people were able to vanquish their foes and because of this the people have learned to trust in God’s power not their own.

But now he contrasts the winning of the past with the apparent defeat of the present:

9 But you have rejected us and disgraced us
and have not gone out with our armies.
10 You have made us turn back from the foe,
and those who hate us 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 sound of the taunter and reviler,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.

Again, the psalmist places the credit where credit is due. It was not they that won in the past and it is not they who are to blame for their defeat in the present. It is God who has rejected, disgraced, scattered, and sold his people out. It is because of God that the people are defeated by their enemies, robbed of their possessions, sold into bondage, made a joke by their neighbors, mocked by the nations, and now feel endless shame.

But why? What changed? What ended the winning streak? The psalmist goes through the list:

17 All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten you,
and we have not 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 place of jackals
and covered us with the shadow of death.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21 would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22 Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

As he lists the possibilities, the psalmist can’t find any change in the people. They have remembered the Lord, they have been faithful to the covenant, they have not followed after other gods, they have been obedient. If they had done any of these things, then failure would make sense. But they haven’t so it doesn’t. The people are broken, covered with the shadow of death, killed, and regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. But none of these things happen because they have done anything to deserve it.

So, what changed? There is only one conclusion: God stopped performing the mighty deeds of the past. He is asleep, immobile. So, the psalmist concludes with a plea for God to awaken and return to the task:

23 Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
26 Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!

Now, you might have been through this same process. God has blessed you in the past, but now you are defeated. You ponder what went wrong. In some cases you come upon a sin of yours and you are dealing with its effects, the consequences of what you have done. But in some cases, your winning streak ended because what God was doing at one time he is not doing now. You remember the days of blessing and pray for God to do it again:

“God, restore my passion for you and your mission that I had when you blessed me on that mission trip all those years ago”

“Lord, restore my joy in salvation that I had when I was first saved.”

“God, return to me the financial success you gave me before.”

“Father, I was more mature in my faith ten years ago than I feel now. I thought this sanctification process was supposed to go forwards.”

“Lord, that sin over which we had such a victory a few years ago is back – with a vengeance.”

I want to offer you three encouragements. The first is one the psalmist provides in his closing appeal to God. The second is one that the psalmist implies in psalm 44 and elucidates in the next psalm, psalm 45. And the final one is is supplied by Paul when he quotes this psalm in Romans 8.

First, the psalmist seems to imply that God is done with his people. We have stayed the same, but you, God, are tired of us. You have ceased to love us. You are moving on to place you affections on another people. Perhaps our enemies will become the apple of your eye. But that is not what the psalmist concludes. Indeed, his appeal to God to act is not an appeal for him to choose them as his people. The psalmist says: because of your steadfast love come to our aid. The psalmist knows that the kind of love God has for his people could no more be given up than God not be God anymore. In other words, if God stops giving you life’s successes he has not stopped loving you.

Of all the reasons for the end of a winning streak there is one possibility that is ruled out form the get go: God has not stopped loving you. His love is unbending and changeless. Once he has set his affection on you it cannot be lost. Whatever reason God has for allowing you to go through a hard time, it’s not because he stopped loving you.

Second, the psalmist is not praying for a vain hope that the Lord will come and deliver them. In fact, deliverance is linked to steadfast love: “Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” In the next psalm the writer will look forward to the coming king, the Messiah, who will deliver them from all their enemies.

This is our hope. And it is as sure as the love that motivates it. The redeemer has come, and he will come again. Though the first coming of the Messiah was a future hope for the psalmist his second coming is our future hope. And when he comes we will experience a full deliverance from all our troubles.

Finally, in Romans 8, Paul writes,

8:31What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Do you see the connection? Paul quotes Psalm 44 and suggests that in all these things—ALL THESE THINGS—we are more than conquerors. This means that the losing streak is actually not a losing streak at all. Why the win and not the loss? Because none of what you go through can beat the connection God has with his people. And that is the greatest victory on earth. It is not merely the longest winning streak in history, it is an eternal, unbreakable winning streak!

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.