RPM, Volume 18, Number 20, May 8 to May 14, 2016

The Davidic Covenant:
Psalm 89 and the Servant King

By Justin Huffman

Psalm 89 has been referred to by many Bible students as an "exegesis" of the Davidic Covenant found in 2 Samuel 7. Most notably, of course, is the fact that the word "covenant"—while not appearing in the 2 Samuel 7 account of God's inaugurating his covenant with David—is explicitly and repeatedly used in Psalm 89 in order to refer to that event. But more than merely stating the Davidic Covenant explicitly as such, Psalm 89 provides a 52-verse exposition of that covenant. And in doing so, Psalm 89 wrestles with two seemingly contradictory realities: that of a triumphant king whose throne will last forever, and that of a humiliated servant who is rejected and overcome by his enemies. Psalm 89 is at once a doxology because of Yahweh's promises of an everlasting Davidic throne, and a lament because of the fact that the throne of David has evidently been overcome by enemies.

The purpose of this paper will be to seek the answer to the cry of the psalmist in Psalm 89: can both suffering servant and victorious king be promised and foreshadowed in the same figure, in the same Davidic covenant? And the answer lies, not only in a careful study of the Davidic Covenant itself, through the lens of Psalm 89, but also of the Messianic fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant in the person of Jesus Christ. Though later Jews saw both figures clearly in the OT but struggled to put them together, the figure of the Servant King—two roles in one person—began with David himself; and thus it should not be surprising to find both in the Messiah who fulfills the Davidic Covenant.

The Servant of the Davidic Covenant

It is striking that—although the Davidic Covenant is famous for its promise of an eternal throne for David's lineage—the first title used for David in Psalm 89 is not "king" but "servant": "You have said, 'I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant'" (3). This not surprisingly perfectly reflects the emphasis of the narrative in 2 Samuel 7, when the covenant with David is initiated. Though the action of 2 Samuel 7 begins with "the king" living in his house (v.1), and "the king" telling Nathan about his intention of building God a house (v.2), and Nathan encouraging "the king" to fulfill the good desires of his heart (v.3) — there is a clear change of direction, not only in how God answers David, but even in how God addresses David in verse 5: "Go and tell my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD'…" Now that David is hearing from Yahweh directly, David is no longer "the king" but "my servant." This is how God sets the tone for the entire Davidic Covenant to follow. Yes, David is a good king with good desires; but David is first the "servant" of Yahweh. While the title "my servant" of course carries with it a certain element of both privilege and intimacy, it also unmistakably requires submission and sacrifice. David must do as Yahweh instructs.

If anything, Yahweh's next address to David, again using the title "my servant", emphasizes even more the humble status of David before Yahweh, in 2 Samuel 7:8: "Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, 'Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel.'" How did David become king in the first place? It was through God's sovereign plucking of David out of the obscurity and humility of shepherd-work. David was following sheep before he was leading God's people. And what made the difference? How did the shepherd become a prince? "I took you," Yahweh says.

This is why Psalm 89 will refer to David also as God's "chosen one" (3). The psalmist is reflecting what Yahweh himself pointed out in 2 Samuel 7, that David is king not through any merit or strength of his own but through divine taking/choosing.

David is called the chosen of God, because God of his own good pleasure, and from no other cause, preferred him not only to the posterity of Saul, and many distinguished personages, but even to his own brethren. If, therefore, the cause or origin of this covenant is sought for, we must necessarily fall back upon the Divine election. 1

The doxology of Yahweh's sovereignty in creating and ruling the heavens and earth makes up the first of three major sections in Psalm 89, comprising vv.1-18. Having begun by marveling at God's gracious choice of "his servant", this whole first section of the psalm is a reassurance that such an august God—who initiated the covenant in the first place—will certainly continue in it with "steadfast love" and "faithfulness". It climaxes with a servant's statement of utter dependence upon Yahweh: "For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted" (17). The psalmist then leads into the royal "king" theme as he concludes this first segment of the poem: "For our shield belongs to the Lord, our king to the Holy One of Israel" (18).

