Theme: When God’s Faithfulness Seems Hidden
In this week’s lessons we learn that although at times it can seem as if there is a gap between God’s promises and reality, God is unchanging in his faithfulness.
Scripture: Psalm 89:38-52
Psalm 89 has the distinction of being one of the greatest passages in the Bible dealing with the faithfulness of God. But it does it in two ways. The first half praises God for his faithfulness exuberantly and without any qualifications. It particularly praises him for his faithfulness in keeping his covenant with King David (2 Sam. 7). The latter half expresses the gap between the promise and reality. It is as if we should sing our great hymn dealing with God’s faithfulness, beginning,
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with thee…
but then add in our own final stanza that goes,
Where is thy faithfulness, O God my Father?
There is no faith in your dealings with me.
We would be wrong to believe this, of course, and so is the psalmist. But it is a mark of the poet’s stark honesty that he freely tells God what he thinks he sees.
Psalm 89 has eight stanzas, but this stanza, the seventh (vv. 38-45), contains the first hint we have had of the disaster that lies behind the psalm’s composition. We do not know precisely what it was, but it must have involved the breakup, collapse or possibility of collapse of the Davidic dynasty, for that is the only thing that would give meaning to the author’s complaint about the breaking of the covenant with David: “You have renounced the covenant with your servant” (v. 39).
There are a number of situations we know about that could explain the psalmist’s words. The one closest to the time of David was the breakup of the united monarchy of David and Solomon into the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel in the reign of Reheboam.1 The strength of this view is that it fits an early dating of the psalm. It would even make it possible for Psalm 89 to have been written by the Ethan who was appointed to the role of temple musician by David. He could have lived through the latter part of David’s reign, the entire reign of Solomon, and have written the psalm in the early days of Reheboam, though as an old man.
At the other extreme, some writers believe that verses 38-45 more aptly describe the end of the monarchy in the deportation and death of Jehoiachin (Jeconiah), the last of the descendants of David actually to sit upon his throne. Verses 40 and 41 seem to reflect this later situation, for they describe the breaking up of the city’s walls and reduction of the king’s stronghold to ruins. If they do not describe this, they must be understood figuratively. The deportation of Jehoiachin at the age of eighteen after a reign of only three months may also be reflected in verse 45. Writer H. C. Leupold thinks “the days of Josiah or even of Zedekiah just before the fall of Jerusalem” fit the situation better.2
The truth of the matter is that we do not know exactly what terrible circumstances lie behind this psalm. But it does not matter. Whatever they were, they seemed sufficiently grim to the psalmist to make him question God’s faithfulness in regard to his keeping of the covenant. How could God be faithful when the king’s crown has been “defiled… in the dust” (v. 39), the walls have been “broken through” (v. 40), the city “plundered” (v. 41), the enemies of the king “exalted” (v. 42), the edge of the king’s sword “turned back” in battle (v. 43) and his royal “splendor” terminated (v. 44). How indeed? And not only that, “You have cut short the days of his youth” (v. 45). The meaning is not that the king died young, but that he was made to grow old before his time, as we would say.
1See, for instance, Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Francis Bolton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), vol. 3, pp. 33, 34.
2H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 632.
In what two ways does Psalm 89 deal with the faithfulness of God? What language did the psalmist use to show he was questioning God’s faithfulness?
Review what situations could help explain the psalmist’s words. Why don’t the exact circumstances matter?
What is the meaning of verse 45, which says, “You have cut short the days of his youth”?
Reflection: How honest are you with God? Have you faced circumstances so grim that you doubted God’s faithfulness? How did the Lord work in your life?
For Further Study: Not only do the Psalms recount God’s attributes, but they also describe people’s struggles, when they feel as if God is no longer faithful or as if he is absent during these times of great despair and difficulty. These studies can remind you of who God is, and that he promises to work for the good of those who know and belong to him. Order your copy of James Boice’s three-volume paperback set and take 25% off the regular price.