Notes and Observations
Most scholars recognize that Psalm 89 is a psalm of lament. Yet the poet devotes most of it to praising God for God’s faithfulness and celebrating God’s covenant with David and his descendants. Even the segment toward which the lectionary directs our attention this week seems reluctant to highlight the lament aspect of the psalm, focusing, as it does, on God’s covenant with the Davidic line.
Psalm 89’s first verses introduce the beating heart of its theology. Verses 1 and 2 speak of God’s “faithfulness.” In fact they repeat references to “love” and “faithfulness.” Verses 3 and 4 then point out how God demonstrated God’s faithfulness in part by making David king and then promising to always keep one of his descendants on Israel’s throne. The poet then expands on these two themes throughout the rest of the psalm.
Some scholars suggest the poet pens these words during Israel’s Babylonian exile when Jerusalem has been trashed and its kings no longer reign. Verses 1-4’s two key words, “faithfulness” (hesed) and “covenant” (berit) assert that God remains true to who God is, even in the face of Israel’s misery.
Rolf Jacobson says “faithfulness” and “covenant” form one of the most powerful “tag-themes” in the psalms. Those words, after all, describe God’s character. The first word, says Jacobson, goes to God’s internal character. It insists God is fundamentally a faithful God, even in the face of human unfaithfulness. The second word, “covenant” describes God’s actions and professes God keeps all the promises God makes. Psalm 89 explores God’s promises to David and, through him, to God’s Israelite people.
This gives those who preach and teach Psalm 89 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on the part the recognition of God’s faithfulness plays in lament. Lament and celebration of God’s faithfulness may seem like nearly polar opposite actions. Yet isn’t it true that if worshipers don’t believe that God is faithful, they have no real reason to lament God’s apparent faithlessness? Who laments predictable behavior? It’s the shock of God’s seeming display of unfaithfulness that fuels Psalm 89’s and other laments.
Psalm 89’s poet believes God is faithful, but seems to wonder why God hasn’t kept at least some of God’s promises. In fact, she seems to even wonder how God could ever keep those promises. Yet those who read Psalm 89 after the fact know that God has, in fact, kept those promises. God did bring the Israelite people back to their land, saved them, healed them and again planted them in the land of promise.
Verses 19-37, which include this week’s lectionary selection, focus on God’s covenant with David. They echo especially 2 Samuel 7’s account of God’s response to David’s offer to build a house for the Lord in which to dwell. Psalm 89 recounts God (and God alone’s) selection of David to serve as Israel’s second king. In it the poet remembers how God promised to support and strengthen Jesse’s son by destroying his enemies. The poet especially praises God’s promises to David, especially God’s promise that God’s covenant with David was permanent.
As James Mays notes, David’s kingship reflects Yahweh’s kingship. After all, God the divine Warrior, as verses 19-20 point out, chose a warrior-king. God’s right hand and arm, according to verses 13 and 21, equip David’s hand and arm. As the poet notes in verses 10 and 22-23, just as God defeated God’s enemy that is chaos, God also promised to defeat David’s enemies. God, in other words, ruled over creation in part through David’s faithful rule. Psalm 89 also recalls the intimate relationship between David and the Lord, remembering its father-firstborn son closeness.
So how might those who preach and teach Psalm 89 help hearers to think about this psalm? After all, Israel as the poet knew it no longer exists. The modern nation of Israel doesn’t even try to claim to have one of David’s descendants as its leader.
To begin to answer such questions, we need to ask ourselves why Israel retained psalms like 89 when David’s descendants no longer ruled over Israel after 587 BC. It’s at least in part because Israel continued to believe God would send one of David’s descendants to rule, to serve as the Messiah.
Those who read Psalm 89 in the light of the New Testament know that God, in fact, didn’t actually break God’s promise to keep one of David’s descendants on Israel’s throne. After all, Jesus Christ was one of David’s descendants. Though parts of Israel rejected him as king, God raised him to the heavenly realm from which he now rules over not just Israel, but the whole world. In Jesus Christ, Christians profess, God’s “love stands firm forever.”
On November 1, 1945 Marjorie Cooper became ill with polio. Paralyzed from the neck down at just 26 years of age, she lived the rest of her life, nearly 40 years, in an iron lung. During those four decades, her husband John remained faithfully at his wife’s side. He was her full-time nurse and caretaker – feeding and bathing her, brushing her teeth, rubbing her back to prevent bedsores.
“And my Dad did it all so uncomplainingly,” says their son Dale, who was three when his mom got sick. ” He gave not even a hint that he thought life had cheated him, or given him a raw deal. On the contrary, he was life-affirming and so full of joy. Without ever saying so, he considered caring for my Mom a sacred vocation, something God had called him to do.”
When Marjorie died on August 29, 1985, Cooper remembers that his dad tried his best to alleviate her breathing distress, but nothing helped. “Mom took her last shallow breath,” he says, “and then died. I shut the lung off – the first time in 40 years. For a brief few moments, the room was deathly quiet. Then my Dad punctuated the silence. With eloquent simplicity he spoke words I shall never forget: ‘Margie was a wonderful wife.'” (Adapted from “Calvin News,” July 30, 2003)
In his loving care for his ailing wife, John Cooper faithfully acted a bit like the Lord.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 Commentary