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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How God Wants You to Complain

Nobody likes whiners. Most of the time, in most of the ways that people whine, God doesn't like them either. There are multiple examples in the biblical Book of Numbers where God's patience after decades of providing for the needs of his people, the Israelites, is finally exhausted. Their repeated complaining provokes him to kill some of them off now and again to drive home the message that their ingratitude is a very bad idea. In fact, it's a heinous sin.

So it is surprising that in some parts of the Bible God welcomes and even encourages complaining to him. One example is Psalm 89. It's pretty remarkable that God's Spirit moved a man to take him to task in a pungently accusatory way.

The psalm does not start out that way, however. In fact, it begins with praise with a special (and crucial) focus on God's faithfulness:
I will sing continually about the LORD’s faithful deeds;
to future generations I will proclaim your faithfulness [v. 1].
Then the psalmist further tips off where he's going to go with this psalm by quoting God as saying,
"I have made a covenant with my chosen one;
I have made a promise on oath to David, my servant:
'I will give you an eternal dynasty
and establish your throne throughout future generations' " [vv. 3-4].
 Then the psalmist swings back to extended, magnificent, picturesque praise:
O LORD, sovereign God!
Who is strong like you, O LORD?
Your faithfulness surrounds you. . . .
Equity and justice are the foundation of your throne.
Loyal love and faithfulness characterize your rule [vv. 8, 14].
Having thoroughly established his profound regard for God's faithfulness, the psalmist poetically retells the story told in 2 Samuel 7 (and 1 Chronicles 17) of how God made an everlasting promise to support, defend, and prosper King David and all his royal offspring. In the psalmist's words, God said,
"I will always extend my loyal love to him,
and my covenant with him is secure.
I will give him an eternal dynasty,
and make his throne as enduring as the skies above" [vv. 28–29].
What if David's descendants act wickedly and prove themselves unworthy of this promise? God asserts that this contingency may have short-term negative consequences, but it in no way nullifies his promise—he will, on the whole, make David's line succeed no matter what they do:
"I will punish their rebellion by beating them with a club,
their sin by inflicting them with bruises.
But I will not remove my loyal love from him,
nor be unfaithful to my promise.
I will not break my covenant
or go back on what I promised" [vv. 32–34].
Then suddenly the psalmist grinds the gears. The psalm shrieks,
But you have spurned and rejected him;
you are angry with your chosen king.
You have repudiated your covenant with your servant;
you have thrown his crown to the ground [vv. 38–39].
He's just getting started. The psalmist says "you have [done]" or "you are" thirteen times. He is accusing God of blatantly violating his agreement. The disasters that have struck Israel are not random occurrences or the sole fault of surrounding nations. These are God's fault.

This is the substance of a "covenant lawsuit," as modern scholars call the ancient phenomenon. When things go bad in Israel, other biblical laments express contrition, acknowledging that God justly brings calamity because Israel has sinfully violated its covenant with God. That is because the covenant between God and Israel made through the mediation of Moses entailed voluminous responsibilities on Israel that the people did not keep.

But the covenant God made to David and his line is different. In that covenant David had no obligations. God took on all the obligations. So despite the sin of Israel and even the sin of David's descendants who reigned wickedly on his throne, the psalmist has no compunction about laying all the blame at God's feet. God never gave himself a way out of keeping his promise. In fact, he specifically detailed his expectation that David's sons would act badly. His promise is entirely independent of that fact. Therefore, in the eyes of the psalmist, God has failed in his duties.

This psalm may be written after the return from exile—which demonstrated that Israel was forgiven for its sins—but with the Davidic monarchy still unrestored. In any case, it is startling that God would inspire a man to write an infallible accusation against God's faithfulness!

Or is it? The psalmist went on at length about how faithful God is. And that may be the indicator of a godly complaint.

When the Israelites of the exodus generation complained it came from a position of doubt. They doubted whether God was able to help them. They doubted whether God wanted to help them. They doubted whether God would keep his promises even while God was in the very act of making good on those promises.

The author of Psalm 89 is exactly the opposite. He complains from a position of faith. He believes wholeheartedly that God is faithful. He believes that God made a promise to David. His complaint presumes that God is acting in contradiction to his words and in contradiction with his very nature. Far from denying God's word, the psalmist calls God back to it. This is who you are, God! he says. This is what you said! But the present circumstances don't line up!

This is the complaint that God welcomes. It's griping and moaning over the fact that circumstances do not square with God's character and his revelation about himself and his intentions. God delights in us indignantly badgering him to get with his own program. It shows that we believe that he and his program are for real—that messed-up circumstances need to turn upside down while God simply needs to be who he is.