Shiur #28: "Indeed, For Your Sake We Are Being Killed All The Day" - Psalm 44 (Part I)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet







This shiur is dedicated in memory of Shmuel b’reb David Ehrenhalt, z"l,
father of our alumnus Steve.
May the entire Ehrenhalt family be comforted among the mourners of Tzion veYerushalayim.




Yeshivat Har Etzion mourns the death of Yona Baumel, z"l.
Mr. Baumol died on Friday, without fulfilling his heart's deepest desire:
to discover the fate of his son – and our talmid - Zecharia,
last seen on the Sultan Yakoub battlefield in Lebanon 27 years ago.

We continue to pray for Zecharia's return.
HaMakom yenakhem etkhem be-tokh she'ar avelei Tzion veYerushalayim.





Lecture 28:

"indeed, for your sake we are being killed all the day"

Psalm 44 (part i)


Rav Elchanan Samet



              (1)                 To the director of music, for the sons of Korach,

                        a maskil.

1            (2)     O God, we have heard with our ears,

                        our fathers have told us,

                        of the deed You did in their days, in days of old.

              (3)                 You with Your hand drove out the nations, and

                        planted them.

                        You broke the peoples and cast them out.

              (4)                 For they did not take possession of the land by

                        their own sword,

                        and their own arm did not save them,

                        but your right hand and Your right arm, and the

                        light of Your countenance, for you blessed them.

2            (5)     You alone are my king, O God,

                        Command salvations for Yaakov.

              (6) Through You we have smitten our enemies.

                        Through Your name we have trampled on those who rose

                        up against us.

              (7) For I did not trust in my bow,

                        and my sword did not save me.

3            (8)     When You saved us from our enemies,

                        and You put to shame those who hate us.

              (9) We praised God all the day,

                        and we thanked Your name forever.


4            (10)   Even when You abandoned us and put us to shame,

                        and You did not go out with our armies,

              (11)   When You made us turn back from our enemy,

                        and those who hate us plundered us for themselves.

              (12)   When You gave us like sheep to be eaten,

                        and You scattered us among the nations.

              (13)   When You sold Your people for no sum,

                        and You did not set their prices high.

              (14)   When You made us a reproach to our neighbors,

                        a scorn and a derision to those round about us.

              (15)   When You made us a byword among the nations,

                        a shaking of the head among the peoples.

              (16)   All the day my humiliation is before me,

                        and shame covers my face,

              (17)   From the voice of him who taunts and blasphemes,

                        from the enemy and the avenger.

              (18)   All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten


                        nor have we been false to Your covenant.

              (19)   Our heart has not turned back,

                        nor have our steps turned from Your way.

5            (20)   [Even] when You broke us in the place of jackals,

                        and You covered us with darkness.

              (21)   I swear that we have not forgotten the name of our


                        nor have we stretched out our hands to a strange


              (22)               Surely God has searched this out,

                        for He knows the secrets of the heart.

              (23)               Indeed, for Your sake we are being killed all the


                        we are regarded as sheep for the slaughter.

6            (24)   Awake, why do you sleep, O Lord?

                        Arise, do not abandon us forever.

              (25)   Why do You hide Your face?

                        Why do You forget our affliction and oppression?

              (26)               For our soul is bowed down to the dust,

                        our belly cleaves to the ground.

              (27)   Arise and help us,

                        and redeem us for the sake of Your lovingkindness.




Already upon an initial reading, it is clearly evident that Psalm 44 is a psalm of national complaint. In order to understand the depth and the severity of the complaint, the psalm must be read very carefully, with attention paid to its various aspects. This we shall do in the sections that follow.


This is not the only psalm of national complaint in the book of Tehilim; there are several others like it,[1] and complaints of the individual also find expression in our book.[2] Of course, harsh arguments are sounded against God outside the book of Tehilim as well.[3] Elsewhere in Scripture – in the Torah, in the books of the Prophets, and even in the book of Iyov – the complaints merit a response from God, whereas in the book of Tehilim, which is not a prophetic book, but rather a book in which man voices his thoughts before God, the complaints are not answered by God.


In this section, we shall discuss the main features of psalms of complaint in the book of Tehilim, and in the last section of this study we shall deal with the theological problem arising from the very existence of such psalms in Scripture. We shall dedicate the intervening sections to an analysis of our psalm, in a manner that will clarify the essence of the complaint expressed therein. We shall also deal with the historical circumstances that serve as a backdrop for this complaint.


