Waiting for the King: Advent in the Psalms | Psalm 89
Brian Hedges | December 16, 2018
Writing to his friend Eberhard Bethge from prison in Taegel in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer compared Advent to life in a prison cell. These were his words: he says, “One waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other, things that really are of no consequence. The door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”
That, he said, is what Advent is like. That’s what God’s people were like in the Old Testament. They were waiting, but they couldn’t change their own circumstances, and Bonhoeffer knew this personally. He knew it well. He was executed by hanging less than six months later in Flossenburg.
Today’s message is about how to go on hoping in God when it feels like he’s abandoned you. It’s about holding onto hope in the darkest parts of the storm. It’s about trusting God’s faithfulness when it looks like his promise has failed.
This message is the middle message in a three-part series on the kingdom psalms, the royal psalms. Last week we looked at Psalm 2, “Looking for the King,” and the introduction to the psalter in Psalm 2 is an introduction of God’s anointed and of God’s kingship, of God’s reign through his servant David, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We looked at some of the features of that kingdom and of that hope.
Next week Andy will be sharing the word with you, and he’ll be looking at Psalm 98, “Celebrating the King,” where the kingship and the sovereignty and the reign of Yahweh is celebrated [in] that great passage from which we get our Christmas carol “Joy to the World.”
But today is that middle part, where we’ve been oriented to the kingdom and we’re waiting to be reoriented to the kingdom in the coming of Christ, but today it’s about the disorientation, where we’re still in that waiting period. This is what God’s people Israel experienced for hundreds of years in the Old Testament, and it mirrors very closely what many of us experience in our own lives, where we’ve hoped in God’s promise, we’ve looked for God’s work, and yet we haven’t experienced the realization of that.
So, I want us today to look at Psalm 89, and as you’re turning there it might be helpful to just explain where Psalm 89 falls in the whole book of Psalms, in the psalter. Many of you will know that there are five books in the psalter, five books of psalms that make up our entire book of Psalms; and within the five books of the Psalms there’s a movement from lament in the first three books to joy and celebration in the final two books of the Psalms, especially in Psalms 145 through 150.
Psalm 89 is the last psalm in book three, and in this psalm the movement is from praise to lament. It’s the reverse of the movement in the whole psalter. This psalm is really setting the stage for the renewed hope of Psalm 90 and following, book four and book five. And the theme of this psalm is the Davidic kingdom, it’s the Davidic covenant, but it is the apparent failure of the Davidic covenant. That’s the theme of this psalm.
The psalm begins by looking at the throne and rejoicing in God’s promise and God’s faithfulness, but by the end of the psalm the note has turned to one of lament, and the tone has become mournful, it’s become sad. It basically ends on that note. There’s just the final verse, a slight ray of hope, but the dominant motif of this psalm is one of lament and sadness; this following Psalm 88, which is the darkest psalm in all of the psalter.
So, this psalm has an important place in the whole book of Psalms. As there is this movement from lament to praise, this is the darkest point, this is the bleakest point.
So what I want to do this morning is read through the psalm together, but rather than read through it all at once and then go back, tracking our way through in the exposition, I just want to read as I expound, and do that for about the first half of this message, and then I want to end by giving you three applications that we get from this psalm.
So, as we read - you can follow along with me on the screen - as we read, I want you to pay attention to three key words, and those words are throne, covenant, and lament. I’ve already used those words, but those are the words that I think define for us, described for us, or summarize for us the three major movement of this psalm. Throne in verses 1-18; covenant, verses 19-37; and lament, verses 38-52. So let’s look at each of these three things, and then once we’ve kind of seen the big picture of this psalm we’ll drill into some important lessons for us to learn.
Okay, so first of all, throne, and it begins with David’s throne in verses 1 through 4. Let me read it.
“I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth will I make known your faithfulness to all generations.” Now, just underline right now these two phrases, “steadfast love” and “faithfulness.” Those will occur over and over again throughout this psalm, seven times each in the Hebrew, eight for faithfulness in English. Verse 2, “For I said, ‘Steadfast love will be built up forever; in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.’ You have said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: “I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations.”’”
