The Psalms are the expression of faith in Israel. They reveal the complexity of thoughts and feelings that were the response of faith to the experience of life in the old covenant. Moreover, they gave individual Israelites the language and thought-forms to express and interpret their own experience according to faith. If they express the faith of the godly in Israel then it goes without saying that they express too in many ways the faith experience of the true Israel, the Messiah; the Psalms are in large measure the words of Christ, his prayers and petitions.
In fact, I would argue, it is only in Christ that the anxieties, perplexities and apparent enigmas of faith voiced in the Psalms find their resolution. Without their fulfilment in Christ the Psalms remain a kaleidoscope of confused and apparently contradictory faith. Thus, in the words of the theologians, the Psalms are ultimately Christotelic – they find their goal and resolution in Christ. Christ not only experiences the Psalms but he explains them; the disconnects of faith in the Psalms are integrated in him. Little wonder the NT again and again cites or alludes to the Psalms as it tells and explains the story of Jesus; the Psalms expound Christ and Christ expounds the Psalms.
The Psalter opens with the ‘blessed man’ who meditates day and night in the law of the Lord and prospers in all he does. But such a man did not exist – until Messiah. He is the ‘blessed man’. He is the fully obedient man, the submissive one, who ‘delights to do your will O God’ (Ps 40); the man who has God’s law within his heart (Ps 40:7). He is the true man of Ps 8, the ‘son of man’ made for a little lower than angels for the suffering of death now crowned with glory and honour, the man to whom God has subjected the world to come (Hebs 2). (Adam was never a ‘son of man’ though Israel was (Ps 80:7). And so ‘son of man’ is Christ’s chosen title for himself, the true man and true Israel – a title of humility with overtones of glory. Dan 7:13)
And he is a ‘true man’ who truly suffers for he lives in a fallen world opposed to God. The Psalter is full of the cries of innocent sufferers, the righteous who suffer unjustly for their covenant faithfulness and bring their complaint to God in belief, yet dismay, for, if the covenant is true, why should the righteous suffer (Ps 73) rather ‘in all they do they should prosper (Ps 1). Yet, mystery of mysteries, even Messiah suffers. He is hated and despised because of his loyalty and zeal for the Lord – the reproaches of those who reproached the Lord fell on him (Ps 69). Shame, burned deeply in his soul (Ps 44:15) and isolating loneliness was his lot in obedience withering his soul (Ps 102). Some who are so tried find deliverance in life but many do not. Such is the experience of the godly sufferer in Psalm 22. Others trusted and were delivered but he was not; he lay in the dust of death. He knows what it is to make unrequited pleas for deliverance. He knows, as no other, the forsakenness and forlornness of soul of one whose loud existential ‘why’ echoes around the empty and pitiless heavens. The language of this Psalm and many others that express the suffering of the godly is the language of the Christ. In Messiah, this suffering will be fully experienced and ultimately explained. It is the language on his lips on the cross (Mk 15:34). Yet in all this harrowing there is no failure of faith. He knows that when tested no fault will be found (Ps 17). Even in death, in faith he will cry ‘it is finished’ and commit his spirit to the one who judges righteously. His faith in death awaits and anticipates resolution. If we wish to see the interior of the one whose self-given title was ‘son of man’ and who was made in all points like his brothers and tested as they (apart from sin) then we must bathe our minds in the cries of those who suffer unjustly in the Psalms.
Even the weight of sin and its consequences expressed in many psalms find their echo in Messiah. We must be very careful here. He had no sin to confess but as the sin-bearer, the one who was ‘made-sin’ (2 Cor 5) he knew only to well what the crushing weight of sin entailed. The sins that overwhelm him seem more than the hairs of his head (Ps 40; 38:4). He knows what it is to have the wrath of God sweep over him and lie heavily upon him (Ps 88) and what it is to be cast off and rejected and know God’s full wrath against him (Ps 89). Note well the wrath-bearing! The green tree enters into the same judgement (burning) as the tree that is dry (Ps 52:8; Lk 23:31). Indeed this Psalm explores another theme. It is not simply the enigma of wrath against a righteous sufferer, it is wrath against God’s ‘anointed’ (Ps 89:38), wrath against the Messiah, the appointed King.
Christ is the Davidic King of the Psalms. He is the one anointed to bring God’s salvation (and judgement) to the nations (Ps 110:6; 22:27; 45:17). The ‘blessed man’ of Ps 1 is the anointed King of Ps 2. Against him the nations plot and rage in vain (Cf Acts 4:25). In vain, because God has set his King upon his holy hill of Zion and he will rule the nations. Yet, in Ps 89, this same Davidic King with whom the Lord had promised a father son relationship, whom he declared would be his firstborn over all the kings of the earth, and whom he had covenanted to protect and whose foes to crush, finds the covenant apparently renounced, his crown lying in the dust, and his enemies triumphant (Ps 89). Is God unfaithful? This is the besetting fearful doubt with which Satan attacks the godly in Israel seeking to rob them of joy and faith; it is the test of faith.
Only in Christ is the resolution. The innocent sufferer of Psalm 22 may lie in the dust of death, his pleas for deliverance apparently unheard. The messianic King may seem to have been abandoned to his enemies, his crown lying in the dust. But God’s promises will not fail. God is faithful to his covenant. He is righteous and will deliver his righteous servant (Ps 18:43). His fulfilled promise will eclipse all expectation for he will prevail over death itself. And the innocent sufferer of Ps 22 affirms this. In the dust of death he declares in faith, ‘ I will declare your name to my brothers and in the midst of the great congregation I will praise you’. In the words of another Psalm, God will not suffer his holy one to see corruption but bring him into the light of life (Ps 16); deliverance from death would in Messiah take on a new meaning and hope (Acts 2:27).
It would be in resurrection triumph the righteous sufferer, Messiah would ascend the throne and hear the divine vindication and recognition, ‘You are my son , whom today I have begotten’ (Ps 2). In resurrection he would receive the call to enthronement, ‘sit at my right hand until I make all your enemies your footstool’ (Ps 110:1). He would be the King-Priest exalted above all his enemies (Ps 18) , entering after victory in battle into the holy place in glory (Ps 24) commencing a reign that would have no end (Ps 110) and whose dominion will stretch from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth (Ps 72). Indeed, it is then, in ascension, the greatest mystery of all would be fully revealed, when, ‘I shall be to him a father and he shall be to me a son’ would be understood as more, so much more, than merely Yahweh’s adoption of a Davidic King, rather it would reveal a truly Divine relationship – that he who was the Davidic ”son of David’ (Ps 132) and the Adamic ‘son of man’ (Ps 8 ) was in the fullest sense possible the Divine ‘Son'; he was in truth the ‘Son of God’. Here is the full resolution of the enigma of the Psalms. This makes sense of the words of Ps 110, ‘the Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand…’ (Ps 110) and Psalm 45, addressed to the Davidic King on ascension to the throne:
Ps 45:6-7 (ESV)
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.
Thus, upon the resurrection of the Christ Paul writes:
Rom 1:1-6 (ESV)
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
Total resolution awaits a future day – we too see not yet all things under the feet of man – we await the day of final and complete vindication, but like all who lived by faith in the Psalms, though with a clearer eye from a higher vantage-point, we see Jesus (his very human name) made a little lower than the angels because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour, and with him we await the day when all his enemies become the footstool of his feet. This is the Lord’s doing and it is glorious in our eyes (Ps 118:23).
This is a simple outline of the Christotelic nature of the Psalms. In these weeks that precede advent I hope to reflect on one or two of these Psalms that reveal to us the human thoughts and feelings of the word who became flesh.