Why Are You Sleeping, O Lord?
Scripture: Psalm 44
The gospel is the answer to the questions and doubts of our longing and suffering minds and hearts.
Well, if you think to, pray for Jamie and Kate and the Robinson family this week, they’re having a really hard time with the America becoming an independent nation thing. So a Psalms about a defeated army, it’s really going to all come home for them. So lift them up.
Well, as promised last week, we’re going to look at a psalm today that some find troubling. It’s Psalm 44. So you just heard it read. If you keep your Bible open there, you’ll be able to follow along today. This is a psalm that addresses a very common situation, but it does so in a difficult way. Most of you probably have been in a situation where you have wondered when God is going to come through, wondered when you were going to see God bring an answer to prayer, when you would see his power at work. That’s most of us. But my guess is that a smaller number of us have gone in the direction with our prayer life that the sons of Korah go in Psalm 44. Let me tell you about my friend from a few years ago. Well, we’ll call her Mary. Mary was a woman in her 50s. She was married to a man who really loved the Lord, really, really loved the Lord and served the church faithfully. Mary had doubts and questions about the gospel, but her husband was very faithful to Christ. In his early 60s, her husband developed Mesothelioma from his time inhaling asbestos when he was in the Navy, and over the course of about a year his health declined pretty dramatically. And he was one of these really strong guys, you know, someone who really worked with his hands, was always involved, always doing things. And it was tough to see him deteriorate into a shadow of himself. And he eventually passed away. During the entire time of his sickness, I walked with Mary through a lot of her questions. She struggled not just with why God would allow this to happen, but her view of God’s goodness. She didn’t just want to know why this was happening. She wanted to know why God, who is supposed to be good, would allow a faithful man to suffer and die like this. She pointed to all of the ways that her husband had faithfully served the Lord over the years throughout his life, and how he how needed he was to be a spiritual guide within their family, to their children and to their grandchildren. Over the course of our time in Psalm 44, today, I’m going to share with you some of the things that I shared with her. But I want to do it in the within the struggle of this Psalm, which is very carefully composed. It’s a very carefully composed argument. It’s the kind of reasoning that I have heard from very careful, critical thinkers. If you consider yourself to be a very careful, thoughtful, critical thinker, then you’re probably going to resonate with Psalm 44.
And I want to show you today that the gospel is the answer to the questions and doubts of our longing and suffering minds and hearts. Psalm 44 puts God on trial. Are we allowed to do that? Are we allowed to put God the creator of the universe on trial? The sons of Korah did, and it’s recorded for us in God’s Word. This isn’t some article from the Huffington Post. This is a chapter in the Bible itself. And it’s a well-reasoned argument. And so what I want to do today is, I’m going to take a bit at a time through this tight knit argument of Psalm 44, and I want you to see how the sons of Korah reason their way to the conclusion Why are you sleeping, God? Why? Rouse yourself. Why are you falling asleep on us? I want you to see how reasonable it is to conclude the trial with negligence on God’s part. And then I want to show you how the Good News of Christ answers this specific question, not just generally, but specifically quoting this Psalm to answer the question. Have a look with me, first of all, at verse 1. This psalm starts pretty positively. If we stayed with the theme of verse 1 and the first few verses of this psalm, we would think that we were going to have a lot of confidence and joy and trust in the Lord in this song. It starts off, We remember everything our dads taught us. Everything our dads taught us about how faithful you are God, we listen to all those stories, and we remember who you are. We know how you saved your people in the past. Looking backward to God’s faithfulness is done regularly in the Psalms and in other parts of the Bible, and most of the remembrance centers on God saving Israel out of slavery in Egypt. They looked back to the exodus out of Egypt, the way we look back to the cross as their salvific event. And as we celebrated communion today, we took time to look back to Jesus on the cross and what he did for us and how God saved us through that event. Well, ancient Israel did the same thing as they look back to Exodus. And of course, Exodus is a shadow that points us or a sign that points us to the cross. And so that’s how it’s been used. But here in this psalm, there is remembrance, but it’s of a different kind. Here it’s of the conquest to the promised Land, when God drove out the Canaanites. This was both to judge and to condemn the Canaanites, but also to bring God’s people into the land. So he was judging their sin, but also blessing his people. You can see that in verse two, where God does those two things. He simultaneously drives out and afflicts the Canaanites, while freeing and planting the Israelites. And the key here is that it is God who does these things. Okay. The sons of Korah are saying our fathers didn’t do this. Our fathers, when they told us the stories, they didn’t say, Look what we did; they said, Look what God did. It was God that accomplished these things with his strength. Telling the stories of what God has done has been a really important part of the history of God’s people throughout all of redemptive history, old and New Testament, the ancient Israel and the church today. In the whole history of God’s people, they’ve been telling these stories and retelling these stories of God’s faithfulness. And these stories: they build our faith and our confidence, and they give us courage. They strengthen our resolve to push through life and to overcome trials. And if the point of the psalm today was to build up our courage through what God has accomplished, I probably would have found ways of getting the stories of Calvary up onto the stage this morning so you could hear and be encouraged in the stories of God’s faithfulness to the church.
See, right now in this room, we are surrounded by a whole library of stories, of people who have gone through trials and seen God come through. And it’s good to be able to tell these stories to one another, stories of God simultaneously crushing sin and pulling sin out of our lives while also building us up and setting sinners free. But celebrating those stories isn’t the point of this psalm as we’re going to see. Here’s the next part of the argument. We haven’t stopped trusting in you. We have not stopped trusting in you God. We know that you are powerful, and we have not stopped trusting in your power to act and to save. Verse 4: You are my king, O God; ordained salvation for Jacob. Jacob here is another way of referring to the nation of Israel. Jacob was the father of the 12 sons who made up the tribes, that made up ancient Israel. And so the psalmist is declaring that the Lord is king over himself and over the entire nation. That hasn’t changed. He’s saying nothing about that relationship has changed. You are my king. You’ll notice that the speaker seems to go back and forth between the singular and the plural throughout the whole psalm. You’ll say I, and then we, I, then we, back and forth. That’s it’s an Antiphonal psalm. It’s a call and response psalm. So there’s a leader and then there’s a big group of the rest of the people. In this case it could be a general and the rest of the army. And here the leader or the general is saying, you are the king over me. And because I lead these people, you are the king over these people, but you’re the king over me. You tell them, you guide me, I guide them. The nation of Israel knew that the only way they could win on the battlefield is if God fought for them. And if God fought through them. They didn’t fight in their own strength. They were completely dependent on God to come through for them. That’s why the leader says in verse 6, if you look at verse 6 it says: For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. Yes, these are the weapons that I have in my hand. But I know that while I fight with these things, it’s not ultimately these things that will win the battle. We know that only God will win the battle. Israel had a very high view of the sovereignty of God. They would fight, they could work hard, they would be faithful, but only God would determine the outcome of all that fighting. And again, this is a very important part of a proper understanding of the Lord. This is very, very sound theology. Psalm 127 says, Unless the Lord builds a house, the laborers who are building that house are laboring in vain. It won’t go up unless God wants to build that house. Jesus told us in John 15 that unless we abide in Him, we can’t do any of the good works that God wants us to do. Our strength requires God’s strength to accomplish anything. And acknowledging that, knowing that and bringing that into our understanding of God, is a solid part of our spiritual formation. But also, again, that’s not the point of this psalm. It’s just one more building block that the sons of Korah are making in their argument. They’re putting forward an argument here, and here’s what they’re saying: we know you’re powerful. We know you have saved your people from their enemies all throughout history, and we trust you now, nothing has changed about our trust in you. We’re still completely given over to you. You are our king, and we can’t accomplish anything without you, God. So what’s the problem? Let me read for you verses 9 through 14 again: “But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies. You have made us turn back from the foe. And those who hate us have gotten spoiled. You have made us 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 neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.”
When I said that Psalm 44 puts God on trial, this is what I meant. These are the charges brought against God. And these are clear and direct accusations. You, you, you. You turned us back. You made us sheep for slaughter. You sold us for nothing. You didn’t even set a high price for us, God. You sold us for nothing. You know, sometimes you’ll hear Christians who are genuinely trying to help other people who are going through a struggle. You will hear them say things like, well, God would never do this to you. Or this is not what God wanted. God didn’t want this for you. Psalm 44 is the opposite of that sentiment. It’s the complete opposite. This psalm turns to God and accuses him of being firmly in control of every terrible thing that’s happened to them. And not passively in control, actively in control. Actively involved. The sons of Korah say God made choices here. You sold, you scattered. Those are verbs. Those are active verbs. And they even say it was God who made them turn around in the battlefield and run away. So even their own choice is God’s doing and God’s fault. Now, the implication there may be that God made the enemy so powerful and so strong that they had no choice but to retreat. But that is the same thing. God, you forced us into a place where we had no other place to turn, and so we had to turn around and run. You left us out there to fail.
So the question before us is this. Are the sons of Korah, right? Are they correct? Is their theology correct? And their reasoning sound to this point? Well, clearly, this is emotional because they’ve just been defeated, so they’re lashing out. When you’ve had a hard day, when you come home from a hard day at work, and you walk in and there’s your family, and you come in and you start tearing into everybody and being upset at everyone for things that are unrelated to the thing you were upset about at work. Who’s at fault there? That would be you at fault, or me when I do it right? That would be us. We would be wrong. Not the family. Well, is that what’s happening here? Are the sons of Korah just feeling bad? And then they’re misdirecting their own failure at God who had nothing to do with it and would never want this to happen to them? Or are they exactly right to set all of this at the feet of the Lord? I know that we are inclined to think that God does not do, allow, or control certain things in order to get him off the hook for pain and evil. I know that’s our natural inclination. But the rest of Scripture is very clear that nothing happens in all creation that God doesn’t control.
Jesus makes an argument in Matthew 10 that we should never fear the evil and difficulties in the world, other evil people and what they do. We should never fear them, but instead we should only fear God. And because of that, we can boldly engage in God’s mission in the world. He makes this argument. I want to read this argument to you. You don’t have to turn there. But this is Matthew 10:27-31. I want you to hear this. This is Jesus speaking. “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light. And what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground, apart from your Father. But even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore. You are of more value than many sparrows.”
So Jesus says that we should only fear God and be boldly obedient to him and firmly committed to his mission in the face of frightening evil in the world. And he says, you shouldn’t be frightened by it. Why? Because not even a sparrow dies without God saying so. Now a bird does not fall to the ground without God saying that bird’s time is done. See, Jesus doesn’t reason ‘go radically be obedient because God always will make you safe’. That’s not what He says. Not anywhere in Scripture. He reasons, go be radically obedient because you will experience persecution and you will die exactly when God plans for you to die. And not a moment sooner. Not a moment sooner. God is completely in control of when you will be done. There’s nothing outside of God’s control. Nothing will happen to God’s people without God’s say so, because there’s nothing in God’s creation that is outside of His knowledge and his power. See the sons of Korah, they are upset. They are upset, but they are right on this point. Their theology is correct. Their failure on the battlefield is not a surprise to God. It’s firmly within his sovereign will because everything is firmly within his sovereign will.
I realize that for many of you this morning, what I’m saying, and what Scripture is teaching here, may be stretching your view of God in ways that you don’t like right now. It’s like when you sign up for that class at the gym and you go in and they make you stretch your muscles and your joints in ways that you didn’t think you could stretch them in those ways, you know, and it hurts and there’s pain there and you’re feeling like, ah, and it’s sore and you start to think yourself, does that go that direction? Should that go there? Maybe there’s a different way. Maybe there’s a different direction, another direction it should be going. You might be thinking that maybe this happened. Well, how about this? Because the nation did something wrong. Maybe the nation turned away from the Lord. Maybe they deserved this. And by the way, that’s where the sons of Korah go next in their argument. Verse 17, All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. They are well aware of what a relationship with God is supposed to look like within the covenant that God made for them. And they have been faithful to that covenant. Now, not perfectly faithful. No one is perfectly faithful to God, including, by the way, those forefathers that they mentioned at the beginning of the Psalm that God blessed when he took care of them and took care of their enemies and fought through them. They were famously disobedient to God’s covenant in many ways. But these are men who love the Lord. They love the Lord. And they should be in good standing with him because they’re covered by his grace like we talked about last week. That’s why they say in verses 20 and 21, if we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a foreign God, would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of our heart. So if these guys had been serving idols or harboring secret sin inside of their hearts, certainly they say, God would know that he’d know it. And to them, that’s the only reason God would allow something like this to happen to them. And now we’ve reached the center of this argument. The sons of Korah can’t understand how God would allow his faithful people to go through such pain and persecution and failure and death. This is where my friend Mary was when, in her wrestling with God, when she looked at her husband, she saw a faithful man. Not perfectly faith, but a faithful man. A guy taught Sunday school, worked hard, took care of his family. He led his family the best he could. He volunteered at church. He was a faithful man who trusted Christ. Why would God cut his life short? Why would he take him out? Well, maybe, she reasoned, God is not good. Maybe, she reasoned, God is not – he doesn’t care. He just doesn’t care. Or maybe, she reasoned, God is good and he cares. But there’s only so much he can do. It’s tempting to explain Psalm 44 away by saying that the sons of Korah are wrong about their own faithfulness. Right? Just to say, Yeah, they got that one wrong. We could say that they have too high a view of themselves that even though they’re faithful generally, they’re not faithful perfectly, and so God allowed them to suffer defeat in judgment because of their imperfection. That’s, by the way, one of the tactics that Job’s so-called friends used when they show up to try to help him process through his pain. Hey, Job, you must have sinned somewhere in your life because this wouldn’t be happening unless you sinned somewhere in your life. So you better find out where that is and repent of that thing.
And this is advice that you’ll hear from well-meaning Christians today. And sometimes, by the way, this is good advice. It’s spot on. God does allow people to experience the consequences of their sin, and he does bring judgment against those sins. And if it takes a friend to help you see the sinful choices you’ve made and connect the dots to what you’re experiencing now, that’s a hard conversation to have, but that can be a very good friend in your life who can help you see that. But it’s not always the answer. That’s not always the reason. And when someone is not harboring hidden sin and has been faithful to the Lord, it’s not kind or right to explain away these trials by saying that God is disciplining them. That’s what the sons of Korah are saying to the Lord. They’re saying there’s no reason that this should be happening to us. We’ve been faithful and there’s no reason on our part as the readers of Psalm 44 to even doubt them on this. They’re saying, We trust you, Lord. We’re faithful to you, Lord. We kept our covenant relationship with you. Why are you causing us to suffer at the hands of evil men? Are you not good? Do you not care?
Verse 23. Awake! Why are you sleeping, Oh, Lord. Rouse yourself. Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust. Our belly clings to the ground. Rise up. Come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. And that’s how the psalm ends. It ends right there. It ends with the raw emotion of faithful people crying out to God to stop sleeping. And to come to their help. They alternately accuse God of being sleepy, rejecting, hiding and forgetful. You can’t be all those things at one time, okay? So what are they doing? They’re taking stabs into the darkness of the mystery of God’s will, because they don’t know the answer. We don’t know what’s going on. All they know is that God has not rescued them in the way they think they ought to be rescued. Can they really sing like this? Can we really pray like this? Notice they haven’t turned from their belief or their trust in the Lord. They would not have written this song if they had turned from the Lord. They even acknowledge his steadfast love. They want God to know that they trust in a loving God. They know who he is. They know there is no other God to turn to. They just don’t understand why this thing is happening. And they are begging God to come and to redeem them out of this misery that they’re in.
And this is where Mary was, especially near the end of her husband’s life. She questioned God’s plan. She couldn’t make any sense out of it. She couldn’t see how it would be better. As far as she could see, her prayers had gone unanswered. She didn’t have a category in her mind for the suffering of her faithful husband, other than he that God must be absent or negligent in this case. And even though Psalm 44 provides no answers to this problem, I believe it does give us permission to cry out to God this way when we suffer. I think that’s why God gave us this Psalm. It gives us permission to go to God, to ask Him to intervene when we don’t know why he isn’t intervening, or at least not intervening in the way we think he should come through. And we have no answers. Psalm 44 is God’s word to us that allows us to wrestle with his mysterious will. It doesn’t give us answers. What it gives us is words to cry. Gives us a script for crying out to God. It simultaneously affirms trust in the sovereign power and plan of God while giving us a way of expressing our deep anguish over what that plan means for us and how it includes us. That’s why we walk thoughtfully and carefully with the Mary’s of this world. Right. It’s why we don’t quickly throw positive language on top of people’s suffering. You ever had that happen to you? You’re suffering. You’re going through a difficult time. Somebody well-meaning, really trying hard but just tries to throw positive language on top of that suffering. When someone is in the throes of anguish, it is biblically permissible for that person to go to God with hard questions about what He’s doing. And if at the end of that prayer, there is nothing but silence and confusion, that’s okay for a time. That’s okay. Psalm 44 is proof that not every question gets a clear answer, and not every heartbreak gets mended quickly. Because acknowledging that God is in control of all things doesn’t stop pain from hurting. And it doesn’t stop mystery from being confusing.
