When I taught a course through the Psalms last Fall, I knew I would need to return to Psalm 89 later. It is a Psalm about Yhwh’s character and His king, it refers to the divine council, it is artfully arranged, and is unusual in reversing the lament->praise formula, resulting in a challenge to God to be faithful to His promises. There is a lot going on here! What’s more, it is mysterious. To whom or what does this Psalm refer? In this post I want to briefly summarize the Psalm, and then investigate two intriguing options with the Psalm’s referent: the demise of the Davidic line in the exile, or the death of the Messiah.
The Structure of Psalm 89
Psalm 89 has three major sections, with the Selahs marking further sub-divisions.
- Introduction (v1-4)
- Praise (v5-37)
- Lament (v38-52)
The introduction (Ps 89:1-4) sets the stage for the Praise section (Ps 89:5-37) by introducing its major themes.
- v2. Praise of the Lord’s character (developed in v5-18)
- v3-4. The Lord’s covenant with David (developed in v19-37)
Ethan has artfully tied these themes together by scattering key words throughout the introduction: steadfast love, forever, faithfulness, all generations, built/build, and establish (see above). This also occurs throughout the rest of the Psalm, where key words in v5-18 are found in v19-37 and words from v5-37 are also found in the lament in v38-52. The abundance of these inter-connections deserve their own post.
Noting the connections in v1-4, this Psalm literarily binds Yhwh’s character to the Davidic covenant. If the latter fails, so does the former. The covenant specified David an eternal, worldwide kingdom (Ps 89:25, 27, 29, 34, 36-37). However, it must be remembered that God will punish the king’s sin (Ps 89:30-32), but this does not mean absolute rejection (Ps 89:33-34).
Verse 38 brings an abrupt accusatory change (Ps 89:38-45). “You” have rejected Your anointed. His strongholds are in ruins. His enemies mock and plunder. Ethan then moves to questioning (Ps 89:46-48): “how long” will this go on? The Psalm ends in an appeal for Yhwh to act true to His character extolled in v1-18 by remaining faithful to His promises to David in v19-36 (Ps 89:49-54).
Failure of the Kings or Death of the Messiah?
To what does this Psalm refer? I see two strong possibilities, and, frankly, am having difficulty deciding between them! On any given day I see one as more persuasive than the next.
1. The Psalm refers to the failure of the Davidic kings that resulted in Israel and Judah’s exile.
The verses that speak of potential sin of the king (Ps 89:33-34) could indicate that this is the reason for the Psalm. If we accept the view that the Psalter is intentionally arranged, and follow the general consensus that Book III speaks to the destruction of the exile, then placing Psalm 89 at the end of the book naturally fits the context. The kings have failed and Israel is exiled. However, Yhwh promised David an eternal kingdom, so His character is in question. The Lord must not leave Israel in this state; He must act and restore Israel and the king.
Holding this view does not deny messianic meaning. In fact, it retains a strong messianic flavor, as a faithful Davidic king is the only resolution to the crisis in the Psalm. See William Pohl’s JETS article (PDF).
2. The Psalm refers to the death of the Messiah.
What if this Psalm instead referred to the death of the Messiah? In fact, David Mitchell in his Message of the Psalter holds both ideas; that the death of this king would result in a further exile after the Assyrian-Babylonian exile. Whether one accepts Mitchell’s ideas as to a latter-exile, there are some reasons to think this Psalm speaks to the death of the Messiah.
- The death of the king seems to be in view (Ps 89:45) and questions as to whether there is any hope of recovery from Sheol (Ps 89:48).
- There are parallels between Psalm 89, Zechariah and Isaiah, and the latter two (arguably) refer to the death of the Messiah. “Defiled” (Ps 89:39) can also be translated as “pierced”, the same word used in Zech 12:10 of the Davidic king, who is also called firstborn (Zech 12:10; Ps 89:27). Isaiah also speaks to an individual scorned and bearing the insults of the people (Isa 53:3, 5, 11, 12; Ps 89:50).
- There are NT allusions to this passage. The king is called firstborn (Ps 89:27), a common title for Jesus (Col 1:15; Rom 8:29; Heb 1:6). He is also to be higher than the kings of the earth (Ps 89:27), which may be alluded to in Rev 1:5, which also refers to Jesus as firstborn. The “footsteps of the anointed/messiah” in Ps 89:51 could be alluded to in 1 Peter 2:21.
- While the context of Book III may be Israel’s exile, the immediately preceding Psalm 88, appears to speak of the death of an individual in language very applicable to Christ’s suffering.
- Jewish tradition spoke of two messiahs: Messiah ben Joseph and Messiah ben David. The Messiah ben Joseph would die and rabbinic texts that speak of this allude to Psalm 89. This is defended in David Mitchell’s papers and forthcoming book on the subject.
However, this view has some difficulties and uncertainties.
- Assuming the Psalm indicates the death of the king (Ps 89:45; also Ps 89:48, 38-39, 43), this does not necessarily require a Messianic referent. In fact, the references to battle (Ps 89:43), and especially breaching of the walls (Ps 89:40) indicate another traditional/historical battle.
- Is it placing too much weight on the shared vocabulary (“pierced”) to interpret the Psalm in light of the Isaiah-Zechariah contexts?
- The NT connections are also inconclusive. The title “firstborn” may not be exclusively messianic if it applied to all kings in David’s line. Perhaps the title is applied to Jesus not as an exclusive messianic title, but since He is the ultimate Davidic king. What’s more, there are no clear NT quotations of the lament section of the Psalm, the passage that speaks of death. This is an argument from silence, but one would expect more if this were clearly about the Messiah’s death.
- How would this idea work with the exile setting of Book III? Of course this matter is not decisive, as the Psalm must be interpreted in its own light before larger context is considered, and the apparent exilic theme of Book III is not set in stone. But still, it harmonizes better with the surrounding Psalms (expect perhaps 88) for this to be exilic in referent.
Is it possible that the Psalm has two referents? That the moral failure and death of the Davidic kings foreshadows the death of the Messiah for sins not His own? If so, this Psalm could apply to both. As attractive as this would be, it is speculative.
Either way, this Psalm is fascinating and only Christ is the answer to how Yhwh will remain true to His promises to David.
As I’m still working through this, and thoughts would be appreciated!