Commentary on Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
As is usually the case, the particular verses of the psalm that the lectionary assigns can be more richly understood by reading Psalm 89 in its entirety. Doing this work will help the preacher recognize the traumatic upheaval and theological crisis under which these seemingly joyful and confident verses were written. It will also shed light on why there is so much repetition of words and ideas within them. For example, verses 1–4 heavily emphasize:
- God’s “steadfast love” (verses 1a, 2a; also 14b, 24a, 28a, 33a, 49a)
- God’s “faithfulness” (verses 1b, 2b; also 5b, 8b, 14b, 24a, 33b, 49b)
- That these characteristics of God will last “forever” (verses 1a, 2a, 4a; also 28a, 29a, 36a, 37a, 46a) because of God’s covenant with David.
The theme of “forever” is communicated not only with a repetition of the word itself but with the phrases “to all generations” (verse 1b) and “for all generations” (verse 4b). There seems to be no room for doubt about the eternal nature of this covenant.
Terms like “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” are scattered all over Scripture, especially Psalms, with the result that they may not immediately leap off of the page for the preacher as worthy of attention. But the psalmist didn’t merely pick up a copy of “10 Steps to Writing a Great Psalm.” He has cause for highlighting and underlining them in this particular instance, which starts to be revealed in true color in verse 38: There is no evidence of these characteristics in sight. The psalmist cries out to God, asking, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (verse 49). He angrily accuses God of betrayal, saying, “You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust” (verse 39).
Now, the psalmist doesn’t actually believe the covenant has been renounced—at least not completely. Otherwise, he would certainly not have begun the psalm with, “I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever” (verse 1); he would not have bothered asking later, “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?” (verse 46); he would not have concluded the psalm with “Blessed be the LORD forever. Amen and Amen” (verse 52). The intensity of the accusation, however, reveals the weight of bewildered, overwhelming despair the psalmist and his community are experiencing. Their experience cannot be contained within their working theology; their understanding of God has been “hurled … to the ground” and “laid … in ruins” (verses 44, 40).
Steadfast love, faithfulness, and the promise of forever are repeated and repeated because God is not acting like God is expected to act. Perhaps the psalmist is trying to will himself to proclaim what he has been taught about what God is like in hopes that if he keeps repeating it, he will believe it. Perhaps he is reminding God of who God promised to be so that the intensity of the later verses is justified. In any case, God’s character is under severe scrutiny, and the psalmist’s hope is hanging on by a tattered thread.
Thus, while the lectionary verses may seem, on the surface, to have nothing at stake and little to stimulate the preacher’s imagination, the later verses manifest layers of complexity and depth through which to experience the substance embedded in what comes before them.
Lifting up an example or two of the psalmist’s accusations may provide welcome relief for those congregants who are feeling as though they have been “spurned and rejected” by God (verse 38) or as though God has “covered [them] with shame” (verse 45). The knowledge that they are not alone in their experience, that the very Word of God recognizes and names it, may provide strength for them to continue their walk of faith through the plundered “ruins” (verse 40).
Scripture holds space for them and even gives them language to express their disappointments in the presence of God, reassuring them that tension and conflict and confusion and frustration are normal in a relationship with the One whose ways and thoughts are as much higher than ours “as the heavens are higher than the earth” (Isaiah 55:9). How could misunderstandings and shocks be anything but inevitable on humanity’s side?
The placement of Psalm 89 on the Fourth Sunday of Advent practically begs preachers to proclaim that God has, in fact, not forgotten God’s covenant with David but fulfilled it through Jesus. In Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are ours forever. “This is most certainly true.”1 However, that may not change those who hear this psalm from feeling like the psalmist. Our present context of destructive climate change, vitriolic political division, and shrinking congregations understandably makes some wonder where God is and why God, in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has not crushed our “foes” and struck down “those who hate [us]” (verse 23).
Thus, it may serve to remind the congregation that steadfast love and faithfulness do not often look like human victory. Jesus is born to a poor, unmarried woman. He is “the son of David” only by marriage and not blood. His first bed is a feeding trough. His family flees as refugees at night to Egypt when he is a baby. In his ministry, he calls disciples with unimpressive or despised careers, and he chooses to spend time with and restore to health more unimportant and despised characters. His actions are criminally offensive to the highly educated and religious (that’s you, by the way). He is inhumanely tortured and put to death as a criminal. This is how God has chosen to save the world “for all generations.”
While these things will sound very familiar to many Christians, their implications for God’s character are continually forgotten and misunderstood. God doesn’t tend to crush foes, but to stand with those who are being crushed. Thanks be to God for that.
- Martin Luther, “Luther’s Small Catechism,” accessed August 25, 2023, https://catechism.cph.org/en/creed.html.