The King of the Davidic Covenant

Verses 19-20 open the second section of Psalm 89 with a reference to David's being anointed as king by Samuel. "David my servant" is still the title given in v.20, but now the servant has been anointed. "The enduring interest of verse 20 is that the servant is anointed: that is he is chosen to be king." 2 It is the unmistakable "king" theme in Psalm 89 which places it among those psalms traditionally designated as the "royal psalms." 3

Being Yahweh's chosen king, as one might expect, comes with some remarkable and encouraging promises as the psalmist walks through—and expounds upon—the Davidic Covenant of 2 Samuel 7. The king is assured of victory over his enemies (22-23), that the horn of his royal position will be exalted (24-25), and even of a special status as God's own "son" (26-27). But perhaps most importantly (28-29), this covenant will never fail—a point that is made four times in four successive lines. It is "forever", "will stand firm", will be with his offspring "forever", and his throne will last as long "as the days of the heavens".

Of course such divine blessing on the king whom God anoints seem to be born out even in the context of the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7. David's civil war with Saul's followers has been won (2 Samuel 5:3); David has captured the city of Jerusalem, which seemed impossible (2 Samuel 5:6-7); the ark is finally, successful brought to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:17); and under David's kingship, Israel is experiencing unprecedented peace and "rest from all his surrounding enemies" (2 Samuel 7:1). Thus, the promises of Yahweh's covenant with David later in this same chapter seem to be an extension of divine blessing already enjoyed. This is what being God's king looks like, and in God's covenant with David this prosperity is made everlasting.

An everlasting throne, with its divine victory over enemies, is plainly the upshot of the Davidic Covenant. While allowances are made for human responsibility—and the discipline of God upon any disobedient descendants (30-32)—God's promises to David are nonetheless sure (33-34) and even the failures of any of his descendants will not prevent these covenant blessings from being fulfilled in David (unlike Saul before him). "In spite of the possibility of individual failure there was an eternal element to God's promise." 4 Again the sureness of this covenant is emphasized: God has sworn in his holiness (35), God will not lie, David's offspring "will endure forever" (36), his throne "as long as the sun", like the moon it is "established forever" (37).

Just as God was King of the world, so too would be the Davidic king… Covenant obligations were laid upon each successor, but God's initial promise to David would ever stand firm. Individual defaulters would not go unpunished, but no human weakness could impair the immortal word, which was backed by God's very character. 5

The covenant promises of God throughout the OT, including the "forever" assurances of God to David specifically, involved much more than merely the individual with whom the covenant was made. God's covenants with Adam, with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, and now with David were the foundation of assurance—not only to these men individually—but to all who were represented by or related to them. It is for this reason that the psalmist is recounting this covenant in Psalm 89, although himself plainly writing generations after God spoke to David. God had promised to David that an heir of his would sit on the throne forever, and that under the Davidic rule God would establish His people in their own land (2 Samuel 7:10). The Davidic reign was to be accompanied by rest from all enemies (2 Samuel 7:11). God's covenant with David, then, had wide-reaching implications for all of God's people, not just for the Davidic king himself. The confidence of God's people in God's word to David, then, could hardly be any more vital or practical to their daily life.

This faithfulness of God is of the utmost practical significance to the people of God. It is the ground of their confidence, the foundation of their hope, and the cause of their rejoicing. It saves them from the despair to which their own unfaithfulness might easily lead, gives them courage to carry on in spite of their failures… 6

Psalm 89 is recounting God's covenant with David—with all its accompanying blessings to and through the Davidic king—in order to remind God's people of these guaranteed and certain promises. And what great encouragement this would be, if it were not for circumstances, current to the psalmist's day, which seemed to directly contradict the veracity of the Davidic Covenant.

