Some of the Bible commentators compare this psalm to the book of Job. If you recall, Job was a righteous man. And so, at the beginning of the book, when the angels presented themselves before the Lord, and Satan was also there, the Lord commended Job for being blameless and upright; and the Lord described Job as a man who fears God and who shuns evil. And because he was a righteous man, Satan wanted to ruin him and to destroy his faith. The Devil, you see, is our enemy and he will do what he can to make us stumble and fall away from the Lord. And so, in chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Job we read how Job’s property was destroyed and his family was destroyed and his health was destroyed. And then, after suffering all of that, he had to put up with the accusations of his three so-called friends who claimed he must have done something wrong, because it was clear to them that God was punishing him. And they would not listen when Job protested his innocence. And Job was innocent. He was a righteous man. God was not punishing him.
Well, that’s the book of Job. And in today’s psalm, the psalmist is lamenting before the Lord and calling on the Lord to help his people, because of what they’re suffering, even though they have done nothing to deserve it. Like Job, they have been faithful to the Lord. And yet, despite their faithfulness to the Lord, it seems that the Lord has cast them aside and has given them up to their enemies. So, look at verse 9 where the psalmist says:
But now you have rejected and humbled us;
you no longer go out with our armies.
So, it seems that God has rejected them. And then turn to verse 17:
All this happened to us,
though we have not forgotten you
or been false to your covenant.
They have not forgotten the Lord and they have not broken the covenant by turning to other gods to worship them. No, they have been faithful. And so, the psalmist pleads with the Lord for help. Look at verse 23:
Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
He’s calling on the Lord to rise up and to help them once again.
And so, you can see why some of the Bible commentators compare this psalm to the book of Job, because both are about the suffering of the righteous. Now, those who do not believe are under the wrath and curse of God so that they are justly liable to all miseries in this life and to death and to punishment in hell forever. That’s what our Shorter Catechism teaches us about the misery of those who do not believe, which is why everyone who does not believe needs to confess their sin to the Lord and pray to him for mercy. But this psalm is not about that.
And then those who do believe, but who fall into serious sins, and who continue in them for a time without confessing them or turning from them, can expect the Lord to discipline them for their waywardness. As I’ve mentioned before, they bring temporal punishments on themselves for their unconfessed sins. Well, this psalm is not about that.
No, this psalm is about the suffering of the Lord’s faithful people. As Job discovered, and as the psalmist discovered, and as many of the Lord’s people discover — perhaps you have discovered it — even the Lord’s people can afflictions even when they are faithful to him.
And so, let’s turn to this psalm. It can be divided into three main parts. Firstly, in verses 1 to 8, the psalmist describes better days in the past when the Lord helped them. Secondly, in verses 9 to 22, he describes their troubles in the present, which have come upon them even though they have been faithful to the Lord. And thirdly, in verses 23 to 26, he appeals to the Lord for help.
Verses 1 to 8
Let’s turn to verses 1 to 8 first of all, where the psalmist describes betters days in the past. And he begins, in verses 1 to 3, to refer to the distant past. So, he says that we have heard with our ears and their fathers have told them, what the Lord did in their days and in days long ago. And then in verse 2 he refers to the time when the Lord drove out the nations and planted their fathers.
So, he’s referring to the days of Joshua when the Lord helped the Israelites take over the Promised Land. Think of the time when they crossed the River Jordan and standing before them was the city of Jericho, which was protected all around by a high, strong wall. But the Lord caused the wall to crumble and he enabled the Israelites to defeat their enemies and to take over the city. And that was only the beginning, because again and again the Lord filled the Canaanites with terror and he helped the Israelites take over the land which the Lord had promised to give to them.
The Canaanites, of course, were a wicked people who did not worship the Lord, but who instead worshipped false gods and idols and they did many other wicked things as well. And so, when the time was right, the Lord sent the Israelites to punish them for their wickedness and to take the land from them. And the psalmist and all the people with him from their forefathers as the good news of what God has done for them was passed down from one generation to another and how the Lord drove out the nations from Canaan and he crushed the peoples who lived there and he caused the Israelites to flourish. When the psalmist refers to God’s hand in verse 2, he’s referring to God’s power. So, by means of his own power, the Lord drove out the nations. And in verse 3 the psalmist refers to their sword to refer to the weapons they used and he refers to their arm to refer to their fighting ability. However, the psalmist acknowledges that they were not victorious because of their sword or arm, but because the Lord was with them to help them. And so, they were victorious because of the Lord’s right hand and arm, by which he means God’s mighty strength. So, by means of God’s power, upholding them, strengthening them, directing them, they won the victory over their enemies and took possession of the land. And he refers to the light of God’s face to refer to God’s favour. Because God’s gracious favour was upon them, they were able to conquer the land. And the Lord looked upon them with favour because he loved them. Other English translations say that he delighted in them.
So, in the distant past, in the days of Joshua, the Lord helped his people to overcome their enemies and to take over the land which God had promised to give them. And then, he confesses in verse 4 that the Lord is his King and his God. In other words, he shares the faith of his forefathers and he trusts in the Lord, who decrees victories for his people. When he mentions Jacob in verse 4, he’s referring to the people of Israel, because they were descended from Jacob. And then, in verses 5 to 8, he describes the recent past. So, verses 1 to 3 were about the distant past: the days of Joshua. Now, he’s referring to the recent past and to his own lifetime. In his own lifetime, the Lord has helped them to push back their enemies and to trample their foes. And so, when he goes into battle, although he might carry a bow to fire arrows and although he might carry a sword, he’s not relying on those things for victory. He’s relying on the Lord to give them the victory; and he’s trusting in the Lord to put their adversaries to shame. They trust in the Lord and the Lord usually helps them. And so, they boast in the Lord all day long and they praise him name forever. They boast in the Lord and praise him, because he has helped them.
And so, when he thinks about the distant past, and when he thinks about the recent past, he’s thinking about times when the Lord has helped them. God drove out their enemies. He gave them the land to possess. When their enemies have attacked them, God has been with them to defend them. God has used his mighty power to help his people.
Verses 9 to 22
‘But now’ he says in verse 9. Things are different now. In the past, God helped them and fought for them. But now things are very different. Now it seems that the Lord has rejected and humbled them. The word translated ‘has rejected’ can also be translated ‘has spurned’ and it means that Lord has pushed them away. He’s discarded them. It’s as if he has no more use for them. And so, they’ve been humbled, because he’s brought dishonour on them and he no longer goes out with their armies. Think of what happened after the Israelites conquered Jericho and they went out to fight against the people of Ai. But on that occasion, they Lord was not with them to help them and they were routed by the men of Ai and a number of them were killed. And they were distraught. Well, it now seems to the psalmist that once again the Lord will not fight on their behalf.
And in the following verses, notice how he repeats the word ‘you’ to refer to what God has done to them. You made us retreat and our adversaries have plundered us. You gave us up to be devoured like sheep and have scattered us among the nations. You sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from their sale. Israel was God’s treasured possession. When we have a treasured possession, we’re unlikely to sell it. But it seems to the psalmist that the Lord has sold his treasured possession for next to nothing. You have made us a reproach to our neighbours so that they scorn and deride them. You have made us a byword among the nations so that the peoples shake their heads at us, which was presumably some kind of gesture to show contempt. God has done all this to his people so that they are covered in disgrace and shame. They are taunted and reproached and derided and their enemy is bent on revenge.
In the past, God helped them. But now, the Lord has cast them off and he’s afflicted them in all these different ways. And look at verse 17:
All this happened to us,
though we had not forgotten you
or been false to your covenant.
He’s referring to the covenant which God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. And do you remember how, at that time, when Moses was still on the mountain, the people broke the covenant by making and by bowing down to the golden calf? That generation was rebellious and sinful and they broke the covenant immediately. But, says the psalmist, we haven’t been like that. We haven’t been false to the covenant. We haven’t broken it, but have kept it. We haven’t forgotten you, but we’ve been faithful to you.
