The author is named in the headnote. He is Ethan the Ezrahite. This may be the man mentioned in 1Kgs.4.31. If so, he was a contemporary of Solomon. There is a problem, however, with dating the Psalm to the reign of David or Solomon. The end of the Psalm laments the collapse of the Davidic covenant, vv.38-45, and cries to God for recovery, vv.46-51. The words, “Thou hast made void the covenant of Thy servant” v.39, are difficult to reconcile with the events of Solomon’s lifetime or (if Ethan outlived Solomon) of Rehoboam, Solomon’s successor. Although the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak invaded Judah during Rehoboam’s reign and stripped the Temple, 1Kgs.14.25,26, the kings of Judah continued to reign. The words of vv.38-51 describe a situation that coincides with the overthrow of the Davidic monarchy and the commencement of the captivity in Babylon, 2Kgs.24.8-15. In my view this Ethan the Ezrahite lived in 586B.C., when the Davidic dynasty ended.
A MESSIANIC PSALM
Psalm 89 qualifies as a Messianic Psalm for a number of reasons. The word Messiah appears in the Psalm, both in its verb form (“I anointed him” v.20), and in its noun form (“Thine anointed” vv.38,51). “Messiah” is just a transliteration of the Hebrew word “anointed” (masiah). The English word “Messiah” is used instead of “anointed” twice in Scripture, Dan.9.25,26. In the New Testament the Greek word for “anointed” is christos and is translated “Christ”. Christ in the New Testament is a prominent title of the Lord Jesus.
The Psalm deals with the Biblical idea of Messiahship. There are three main sections where this theme is prominent. First, in the promise of a king from David’s line, vv.3,4,19-37. Second, in a section where the apparent failure of that promise is narrated, vv.38-45. Third, in an extended series of prayers for fulfilment of the promise, vv.46-51.
The line of Messianic kings began with David: “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward” 1Sam.16.13. This anointing marked David out as the ‘messiah’ of Judah and Israel.
Later in his reign, after he had consolidated his power, David vowed to build a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem. This led on to the Lord making promises to him and his lineage. This is called the Davidic covenant: “‘And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for My name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be My son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: but My mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.’ According to all these words, and according to all this vision, so did Nathan speak unto David” 2Sam.7.12-17.
It is important to notice that these promises primarily relate to Solomon, David’s heir. Among David’s many sons Solomon was selected as his heir. Evidently there was no law of primogeniture, for Solomon was not David’s eldest son. He may have been Bathsheba’s favourite. She was the last of David’s wives and may have exerted a powerful influence on David at the end of his reign. But the word “seed” is both a singular and a collective noun. Some of these promises were fulfilled by Solomon, his “seed”, that is, his direct descendant. He built the Temple. His kingdom was established and indeed grew beyond the boundaries established by David. The lineage of Solomon was on the whole a disappointment and the power of Judah gradually waned until it collapsed entirely at the Captivity.
It is also important to see that God promised an everlasting kingdom, vv.13,16. These words hint that the “seed” that would inherit the covenant would not be the weak and sinful sons of David’s body.
Over the years after Nathan’s oracle the prophets spoke about the promises to David. Hosea spoke to Israel after she had broken with Judah but before she was overrun by Assyria. He prophesied that the nation would have no king until a new “David” emerged in the latter days, Hos.3.4,5. Isaiah prophesied in Judah after the break with Israel. He spoke of a king Who would emerge from the Davidic line after it had been reduced to a “stump” Isa.11.1. Jeremiah, who prophesied just before Judah collapsed, spoke of a figure Who would restore Israel and Judah, Jer.23.5. He would be righteous, Jer.23.5, and make the nation righteous, Jer.23.6; 33.16. Ezekiel, who prophesied during the Captivity, likewise spoke of a single Messiah Who would deliver Israel, rather than a line of kings. He is sometimes called “David”, though the founder of the dynasty was long dead. This no doubt is because He would be from the Davidic line, Ezek.37.25. The enduring nature of the covenant was not because David’s sons would reign continuously, but because, despite a break in the line of succession, a Messiah would arise Who would sit on David’s throne.
Psalm 89 focuses on the apparent failure of God to honour the covenant. The Psalm recites the terms of the covenant and then breaks into a loud lament for the collapse of the Davidic dynasty. It is full of prayers for the restoration of the line of David. It is a Psalm that needs to be read in the light of other Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, which declares that the Lord Jesus was the “Christ”. The heir to David did emerge after it seemed that all hope of an heir had gone. It also needs to be read in the light of the promise that the Lord Jesus will return to Israel and bring the promises to fruition.
