This Psalms concludes Book Three of the Psaltire in a similar confrontational mood Psalm 73 started it. As we know from our own reading or from last Sunday’s Bible Study, Psalm 73 put in front of us the debate over God’s justice from a personal perspective. Although the psalmist had quite a firm statement of faith (God is good to Israel), the reality opposed the truth of this thesis: men without firm moral standards seem to live better than those faithful to God. When the thesis and its antithesis are put together into a synthesis, there is only only logical conclusion: morality is in vain (v. 13). The only resource this psalmist has left to avoid some stupid outcome is holding onto his identity (v. 14). I can almost hear in his words, the Ukrainian Jew Tevje (Fiddler on the Roof) who argues with himself on the meaning of tradition and holding onto it, although at some point he suggested with humour amidst a perilous situation: “I know, God, that we are your people, but can’t we, just for this time, not be yours?” In the case of Psalm 73, the solution resides with a redefinition of the second observation: having goods does not mean to be blessed, having a good end is the true test of blessedness. Fair enough, a good end is not in our grasp but is God given.
The rationale of Psalm 89 takes a similar trajectory. This time, though, the thesis is extended to multiple verses and the argument refers to the whole nation and to its most significant representative, the king. There are modern commentators who suggest that these confrontational psalms, marking the extremities of the core section of the Psaltire, drive the thematic linkage of the following Psalms as the editor was in pursuit of some answers for these major debates.
Verses 1-4 lay the twofold thesis of this Psalm’s argument. The main theme of these verses is God’s loyalty to his covenant expressed by means of three words that belong to the same semantic category: favour, firmness and covenant. God’s covenant with David epitomizes God’s loyalty to his people.
Verses 5-8 take the reader into the Most Holy Court in Heaven, wherein God presides over the heavenly beings. The psalmist starts from above because this perspective is vitaly important for his argument. God has no equal among the most sublime creatures of this universe and no one can challenge his authority. Therefore, he is the highest authority the psalmist needs to present his case to.
Verses 9-13 describe the legacy of God’s omnipotence: creation of all things, and subsequent authority over sea with all its legendary creatures, and dry land with its most representative peaks in the region. Therefore, the reference to God’s hand belongs rightfully here. Zaphon, Yamin (translated ‘north’ and ‘south’), Tabor and Hermon were, apparently, all mountains with religious significance. The psalmist does not enter into a polemic but he is eager to establish God’s right over all idolatrous cultic sites.
Verses 14-18 approach the core of this debate by reiterating the two main elements of the twofold thesis: God’s loyalty (1) to his people (2). Notice that the foundational principles of God’s government are justice and loyalty qualified each by another noun. I take what NIV translates as “righteousness and justice” and “love and faithfullness” not as two pairs of four distinct principles but as two principles, that is righteous justice and loving firmness. Undoubtedly God is presented as a king whose authority does not escape a thing.
This tableau of God is completed by an extensive reference to his covenant to David. The covenant with humans, either individually or collectively, represents the best way of describing God’s economy, or his dealings with humankind, his vasals. Another major break appears at the end of verse 37. Verses 19-37 contain alusions to or reinterpretations of various textual traditions referring to David. Nonetheless, the psalmist created the illusion that he had access to the verbatim written transmision of this experience. The psalmist brings to fore several very important themes:
1. Since God delegated authority to the davidic descendent, he cannot be defeated (vv. 20-25);
2. Since God entered in a covenant relationship with David, he functions as a father to the davidic descendent and he will punish their misdeeds (vv. 26-33);
3. Since this covenant was initiated and signe by God, it cannot change (vv. 34-37).
Another major break appears at the end of verse 45. This section (vv. 38-45) makes use of the direct approach again (cf. vv. 9-13), but this time more like a reproach. Apparently, these verses describe a situation wherein the davidic descendent suffered a severe defeat at the hand of his enemies with serious repercutions on the political and socio-economical situation of the country.
As main arguments to motivate God’s return to better thoughts, the psalmist uses two (vv. 46-52): (1) death is certain, life is short; (2) the disciplinary tools used by God to punish his people have a will of their own. They do not seem very convincing to me, the fact that the psalm ends up in this note of pesimism suggesting probably that the psalmist did not reach a conclusion or a favourable end has not yet come. Note that the final doxology (v. 53) belongs to Book Three as a whole not to this psalm in particular.
If indeed the author of this psalm was Ethan the Ezrahite, a companion levite of Asaph in the liturgical singing ministry, it is not difficult to imagine that these two individuals shared many experiences and even ideologies. Both of them tried to reason God’s righteous justice and loving firmness in the context of unfavourable circumstances happened to Israel.
