Commentary on Psalms (42 - 89)
© by Francis Foulkes
& Cyril Okorocha


"1. We have heard with our ears, O God,
our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old:
2. you with your own hand drove out the nations,
but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples,
but them you set free;
3. 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,
and the light of your countenance,
for you delighted in them.

4. You are my King and my God;
you command victories for Jacob.
5. Through you we push down our foes;
through your name we tread down our assailants.
6. For not in my bow do I trust,
nor can my sword save me.
7. But you have saved us from our foes,
and have put to confusion those who hate us.
8. In God we have boasted continually,
and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah

9. Yet you have rejected us and abased us,
and have not gone out with our armies.
10. You made us turn back from the foe,
and our enemies have gotten spoil.
11. You made us like sheep for slaughter,
and have scattered us among the nations.
12. You have sold your people for a trifle,
demanding no high price for them.

13. You have made us the taunt of our neighbours,
the derision and scorn of those around us.
14. You have made us a byword among the nations,
a laughingstock among the peoples.
15. All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face
16. at the words of the taunters and revilers,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.

17. All this has come upon us,
yet we have not forgotten you,
or been false to your covenant.
18. Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way,
19. yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals,
and covered us with deep darkness.

20. If we had forgotten the name of our God,
or spread out our hands to a strange god,
21. would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22. Because of you we are being killed all day long,
and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

23. Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24. Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25. For we sink down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
26. Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love."

Many of the Psalms tell of the deeply personal experiences of those who wrote them. Others, like this one, speak of the experiences of the nation. Israel was facing difficulty and defeat that they found hard to understand, because they knew what God had done for their people in the past and what he had promised for the future. The spiritual problem raised by the suffering of a godly person, which Job wrestled with, was now faced by the nation in this Psalm. We can study it in four parts.

What God had done in the past (verses 1-3)

It was the duty of all Hebrew parents to pass on to their children the story of what God had done for them in the past (see Exodus 12:25-27, 13:7-10, Deuteronomy 6:20-25 and Joshua 4:5-7). This is a special challenge to parents in these days when children listen to peer groups rather than parents. Yet we must not give up. It is the obligation of Christian parents, like Hebrew parents, to teach their children and pass on the faith to them. Because of his parents' faithfulness the psalmist could say, "We have heard with our ears ---, our ancestors have told us ---." They told how it was God who had given them the land and made it possible for them to possess it. Their people were like a fruit-bearing vine planted in good soil (see Psalm 80:8-11 and Isaiah 5:1-4). It was not because of their military power that they had been successful. It was because of God's power helping them, and God's loving purpose for them.

The trust they had learned from the past (verses 4-8)

Because they knew the great things that God had done for them in the past, they could say, "You are my King and my God". God had given victories in the past, and so they could expect him in the future to help them to overcome all the enemies who threatened them. They learned that they should not trust in military power (for them the weapons of war were the "bow" and the "sword"). They knew that the Lord was always willing and able to save them, and so they boasted in him, and they said, "we will give thanks to your name forever". Yes, faith comes from remembering God's past blessings. But 'God has no grandchildren'. Saving faith has to be a 'first-hand' personal experience. While the story of other people's experiences may help us to learn to trust God, it is our own personal experience of God that will help us in the day of trouble. We need to make sure that our faith is not 'second-hand'.

The problems of the present (verses 9-22)

The people could learn lessons of trust in God from the past, but it was the present that was a problem to them. It seemed now that God was not acting for them as he had done in the past. He had gone out with their armies in the past, but not now. Now they were defeated by their enemies and terribly humbled. The nations around laughed at them. They were like sheep taken to be slaughtered for meat (verse 11). They were like people sold as slaves, and even then so little valued that not much was paid for them (verse 12). The law told them that if they did not keep true to God's covenant, they would suffer defeat and be scattered far and wide (see Deuteronomy 28:32-37), as happened at the time of the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the people to Babylon in 587 B.C. But at this time this psalmist felt that they had not turned aside from the covenant and served other gods. They felt that it was for God's sake, and not a just judgment on them, that they were suffering and some of them dying (verse 22). This might have been the case in the time of King Hezekiah (see Study Question (b) below). It was so in the 2nd Century before Christ when the Jewish people had to fight to defend their faith.

The only way to act in the present (verses 23-26)

The psalmist found no satisfying answer to his question. He could only pray. Though the faith of his people was in a God who "will neither slumber nor sleep" (Psalm 121:4), it seemed to him that God was sleeping, that his face was hidden from them instead of being turned towards them in blessing. It seemed that God had forgotten the trouble they were in. Yet the psalmist kept on praying, "come to our help". "Redeem us", he pleaded, and that "for the sake of your steadfast love". Although things happened that he could not understand, he knew from all the experiences of the past that "steadfast love" was so much part of God's nature that it could not finally fail them. There are two special lessons for us here:

a. Whenever we meet problems in our lives or in the lives of others, we should not be too quick to jump to conclusions. Sometimes the 'wicked' may prosper for a while (see Psalm 73). Prosperity is not always a sign of godliness, nor is suffering always evidence of sin.

b. When problems come our way, we should take time to meditate on the Lord, on his word and his ways, and in the attitude of prayer to know God's will about the situation. This is what the psalmist did. Psalm 37:7 puts it, "Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him". And Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know that I am God!"

Prayer: Lord God, mighty and merciful, wise and strong, help us to trust even when we cannot understand your ways.

For further thought and study

a. Verse 22 is quoted in Romans 8:36. In that New Testament passage why is it said that people suffer death for God's sake? and what comfort is given there in relation to those who have to suffer great persecution?

b. Read Isaiah 36-37 as an illustration of a time when Israel faced defeat and distress and were laughed at by their enemies for their trust in God. What was the answer that King Hezekiah and Isaiah found in that time of trouble?


  1. The heading of this Psalm is like that of Psalm 42. See notes under that Psalm.
  2. Much of this Psalm uses "we", and the whole nation is represented, but verses 4, 6 and 15 have "I". Perhaps there was one person who led these parts of the prayer and then others joined in the rest.
  3. Different translations put verse 19 in different ways. "Jackals" are wild animals that live away from places of human habitation. The verse may mean that towns and villages were ruined and made places where just jackals would live. The Good News Bible puts it, "you left us helpless among wild animals; you abandoned us in deepest darkness."
  4. As in a number of the Psalms in Book 1 (1-41), we have "Selah" at the end of verse 8. This may originally have meant a pause, and perhaps people thought about the meaning of the words while musical instruments played.