Unlike some church traditions , the one with which I am most familiar did not use the Psalmody, nor were there liturgical readings and as a consequence the Psalms were less familiar, certainly less memorised. What was stressed, however, was that they revealed Christ. This Christological hermeneutic (that they spoke of Christ) was clearly correct. Christ himself laid its foundation when he said the OT Scriptures spoke of him and upon resurrection taught his disciples to find in these Scriptures, including the Psalms, ‘the things concerning himself’ (Lk 24:44). Later the apostles regularly cite the OT, and not least the Psalms, as a witness to the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. The theology of Hebrews in particular rests largely on a cluster of psalms.
It is important to recognise that a Christological reading of the OT is not a fanciful or merely imaginative reading of the OT by the apostles in the light of Christ. They do not subscribe to the post-modern interpretative notion that what matters is not the writer’s intention but the reader’s interpretation. These may, we are told, bear little resemblance. The NT writers are not the vanguard of such a hermeneutic; they did not see what was not there. They read the OT Christologically because it was Christotelic, that is, it looked forward intentionally to the future and the arrival of the Messianic Age and Messiah, the Christ. It was always promise awaiting fulfilment, expectation anticipating realisation. It had a goal and that goal was Christ. Christ and the apostles simply read the OT according to its own Christotelic intention.
This is as true of the Psalms as of any other of the OT; they too look forward. It is clear as we read them that however much they describe people and events of their time such is the poetic excess and exuberance that the immediate context cannot satisfy the poetic vision and something more ultimate is envisaged. What seems like mere lyrical excess is much more; it is the Holy Spirit engaging the poet’s heart and mind to envisage people and events yet future. In a word, the Psalms are prophetic.
Let me illustrate. One category of psalm, is the royal psalm. Many psalms are written by David, Israel’s archetypal king. Future Judaic kings were evaluated by their similarity or otherwise to David. Thus, Davidic psalms are royal psalms (though only some are so designated by scholars), expressing the perspective and aspirations of Israel’s king. Other psalms are written as eulogies to the Davidic king. Whether written by or for the Davidic king there is in these psalms hyperbolic elements of description and anticipation that go way beyond anything David or his successors experienced. There is an idealising, an exaltation, that makes the psalm transcend its initial reference. From these psalms a Davidic King and Kingdom such as Israel had never known emerges, a Warrior King who will conquer all his enemies and nurture his people. He will have a worldwide and everlasting Kingdom over which he will reign with wisdom and justice as a priest-king by the power of a life that like his kingdom never ends. He give his people God’s promised eternal rest (Ps 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132, 144. Cf. Hebs 1-5).
He is all that is great about David and immeasurably more; the king of which they speak does not so much aspire to be like David rather David acclaims him as Lord (Ps 110). His cause (Ps 2) will be championed by God for like the nation he is God’s son (the king is a kind of embodiment of the people). Indeed, and here some psalms are most daring, he will himself be God (Ps 45, 110; Cf. Lk 20:40-44; Hebs 1). He is both David’s son and David’s God, his offspring and his origin, the ultimate David (Ezekiel 34:23). In Messiah, divine sonship is taken to another level. He will not be merely a titular son, or adopted son (as were the Davidic Kings) but an actual son, the ‘one and only’ (Jn 1:14). Such a coomposite exalted poetic vision clearly exceeds normal royal reigns; it is plainly messianic. It is hardly surprising that Peter affirms in Acts 2 that David was a prophet (Acts 2:30,31). Indeed David’s life as first rejected then recognised king, his suffering and consequent glory, his heart for God and literary gifts shaped him by divine providence to be the prophet who would reveal in his songs not only the shape of the messianic kingship but the inner life of Messiah, his thoughts and emotions, his agonies and ecstasies, and his odyssey of tested faith which was the messianic mission.
