Jesus & the Psalms
My handling of Psalm 118 on Sunday morning piqued the curiosity of some folks in the church and, since Friday night’s service will do more of the same, I thought I should address it church-wide. I’m assuming others have the same kinds of questions. So, this is not an important coronavirus update, rather it is a nerdy break from all things contagious. Keep reading if you are interested.
What I did on Sunday that was different:
You may not have noticed, but Sunday morning I had us consider the implications of Jesus being a participant in the recitation of Psalm 118. For some people, that turned the psalm on its head. It may have also been a little confusing, since it probably sounded new. I have talked about this stuff before in passing, but one thing the coronavirus is going to do is give you a far deeper look into my life with (and interpretation of) the Psalms.
Most of us were probably taught to think of certain psalms as being “about Jesus” while other psalms were “about us.” These Jesus-psalms are often called messianic psalms. Some of the most famous ones are Psalm 2, 22, and 110. Psalms 2 & 110 describe the rule of the messiah. Psalm 22, on the other hand, describes with shocking accuracy the suffering of Jesus on the cross.
When we read messianic psalms we often think: this is “about” Jesus. We usually decide that a psalm is messianic because it relates to what we know about Jesus, predicts his coming, or is quoted in the New Testament as referring to him. That means there is only a limited number of messianic psalms in the Bible.
What I did on Sunday was to get you to look beyond who Psalm 118 was about. I encouraged you to see Jesus as someone that prayed Psalm 118, not as someone that was the object of it. Read this way, Psalm 118 gave us a snapshot of Jesus’ heart and mind through the window of his Passover prayers. We’ll do a similar thing on Good Friday, using Psalm 69.
What I believe about the Psalms:
I do not believe it is helpful to categorize the Psalms as being about, or not about, Jesus. I said as much when getting ordained. On the floor of presbytery I was asked to name the messianic psalms and I smugly answered: “Psalms 1-150.” I thought it would be an amazing moment, it wasn’t. Smugness is rarely appreciated in lowly candidates. But it’s true! I’m not alone on this by the way, this is my Dutch Reformed education coming through.
Of course, some psalms are explicitly messianic, but not simply because they are about Jesus. They are messianic because they are about the Anointed King. I don’t think anyone but Jesus could read Psalm 2 and think “Oh this is about me!” The only verses of Psalm 2 that are about us are the last few.
What I am saying is this: messianic psalms are predictive psalms about the reign of God’s chosen servant. That is different than the psalms that relate to Jesus. They all relate to Jesus. The Psalms are spirituality par excellence; even more profound, however, the Psalms are Jesus’ spirituality. And that, as some people noticed on Sunday, changes everything.
Jesus the Psalm Singer:
Hebrews 2:12 gives us an amazing picture. It says that Jesus tells his brothers (that’s us) about the Lord (his Father), and in the midst of the congregation he will sing God’s praise (the Psalms). In other words, Jesus is the one that teaches us about his Father. And he does it by sharing the Psalms with us!
Jesus is the True Psalm Singer. He prayed all 150, and they guided his approach to the Father. Jesus was also the faithful Israelite, which means he recited the Psalms of Ascent (120-134) as he made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He recited the Egyptian Hillel (113-118) each year as he prepared for Passover. He even prayed through Psalm 38 as he made his memorial offering. The list goes on. The Psalms, all of them, were on the lips of Jesus. They defined the terms of his spirituality just as they did for every Jew before him and the ancient Christians after him.
The Psalms as the heart of the gospel:
The Psalms can belong to us only because they first belonged to Jesus. Consider Psalm 23. We don’t get to pray that the Lord is our shepherd unless Jesus prayed that first. Jesus had to be the First Sheep. If he didn’t follow the Father (his shepherd), then we get left outside the flock. Jesus was led along the Father’s still waters and laid down in the Father’s green pastures. Jesus then turns to us and shares with us the waters and pastures of his Father. This is the gospel.
The Psalms are only true for us because they were first true of Jesus. So instead of saying “Psalm 118 is about Jesus,” I find it far more helpful to say, “Psalm 118 belongs to Jesus.” As you read the Psalms, you are actually being welcomed into Jesus’ relationship with his Father. Some psalms connect to Christ in obvious ways while others might be more subtle. The truth is, you need not pick through each psalm and try to find Jesus. The whole book is now a place you can call home because Jesus unlocked the door.