Psalms Week 8
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
The first three of this week’s psalms all have a different title. Psalm 85 is a psalm of the sons of Korah, Psalm 89 identifies Ethan the Ezrahite in its title, and Psalm 90 is a prayer of Moses, the man of God. The fourth, Psalm 91, is untitled. [Author’s Note 1] It is difficult to ascertain how these various titles, or lack thereof, affect the interpretation of these psalms.
Psalm 85 begins by affirming that at some time in the past God restored the fortunes of God’s people by not being angry at them anymore and by forgiving their unspecified sins (Psalm 85:1–3). Thus, the psalm recalls an occasion when the community went from a bad to a good situation. The people had fallen, but are on their feet again. They suffered a reversal, but God reversed the reversal. They had sinned, but God forgave them. God had been angry with them, but was no longer angry. This is a moment to celebrate.
However, something has happened that requires the people to pray for God to restore once more their fortunes. Whatever the problem is — for it is never spelled out — it involves another bout of divine anger. Just as before, the people have done something wrong in the sight of God and have been punished. So, just as before, they plead for another reversal of their reversal. They want God’s anger to be temporary. They want their lament to turn to rejoicing. They want once more to experience salvation (85:4–7). It is unfortunate that such a prayer has to be repeated. But it is wonderful that God will hear that same prayer. That is to be expected of a God whose love and grace know no limits.
To their credit, the people are not treating God like a divine ATM that dispenses grace and forgiveness upon demand. The people are aware that amendment of life is necessary. Thus, they confess their openness to divine speech. They are anxious to listen to God speak of peace — a kind of spiritual wholeness — to God’s saints, that is, to those who want to go forward with God (85:8). The heartfelt desire is for salvation that attends a proper fear of God and for a land in which glory — which speaks to divine presence in a concentrated form — resides (85:9).
The conclusion to the psalm anticipates the results of the prayer’s having been answered. What will that situation be like? Covenant love and faithfulness will be joined even as righteousness and peace embrace (85:10). As though it were a plant, faithfulness will spring from the ground; and, as though a heavenly body, righteousness will look down from above (85:11). The community is confident that the Lord will give what is good so that the land will greatly increase. But this is more than a wish for a good crop. The desire is for righteousness to precede God’s arrival, making a wonderful path upon which God will walk (85:12–13). The image is wonderfully odd. But it speaks to a condition that will make the prayers that have had to be prayed more than once not have to be prayed quite so often.
Psalm 89 is a difficult psalm, though it does not seem that way at first. It begins by extolling God’s covenant love and faithfulness to all generations. For good measure, the psalmist emphasizes that this covenant love and faithfulness are established forever — they are as established as the sky itself (89:1–2). But this is not a generic commitment on God’s part. This commitment is to be understood in the context of God’s covenant with the divinely chosen one — David (89:3). This surely echoes 2 Samuel 7. Making sure there is no doubt whatsoever, the psalmist underscores that this commitment not only to David but to David’s descendants is for all time (89:4).
The next section of the psalm is equally compelling. In a lengthy passage God’s faithfulness and power are praised. The idea is that, on the one hand, the psalmist’s deity is incomparably faithful, not to mention righteous and just (89:5–7, 14–16). On the other hand, God is more than powerful enough to back up these attributes of faithfulness, righteousness, and justice. This is demonstrated in God’s mastery of the seas, in the defeat of the fantastic monster Rahab, in divine ownership of the world, and in various creative acts (89:8–14, 17–18).
At this point the psalmist returns to David, which, we are soon to discover, is the theme of the whole psalm. Building on the initial reference (89:3–4), the psalmist launches into a long section focusing on David. He starts with God’s initial vision announcing David’s exaltation and anointing, accompanied by a divine promise to sustain and strengthen him (89:19–21; see 1 Samuel 16). Given this relationship with God, David need not worry about suffering defeat at the hand of enemies (89:22–23). God has seen fit to exalt David, make him more powerful than mighty waters, elevate him above all other kings, and promise that his line will be eternal even if his descendants are disobedient (89:24–37). In turn, David will see God as his Father, God, and rock (89:26). This is nothing short of a hymn of praise to God’s selecting, anointing, sustaining, and promising perpetual rule to David and David’s line after him.