So there you have it, David’s throne. This is the promise that is in view in this psalm, and of course it’s all going back to 2 Samuel 7, where God made a covenant with David. Now, here was the background to that covenant with David. David had an ambition, and his ambition was to build the temple, right, to build the temple for God. He was making plans for this. He was excited about this. This was going to be his crowning achievement.
And God came to him, through the prophet Nathan, and said, “You’re not going to build a house for me; I’m going to build a house for you, and the house I’m going to build is a dynasty. Your offspring, your heirs, your sons will sit on the throne, and they will rule forever and ever.” Underline that word “forever.” God says, “I’m going to build a house for you, and your offspring will rule forever.” That’s the note in verse 4, “I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations.”
That word “build” and the word “establish,” these words are closely related; again, going all the way back to 2 Samuel 7. That’s the background to this whole psalm.
Now, the rest of the first segment (verses 1 through 18) really focuses not so much on David’s throne, but on God’s throne, what commentator Derek Kidner calls “the throne above the throne.” Now, I think it’s important to just note these verses quickly, because they, I think, bring into relief the problem of this psalm.
The psalmist understands that God has made promises, and those promises are rooted in his character. The promise to establish David’s throne is actually based on God’s own reign, on God’s own throne, and so it’s all the more alarming that these promises are not being fulfilled. So let’s just work through those verses and notice several features of God’s throne.
(1) First of all, there’s a focus on God’s majesty, on his greatness. Look at verses 5 through 8.
“Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him? O Lord God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O Lord, with your faithfulness all around you?” So the focus here is on God’s majesty, as he reigns and as he rules in the heavens, in the assembly of the holy ones, the angels, the heavenly beings.
(2) Then, in verses 9 through 13, the focus shifts to God’s sovereignty, and this is God’s rule on the earth. Look at verse 9: “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you will them.”
The sea was, for the Hebrew mind, for the Jewish mind, the sea was the most untamable part of creation. You remember that creation itself emerged out of the chaos of the seas as the Spirit of the Lord moved over the face of the waters. Israel’s whole origin as a nation happened as God delivered them through the Red Sea. God is the one who reigned over the sea, who ruled over the sea. As William Cowper put it in that old hymn,
“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.”
So the psalmist here is recognizing this. He says in verse 10, “You crushed Rahab,” that’s a nickname for Egypt; “You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.” So, again, looking back to the exodus.
Verse 11, “The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. The north and the south, you have created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.” Those are two mountains. The mountain Tabor is where Deborah had won her victory for the people of Israel in Judges 4; Hermon, one of the mightiest, highest mountains in the ancient near east at 9,000. “Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name. You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand.” The sovereignty of God as he rules over creation.
(3) And then verses 14 through 18 focus on the righteousness of God. This is God’s character. Look at verse 14. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness [there those words are again] go before you.”
The psalmist here is telling us that God’s dominion is not tyranny, that God’s reign is not malicious, because at the very foundation of his reign is righteousness and justice. Verse 15, “Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O Lord, in the light of your face, who exult in your name all the day and in your righteousness are exalted. For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted. For our shield belongs to the Lord, our king to the Holy One of Israel.” So he’s circling back now to this theme of the kingdom.
That brings us to the second movement of the psalm, which is covenant, and the focus here is on God’s covenant with David. You see this broken down in a couple of ways. First of all, there’s a focus on David as God’s exalted servant, and then there’s a focus on the enduring dynasty of David’s family.
(1) First of all, the exalted servant, verses 19 through 27.
“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. I have founded David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him…” And then he begins to give promises. He recounts the promises that God made to him. “...so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.” He’s promising here victory to David over all of his enemies.
“My faithfulness and my steadfast love [there are those key words again] shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted. I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.” Now, we just noticed how God is the one who rules the sea, and now God is saying, “I will set David’s right hand on the sea and the rivers.”
“He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.”
(2) This is a promise that God made to David, and then it continues with a focus on David’s dynasty, verses 28 through 37. “My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. I will establish his offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens.”Now just notice here as we read these verses the emphasis on the enduring dynasty. “I will establish his throne forever, his offspring forever.” There’s an emphasis here on how long-lasting, how enduring, how permanent this throne will be.
Verse 30, “If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the road and their iniquity with stripes, but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips. Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His offspring shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me. Like the moon it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.”