A MASCHIL PSALM
The Psalm is a Maschil Psalm. There are thirteen Maschils in total. Psalm 45 is the only other Maschil Psalm that is also a Messianic Psalm. The scholars cannot agree on what the word maschil means. The Authorised Version has left the word untranslated in the headings of the Psalms. Most think that it means ‘instruction’ or ‘wisdom’. That is not to say of course that the other Psalms are not instructive or wise but that the Maschil Psalms were designed to be used for instruction and to convey God’s wisdom.
Psalm 89 is, by verse count, the third-longest Psalm in the Psalter, behind Psalms 119 and 78. Psalm 18 has more words but fewer verses. It is also strategically positioned at the end of the Third Book of Psalms (Psalms 73-89).
THE MESSAGE OF THE PSALM
In the opening lines of the Psalm God’s faithfulness is mentioned twice. The Psalmist expresses a desire to proclaim God’s faithfulness, v.1, and then stresses his confidence that God will prove His faithfulness, v.2. Whether the Psalmist looks to heaven, vv.5-7, or to earth, vv.8-12, God’s faithfulness is on display.
However, the Psalmist then writes about the apparent faithlessness of God. He had made promises that a king from David’s line would always rule on David’s throne. The terms of the Davidic covenant are set out in vv.19-37, the longest single section in the Psalm. One key promise is that David’s kingdom would endure, v.29; but then vv.38-45 describe the apparent failure of His promises. The kingdom had fallen, v.39. The heir to David’s throne had been deposed, v.44.
The Psalm does not end with the Psalmist providing an answer to this situation. This may be because at the time of writing no answer had been given. While he knew God was faithful, God had not yet shown how He was going to honour His promise to David. We are in a better position than the Psalmist to appreciate who the true “seed” is. Although in one way the Son of David came to take up His throne at His first advent, He was rejected and has still to receive the Kingdom. That will be accomplished when the Lord returns to this earth in glory.
The doubts and the prayers that conclude the Psalm should be read in light of its opening lines. The substance of v.2 is that God is faithful. Events may cast doubt on God’s promises but His mercy and faithfulness will ultimately be established.
“I will sing.” This phrase appears seventeen times in the Psalms, for example: “I will sing praise to Thy name” Ps.9.2; “I will sing unto Thee among the nations” Ps.57.9; “I will sing of mercy and judgment” Ps.101.1; “I will sing a new song” Ps.144.9.
Although the sentiments are those of the author, the Psalm was probably intended to be sung by a choir as a collective expression of praise. The Psalms are poetic and largely written to be sung by the Temple choir founded by David.
The Psalm contains a reflection on the purpose of singing itself. Here the Psalmist says that his reason for singing is so that others will learn about God. He also expresses a wish that his Psalm will endure for ever, that is, long after he has gone. He wishes the Psalm to speak to future generations. In this respect his wish has been granted.
“Of the mercies of the LORD.” “Mercies” are practical examples of God’s mercy. In v.2 he refers to “mercy” from which “mercies” flow. What was it that the Psalmist had in mind? The word hesed has a wider range of meaning than the mere withholding of punishment for misdemeanours. It includes God’s love and grace. These types of mercy are experienced individually through health and the provision of daily bread. Since this Psalm is occupied with national concerns it may be that he has in mind God’s interest in Israel and His promises to deliver them.
“For ever.” There are four occasions in the Psalms where the desire to sing forever is expressed. The other three occurrences are:
“To the end that my glory may sing praise to Thee, and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks unto Thee for ever” Ps.30.12;
“So will I sing praise unto Thy name for ever, that I may daily perform my vows” Ps.61.8;
“But I will declare for ever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob” Ps.75.9.
The Psalmist’s words are not to be taken literally. He well knows that he cannot sing forever. But his convictions run so deep that he wishes he could sing forever.
“With my mouth will I make known.” In order to interpret the Psalms, it is important to be aware that Hebrew poetry and song relied on a technique called parallelism (see box below). Here the use of parallelism makes it clear that the song of the first part of the verse is paralleled by his mouth making things known. The Psalms were not merely anthems of praise but means of instruction.
Parallelism takes three basic forms: synonymous, antithetic and synthetic.
In synonymous parallelism a thought is expressed and then repeated in different words:
“Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing” Ps.126.2;
In antithetic parallelism the initial thought is emphasised by contrasting it with its opposite:
“The merciful man doeth good to his own soul:
But he that is cruel troubleth his own flesh” Prov.11.17;
In synthetic parallelism the second line completes the thought of the first:
“I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep:
For Thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety” Ps.4.8.
“Thy faithfulness to all generations.” God’s faithfulness is a major theme in the Psalm. The Psalmist desires to use the words of the Psalm to proclaim God’s faithfulness to “all generations”. These were not disposable lyrics.