If the psalm ended here we would simply consider it a wonderful expression of praise and thanksgiving for the great Davidic monarchy. But it does not end here. In fact, it continues in a direction that is altogether startling, as well as controversial — not because it has the temerity to criticize David or any who came after him, but because it accuses God of abandoning David by reneging on divine promises.
Without mincing words, the psalmist says that God has angrily rejected the very one whom God had previously anointed. This means God has likewise renounced the covenant. David’s vaunted crown has been defiled (by God!) in the dust (89:38–39). What drives the psalmist to this awful conclusion? Judah has suffered defeat (89:40). It is not clear that the allusion is to the Exile (see 2 Kings 24–25), though it is hard to believe that a mere battlefield loss would precipitate an accusation of this sort against God. This defeat is of the magnitude that all the walls have been breached, the strongholds are in ruins, looters are having a field day, and the neighboring peoples view Judah contemptuously. This is nothing short of God’s elevating David’s foes at David’s expense. Worse, God acted to keep David from defending himself/his people, removed the scepter from the king’s hand, shortened his life, and shamed him (89:40–45). Given the psalmist’s perspective, it is not surprising that he has accused God.
Most of us think it is unseemly, if not blasphemous, to confront God in this manner. At the very least, we have to credit the psalmist with honesty and courage, though not necessarily with prudence or humility. Yet we dare not forget that the psalmist is accusing God, not dismissing or abandoning God. In fact, in the very next poetic breath, the psalmist appeals to God, wanting to know how long the Lord will remain hidden or continue to be angry (89:46). This is actually a subtle change in outlook. If David’s/Judah’s plight is a matter of God’s being angry, it is at the same time a matter of God’s response to human unfaithfulness and disobedience. God does not get upset on a whim. Thus, in one part of the psalm the psalmist blames God for forsaking David/Judah, but in this part intimates that the issue is not quite so clear-cut. In a linguistically difficult verse, the psalmist appears to remind God that a single human life is agonizingly short (89:47); moreover, only God has power over life and death (89:48). In short, the psalmist does not want the Davidic dynasty to be ephemeral.
In the last paragraph, the psalmist makes a final plea for God to remember David and, by implication, his dynasty. Otherwise, David — and the people over whom he rules — will be scorned, made fun of, taunted, and mocked by enemies (89:49–51). In the canonical context, this prayer will be answered, though perhaps not precisely as the original psalmist might have thought. According to the prophets, David’s line will continue, but the continuation will be with a new David (see Isaiah 11:1–3, 10) and a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–34). Christians will see this new David and covenant in the son of David, Jesus the Christ. Fittingly, and somewhat ironically, the conclusion to this psalm and this section of the Psalter are one and the same: “Blessed be the Lord for ever! Amen and amen” (89:52).
In the only psalm featuring the vaunted Moses in its title, we have a hymn that contrasts the grandeur and eternity of God with the finitude and transience of humanity (90). In every generation, God has been a refuge or dwelling place for humanity (90:1). This is amazing enough, but even more incredible in light of God’s eternal existence (90:2).
In the comparison between God and humankind there is, well, no comparison. Human beings are innately temporal, whereas God cannot be measured with time (90:3–4). With a single gesture, God sweeps people aside as though they had no more substance than a dream or no more staying power than grass (90:5–6). It is a sad commentary that human life, as brief as it is, is characterized by a sinfulness that provokes divine censure. It is as though God cannot enjoy our short lifespans because our sins are so clearly visible (90:7–8). The brevity of human life is rendered all the more poignant in that we persist in living in sin (90:9–10). One response to this depressing condition is to pray for a heart of wisdom so that we live less of our already short lives having to worry about divine wrath (90:11–12).
The glory is this: No matter how eternal God is in comparison to our transience, no matter how large compared to our smallness, no matter how majestic relative to our brokenness, God is always at the other end of our prayers. So the psalmist may ask God to return even as he wonders, “How long” (90:13)? The prayer even dares to hope that God will show up “in the morning,” allowing us to rejoice all of our days (90:14). It is enough for God to give us as many good days as bad (90:15). Indeed, though God is powerful, majestic, eternal, and beyond compare or description, nothing prevents the psalmist from making God’s work and power manifest to those who are children of the divine (90:17). In this prayerful framework, ending the psalm with a request for the Lord’s favor and for the Lord’s making certain our own deeds is perfectly appropriate (90:17). Would a prayer to any other kind of god make any sense?
