Reading the Psalms Christologically
Lament Psalms – #3 – Reading Christologically - Psalms 17 and 18 In the Psalms, God has given us appropriate words for us to appropriate. The psalms help us to reshape the way that we process the struggles of life that trigger our “dark emotions”. A lament psalm takes us on a journey from lament to praise. Moreover, the book of Psalms has been arranged into 5 books, to take Ancient Israel on a journey from lament to praise. The first two books - Psalms 1-72 – focus on the experience of King David, the Lord’s anointed. Although Christians have been accustomed to pray the psalms as our prayers, it is vital that, before we can take the words of the Psalms as our words, we remember that they were somebody else’s words first. In particular, they are the prayers of the Lord’s anointed. To understand the book of Psalms as a whole, we have to view it through the lens of the Lord’s anointed. This session is going to look at what the book of Psalms says about “suffering and the Lord’s anointed” or as we would say, the suffering Christ. Across the 5 books, the majority of psalms are either lament or thanksgiving and praise. But there are two other types of psalms, which though not as numerous, are placed at strategic points in the book. They are known as “wisdom” psalms and “royal” psalms. Psalms 1 and 2 are examples of this. Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm that tells us what the wise man does. Psalm 2 is a “royal psalm” about Lord’s anointed - the King - whom God has exalted on Zion. The Royal and Wisdom Psalms come at strategic points along the way, particularly at the “seams” between books. Notice in particular the beginning of book 1, the end of book 2, the end of book 3, and the end of book 4. Notice also the fact that they often come in green/purple pairs. These psalms function as markers to help the reader understand the “plot” of the book of psalms, by reminding them of the overarching message of the gateway psalms – Psalms 1 & 2. Psalms 1 and 2 set up the expectation that the way to be blessed is to medicate on God’s law and walk in his ways (Psalm 1) and to submit to Lord’s anointed, whom the Lord will exalt in Zion (Psalm 2). But how does that square with experience. It answer that question from David’s perspective, we are going to look together at Psalm 17 and 18. This is a pair of psalms in dialogue with each other. The first is David’s cry for deliverance, and the second is David’s prayer in praise for God’s deliverance. In Psalm 17, David is pleading with God to save him from his foes – verse 9 – “the wicked who assail me, from my mortal enemies who surround me.” Verses 11-12 – they have tracked him down and surrounded him; “They are like a lion hungry for prey”. What does David want God to do? The petition is in verses 13 and 14 13 Rise up, O LORD, confront them, bring them down; rescue me from the wicked by your sword. 14 O LORD, by your hand save me from such men… David recognises that he is powerless himself to conquer his foes, he needs God to step in and save him. To be precise – this is not merely a prayer for deliverance; it is a prayer for vindication – See verse 2: “May my vindication come from you; may your eyes see what is right.” That is, David is calling on God to save him because he is righteous, and his enemies are not. He says this from the outset – “Hear, O LORD, my righteous plea; listen to my cry. Give ear to my prayer-- it does not rise from deceitful lips.” In verses 3 and 4, he repeats his assertion that he is blameless. 3 Though you probe my heart and examine me at night, though you test me, you will find nothing; I have resolved that my mouth will not sin. 4 As for the deeds of men-- by the word of your lips I have kept myself from the ways of the violent. We can’t pray this prayer for ourselves, can we? Which of us is confident to say to God “God – probe my heart… though you test me, you will find nothing”. There is no way that I can pray to God – “vindicate me, because I am blameless” … and I suspect that is also true for you. Psalm 17 is not a prayer for every believer. Rather, Psalm 17 is a prayer of David – David, the righteous sufferer. David, whom the Lord has chosen to be his anointed king, but who is not experiencing what Psalm 2 would lead us to expect. Psalm 17 exposes the gap between the ideal of Psalm 2, and David’s lived experience. At this point in David’s life he is being pursued by Saul and his armies – enemies who surround the Lord’s anointed. How does the Lord’s anointed respond? Verse 7 – he trusts in – he takes refuge in – God’s steadfast love. He prays for God to “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings”. Psalm 17 is a prayer for the king’s vindication. Psalm 18 is praise from a vindicated righteous king. Psalm 18 is a sequel to Psalm 17. The superscription to the psalm tells us the context - A Psalm of David … on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies… Verses 4-5 recounts David’s dire situation – “The cords of death encompassed me”. He doesn’t just say it once, he says it four times in different words. “Torrents of perdition assail me, cords of Sheol entangle me, the snares of death confronted me…” David’s life is hanging by a thread. This is not just David-the-man but David-the-Lord’s-anointed. This point is made explicit that in the very last verse of the Psalm “…great triumphs he gives to his king…..he shows steadfast love to his anointed to David and his descendants forever”. This psalm depicts the life of God’s anointed hanging by a thread, as it were. How does God respond? Verses 7-19 depict the Lord as a divine warrior, riding on a cherub