Psalm 44 – For Your Sake We Are Killed All Day Long
TEXT (Hebrew text at end)
1. For the leader. Of the Korahites. A maskil.1
2. O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us the deeds You did in their days, in days of old.
3. You, with Your hand, dispossessed nations, but planted them2; bringing misfortune on peoples, driving them out.
4. For it was not by their2 sword that they possessed the land, their arm did not deliver them, but Your right hand, Your arm, and the light of Your face; indeed, You favored them.
5. You are the One who is my king, O God; ordain deliverance for Jacob!
6. Through You we gore our foes; through Your name we trample those who rise up against us.
7. For not in my bow do I trust; my sword does not deliver me.
8. Rather, You deliver us from our foes; and those who hate us You shame.
9. It is God we praise all day long, Your name we acknowledge to eternity. Selah.
10. Yet You have neglected and humiliated us; and You would not go out with our armies.
11. You turn us in retreat from the foe; those who hate us took spoils for themselves.
12. You have placed us as sheep to be eaten; You have scattered us among the nations.
13. You sell Your people for a trifle; You have set no high price for them.
14. You make us the scorn of our neighbors, the derision and mockery of those around us.
15. You make us a byword among the nations, a reason for the peoples to shake their head.
16. All day long my disgrace is before me; the shame of my face envelops me,
17. at the voice of scornful revilers, in the presence of the vengeful enemy.
18. All this has come upon us, but we have not forgotten You; we have not been untrue to Your covenant.
19. Our heart has not fallen back, nor have our steps swerved from Your way,
20. though You crushed us into the sea-monster’s3 place and covered us over with the shadow of death.4
21. If we forgot the name of our God and would spread out our hands to a strange god,
22. would not God would surely discover this? For He knows the secrets of the heart.
23. Yet it is for Your sake that we are killed all day long, that we are regarded as sheep for the slaughter.
24. Rouse Yourself! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Awaken, do not neglect forever!
25. Why do You hide Your face, forget our affliction and oppression?
26. For our being lies prostrate in the dust; our belly cleaves to the ground.
27. Arise; help us; and redeem us, as befits Your steadfast love.
1. Meaning uncertain.
2. i.e., the Israelites.
3. Alternatively, “jackal’s.”
4. Alternatively, “deepest darkness.”
As clear as high noon, but as ominous as midnight, Psalm 44 is one of the greatest testimonies to the depth and complexity of the Psalter. Here the reflection of the dissonance of religious life is overwhelming. Even if, in the end (as some commentators insistently note), the fact that this a speech and request to God tips the scales toward hope and belief, the principal contention remains: man has acted properly and God has broken faith. Even the requests at the end—“rouse Yourself,” “awaken,” and “arise”—reflect anger and frustration, and bespeak incomprehensibility. (“Why do You hide Your face…?”) As Broyles writes, “What is perhaps most remarkable about this psalm is that it is part of Scripture at all.”
The poem resonates into modernity. M. Cohen suggests that it serves as “the litmus test for the cogency and reasonability of any approach to theology after the Shoah (Holocaust).” Religious confrontation with God, it would seem, is not a modern innovation. The Psalms again reveal themselves as anything but simplistic articulations of faith.
The poet has created an unambiguous structure in Psalm 44. The opening section (verses 1–9) attributes victory to God, citing the message the people have heard from their forebears and testimony from their own lives. The irony of this section, in light of what is to come, is that it is framed by the term “day”: Your salvation in ancient days brings us today to praise You all day long.
Subsequently, the speaker depicts devastating defeat and horrific suffering (verses 10–17), and attributes them to God, addressing Him directly. (Note the insistent verb phrases at the beginning of each verse, 10–15.) In contradistinction to His failings, he articulates the loyalty of the people—all is done for Him, as He Himself is called as witness (verses 18–23). Yet the people suffer in the extreme―for His name they are killed all “day” long. Even the request at the end, which insists that God finally must arise from His lethargy, repeats both an accusation against Him and a depiction of suffering (verses 24–27). “Neglect” is the framing word of the second section (verses 10, 24).
The Literary Effects
The appreciation of Psalm 44 is enhanced by carefully noting the literary techniques that the poet employs.
The opening testimony to the forebears’ legacy of faith in the God of history is reinforced by the use of phrases taken from earlier literature. In verse 3, “dispossessing nations” is a reference to the early nations of Canaan (“I will dispossess nations from Your path” – Exodus 24:34), just as “planted them” refers to the earliest Israelite occupation (“You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain” – Exodus 15:18). The conquest is not credited to the sword of Israel (verse 4) as Joshua once declared (Joshua 24:12 – “Not by your sword and not by your bow”), but rather to God’s “right hand” (as in the case of leaving Egypt, Exodus 15:6, 16 “Your right hand…Your arm”). “The light of Your face” in verse 4 echoes the blessing to Israel (Numbers 6:25 – “May the Lord make his face shine upon you”). Thus the poem not only recalls that there were such messages in former generations, but also cites them.