The last psalm in this cluster — the only untitled one — is straightforward, at least from one perspective. It begins by naming the sort of protection that God — the initial names in this case are the Most High and the Almighty — provides: shelter and shadow. The metaphor suggests dwelling in the shelter and spending the night in the shadow (91:1). Given such an image, it is natural for the beneficiary of this protection to refer to the Lord as refuge and fortress, and a deity in whom one should trust (91:2). At this point, the psalm affirms that God is a protector deity.
But this protection is not generic. As the psalm unfolds, there is a list of particular dangers that those who trust in God need not fear. If a human being attempts to trap you or if a disease threatens you, you will find cover under the divine wings (91:3–4). No mysterious terror that stalks at night or arrow aimed at you during the day should make you afraid. You need not worry about a pestilence that lurks in the darkness or any destruction that might strike in the light of day (91:5–6). It will not even matter if others are succumbing; you remain immune. A thousand may fall to one side and ten thousand to another, but you will be left standing. Those whom you observe falling are the wicked receiving their just rewards (91:7–8).
The psalm insists that this condition is axiomatic: Regarding God as one’s protector will ward off any evil or serious reversal (91:9–10). This protection is nothing short of miraculous. God has sent angels to guard you. Should you fall, these divine agents will not allow you to suffer harm. Even running across dangerous animals — lions or poisonous snakes — will not endanger you (91:9–13). Incredibly, the psalm declares that those trusting in God enjoy an immunity of sorts.
The final paragraph reasserts this motif. God will deliver and protect those who cling to God in love and who know God’s name (91:14). Any time you get into difficulty, God will be ready to answer when you summon divine aid. No trouble will prevent God’s showing up to rescue. In the end, those who call on God will be rewarded with long life and salvation (91:14–16).
Scholars have identified Psalm 91 as a wisdom psalm. One of the aspects of this typology is the correlation between behavior and outcomes. That is, good (wise, prudent, careful) behavior leads to happy and beneficial consequences, whereas bad (unwise, imprudent, rash) behavior leads to negative results. However, wisdom texts also teach that, while this may be true in some general way, this pattern cannot be reduced to a formula or rendered in mechanical terms. This is why two of the Bible’s wisdom books (Job and Ecclesiastes) challenge those who see wisdom in a brittle, formulaic, non-dynamic manner.
In fact, it is instructive that a mechanical application of this psalm is encouraged by none other than the devil in the story of Jesus’ temptation. Citing Psalm 91:11–12, the devil urges Jesus to throw himself from the top of the temple. But Jesus will have none of this; he rebukes the devil for such a wooden and foolish interpretation (Luke 4:1–13; see especially 4:9–12). As it turns out, the final section of Psalm 91 signals that the psalmist eschews any such unrealistic reading. He quotes God as saying that God will be with those who call in times of trouble and will rescue those needing it (91:15).
It goes without saying that if we find ourselves in difficulty then the psalm cannot be understood as a guarantee. The ultimate security that God’s people have is that God will be with them no matter what befalls them. If they escape harm generally, that is simply a blessing and a bonus. In either case, the final guarantee is God’s presence.
Questions for Further Reflection
- What pattern of behavior does Dr. Spina identify in Psalm 85? What is remarkable about God’s response to human behavior, and what word of challenge or encouragement does it bring to your life?
- Psalm 89 is full of oddities. What do you make of this text? What can it teach us about God, humanity, or the life of faith?
- Re-read Psalm 90. What is striking to you about this prayer? How does it challenge your day-to-day priorities in life?
- Psalm 91 is filled with promises of God’s presence and protection amid strife. What are we to make of these words when the realities of evil or destruction make their way into our lives on a daily basis? Is there a difference between the spirit and letter of something like Psalm 91? In what ways does Jesus’ own interpretation of this text inform our answer?
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