I will sing of your steadfast love forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
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 as they languish in exile in Babylon.
I will proclaim your faithfulness…
He uses this one word ‘faithfulness’ eight times throughout the psalm. Our poet stakes his own reputation on the trustworthiness of the Covenant God.
God’s mighty acts within creation help him make his case.
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, the poet-theologian reminds the Creator. This is what You do!
Then he moves on to proclaim God’s mighty acts for Israel and to remind God of the covenant promises sworn to Israel’s kings.
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 and I have anointed him with my holy oil. 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 in the books of Samuel 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, King.
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…
It was a Big “If.” And history repeats itself, because:
- 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?
Now, though, you have spurned and rejected your anointed …
You have renounced the covenant with your servant: defiled his crown in the dust and laid his strongholds in ruins…
You have cut short the days of his youth and have covered him with shame.
Here, “your anointed” stands in for all of Israel.
The king served as representative for and from the Lord. But the king also stood as the summary of the people.
It is not just the king, the poet grieves; it is all of Israel that suffers.
And, in the psalmist’s mind, it is the Lord God who actively created this calamity.
I take issue with the theology of the psalmist at this point. My understanding is that sin has its own inherent consequence and God doesn’t have to intervene in human affairs to make bad things happen to us willful humans.
In a broader sense, I do agree with this psalmist theologian: everything that happens, occurs within the overall governance of the Creator.
But that doesn’t have to mean “God did this to us.” Whether or not God intervenes and punishes with specificity is an unanswerable question. There is no question, however, about their dire reality.
In Psalm 89, the poet remembers that:
- the Davidic dynasty came to an end,
- the Promised Land was ravaged,
- the holy city Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple lay in ruins…
Therefore (he reasons), God’s promises appear to be broken as the remnant of God’s people languished in exile in Babylon.
This psalmist seems to understand the events of Exile differently than some other Hebrew theologians who understood the inevitable results of Israel’s unfaithfulness:
Whatever the origin of the catastrophe, our psalmist still begs for relief.
How long, O Lord?
Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Lord, where is your steadfast love of old which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
Many of the psalms have a turning point; a typical pattern is for the poets to start off with their complaint and then finish the song with a hopeful “nevertheless.”
This is our dire situation: Nevertheless – we will trust that the Lord will intervene on our behalf.
But Psalm 89 surprises in that it begins with a deep foundation of praise and then – built upon this powerful statement of faith – it finishes with 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.
Whatever the covenant promises meant when the people assured themselves that David’s throne would last forever, the fact is, Israel’s monarchy was never reestablished.
To this day, Jews hold on to hope that there is some sort 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 and embodied in the Crucified and Risen Christ.
- Christ is the “firstborn.”
- Christ is the “highest king of the earth.”
- Christ’s throne is now 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, with doxology:
Blessed be the Lord forever.
Amen and Amen.
Sometimes there is nothing more to say.