Before I dive into this difficult Psalm, I must get two preliminary comments out of the way, the first merely personal, the second deeply textual. On a personal level, I must point you to a previous Sermon Commentary on this very text written just 7 months ago (see the Archive on this Center for Excellence in Preaching website for December 18, 2017). My comments here will be abbreviated because I said so much about this text in that posting.
On the textual level, I must point out that the Lectionary reading today is a classic example of taking a text out of context and thus missing the actual message of the text. Psalm 89:20-37 seem to be a glowing description of God’s covenantal blessings on King David, but they are really a part of the shocking experience of God not keeping those covenantal promises. The real point of Psalm 89 is expressed in the words of verse 38 and 39, “But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have renounced the covenant with your servant.” Scholars call this a royal Psalm because it is about David, but it is more deeply an agonized lament because it is about the horror of what has happened to David’s line. Thus, to preach the Lectionary reading all by itself would be homiletical malpractice. We must focus on the verses right after our lection.
Having gotten that off my chest, I must confess that preaching Psalm 89 properly is still a tough task. Indeed, after carefully studying it, I come up with two very different ways to preach it. First, it is a perfect example of those moments in life when it seems for all the world that God has let us down, has broken his promises, and has left us all alone in the darkness of despair. Its value, then, is to assure us that we aren’t the only ones who feel that way, that God does not reject us when we feel such despair, that, in fact, such feelings of God forsakenness are essential to an honest faith.
But second, this Psalm is a perfect example of those moments in life when our justifiable feelings and the incontrovertible evidence of our experience lead us to a complete misreading of what has happened to us. It may feel as though God has rejected us, spurned us, broken his promises and renounced his covenant, because our lives have become a complete hell. But, in fact, God’s love and faithfulness are still at work in our lives, so that his promises are sure and his covenant unbreakable.
Let’s focus on that first reading of the Psalm for a moment. For 36 verses, all is sunshine and roses. After a lovely introit (verses 1-4) focused on those twin divine attributes so crucial to covenant (love and faithfulness), the Psalmist sings the praises of God the creator, who defeated the forces of chaos and rules over his creation with righteousness and justice (verses 5-18). God is in heaven and all is well on his earth.
Then in verses 19-37, we move into the area of redemption, as the Psalmist sings the praises of God for the blessings he has given to David and by extension to all Israel. In a series of lovely couplets, God’s role in David’s kingship is highlighted. Verses 20-21 anchor his entire reign in God’s electing and sustaining love. Verses 22-23 promise that God will crush all David’s enemies. Verses 24-25 promise that God will extend David’s kingdom. David will be first among all the kings of the earth because of God, say verses 26-27. Finally, in verses 28-29 God pledges that David’s dynasty will last forever. It is true that verses 30-32 issue a strong cautionary warning that God will chasten disobedience severely. But the reading for today ends with a powerful reassurance. God’s love and faithfulness absolutely guarantee that those covenant promises to David will never be broken. His line will last forever. God is unalterably the covenant partner of his people, so all is well with Israel.
But, no sooner are those words written on the page than they are apparently erased. In a stunning reversal of the Bible’s typical use of that adversative conjunction (”but”), Psalm 89 says, “But you have rejected, spurned, renounced….” In an almost word for word reversal, all the promises of verses 20-29 are cancelled in verses 40-45: the impregnable walls have been broken, the enemy has conquered, and the splendor of the King has been ended. He is covered with a mantel of shame and his crown lies in the dust. The unthinkable has happened and all that is left to the humiliated King and his people is prayer, not the grateful soaring praises of verses 1-37, but the agonized, even angry lament of verses 46-51. “How long…. Will you hide yourself forever?” “O Lord, where is your… love and faithfulness?” The blessed “anointed one” of verse 20 has become the taunted “anointed one” of verse 51.
This is the quintessential example of what Walter Brueggemann calls the Psalms of Disorientation. After a lifetime, yes, even centuries of God’s love and faithfulness, everything we thought we could count on from God is ripped away from us. It turns out that the good life we had enjoyed, the blessings we had experienced, the fellowship with God we had counted on—all of that was simply the calm before the storm, the best of times before the worst of times, the good news before the inevitable bad news that “God has rejected and spurned us.”
What shall we do when it doesn’t all turn out happily ever after? Well, we can sit confused and dejected in dust and ashes. Robert Davidson puts it well. “The celebration of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (in verses 1-37) simply underlines the bleakness of the present. In the darkness of tragedy, does remembered faith provide a basis for hope, or does it merely lead to despair? That is a very personal question to which people today give different answers.”
