Filing a Complaint

September 27, 2009

Michele Rizoli

Psalm 89  

(Background: Psalm has been read by two readers contrasting verses: 9-21 with 38-39, 22-28 with 40-44, 29-32 with 45, 33-37 with 46-51, verse 52 together)

What is going on in this Psalm? It starts with a anthem to God’s awesomeness in creation, to God’s superiority over other gods. It then recounts the psalmist’s version of God’s covenant with the Davidic dynasty, then enumerates all the ways he perceives that God did not honour that covenant. The psalmist then requests immediate action (How long, oh Lord? I’m only human, I’ll die before you live up to what you promised) and tacks on a somewhat canned phrase for good measure “Blessed be the Lord forever. Amen” (Yours sincerely).

Although this Psalm is primarily poetry coming from a very very ancient worldview (and we shouldn’t forget that), in some ways it has the elements of what we would recognize as a letter of complaint, or a formal grievance. But how does one file a grievance against any boss, much less the God of Creation? And what does any of this have to do with us anyway: ancient covenants, polytheistic worldviews, conquering enemies, dynasties, steadfast love, faithfulness? Well, let’s consider this more closely.

No one really knows for sure when this psalm was composed, nor how it was used in ritual – if at all. Was it sung publicly by a military leader who had just lost an important battle? It’s hard to imagine that happening. Or was it more likely written by someone during the Babylonian exile, when the Kingdom of Judah had been undone and people were taken in slavery to lament their loss and long for better times? No matter. What is clear, and rather refreshing, about this Psalm is that it openly expresses detailed complaint against God and that it has been kept as part of Scripture. The writer clearly feels like God has not held up God’s end of a contract. He questions the evidence, calls God to remember the deal, to keep the covenant.

Psalm 89 describes the dynasty of David in ways that closely parallel 2 Samuel 7 when the prophet Nathan spoke on God’s behalf to bless David as King of Israel. But the psalmist exaggerates just a bit. The writer is a poet, so hyperbole is acceptable, because the poem tries to capture how people felt about the covenant:

          Where Nathan said David would be like a son to God (v.14), the psalmist says firstborn (a son with benefits)

          Where Nathan said David would have a great name (v.9), the psalmist says he will be the most exalted of the kings of the earth

          Where Nathan said God would give the king his own place and rest from his enemies the psalmist speaks about pride and about crushing enemies in battle.

The psalmist expected God to do a lot through this covenant with David. Hence his sense of disappointment when it didn’t seem to be happening.

But here’s another interesting point about God’s promises about a dynasty in David’s name. There are other voices in the Scriptures that aren’t so sure that God was very thrilled about the Hebrew people having a king in the first place. For example, Samuel (who was the first to anoint a king) tried to dissuade the Israelites from having a king like other nations. All a king would do, he warned, would be to conscript their sons and daughters as soldiers, servants, slaves. He’d tax their harvest, their animals, and he’d build up the machinery of war. Centuries later, if Samuel had been around to hear this psalm of complaint about military defeat or exile he might well have thought, “I told you so.” He might have perceived their troubles not as God breaching a contract but as the people getting it all wrong in the first place.

New Testament writers, for their part, see Jesus the Messiah as God’s plot twist who eventually fulfills all those promises made to David. But in doing so God thwarts human expectations, and Jesus preaches a different kind of Kingdom of Heaven.

Don’t worry; I’m not planning to make a full analysis of the Davidic dynasty in Scripture – fascinating as that would be for all of you! J  All I’m saying is that people make and hear promises differently; and what they expect (or how they adjust their expectations) affects their level of disappointment.

For example, when I tell Eric to wait in the car and that I’m just running into the supermarket to get milk he really expects me to only get milk. He gets very frustrated when I appear with 5 other items we also need at home.  He can’t accept my explanation that I’ve got the big picture of our grocery needs, it’s all for your own good, yada,yada, yada. He insists,“But you said you were only going to get milk!”

