Abstract:This article explores the function of Paul’s citation from Psalm 44:22 within the rhetoric of Romans 8:31–39. It offers a brief discussion of the meaning of Psalm 44:22 when the verse is read within its original historical and canonical contexts, then a summary and evaluation of the two main answers typically given by scholars to the question of whether and to what extent that meaning is retained in the verse’s new context in Romans 8. The final section of the article argues for a reading of Romans 8:36 in which the psalm-citation retains its original force and meaning as an expression of protest and lament, reinforcing the validity of the question in verse 35 before Paul answers it in verse 37.
One of the Old Testament’s boldest and most vigorous protests against unexplained suffering is Psalm 44, in which the community laments an event in which, they say, God has made them “like sheep for slaughter” (v. 11), scattering them among the nations and exposing them to derision and scorn. All this, they insist, has taken place, despite the fact that “our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way” (v. 18). Read within the context of the psalm, there is no mistaking the tone of lament and protest in the declaration of verse 22: “Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”
Yet it is this verse that Paul quotes in the climactic final verses of Romans 8, in the midst of his rhapsodic assurance to his readers that nothing in all creation can separate them from the love of God in Christ. This paper will explore the function of this citation from Psalm 44:22 within the rhetoric of Romans 8:31–39 and the extent to which the lament and protest of the verse in its original context are intended to be carried across to the verse’s new home in Romans 8.
1. Psalm 44 in Historical and Canonical Context
Commentators offer widely divergent suggestions for the date of the psalm’s composition, ranging from the early monarchy to the Maccabean period, with a significant number gravitating toward a date of composition in the early exilic period, or in the years that immediately preceded the exile.
The strongest argument in favor of an exilic context for the psalm’s composition is the language of verses 11–12, which speak of the Israelites as having been “scattered … among the nations” and “sold … for a trifle,” along with the description of the people in verse 14 as “a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.” Such language, as Samuel Terrien points out, not only suggests a defeat of catastrophic proportions, but also depicts it in terms that closely resemble the language of Jeremiah and his circle, writing in the context of the Babylonian invasions at the end of the seventh century and the beginning of the sixth.1
The main difficulty with this proposal is the sharp disparity between the psalm’s vigorous protestations of the nation’s innocence and the verdict of culpability that had been pronounced by Jeremiah and his prophetic predecessors (even as they lamented and protested at the severity of the divine sentence). Terrien is left to conclude that the author of the psalm, despite the literary affinities between his language and the language of the prophet, had come to a starkly different theological conclusion about the meaning of the events that they had witnessed:
What does the psalmist mean by not forgetting the name of God or not worshipping a foreign deity? Does he ignore the ethical demands of the Sinai Covenant? Innocent of idolatry, Israel may not be blameless in social equity. Is the poet consciously divorcing cultic fidelity from communal justice and compassion? This seems to be the case, for he not only asks, “Why?” but he also implies that God alone is responsible for his people’s plight: “Is it not on account of thee that we are slain every day?” (v. 23)….
The singer of Psalm 44 was … living during the last spasms of Judah’s agony. But he had not been convinced by the oracles of the great prophets, from Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Micah, or Jeremiah, his contemporary (Jer 7:1–11). Perhaps he was one of his antagonists (religious superpatriots) who denounced him to the authorities.2
Terrien’s interpretation of the psalm is admirably blunt, and is to be preferred in that respect over the readings of others who assign the psalm to the same period without feeling the need to offer any comment at all on the discord that is implied between the psalmist’s perspective and the perspective of the prophets who had warned of the Babylonian invasion and exile and interpreted those events as a divine judgement on the sins of the nation.3 If the psalm is to be read as a response to Judah’s exile or to the events that immediately preceded it, then there is no avoiding the conclusion that the psalm’s interpretation of those events is diametrically opposed to that of the prophets (and, in addition, to the perspective of the histories and history psalms that interpret the exile as a judgement on the sins of the nation and its kings).4 A reading of this sort strains the unity of the psalter, and of the Old Testament canon more broadly, to breaking point.
