A Psalm for Adversity

Sermon by Ligon Duncan on November 18, 2018

Psalms 89

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Psalm 89. Thank you, David, my pastor and friend, for the privilege of the pulpit. It is good to be in your midst. I was thinking yesterday and this morning about the significant impact of First Presbyterian Church on the very existence of Reformed Theological Seminary where I have been serving the last five years. About fifty-five years ago, the pastor, elders, deacons and members of First Presbyterian Church brought about the realization of a Bible-believing seminary here in Jackson. We are now in nine cities in eight states, two foreign nations. Through the investment of this congregation, there are ministers, missionaries, church planters, campus ministers, youth workers, counselors in eighty countries around the world; over 6,000 graduates in the last fifty-two years. And two of those who are leading our campuses are former interns at First Pres Jackson. Guy Richard, who worked with young adults a number of years ago, leads our Atlanta campus. And Jay Harvey, who worked for Donna Dobbs in Christian Education, leads our campus in New York City. It’s absolutely, it’s impossible for me to calculate the impact of First Presbyterian Church on RTS and thus on the kingdom. It’s a seed you sowed and the Lord has seen fit to bear fruit in it. Thank you. And I’m in a sense your missionary serving in that capacity. But it’s always good to be back. Thank you, again, for the privilege of the pulpit.


Let me draw your attention to just a couple of things in the passage we’re going to read today to get a feel. When you look at the first thirty-seven verses of Psalm 89, it looks like a praise psalm that you would meet at the end of the Psalter. Remember when you get to Psalm 145, all the way to Psalm 150, you get these songs of praise. It’s like the crescendo at the end of a great symphony. You know, Beethoven's 9th and you’re singing, “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee” at the end of the symphony. That’s how Psalm 145 to 150 is and that’s how Psalm 89, verses 1 to 37 sound. And then you get to verse 38 and suddenly the tone completely changes.


I was telling David, since most of the time I only get to preach one-off sermons now where I am. And so I’ve been going back. I loved preaching through the Psalms here at First Pres. We went through all one hundred fifty psalms and then we spent twenty-two weeks in Psalm 119 later on. And so what I’ve been doing is I’ve been going off and preaching one-off – I’ve been re-preaching the sermons that I didn’t think I did a very good job on! Now there’s a lot to choose from there, let me say! And Psalm 89 is one of them. And I’m not sure I really understood Psalm 89 the way I should have when I preached through it the first time. And verse 38 is the game changer, and really all the way to verse 52. You will notice the tone completely changes when you get to verse 38. Listen to the language. “You have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed.” And the rest of the psalm goes that way. So you start off praising God, and then suddenly you get to verse 38 and we’re all cast off and rejected. You’ve got to understand that to understand the psalm.


Now, with that in mind, go back and look at the heading of Psalm 88. And I want you to notice two things. In Psalm 88 and in Psalm 89, the heading tells us that these are psalms of Ezrahites. These are people who are part of the Ezrahite guild. And the one in Psalm 88 is Heman the Ezrahite and the one who is the author of our psalm is Ethan the Ezrahite. Interestingly, these psalms are twins. Psalm 88 is perhaps the lowest point, the darkest point, the deepest pit that you find in the Psalms. You know in almost all the Psalms, no matter how bad things are, there’s a little glimmer of hope. And if there is a glimmer of hope at all in Psalm 88 it’s in the very first phrase, “O LORD, God of my salvation.” Everything else is dark. There is not a glimmer of hope. We don’t know exactly what the personal situation was in Psalm 88 but it is bad.


Psalm 89 is its twin, but it’s not about a personal situation; it’s about the whole situation of Israel. And what we’re going to see as we read through it, it’s about God’s promise to always have a king of David on the throne and for Israel always to dwell in the land. But when you get to verse 38, you find out there is no Davidic king of David on the throne and the children of Israel have been sent off into exile and even the ones who have now been brought back have been brought back to a city whose walls are broken down. So the psalmist is despairing of the situation of God’s people. And it is totally perplexing him. And in the midst of that adversity, he writes this song and has it sung in the worship of God as the people of God gather there on the temple mound to offer up praises to Him.


