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Psalm 89

Where’s your unfailing love, Lord?

The Psalms are full of praise for God. But what difference does God’s faithfulness make when he’s conspicuous by his absence in the real world and we fear we’re just mouthing empty platitudes to numb the pain?

An Ethan the Ezrahite psalm.

I will sing of Yahveh’s acts of love forever.
I will proclaim your faithfulness
to every generation.
2 I will declare that
your unfailing love will last forever
your faithfulness being firmly established
in the heavens.

3 “I’ve sealed a covenant with my chosen one
and sworn to my servant David:
4 ‘I will ensure that your dynasty endures forever
and make your throne stand strong for all time.’”

5 All of heaven
applauds the wonder, Yahveh.
The assembly of holy ones
celebrates your faithfulness.
6 For who in heaven
can compare with Yahveh?
Which of the heavenly beings
is like Yahveh?
7 A God inspiring awe
in the council of the holy ones—
far more immense and intimidating
than anyone around him.
8 Who is like you,
Yahveh, God of Angel Armies
Yahveh, almighty and utterly faithful?
9 You rule over the surging of the sea:
when its waves run wild
you subdue them.
10 It was you who crushed Rahab[1]
like a corpse.
You scattered your enemies
with a single blow.
11 The heavens are yours
the earth is yours too.
You made the world and everything in it.
12 You created the north and the south—
made Tabor and Hermon[2]
sing your praise joyfully.

13 Strong is your arm
mighty your hand
your right hand raised in triumph!
14 You’ve built your throne
on righteousness and justice
appointed Grace and Truth
as court attendants.
15 How blessed the people
who know the triumphant shout, Yahveh[3]
and walk in the light of your gaze!
16 All day long they rejoice
in knowing who you are
your saving justice having raised them up.
17 For you are the glory of their strength
and we triumph because you delight in us.
18 For our shield belongs to Yahveh
our king to the Holy One of Israel.

19 You spoke in a vision then
to your faithful servants, saying:
“I placed a mere youth above warriors
raised up one I chose from among the people.
20 I found David my servant
and anointed him with my holy oil.
21 My strength will always support him
and my powerful arm make him strong.
22 No enemy will outwit him
and no evildoer best him.
23 I’ll crush his foes before him
and strike down those who hate him.
24 My faithfulness and unfailing love
will be with him
making him triumph in my name.
25 I’ll extend his dominion to the sea
and his sovereignty to the rivers.
26 He’ll call me, ‘My father
my God, my rock of rescue.’
27 I’ll make him my firstborn
high king over all the kings of the earth.
28 My unfailing love will preserve him forever
and my covenant commitment to him
will stay firm.
29 I’ll make his dynasty last forever
his throne as long as the heavens endure.
30 But if his descendants abandon my teaching
and don’t abide by my rulings—
31 if they profane my laws
and don’t keep my commands—
32 I’ll punish their crime with a rod
and their waywardness with plagues.
33 But I’ll never withhold
my unfailing love from him
or fail to be faithful.
34 I won’t profane my covenant
or take back a single thing I said.
35 I’ve sworn once and for all in my holiness
I will never break faith with David.
36 His dynasty will last forever
his throne like the sun before me.
37 It will endure forever like the moon
that faithful witness in the sky.”[4]

38 But you—you’ve rejected, disowned
and raged at the one you anointed.
39 You’ve revoked your covenant
with your servant
and profaned his crown to the ground.
40 You’ve breached all his defenses
and reduced his strongholds to rubble
41 so that every passer-by plunders him
and he’s become the scorn of his neighbors.
42 You’ve empowered his enemies against him
to their joy and delight.
43 You’ve made his sword useless
and withdrawn your support in battle.
44 You’ve brought his splendor
to a sudden end
and hurled his throne to the ground.
45 You’ve made him old before his time
and shrouded him in shame.

46 How long, Yahveh
will you hide yourself?
Will your anger smolder like fire forever?
47 Remember the brevity of my lifespan—
how ephemeral this human life is!
48 What mortal can avoid death
and escape the pull of the grave forever?
49 Where are the loving acts
you showed in the past, Lord
that you faithfully swore to David?
50 Remember, Lord
the abuse flung at your servants
the insults of the world we have to bear—
51 the way your enemies have reviled, Yahveh
reviled your anointed one’s every step.

52 Blessed be Yahveh forever!
Amen and amen.

This psalm’s first 37 verses praise God for keeping his promise that David’s dynasty—actualizing God’s rule over the earth—would endure forever.[5] No Israelite could have asked for a sweeter opening, but the psalm doesn’t end there. Beginning in verse 38, it describes a crisis that contradicts everything it’s just said. Instead of trustworthy, God is shown to be fickle. It’s like he’s passed David a bad cheque of monumental proportions. Besides being unreliable, God is savagely destructive too, rendering all of Ethan’s earlier high praise a bad joke.

The psalm ends by putting a series of questions and a single request to God. Evoking our pity, the anguished questions culminate in asking God where his unfailing love for David has gone. Ethan’s request asks God to remember Israel’s deep humiliation.

Thus, the psalm gives us Jerusalem’s ruin without its restoration, the felling of David’s tree without its rebudding—like Christ’s passion without Easter Sunday. It’s as if God is telling us not to deny reality to make him look good and saying that faith must learn to wait without knowing how things will turn out. So the Psalms’ third book leaves us in pain, asking how can God really be gracious and truthful when he’s trashed his covenant with David, but also reminding us that honest doubt is no enemy of faith.[6]

How can I believe you keep your Word, Lord, when my world goes sideways and you don’t take my calls? Help me to pray honestly even when your promises feel like junk bonds. Help me to go on trusting that, however dark the day before Easter is for me, good will yet have the final word. Amen.

In your free moments today, meditate on these words:

Where are the loving acts you showed in the past, Lord
that you promised so faithfully to David?


[1] A sea monster referring figuratively to Egypt as an existential threat to Israel.

[2] Mount Hermon and Mount Tabor are Israel’s two biggest geological features, respectively located in the far north, and central regions.

[3] This shout can be either a war cry or a festal shout. Perhaps here it refers to both since each implies the other, the battle’s outcome being assured in advance.

[4] The idea that God has built the Davidic monarchy into the structure of the cosmic order (vv. 36-37) may reasonably suggest that the Davidic Messiah to come is far more than a mere man.

[5] The story is told in 1 Sam. 16; see also 2 Sam. 7.

[6] Verse 52’s doxology ends not the psalm, but rather the Psalms’ third book.

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.