But the connection that Terrien and others draw between the language of the psalm and the events of the Babylonian invasion is not a necessary or compelling one. The language of verses 20–21 (if it is to be taken at face value) seems to imply the kind of protestation of innocence that is ignorant of any prophetic accusation, rather than a knowing rejection of the verdict of the prophets. Nor is the hypothesis of an exilic context necessary to explain the language of verses 10–19. The Babylonian invasion was not the first time that Israel had experienced the capture and deportation of prisoners (cf. Amos 1:6, 9),5 and the affinities of language and imagery between the psalmist and the Jeremianic circle can be explained just as easily by the literary influence of either on the other (or by the currency of the language as part of the stock phraseology of lament) as by the hypothesis that they are contemporaries writing in response to the same events.
Alongside these considerations regarding the language and literary affinities of the psalm itself, it is also worth noting its placement in Book II of the psalter (which concludes with a prayer for the “king’s son” and a postscript, “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended”), which may suggest that the editors of psalter intended the psalm to be read within a pre-exilic frame, before the shift of focus toward the exile in Book III.6
A more convincing reading of the psalm, therefore—both on its own terms and in terms of its relation to the surrounding context of the psalter and the Old Testament as a whole—is one that interprets it as a response not to the exile but to an unspecified event in the pre-exilic or post-exilic period, and takes its protestations of the nation’s covenant fidelity not as a rejection of the accusations of the prophets but as an expression of genuine bewilderment, voiced in the absence of any such accusations that might otherwise have explained the events that had transpired.7
Within a context of this sort, the protest of the psalmist is that these events have come on the nation not because of their own sin but “because of you” (v. 22; Heb. עָלֶיךָ). The strong assertions earlier in the psalm (vv. 9–14) about the way in which God has “rejected and abased” his people suggest that the primary sense of the psalmist’s language in verse 22 is a negative one, attributing (ultimate) responsibility for what has happened to God, who did not intervene to defend his people from the attacks of their enemies. A negative reading of this sort is consistent with the immediately preceding context of verses 17–22, where the psalmist’s claim appears to be not that the disaster has happened because of the nation’s covenant fidelity but that it has happened despite it.8 The image in verse 22b, similarly, in which the people are depicted as having been “accounted as sheep for the slaughter,” retains the negative sense that was carried by the similar expression in verse 11.
A more positive reading, in which the sufferings are understood as something that the nation has endured (and has, perhaps, willingly chosen to expose itself to) “for your sake,” as an outcome of its covenantal loyalty to YHWH, is certainly a grammatical possibility. The decision of the LXX translators to render both the עָל- of verse 22 and the לְמַעַן of verse 26 with the same preposition (ἕνεκα/ἕνεκεν), opens that door a little wider for readers who encounter the psalm in Greek rather than in Hebrew.9 There is a certain historical plausibility, too, about an imagined context of composition for the psalm in which considerations of covenant loyalty have dictated a foreign policy that has exposed the nation to vengeful reprisals from a neighbor, a suzerain-state or an imperial overlord.10 The rabbinic tradition that verse 23a was sung daily by the Levites during the time of the Maccabean uprising is consistent with a reading of the psalm that interprets verse 22 as a positive claim that Israel’s sufferings have been willingly embraced by the nation, “for the sake of” their God.11 But the primary sense of the expression, read within the context of the complaint and protest in the preceding paragraphs, must surely be the negative one, which interprets the sufferings that the nation has endured not as the inevitable consequence of covenant fidelity but as a bewildering enigma—a disaster that God has brought upon the nation despite the fact that they have remained faithful to him.12
2. Psalm 44:22 in Romans 8:36
If this is the meaning of Psalm 44:22 and the function that it serves within its original context in the psalm, what does it mean and how does it function within the very different rhetorical context in which Paul cites it in Romans 8:36?
