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    Howling at the Gates

    Psalm 89 is not a song of praise, but one of reproach.

    By Atar Hadari

    July 26, 2023
    • Michael Nacrelli

      Christians have an explanation for how God has remained faithful to his covenant with David. I'm unaware of any other that makes sense.

    Most psalms are centered on praising the Lord for the good he has done the psalmist. Psalm 89 is a little different. The historian Sue Gillingham describes it as “a composite psalm brought together from at least three parts.” I prefer to see the strikingly divergent themes of the psalm as an elaborate rhetorical construct, with each movement using the different scriptural thanksgiving motifs to underline the pain driving the lament at the focal point of the psalm. Psalm 89 isn’t a song of praise but a song of rebuke.

    The psalm begins conventionally, with this psalmist pledging his fealty to God.

    I’ll sing the Lord’s gifts for all time –
    to generation after generation I’ll recount your faithfulness
    For I said the world was built by your grace
    In the heavens you prepared your faith:

    (author’s translation)
    It’s a familiar scriptural motif: God’s eternal faithfulness. And it’s followed by another: God’s promise to reflect the glory of his heavenly kingdom in a parallel earthly kingdom as a visible sign of his faithfulness.

    I struck a covenant with my chosen one, swore an oath to my servant David:
    Forever I shall guard your line and build your throne, generation after generation:
    But the heavens shall admit your wonders Lord,
    Your faithfulness too be extolled by the crowd of angels,
    For who in the heavens shall compare to the Lord
    Who is like the Lord among the celestial beings?
    A God feared by a great host of angels
    And terrible to all that surround him:
    Lord, the Lord of hosts, who is mighty like you Lord
    And who about you is as faithful?

    Right around here you may be wondering where all this insistence on the Lord’s faithfulness is going, but it’s right here that the psalmist veers from that theme, switching to a more general paean:

    You govern the swell of the sea – when its waves climb you make them fall:
    You struck Rahab down dead, with your mighty arm scattered your foes:
    Yours is the heaven and yours the earth, the land and all in it you founded:
    The Northern and Southern winds you made, Mount Hermon and Tabor ring with your name:
    Yours is the arm and yours the strength, your hand is mighty, your right triumphant:

    blue and red abstract art

    Cassandra Miller, All Along the Watchtower

    Again, the psalmist points out the Lord’s power is without limit – and that he can cast down anyone he pleases. When he turns to the question of justice, the psalm’s early paralleling of the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of David starts to seem a little more pointed.

    Justice and law are the base of your throne, kindness and truth your welcome band,
    Happy the people who know your clarion cry, Lord they walk by the light of your eye:
    In your name they rejoice all day and in your justice revel:
    For you are the glory of our strength and by your will you raise our colours:
    For it’s the Lord we call our shield, the sanctity of Israel our monarch:
    Then you spoke in a vision to your followers and said: I put power in the warrior,
    I raised a lad out of the people
    I found David my servant – in the oil of my sanctum anointed him
    So that my hand will be ready with his, even my own arm embolden him:
    No foe shall ever be his ruin and no son of wickedness do him wrong:
    But I will break his foes before him and his oppressors I’ll turn back
    And my faith and favour is with him and in my name his horn shall be raised high:
    And I will set his hand on the sea and his rule over the rivers
    He will call to me, “You’re my Daddy, my God and rock of safety.”

    Christian commentators have read in that last line a reference to Jesus. But however you understand it, the language used here makes it clear the relationship between the Lord and David is deeply personal:

    I too shall make him my first born, senior to all the Kings of the earth:
    For all time I’ll keep my promise to him and my pact with him be firm
    And I’ll support his offspring always and his throne last as long as heaven
    If his sons should leave off my law and in my statutes not go along
    If they desecrate my laws and my commandments do not own
    I will remember their crime with my rod and with illnesses their sin
    But my favour I’ll not remove from him and I’ll not be false to my promise:
    I will not desecrate my covenant and not change what came from my mouth:
    Only one thing I swore in sanctity – that to David I would not lie:
    His descendants will always be there and his throne like the sun before me
    Like the moon he’ll be ready forever and faithful witness in the sky, Selah.

    There we have it. Not only has the Lord made David a host of explicit promises that his house and nation will prosper, he’s also stated that the covenant between himself and David’s line is as unchangeable a part of the natural order as the sun or moon. This being the case, the psalmist asks, where is the house of David?

    But you’ve deserted and detested, raged at your anointed one:
    Shook off the covenant of your servant, broken to the ground his crown:
    Burst through all his buttresses, made all his castles into heaps:
    All the passers by despoil him, he’s despised of all his neighbourhood
    You raised the right hand of his oppressors, gladdened all his enemies,
    Even driven back his hard blade and not let him stand in the fray:
    You have taken off his radiance, toppled his throne to the ground
    Cut short the flower of his days, put on him a robe of shame, Selah.