Do you see it? The covenant that God made with David and his family, “I will establish your throne forever.”
Then you get to verse 38, and all of a sudden the tone changes. Now the questions come. “Why have you done this, Lord? How long, O Lord, will you forsake us?” The questions come. Kidner says, “The covenant is now in eclipse.” They can’t see it. The author of this psalm, Ethan - we know very little about him, but he was probably an Israelite in exile. He’s away from Jerusalem, he’s away from the temple. The king is in chains, in shackles, the people of God have been plundered. The temple is in ruins. That’s the situation, and that’s the situation he writes in.
Notice what he does now. He says, “But now you have cast off and rejected me.” He begins to focus on what God has done, on God being behind the plight of the people. The tone is almost accusatory. Look at verses 38-45.
“But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust. You have breached all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins. All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors. You have exalted” not David and his sons, but “the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice. You have also turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not made him stand in battle.” There’s not victory over his enemies; he’s been defeated by Babylon now.
“You have made his splendor to cease and cast his throne to the ground.” This throne that was meant to endure, cast to the ground.
“You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame.”
Kidner says, “This is a pointed reminder that the God who made promises has unmade the king.” God’s king has been rejected, his people are in exile. And so the psalmist prays, “How long? When will God act?” in verse 46. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man! What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?”
“Where is it, Lord? You promised steadfast love forever; where is it? I don’t see it anymore.”
“Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked, and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations, with which your enemies mock, O Lord, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed.” That’s his situation.
And then the very final verse; even in the midst of all of this desolation, this darkness, this despair, verse 52 says, “Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and Amen.”
So do you see the movement of the psalm? Maybe you understand this psalm a little better now. Throne, covenant, lament; book three ends, God’s people in exile… This is the context in which the book of Psalms is compiled; this is the hymnbook of God’s people in the Old Testament as they wait for Messiah.
Three Lessons from Psalm 89
What does that mean for us today? I want to suggest three lessons, three ways that I think we can apply the lessons from this psalm to our lives, and here’s the first.
(1) Don’t despair when God’s promise seems to have failed. Don’t despair when God’s promise seems to have failed. We acknowledge it, and we should. We have to be honest. We don’t put on a glib smile and act as if everything is okay, but we don’t despair. Instead, we continue to look to God, even when things are dark and bleak.
You see that in the psalm, the movement of the psalm from the promise of the throne to the eclipse of the covenant to the “How long, O Lord?” We see it in Israel’s history; delivered from slavery in Egypt, God gives them his law, he gives them his covenant, he gives them his promises, he establishes the kingdom, he establishes David, and then division, then disobedience, failure, defeat, and finally exile.
And we see this in our own lives, don’t we? We begin life bright with hope for our future, most of us, most of the time. But it doesn’t take very long in life for some of those hopes and those dreams to be dashed. We struggle with faith, we struggle with doubt, and there are all kinds of circumstances that can trigger this in our lives. The loss of a job, disillusionment in marriage, or maybe you hoped to be married but you’re not approaching middle age and there’s still no wife or husband in sight. Or perhaps you are married and desire to have children, but you’re faced with the awful pain of infertility.
Or maybe you’ve had children, but you were really surprised at how hard parenting can be. Maybe you’re faced with difficult medical problems, whether for yourself or for someone in your family - a child, a spouse, a parent - and so you find yourself in the difficult role of caregiver. Maybe you’re facing an empty nest, and your children are raised, but they’re wandering far from God. Maybe you’ve lost children through a tragic early death.
Perhaps you’re in what Martyn Lloyd-Jones called “the difficulty of the middle period,” mid-life. It can be really difficult. Or maybe the middle of a study program, grad school; or maybe the midpoint of a career, where you’ve put in lots of hard work, but you haven’t seen the success yet, you haven’t seen the fruit of your labor.
Maybe it’s none of those particular problems, but despite all of the external blessings that are in your life - you can see them, you know that you should be happy, but the reality is you’re just sad. You just feel discouraged a lot, you feel depressed a lot, you wonder if you have a problem. It may be that you feel far from God, and there’s just spiritual darkness in your life. You have unanswered questions about God, about life, about faith. You long for restoring a relationship with God, but you don’t know how to get it. You may resonate with the words of the poet William Cowper when he said,
“Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul’s refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?”
