The Suffering Messiah: Psalm 89

Posted: 3rd August 2007 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

One topic that I’ve been meaning to put some thoughts down on is related to the canon of messianic passages that Christians associate with Jesus Christ. In part this is spurred by the various translation issues that I’ve been studying, especially as gender and plurality relate to phrases such as “the son of Man” in Psalm 8.

The passage that I’ve been looking at right now is from Psalm 89 (HCSB):

38 But You have spurned and rejected him;
You have become enraged with Your anointed.

39 You have repudiated the covenant with Your servant;
You have completely dishonored his crown.
40 You have broken down all his walls;
You have reduced his fortified cities to ruins.
41 All who pass by plunder him;
he has become a joke to his neighbors.
42 You have lifted high the right hand of his foes;
You have made all his enemies rejoice.
You have also turned back his sharp sword

and have not let him stand in battle.
44 You have made his splendor cease
and have overturned his throne.
45 You have shortened the days of his youth;
You have covered him with shame. Selah
46 How long, Lord? Will You hide Yourself forever?
Will Your anger keep burning like fire?
47 Remember how short my life is.
Have You created everyone for nothing?
48 What man can live and never see death?
Who can save himself from the power of Sheol? Selah
49 Lord, where are the former acts of Your faithful love
that You swore to David in Your faithfulness?
50 Remember, Lord, the ridicule against Your servants—
in my heart I carry [abuse]* from all the peoples—
51 how Your enemies have ridiculed, Lord,
how they have ridiculed every step of Your anointed.

When I first read this part of Psalm 89, I was struck by the similarities to the servant passages in Isaiah, especially the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. So I got to wondering why Isaiah 53 was considered “messianic” by most Christians, but this passage was not. Was it a psalter vs. prophet issue? But there are plenty of passages from Psalms that are considered messianic, so that couldn’t be the reason. Then, frankly, I got busy with other tasks and didn’t have time to dig into this. That is, until earlier today when I followed some blog links and was astounded to find this exact topic covered by Brant Pitre and Michael Barber on their Singing In The Reign blog (great name!).

There have been two posts on this topic: the first, by Brant Pitre back in June, is titled The “Footsteps of the Messiah” and the Messianic Tribulation and discusses how, in addition to being the messianic Son of Man and suffering Servant, “Jesus also saw himself as the Davidic Messiah who would suffer the messianic tribulation by undergoing the days of ‘the footsteps of the Messiah.’” The latter is a rabbinical phrase taken from Psalm 89:51!

The second article, “The Footsteps of the Messiah: Psalm 89, Isaiah 53 and 1 Peter 2” by Micahel Barber, dives deeper into the similarities between Psalm 89 and Isaiah 53. Barber then leaps to 1 Peter 2 (HCSB) to quote this striking passage:

21 For you were called to this,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example,
so that you should follow in His steps.
22 He did not commit sin,
and no deceit was found in His mouth;
23 when reviled, He did not revile in return;
when suffering, He did not threaten,
but committed Himself to the One who judges justly.
24 He Himself bore our sins
in His body on the tree,
so that, having died to sins,
we might live for righteousness;
by His wounding you have been healed.
25 For you were like sheep going astray,
but you have now returned
to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Vss. 22-25 are familiar territory from Isaiah 53, but also consider “that you should follow in His steps” in v.21 — an allusion to Psalm 89! — further drawing these passages together. Barber finishes with this conclusion:

“Even more, Peter links the sufferings of Christians with Jesus’ sufferings ― they must walk in his steps. In other words, whether or not Isaiah 53 describes an individual or the people of God would have been a moot point for Peter―for him it describes both, since Christians have a participation in the eschatological suffering of Christ. He thus goes on to say, ‘Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin… rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed’ (1 Pet 4:1, 13).”

Now I’ll be honest… when I was originally reading this psalm, I initially jumped to Revelation and wondered if the covenant being broken in Psalm 89 was the end of the millennium of Revelation 20:1-3. Would all the victories of Christ be broken and dishonored while Satan was released “for a short time”? But as a preterist who believes the majority of eschatological texts find fulfillment in the generation of Jesus Christ, it makes far more sense that Psalm 89 describes the period of tribulation announced by Christ and leading up to the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. Especially as this would be a strong argument for a tradition of a suffering Messiah before the days of Jesus – that is, Jesus as the individual suffering Servant is not a purely Christian interpretation of OT texts, but rooted in earlier Jewish expectations.

  1. Jim Swindle says:

    Thank you for this post. It enables me to see Psalm 89 in a way in which I’d never seen it, and to see 1 Peter 2 more clearly.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Jim. I was hoping this topic would catch someone’s eye – all of these connections between the OT and NT authors, with Jesus as the focal point, are fascinating to me. So often we only focus on the NT text for application and forget to dig deeper for the contextual roots.