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Virus is a Latin word originally. For the Romans, it meant poison, venom, slime, or even stench. It is not surprising that physicians at some point long ago took this word to refer to diseases they did not understand—diseases that act as mysteriously as poisons, which, if they do not kill, leave as unexpectedly as they came. Even today with all of our amazing medical knowledge, a new virus has a somewhat mysterious quality that can for a time profoundly unsettle the rhythms of our lives and raise spiritual as well as medical questions. Yet, life is often mysterious to us—whether because of fears, diseases, defeats, or death. Many places in the Bible can help us with our concerns, and I would like to look at a few of them.

In the book of the Revelation, the Apostle John writes to the churches to bless, reassure, and encourage them. We see that Apostolic purpose being fulfilled everywhere in the book. One early and particularly striking example of that purpose is in the blessing that John pronounces on the seven churches, recorded in Revelation 1:4–5. To small, struggling, persecuted churches—some of which are particularly troubled with sins and false teaching—John speaks words of grace and peace. He reminds them that however much they may feel that they live in a world of anger and strife, God is with them in His grace and love as well as in His mercy and peace. John underscores this reality in the way he describes the character of the God who cares for them. John’s words of encouragement to the churches in his day will still strengthen us in the faith today during our present crisis.

The blessing John ministers comes from the triune God: the Father on His throne, sovereign over time and history; the Spirit before the throne, knowing all things and present with the churches; and Jesus the Christ, the One who is active in history to rule and save. The three descriptions of Jesus are obviously powerful and illuminating. Jesus is the “faithful witness,” which means that He is the truth-filled Prophet. He is “the firstborn of the dead,” which means that He is the risen and living Priest who gave His life on the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of His people (Col. 1:18). He is “the ruler of the kings on earth,” which means that He is the reigning King now over the whole world.

What is not so obvious is that these descriptions of Jesus are significantly drawn from Psalm 89, particularly from verses 27 and 37: “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. . . . Like the moon [David’s throne] shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.” Has John just lifted poetic phrases out of Psalm 89 and invested them with his own meanings? Far from it. If we read John in that way, we will miss a great deal of the blessing and encouragement of the words. Instead, we need to see the strong parallels between the situations the people of God face in Psalm 89 and Revelation 1. In both cases, the people of God are struggling with the reality of historical forces that oppose them and show how weak they are in themselves. John is encouraging all his readers to pause and meditate on Psalm 89 all the better to understand what God is doing in John’s day—and our day.

Psalm 89 as a Whole

Psalm 89 is distinctive, perhaps even unique, in that it divides into two sharply different parts. Verses 1–37 are a gloriously positive reflection on the character of God and His covenant with David. Verses 38–51 are a lament that God not only has rejected the house of David but seems to have broken His promises. Taken as a whole, the psalm presses the question, How is it that the faithful God seems in history to have broken faith with His people? Who is God, and what is He doing in history? The psalmist does not know the answers to these questions in his day—just as we do not always have the answers to our questions about the purposes of God. Why does He allow this world to be thrown into chaos? Why has COVID-19 disrupted our lives? By looking to Jesus with John, we will see more of the answers than the psalmist did. But at the same time, the psalmist will help us appreciate Jesus and His work more fully and help us to know better how to wait until God finally answers our questions.

Let us follow the unfolding of Psalm 89 and find help to endure in the kingdom of God in days of tribulation (Rev. 1:9). This psalm as a poem will help us slow down and become more meditative in our reading and learning. And don’t so many of us have time for that now that we are, many of us, spending as much time at home as possible? We could probably summarize the systematic theology of the psalm in a sentence or two. But as we reflect on and study this poem, we will find great spiritual, emotional, and theological encouragement.

The Opening: Psalm 89:1–4

The first words of the psalm in Hebrew, after the title, are “I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations” (v. 1). The psalm begins with the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, celebrating those key attributes of God. We are encouraged to remember and meditate on those characteristics. God is unfailingly steadfast in His love. “Steadfast love” is one word in Hebrew (hesed), and it is somewhat difficult to translate. In the King James Version, it was usually rendered “lovingkindness” and is sometimes translated into Greek as “mercy.” I have liked to think of it as “covenant love.” Here it is paralleled with faithfulness. God is always loving and reliable. He does not change in His care and commitments. He is the same forever. Indeed, “forever” is one of the frequently repeated words in this psalm. Regardless of how we may feel during our present crisis, God remains the same. God is always absolutely reliable, trustworthy, and unchanging.