As most commentators recognize, Romans 8:31–39 functions as a kind of peroratio, drawing out the chief implications of the preceding chapters (either chs. 1–8 or, more specifically, chs. 5–8) and evoking an emotional response to them within the affections of the letter’s hearers.13 Having commenced this section of the letter with a bold assertion about the certain hope of those who have been justified by faith, enabling them to boast even in the midst of their present sufferings (5:1–11), Paul now concludes it by reasserting their status as those whom God has justified (8:33; cf. v. 30) and assuring them that “neither death, nor life … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38–39).
The most obvious feature of the rhetoric of the paragraph is the sequence of questions that it strings together. Unlike the questions that Paul asks and answers in the diatribes of the earlier chapters,14 the principal function of these questions is not to advance an argument by introducing new ideas or anticipating possible objections; rather, as Jewett correctly suggests, they perform the recapitulative function of an ἐρώτησις, inviting the audience to join in asking (and, in some cases, answering for themselves) questions whose answers have already been given or implied earlier in the letter.15
Within this section of the letter, explicit citations of Scripture are extremely rare, compared with the far greater density of citation elsewhere in the letter: apart from 8:36, the only other direct quotation from the Old Testament in chapters 5–8 is the fleeting reference to the commandment against covetousness in 7:7. Why then does Paul choose this moment, right in the middle of the section’s climactic final paragraph, to break the flow of his rhetoric with a citation from the psalms? Commentators who suggest an answer to the question of how the psalm citation functions within the rhetoric of Romans 8:31–39 tend to propose one of two main alternative viewpoints: (i) that the psalm-citation functions within Paul’s argument as a proof for the proposition that sufferings are the expected lot of the people of God; or (ii) that the citation (reinterpreted in light of the gospel) is appropriated by Paul as a prophecy of the sufferings of the church.
2.1. Psalm 44:22 as Proof that Sufferings are the Expected Lot of the People of God
According to the first viewpoint, which is presupposed or argued for by the majority of commentators, the function of the psalm citation in Romans 8:36 is to serve as proof for the proposition that sufferings are the expected lot of the people of God. A string of almost identically-worded statements can be collated from major Romans commentaries, expressing this view. Thus, for example, Charles Cranfield suggests that the quotation’s main effect is “to show that the tribulations which face Christians are nothing new or unexpected, but have long been characteristic of the life of God’s people.”16 Douglas Moo reads it as an expression of Paul’s concern “to show that the sufferings experienced by Christians should occasion no surprise.”17 Joseph Fitzmyer sees the citation’s purpose as being “to show that the tribulations that Christians encounter are what have always characterized God’s people.”18 Ben Witherington, similarly, sees the point of the quotation as being to prove that “no danger that overcomes Christians is anything new or unexpected for the people of God.”19
The view is not a new one. Calvin, for example, acknowledges the possible objection that the oppression under Antiochus (which he sees as the likely occasion for the psalm’s original composition) was an unusual calamity, but insists that, nonetheless, “since they have first affirmed their innocence, and show that they are burdened by so many evils, we can fittingly argue from this that there is nothing new in the Lord permitting his saints to be exposed to the cruelty of the ungodly.”20
But there are obvious objections to be raised against this interpretation of the psalm citation’s function within its context in Romans 8:31–39. To begin with, there is the fact that the immediately preceding verse, Romans 8:35, is a question, not an assertion: its function is not to assert that the people of Christ suffer, but rather (presupposing that this is the case) to ask whether those sufferings can have the effect of separating Christ’s people from his love.21
Then, secondly, there is the fact that the proposition asserted in Psalm 44:22 does not function simply to record the fact of Israel’s tribulations but to protest against them, and (within the larger context of the psalm) to cry out for their cessation. The originally intended force of the verse Paul cites from the psalm is hardly to normalize the experience of suffering (or, still less, to paint it as one of the indifferent things over which the wise man triumphs by his calm equanimity),22 but to scream out against it.
