You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your descendants forever,
and build your throne for all generations.’”
Psalm 89 begins with praise and confidence but ends with lament and confusion.
Our poet lays a solid, irrefutable groundwork: This is what you said. This is what you did. The psalmist is counting on the character of Israel’s God to come through for them once again. “I will proclaim your faithfulness…” He uses this one word ‘faithfulness’ eight times throughout the psalm. “I declare that your steadfast love lasts forever…” Our poet stakes his own reputation on the trustworthiness of the Covenant God.
God’s mighty acts in creation help him make his case.
O Lord God of hosts,
who is as mighty as you, O Lord?
Your faithfulness surrounds you.
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed [the chaos monster] Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it—you have founded them.
This is glorious cosmic poetry. And once again, the poet’s theme repeats:
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
This is who You are, he reminds the Creator. This is what You do.
Then he moves on to proclaim God’s mighty acts for Israel and God’s covenant promises to Israel’s kings.
Then you spoke in a vision to your faithful one, and said:
“I have set the crown on one who is mighty,
I have exalted one chosen from the people.
I have found my servant David;
with my holy oil I have anointed him;
my hand shall always remain with him…
“I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him,
and my covenant with him will stand firm.
I will establish his line forever,
and his throne as long as the heavens endure…”
Here the psalmist is summarizing the tradition and theology of Israel rather than objectively acknowledging its history. As the story goes, the LORD actually resisted Israel’s clamor for a king. They wanted to be like the other nations and whined and noodled until God gave in. (Lesson: be careful what you ask for!)
In their original relationship, God was this people’s only Savior, Benefactor, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. But evidently an invisible “king” was not enough; the people yearned for gilded pomp and circumstance – someone they could see and hear; someone whose physical presence would represent the presence of God for them and before the nations.
They were fairly warned. The prophet Samuel resisted and persisted in his caution. But finally God gave the people what they wanted. And – as so often happens – they got more than they bargained for.
“If [David’s] children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my ordinances,
if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with scourges;
but I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
or be false to my faithfulness.
I will not violate my covenant…”
And of course – history repeats itself: kings do not remain faithful. People do not keep promises. The poet admits this and acknowledges that the Lord has every right to punish them.
But … has God gone too far?
But now you have spurned and rejected your anointed …
You have renounced the covenant with your servant …
you have defiled his crown in the dust and laid his strongholds in ruins…
Moreover, you have not supported him in battle …
You have cut short the days of his youth;
you have covered him with shame.
Here, “your anointed” stands in for all of Israel. As the king served as representative for the Lord, the king also stood as the summary of the people. It is all of Israel the poet grieves. And, in the psalmist’s mind, it is God who actively created these consequences.
I take issue with the theology of the psalmist at this point. My theology is that sin has its own inherent consequences and God doesn’t have to intervene in human affairs to make bad things happen to willful humans. I also believe things happen in this world that are not at all God’s doing or God’s will.
But I do recognize this reasoning of the psalmist theologian: everything that happens, occurs within the overall governance of the Creator. When my fellow Christians reason that God did something to them or for them, that is their way of honoring God’s sovereign power. (Whether or not God intervenes with such specificity is an unanswerable question; I leave them to their theology and make sense of sin’s consequences in other ways.)
In Psalm 89, the poet remembers when the Davidic dynasty came to an end, the Promised Land was ravaged, the holy city and Solomon’s Temple lay in ruins; therefore, God’s promises seem to be null and void as the remnant of God’s people languished in exile in Babylon.
How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Remember how short my time is—
for what vanity you have created all mortals!
Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted;
how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,
with which your enemies taunt, O Lord,
with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.
Many of the psalms have a similar turning point; a typical pattern is for the poets to start off with their complaint and then turn the song with a “nevertheless.” This is our dire situation: Nevertheless we will trust in the Lord.
But Psalm 89 surprises with a deep foundation of praise and then – built upon this powerful statement of faith – a mighty complaint that God is not living up to promises; Yahweh is breaking covenant.
It’s a serious charge.
But that is what lament is all about. When life turns us upside down and inside out, God’s people have always been free and bold to speak honestly the pain and confusion of our hearts. This is what solid relationship looks like: we speak our deepest truth and trust that the Other will love us unconditionally anyway.
Israel’s monarchy was never reestablished. To this day, Jews hold on to hope that there is some kind of Messianic Age yet in their future. At every Seder celebration, a chair is set out for Elijah and the faithful watch and wait for his word that Messiah is coming soon.
For Christians, however, the promise of Messiah was fulfilled in Jesus the Christ. The New Testament theologians read Psalm 89 and saw God’s promises made real in the Crucified and Risen Christ. He is the “firstborn.” He is the “highest king of the earth.” His throne is established “as long as the heavens endure.”
Eschatological faith holds onto this confidence even today when the world around us crumbles in chaos. Even as we complain bitterly at the brokenness that breaks us, we – like our psalmist – keep standing on the foundation of faith in this God who rules the raging seas and whose faithfulness is forever.
The Psalms, Book III ends abruptly:
Blessed be the Lord forever.
Amen and Amen.
Sometimes there is nothing more to say.