Where is your unfailing love, Lord?
While the Psalter is full of praise for God, it never asks us to mouth empty platitudes to numb our pain when God is conspicuous by his absence.
An Ethan the Ezrahite maskil.
1 I will sing of YHWH’s acts of love forever.
I will proclaim your faithfulness
to every generation.
2 I will declare
that your unfailing love will last forever
your faithfulness being firmly established
in the heavens.
3 “I’ve sealed a covenant with my chosen one
and sworn to my servant David:
4 ‘I will ensure that your dynasty endures forever
and make your throne stand strong for all time.’”
5 All of heaven
applauds your wonders, YHWH.
The assembly of holy ones
celebrates your faithfulness.
6 For who in heaven
can compare with YHWH?
Which of the heavenly beings
is like YHWH?
7 A God inspiring awe
in the council of the holy ones—
far more immense and awe-inspiring
than all who surround him.
8 Who is like you,
YHWH, God of Heaven’s Armies
YHWH, almighty and utterly faithful?
9 You rule over the surging of the sea:
when its waves run wild
you subdue them.
10 It was you
who crushed that old sea monster Rahab
like a corpse.
You scattered your enemies
with a single blow.
11 The heavens are yours
the earth is yours too.
You made the world and everything in it.
12 You created both north and south—
made both Tabor and Hermon
sing your praise joyfully.
13 Strong is your arm
mighty your hand
your right hand raised in triumph.
14 You’ve built your throne
on righteousness and justice
making Grace and Truth
your court attendants.
15 How blessed the people
who know the triumphant shout, YHWH
and walk in the light of your gaze.
16 All day long they rejoice
in knowing who you are
your saving justice having raised them up.
17 For you are the glory of their strength
and we triumph because you delight in us.
18 Because our shield belongs to YHWH
our king to the Holy One of Israel.
19 You spoke in a vision then
to your faithful servants, saying:
“I placed a mere youth above warriors
raised up one I chose from among the people.
20 I found David my servant
and anointed him with my holy oil.
21 My strength will always support him
my powerful arm make him strong.
22 No enemy will outwit him
and no evildoer best him.
23 I’ll crush his foes before him
and strike down those who hate him.
24 My faithfulness and unfailing love
will be with him
and make him triumph in my name.
25 I’ll extend his dominion over the sea
and make him sovereign over the rivers.
26 He’ll call me, ‘My father
my God, my rock of rescue.’
27 I’ll make him my firstborn
high king over all the kings of the earth.
28 My unfailing love will preserve him forever
and my covenant commitment to him
will remain firm.
29 I’ll make his dynasty last forever
his throne as long as the heavens endure.
30 But if his descendants abandon my teaching
and don’t abide by my rulings—
31 if they profane my laws
and don’t keep my commandments—
32 I’ll punish their crime with a rod
and their waywardness with plagues.
33 But I’ll never withhold
my unfailing love from him
or fail to be faithful.
34 I won’t profane my covenant
or take back a single thing I’ve said.
35 I’ve sworn once and for all in my holiness
I will never break faith with David.
36 His dynasty will last forever
his throne like the sun before me.
37 It will endure forever like the moon
that faithful witness in the sky.”
38 But you—you’ve rejected, disowned
and raged at the one you anointed.
39 You’ve revoked your covenant
with your servant
and profaned his crown to the ground.
40 You’ve breached all his defenses
and reduced his strongholds to rubble
41 so that every passer-by plunders him
and he’s become the scorn of his neighbors.
42 You’ve empowered his enemies against him
to their joy and delight.
43 You’ve made his sword useless
and withdrawn your support in battle.
44 You’ve brought his splendor to a sudden end
and hurled his throne to the ground.
45 You’ve made him old before his time
and shrouded him in shame.
46 How long will you hide yourself, YHWH?
Will your anger smoulder like fire forever?
47 Remember how brief my life is—
how frail we children of Adam are!
48 What mortal can avoid death
escaping the pull of the grave indefinitely?
49 Where are the loving acts
you used to display, Lord
and faithfully swore to show David always?
50 Remember, Lord
the abuse flung at your servants
how I bear in my heart the nations’ insults—
51 the way your enemies have reviled, YHWH
reviled your anointed one’s every step.
52 Blessed be YHWH forever!
Amen and amen.
This psalm’s first 37 verses praise God for keeping his promise that David’s dynasty, actualizing God’s rule over the earth, would endure forever (1 Sam. 16; 2 Sam. 7). Verse 25 even suggests that God has built the Davidic monarchy into the structure of the cosmic order, since—contrary to the Canaanite claim about Baal—it was God who brought order to creation by defeating the sea and rivers, that had held everything in chaos (cf. vv. 36-37). No Israelite could have asked for a sweeter opening to the psalm.
But starting in verse 38, Ethan describes a crisis that seems to him to contradict everything he’s just said. Instead of trustworthy, God is presented as fickle. It’s like he’s passed David and his people a bad check of monumental proportions since the bigger the setup the bigger the fall. Besides being unreliable, God is savagely destructive too, rendering all the psalm’s high praise a bad joke. Ethan’s disappointment with God may relate to Saul’s endless attempts to kill David or to Absalom’s attempted coup.
All this leads Ethan to put three anguished questions to God, the third being where God’s unfailing love for David has gone. Interspersed between his questions are requests that God remember two things: what little time David has left, and all the contempt David has endured for God’s sake. In all this, the psalm models honest prayer that brings our anger and confusion to God, never denying reality to make God look good. It also models the kind of faith that waits on God without knowing how things will turn out.
Placed here in the Psalter, post-exilic Jews took the psalm as picturing Jerusalem’s ruin without its rebuilding, the felling of David’s tree without its rebudding. This is where the Psalter’s third book leaves us—in pain, asking how God can really be gracious and truthful when he’s just trashed his covenant with David. (The closing doxology in verse 52 with its double-amen ends not the psalm, but rather the Psalter’s third book.)
How can I believe you keep your word, Lord, when my world goes sideways and you don’t take my calls? Help me to pray honestly even when your promises feel like junk bonds. Help me to trust that, however dark Good Friday is, you’ll make sure that Easter has the last word. Amen.
In your free moments today, meditate on these words:
Where are the loving acts
you showed in the past, Lord
that you promised so faithfully to David?