Monday, September 24, 2007

Questioning God pt. VIII

Psalm 89
Psalm 89 is another remarkable example of plying the shared memories of God’s action to move God into action once again. This royal lament poignantly portrays Israel’s disorientation after Yahweh’s apparent rejection of the Davidic line. The structure itself is interesting with two alternating forms of praise (vs. 1-2, 5-18[1]) and recollection (vs. 3-4, 19-37).

Verses 3-4 recall the covenant made with David and verses 19-37 recall the oracle of Yahweh’s announcement of his selection of David as king and Yahweh’s faithfulness to his descendents forever. But verse 38 functions as the fulcrum weighing Israel’s current experience of rejection with the promise of its past. Thus it is a profound question and mystery for Israel. If the physical or earthy reality of the covenant is no longer present, what about the heavenly rule? “It is an overwhelming enigma for which the psalm knows no resolution.”[2]

Within verses 1-37 two of the central themes that emerge are Yahweh’s faithfulness (used seven times) and steadfast love (hesed) (used five times). Both of which are prominent to Israel’s understanding about who Yahweh is. And in this psalm, by recounting their history of Yahweh’s actions in Yahweh’s hesed, they pivot from praise to present protest in utter confusion. “Hesed is the proper and right matter about which Israel and Yahweh must struggle, because it is the identifying quality of this odd relationship.”[3] That which was once promised to them has been taken away.

The psalmist seems to say, “In the past you did,” “but now you have…” and lists a stunning arrive of negative actions that Yahweh has directed at Israel: spurned, rejected, renounced, defiled, broken and on and on. However, prior to this scathing list of actions, the psalmist recalls the past saving actions in praise, creating a foil or “set up” whereby they can quickly change direction and call Yahweh to terms. That which functions as praise, also works as bait. Yahweh now stands caught by his own words. Israel has demonstrated their memory and faithfulness, in this instance, is better than Yahweh’s. Following in verses 47 and 50 they petition Yahweh to remember by asking, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” They remind God to be God.

I have also mentioned the theme of presumed innocence on Israel’s part. As part of the oracle verse 30 begins with “If his children forsake the law…then I will punish” (vs. 32). In the psalm, the “if” is pitted against the “but now” of verse 38 implying that Israel has kept up their end of the covenant. It is Yahweh who transgressed their agreement.

We also see clearly the three participants in the psalm integrally related. The king once upheld by Yahweh’s mighty arm and right hand (vs. 13, 21) now God exalts the “right hand of his foes.” The solidarity of shared enemies between the anointed king and God has vanished and God sides with the kings enemies. After verse 38, is a direct accusation against Yahweh that Yahweh has forgotten the promises to David, and been an active participant in their tragedy. Verse 46 houses the repeated “How long?” questions in regard to Yahweh’s hiddenness and anger. Where the other psalms seem to function with a passive aggressive subtext, this critique of Yahweh is brutally up front.

[1] Verses 5-18 do serve as praise but also memory.
[2] James L. Mays, The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms, 105.
[3] Walter Brueggemann, Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 53.