How deep is God’s love? How far and how wide? The Hebrew word which is translated as steadfast love in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, is mercy and loving kindness in other translations. I personally prefer the term steadfast love to mercy and loving kindness. It speaks to me of how God’s love is never ending, eternal, enduring despite all we might do, all the ways in which we miss the mark.
The word occurs 172 times in the Old Testament, 120 times in the Psalms and 26 times in Psalm 136 where it is part of a refrain, “for his steadfast love endures forever.” It occurs seven times in this week’s psalm, paired with faithfulness. Clearly the concept of God’s steadfast love is significant in the Psalms. It encompasses God’s mercy and loving kindness and is linked to God’s faithfulness to God’s people.
Psalm 89 is a lament with a long introduction, so long that it was hard for me to consider it a lament at first. The first 37 verses are all about God. There is a preface (1-4) which introduces the theme of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.” (1) It includes God’s promise to David, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant; ‘I will establish your descendants forever and build your throne for all generations.’” (3-4)
This is followed by a hymn of praise (5-18), “Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!” (5) And then an oracle (19-37) where God speaks of his love for his anointed one, “I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him; so that my hand shall ever abide with him.” (20) “My steadfast love I will keep for him forever and my covenant will stand firm for him. I will establish his line forever and his throne as the days of the heavens. (28-29)”
If David’s children abandon God’s law, they will be punished, but God will not stop loving them. “If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances . . . then I will punish their transgressions with my rod and their iniquity with scourges; but I will not remove from him my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness.” (30-33)
Only after reminding God of all of his promises does the writer bring forward his complaint. “But now you have cast off and rejected, you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced your covenant with your servant.” (38-39a) The writer implores God to remember his love of old, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (49)
Written during or after the Babylonian exile, the king has been deposed. This was a time of great trouble for the Hebrew nation. How could they reconcile this event with God’s promise to David? We are left with no answer as the psalmist ends on a plea to God to remember his anointed.
The last phrase of the psalm not only ends the psalm, but the third book of the Psalter. In the midst of despair, the community replies in faith, “Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and amen!” (52)
The destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile were times of great crisis for the Hebrew people. It challenged all they knew about themselves as a people and all they believed about their God. It challenged their relationship with God as God’s chosen people and the very nature of God as kind and loving. How do they reconcile their belief in God’s steadfast love with the destruction of the Temple and all they knew?
Sometimes all you can do in the midst of despair and crisis is to throw yourself into the vast sea of God’s mercy and loving kindness—God steadfast love. We do not understand God’s ways while in this life, but God is eternal, God’s love is forever. Blessed be God!
Have you ever encountered events in your life that led you to question God’s goodness and love for you? I would love to hear from you!