The Persecuted Faithful
This material comes from the organization International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, which every year at this time encourages churches and Christians to pray for fellow Christians in other countries who are being persecuted.
Psalm 44 was written at a time when God's people were suffering. Although there is no clear indication as to when it was written, it may have been during the time of Hezekiah. He was a faithful king who had to deal with threats from the Assyrians at a time when much of the country was overrun by them and many of the people of Israel were taken captive. Whatever the setting, the words allow us to think about what it means when God's people are being persecuted.
I. God's People Suffer?
Persecution is difficult for us to understand because we believe that God is the almighty Lord who loves His people.
A. We Expect God To Act
The Psalmist begins by speaking about our expectation of what God is like. He speaks to God about all the things that God has done in the past. He speaks of times in the past when God acted so that the people did not even have to fight, but God fought for them.
We could think of many such stories from the history of Israel. We could think of the time, recorded in Exodus 17:11-13, when Israel was fighting against Amalek. As long as Moses prayed, Israel prevailed and by the end of the day they defeated the enemy. We could think of the time when the children of Israel entered the promised land and God led them to Jericho. For six days they marched around the city once a day. Then on the seventh day they marched around it seven times and after the seventh time they blew trumpets and the wall fell down and they destroyed their enemies at Jericho. These and many other stories were in the history of the people and they knew what God had done.
Verse 8 indicates that this is a reasonable and perpetual expectation. We read, "In God we have boasted continually…" Since God is all powerful and has chosen His people for Himself, God's people can always expect that this is how God is going to act.
B. But There Is Suffering 9-16
After such an encouraging beginning to the Psalm, the writer now acknowledges that at the present time of their history this is not what they were experiencing. The current experience of God's people was a time of defeat. The feeling of the people was that God had rejected them, as we read in verse 9. An enemy had defeated them and had taken away their belongings. The enemy had scattered them by taking them captive and forced them to move elsewhere. The writer also describes how all the nations around them were laughing at them and mocking them. They were ashamed because of their defeat and embarrassed by the mockery of their neighboring nations. The feeling was that God "sold them cheaply" and did not fight for them or protect them at all. What was most difficult to take was that the present experience did not fit at all with what God had done in the past, nor with what they thought they could reasonably expect from God.
What they were experiencing fit with what could be expected by those who had rejected God. In Deuteronomy 28, Moses warned the people that if they would reject Him, he would defeat them and send them away. If we read Deuteronomy 28 alongside Psalm 44:9-16, there are a lot of parallels. For example, Deuteronomy 28:25 says, "The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies…" and Psalm 44:10 says, "You made us turn back from the foe." Deuteronomy 28:33 says, "A people whom you do not know shall eat up the fruit of your ground…" and Psalm 44:10 says, "…our enemies have gotten spoil." Deuteronomy 28:36 says, "The LORD will bring you…to a nation that neither you nor your ancestors have known…" and Psalm 44:11 says, "You…have scattered us among the nations." Deuteronomy 28:37 says, "You shall become an object of horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples…" and Psalm 44:13, 14 say, "You have made us the taunt of our neighbors...a byword among the nations."
C. Even Among The Faithful 17-21
The expected reason for such a defeat as described in Psalm 44 seems to be explained by Deuteronomy 28:45, "All these curses shall come upon you, pursuing and overtaking you until you are destroyed, because you did not obey the LORD your God, by observing the commandments and the decrees that he commanded you."
The confusing thing is that they had not rejected God. In verses 17-21 the Psalmist indicates that they had been faithful to God. He indicates, "We have not forgotten you or been false to your covenant." In other words, they had maintained a relationship with God and they had been obedient to the promises they had made to God. They had been obedient to the law and they had observed the worship practices which God had told them to observe.
We have probably observed that guilty people sometimes maintain their innocence even when they have been caught red handed. Is the writer self deceived about his innocence? If that were the case, he would not declare what he does in verse 20 that God "…knows the secrets of the heart." He knows that you can't fool God. God knows if we have been guilty. With a statement of such transparency, it is clear that the nation has been innocent and has not violated the covenant. This makes it very hard to understand why they are experiencing the difficulties they are currently experiencing.
As we look at the persecuted church today, we have a similar puzzle. People in a place where Christians experience opposition are not usually casual about their relationship with God. They will not likely be people who are only cultural Christians or who claim to follow God because they can gain an advantage by it. Yet in spite of faithfulness to God, they experience persecution and this is a thing that is hard to understand. Why do God's people suffer? How can God abandon his people? How can God's kingdom be the eternal kingdom when the enemies of God prevail over His people?
II. Explaining Persecution 22
Persecution still happens today and it is just as difficult to understand as it was in the Psalm. How can it be explained?
A. God's People Will Be Persecuted
This is not a theoretical question because persecution happens.
Jesus Himself was persecuted. In Isaiah 53:3 Jesus is described as one who would suffer greatly. It says, "He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity..." After the death and resurrection of Jesus, when Stephen was defending himself just before he was martyred, he declared in Acts 7:52, "Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers." In this statement, he recognized that Jesus had been persecuted and killed by the Jewish religious leaders.
Jesus indicated that those who follow Him will also experience persecution. In John 15:20 He said, "Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you..." Paul affirmed this reality in 2 Timothy 3:12, "Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." There are many other passages which also let us know that persecution is not something that should be surprising to Christians. How can this be?
B. We Suffer For God's Sake
Psalm 44:22 answers this question when it says, "Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter." The reason that God's people experience persecution is on account of God Himself. It is because of our relationship with God that persecution is a likelihood.
