The following stems from a period I spent under the counseling of my beloved pastor, the Good Dr. Ivan Fiske, who stood by my side during a period of apparent defeat, and faithfully pointed me to the Scriptures for the healing of my soul. The exercise this is drawn out of consisted of reading Psalm 44 daily for a week, and asking the question, “What are the burdened to do?” Dear Pastor, I am in your debt for the discovery of this Psalm.
What are the burdened to do?
What are the burdened to do? In the 44th Psalm I find both raw emotion and the audacity to express it. The Puritans had a category that I think we have sadly lost for a psalm like this; they might call it a “complaint.” The words directed toward God could easily be interpreted as impudent and disrespectful, if they were not the inspired Words of sacred Scripture. Before considering what the burdened are to do, we must first see the cause of the burden itself.
In verses 9-16 the psalmist lays forth what we might consider a burden indeed. Defeat. Shame. Dishonor. Chaos. Utter humiliation. Loss. These words describe the psalmists condition. If I may say so, he is not living his “best life now.” Everywhere he turns, something bad is happening. He is mocked, robbed, defeated, and separated from the people and places familiar to him, and is left in every sense of the word, completely vulnerable to any and every assault. He feels like a sheep – helpless, defenseless, at the mercy of the very whim of his all-too-real and all-too-vicious enemies.
But his present state is hardly his burden. It would be enough of a burden, I suppose, but his burden lies not in where he is, but rather in how he got there. The psalmist, like all who trust in God, I suppose, has certain “expectations” of God. And those expectations, far from being unrealistic, are rooted in what God has actually done for His people; there is a very real and very historical basis on which those expectations rest:
O God, we have heard with our ears,
Our fathers have told us
The work that You did in their days,
In the days of old.
You with Your own hand drove out the nations;
Then You planted them;
You afflicted the peoples,
Then You spread them abroad.
For by their own sword they did not possess the land,
And their own arm did not save them,
But Your right hand and Your arm and the light of Your presence,
For You favored them. – v.1-3
The burdened psalmist grew up hearing the accounts of God winning great and wonderful victories for His people. God “favored” His people, so He fought their battles, and ushered them in to a land with houses already built and fields already tilled. They didn’t have to fight – “by their own sword they did not possess the land, and their own arm did not save them…” God did this. He favored them.
It is so easy to equate the favor of God with the positive blessings of God. The logic goes as such: If good things are happening to me, and bad things happening to my enemy, God must be pleased with me. And if bad things are happening to me, and good things to my enemy, God must be angry with me. This is not uncommon logic. The prophet Habakkuk wrestles with the same manner of thinking.
The burden is intensified when not only are bad things happening, but when I can’t figure out why they are happening. The psalmist in v.4-8 offers up his prayer of dedication and devotion to God, in full confidence and assurance that what has happened in the past, will happen again:
You are my King, O God;
Command victories for Jacob.
Through You we will push back our adversaries;
Through Your name we will trample down those who rise up against us.
For I will not trust in my bow,
Nor will my sword save me.
But You have saved us from our adversaries,
And You have put to shame those who hate us.
In God we have boasted all day long,
And we will give thanks to Your name forever.
This is a beautiful prayer! It is a prayer brimming with confidence in God (through You we will push back our adversaries), dependence and reliance upon God (I will not trust in my bow), and is interested in the glory of God (“In God we have boasted all day long!). It recognizes the absolute ease with which God may do battle and win – “command (ordain ESV, decree NIV) victories for Jacob.” All it takes is a word from the mouth of God to defeat all our enemies.
The psalmist is doing everything “right.” He is depending on God. He is not full of self-confidence. He is interested in the glory of God and bringing praise to His name. He recognizes the absolute sovereignty of God and the unassailable power of His word. He understands that “Jacob” is the object and recipient of God’s special affection. There is no reason to expect any future but one of endless, glorious triumph.
But it is this expectation, unfulfilled, that adds to the burden. Verse 9 begins with the ominous word “yet.”
Yet You have rejected us and brought us to dishonor,
And do not go out with our armies.
You cause us to turn back from the adversary;
And those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves.
You give us as sheep to be eaten
And have scattered us among the nations.
You sell Your people cheaply,
And have not profited by their sale.
You make us a reproach to our neighbors,
A scoffing and a derision to those around us.
You make us a byword among the nations,
A laughingstock among the peoples.
All day long my dishonor is before me
And my humiliation has overwhelmed me,
Because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles,
Because of the presence of the enemy and the avenger.
Here I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Braveheart where William Wallace finds he has been betrayed by Robert the Bruce, who had promised to come to his aid. As the battle is raging, and his army is suffering defeat, Wallace pulls the helmet off an enemy he’s about to strike down only to find it’s none other than Robert, who rather than help him, lined up with the opposing forces. The look of bewilderment, disappointment, helplessness, betrayal, and utter shock on his face in that moment is, I think, an apt depiction of the psalmists’ own feelings.
