This stupid psalm is resisting introduction. I’m about to ask “Have you ever thought you were going to die?” and recount the time I got stuck upside-down in a pool floatie as a toddler or the time the family Saturn got hit by a semi truck when I was eleven, but then I realize: this psalm is about an extended period of being on the edge of the grave. It’s not about watching your life flash before your eyes in a moment. So then I’m about to ask “Have you ever wished you could die?” and talk about lying in the upstairs hallway overwhelmed by pain on the third day of having chicken pox when I was eight, but then I realize: the author of the psalm wants God to rescue him from his perpetually near-death state. He has no desire to die. So here’s the question: have you ever gone through a time in your life where, day after day, you felt like the living dead?
I have no idea what I’m going to say about this one. It’s only seven verses long, but I got to the end and immediately asked myself, “What did I even read?” To all appearances, it’s just the psalmist saying that some people are from Philistia or Tyre or Ethiopia or what have you, but other people are from Zion, where God himself takes the census. The NASB’s summary header reads, “The Privileges of Citizenship in Zion.” I guess that’s what it’s about? Maybe I can make some sense of this thing with a commentary.
Here we have a psalm that takes us through all three of Walter Brueggemann’s stages of experience, from orientation to disorientation to new orientation. Psalm 85, a psalm of the sons of Korah, begins by recalling God’s past forgiveness toward Israel, then asks God for mercy concerning its present sinful state, and finally looks toward a future where God saves his people and blesses their land.
If you ever attended a contemporary-style church worship service in the late 90s, some lines from this psalm will probably seem familiar to you. That’s because Matt Redman drew on it for inspiration in his 1995 song “Better Is One Day,” which was subsequently covered by Chris Tomlin, Kutless, and the ubiquitous Hillsong United. “How lovely are Your dwelling places, O Lord of hosts! My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (1-2). Sound familiar? Matt Redman’s song, much like this psalm that inspired it, is a worship song about wanting to go worship.
This psalm actually answers a question that I wasn’t entirely aware that I had. I’d started thinking lately: what if we die because we run out of money? We can’t afford food or medical attention or supplies–we can’t buy what we need to remain living. Perhaps, even in the case of needing medical technology that doesn’t even exist yet, we die because we can’t afford to develop the technology, we can’t pay the cost to make what we need possible. This is an absurd proposition, but it had started to take hold in my mind.
Psalm 44 is a communal psalm, for the “we” of Israel to sing as a group, recalling God’s saving and empowering work in the days of “our fathers.” It also paints a familiar picture of disorientation: past victories have given way to present defeat, and the community takes it as God’s rejection of them. The psalmist doesn’t just say that God has let this happen, either. He says, “You give us as sheep to be eaten…You sell Your people cheaply, and have not profited by their sale” (11-12). He’s baffled that God has thrown his people to the wolves; God gains nothing from it, and the community, he claims, has done nothing to deserve it. “If we had forgotten the name of our God or extended our hands to a strange god, would not God find this out?” (20-21) he asks.
Who’s the enemy of the day, David? Who’s after your life this time? Right away, asking God for deliverance and vindication, David identifies his foe as “an ungodly nation” and “the deceitful and unjust man.” At least it’s not his friends and countrymen this time. But even so, David takes it personally.