Psalm 89 is one of the darkest of all the Psalms, the better looking twin of the exceedingly dark Psalm 88, which ends with “the darkness is my closest friend.” Psalm 89 rallies from that kind of despair with bright opening words. In our reading for this Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, it’s a new author, a new day, a renewed sense of hope. Unfortunately, our assigned reading is happy only because the RCL has done an unfortunate bit of surgery on Psalm 89, cutting out the dark pieces. If we read only the assigned words, we will never be able to preach a textually accurate and pastorally helpful sermon on Psalm 89.
Our reading is the whistling part of whistling in the dark. It completely ignores the dark, which is precisely the point of the Psalm. The sunny tone of verses 1-4 and 15-18 stands in sharp contrast to the gloomy ending of this Psalm. That dark ending is announced in verse 38 with that awful three letter word “but.” (Often in Scripture that word signals a turn to the Gospel, the Good News of what God has done to redeem his people. “But God” is the shortest summary of the Gospel.) Here in Psalm 89, however, that word signals a turn to the Bad News, the shocking news of the unthinkable thing God has done: “you have renounced the covenant with your servant (verse 39).” In the end that dark news will serve as a dramatic backdrop for the brilliant Good News of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. But first we must grapple with this dark Psalm.
The first 37 verses of this Psalm are occupied with the love and faithfulness of Yahweh. “I will sing of the Lord’s great love (chesed) forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness (amunah) through all generations.” Seven times (the Hebrew number of perfection) that combination of chesed and amunah (or close derivatives) pop up in Psalm 89. Those two words are central in the covenant history of Israel. Because of Yahweh’s love and faithfulness Israel could always count on the blessings of his covenant. “I will declare that your love stand firm forever, that you established your faithfulness in heaven itself (verse 2).”
Verses 5-14 are an extended paean of praise to Yahweh for the way those two attributes are revealed in his mighty works of creation and redemption. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you (verse 14).” Then follows the second part of our reading (verses 15-18) which celebrates the blessings of those who serve this covenant Lord.
But Psalm 89 isn’t only, or mainly, about the general covenant blessings enjoyed by Israel in general. As verse 3 and 4 show, it is mostly about the blessing of Yahweh on King David and his line. “You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, “I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.” ’”
This promise of the permanence of the Davidic line was one of the central hopes of Israel through all the turmoil of their monarchy. No matter what happened, Israel could count on a son of David on the throne of God’s Kingdom. The chesed and amunah of Yahweh guaranteed that succession forever. That meant that Israel could never be permanently defeated. The great Davidic kingship assured them prosperity and victory.
Verses 19-37 expand on that covenant promise, assuring Israel that even if David’s sons sin and are severely chastened (verses 30-32), that promise will hold. Yahweh promises, “I will not take my chesed from him, nor will I ever betray my amunah. I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered. Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness—and I will not lie to David—that his line will continue forever….” That is the third time in Psalm 89 that God promises, even swears by his own holiness, that David’s line will never be dethroned. Nothing could be more certain; David’s family will always rule. That promise is rooted in God’s own character which guarantees his covenant.
No wonder the Psalmist calls God’s covenant people “blessed” in verse 15, the second part of our reading for today. So Israel rejoices in the name of Yahweh all day long. He is their glory and strength. His favor rests upon them. They can count on the blessing of God because of God’s blessing on David and his line. “Our king [belongs] to the Holy One of Israel.” God has chosen him. God has adopted him. And God has promised us that this relationship will never end, “so help me God.”
BUT! “But you (!) have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. You have renounced the covenant with your servant and have defiled his crown in the dust (verses 39 and 39).” The chosen one has become the rejected one. That reversal is the plot of the Psalm and the problem with which it wrestles. The rock solid covenant has been broken, and not just by Israel, but by Israel’s covenant Lord. As James Luther Mays says, “The Psalm describes that disaster as the work of God himself. It does not question his power, but his promise.”
The Psalmist wrestles with God in verses 46-51, asking those two agonizing questions, “how long” and “where.” The first deals with time. We’re dying here, Lord. We can’t hold on much longer. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?” The second question deals with space. We’re surrounded by mockery. The nations taunt us about the whereabouts of our God. So, “O Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David.” The Psalmist ends with one passionate cry: “Remember. Remember us. Remember your servant. Remember your promises.” (The praise in verse 52 is probably the conclusion of Book III of the Psalter, not this particular Psalm.)
We don’t know exactly when Psalm 89 was written and what experience of God forsakenness it describes. It surely captures the despair of God’s people just before and during the Exile, but there were a number of other times when Israel might have felt this hopeless. As we move through the Ordinary Time of our lives, there are certainly times when it feels as though God has rejected us and renounced his covenant. But the very presence of this Psalm in the Psalter is an assurance that God has not rejected or renounced. It is part of the song book of the faithful. It gives voice to our despair. And its questions do have an answer, a firm answer, a flesh and blood answer.
The answer came when an angel appeared to a virgin who belonged to the line of David. “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him (wait for it, here it comes, the answer to our agonized questions!) the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:31-33)
God has not broken covenant. It only seemed that way in that place and time. He kept covenant in a better, more permanent, more universal way than Israel ever could have imagined. As Mary sang in her Magnificat, the Lord “has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful (Luke 1:54)…..”
Here’s the word to preach today. Rooting your sermon deeply in the place and time of Israel, you can assure your listeners that God does not forget, that God does not break his promises, that God does not stop loving, even when sinners break his covenant. Yes, it will seem that way in our darkest hour. And it is perfectly appropriate, even biblical, to cry out to God in the darkness, “How long?” and “Where?” But we don’t have to linger on that other question, “Why?” The One who hung under the sign that said, “This is the King of the Jews,” has taken that question on his own lips. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was once forsaken by God so that we never will be.
If you preach Christ from this dark Psalm, you will help your people to whistle, even sing, in the dark. But you can’t preach Christ convincingly, unless you walk away from the Psalm’s sunny beginning and dwell for a while in its concluding darkness. After all, it was in the darkness that the Son of David defeated the taunting powers of darkness. But no one knew that until he rose from the grave and proclaimed, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…. And surely I am with you to the end of the age.”
“Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord (verse 15).”
A little boy, tears streaming down his face, reacts to his parents’ announcement that they can’t go on that long planned family vacation to Disney World. “But you promised. You promised.” A shattered spouse, confronted with news of her husband’s unfaithfulness, screams, “But you promised. You promised.” The retired miners have gathered at their union hall to hear from the head of the company they had served for 30 or more back breaking years. “I’m sorry, but the company is going through hard times. We’re going to cancel your pensions.” And they shout, “But you promised. You promised.” Those words capture the disappointment, despair, and darkness of Psalm 89.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 2, 2017
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18 Commentary