It is possible, of course, that Paul’s use of the psalm citation could have involved a transformation of its force and meaning so radical in its effect that the end result is one in which “the Lord of the church . . . removes the tone of protest from the psalm,” converting an anguished outpouring of lament into a bare statement of “the necessity … of unmerited suffering.” 23 There are certainly other places within his letters where a transformation of similar magnitude (though not, perhaps, the same nature) would seem to have taken place. But a conclusion of that sort would require a more careful reading of the way in which the psalm citation contributes to the rhetoric of its new context within Romans 8:31–39 than the proponents of the traditional view generally offer. A plausible explanation is needed, too, for why it is this text of Scripture that Paul has chosen to cite, when so many others could have proved the required point without the need for such a radical transformation of their original force.
2.2. Psalm 44:22 (Reinterpreted in Light of the Gospel) as a Prophecy of the Sufferings of the Church
In view of some of these difficulties and questions, a number of scholars in recent decades have proposed an alternative to the traditional view, arguing that the psalm citation in Romans 8:36 functions not as a proof that the people of God have always suffered in the manner that is presupposed by the questions of verse 35, but rather as a prophecy and redemptive interpretation of the sufferings of the church.
Perhaps the most influential proponent of this alternative view is Richard Hays, who includes it as one of the multiple levels of meaning that he hears evoked by the psalm citation, as Paul employs it within its new context in Romans:
Paul reads the Psalm as a prophetic prefiguration of the experience of the Christian church, so that the text finds its true primary meaning in Paul’s own present time. The point is not that “righteous people have always suffered like this”; rather, Paul’s point in Rom. 8:35–36 is that Scripture prophesies suffering as the lot of those … who live in the eschatological interval between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate redemption of the world.24
What makes the experiences of suffering that the psalm citation refers to in its new location distinctively Christian experiences is the note of participation in the redemptive sufferings of Christ that can (with hindsight) be read into the originally negative language in which the people of God are depicted as “sheep to be slaughtered” and their death is characterized as one that has been endured ἕνεκα σοῦ—“for your sake”:
When Paul in Romans 8 quotes the words of Psalm 44,For your sake we are being killed all the day long;he is sounding a theme that reverberates in complex patterns with and against his letter’s other images of election, faithfulness, and sacrifice. This quotation prepares the way for his direct exhortation in Rom. 12:1: “I beseech you then, brothers and sisters, through the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” That is what is required of the eschatological people of God; God’s elect must suffer and groan along with—and even behalf of—the unredeemed creation….
We are reckoned as sheep to be slaughtered
Those who have ears to hear will hear and understand that the people of God, reckoned as sheep to be slaughtered, are suffering with Christ (Rom. 8:17: sympaschomen) and thus living out the vocation prophesied for them according to the Scriptures.25
There is much that can be said in support of a reading of this sort. The ἕνεκα σοῦ of the LXX, as we have already observed above, is certainly capable of being read in a positive sense, to speak of suffering and death willingly embraced by the community as an imitation of (and participation in) the redemptive sufferings of Christ. The description of the people of God as “sheep to be slaughtered,” similarly, can readily be converted into an image of cruciform participation in the saving mission of God, if it is heard in concert with the similar image in Isaiah 53:7.26 The presence of these two phrases in close proximity within the psalm citation and their potential to be understood in this manner would help to explain why, on this reading of Paul’s intentions in Romans 8:36, he has chosen this particular verse to cite.
It is possible too, as Tyler Stewart suggests, that Paul could have anticipated that some at least among his intended readers in Rome might have been aware of the urgent summons with which Psalm 44 concludes (“Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! … Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love”), and that they would have understood the summons of the psalm, in light of the gospel, as having been “answered by the God who raises the dead in the Christ-age.”27
It must still be granted, however, that this reading, no less than the previous one, involves a thoroughgoing transformation of the original force of the text that Paul cites; it is, as Stewart puts it, “a radical rereading based on the turn of the ages that has occurred in Jesus’ death and resurrection.”28 Such a possibility should not be ruled out. A re-reading of similar magnitude can be found, for example, in the modified quotation Hosea 13:14 in 1 Corinthians 15:55, where a summons to Death and Hades to come and execute judgement becomes a taunt over death, whose penal sting has now been destroyed by Christ. In that instance, however, the triumphant function of the citation within the rhetoric of the surrounding paragraph is made abundantly clear, and the warrant for the hermeneutical transformation effected in v. 55 is provided explicitly in v. 56. The same cannot be said in the case of the psalm citation in Romans 8:36.