And he goes on in verse 18 to say that their hearts have not turned back, which means they have not turned away from serving the Lord. And their feet have not strayed from God’s path, but they have walked in his ways. Nevertheless, the Lord has crushed them and made them a haunt for jackals. He means where they live has become desolate and ruined. And God has covered them over with deep darkness.
He says in verse 20 that if they had forgotten the Lord and had turned to false gods, then God would have discovered it, because he knows even our secret sins. And his point is that God has not discovered any such sin in them. And the reason God has not discovered any such sin in them is because they have not forgotten him or turned from him to worship idols. They are blameless. And yet, despite their blamelessness, they face death all day long and they are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. If he’s referring to sheep slaughtered for sacrifice, then he’s once again referring to their innocence, because the sheep which were offered as sacrifices had to be flawless. So, they are innocent; and they’re facing death.
In the distant past and in the recent past, God helped his people. But not now. Not now. It now seems that the Lord has cast them aside and he has handed them over to their enemies.
Verses 23 to 26
But that’s not where the psalm ends, is it? In the final part of the psalm, the psalmist appeals to the Lord to help them again. ‘Awake!’ he says. It seems to him that the Lord has fallen asleep. And so:
Awake! Rouse yourself!
And he asks the Lord not to reject them forever and not to hide his face from them. So, don’t turn your back on us, and don’t ignore all our misery and oppression. He says in verse 25 that they have been brought down to the dust and their bodies cling to the ground. So, we’re to picture someone who has been beaten so badly that they’ve collapsed on the ground and they can’t get up. So:
Rise up and help us.
‘Redeem us’, he says. He means: ‘Deliver us. Save us.’ And he bases his appeal on the Lord’s unfailing love. He’s referring to God’s covenant love, which is his never-ending love for his people. So, since you have promised to love us with a never-ending love, deliver us from all our afflictions.
I said at the beginning that some of the commentators compare this psalm to the book of Job. And I think the book of Job can help us to make sense of this psalm. At the beginning of the book of Job, the Lord makes clear that Job is a blameless and upright man, a man who fears God and who shuns evil. And so, the Lord commends Job and praises him before the angels in heaven. And it was precisely because Job was a blameless and upright man, a man who fears God and who shuns evil that Satan wanted to destroy him. Satan hates the Lord and he hates the Lord’s people, including Job. And on that occasion, the Lord — who loved Job and who regarded him so well — handed him over to Satan. And Satan caused Job to suffer all kinds of misery, by destroying his property and his family and his health.
Now, if you ask, ‘Who was Job’s enemy?’, the answer is clear: Satan was his enemy. The Lord loved Job, but Satan hated him because he was faithful to the Lord.
As we think about the psalm, let’s ask ourselves: ‘Who was the psalmist’s enemy?’ We can’t say it was the Lord, because the psalmist mentions God’s unfailing love at the end of the psalm. And in verse 17 he mentions the covenant. So, the Lord was not his enemy. The Lord was his God and God had bound himself to the psalmist and to his people with a promise to be their God and to love them with an unfailing love.
So, who was the psalmist’s enemy or enemies? Well, his enemies were the other nations. He refers to them in verse 2 where he says God drove them out of the Promised Land. And he mentions them in verse 5 where he says they pushed them back with God’s help. He mentions them in verse 7 where he says God gave them victory over their enemies. And then he mentions them in verse 10 where he says God made them retreat before their enemies and their adversaries have plundered them. And he refers to them as the nations in verse 14 where he says they have become a byword among the nations. And he says in verse 16 that his enemy is bent on revenge.
So, the Lord loves the psalmist with an unfailing love. However, just as the Lord — for a time — handed over Job to Satan, so the Lord — for a time — handed over the psalmist and his people to the enemy nations; and the enemy nations attacked them and plundered them and devoured them like sheep and scattered them among the nations and were bent on taking revenge on God’s people.
And, of course — and I said the same last week — behind the scenes, there’s the Devil, Satan, who hates the Lord and who hates the Lord’s people and who will do what he can to stir up trouble for God’s people. In the days of Job, as well as using lightning to destroy some of Job’s property, he also used enemy nations to destroy Job’s property. And he used enemy nations to attack God’s people in the days of the psalmist.
