(1) Why have the nations created a commotion,
And why are the peoples continually dwelling upon what is pointless?
(2) The kings of the earth are setting themselves,
And the rulers have seated themselves close together
Against Yahweh and against his Messiah.
(3) “Let us tear apart their manacles,
And let us cast away from us their ropes.”
(4) The one who sits in the heavens is laughing,
The Lord is mocking them.
(5) Then he speaks to them in his anger,
And in his wrath he terrifies them.
(6) “But as for me, I have set my king upon Zion, my holy hill.”
(7) I will declare the decree:
Yahweh has said to me,
“You are my son.
I myself this day have begotten you.
(8) “Ask of me,
And I will give the nations as your inheritance,
And as your property the ends of the earth.
(9) “You will break them with a rod of iron,
Like the vessel of a potter you will shatter them.”
(10) Now, therefore, O kings, act prudently.
Allow yourselves to be corrected, judges of the earth.
(11) Serve Yahweh with fear,
rejoice with trembling.
(12) Kiss the son [or give pure obeisance]
Lest he be angry and your way of life perish
When his anger flares up even a little.
Blessed are all they who seek refuge in him.
Psalm 2 is a celebration of the unquestionable supremacy of God and his Messiah over all the rebellious forces of humanity. To attempt rebellion against God is absurd, because God has already decided the matter and has invested his power and authority into a human king, his Messiah. There is no question as to who would win in a confrontation between God and his Messiah on the one hand and rebellious humanity on the other: God wins. It cannot be any other way. Moreover, God wins through his Messiah. As far as humanity is concerned, there ends up being no substantial distinction between God and his Messiah. You serve God by serving his Messiah. If you rebel against the Messiah, you rebel against God himself. To trust in the Messiah is to trust in God.
The psalm breaks down into four parts. Verses 1-3 describe the rebellious thoughts and actions of humanity against Yahweh and his king. Verses 4-6 describe God’s response to this rebellion – he laughs at the insolence and presumption of rebellious humanity. Rebellion is futile, because God has already decided the issue. Verses 7-9 give us the substance of that decision or decree – the Messiah has been ordained by God and the whole earth has been given to him as his own property or inheritance. Moreover, the Messiah has divine authority to lay the smack down on rebellious humanity. Part 4, verses 10-12, shift the focus back to rebellious humanity and advise them, in light of God’s installment of his Messiah as ruler of the earth, to settle down and serve God by serving the Messiah. Otherwise, destruction is coming.
These four parts form an ABBA concentric structure. The first and last parts are about rebellious humanity. The middle two parts are about Yahweh and his Messiah. We can see a version of this ABBA structure at work in Psalm 1, as well. Often these concentric structures are observable even in translation if you are paying close attention. Typically, the central parts of a concentric structure are the parts that have most critical significance – the punchline, so to speak. Here, the central parts are about Yahweh and his Messiah, and if we are listening to this psalm the way a sensitive ancient Israelite or Jewish listener would, what we pull from this structure is a subtle emphasis on the decree of Yahweh as the feature of most importance and the thing that is most worthy of our attention. The rebellion of humanity is not central. It lies on the outskirts of importance. It does not have the weight of eternity behind it. In the same way, Psalm 1, especially verses 1-4, puts the blessed man, with his characteristic Torah-focused behavior, in the central place of emphasis and weightiness, reflecting the endurance of the righteous man whose life is built on the Torah. On the other hand, the wicked man, who is like the chaff that the wind drives away, is placed in the outer position, emphasizing, perhaps, his transitoriness. To reverse these positions would feel a little upside down to the implied reader.