“Where is it? I remember what it was like, but I don’t experience it anymore.”
Bonhoeffer, as he illustrated Advent in one of his Advent sermons, before he was imprisoned, compared it to men who are trapped in a mine, and there had evidently been a recent mining accident. He said, “Imagine the guy who’s in the last shaft of the mine. He has some hope that the people who are up in front of him will get rescued, but he’s in too deep.” So he’s just waiting, and he’s waiting expecting death. But then he said he begins to hear a tap, the tap of a hammer, the movement of rock. Then a voice cries out, “Are you there?” Suddenly, there’s hope again.
That’s what it’s like to be in this period of exile, before the hope comes, as we’re waiting for some kind of breakthrough in our lives. So the first lesson, I think, of this psalm is just, don’t despair when you find yourself in that situation, and many of you are probably there this morning. That may be right where you are right now. Don’t despair, and don’t give up.
(2) Instead, secondly, continue to wait on God, trust his character, and cling to his word. Here’s the reality: when we are in these situations, God is teaching us something about himself, but we only learn those lessons if we wait on God. I want you to notice a couple of things about the lament itself. I’ve already read it, I’m not going to read it all again, but I want you to notice two things about the lament from verses 38 through 52.
(a) First of all, notice how God-centered it is. It’s very God-centered. In verses 38 through 45, God is the subject of almost all the verbs. He says, “You have cast us off and rejected us. You have renounced the covenant with your servant. You have defiled his crown in the dust.”
Now, of course, everything he’s saying is not strictly true. God’s covenant had not failed, and he knows this, because his lament is framed with verses 1 through 36 and the emphasis on God’s steadfast love and faithfulness on one hand and with the doxology, “Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and Amen,” verse 52, on the other. But the point is this: in the middle of his suffering, discouragement, and fear, he keeps on praying. He keeps on making reference to God.
I think one of the most tragic things that I see sometimes in believers is that when life gets hard, when suffering comes, the tendency is to withdraw. The tendency is to step back, to pull away from God, to pull away from community, to pull away from others, to neglect the word, rather than to draw near. And then all of a sudden someone is on the brink of apostasy and they’re saying, “Where was God when I was suffering?” Don’t do that, Christian. Keep your focus on God. Continue to wait on him and maintain reference to God in the midst of your suffering and pain, because God is doing something. God is, as C.S. Lewis described him, the “great iconoclast.”
Do you know what an iconoclast is? An iconoclast is someone who destroys idols, someone who would come into a church full of images and break down all the images; that’s an iconoclast. C.S. Lewis, when he wrote his book A Grief Observed after his wife had died, said that God was the great iconoclast. He was the one who came and was destroying the false images of God that he had in his mind!
That happens to us in our suffering. We think that God will treat us in a certain way, we think that God’s promises mean a certain thing, we think that God works in these ways...and in the middle of suffering God shows us who he really is, but we have to maintain reference to God. The prayer here is God-centered.
(b) Here’s the second thing: it is word-saturated. This whole prayer is steeped in scriptural language; the histories of the Old Testament, the promises of the covenant, the earlier psalms. The psalmist is continually making reference to these, alluding to these, echoing these. It shows us how deeply we need the word.
Brother, sister, don’t neglect the word in the midst of your suffering. Don’t neglect the word prior to your suffering; what will you have to fall back on when the suffering comes?
This is what Bonhoeffer did when he was in prison. This is in Eric Metaxas’s biography. He says, “From the beginning of his time until the end Bonhoeffer maintained his daily discipline of scriptural meditation and prayer he had been practicing for more than a decade. Each morning he meditated for at least half an hour on a verse of Scripture, and he interceded for his friends and relatives and for his brothers in the confessing church. Once he got his Bible back, he read it for hours each day. By November he had read through the Old Testament two-and-a-half times. He also drew strength from praying the psalms.”
Do you want to know how Christians can face martyrdom, how they can face persecution, how they can face suffering, how they can face cancer, how they can face the loss of a spouse or the sickness of a child or the disillusionment of all their earthly hopes? This is how: they live in the word. I want to encourage you to do the same.