These truths about God are not only eternal, but they are also displayed in history. God speaks in verse 3: “I have made a covenant with my chosen one.” The ESV adds the words “You have said” so that we see clearly that God is speaking, not the psalmist. The psalmist quotes the words of God so that we remember the covenant that God sovereignly established with David and his offspring. This covenant, like the character of God, is forever and to all generations. So the psalm has opened with its great themes: the steadfast love and faithfulness of God and His covenant with David and his house. (The psalmist is also laying the foundation for his later complaint that God seems not to have kept His promises.)

The Celebration: Psalm 89:5–37

God in Heaven (Ps. 89:5–8)

The declaration and celebration of God’s wondrous powers and faithfulness begin in the heavens. The picture here is the gathering of holy beings—most likely angels—in heaven praising God specifically for His faithfulness. Even among the great angels, the Lord is unique, inspiring fear and awe in light of the greatness of His power and the faithful use of that power. The angels are not in a covenant of grace with God and do not receive mercy from Him. They stand or fall by their individual obedience. In contrast, humans can know God’s covenant of grace and His steadfast love to redeemed sinners. What a privilege is ours. Even as we dwell in uncertain times, we can be thankful that our heavenly Father looked with mercy on us and chose to redeem us.

God on Earth (Ps. 89:9–14)

While God is described as mighty and powerful in the heavens, no specific actions of God are presented there beyond His fellowship with the holy ones. By contrast, when the scene switches to earth, God is immediately portrayed as very active. The stormy seas, the emblem of the chaotic and uncontrollable, are governed by God and calmed by Him. (The wonder of the disciples of Jesus may well have been shaped by this psalm when they saw him still the sea in Luke 8:22–25.) The poet moves from nature to history, reflecting on the defeat of Egypt (Rahab). Mighty Egypt could no more resist God’s power than the dead body of an animal could resist being crushed. God scatters all His enemies—none have a chance of standing against Him.

God possesses and controls everything in heaven and on earth because He created everything. All things on earth—the north and the south, as well as the higher and the lower places—reflect the power of God’s hand. Even COVID-19, though invisible to the naked eye and highly destructive, is under His sovereign power. This virus has not surprised our Lord, nor has it escaped His control.

Additionally, we might ask how the mountains can be joyful and praise the Lord. The poet ascribes human emotions to the mountains because their steadiness glorifies God. The power of God must be linked to the determination of God to assure us that He can and will be faithful in all He does.

The throne of this great and ruling God rests on righteousness and justice. He is always holy and right in all He does. At the same time, He is loving and merciful. Here again, perhaps, we are to think of God’s holiness in heaven and His mercy on earth. This revelation of the character of God encourages us with His holiness and love by which He governs our lives always. We need to remember that especially in times of crisis. What a remarkable God we have.

God’s People (Ps. 89:15–18)

This great God is properly the object of the worship of His people. In the center of this section of celebration, the psalmist highlights the blessedness of the people who know and worship the Lord. The picture seems to be of a festal procession to the temple in Jerusalem. There in particular, the people of God experience the light of God’s face on them (Ps. 4:5–6; 27:1, 4–5). The face of God is the source of the blessing of God (Num. 6:23–26). This people is lifted up by the righteousness and grace of God, which is the application of the character of God, presented in Psalm 89:14, to His own.

This virus has not surprised our Lord, nor has it escaped His control.

The privilege of worship has become particularly precious to us in these days as many of us are not able to gather with our congregations for worship. We are experiencing the pain expressed by the psalmist in Psalm 42 as he is deprived of worship. But as we wait for the restoration of public worship, we still can experience the light of God’s face through the study of His Word and through prayer.

God leads and protects His blessed people through His appointed king. This king is God’s shield for the people, and he rules to reflect among the people the holiness of their God. As the opening of the psalm turned from the character of God to the king of Israel, so here the blessedness of the people turns to the blessedness of the king. We should remember as we study that everything said of Israel’s king points in one way or another to Jesus as our King.

God’s Covenant with David (Ps. 89:19–28)

The psalm now turns to a celebration of David as God’s servant and anointed king. Before David is mentioned by name, we are told that God chose him and exalted him over an exalted people. God has always used leaders in His dealings with His people, whether patriarchs, judges, priests, prophets, or kings. Among those leaders, David had a unique role as the man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22). This David, whom God chose to be His servant, God set aside for service, anointing him with holy oil. God made him strong with the strength of His own hand. He gave David victory and success over all. David is the firstborn of God’s steadfast love. David will also be the highest of the kings of the earth, exalted by God’s powerful faithfulness. All of this blessing of David is the fruit of God’s steadfast love and covenant. They will continue forever. This mercy has no end.

God’s Covenant with David’s House (Ps. 89:29–37)

As the covenant with David is forever, so the covenant with David’s house and offspring is forever. David’s throne and dynasty will last as long as the heavens themselves. Here is a firmly guaranteed promise.

Lest anyone think that this promise is implicitly conditioned on continuing faithfulness and obedience on the part of David’s descendants, the psalmist makes clear that this is not so. Disobedience will indeed be punished, but the covenant will not be abrogated. God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to David, to his house, and to his covenant will abide as certainly as the holiness of God who promises and fulfills His word.

God’s faithfulness to His covenant in history is illustrated by God’s faithfulness to His purpose in nature. The sun and the moon in the skies are faithful witnesses to God’s faithfulness. Heaven and earth, nature and history all testify to the faithfulness of the Lord.

We can be encouraged that God was faithful to David. He was faithful to ensure that the eternal King, Jesus Christ, would be born from his line. This same God is also faithful to His people now. He has redeemed us and knows our present circumstances. He has worked history for His people’s good. This present crisis, in its own way, is being used by God for His purposes.

Complaint: Psalm 89:38–51

The celebration of this psalm ends suddenly and dramatically. The opening words of verse 38 are literally “But you.” As God guaranteed the covenant, so God has acted against it. In anger, He has cast off and rejected the house of David.

Facts of Rejection (Ps. 89:38–45)

Might we dismiss the troubles of David’s house as just a bump in the road that could easily be remedied in the future? The psalmist wants to make sure that we cannot adopt such a facile solution. God has renounced His covenant with David and the royal crown—the symbol of rule and authority—has been thrown away into the dust. David’s strongholds—including perhaps the holy city—have been ruined. His enemies mock his house, steal from it, and utterly defeat it. The Lord now exalts the hand of the enemy as he once exalted David’s hand (v. 25). The judgment of Deuteronomy 28:15–68 has fallen on the house of David. All his majesty and power have come to an end. Dismay has overwhelmed David’s offspring, and instead of enjoying a glorious youth, they have prematurely been reduced to weakened old age. These are the facts of the calamities that have fallen on the house of David in history. “You have renounced the covenant with your servant” (Ps. 89:39).

These facts remind us that the Christian religion faces reality honestly. We never need to minimize or ignore sufferings or worries. In our day, the fear of sickness, death, and serious economic loss are very real for many. This psalm shows us that we can express our fear to God. Suffering and loss are real and painful. We can talk plainly to God about all these things.

Questions and Pleas (Ps. 89:46–51)

In response to the great promises to David and the terrible judgment on David’s house, the psalmist poses two prime questions: How long, and Where (in the sense of “whatever happened to”)? These questions are both addressed to God: How long will You be angry, and What happened to Your promises? Honest questions are an essential part of the emotional power of the Psalter. God welcomes the questions of His people because their relationship is utterly honest and truthful. The questions here are those that frequently occur to the people of God in difficult times. Many of us may be asking them now.

How long? The Apostle John must have asked, “How long?” in that prison. The martyrs under the heavenly altar did ask it (Rev. 6:10). How long must we wait until God acts to deliver us? How long will God be gone from His people, indeed more than gone—how long will He be angry with His people?

