Finding the Messiah in the Psalms

psalms

ABSTRACT & PURPOSE OF BIBLE STUDY

Bible Study Class: How to find the Messiah in the Psalms.

Summary Statement: All psalms have a relationship to the person and/or work of Christ, not just the traditional Messianic psalms.

Goal: This study’s goal is not to uncover Christ in every verse, but instead to understand how the major concepts and ideas of the Old Testament are foundational in understanding the person and work of Christ. Additionally, by understanding the different roles the Messiah/Jesus played in the psalms will enable the reader/student to view the psalms and the Old Testament through a new Christological lens.

PART I: UNDERSTANDING GENRE AND CONTEXT

            Genre classifications are vital to understanding a psalm in terms of proper context, mood, and structure and Richard Belcher correctly shows how the genre of a psalm also has implications for how a psalm relates to Christ.[1] When looking at genre, Belcher emphasizes it is critical to, “take into consideration the context of the psalm in its historical or literary setting, the unfolding of revelation through redemptive history, the unity of the purposes of God for His people, and the fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ.”[2]

Points to Avoid

            The reader must not solely focus only on the human author because this limits the meaning to only the historical or literary context and does not allow for the development of legitimate connections to Christ. Such connections only arise when the major concepts of a psalm are understood in their proper context and when those concepts in redemptive history are also understood.”[3] Additionally, as Gary Yates advises, “We must first do our work of establishing the original and historical message of the Old Testament text, but then we must also consider the canonical implications of the Old Testament text in light of its fuller canonical context in the New Testament. [Above all else,] we must be faithful to both.”

Key Themes About Jesus/Messiah in the Psalms

            One of the greatest ways to identify and understand the Messianic nature of the psalms is to analyze how Jesus viewed the Old Testament, specifically the encounter Jesus had with the two individuals on the road to Emmaus.[4] Belcher demonstrates why this is so significant, because “If Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures, then the Old Testament itself must be seen as preparatory and incomplete, moving toward the coming of the One who would fulfill all things. Thus the Old Testament is anticipatory and always looking ahead.”[5]

The covenant of marriage is a common concept used throughout the Old Testament[6] and New Testament[7] to define the relationship between Christ and His people. Paul portrays the oneness of marriage and the covenant role Christ plays in His relationship with the church[8] and Belcher illustrates, “Jesus points to Himself as the bridegroom and uses the parable of the royal marriage[9] to emphasize the necessity of accepting the invitation to the wedding feast and to come wearing the proper robe given by the king.”[10]

Psalm 22 pictures the Messiah as the suffering servant and is best understood first in its Old Testament context and then in terms of the crucifixion of Jesus. Belcher depicts “the suffering of the individual in Psalm 22 as a type of Christ’s suffering.”[11] This Messianic psalm has elements of both typology and prophecy and is best described as an individual lament, but also includes a section of praise and thanksgiving following God’s answer. Belcher shows the deliverance of the son of Jesse is a foreshadowing of the ultimate deliverance of the son of David and he rightly identifies, “All aspects of the work of Christ come into view in Psalm 22: His priestly work of suffering on our behalf; His prophetic work of proclaiming His deliverance; and His kingly work of reigning over all things.”[12]

When looking at royal psalms, especially in their historical context, the Lord was adopting the king as His son and the Lord was putting him on the throne as His human vice-regent. Belcher illustrates, “[While] the king leads the people in military battle, Yahweh is the one who ultimately fights for His people and wins the victory.”[13][14] Nancy deClaissé-Walford et al. further clarify, “The deification of the human king was pervasive in Israel and these ideas were adapted into a concept of the king being the ‘son of God,’ an earthly representative of the Lord, chosen by the Lord to rule over the people Israel.”[15] Frank E. Gaebelein further explains, “The king was God’s anointed representative [and] submission to the king implied submission to the God of Israel.”[16] John Walvoord brilliantly illustrates how the trilogy of Psalm 22, 23, and 24 gives a panoramic view of Christ. Walvoord expounds how, “Psalm 22 speaks of His work as the Good Shepherd dying on the cross for our sins.[17] Psalm 23 speaks of His present care for His own as the Great Shepherd,[18] interceding for them in heaven. Psalm 24 [then] describes Christ as the King of Glory, the Chief Shepherd,[19] who will enter the gates of Jerusalem.”

The psalms also picture Jesus as being a second Adam, by which communion was restored between God and humanity. Jesus is then pictured being a second David, by which the Davidic covenant truly becomes fulfilled and salvation was made possible. At the same time, while these passages often foreshadow a future event, they also demonstrate the humanity of Jesus. Psalm 41:9 captures the immense betrayal of a close friend, which Jesus would suffer at the hands of Judas Iscariot. Isaiah 53:3 prophesizes the Messiah would be despised and rejected, leading right back to Psalm 41:9, which showed betrayal was not a foreign experience to David.

