This composition is called a “maskil,” the significance of this transliterated Hebrew expression being unknown. In the Septuagint, the corresponding term is synéseos, meaning “of understanding” or “of intelligence.”
Psalm 89 is attributed to Ethan the Ezrahite. The Septuagint says, “Aithan [Ethan] the Israelite.” Perhaps he is the one who was known for his great wisdom, although it did not surpass that of Solomon. (1 Kings 4:31) The reverses mentioned in this psalm perhaps relate to the time the Edomites, during David’s reign, initiated military action from the south while the Israelites were battling in the north. (Compare Psalm 60:1-3 and the superscription.)
There is a strong possibility, however, that the kind of reverses depicted in this psalm are from a later period and of far greater severity than what happened during David’s reign. If the psalmist was a contemporary of Solomon and outlived him, the only event reported in the biblical record that might fit the description in this psalm is King Shishak’s invasion during the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign. (1 Kings 14:25, 26) According to a large relief in Karnak, Egypt, commemorating Shishak’s victory, the Egyptians extended their campaign as far north as the Sea of Galilee.
The psalmist expressed his determination to sing about YHWH’s acts of abiding love or his “mercies” (LXX) for all time to come. Divine compassionate concern would include all that the Most High had done for his people. The psalmist’s continuing (“from generation to generation”) to use his mouth in making expressions about God’s faithfulness or “truth” (LXX) could mean his telling about YHWH’s dependability as the fulfiller of his promises. With the psalmist’s spoken expressions of praise having been preserved in written form, he continues to speak to new generations.
With the utmost confidence, the psalmist referred to God’s abiding love or “mercy” (LXX) as being established eternally. Its continued existence assures his people of his unfailing care and concern. His faithfulness or “truth” (LXX) is firmly fixed in the heavens, for there the Most High resides. He is the ultimate standard of faithfulness or trustworthiness and can always be relied upon.
The psalmist specifically linked YHWH’s faithfulness to the covenant made with his “chosen one,” David his servant. That covenant included the assurance that the future Messiah would come through the line of David, and God’s sworn oath guaranteed the fulfillment of this covenant promise. David’s seed would be firmly established, indicating that his permanent heir, the Messiah, would come through his line of descent. As to David’s throne or royal authority, the Most High gave his oath-bound promise that he would “build” this “throne” from “generation to generation,” keeping the royal line intact and granting the royal authority to the Messiah.
The praise of YHWH’s wonders or his amazing activity proceeds from the “heavens,” probably meaning the angels. In the parallel expression, the “assembly of holy ones” is referred to as praising his “faithfulness,” “dependability,” “truth” (LXX), or “trustworthiness.” The angels are “holy ones” and in position to observe the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.
To emphasize that YHWH is without equal, the psalmist raised the questions, “Who in the skies [clouds, LXX] can compare to YHWH? Who among the sons of God is like YHWH?
In the “council of holy ones” or among the angels who are closest to him (comparable to the counselors surrounding an earthly sovereign), God is feared, shown the highest reverential regard, or “glorified” (LXX). Above all who are around him, he is “great and awesome,” transcending all in greatness and in the awe to which his presence gives rise.
The implied answer to the psalmist’s question regarding YHWH’s might is that no one is as powerful as the God of hosts, the “hosts” being the mighty angelic forces under his direction. Using the abbreviated form of the divine name Yah, the psalmist referred to YHWH as being surrounded by “faithfulness,” “truth” (LXX), or “trustworthiness,” indicative of being deserving of absolute trust. God’s dependability surrounds him as if it covered him like a garment.
Describing the greatness of YHWH’s power, the psalmist spoke of him as ruling the raging, storm-tossed, or “mighty” (LXX) sea. When its waves rise, God stills them, revealing his control of an element against which humans are powerless.
The name “Rahab” applies to Egypt. This designation is understood to convey the idea of “raging” or “surging” and seemingly identifies Egypt as a powerful sea monster that is unaffected by the tossing of the sea. When YHWH delivered his people from enslavement, he crushed Rahab or Egypt like a corpse. The Septuagint reads, “You have humbled the arrogant one like the wounded one.” With his “mighty arm” or his great power, the Most High scattered his enemies, defeating them and causing them to flee in panic.
As the Creator, YHWH owns everything—the heavens (the skies), the earth, the cultivated land, and all that is on the land. He founded or firmly established them, assuring that they would endure.
The reference to “north” and “south” (“seas,” LXX) as being YHWH’s creation probably applies to the regions of the north and the south. Mount Tabor may represent the east and Mount Hermon the west. The psalmist mentioned them as crying out joyfully in God’s name. It appears that he portrayed Tabor and Hermon as joyfully acknowledging YHWH as being his creation. (For additional information regarding verse 12, see the Notes section.)
God’s mighty “arm” is powerful. His “right hand” is strong and exalted or raised, as if ready to strike. Both the “arm” and the “right hand” are representative of power or might.
