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Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Psalm 89 is a royal psalm, i.e. concerned with the royal household of Jerusalem and Judah, the Davidic dynasty. It is about Yahweh’s promise of eternal faithfulness to that dynasty. In this sense it is appropriate alongside the readings from 1 Samuel 7 and Luke 1:26-38, both of which are concerned with the promise to David.

In the introductory section (vv. 1-4) the psalmist proclaims the eternal steadfast love and faithfulness of Yahweh. They then quote the promise made by Yahweh to the house of David that his covenant would be with that dynasty forever.

The remainder of the psalm breaks into 3 sections. Verses 5-18 speak of the sovereignty of Yahweh over creation. Verses 19-37 speak about Yahweh’s ruler in Jerusalem, referred to by the name David, but meaning every king in the line of David. They focus on the importance of Yahweh’s promise for those monarchs. Finally, in vv. 38-51 there is a lament speaking about how things have gone wrong. Verse 52 is the benediction which concludes the third book within the larger Book of Psalms.

This is one of the longest psalms in the Psalter and so is too long to deal with fully here. I will make a few remarks about how it works and how it fits into Advent.

First, we note what the Lectionary writers do with it. The Lectionary sets vv. 1-4 and 19-26 for Advent 4 (as an alternative to the Magnificat, Luke 1:47-55). The reading from the psalm includes the introduction and about half of the section on the Davidic king. It paints a picture of the absolute faithfulness of Yahweh and his unquestionable support for his anointed one. In vv. 19-26 nothing will assail this king who is supported by Yahweh. In this respect the psalm fits very well with the reading from 2 Samuel 7 which is also about Yahweh’s covenant with the Davidic household. It also proclaims a strong positive message about the messiah whose coming we await in Advent. The Lectionary writers do not do us a disservice in this regard. However, by design or by chance or by the work of the Holy Spirit (if we can indeed always distinguish those three) the psalm has a lot more to contribute to our understanding of Advent than the set reading indicates. I will return to this later.

Secondly, the two sections vv. 5-18 and 19-37 are set up so that there is a point by point parallel between the description of Yahweh’s kingship and the description of the promises to David as king.

• Yahweh's hand/arm is strong (v. 13) while it will be with David (v. 21).
• Yahweh defeats his mythic enemies (vv. 9-10) while he promises to defeat David's foes (vv. 22-23).
• Steadfast love and faithfulness go before Yahweh (v. 14) and they will be with David (v. 24).
• The mythic enemies of Sea/River are tamed (vv. 9-10) while David's hand will be set on sea/river (v. 25).
• Yahweh rules in heaven (vv. 5-8) and is above all around (v. 7) while David will rule on earth and will be the highest of kings (v. 27).
• Israel’s horn is exalted by Yahweh (v. 17) and David’s horn will be exalted by Yahweh (v. 24).
The very end of the section on David’s kingship recalls the statements of vv. 1-4 with references to the eternal nature of the steadfast love of Yahweh and of his covenant with David, with references to the ‘sun, moon’ which recall the ‘heavens’ in v. 2, and to David’s descendants.

In short, what is set up is a reciprocal relationship between Yahweh and the Davidic house. The promise of an eternal covenant with David is based on the very sovereignty of Yahweh over creation. In the theology behind this psalm the kingship of Yahweh is inextricably bound with Yahweh’s creation of the cosmos. Therefore, the eternal nature of the Davidic throne is founded on the eternal nature of creation and its creator. In turn, Yahweh’s chosen king exercises a rule which is an extension of Yahweh’s rule. The earthly king’s authority is founded in the heavenly king while the heavenly king’s rule is continued and fulfilled in the earthly king’s rule.

This reciprocal relationship was already hinted in vv. 1-4. There Yahweh’s promise is said to be forever just as the psalmist promised to sing of Yahweh’s steadfast love forever. Moreover, this reciprocal covenant arrangement with David is permanent, even if David’s descendants should sin (cf. 2 Sam 7:15-18). Both Yahweh and the Davidic king are committed to mutual loyalty come what may.

Thirdly, something is wrong in this psalm. It ends in vv. 38-45 with a description of Yahweh’s rejection and spurning of his people. We have little indication of context here. It sounds as though the nation could have been defeated in battle. Some scholars see this psalm pointing toward the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile given the shape of the collection of psalms. Whatever the context, contrary to Yahweh’s promise David’s throne is thrown to the ground (v. 44, cf. v. 29), his enemies rejoice (v. 42, cf. vv. 23-23), Yahweh has cut short the days of David (v. 45, cf. v. 29) and he has renounced the covenant (v. 39, cf. v. 34). The psalmist asks ‘how long’ Yahweh will be angry with his people and hide his face. The question ‘how long?’ cuts to the heart of the issue. The promises of mutual loyalty were supposed to be forever. There is a breakdown in order. Yahweh’s fidelity is under question, as indeed is his kingship.

The psalmist seems to have a case against Yahweh. It is little wonder that in vv. 46-48 a certain cynicism enters the psalmist’s language: ‘for what vanity (uselessness) you have created all mortals!’ This sounds like Ecclesiastes. And this is the point at which the psalm ends. The psalmist does not resolve the question of whether Yahweh will indeed fulfil his promise or not. Psalm 89 ends only with a plea for Yahweh to remember. There is, as in other psalms, a raw confrontation with reality in this prayer and a bold questioning of Yahweh’s faithfulness in light of that reality.

Finally, let me return to a point mentioned earlier. The Lectionary writers would have us celebrate with Psalm 89 in Advent the faithfulness of God and God’s unfailing support of the Messiah. However, the psalmist would actually have us deal with the notion of what one commentator calls ‘a rejected Messiah’ (J.L. Mays). Maybe we would be more faithful to the psalm by reading it in Lent or on Good Friday. Reading the psalm on that occasion might be appropriate but I would suggest that the whole psalm is just as appropriate for Advent. As I said, the Lectionary writers would have us proclaim the faithfulness of God and God’s unfailing support of the Messiah. That is to the good in Advent as we anticipate God’s presence with us in Jesus. But we also need to be reminded that the one who comes to us is never, at least in this life, unambiguously present to us.

The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel, in a short story called ‘The Wandering Jew’, speaks of God as more involved in ‘movement and not explanation’. Consequently it is what disturbs us that defines who we are rather than what reassures us. I would hope that the work of the Lectionary writers does not lead us into the enchantment of a domesticated reality, in which God comes to us in the form of a romanticised babe in arms, an incarnation of an unassailable Messiah. If God is about movement and not explanation, and if that is what we mean when we talk about faith in terms of a journey, then should not our Advent hope embrace the jagged edges of God’s coming to us, of absence in presence, and of unfulfilled promises? Should not our faith be a little disturbed in this season? It seems to me that is the direction the psalmist would take us in if we take their work seriously and in its fullness. Maybe then we might glimpse a little more clearly the true nature of Christ’s coming and his faithfulness.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 89 can form the basis of a call to worship for the congregation.

Verses 5-18 would also make a splendid prayer of adoration with minor adaptation for the congregation.

2 Old Testament Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

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