[nextpage title=”Idealized Portrait” ]
(1) Why do the nations make trouble and the countries plot in vain?
(2) The kings of the earth take their stand, and potentates collude together against Yahweh and against his Messiah.
(3) Let us tear off their bonds, and let us throw their ropes from ourselves.
(4) He who sits enthroned in the heavens laughs, the Lord ridicules them.
(5) Then he speaks to them in his anger, and in his wrath he terrifies them.
(6) “I am the one who has anointed my king upon Zion, my holy mountain.”
(7) I will recount the decree of Yahweh. He said to me, “You are my son. Today I have become your father.
(8) Ask of me and I will give the nations as your inheritance, and as your possession the ends of the earth.
(9) You will break them with a rod of iron, like the vessels of a potter you will shatter them.”
(10) So now, you kings, be wise, and allow yourselves to be chastened, you rulers of the earth.
(11) Serve Yahweh in fear, tremble in terror.
(12) Pay pure homage, lest he become angry and you perish in your ways, for his anger is kindled quickly. Blessed are all who seek refuge in him.
An Idealized Portrait of Israel’s King
Psalm 2 proclaims that the LORD rules the heavens and the earth, and those who deny this or struggle against it do so in vain. The nations of the world would be wise to acknowledge the rulership of God’s chosen one. Those who do not do so are cruisin’ for a bruisin’. But what does it mean to struggle against God’s rulership? What does it mean to throw off his bonds and cords? What does it mean for the Messiah to receive the nations as his inheritance? Who is the Messiah in this psalm? These are questions we have to think about if this psalm is to have a contemporary relevance. And I think Psalm 2 does have profound relevance for us, perhaps more for us today even than for the psalm’s original audience, whoever and whenever that might have been.
But let’s consider, first of all, this psalm in its original context. What, in fact, was its original context? The occasion for the performance of this psalm may have been during coronation ceremonies. This psalm seems to depicts a situation wherein the king of Israel has conquered the surrounding nations, even the entire world, and now reigns over a vast Israelite empire. This foreign rule chafes the nations, and they begin to plot together to overthrow their Israelite overlords. Yahweh laughs at their stupidity. “You cannot overthrow my Messiah. It is I, Yahweh, who have chosen him and installed him in Zion.” Overthrowing the Messiah is impossible, so the wise thing to do is just get used to being under Israelite rule and serve Yahweh in fear and sincerity.
To a great extent, this picture is an exaggeration. Even taking at face value the biblical account of the expansion of Israelite influence under David and Solomon, the fullest extent of that influence, according to 2 Samuel 8 was that David placed a garrison in Damascus. 1 Kings 4:21 says that Solomon “ruled all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River”, but this does not mean that there was a physical Israelite presence all the way to the Euphrates, nor does it mean that Solomon was directly involved in the administration of these kingdoms. Likely, whatever historical reality is behind 2 Samuel 8 and 1 Kings 4, realistically Israelite influence in the far north was more political than military. We might say that especially 1 Kings is describing things in the most grandiose way possible so as to set up the decline and division of Israel in the subsequent narrative to have greater emotional impact.
Even to the southwest, among the Philistines, it was not so much that Israel’s kings ruled them directly as they were militarily suppressed and subjected to tribute payments to Israel. Historically, where Israel under David and Solomon possibly did have direct military and governmental control was to the south – over the Edomites, for example – and maybe a bit to the east and northeast. At its height, Israel was probably only a small if prosperous regional power. Through most of its history Israel and Judah didn’t really have to worry too much about the rebellion of vassal states. It was more likely to be the vassal state rebelling against a greater power. We lack sufficient archaeological evidence or evidence in texts from foreign powers to suppose anything more than that. Fortunately, this rather meager picture is entirely compatible with what we read in the Bible. If we are careful not to over-read 2 Samuel 8 and 1 Kings 4 we will see that what I have described is all that is actually communicated. The Bible is not lying. It is telling the story of the rise and fall of the Israelite Kingdom.
The point is simply that the extent of Israelite military power that would seem to be described in Psalm 2 was probably never a reality. This is significant because it means that from the very beginning the psalm was a somewhat idealized portrait. It wasn’t ever really talking about a reality that everyone saw, at least not in its entirety. From the beginning this poetry was lifting those who sang this psalm or heard its performance beyond the realm of the mundane to the realm of the ideological. Through his anointed one, the Messiah, that is, the king of Israel, God rules all the earth.
