The Book of Psalms and the Biblical Covenants (Part 1)
Vows made to You are binding upon me; O God… (Psalm 56:12)
I will go into your house with burnt offerings; I will pay you my vows, which my lips have uttered… (Psalms 66:13-14)
The heaven, even the heaven of heavens; are the Lord’s; but the earth has He given to the children of men (Psalms 115:16)
In addressing the contribution of the Book of Psalms to the Creation Project and the biblical covenants it is vital to notice those places where the psalmist is grounding his remarks upon the covenants or looking forward to the New covenant kingdom (e.g. Psa. 2, 22, 24, 31, 45, 50, 72, 89, 110, 132).
We also must be alert to the many Messianic passages, always trying to locate the coming King and His promised earthly kingdom within the correct covenantal timeline. That timeline is in continuity with the covenantal picture that has its roots in the Book of Genesis.
The Church’s reading of the Psalms has not always paid attention to the future fulfillment of some important passages, preferring to see fulfillments almost totally within the light of the first coming and the realization of the Body of Christ.
But if we heed the places in the Psalter where we are told about things that are clearly in line with kingdom expectations found in the Torah and the Prophets there is no good reason not to permit those passages their voice in that shared witness. When one thinks, for example of Psalm 110:1 and 4, are we wrong to look for fulfillments of these verses beyond the first century A.D.? Or when Psalm 106:28-31 recalls the everlasting covenant God made with Phinehas, are we not entitled to ask whether the realization of that covenant still lies ahead of us? Again, does not Psalm 22:27-28 match up well with OT passages which can be located as transpiring in the coming messianic kingdom?
The covenantal implications of the theology of the Psalms can be seen throughout, but especially in the parts which deal with Messianic hope or expressions of kingdom expectation.1 Although the Psalms often reflect a more existential situation—the concerns of the human author—they are far from being only supplications for Divine help or exclamations of praise (which is the meaning of the word “psalm”). Yet even the emotional condition of the writer has its roots in his understanding of the nature of the covenant God.2
As an example, Psalm 33:11 declares,
The counsel of Yahweh stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations.
There then follows a blessing upon Israel because God has chosen them “as His own inheritance” (Psa. 33:12). Deuteronomy 4:20 refers to Israel this way, following it up with the assertion that although “the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut. 4:24), yet, in the latter days, He will have mercy upon them: “He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them” (Deut. 4:31; cf. Jer. 29:11).3 So in Psalm 33:11 we ought to understand God’s “counsel” and “plans” for Israel (33:12) as covenantally presupposed. But since Psalm 33 is a creation psalm, it is appropriate to fit God’s covenant love for Israel within the wider purposes of the Creation Project (cf. Psa. 24:1). Yahweh is the covenant name of God, and in this name Israel is to place all its hope and expectation. Yahweh has promised “abundant redemption” to His people (Psa. 130:7-8). This is why Israel can be exhorted to “hope in the Lord, from this time forth and forever” (Psa. 131:3).
The great theological themes of the Book include Creation, King and Kingdom, of which the coming Messianic King is a key feature. Then also God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel is important. Finally, there are those parts that extol Wisdom.4
Although I have divided what follows into sub-categories for teaching purposes, I want to make it clear that the themes that follow form one picture, and that they should be brought together so that their association with each other are seen.
Psalm 115:16 declares that, “The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD’s; but the earth He has given to the children of men.” This focuses the center of human activity not in heaven above, but upon the earth. This world was created and given to us. Not in the primary sense of us owning it. That honor, as we will see, belongs to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16). But in the sense of humanity being at the center of the Triune God’s creative purposes. Those purposes, as I have tried to show, are imbued with teleological and eschatological movement.
If we look at Psalm 33 again with this understanding, it is easy to discover a teleology and eschatology in its record of creation. The psalm begins with an encouragement to praise God (Psa. 33:1-3). Then in verses 4 to 6 the author moves from the good character of God to how that goodness is manifested throughout the earth. There is then a purposive movement from God’s own nature to what He creates. In verses 6 and 7 we see something of the personal care that was bestowed in making the world. Then the earth’s inhabitants are exhorted to “stand in awe of Him” (Psa. 33:8).