The Struggle to Put Servant and King Together

It is the challenge of seeing King and Servant together in one figure that gives rise to the lament that is Psalm 89. The disappointment and complaint expressed in the third and final section of Psalm 89 are so poignant, and mark such a contrast with the confident praise and recounting of promises in the preceding portions of the psalm, that the juxtaposition has led many Bible students to suggest that this single psalm must be comprised of at least two previous psalms that were later put together. 7 "The But of verse 38 represents an agonizing turnaround in the flow of the psalm." 8

It is clear from the psalmist's lament that some great tragedy(ies) has befallen Israel in his time. The everlasting peace, which reigned in the time of David and seemed sure also for his descendants due to God's covenant, was an experience only of the distant past. And the triumphant throne of David has fallen into humiliation and defeat. Whoever the Davidic king is in the psalmist's day, his city has been captured and his crown has been lost; his foes have been exalted over him (38-45). "The mood and content of the final lament are set in stark contrast to those of the opening hymn: gloom against joy, the mortality and suffering of the king against the eternal sovereignty of God." 9

How can such a state of events square with God's everlasting covenant promises to David? To human reason they cannot. Thus, the psalmist concludes in his complaint, the only possible interpretation of current events is that "you"—Yahweh—have changed your mind. You, you, you—the psalmist 12 times directly addresses Yahweh with his complaint—you must have "cast off" and "rejected" your people. "You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust" (39). It must be you, Yahweh, not merely our enemies who have punched through our walls and have left our city in ruins (40). "The prophet complains that in consequence of the decayed state of the kingdom, the prophecy appeared to have failed of its accomplishment." 10

Is the Davidic king, like David himself, a servant who has been exalted to be king; or, as seems more likely from current circumstances, is he a king who has been humiliated to the status of servant/slave? This is the tension of Psalm 89's lament.

And we ought not to think the psalmist's only concern is selfishly for the losses God's people have suffered. Clearly there is a concern also for the fact that the glory of God is at stake in these perceived defeats as well. For of course just as the victory of God's king reflects the glory of his God, the defeat of God's king must mean that God's name is brought down as well. The mocking of the Davidic king by his enemies implies likewise the mocking of the God of David. In fact, Clifford argues for the unity of Psalm 89 on the grounds of this very theme running throughout: just as the exalting of God's king means God's name is exalted, in the joyful first half of psalm, the king's frailty implies defeat for God's name in the second half of the psalm:

vv.2-38 actually describe a single event, the acclamation in heaven and on earth of Yahweh's world-establishing victory, which includes the commissioning of the Davidide as earthly regent of the new order. What is lamented then in vv. 39-52 is the king's military powerlessness, which seems to negate the power of Yahweh's world-founding victory. 11

The doxology with which Psalm 89 opens is paralleled by the lament with which the psalm closes. Just as the Davidic Covenant exalts the name of Yahweh, the concern is implied that the humiliation of the Davidic king (and the nation with him) will necessarily imply the defeat of Yahweh's power as well. Because Yahweh has engaged himself to guarantee his covenant with his own name, Yahweh's glory is at stake in the evident failure of those covenant promises.

The Messianic Answer in the Servant King

The Davidic Covenant, inaugurated in 2 Samuel 7 and expounded further on Psalm 89, is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Messianic nature of the Davidic promises was expressed even in the Old Testament: "The messianic implications of [2 Samuel 7] are obvious to Christians but they are picked up elsewhere in the Old Testament too, notably by Jeremiah in chapter 33:14-17." 12

And the New Testament makes explicit what is anticipated in the Old Testament. The promise of a special sonship expressed in the Davidic Covenant is specifically applied to Jesus Christ in Hebrews 1:5: "For to which of the angels did God ever say…'I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son'?" 13 Likewise, the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant in Jesus Christ as the Messiah is plainly laid out by the gospel writers. This is why John Walvoord is able to claim without fear of contradiction:

Among conservative theologians, the opinion is unanimous that Christ fulfills the Davidic Covenant. The evidence is clear from the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. For anyone accepting the authenticity and inspiration of the Scriptures, the testimony of the angel to Mary is conclusive…(Lk. 1:31-33). The promise of David's throne, David's kingdom, and all that is involved is transferred by this prophecy to Jesus Christ, "The Son of David" (Mt. 1:1). The line that began with David has its consummation and eternal fulfillment in Christ. 14

Psalm 89, then, as an exposition of the Davidic Covenant plainly prophesies concerning the coming Christ. Yet this prophecy, as we have seen, itself includes elements of both a victorious kingship and of a suffering servant of Yahweh. The psalmist himself cannot seem to envision how both characteristics could be true of a single Messianic figure, yet the psalmist's very lament is an admission of both realities.

