Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)

This wonderful and important psalm emphasizes another aspect of God’s promises that we consider in this season of Advent — the promise to be with King David and his line forever.

Greetings, favored one!
"Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." - Luke 1:28 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

December 24, 2017

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

This wonderful and important psalm emphasizes another aspect of God’s promises that we consider in this season of Advent — the promise to be with King David and his line forever.

That being said, Psalm 89 is a complicated psalm, filled with twists and turns, and very difficult to fit into a single form.

For the purposes of Advent, the most important thing to be said about Psalm 89 is that it is a royal psalm, a designation that it shares with such significant psalms as 2, 18, 45, 72, and 110 among others. Royal psalms place particular emphasis on:

  • God’s covenant with David
  • the crowning of David and his sons
  • the high expectations of kingship
  • the special relationship between God and the Davidic kings who are considered God’s sons, and
  • God’s unbreakable promise.

For the most part, these psalms were written about real kings, often at special times like enthronement or weddings, or in perilous times when the king was in danger. By the time of the completed psalter, these psalms were no longer about living kings. Instead the royal psalms had become about the promise of a messianic king who was to come, the leader of God’s future kingdom. For this reason, the royal psalms are very often important for the writers of the New Testament… they point to Jesus. And they are particularly important in the time of Advent. We see this very explicitly in this Sunday’s pairing of Psalm 89 with the annunciation story in Luke where Mary is told by the angel Gabriel her son “will be called the Son of the Most High, and 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 1:32-33).

Often royal psalms are strategically placed in the psalter, and Psalm 89 is no exception. It comes at the end of the fourth book, inviting us to look forward to God’s reign.

Psalm 89 begins by praising the firmness of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness as explicitly made manifest in God’s covenant with David. This covenant is “forever” and “for all generations.” Notably the first person “I”, which initially designates the singer of the psalm, quickly becomes the divine “I” with God becoming the dominant speaker and the actor of the psalm. Notice the many first-person activities of God:

  • I will establish and build (verse 4),
  • I have set and exalted (verse 19),
  • I have found and anointed (verse 20),
  • I shall remain and strengthen (verse 21),
  • I will crush and strike down (verse 23), and
  • I will set (verse 25).

These verbs speak volumes about the nature and extent of God’s promise to David.

Several aspects of these activities are particularly worth noting. Note that God supports David not only with the ever-present divine faithfulness and steadfast love (verses 2 and 24) but also with the divine hand and arm (verse 21). The mention of God’s arm invariably leads us to think of God as warrior. Which is to say, God’s might is required as well as God’s commitment.

Might is needed because of the presence of the enemy. In verses 22-23, God commits to crushing and striking down the foes of the Davidic king. That this battle has cosmic dimensions is made clear in the connections between verse 25 and verses 9-13 which are not part of this day’s lesson. Verses 9-13 speak of God creating the heavens and earth by defeating and ruling over the chaotic seas, ruling the waves and crushing the sea monster, Rahab, who is the personification of the sea. This is done with God’s mighty arm and strong hand. The promise of verse 25 is that the Davidic king’s hand and arm set on the very same sea will partake of this same cosmic power, but now the enemy is the very real enemy at the gates.

This promise to defeat the enemy stands at the very heart of Psalm 89. We know this because of the second part of the psalm which is not read on this fourth Sunday of Advent. Verses 38-52, the final verses of Psalm 89, show the psalm to be a lament. But now, says the psalmist in verse 38 “you have spurned and rejected” your Davidic king; “you are full of wrath against your anointed… your messiah!” Suddenly we know that all is not right with the world. The enemies have won. The king is not in power; he has lost battle, scepter, and throne (verses 42-44). Which is to say that all of the praise of God concerning his choice and commitment to the Davidic king is now taken up as lament, as plea, as a cry for help. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?… Where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (verses 46, 48)

You promised , O Lord? So how can this possibly be?

I wonder if we might allow this psalm in all its fullness to help us to keep Advent and Christmas from being detached from the real world? Can we let this psalm help us to quiet our “theology of glory” with a glimpse of the “theology of the cross?” What would happen if we let this psalm help us to struggle with how we hear God’s promises in a world which is not as it should be? The promises would still stand. They remain the proclamation of this psalm. But they never stand outside of the reality of a fallen world.

If we read this psalm to its end and let the cries and questions stand, then we hear the final verse of our advent reading quite differently. We hear the Davidic king cry to God in verse 26, “You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!” In David’s cry we perhaps hear also the cry of Jesus from the cross. And Advent and Christmas are joined to Good Friday and Easter.