This is a theological statement at least as much as a political one, and given the history of Israel, as a political statement it isn’t of much value. Theologically, this psalm affirms a special relationship between God and the king of Israel. The psalm calls the king “his [that is, God’s] Messiah.” The word “messiah” literally means “anointed one.” We can see the literal meaning of this title in the stories of Samuel’s prophetic designation of Saul and David as kings of Israel. In both cases, in 1 Samuel chapters 10 and 16, at the moment Samuel declares them to be God’s choice he pours oil on their heads. Where this ritual came from and what its original symbolism may have been, we do not know. But oil came to be symbolic of the Spirit of God, so the Bible describes God’s impartation of his Spirit in the same terms as the pouring of oil in places like Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 39:29, Joel 2:28, and Zechariah 12:10, and this imagery is readily taken over in the New Testament. In both the stories of Saul and of David, their designation as God’s chosen leader of Israel is marked both by anointing and by the Spirit of God descending upon the anointed one. It is clear from the book of Judges that the Spirit of God was conceived of as the special empowerment of God for leading the Israelites, though at first this was intended to be for a short and specific period of time. It seems likely that in coronation ceremonies like the one in which Psalm 2 may have originally been performed, a figure representing Yahweh, probably the high priest, would anoint the new king. Perhaps it was thought that through the anointing with oil the Spirit of God descended upon the new king.
The special relationship between God is described in terms of an adoption. “You are my son. This day I have begotten you” or “become your father”. Perhaps connected with the descent of the Spirit of God was the new identification of the king as a son of God. And as a son, the king had inheritance rights: “Ask of me and I will give the nations as your inheritance, and as your possession the ends of the earth. You will break them with a rod of iron, like potter’s vessels you will shatter them.” God’s Messiah has special privileges with God, a special kind of protection so that none of the nations of the earth could even hope to challenge him.
But despite this confession, again it is difficult to reconcile it with actual Israelite history. Neither Israel nor Judah were ever undeniably as militarily dominant as this psalm describes. It is clear that from the very beginning, this psalm was intended to be an idealized portrait of the king of Israel, a picture that points us to what the king of Israel could be, even if it never actually realized this. This is why this psalm is one that most naturally lends itself to a Christological interpretation. Unlike some other psalms that we try to interpret Christologically, Psalm 2 was Christological, or Messianic, from the very beginning.[/nextpage]
[nextpage title=”Messiah Jesus” ]
Messiah Jesus and the Transformation of Psalm 2
But if it is difficult to reconcile the idealized portrait of Psalm 2 with actual history, it is also difficult to reconcile the apparent violent militarism described as God’s modus operandi in the world via his Messiah with the distinctive Christian ethic of love and pacifism, an ethic that derives from the teachings of the Messiah himself. In Matthew 20:25-28, Jesus says:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. (26) It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, (27) and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave – (28) just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
And in John 18:36, Jesus tells Pilate:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world my servants would be struggling to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”
For Jesus, leadership and victory in conflict were not to be exercised or achieved through the typical methods of the world. The world’s methods consist of overpowering one’s opponents through whatever means necessary, through coercion, whether that means physical coercion, political coercion, economic coercion or any other kind of manipulation through abuse, deceit, or blackmail. Jesus’ kingdom operates in a fundamentally different way. And it is only Jesus’ kingdom that can operate in a fundamentally different way. All worldly powers and authorities must operate through coercion because that is the nature of their power. In my opinion, we cannot, actually, make worldly powers and authorities operate according to Kingdom ethics, because in order to control worldly powers and authorities you have to achieve dominance over them through worldly methods.
This means that when we read Psalm 2 as fulfilled in Jesus, all the imagery takes on new and dramatically different significance. No longer can we read this psalm as an affirmation of the Messiah’s God-enabled military dominance. But this is not, strictly speaking, because it was never intended this way. Rather, the Messiah himself exercised authority over this psalm and transformed it. What am I saying? Consider Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in Matthew 26:53, after Peter had drawn his sword and begun to attack those seeking to arrest Jesus:
Then Jesus said to him, “Return your sword to its place! For all who take up the sword perish by the sword. Or do you think that I am not able to call upon my father, and he will send to me right now more than twelve legions of angels?”
The rights of the Messiah in Psalm 2 belonged to Jesus, and he could have, if he had wanted to, conquered the world in just such a manner and ruled it forever with a rod of iron, shattering any who would stand up to his authority. But this is precisely the model of rulership that he rejected when he was tempted in the wilderness. In Matthew 4:8-11 we read:
(8) Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur. (9) And he said to him, “I will give you all these things if you throw yourself to the ground and worship me.” (10) Then Jesus said to him, “Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” (11) Then the devil left him, and angels came and began ministering to his needs. (NET)
Taking this two passages from Matthew chapters 4 and 26 in juxtaposition, one from the beginning of the book and one from the end, what do we see? We see that if Jesus had taken up his rightful authority over the world and ruled it with a rod of iron, empowered by 12 legions of angels, paradoxically he would have been worshiping the devil. The one thing about the world that cannot be redeemed is the world’s methods, because when you use the world’s methods you are not redeeming the world but submitting to it. But we do not need the world’s methods, because our methods are stronger. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:
(3) For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, (4) for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons, but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds. We tear down arguments (5) and every arrogant obstacle that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ. (NET)
Jesus did not have to use the world’s weapons, because his weapons were stronger. He took the hardest blow the world could offer, death, the world’s not-so-secret weapon for which humanity had not had any answer, and he passed right through it into the resurrection by the power of the Holy Spirit. According to Paul again (but this time from Romans 1:4), Jesus was declared (or appointed) the Son of God in power (probably to be taken all together, as in the NET translation, to mean that Jesus entered a new phase of authority in his identity as Son of God, i.e., “in power” versus “in weakness”) according to the Spirit of holiness (probably meaning the Holy Spirit and referring to the Spirit’s instrumentality in raising Jesus from the dead) by the resurrection of the dead. The resurrection of Jesus, which is the prototype of a coming general resurrection, is the moment when Jesus’ identity as the Son of God was proven and when his new phase of authority as the Son of God in power was put into effect. The resurrection is the moment of his coming into his inheritance, his coronation as God’s Messiah. This is the moment when God says to Jesus, “Ask of me and I will give the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth as your possession.”
A core Christian affirmation is that Jesus is Lord. This means not simply that Jesus is Lord of my life, as we hear it most commonly in evangelical circles, but that Jesus is Lord of all creation. He has ascended and is now seated at the right hand of God (he is God’s right-hand man). He rules the world – that is what we mean when we declare Jesus to be Lord. That does not mean that the world is taking this lying down. He and we are waiting for the day when God will make all his enemies his footstool, as it says in another important coronation psalm, Psalm 110.
Is it not interesting that in both Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 it is God, not the Messiah, who is doing the conquering? The reason Jesus’ rule over all the earth is so certain is that his rule is based on the good pleasure of God, whose will cannot be challenged. When we declare Jesus to be Lord, we are not taking sides in a conflict where our contribution could turn the tide and determine who will win. Rather, we are recognizing the certain victor of that conflict, submitting ourselves to him, and begging for mercy.
To choose the side that stands against the Messiah is insanity. It’s suicide. “Why do the nations make trouble? Why do the countries plot in vain?” For the world, the kingship of Jesus chafes. But why? His kingdom is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. What is the bondage whereby the nations are bound that they are so eager to break and throw off? It is righteousness and holiness. It is the decree from on high that men should do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. What’s wrong with that? Though it is slavery, Jesus’ reign over the world and in our lives only means benefits to us. Why would anyone rebel against such a beneficent ruler? This is the basic foolishness and insanity of human sin. We choose not to be subject to God’s good will, thinking that this means that we will rule ourselves and not realizing that it actually means being ruled by sin and death. Autonomy is not an option. Only the fool thinks that being ruled by sin is “freedom”. Being ruled by Jesus is the only meaningful freedom, because it is only in submitting to his rule that we are made free to be who we were created to be.[/nextpage]
[nextpage title=”Church as Messiah” ]
The Church as the Messianic Community
So what does this mean for Jesus’ followers, for the Church? Certainly, it means that they are following the right person. But actually, when we consider what the New Testament says about the Church and its relationship to Jesus, we begin to see that Psalm 2 has some astonishing applications for contemporary believers.
A recurring theme in Paul’s writings is that Christians, through the infilling of the Holy Spirit, have been adopted as children, and if children then heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ (see especially Romans 8:16-17; Ephesians 1:5). Furthermore, the Church is not simply a group of people who confess “Jesus is Lord” and then have no further use. The Church is the body of Christ, “the fullness of the one who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). The reason we partake of Christ’s righteousness and why we can be co-heirs with Christ is because we are “in Christ.” When God looks at the Church, he sees Jesus. This mystic identification carries not only benefit of justification, but the responsibility and privilege of being the Messiah.
Let me explain that. Obviously, no individual but Jesus can be “the Messiah.” But as a community, we fulfill that same function. The Church could be considered the Messianic community. Jesus rules the earth through us, who are his eyes and his ears, his hands and his feet. This helps to explain what it means to be co-heirs with Christ. In him, we too inherit the earth and all its fullness as the Messianic community, as a fulfillment of Psalm 2.
At times, it certainly does not seem that we have inherited the earth. Rather, it seems sometimes that we are on the verge of losing everything. The nations rage against the Church. They seek to throw off the bonds of righteousness by which we live and which we demonstrate to be a better way of life. They desire to label us and our ethic backwards, idiotic, and even dangerous or extreme. They conspire together to marginalize and silence us. They seek to make our acting upon our confession illegal. But you do not need to fear all of this. This is all vanity, empty plotting. The one enthroned in the heavens laughs and ridicules them. “It is I who have installed my Messiah in Zion, my holy mountain.” When he filled us with his Holy Spirit we became partakers of the Spirit of the resurrection, the power that raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him Son of God in power. And by that Spirit we too have become children of God. God says to us, “You are my son. This day I have begotten you.”
Then he says to us, “Ask of me, and I will give the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth as your possession.” The earth is ours by right. It is our right, not just our responsibility, to spread the Kingdom of God and all its benefits to the ends of the earth. But what does it mean to take possession of it? Here we must look to Jesus our king and the way he took possession. When he could have called upon 12 legions of angels and conquered the world through force, he rejected that path and that interpretation of Psalm 2. Instead, he chose to conquer through service and self-sacrificial love. He also conquered by entrusting himself to God’s care rather than trying to defend himself, and though he suffered death, God gave him victory over death.
So too we should remember that in Psalm 2 it is God who gives us the nations. It is not we who conquer the nations in our own power, using our own methods. We take possession of our inheritance through love, faithfulness, and prayer. Prayer is important. We are to “ask” of God, and he says he will give us our request. Who are these nations? They are our friends, family, and neighbors. They are the lost and hurting of our community. To take possession of them means to bring them into God’s glorious kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. We act as the Messianic community by asking God for the souls of these people, then by going and loving and serving them and by proclaiming the good news that Jesus is Lord of all creation. He has been raised from the dead and now sits at the right hand of God. God sends the Spirit to change the hearts and minds of those for whom we are asking, because only God can change the hearts of humanity. The Spirit also confirms our proclamation through signs and wonders. Stronghold by stronghold we conquer our enemy’s territory by seeking the lost and the hurting and by healing them through the power of the Holy Spirit and of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let us never forget that we are on the winning side, but not because of our strength or worldly influence. Whether or not this or that piece of legislation passes, or whether or not this or that candidate is elected is no sign of victory, either for us or for the enemy. It is utterly irrelevant. As we gain ground, as we continue in our Messianic conquest of the hearts and minds of the lost and the hurting, those laws become irrelevant, because the Holy Spirit begins writing laws upon the hearts of humanity. We can vote as a part of our proclamation that Jesus is Lord, but realize that this is at best only a very small part of our proclamation. Our commission from Jesus says nothing about changing laws and governments. It says to go and make disciples. I am pretty certain that no one has ever been won to Christ by my vote, nor by my angry comment under a political news article.
There will always be naysayers and opponents to our Messianic conquest, but their opposition is foolishness. They would do well to join the winning side, to allow themselves to be chastened, and to serve Yahweh in fear. The world would like to bully you, to make you fearful, and to tempt you to take the quick and easy path to self-defense, to use the coercive, manipulative, self-aggrandizing, and dishonest methods of the world. Resist that temptation by intentionally remembering every day that our victory is inevitable. Remember, as Psalm 2 concludes, that “blessed are all who seek refuge in him.”[/nextpage]