“For I have said, ‘Mercy shall be built up for ever:’ Thy faithfulness shalt Thou establish in the very heavens.” Mercy is described as a building under construction, but it is a building project that will never cease. God’s purposes are an aspect of His attributes. His purpose is to show mercy in the measure that He is a merciful God. Mercy is not an abstract ideal but a concrete reality that is built up by acts of mercy. Faithfulness, in the second half of the verse, is the partner to mercy. It too is described as a structure. The foundations of the building are laid or “establish[ed]” in the heavens. This indicates that the basis of God’s faithfulness is found in heaven, which is the source of faithfulness. Mercy and faithfulness are the two attributes that the writer calls into doubt at the end of the Psalm. The end of the Psalm needs to be read in the light of these words at its beginning.
The Psalm is largely about the covenant God made with David. Here we have the ‘bare bones’ of that covenant. Its terms are expanded later in the Psalm.
“I have made a covenant with My chosen.” It is important to recognise that these words are God’s words to David. These are obviously not the words of the Psalmist. When God made His covenant with David, He spoke through Nathan the prophet (see 2Sam.7.11-13, discussed above).
The word “chosen” (behiri) is the same word as that translated “elect” in Isa.42.1, where it refers to the servant of Jehovah. In other passages Israel are also described as “chosen” Isa.43.20, or “elect” Isa.45.4. Thus we learn that David was chosen by God. No mention is made of the criteria for choice. The emphasis is on the fact of choice. At the time David was chosen by God he had very little to commend him. He was the youngest of Jesse’s sons and had no recognised leadership qualities. Jesse was astonished that Samuel anointed him. Humanly speaking it was a bewildering choice to make. Although David lived to prove himself a capable military commander and a “man after [God’s] own heart” 1Sam.13.14, he was also guilty of many mistakes. God knew all these problems when He chose him but chose him nevertheless. God’s choices are always marked by grace.
“I have sworn unto David My servant.” The words “I have sworn” parallel the opening half of the verse. God’s covenant is the practical equivalent of His oath. What God swears to do He will bring to pass.
“Thy seed will I establish for ever.” The “seed” refers to David’s children. The word “seed” can be a singular or collective noun (as Paul explains in Gal.3.16,29). In the present context the Psalmist is not thinking of all of David’s descendants. David had a huge family from multiple wives. In light of the second half of the Psalm he is thinking of the line of succession to the throne through Solomon and his successors. Although only one son could fill the throne, he too would have a successor, so the “seed” here is probably a collective noun that covers the line of Davidic kings. Since the second half of the verse refers to the throne of Israel/Judah it is evident that the Psalmist is thinking of a king from David’s line.
The crucial element in the promise is that it will be “for ever”. Most royal houses rise and fall. In the United Kingdom the House of Windsor is the reigning house, but other royal houses such as Tudor, Stuart, and Hanover reigned before the House of Windsor. Dynasties rise and fall. The dilemma confronted by the Psalmist later in the Psalm is that the royal house of David had collapsed, but here the “seed” is to be established forever.
I consider that these words point to a fulfilment in Christ. It ought to be evident that a house could not endure forever. The idea of an eternal kingdom anticipates God’s intervention in the form of a Messiah Who could not fail. That was Christ.
“And build up thy throne to all generations.” This repeats Nathan’s oracle and promises an enduring dynasty.
“Selah”: this is thought to be a musical term signifying a pause or interlude. However, the exact meaning of the Hebrew term is unknown. This term primarily occurs in the Psalms, for example, Psalms 3,4,32,46,89 and 140, but also in Habakkuk, Hab.3.3,9,13. The Septuagint uses the word diapsalma, meaning ‘pause’ or ‘interlude’. The word appears seventy-one times in the Psalms and four times in this Psalm, vv.4,37,45,48.
The Psalmist looks at God’s rule over creation in two spheres. In vv.5-7 he looks at the angelic realm. In vv.8-12 he looks at the earthly realm. The strategic aim here is to show that God was reliable. This section is the prelude to the end of the Psalm, where the apparent failure of God’s promises is narrated and prayers for deliverance are set out.
“And the heavens shall praise Thy wonders, O LORD.” In Psalm 19 “the heavens declare the glory of God” Ps.19.1. This refers to a mute declaration of God’s glory through the beauty of the creation. Here it is probably better to understand “the heavens” as a reference to the inhabitants of heaven. This conclusion is based on two factors. First, the “heavens” are in parallel to the “congregation of the saints” in the second part of the verse. The latter helps with the interpretation of the former. The “congregation of the saints” is a reference to the angels in God’s presence. Second, vv.5-7 refer to the “saints”, “the sons of the mighty” and “all them that are about Him”. These terms all describe angels in the Old Testament.
