In Psalm 89, God invites us to be bold in our prayerful laments. If our heart’s desire is God; if we long, for ourselves and our people, to experience the joy of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; if our words are not the grumbling of unbelief but the expression of grieved faith, then it’s good to be direct with God. He hears, and receives as worship, real faith expressed in a cry of pain.
In ancient rabbinic literature, the Psalms were referred to as tehillîm, which is Hebrew for “praises.” One of the most remarkable features of this sacred collection of praise songs is that at least one-third of them are laments. These are songs that passionately express some kind of emotional distress, such as grief, sorrow, confusion, anguish, penitence, fear, depression, loneliness, or doubt.
This is remarkable because the presence of so many praise laments implies that God knew his people would frequently be called to worship him in agonizing circumstances. The Holy Spirit inspired poets to craft “praises” that would provide us worshipful expressions of our diverse experiences of pain.
If lament psalms are Spirit-inspired praise songs for our painful seasons, we should look at them carefully, because they teach us important lessons about the kinds of worship God receives. Some of the ways these inspired poets worshiped God in their agony might make us uncomfortable. Psalm 89 is a good example.
Leader in Lament
Psalm 89 is attributed to Ethan the Ezrahite. According to 1 Chronicles 6:31–48, Ethan was one of three clan chiefs of the tribe of Levi — the other two being Heman (Psalm 88) and Asaph (Psalms 50; 73–82) — “whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord.” He was a high-profile leader to whom thousands looked for social and spiritual instruction and counsel. His words had gravitas.
And in this psalm, Ethan led the people in lament. Over what? Over God’s apparent unfaithfulness to his covenant with David — apparent being the operative word here.
In 2 Samuel 7, the prophet Nathan delivered a stunning promise from the Lord to David about how long his descendants would sit on Israel’s throne: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). This became a crucial part of Israel’s self-understanding: God had planted them in the Promised Land and had given them a promised governance that would last forever.
However, something terrible happened (perhaps Absalom’s rebellion of 2 Samuel 15–18), which made it appear as if God had “renounced” his covenant and “defiled [David’s] crown in the dust” (Psalm 89:39). And in this moment of crisis, Ethan composed a psalm that gave worshipful voice to the confusion and grief that all who trusted in God’s faithfulness were experiencing.
In the first eighteen verses, Ethan exults in how bound up God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are with his very character.
- God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are part of the glory and might for which he is loved and praised and feared in the divine council and the great angelic host (Psalm 89:5–8).
- It is through God’s steadfast love and faithfulness that he exercises his sovereign rule over all creation: the heavens and the earth and all that fills them, the “raging sea” and its most fearsome creature, Rahab, and the great mountains, like Tabor and Hermon (Psalm 89:9–12).
- God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are part of the “foundation of [his] throne,” most clearly manifest (at that time) in the Davidic kingdom he had established in Israel. They are why his people shout for joy and “exult in [his] name all the day” (Psalm 89:13–16).
Ethan reminds God,
You are the glory of [Israel’s] strength;
by your favor our horn is exalted.
For our shield belongs to the Lord,
our king to the Holy One of Israel. (Psalm 89:17–18)
The stakes were high. If God’s people could not hope in his steadfast love and faithfulness, how could they continue to exult in him like this?