Our Only Hope: The Messiah (Psalm 89)
By Thomas Schreiner–
The message communicated at Christmas is often sentimental. How nice for Joseph and Mary to have a baby boy. And singing Christmas carols and drinking hot chocolate can be comforting. For many, however, such a message is disconnected from the real world. What does Christmas have to do with war that tears nations apart, or with divorce that tears families apart or with mass murder in schools? And what does Christmas say to one trying to get ahead in one’s profession or to one who is trying to excel in a certain skill or to parents trying to raise their children? I would say that the message of Christmas speaks to all these things, that the message of Christmas is the most hard headed and practical issue in the world.
Background and Message of Psalm 89
But before we get to this, we need to set the background of the Psalm. We have been looking at a number of Psalms from the third Book of the Psalter (Psalms 73-89) during this Christmas season. The Psalms in Book 3 represent Israel’s situation when it was in exile. Israel was taken captive by Babylon in 586 BC because they sinned against the Lord. Their political situation was enormously practical. They lost their freedom. Their economy and daily life were controlled by another country. So, the writer of Psalm 89 was concerned about politics, about the welfare of his nation. He wasn’t just penning pious words. He was thinking about the fate and future of his country.
The Psalm is quite long, and so I don’t have time to look at every theme and every verse. I am going to concentrate today on the message of the Psalm in broad strokes. But first let’s summarize briefly the message of the Psalm as a whole.
The Psalm goes something like this: Lord, you promised to David that one of his sons would reign forever as king. You made a promise that his dynasty and kingdom would last forever. But Lord that promise isn’t coming true. Our enemies have triumphed over us, and our king is in exile. Your anointed king, your Messiah, is mocked, and you Lord aren’t doing anything about it. Lord, the psalmist writes: how long will we have to wait until you fulfill your promise? Lord, act on your promises and do what you have pledged. Well, let’s step back and look at what this Psalm teaches us in more detail.
God’s unbreakable promise to David
First, we see God’s unbreakable promise to David. We see the promise in vv. 3-4. “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: ‘I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations.’” The covenant and promise made to David are clear. God promised that his kingdom would last forever. One of his sons would reign on the throne, and the Lord will never revoke his promise to David.
We see the same truth in vv. 28-29. The Lord says about David, “My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. 29 I will establish his offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens.” God promises that David’s offspring will sit on the throne forever. But what happens if David’s sons disobey the Lord and don’t do his will? We are told in vv. 30-37,
If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes, but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips. Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His offspring shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me. Like the moon it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.
What this means is that if a Davidic king sinned, God would punish him for their sins. And this happened in Israel’s history. Davidic kings who sinned were judged, and some were removed from the throne. Indeed, when this Psalm was written no one was ruling as king in Israel. But even if individual kings sin and are punished, God will not ultimately withdraw his promise to David. His covenant with David will never be revoked. God will certainly fulfill what he said he would do.
From the perspective of the NT, we know that Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise. He will reign on David’s throne forever and ever. Indeed, he is reigning now at God’s right hand. Jesus rules on David’s throne because he never sinned. He always did the will of the Lord. The message of Christmas is that Jesus was God’s obedient Son, that he was the one who always did the will of the Lord.
Why do we have problems in our world? Why do nations fight and go to war? Why are marriages torn apart by quarreling and divorce? Why do brothers and sisters fight with one another? Why is there disease and death? The answer is simple but profound. It is because we are selfish and sinners. We care more about ourselves than we care about others.
We have two of our granddaughters living with us and they are beautiful and fill me with joy every day. Kesid is seven months and she is the easiest baby in the world. If you were around her, you might think she is without sin. But you would have had thought the same thing about Lydia as well when she was seven months. But now that Lydia is two, even though she is charming and beautiful, it is evident that she is a sinner. She has the same problem that we all have. She is self absorbed. She says mine, and lets us all know when she doesn’t get her own way.
Selfishness isn’t limited to the lives of toddlers. It plays a major role in politics as well. For example, the farm land in the world can easily produce all the food we need. There is no need for anyone to starve, and yet many do starve. There are many things we could say here, but corruption and selfishness play a major role. In some countries corrupt leaders deprive their people of food through policies that advance and enrich themselves, so that food and money never reach the common people.