“Thy wonders” may refer to His creatorial works. Creation is certainly full of “wonders”. However, it may be that the “wonders” in context refer to acts that reveal God’s fidelity. The second half of the verse refers to God’s faithfulness, which is the main theme of the Psalm.
“Thy faithfulness also in the congregation of the saints.” In Scripture God’s presence is likened to a council chamber with His angels gathered round Him, Job 1.6; 1Kgs.22.19-23; 2Chr.18.18. Verse 5 indicates that angels worship in His presence. Two causes of worship are noted: God’s wonders, in the first part of the verse, and here His faithfulness. “Thy faithfulness” looks at God’s character. God’s faithfulness is a major issue in the Psalm, a large part of which is devoted to God’s promises to David. The Psalm indicates that these promises seem to have come to nought. Thus, although the Psalm does not anticipate how God will restore David’s house or predict how the covenant is to be fulfilled, this early part of the Psalm makes it clear that the angels have no doubt about God’s faithfulness.
“For who in the heaven can be compared unto the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the LORD?” The word for heaven here is different from the “heavens” in v.5. The word here signifies the sky.
“God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about Him.” The “saints” is an expression used in the Old Testament to cover human beings and also angels. Since the context has to do with the heavens and since “the sons of the mighty” is an expression applied to angels and not men, it is best to see this section as relating to heaven.
Several different expressions are used to describe the angels. They are the “congregation of the saints” v.5, “the sons of the mighty” v.6, and “the assembly of the saints” v.7. Once it is admitted that this section is a depiction of heaven it becomes possible to understand how the “heavens” praise the Lord. This is a metonymy for the angels that occupy the heavens.
There is a valuable lesson here: reverence is the proper response to God’s presence.
This section looks at the earthly creation. Although the main point is that His power brought it into being, these verses are more than a celebration of God’s raw power. His involvement in that creation is emphasised. He not only made it, but He controls it. Thus, storms are under His control.
“O LORD God of hosts.” This title “LORD God of hosts” and its near neighbour “the LORD of hosts” appear frequently in the Old Testament. It also appears in the New Testament, in Rom.9.29 and Jms.5.4, where it is translated “LORD of Sabaoth”. It is usually thought that the “hosts” refer to the hosts of angels that are under His command. The point is that He is in command of the heavenly host and hence that He is strong.
“Who is a strong LORD like unto Thee? Or to Thy faithfulness round about Thee?” The basic idea here is that no one is as strong as God and no one is as faithful as God. How can faithfulness be “round about” God? The idea is that faithfulness characterises the place where God dwells. Those that surround Him are faithful. They take their character from their God. His character marks the environment He inhabits. Just as there is no one to compare to God in strength, so there is no one to compare to God in His faithfulness.
“Thou rulest the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, Thou stillest them.” This verse refers to God’s power over nature. Nature lies outside of man’s control but not God’s. The word “raging” captures the idea that a storm is uncontrollable. It throws up massive waves, wrecks ships and breaks down sea walls, but despite the apparently unbridled power of the storm, God rules it. He rules the storm and stills the sea. This mastery of nature was exercised by the Lord Jesus Christ when He calmed the storm on the sea of Galilee, Mk.4.39.
“Thou hast broken Rahab in pieces, as one that is slain.” God’s control is also exercised over nations. The scholars suggest that the word Rahab, which means ‘proud, raging or turbulent’, refers either to a sea monster or to Egypt. On balance it seems more likely that the Psalmist is referring to Egypt, since at the time of writing Egypt was an enemy of Judah. The following verse refers to Judah’s enemies and Egypt was one of those enemies. The identification of Egypt with Rahab can be discerned in the following texts: “I will make mention of Rahab and Babylon to them that know me: behold Philistia, and Tyre, with Ethiopia; ‘This man was born there’” Ps.87.4; “For the Egyptians shall help in vain, and to no purpose: therefore have I cried concerning this, ‘Their strength is to sit still’” Isa.30.7. In Isa.30.7 the words “their strength is to sit still” in the original text are Rahab-hem-shebeth. The English Standard Version translates “Rahab who sits still”. In this verse Rahab is identified with Egypt.
The destruction of Egypt is described in two ways. First, he describes it as “broken … in pieces”. Egypt is described as a piece of pottery or wood that is shivered in pieces. Second, he describes it as “one that is slain”. Egypt is like a person or animal that has been killed. The question is: when did all this happen? It may be that it refers back to the destruction of Egypt’s army at the Red Sea when Moses led Israel out at the Exodus.
