Psalm 44: Those Who Don’t Know History

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” Edmund Burke.

Each Passover, Jews remember the Exodus event where the Hebrew slaves where lead to freedom from Egypt through the Red Sea. It is a pivotal experience for their faith. At the Easter Vigil in the Catholic Church there are seven readings designed to recount salvation history—how God created the world out of nothing, brought the slaves out of Egypt, spoke to the people through the prophets, became a man, died and rose on the third day. It’s a reminder of how God has been present in previous generations and that God will continue to be present to this generation.

The writer of Psalm 44 knows the importance of history. He begins by remembering how God gave the Hebrews victory over the Canaanites when Joshua led them into the Promised Land. “We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what deeds you performed in their day, in the days of old.” (1) It was God who gave them victory, “for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory; but your right hand and your arm.” (3a) In verses 4-8 he asserts his trust in God, “for not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.” (6)

Then he turns to the nation’s present condition which is one of being conquered, possibly during the revolt against Persia in 351-349 BCE or possibly from the Maccabean period. In contrast to the success Israel experienced under Joshua’s leadership, they have been beaten down. If it was God who gave them victory in the past, then it is God who gave them over to defeat, the writer surmises. “You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations.” (11) “You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those about us.” (13) In the face of so much hardship he sinks into depression, “For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our body cleaves to the ground.” (25)

While the writer begins with remembering the nation’s history, it is a selected memory. From his position on the ground, he is not able to see beyond his present misery. People in depression see the world through distorted lenses. They reach a point where they can’t see beyond their own circumstances.

In his depression, God appears to be asleep, unaware of the trials of his people, “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake! Do not cast us off forever.” (23) A truer recounting of history would recognize that the Israelites were in slavery for hundreds of years before they were brought out of Egypt. They cried out to their God as well and wondered if God heard. They spent forty years in the desert before entering the Promised Land and were in exile in Babylon for many years before they returned to Jerusalem. Sometimes many generations passed before these large saving acts of God happened. God does hear and does respond, but it may take a while.

It has been said that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. If we don’t know the depth of the history of our faith, we may fall into despair like the writer of this psalm. But those who are knowledgeable about the history of God’s love for God’s people recognize the need to have faith and that even in the waiting, our God is with us.

In the end, all we can do is fall on our knees before our God and trust in God’s steadfast love, as the writer of this psalm does. “Deliver us for the sake of your steadfast love.” (26b)

As you think over your own history, do you find you have selective memory about certain events? Which ones are they? How is not owning your whole history keeping you from growth?

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