In our study of Psalm 30, section II, we discussed the features of thanksgiving psalms in the book of Tehilim. A psalm of complaint is the very opposite of a psalm of thanksgiving. A psalm of complaint's point of departure is some harsh calamity that God brought upon his people,[4] the justification of which is not understood by the psalmist, and in the wake of which he raises objections against it. For this reason, several psalms of complaint contain incisive rhetorical questions, such as: "O God, why have You cast us off for ever…" (74:1); or "How long, Lord, will You be angry for ever…" (79:5); and in our psalm: "Awake, why do you sleep, O Lord?… Why do You hide Your face?… (vv. 24-25).


As in psalms of thanksgiving, psalms of national complaint generally describe the background in the past for the complaint voiced in the psalm,[5] only that this background in reversed in the two types of psalms: in a psalm of thanksgiving, the background is the calamity from which the psalmist has been delivered, whereas in a psalm of complaint, the background is the period during which God shined His face on His people prior to the calamity's arrival.[6]


The distinction between psalms of complaint and psalms of supplication is subtler.[7] As in a psalm of complaint, in a psalm of supplication the point of departure is some difficulty in which the petitioner finds himself, and both types of psalms include a prayer for deliverance from that difficulty. How then are they different?


The difference between them is two-fold: First of all, they differ in the way that the petitioner perceives the trouble and in his religious response to it. In psalms of supplication, the affliction leads to an agitated prayer directed toward the future, whereas in psalms of complaint, it leads to harsh protests regarding the past. Second, the prayer itself is different in the two types of psalms: in psalms of supplication the prayer is permeated with an optimistic spirit, and with the fervent faith that God will hear the prayer and answer it. Accordingly, most psalms of supplication conclude with an account of the deliverance and the thanksgiving, even if they have not yet materialized in the real world. In contrast, the prayer in a psalm of complaint is one of despondency, expressing more despair than hope, and such a psalm generally concludes on a pessimistic note.[8]




Let us now examine the structure of our psalm and the correspondence that it shows with the features of psalms of complaint that were discussed in the previous section.


Our psalm is clearly divided into two large parts of unequal length: the first part is comprised of 8 verses (2-9), and it describes the background in the past – the period during which God shined His face upon Israel ("and the light of Your countenance, for you blessed them" – verse 4). At the end of the first part of the psalm is the word "sela"; the meaning of this term is unclear, but in many places in the book of Tehilim, it denotes an interruption in the course of the psalm, and so, too, in our psalm.


Verse 10 opens the main and larger part of our psalm – eighteen verses – which describes the current situation, in which God hides His face from Israel ("Why do You hide your face" – v. 25). This part is mostly a complaint, and only the last four verses (vv. 24-27) close the complaint with a desperate prayer, in which the complaining tone continues to be evident.


The significant difference in length between the two parts of the psalm (about a third and two thirds) is understandable: the first part is merely background, albeit exceedingly necessary, for the second and primary part of the psalm.


We have divided each of the two parts of the psalm into three sections.[9] We shall explain this division over the course of a systematic analysis of the psalm. Here let us merely point out the clear tendency toward increasing brevity over the course of the three sections in each of the psalm's two parts.[10]


Finally, it should be noted that our psalm is based on several contrasts that will be discussed over the course of our analysis of the psalm. The primary contrast is that between the first part of the psalm ("the light of Your countenance") and the second part ("You hide Your face"). However, each section in itself is based on a contrast, to the point that we can say that contrast is the most important literary device that the psalmist uses to express his ideas.




I. SECTION 1 (VV. 2-4)


The first section describes a distant period of glory – the period of the conquest of Eretz Israel. The distance between this period and that of the psalmist is emphasized in several ways in v. 2 that opens the section. "We have heard with our ears" – but we ourselves did not see this; "our fathers have told us" – and this story was passed down from generation to generation until it reached us; "of the deed You did in their days, in days of old."


Why does the psalmist choose to open with this period, and not, as is more common, with an account of the exodus from Egypt? Two answers come to mind: First of all, the period of the exodus from Egypt was characterized by tension between the people of Israel and their God. Time and time again, the people sinned and were punished for their sins. Our psalmist seeks a period of glory in which Israel and God enjoyed a harmonious relationship, and he finds such a period in the time of the conquest of Eretz Israel.


Second, the period of the conquest of Eretz Israel is the absolute opposite of what is described in the second part of the psalm. Whereas in the first era, Israel had defeated its enemies and inherited their land, during the period in which God hid His face, Israel was defeated by its enemies (vv. 10-11) and scattered in exile among the nations (vv. 12-17).