    This is the case for the prosecution: exactly the kind of reproach the prophets direct at man. You have done exactly the opposite of what You said You would do. But the consequence is in the next stanza. If you cannot trust in Him, is there anyone and anything in life that you can trust? If His promise is false, can you trust any promise at all?

    Until when Lord – shall you hide forever? Will your fury rage like flame:
    Remember me – how long my sentence? Why was it worth you creating all men?
    Who’s the man shall live but not see his demise, save his soul from the underworld? Selah.

    In this passage the psalmist recalls both Jonah and Ecclesiastes. If the covenant fails, if there is no bond between God and man that can withstand the passage of time and chance, then human life is condemned to ultimate meaninglessness. In the Book of Jonah, the Lord tries to persuade Jonah that every life in the city of Nineveh has meaning and value. Jonah refuses to get it. But here God has destroyed the city, and not just any city: the same city he explicitly promised to protect; the one appointed David to build.

    Where are your first favours Lord that you swore to David in your trust?
    Remember Lord your servant’s disgrace borne in my bosom from the hordes of tribes:
    That your enemies have cursed Lord, they have cursed the ways of your anointed one:
    Blessed be the Lord for all time – amen and amen!

    And so, abruptly, we’ve come to the end. The psalmist takes us to the abyss – describing a world full of people who mock the Lord with impunity – and then suddenly turn again to praise him. The reversal is reminiscent of the ending of Ecclesiastes, with the author’s total pessimism qualified by his formal obeisance to the Lord in the closing verse. But here it’s not hard to read a little reproach into the psalmist’s prefacing his praise with a reference to those who curse God and mock his servants. It’s as if he is trying to make a point: I remain loyal, even when you do not.

    The whole psalm is a pottage of bitterness and praise, the kind of scriptural text you’d think would be barely allowed into the canonical books, just like Ecclesiastes. And yet, across both Jewish and Christian traditions, it’s been given liturgical pride of place. In the morning service of Jewish liturgy, the final line is the last thing you say before moving on to recite the Sh’ma, the most important part of the entire thing. The second line of the psalm has been interpreted by Jewish mystics as referring to Hesed, the first divine emanation of grace. As a result, kabbalists recite this line on both Hoshana Rabba, the last night for repentance, and on Simhat Torah, the festival celebrating the giving and renewal of the law, speaking the words of the psalm on the first circuit of synagogue made with the Torah scroll each night. The same mystics understand the line “You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand” as referring to a different divine emanation – and so recite that section of the psalm on the Torah scroll’s second circuit, too. Finally, the line “Happy the people who know your clarion cry” is recited after the ceremonial blowing of the shofar horn on Rosh Hashanah, the liturgical high point of the Jewish calendar. For Jews, Psalm 89 is present both in their spiritual “daily bread” – morning prayer – and in the holiest moments of the entire year. It’s as if the author’s reproaches have been completely forgotten or erased.

    Christians, too, have tended to sweep away the bitter lines in this psalm, focusing instead on those aspects which prefigure, in their eyes, the coming of Jesus. And a run of Christian liturgists, according to Sue Gillingham’s Psalms Through the Centuries, have singled out the sweet parts in much the same manner as their Jewish counterparts. The Genevan Psalter, published in 1562, “takes up the more positive aspects of the song,” Gillingham says, and the approach proved influential amongst Reformed churches. Isaac Watts wrote at least seven versions of this psalm, and a more recent Methodist version “again of the positive parts” was arranged by Don Saliers. Psalm 89’s musical influence is accompanied by a habit of skipping the less sanguine passages entirely. Handel, for instance, used verses 13–14 in a 1727 Coronation anthem for George I, having previously used sections of the first part in “My Song Shall Be Always,” written between 1717 and 1718. Henry Purcell arranged verse 1 in English, then skipped to verses 5–10, then verses 14–15, but went no further. Gillingham couldn’t find anyone, in fact, who’d even touch the final section – not even the upbeat final verse used in Jewish morning prayers. 

    All of this leads me to the perhaps heretical conclusion that the work of prophets – if we can call the psalmist such – and the work of the rabbis and church leaders are entirely distinct. The latter group are concerned, like Milton, to “justify the works of God to man,” whereas the prophet, in the case of Psalm 89, is in a much more intimate and vulnerable relationship with the divine: howling at the gates of a devastated city, asking God when his promises and the natural order will be restored.

    Contributed By AtarHadari Atar Hadari

    Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin, winner of a PEN Translates award, is out now from Arc Publications.

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