The structure the psalm breaks down as follows:
* Verses 1-2 – a declaration of God's love and faithfulness
* Verses 3-4 – a quote from God about the covenant with David and his descendants
* Verses 5-18 – a catalog of God's attributes and the blessings He gives to His people
* Verses 19-37 – the establishment and promises of the covenant
* Verses 38-45 – the violation of the covenant and the rejection of the anointed one
* Verses 46-51 – a plea to God to remember His anointed one
* Verse 52 – a blessing
The psalm's inscription says that it is a “Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite.” Scholars debate about who Ethan was. Some say that he was a musician in the court of King David. Others maintain that he lived at the time of David's grandson Rehoboam. In any case, Ethan was writing at a time when Israel was in distress. If he did live at the time of David, perhaps he was writing during the period when David's son Absolom usurped the throne and drove his father into exile. If the latter option is correct, Israel was certainly in trouble, for the Northern and Southern kingdoms split during Rehoboam's reign.
The psalmist seems to be using his long psalm to explore what happened in the past and compare it to what is happening in his own day. He begins by declaring that God is faithful and that God loves His people. He seems to need to firmly remind himself of this because he mentions it twice, using the words “proclaim” and “declare” for extra emphasis. He sets faithfulness and love as the foundation for the rest of the psalm.
On this foundation, he builds a covenant, or rather God does, for the psalmist quotes God directly. “I have made a covenant with My chosen one,” God says, “I have sworn to My servant David; 'I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.'” In this time of distress, the psalmist needs to remember God's words and God's promise. God has made a covenant with David, a bond of self-giving love that will extend to all generations. God has made it; it will not fail. Even when things are bad, the psalmist and his people can rely on God's covenant.
Over the next several verses, the psalmist comforts himself by remembering God's greatness. God is worthy of all praise in Heaven and on earth. He is the most powerful being of all, far superior to any other heavenly being. Because of His might, He must be feared and approached in awe and wonder. Even in this power, however, God is faithful. His faithfulness surrounds Him, and He is steady, firm, and trustworthy. He rules the whole world and can even calm the raging sea. He has complete control over creation, and He is perfectly capable of crushing His enemies. The whole world belongs to Him, for He made the heavens and the earth. He is strong and loving and righteous and just, perfect beyond all telling. And His people rejoice in Him, those who walk in His presence, praising His name and lifting up His righteousness and glory. He gives them strength and favor and protects them from their foes.
It is this marvelous God Who has made the covenant with David. The psalmist describes that covenant in more detail in the next section. Once again, he quotes God directly, for the covenant comes from Him. He established it of His own free will and out of love, and He will maintain it. God explains how He has anointed David and how He will be with him always and give him strength. He promises that his enemies shall never gain the upper hand. God Himself will crush them, and His love and faithfulness will always remain with David, whom He will exult. He will make David His firstborn son and establish his dynasty forever. David's descendants will reign for all time, and God will never stop loving them. He will not violate the covenant He has made. He has firmly established David, and his throne will remain forever.
In the next section, however, the psalmist changes his tone. Something has happened, some kind of disaster or distress, and the psalmist is filled with doubt and fear. In spite of His promises, God seems to have turned upon His anointed one, either David or one of David's descendants. The psalmist complains that God has rejected His anointed one, His chosen king, and turned His wrath upon him. The king is broken down, his city plundered and in ruins. His enemies are rejoicing as the king loses his battles. God does not seem to help at all. In fact, He has taken away all the king's power. He no longer has his scepter and throne, and he is filled with shame.
The psalmist begins to plead with God, asking Him how long this is to go on, how long God will hide Himself and forget His covenant. The psalmist knows that his time on earth is short, and he would very much like to see things change before he dies. “Lord,” he begs, “where is Your steadfast love of old, which by Your faithfulness You swore to David?” He feels as though he can no longer bear the taunts of the enemies, who insult the anointed one constantly. Please, God, he seems to say, become what You once were! Remember Your covenant! Show us once again all Your power and majesty and love! Remind us of Your faithfulness! Don't let us drown beneath the weight of our shame and defeat! Come back to us, God!
Even with all his distress, the psalmist ends his reflection on a positive note. “Blessed be the Lord forever,” he cries. “Amen and Amen.” Even though he doesn't understand God's actions, he still praises God, and with his “Amen and Amen,” he assents to whatever God is doing. This is a powerful expression of love, praise, and trust.
Let's look at a few verses in more depth. Verse 89:4 is follows by Selah, which is a shorthand message from God to pay special attention. Here's the verse: “'I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.'” God is speaking to David, offering him the promises of the covenant. And what a promise! David's throne will stand forever. His descendants will always reign. We Christians know that this promise was fulfilled in an amazing way. Jesus Christ, Son of God, became man, a human descendant of David. Jesus does indeed reign forever on David's throne, the King of Israel and the King of the Universe. With Jesus, the old covenant became the new covenant, extending to the whole world and opening the way to Heaven through the passion, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. The psalmist could never have dreamed of the way in which God kept His covenant, but had he known, he would have been overjoyed.
The second Selah verse also emphasizes the everlasting nature of the covenant: “It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies” (verse 37). The “it” in this verse refers to David's royal line, and indeed, it has been established forever in Jesus. He is the “enduring witness in the skies” Who has shown conclusively that God always keeps His promises.
The third Selah verse takes a different tone: “You have cut short the days of his youth; You have covered him with shame.” The psalmist is speaking to God about the dejected state of the anointed one. The king's youth is gone, his vigor curtailed by his pain and trials. He is wrapped in shame, clothed in sorrow, completely clad in mourning. This is no longer the strong, vibrant king of old, the one who strode confidently in the light of God's covenant. Although the psalmist could not have known it; this verse could easily apply to Jesus, Whose life was cut short in His prime, Who was covered with shame by His enemies. Jesus went to the cross; there was no death more shameful than that. He gave up His kingship, at least in the world's eyes. He experienced the abandonment of God. He sunk into unimaginable misery as His enemies attacked Him from every angle. And He did it all for us.
The final Selah verse asks a question: “Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?” (verse 48). The psalmist's answer would have been “no one.” In his world, before the redemption brought by Jesus Christ, no one entered Heaven. The gates were closed by sin. Death loomed like a monster, and the afterlife seemed dark and gloomy. How things have changed! When Jesus died, He opened the gates of Heaven. Now we can look forward to spending all eternity in the presence of God. If we love God and live according to His plan, accepting His grace, obeying His laws, and maintaining a relationship with Him, we do not need to fear death. It cannot harm us. In fact, it is only the doorway to greater and more wonderful things and, indeed, to a face-to-face relationship with God Himself.