Call to Prayer, Part 10
Laments of the People and what they do
The Legal Characteristics of Psalm 44
When I was in high school, I saw a television airing of the movie Twelve Angry Men for the first time. It was riveting. The movie follows a group of jurors in an inner-city murder case in which a young Hispanic man is on trial for killing his father. One witness saw the stabbing through the windows of a passing train, while another heard the two arguing from the floor below. Conviction is a slam-dunk, but the prosecution’s case begins to unravel as the jurors examine the evidence more carefully. At the end, eleven jurors recognize the young man’s innocence. They have to resort to brutal tactics to persuade the last man to acknowledge his personal prejudice and change his opinion. Psalm 44 is a case where God stands before his people in judgment, and the people resort to extreme tactics to argue their innocence. Their arguments become brutal.
Building the Case against God
The previous challenge looked at the first two stanzas in the people’s case. Both are crafted to bring the most possible persuasive force before God. Each is constructed as a three-part argument with the following form:
Affirmation of a truth
Contrasting statement that highlights its opposite
Reaffirmation of the truth
The first stanza reviews what God did during Israel’s early history. The second moves to a defense of the people’s continuing faith in their God. The final stanza (verses 9-22) follows this pattern, but with a twist. Here, the affirmation and reaffirmation of the truth argue for the people’s innocence. The opening affirmation in verses 9-16 lays down a series of accusations against God. The list is merciless and almost unending.
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 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 neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.
All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face
at the sound of the taunter and reviler, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
This is serious language. We dare not treat it lightly. The contrasting statement in this stanza emphasizes the people’s faithfulness in worship in contrast to God’s actions against his people. This is their line of defense.
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…
Following this defense, the people reaffirm their case by affirming God’s essential goodness in judgment over against what they perceive as their essential goodness in their faith.
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 the heart.
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
The language in the closing section of the psalm is heartbreaking and shows the desperation of the people as they wait for a silent God.
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O 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!
Interpreting God’s Silence
This psalm likely dates during the time of the Babylonian siege on Jerusalem that ended in 586 BC. The Bible is clear on the reason for God’s silence during this brutal time. The people were pure in their worship, but that was not the problem. The problem was exploitation of their brothers and sisters. For generations, they had ignored the prophets’ repeated calls for justice for the poor, the innocent, and the widows. King Manasseh receives the brunt of God’s wrath. “For he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD would not pardon” (2 Kings24:4).
A Closer Look at the People’s Case against God
As blinded as the people were to their own errors, Psalm 44 is a beautifully written psalm. It can teach us much about intercession and what God encourages when we intercede for others. An important aspect involves the psalm’s accusatory language. As extreme as the language in this psalm is, the Psalms never use it for shock value. To the contrary, they are careful to remain within certain limits. Two boundaries apply to all the laments. One boundary involves the limits of the language in the laments of the people. When the psalmists plead for their nation, they have no problem raising issues over God’s actions. They freely say, “The LORD has done this and this.” That is where their complaints stop, however. They never say, “This is the LORD’s fault.” To blame God in that manner would shift the center of moral definition from God to the people and make God indebted to the people. Arguing that the LORD has delayed justice is one thing, because he lives for justice. To say that he is unjust by nature is out of bounds. The other boundary lies between the laments of the individual and the laments of the people. While accusatory language occurs in the laments of the people, it is absent when we read the laments of the individual.Individuals pleading on their own behalf complain freely, but their complaints focus on the enemy that interferes or blasphemes. An individual may wonder why God remains silent, but he never accuses God. The issue goes to reverence. No one would dare speak so presumptuously to his God on his own behalf. Only when they speak for the group do they bring the kind of language that occurs in Psalm 44.
The psalms of the people show a degree of boldness that borders on sacrilege. Yet God loves that kind of confrontation. In the next segment, we will look at a passage in which God calls for his people to get in his face.
Call to Prayer, Part 11
All creatures of our God and KIng lift your complaint and make it sing!
