In ancient rabbinic literature, the Psalms were referred to as tehillîm, which is Hebrew for “praises.” One of the most remarkable features of this sacred collection of praise songs is that at least one-third of them are laments. These are songs that passionately express some kind of emotional distress, such as grief, sorrow, confusion, anguish, penitence, fear, depression, loneliness, or doubt.
This is remarkable because the presence of so many praise laments implies that God knew his people would frequently be called to worship him in agonizing circumstances. The Holy Spirit inspired poets to craft “praises” that would provide us worshipful expressions of our diverse experiences of pain.
“Lament psalms teach us what acceptable worship can sound like in our suffering.”
If lament psalms are Spirit-inspired praise songs for our painful seasons, we should look at them carefully, because they teach us important lessons about the kinds of worship God receives. Some of the ways these inspired poets worshiped God in their agony might make us uncomfortable. Psalm 89 is a good example.
Leader in Lament
Psalm 89 is attributed to Ethan the Ezrahite. According to 1 Chronicles 6:31–48, Ethan was one of three clan chiefs of the tribe of Levi — the other two being Heman (Psalm 88) and Asaph (Psalms 50; 73–82) — “whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the Lord.” He was a high-profile leader to whom thousands looked for social and spiritual instruction and counsel. His words had gravitas.
And in this psalm, Ethan led the people in lament. Over what? Over God’s apparent unfaithfulness to his covenant with David — apparent being the operative word here.
In 2 Samuel 7, the prophet Nathan delivered a stunning promise from the Lord to David about how long his descendants would sit on Israel’s throne: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). This became a crucial part of Israel’s self-understanding: God had planted them in the Promised Land and had given them a promised governance that would last forever.
However, something terrible happened (perhaps Absalom’s rebellion of 2 Samuel 15–18), which made it appear as if God had “renounced” his covenant and “defiled [David’s] crown in the dust” (Psalm 89:39). And in this moment of crisis, Ethan composed a psalm that gave worshipful voice to the confusion and grief that all who trusted in God’s faithfulness were experiencing.
In the first eighteen verses, Ethan exults in how bound up God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are with his very character.
- God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are part of the glory and might for which he is loved and praised and feared in the divine council and the great angelic host (Psalm 89:5–8).
- It is through God’s steadfast love and faithfulness that he exercises his sovereign rule over all creation: the heavens and the earth and all that fills them, the “raging sea” and its most fearsome creature, Rahab, and the great mountains, like Tabor and Hermon (Psalm 89:9–12).
- God’s steadfast love and faithfulness are part of the “foundation of [his] throne,” most clearly manifest (at that time) in the Davidic kingdom he had established in Israel. They are why his people shout for joy and “exult in [his] name all the day” (Psalm 89:13–16).
Ethan reminds God,
You are the glory of [Israel’s] strength;
by your favor our horn is exalted.
For our shield belongs to the Lord,
our king to the Holy One of Israel. (Psalm 89:17–18)
The stakes were high. If God’s people could not hope in his steadfast love and faithfulness, how could they continue to exult in him like this?
Then in verses 19–37, Ethan at length beautifully reminds God of the promise he made to David, on which the hope of his people rested:
- God had delivered this promise “in a vision to your godly one” (presumably the prophet Nathan, Psalm 89:19).
- God had chosen David from the people and anointed him king, established him, and promised that his foes would not overcome him (Psalm 89:20–24).
- God promised to be a Father to him and make him “the highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:25–27).
- God promised to “establish [David’s] offspring forever,” and if they strayed from God’s ways, he would discipline them but would “not remove from [David God’s] steadfast love or be false to [his] faithfulness.” God would “not lie to David” (Psalm 89:28–37).
I don’t know how much Ethan discerned the Messianic dimensions of the Davidic covenant, but this section is full of prophetic pointers to Jesus, each worthy of our lingering meditation. But during this moment of crisis, it looked like God’s promise had come to an abrupt end.
Had the promise of God really failed? In verses 38–45, that’s exactly what Ethan described — to God. And he did so in no uncertain terms.
- He told God, “But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed,” and “you have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust” (Psalm 89:38–39).
- He told God how he had exalted David’s foes by causing them to defeat Israel in battle, and how David’s walls had been breached and his kingdom plundered, making him an object of scorn (Psalm 89:40–44).
- He told God how he had “cut short the days of [David’s] youth [and] covered him with shame” (Psalm 89:45).
“God hears, and receives as worship, real faith expressed in a cry of pain.”
It’s this section that might make us feel most uncomfortable. Can we really speak to God like this?
The answer is yes — and no. It’s yes if we, like Ethan, take God’s faithfulness with utmost seriousness and truly love his glory. The answer is no if we, like Israelites after the Red Sea crossing, are just “grumbling against the Lord” (Exodus 16:7).
Ethan is not shaking his fist at God in rebellion. Rather, he’s setting forth his case that God must act for the sake of his name. Ethan is interceding, not accusing. He has not lost faith in God; he’s exercising bold faith in God by calling on him to do what he promised. He still believes in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
‘Remember, O Lord’
That’s precisely why Ethan doesn’t end his psalm with a poetic “Forget you, God!” but with a passionate plea: “Remember, O Lord!” He devotes verses 46–52 to pouring out his heart’s desire. It’s worth reading them in full. And as you do, listen (as God does) for the heart’s desire behind the anguished words.
How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?
Remember how short my time is!
For what vanity you have created all the children of man!
What man can live and never see death?
Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah
Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
which by your faithfulness you swore to David? Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked,
and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations,
with which your enemies mock, O Lord,
with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed.
Blessed be the Lord forever!
Amen and Amen. (Psalm 89:46–52)
Do you hear his heart? Ethan longs, for himself and his people, to experience the joy of the glory of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. He knows how short life is, and does not want himself or his people to die before experiencing it again. This man is jealous for God’s fame. He does not want God’s good name, or the faithful who trust in him, to be mocked. That is what drives Ethan’s lament.
Lament Boldly, and Faithfully
As we read Psalm 89 now through the lens of the new covenant, we no doubt see clearer than Ethan did how broad the scope of God’s faithfulness to David has been. For in Jesus, this promise to David found its incredible yes (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Like Ethan the Ezrahite, however, we too experience crisis moments when it appears to us as if God is not being faithful to some promise. And it’s in such moments when we discover just how precious lament psalms like this are. Not only do they give us inspired language to pray in our pain, but they teach us what acceptable worship can sound like in our suffering.
In Psalm 89, God invites us to be bold in our prayerful laments. If our heart’s desire is God; if we long, for ourselves and our people, to experience the joy of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; if our words are not the grumbling of unbelief but the expression of grieved faith, then it’s good to be direct with God. He hears, and receives as worship, real faith expressed in a cry of pain.
And we can trust that, at the same time, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).