“Thou hast scattered Thine enemies with Thy strong arm.” This thought parallels the first part of the verse. Egypt was an enemy of Judah, but it was also an enemy of God. The fact that Judah’s enemies were God’s enemies did not guarantee Judah victory. God did not always give Judah or Israel victory in battle. At the commencement of the Davidic kingdom God gave Israel a series of resounding victories. These words reflect on these victories. Thereafter, Solomon’s reign was marked by peace and he reaped the dividends of David’s triumphs. However, as Israel and Judah declined into idolatry the two kingdoms split and their kings became progressively weaker. This verse reflects on the glory days of years gone by.
In course of time God began to use heathen nations to ‘punish’ His people and their kings as He had promised He would when He entered the covenant. His use of foreign powers did not signify His approval of these nations or their kings, but it demonstrated that Israel and Judah could not assume that God was ‘on their side’ when they had backslidden so seriously. God used their traditional ‘enemies’ to punish them, Isa.10.5,6.
“The heavens are Thine, the earth also is Thine.” God is owner of His creation. Ps.50.10 asserts His ownership of the cattle “upon a thousand hills”. Domestic animals are typically owned but God through creation has a prior claim on them.
“As for the world and the fulness thereof, Thou hast founded them.” The world is created by God. This gives Him ownership rights over the world and the whole creation.
“The north and the south Thou hast created them.” This may refer to geographic regions, that is, north and south of the country, or to the orientation of the universe, that is, what we call the points of the compass. Given that the second half of the verse refers to two mountains, the north and south probably refer to geographical locations rather than points of the compass. The Psalmist is therefore referring to the extreme north and south of the country.
“Tabor and Hermon shall rejoice in Thy name.” Tabor is a mountain of just under two thousand feet, west of the south end of Lake Galilee, whereas Hermon rises to nine thousand feet, to the north and east of the Jordan river. In contrast to “north” and “south”, these mountains were to the east and west.
Mountains cannot rejoice. This is figurative language. It is possible that the mountains represent the areas they occupy and those that live there. If so, he means the peoples who live in the region of these mountains will rejoice. On the other hand, he may be referring to the Millennium. The verse is phrased in the future tense. If so, the thought is that these hills will rejoice in the sense that they will blossom when their Creator comes to reign, Rom.8.21; Ps.72.16.
This section looks at God’s goodness to His people. They rejoice when they come up to the Temple and worship before God. Although they have an earthly monarch God is truly their King.
“Thou hast a mighty arm: strong is Thy hand, and high is Thy right hand.” In many Old Testament Scriptures God is spoken of as having human attributes. The technical term for this manner of writing or speaking is anthropomorphism. It involves attributing to God human characteristics so that we may understand His activities and thoughts better. God has no arms or hands. God is a spirit.
In one passage God redeems Israel from the Egyptians “with a stretched out arm” Ex.6.6. Sometimes the Lord’s “hand” or His “arm” is said to rescue Israel, Ex.15.16; Deut.5.15; 11.2-4; 26.8. In the Psalms God is asked to incline His ear to the Psalmist’s prayer, Ps.17.1,6; 31.2; 39.12; 55.1; 71.2; 86.1,6; 88.2, meaning He is asked to listen closely. Isaiah combines His ear, hand, and face: “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither His ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear” Isa.59.1,2.
The hand and arm refer to God’s ability to accomplish His purposes. The hand lifted “high” probably refers to a military commander raising his hand and directing his troops.
“Justice and judgment are the habitation of Thy throne.” “Justice and judgment” are translated “righteousness and justice” by the English Standard Version and “equity and justice” by the New English Translation. The word “habitation” is translated “foundation” by most translations; see v.8, where faithfulness is said to be “round about” God. The author draws a parallel between human kings and earthly thrones. Thrones represent the authority of kings. God is represented as sitting on a throne exercising authority over the universe. While earthly thrones were marked by capricious and arbitrary power, God’s throne is based on righteousness and fairness.
“Mercy and truth shall go before Thy face.” The expression “go before Thy face” refers to the servants who walked before kings in public processions. The face represents the presence of the king. Just as righteousness and justice were characteristic of God’s decisions so mercy and truth accompanied Him wherever He went. The basic point is to emphasise that, unlike the kings of Judah or other kings, God’s rule was marked by the best of attributes.
“Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound.” The Psalms are full of blessings:
“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful” Ps.1.1;
“Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” Ps.32.1;
“Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house: they will be still praising Thee. Selah. Blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee; in whose heart are the ways of them” Ps.84.4,5.
Here the blessing accompanies the hearing of a joyful sound. Given that the next verse speaks of the people rejoicing, the sound is likely to be the sound of the trumpets and Temple choir on feast days. The Psalms were sung at these holy convocations. The people of Judah and Israel were blessed when they came together and heard God’s name being praised.
