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Superscription--The superscription of Psalm 89 reads:  "A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite."  The superscription should be considered part of the inspired text for the following reasons:

  • It is an integral part of the Hebrew text, not an addendum.
  • The use of it at the beginning of a composition corresponds to classic and ancient oriental practice.
  • Notes similar to the superscription appear in the text of other canonical books (e.g., 2 Samuel 22:1; Isaiah 38:9; Habakkuk 3:1).

Description--The superscription describes the psalm as a "maskil."  Some scholars believe "maskil" means didactic, meditative, or skillful.  However, the meaning of "maskil" is probably currently unknown.

Date of Composition--Here are the clues:

  • David is a historic figure in this psalm and his covenant is already given (see verses 3, 19-20, 35).  Since the covenant was given during David's reign as king, the psalm could not have been written before 1010 BC when his reign began.
  • There is mention of a distressed state of the Lord's "anointed" (verses 38, 51).  In the Old Testament, the "anointed" is always a reference to a king of Judah (1 Samuel 24:5-6; 2 Samuel 23:1; Lamentations 4:20).  An exception is when "anointed" refers to the Messiah (Daniel 9:25-26).  Therefore, the psalm must have been written before 587 BC, the end of the reign of the last king of Judah, Zedekiah.
  • Since the superscription indicates the psalm was written by Ethan the Ezrahite, it must has been written during his lifetime.  This Ethan is mentioned in 1 Kings 4:31.  He and Heman, Calcol, and Darda were men whose wisdom was only surpassed by Solomon.  All four again appear in 1 Chronicles 2:6, 8 as part of a genealogy beginning with Israel.  Ethan's lifetime could have overlapped the reigns of David or Rehoboam (the first king of the southern kingdom).  So Ethan could have composed the psalm sometime during the reigns of David, Solomon, or Rehoboam.
  • Psalm 89 was probably written during King Rehoboam's reign because:
    1. It may not have been necessary to mention the Davidic covenant's relationship to his descendants (verses 30-37) if he were the one out of God's favor.
    2. The only event during David's reign that approached the description of verses 38-45 was David's flight as a result of Absalom's rebellion (2 Samuel 15:7-18:18).  However, the rebellion was of short duration towards the end of David's reign.  Verse 47 implies a long troubled period more representative of Rehoboam's entire reign, the revolt of Israel and the destruction by Shishak.
    3. The anointed one was not able to stand in battle (verse 43).   This was true of Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 12:2-4) but was not true of David.
    4. Strongholds were destroyed according to verse 40.  That may have happened during the reign of Rehoboam (2 Chronicles 12:2-4) but was not true of David's reign.
    5. In verse 47 Ethan was concerned about the span of his life.   This worry is better associated with an old man whose life overlapped Rehoboam's reign rather than a young man whose life overlapped David's reign.
    6. Ethan the Ezrahite most likely composed Psalm 89 during the disaster that accompanied the Egyptian invasion by Shishak after around 925 BC.   Various fortified cities of Judah had been captured and the treasures of the temple and Rehoboam's palace had been lost (1 Kings 14:25-26; 2 Chronicles 12:2-9).  Since Rehoboam forsook the Lord (2 Chronicles 12:1, 5, 14), these disasters came upon him in accordance with the Davidic covenant.

Dates Crucial to Psalm 89 -- Dates on this page are from the Ryrie Study Bible except for the date of Shishak's invasion, which is from The MacMillan Bible Atlas, 1968 edition.  There is some minor disagreement between scholars over these dates.

1010 BC King David's Reign Begins
970 BC King Solomon's Reign Begins
930 BC King Rehoboam's Reign Begins
925 BC Pharoah Shishak Invades Palestine
Exact Date Unknown Ethan Composes Psalm 89
913 BC King Rehoboam's Reign Ends
587 BC Judah Falls to King Nebuchadnezzar of the Neo-Babylonians

Messianic Nature--Technically Psalm 89 is a mildly typico-prophetically Messianic psalm if that term is defined to mean a psalm in which the setting is that of the subjects (David and Ethan), but in which hyperbolic language is used that is literally true only of the setting of the Messiah.  The Messiah is the ultimate fulfillment of the Davidic covenant and the primary object of verse 25.  However, this is a minor part of the psalm.  The rest of the psalm can be placed solidly in Ethan's lifetime.

These pages draw heavily upon Kenneth W. Bowles, An Exposition of Psalm 89, Th.M. Thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, May 1979.  However, Bowles' dates have not been used.
Copyright 2009 - Ken Bowles - 11/12/2009 Edition