The contrast that stands out in this section (and that will repeat itself and appear in different forms in other sections of the psalm) is between God's vigorous activity with respect to Israel and Israel's own passivity. The people of Israel take no action whatsoever, but yet they benefit from all the good that God bestows upon them through His actions.


This contrast expresses itself in verses 3-4: Verse 3 opens with special emphasis on the word "You" – You acted and did, whereas verse 4 asserts that "they did not" act. Let us compare the actions attributed to God in this section to those attributed to Israel:


God: "You did," "You drove out," "You planted," "You cast out," "You blessed them."

Israel: "They did not take possession by their own sword," "their own arm did not save them."


This contrast is sharpened by the repeated use of the same words:


You drove out ("horashta")… - for they did not take possession ("yarshu")


            Should this contrast be understood in its plain sense? Didn't the people of Israel use their swords and their arms to conquer the land? The description here contradicts what is stated in the book of Yehoshua – that Israel fought like warriors to conquer the land – by the sword, with the use of military force, and with strategies.[11]


            Elsewhere, we discussed at length the expression that appears in many places in Scripture, in the form of "lo X ki im Y."[12] We demonstrated there that this expression does not come to absolutely negate X, but rather to subordinate it to Y. This expression usually comes to express a conditional statement: There will be no X if there is no Y. "Ki im" is used in the sense of "ela im," "unless."[13]


            We argued there that there are several verses in Scripture, which, though they read "lo X ki Y" (missing the word "im"), should also be understood as conditional statements, as if they read "ki im."[14] Among the verses brought there as examples was verse 4 of our psalm:


For they did not take possession of the land by their own sword… ("lo X")

but your right hand and Your right arm, and the light of Your countenance, for you blessed them ("ki Y").[15]


            According to this understanding, our verse means as follows: Though indeed they took possession of the land with their sword and their arm, this by itself would not have been possible, were it not that "Your right hand and Your arm, and the light of Your countenance, for You blessed them." It was only God's favor that gave force and validity to man's action. Using the words that are repeated in the two halves of the verse, we can express this as follows: Their arm brought them deliverance, only because of "Your right hand and Your arm."


            This understanding of verse 4 is necessary not only because of what is stated in the book of Yehoshua, but also because of what is stated later in the psalm in the second section:


Through You we have smitten our enemies.

Through Your name we have trampled on those who rose up against us. (v. 6)


            We see then that it is we who have smitten our enemies, but we did this using God's strength ("through You"); it is we who have trampled on those who rose up against us, but we did this using "Your name" – by mentioning Your name, and by recognizing that it is You who gives us the strength to do this.


            It turns out then that the contrast expressed in the first section is merely imaginary contrast. What the verse really means to say is that the human action of our forefathers – the conquest of Eretz Israel – succeeded only because of Divine action (overt or hidden) which made their action possible. Thus, human action and Divine action complement each other. The formula that seems to express contrast, "Not X but Y," is used to emphasize our recognition that God's action is primary and that our action is subordinate to His.


2. SECTION 2 (VV. 5-7)


This section expresses an idea that is very similar to that expressed in the previous section: God's action and favor are what deliver Israel, and not the bow and sword in themselves. Here too this idea is expressed by way of a contrast between God's action and Israel's action: "Through You… Through Your name… I did not trust in my bow, and my sword did not save me." Here, however, the contrast does not require explanation as in the previous section. We clearly use the bow and the sword to smite our enemies and to trample on them, but we do not trust in the bow, nor do we attribute our deliverance to the sword, but rather to You and to Your name.


            Why, then, have we defined verses 5-7 as a separate section, and not as a continuation of section 1?


            Two linguistic phenomena stand out in this section and distinguish it from the previous section. First of all, the shift into the singular in verses 5 and 7 (verse 6 remains in the plural as in section 1): "You alone are my king…"; "For I did not trust in my bow, and my sword did not save me."


            Second, there is a change in tense in the verbs in section 2. In section 1 all the verbs are in past tense, whereas in section 2 they are in future tense: "nenage'ah" ("we will smite"); "navos" ("we will trample"); "evtach" ("I will trust"; "toshi'eini" ("it will save me"). What is the meaning of these verbs in future tense? They express continuous or repetitive actions. That is to say: this is the way we smite our enemies every time we fight then, and we do not trust in our weapons. It turns out then that section 2 is not dealing with the distant historic past, but with the present. It does not describe the actual present situation, for this is only found in the second part of the psalm, but rather the recent past which the psalmist himself experienced.