Now, if you’re a believer, if you love and trust the Lord, then Satan is your enemy too. And he comes at you with his wicked schemes to destroy your faith in the Lord. And he’s got a legion of evil spirits to help him. And he’s able to stir up wicked men to accomplish his ends and to harm you. And he’s able to deceive your friends so that they too will oppose you and hurt you. And he’s able to control nature and the weather to accomplish his purposes. And he’s able to affect your health. And he’s able to whisper to you and to influence what you feel and think. And he attacks us with tireless energy and his opposition to the Lord’s people is implacable. And so, as the psalmist says in verse 22, we face death all day long. All day long, and every day, the Devil is against us and he will do everything within his power to crush God’s people under a load of afflictions and to destroy our faith. And the reason he wants to hurt God’s people is because they are God’s people. The reason Satan hated Job was because he was a blameless and upright man who feared God and who shunned evil. And that’s what the expression ‘for your sake’ means in verse 22 of the psalm. For your sake, we face death all day long. Because of the Lord, and because of our commitment to the Lord, we face death all day long. Satan stirs up trouble against the Lord’s people because they are the Lord’s people and he hates the Lord and his people.
So, if you’re a believer, God is not your enemy. He’s not your enemy, because though by nature you were his enemy, because by nature you’re a sinner who sins against the Lord continually, nevertheless, God sent his one and only Son into the world to reconcile you to God. The Lord Jesus gave up his life to pay for your sins and to make peace for you with God; and by trusting in Jesus Christ you receive the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life in God’s presence and peace with God forever. If you’re a believer, God is not your enemy, because Jesus Christ your Saviour has made peace for you with God; and God is no longer your enemy, but your friend forever. And he has promised to love you with an unfailing love, with a never-ending love, with a love which is from everlasting to everlasting. So, no matter what Satan may do to you, be assured that if you’re a believer, trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, then God loves you and he only ever wants to do you good.
But, if that’s the case, why did the Lord hand over the psalmist and his people to their enemies? If God loves them with an unfailing love, why did he hand them over even for a time? And if God loves us with an unfailing love, why does he let Satan attack and harm us? Why does the Lord let believers suffer?
Let me turn your attention briefly to Romans 8 where Paul quotes verse 22 of this psalm. In verses 28 to 30 we have those wonderful verses where Paul tells us that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and who have been called by him. And then he makes clear that we know God is for us and not against us because he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for our salvation. So, when bad things happen to us, and we suffer troubles and trials, we’re not to think God hates us, because the cross of Christ proves the greatness of God’s love for us. And then he makes clear that the Lord Jesus, who died for us, was raised and is even now interceding for us at God’s right hand. So, he’s continually praying for us, asking his Father to help us. And then Paul announces that nothing will ever separate us from the love of Christ. Paul says: Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? Shall any of these things separate us from his love? And then he quotes our psalm to make the point that believers have always faced trouble and hardship and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword. For the sake of the Lord and because of their commitment to him, believers have always faced these things and have been treated as sheep to be slaughtered.
But in all these things we are more conquerors through Christ who loved us. What does it mean to be more than a conqueror? Well, it means that not only do we overcome all these troubles, but in fact God turns them around and transforms them so that instead of destroying us, instead of crushing us, these troubles are turned to our good. So, whereas the Devil may use these things to try to destroy us and our faith, the Lord — who is greater and stronger and wiser than Satan — uses it for good and to transform us more and more into the likeness of his Son.
And so, if you’re a believer and you’re trying to follow the Lord faithfully and to do his will humbly, then know this for sure: whatever afflictions you may suffer in this life — whether it’s trouble at work or trouble at home or trouble in church or trouble with your friends; or whether it’s financial ruin or some problem with your health; or whatever other way the Devil is attacking you — whatever afflictions you may suffer in this life, including trouble and hardship and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger and sword, these are things that the Lord will use for your good, because his love for you is unfailing. It’s unfailing. It never comes to an end. And it’s never interrupted even for a moment. And so, since his love is unfailing, we can tell ourselves when we’re suffering to wait and see what the Lord will do.