(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.