From Learning to Love the Psalms
One of the most important complexities that we must address as we seek to appreciate the psalms can be expressed as a question: Who speaks in the psalms? One psalm speaks in the third person: “Blessed is the man….” (Psalm 1:1) Another speaks in the first person singular: “Answer me when I call….” (Psalm 4:1) Still another speaks in the first person plural: “O God, we have heard with our ears….” (Psalm 44:1) So, who is speaking in the psalms?
David the King
In answering this question, we must say in the first place that often David is speaking. In the titles of seventy-three psalms, David is named as the author. Some scholars have debated whether these titles are part of the original poems or were added later. Without getting into the details of that debate, we will proceed with the assumption that these titles are a reliable guide to the origins of their respective psalms. These titles are found in the oldest Hebrew texts that we have. The New Testament treats these titles as authoritative, so we should also. (See, for example, Mark 12:36, where Jesus follows the title of Psalm 110 by attributing it to David. See also Romans 11:9, where Paul attributes Psalm 69 to David, as does the title of that psalm.)
In a sense, the Psalter as a whole is connected to David. At least twice in the New Testament, untitled psalms are attributed to David (Acts 4:25-26, about Psalm 2; and Hebrews 4:7, about Psalm 95). He was indeed “the sweet psalmists of Israel,” (2 Samuel 23:1). He inspired the nation to praise. Even the psalms written by other authors are often concerned with the king and the kingdom. As we go through the Psalter, we will see that all of the psalms in some sense are from the perspective of the king.
In the second place, we should see that David as the king also speaks to God for his people and as their representative. Consider, for example, Psalm 25:1: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.” Who is speaking here? Clearly, David is the “I” in this psalm in its original setting. So are the words only for David? Clearly not. David includes all the people of God in his reflection: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies,” (v. 10). David speaks for himself and his personal need, but he also speaks as king and therefore representative of all his people. This reminds us that the most personal and individual psalm is for all of God’s people and the most national or corporate psalm is for each individual. All the psalms are both for individual believers and for all of God’s people.
The psalms of Israel and her king are also for New Testament Christians. We must remember that we as Christians are the inheritors of all the promises to Israel. We are the Israel of God. Israel is not some completely separate entity from the church. The church is the new Israel (see Galatians 6:16; Ephesians 2:11-22). Until we grasp that fully, we will never learn to live in the psalms.
The frequent New Testament use of the psalms demonstrates this point. According to one source, the New Testament contains 326 quotations and allusions taken from 115 different psalms. In other words, the New Testament has on average more than one quotation or allusion to the Psalter in each chapter. These quotations and allusions are there not simply to provide Old Testament proof for New Testament truth. They show that for New Testament authors, the psalms speak the New Testament message.
Jesus the King
We should conclude that the psalms are not only for the king, for Israel, and for the church, but that all the psalms are also the songs of our great King, Jesus the Christ. David’s kingship and kingdom pointed forward to the coming of Christ and are fulfilled in him. Jesus himself declared that the psalms are about him: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled,” (Luke 24:44).
In a profound sense, individual Christians and the church as a body identify with the psalms because Christ did. He lived in the psalms. When he cleansed the temple, the disciples understood this action in the words of Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for your house has consumed me.” When he entered Jerusalem in triumph, the crowds greeted him with the words of Psalm 118:26. He defended the crowd’s praise by referring to Psalm 8:2. He interpreted the betrayal of Judas by citing Psalm 41:9. He sang Psalm 118 at the end of the Passover meal. He understood the antagonism of the rulers of the people with the words, “Those who hate me without cause,” (Psalms 35:19, 69:4). He lived out Psalm 22 in his crucifixion. Who better than Christ could sing Psalm 25:19-22? “Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me. Oh, guard my soul, and deliver me! Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you. Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.” Indeed in the profoundest sense, who but Christ could say, “May integrity and uprightness preserve me”? Jesus committed his spirit to God with the words of Psalm 31:5. As the Reverend David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland rightly observed, “The psalms are the only part of the Bible that are full of the emotions of Jesus Christ.”
We may ask, however: If Christ is uniquely qualified to sing of his integrity before the Father, how could he sing about our need for forgiveness? Could he sing these words form Psalm 25: “Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions,” (v. 7), or, “Pardon my guilt, for it is great,” (v. 11)? Here we must remember that Christ came to save sinners, and he did that by taking their sin upon himself. He did not personally sin, (Hebrews 4:15), but he became one with his sinful people, taking up their burden. As Paul wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Corinthians 5:21). As Isaiah prophesied, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus so identifies with us that he even takes up our repentance and prayer for forgiveness that God might hear and answer.
Christ not only prays the prayers of the Psalter, but he also answers them. He sends his Holy Spirit to minister forgiveness, to teach the truth, to sanctify and protect his people. Christ identified with the Psalter’s Messiah and faithful King, Savior of sinners, and God who answers prayer. The New Testament knew that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament: “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe,” (Jude 5). Jesus is Israel’s God come in the flesh as the Messiah.
