Despondent Prayer; The Davidic Covenant Renounced? (Psalms 88-89) September 15-17
There is some question as to the authorship of Psalms 88 and 89. The superscription of Psalm 88 describes it as a song of the sons of Korah (the last of 11 Korahite psalms in the Psalter) as well as a maskil—an instructive psalm or "contemplation" (NKJV)—of Heman the Ezrahite. Psalm 89 is labeled as a maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite. Many take these names to refer to David's Levitical choir leaders Heman and Ethan (the latter apparently also known as Jeduthun). Indeed, Heman the singer, grandson of Samuel and choir leader of the Levitical clan of Kohath, was a descendant of Korah (see 1 Chronicles 6:33-38). Yet note 1 Kings 4:31, which says that Solomon was wiser than "Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Chalcol, and Darda." These men were evidently descendants not of Levi but of Judah's son Zerah: "The sons of Zerah were Zimri, Ethan, Heman, Calcol, and Dara" (1 Chronicles 2:6). The distinction Ethan the Ezrahite here appears to denote Ethan the Zarhite or Zerahite (recall that Hebrew was originally written with no vowels). How do we make sense of this?
Some think traditions have become confused and that the superscriptions of Psalms 88 and 89 are in error—that the designation "Ezrahite" was wrongly added to the Heman and Ethan in these psalm titles. But that is not necessarily so. First of all, it is entirely possible that the Heman and Ethan here are not David's Levitical music leaders at all but instead the illustrious descendants of Zerah. If so, it could be, in the case of Psalm 88, that the sons of Korah took the Zerahite Heman's written poem and set it to music—turning it into a song (making it "a psalm of the sons of Korah"). On the other hand, the Heman here could well be David's Levitical choir leader, a descendant of Korah. Note that Korah himself was the son of Izhar, one of Kohath's four sons (see 1 Chronicles 6:37-38, 18). Perhaps the descendants of Izhar were referred to as the Kohathite sub-clan of the Izrahites or Ezrahites. However, such an explanation would not apply to David's music leader Ethan, who was a descendant of Levi's son Merari. Considering all this, perhaps the Heman of Psalm 88 was David's music leader, the Izrahite, while the Ethan of Psalm 89 was the famous Zerahite and not the Merarite choir leader (more on this in the comments on Psalm 89).
Besides attribution, the superscription of Psalm 88 also contains the phrase le-mahalath le-annoth. Recall that Psalm 53's superscription contains the phrase le-mahalath. As noted before in the Bible Reading Program, this phrase has been variously interpreted as "On sickness," "On suffering," "To pipings" (on wind instruments) or "To dances" (or some sort of choreography). The second part here, le-annoth, is thought to mean "of humblings or "of afflictions." It is not clear whether both parts are to be understood independently or taken together as a combined phrase (such as "On suffering of afflictions"). Also, one or both parts together could indicate either the subject matter of the psalm or another tune to which the psalm is set.
Heman, whatever his specific identity, is in Psalm 88 enduring some grave, life-threatening trial. Verse 15 in fact says that he has experienced life-threatening affliction for years—since his youth. It is not clear whether he means that he has been enduring the same, continuing trial ever since then or that he has experienced numerous similar dire circumstances over the years. The latter seems more likely, though his recurring problems may stem from the same root causes having never abated.
In his despair, Heman voices a desperate complaint against God: "Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?" (verse 14). He cries out to God day and night (verses 1, 9, 13), pleading for Him to hear (verse 2). He feels death is inevitable and close. He is as good as dead already, "adrift among the dead" (verse 5), cut off from God, no longer remembered by Him (same verse).
Indeed, he perceives his circumstances as coming from God: "You have laid me in the lowest pit" (verse 6). "You have afflicted me with all Your waves" (verse 7)—that is, of wrath and terrors (compare verses 16-17). "You have caused my friends to abandon me; you have made me repulsive to them.... I am worn out from the burden of your punishments" (verses 8, 15, Today's English Version). Heman can't escape his misery: "I am shut up, and I cannot get out" (verse 8).
He has called on God every day and worshipped Him with outspread hands (verse 9). Is it to no avail? Is he to die like the wicked? Will God wait to intervene until after he is already dead? (compare verse 10a). Of course, God certainly can intervene for those who have already died through resurrecting them—and He will ultimately resurrect all His people in the future. But this thought was far from the psalmist. For how would letting him die at this time bring God glory in the present? If dead, without consciousness, Heman could not declare God's lovingkindness, faithfulness and righteousness to others (see verse 10b-12). In other words, he was no use to God dead. This recalls David's reasoning in Psalms 6:4-5 and 30:8-9.
The psalm ends gloomily with the situation unresolved: "You have made even my closest friends abandon me, and darkness is my only companion" (88:18, TEV). Nevertheless, there is a glimmer of hope in this darkest of laments based on the way it opens, for Heman begins the psalm by addressing the Lord as "the God who saves me" (verse 1, NIV) or "God of my salvation" (NKJV). The Expositor's Bible Commentary says: "Though the psalm ends on a lament, faith triumphs, because in everything the psalmist has learned to look to 'the God who saves' (v. 1). The 'darkness' (v. 18; cf. v. 12) of grief is reminiscent of death; but as long as there is life, hope remains focused on the Lord. [One particular commentator] is right when he writes, 'Psalm 88 stands as a mark of realism of biblical faith. It has a pastoral use, because there are situations in which easy, cheap talk of resolution must be avoided'" (note on verses 15-18).
The Zondervan NIV Study Bible points out in its note on the closing cluster of Book III (Psalms 84-89): "The final two prayers (Ps 88; 89) both end unrelieved by the usual expression of confidence that God will hear and act.... However, the editors of Book III have placed them under the near shadow of Ps 87, the more distant shadow of Ps 84 and the still more distant shadow of Ps 82. From these psalms they should not be dissociated."
Psalm 89 begins as a psalm of praise for God's covenant with David, the Lord here seen sharing His dominion over creation with His earthly regent (verses 1-37), but ends as a lament over the apparent downfall of the Davidic dynasty (verses 38-51)—with a doxology (expression of praise) appended at the end to close Book III of the Psalter (verse 52).
This maskil—instructive psalm or "contemplation"—was composed by Ethan the Ezrahite. As mentioned above, his identity is disputed. Some believe this refers to David's Levitical choir leader Ethan (also apparently known as Jeduthun), but it more likely seems to refer to the Ethan the Ezrahite of 1 Kings 4:30-31, a descendant of Judah's son Zerah (compare 1 Chronicles 2:6). It should be observed that the earliest time that could conceivably fit with the latter section of this psalm is that of Pharaoh Shishak's invasion during the reign of Solomon's son Rehoboam. Perhaps David's choir leader Ethan could have lived until this time, as was postulated in the Bible Reading Program's comments on Psalms 73-74 with regard to Asaph and his psalms about national invasion—though it seems unlikely that both choir leaders would have lived into their early 100s. (Of course, whether Asaph lived that long is not known. His psalms could have been exclusively prophecies—as could the conclusion of this psalm.) Ethan the Ezrahite in 1 Kings 4 appears to have lived at the time of or prior to Solomon—though it could be that he lived long afterward and that the comparison here between Solomon and him (and the other noted Zerahites) could have been a much later addition to the account of Solomon in the book of Kings.
One possibility worth considering is that Ethan the Ezrahite wrote only the first part of Psalm 89 (verses 1-37) as a positive psalm during the time of David or Solomon and that another author added the downturn of the final section (verses 38-51) at a much later time—perhaps even as late as the fall of the Kingdom of Judah to Babylon. Most, however, take the psalm as a unified composition—with a long setup to give the background for the lament of the final section. Of course, regardless of how the psalm came together, it is presented to us as a unified whole in the Psalter.
Ethan begins with a celebration of God's mercy (hesed or covenant love) and faithfulness, which he will sing of "forever...to all generations" (verses 1). God's merciful love stands firm forever, having been established "in the very heavens" (verse 2). This evidently is all aimed toward the covenant with David in verses 3-4 of a perpetual dynasty, which the prophet Nathan had revealed to David (see 2 Samuel 7:12-17). Evidently much more was said to David than is recorded in 2 Samuel 7. The establishment of the promise in the heavens is explained in more detail in verses 29 and 36-37 of Psalm 89, where it is said that David's dynasty will persist as long as heaven, sun and moon. This is related to God's statement through Jeremiah that His covenant with David was as unbreakable as the pattern of day and night and as the ordinances of heaven and earth (see Jeremiah 33:19-21, 25-26). God, moreover, explicitly swore to David that His dynasty would rule in all generations (Psalm 89:3-4). This creates a problem for many modern interpreters, as we will later consider.
Verses 5-17, concerning God's might and power, may appear to be a digression in the psalm. Yet this description of the Almighty Sovereign of heaven and earth is central to the psalm for a number of reasons. First of all, it illustrates His capacity to keep His promises—to fulfill the terms of the covenant He has made. Secondly, we are made to understand that God, on His throne of righteousness and justice (verse 14), is the true and ultimate King. He was actually Israel's King to start with (1 Samuel 12:12). The human king of Israel belongs to Him (Psalm 89:18)—serving as His viceroy, governing for Him on His throne. Note 1 Chronicles 29:23: "Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king instead of David his father." Furthermore, we should bear in mind that the One known to the Israelites as God in the Old Testament was in fact the preincarnate Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:4). He would later be born as a human being of David's lineage and, later still, come in glory to take back His throne to Himself as Israel's King forever—in ultimate fulfillment of the promise of the Anointed King, the Messiah.
The Nelson Study Bible notes on Psalm 89:9-10: "Rahab [pictured elsewhere as a river- or sea-monster] is a title for Egypt (87:4 [compare Isaiah 30:7]). The sea and Rahab [here] refer to God's great victories: in the beginning, His control of His creation; in the historic past, His victory over Egypt; and in the future, His complete triumph over Satan, sin, and death (Is. 27:1; 51:9). The psalmists regularly assert God's complete control of creation (see 24:1). Nothing can challenge God's majestic rule over the entire universe." Compare also Psalm 93:2-4. (And for more on the term Rahab, see the Bible Reading Program comments on Job 25-26.)
In Psalm 89:12, Mount Hermon is the snow-covered, 10,000-foot peak on Israel's northern border with Lebanon. Mount Tabor here, though only 1,800 feet, nevertheless rises grandly above the flatter land around it in the Galilee region. The majesty of these mountains serves but to praise the great God who made them. His arm and hand, symbolizing His strength and authority, is strong and high (verse 13).
The words "joyful sound" in verse 15 are translated from the Hebrew word teruah, the same word translated "blowing of trumpets" with respect to the Feast of Trumpets (see Leviticus 23:24). It refers to a great awakening blast on the shofar or ram's horn—like a shout or alarm. Perhaps the idea in Psalm 89:15 is that, in a figurative sense, all creation blares the majesty and power of God—and that those who perceive this are blessed. Responding to God, these people experience His favor, righteousness, empowerment and exaltation (verses 15-17). The horn in verse 17 is a symbol of strength (see verse 24; 75:10; 92:10-11; 132:17).
Verse 18 of Psalm 89 returns to the subject of the human king, who serves God as the people's defensive "shield" (see 84:9). This provides a transition back into a discussion of the Davidic covenant.
In Psalm 89:19, the Masoretic Text says God spoke in vision to a plurality of "holy ones" rather than the singular "holy one." This does not necessarily mean that multiple people received the vision, especially as the vision itself is singular. The statement more likely means that the one receiving the vision, presumably Nathan, communicated what he received to all of God's people.
With God's mighty arm and hand mentioned earlier, He now establishes and strengthens David as His anointed king (verses 20-21). He and those who follow Him to the throne would prevail against enemies (verses 22-24). As God ruled the sea (verse 9), He would now bestow sovereignty over the seas and rivers to the Davidic dynasty (verse 25). During the reigns of David and Solomon, Israel's borders were extended from the River Euphrates in the north to the River or Brook of Egypt in the south. And in alliance with Hiram of Tyre and later Egypt, Israel came to exercise dominion over maritime commerce in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. In the future, the Davidic dynasty's dominion over the seas would be even greater, as we will see.
The king of Israel would experience a special Father-son relationship with God (verse 26)—being as God's firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth (verse 27). David and Solomon did become the greatest kings of their time. Yet there was still more in store for the Davidic dynasty, which was to go on forever (verse 29).
Verses 30-34 show that God's promise to David was not ultimately contingent on the faithfulness of his descendants. If they disobeyed God, He would punish them but would not bring David's dynasty to an end. Verses 35-37 make it certain that God's promise is absolute and irrevocable.
All of this serves to introduce the shocking contrast of the final section. Things looked bleak for the royal descendant of David—whoever he was at the time described here. He was evidently guilty of sin for which God was angry (verse 38). And it appeared that God, despite His promises, had renounced His covenant to uphold the dynasty (verse 39). Broken defenses, ruined strongholds, plunder by enemies who are exalted, turning back the edge of the king's sword and not sustaining him in the battle (verses 40-43)—all of this point to a time of national invasion and the suffering of crushing military defeat. As mentioned earlier, the earliest time that would fit such circumstances was the invasion of Pharaoh Shishak during the reign of Solomon's son Rehoboam. Yet this could refer to a later invasion and defeat—perhaps even the final cessation of the Davidic dynasty in Judah at the time of the Babylonian invasion. Note the dreadful scale of the events. The psalm says the Davidic crown and throne have been cast down to the ground (verses 39, 44). The dynasty appeared doomed.
How could this be? Had not God utterly sworn that such a thing could never happen? Yet it looked like God was flouting every promise He had made to David regarding his throne and dynasty. How long will God let this horrible situation continue, the psalmist asks (verse 46). Life is so short—will he live to see the end of this situation? (verses 47-48). Where is the lovingkindness (the hesed) sworn to David, as noted at the beginning of the psalm? (verse 49; compare verses 1-3). The psalmist concludes by praying that God will think on the heavy burden of shameful reproach—the terrible mocking—that all His people, including His anointed king, are now being made to suffer from enemies (verses 50-51).
As hopeless as the end of the psalm may seem, it is not utterly so. For implicit in the question of how long this situation will go on is the thought that God may yet intervene. Indeed, why bother praying if there is no hope that He will act? Moreover, as much as the psalm ends in lament and confusion, we should recall that most of the psalm—the first part—speaks in glowing terms of God and His faithfulness. Looking back at the first verse gives us the real focus of the psalm—God's merciful love and faithfulness is eternal and will be extolled forever. This is the lens through which the difficult circumstances at the end of the psalm are to be viewed.
How, then, do we reconcile this? An important clue is found in verse 4. God said David's throne would be built up to all generations—that is, one of his dynastic descendants would rule in all generations. Yet nowhere is it promised that there would be no breaks in the reigns of David's descendants. In fact, the punishing of the kings for transgression (see verse 32) could evidently include the temporary cessation of the Davidic throne—as long as a generation did not pass without David's throne being reestablished.
Yet what of the Davidic dynasty seemingly terminating with Zedekiah at the time of Babylon's invasion? Most Bible commentators today would be hard pressed to explain this in light of the Davidic covenant. Some think the throne was reestablished with the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. But Jesus was born more than 500 years later—after which many generations had passed, despite God's promise that David's throne would rule in all generations. Moreover, Jesus did not come to reign on David's throne at His first coming. He will do that when He later returns. So, have more than 2,500 years now gone by without a descendant of David ruling on his throne? Has God voided His covenant with David and broken His promises after all?
The answer is no. The Davidic throne was in fact transferred from Judah to Israel at the time of Babylon's invasion (compare Ezekiel 17). This entailed planting David's lineage in the British Isles—as Israelite tribes were in the process of migrating there (see our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy). Shocking though it may seem, the royal dynasty of Great Britain today is the continuation of the line of David. Britain's monarchs have been the highest of the earth (see Psalm 89:27)—with historical dominion over the sea (see verse 25). To trace this amazing story, be sure to read our online publication The Throne of Britain: Its Biblical Origin and Future at www.ucg.org/brp/materials/.
Finally, we should realize that, as previously mentioned, David's descendant Jesus Christ is going to come back and reassume His rightful place as King over Israel as well as all nations. Through Him, the ultimate Anointed One (Messiah) and firstborn of God who will rule supreme over all the earth's kings, the sublime promises to David will come to fullest fruition—and His omnipotent reign will last for all eternity to come.
With the compilation of the Psalter, Psalm 89 in its final form concludes with the grateful praise of verse 52, bringing Book III to a positive ending.