The Story (Psalm 89:1–52)

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Stuart Chase - 4 Apr 2021

The Story (Psalm 89:1–52)

Psalm 89, a twin to Psalm 88, tells the story of a seeming failure on God’s part to fulfil the Davidic covenant. But Ethan the Ezrahite in fact holds out hope that the promise will endure, and in Christ and his #resurrection we see the story repeated and fulfilled in its fulness.

Scripture References: Psalms 89:1-52

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On Good Friday, we considered together Psalm 88, which is universally considered the darkest of all the Psalms. In that Psalm, Heman the Ezrahite lamented before the Lord and concluded that darkness was his only friend. It is a fitting Psalm to reflect on in light of Black Friday—that day on which the Son of God gave his life for the sins of his people.

Easter Sunday is a day in the calendar year in which we might typically consider one of the Gospel resurrection accounts, or possibly study of a text like 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s most extended treatise on the resurrection. But Psalm 88 is the first in set of twin Psalms. Psalm 89, written by another Ezrahite—Ethan by name—complements its younger (and briefer) brother and, while it was written with a particular historical context in mind, the story of the Psalm parallels, in many ways, the story of the disciples on that first Easter weekend.

Having considered Psalm 88 on Good Friday, I want to therefore consider Psalm 89 this Easter Sunday and look at how it foreshadows the story of Easter. But before we consider that story, we need to consider the story in its original setting.

The Story Explained

The heading of the Psalm tells us only that it was “a Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.” We don’t know a great deal about Ethan. We are told that he was known for his profound wisdom, second only it seems, to that of Solomon (1 Kings 4:31). We are told his father’s name (Mahol in 1 Kings 4:31 or Zerah in 1 Chronicles 2:6) and that he and Heman, author of Psalm 88, were two of five brothers (1 Chronicles 2:6). Some have identified him as the Ethan who helped transport the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 15:17), though the connection is tenuous at best. Others have thought that Ethan and Jeduthan, author of Psalms 62 and 77, were the same person, based on 1 Chronicles 16:38–42, but this connection is once again uncertain.

Ethan wrote Psalm 89 as a “Maskil.” The word means instruction or reflection—here, a reflection in a particularly perplexing time when God’s work appeared mysterious. As we will see, Ethan wrote to offer instruction to God’s people when it appeared that he had deserted them.

Given the lack of any further information, it is impossible to, with any certainty, identify the precise circumstances under which he wrote. However, the content of the Psalm suggests that he wrote out of concern that the Davidic covenant was being violated.

The implementation of this covenant is recorded in 2 Samuel 7. In essence, the Lord had promised David an enduring succession of kings on the throne of Israel. But, for Ethan, it seemed that this promise had fallen to the ground. He wonders throughout why this promise was seemingly not being fulfilled.

Since Ethan was contemporary with Solomon, the most fitting occasion of the Psalm’s authorship is probably the division of the kingdom following Solomon’s death. Ethan seems to have outlived Solomon and witnessed the sad division of the kingdom, which no doubt left faithful followers of Yahweh, and David, perplexed.

It must have been devastating for faithful Yahweh followers to witness Rehoboam’s folly when he assumed his father’s throne, despite his father’s careful instruction to him in books like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Worse still, how confusing it must have been to witness the twelve tribes divided into two kingdoms, with the majority share going to Jeroboam, neither a descendant of David nor a godly man. This seemed to be a violation of God’s covenant with his people, and no doubt some faithful to David were grumbling. Ethan saw the need to write and offer some instruction to a confused people in light of these events.

This is a long Psalm, and we cannot take the time to consider it in full detail but, for our purposes, it is helpful to consider a fourfold progression of the story.

The Divine Throne

Ethan begins, in vv. 1–18, by looking to the divine throne. He commits, in a perplexing time, to “sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever” and to “make known [his] faithfulness to all generations” (v. 1). In the opening verses, in particular, but also throughout the rest of the Psalm, he repeatedly emphasises Yahweh’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” (v. 2). These qualities are the foundation of the promise to David and his descendants. Ethan’s every reflection in his Maskil must be considered in light of Yahweh’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.”

In vv. 3–4, Ethan reminds Yahweh of his covenant to David. The reminder is not necessary because God had forgotten, but instead as a means of pleading with the Lord on the basis of his revealed word. He follows this reminder in vv. 5–8 by acknowledging Yahweh’s supremacy. All lesser thrones pale in comparison to the divine throne.

In vv. 9–13, Ethan offers several examples of how the created order itself recognises and submits to the divine throne. In Hebrew thought, the raging seas represented the epitome of chaos and disorder. Yet even the raging sea itself submits to the divine throne (v. 8). Rahab is another name for Leviathan, the fabled sea monster that represents chaotic and open hostility to Yahweh, but even he submits to the divine throne (v. 9). Heaven (vv. 10–11) and earth (v. 12) submit to the divine throne as does the sea. Indeed, the Lord’s “mighty arm” and “strong hand” rule over everything (v. 13).

Verses 14–18 highlight how God’s people respond in reverent praise to his sovereign rule. They recognise that he rules righteously and justly (v. 14) and therefore openly praise him as their strength and protector (vv. 15–18).

The Davidic Throne

Ethan recognised that the heavenly, divine throne was the basis of the earthly, Davidic rule. But having rejoiced in the reality of the divine throne, he then turns his attention to the promise of a Davidic throne (vv. 19–37).

Having already introduced the thought of the Davidic covenant in vv. 3–4, Ethan now turns his attention in greater detail to this promise. He reflects in vv. 19–23 on how Yahweh carefully and specifically chose David as his royal representative. Though we are not told about this in the record of 1 and 2 Samuel, the Lord evidently revealed his choice of David to Samuel “in a vision” (v. 19). He revealed that he had appointed David to carry out the duties of royal conquest in which Saul had failed (vv. 20–23).

If this idea of conquering and ruling for Yahweh seemed out of reach, Yahweh promised that he would himself accomplish this task through his servant (vv. 24–25). He would cause David’s throne to flourish. And not only would the Lord be faithful to him, but he would likewise be faithful to the Lord (vv. 26–27). This dual faithfulness would result in an enduring throne (vv. 28–29) and would invite fatherly chastening for disobedience (vv. 30–32), though even that chastening would not violate the divine promise implicit in the covenant (vv. 33–37).

The Defeated Throne

All of this is good and glorious. Had the Psalm ended there, we would be rejoicing. The sovereign Lord would establish an enduring throne for the house of David and would, by his faithfulness, ensure David’s faithfulness in return. But this is all thrown into chaos in vv. 38–45, where Ethan highlights the reality of the divided throne, which raises three complaints. In delivering these complaints, Ethan was probably putting voice to complaints of the people, though his own voice may well be included in these complaints.

First, he complains that the Lord had broken his covenant promises to David (vv. 38–40). Yahweh had “cast off” and “rejected” his people in his “wrath.” He had “renounced” his covenant as he allowed David’s throne to be “defiled,” his city walls “breached” and his strongholds “ruin[ed].” Though he longed to sing of Yahweh’s steadfast love forever (v. 1), he struggled to see that steadfast love displayed in the seeming overthrow of the Davidic dynasty.

Second, he complains that the Lord had failed to come to his people’s rescue (vv. 41–44). Those who opposed the Davidic dynasty seemed to be prospering. David had become “the scorn of his neighbours” and his “enemies” had been made to “rejoice.” When Rehoboam had threatened to go to war with Jeroboam, God had stopped him and had thereby failed to deliver David in the battle and instead had “cast his throne to the ground.”

Third, he complains that the Lord had failed to maintain the perpetuity of David’s lineage (v. 45). The lasting dynasty had been “cut short” and David “covered with shame.”