We may also be prepared to grant the possibility, as Stewart goes on to claim, that on this reading of the psalm citation’s intended force within Paul’s rhetoric it is capable of functioning “simultaneously” as “an appropriate lamentation of affliction” and as “a declaration of the gospel of the crucified Lord.”29 But it is difficult to see how, on this reading, the psalm citation can continue to carry any of its original force as a protesting lament. It is difficult, too, to see how on this reading the ἀλλά (NRSV: “No…”) that commences verse 37 can retain its function as a strong disjunction within the rhetoric of the paragraph, if verse 36 is already serving as a radical reinterpretation of the sufferings referred to in the previous verse, and is intended by Paul to be heard as, in part at least, “an announcement of victory” and “a hopeful reminder of Jesus’ resurrection and the believer’s eventual participation at the parousia.”30
2.3. Psalm 44:22 as a Lament to Which the Gospel Is a Response
In the remainder of this article I would like to propose a third alternative for how the intended function of the psalm citation in Romans 8:36 should be interpreted, building on the work of Sylvia Keesmaat,31 Mark Seifrid,32 and, more recently, Channing Crisler.33 As Keesmaat, Seifrid and Crisler have all pointed out, the picture of the people of God as a community familiar with the experience of lament is already one that has been suggested in Romans 8, particularly in the description of believers in verse 23 as a people who “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
The sufferings in view in this verse, which function as the occasion for the “groan[ing]” of believers, are not exclusively the missional sufferings which the church embraces as part of the cost of their solidarity with Christ; read in context, Paul’s words make best sense when taken as a broad reference to all of “the sufferings of this present time” (v. 18), which believers experience in common with the whole groaning creation. They include, therefore—in part, at least—the unchosen and unanticipated sufferings that come upon believers “without answer or evident basis,”34 like the perplexing, unexplained sufferings that occasion the lament and protestation of Psalm 44.
On this reading, the original sense of the Psalm’s ἕνεκα σοῦ and its image of the people of God as “sheep to be slaughtered” can be retained,35 as can the verse’s original function as an expression of lament and protest. The effect of the psalm citation in verse 36 is not to answer the question in the previous verse but to validate it and to intensify its force. In principle, given what Paul has already said in Romans 5:1–8:34, he could have safely made the assumption that his readers were capable of answering the rhetorical question of verse 35 for themselves, in the negative. But Paul’s purpose, it seems, is not for verse 35 to be heard as an easily and obviously self-answering question. Instead, he allows the question to linger unanswered for a moment, reinforcing its validity by giving it the endorsement of the psalm citation in verse 36, before answering it decisively and triumphantly in verses 37–39.
The implications of this reading are of great theological and pastoral importance. Lament, for Paul—even protesting lament—retains its validity as an authentic expression of Christian faith. It is not faith’s last word on suffering, but it is still a valid word to be spoken by God’s people in response to sufferings that are unexplained and (at least from a human standpoint) inexplicable. Christians are to voice that which creation is unable to articulate—and when that fails, know that the Spirit is able to articulate for us that which we can say neither for ourselves nor for a groaning creation.
The message of the gospel does not explain the inexplicable, or restrict its comfort only to those sufferings that are uniquely Christian sufferings, experienced as the direct outworking of the faithfulness of believers. Nor does it work by a kind of hermeneutical alchemy to convert Old Testament lament into Stoic indifference or New Testament assurance. Its effect is not to silence the voice of lament or to convert it into some better, more Christian utterance; it is, rather, to offer assurance that the voice of the lamenter, and of the whole groaning creation, has been heard (and, indeed, that in the groanings of the Spirit the burden of the lament has been shared by God himself) and that it will ultimately find its answer through what God has already accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus.