Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesn’t Last

Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesn’t Last

This week’s lectionary (RCL) texts for this week (Proper B11) form an interesting set, complete with the occasional weird cut-off for the scripture. For example, 2 Samuel 7:1-14a chops off the last part of Nathan’s message to David, the part about both the eternal covenant and the potential for God’s discipline. As I read this, I was thinking that they didn’t want to go into that “eternal covenant” territory.

(Note that for this post I am reading the Old Testament as a Christian and I am not making use of Jewish interpretation. I use “Old Testament” when referring to the Hebrew scriptures as a part of the Christian Bible. I use “Hebrew scriptures” to refer to them as a literary collection or as the Jewish Bible.)

But then we have Psalm 89:20-37. Here they have all the stuff about the eternal covenant, but they don’t go on to deal with the most important topic of the Psalm. Verse 38 (not part of the reading) begins:

But you have spurned and rejected him;
you are angry with your chosen king.
You have repudiated your covenant with your servant;
you have thrown his crown to the ground (38-39 NET).

If you continue reading you get a scene that sounds very much like the Babylonian exile or thereafter, though there might be a couple of other dates that would fit in. In fact, the author of this Psalm is addressing God specifically because he doesn’t see the eternal covenant being fulfilled. Rather, at this point it is impossible for that covenant to be fulfilled as originally written because it called for a descendant of David to be on the throne “forever” and “forever” is not to be interrupted. Unfortunately “forever” has been interrupted.

Now there are a number of Christian workarounds for this issue, and most readers likely will have one so readily to mind that they may never have noticed the problem in the first place. We get so used to an imposed or traditional interpretation that we actually hear the interpretation when we think we’re reading the text.

Many of our common answers involve what I call in my essay Facing the Proof-Text Method “text trimming.” Using this method we trim a text down to size so we can claim either that we obey the command or that a promise or prediction has been fulfilled. In this case a common interpretation for this eternal covenant is that Jesus is of the lineage of David, and either is now sitting on David’s throne (conveniently, if figuratively, transported to heaven), or that at a future date Jesus will sit on David’s throne, thus fulfilling the terms of the covenant.

But somebody future sitting on David’s throne again, or someone sitting on a throne somewhere else doesn’t fulfill the terms of the covenant as expressed here. In fact, these terms cannot and will not be fulfilled because they have already been overcome by events–specifically there was and is a time when no son of David has been sitting on the throne of Israel. To make this seem like a fulfillment, we must make the covenant itself say less than it actually says.

If we transport ourselves briefly to a time when the door was still open, but this very issue was front and center, we may see some of the difficulties. I refer to the time when Jerusalem was under its final siege prior to the 586 BCE fall of Jerusalem. There we have some people saying that the city cannot fall because it is, after all, the location of God’s house, and God has promised that there will be a descendant of David on the throne.

Jeremiah has to argue that there is no safety here. The city can fall. The king can be removed. The temple can be destroyed. He makes an extended argument to this effect in Jeremiah 18, which is sometimes quoted to support God’s sovereignty. “Yes, indeed! God can do whatever he wants!” But that is not the intent at all.

There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom. But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, I will cancel the destruction I intended to do to it. And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom. But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it (Jeremiah 18:7-10 NET).

I recommend reading the entire chapter. The message here is not so much God’s sovereignty, though that is a fundamental assumption of the chapter. Rather, it is that God responds to our actions. Eternal blessings involve responsibilities. You can reverse the blessing, but the good news is that you can also reverse the punishment.

The book of Jonah illustrates this point in narrative form. Jonah assumes the type of theology that Jeremiah states explicitly. Jonah is actually afraid that God will be merciful and won’t fulfill the promise, yet the story does not include any notion that Jonah preached a possibility of repentance. He hoped the Ninevites would not repent. He was annoyed when they weren’t destroyed. (Again, read the whole book! It’s only four chapters.)

So what do we do with eternal promises that don’t happen precisely as predicted?

First, Psalm 89 itself makes it clear that any variation here doesn’t involve abandoning Israel. Canonizing this as part of Christian scripture (or accepting it as canonical) indicates that we believe God is in action in Psalm 89, after the king has been removed. God is still active with his people Israel. We acknowledge through this act that Israel is not abandoned, even if we don’t always remember that we did.

Second, we have another explicit statement of God’s approach in Jeremiah, this time in chapter 31:31-34. (Again, if you are not well acquainted with this passage, shame on you, go read it!) This is the famous passage used extensively in the book of Hebrews. I am reading it in Jeremiah’s context (to the best of my ability), however, and what I want to note is that the new covenant made is not with someone else, but with the house of Israel.

There is an argument that God transfers his promises from Israel (Israel is said to have failed) to either the church or in some cases to another nation. There are those who think the United States has become God’s chosen people in some way. But a sudden transfer of the promises from Israel to the church is not a good option, because the new covenant is made with Israel.

I base my interpretation here heavily on Jeremiah, even though I started with Psalm 89, because Jeremiah is the guy who had to deal with this issue when it was live. He had to proclaim his view of the covenant and the results of violating it in the face of torture and death, not sitting comfortably in front of his computer screen or in a church office somewhere.

At the same time, if we as Christians are to understand this as God’s will, and ourselves as part of God’s will, we will have to see some way in which we become connected. Thus we “trim the text” in some ways, allowing modification, but it’s a modification that is, I think, well supported. Jeremiah maintains there is a new covenant. Even the old covenant called for Israel to bless the entire world.

Paul makes his argument in Romans 9-11, which is again less concerned with God’s sovereignty, though that is again a fundamental assumption of the passage, but rather with how God deals with Israel. Like a parent, God doesn’t say, “I think I’ll put aside this one son in favor of someone else.” Rather, he looks to extend his blessing. Thus we gentiles are grafted in and receive some of God’s blessing. (It would be interesting to spend some time on Paul’s use of scripture in Romans 9-11. He does some interesting things!)

It’s easy here to imagine that the Jews must somehow be blessed less. It’s hard for us to understand that God’s love and his blessings are not a limited commodity. When I became a step-parent I was careful never to suggest that my step-children should love their birth father less. I loved them as my own, but I knew the love was shared, yet I felt no loss. Love isn’t a limited commodity either. And we, limited as we are, can add more people into our circle of love. So can God.

But even here we can make a mistake. We often see “chosen-ness” as being chosen to receive blessings, to be the best loved favorite. But God tends to choose people to do things. Jeremiah was chosen, just as Israel was chosen. It was a different time and place and different purpose (though not as different as it might seem), but being chosen wasn’t fun for Jeremiah. In fact, it was quite miserable.

So the gentile church has no cause for boasting or for thinking of themselves as better than others. That’s not the point of being chosen by God. The point of being chosen by God is mission–whatever mission God has for you.

Thus while I say that the promise cannot be fulfilled as written, because it wasn’t, yet God is faithful to act with consistency. A rebellious church might consider a serious reading of Jeremiah 18.

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