            Now we can understand the transition from plural to singular in verses 5 and 7: it comes to express the reality in which the psalmist himself personally participated. He did not "hear with his ears," but rather he experienced it himself. While it is true that we are not dealing with a personal experience, but with a war fought by the entire people of Israel, and therefore verse 6 remains in the plural, nevertheless the psalmist himself took part in that war, and can testify about it in first person.


            To complete our discussion of this section, we must still explain verse 5:


You alone are my king, O God,

Command salvations for Yaakov.


            The word "command" is in the imperative, and thus it expresses a request, that God command the salvations of Yaakov. This does not fit into the context in which this verse appears in the first part of the psalm. For in this part, in all three of its sections, God saves Israel and shines His face upon them. What room is there then for such a request? This petition accords with the second half of the psalm which describes how God had abandoned Israel and delivered them into the hands of their enemies. It would have made sense, had verse 5 been included in the prayer at the end of the psalm, together with verses 24-27.


The Meiri was sensitive to this difficulty and explained our verse in the following manner:


You alone would command the salvations of Yaakov. It seems to me that the word "tzaveh" is an infinitive, that is to say, You were our king to command our salvations.


            Accordingly, this verse is not a petition, but rather a description of an ongoing state: God commands the salvations of Yaakov. Thus, the verse fits in with the two verses that follow it.


            A simpler explanation can be proposed based on the principle "oleh ve-yored be-otiyot," "backwards and forwards letters." Rav Reuven Margoliot dealt with this rule in his book, "Ha-Mikra ve-ha-Mesora,"[16] pp. 65-70:


It is the way of Scripture that when the first letter of a word is the same as the last letter of the previous word, that letter is read with the first word and with the second word.


            Rav Margoliyot brings dozens of examples of how this principle is used in Scripture, and in some cases he resolves serious difficulties in understanding.[17] He does not, however, cite our verse.


            According to the aforementioned rule, our verse should be read as if it were written:


You alone are my king, O God, ("Elokim")

who commands ("[mi]tzaveh") salvations for Yaakov.[18]


            Accordingly, already the opening verse of the second section clarifies the difference between it and the previous section: Not only in the past did God save Israel, but even now, always, it is God who commands salvations for them.


3. SECTIONS 3 (VV. 8-9)


Section 3 is the smallest section in this part of the psalm, and it is also not built around contrast, as are the previous sections, but rather on a complementary account of God's action and the action of Israel: God saved Israel[19] and put their enemies to shame, and they praised Him and thanked His name.


As we have explained, in the previous sections as well, the contrast came to express the complementary relationship between Israel's actions in the conquest of the Land and God's actions. Except that in that case, the main intention was to give expression to the religious recognition that God's actions are primary, and that without them human actions have no value. This recognition is given verbal expression in sections 2-3, but it does not lead to a fitting positive expression on the part of Israel. Such an expression only appears at the end of the third section, at the end of the first part of the psalm. In this section, the religious consciousness formulated in sections 1-2 is shaped into praise and gratitude that Israel direct toward God, not in a one-time manner, but "all the day" and "forever."


We must still understand the grammatical character of section 3. We must first clarify the meaning of the word "ki" with which verse 8 opens. This is the fifth appearance of the word in the first part of the psalm, and we already noted in our discussion of section 1 (note 15) that the two times that it appears in verse 4 at the beginning of two parallel clauses, it appears in different senses. It seems that here too the word "ki" at the beginning of verse 8 is used in a different sense than that same word at the beginning of verse 7: there it meant (as at the beginning of verse 4) "for," "because," and it connects verse 7 to the previous verse by way of contrast.


At the beginning of verse 8, however, it seems that the word "ki" should be understood in the sense of "when," thereby connecting verse 8 to verse 9. According to this, the whole of section 3 is one complex sentence, in which verse 8 constitutes the subordinate clause and verse 9 serves as the main clause. The section in its entirety means as follows:


When You saved us from our enemies… (both in the distant past, at the time of the conquest of the Land, and in the more recent past described in section 2), we praised You and thanked Your name for all time, and thus we filled our obligation to recognize the good things that You did for us.


(To be continued)


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] In addition to our psalm, also Psalms 74, 79, 80, and 89.

[2] Psalm 39; the first part of Psalm 73; and Psalm 88. (Psalm 13 might also fall into the category of psalms of complaint.)

[3] I.e., Avraham in his defense of Sodom, who says: "Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?" (Bereishit 18:25), and Iyyov whose arguments against God appear in his orations throughout his book. Psalms of complaint, however, appear in Scripture exclusively in the book of Tehilim.