And I want us to draw some application from the psalmist’s experience of adversity because we are called to adversity in the Christian life. It’s different. I can look out in the congregation. And maybe if you’re new here and you look around, you see well-dressed, seemingly happy, healthy, handsome, beautiful people who don’t have any problems. I was their pastor for seventeen years. Bill Hughes used to say, “There’s heartbreak on every pew,” and that’s true. So you live the Christian life, you’re going to face adversity, and this psalm is here to help us face that adversity. So before we read it, let’s pray and let’s ask God for His help and blessing as we read it and study it together.


Heavenly Father, we do not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The grass withers, the flowers fade and they fall, but Your Word stands and it stands forever. Sanctify us with truth; Your Word is truth. All Scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness that we may be equipped for every good work. So speak, Lord, Your servants listen. We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.


This is the Word of God. Hear it, beginning in Psalm 89 verse 1:


“A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.

I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth, I will make known your faithfulness to all generations. For I said, ‘Steadfast love will be built up forever; in the heavens, you will establish your faithfulness.' You have said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: ‘I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations.'' Selah  Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones! For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him? O Lord God of hosts, who is mighty as you are, O Lord, with your faithfulness all around you? You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm. The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. The north and the south, you have created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name. You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you. Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O Lord, in the light of your face, who exult in your name all the day and in your righteousness are exalted. For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted. For our shield belongs to the Lord, our king to the Holy One of Israel.  Of old you spoke in a vision to your godly one and said: ‘I have granted help to one who is mighty; I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him so that my hand shall be established with him; my arm also shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him; the wicked shall not humble him. I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. My faithfulness and my steadfast love shall be with him, and in my name shall his horn be exalted. I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.' And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. My steadfast love I will keep for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. I will establish his offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens. If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my rules, if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments, then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with stripes, but I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips. Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His offspring shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me. Like the moon, it shall be established forever, a faithful witness in the skies.' Selah  But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust. You have breached all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins. All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors. You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice. You have also turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not made him stand in battle. You have made his splendor to cease and cast his throne to the ground. You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame. Selah  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."


Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.


See what I mean? You’re just not waiting for verse 38. They don’t seem to go together. The tone of verses 1 to 37 seems antithetical, contradictory of the tone of verses 38 to the end of the chapter. And it’s not just the tone, it’s the content. “I have sworn and I will not change! You have forgotten the covenant that you have made with David.” You see what’s going on here. This psalm, like so much of the later prophetic books of the Old Testament, is wrestling with the question, “Have God’s promises failed?” He promised that Israel would be settled and never ever be driven from their land. Having been saved out of Egypt, she would be settled in the land of promise and would have rest on all her side from her enemies and she would always dwell in the land. And then suddenly the children of God are exiled. And even when they come back from the nations, they are a remnant, and they come back to Jerusalem with broken walls so that the neighbors around Jerusalem can easily plunder the city and they constantly mock the inhabitants. And a promise had been made that David would always be on the throne; there would always be an heir to the Davidic throne. David would always have a king on the throne. For 400 years that was true, and then suddenly it wasn’t. There is no Davidic king on the throne. And they asking the question, “Lord, have Your promises failed? We’re in the midst of all this adversity and we don’t see how what You had promised could be true for what we’re experiencing.” In other words, they are in deep, collective adversity.


This isn’t just a personal struggle. “O Lord, I’ve always wanted to be married and You’ve not seen fit to give me a spouse.” “O Lord, I’ve always wanted to be married and now I’m married and I wish I wasn’t.” “O Lord, I’ve always wanted to have children and You haven’t given me children.” “O Lord, I always wanted children and You gave me children and now they’ve broken my heart.” “O Lord, I’ve always wanted to serve You with all my heart, mind, soul and strength, but I am facing cancer that’s going to kill me.” “O Lord, I’ve always wanted to serve You in my vocation and I’ve lost my job.” And on and on and on and on. It’s not a personal struggle like this; it’s a collective struggle. And it’s a spiritual crisis because God has made specific, definite promises and it does not appear that they have come true! And so this is a theological crisis that’s being sung about in worship. Isn’t that fascinating? “You come sing your theological crisis to Me,” God says. “You come sing that theological crisis to Me.” That’s what Psalm 89 is.