Israel’s Faithful Youth
Not long after I graduated from college, I took over my father’s locksmith business. One heartbreaking call involved changing the locks on a house during a divorce in process. When I got to the house, the woman’s father met me at the door and took care of business. Meanwhile, the young woman sat on the couch, watching a video of her wedding. I could not imagine the agonizing mingling of emotions as she tried to cling to this last remnant of joy in a ruined marriage.
The prophet Jeremiah’s first recorded message is a divorce message to the people of Jerusalem. It too clings to lost happiness.
“Thus says the LORD,
“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the LORD.”
For the old Testament prophets, Israel was God’s bride, the love of his life. As her husband and deliverer, he wanted his people to delight in his care. They were to be his faithful wife. Instead, they looked for satisfaction among other gods. Their unfaithfulness was like adultery to God. The picture that Jeremiah paints is equivalent to a grieving spouse as he flips through a now abandoned wedding album. Once, when they were happy…
This raises a question. God reminisces about devotion in the wilderness and bridal love? Whom exactly does God mean? The people we remember from our childhood Bible stories complained during their time in the wilderness. They lacked food and water. They distrusted their leaders. They suffered plagues because of their complaining. Hardly the picture of a faithful bride. Has God forgotten his history in the wake of a sudden nostalgia attack?
No, he has not. God pronounced sentence on the first adult generation in Numbers 13-14, when the twelve spies returned from their reconnoitering missing in Canaan. Ten of the spies turned Israel’s heart from their inheritance. With stories of giants in the land, the people panicked and attempted a coup against Moses and Aaron. Because of their refusal to trust, the adults, whom God had tasked with the responsibility of securing Canaan, would die in the desert. “But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected” (Numbers 14:31).
The people to whom God refers in the Jeremiah passage are “the little ones,” the children of those whom God freed from Egyptian slavery. Forty years after the Exodus, the second generation had grown to maturity. It was this generation that learned to trust the LORD. Under Joshua’s leadership, they secured one of the most triumphal periods in Israelite history. Unfortunately, only they and the generation that followed them remained holy to their God.
God’s Heartbroken Complaint during Jeremiah’s Time
Now, five hundred years after Moses and Joshua, the LORD laments his people’s lapse into unfaithfulness. Jeremiah continues his message from God.
Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD:
“What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me,
and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?”
Notice the language in this passage. These words do not reflect a distant God who pronounces only mechanical judgment on his erring children. The language here is passionate. It is heartbroken. It reflects the sense of betrayal of one whose spouse has looked for other lovers.
A Call to Complaint Speech
So, what does God wish he had seen from his people? His answer may surprise us. Here is what he says:
“They did not say, ‘Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that none passes through, where no man dwells?’”
Probably the last thing we would expect is for the LORD to call his people to employ complaint language, but he does. He calls for the same kind of lament language that Psalm 44 uses. God’s complaint against his people is that they refused to complain enough. Why would he want such a thing, particularly after the first generation of Israelites were condemned for their complaints? We need to understand the nature of complaint. Complaining against God, as the first free generation of Israelites had done, is wrong. Engaging God face to face on his terms is something entirely different. That kind of prayer gets the job done. The complaint language that we see in the laments of the people focuses on God and his word. When we approach God in the way God calls us, complaint language accomplishes two things. One, it makes us understand that the issue at hand belongs to God. It always has been his. Two, it drives us to look to God for answers. When we look to God, we do not have our attention focused elsewhere.
This kind of focus is so important, in fact, that its absence almost guarantees failure. We see this fact when Jeremiah finishes this section of his sermon. He concludes with a declaration of what the people had done and who was responsible.
And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things.
But when you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me;
the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit.
--Jeremiah 2:7-8, emphasis added
The Danger of “Nice” Prayer
God does not want prayer that is only “nice.” What does he prove if he accomplishes nice things? He wants us to expect great things, and that comes from serious prayer. But neither does he call for complaint language for its shock value. Old Testament prayer focuses on who God is and what he has promised to do for his people as their covenant God. Sometimes the only way to do that is to get in God’s face. The next challenge will conclude our study of prayer with a study of a man whose challenge resulted in a calling.
