So much of the Old Testament is read best against the backdrop of the Babylonian exile, but this psalm is explicit about its context. The beginning is powerful, laying down the foundation of Israel's collective memory of Yahweh's powerful deeds delivering Israel from slavery and leading them into a good land -- all not by the might of Israel's sword, but by the gracious gift and mighty power of God himself. Israel is the people who trust in God for deliverance from enemies.
Yet now Israel is in exile. They are landless. Their enemies conquered them. How to worship, how to trust, how to praise God in such a context?
As Brueggemann has taught us, in these situations of radical disorientation, Israel is daring enough to speak boldly to its God. Hear the turn midway through the psalm: "But now..." The psalmist accuses God of all these things, claims that it wasn't Israel who forsook the covenant, and even at the end calls God out of his slumber and into action.
So full of pathos and courage and faith, what a gift for God's people today: unsentimental, bold speech treating God, not with sugary kid gloves, like the God he is. He can take it; more than anything, he wants honesty from his people. And Israel bears witness to this wonderful truth no better than in this psalm.
(One more note: you'll recognize a couple phrases, especially toward the end, as the portion quoted by Paul at the climax of his majestic passage in Romans 8. Reading the entire psalm sheds remarkable light on the way Paul is employing his quote!)
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We have heard it with our ears, O God;
our ancestors have told us
what you did in their days,
in days long ago.
With your hand you drove out the nations
and planted our ancestors;
you crushed the peoples
and made our ancestors flourish.
It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
and the light of your face, for you loved them.
You are my King and my God,
who decrees victories for Jacob.
Through you we push back our enemies;
through your name we trample our foes.
I put no trust in my bow,
my sword does not bring me victory;
but you give us victory over our enemies,
you put our adversaries to shame.
In God we make our boast all day long,
and we will praise your name forever.
But now you have rejected and humbled us;
you no longer go out with our armies.
You made us retreat before the enemy,
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.
You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
you covered us over with deep darkness.
If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
redeem us because of your unfailing love.