So I want to look at three things with you in this psalm this morning. There’s a lot here; there’s a sermon series here. But three things very briefly. Perplexity, praise, and providence. Perplexity, praise, and providence. 



I think, my first memory of this psalm comes from youth group. I’m certain that I had read the psalm as a relatively young boy, but the way I remember this psalm is from youth group and I’ll bet some of you do too because we sang, “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever, I will sing, I will sing! I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever, I will of the mercies of the Lord! With my mouth, will I make known, Thy faithfulness, Thy faithfulness!” Do you remember that? Old people like me, do you remember that? Kids, we sang songs like that in youth group back in the day! That’s how I remember it. It’s kind of upbeat, isn’t it? It’s an upbeat, happy, youth group song. You’re just basically singing Psalm 89 verses 1 and 2. I think that’s my first memory of this psalm.


And I think that has colored how I read Psalm 89. I read it as an upbeat, happy song of praise, an ascription of praise to God. And of course, it is ascribing praise to God. I think I did not adequately understand that the psalmist is saying those things through blinding tears! It’s like he’s saying, “I don’t want to sing. I don’t feel like singing. I’m not sure whether I understand what’s going on in my life. But I will sing of the mercies of the Lord! I’m not sure I feel the mercies of the Lord, I’m struggling to believe the mercies of the Lord, but I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever!” And he sings back to God the very promises and praises that he’s struggling with. And you learn that in verse 38. “You have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed.” In other words, he’s singing praises from the standpoint of perplexity. He and the rest of his people are deep in adversity.


And here’s the thing that I want you to see. Christianity, knowing Jesus savingly, believing the Gospel, believing your Bible, walking with the Lord in this life does not exempt you from suffering and perplexity. It enables you to suffer with hope. Do you understand, that’s what this psalm is about. The adversity and suffering and perplexity expressed in this psalm has engulfed all the people of God. And what this psalm is, is it is a cry of hope. “Lord, I’m going to believe Your Word though if anybody in this crowd challenged me to show them how Your Word had proved to be true, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue how to make the case for that.” So in the midst of his perplexity, he is suffering with hope by singing God’s Word back to Him.


And my friends, I’ve seen that here at First Presbyterian Church with my own eyes. I said to Paul Stephenson this morning, I still remember the day of young Paul’s funeral. I remember where I stood, I remember who I talked to. I remember us all gathered in Miller Hall getting ready to go into the gymnasium because this building did not exist at that time. We had raised it to the ground! And so that funeral was in the gym and there were a thousand people packed into that gym. And you know, a minister on a day like that is thinking, “One of the hard things you’re going to have to do is pray with the family before you go into that funeral.” And I had been thinking all morning long, “What am I going to say, Lord, as I pray that prayer?” And before I could open my mouth, Paul called everybody together and he said, “Come together. I’m going to lead us in prayer.” I will never forget that moment. A father whose son was gone in the most heartbreaking ways; he drew us together and he took us to God. He was not exempt from perplexity and adversity and suffering, but his prayer was a prayer of hope. I’ve lost count of the times that I have seen you do that.


And do you understand that everything David does, everything that your ministers do, everything that the elders are doing here through the preaching of the Word, through the ministry of the church, is to prepare you for those moments in life when the rug is completely pulled out from under you and you’ve got nothing but hope in God; nothing. This psalm is reminding us that we are not exempt from that kind of suffering and perplexity. But the question is, “Will you have hope when the adversity and the perplexity and the adversity comes?” The psalmist is showing you how. You go back to God’s Word and you believe it, even when you don’t understand it, even when your situation around you looks like it couldn’t be true. And you just sing that Word back to God and believe that Word back to God until He opens the way. We’re not exempt from suffering and perplexity, but we are equipped to suffer with hope.