Although Psalm 89 is one of the clearest OT struggles to understand how God's promises to David could be fulfilled in a single figure who is both conquering king and suffering servant, the psalm is not alone in wrestling with this reality. Of course Isaiah 52 and 53 famously depict the "servant" of Yahweh who will on one hand be exalted and made very high, yet who is also on the other hand described as despised, rejected, and even slaughtered. Both images—of a triumphant Davidic king, and of a rejected and suffering servant—were clearly Messianic prophecies, but God's people wrestled to understand how both could be fulfilled in one figure. Yet both had clearly been taught all along.

As time went by and the great days of the monarchy became a distant memory, the prophetic figure of the Servant of the Lord was seen increasingly as one whose service meant suffering. This figure and the very different one of the King who would one day come to put all things to rights seemed two quite distinct personages. It was hard for a Jew of Jesus' time to think otherwise. 'They crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.' If he was the one, he couldn't be the other. The fact was, nonetheless, that Jesus was both at once – the Servant King; and the idea that the two might be combined had been there from the outset in the person of David. 15

Seeing Jesus' Messianic role as both suffering servant and victorious king is vital to understanding his fulfillment of OT prophecy, and specifically of Davidic covenant promises. While Jesus' own disciples were disappointed to discover that as the Messiah he would not be delivering Israel from Roman oppression16, Jesus himself insisted that it was "necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory" (Luke 24:26), and then went on to show that the suffering servant was as much a part of OT Messianic prophecy as was the conquering Davidic king.

In fact, this had been one intended lesson even in David's day, with David's Covenant. While it was true that God had promised David, and his descendants, victory over their enemies and expansion of the kingdom, even in David's day this was never accomplished without some suffering and defeat. God's way of bringing about victory was sure, but it was not without its evident struggles and losses along the way. David himself had come to the throne, even after being anointed by Samuel, by means of a very circuitous and painful route. The point of God's covenant with David, likewise, was that God's working would continue, even when it did not seem to be so. "Above and beyond the ebb and flow of human excess and folly, a sovereign God continues to work his gracious purpose toward his chosen people and chosen king." 17

Although it is true that the political reign of Davidic kings would come to an end, thus disappointing those whose hope was merely in a physical Israelite dynasty and empire, the promises concerning David's kingly son would be ultimately fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. All enemies will be put under his feet; his throne will be forever, and his dominion will have no bounds. "Davidic kingship proved to be a political disappointment. It disappeared with the exile and the post-exilic attempts at its revival were desultory. But 2 Sam. 7 had clearly laid bare the shape of the future, realisable only as the case proved, under 'great David's greater Son'." 18 Jesus would fulfill the "king" promises of the Davidic Covenant, par excellence.

Yet Jesus would also be God's humble, submitted, and suffering servant. Even the humiliation of the Davidic line in the days of Psalm 89 would only be a faint foreshadowing of the divine rejection and humiliation of David's greatest Son Jesus. David's descendant would indeed by a conquering king, but his ultimate triumph would only come through sacrifice and humiliation. 19

Conclusion

We began this paper by asking the question: can both suffering servant and victorious king be promised and foreshadowed in the same figure, in the same Davidic covenant? And we find, in answer to the psalmist's plaintive cry, that the answer mysteriously and gloriously is, "Yes." In fact, it must be this way, according to Jesus himself. The humiliation of the Davidic king in the days of Psalm 89, then, was not a failing of the Davidic covenant, but was rather a foreshadowing of how God would bring about eventual victory through apparent suffering and defeat in the Messiah. Jesus would be the Servant King. "Ironically this psalm in which suffering and glory jostle sets up a mysterious pattern which was followed by the Heir: 'Here is your king' was spoken of one wearing a crown of thorns." 20

Bibliography

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996)

F.F. Bruce, New International Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979)

John Calvin, Psalms 36-92 (CC, Vol. 5; Grand Rapids: Baker 2003)