[4] Most of the psalms of complaint are psalms of national complaint (see notes 1-2). The reason for this is that the people of Israel entered into a covenant with God, and therefore in certain situations their complaints have a legal foundation. The individual, on the other hand, cannot come in the name of a Divine commitment that was given him, and therefore we can point to only two definite psalms of personal complaint: 39 and 88. Accordingly, what is stated in this study relates primarily to psalms of national complaint.

[5] Psalm 79 lacks such background.

[6] Here, however, we must note a fundamental difference between the two types of psalms with respect to the connection between the past background and the present situation. In a psalm of thanksgiving, the two are connected by the prayer offered by the person in the time of his affliction, whereas, in a psalm of complaint, the transition from the period of favor to the period of calamity is not explained. On the contrary, this unexplained shift constitutes the grounds for complaint.

[7] In the first part of our study of psalm 30, note 17, we noted the great similarity and the difference that nevertheless exists between a psalm of thanksgiving and a psalm of supplication. These two types of psalms usually contain the same four components noted in that study, and the difference between them lies in the time during which and the perspective from which the psalm is said: a psalm of thanksgiving is said after the deliverance, whereas a psalm of supplication is said during the very time of trouble. But the religious outlook expressed in these two types of psalms is the same. Therefore, these two types of psalms can be defined as two sides of the same coin. What is stated here already alludes to the answer to the question regarding the difference between psalms of supplication and psalms of complaint: the religious understanding of the affliction is very different in the two types of psalms.

[8] These distinctions are not absolute, but nevertheless it is always a good idea to examine the end of the psalm, which is likely to teach us whether we are dealing with a psalm of supplication or a psalm of complaint. Compare the desperate prayer at the end of our psalm with the prayers at the end of the following psalms of complaint – 39, 74, 88 and 89 (verse 52 is not part of the body of the psalm). Psalm 79 is exceptional.

[9] We do not use the term "stanza" ("bayit"), because (following A.L. Strauss; see our study of psalm 131, end of section II) we have reserved that term for the analysis of short psalms, in which the stanzas are the building blocks that determine the psalm's structure. In a long psalm such as ours, the division into stanzas, the small and basic units out of which the psalm is built, will not help us understand the structure of the psalm as a whole. Here we must consider the larger units of the psalm (each of which is comprised of several stanzas). For lack of a better term expressing this idea, we refer to each of these units as a "section."

[10] Section 1 – 35 words; section 2 – 20; section 3 – 12.

The second part of the psalm is twice as long as the first part, and therefore each of its sections is respectively longer, but the relationship between the three is the same: section 4 – 66 words; section 5 – 32; section 6 – 27.

[11] Regarding the conquest of Jericho, it is appropriate to say that it was done by the hand of God, and that the sword and arm of Israel played no role, but the later wars of conquest were fought in a natural manner (though at times with miraculous help).

[12] Iyyunim be-Parashot ha-Shavu'a, 2nd series, Parashat Eikev, pp. 361-365.

[13] The sources brought there for this interpretation are the words of the Tannaim in Berakhot 12b, and the words of the Malbim in his Ayelet ha-Shachar, kelalim 229-230.

[14] We brought there another nine verses in addition to our verse: Bereishit 45:8; Shemot 16:8; Devarim 8:3; I Shmuel 8:7; ibid. 18:25; Hoshea 6:6; Tehilim 115:1; I Divrei ha-yamim 29:1; II Divrei ha-Yamim 19:6.

[15] In this verse, the word "ki" appears at the beginning of each of its two parts, and the two instances seem to carry different meanings. The first "ki" ("Ki they did not take possession of the land by their own sword") means "for, because," and it continues the argument of verse 3. The second "ki" ("ki your right hand and Your right arm, and the light of Your countenance") means "but rather," and it comes to create a contrast between the first part of verse 4 ("not by their own sword") and the last part ("but rather Your right hand").

[16] Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 5724.

[17] Rav Margoliyot also brings earlier sources from the Mesora, from Chazal, and from the medieval commentators that noted this phenomenon before him. In more recent generations many have noted it.

[18] One need not be disturbed by the fact that the "mem" with which the first word ends is a final "mem," whereas the "mem" with which the second word begins is not, because the foundation of this principle is phonetic – when the two words were sounded one after the other, one of the "mems" was omitted.

[19] It should be noted that the verb "le-hoshi'a" connects the three sections. In section 1, "and their own arm did not save them" (4); in section 2, "and my sword did not save me" (7) and at the beginning of this section we also find the noun "yeshu'a" in "command salvations for Ya'akov"; and in section 3, "when You saved us from our enemies" (8). This determines the subject of the entire first part of the psalm: It is God who saves Israel from their enemies, and not themselves.