When the lectionary picks specific verses out of a psalm, it’s always interesting to speculate why. Perhaps it is because the psalm is too long to consider as a whole. Psalm 89 certain fits this explanation–at 52 verses, it’s one of the longer parts of the psalter. Perhaps verses are picked thematically. Again, Psalm 89: 1-4, 15-18 fits this explanation. While the entirety of Psalm 89 contains both sorrow and praise, the lectionary chooses to focus upon the celebratory parts.
However, it is vital to consider the parts the lectionary leaves out for a simple reason: Context.
When imagining the context in which certain psalms were written, it is easy to imagine the psalmist composing amid the ancient-Israel equivalent of sunshine, rainbows, flowers, and puppies–that joy in circumstance and heart motivated the writer to praise God in such ways.
In general, happiness and joy are not particularly effective fuels for creativity. For thousands of years, humans have observed a link between internal darkness and external expressions of art, poetry, and music. Writing in the fourth century BCE, Aristotle observed: “all men who have attained excellence in philosophy, in poetry, in art and in politics…had a melancholic habitus…” It is not difficult to imagine the psalmist suffering from a melancholic habitus.
While it is difficult to date psalms with any sort of certainty, best guesses say that Psalm 89 was composed in a time far away from puppies and rainbows. No, the psalm was most likely composed amid death, fear, fire, and war–amid exile.
And yet, the psalm begins with the firm declaration: “I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.” In the face of exile, when it seems as if God were far away, the psalmist affirms a commitment to forever. Affirms that God is faithful–in spite of probable circumstances.
The psalmist pairs the solid nature of creation (“your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens,”) with the unsolid reality of the Davidic kingship. Some scholars date this psalm to the mid-late 6th century BCE, which makes the allusion to the line of David particularly meaningful. The last Davidic king was overthrown and carted off to Babylon around the same time. It’s entirely possible that the psalmist is appealing to a covenant that seems lost.
As Christians, we read verses 3-4 through the lens of Jesus. We see a fulfillment of the psalmists words through the Messiah that comes from the line of David. But this was not the lens through which the psalmist sees. There is no obvious hope that the Lord’s promise to David and his descendents will be fulfilled.
And yet, the psalmist writes words of praise. Words that encourage God’s people to dwell within the presence of the Lord. Words that trust in God to protect, defend, and shield God’s people.
Throughout life, there always seems to be a time that humans look back at with nostalgia. Currently, in the United States, many look back to the pre-1960s as a time that was better. When life was simpler and easier to understand. When the economy worked. When kids knew how to behave, and didn’t expect a trophy for simply showing up.
Post-exile, many Jews had a similar worldview: It was better with the Davidic kings. Life was better, we didn’t suffer then as we suffer now. Before that, it was the time of Moses. Before that, Joseph. Before that, something else, all the way back to Creation. Life was better back then. We have to get back to those times, then everything will work out.
We may not be in enchained in Babylon, but we have our own forms of exile. No matter if you read this piece this week, next week, next month, next year, or twenty years from now–there will be something happening in the world that will be, for you, exilic. There will be something that feeds the melancholic darkness within you, something that threatens to overwhelm you with sadness and despair.
But in the midst of that, as this psalm reminds us, there is still praise. https://www.wired.com/2010/10/feeling-sad-makes-us-more-creative/