For the Lord is our defense, and the Holy One of Israel is our King.Psalm 89:18 (KJ21)
Yahweh Maginnenu: The LORD our Defense (or, perhaps more accurately, the LORD our Shield)
Many years ago when I was first being taught to study the Bible, my teacher continually emphasized the importance of context in understanding Scripture. No verse is meant to stand alone; in fact, the Bible was not written in verses, but rather verse distinctions are simply our way of chopping up one of the longer texts of human history into pieces small enough for our finite minds to absorb.
Here in Psalm 89, I am reminded how important it is to remember that.
I spent a good amount of time this morning reading this one little verse in 53 different translations. Funny thing is, no one seems quite sure exactly what to do with it. (If you haven’t ever used biblegateway.com and discovered all their incredible side-by-side study tools, let me tell ya, you’re missing out! Free and AWESOME tool!)
This little verse is sandwiched between an exaltation of God’s power and love for His people and a desperate plea for God’s favor on behalf of King David. Here it is surrounded by a little of its context in the New Living Translation:
Powerful is your arm!
Strong is your hand!
Your right hand is lifted high in glorious strength.
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne.
Unfailing love and truth walk before you as attendants.
Happy are those who hear the joyful call to worship,
for they will walk in the light of your presence, Lord.
They rejoice all day long in your wonderful reputation.
They exult in your righteousness.
You are their glorious strength.
It pleases you to make us strong.
Yes, our protection comes from the Lord,
and he, the Holy One of Israel, has given us our king.
Long ago you spoke in a vision to your faithful people.Psalm 89:13-22
You said, “I have raised up a warrior.
I have selected him from the common people to be king.
I have found my servant David.
I have anointed him with my holy oil.
I will steady him with my hand;
with my powerful arm I will make him strong.
His enemies will not defeat him,
nor will the wicked overpower him.
Question is, which section does this little verse belong to? Some, like the translators of the KJ21 version, seem to think it belongs with the previous section and is declaring that the true King and Defense of Israel is God. Others think it’s a transition into the next section and is declaring that God has given Israel protection through the king He provided. Which leads me to the next question…
So what? (My favorite question ever, btw)
Why does it matter how we translate this verse anyhow? In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter – much. We have the whole counsel of Scripture to tell us who God is, and we know He both is the real King-Shield of Israel AND provided human kings at their request. So does this verse say God is King or God provided a king? Yes. Something like that.
But it does matter, too. It matters as a way of clearly understanding who God is; is He our King and our Defense (or Shield, as might be a better translation) Himself, or does He provide someone else to be? It is the difference between a parent who shows up at every peewee football game versus the one who sends a nanny in their place; it is good and responsible of a parent to hire a nanny to take care of the needs of their child when they cannot, but it is still not the same, not the face the child craves. My experience with God and my understanding of the rest of Scripture leans me toward the first. Our God is – unequivocally – a personal God. He is personally involved in the minutia of our lives, down to our daily bread! He is there at every game Himself, though we may lose every one.
But why does it matter so much in this particular verse?
Because God is our Defense. He is our shield. He is our “taking up,” as the likely most direct translation suggests; He is that which we carry with us to take for us the force of the blows aimed at us. This is hugely important, because no one else – no king, no stand-in, not the strongest of the strong – could take the blows like He can. Everyone and everything breaks but Him:
“No weapon formed against you shall prosper,Isaiah 54:17
And every tongue which rises against you in judgment
You shall condemn.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
And their righteousness is from Me,”
Says the Lord.
Behind Yahweh Maginnenu and only behind Yahweh Maginnenu, The Lord Our Shield, we are utterly safe. This is why, I think, the Orthodox Jewish Bible translates it this way for His chosen nation, so that they may understand that whatever human king He places over them, it is still His Kingship that prevails, and ultimately His protection that truly saves them:
For Hashem [God] is our mogen [shield]; and the Kadosh Yisroel [God of Israel] is Malkeinu (our king).Tehillim 89:18 (OJB)
It matters that this God of ours is our shield-king first, because even when our kings fail and our walls fall as is lamented later in this psalm, Yahweh Maginnenu does not. Ethan the Ezrahite, human author of this psalm, establishes first the kingship and power of God so that it is clear that though Israel’s human king is in decline (and Ethan’s prayer is for him to be revived), Israel is not without hope, and will never be without their King. God is King, God established David as king by covenant, and God alone can revive him – and because of that covenant, Israel has hope He will.
Our hope is in the same; not a man, but the King. As long as we have Him, we have hope. We have a promise. We are safe. ❤