and swooping down to come to David’s aid, accompanied by all kinds of heavenly pyrotechnics – hailstones, thunder, lightning… The net result? David can say in verse 16 - He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of the mire waters. David had been in the pit; he is almost in Sheol itself but God has rescued him from death. Verses 20-27 explain why God has saved David his anointed and it echoes that vindication theme of Psalm 17 – “The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness… 21 For I have kept the ways of the LORD… 23 I have been blameless before him” In the main body of the Psalm from verses 28 to 45, David is boasting in God’s salvation. This is not just a personal victory over a personal enemy, but the victory of the Lord’s anointed that has puts his King on his rightful place on the throne of Israel and Judah. We see this in verse 43: 43 You delivered me from strife with the peoples; you made me head of the nations. The punchline of the psalm is the last verse, which I have already quoted in part - 50 Great triumphs he gives to his king, he shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever. Psalms 17 and 18 are a pair of psalms about the righteous suffering of the Lord’s anointed. Psalm 2 has already hinted at the problem – 2 The kings of the earth take their stand, their rulers gather together against the LORD and his Anointed One. Clearly, there are some who will oppose the Lord’s Anointed, but it doesn’t look like much of problem in Psalm 2. God laughs at puny human beings who shake their fist in the face of the Lord and his anointed. But Psalm 17 shows us that opposition to the Lord’s anointed is not trivial or inconsequential. When the rulers of this world take their stand against the Lord’s anointed – it looks dire. God’s king surrounded by mortal enemies; God’s righteous one who suffers unjustly. The book of Psalms is making an important point by putting Psalm 18 after Psalm 17. It says to us that there may indeed be a time where the life of the Lord’s anointed is hanging in the balance, but God will save his anointed. And – when God does save his Anointed - it is going to be an unlikely salvation – like snatching victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat. God’s salvation is a dramatic cosmic overthrow. It involves God coming down from on high to triumph over his enemies. The idea that the Lord’s anointed will suffer is not limited to Psalm 17 and 18. In fact, there are a string a psalms where this is the major theme - Psalms 22, 31, 34, 38, 39, 41, 69, ). After his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples that “it is written that the Christ should suffer” (Lk 24:46). Where is this written? Most especially in these psalms about the Lord’s anointed who suffers. The first part of the book of Psalms establishes this paradox of the Lord’s anointed being a righteous sufferer who is eventually vindicated, using the historical example of the King David. However, it become clear that David is not the King that Psalm 2 promises. It turns out that David is sinful and subject to human frailty like us all. It will be one of David’s descendants who will be that king – that is what God’s covenant with David has promised. At the time the book of Psalms is compiled, the Psalm 2 king has not arrived. The book of Psalms encourages Israel to cling to three foundational truths – that the Lord is able to keep his promises, because the Lord reigns; That Lord will keep his covenant promises – because the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; and that the sin of his people will not get in the way of the Lord saving his people, because the Lord is gracious and compassionate. Since these things are true, Israel should still be looking for – and longing for - the psalm 2 king to arrive. There are two key psalms in middle of Book V that keep this hope front and centre. The first is Psalm 110. This psalm is a recapitulation and a reaffirmation of the promises of Psalm 2, of a king who will rule from Zion triumphing over his enemies. In Psalm 110, The Lord says to his king “sit at my right hand and I will make the enemies a footstool for your feet”. This king is not just reigning Zion – he is seated at God’s right hand, and the kings enemies are so utterly conquered that they are a “footstool for [his] feet”. Psalm 110 says to Israel after the exile – the psalm 2 king is still yet to arrive. The second Psalm is Psalm 118. Psalm 118 is a recapitulation and reaffirmation of Psalm 18. Like Psalm 18, this psalm is about God’s King who right on the very edge of death - all his enemies surrounding him – who feels like he is going down for the count, and at the very last minute God steps in and rescues him. This will be such an unlikely salvation that no-one would have guessed it – the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Psalm 118 looks back at the historical situation of David in Psalm 18, and tell us that God is going to do this again.1 The book of Psalms leaves us still waiting for God to do what he has promised. It establishes the paradigm of victory-through-suffering – What was true for David – that God saves through suffering – is also how God will save his people. But when? You have already guessed where this is all going–the book of Psalms is pointing beyond itself to the New Testament. Jesus turns out to be one we’ve been waiting for. Jesus is the “King” of Psalm 118 : Luke 19:35-38 (so-called Triumphant Entry) Psalm 118 pictures the King riding up to Jerusalem on a donkey to the acclaim of the people there who proclaim “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. This unlikely King whom God has rescued from the very point of death to be the deliverer for God’s people. And the New Testament says “that’s Jesus”. Jesus is David’s “Lord” a la Psalm 110: Luke 20:41-44 (cf. Acts 2:34-25) Likewise the New Testament picks up the promises of Psalm 110. The one to whom the Lord said to my Lord, come and sit at my right hand until I make my enemies a footstool for your feet. The New Testament says “that’s Jesus”. The Ps 2 king wasn’t David. It was great David’s greatest son. Jesus is the suffering Christ, who came to win salvation for God’s people through the most unlikely of victories. Overcoming sin by offering himself as a sin offering. Breaking the curse by become accursed for us. Defeating death by dying on cross. [2360 words - 23 Minutes] EXTRA MATERIAL (NOT IN 20 MINUTE SERMON) So what does that mean for us? It means that before we just pick up the Psalms and appropriate them for ourselves, we actually have to read the Psalms Christologically, because Jesus says these Scriptures testify concerning me. Sometimes in the Psalms what we meet there is the Lord’s anointed of Psalm 2, and so therefore, these are not Psalms about me. Reading Psalms Christologically (“These scriptures testify concerning me” – John 5:39) When we read the psalms, we need to ask the question – Am I seeing a portrait of Jesus here? The Lord’s anointed of Psalm 2 (against whom the nations rage) The righteous sufferer (who continues to trust in the Lord) The unlikely victor (whom the Lord delivers from death) The saviour of “the righteous” (who wins a victory on behalf of his people) The model worshipper (who leads the congregation in praise) Am I seeing Jesus, the Lord’s anointed of Psalm 2 (against whom the nations rage). Psalm 17 is one of these psalms. It means that Psalm 17 is not “all about me”. I cannot say “The Lord must vindicate me because I am righteous”. Likewise, I can’t claim Psalm 18 for myself that, although as a child, I did this in Sunday School – I learnt this: It is God who trains my hands for war,My arms can bend a bow of bronze We sang the songs of military triumph, not recognising they are actually describing the triumph ultimately of Christ on the cross. This is NOT a licence for me to crush my enemies into the dust. Or am I seeing Jesus, the righteous sufferer who continues to trust in the Lord in the face of all his hardship, and he is also Jesus the unlikely victor, the victor given over from the very point of death, the one whom God snatches victory out of the jaws of defeat. Or am I seeing Jesus, the unlikely victor, who is also the saviour of the righteous. In Psalm 18, and even more so in Psalm 118, when the Lord gives victory to his anointed is an overflows victory for his people. Jesus is the righteous victor whose victory saves his people. Or do we see a picture of Jesus the model worshipper, who leads the congregation in praise of God who saves his people. As we read the psalms, we need to keep those five pictures of Jesus in mind, because the first question to ask is NOT what is the Psalm saying about me? Rather, what is this Psalm saying about Jesus? Once we have one this, we can then appropriate these Psalms for ourselves, by appropriating them through Jesus. For example, if the theme is Christ the righteous sufferer, we have to ask how we Share in Christ’s Sufferings (Romans 8:17) Let me give three examples of how the New Testament does this. If Jesus is the one who is the righteous sufferer whom God vindicates in the end, does that mean that these Psalms have nothing to say to us? No. The apply to us because of our connection with Christ. For example in John 15 verse 18 – Jesus told his disciples/told us “if the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. It was to fulfil the word that is written in their law- they hated me without cause”. Jesus there quotes Psalm 69 verse 4 - one of those Psalms of the suffering servant. Jesus says that this psalm is not just about how they are going to treat me – “they hated me without cause” – but guess what – because you and I are one – they are going to hate you too. Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 4:11-13 Paul quotes from Psalm 116:10. In full, the verse says “I believed, and so I spoke ‘I am greatly afflicted.’”. The speaker is the suffering messiah, continuing to trust God in the face of hardship. In 2 Corinthians, Paul applies it to the Christian, because we share the “same spirit of faith”. We too must keep trusting in God and keep speaking his truth, even in spite of sufferings - “given up to death for Jesus’ sake” 2Cor 4 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. 13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture – “I believed, and so I spoke” [quoting Ps 116:10] – we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus… And lastly, Hebrews 13:6 says “so can we say with confidence the Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid, what can anyone do to me?” In the original context, those words are from Psalm 118 verse 6 – they are the words of the Lord’s anointed, who is face to face with his enemies. But Hebrews 13 says that we too can say these words with confidence. The big idea for this session is that the Book of Psalms is first, and foremost, a book not about us but about the Lord’s anointed. It is about Lord who is faithful, his HESED - covenant love – who will not give up on his people. We have seen that come true in the life of the Lord Jesus and if it is true for Jesus, it is also true for his people. You can trust in him as it says in Hebrews “we can say with confidence the Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me”. Let us pray.