If, as seems likely, the Psalm was written at or after the collapse of Jerusalem, this reference to blessing is bittersweet. The Temple was destroyed shortly after the nation went into exile, 2Kgs.25.8-17. If the Psalm was written after the Temple was destroyed, then the writer is reflecting here on what the people lost when the Temple fell, and the feasts came to an end.
“They shall walk, O LORD, in the light of Thy countenance.” The “light of Thy countenance” refers to the blessing that comes from being in close fellowship with God. The “countenance” of God is another example of anthropomorphism. When the Lord Jesus was born, He had a face. Before the Incarnation the “countenance” or face of God was a metaphor for His presence. Only those who are in proximity to a king may see his face. Thus those who “walk[ed]” (that is, lived their daily life) in proximity to the Lord were blessed because they could see His ‘face’.
“In Thy name shall they rejoice all the day: and in Thy righteousness shall they be exalted.” In Scripture the “name” is more than just a name. Names in the Old Testament in particular are used to reveal something about the person who bore the name. When God named Himself He used the name to reveal His eternal character. So to rejoice in God’s name means to rejoice in the attributes of His character He has revealed. Just as the previous verse juxtaposes the people rejoicing at the feast day with their walk in fellowship with God, so this verse parallels the people that rejoice in God with the righteousness that God gave them.
“For Thou art the glory of their strength: and in Thy favour our horn shall be exalted.” Strength takes many forms in the Bible but here true strength is in the Lord. The “glory” represents the aspect of their strength that was most illustrious. The Lord was the source of their strength and the most illustrious aspect of it. The “horn” represents their national strength. When the nation was in God’s favour their strength was at its greatest.
“For the LORD is our defence; and the Holy One of Israel is our King.” This develops the thought of the previous verse. God’s strength would be their protection. Although they had a human king in David’s heir, Jehovah was the true King.
This section is the longest in the Psalm. As in v.3 the speaker is God in the sense that the Psalmist speaks as if God Himself were speaking. These words develop and explain the terms of the original Davidic covenant. If the Psalm was written at the time of the Captivity then it dates to about five hundred years after the covenant was made. If on the other hand it was written during David’s or Solomon’s reign, then these words were penned a short time after Nathan’s oracle. Whatever the position, this section sets out the promises God made to David through Nathan when He inaugurated the covenant. It is spoken in the present tense even though the Davidic covenant had been in force for some time.
It combines elements that were fulfilled in David’s lifetime and in the lifetime of his successors, but some of the elements point forward to the Messiah. Only He would reign forever and hold sway over the kings of the earth. Verse 33 states that God will be faithful to His promise to David.
“Then Thou spakest in vision to Thy holy one, and saidst, ‘I have laid help upon one that is mighty; I have exalted one chosen out of the people.’” The word “then” can be translated in a variety of ways. The English Standard Version translates “of old”. The reference is to Nathan’s oracle. It may not exactly have been a “vision” in the sense of being a visible revelation, but evidently God spoke through Nathan to David when the Davidic covenant was inaugurated.
David is described as “Thy holy one”. Holiness in this context does not refer to David’s personal holiness but his positional holiness as a person set aside for a particular purpose by God. He was set apart by the anointing of Samuel.
“I have found David My servant; with My holy oil have I anointed him.” Although Samuel visited Jesse’s home and anointed David, this verse makes it clear that God was working through Samuel. Although Samuel anointed David, God was acting through him.
“With whom My hand shall be established: Mine arm also shall strengthen him.” This text tells us that God has purposes He seeks to accomplish and tasks He seeks to perform. David acts on His behalf as a hand acts for the body. See v.13.
“The enemy shall not exact upon him; nor the son of wickedness afflict him.” The word “exact” is a reference to the practice of forcing the payment of taxes. In Old Testament times when one country invaded another or simply was more powerful it exacted tribute as a form of tax. In return for the payments it refrained from invading or destroying the vassal state. It was in effect a form of extortion. Payments were often collected on a yearly basis. The word “afflict” probably refers to the various ways in which neighbouring countries like Egypt and Babylon exerted their dominance over Judah. No doubt they took their children as slaves or compelled them to serve in their armies. It was no fun being a small country under the heel of a dominant neighbour.
“And I will beat down his foes before his face, and plague them that hate him.” This is an elaboration on the terms of the Davidic covenant given through Nathan. It promised him a kingdom. It follows from that promise that God would protect him from those that sought to overthrow the Davidic line.
