Thursday, July 1, 2010

Psalms 88 and 89: Highest Pitch of Israel's Lament, Lowest Depth of Christ's Dereliction

Psalm 88 is well-known for its reputation as the only lament Psalm in the Psalter that conclusively ends, not with praise or hope or promise, but with "darkness [as] my closest friend" (v. 18). In this way, it is indeed arguably the darkest moment of the entire Psalter (perhaps excluding Psalm 137, though even there the final line is a charge to God for vengeance -- not, hauntingly, without some expectation that God may actually answer).

What is often missed, or at least left unsaid, however, is that immediately following Psalm 88 is another Psalm that likewise ends in darkness. This fact is perhaps overlooked by what is perceived as the closing line of Psalm 89, verse 52: "Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and Amen." But Psalm 89 is simultaneously the close of Book III of the Psalms, and verse 52 is clearly a bookend close to this collection, not to the Psalm to which it is appended. (See Psalm 41:13; 72:19-20; 106:48; and 146:1-150:6 as the other respective Books' conclusions.) Thus the fitting final line of Psalm 89 is not verse 52, but verses 50-51:
Remember, Lord, how your servant has been mocked,
how I bear in my heart the taunts of all the nations,
the taunts with which your enemies, Lord, have mocked,
with which they have mocked every step of your anointed one.
Obviously, this is not a happy conclusion to the Psalm, nor to the entirety of the collection of Book III; and it is especially ominous as a sequel to the "darkness" with which Psalm 88 ends.

What seems to be going on in this canonical shaping and ordering of these Psalms?

There is undeniably a movement from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150: Psalms 1 and 2 rightly order the hearer/reader -- to Torah and to meshiach, the Lord's instruction and the Lord's anointed, respectively -- and -- through doubt and dismay, terror and danger, death and injury, family and loss, prayer and deliverance, story and song, gift and reception -- begin a journey that leads inexorably toward the steady drumbeat of praise that climaxes in Psalms 146, 147, 148, 149, 150, wherein all Israel, together with all of creation -- hallelujah! -- ends its oratory offerings in unleashed and breathless worship of Yahweh, Lord of all.

Psalms 88 and 89, in my estimation, standing as they are at the conclusion of the third and central collection of the five Books of Psalms, and just past midway through the whole collection of 150, function canonically as the rhetorical peak of Israel's lament to God. Psalm 88 is an individual lament, the speech of one "overwhelmed with troubles [. . .] near to death" (v. 3), "set apart with the dead, like the slain" (v. 5), whose "eyes are dim with grief" (v. 9). A powerful riff on the perpetual refrain of Israel's laments comes in verse 14: "Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?" In the end, there is no help, no answer to prayer, no hope or promise to wait upon: "You have taken from me friend and neighbor -- darkness is my closest friend" (v. 18).

In proper pairing with this individual lament, Psalm 89 echoes and expands its cry onto the broad canvas of Israel's history with the Lord, but pressures and reinterprets it crucially as the Lord's abandonment of his covenant with David in the ultimate disaster of exile. Verses 1-4 have nothing but praise for God, whose "love stands firm forever" (v. 2), and who made a covenant with David to last for all time (v. 4). The heavens and the earth, the gods and the monsters of myth only attest further to the glory of Israel's God (vv. 5-13), for "Righteousness and justice [. . . ]; love and faithfulness" define the reign of this King of kings over Israel (vv. 14-18).

The evidence of this love and faithfulness is, as thematically stated in verse 4, the Lord's covenant with David and all his line (vv. 20-37), who will succeed in battle and be exalted in all things -- indeed, "He will call out to me, 'You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior' " (v. 26), the "firstborn" of the Lord (v. 27). And even when his sons falter, sin, or stray, and are rightly disciplined by divine justice, even then the Lord "will not take my love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered" (vv. 33-34). Like the moon each night which shines in the sky as a "faithful witness," so David's line "will be established forever" (v. 37).

The next verses (vv. 38-39) come, then, with profound shock and bewilderment:
But you have rejected, you have spurned,
you have been very angry with your anointed one.

You have renounced the covenant with your servant
and have defiled his crown in the dust.
What has happened? Everything promised to David and his descendants has instead been granted to his enemies, to the plunderers razing Jerusalem down to ruins (vv. 40-45). What else could this be except divine abrogation of the covenant?