Here we have the second explicit reference to the anger of God: “You are full of wrath against your anointed” (v. 38) and “How long will your wrath burn like fire?” (v. 46). We are reminded that sufferings in history are expressions of God’s righteous and angry judgments. His holiness responds to all sin with wrath—not just at the end of history with the final judgment, but also again and again throughout history. These expressions of His anger are not divorced from His love and mercy. As Jesus tells us in Luke 13, these judgments in history are meant to lead us to repentance. We should be thankful that time continues so that we may repent and find salvation in Christ. In the midst of our current suffering, let us pray for ourselves and for others—that we would learn the lesson of repentance, truly turning to God with sorrow for sin. Let us also trust that the only refuge from the anger of God is the cross of Jesus.

After the honest question—“How long?”—is posed, an appeal is made to God: Remember. We know God and live before Him through His Word. God Himself has taught us His Word. He insists that we know it, believe it, and follow it carefully. Just as we depend on the Word, so God has promised to stand by and fulfill His Word. So the psalmist on behalf of the people of God appeals to the Lord to remember the weakness and frailty of the humans He created. When God remembers, He will help us, teaching us the answers to the subsidiary questions that follow: “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (v. 48). “How long?” is the necessary human question because we die, and we have no power to deliver our souls from death.

Death would separate the psalmist from the land and the temple. See, for example, Psalm 115:17, “The dead do not praise the Lord.” The Old Testament—especially when Israel was ruled by David—pictured the redemption that Jesus would bring, a redemption that is final and never ending. So the Old Testament focused on what Israel was experiencing as that picture. Presently prospering in the land and worshiping in the temple were the picture of blessedness. The Old Testament hope is fulfilled in the New Testament. The New Testament reality is clarified and deepened by the Old Testament background. The New Testament promise of resurrection helps answer many Old Testament questions. The Old Testament reflections on God’s kingdom help us understand both the present character of Christ’s kingdom and the future character of the new heaven and the new earth.

While the Old Testament psalm here raises the questions about death, it is the New Testament that will fully answer them. Who can deliver his soul from Sheol? Only Jesus. Who can live and never see death? Only one who believes the promises of Jesus: “Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26). This is the promise and hope to which we should cling in the face of all our fears.

Where? The second primary question asks what has happened to the promise of God: the faithful God promised steadfast and unfailing love to David, so what has gone wrong? Again, God is asked to remember the results of His apparent failure to keep His promise. The nations are mocking the people of God for having a God who could not keep His promise. They are mocking God’s anointed, God’s king, because of the path he has had to walk, the path of loss and defeat and insult. In the New Testament, we see clearly that God’s anointed Messiah walked the path of rejection, mockery, and death. His suffering led to our salvation. God ultimately always answers our questions with his blessings.

The Conclusion: Psalm 89:52

The psalmist in his own day did not find full answers for his questions. But he continued to trust and hope in his God. He was committed to blessing Him forever. No matter what the suffering or how great the crisis, the psalmist even in the midst of questions trusts the steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord.

The Apostle John knew all of this about Psalm 89 as he wrote Revelation 1:5. He also saw clearly how Jesus both manifested the steadfast love and faithfulness of God in all He did and answered the questions that troubled the psalmist.

Jesus is the faithful witness. As the reliability of sun and moon bear witness to God’s faithfulness, so Jesus always tells the truth and always fulfills the purposes of God. We can always trust what Jesus says.

Jesus is also the firstborn, not just as the anointed Son of David, but as firstborn from the dead. In His resurrection, He lives forever and gives life forever to all His own. We will always find our life in Him—whether we live or whether we die.

Jesus is also the highest of the kings of the earth. He is highest not just in the sense that He is the most favored of God, but in the sense that He actually rules over all the kings of the earth. We can have confidence that everything that happens in our lives is fulfilling the good purposes of our king.

Jesus shows the timing of God. God’s timing is just right in both the first and second comings of Christ. Despite our frustrations, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness . . .” (2 Peter 3:9). At the right time, Jesus brings life to the dead. Jesus fulfills the covenant of God in His steadfast love and faithfulness. He bore all the mockery of God’s enemies and walked the path of suffering that led to salvation.

John deepens our understanding of Jesus and of God the Father by pointing us back to Psalm 89. And Psalm 89 helps us reflect on and appreciate the steadfast love and faithfulness of God and to express honestly our questions and frustrations—in the midst of this present crisis and always. Blessed be the Lord forever. “I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations” (Ps. 89:1).

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