This is a subtle point, but I think it is one worth dwelling on for a moment, in part because it relates to the purpose of Psalm 2, as a whole. We have a tendency to find ourselves focusing our attention on the evil that is in the world. When we do that, we expend the bulk of our emotional energy on that evil, sometimes in worrying, other times in being angry. My own tendency is to get angry, and if I am not careful I can stay angry for days at a time at the foolishness and wickedness of the world. That anger may come from my zeal for wisdom and righteousness, but even when that is the case, what happens when I let myself stay angry like this? Emotions are contagious. I end up fostering negative emotions in my wife and my son. Moreover, negative emotions drain me spiritually, and I find myself becoming depressed, having nothing left to give to my family or friends, or to the stranger that I meet on the street who really needs a kind word of wisdom from the Holy Spirit, but I am too lost in my own negative feelings to be sensitive to the Spirit in that moment. But this concentric structure, with its subtle but important emphasis on God and his righteousness over rebellious humanity and their wickedness, tells us that we ought to be careful not to let ourselves focus our energy and attention on what is bad in the world. Sure, there is stupid stuff in the world. Sure, there is wickedness in the world, and if I find myself in a situation where I can resist wickedness personally – and I mean specifically in person, face-to-face – then I should do so. But never should I allow my mind to just continually dwell on what is stupid or what is wicked. To do that is to walk right into the hands of the enemy. The enemy wants you to spend all of your energy thinking about how terrible the world is rather than how good God is. Why? Because it drains you and makes you less able to be an active force for wisdom and righteousness with the people you come into contact with. You end up walking through Wal-Mart with a scowl on your face rather than a smile. And you find yourself unfortunately more susceptible to the bad impulses of the flesh, such as cutting people off on the highway or saying harsh things to the cashier or to someone else. Negativity even taints your rest time. When you ought to be able to recharge, instead you find yourself depressed and lonely.
On the other hand, if we are sensitive to this structural cue in the psalm, it will help us to realize that the goodness of God is of far greater importance and power than the evil of the world, and it is far worthier of our intellectual and emotional energy. I am not sure I have a good explanation for why it seems easier to focus on the bad than on the good, because it sure does seem easier, but somehow it must have to do with our fundamental depravity. Darkness loves darkness. Maybe I get a little self-righteous thrill from being angry at foolishness and wickedness, because usually when I do get angry like this it is because all these jokers out there do not act like I do (and both they and I sure would be better off if they did). But regardless of the reason, we need to resist the easy path and willfully focus our attention and energy on the goodness of God and the beauty of his gospel. This is precisely what Paul is talking about in Philippians 4:4-9:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is near. Do not be worried about anything, but in every prayer and petition let your requests be made known to God with thanksgiving. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will protect your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, respectable, righteous, pure, lovely, of a good reputation, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things. And the things that your learned and received and heard and saw in me, do these things. And the God of peace will be with you all.
Paul here is telling the Philippian Christians to focus their energies on positive things rather than negative things. Sure, there are going to be concerns and needs, but do not let yourself be consumed by worry over these things. Rather, as the Message translation puts it, “Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers.” Paul says, the Lord is near. In other words, his victory is just around the corner, and we have too much work to do to waste our energy dwelling upon the wickedness of the world that is nearly defeated. Instead, focus your mental and emotional energies on good things: things that are true, respectable, righteous, pure, lovely, and of a good reputation. But what do we tend to find ourselves gravitating towards when we read or watch the news? We find ourselves dwelling on what is false, what is shameful, what is unjust, what is impure, what is terrible and ugly, what is ignominious. That is pretty much all you will find on the Drudge Report or on CNN or in the newspapers or on talk radio. Because regardless of how much we might protest this, it is true that bad news sells better than good news does. But if we will resist this perverse urge within us to dwell on bad things and intentionally focus on the good things, the excellent and praiseworthy things, Paul says that peace of God which surpasses understanding will protect our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
I want to be clear. I am not proposing mere positive thinking. Positive thinking by itself without some basis of certainty in objective reality – in other words positive thinking that is not centered on the goodness of God and on the certainty of his righteous rule in the earth – is often nothing more than wishful thinking and foolishness. This, I think, is why more pessimistically inclined individuals dismiss optimism – it is not realistic. I am talking, however, about a realistic optimism that is grounded not simply in my unfounded belief that good will always triumph and that everything will turn out all right but rather in my well founded trust in righteousness and goodness of God and of his Messiah. I acknowledge that bad things happen. I do not deny this, but I also do not dwell on it. Bad things happen, but they are temporary. There are evil people out there, but they are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Evil and wickedness are transitory by their nature and cannot endure. The realistic optimism of the Christian on the other hand endures through patience and faith in God.