I note the repetitions (verses indicated in parentheses), above those noted above (neglect, day). Some of the repetitions in Psalm 44 reinforce prior uses (e.g., “sheep,” 12, 23; “heart,” 19, 22). Four uses of “deliver” (4, 5, 7, 8) dominate the first half.
Many repetitions, however, emphasize the contrasts. “Their (forebears’) arm” is compared to “Your arm” (4). If previously the people were wont to glory in God “all day long,” now “all day long” there is disgrace and slaughter (9, 16, 23). Once God thwarted “those who hate us,” but now the people retreat before them (8, 11). In those same two verses, the “foes” were once defeated, but now they plunder at will. Once it was the people’s enemies who were “shamed,” but now it is the people (8, 16). Israel once looked forward to being blessed by the light of God’s “face,” but now the speaker’s “face” is covered in shame (4, 16). Israel declares, we have not “forgotten” You, but You, God, have “forgotten” us (18, 25)!
In order to emphasize the suffering, however, the poet resorts to a different technique: rather than repeating expressions he constantly uses new terms (with a few repetitions): “neglect… humiliate… not go out with … turn us in retreat… took spoils… eaten… scattered… sell… scorn… derision… mockery…byword… shake their head… disgrace… shame… scornful… revilers… vengeful... crushed… covered … killed… slaughter… neglect… affliction… oppression… lie prostrate.” There is no light here, no relief, as the plethora of different terms underscores the overwhelming tragedy.
On three occasions, the poet moves to first-person singular instead of plural (verses 5, 7, and 16). These do not seem to imply a speech by a king or other spokesman of note, being the exception in the psalm. They seem to lend a personal tone and are fully integrated through repetition with the other verses in the psalm.
There are also isolated moments of particular drama. (a) The reversal beginning with verse 10 is total; the English translation of the first word, “yet,” scarcely does justice to the change. (The Hebrew term for "yet," ‘ach, in other circumstances―usually with another adjective―can mean “totally, wholly, utterly,” a tone that is appropriate here.) (b) The metaphor of “sheep for the slaughter” (verse 23) has gained widespread and justified appreciation. (c) Some single words bear similar power. God is accused of “selling” His people (verse 13), and one who sells does not hope to repurchase his goods! (So Radak notes.) The “belly” is on the ground (verse 26), a striking image of one who has not even the strength to get up on hands and knees. That same verse includes a clear double entendre: “our being… in the dust" can also mean “our neck” is in the dust. Both hold. It is from this position that the people tell God that He must rise, for they cannot! (d) Verse 26 as a whole has two complementary implications: “lying in the dust” can indicate prostration in prayer or in total defeat and/or exhaustion.
In the end, it is a word that is not repeated that stands out most. The final word of the psalm is chasdecha, “Your steadfast love.” No description (“surprise,” “irony,” “desperation,” etc.) can do justice to this ending. It lingers after the psalm is read as the totally exceptional single echo of redemption in the second half. It is one of the terms from the famous list of God’s loving qualities (Exodus 34:6). Moreover, its use recalls one other message inherited from the forebears: Earlier in the psalm, in verse 18, the people claim that they had not been false to the covenant. In Deuteronomy 7:9 God is called the One who “keeps the covenant and steadfast love” (i.e., keeps His covenant faithfully). At the end of the psalm, then, the poet cites this one last reference to the legacy of the forebears, but it is the reader who must decide on the tenor of the statement—irony, love, loyalty, anger, or hope (and perhaps all of these!).
* * * * * * *
Meltzer expands on the phrase, “for we are killed all day long” (44:23), in a way that allows one to hear how literature can become eternal. “Here the prayer reaches one of the highest peaks of the biblical dialogue between the People Israel and their Father in heaven. ‘For we are killed all day long’ is the strongest of articulations of martyrdom, that most-broken legal claim which Israel makes against the Holy One, Blessed be He: ‘For You, for Your name, for the holiness of Your name, because we are the children of the LORD―we are killed all day long.’ How simple is that expression, ‘all day long’—all days, all times, all eras: ‘in every generation they rise against us to destroy us’ [a citation from the seder, the Passover eve liturgy]―’all day long.’ There is incredible power in this simplicity, a child-like simplicity.”
I also note again that any psalm should be appreciated on its own merits. This psalm does not balance suffering with salvation, nor is it in any way incomplete (contra Weiser, for example: “the old Covenant was not able to find an entirely satisfactory solution”). Nor is this the beginning of some exploration of theodicy, to be pursued elsewhere. The psalm is self-contained, and should be appreciated as such. I therefore end by citing Broyles’ appreciation: “This psalm presents the way of direct confrontation. It displays a higher view of God’s integrity and does not fear embarrassing God. It acknowledges that he alone can solve the dilemma—especially since he may be its cause. It also displays a higher view of personal integrity. The whole, integrated person, even with one’s embittered feelings, addresses God, not just the acceptable, pious parts of human personality.”
If there be such a thing as a theology of Psalms, one can certainly be grateful that it must include this unique, striking, and challenging poem.
The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(א) לַמְנַצֵּחַ לִבְנֵי קֹרַח מַשְׂכִּיל:
(ב) אֱלֹהִים בְּאָזְנֵינוּ שָׁמַעְנוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ סִפְּרוּ לָנוּ פֹּעַל פָּעַלְתָּ בִימֵיהֶם בִּימֵי קֶדֶם:
(ג) אַתָּה יָדְךָ גּוֹיִם הוֹרַשְׁתָּ וַתִּטָּעֵם תָּרַע לְאֻמִּים וַתְּשַׁלְּחֵם:
(ד) כִּי לֹא בְחַרְבָּם יָרְשׁוּ אָרֶץ וּזְרוֹעָם לֹא הוֹשִׁיעָה לָּמוֹ כִּי יְמִינְךָ וּזְרוֹעֲךָ וְאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ כִּי רְצִיתָם:
(ה) אַתָּה הוּא מַלְכִּי אֱלֹהִים צַוֵּה יְשׁוּעוֹת יַעֲקֹב:
(ו) בְּךָ צָרֵינוּ נְנַגֵּחַ בְּשִׁמְךָ נָבוּס קָמֵינוּ:
(ז) כִּי לֹא בְקַשְׁתִּי אֶבְטָח וְחַרְבִּי לֹא תוֹשִׁיעֵנִי:
(ח) כִּי הוֹשַׁעְתָּנוּ מִצָּרֵינוּ וּמְשַׂנְאֵינוּ הֱבִישׁוֹתָ:
(ט) בֵּאלֹהִים הִלַּלְנוּ כָל הַיּוֹם וְשִׁמְךָ לְעוֹלָם נוֹדֶה סֶלָה:
(י) אַף זָנַחְתָּ וַתַּכְלִימֵנוּ וְלֹא תֵצֵא בְּצִבְאוֹתֵינוּ:
(יא) תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ אָחוֹר מִנִּי צָר וּמְשַׂנְאֵינוּ שָׁסוּ לָמוֹ:
(יב) תִּתְּנֵנוּ כְּצֹאן מַאֲכָל וּבַגּוֹיִם זֵרִיתָנוּ:
(יג) תִּמְכֹּר עַמְּךָ בְלֹא הוֹן וְלֹא רִבִּיתָ בִּמְחִירֵיהֶם:
(יד) תְּשִׂימֵנוּ חֶרְפָּה לִשְׁכֵנֵינוּ לַעַג וָקֶלֶס לִסְבִיבוֹתֵינוּ:
(טו) תְּשִׂימֵנוּ מָשָׁל בַּגּוֹיִם מְנוֹד רֹאשׁ בַּלְאֻמִּים:
(טז) כָּל הַיּוֹם כְּלִמָּתִי נֶגְדִּי וּבֹשֶׁת פָּנַי כִּסָּתְנִי:
(יז) מִקּוֹל מְחָרֵף וּמְגַדֵּף מִפְּנֵי אוֹיֵב וּמִתְנַקֵּם:
(יח) כָּל זֹאת בָּאַתְנוּ וְלֹא שְׁכַחֲנוּךָ וְלֹא שִׁקַּרְנוּ בִּבְרִיתֶךָ:
(יט) לֹא נָסוֹג אָחוֹר לִבֵּנוּ וַתֵּט אֲשֻׁרֵינוּ מִנִּי אָרְחֶךָ:
(כ) כִּי דִכִּיתָנוּ בִּמְקוֹם תַּנִּים וַתְּכַס עָלֵינוּ בְצַלְמָוֶת:
(כא) אִם שָׁכַחְנוּ שֵׁם אֱלֹהֵינוּ וַנִּפְרֹשׂ כַּפֵּינוּ לְאֵל זָר:
(כב) הֲלֹא אֱלֹהִים יַחֲקָר זֹאת כִּי הוּא יֹדֵעַ תַּעֲלֻמוֹת לֵב:
(כג) כִּי עָלֶיךָ הֹרַגְנוּ כָל הַיּוֹם נֶחְשַׁבְנוּ כְּצֹאן טִבְחָה:
(כד) עוּרָה לָמָּה תִישַׁן אֲדֹנָי הָקִיצָה אַל תִּזְנַח לָנֶצַח:
(כה) לָמָּה פָנֶיךָ תַסְתִּיר תִּשְׁכַּח עָנְיֵנוּ וְלַחֲצֵנוּ:
(כו) כִּי שָׁחָה לֶעָפָר נַפְשֵׁנוּ דָּבְקָה לָאָרֶץ בִּטְנֵנוּ:
(כז) קוּמָה עֶזְרָתָה לָּנוּ וּפְדֵנוּ לְמַעַן חַסְדֶּךָ: