Sunday, 23 September 2018

Questioning God’s Character: A Sermon on Psalm 89

This is the third in a series of five sermons on the psalms being preached at my church. The first two sermons covered Psalms 1 and 51. I was allocated Psalm 89 (I always seem to get the gloomy ones). To be honest, I’m not sure I pulled this off the way I wanted to. I know I messed up reading the final paragraph, so the point I wanted to make, the main point, could have been more clearly expressed. Also, I should admit that I don’t write sermons with titles in mind, which is why they tend to have rather poor titles whenever I post them on this blog!

Psalm 89; Luke 1:26-33

Be honest: Have you ever felt let down or betrayed by God? Have you ever had doubts that God actually keeps God’s promises? Is it possible that God really isn’t, as one older chorus puts it, the ‘faithful one, so unchanging’? If you have ever felt any of these things, or if you have ever thought anything like these things, then Psalm 89 is a good psalm to pray. Psalm 89 gives us all an opportunity to pause and to ask difficult questions of God, questions like:

  • Can I trust you, God?
  • Why don’t you sort things out?
  • Are you going back on your word?
  • Have you forgotten us?
  • Where are you?
  • Are you ever going to answer us?

Psalm 89 is a perfect psalm for anyone who struggles to balance all the good things we’re supposed to believe about God alongside the harsh realities of everyday life in a broken world. Let’s see why this is so.

Almost a thousand years before Jesus was born, God promised to King David that his descendants would always sit on the throne of Israel; you can read about this in 2 Samuel 7. God’s promise didn’t mean that David and all those who came after him were free to do whatever they wanted; they still needed to keep the law of Moses; but it did mean that the line of David would last forever, that God would always be faithful to Israel and to Israel’s king, even if Israel’s king and the people themselves failed to be faithful to God. The covenant relationship between God and God’s people was secured by God’s promise to David.

This is the promise celebrated by Ethan the Ezrahite, to whom this psalm is attributed. Look at the detail in verses two to four: the Lord’s ‘steadfast love is established forever’; the Lord has ‘established [David’s] descendants forever’; David’s throne will last ‘for all generations’. The words here directly recall God’s promise to David from 2 Samuel 7. And the Lord and the Lord’s promises can be trusted because the Lord is all-powerful and entirely faithful; the Lord demonstrates kingly power and authority over ‘all things visible and invisible’; the Lord does not let the forces of darkness and chaos win. The Lord is righteous and just and shows covenant love and faithfulness to all that is created, bringing order out of disorder. This is why the people ‘exult’ in the name of the Lord ‘all day long’.

But if the Lord is the king over all things, then David is the man appointed king over all Israel. David was God’s choice—and as God’s choice, David was always going to have the Lord’s protection. Look at verses twenty-one to twenty-eight: ‘My hand shall always remain with David,’ says the Lord. ‘The enemy shall not outwit him . . . I will crush his foes before him  . . . I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.’ David and the Lord shall enjoy the closest of relationships, with David the dutiful son crying out, ‘You are my Father, my God!’

And now look at the following verses, verses twenty-nine to thirty-seven: the promise made to David also extends to include all those who follow him. ‘I will establish David’s line forever,’ says the Lord, ‘and his throne as long as the heavens endure.’ Even though individual monarchs fail and fall, God says that God will not ‘violate my covenant’; God has ‘sworn by [God’s] holiness’; ‘I will not lie to David,’ says the Lord, ‘and his throne [shall] endure before me like the sun . . . forever like the moon’. The overwhelming impression is of permanence secured by divine faithfulness. The Lord has promised that there will always be a descendant of David on the throne—and the Lord’s promises are certain and unbreakable. Aren’t they?

Boom! In 597 bc, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem and took its young king Jehoiachin prisoner. And ten years later, in 587, the Babylonians tightened their grip on Jerusalem, destroying the temple and the palace, before deporting the majority of the city’s population to Babylon itself. The kingdom of David was no more. All the promises of the Lord had come to nothing.

‘David and his line shall continue forever,’ says Psalm 89, ‘but now you, Lordyou have cheapened and rejected him. You are angry with him. You have got rid of the covenant. You have defiled his crown. You have broken down his walls. You have ruined his stronghold. You have weakened him—but you have strengthened his enemies instead, and you have made them rejoice. You have not supported him in battle. You have taken away his glory and dirtied his throne. You have taken the king down in his prime of life. You have shamed him. You, you, youyou have done all these things, and you have completely gone against what you promised!’

These are strong sentiments. The final quarter of Psalm 89 can make for difficult reading and hearing. Ethan the Ezrahite is here reminding the Lord of the promises and points out how different real life is. How can there be a descendant of David on the throne in Jerusalem when Jerusalem lies in ruins and the throne, both metaphorically and probably in reality, is in the depths of enemy territory? God, how could you let this happen? God, what about your promises? God, where are you? Why won’t you answer? Why?

Why, indeed? Ethan the Ezrahite captures something of the pain we all face when the circumstances of our lives don’t match up with what our faith tells us about God. Psalm 89 is what we could call a ‘communal lament’. It is a lament because it points out to God, should God ever need reminding, that all’s not well with the world and needs God to step in and sort things out. It is a communal lament because the lament is spoken by or on behalf of a hurting community. In light of the Lord’s promises to David, and given the fact that there is no longer any king on Israel’s throne, the people need to know: Has God lied? Why has God let us down? Why isn’t God here, protecting our nation? And we could extend these questions to ourselves:

  • God promises to be with us; so where is God today?
  • God promises that no weapon formed against us will prosper; so why is God not sorting out this crazy, violent world we live in?
  • God promises that the Lord has plans for our welfare and not for our harm; so why is God letting us—me, my family, my friends, my colleagues, my country—why is God letting us go through so much pain and meaninglessness?
  • Why doesn’t God keep God’s promises?

There are many answers to these sorts of questions—and most of them won’t actually help that much. But praying a communal lament such as Psalm 89 helps us voice our concerns and fears. It gives us the words we need to push God for a response.

maskil crusaders, working overtime . . .
But as well as a communal lament, Psalm 89 is also described in its heading as a maskil. Nobody quite knows what the word maskil means, but scholars suggest that a maskil is intended to prompt reflection or understanding—so perhaps this psalm was used communally to help the exiled people of Israel come to terms with the destruction of their nation and monarchy. Psalm 89, as a maskil, invites us all to consider and even question God’s character: in light of what we know about God, about God’s righteousness, God’s justice, about God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; in light of all these qualities, what does all this pain and disaster and uncertainty actually mean? How should we as a nation, as a church, as a family, tackle and face up to our pains and struggles when God appears absent and far away? How might we relate to God when our misery and anguish are total? In short, what does Psalm 89 tell us about God?

Psalm 89 doesn’t actually give us an answer. The final verse ends Book Three of the Psalms as a whole rather than the psalm itself. We are left with an image of Ethan the Ezrahite standing face-up towards God, arms outstretched in prayer, perhaps with all Israel alongside him, pouring out his heart to God, desperate for and demanding an answer from God, who is quick to make promises of blessing but not so quick, it seems, to keep them. It is not an especially comforting picture. But let’s look once more at the psalm:

I have set the crown on one who is mighty [says the Lord], I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found my servant . . . ; with my holy oil I have anointed him. . . He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God . . . !’ I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.

Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples, with which your enemies taunt, O Lord, with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.

If these verses, taken from the middle and end of Psalm 89, remind you of Jesus, then you’re in good company. The New Testament sees Jesus as the descendant of David, the one to whom David’s throne is given. Our Gospel reading today from Luke makes this especially clear. But Jesus was born around five hundred years after Psalm 89 was composed, a thousand years after God’s promise to David. For those who lived in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, there were no easy or persuasive answers. But we see Jesus as the fulfilment of David’s line—and because of this, we see Jesus as the one who, despite suffering pain and death on the cross, is the risen and exalted Lord who sits on David’s throne at the side of God the Father. And because we see Jesus, we do not need to use Psalm 89 to reflect on God’s promises in light of life’s struggles and pains. No—instead, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can read Psalm 89 to reflect on life’s struggles and pains in light of the promises already fulfilled in God’s Son, the Lord Jesus. That is both the challenge and the comfort of this extraordinary psalm.

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