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).