Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)

This marathon of a psalm is found in the last psalm in Book III of the Psalter.

December 21, 2008

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Commentary on Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

This marathon of a psalm is found in the last psalm in Book III of the Psalter.

The Psalter is divided into five books, with key psalms placed at the “seams” between the books. Often, these key psalms are either wisdom psalms that focus on teaching the ways of God and following God, or royal psalms that describe God’s gracious work on behalf of and through the person of ancient Judean kings. This psalm is a royal psalm. The psalm starts with a brief introduction (vv. 1-4), which is followed by three distinct and lengthy sections (vv. 5-18; 19-37; 38-51).

Although only the introduction and a selection from part two of the psalm are assigned in the lectionary, it is worth taking a whirlwind tour of the entire psalm in order to get a sense for its testimony. The psalm launches into praise at the beginning, but then sinks into deep pain at the end.

In the introduction (vv.1-4), the opening verses sound the two theological keynotes of the poem: God’s steadfast love (see vv. 1-2) as shown in the covenant relationship that God initiated with David (see vv. 3-4). These themes unwind throughout the rest of the psalm. The first two-thirds of the psalm offers praise to God for the covenant that God formed with David and David’s descendants. The last third of the psalm cries out to God because the covenant with David seems to have been endangered. Perhaps the psalm is to be dated at the time of the Babylonian exile when Jerusalem was overthrown and its kings ceased to reign. The key words are steadfast love (Hebrew hesed) and covenant (Hebrew berit). Together, these two words form one of the most powerful theological tag-teams in the Psalter, because both words have to do with God’s character. The first word goes to God’s internal character and testifies that at heart, God is a faithful God–this is God’s nature. The second word goes to the external actions of God and testifies that God is faithful to the promises God makes. Here, the promises to David are explored.

The covenant with David is laid out in the beginning verses of 2 Samuel 7. David has finished building his own “house” (Hebrew bet, meaning here a palace), so he resolved to build a “house” (temple) for the Lord. But the Lord responded, “No, you are not going to build me a house, I will build you a house (meaning a royal dynasty).” God further promised that one of David’s descendants would forever rule over God’s people. These promises formed a key part of the theology of the nation of Judah, and thus for the religious people who were descended from the Kingdom of Judah: the Jews.

Section two of Psalm 89, from which the second part of the lectionary selection are taken, explores and celebrates God’s election of the Davidic monarchy. The section praises God’s promises to David, specifically the Lord’s assurance that the covenant was permanent–“my hand shall always remain with him, my arm also shall strengthen him” (v. 21). In verses that are not included in the lectionary selection, the Lord said that wayward Davidic kings would be disciplined when they disobeyed God or acted evilly –“If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinance…I will punish their transgressions” (vv. 30, 32). However, in order that this punishment would not be final, that the relationship would remain intact, and that God would be faithful to the covenant: “I will not remove him from my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness” (v. 33). As noted above, the psalm ends with a painful cry to God, “You have renounced the covenant…where is your steadfast love of old” (vv. 39, 49). This cry of pain was likely the result of the fall of the city of Jerusalem in 587 and the exile of the people.

Two aspects of the psalm’s testimony are worth stressing. First, the psalm is a cry for help from a person or a people who believe that God is faithful, but who are in a position of pain from which it feels like God hasn’t kept promises. Worse, they are in a position from which they cannot imagine how God could keep the promises. But God did. God brought the people back to the land, redeeming them, healing them, planting them again in the soil of their promised land to grow and flourish. It is often the case in the life of faith that we cannot see over the horizon to a place or time where life will be better. But the promise is that the low moments are not the only ones; that God is faithful and remains in relationship with us.

A second aspect of the testimony of this psalm that is worth noting is the messianic nature of its witness. Why did Israel retain the royal psalms in the Psalter (which was not completed until years after the exile), in spite of the fact that after 587 Davidic kings never again ruled over Judah? Because these psalms were interpreted as containing the promise that one day God would send the ideal Davidic king to rule–a king who later came to be referred to as The Messiah. At Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Even more, we celebrate the belief that God kept the promise: the promise that Jesus is the ideal son of David, who will rule the people forever. We celebrate our conviction that in Jesus, God’s “steadfast love is established forever.”