But we also, in time, in time, we need to remember the fuller answer from Scripture. Psalm 44 has no answers, but the Bible has answers for Psalm 44. Did you know that the Apostle Paul quotes Psalm 44 and directly answers the mystery that that psalm leaves us with? Did you know that? It’s not the fullness of the mystery, but it gives us an answer for this mystery. We don’t always get such a clear answer in Scripture, so we have to celebrate it when it does come along. And we do have some clarity. The mystery of an absent God, one who is seemingly asleep through the slaughter of his own people, his own faithful people – that’s revealed in Romans 8:31b-34. I want to read this for you. [If God is for us, who can be against us. He 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? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who 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?] See, the first century church was filled with faithful people, just like the sons of Korah. There were people that really, really loved God. And in fact, they were had the mystery of Jesus revealed to them. They really, really loved Jesus. They were faithful to him. And as a direct result of that faithfulness to Jesus, they were being killed. They were being thrown to lions. They were being crucified. They were being destroyed because of their faithfulness to Jesus. And Paul says they’re bringing charges against you for being faithful, but who can really charge you? Who can actually charge you? Christ has already died. He’s already set you free. He’s given you life. And now he intercedes for you. What can they possibly do to you? What can they possibly do? And then he expands on this argument. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Let’s include every potential calamity. Paul says, Let’s expand out from here, because every one of these things will be experienced by Christians from every generation. It’s not going to just be other people. It’s going to be natural disasters. It’s going to be poverty. It’s going to be not having what you need. Do any of these things require God to be angry at his sons and daughters for them to experience it? Do any of them, are any of these indications that God has somehow left, that he’s somehow negligent, somehow he doesn’t he doesn’t care anymore. Has God changed his mind because of these things, about his love for his people? Has he fallen asleep when they go through these things? Has he decided not to care because we’re experiencing it? And then we have our quote as it is written, for your sake, we are being killed all the day long. We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. Paul’s quote here is full acknowledgment that faithful Christians today, like the sons of Korah, will feel like they’re being led to the slaughter. Like they’re being guided into a place where it’s going to hurt. We’ll experience everything from persecution to not having enough to eat or to wear, and it’s going to feel like slaughter. What’s it all for? Why would God bring this into the lives of people who have been so faithful to him? Why would he allow them to experience this deliberately, not accidentally, bring it into their lives? Verse 37: “No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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”] Why does God bring all of these trials and hardships into the lives of His faithful people deliberately? It’s so that we will conquer in Christ. To demonstrate that the love of Christ is stronger than any force in this world, even death. The troubles and the pain that we go through are the classroom where we see and experience and we learn the conquering love of Christ. Who’s going to see us through it, and he’s going to display his glory by it.
I spent many hours sitting with Mary talking on the phone, listening as she wrestled with God’s goodness and his wisdom, and what good could possibly come from the passing away of her husband. And church, I love to tie a bow on this story and tell you that eventually she came to have peace with God on this, but I never really did hear that from her. But I know what she heard from me. She heard that she can wrestle with this, that God invites it. You’re wrestling? Come wrestle with me. God invites the wrestling. God is strong enough to bear the pleadings of his creatures. But he is also doing more than simply making us comfortable and happy in this world. This world is something more than that. He is displaying the love of Christ through the perseverance of his saints. That God is being glorified through the perseverance of the faithful who are experiencing the evil in this world. He’s allowing evil itself to demonstrate to the world that Christ and His people cannot be overcome by evil. The greatest evil that was ever perpetrated in the world was when the perfectly innocent son of God was killed at the hands of lawless evil, unjust men. And that was the white hot center of God’s plan for the world. And Jesus said, if we follow him in this world, we will have the same kind of trouble. But to take heart because he has overcome the world. Would you pray with me?