Let me tell you briefly about Sam. She was married to Chris and had two fantastic children. They were active in their local church and a great example to those of us who knew them. Then one day Chris decides he doesn't actually love Sam and he ups and leaves. As Sam fearfully contemplated life as a single mum, all her hopes and dreams for the future in tatters, so many questions about the practicalities of just surviving, she found herself questioning... 'Is God really in control? Why does he hide his face?' Or what about Tom? Just two months ago Tom is looking at his television set in disbelief as horrific images of a 24-story block of flats engulfed in flames are beamed around the world. As news of final heart-breaking phone calls and incorrect safety advice to stay put starts to filter through in the next 24 hours, he finds himself asking… 'Is God really in control? Why does he hide his face?' Then there's Richard and Jenny. I remember being with them at the funeral of their still-born baby, sharing many tears and trying to comprehend why, having struggled to conceive for a number of years and then Jenny finally falling pregnant, God allowed their baby to die in her womb just one week from term. Is God really in control? Why does he hide his face?
I could go on, couldn't I? Why does God hide his face? Well, that's the title we have for tonight and it comes directly from Psalm 44. We're beginning a new short series in the Psalms, as we often do over the summer, and in this Psalm God gives us a lot to ponder as we think through his apparent inaction in many situations that we may struggle with. So, I don't know what it is that you might be struggling with at the moment. I don't know what it is that might be causing you to question the Almighty about what on earth is really going on in his creation. But if you have blood pumping through your veins I'm willing to bet that there is something, or has been something recently… if not, then expect there to be something in the not-too-distant future! We're human; it's part of our experience and DNA to question the Lord, to doubt and to wrestle with difficult questions. One of the reasons I love the Scripture is its honesty in addressing such questions – especially in the Psalms. There's no sugar coating here. There's no empty, superficial piffle! Just deep, passionate honesty. The Psalmist writes in verses 24-26:
"Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? … Rise up; come to our help!"
Before we get to the Psalm itself, let me just give you a couple of brief introductory comments that I hope will serve us well as we go through it.
Firstly, about the Psalms generally. Much has been written about this unique book of the Bible. Some describe it as prayer, some as a songbook, some poetry – none of which is wrong and all of which contribute to its uniqueness. You see, most of the Bible is 'download'. It's download from God to us via historians, and prophets and apostles. But the Psalms are more 'upload'! They are human responses to God's revelation. They are human responses to specific situations at specific times, not all of which we can now identify with certainty. But here's the important bit, despite the fact that the Psalms are more upload than download, they are still divinely inspired and, as such, generations of Christians have understood them to be this divinely authorised response of prayer, praise and pleading to the Lord. So, in that sense we know that we can use the Psalms and say them ourselves and allow them to inspire our own contemporary communication with the Lord.
The second thing to note concerns this Psalm specifically. Psalm 44 is a corporate lament for the nation of Israel as it reflects on defeat in battle. Try not to get too distracted by the fact that the Psalm sometimes uses 'we' and sometimes 'I'. All that is, is a stylistic tool by the Psalm's authors – the musicians known as the Sons of Korah – to help the nation personalise that corporate reflection at key, significant points. So, when we find ourselves questioning why God hides his face and whether he is really in control, what do these sons of Korah (these musicians) teach us through what we know as Psalm 44? I have three headings. Firstly, we need to…
1. Take confidence from God's sovereignty in the past (v.1-8)
"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" (v1)
There is something really significant about reminding ourselves of what God has done in days gone past. And, not just reminding ourselves, but ensuring that the next generation is taught, and taught to remember, what God has done. Because, left to our own devices we are prone to forget. Partly, this is why we gather week by week: to remind ourselves of what God has done and to encourage each other to keep trusting in the fact that God is in control. So, as I read these verses…from what you know… from what you have been told… try and think which of God's mighty deeds the sons of Korah had in mind. Verse 2:
"you [God] with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted; you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free"
What do you think? What comes to mind? Verse 2 seems to describe the time when God led his people into the promised land and planted them there, afflicting and driving out the other nations in the process… doesn't it? As a slight aside, I was reading this with my youngest son a couple of days ago. He asked what I was preaching on so I told him and we read the start of Psalm together. Reflecting on verse 1 as we lay on his bed with the Bible open, brought home the responsibility I have as a father to ensure that my sons 'hear with their ears' the deeds that God has done. But this isn't just a lesson for fathers or grandfathers – it is for the whole church. We all have a responsibility, to tell our children of all the good things that God has done. We all have a responsibility to teach them true history (his story) as revealed in Scripture. We have a responsibility to let them know the deeds that God performed in the days of old. But that's the aside. Verses 1 and 2 seem to be about the Promised Land. What about verse 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."