The foundation of YHWH’s throne or the basis on which his sovereignty rests is righteousness and justice. This assures impartiality and justice in the execution of his judgments. Before the Most High or always in front of him are abiding love, compassionate concern, or “mercy” (LXX) and faithfulness, “truth” (LXX), or trustworthiness. In being “before his face” or in front of him, these qualities are always ready to be expressed.
Fortunate or in an enviable state of well-being are the people who “know” the joyous cry or who are the participants in shouting for joy because of their relationship to the Most High. They “walk” or conduct themselves in the “light of [his] face” or as persons upon whom his favor rests.
In his “name” or in recognition or acknowledgment of who he is, they exult all day, continuing to experience boundless joy. The reference to their being exalted in God’s righteousness could mean that their noble standing as persons whom he approves stems from his being righteous. Because he is righteous, he deals justly with them, rewarding them according to their deeds.
YHWH grants strength to his people. Therefore, he is the “beauty,” “glory,” or “pride” (LXX) of their strength. Without him, they would be in a weak and helpless condition and devoid of all splendor. Their “horn” or power is exalted on account of his favor. They can raise their heads, not being like persons whose strength is broken upon experiencing shameful defeat.
The expressions “for to YHWH” and “to the Holy One of Israel” indicate that the “shield” and the “king” have a relationship with the Most High. Translators commonly express this thought by indicating that the “shield” and “king” belong to God. As a “shield,” the king would be a protector of his subjects. Instead of “shield,” the Septuagint reads “help” (antílempsis).
The “faithful ones” or “holy ones” to whom God spoke in a vision could refer to the prophets Samuel and Nathan or to Nathan and David. Samuel received a revelation concerning David and was directed to anoint him. To Nathan it was revealed that the royal house of David would continue, and David later acknowledged having received this divine revelation. From verses 19(20) through 37(38), the psalm reflects much of what had been conveyed to the prophet Nathan. (1 Samuel 16:1; 2 Samuel 7:4-16; 1 Chronicles 17:3-14; 28:2-7)
The “mighty one” upon whom God “set help” is David, and this could mean that YHWH empowered him to be able to carry out the royal duties. Divinely chosen as king from the people, he was exalted above them.
YHWH found his servant David and anointed him with the “oil of holiness” or the “holy oil,” doing so by means of the prophet Samuel.
YHWH’s “hand” being firm with David would denote that dependable divine power would always be available to support and aid him. God’s “arm” or might would strengthen him, empowering him to handle the royal affairs.
The enemy would not be permitted to make exactions or to act like a creditor, imposing oppressive demands on David. No wicked one would be allowed to afflict or humiliate him.
YHWH would fight for David, crushing his foes before him and striking down those hating him. As one enjoying an approved relationship with the Most High, David could depend on YHWH’s faithfulness, “truth” (LXX), or trustworthiness and his abiding love, compassionate concern, or “mercy” (LXX). “In the name of YHWH,” in everything that the name embraces—the Most High and his attributes—David’s “horn” or might would be exalted. He would enjoy YHWH’s unfailing backing.
For David’s “hand” to be on the sea and his “right hand” on the rivers would signify that he would be exercising dominion over the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates and its tributaries. (Compare Genesis 15:18.)
Indicative of his close relationship to YHWH, David would cry out to him, “My Father, you are my God and the rock of my salvation.” To him, the Almighty would be like a crag in mountainous terrain where he could find safety. The Septuagint does not use the expression “rock of my salvation,” but reads, “helper” or “protector of my salvation.”
YHWH would place his anointed one as firstborn, granting him the position of preeminence. As the king of God’s appointment, he would be the “highest of the kings of the earth.” No other monarch enjoyed this distinction.
For all time to come, YHWH would “keep” or maintain his abiding love, compassionate concern, or “mercy” (LXX) toward his anointed one, never rejecting the royal line of David. The covenant with David for a kingdom could be relied upon.
In keeping with the trustworthiness of the covenant, the Messiah or permanent heir of King David did come through his line. Accordingly, David’s “seed” or line of descent had been permanently established, and his “throne” or the royal authority in his line of descent would continue “as the days of the heavens” or forever.
If any of the “sons” in David’s royal line forsook God’s law and ceased to walk or to conduct themselves in harmony with his ordinances, violating his statutes and not observing his commands, YHWH would punish them for their transgression, as would a father who disciplined a disobedient son with a rod. By withholding his favor and protection, the Most High allowed the unfaithful kings to suffer at the hands of their enemies. In this manner, the sons in David’s royal line were beaten with a rod or punished with scourges for their iniquity.
Nevertheless, YHWH promised not to terminate his compassionate concern or “mercy” (LXX) or to fail in being trustworthy respecting his word or promise. He would not violate his covenant with David nor in any way alter the promise made to him about the continuance of his “seed” or line of descent. The psalmist referred to this promise as going forth from God’s “lips.”
By his holiness or absolute purity, the Most High had sworn to David, adding an oath to his unchangeable and trustworthy promise. In keeping with that oath-bound word, YHWH would not lie.
David’s “seed” would endure forever, and his “throne” would be as permanent as the sun and the moon. As it would continue to exist, the moon would serve as a reliable witness in the skies that the “throne” or royal authority in the line of David would not end. A number of translation make the reference to the moon explicit. “It will be established forever like the moon, the faithful witness in the sky.” (NIV) “It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies.” (NRSV) “It will be as permanent as the moon, that faithful witness in the sky.” (GNT, Second Edition) “It will last forever like the moon, which may always be seen in the sky.” (NLB)
There is a possibility, however, that the Hebrew should be understood to mean that the witness in the skies is trustworthy and so could include both the sun and the moon or any witness in the sky. The Septuagint reads, “And the testimony in heaven [is] faithful.” A number of modern translations likewise do not identify the witness as being the moon. “It will continue forever, like the moon, like a dependable witness in the sky.” (NCV) “It shall be established forever like the moon, and the witness in the sky is faithful.” (NASB)
The distressing circumstances the psalmist next described seemed to contradict the promises made in the covenant with David. YHWH was not providing aid to his anointed one but, to all appearances, had cast him off, rejected him, and made him the object of his anger. He had denounced or disregarded the covenant with his servant, the anointed one in the line of David, and defiled his crown, placing it in the dust of the earth.
The defenses had been breached, and strongholds lay in ruins. Pillagers swept through the land. The king (as the representative of the whole nation) came to be the object of reproach to neighboring nations. By not coming to the aid of the anointed one and his subjects, YHWH had exalted the “right hand” or power of the foes, and given all the enemies occasion for rejoicing over the defeat of his people.
The sword of the king, representing his military force, proved to be useless. Instead of being effective for defense, it was turned back, treated as a foe that needed to be stopped from accomplishing its objective. As to what YHWH did not do for the king in battle, the Masoretic Text has the word qum, which in this context could mean “make stand” or “support.” The Septuagint rendering is antilambánomai, which has the sense of laying hold of, supporting, or helping. This indicates that there was no divine intervention or no help provided for the king and his forces.
The king’s “cleanness” or “brightness” that had been removed would denote his loss of dignity or splendor. His situation came to be like one lying in the dirt. The throne or royal authority had been brought low, cast to the ground.
The king’s “days of youth” or the time when he enjoyed a position of strength comparable to when one is young had been cut short. On account of defeat, he was with shame (as if clothed with it).
In view of the state of humiliation, the psalmist asked how long YHWH would hide himself, not coming to the aid of the king and his subjects. Would the wrath of the Most High forever burn like fire?
The psalmist, in making his appeal in the first person, appears to speak representatively of the whole nation. “Remember,” he pleads, “of what duration I [am].” Life is short, implying that aid cannot be postponed indefinitely. To the psalmist it appeared that YHWH had created all the “sons of men” or all humans for “vanity” or “emptiness,” as they quickly passed from the earthly scene.
“What man can live and not see death? Who can deliver his soul from the hand of Sheol?” The implied answer to the psalmist’s questions is that no one can escape experiencing death and no human can effect a rescue from the power of Sheol or from the realm of the dead.
Perplexed about the then-existing circumstances, the psalmist wondered what had happened to YHWH’s compassionate concern or “mercy” that had been shown in earlier times. The Almighty had sworn to David by his “faithfulness,” “truth” (LXX), or trustworthiness. The implication is that the psalmist could not then see any evidence of that dependability.
Again probably speaking for the whole nation, the psalmist asked God to remember or take note of the reproach of his servant. In his bosom, the psalmist carried a heavy burden (“all [the reproach] of many peoples”). This likely included taunts that God was powerless to save.
The psalmist referred to the taunters as YHWH’s enemies, for they were the foes of his people. These enemies had mocked the footsteps of God’s anointed one. This may mean that everywhere he walked, regardless of where he might turn, taunts were hurled at him. At all times and in all locations, reproaches followed him.
Nevertheless, the psalmist concludes with a reverential expression that suggests complete submission to God’s will. “Blessed be YHWH forever. Amen and amen [So be it; so be it (LXX)].”
Although conveying the same thought as the Masoretic Text, the extant Septuagint reading of verse 8(9) is longer. “O Lord, God of the forces, who is like you? O Lord, you are powerful, and your truth surrounds you.”
In verse 12(13), the Hebrew word yamín means “right” or “right hand.” When facing east, the right hand is on the south side, which is the apparent reason for the meaning “south” (the meaning that best fits the context).
Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.
Verses 37(38), 45(46), and 48(49) end with “selah,” the meaning of which expression is uncertain. The Septuagint rendering is diápsalma, thought to mean “pause” or “musical interlude.”