The Messianic Psalms PSALM 89 God’s faithfulness during disaster
Sceptics love to impugn the scriptures and attack God’s goodness. The eighteenth-century philosopher, David Hume, asserted that evil’s existence demonstrates that God is either not omnipotent or else He is not good, reasoning that a good and all-powerful Creator would not create such a wicked world. The Bible answers this difficulty in various ways; for example, Job’s and Joseph’s respective stories. Yet, when circumstances appear to flatly contradict God’s promises, even believers may doubt. Psalm 89 shows one such conundrum. How could the Davidic Covenant of 2 Samuel chapter 7 verses 5 to 16 be reconciled with a series of calamities that appeared to abrogate the divine promises to David and his descendants? Nevertheless, scripture is its own best interpreter, for it is the God-breathed revelation of His inviolable and perfect will. In the presence of tremendous obstacles, Psalm 89 assures us of the Lord’s faithfulness. 1
God’s immutable mercy and powerful faithfulness
The first thirty-seven verses of the psalm describe God’s character and promises, but at verse 38 things take a hard turn with the phrase, ‘But thou hast cast off and abhorred’. The psalmist questions why circumstances are completely against the covenant’s accomplishment. A simple breakdown of the material looks like this:
The Lord’s covenant with David asserted, vv. 1-4.
- The Lord’s power and righteousness praised, vv. 5-18.
- The Lord’s selection of David and promises to his dynastic line, vv. 19-37.
- The Psalmist’s complaint, vv. 38-51.
- Closing reaffirmation of the Lord’s right to praise, v. 52.
Clarke outlines it as follows:
- The Introductory Avowal (1-4). The Psalmist’s confession.
- The Incomparable Creator (5-18). The Divine Character Extolled.
- The Inviolable Compact (19-37). The Davidic Covenant Elaborated.
- The Incompatible Circumstances (38-45). The Distressful Contrast Emphasised. Protests of the Psalmist on Present Plight.
- The Impassioned Appeal (46-52). The Psalmist’s Cry’. 2
Throughout the psalm three words stand out: ‘forever’, ‘faithfulness’ and ‘mercy’/‘lovingkindness’. 3, 4, 5 Collectively, they present a picture of God’s unwavering resolve to His covenant promises. Brown points out the encouragement that flows from these words, saying, ‘It is delightful to get out of the realm of ifs and perhapses, and peradventures, and just rest upon the wills and the shalls of a God who cannot lie’. 6 The Lord promises to ‘build’ His mercy, v. 2, which is His covenant love. 7 The same verse affirms that His faithfulness is established in heaven, thus assuring us of its eternal significance.
The attributes that guarantee God’s fidelity
God’s covenants are backed up by His incomparable holiness. 8 That is, He is unique; no one in heaven, vv. 5-7, much less the skies and terrestrial creation, vv. 8-12, can compare with His purity, power, and love. The terms ‘the heavens’, ‘the congregation of the saints’, and ‘the sons of the mighty’ refer to the angelic beings, and possibly believing humans, who populate God’s heavenly domain. They are infinitely far below ‘the Lord God of hosts’ in majesty and might, and their adoration prefigures the habitual activity of men and angels in the coming age. As Bonar writes, ‘Unfallen angels, and the great congregation of redeemed men, shall yet unite in praise to the God whose mercies have been promised to David. Messiah’s Second Coming will be the special season for that praise, when his gathered elect, “the congregation of the saints”, survey the foundation of their blessedness, and review the way by which he led them on. Every time an assembly of saints now, in this time of ingathering, unites in so celebrating the Lord, we have a type of that coming day . . . And the strains that follow are a specimen to us of what may be the topics of the Song of the Lamb’. 9 Hamilton Smith adds, ‘The heavens declare His wonders; the saints His faithfulness’. 10
The earth also displays God’s creatorial power and sovereignty. He stills the proud foaming of the sea – often a metaphor for the Gentile nations in prophetic scriptures – and even quelled the vaunted pride of the ancient idolatrous superpower, Egypt, called ‘Rahab’ in verse 10. 11 Absolute power is justly dreaded in human government, but God’s throne is just, as well as omnipotent, Ps. 89. 14. His power is wielded fairly, never capriciously!
The Lord’s covenant, promising everlasting blessing to David and his progeny, will ultimately be fulfilled by ‘the seed’ of Abraham and David, who will reign on His illustrious ancestor’s throne in Jerusalem during the millennial kingdom and beyond, Isa. 9. 6, 7; Matt. 1. 1. David and his sons may be disciplined for waywardness, but God would not rescind the covenant, vv. 30-37, made with His ‘firstborn’, vv. 26-29. 12
How are the mighty fallen?