In Psalm 89, the possibility that a current severe situation is allowed by God as a penalty for a rebelious Israel is not entirely excluded, provided it will finish soon. Without receiving any evidence of an approaching relief, the psalmist clings on what he knows is true about his God with who resides all his hope. He builds an argument that begs the Almighty King for an imediate relief in favour of the king of Jerusalem. Here, there is no allusion to sin at all and not a single reference to the Sinai covenant. Both themes have no significance for the psalmist’s argument. Obviously, Psalm 89 is not a penitential poem like Psalm 51, Ezrah 9 or Daniel 9.
Can Psalm 89 stay as a model of prayer whereby we mediate for individuals or communities in distress? One should note that the poet is intrisincally connected to the fate of the king he is praying for, therefore his prayer could well be subjective. He is pasionate about an urgent favourable reply and for this reason he contructs an irefutable argument as if he was asked to convince God and his court about the feasibility of this project. Another danger lays with the monodirectional ritual approach to prayer. Ethan’s prayer is a good example of the type of product despair conceives. We have all heard ritualistic prayers, maybe we even prayed them, prayers wherein we try to provide with the most convincing rationale to enhance, as it were, our chances to get the desired reply as soon as possible. It all depends on what you understand by prayer.
For my part, prayer is a a spiritual practice that allows the practicioner to internalize the meaningful doctrine about God, a means to come to terms with one’s experiences in the context of the unchanging reality of God, a resourceful tool to achieve a growing awareness of God’s quality and plans. As far as we know, prayer is the practice of language exercised in relation to God. In this respect, there are no stupid prayers, there are only unsaid prayers.
Using pompous words does not guarantee God listens to your prayer. The orthodoxy of one’s statements cannot prompt the desired resolution to prayer either. Not even a good knowledge of theology or a recall of one’s experience with God can bring the expected answer.
Then what is the key to an answered prayer? I know we are all desperate to learn the ABC of answered prayer but there is none. Firstly, because ‘answered prayer’ is such an individualistic and egotistic notion. God always answers prayers, but in his own way and at his right time. Secondly, because it comes against the very nature of prayer: a polite request a servant has from his/her master. I know we are declared his children and that give us some rights as the Father decided, and he takes upon himself some duties. But, how would sound to you a request from your child: “Father, give me MY share of the estate!” (Luke 15.12) It is intristing that ‘boldness’ appear in the New Testament in relation to preaching, whereas ‘confidence’ is connected to prayer especially in the context of remission of sin (Heb 4.16). John puts it boldly in his first epistle, but even there the context is the forgiveness of sin:
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us– whatever we ask– we know that we have what we asked of him. If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. (1 John 5.14-16)
Can we make use of God’s promises in order to secure a favourable answer? Provided one understands the content of the promise in its context, I can say that this is a biblical sound practice. But, watch it!, you cannot demand it from God as if he is caught in his own promises and has to deliver the same way you ask of your friend something long ago promised. Take those promises of God as guideliness for your requests not as pitfalls of God’s benevolence.
What are the positive things Ethan teaches us about prayer?
1. Remember who God is! The Old Testament uses different images to describe God but the most comprehensive one, and the best to my mind, to describe God is that of a King whose kingship fundamentals are righteous justice and loving firmness.
2. Remember the way he honoured you! As his creation, humans do not deserve anything from God. The mere life they have is a gift, and everything that comes along with it is part of his grace. The house you are in (be it nature, home, or body), family and friends, abilities and possesions (few or many) and, most of all, his promises to you are your inheritance.
3. Remember what you owe him! Life is short, suffering comes as part of the package and death is certain. Once one has such a perspective on life, the obvious outcome is a clearer understanding of duty.
Look at Jesus’ prayer in Ghetsemane! It is such a pity that his disciples were asleep at the peak of Jesus’ ministry. Had they not slept we would have received the most glorious prayer of Jesus. When confronted with this terible loss, Mel Gibson himself considered useful for the plot of his movie to start it with Jesus in fervent prayer. One can hear him praying in Aramaic lots of fragments from Psalms wherein he asks for deliverance or proclaim God’s triumph over his troubles.
The little that is left and reached us says as follows: “Abba, Abba! Everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mar 14.36) We can hear in the words of this very fragmentary prayer of Jesus a very strong awareness of God’s sovereignity and the total submission of a human that decided to put off any ‘rights’ to call God in his help.