Simply put, the Lord had seemingly turned back on his promises. The glorious expectation of an enduring lineage of faithful kings had failed to materialise. After eighty glorious years of largely wise, godly leadership, with a bright future, reality had struck and God—so it seemed—had failed to deliver on his promises. It had left his people dazed and confused.

The Dominating Throne

Ethan, however, was not hopeless and did not want his readers to remain hopeless. In the closing verses (vv. 46–52) he offers some glimpses of hope.

He issues a series of questions in these closing verses, but intersperses his questions with the tone of hope that God will “remember.” In Scripture, when God remembers, he acts on behalf of his people. When God remembers, it gives his people hope.

How long would the Lord allow the situation to continue as it did (v. 46)? Not forever, because there was hope that he would “remember” (v. 47). Ethan knew that he was heading for the grave (v. 48) and wondered if he would see the Lord’s faithful love restored to his people (v. 49). But he had hope that, even if it was not in his lifetime, the Lord would indeed remember for the sake of his own glory and reputation (v. 51) and closes with a tone of resounding hope: “Praise be to the LORD forever! Amen and Amen” (v. 52). Despite every appearance to the contrary, he remained persuaded that the Lord would remain faithful forever, even if he couldn’t see how it would all work out.

But what does all of this have to do with Easter? For that, we have to expand the story a little beyond David, Solomon, Rehoboam, and Jeroboam.

The Story Expanded

While the context of the Psalm lies back in the tenth century B.C., its story carries striking similarities to that of the first Easter weekend. Consider some of the parallels.

The Divine Throne

Ethan knew that the enduring throne of David rested on the foundation of Yahweh’s steadfast love and faithfulness. He was confident, in other words, that David’s throne would endure because David was God’s chosen servant. It was therefore no surprise when Solomon assumed the throne after David. It was no surprise when Rehoboam reigned after Solomon. This was in keeping with what he, and all faithful Jews, expected from the Lord. It was obvious that all this was from the Lord.

Jesus’ ministry invited similar confidence. When people considered Jesus ministry, it was obvious that he had been sent by God. Peter professed without hesitation that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). When Jesus healed the blind man in John 9, the Pharisees claimed that he could not be sent by God because he had worked on the Sabbath, but the crowds declared, “How can a man who is a sinner do such things?” (John 9:16) and the formerly blind man openly professed, “He is a prophet” (John 9:17). When they heard him teach, the people “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). The general opinion was that Jesus was acting on God’s authority—that he was God’s chosen servant-king.

By the time Jesus entered Jerusalem in the week leading to his death, “the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’” (Luke 19:37–38). Jesus’ popularity grew throughout his ministry with people proclaiming him time and again to be God’s appointed messenger.

The Davidic Throne

The Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7:11–16 included the promise of an enduring throne. It included the promise that “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” During the Babylonian exile, when there was no Davidic king on the throne, faithful Jews had come to understand that promise in a slightly different way. They had come to understand it as more than a political promise but as a promise of Messiah. Messiah, they believed, would be a descendant of David, who would ultimately fulfil this promise.

Significantly, the crowds in Jesus’ day did not consider him to be generically a messenger of God. They considered him to be the Messiah—the son of David (Matthew 1:1). The title “son of David” had become synonymous with “Messiah” (see Matthew 22:42). And people frequently recognised Jesus as the son of David.

Once, two blind men followed Jesus crying, “Have mercy on us, Son of David” (Matthew 9:27). When they saw his mighty works, crowds wondered, “Can this be the Son of David?” (Matthew 12:23). A Canaanite woman, whose daughter was demon oppressed, approached him once and appealed, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22). Again, two blind men cried to him as he passed by, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” (Matthew 20:30–31). As he rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, the people sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:9, 15).

The point is simply that the people in Jesus’ day believed him to be Messiah. As they saw his mighty works and heard his authoritative teaching, they knew that the one sent by God, who would fulfil the promise of David’s eternal throne, had come. What utter rejoicing.

