Remembering the Covenant of David

Text: Psalm 89

Have you ever been disappointed by God? Have you ever asked Him for something and not gotten it? Are you ever let down by His providence? We probably feel like we’re not allowed to admit to these kinds of feelings, even though we have them from time to time. But what if I told you that the people of God had these very feelings, and that, in fact, there is a whole psalm devoted to this feeling? That’s what Psalm 89 is. It is a song, meant for use in corporate worship, where God’s people lament the fact that it looks like He has not kept His promise to send them a faithful king.

The Covenant With David

Psalm 89 begins by praising God’s covenant. “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever; With my mouth will I make known Your faithfulness to all generations” (vs. 1) This is not just any covenant, but the specific covenant made with the house of David:

I have made a covenant with My chosen,
I have sworn to My servant David:
Your seed I will establish forever,
And build up your throne to all generations.” (vs. 3-4)

You may recall, this covenant was made with David back when he wanted to build the temple. God said that David would not build a house for His, that is God’s name, but rather that God would build a house for David’s name. In 2 Samuel 7, particularly verses 12-17, we read David and God’s exchange where God makes His promise:

When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men. But My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.

God has said “My mercy shall not depart from Him.” This is why Psalm 89 begins by saying, “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever.” It isn’t just a generic mercy, but the specific “lovingkindness” or covenant faithfulness connected to the promise to David.

Covenant Disappointment and Expectation  

The promise to David became one of the most glaring problems for Israel. This is because Solomon, while having a more or less “successful” reign in worldly terms, ended his life in a state of faithlessness. He went after false gods, and his children immediately went bad. They fought with one another and split the kingdom, thus causing a crisis for determining the true line of inheritance. Once both Israel and Judah were taken into captivity, however, the monarchy collapsed completely and was never restored, at least not in any true or legitimate way. The Herods fancied themselves “King of Israel,” but everyone knew that they were political tools, having no true connection to David, and only in place in order to support the Greco-Roman imperial rule. The fact is, it looked as if God had not kept His covenant with David.

The actual occasion for Psalm 89 is unknown. It is ascribed to “Ethan the Ezrahite,” who was a sage and temple musician in the courts of David and Solomon. Certain commentators have suggested that Ethan survived even Solomon into the reign of Rehoboam. If this was the case, then the psalm could be about the splitting of the kingdom into two. It may also simply be about “the beginning of the end” as Ethan saw Solomon going bad and the kingdom endangered.

Indeed, verses 38-45 express the perception that the Davidic Covenant has been broken:

But You have cast off and abhorred,
You have been furious with Your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant of Your servant;
You have profaned his crown by casting it to the ground.
You have broken down all his hedges;
You have brought his strongholds to ruin.
All who pass by the way plunder him;
He is a reproach to his neighbors.
You have exalted the right hand of his adversaries;
You have made all his enemies rejoice.
You have also turned back the edge of his sword,
And have not sustained him in the battle.
You have made his glory cease,
And cast his throne down to the ground.
The days of his youth You have shortened;
You have covered him with shame. 

What we see here is that the downfall of the kingdom is not simply a matter of fate or the strength of earthly enemies. No, it is the Lord’s doing. He has rejected His “anointed.” God no longer seems to be sustaining David’s sons, and so it seems that the divine promise has not been kept. “You have renounced the covenant of Your servant” (vs. 39).

Those are strong words. Indeed, many of us might wonder if they are permissible. Can we talk that way? We’ll come back to that question in a minute, but the point here is that the psalmist did talk that way. He was saying that it appeared that God had not kept his promise. But this wasn’t a criticism of God. No, it was the basis for which the psalm goes on to call God to action.

But read on further, starting in verse 46:

How long, Lord?
Will You hide Yourself forever?
Will Your wrath burn like fire?
Remember how short my time is;
For what futility have You created all the children of men?
What man can live and not see death?
Can he deliver his life from the power of the grave?
Lord, where are Your former lovingkindnesses,
Which You swore to David in Your truth?
Remember, Lord, the reproach of Your servants (vs. 46-50a)

You see, the psalmist didn’t merely dwell on the apparent lack of fulfillment, but instead called upon God to rise up, take action, and keep His covenant. This psalm is asking God to do something about the situation. It is calling on Him to remember His promise and to be faithful to it. This isn’t a critique of God. It is a prayer of invocation, calling on God to be the God He said He would be.

So What Happened?

Psalm 89 ends with this call to action. It does not actually tell us anything about how God answered the call, and we know that it was quite some time later before the throne of David was restored. It was restored in Christ. Jesus, the Son of David, was both a literal descendent of David and the one in whom the Davidic throne was restored. As we read in Luke’s gospel, the angel told this to Mary:

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:30-33)

When you read those verses and others like them, you have to connect them to their Old Testament background. The angel was referring to the actual kingdom of Israel, the historic throne of David, and that means he was referring to the covenant with David. It was in Jesus that that covenant was fulfilled.

We also read in the book of Acts that Jesus reestablished “the tabernacle of David which has fallen down” (Acts 15:16). This refers not just to the kingdom, but also the manner of worship, and, interestingly, the prophecy of Amos had said that this would also bring the Gentiles into pure worship (Amos 9:11-12). That aspect of the promise to David was also fulfilled in Christ.

And yet so much else about the kingdom seems unfilled doesn’t it? Jesus did not set up an earthly kingdom with normal political laws and spatial boundaries. We do not currently see political rulers all after the line of Christ. The devil still has some power. Enemies are still about. We still die.

The apostles noticed this pretty early on. Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, they asked him, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). It was pretty simple. They had witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection, and so the next logical step was for Him to lead a revolution and restore the monarchy of David. But what happened next? Instead of doing all of that Jesus said:

It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:7-8)

And then He left. He went to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to the Church, seemingly in His place.

We are, thanks to subsequent Christian tradition, comfortable with understanding the fulfillment of the kingdom of David in spiritual or churchly ways, but we need to remind ourselves that it was originally quite earthly and that the full ramifications still include earthly needs. The nations still must be converted and brought to Christ. Righteousness must fill the earth. Death must be defeated. And that means we still have expectations about the future. We can still call on God to keep His covenant, and we continue to anticipate His doing so. Psalm 89 is still for us today.

Conclusion

Psalm 89 teaches us that God always keeps His covenant but that we are, nevertheless, allowed to notice when it appears to not be completed, and we are allowed to ask God to keep that promise, to do something about the situation. We shouldn’t try to be holier than the Scriptures and water-down God’s promises. We shouldn’t claim that God only keeps His word in a redefined and spiritualized way. The spiritual is how we experience the kept-covenant in the present, and by faith, but we are still allowed and even expected to ask God to make it so on earth. Bring the kingdom, O Lord, as you said that you would.

Psalm 89 also shows us that God’s time is not our time. We might assume that God will answer us right away. Surely He wouldn’t wait so long? But think back to the covenant with David. It was nearly 1,000 years before that covenant came to realization, and even then, there are parts of its fulfillment that we still await. God is always faithful, but His faithfulness works in ways known only to Him. This means that we should never lose heart or become disappointed with God if things don’t go our way. We can notice when things seem contrary to God’s promise, but we can never believe that therefore God’s promise is false. Ask and you shall receive, we are taught. But we have to learn how to recognize God’s answer, and we have to learn how to wait for it.

Whenever we do feel that pang of conscience, whenever we are overcome by feelings of disappointment, that is when we ought to turn to God in prayer. How long, O Lord, will you forget your servant? Where are the mercies promised to David? Remember your promise. For Jesus’ sake, save us! Fix this broken world. Let us pray.

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