But evil isn’t limited to rich and corrupt leaders. The high divorce rate shows that we love ourselves more than we love others. I am not just talking about other people. I am talking about those like you. I am talking about myself. We all look out for number one. So, we need a king without corruption. We need a king who is virtuous and loving. The message of the Bible is that Jesus is that obedient king and that obedient Son. Jesus never lived to please himself but he always lived to please God. But that brings us to the second theme in Psalm 89.
Jesus brings Salvation
What does it matter to us if Jesus is the true son of David and the true king? It matters because Jesus came to bring salvation. We see this in vv. 9-10 in the Psalm. Speaking of God he says, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.” The language here is poetic. The sea and the waves and Rahab stand for God’s enemies. They stand for evil which is opposed to the people of God. Rahab represents a monster that crushes human beings.
Have you ever dreamed about monsters or terrifying things destroying you? Have you ever woken up with a shudder? I have. Well, those dreams aren’t disconnected entirely from reality. We are conscious of mortality. There are terrible things in life that can hurt, destroy, and crush us. Life is dangerous and perilous. The Psalmist tells us that God will bring us victory through king Jesus. Remember Jesus stilled the storm that was raging on the sea. He uttered the words, “Peace be still.” When the storm rages in our life, he is the one who can bring peace in the storm. He is the one who has destroyed the greatest monster of all. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that we fear death all our lives, and that the devil has the power of death.
But Jesus destroyed the devil and triumphed over the power of death. Christmas isn’t a sentimental story about a baby born in Bethlehem. It is the story of a king who has came to fight against the one who held us in bondage to death. He came to destroy the monster who ruins our lives. Incredibly, Jesus destroyed the devil through suffering. He conquered evil by suffering and dying, not by vanquishing the devil with military force. The same message of victory is found in vv. 22-23. “The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.”
If you go to the movies today and watch the previews, basically you see the same theme over and over again. There are enemies and there are lots of explosions. Cars crashing, fire burning, guns firing, and buildings going up in smoke. The good guys win by being stronger than the bad guys. But the kingdom brought by Jesus is an upside kingdom. He wins the victory by suffering. He wins by losing. He conquers by dying. But that gives us all of us hope. For we are actually born into this world as sinners, as those who are on the side of the monster, Rahab, the monster Satan. We need someone to forgive us of our sins. We need a new start. We need a clean slate. We can’t make it into God’s presence based on our goodness, for we have all failed. Jesus died to bring us forgiveness of sins. That’s why the religious leaders were so angry with Jesus. You would think that the religious people would have loved Jesus more than anyone. But they hated him intensely. They hated him because he told them that they were no better than prostitutes, corrupt government officials, and thieves and murderers. The religious leaders were deeply offended by Jesus because he told the truth about them. They were convinced that they were respectable and honorable people. Jesus said: no one is respectable and honorable. And that’s true of all of us. All of us need to forgiveness. And that’s what Jesus offers us. Once we understand that Jesus saves us and we can’t save ourselves, then we will rejoice. And that is the third truth I see in these verses.
Salvation brings Joy
Those who are saved are full of joy. We read in vv. 12-17.
The north and the south, you have created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name. 13 You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand. 14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you. 15 Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your face, 16 who exult in your name all the day and in your righteousness are exalted. 17 For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted.
These verses describe the victory that is won by Jesus. His mighty arm brings victory. Salvation and justice and righteousness are given to us through our king. He pours his grace, what the Psalmist calls steadfast love, into our lives. The Psalmist describes our joy in poetic terms. He says Tabor and Hermon joyously praise God’s name. Tabor and Hermon are beautiful mountains in Israel.
I am sure you all have been on mountains and looked at the beauty of the world God has made and been full of joy. The natural world explodes with joy at God’s salvation through King Jesus. For Jesus is not just restoring us. He is restoring the entire world he has made. He is making everything right again. The writer speaks of the festal shout. God’s people shout with joy over the victory he has won. They walk with joy in the light of his presence.