Here's the second thing I want you to see. And you really see this in verses 1 and 2; you see in verse 14, 24, 28, 33, even 49 in the lament part of the psalm. It's always time to praise God. It's always time to praise God. Whatever our state, whatever our circumstance, whatever our situation, whatever public life is like, whatever our private circumstances are, it's always time to praise God. It reminds you a little bit of Job, doesn't it? "The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!" Doesn't the end of Psalm 89 remind you of that? Look at verses 50 and 51. "Remember, O Lord, your servants are mocked! We're bearing the insults of the nations! They mock us on the footsteps of your anointed!" Verse 52, "Blessed be the Lord, forever." Now I know that's the doxology at the end of book four, right? Every book of the Psalms ends with a doxology; verse 52 is that doxology. But isn't that juxtaposition fascinating? "We're mocked! We're insulted! We have no hope! Blessed be the Lord!" It's just like Job. "The Lord gave, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord," and he fell down on his face and he worshiped God.


Or it also reminds me of 1 Peter chapter 1 verses 3 to 5. You remember 1 Peter chapter 1 verses 1 and 2? Peter says, “Hi.” Then the very first thing he does in verses 3, 4, and 5 is sing a doxology. He starts with a doxology. Now you and I know now that Peter is writing that letter just months before the Neronian persecution is going to begin. So people in that little congregation in Asia Minor are going to be killed, they’re going to be imprisoned, they’re going to be exiled; some are going to be sent to the salt mines. They’re going to be separated from families, they’re going to lose their business and livelihood and reputation. And so what are you going to say to somebody who is about to go through that? Peter thinks, “A doxology is a good idea!” Which reminds me of Margaret DuBois looking up at me in the Blair Batson hospital many years ago with her dead son in her arms and saying, “Ligon, can we sing the doxology?” That’s exactly what’s going on. It’s always time to praise our God. No darkness, no darkness in this world exempts us from needing to express praise to Him for His perfections.


And you see how the psalmist begins. He sings for God’s steadfast love. He sings of God’s wonders and greatness beginning in verse 5. He sings of God’s sovereignty; he sings of God’s promises. All of these things, no matter what our circumstances are – God is deserving of our praise because of these things. It’s always time to praise our God. And that’s one of the reasons we gather Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day is not because we feel like praising God every Sunday. I mean how often do you come to this place and the last thing in the world you are thinking about is praising God? And yet what’s happening? We come here no matter how we feel and our hearts are being trained by the Word of God so that when the disaster is so pervasive and the adversity is so deep, we can praise God even on autopilot.


I was looking out at the early service and Woody and Diane Mason were there. And I remember when Katrina took everything from them. And then just a few weeks ago, I heard that the hurricane that hit Mexico City Beach had taken everything from their son. And you think, “Lord, this is the Job family. Hurricanes follow them around!” But it’s always time to praise God.



Now here's the third thing I want you to see, and it's providence. Just put these two things together. You've got thirty-seven verses of praise to God – praise for His steadfast love, that means the Gospel. That's how Psalm 51 begins. "Lord, hear me because of Your steadfast love, because of Your lovingkindness, because of Your covenant love. Forgive me, Lord, because of Your covenant love." So one of the things we're praising God for is the Gospel. But then it goes on to praise God for His sovereignty. "Praise God for His promises to David. Praise God for His promises and His blessing upon His people." And then you get to verse 38 and following and it's all, "Lord, none of this has come to pass. There's no king of David on the throne. We've been in exile. Now a little small remnant of us are back in the land and we are a petty client state of pagan rulers." So what the whole psalm is about, really, "Lord, how do we put Your Word and Your promises together with Your providence and our perplexity? We know You're sovereign over all these things. We know You're in charge. But how do we put Your promises together with the perplexity that we're in?" And the answer is, "God's providence." The answer is God's providence. You have to believe God's providence even when you don't understand it.


Now to have a doctrine of providence, you’ve got to have a number of things. First of all, you have to believe that God is sovereign. If you don’t think that He is the ruler of everything, how in the world can you expect Him to bring purpose out of perplexity? Secondly, you have to believe He is good. If He is the ruler of everything and He is not good, then we’re all in trouble. Right? So you have to believe that He is the ruler over everything and you have to believe He’s good. Thirdly, you really have to believe the Gospel because if you know that you’re a sinner, and if we’re honest, if we’re honest and we say, “Okay, what would happen if God gave us what we deserved?” – it would not be good. So you really have to believe the Gospel. In fact, I’ve found that people who stop believing in God’s providence stop believing the Gospel. And you can’t really believe in God’s providence unless you believe in the Gospel. So one of the messages of this psalm to us is – you have to perceive the mercy of the Lord to you in Jesus Christ to really get the comfort that’s really being offered to you in this psalm. This psalm won’t comfort people that don’t believe the promises of the Gospel, don’t believe in Jesus Christ, don’t rest on Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel. It won’t make sense to you unless you’re trusting Christ.


But if you believe that God is the ruler of everything and you believe that He's good and you believe he has been merciful to you in Christ, then you have the equipment to trust His providence even when you can't figure it out. William Cowper, the best friend of John Newton, who was the poet-laureate of England wrote a hymn that we sing a lot around here, "God Moves In a Mysterious Way." The whole hymn is about this theme. "God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps in the sea" – now what's the picture there? If you step on the sand it leaves footprints and you can follow them and figure out where the person has come from and where the person is going. If you walk in the sea, there are no footprints! You don't know where he came from and you don't know where he's going! That's what God's providence is like. You have no idea what He's up to. You have no idea where He's going. But then he says, "Judge not the Lord with feeble sense but trust Him for His grace. Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face." In other words, this providence may look really bad, but if He's sovereign and if He's good and if He's merciful to you in Jesus Christ, He will take care of you. I love how it ends. "Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan His work in vain. God is His own interpreter and He will make it plain." In other words, you will rarely be able to figure out God's providence on your own. He will have to make it plain to you.


Every once in a while we can look back on our lives and we can say, “Okay, I see why God did this and this and this and this to bring me here.” Every once in a while. But isn’t it interesting, usually in the midst of perplexity none of that is apparent. And the deeper perplexed you are, the more opaque God’s purposes are to you. So how do you approach it? Not with blind unbelief but with trust in His providence. I love the saying of the black church about this. I’ve quoted it here before. It’s one of my favorite sayings. “He may not come when you want Him, but He’s always on time.” That is a statement of raw, robust trust in God’s providence. “Lord, I wish You were here right now. I wish You would resolve this right now. I wish You would explain this right now, but I know when You show up, it will be exactly the right time.” That’s an expression of trust in God’s providence.


And the whole psalm is designed to help us believe the things we need to believe in order to trust God’s providence. Mercy’s work is sometimes desperately slow, but it is sure and certain and glorious. God’s purposes will ripen. And I love the way that Cowper says, “ripen fast.” Yeah, ripen fast on His scale of time; not ours, often. To us, sometimes He looks slow, but He’s always on time. So mercy’s work may be apparently slow and you may not be able to figure out what God is doing, but if He’s sovereign and if He’s good and if you trust Him, He will take care of you. Really, the song we sang right after the baptism was a song of trust in providence – “Though He giveth or He taketh, the Lord is never going to forsake us.”  It’s a song about providence. In fact, if you look in the hymnbook, it’s in the section on providence. And the hymn that we’re about to sing now – go ahead and open your hymnals to number 108. It’s a hymn about providence; it’s a hymn about trusting providence.

This psalm reminds us that the Christian life is filled with perplexity, but it also reminds us that it’s always time to praise God, no matter what, and that the key to living and thriving in the Christian life is trusting God’s providence. Let’s pray.


Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. We ask that You would bless it to our spiritual nourishment, in Jesus’ name, amen.


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