A broken promise

I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever,
I will sing, I will sing,
I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever,
I will sing of the mercies of the Lord.
With my mouth will I make known
Thy faithfulness, Thy faithfulness,
With my mouth will I make known
Thy faithfulness to all generations,
I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever,
I will sing of the mercies of the Lord.

Do you know the song? It was written sometime around 1900 by James Fillmore, and became particularly popular in the 1960s, decades after his death. I first heard the song when I became a Christian in the 70s; the tune is bouncy, jaunty, and worshipers sometimes clapped along. Fillmore took the lyrics verbatim from the King James translation of Psalm 89:1. Given the words and music, you might expect the rest of the psalm to be equally joyous.

But it’s not. Not even close. You would never guess from the opening verses of the psalm that it would be a dark lament over a broken promise.

Here are the first four verses, as translated in the New International Version:

I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
    with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known
    through all generations.
I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
    that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
    I have sworn to David my servant,
‘I will establish your line forever
    and make your throne firm through all generations.’”
(Ps 89:1-4, NIV)

Verses 3 and 4 quote a declaration from God, a covenant promise to David to make an everlasting dynasty of his descendants. I’ve emphasized some of the words in the passage above to show how four words are repeated in the Hebrew, in two pairs: forever and generations, and establish and firm. Verses 3 and 4, in other words, are the context for verses 1 and 2. A past oracle from God (possibly through the prophet Nathan) made an unbreakable promise to David, and the opening words of praise intentionally mirror the language of that promise. The psalmist, in other words, is not praising God “generically” for his love and faithfulness; the promise to praise God forever is driven by God’s prior promise. To establish David’s throne for all generations, after all, is to establish the identity of a people under the rule of the anointed king.

The psalm goes on for many verses praising God for his righteousness and strength, which in turn are manifested in the rule of the king. God’s enduring love and faithfulness are promised to the king; God’s strength will be the king’s strength (vs. 21), and God will crush the king’s enemies before him (vss. 22-23). The covenant promise is repeated in no uncertain terms: “I will maintain my love to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail. I will establish his line forever, his throne as long as the heavens endure” (vss. 28-29).

David’s descendants, of course, are required to be obedient; disobedience will be punished (vss. 30-32). But even then the promise endures: “I will not take my love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered” (vss. 33-34).

That’s why the sudden lament takes us by surprise:

But you have rejected, you have spurned,
    you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant
    and have defiled his crown in the dust.
You have broken through all his walls
    and reduced his strongholds to ruins.
All who pass by have plundered him;
    he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
    you have made all his enemies rejoice.
Indeed, you have turned back the edge of his sword
    and have not supported him in battle.
You have put an end to his splendor
    and cast his throne to the ground.
You have cut short the days of his youth;
    you have covered him with a mantle of shame
. (vss. 38-45)

G0d is accused of turning his back on his covenant promise, even of giving strength to the enemy instead of the king! The remaining six verses (not counting vs. 52, which was probably added to cap off Book 3 of the Psalms) are a deep lament of desperation and abandonment; the words may even have been voiced by the king himself. How long is this going to go on, LORD? What happened to your love and faithfulness? What happened to the promise you made to David? The psalm ends with a plea for God simply to notice the humiliation of the king.

How can a psalm begin on such a high note and end in such a dark and depressed place, with the psalmist speaking of death and Sheol (vs. 48)? What can we learn from such a psalm?

We, too, are people who live with the pain of broken promises, whether it’s the promises we make to each other, or the promises we think God has made to us. This psalm, and others like it, show how deeply even God’s anointed king might lament that sense of betrayal. But to learn everything we can from this psalm, we need to put it in the context of the Scripture as a whole.

We’ll explore that in the next post.