July 25, 2009
How long, O LORD ? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Remember how fleeting is my life.
For what futility you have created all men! (Psalm 89: 46-7)
Psalm 89 moves chameleon-like through different emotions of the psalmist, almost as though there are different speakers. First, there is praise, then an oracle of the Davidic covenant, and finally complaint and plea before God. Though there are several different sections to the psalm, Psalm 89 is clearly at bottom a psalm of lament. The fact that the psalm does not resolve into praise at the end supports this claim. Thus the psalm’s purpose is to accuse God of not fulfilling God’s covenantal promise to David to be faithful and steadfast in his love. The psalmist is calling God to account first by reminding God of his covenant agreement and then by describing the facts of the current state of the king that contradict that agreement.
The psalmist clearly has no trouble pointing out exactly what he or she expects God to be doing and asking God when circumstances will be righted again. It is difficult to have a picture of God that seems imperfect. I remember my mom once double-checking a children’s book against the biblical text of the story of Noah’s flood because she did not like that it said, “Then God remembered Noah,” as if God had forgotten him for a while. (Incidentally, it does say that in the biblical text as well.) But this psalm exemplifies just this tension between God’s sovereignty and our participation: God is acknowledged as being faithful, yet God is being reminded of that faithfulness. This tension is something that must be dealt with both in the psalmist’s mind and in our own context today. When God is described as remembering something, it simply means to the Hebrew mind that God is once again mindful of a situation and is going to do something about it. When the psalmist asks God to remember the covenant, there is no real fear that God could have forgotten it. It is rather a call to action: “hey, we’re over here feeling abandoned, so come put things back the way they should be.”
To our contemporary ears, it seems brash and even insulting to accuse God of anything at all. We are taught to accept whatever happens as part of God’s plan. Psalm 89 proves that God allows our interaction with him even when it closes the distance of king to subject. The psalmist approaches God’s throne as an angry child approaches a parent: “you’re not being fair; you said I could such-and-such; how long do I have to wait?” That kind of intimacy is almost frowned upon in many of today’s western churches. In attempting to set God apart, we separate ourselves from God. This psalm serves as a necessary righting of that false mindset toward God.
Sometimes we do not feel like praising because God seems to be the opposite of what we would say in God’s honor. The psalmist gives us permission to remind God of his promised steadfast love and faithfulness, whether we are praising or lamenting. The psalm can serve as a reminder: God doesn’t want you to stay this way, so it’s okay to ask God for help! Sometimes we feel forgotten by God, like we do not matter, as if God is too busy elsewhere to notice our particular pain. We think we are not allowed to require of God. But God has promised.
This psalm gives us permission to call God to account, to remind God that we have not forgotten that he should be steadfast and faithful. It is okay to tell God we feel forgotten and remind God of his promises. Sometimes God may want us to wait on his timing, but other times God may be waiting for us to interact with him, to let him know we want him. Thus, this psalm can be used to remind people not only that it is acceptable to complain to God but also that God is a personal God who wants to interact with us. God is not a watchmaker who winds up the world and sits back to let it run all by itself. Sometimes God allows us to fall into situations that will remind us that God is there, waiting to be acknowledged again.
I have learned from this psalm that lament is an acceptable form of prayer to God. More than that, I have learned that it is necessary at times to leave lament in its raw state of pain rather than attempt to temper it with praise. Clearly, Psalm 89 is not entirely a psalm of lament. The first 18 verses praise God for all the goodness in creation and the covenantal promises. The next section even details the nature of that promise. It is not until verse 38 that the lament begins, so the psalmist certainly cannot be accused of simply griping to God all the time. This is no complaint in our modern terms but a genuine expression of distress and frustration.
I have not always felt free to express my own lament to God without couching everything in praise to avoid offense. There is great freedom in being able to express hurt and anger, even to demand that God make good on his promises, instead of meekly accepting life situations as ordained by God and suffering in silence. Silence breeds resentment, and resentment breeds death. Psalm 89 teaches us to break that silence, even when God seems silent toward us. God may just be waiting to hear us acknowledge that we notice the lack of God’s felt presence.