This Spring and Summer (as you know because you prayed a blessing over me), I had the opportunity to work as a pastor at another church. Part of that included regular visits to people who are in nursing homes or hospitals.  One of my regular visits was to a man with a neuro-degenerative disease, stuck in a hospital bed and who is gradually losing the ability to move and even speak. On top of that he also acquired a hospital infection that meant visitors like myself had to suit up with gowns and masks to go into his room. On one visit I came in and asked how he was doing. “Oh, I can’t complain,” he said.

I wondered why would it not be OK to complain?

Would it be a lack of faith that everything has a purpose?

Would you be losing a focus on the positive side of things? Ungratefulness?

Would God get upset?

The hesitation to complain against God might also have to do with how we tell and retell some of the narratives of Scripture. I, for one, remember learning at some point that when the Hebrew people were wandering in the dessert they kept on getting in trouble with Moses and with God when they complained.  In that version of things, God would send down punishment at the slightest hint of discontent.

But the story can be seen in a different light. Think of what happened when thousands of people expressed their discontent and rose up against a leader and when the matter had to do with survival in a wilderness.  This kind of complaining has a bigger scope it affects behaviour and decision-making and begins to change relationships. When the Israelites in the desert complained, they were rebelling and changing directions, giving up on God. That
is not what is going on in Psalm 89. Here God is being asked to live up to expectations, to be who God is supposed to be according to the psalmist.

I told that bedridden man it was OK to complain, and with Psalm 89, I now have scriptural backup. File your grievances – God can handle it.

I think that there is something much more profound at work for our reading of this psalm. It has to do with who we think God is and how or whether we think God acts.

And here I have a musical example for you to consider.

(Intro to Cat Steven’s arrangement of Morning has Broken, that flows into Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz. Take a poll how many people were bothered by this and how many didn’t get it.)

If you were familiar with the intro, you might be amused or disappointed when it didn’t continue as you predicted. If you didn’t know the intro, then you might be somewhat indifferent to the musical change. 

Now back to how we view God. If, for instance, we expect God to intervene in our personal lives in some way, and God apparently does not, then we might be disappointed, or doubtful. If we don’t have that expectation, then what happens? Likewise for God’s intervention in history, or in the suffering of the world, or in punishing evildoers – do we expect these things? What happens when suffering continues unabated of is mitigated? What do we think about the nature of God when evildoers  don’t get punished, or when they get their just deserts?

Disappointment is linked with expectations and expectations in turn, as Psalm 89 illustrates, are linked to who we think God is and what God has promised to do. Sure the psalmist in this case is lamenting the details of the covenant, but at a deeper level he is grieving because he’s not sure that God really is steadfast and loving and trustworthy anymore, all experience seems to be pointing to the contrary. “Lord, where is your steadfast love?” (v.49).  He needs to reaffirm certain things and maybe reassess other assumptions. (You said you were only going to get milk!)

Unlike the psalmist, I’m ambiguous about the whole Davidic covenant thing, to say the least, mostly because of how it has played out theologically and politically for Christendom and for people of the Jewish faith. But the kind of faith struggle the psalmist is engaged in I can identify with. I also need to reassess who is God, after all, and what do I – what do we – expect from God?

This is one of those things that I keep up on a shelf and dust off once in a while and turn around to see from different angles. It hasn’t gathered much dust lately, I keep coming back to this. It is a profound and ongoing theological question at the heart of any living faith-doubt tension: What do you expect from God? If it is OK to complain, on what grounds do you file a grievance? Often we can find out more about ourselves by looking at what disturbs us rather than by what reassures us.[1]

Denis, Matthew and Sheila Linn, in a little book called Good Goats correctly identify that we should question our assumptions about God. They propose that we need to heal our image of God as part of our spiritual growth. In their experience many people have an idea of God that is like Good Old Uncle George:

“God was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually we are taken to visit… He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family.” They go on to describe their terror as Uncle George takes them to the basement and shows them a hell where they will go if they don’t come and visit every week. “As we go home, tightly clutching Dad with one hand and Mum with the other, Mum leans over us and says, “And now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?” And we say “Yes I do,” because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace.”  Within this understanding of God one would probably not be entitled to complain.