From this grounding in the fear of God the psalm continues with a rehearsal of the plans of men (Psa. 33:10) and the plans of God (Psa. 33:11).5 It is God’s trajectory which is to win out, and His providence rules over the decisions of men (Psa. 33:11-15). False confidence in human ability is brought up (Psa. 33:16-17), before the final note of hope is struck (Psa. 33:18-22).
What comes through here is that despite our often unruly intentions, the Lord God is governing the world that is His (cf. Psa. 24:1-2), and is ushering history in the direction of its long appointed end. It is man’s place to know this and align ourselves to it. This knowledge of the reality of the living God is the essence of living wisely (see e.g. Psalms 24:3-6, 25:5, 27:1, 34:11-14, 36:9, 37:7-8, 39:4, 86:11, 119:55-56, and the whole of Psalm 90).
Before I move on I want to give attention to what Terence Fretheim has called “Nature’s Praise of God.”6 Using Psalm 148 Fretheim has made an appeal to us that we be more wary of treating the non-human creation as window-dressing for the human story.
The Psalm, which famously brings together angels and elements and mountains, and cattle and creeping things, and all classes of men, reaching its crescendo in the transcendence of God (Psa. 148:13), before closing with a reference to the exaltation of Israel as “a people near to Him” (148:14). This last verse looks as though it is a foretaste of the future restoration of God’s people, in which case the whole psalm is a kind of adumbration of God’s creation as “a complex set of interrelationships that fir together into a unified whole”7 As Fretheim says, “Creation is a seamless web.”8 This is well brought out in the structure of the psalm:
The calls begin in the heavenly sphere (Psa. 148:1-4) and move to the earth (Psa. 148:7-12), with heaven and earth brought together in verse 13c, with a final note of praise centered on Israel in verse 14.9
This way of seeing the creation and of the human part in it is very instructive. I have always felt that the human preoccupation with pantheism, panentheism, and “mother earth” are only distorted glimmers of the shalom which was always meant to be and which the Fall has dissipated.10 Psalm 148 is an echo of Paradise, and an overture to the coming Kingdom.
1 Even the psalms which contain no prophetic verses contribute to how we are to understand the Bible. Psalm 119 contains no prophecy, yet it is instructive for biblical interpretation. Familiar passages such as 119:9, 11, 49, 89-91, 130, 142, 154 presuppose that one can take God at His word, and that its meaning is fixed. Psalm 119:130 declares “The entrance of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” But this presupposes that the words which give the light are comprehensible on their very surface. If the words themselves must be filtered through a grid of typology or figuration then it is the typology or figuration which give light, not the words of God. Psalm 56:12 tells us that vows to God are binding on human beings. But God’s covenant vows are equally binding on Him!
2 See George L. Klein, “The Doctrine of the Future in the Psalms: Reflections on the Struggle of Waiting”, in Eschatology: Biblical, Historical and Practical Approaches, edited by D. Jeffrey Bingham and Glenn R. Kreider, 157-174.
3 The “covenant with the fathers” in Deut. 4:31 is the unconditional Abrahamic covenant upon which the conditional Mosaic covenant is grounded. See Eugene H. Merrill, Deuteronomy, 129.
4 Dumbrell is surely correct in calling the Psalms “a compendium of biblical theology.” – William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 249.
5 This is one of several important texts which refer to the determined plan of God for the world as given by Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology, 313 n.11. The other passages are Psa. 106:13; Gen. 50:20; Isa. 5:19, 14:24, 26-27, 19:12, 19:17, 23:8-9, 25:1, 46:10, 55:8-9; Jer. 23:20, 29:11, 30:24, 49:20, 50:45, 51:11, 51:29; Mic. 4:12.
6 See Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, 249-268.
7 Ibid, 251
9 Ibid, 257
10 In saying this I do not intend to minimize the centrality of man within the created order. I have already made a point of saying that the world is fashioned especially with us in mind. But passages like this (and e.g. Psa. 145; Isa. 44:23; 55:12) express a forgotten truth; that we ought to feel at home with God on the earth. See also the essay “God Was Accommodating Himself to Human Capacity” in Ford Lewis Battles, Interpreting John Calvin, 117-137 (esp. 119).
Paul Henebury Bio
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.
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