Which brings us to a second Christological theme that pervades the Psalms, that of the righteous or innocent sufferer. The Davidic king is a divine son who suffers, and suffers unjustly. Psalm 22 comes immediately to mind. It is a psalm of David, a lament (there are more than fifty psalms of lament). For the faithful in Israel, Yahweh, the covenant keeping God, promised life, which had at its core the enjoyed presence of God. Yet here is a faithful son – one whose faith is foundational to his life for he has trusted from his mother’s womb – who faces death not life. The God he expects to be near is far off; it is his enemies who are near, and ironically, it is his fidelity that they use, with animal-like ferocity and cruelty, to mock and oppress him. He endures extreme physical and psychological distress. Pain, shame, isolation, and desolation overwhelm. Death is so certain and imminent that he describes himself as lying in ‘the dust of death’ while his enemies divvy up his clothing; he will not be wearing them again. Yet the lament ends with a cry for deliverance (22:19-21). The faithful son is distressed, dismayed, disoriented, and desolate but he does not doubt; he will trust with his last breath. His cry of dereliction does not issue from a loss of faith but a loss of fellowship, of contact.
We are not told in the psalm whether the afflicted one dies or not. In so far as it describes an actual experience of David clearly he did not die (or there would be no Psalm 22). But like so many psalms the experience described is so rarified it goes beyond that of the writer. David, for example, did not trust from his mother’s breasts. Here is a faith experience that transcends that of the writer. It is prophetic. It is fulfilled in Messiah. Only he does justice to the poetic vision. As one writer comments,
‘The only adequate and natural interpretation of the psalm is that which sees in it a lyrical prediction of the Sufferings of Messiah and the Glory that was to follow. No Sufferer but One could, without presumption, have expected his griefs to result in the conversion of nations to God.’
The psalm is repeatedly cited in the NT in the narration of the crucifixion (Matt 27:35,37,46). Jesus cites it (twice) on the cross as do his enemies who surround him though they do so unwittingly. Both confirm its anticipatory aim.
James H. Brooks wrote,
‘ the Psalms… describe so largely in prophecy the inner life of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin; and unless that fact is kept constantly in view, the Psalms cannot be read intelligently.
For Christ, of course, unlike David, deliverance from death is found beyond death and out of death (Hebs 2:14, 5:7) that he may be not only a model of persistent faith but the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Hebs 5:9). In resurrection he is surrounded no longer by enemies but by his own, those whom he calls ‘his brothers’. They are his ‘brothers’ not because he became one with them in incarnation (else all men would be his brothers) but because they become one with him through his death and resurrection. It is in resurrection he acknowledges the believing seed of Abraham as his brothers (Ps 22:22; Hebs 5:9; John 20:17).
There have been many righteous sufferers throughout history before and since the cross. Many of God’s sons have their sonship tested through unwarranted inexplicable suffering. Many have their faith stretched into the jaws of death. Jesus identifies with them all. He stands in organic union with all his brothers who suffer for their faith in the God. This psalm and others express not only the response of their authors to undeserved affliction and that of oppressed saints in future generations for whom they provide a resource for prayer but supremely they express the response of the messianic king who becomes in all ways like his brothers, sin apart (Hebs 2). Messiah became one of us. He was tested like us. He was traumatised as we are. He trusted as we are called to do. Our cry became his cry. Our distress his. And because his faith inevitably outstrips ours so too does the opposition such faith excites and the suffering that follows. If we want an insight into the physical and mental anguish that Christ experienced then we must reflect on the Psalms. There we find how he learned what it was to cry to God ‘out of the depths’ (Psalm 130) sometimes day and night without relief (Ps 22). And when we feel we are just there we are assured he has been there before us and knows how to sustain us in faith (Hebs 4:14-16).
Of course, there is a further dimension to Christ’s sufferings; he suffered vicariously for sins. Here too it seems the Psalms give insight. Many psalms describe occasions when God judges the writer for personal sin, yet some of these are applied in the NT to Christ. Clearly they can be so understood only when we realise that unlike the writer he suffered not for his own sin but for that of others. But here we begin to explore yet another way in which the psalms are prophecy of the Christ. And this, along with Messiah as both the ideal ‘blessed’ man of Psalm 1 and the favoured ‘son of man’ of Psalm 8 (Hebs 2) must await another time.