Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 2, 2023

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18 Commentary

Across its 52 verses, Psalm 89 covers a lot of ground.  You would not sense that from the mere 8 verses the Lectionary has carved out for this lection but if you range beyond those verses, you will see a lot going on.  There is praise and thanksgiving.  There is a nod to the more historical psalms with a kind of retrospective on God’s anointing of David.  There is divine 1st person speech.  And before it’s finished Psalm 89 belts out a heartfelt lament and calls for God to return to his promises and deliver his troubled and endangered people.

That’s a lot.  What we have in our 8 verses, however, is pretty much all praise.  God is praised for his power and might and for the wonderful covenant he made with Israel.  Indeed, the people who know this God are blessed to be able to join in the chorus of praise that is due to God, and by verse 18 we see an acknowledgment that God is the shield of protection for all Israel.

It is all lyric and lovely.  But what we miss by having only these verses selected for us from a much longer Hebrew poem is that all this good stuff in these verses is actually laying the foundation for the full-throated lament that is still to come later in the psalm.  In the end it will be precisely because of all the things that get named in verses 1-4 and 15-18 that the psalmist will utter his laments.  “Because X, Y, & Z are all true, O God, therefore you cannot turn your back on your people forever!  Return to us!  Remember all the mercy and goodness and the covenant we talked about and praised you for earlier in this song and change our situation please!”

When you think about it, that is a rather arresting truth about Psalm 89.  But it is an equally startling truth about our lives just generally.  The connections between and among praise and lament are interesting to say the least.  The ease by which we, like this psalmist, can move from praise to lament and perhaps back again display the complexity of life in this broken world.

It is precisely all the wonderful things we believe about God that make it so much harder to take it when the bottom drops out on our lives.  Though light years away from naming it in just these terms, there is a sense in which Psalm 89 sums up the classic problem in theodicy: if God is all-powerful (as Psalm 89 says he is), then he should be able to prevent—or at least instantly intervene to alleviate—pain and suffering.  If God is all good and has even made promises to be with us forever (as Psalm 89 says he is and has), then this God should desire to alleviate pain and suffering, especially among the people who claim faith in and love for this God.

So when there is unalleviated pain and suffering that goes on for a while, the premises come into question: Is God not all-powerful?  Is God not all-good and loving after all?  What explains his apparent inaction and inattention.  Or as Psalm 89:46 puts it, “How long, Lord!  Will you hide yourself forever?!”

There are a myriad of theological and biblical ramifications of all this.  Pastorally, however, and especially for those of us who preach, this can serve as a reminder that on any given Sunday as the congregation sings its praises or as we proclaim from the pulpit all of the wonderful (and of course utterly true) aspects of our Triune God, there will be some in our midst who will in their hearts move from all that upbeat praise and speech straight on into a lament.  Some will find those sentiments to be grating on their souls.  And if any people in a worship service have of late had cause to curdle into a deeper feeling of outright cynicism, such praises might even lead to a level of anger.

The presence of these hurting souls is no reason to never praise God or laud God’s grace and kindness in our sermons.  Of course not!  But if people like this never receive even a faint signal that the preacher or worship leaders see them, that is a problem.  If we never demonstrate an awareness of how easily praise can feed lament, then that is a failure of pastoral imagination.

Then again, acknowledging that also becomes the avenue through and by which to suggest that the good news is that lament can also one day feed back into praise.  Not easily, not automatically, not quickly a lot of the time.  There are no shortcuts, and trying to salve people’s hurting hearts with pithy clichés or trite sentiments that have more in common with Hallmark cards than the Bible won’t cut it either.  But to display that we know that this struggle, that this wrestling is out there is an act of pastoral kindness.

Psalm 89 opens with “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.”

Psalm 89 closes with, “Praise be to the Lord forever!  Amen and Amen.”

In between those 2 verses, however, there is a whole human tale to be told and experienced and grappled with.

Illustration Idea

In one of his sermons Thomas G. Long tells the story of a Christian pastor whose wife grew suddenly ill on the morning of the Saturday before Easter.  She got sicker as the day and afternoon wore on and by sundown she had died.  Somehow the pastor managed to get himself to the Easter morning service, though someone else took over the whole service of course.  But later he said “I could not sing the great songs of the resurrection that day.  The words stuck in my throat.  I could not believe in Easter.  Not that day.  Not that morning.”  Indeed, the traditional words of Christ’s having been raised from the dead seemed to mock this pastor in his acute disorientation and keen grief.

So on that day the congregation had to believe for him.  That’s the way it goes sometimes.  Those who for a season cannot worship get carried along by those who can worship.  Those for whom the words of praise do not stick in their throats and mock their hurting souls speak them on behalf of others who need time to get back to being able to sing and speak such things themselves.  It is perhaps one of the most important ways to incarnate the New Testament idea of laughing with those who laugh and weeping with those who weep.


Preaching Connections: , , , ,
Biblical Books:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup