Reading the Psalms Theologically: Part II
In my first post, I discussed the Christological character and ecclesial audience of the Psalter. In this second post, I want to dig further into the idea that the Psalter is a book about the Son, specifically through exploring its canonical shape. First, if we read the book of Psalms in its canonical context, we see its Messianic character in key places. Click To Tweet
The Psalter’s Canonical Context
First, if we read the book of Psalms in its canonical context, we see its Messianic character in key places. For instance, in the introduction to the book, Psalms 1 and 2, describe, respectively, the “blessed” man who follows God’s law and the Davidic king and Son of God who will destroy Israel’s enemies. In the Hebrew Bible, this introductory doublet comes on the heels of Malachi 4 (Malachi 3 in the MT). These chapters are intricately connected in a few different ways.
For instance, Mal. 4:4 (3:22 MT) commands Israel to “remember the law of Moses,” while Ps. 1:2 says that the blessed man “delights in the law of the LORD and meditates on it day and night.” That is, the beginning of Psalm 1 describes the person Mal. 4:4 commands Israel to be and expects to come in the promised servant of the LORD.
Similarly, the end of Psalm 2 warns of the imminent judgment of those who oppose the LORD’s anointed, the Davidic Son, a judgment that is promised and described in Mal. 4:5–6 (3:22–24 MT). Further links between the end of Malachi and the beginning of the Psalms include the terms “walk” (Mal. 3:14 MT + Ps. 1:1); “wicked” (Mal. 3:15, 18, 19, 21 MT + Ps. 1:4, 5, 6); “righteous” (Mal. 3:18 MT + Ps. 1:5, 6); “son” (Mal. 3:17 MT; Ps. 2:7); “serve” (Mal. 3:18, 22 MT + Ps. 2:11); and “fear” (Mal. 3:20 + Ps. 2:11). There are thus strong conceptual, lexical, and canonical reasons to read these two sections of Scripture – which occur “side by side,” so to speak, in the Hebrew Bible’s order – together.
To put it succinctly, what Malachi, at the end of the Prophets, expects is the same person that Psalms 1 and 2 describe. Malachi’s prophetic servant of the LORD, a new Moses and new Elijah, who will lead Israel to observe YHWH’s law and bring justice to YHWH’s enemies is the same person as the Psalmist’s wise Davidic king who meditates on Torah in an Edenic-like setting day and night and crushes all those who oppose YHWH. To put it succinctly, what Malachi, at the end of the Prophets, expects is the same person that Psalms 1 and 2 describe. Click To Tweet
But for both Malachi and the Psalmist, this man has not yet arrived. YHWH’s enemies still oppose his people; we need look no further than Psalm 3 to see this. YHWH’s people still do not meditate on his Law or walk in his ways; we need look no further than the rest of Malachi to see this. Both texts are thus future oriented, waiting for the One they describe to arrive, coming, as Malachi puts it, on “the great and awesome day of the LORD” (4:5; 3:23 MT).
This eschatological expectation for a wise, Davidic king who will deliver Israel does not start with Malachi or the introduction to the Psalms, though. It stretches all the way back through Israel’s history, to the end of the Torah in Deuteronomy 34 and the beginning of the Prophets in Joshua 1. Both of these texts anticipate a prophet greater than Moses, one who will meditate on the Law of the LORD day and night and lead Israel into their promised rest in the promised land. Neither Moses nor Joshua deliver. In Malachi 4 and in Psalms 1 and 2, we’re still waiting.
These passages at the end of the Prophets and beginning of the Writings articulate the same hope prophesied and described in the passages at the end of the Torah and the beginning of the Prophets.
The Psalter’s Canonical Shape
And it is this new Moses, this new Elijah, this Davidic Son who we are still expecting in the middle and at the end of the book of Psalms. Psalms 1 and 2 are intricately connected not only with each other but also with Psalm 72, which concludes Book II of the Psalter with an expectation of the Davidic Son, one greater than Solomon, who will bring justice and peace. Book III contains many Psalms about Israel’s exile, while Books IV and V remind Israel of their hope in YHWH. At the end of Book V and of the whole Psalter, in Psalms 145–150, the Psalmist returns to the expectation of Psalms 1 and 2, the hope of Psalm 72, and the solution to Israel’s exilic plight in Book III.
Notice that, in these texts, what the Son of God *will* do in Psalm 2 is what YHWH *is* doing in Pss. 145–150. Click To TweetIn these final psalms, though, it is YHWH who executes justice (Ps. 146:7; cf. 72:1-2), who loves the righteous (146:8; cf. 1:6) and destroys the wicked (Ps. 145:20; cf. Ps. 1:6), who calls kings and peoples of the earth to praise him (148:11; cf. 2:1, 2, 10, 11), who is praised in his sanctuary, on his holy hill, in all his holiness (150:1; cf. 2:6). Notice that, in these texts, what the Son of God will do in Psalm 2, namely rule over the kings and peoples of the earth with justice and holiness on the holy hill of YHWH, is what YHWH is doing in Pss. 145–150. In other words, the Son is YHWH himself, the LORD’s presence on earth.
How, then, does the Davidic Son, YHWH in the flesh, bring the eschatological expectation of Psalms 1 and 2 to reality in Psalms 145–150? Simply put, it is through suffering on behalf of his people. The hopes of Psalms 1 and 2 are brought crashing down to reality in Psalm 3, a psalm that is also intricately lexically connected to the previous double introduction to the Psalter. And we have already mentioned the lamenting tone of Book IV, to which we could add the many laments and psalms that describe suffering in both Book I (Psalm 1–41) and Book II.
The wise Davidic king is also the one who suffers on behalf of and because of his people. There are a number of different psalms we could point to throughout the book with this theme, such as Psalm 88, where the Psalmist portrays himself as going down to the world of the dead (only to be raised to new life in Psalm 89!).
The Psalter’s Central Story
But the most well-known of these is probably Psalm 22, a psalm which Jesus quotes in his “cry of dereliction” from the cross immediately prior to his death. In this psalm, the Davidic king suffers at the hands of his enemies, having his life, or nephesh (v. 20), taken away despite his cries for the LORD to deliver him. Nevertheless, the psalm is shot through with expectations that YHWH will one day save both him and his people. This is exactly what happens in Psalm 23, a great reversal of Psalm 22.
It is in Jesus that we see Israel’s hopes for a Wise, Davidic King who defeats YHWH’s enemies, but he does so paradoxically through suffering and death, substituting his life for the life of his people. Click To Tweet Rather than the Davidic king’s life being taken away, his soul (nephesh again) is restored (23:3a). Rather than being poured out like water (22:14), the LORD leads him beside still waters (23:2b). Rather than being surrounded by the strong bulls of Bashan (22:12) and encompassed by dogs (22:16), he is guarded by YHWH his shepherd (23:1a). Rather than being defeated by his enemies, as he is in Psalm 22, YHWH sets a table for him in the presence of his enemies – as sure a sign as one can get of rest from war and victory over one’s oppressors (23:5a). Rather than being lain in the dust of death (22:15), YHWH anoints his head with oil (23:5b).
To put it simply, in Psalm 22 YHWH allows the suffering Davidic king to be crushed by his enemies, but in Psalm 23 he calls him up out of the valley of the shadow of death (23:4) and raises him from the dead. Finally, in Psalm 24, this dead-but-now-risen Davidic king ascends to the LORD’s holy hill, his temple, his dwelling place, as the exalted king of glory.
This canonical shape, of the hope for a Davidic king who will crush YHWH’s enemies and establish his kingdom, but who paradoxically does so through suffering only to rise again and ascend onto YHWH’s holy hill, characterized the whole of the Psalter, from Psalm 1–2 to Psalm 145–150. And, of course, this is the shape of the life of Israel’s Messiah, God in the flesh, the Servant and Son of YHWH who is himself equal to YHWH, Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus that we see Israel’s hopes for a Wise, Davidic King who defeats YHWH’s enemies, but he does so paradoxically through suffering and death, substituting his life for the life of his people. But this is not the last word, for YHWH does not abandon Jesus’s soul to Hades or allow his Holy One to see corruption in the grave, but instead raises him on the third day and seats him at his own right hand to rule right now over all things until he returns in glory.
 I owe Dr. Bob Cole, formerly of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, almost entirely for the exegetical insights of this post. Many of them can be found in print in the following monographs:
- Robert L. Cole, Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter (Hebrew Bible Monographs; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013);
- Robert L. Cole, The Shape and Message of Book III (Psalms 73 – 89) (LHBOTS 307; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2000); and,
- Robert L. Cole, Why Psalm 23 Is Not About You: Reading Psalm 23 In Context, 2nd (Athens: College & Clayton, 2020).
If by chance one of these insights is not published in one of the books listed above, then I owe it either to 1) his Old Testament II course notes or 2) conversation and correspondence over the course of the last twelve years.