Scholars use a variety of approaches to determine if a passage is directly or indirectly referring to Jesus. For example, the historical-critical approach has issues declaring any of the psalms as being Messianic because any hope for the future was centered in a historical king and as Belcher illuminates, “The problem with an approach that denies any Messianic elements in the psalms is that it disconnects the original meaning of the Old Testament from the New Testament.”[20] The literary critical approach moves away from a strictly historical view and emphasizes a more literary view, but as Belcher explains, “it still suffers from a dichotomy between the original meaning of the psalms and the New Testament interpretation.”[21] The historical grammatical approach is a step in the right direction, with the goal of affirming the importance of the divine element in the psalms, but “there is still no agreement on how to determine whether a psalm is Messianic…”[22] However, the Christological approach Belcher uses combines elements of the previous three methods by highlighting the “importance of historical context, the grammar of the Old Testament text, the literary characteristics of the text, what the text teaches about God (theology), the significance of the divine author, and sees the New Testament as a guide to how we approach the psalms.”[23] In this final approach, both the human author and divine author play a significant role. Belcher explains, “without taking into account the implications of a divine author, one is left trying to bridge the gap between the historical meaning of a psalm and a later meaning related to Christ. Focusing only on a human author limits the meaning to the historical or literary context and does not allow the development of legitimate connections to Christ.”[24] Ultimately, without Christ, the purpose of the Old Testament can never be fully understood.

PART II: TYPES OF MESSIANIC PSALMS

Royal Psalms

            Royal psalms are prayers offered to the Davidic king during special times, wars, or events based on the covenant promises that God made to the house of David, that his sons would rule forever.[25] Clarence Bullock identifies the common thread that holds these psalms together is the subject of kingship and, “The most obvious criteria are they (1) refer to the ‘king,’ (2) mention the ‘anointed’ one as a noun or make use of the verb, and (3) they refer to David by name.”[26] Royal psalms pray for the king of the day, but they also point to Jesus, specifically the indirect Messianic psalms because only Jesus can fulfill all the prophetic elements. This is clearly seen in Psalm 2 and serves as a great example, especially how verse 6 shows how the Lord has put the king on the throne and given historical context, this would be like the Lord adopting the king as His son. DeClaissé-Walford et al. demonstrate, “The themes of speech and kingship continue to be developed as the king reports God’s words and promises: He said to me, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you.’ In the Old Testament, as in other parts of the ancient Near East, the king was considered God’s son.[27] Many interpreters interpret the announcement today I have begotten you as a reference to God adopting the king as a son.”[28] Essentially, the Lord was establishing the king as His human vice-regent. Psalm 89 is another important royal psalm, especially considering when it was written. There was a crisis and serious problem when this psalm was penned because the Davidic rule had been compromised due to the Babylonian exile. However, despite the disobedience in the house of David that led to God removing the king from the throne, the purpose of this psalm is to ask the Lord what happened to His covenant promise, so this psalm is uttered in a way that is hoping and expecting God to keep His promise.

Typological Prophetic Messianic Psalms

            These psalms involve typology, which simply means they employ analogies or comparisons. This is commonly seen between David and Jesus or the righteous sufferer and Jesus. Psalm 41 is a great example, specifically verse 9 as DeClaissé-Walford et al. highlight, “The psalmist asserts that the suffering he is experiencing is exacerbated by those around him. When the text of the psalm is examined closely, it seems as if the sin of the enemies is a sin of omission rather than of commission and rather than acting as active agents of evil, the enemies have turned their backs on the psalmist by giving up hope for his recovery and by expecting his demise.”[29] Looking ahead to John 13:18, Leon Morris shows how quoting this psalm, “Represented the betrayal not of an acquaintance but of an intimate friend,”[30] which was exactly what the psalmist had experienced. Another good example is Psalm 69:9, which depicts the psalmist enduring persecution due to his devotion and zeal. Then in John 2:17, Morris explains how the Old Testament is present at every crucial moment in the Gospel and he then illustrates, “The action of Jesus gave evidence of a consuming zeal for the house of God and the ancient Scriptures found their fulfillment in what He did. John’s aim [was] showing Jesus to be the Messiah and all His actions imply a special relationship with God, which proceeded from His Messianic vocation.”[31] One of the most important principles to keep in mind is how the New Testament writers viewed the Old Testament, specifically the book of Psalms, which is the most cited book in the New Testament. In addition to seeing the similar roles between David and Jesus, the introduction of the Holy Spirit adds a prophetic element, which allowed the New Testament writers to make these connections.