The Defeated Throne

But then the Psalm takes a turn for the worse. That black day arrived when Solomon’s foolish son brought about the divided throne and, in the eyes of many, the end of the Davidic covenant. Everything that had seemed so positive now came crashing to the ground.

Is that not what happened on Black Friday? The one whom the people believed was the Son of David, who had come to establish David’s forever throne, died. Once again, as a millennium earlier, God’s promises came crashing down.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus lamented “Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people” whom “our chief priests and rulers delivered … up to be condemned to death, and crucified.” They had dearly “hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:29–31) but that promise had collapsed.

Well could the people of Jesus’ day lament unfulfilled promises—a defeated throne.

The Dominating Throne

As he reflected in the seemingly defeated throne, Ethan held out a note of hope that it would not last. He believed that God would remember and restore his favour. He believed that the defeated throne would once again become a dominating throne.

Sadly, unlike Ethan, it seemed that none of Jesus’ contemporaries believed that the defeated throne would become the dominating throne. To a person, they all gave in to defeat. With Ethan’s brother, Heman, they might have lamented that darkness was their only friend (Psalm 88:18). God’s promises had come crashing to the ground and there was no hope of restoration—or was there?

Psalm 89 is not a typical Messianic Psalm. It is not quoted liberally in the New Testament in fulfilment of Messianic prophesies. And yet the careful reader cannot but observe the Messianic parallel.

Psalm 89:27 speaks of the Davidic king as “the firstborn” and “the highest of the kings of the earth” and the Davidic covenant as “established forever” (v. 37). In parallel language, Jesus is described as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth,” and to him has been granted “glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:5–6). John seems to borrow the language of Psalm 89 to highlight that Jesus is the promised Son of David who brings ultimately fulfilment to the idea of an enduring throne.

But observe that, while the Davidic king is said to be “the firstborn,” Jesus is “the firstborn of the dead.” Though his followers didn’t understand it, his throne came at great personal cost. Only through death would he be crowned as the firstborn. And the crowning moment was when he overcame death by resurrection. Revelation presents Jesus as the true Davidic king who fulfilled the Davidic covenant in a way that no other king could or did. Therefore, John could write,

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.

(Revelation 1:5–7)

The gospel story parallels the story of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. But the resurrection means that the gospel is more than just a story. It is a story, indeed, but one with profoundly practical and eternal implications. In the doxology of Revelation 1:5–7, which borrows the language of Psalm 89, we see at least three practical implications of the resurrection, with which we bring this study to a close.

First, we see that the resurrection offers assurance of salvation. The resurrection proves that God “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.” Your salvation does not depend on your own effort but on the objective reality that Christ purchased our salvation with his blood, which was proven by his resurrection. When your introspection causes you to doubt your salvation, allow the truth of the resurrection to encourage you.

Second, we learn that the resurrection gives us hope in our evangelism. Jesus has “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” and to him we ascribe “glory and dominion forever and ever.” He has given us work to do, which will bring him eternal glory and dominion. The Great Commission is not a hope-so task by which we cross our fingers that people will believe so that Christ might have some people to reign over for eternity. The resurrection guarantees his eternal glory and dominion, which offers us great encouragement as we seek to faithfully spread that glory and dominion throughout the nations.

Third, we observe that the resurrection enables perseverance in trial. “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.” Revelation was written to believers who were undergoing immense persecution from the same people who had crucified Jesus. The prophecy was given to assure its readers that that persecution would soon come to an end. When Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, the Jewish persecution of Christians came crashing down. The prophecy, therefore, was given to encourage Christ’s people to persevere, knowing that opposition would not last forever.

Ethan the Ezrahite knew that God’s promises would endure, even if he did not understand how. We know more. We know that those promises, even when evidence points to the contrary, endure because Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on the earth to whom belongs glory and dominion forever and ever. He is the greater David who fulfilled every covenant made to David. And the proof of that fulfilment lies in the resurrection. May we rejoice in the resurrection today and allow it to encourage our hearts.

AMEN