“But My faithfulness and My mercy shall be with him: and in My name shall his horn be exalted.” The Psalm begins with a meditation on God’s faithfulness. Here the faithfulness of God to David is in view. “Mercy” is the Hebrew word hasdi (from the root hesed). The “horn” in Scripture is a symbol for someone’s strength. The Davidic covenant depended on God to be faithful to His promise and to be merciful to David and his lineage. David and his seed would only prosper to the extent that he acted in God’s name and depended on God.
The word “mercy” appears in v.14. It is the Hebrew word hesed. It is an important word in the Old Testament and is particularly prominent in the Psalms where in its various forms it occurs 153 times. It appears eight times in this Psalm in various guises. The Authorised Version renders it as “mercies”/“mercy” vv.1,2,14,24,28, “lovingkindness” vv.33,49, and “holy” v.19. It is usually translated “mercy” in the Old Testament but it has added connotations of kindness and goodness. In this Psalm God’s kindness and faithfulness are two key attributes. The Psalmist recognises that David’s line will never be restored unless God is faithful to His promise and exercises mercy to a sinful line of kings.
“I will set his hand also in the sea, and his right hand in the rivers.” This expands the words of the covenant further by promising that David’s kingdom would extend to the Mediterranean Sea and the rivers that watered the land and marked its boundaries.
“He shall cry unto Me, ‘Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.’” This refers to and expands upon 2Sam.7.14. These words hint that the ultimate fulfilment of these promises would not be realised in David’s natural children. The Old Testament does not teach that individuals could know God as Father. The nation knew God as Father, but individuals did not regard themselves as God’s sons. However, this promise refers to One Who could call God His Father and also His God.
“Also I will make him My firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth.” This is a promise that goes beyond any fulfilment that David or Solomon could have claimed. The word “firstborn” does not refer to a child born before other children; it refers to someone who is pre-eminent. The New Testament uses the term of the Lord Jesus in this sense, Col.1.15,18; Heb.1.6. These words point to a fulfilment in the Messiah, not in David or his direct lineage. None of David’s natural sons could or would claim to be “higher than the kings of the earth”.
“My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and My covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven.” The word “mercy” is hasdi (see above). These words necessitate a fulfilment that David and his sons could not offer. They were mortal and sinful. This anticipates an everlasting dynasty. This promise anticipated Christ.
“If his children forsake My law, and walk not in My judgments; if they break My statutes, and keep not My commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.” These verses refer back to David’s natural seed. In the years that followed the reigns of David and Solomon the kings broke God’s law. The kingdom split into two and grew progressively weaker. Israel was eventually swamped by Assyria and about a hundred years later Judah was swamped by Babylon. These verses do not ascribe geopolitical reasons for these misfortunes. They may even provide the reason why the line of David broke down completely. The promise of a Davidic king fell into abeyance for about five hundred years. Although the nation returned from captivity in Babylon, a Davidic king was not restored to the throne. The King arrived when the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem. His formal presentation to Israel took place some years later. Although He was recognised as the Son of David, the sin of the people again prevailed. The return of the Messiah will bring to fruition the covenant with David.
“‘Nevertheless My lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer My faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of My lips. Once have I sworn by My holiness that I will not lie unto David. His seed shall endure for ever, and his throne as the sun before Me. It shall be established for ever as the moon, and as a faithful witness in heaven.’ Selah.” These words emphasise that although the covenant is in abeyance it has not been nullified. These words indicate that we cannot spiritualise the covenant away. One day a son of David will reign on his throne. Here perhaps the word “seed” develops its singular form. The “seed” here refers to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Some argue that the birth of the Lord Jesus, the Son of David, followed by His enthronement in heaven fulfilled the Davidic covenant. Although Scripture teaches that after His ascension the Lord Jesus was enthroned in heaven, Heb.1.3; Rev.3.21, the throne of David is, in my view, different from the throne in heaven. David’s throne was based in Jerusalem and was associated with sovereignty over Israel. It is true that the resurrection and ascension were the fulfilment of promises made to David, Acts 2.34; 13.32-34; 15.15-18, but this does not mean that all the Davidic promises have been fulfilled or that a Davidic reign has begun. As far as possible a literal hermeneutic should be adopted to the interpretation of Scripture. In that circumstance the best approach is to acknowledge that the Messiah will rule on David’s throne at His return to earth.
In this section the writer reflects on the apparent failure of God’s promise to David. This section inclines me to think that the Psalm was written at the time Judah fell to the Babylonians (see Introduction). The previous section involves God speaking to Judah. In this section the writer speaks in reply to God.