Is this practical or just religious platitudes? I would say it is the most practical thing in the world. Everyone in the world is trying to be happy. People are trying to create their own happiness. And how do we become happy? We seek happiness by the things we get for ourselves or by the things we accomplish. We think. If only I can have this or that, then I will be happy. Or, if I only I can attain that goal, then I will be happy. But true happiness doesn’t come that way. If we get what we want or attain our goal, it is strangely hollow. It doesn’t satisfy.
How many people have found that being on the top of the world doesn’t bring the joy and satisfaction they hoped for. If you watched the awards ceremony for the NBA hall of fame a few years ago, you saw what I mean. Michael Jordan bragged about how great he was, showing that he wasn’t content, that he couldn’t be at peace with what he had done, that he had to remind people about how important he was. The Christian David Robinson, on the other hand, was humble, because he was happy with what God had given him.
Everyone is seeking for joy. But the gospel gives us a different message. We find joy by receiving the salvation given to us in Jesus Christ. We find joy by saying no to our own selfish dreams and by trusting Jesus Christ to save us. Life comes through death to ourselves. Joy comes when we renounce our own lordship over our lives and give ourselves to Jesus Christ. Joy comes when Jesus Christ forgives us of our sin.
I remember one of the happiest moments of my life was after I had a car wreck. Let me explain. I wasn’t happy about the car wreck. Indeed, I was afraid my dad would be very angry with me. I got in the wreck nine days after getting my license and the wreck was all my fault. But my dad didn’t get angry with me at all. He never said a word about my bad driving. He forgave me, and told me I should drive again the next day. I was relieved and happy and grateful. That’s what the gospel is like. We rejoice not because of what we have done or accomplished but because our sins are forgiven through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross where he took the punishment we deserved. But there is one more word in this Psalm.
Boldness in Prayer
The writer says we are to approach God boldly in prayer. He says, “Lord, your promises aren’t being fulfilled.”
“Lord, do what you promised.” The Psalmist has emphasized that God’s covenant with David will never be revoked. God always keeps his word, and then he turns around and says. But Lord, your promises aren’t being kept. Notice vv. 38-45.
But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed. 39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust. 40 You have breached all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins. 41 All who pass by plunder 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 also turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not made him stand in battle. 44 You have made his splendor to cease and cast his throne to the ground. 45 You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame.
Look what’s going on the writer says. Our king isn’t reigning! We are in exile and foreign enemies are ruling over us. Everything is going bad for us. So, he boldly prays starting in v. 46.
How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? 47 Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man! 48 What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? 49 Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? 50 Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked, and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations, 51 with which your enemies mock, O LORD, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed.
Isn’t this amazing? He says. Lord, what is going on here? You aren’t doing what you promised. So, Lord, act! Lord, work. Lord, fulfill you word. He prays boldly because he prays according to God’s promise. But how do we apply this part of the Psalm to our lives today? After all, God has fulfilled his promise, hasn’t he?
Jesus the Messiah has come. He came into the world on Christmas day and died for sinners. He was raised from the dead and sits at God’s right hand. And yet most people in the world mock our Christ. They don’t care about him. They don’t devote their lives to him. They really don’t give a fig about him. They live to pursue their own dreams, their own lusts, their own desires.
Jesus isn’t honored by most people in most places. The rulers in Saudi Arabia don’t honor our Christ. The leaders in Egypt don’t give praise to the Son. The leaders in Israel don’t place themselves under Jesus’ rule. The vast majority of people in Europe find Jesus boring. They think he is completely irrelevant. And most people in the US feel that way too. So, we pray. Lord, you said you would honor your own name. Why are you letting this state of affairs last? Lord, there are millions and billions of people who aren’t honoring your Son. Lord, how can you tolerate this state of affairs? Lord, work so many will put their faith and trust in you. And Lord, wrap everything up! Bring in your kingdom. Make this world a place where justice and beauty reign. And he will answer that prayer. Jesus will be honored. And those who don’t honor him will be judged for not honoring him.
I close with this question. So, whose side are you on? Do you serve the monster Satan or the Lord Jesus Christ? If you say, I don’t serve either one of them. I am actually neutral. I have nothing against Jesus, but I don’t serve him. But if you say that you are actually on Satan’s side. Jesus himself said you are either with me or against me. The message of Christmas is that Jesus came so we could be with him. He came so we could be forgiven of our sins. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.