Clifford, Richard J. 1980. "Psalm 89: a lament over the Davidic ruler's continued failure." Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2: 35-47. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 24, 2016)

Dumbrell, William J. 1980. "The Davidic covenant." The Reformed Theological Review 39, no. 2: 40-47. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 24, 2016)

Longman and Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)

Mary J. Evans, The Message of Samuel (BST; Liecester: Inter-Varsity, 2004)

Grisanti, Michael A. 1999. "The Davidic Covenant." The Master's Seminary Journal 10, no. 2: 233-250. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 24, 2016)

Walvoord, John F. 1945. "The fulfillment of the Davidic covenant." Bibliotheca Sacra 102, no. 406: 153-166. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 24, 2016)

Ward, James M. 1961. "Literary form and liturgical background of Psalm 89." Vetus Testamentum 11, no. 3: 321-339. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 24, 2016)

Michael Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 73-150 (BST; Liecester: Inter-Varsity, 2001)

Notes:

  1. John Calvin, Psalms 36-92 (CC, Vol. 5; Grand Rapids: Baker 2003) 421.
  2. Michael Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 73-150 (BST; Liecester: Inter-Varsity, 2001) 68.
  3. As Michael Grisanti explains, "Scholars have categorized a number of psalms under the heading of 'royal psalms' because they share a common motif—the king. These psalms…draw heavily on the idea of a Davidic dynasty and presuppose the covenant God established with David. They focus on a Davidic figure who, as Yahweh's son, lived in Zion, ruled over God's people, and was heir to the divine promise." (Grisanti, Michael A. "The Davidic Covenant," The Master's Seminary Journal 10, no. 2 (1999): 243-244).
  4. Mary J. Evans, The Message of Samuel (BST; Liecester: Inter-Varsity, 2004) 199.
  5. F.F. Bruce, New International Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979) 618.
  6. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) 70.
  7. While Wilcock is among those who suggest the possibility of Psalm 89 deriving separate previous psalms, James Ward and Richard Clifford both mount very convincing arguments for the unity of Psalm 89 as a single original lament. Ward's article "Literary form and liturgical background of Psalm 89" is in fact a classic and thorough defense of Psalm 89 as a unified and single whole.
  8. Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 73-150, 70.
  9. Ward, James M. "Literary form and liturgical background of Psalm 89." Vetus Testamentum 11, no. 3 (1961): 326.
  10. Calvin, Psalms 36-92, 447.
  11. Clifford, Richard J. "Psalm 89: a lament over the Davidic ruler's continued failure." Harvard Theological Review 73, no. 1-2 (1980): 36.
  12. Evans, The Message of Samuel, 199.
  13. Louis Berkhof describes Psalm 89:3 as an OT passage which connects up "the idea of the covenant immediately with the Messiah…and is proved to be a Messianic passage by Heb.1:5" (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 266).
  14. Walvoord, John F., "The fulfillment of the Davidic covenant." Bibliotheca Sacra 102, no. 406 (1945): 155-156.
  15. Wilcock, The Message of Psalms 73-150, 68.
  16. We see this not only in the discouragement of the disciples on the Emmaus road in Luke 24:20-21, but even afterward in the questioning of the apostles in Acts 1:6.
  17. Longman and Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006) 164.
  18. Dumbrell, William J. "The Davidic covenant." The Reformed Theological Review 39, no. 2 (1980): 47.
  19. Richard Belcher even argues that the placement of Psalm 89 among the royal psalms forms a prophetic pattern for the coming Messiah: the progression of the royal psalms in the Psalter prefigures the ministry of Christ. The royal psalms move from coronation (Psalm 2, used at Jesus' baptism), to the righteous reign of the king (Psalm 72 speaks of Christ's kingship and leads to the Israelites trying to crown Jesus), to the humiliation and rejection of the king in Psalm 89, to resurrection and ascension in Psalm 110 (referred to in Acts 2 in relation to Christ's resurrection and ascension into heaven), and then to the final triumph of the king in Psalm 144.
  20. F.F. Bruce, New International Bible Commentary, 618.
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