In this Psalm the truth is simply stated and not explained, but a very good explanation of why it happens is given in Revelation 12. In this passage we have a picture of the entire scope of human history and God's relationship to it.
The vision begins with a woman who is about to give birth. Alongside this vision is another image and that is of a great red dragon. As the woman is about to give birth, the dragon stands before her with the intent of destroying the child about to be born. When we read, "she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron," it is very clear that the woman is Israel and the child is Jesus. The dragon is Satan. The mention that "her child was snatched away" describes two stories from the life of Jesus. It describes the story at the beginning of his life when he was protected from the attempt of Herod to destroy him and it describes the end of his life when he was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven instead of being defeated by death. These images speak of the battle that is going on, but verses 10 – 12 speak of the victory that Jesus has accomplished. But although the war is won, the battles continue. In the rest of the chapter, we have the further story of God's people after Jesus ascended to heaven. It speaks of the persecution of the Jewish nation. This happened when Israel was destroyed in 70 AD and has continued in the present times with things like the holocaust and other atrocities done against the Jewish people. Interestingly it also speaks of the persecution of Christians in verse 17 where we read, "Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus."
Psalm 44:22 simply says, "Because of you we are being killed…" Revelation 12 explains why. There is an enemy who is trying to destroy the work of God and is constantly at war with God and with the people of God. This is the reason why even those who have been faithful to God have experienced oppression and persecution.
III. How Do We Respond? 23-26
We need to know this and knowing helps, but we also need to know how to respond when we suffer persecution. It's reality may not be very intense for us, but it is present among us nonetheless. This week, our new chief of police indicated publicly that what was needed in the battle against crime in Winnipeg was prayer. He received opposition for that statement. The Free Press did a survey asking people, "Could the collective power of prayer help combat violent crime in Winnipeg?" 23% said yes and 18% said, it couldn't hurt; but 16% responded, "not through divine intervention, but it might help people be more mindful;" 15% said unlikely and 27% responded, "I find this suggestion inappropriate or offensive." Gordon Sinclair wrote, "…his responsibility is to serve and protect, not to preach about the power of prayer."
The opposition he received is precisely because of the very reality we are talking about today. How do we respond? How do we live with persecution in our world? How do we deal with it in the awareness that some of our brothers and sisters in the world experience persecution in a much more intense way?
There is a well developed theology of suffering in the New Testament. I don't want to go into great detail about it, but just to point to some of the things which the Bible says about it.
The New Testament speaks about the meaning of suffering in such places as Colossians 1:24, "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." This verse tells us that we should not be surprised that God's people will suffer persecution. It also helps us recognize that the advance of the church is somehow tied to the suffering of the church.
Revelation 2:10 also recognizes that God's people will suffer but encourages endurance in that suffering. It says, "Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." As we saw in the video, some people fall away from Christ when they experience suffering, but Jesus encourages His people to keep on being faithful.
Endurance becomes victory as we see in Revelation 12:11 which says, "But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death." The strength for victory in persecution is found in Jesus who has already overcome by His blood. It is found by continuing to speak about Jesus in spite of opposition and it promises that if we will remain faithful even if we have to die, we will conquer the enemy and will not be defeated even by the threat of martyrdom.
These are just a few things which are taught in Scripture regarding the reality of persecution. Psalm 44, adds another important lesson. The final four verses are a prayer.
They are a request for God to act. They are a plea for God to wake up and reverse the current situation and bring peace. They are a request for God to restore the people from the condition of feeling rejected.
The prayer also includes a declaration of the difficulty of suffering. As they experienced the enmity they felt as if God was absent. Their difficulties were experienced as "affliction and oppression." Such experiences are very difficult. I watched another video this week from the IDOP website which featured a song written by a man whose father had been a pastor and had been killed for his faith. The son, now living in the US, had written this song as a memorial to his father. It was a tribute to what God had done, but it also contained a description of the difficulty of experiencing persecution. He stated that for those who are imprisoned there is loneliness and fear and worry and all the normal human emotions surrounding such persecution. We should not be surprised that those people experiencing persecution, experience all of these feelings. It is never easy to lose a spouse or a child, to suddenly find yourself face to face with someone who wants to kill you or to live in a place where danger is ever present. Those who experience persecution experience all of these things and the Psalmist expresses these feelings before God clearly and intensely in verse 25 when he says, "For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground." This verse describes the low feelings, the hopelessness which comes with great suffering. Those who are persecuted experience this and the prayer expresses these things before God.
The last part of the prayer is a request for God to act. In the last verse we have words like, "help" and "redeem." God's deliverance is needed for those who are being persecuted.
The final words in the Psalm reflect on the ground of hope which is ours in all of life and also in times of persecution. They remind us that we can always ask God to act because of his "steadfast love." In spite of the battle and in spite of the difficulty of understanding why sometimes God acts with mighty power and sometimes allows persecution to happen, our confidence and hope is in His steadfast love. We can count on that and on the surety of His ultimate victory.
As we read Psalm 44, we are brought to acknowledge the reality of persecution. As we reflect on it Biblically, we come to understand that it happens, why it happens and that it could happen to us.
As we read this Psalm we also must be aware that even though it has not been something we have experienced deeply in our world up to this point, there are many places in the world where it is a very significant reality. If you are interested, I would encourage you to look at the website of the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. You can find it at www.idop.ca. There you will learn more about the plight of suffering Christians around the world.
As we read this Psalm, particularly the last few verses, we are also called to join in prayer for those who are suffering today. As we conclude this service, we want to spend some time in prayer for the persecuted church.