Prophetic Typological Psalms

            These psalms are very similar to the Typological Prophetic Messianic Psalms, in that analogies, comparisons, and typology are still present. The noticeable difference is these psalms take on more of a prophetic element because as the writer of the psalms speaks of his own experience, the words that he is speaking and the things that he says actually go well beyond his own literal experience. Psalm 16 deals specifically with the deliverance from enemies and in verses 9-10, the psalmist is convinced God will protect him. DeClaissé-Walford et al. demonstrate, “The assurance that a person shall not be moved (bal ʾemmôṭ) is a statement of confidence, because the psalmist trusts in the external grace of the Lord, who is before me continually and is at my right hand.”[32] In Acts 2:25-28; F. F. Bruce further explains how Peter uses this psalm of confidence in his speech regarding the exaltation of Jesus taking place in the fulfillment of God’s promise to David. “The words, ‘you will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let your holy one see corruption,’ refer therefore to the Messiah of David’s line, ‘great David’s greater Son,’ whom David himself prefigured and in whose name he spoke those words by the Spirit of prophecy. These prophetic words, Peter goes on to argue, have been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth and in no one else; Jesus of Nazareth is therefore the expected Messiah.”[33]

Purely Prophetic Psalms

            These are specific and direct prophecies found throughout the Old Testament.[34] While there are not many found in the Psalter, Psalm 110 is a royal psalm that proclaims, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Writers of the New Testament quote this psalm fourteen times, more than any other passage because of its ability to illuminate the ministry of Jesus Christ, who became prophet, priest, and king over all people. Matthew 22:44 is one such occasion as R. T. France shows, “Apart from this underlying presupposition that the scriptural text is divinely inspired and therefore authoritative, this introductory formula makes three hermeneutical assumptions which will be crucial to Jesus’ argument: (a) that the speaker in Psalm 110 is David; (b) that David is speaking about the Messiah; and (c) that someone described as “my lord” is superior to the one speaking. Of these the third is the most obvious.”[35] What makes this psalm even more profound deals with it being written in the postexilic period, when Israel had no king on the throne. In an attempt to answer why a royal psalm of David was presented here, DeClaissé-Walford et al. explain, “Ancient Israel was seeking a rationale for continued existence as a distinct people within the vast empires. The people chose to find a way to remain a separate entity, so they rebuilt their temple; they resumed their religious observances; they wrote down their history; and they pledged their loyalty to their sovereign God, YHWH, the God of their ancestors.”[36] Here again, the king is depicted as God’s adopted son and while the king fulfilled some of the priestly roles, only Jesus Christ completely fulfills all the prophetic elements of this passage.

Eschatological Kingship Psalms

            These psalms focus on the reign and rule of God Himself and Psalm 47 serves as a great example. In its historical context, this psalm celebrates the kingship of God, making it an enthronement psalm, which also speaks of the lordship of Yahweh over all nations. As Frank Gaebelein indicates, “Its genre conforms to the psalms celebrating Yahweh’s kingship, [but] it also has a prophetic, eschatological dimension as the psalmist longs for the full establishment of God’s rule on earth.”[37] The purpose of this psalm was most likely the celebration of a mighty victory provided to Israel by Yahweh, but it also echoes what will happen in the future when every nation will recognize Yahweh as king. It is important to note every kingship promise found in the Old Testament can be applied to Jesus in the New Testament.[38] Messianic psalms point the reader to Jesus and the psalms are among the most widely cited Scriptures found in the New Testament, as they clearly define the work, role, and worship that Jesus deserves as king.

PART III: A NEW LENS

            Once an understanding of genre and context is gained, the reader is positioned to read the psalms and the Old Testament through a Christological lens. This was something many New Testament writers employed as they witnessed the life, death, and exaltation of Jesus, which provided them with a new insight to interpreting the Old Testament. Daniel Estes and many other scholars agree, “Several psalms have come to be called Messianic psalms even though it is quite likely the original psalmist did not grasp the Messianic dimensions that would later be explicated in the New Testament text.” Essentially, the New Testament writers understood the Old Testament text in a deeper reality that even the original authors might have. One important principle to keep in mind here is the Holy Spirit divinely inspired all Scripture,[39] but until Christ came, many of them were not fully understood.

