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The Christology of the Psalms
Everyone knows that from an evangelical perspective there are a number of psalms that are designated “Messianic.” In surveying some of the categories above, it has already been impossible to avoid encountering the doctrine of Christ. Christology surfaces in many of the Psalms, although the main “Messianic Psalms” are Psalms 2, 22, 69, 110, and 118. These five are so-called mainly because they are employed by the New Testament writers to relate in some way to aspects of Jesus Christ’s life and ministry.1 If we quickly survey these five Psalms we find that,
- Psalm 2 speaks first in verse 2 of Yahweh and His Anointed (Meschiach) in the context of rampant and universal antagonism. Despite this enmity the “Son” will rule on the earth.
- Psalm 22 describes the terrible suffering of the Messiah; His isolation in the midst of His enemies. But there is a hint of what is to come.
- Psalm 69 is used by John to refer to Christ’s feelings when He cleansed the Temple.
- Psalm 110 contains statements which cannot be applied to any other but Jesus. This includes a special priesthood and kingship.2 I shall look at this text in some detail.
- Psalm 118 is a Hallel Psalm which speaks among other things of Jesus’ rejection and eventual exaltation.
So right off the bat from these briefest of descriptions of just five “Messianic” Psalms, the following Christological facts are revealed:
- Messiah is the chosen One of God and is hated by the nations. There is a special relation to God and a corresponding reaction to that relation from the world.
- Messiah is to suffer at the hands of His enemies. This means that God’s enemies will be permitted to take God’s Anointed and make Him suffer for having this special relationship with God.
- Messiah will be zealous for pure worship. This implies an impurity and hypocrisy in the prescribed worship of the religious leaders of the day.
- Messiah will triumph over His enemies and will rule the nations. One day all political concerns will be placed in one hand! There will be many who exercise limited authority, but these will do so as service for the Lord of Lords.
- He will also supply a necessary intermediary function between His people and God. As there will be no High Priest from the Levite line Jesus Himself has taken the role but as representing the Melchizedekian line. Spiritual and political realms will come together in Messiah Jesus.
- Messiah will first suffer rejection, but this rejection will result in the destruction of those who reject Him, while insuring His adoration and praise. Messiah’s humiliation and exaltation are connected with God’s judgment and God’s restoration of mankind to a fully appreciative and worshipful relationship with their Creator.
The Psalms Provide Us with a Picture of Christ
Without exploring every detail of these Psalms I now want to fill in the portrait of Christ with which the NT makes us familiar from data gleaned from within the Psalms. I shall not trawl through each psalm individually. Rather I want to draw from the Book in much the same way one might draw from, say, Romans, to teach Bible doctrine. We expect to see Jesus in the Psalms, because He has Himself gone there; for example, when He expounded things concerning Himself to the men on the Emmaus road in Luke 24:44.
The basic categories into which we shall divide a presentation of the Person and Work of Christ are these3: Preexistence, Deity, Humanity, Sinlessness, Threefold Office, Sacrificial Death, Resurrection and Ascension.
Christ’s Preexistence can be traced in Psalm 40:6-8:
Sacrifice and offering You did not desire;
My ears You have opened.
Burnt offering and sin offering You did not require.
Then I said, “Behold, I come;
In the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do Your will, O my God,
And Your law is within my heart.
Who is the person spoken of in verse 7? In the immediate context it probably refers to the attentive worshipper, the “scroll of the book” being the Law4, and perhaps, more particularly the covenant stipulations therein.5 But a deeper prophetic meaning is discernible. It seems to predict the coming of someone. The verses portray one who is completely in God’s hand, and who is willing to render any service, perhaps even self-sacrifice.6
The writer of Hebrews has here followed the Greek OT (LXX) rendering of Psalm 40:6. Instead of referring just to the ears, the Greek refers to the “body,” i.e. the whole person. But there is nothing odd going on here. The parenthetical clause which speaks of “ears dug out” is a synecdoche and simply implies that if the speaker has a person’s ear he has all of them. This is how the writer of Hebrews sees Christ. As a recent book on Christ’s pre-existence puts it:
The language of the passage appears most consistent with that of personal preexistence, with the one receiving the body already in some other form.7
Christ’s Deity is easily established from Psalm 45:6 and 11:
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. (Psalm 45:6)
Yahweh speaks to the One who receives the scepter. This scepter is associated in the verse with the “throne” of God and the “kingdom” of righteousness. The honored recipient takes on the role of King over an eternal kingdom. This new king is Divine! Since Yahweh is the Speaker and the recipient is clearly referred to as “God,” we conclude that here we have the Father addressing the Son. And this is confirmed by the author of the Book of Hebrews in Hebrews 1:8-9.
So the King will greatly desire your beauty; Because He is your Lord, worship Him. (Psalm 45:11)
In this verse the king of verse 6 is to be worshiped as Lord. These verses should probably be seen as finding fulfillment in the coming Millennial Kingdom (cf. Isa. 11:1-10; Psa. 89:14; Zech. 6:12-13; 8:2-3). One should also compare Psalms 24 and 46 in this regard. More on this below.
Christ’s Humanity is seen in His suffering in Psalm 22. Of course, He couldn’t suffer the torments depicted in Psalm 22:9-18 if He were not human. We should remember that He could not be in the Davidic line (Psa. 89:34-37) if He were not truly a man.
Christ’s Sinlessness may be gathered from a statement in Psalm 45:7. In this passage we read, “You love righteousness and hate wickedness.” This statement on its own might be applied to any man of God, but from what follows we see that God is rewarding the Divine King of the previous verse with a special anointing. And a sinful man, even if his sins were covered (Psa. 32:1-2), would not be qualified to wield “the scepter of righteousness.”
Christ’s Sacrificial Death as has already been stated, is seen in Psalm 22. Not only does Jesus on the Cross cry the first verse, but the descriptions of, among other things, the reproach (vv. 6-8, 12-13, 16), the dislocation of the bones (v.14), the desperate thirst (v.15), the piercing of the hands and feet (v.16), and the prediction of the dividing of the coat and casting lots over the robe (v.18) force themselves upon the attentive reader.
In writing of the Psalm’s twin emphases on suffering and kingship, Michael Travers concludes,
For Jesus Christ, the greatest agony of all is his separation from God (vv.1-2, 14-18), and his greatest joy is the eternal kingdom the Father provides believers through his death (vv.22-31). Messiah is both the suffering servant and the Great King of an eternal kingdom.8
1 Psalm 8 might also be treated, though debate over its OT Messianic overtones usually debars it from inclusion as a Messianic Psalm. I believe that it should be seen as a Psalm on the dignity of man as intended by the Creator
2 There is no good reason to see a tension between the High Priesthood of Melchisedek and the covenant to Phinehas. E.g. Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 228-238. Since the kingdom temple shown to Ezekiel has Phinehas’s descendents ministering to the Lord but has no Levitical High Priest this role could be taken by Christ the Priest-King. Creating a tension is a way of introducing typological interpretations of plain texts.
3 See also the list in Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev & exp., 500
4 Franz Delitzsch, Psalms, vol. 2, 40
5 Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1, 865
6 Bruce K. Waltke, Old Testament Theology, 128. Also Derek Kidner, Psalms 1 – 72, 160
7 Douglas McCready, He Came Down From Heaven: The Preexistence of Christ and the Christian Faith, 132.
8 Michael Travers, Encountering God in the Psalms, 185
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.