understanding psalms 89

Psalms 89 is said to be written by Ethan the Ezrahite. It was probably written in the time of the rebellion of Absalom (David’s son). King David is being defeated by his enemy and the writer calls on God for salvation from this dark time. The psalm’s overall message is one of hopeless abandonment with reminder to God of God’s promises. The point appears to be a concerted petition to God to move God to action.

Psa 89:1 A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite. I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.
Psa 89:2 For I said, “Steadfast love will be built up forever; in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.”
Psa 89:3 You have said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant:
Psa 89:4 ‘I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations.'” Selah.

The psalm writer starts this psalm with praises to both God’s love and God’s faithfulness. The psalm writer states that he will personally spread this message. In other psalms (such as Psalms 6), this line of thought is tied to an implicit “threat” to God: “If I die, then I can no longer preach your name.” This passage serves as a basis for the petition to God, for the psalm writer will eventually call upon God to fulfill God’s faithfulness and love.

Ethan reminds God of God’s promises to David. David was in trouble, and Ethan wants God to act in order to preserve God’s promise. The writer links God’s faithfulness with God’s promise to King David. The unspoken point is that if God wishes to remain faithful then He must honor His promises to King David.

Psa 89:5 Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!
Psa 89:6 For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,
Psa 89:7 a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?
Psa 89:8 O LORD God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O LORD, with your faithfulness all around you?

The psalm writer next references God as compared to a sort of heavenly council (the text calls this an “assembly” or “council” and they stand “around” God). This could be a reference to God as compared to pagan deities. It could alternatively be God compared to angels. The idea might be similar to that found in Psalms 82: that various angelic rulers assemble in the heavens and God acts as supreme. God is surrounded by lessor and subservient beings, and none of them compare to God.

What is very interesting is that this scene contradicts notions of omnipresence. God sits in the heavens. God sits among other beings. God is surrounded by them as they praise Him. The author of this psalm seems unfamiliar with modern notions of omnipresence. The image of God is imaginable by the reader, with no hint that the writer believes anything else.

The point of this passage is a praise to God. Although other people and nations serve other gods, Yahweh is supreme. Other angelic or divine beings must fear and praise God. God is a “God of hosts” (God of armies) and is “mighty”. No other being in the heavenly realm shares the same level of power. Ethan expounds upon this power:

Psa 89:9 You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.
Psa 89:10 You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
Psa 89:11 The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.
Psa 89:12 The north and the south, you have created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.
Psa 89:13 You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand.

This passage serves as further praise towards God. God can defeat His enemies as they spring up. God can stop waves when they spring up. The idea is that God can respond to events in such a way that nothing can overcome God. God’s strong arm is a figurative illustration for strength. This strength imagery is repeated throughout this passage.

The entire heaven and Earth are said to be God’s. The sense in which this is true seems to be in God’s rulership or jurisdiction. The Earth is God’s because God cannot be opposed with serious strength when God purposes to accomplish something. God is said to have created or founded the world, giving more reason to think that His power is unopposed. All the illustrations seem to call out “if God acts, then no one can oppose”.

Consider the writer’s concept of God’s power in relation to concepts of omnipotence (total sovereignty). God is responding to events that He did not cause. The relationship is dynamic. God sees something, and then God acts and counters that thing. God is powerful, and God uses that power in a reactive way. The picture that Ethan paints is not one of God proactively stopping problems that He foresees. The picture is instead one of God responding to events that God does not like.

Psa 89:14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
Psa 89:15 Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your face,
Psa 89:16 who exult in your name all the day and in your righteousness are exalted.
Psa 89:17 For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted.
Psa 89:18 For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel.

The psalm then focuses again on praise. God is said to be loving and faithful. God is worshiped, presumably, for these attributes. God’s righteousness is highlighted continuously by God’s people. In part the worship is because God has granted His people particular favors. God has made them strong and “their horn is exalted” (an idiom meaning that the recipient is triumphant). The people currently prosper because of God’s continuous work in their lives.

The psalm writer is presenting Yahweh as active and relevant to Israel’s destiny. God is not passive, but bestows present day blessings upon His people. This leads the people to worship Yahweh. God, here, is presented as living and dynamic.

Psa 89:19 Of old you spoke in a vision to your godly one, and said: “I have granted help to one who is mighty; I have exalted one chosen from the people.
Psa 89:20 I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him,

The psalmist references some sort of vision from times past. This is most likely in reference to statements that God gave to Samuel about David. There are several accounts of God seeking out a new King after Saul failed. The “finding” might be in reference to 1 Samuel 13:14:

1Sa 13:14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”

The idea seems to be that God surveyed the people and chose one from the midst. This was King David, who becomes the star of the Old Testament. Psalms 89 is a testament to David’s celebrity. The next passage illustrates the place that David held in Israel’s history:

Psa 89:21 so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him.
Psa 89:22 The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him.
Psa 89:23 I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.
Psa 89:24 My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted.

Yahweh is said to “love” David. Yahweh promises to “keep” him forever. Yahweh promises to fulfill His “covenant” with David. The author is strongly communicating that King David held a special and unique status with Yahweh. These personal links are establishing a basis to contrast against God’s current negative disputation to King David, which is described in the second half of the psalm.

God strengthens David (v21). God fortifies David against David’s enemies (v22). God will destroy those who threaten King David (v23). God promises, personally, to stay true to King David (v24). The idea is that God has a personal and unique connection to King David. This reinforces the entire point of the passage: because of King David’s unique relationship, God should intervene and save David. The writer continues:

Psa 89:25 I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.
Psa 89:26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’
Psa 89:27 And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.
Psa 89:28 My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him.

Verse 25 uses an idiom to explain God’s intent towards King David. God will put King David’s “hand” on the sea and on the rivers, most likely meaning that God will extend King David’s rule to the ocean and to the rivers. “Hand”, throughout the Bible, is figuratively used for “power”. By the time that Psalms 89 was written, King David had already extended his rule to these areas. This could very well be a hindsight observation, as there is nothing explicit before David conquers telling of the extent of his rule.

King David is the said to cry out to God. This does not have to be a direct quote, but just a general statement. King David cries out to God throughout the Psalms. King David has similar statements to this throughout his writings, so this mode of thought is not foreign to King David’s character.

As with the rest of this psalm, King David is given a unique place. David is the firstborn. David is the highest King of the earth. God will keep David forever. God’s unique relationship with King David may explain God’s double standards for King David and the previous king, King Saul. Whereas King David commits several of the same offenses as Saul, David is forgiven whereas Saul is not. The passage even explicitly claims that God will give King David’s descendants more leniency due to their position as an heir of King David:

Psa 89:29 I will establish his offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens.
Psa 89:30 If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules,
Psa 89:31 if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments,
Psa 89:32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes,
Psa 89:33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness.
Psa 89:34 I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips.
Psa 89:35 Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David.

This is styled as God speaking on behalf of David. God says that David’s children will forever be rulers. God specifically states that they will be rulers in spite of their wayward activities. God will punish, but God will not abolish the Davidic rulership. This is all brought back to David. Saving the kingship of David’s sons is linked to God’s steadfast love of David. It is linked to God’s faithfulness to David. God specifically claims that a violation of this lineage would be a “lie to David”. This David-centric psalm will not allow God to revoke His promises to King David under any conditions, no matter how trying. As the psalm later explains, God is on the verge of violating this eternal promise. By styling these verses as being spoken by God, the writer explicitly is claiming that if God fails to save David that God will have lied.

There is a slight difference in the approach of this passage and others relating to the same concept. In other passages, David’s lineage can be cut off. In this passage, they will endure forever. This psalm was most likely written before the book of 1 Kings was written. In 1 Kings, God threatens to cut off David’s lineage due to their personal rebellion:

1Ki 9:6 But if you or your sons at all turn from following Me, and do not keep My commandments and My statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them,
1Ki 9:7 then I will cut off Israel from the land which I have given them; and this house which I have consecrated for My name I will cast out of My sight. Israel will be a proverb and a byword among all peoples.

The message is not consistent but is modified towards its audience. To King David, his lineage would last forever. To King David’s successors after David is dead and gone, they are warned that their lineage can be cut off. When King David is in need, God is said to have given an eternal promise. When King Solomon may reject God, the promise is able to be revoked. Psalms 89 continues by claiming that King David’s line shall rule as long as the sun shines:

Psa 89:36 His offspring shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me.
Psa 89:37 Like the moon it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.” Selah.

It is here that the psalm takes an abrupt turn. Before this point, the psalm gives little hint that the psalm writer is under any distress. If the psalm had ended at this point, it would be assumed that this was a psalm of praise, highlighting God mercy and faithfulness. No ulterior motive would be suspected. But the psalm is not one of praise. Instead, the praise is just a facet of an overall objective. That objective is a petition to God to save King David. The author is under the thought that God is destroying King David:

Psa 89:38 But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed.
Psa 89:39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.
Psa 89:40 You have breached all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
Psa 89:41 All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
Psa 89:42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice.
Psa 89:43 You have also turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not made him stand in battle.
Psa 89:44 You have made his splendor to cease and cast his throne to the ground.
Psa 89:45 You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame. Selah.

The text attributes all the ills that have befallen King David to Yahweh. God has cast him off. God has renounced the covenant (the same covenant that was earlier described as eternal). The text is as persistent with God’s curses towards King David as the text was persistent with God’s blessings towards King David earlier in the psalm. God has “cast off”, “rejected”, “renounced”, “defiled”, “breached”, “exalted [enemies]”, “turned back”, “cut short”, and “covered”. God is the actor and everything that has happened to King David is at the hand of God. To the author, God is punishing in an extreme way.

Psa 89:46 How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Psa 89:47 Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man!
Psa 89:48 What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah.

This is an interesting argument, made complete by a series of interesting thoughts. The writer first makes a dual claim that Yahweh is both hidden and burning in wrath. God is neglecting, but at the same time exacting vengeance. This idea might be that by Yahweh’s withdrawal, He has allowed human actors to take charge. God’s wrath is His lack of protection, and the agents who fill the void are, in turn, agents of God’s wrath.

Alternatively, being hidden could be some sort of metaphor for not being present (not protecting). This certainly could also be the case. It would help explain passages such as Psalms 139:8-10, in which God is said to be present with King David wherever King David may go.

In any case, the text seems genuine, for the author then uses this to move straight into an argument as to why God should change. Ethan challenges God to remember how quickly men die. The argument is that God may not realize that He is wasting the time of those who worship Him and it would be a shame to waste away the life of God’s people in a state of despair. If God just spends large amounts of someone’s life in punishment, then it is almost like that person was created in vain. Why create someone only to perpetually punish them?

The writer points out that all men die (perhaps contrasting a man’s life with God’s life). And then the writer adds: “Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” This is a rhetorical question with two possible answers based on the context. Either “nobody” can deliver a life from death (illustrating that man’s life is short) or “God” can deliver a life from death (saying that God should save His people because He can).

It is important to note that this is an argument to God. It does not read as if it is a vain emotional outburst. The author is in pain and is in deep despair. The author wants this pain to stop and wants God to act. Ethan goes on to question God’s love:

Psa 89:49 Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
Psa 89:50 Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked, and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations,
Psa 89:51 with which your enemies mock, O LORD, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed.

The writer appeals to God’s love and faithfulness. This is an accusation. God is being derelict in His responsibilities to King David. The entire first part of the psalm sung praises to God for God’s enduring covenant with King David, and now the author claims that there is no visible evidence that God is fulfilling His part in the promise.

Ethan goes on to claim that there are deep insults to God’s servants. The argument, although less pointed, also serves as an accusation: There is a group of people who serve God who are being persecuted. God is standing by and not silencing the mocking. This could be addressing the subject matter of the mocking (the mocking most likely centers around claims that God “does not see” and “does not act”) or by silencing the mockers (by punishing or killing them). The writer is calling on God to remedy the situation. God must act such that those who mock God can no longer do so. God’s people can then live in peace.

The psalm ends with a simple praise:

Psa 89:52 Blessed be the LORD forever! Amen and Amen.

The author’s conception of God runs counter to the Classical picture of God. God is in heaven, looking down on Earth. God sees events and reacts to those events. God can be moved to action and the psalm writer eagerly petitions God to change. This change is a change for the better in the eyes of the psalmist.

God is also seen as dealing intimately with King David (and Israel). All evils that befall King David are the work of God. All blessings that befall King David are the work of God. Nothing seems to be left to happenstance, at least as it relates to King David. This could support a notion of omnipotence, that God is actively controlling all things. The text does present God as supremely powerful (more than all other creatures). But it does not seem that God controlled the sin of Israel. Instead, God is controlling the punishment of that rebellion. In the author’s mind, God is attempting to shape people’s actions through a series of blessings and punishments (which are both tempered by overarching covenants). The author argues that the punishment has been served adequately.

The author criticizes God while at the same time praising God. The praises are applied to God while at the same time the author presents a path for God to take to prove that those specific praises apply to God. The author sees God as reasonable, and he presents a logical argument for God to consider. In all of this, nowhere is the assumption of classical omniscience. The idea that God knows everything in the future is not in this text, but contrary to it. The idea that God simultaneously considers all logical arguments at the same time in the same sense is not present in the author’s mind. Instead, people can present God with ideas and God will consider them as they are presented. The author believes that he can influence Yahweh.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Calvinism, Open Theism, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

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