He is right, but Psalm 89 shows us another way to respond to such unthinkable tragedy. We can cry out to the God who seems to have deserted us. In our despair, we can still express our faith. “How long, O Yahweh? O Yahweh, where is your love and faithfulness?” The presence of Psalms like this one in the sacred songbook of God’s people speaks volumes. This experience of God-forsakenness is not unique to me. My feelings of disappointment and sorrow and even anger are acceptable, even expected. Psalm 89 “provides a way for our relationship with God to go on when the worst has happened and we feel that God has left us alone with broken promises. It is Good News that we are not flawed for wanting to be (and really being) angry with God. It is Good News that God wants an honest relationship with us.” (Beth LaNeel Tanner)
That is one way to preach this Psalm. It is a refreshing corrective to the kind of stiff-upper-lip, just-buck-up, it-must-be-God’s-will preaching I often heard in my youth. It allows us to be human in our faith, while not rejecting faith when it seems that God has rejected us. And that’s good. No more fake smiles, no more plastic saints. Let’s be real with God.
While not rejecting that approach to Psalm 89 and to the experience it so painfully describes, there is another way to preach it. That is to preach it exactly as it stands– not just the lament of verses 38-51, but also the promises of verses 30-32. There God promises that, if David’s line is disobedient, God will chasten severely. And God kept that promise, severely.
In other words, there are two parts to our Lectionary reading. In verses 20-29 and 33-37 God says that his love is unconditional, that his election of David and line is eternal, and that he will never break his covenant. But in verses 30-32, God says that he will chasten severely those he loves unconditionally. David’s line may be elect, but it is not exempt from his severity. Turning away from God’s covenant has terrible consequences. But that chastening, that severity, those consequences are not the end of covenant, or the severing of love, or the breaking of promises.
In other words, the Psalmist is simply wrong in what he says in verses 38-39a. God has not rejected, or spurned, or renounced, or broken. God has done exactly what God said he would do, precisely as an act covenant faithfulness. The Psalmist has drawn the wrong conclusion from his experience. The thoughts behind his feelings, though entirely justifiable, are not true to fact. Even though we have incontrovertible evidence that God has rejected (verses 39b-45 describe exactly what had happened to Israel’s king), we may be totally wrong in our conclusion. And even though our feelings are valid and shouldn’t be repressed, we might be responding with legitimate emotions to a wrong understanding of what has in fact happened.
Yes, Israel went through terrible times and they should have felt terrible about all of that. But God had not rejected or spurned or renounced or broken. His promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty came to fulfillment at the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:32 and 33, et al). In Christ, God’s love and faithfulness came to full expression. In Christ, all the promises of God are yes. In Christ, we are never separated from the love of God. So, when we think that God has rejected us, that God has broken his promises to us, that God doesn’t love us, we are simply wrong. Christ, the Son of David, the eternal King, is the proof.
Now we need to be careful how we preach this second perspective on Psalm 89. We must be gentle with people who feel the anguish expressed in the lament of this Psalm. We must not silence lament and questions. Psalm 89 gives us permission to speak thus, perhaps even encourages us. But to leave people with the mistaken impression that God has actually done what they think and feel and believe he has done is to leave the Gospel unspoken in the midst of the most terrible human pain. That is not only a disservice to the Gospel, but also a failure of pastoral compassion for the Lord’s people when they need it the most. Feel their pain, but preach the Gospel; “I will not take my love from them, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness (verse 33).”
I recently heard a Lutheran pastor in Arizona tell the true story about a friend who is a hospital chaplain. This chaplain called on a woman who was dying of lung cancer. She did not receive him well. She was an embittered Catholic who said, “I hate the church. Get the hell out of here.” As he slunk out of her room, the charge nurse caught his sleeve. “She gets two cigarettes a day at 3 PM. Come back then and take her to the smoking area.”
That’s exactly what the chaplain did. But nothing happened. She sat and smoked in smoldering silence. But he kept coming back. After a number of days, she began to tell her story, a story of a hard life filled with abuse and deprivation, and now this sentence of death. One day, after one more expression of bitterness and despair, she asked the chaplain to get her a crucifix. And even though he wasn’t Catholic, he did.
When she received that crucifix, she clasped it to her chest and held it there, day after day. Then, just two days before she lapsed into a coma and died, she said, “Do you want to know why I wanted this crucifix? It reminds me that he knows. There is nothing I’ve been through that he hasn’t been through. He knows. He’s been there.”
He’s been there, even there in the darkness of the cross, when he cried out with the writer and readers of Psalm 89, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Because he has been there, we never will be, even when we are convinced that we are.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 22, 2018
Psalm 89:20-37 Commentary