He put his trust in God, but God has rejected him. He has not trusted in his own sword, He has trusted in God, but God refuses to march with his army. The burden is not only the defeat, it’s the fact that the defeat is so, well, unnecessary! It takes a word from the mouth of God to defeat the enemy – is that too much to ask? Here is the burden! Why? Notice what he says, “You sell Your people cheaply, and have not profited by their sale.” In trials, and troubles, and dark hours, is there not some comfort to which we always flee by saying, “God has a reason for this!” But the psalmist is saying here that there is no reason in sight. God is not “profiting” by this. He’s “wasting” His people by selling them cheap.
And that’s another cause of the burden. Why are we being rejected? Why are we being sold? Verse 3 ends, “You favored them.” Verse 9 says, “Yet You have rejected us.” Is this an arbitrary thing? Why favor them and reject us? This is indeed burdensome!
Furthermore, I can’t help but notice how the psalmist lays his current condition squarely at God’s feet… “You have… brought us to dishonor… You cause us to turn back… You give us as sheep to be slaughtered… You sell Your people… You make us a reproach… You make us a… laughingstock!” This is, I think, a feeling of having been, at some level, betrayed by God himself. And the flip side of “If God be for us, who can be against us?” would be, “If God be against us, who can save us?” So there is a sense of despair and helplessness here. This is burdensome indeed! Is there anything more burdensome than hopelessness?
In v.17-22 the psalmist makes his defense and increases his complaint:
All this has come upon us, but we have not forgotten You,
And we have not dealt falsely with Your covenant.
Our heart has not turned back,
And our steps have not deviated from Your way,
Yet You have crushed us in a place of jackals
And covered us with the shadow of death.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
Or extended our hands to a strange god,
Would not God find this out?
For He knows the secrets of the heart.
But for Your sake we are killed all day long;
We are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
These verses could be summarized this way: “It’s not like we deserve this kind of treatment, God!” What is bewildering to the psalmist, is that he can’t for the life of him figure out why this is happening. He hasn’t forsaken God. He hasn’t violated the covenant. He hasn’t forgotten God, nor embraced another god. He has no secrets; he knows God knows all. But at the end of the day, all he can consider himself is a “sheep to be slaughtered.” He is, it seems, fair game. He is defenseless, helpless, and at the mercy of the first person with a sword and a half a desire to kill someone. And for the life of him, he can’t figure out why. And so he prays again:
Arouse Yourself, why do You sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not reject us forever.
Why do You hide Your face
And forget our affliction and our oppression?
For our soul has sunk down into the dust;
Our body cleaves to the earth.
Rise up, be our help,
And redeem us for the sake of Your lovingkindness.
And thus is the burden. God used to help us. We pray He will help us again. He rejects our prayer, and rejects us. We have no idea why – we haven’t been unfaithful to Him, why does it seem He is being unfaithful to us?
This is the condition of the burdened. The soul is sunk in the dust. They lie on the ground and are not able even to rise up.
So, what are the burdened to do? What am I to do, in this condition? Because the reality is, this psalmist is not the only one to feel this way. Perhaps every Christian has felt this way at some point. It is not as though the Christian life is one glorious victory after another. We do not live a life of perpetual triumph. All of us, I think, have some time in the dust, cleaving to the ground.
The reality is, we cannot manipulate God. We can’t persuade Him that we deserve His help. We can’t earn His favor. Even pure worship and sincere trust does not have a predictable effect on the Almighty Sovereign. The burdened can do nothing but what this burdened psalmist does in the final two lines of this psalm: “Rise up, be our help, and redeem us for the sake of Your lovingkindness.” A simple plea, with an appeal to the lovingkindness of God.
If the psalmist was in danger of forgetting something in the midst of his complaint, it was the fact that even the God who rejects, who sells, who scatters, and who makes his own people a laughingstock, is still the God of “lovingkindness.” The burdened want to know “why.” But the burdened are not always to know the answer. So what are the burdened to do? The burdened beg for their “redemption” on the basis of God’s unfailing love. I don’t know why a loving God does all the things He does in v.9-16, and I don’t suppose I ever will this side of the grave.
What are the burdened to do? They are not to seek to discover the answer to the question “Why?” Rather, they are to, by faith, cast themselves upon the love of God, in whatever form that may take – victory or apparent defeat. The burdened are to remember that the love of God will ultimately redeem. That God will not finally and eternally abandon His beloved. The burdened are to echo the words of Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” The burdened are to remain faithful, and remain hopeful. The burdened are never to cease their request, “rise up, be our help,” even when it appears that God has forgotten.
In the end, the cause and the cure of the burden lie in the hands of God. And we, like the Psalmist, leave it there.