Verses 46-51 shift from third person to first person: "How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?" (v. 46). But it is more personal than that: "Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?" (v. 49). And so we end in the darkness of exile, of the day of Jerusalem, of landlessness and promises broken; this Israel personified sits like Job in the dust and ashes of death-scarred memories: "I bear in my heart the taunts of all the nation, the taunts with which your enemies, Lord, have mocked, with which they have mocked every step of your anointed one" (v. 51).

Death and complete isolation, covenant rent and communal exile: together Psalms 88 and 89 speak out of the highest pitch and the lowest depth of Israel's lament to the Lord. There can be in these moments nothing more to say, but only waiting for the Lord to act.

Did he? Did Israel's God answer these cries from the abyss?

To be sure, the answer can only be yes: Israel came up out of exile and re-settled in the land, re-built the temple, re-constituted itself anew in light of the prophets' extraordinary work and words.

But this can only be provisional -- problems remained, occupiers only changed hands, glory tarried. Did God, would God act once and for all?

It is the great confession of the church that the Lord did in fact act mightily and once for all in answer to his people's lament. "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ. And so through him the 'Amen' is spoken by us to the glory of God" (2 Cor. 1:20). In Jesus of Nazareth, that one called Christ, meshiach, anointed one, Israel's God definitively and finally put an end to the threats and powers lamented by Psalm 88: "troubles" and "death" (v. 3), "the lowest pit, in the darkest depths" (v. 6), friendlessness (v. 8), sheol and abaddon (v. 11), "the place of darkness" and "the land of oblivion" (v. 12) -- in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, these have all been put to death, robbed of power over God's people and creation, and have no future in the life promised in Christ.

For this Christ, this meshiach, has himself descended to the depths, to the godless place where the love and praise of God are silenced, and just so was raised up, in the love and praise of the Father and in the inextinguishable power of the Spirit, into inexhaustible and unquenchable life. Therefore this one in David's line, this one anointed by God's own Spirit, is himself the final answer to Psalm 89: the Lord has not renounced his covenant with Israel but fulfilled it, has not abandoned his anointed to the grave, but raised him up from death -- and all of Israel, all of creation, with him. The Lord has indeed remembered his servant's mocking, the violent taunting of his anointed one, (v. 50-51), and proved his faithfulness to the death and beyond. This one truly and eternally is the Lord's "firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth" (v. 27), and the God of Israel "will maintain [. . .] love to him forever" (v. 28), for he is his Father and God from before time (v. 26), and so now through and within time, even through death's clenched jaws.

God's people, broken and bruised, cast out of garden and land, promise and covenant, ask as creation's priests and representatives, with heavy but hope-tinged hearts: "Who can live and not see death, or who can escape the power of the grave?" (Psalm 89:48).

God has answered, graciously and finally, through his servant Peter:
Seeing what was to come, David spoken of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. [. . .] Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. (Acts 2:31-33, 36)
The unified lament of Israel in Psalms 88 and 89 -- personal and communal as they surely are, facing death and historical exile, ending apparently in darkness and ashes -- are therefore not only the cry of the people Israel, but the cry of Israel enfleshed in one man, Israel's own son, that Israelite of Israelites: Jesus of Nazareth, son of Abraham, son of David. In Psalm 88 Jesus's cry of dereliction and abandonment in the passion and on the cross go up as his people's ultimate and most hopeless lament, the deep darkness of death's isolation; and Psalm 89 is the overriding threat, ever present in Jesus's life, that as David's son, as meshiach, he may not prove faithful in the end to the one he called abba, or even that the one to whom he would be faithful might not be faithful himself to the covenant of which anointing is the sign. For truly, he was "rejected," was "spurned" on the cross of Golgotha. Would the Lord remember (v. 50)? Would his "former great love" and "faithfulness" prove themselves in the end (v. 49)? Could just this one "escape the power of the grave" (v. 48), and so escape on behalf of all "held in slavery by their fear of death" (Heb. 2:15)?

In the cry and lament of Israel's son on the cross, the Father to this Son finally and once for all answered: Yes. For no matter how many promised God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ.

And so through him we speak the "Amen" to the glory of God.

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