So that might seem like a long winded pontification on the significance of a marginal observation about the structure of the psalm, but the fact is that this structural cue, this concentric form that subtly emphasizes God and his Messiah over the rebellious masses of humanity, works precisely in the same direction as all of Psalm 2 in its entirety. The nations rage. They make a great big commotion. But right at the beginning the psalmist says that this great big commotion is all about nothing. It is all about riq, a Hebrew word that means emptiness, pointlessness, nothingness. The KJV is perhaps too delicate in its translation as “imagine a vain thing”. The word translated as “imagine” is the verb hagah, the same word that Psalm 1 uses in verse 2 that is translated in the KJV as “meditate” – “But his delight is in the law of the LORD and in his law doth he meditate day and night.” Psalm 1’s “meditating” on the Torah and Psalm 2’s “imagining” of a vain thing are fundamentally the same action. In my opinion, hagah seems to describe most directly a continual utterance under one’s breath. Dwelling upon something. Reciting it. Talking about it without realizing it. Thinking about it all the time. The righteous man in Psalm 1 does this to the Torah, which we understand in a more expanded way to refer to the whole Bible, including the Torah.
On the other hand, the nations, the foolish and the wicked people of the world, continually dwell upon riq: pointlessness, emptiness. They get all upset about nothing. And if there happens to be nothing particularly upsetting going on at the moment, the world is great about finding things to be upset about. Like I said, bad news sells, and it also manipulates people and drives them to the polls, so both news agencies and politicians have vested interests in finding things to upset you, to make you angry or fearful. But the truth about these things they find to make you angry and fearful is that no matter how important or substantial they may make them out to be, really they always end up being riq, nothing. But you only find that out in the aftermath, after you have already expended your emotional energy worrying about the crisis du jour, poring through news article after news article on the subject, wasting hours of your life watching the 24 hour news networks for the latest piece of information. And by the time you do discover that it was all pointless, the news agencies and the politicians have already snagged you with some new fake crisis. And all that time and energy that you could have spent on something really productive – Bible study and prayer, time with your family, time relaxing and enjoying a hobby – is just gone, and you will never have it back.
Verse 2 characterizes this upheaval over nothing as human rebellion. Now, someone might make the accusation that verse 2 shows that the way I have applied verse 1 is inaccurate. Verse 1 is not about news agencies and people manipulating our emotions. It is about nations of people that have been conquered militarily and made subject to the Israelite king rising up and trying to rebel against that king. My response is that this psalm never really was about any specific Israelite or Judahite king. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that this psalm was written long after the fall of the both Northern and Southern kingdoms. But even if it was written during the monarchy, even by David himself, there was never a time in Israel’s history that the political state of the world was anything like what seems to be described in Psalm 2. Israel was never a world imperial power. Assuming the historicity of David’s conquests in 2 Samuel, even at the height of its strength, Israel was never anything more than a moderately strong regional power, nothing like Egypt or Assyria or Babylon or Persia or the Hittites. In other words, in my opinion, this psalm was always intended to be understood in a spiritual or idealistic way. For the Israelite or pre-Christian Jew it always pointed to some kind of future situation and was not intended to reflect the world with rigid realism.
In light of this, I think we are more than justified in understanding the rebellious uprising of the nations in a spiritualized or idealized way, as the commotion made by a humanity that is constantly in rebellion against God and against his good will. In ancient Israel, the ideal of a world in subjection to Israel and Israel’s king and Israel’s God was a world where justice reigned. In this ideal world there would be no real reason for the people of the world to rebel accept that they did not want to be subject to God’s justice. In other words, reading this psalm in the right context reveals that the world is rebelling against Israel essentially because they want to have the right to be unjust to each other. And that is, in fact, predominately why the world makes so much commotion, why the world seems to be perpetually on the brink of total chaos and destruction. Humanity want to be their own gods. They want to define justice in their own image rather than be subject to justice in God’s image. They are not content with peace. They chafe under righteousness, so they make a big fuss and try to throw off the “manacles” and “ropes” of God, all the while justifying their rebellion by saying they are seeking the power to do something better and more virtuous. “We need to get rid of these silly scruples we have about unborn babies, because NOT permitting abortion is unjust to women.” The manacles and ropes of Psalm 2 are not literal manacles and ropes, but the bonds of goodness and righteousness and love – the laws of the Messianic kingdom. The perpetual hissy fit that humanity seems to be engaged in is at its core a rejection of Messianic rule, a rejection of our confession that Jesus is Lord, and a claim to be their own lord, their own god, even. But as both the structure and the content of Psalm 2 tell us, all this rebellion is pointless and empty. God is in control, and his Messiah is on the throne of heaven.