< June 26, 2011 >

Commentary on Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

 

Taken as a whole, Psalm 89 contrasts the might and faithfulness of God,

in particular as manifested in the covenant made with David, to the psalmist's present experience of utter national ruin and defeat. Verses 1-37 celebrate God's incomparable exalted status and ability to provide victory to Israel and God's keeping the promises made to David. In verses 38-52, however, the celebration turns into anguish and despair, as the psalmist laments a stunning defeat and pleads for God to remember the faithfulness and promises that characterized God's relationship with Israel in the past.

The lectionary selection focuses solely on the celebratory portion of the psalm. The first section, verses 1-4, praises God's steadfast love and faithfulness (verses 1-2) and then quotes God's very words in establishing the throne of David and his descendants (verses 3-4). The second section, verses 15-18, proclaims the blessed state of those who walk with God and as a result receive God's victory and protection.

The opening four verses of Psalm 89 contain a trove of theological catch-words from the Old Testament. Verses 1 and 2 are parallel in the proclamation of God's "steadfast love" in their first lines and "faithfulness" in their second. These two traits are central in defining God's character and relationship with Israel. The single Hebrew word translated by the NRSV's "steadfast love" is khesed. The Hebrew meaning is difficult to convey with any single English expression, and thus we see different English Bibles using a variety of translations in different contexts: steadfast love, lovingkindness, love, kindness, mercy, loyalty, favor, devotion, goodness, and still others.

The range of translations gives a sense of the broad meaning of the word--more than any other expression, khesed defines God's fundamental relationship with Israel. In both verses God's khesed is said to last "forever." This statement denotes the eternal character not only of God's existence but also of God's disposition towards God's people. This inalienable quality of the relationship between God and God's people provides the basis for the joyful utterances of verses 15-18, which we shall examine shortly.

The proclamation regarding God's faithfulness in verse 1 is similar to the proclamation regarding God's steadfast love--it is said to be "to all generations." In verse 2 there is a slight change of direction, with the emphasis turning to the sure quality, the firmness of God's faithfulness. The NRSV translates the Hebrew as saying that God's faithfulness is "as firm as the heavens." Many other translations have something like the NIV's "you have established your faithfulness in heaven." Either way the verse announces complete confidence in God's faithfulness. Whether God's faithfulness is said to be as firm as heaven or rather established in heaven, the point is that heaven itself would have to pass away in order for God's faithfulness to be diminished in any way.

Verses 3-4 profess what is for the psalmist the most important manifestation of God's steadfast love and faithfulness: the covenant made with David that one of his descendants would reign "forever" and "for all generations." Note how the exact language from verses 1-2 is reproduced--for the psalmist God's faithful and steadfastly loving character cannot be separated from the establishment of the Davidic covenant. The narrative account of God's establishment of this covenant is given in 2 Samuel 7:11-16, where the prophet Nathan is given God's words to deliver to David, the language of which is echoed here in the psalm. That the psalmist expresses the covenant with the actual words spoken by God puts heavy emphasis on the covenant's importance.

Whatever Ethan the Ezrahite (the psalm's author as stated in the superscription) and his original audience would have heard in these words, for Christians the eternal establishment of the Davidic covenant is accomplished with the coming of Christ. The angel Gabriel's annunciation to Mary expresses this very idea: "the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Luke 1:32b-33). Thus when we as Christians read this psalm in worship, we are proclaiming the faithfulness and steadfast love of God as expressed ultimately in Jesus Christ.

The second section of the psalm included in the lectionary, verses 15-18, is best read as a joyful enactment of the psalmist's promise from v. 1 to sing of God's steadfast love and faithfulness. Verse 15 proclaims that "happy" (a better translation would be "blessed") are the people who know the "festal shout" and who walk in God's light. The latter expression is a common biblical idiom, but few readers will grasp well the idea of a "festal shout." The Hebrew word, teru'ah, can be used to convey such things as trumpets blowing and war cries, but in the Psalms it usually denotes a shout of acclamation or joy towards God.

To "know the festal shout" is thus to express the joy that comes from experiencing God's steadfast love and faithfulness. It is significant that it is "the people" who is said to know this--a singular noun in Hebrew, ha'am. The "festal shout" is something that can only be known collectively, as the gathered people of God. However loud one might yell, one cannot produce a "festal shout" on one's own!

Verses 16-18 continue the expressions of the blessedness of the people who know the festal shout. As in verse 15, these verses are addressed directly to God. So when verse 16 says that the people "exult in your name all day long" and "extol your righteousness," the psalm itself is an instance of this exulting and extolling activity. In other words, the proclamation of this psalm is the very kind of activity that the people of God are to be about--and are to be about it "all the day long."

Verses 17-18 state the basis of such worshipful acts: God's character and relationship to the people. God's glory is the basis of the people's strength and God's favor the basis of their victory (verse 17; the "horn" is a symbol of strength, and the raised horn a symbol of victory). Likewise, protection, "our shield," also comes from God, as does "our king" (verse 18). This last line returns to the concept of the Davidic covenant from verses 3-4. For Christians, this will again be a proclamation of the faithfulness and steadfast love of God expressed in the kingship of Christ.