So, what comes to mind there? Maybe the conquest of Jericho? Maybe Gideon's victory over Midian with a vastly inferior armed force of only 300 men? We could of course choose other examples. But the point is this: God has acted decisively in human history and we need to take confidence from his doing so. But it's not just God acting in ancient history that we are encouraged to remember. The sons of Korah also encourage the nation to remember what God has done in more recent battles. Verses 4-8:
"You are my King, O God; ordain salvation for Jacob! Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down those who rise up against us. For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us. In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name for ever."
Despite military success God's people are encouraged not to trust in their bow or their sword, but acknowledge that it is God at work through their action. I can't help but wonder what this Psalm may look like had it been written in more recent times, 1940 perhaps. 'Not in our Spitfires do we trust, nor can our navy save us!' Maybe I'm drawn to that because I've seen the new film Dunkirk recently. If you haven't seen that yet, I strongly recommend it. Easily one of my films of the year. And interestingly when I remember conversations with veterans of the second world war, such as my grandfather, many would attribute success at Dunkirk, in the Battle of Britain, on D-Day to God. 'It was he who saved us', they said. Sadly of course, unlike verse 8 of the Psalm, few have boasted in him continually and given thanks to his name for ever as a result.
But that's one example of remembering God acting in recent history, and even that may be too far away for you – or too impersonal, so let me encourage you to get as personal as you can. If you have any doubt about God's sovereignty in the past I would encourage you to simply look back to your own conversion. Whether you can identify a single point in time or you were converted over a longer period – that was a massive miracle of salvation. 'For not in my decision do I trust, nor can my achievements save me – but you… you have saved me!' Think about how the Lord has sustained you and supported you over the years. Take confidence from God's sovereignty in the past, and as verse 8 says, give thanks to his name forever.
You know, as we read these first 8 verses of Psalm 44, we could be forgiven for thinking that this is going to be one of those stonkingly good praise and thanksgiving Psalms. But in verse 9 things take a very different turn. We move from gratefully looking back in the past to an honest acknowledgement of the problems of the present. And that's the title of my second main point.
2. Acknowledge the problems of the present (v.9-22)
I think the Sons of Korah identify two problems of the present, that are actually common to all humanity throughout time. Firstly, there is the problem of…
a. Rejection and disgrace
Note the really obvious change of gear in verse 9:
"But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies."
The people are crying out to the Lord: 'why does it appear that you are no longer with us?' 'Why aren't we winning? We're on your side!' Just glance down through the next verses and get a sense of the defeat and disgrace the people are enduring. Verses 10-14:
"You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have taken spoil. You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations. You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them. You have made us the taunt of our neighbours, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughing-stock among the peoples."
Interestingly there is no doubting that God is still in charge here – but the reality of the present is great suffering and (v.15) disgrace, shame, being taunted and reviled (in other words, they are hated or loathed). For those of us who look back on better days of cultural acceptance of Christianity in this country, and fear for where we are now and where we will be in the future – these verses should serve as a wake-up call. This is the experience of the present for God's people. Rejection and disgrace. But it gets worse because secondly this disaster is despite faithfulness.
