19 June 2012

Psalm 89:19-37

"Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David." (v. 35)


The middle section of this psalm focuses on David, the celebrated king of ancient Israel. God speaks (verse 19), naming David as the chosen one, who is anointed and crowned king. God promises to be with David, to bless and protect him in times of trouble. At this point, the psalm corresponds closely to the announcement of God's promise to David given by the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 7).

David's blessings and power closely parallel the gifts and graces of God that are described in the first part of the psalm (verses 1-18). Thus David's authority over the waters echoes God's triumph over the waters of chaos (verses 9); and David's position as the highest of the earthly kings (verses 27) mirrors God's as the highest in heaven (verses 7). All that David is, he is because of God's choosing.

The unconditional nature of the relationship between God and David is built up by clear, persistent claims (verses 19-29), only to be interrupted by one word, "if" (verse 30). Where does the "if" come from? At first glance it would seem totally unexpected. But this is forgetting that the Hebrew Scriptures are built around the covenant at Sinai (Exodus 20), which is deeply conditional, and surrounded by the Torah or law, which the community of faith must uphold (see verses 31-32; and Psalm 119). The Torah offers a way of reflecting out to the world God's steadfast love and faithfulness.

David is a deeply ambiguous figure; his bravery and beauty is celebrated but the biblical narrative also implies that his reign was marked by envy, greed and violence. He frequently failed to enact justice and mercy towards either friends or enemies. In the psalm, David also embodies his descendents, Solomon and the many kings who ruled the southern kingdom of Judah. Therefore the covenant made with David extends to his descendents, who (like David) are judged variously by the biblical writers. By the time the psalm was written, the last independent king of Judah had been taken into exile in 597 BC by the Babylonians, an event some biblical writers consider to be a judgement on the failure of the kings to follow God's way of ruling. The psalm therefore expresses hope in a future restoration of the royal house of David, born of a deep memory of God's love for David, and a desire that justice and mercy will once again be reflected in the lives of the community of faith.

To Ponder

How do you seek to reflect or mirror God's qualities of love and justice in your life?

How has your faith been shaped by being part of an ongoing community of faith? How much have your family and friends played a part?

Have you ever made a promise to be faithful to another person, community or place? How has that shaped your actions ever since? Or if you haven't, how do you think it might shape your actions?

Bible notes author

Rachel Starr

Rachel Starr is the Methodist tutor at The Queen's Foundation for ecumenical theological education in Birmingham, where she teaches studies in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. Before that she spent three years in Buenos Aires completing doctoral studies at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos (Instituto Universitario ISEDET).