(3) Then, lesson number three, not only are we to continue to wait on God by trusting his character and clinging to his word, but number three, look to Christ, the Lord’s anointed, in whom all the promises of God are yes and amen.
The last three verses of the psalm. Verse 50, “Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked, and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations, with which your enemies mock, O Lord, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed. Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and Amen.”
Derek Kidner in his commentary makes this very perceptive comment. Listen. “The prayer which the psalmist prays in the exiled king’s name begins to accustom our eyes to the combination of servant (verse 50) and Messiah or anointed (verse 51), the recipient of God’s promises and man’s insults. The unanswerable questions, like our own, were to have undreamt-of and unquestionable answers.”
The unanswerable questions (“How long, O Lord?”) have an unquestionable answer, and that answer is found in the Advent of Jesus Christ, because Jesus Christ is the one who fully embodies everything this psalm is talking about. Jesus Christ is the Lord’s anointed, who is not only promises a kingdom but is cut off in the land of the living. He is the Lord’s anointed who, though he trusts in God’s steadfast love, finds himself in the desolation at the cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He enters into the darkness of Gethsemane, and then death on Golgotha, the death of the cross.
He experiences all of that, and his family, his disciples, they experience it, too. Can you imagine the feelings of Mary on the Saturday following Good Friday, the disciples once they’ve seen Jesus crucified? It seems that all of their hopes, all of their faith - everything they’ve longed for, it seems like it’s all come to an end. Then, Sunday morning, and then resurrection.
This is the movement of the gospel: cross, followed by an empty tomb. Death leads way to life, suffering prepares for glory, humiliation gives way to exaltation. Here’s what I want you to know, brother and sister: this is also true in your life. This is true in the life of the church, this is true in the life of believers. Whatever we face in the here and now, the suffering that we encounter, Paul says, cannot be compared to “the weight of glory” that will be revealed to us hereafter.
There are some losses that time in this world never heals, but in the world to come, in the new heavens and the new earth, when resurrection morning for the whole world comes, then time will heal, then tears will be wiped away, sorrows will be no more. That is our hope. That’s the hope of Advent. That’s the hope of Christianity. That’s the hope that we have in Christ.
Let me close with one more word from Bonhoeffer. This is very moving. This was a letter that Dietrich wrote to his fiancé, Maria, while he was in prison in 1943, just about five months before he was executed. They were never married. Listen to what he says.
“Be brave for my sake, dearest Maria, even if this letter is your only token of my love this Christmastide. We shall both experience a few dark hours; why should we disguise that from each other? We shall ponder the incomprehensibility of our lot and be assailed by the question of why, over and above the darkness already enshrouding humanity. We should be subjected to the bitter anguish of a separation whose purpose we fail to understand. And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger. Wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succour in abandonment. No evil can befall us. Whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”
Amen? Let’s pray.
Our gracious God, we acknowledge this morning that we have unanswered questions. We often find ourselves crying out, “How long, O Lord? Why, O Lord?” All of us have those questions, and all of our questions are attached to very specific, concrete, real, painful situations in our lives. If we’re not there right now, we will be a year from now or ten years from now, but we don’t want to stay in that darkness without reference to you. We want to do what the psalmist did and to address our questions to you and to hold onto the promises of your word.
So, Lord, we do that this morning. We cling to you, we look to Christ, we say, “How long, O Lord?” but we renew our hope in the message of the God revealed in the humility of the manger, the message of the God who died on the cross for our sins. And we renew our hope in the promise of resurrection.
Thank you that there is hope beyond this world, beyond the scope of our earthly lives. We thank you for the promise of the new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness will dwell. We thank you for the promise that someday all of the pain and sin and suffering and sorrow of this world will be wiped away, and that the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. We look for that day, and we pray this morning hasten the day. Maranatha! May the Lord come quickly.
As we celebrate the Lord’s table this morning, we do so with both hope in our hearts and with the acknowledgment of the pain and suffering of this world, but we do so with our eyes on Jesus, who has entered that suffering, who has suffered for us, and who in his suffering on our behalf has given us life and hope. So draw near to us in these moments as we come to the table, speak to our hearts, give us assurance of your grace and your presence and your faithfulness. We pray it in Jesus’s name and for his sake, Amen.