I will sing of the lovingkindness of YHWH for ever / with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.
For I have said, “Mercy shall be built up for ever / Thy faithfulness wilt thou establish in the very heavens.”
“I have made a covenant with my chosen / I have sworn unto David my servant:
‘Thy seed will I establish for ever / and build up thy throne to all generations'” (Psalm 89:1-4).
Ethan begins his psalm with great praise and confidence in YHWH. He does not end that way.
Ethan is famous in Scripture for being wise; not as wise as Solomon, of course, but the comparison shows just how highly Ethan was esteemed (1 Kings 4:31). His wisdom is on full display in the only Psalm ascribed to him.
We have every reason to believe Ethan is serious: he proclaims YHWH’s hesed (lovingkindness, covenant loyalty) and His faithfulness to all generations (Psalm 89:1). He builds up mercy and establishes faithfulness in the heavens (Psalm 89:2). Ethan has as similar confidence in YHWH’s promises to David in 2 Samuel 7:11-16: a covenant was made with David and his house, and his kingdom would be established forever (Psalm 89:3-4). So far Ethan has made a clear confession of faith.
Ethan would continue by extolling God’s power in and over His creation (Psalm 89:5-14) and His care and provision for His people, particularly David and his descendants (Psalm 89:15-28). Ethan recognized the warnings about the consequences of disobedience, but also maintains confidence that YHWH would still maintain His covenant and be faithful to David (Psalm 89:30-37).
But then the psalm takes a sharp and dark turn. Ethan declared that YHWH had cast off, rejected, and been angry with His anointed, demonstrating how YHWH has reversed Himself at every point in terms of His dealings with the offspring of David (Psalm 89:38-45). Ethan wanted to know how long YHWH would be angry with the house of David; Ethan’s life would not be long (Psalm 89:46-47). Where was YHWH’s covenant loyalty which He swore to David (Psalm 89:49)? Such is the question that resounds at the end of the psalm; Ethan concluded by asking the Lord to remember the reproaches which the enemies of the people of God have reproached them and His anointed (Psalm 89:50-51). While Ethan would not dispute Psalm 89:52, it is most likely added by the Psalter as the conclusion of Book III (so also Psalms 41:13, 72:20, 106:48).
Psalm 89 is most assuredly a psalm of lament, and yet it does not follow the standard lament pattern. Most psalms of lament set forth the difficulty, challenge, or complaint, and internally move toward a declaration of confidence and faith in YHWH and His covenant loyalty (e.g. Psalms 3, 22). Yet Psalm 88 and Psalm 89 end without that “resolution” of at least a declaration of faith; they leave us with their cry unanswered. In many ways the Psalter “answers” their concerns in Book IV (Psalms 90-106) by testifying to God’s faithfulness over time. We can “answer” Ethan’s question in terms of Jesus of Nazareth who received the throne of His father David, has reigned for two thousand years, and continues to reign (Luke 1:31-33, Matthew 28:18-20, Revelation 5:9-14).
But Ethan does not know that, or at least he is giving voice to people who do not know that. He knows what God promised David; from 586 BCE until the days of Jesus in the first century CE one could well ask where YHWH’s covenant loyalty to David and his offspring had gone. He perishes long before the promise is fulfilled.
It is important for us moderns to note the ground upon which Ethan makes his complaint. Many people today, after all, have all kinds of questions, challenges, and complaints for God. Yet today people ask, complain, or demand from a place of doubt; they wonder if God is even there, is a figment of their imagination, or fear He is the god of the Deists who no longer really cares what happens within the closed system he started. Ethan, on the other hand, asked, complained, and questioned from a place of faith. Ethan could not make sense of the condition of Judah and the house of David, not on account of any fears about YHWH’s existence, power, or covenant loyalty, but precisely because he believed firmly and strongly in YHWH as the Creator God of Israel who shows covenant loyalty to His people and proves faithful to His promises. If he did not have such faith he would have no reason to expect anything for the house of David: without God as their protector, Israel could never consistently stand against her adversaries. If YHWH did not care for His people at all, there would be no reason to expect anything less than the devastation of the people. The only way Ethan can really ask God these questions and to air his grievances is because he trusts God and what God has said to His people.
There are many reasons why we might think (if we do not prove open, honest, and faithful enough to actually say and ask) about many disconnects between what God has promised and the situation on the ground. We may wonder why the Lord has not yet returned, or why wickedness prospers while righteousness is set at naught, or why we experience trials and tribulations. In such conditions we do well to learn from Ethan; we can only have such complaints if we remain grounded in our belief that there is a God, that He has created us, maintains covenant loyalty, is faithful, and full of mercy. How can we doubt God’s existence while still expecting the kind of life and universe which only God could have created? After all, if God does not exist, or does not care about us, what does “good” or “evil” mean, anyway? Why should we expect “good” to happen to us but not “evil”? Why should anything in life be pleasant, good, positive, and above all, meaningful? By no means! Without God the universe has no purpose or meaning, and neither do we. Good and evil become human categorizations and are unmoored from any standard beyond human conceptions. We can only expect good to happen, for life to have meaning, or that all of this is going somewhere if God is who He says He is in Scripture.
We all live with unanswered questions, at least if we are honest with ourselves. Ethan the Ezrahite wrote an inspired psalm that ends with an unanswered question. Yet Psalm 89 begins with a powerful declaration of faith. We will have unanswered questions; can we sing of God’s lovingkindness, covenant loyalty, and faithfulness to all generations as well, and trust despite, or even because of, the questions, difficulties, and trials of life?
Ethan R. Longhenry