Call to Prayer, Part 12
The Proving Power of Directed Prayer
The Psalms and prophets contain examples of people who level complaint prayers at God. But does God really use them? As a matter of fact, he does. One such prayer takes place during one of the darkest sagas in Israel’s history, the period of the Judges. Following Joshua’s victorious campaign, the people began to forget their history. For the next three hundred years, Israel fell into repeated downward moral spirals. Judges 2 describes them.
· The people of Israel forget their covenant with their God and begin to seek other gods.
· The LORD becomes angry with them and sends their enemies to plunder their goods.
· The people remember their God and seek his favor again. In response, God calls judges to deliver them from the oppressor of the day.
· The judge rules for a time, but after he or she dies, the people slip back into idolatry. The cycle begins again.
Judges describe three sets of spirals—one in chapter 2, one in chapter 6, and one in chapter 10. While they all consist of the same general formula, each cycle results in diminishing returns.
The Cycle Begins Again
During the second cycle in Judges 6, Midian and Amalek harass Israel for seven years. Their tactics are especially heinous.
Whenever the Israelites planted crops, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east would come up against them. They would encamp against them and devour the produce of the land, as far as Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel and no sheep or ox or donkey.
The attacks drive Israel to live in caves in the mountains (Judges 6:2). “And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the LORD” (Judges 6:6).
In this cycle, the author adds a new beat to the four-step process. A prophet appears with a message from God:
“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of bondage. And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you, and gave you their land. And I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not obeyed my voice.”
The message is an indictment consisting of three points:
· The LORD led Israel out of Egypt and delivered them from all who oppressed them. He is superior to any of the other nations’ gods.
· Because of this truth, he commanded Israel not to fear the gods of the Amorites.
· Israel has not obeyed his voice.
This is the only time that a prophet appears in the book of Judges. He remains unnamed, his specific audience remains unidentified, and no one appears to respond. With this triple sense of anonymity, we might be tempted to dismiss this part of the message as unimportant. However, it will turn out to be the key to understanding the complaint prayer that will emerge in the next few verses.
God’s Encounter with Gideon
The Scripture moves directly from the prophet’s message to the Lord’s encounter with Gideon. We know him for his army of 300. As the scene opens, Gideon and his father are threshing wheat in a winepress to hide their work from the Midianites (Judges 6:11). The angel of the LORD (a term that the Old Testament uses to depict a physical manifestation of God) comes and sits under a terebinth tree, a native shade tree. The dialogue between the LORD and Gideon is compact, almost to the point of senselessness. Here is the part that will be important to us.
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, “The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor.”
And Gideon said to him, “Please, sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
And the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?”
When Something Little makes a Big Impact
Obviously, the dialogue above records a calling. Gideon is God’s man to deliver Israel. The movement from Point A to Point C is so quick, however, that we wonder about the connections. What does Gideon’s complaint have to do with the LORD’s greeting, and why does the LORD say, “Go in this might of yours”? We must take the dialogue apart carefully. God opens with the words, “The LORD is with you…” In English, you can mean either a single person or a group, as in “you all.” In the original language, the word is singular. Further, the angel of the LORD adds the words, “O mighty man of valor.” Obviously, he thinks highly of Gideon. Gideon’s reply deflects God’s words by directing it to the people. “If the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” Following this deflection, Gideon resorts to complaint language. “And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
This is the language of lament, the same words that Jeremiah 2:6 calls for. Given the strong similarity of the two passages, I suspect that the prophet Jeremiah’s call to lament may even look back to this section. In response to Gideon’s lament language, the angel tells him to go in his might and deliver Israel.
The Power of Lament
What Might? Think back to the prophet’s message in the previous paragraph. An anonymous messenger has rebuked an unnamed audience for their unfounded fear of the wrong gods, and no one listens. No one, that is, except for Gideon. Of all the people of Israel in his day, he alone takes his complaint to the LORD. His might has nothing to do with his natural abilities, character, or charisma. It goes to his understanding of his God’s character and his willingness to approach the LORD in the kind of prayer that God honors.