Singing from the depths

Broken promises come in all shapes and sizes. One small one is nearly legendary in our family, and the story is reliably retold every year. My daughter contends that many years ago my wife promised the kids we would set up our tent in living room every Veterans Day for a fun and quirky camp-out (camp-in?). My wife, of course, contends that it was just an idea, not a promise. Back and forth they go, laughing. It’s become something of an inside joke.

But not all broken promises are a laughing matter. I can think of things I said with the best of intentions to my kids, but never followed through on. And I know of too many couples whose wedding vows were violated by adultery. In some cases, the affairs were multiple and lasted for years. When the truth finally came out, the breach of trust was excruciating, turning one spouse’s world inside out. Rebuilding that trust can take years — if it is ever rebuilt at all.

As we’ve seen, Psalm 89 is a lament over a broken promise. The psalm begins with praise, extolling God’s love and faithfulness, strength and righteousness. It celebrates God’s covenant promise to establish the line of King David forever. But at some point, it seems that God has reneged on the promise, even to the extent of empowering the king’s enemies to wreak destruction. The king’s words drip with desperation:

Remember how short my life is!
    Have you created humans for no good reason?
Who lives their life without seeing death?
    Who is ever rescued from the grip of the grave?
(Ps 89:47-48, CEB)

By the end of the psalm, there’s still no resolution, no rescue. The psalmist and king are left hanging.

There is, of course, some awareness that the king’s plight may be the consequence of his own disobedience. This is hinted at in verses 30 and 31, and the king’s suffering is explicitly attributed to God’s wrath in verse 46. That certainly fits the ongoing story of the Old Testament, from the beginning of the monarchy through the exile. But even then, God himself is said to declare that he will never remove his covenant love from David and his descendants (vss. 28, 33-34). Never. That’s the core of the lament: what happened to God’s covenant love? It was supposed to be forever; where did it go, and for how long?

Did God break an unbreakable promise? Psalm 89 isn’t just a crisis of suffering, it’s a crisis of faith. And it’s a crisis some of us know well. We want to praise God for his enduring love and faithfulness, because we know these are of the very character and nature of God. But sometimes, we feel spurned and rejected, as if God were turning his back on us and on his promises. Is there anything we can learn from this psalm?

Absolutely. At least two lessons, I think, are important. First, we need to be clear about what God has and hasn’t promised. And second, we need to read this psalm in the larger context of Scripture as a whole.

. . .

First, then: what has God promised? I confess that I sometimes get a little frustrated at the ease with which Bible verses are taken out of context and read as divine “promises.” I think, for example, of the prayer of Jabez in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, and how it has been used to promote something like biblical wish-fulfillment. Jabez is described as honorable; he prays boldly for God’s blessing and receives it. But does that mean that everyone who prays the same words will be similarly blessed?

Note that we are not told in what way Jabez was honorable, nor in what way his prayer was answered. We need to be careful not to project our own needs and wishes into the passage in a way that tempts us to hold God accountable for promises he never made. To be clear, I’m not saying that God will punish or reject us if we do. But why should we set ourselves up to suffer unnecessary disappointment and disillusionment?

If we want to talk about divine promises, we need to go back to the scarlet thread that runs throughout the entire Scripture: God’s faithfulness specifically to his covenant promises. That is, after all, what Psalm 89 is about. And this brings us to the second point: though Psalm 89 is left open-ended, we need the whole of Scripture to see that God has, in fact, remained true to his promise to David.

Just not on the psalmist’s timetable.

This is one of the reasons it’s important in the New Testament to establish that Jesus was of the line of David. David was God’s anointed one — the word in Hebrew is Messiah. Jesus is the one who becomes Messiah, who becomes the king whose throne is forever.

Read, for example, the first chapter of the book of Hebrews; see how many times verses from the Old Testament are applied to him. That includes the stunning statement in Hebrews 1:8. There, it is said of Jesus: “God, your throne is forever and your kingdom’s scepter is a rod of justice.” It’s a quote from Psalm 45:6, in the context of a song praising God’s anointed king.

The point is this: it’s dangerous to take Bible verses out of their context and make them into divine promises of what God will do for us. Again to be clear, I’m not saying that God doesn’t or won’t bless us tangibly in response to faithful prayer. We just don’t want to add to our longing and heartache by thinking we’ve been rejected by God because he hasn’t done what we expected.

I’ve said it before: the life of faith is not one in which we try to fit God into our stories, but one in which we continually re-imagine our stories as being embedded in God’s. The story of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises spans centuries. And the full establishment of David’s throne, as promised in Psalm 89, will only happen after Jesus returns to finally take his rightful place as God’s anointed king.

In the meantime, our own stories will suffer their ups and downs. But we can still make the psalmist’s opening words of praise our own. God is loving and faithful. That is the song we must learn to sing, even if sometimes we must sing it from the depths.