Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 19, 2015
Psalm 89:20-37 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Most scholars suggest 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 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 praise God for God’s faithfulness. In fact they repeat references to God’s “love” and “faithfulness.” In them the poet notes that 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.
This gives those who preach and teach Psalm 89 an opportunity to reflect on the part 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? It’s the shock of God’s seeming display of unfaithfulness that fuels Psalm 89’s and other laments.
Verses 5-19 focus on God’s creative triumph over the primordial chaos that ancient near eastern religions assumed preceded creation. The poet celebrates how God in God’s faithfulness rules over the surging sea, crushed Rahab the chaos dragon and subdued God’s enemy that is chaos. God, in fact, adds the psalmist, “founded the world and everything it.” Not even chaos, in other words, could thwart God and God’s good purposes.
As has been noted in earlier postings, that’s a great comfort to those who must deal with various kinds of chaos today. Psalm 89 reminds worshipers that no chaos, whether personal or relational, creational or international, can defeat God and God’s good plans for God’s creation.
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.
Yet the poet also goes on to remember God’s promise to establish David’s line “forever … his throne as long as the heavens endure” (29). This reflects God’s unconditional promise to keep one of David’s descendants always on Israel’s throne. The poet’s recollection of that promise even recognizes the moral weakness of David’s descendants. She remembers God promising that even when David’s descendants sin, God will punish but still keep one of them on Israel’s throne. So even in the face of royal faithlessness, God promised never to take God’s love away or be faithless. While David’s descendants might violate their covenant with God, God vowed never to break God’s covenant with David and his descendants. God’s covenantal promises are, in other words, as reliable as God’s control over the creation.
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 King David’s hand and arm. As the poet notes in verses 10 and 22-23, as God defeated God’s enemy that is chaos, God promised to defeat David’s enemies. God, in other words, ruled over creation in part through King David’s faithful rule.
Psalm 89 also recalls the intimate relationship between David and the Lord, remembering its father-firstborn closeness. Perhaps that’s why verses 38-52’s lament is so deep and anguished. God has always shown himself to be passionately faithful to God’s own character, promises and children. So the poet expected God to keep God’s promise to always keep one of David’s descendants on Israel’s throne. Now, however, he feels that God has broken and abandoned God’s promise to David that was also God’s promise to Israel. The poet mourns that God has, in fact, gone beyond punishing David’s descendants to removing them from Israel’s throne. The very line of David seems to the psalmist to be in very great danger.
Yet the poet ends Psalm 89 with a stubborn assertion of praise. In the face of God’s apparent unfaithfulness, the poet insists “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen.” In other words, in the face of God’s apparent faithlessness, the psalmist vows to faithfully praise God as long as she lives.
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.
Beth LaNeel Tanner notes that Psalm 89 is both a cry to and against God. That makes its sentiment very rare in the modern church. After all, when’s the last time anyone in church accused God of letting God’s wrath “burn like fire”? Have you recently heard one of God’s children accuse God by asking, “Where is your former great love?” Few churches of which I know will find an easy place to liturgically employ the lament element of Psalm 89.
In Finally Comes the Poet, Walter Brueggemann claims the purpose of preaching is to preach poetry in a world that prefers prose. He challenges preachers and teachers to proclaim “shattering, evocative speech that breaks fixed conclusions and presses us always toward new, dangerous and imaginative possibilities.”
As Tanner points out, the words Israel and the psalmist throw at God near the end of Psalm 89 do precisely that. The word “Israel” means to “wrestle with God.” On behalf of Israel, the poet does precisely that in this psalm. She fights, kicks and screams at God when God lets the world she knows basically collapse. Yet Psalm 89 reflects a faith that’s robust enough to demand that God hear God’s sons and daughters’ pain and cries and accuse God of breaking God’s most basic promises. It shatters both the pleasant world of 2 Samuel and our own lives much the way the angel’s message shattered Jesus’ mother Mary’s. It also defies our own typical way of doing church that claims that expressions of pain and disappointment have no place either in the church or in the Christian life.
Psalm 89, writes Tanner, provides a vehicle for our relationship with God to move forward even when God disappoints us and we feel like God has left us with only God’s broken promises. It provides the good news that it’s not necessarily wrong to express anger with God and that God longs for an honest relationship with God’s children. The poet offers worshipers an opportunity to see God in a new light. Life doesn’t always turn out as we’d wished or planned. Fear sometimes does darken our lives. Yet even in the dark, God’s adopted sons and daughters can continue to have a praying relationship with our faithful God.
Of course, 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 violently 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 the Psalter Hymnal used by the Christian Reformed Church – but in a few other hymnals as well – you can find the hymn, “A Congregational Lament,” that has a bold lament that echoes Psalm 89’s. Its third verse asks, “Why, Lord, must she be left to waste away? Do you not see how painfully she suffers? Could you not change the curse of this disaster?” Its fourth verse grieves, “Why, Lord, must broken vows cut like a knife? How can one wedded body break in pieces? We have all failed at being pure and faithful; only by grace we keep our solemn vows.”
Yet each of these and all of the verses of “A Congregational Lament” end with: “We plead: Repair the brokenness we share. Chastise no more lest it destroy your creatures. Hear this lament as intercessory prayer, and speak your powerful word to make us hopeful.”
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