The ancient writer of psalm 89 (not unlike many in the Old Testament) had a different image, one of God as conqueror of enemies; God who is on our side but not on theirs; a God who wages wars and affects vengeance. In this image of God you could complain if God did not stand up for you. Unfortunately, this is the understanding of God that has most often gotten our world into trouble.  Peoples have been conquered, destroyed and “civilized” in the name of such a God.

Other folks nowadays have a Santa Claus image of God. If I’m good, or at least more good than bad, I’ll get the things I want when I ask for them. In this expectation of God you would complain if you don’t get what you want, especially if you’ve been good. It has nothing to do with justice for others, only satisfaction for oneself personally.

Or God might be a kindly grandma, reprimanding your parents for how they raised you, filling you with warm loving feelings, hugging a lot, indulging you in whatever makes you happy, leaving discipline up to others. In this metaphor for God you would complain if you didn’t feel loved enough, or if any demands were placed on your behaviour.

Or God might be like a personal trainer at the gym you used to go to. You still pay the fee, but you feel guilty because you should meet with her more often – but who’s got the time or the energy? Besides, she’ll just tell you what you already know and remind you of how much work you need to do to get into shape. With this idea of God it is safer to stay at a distance and just enjoy knowing that you have that club membership and all your good intentions.

You get the picture, different job descriptions, different expectations of God and of us. Of course these are caricatures, I don’t mean to be flippant.  Good questions about God are hard even to formulate, even if they have everything to do with how we relate to God.

Let me try a few more. How is God at work in history? What do we expect if this is the case? How do we experience God in our lives? Does God’s “plan” include my own personal welfare? To what extent? Do we need to conceive of an unchanging God? How is it people often find God through suffering and grief while others see this as evidence there is no God? Where is the shalom God promised? Do I just change my image of God to suit my own perspective?

There have always been folks trying to work out answers to this type of question and quite frankly, most of them recognize that when it comes to describing God, language fails. That’s a good thing. I Co. 10.14 in The Message says “So, my dear friends, when you see people reducing God to something they can use or control, get out of their company as fast as you can.”

When my sons and I were recently in Brazil we had the opportunity to see the work of a famous sculptor from the 1800s named Aleijadinho (Little cripple). He was the son of a Portuguese architect and his female slave. Aleijadinho and his crew carved many religiously themed works, including 12 prophets made out of soapstone. The sculptures are lovely, but our attention was drawn to one in particular: Daniel and a lion.  The lion’s bod
y and mane look quite realistic, but the face looks kind of like a monkey and the ears look like human ears – not like a real lion at all.  Aleijadinho had never seen a real lion, he was working from second hand descriptions and that’s the lion he came up with. Close, but very inaccurate and, on top of that, his misconception is carved in stone – not open for revision. Let’s not make the same mistake with how we understand God.

Besides letting us know it’s OK to complain to God, and challenging us to revisit what we expect from God, there is one final and crucial thing that Psalm 89 gives us in this reading: indication of a God in relationship with a people. There can be no love (steadfast or otherwise) without relationship. There is no reason for trust or even complaint outside of relationship.  Why does the psalmist insert those last few words of praise at the end of his lament: Blessed be the Lord Forever? I don’t actually think it was perfunctory. Perhaps it has more to do with the tension he was feeling between faith and doubt, between his disappointment and his desire to hope. Maybe he was putting all the questions back up on the shelf to be reexamined again some other time. Perhaps he meant to say: God, I don’t get what is going on, I’m confused, but I still trust you. He comes full circle from the start of the psalm: I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever (v1). Amen.

[1] Adapted from