What to do when God Seems to Fail
I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have felt like for the disciples when Jesus died. Thomas was so disillusioned that he refused to believe in the resurrection. His friends were so disorientated that they locked their doors and hid in case the Jewish leaders came looking for them. Luke tells us they were miserable. It’s easy to see why.
The Sons of Korah clearly felt the same way. We don’t know when they wrote Psalm 44 – they may have done so under one of the later kings, but their statement that Israel has not been unfaithful to God’s covenant and has not committed idolatry (44:17 and 44:20-21) suggests they may have written it during one of the temporary setbacks which marked the end of David’s reign. What we know for sure is that they felt as though the Lord had failed them. Their hopes had been dashed, their faith was in tatters, and they responded in the only way that they knew how. They wrote a psalm of praise to God.
I find it very challenging that the Lord chose to include this song in the book of Psalms instead of a happier, more upbeat song written by one of their contemporaries who put a brave face on the problem and convinced himself that things were fine. God chose to include this song because the Sons of Korah had actually got the right perspective. Israel had been defeated. God’s promises hadn’t been fulfilled. And the Lord was looking for people who weren’t afraid to say so. Dan Allender observes that:
Christians seldom sing in the minor key. We fear the sombre; we seem to hold sorrow in low esteem. We seem predisposed to fear lament as a quick slide into doubt and despair; failing to see that doubt and despair are the dark soil that is necessary to grow confidence and joy ... To sing a lament against God in worship reveals far, far greater trust than to sing a jingle about how happy we are and how much we trust him ... Lament cuts through insincerity, strips pretence, and reveals the raw nerve of trust that angrily approaches the throne of grace and then kneels in awed, robust wonder.1
The Sons of Korah tell the Lord that they believe he kept his promises powerfully in the past (44:1-8). Then they tell him straight that in the present it looks as if he has rejected them, abandoned them, scattered them, disgraced them, put them to shame, and sold them over to their enemies (44:9-16). The Sons of Korah marked this as a maskîl or teaching psalm for congregational worship because we all need to pray this kind of honest prayer from time to time. In my country, the United Kingdom, in the past fifty years the percentage of people in their twenties who attend church regularly has nosedived from well over 50 percent to only 3 percent.2 About a third of churches have no children and over half have no teenagers.3 Whatever way we look at that, it’s an absolute disaster. God doesn’t want us to bury our heads in the sand and to sing chirpy choruses about better days to come. He wants us to sing psalms of lament like the Sons of Korah.
Some of our disasters are more personal. Many of us know terrible suffering in our lives. Psalm 37 promised us peace and prosperity, but many of us are tired of having to pretend that we are doing better than we are. Our business ventures fail. We get sick and aren’t healed. Horrible things happen to our loved ones. Some of them die. Is it any wonder that there are so many confused, disillusioned Christians when we very rarely sing psalms of lament when we gather together? Isn’t it obvious why God wanted Psalm 44 to be sung regularly by the worshippers at his Temple? Dan Allender continues:
How much of the current counselling frenzy is due to an absence of opportunity to confess our hurt, anger and confusion to God in the presence of others of like mind? In many ways, one role of counselling is to legitimise pain and struggle and focus the questions of the heart towards God. How much better it would be if in concert with others we passionately cried out to God with the energy that is often expressed only in the privacy of the counselling office.
Psalm 44 is an angry psalm. It blames God for our disasters – “you made us retreat” (44:10) – and it even accuses him of not being the good shepherd that we sang about in Psalm 23. The Sons of Korah liken him in 44:11 to a lazy shepherd who lets wolves eat his sheep while he is not looking. Worse, they liken him in 44:12 to a dim-witted shepherd who sends his sheep off to the abattoir and forgets to ask the butcher for any money in return. Far from feeling embarrassed by their anger, the New Testament tells us that this is how we ought to pray in times of trouble too, since Paul quotes from 44:22 in Romans 8:36 as a promise that when we go through hard times we can pray prayers such as this to lay hold of Jesus’ unfailing love. Not all anger towards God is good, but it can open up a dialogue which moves our hearts away from our confusion and towards God’s solution.
That is exactly what happens to the Sons of Korah as they write their song. They began by confessing that God is the true King of Israel and that they can do nothing without him, and they return to this realisation in 44:17-26. They protest that they haven’t worshipped idols or stopped believing in God’s covenant with Israel (44:17-21). They call the Lord to wake up and to stop forgetting them for a moment longer. The final word of the psalm is hêsêd or covenant mercy.4 Because God hasn’t changed and nor has his Gospel, they end their song assured that all will be well.
I don’t know when you last had a chance to sing a song of lament with other believers in church on Sunday. If you lead worship, then you may need to reconsider the breadth of worship themes you use as you lead God’s People. If you are a church leader, then this kind of singing should certainly characterise many of your prayer meetings. Our churches can often be places where positive messages paste a wafer-thin veneer over the silent despair and confused cries and angry prayers which are just waiting to be sung. There is no need for us to be afraid of expressing the anger and emotion which runs throughout Psalm 44. When we dare to speak it out honestly, we will discover that it is music to God’s ears.
This blog is adapted from a chapter in Phil Moore’s new devotional commentary, “Straight to the Heart of Psalms”, published this month by Monarch Books. See www.philmoorebooks.com
1. Dr Dan Allender is a leading Christian psychologist. He wrote this in an article entitled “The Hidden Hope in Lament”, published in the Mars Hill Review (vol 1, 1994).
2. These figures compare 1955 and 2005. See the report by the UK Evangelical Alliance entitled The 18-30 Mission: The Missing Generation? (2005).
3. This data is taken from the English Church Census in 2005. 44:1 underlines the scale of this disaster by telling us that the health of the Church requires parents to pass their faith down to the next generation.
4. Like many of the psalms in Book II, this song does not use the name Yahweh at all, but the Sons of Korah do not doubt God’s continued covenant with Israel despite the fact that he seems very far away.