“But Thou hast cast off and abhorred, Thou hast been wroth with Thine anointed.” The “anointed” (mesihi) is the king of Judah. The phrase “cast off” indicates that the Lord no longer supports the king. He has been flung aside as a garment that has become soiled or torn. The Psalmist interprets this repudiation as reflecting God’s attitude towards the king. He has become “abhorred”. The writer also interprets the king’s predicament as proof that God is angry with him.
“Thou hast made void the covenant of Thy servant: Thou hast profaned his crown by casting it to the ground.” This is a serious charge. He complains that the Davidic covenant has been voided. This goes farther than saying it has been suspended or breached. We know that this complaint is unfounded but that is how it appeared to the writer at the time.
“Thou hast broken down all his hedges; Thou hast brought his strong holds to ruin. All that pass by the way spoil him: he is a reproach to his neighbours. Thou hast set up the right hand of his adversaries; Thou hast made all his enemies to rejoice. Thou hast also turned the edge of his sword, and hast not made him to stand in the battle.” This section summarises the overthrow of Judah’s defensive walls (“hedges”) and fortresses, the ability of neighbouring armies to move through Judah and take what they wished, and the consequent humiliation felt by Judah. It describes the confidence of Judah’s enemies in battle. Judah’s attempts to defend itself were ineffectual. When a sword’s edge is “turned” it is deflected or parried so that it does not find its target. The idea is that Judah failed when trying to overcome its enemies.
“Thou hast made his glory to cease, and cast his throne down to the ground. The days of his youth hast Thou shortened: Thou hast covered him with shame. Selah.” The glory here probably refers to the glory of the monarchy. The second half of v.44 indicates that the subject matter is the Davidic throne rather than the glory of God in the Temple. The nation is represented as a person. In his youth under David and Solomon he
was strong, but God has brought that epoch to an end. Judah had not
grown old gracefully. He was now desolate. For the meaning of selah see v.4.
This section is largely composed of questions, but it ends with a plea: “Remember … Thy servants”. In light of v.51 these questions are placed on the lips of the king of Judah, “Thine anointed”. This may be Jehoiachin or Zedekiah.
“How long, LORD? wilt Thou hide Thyself for ever? Shall Thy wrath burn like fire?” These questions focus on the fact that God has not intervened to rescue Judah. No doubt Judah was resisting Babylon as best it could. The situation was evidently desperate. God’s wrath is likened to fire. However, God did not appear with a heavenly army over the brow of the hill. The Psalmist believes that God can rescue the situation. He does not doubt that. His question is focused on “when”, not “if”.
In fact, God never stepped in to repel the Babylonians. He allowed them to sack Jerusalem and destroy the Temple. The deliverance was of a different sort. He would work on the heart of Cyrus and after seventy years’ captivity the nation would enjoy release. God’s ways are not our ways.
“Remember how short my time is: wherefore hast Thou made all men in vain? What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? Shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave? Selah.” These words appear out of place. They read like a meditation on the brevity of life in the middle of a prayer about Judah. The connection of thought is that the speaker is the king of Judah, “Thine anointed” v.51. These questions are prompted by the circumstances in which the Psalm was written. His wish is that God would step in and protect his throne. He fears that God will delay to do so and that meanwhile he will die before seeing God act. His charge that God made “all men in vain” resemble the words of his predecessor Solomon, Eccl.6.12. He is wrong. Men are not all made in vain; but that was how he saw his situation.
For the meaning of selah see v.4.
“Lord, where are Thy former lovingkindnesses, which Thou swarest unto David in Thy truth?” This verse encapsulates the author’s dilemma. God had sworn to David that He would show mercy to David and his successors. This is the last mention of hesed, the loyal love of God, in the Psalm. He understood that mercy to include deliverance from enemies.
“Remember, Lord, the reproach of Thy servants; how I do bear in my bosom the reproach of all the mighty people; wherewith Thine enemies have reproached, O LORD; wherewith they have reproached the footsteps of Thine anointed.” In asking God to “remember” he wishes God not merely to take notice of his situation but also to act on it. He felt the ignominy of his position and that of his nation. The reference to bearing reproach “in my bosom” conveys the personal hurt of the writer. He cannot comprehend how the Lord’s anointed could be so shamed.
“Blessed be the LORD for evermore. Amen, and Amen.” The Psalm, and Book Three of the Psalter, ends with this short doxology. The Psalm began with the ambition of praising God for ever. It ends with God being blessed forever. The Psalm has ended with God’s promises seemingly under threat. However, if God is to be blessed for evermore then His purpose must ultimately prevail. God will not leave His promises unfulfilled. He will not allow His name to be dishonoured. He will be praised forever.
The double Amen signifies different things in different places. It may signify solemnity or fervency. Here the main idea is the certainty of the blessing; see Num.5.22; Ps.41.13; 72.19; Neh.8.6.