b. Disaster despite faithfulness
Let me ask you a question. Why do you think God's people were suffering in this way? The psalm clearly says that God has rejected them and that the enemy has the upper hand. Why? I'm not a betting man, but I'm willing to take a punt, that most of us are thinking something along the lines of 'because of their sin.' God is rejecting them and abandoning them because of the wrong or bad things they must have done. But look down at verses 17-18:
"All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way"
We need to recognise this truth: disaster has occurred despite faithfulness. True, sometimes disaster and suffering are caused directly by our own sin. But that is not what this Psalm appears to be addressing here. We need a healthy realisation that disaster can, and will, strike in our lives despite faithfulness. That was certainly the case for Sam whose husband left her. It was certainly the case for Richard and Jenny who lost their unborn child. I'm sure you can testify to things in your own lives too which have caused you to say 'why Lord?' And what this Psalm teaches us is that we don't need to pretend otherwise. Its ok to come to the Lord and question what is going on. It's ok to come to the Lord and say, 'it all seems so unfair!' It's ok to come to the Lord and say, 'do you see what's happening to me?' You know, very often the problems that we encounter in the present are faith-stretching and we need to be honest about that. Honesty here needs to be our template. Not in an angry, disrespectful way… but an open, pure and respectful one.
But when we do that we also need to understand that sometimes there is no obvious explanation for our suffering. The Sons of Korah give no reason here as to why the people are suffering in the way described. Indeed, we could say that their Psalm serves as an illustration of the often-bewildering variation of the believer's experience: times of blessing and barrenness… times when God appears close and times he appears far away… times of great growth and understanding and then times of stagnation and confusion. This is the honest, frustrating reality of the Christian experience. But just when we may be tempted to think it's hopeless and 'why bother', the Psalm changes gear again. Look down to verse 22:
"Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered."
This phrase "for your sake" is key to understanding the problems of the present. Listen to how one commentator describes why:
"The Psalm does not develop it [the phrase], but it implies the revolutionary thought that suffering may be a battle scar rather than a punishment: the price of loyalty in a world which is at war with God. If this is so, a reverse as well as a victory may be a sign of fellowship with him, not of alienation."
Kidner, D TOTC: Psalms 1-72 (IVP 2008) p.187
In other words, when we acknowledge the problems of the present… the problems that still occur despite our faithfulness… when we deal with the ridicule and hatred of the world and the apparent randomness of other kinds of suffering... we do so in the knowledge that far from being the punishment of a distant God, they are actually an assurance of his presence with us. Which, on one level, is really helpful. However, the fact still remains that even if we say this truth to ourselves we have to deal with the reality of our feelings and emotions, don't we? So how do we do that? It's not easy. Having looked in the past and taken confidence in God's sovereignty then; having honestly addressed the problems of the present, the Sons of Korah now encourage God's people to trust in God's sovereignty for the future too. This is our third and final heading tonight:
3. Trust in God's sovereignty for the future (v.22-26 & Romans 8)
As we heard earlier, Paul quotes verse 22 of this Psalm in Romans 8. Let me remind you of that. Romans 8.35-37:
"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."
Friends, as we trust in God's sovereignty for the future we need to follow Paul's lead here. It is a challenge as we face problems and suffering and persecution… it is a challenge to keep on relying on God. But do you see what Paul is saying in verse 37?
a. In all these things, we are more than conquerors (v.22 & Romans 8)
All. Not some. All. Not just the ones we can handle. All. Not just the one we've got experience of. No, in all these things. In other words, we can and will endure as Christians. If we continue to trust in the Lord we will conquer this sin ravaged world and all the suffering in the here and now will be nothing compared to the glory to come! We will be more than victors…more than conquerors. Not only that, but Paul continues…
b. Nothing will separate us from God's steadfast love (v.26 & Romans 8)
"For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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." (v38-39)
This is wonderfully reassuring. If you are believing and trusting in Jesus, these are the truths you need to keep reading and stating and hearing and believing… allowing them to permeate from the head, deep into your heart. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Christ Jesus our Lord has seen to that by dying on the cross in our place and defeating death three days later by rising again.
Whatever it is that you are struggling with, please don't give up on God. I chose those examples at the start (they're not their real names by the way) because all of them to this day are trusting in God's sovereignty for the future. All of them have questioned what God is doing, but none of them have ever denied God's goodness or his love or his sovereignty despite many trials and tears. They all serve as living examples to me of what it means to prayerfully live out these verses in Romans 8 and the final verse of Psalm 44.
"Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!"
Enduring suffering, coping with frustration, dealing with both the mountain top and desert valley experience… are all done for the glory of God and in response to his steadfast love to us. His steadfast love to us.