The Psalms: Prayers Which Move History

Psalm 89: Words of Lament and of Longing

From a week spent as a guest at New Melleray, the Trappist monastery near Dubuque, Iowa, a few years ago, I can confirm that Benedictine monks, in all their varieties and sub-communities, live and breathe the Psalms In their seven daily prayer gatherings they recite the Psalms according to a schedule, divided into weeks that begin on Sundays with odd-numbered dates and those that begin with even numbers. (See their Psalm schedule at http://newmelleray.org/index.asp?menu=psalms). This stems from ancient Hebrew practices that pre-date the Christian movement and which likely informed the prayer practices of Jesus and his disciples. He and his disciples certainly saw himself as “the Righteous One” and the “Son of David” prefigured and prayed-for in so many psalms. Were this not so, then so many of the prayers in the psalms are left hanging, unfulfilled.

Chief among these otherwise unfulfilled prayers is Psalm 89, which is in my lectionary Scripture schedule for today, and which often gets top billing during the Advent season. Its not hard to tell why. Consider the prayers and the promises in the following verses:

19 Once you spoke in a vision,
       to your faithful people you said:
       "I have bestowed strength on a warrior;
       I have exalted a young man from among the people.

20 I have found David my servant;
       with my sacred oil I have anointed him.

21 My hand will sustain him;
       surely my arm will strengthen him.

22 No enemy will subject him to tribute;
       no wicked man will oppress him.

23 I will crush his foes before him
       and strike down his adversaries.

24 My faithful love will be with him,
       and through my name his horn [d] will be exalted.

25 I will set his hand over the sea,
       his right hand over the rivers.

26 He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father,
       my God, the Rock my Savior.’

27 I will also appoint him my firstborn,
       the most exalted of the kings of the earth.
28 I will maintain my love to him forever,
       and my covenant with him will never fail.

29 I will establish his line forever,
       his throne as long as the heavens endure.

30 "If his sons forsake my law
       and do not follow my statutes,

31 if they violate my decrees
       and fail to keep my commands,

32 I will punish their sin with the rod,
       their iniquity with flogging;

33 but I will not take my love from him,
       nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.

34 I will not violate my covenant
       or alter what my lips have uttered.

35 Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness—
       and I will not lie to David-

36 that his line will continue forever
       and his throne endure before me like the sun;

37 it will be established forever like the moon,
       the faithful witness in the sky."
       Selah

Case closed? The following words from the same Psalm lament the obvious and inescapable lesson of twenty-six hundred years-plus- of exile, foreign occupation and the diaspora, in which there was no Son of David on the throne, nor can there now be one:

38 But you have rejected, you have spurned,
       you have been very angry with your anointed one.

39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant
       and have defiled his crown in the dust.

40 You have broken through all his walls
       and reduced his strongholds to ruins.

41 All who pass by have plundered him;
       he has become the scorn of his neighbors.

42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
       you have made all his enemies rejoice.

43 You have turned back the edge of his sword
       and have not supported him in battle.

44 You have put an end to his splendor
       and cast his throne to the ground.

45 You have cut short the days of his youth;
       you have covered him with a mantle of shame.
       Selah

46 How long, O LORD ? Will you hide yourself forever?
       How long will your wrath burn like fire?

47 Remember how fleeting is my life.
       For what futility you have created all men!

48 What man can live and not see death,
       or save himself from the power of the grave [e] ?
       Selah

49 O Lord, where is your former great love,
       which in your faithfulness you swore to David?

The rule of brutality, corruption and exploitation in the world make of this psalm a universal lament and prayer for a reign of justice, mercy and compassion. The Christian dares to assert that this prayer is being fulfilled in surprising and breath-taking ways through Jesus the Crucified, about whom it can be said:

41 All who pass by have plundered him;
       he has become the scorn of his neighbors.

42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
       you have made all his enemies rejoice.

43 You have turned back the edge of his sword
       and have not supported him in battle.

44 You have put an end to his splendor
       and cast his throne to the ground.

45 You have cut short the days of his youth;
       you have covered him with a mantle of shame.

It is equally surprising, a breath-taking twist of events, in the way in which the following promise was also fulfilled for the resurrected Jesus, the Son of David:

22 No enemy will subject him to tribute;
       no wicked man will oppress him.

23 I will crush his foes before him
       and strike down his adversaries.

One surprise is in the way in which this promise was fulfilled peacefully, non-violently, when Jesus overcame death and left his tomb very much alive. Life conquered death without the use of death-dealing weapons, simply by the power of God’s gift of love and life.

These are some of the reasons why I love the Psalms. They constitute the miracle of our words to God made God’s Word to us, so that in them we understand both God and ourselves more clearly. They were the prayers of Jesus. They are our prayers about Jesus. And we can pray them believing that they are the prayers which God has answered in giving us Jesus, and which God will answer in full when Jesus returns. They are the prayers by which history is moving forward.