Jesus, the Psalms, and the Book of Hebrews
Our approach of seeing the psalms as the songs of Jesus is confirmed by the use of the psalms in the book of Hebrews, especially in chapters one and two. The book of Hebrews begins by clearly expressing its concern to show the uniqueness and superiority of Jesus, the Son of God. Hebrews 1:5 invokes two psalms to show that the Son has a unique relationship to the Father, superior to the angels: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you,” (Psalm 2:7), and, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son,” (2 Samuel 7:14; cf. Psalm 89:26-27).
Hebrews then continues this line of argument by showing that the Son is superior to the angels because he is divine. Hebrews 1:6 alludes to Psalm 97:7: “Let all God’s angels worship him.” The divinity of the Son is further pressed in Hebrews 1:8-9: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions,” (Psalm 45:6-7). Note here that the divine Son is also the king, as the references to his throne and anointing indicate. The theme of divine kingship continues when Hebrews 1:13 cites Psalm 110:1 as being fulfilled in Jesus: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” Here Jesus is enthroned as the king whom even David must address as “my Lord.”
The most surprising quotation from the Psalter in Hebrews occurs in Hebrews 1:10-12. There, Psalm 102:25-27 is cited to demonstrate the divinity of the Son: “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the Earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” This quotation in the context of Psalm 102 is simply about God as the eternal One, and the Son does not seem to be in view.
Many commentators on the book of Hebrews have observed that this citation of Psalm 102 is surprising as evidence of Christ’s divinity. John Calvin wrote:
This evidence may seem at first sight to be applied ineptly to Christ. The matter under discussion is not the glory of God, but the proper attributes of Christ: but there is no mention here of Christ. Indeed I admit that Christ is not mentioned by name in the whole of the psalm.
While acknowledging that initially the quotation seems inappropriate, Calvin goes on to argue that it is in face proper:
Nevertheless it is clear that the allusion is such that no one can doubt that it is his kingdom that is expressly commended to us. Therefore everything that is contained in this passage is to be applied to his person. Only in Christ has this been fulfilled – Thou shalt arise and have mercy upon Zion, so that the nations shall fear thy name, and all kings of the Earth thy glory, (Psalm 102:13). Or again – When the peoples are gathered together and the kingdoms, to serve the Lord, (Psalm 102:22). We shall look in vain for this God, by whom the whole world is brought into one faith and worship of God, except in Christ. The other things, therefore, which are contained in this psalm are fitly applied to the person of Christ, and among other things this, that he is God everlasting. Creator of Heaven and Earth; that his being is eternal, free from all change, by which his majesty is exalted to the highest and he is removed from the order of all created things.
Calvin pointedly, powerfully, and passionately shows us Christ in Psalm 102.
A critical interpretive question before us as we study the Psalter is this: Is the quotation by Hebrews of Psalm 102 unique and exceptional in some way, or does it point to the proper way to read all the psalms? The use of the Psalter in the book of Hebrews is in fact the way the New Testament repeatedly appeals to the psalms. We must conclude that all the references to God in the Psalter are references to the divine Son. The Father and the Spirit are also in view in various ways in the Psalter, but the Son is always present.
Further, the book of Hebrews shows us that the psalms are not only about Jesus as the Divine King; they are also about Jesus the human king who represents all his people. Hebrews 2:6-8, quoting Psalm 8:4-6, sees Jesus as the true man to whom a crown and dominion are given: “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
Again, Calvin notes that the quotation from Psalm 8, “seems ineptly applied to Christ. David is not speaking to one man, but of all mankind.” But Calvin goes on to show that the quotation is apt: “In the beginning man was put in possession of the world to have lordship over all the works of God; but then by his rebellion he deserved the disowning of this dominion. It is clear that the blessing of God has no application to us until what we have lost in Adam has been restored to us through Christ.
That Jesus is the fulfillment of David’s kingship is made clear in Hebrews 2:12, citing Psalm 22:22: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” Here, a psalm of David is placed on the lips of Jesus, because he is the great David’s greater son. The same is true in Hebrews 2:13, where another psalm of David, Psalm 18:2, is applied to Jesus as the human king: “I will put my trust in him.”
The example of the book of Hebrews encourages us to see all the psalms as the words of Jesus, both as he is the divine King and Savior of his people and as he is their human king and representative. Here is the way we must read the psalms. Jesus’s connection to and love of the Psalter should surely inspire ours.
This approach does not separate the psalms from their origin in the history of Israel or from the experience of God’s people. Rather, it reminds us that all of Israel’s history pointed to and is fulfilled in Christ and that all of the experiences of God’s people are taken up and sanctified in Christ. Israel’s history is our history as the people of God. As the people of God, we can sing the psalms and enter into every element of them because we are in Christ.
The Examples of Psalms 1 and 2
We can see how the king, Israel, the church, and Jesus are all present in the Psalter by looking at Psalms 1 and 2. Psalm 1 focuses on the individual, specifically, the ideal of the “the blessed man.” That ideal is of a man who listens to the Word of God, who lives the Word of God, and who loves the Word of God. The blessed man is the one who meditates on that Word day and night so that his mind and heart are saturated with it. He takes personal responsibility to know the Word. Because he has listened, he lives the Word. He does not walk in the counsel of the wicked: he does not take their advice. He does not stand in the way of sinners: he does not copy their behavior. He does not sit in the seat of mockers: he does not join their scorn for the truth. The blessed man listens and lives as he does because he loves the Word of God. He delights in that Word from his heart.
This description of the blessed man ought preeminently to describe the king of God’s people. Deuteronomy 17:18-19 teaches of the king: “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law.” The king above all others ought to guide his life according to the covenant of God.
The blessed man of Psalm 1 is set as the ideal for Israel’s king and for every believer. We should all aspire to live that blessed life. But if we are honest, we recognize that we do not measure up to that standard. It is, of course, good to have an ideal even if we cannot realize it. But does this psalm present more than that?
To answer that question, we need an accurate translation of this psalm. In the pressure for gender-inclusive language, some have suggested that we translate verse 1 either as “Blessed is the one,” or, “Blessed are they.” But such translations miss the point that the Hebrew word used here is the word for male, not some other inclusive term. It is rightly translated only as “blessed is the man.” This point is important because it draws our minds to the pivotal figures in redemptive history: the first Adam and the last Adam. The first Adam was a blessed man when he was created and until he fell into sin. The last Adam, Jesus, was the blessed man all of his life. He never failed to listen to, live out, and love the Word of God. He declared, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,” (Hebrews 10:7), and that is just what he perfectly did. So Psalm 1 is not only an ideal for which we should strive, but it is also the description of our Savior who fulfilled all righteousness for us. Our delight, then, is in the Word – both written and incarnate.
Psalm 2 moves from the very personal focus of Psalm 1 to the great cosmic drama of redemption in the covenant community. It gives us the big picture of salvation and of world history. It presents the defiance of the world in rebellion against God, his king, and his ways. The world wants a self-destructive freedom rather than the liberty of the sons of God. As Calvin wrote, “Let this, therefore, be held as a settled point, that all who do not submit themselves to the authority of Christ make war against God.”
The psalm also shows man’s delusion to think that he is able to make war against God. He is like the wicked man of Psalm 7:15-16: “He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, on his own skull his violence descends.” Rebellion against God always leads to defeat.
God responds to the defiance and delusion of rebels with derision. He laughs at their pathetic weakness and is angry at their rejection of his goodness. He is not shaken by rebellion, but he establishes his holy king as his Son on Zion’s hill. God gives this kind the power to judge and subdue the nations, and only destruction awaits those who continue to rebel. But this king is the deliverer for those who turn to him. We must kiss the Son as a demonstration of our loyalty. He will be the refuge and protection of his people.
In one sense, every faithful king in Zion was God’s son and the savior of his people. The Lord said to David through Nathan the prophet, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son,” (2 Samuel 7:14). But David and all later kings pointed forward to the great and perfectly faithful king, Jesus, great David’s greater son. It was of Jesus that Psalm 2 ultimately spoke. So, too, the prophet Joel spoke of Jesus when he said, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls, (2:32). And all believers should turn to this psalm to celebrate Christ as their King and Savior.
Psalms 1 and 2 are not just an introduction to Book One, but to the whole Psalter. They prepare us for all that is to come. In these two introductory psalms, we see something of the splendor and sweep of the Psalter. From the intimate life of Jesus and every believer to the whole course of human history and the revelation of full salvation in Jesus, the Psalter informs and inspires the praise of God’s people. It is indeed the Book of Praises. It causes us to praise God and gives to us the very words for that praise.
Who speaks in the Psalter? Preeminently, it is God’s king who speaks. In the Old Testament, that means David, and in the New Testament, that means Jesus. The king speaks for himself and for all of his people in him. All the psalms, whether they speak in the singular or in the plural, are the words of the king and of his people as the people – both individually and communally – are in the king. The Psalms are the songs of the king and his people.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why is the Psalter as a whole connected to David and from the perspective of the king? Why is it significant that David not only speaks for himself and his personal needs, but that he also speaks as king and representative of all his people?
- How are the psalms of Israel and her king also for New Testament Christians? Are there any promises to Israel mentioned in the psalms that are significant to you personally?
- How does the book of Hebrews encourage you to see all the psalms as the words of Jesus? How can you connect the king, Israel, the church, and Jesus in the Psalter by looking at Psalms 1 and 2?