Whenever contemplating the Messiah and the psalms, context is critical, but it is also important to understand what the fuller implications are as it relates to what Christ has done and what He will come back to finish. New Testament writers understood the historical and literary context of the Old Testament, which enabled them to clearly develop and explain how and why Jesus was the fulfillment of everything the prophetic Old Testament passages spoke of. John Goldingay accurately shows, “In light of Jesus’ coming, the Holy Spirit now inspires people to see significance in the Old Testament that was never there before.” New Testament writers were able to view the psalms in a new way. Psalm 8 is a great example because it is not only is a reflection of God’s creation and man’s role found in the Genesis account, but it also finds fulfillment in Hebrews 2, which applies these verses to Jesus Christ alone and His supremacy. In the original and historical context, man was given dominion, until sin entered the world. As a result, the passage speaks of Jesus and the writer of Hebrews makes a insightful conclusion that while humanity lost the image of God in the Garden, the first coming of Christ restored fellowship with God, and the second coming will make all things new. Jesus not only became a second Adam; He also became and a second David. The writer of Hebrews also recognized that Jesus had essentially become the sin and guilt offering, which was required for the remission of sins.[40] As F. F. Bruce demonstrates, “For a biblical statement of the sacrifice which could take away sins our author goes back to the Psalter,[41] and he finds a prophetic utterance which he recognizes as appropriate to the Son of God at the time of his incarnation. The title of this psalm marks it as Davidic[42] and the words of the psalm could not refer to David in propria persona,[43] and that therefore they should be understood as referring to ‘great David’s greater Son.’”[44]

While the failure of the Davidic Covenant appeared problematic, especially to those living in exile, it is important to understand the difference between the messiah in historical and eschatological terms. Bullock explains, “The historical level refers to the literal meaning: the king is the Israelite king, and David is the David of the Old Testament. By eschatological level, we refer to a future person: the king is a superhuman figure, designated by Yahweh to accomplish a superhuman task, and He is the Messiah, the Christ of the New Testament.”[45]

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION

            In an effort to find the Messiah in the psalms, this study has sought not to simply uncover Christ in every verse, but instead to understand how the major concepts and ideas of the Old Testament are foundational in understanding the person and work of Christ. Through a proper understanding of genre, historical and literary context, roles of Messiah/Jesus, and how the psalms are viewed through a Christological lens, it is apparent that all psalms have an unbreakable relationship to the person and/or work of Christ, and for that matter, so does the entirety of the Old and New Testament.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Belcher, Richard P. Jr. The Messiah and the Psalms: Preaching Christ from all the Psalms. Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2006.

Broyles, Craig C. Understanding the Bible Commentary Series: Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1999.

Bruce, F. F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988.

_______. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990.

Bullock, Clarence Hassell. Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2001.

DeClaissé-Walford, Nancy, Rolf Jacobson, and Beth Tanner, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014.

France, R. T. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.

Keil, Karl and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament – Volume 5: Psalms. Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark, 1891.

Morris, Leon. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.

Gaebelein, Frank E. ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991.


[1] Richard P. Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms: Preaching Christ from all the Psalms (Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2006), 197.

 

[2] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 195.

 

[3] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 195.

 

[4] Luke 24:26-27, 44-47

 

[5] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 32-33.

 

[6] Hosea 1-3; Psalm 45:10,16-17

 

[7] Revelation 19:6-8, 21:26; Ephesians 2:11-12; & Matthew 22:1-14

 

[8] Ephesians 5:22-27

 

[9] Matthew 22:1-14

 

[10] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 133.

 

[11] Ibid., 167.

 

[12] Ibid., 172.

 

[13] 1 Chronicles 29:23

 

[14] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 132.

 

[15] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf Jacobson, Beth Tanner, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 419.

 

[16] Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 347.

 

[17] John 10:11

 

[18] Hebrews 13:20

 

[19] I Peter 5:4

[20] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 24.

 

[21] Ibid., 25.

 

[22] Ibid., 28.

 

[23] Ibid., 31.

 

[24] Belcher Jr., The Messiah and the Psalms, 195.

 

[25] II Samuel 7

 

[26] Clarence Hassell Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms: A Literary and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2001), 178.

 

[27] II Samuel 7:14

 

[28] DeClaissé-Walford et al., NICOT– The Book of Psalms, 69.

 

[29] Ibid., 388.

 

[30] Leon Morris, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 552.

 

[31] Morris, NICNT – The Gospel According to John. 172.

 

[32] DeClaissé-Walford et al., NICOT– The Book of Psalms, 181.

 

[33] F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 64.

 

[34] Isaiah 9 & 11; Jeremiah 23 & 33; Hosea 3; & Ezekiel 34

[35] R. T. France, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 850.

 

[36] DeClaissé-Walford et al., NICOT– The Book of Psalms, 837-838.

 

[37] Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Volume 5: Psalms Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 357.

 

[38] Isaiah 45; Zechariah 14; Philippians 2; & Revelation 19

[39] II Timothy 3:16

[40] Hebrews 9:22

 

[41] Psalm 40:6-8

 

[42] It is found in both the Masoretic and Septuagint texts alike.

 

[43] David did offer sacrifices.

 

[44] F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), 239.

 

[45] Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms, 182.

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