At verse 38, the psalm alters its tone negatively. In light of God’s faithfulness and true promises, why is the Israelite monarchy so humiliated? The context is unknown, but some have suggested Rehoboam’s rupture with the ten northern tribes; others suggest Jeconiah and the Babylonian captivity. Whatever the historical disaster, it rattled the author’s confidence, and caused him to implore the Lord to remember His promises by restoring His people. ‘Thou . . . thou . . . thou’ is his repeated refrain, as he questions why the Almighty has disciplined His chosen people – especially the Davidic royal house, vv. 38-45. Rather than enjoying intimacy, the king seems to be repudiated by God, v. 38; ‘the anointed’ is thrown down and his crown profaned, v. 39. Instead of divine protection, his enemies triumph over and plunder him, vv. 40-43, and he is shamed, v. 45. The author plaintively exclaims the sufferers’ question throughout all ages: ‘How long’? v. 46, and calls on God to ‘remember’ the covenant, vv. 47-50.
The psalm abruptly ends with a benediction, v. 52. Some writers believe that it is a doxology closing the third section of the Psalms. This may be so, but it is still a fitting way to close this psalm’s plea for the Lord to act on His people’s behalf. Having cited His holy attributes in the psalm’s first half, the psalmist logically expects the immutable God to meet His covenant obligations. Maclaren exults in such loyalty, ‘That unchangeableness is a rock-foundation, on which sinful men may build their certitude. It is much to know that they cannot sin away God’s mercy nor exhaust His gentle long-suffering. It is even more to know that His holiness guarantees that they cannot sin away His promises, nor by any breach of His commandments provoke Him to break His covenant’. 13 Even when His dealings seem inscrutably unfair or impossible of fulfilment, one may trust the faithful Lord to accomplish His will and righteously defend His people. Boice elucidates it in this way, ‘If God is behind what happens, then although we may not understand what God is doing we can know that there is a purpose somewhere and that a solution to the problem will be found, if not in this life, then in the next. Some will consider this to be hiding one’s head in the sand, failing to face up to reality. But the choice is not between an unfounded optimism and a bold facing of reality. It is between faith and despair. The psalmist is no Pollyanna. He faces reality, but he faces it with God’. 14
We’ll praise Him for all that is past and trust Him for all that’s to come
Why should church-age saints care about God’s Old Testament dealings with Israel? Because His credibility is at stake. If He does not fulfil the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, then we do not know if He will fulfil His word. This same reasoning underlies Romans chapters 9 to 11. Happily, as that section demonstrates, God always does what He promises. Christ promised to build His church, and He will certainly do it, Matt. 16. 18. In the end, the Lord will fulfil His covenants and eternally bless both Israel and the church, Rev. 21, 22. In light of this bright future, believers join the psalmist in blessing the Almighty for His steadfast love and covenant loyalty to His people in every dispensation.
1 ‘Psalm 89 has one remarkable character . . . reliance on the faithfulness of God according to His original word of promise, when externally all is contrary to it, but the expectation of fulfilment founded on mercy, in fact on Christ, in whom all promised mercies concentrate themselves’, J. N. Darby, Practical Reflections on the Psalms.
2 Arthur G. Clarke, Analytical Studies in the Psalms, John Ritchie, pg. 224.
3 Verses 1, 2, 4, 28, 29, 36, 37, 46.
4 Verses 1, 2, 5, 8, 24, 33, 37.
5 Verses 1, 2, 14, 24, 28, 33, 49.
6 A. G. Brown, This God Our God, Banner of Truth, pg. 46. Later he adds, ‘Our God is a God of might, and a God of right, and a God of mercy, and a God of truth. On these four attributes, as on four massive blocks of granite, does the soul venture safely to build her eternal hopes’.
7 The concept is unpacked here: ‘the word established . . . is literally “built”, which was another of the key words in 2 Samuel 7, with its play on the theme of the house David would have built for God, and the living house God would build instead for David (2 Sam. 7. 5, 7, 13, 27)’. Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, IVP, pg. 352.
8 ‘His purity and His righteousness, His faithfulness and His truth, His mercy and His lovingkindness, nay even His jealousy and His wrath, His zeal and His indignation; these are the different rays which combine to make up the perfect light of holiness . . . The character of God as the Holy One in His relation to Israel is expressed by the title the Holy One of Israel’. A.F. Kirkpatrick, The Doctrine of the Prophets, Macmillan & Co., pg. 175.
9 Andrew Bonar, Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, Robert Carter & Brothers, pg. 268.
10 Hamilton Smith, Psalms, Believers Bookshelf, pg. 138.
11 ‘Rahab, the blusterer, is the nickname for Egypt (cf. Isa. 51. 9; see on Ps. 87. 4). This victory is as central to the Old Testament as Calvary to the New’. Kidner, pg. 353.
12 Biblically, this term expresses rank and familial closeness resulting in inheritance; here it refers to ‘the Anointed’, Ps. 89. 20, i.e., David and his seed – especially the Messiah. Elsewhere it is sometimes used of Israel as a whole, Exod. 4. 22.
13 Alexander Maclaren, The Expositor’s Bible: Psalms to Isaiah, Vol. 3, Scranton Co., pg. 231.
14 J. M. Boice, Psalms 42-106: An Expositional Commentary, Baker Books, pg. 733.