When readers approach a piece of literature in isolation, from a cold start, it is helpful to know where it fits in to the large picture of life. Who wrote it? What is it about? What are its claims for itself? Psalms has a distinct voice and point of view that are easily recognized. Psalms is about the Judeo-Christian God. Its voices speak about God, to God, and by God.
Postmodernism acknowledges few authorities in life; little is fixed, certain, or absolute. Concepts such as good and evil rarely exist and prove difficult to define. Even the premises of language itself are not to be trusted. Everything is up for grabs—there are no givens.
The point of view of Psalms is opposite from that of postmodernism. God in Psalms is the supreme and supremely authoritative being with personality. Absolutes of good and evil exist and are clearly defined. Language, including metaphor, is to be taken at face value. Male pronouns are used to refer to God. Psalms invites the reader to come to God (Psalm 34:8).
In Psalms, God is the creator of all things, and he remains highly involved and concerned about the people he created. God is good, but he has enemies, including a chief enemy. Both God’s goodness and the wickedness of his enemies are absolutes.
Psalms recounts how God called out a special people, Israel, to be his own. Israel’s history, recorded elsewhere in Scripture, is often recalled in Psalms. God is jealous over Israel, much as a husband might be jealous for his wife.
Though Psalms talks about absolutes, its language can be difficult. The various psalms often use pronouns, and these are just as often not defined. The referents of the pronouns frequently change within a single psalm. Sometimes the changes are marked by clues of identity; often they are not. The reader must keep in mind the basic premises outlined above (God is supreme authority; God is good; God loves, cares for, and is jealous over his people Israel; God has enemies) as aids for understanding who are the subjects, objects, and speaker(s). Many of the psalms, especially what are commonly called the “Psalms of David,” are in first person. Readers can be challenged to recognize the identity of the speaker in first person.
The New Testament offers a key for interpreting Psalms. Jesus Christ identifies himself as their subject (Luke 24:44). Other writers, notably Peter (Acts 1:20; 1:25-36), Paul (Luke 13:33-36), and the author of the letter to the Hebrews (nearly all of Chapter 1), read and write of Psalms with Jesus Christ in view. Further, the Rule of Faith, as preached by the Apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, ESV), and the basic facts of Jesus’ life, as presented in the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are great keys to unlocking and interpreting the psalms, especially as means of identifying the first person speaker. The specifics of the gospel message that the apostles preached, as outlined above, is called the kerygma of Apostolic preaching. I, as writer of this blog, will use the keys presented in this paragraph in my ongoing guide to Psalms. Not least, but finally, it is always good, helpful, and even essential to pray for God’s guidance before and while considering any portion of Scripture, including Psalms. The Bible is God’s Word, and he wants us to “get it.”
The content of this post has moved: Christ in the Psalms: Annotated Bibliography
The Thesis: Many psalms record Jesus Christ praying to God and in them God replies, sometimes with speech, often with action.
Have you ever prayed a prayer to God, wishing he would reply, and he actually does? Do you remember how that feels? If God speaks to us, why wouldn’t he speak to his Son? Well, in Scripture he does!
There are two main biblical sources for the prayers of Christ to his Father God.
I. the Gospels
II. the Psalms
I. Three gospel accounts come to mind that record actual prayers of Christ. There are many more:
John 11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”
After the above address to his Father, Jesus commanded his friend Lazarus, who had been dead in the tomb for four days, to come out, and he did. Jesus had thanked his Father in advance, and the answered prayer was in fact the miracle.
Mark 15:34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The above cry to his Father, Jesus made from the cross. God’s reply was to resurrect his Son.
John 12:27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.
Here again, Jesus cried out to his Father, and this time, God answered him with actual, audible words. This is not the first time that God the Father spoke to his Son with audible words. He also spoke audibly at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-12) and at his transfiguration (Luke 9:34-35). Later in Scripture, after his ascension, Jesus in turn spoke down to Saul, who became Paul, in audible words.
II. The second place we hear the voice of the Lord in prayer is in the book of Psalms. Prophetically spoken, Psalms are filled with prayers of Christ to God his Father, prayers to be realized by Christ during his incarnation. In some of the psalms, God himself speaks; in others, only Jesus speaks. In many psalms, Christ, the one praying, reports that God has heard and replied. Most often, the replies are not words the reader can hear, but replies of action. The action can be of different kinds: some is simply reported by the one praying, who is Christ; other actions are described in detail for the reader to see and hear, such as in Psalm 18. Sometimes the reply can be found in the same psalm as the prayed request. Other times the reply can be located across the book in other psalms. All the psalmist’s prayers are answered somewhere within the book of Psalms. As mentioned, when Jesus prays in the Psalms, it is prophetically, by the Holy Spirit, through the prophet/writer, such as David. Much more will be said on this in future posts.
Psalm 22:1 To the choirmaster: according to The Doe of the Dawn. A Psalm of David. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? (See Mark 15:34 above and Matthew 27:35.)
God responded to the above cry with action. The psalmist reports the action in verse 21b and praises God throughout the rest of the psalm:
21b You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! [and forward]
Psalm 5:1 To the choirmaster: for the flutes. A Psalm of David. Give ear to my words, O LORD; consider my groaning. 2 Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you do I pray.
While this psalm has no specific answer given within the psalm itself, other places in the psalter speak loudly of its answered prayer. One place might be Psalm 103:
2 Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,
3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5 who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Psalm 138:1 Of David. I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise;
2 I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word.
3 On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.
Verse 3 above is a reported answer to prayer. The entire psalm is one of praise and thanksgiving.
I look forward to delving into actual psalms in detail. Before we do that, however, I feel it would be practical and useful to describe a few of the books I have discovered that bear witness to my approach of hearing the voice of Christ in prayer to his Father within the book of Psalms. So, Lord willing, my next post will present other authors who read Psalms with this ear.
Which Bible Should I Use?
A quick, short answer is that you should use a Bible that you like, one that you are most likely to pick up and read. Actually reading the Bible is more important than which translation you use, especially since the Holy Spirit is the one who will be opening the Scripture to you (See The Holy Spirit in the Reader.)
Every English language Bible is a translation, since for the most part, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament was written in Greek. The modern versions of these languages are not identical with the older languages used during the years the Bible was written. All Bibles in languages other than the original Hebrew and Greek are translations. Therefore, there will be differences among them—this is unavoidable! English translations I have regularly used and recommend include the ESV and the NIV, especially the older, 1985 version. The New King James Version and the King James Version are also good.
Good translations stick very closely to the wording of the original language, even including word for word reproductions of what some might call idioms. A good translation also preserves gender specific pronouns when the meaning might be thought either to support a specific person of a certain gender or a reference to humanity in general. The best rule of thumb is to let the language of Scripture speak for itself, and a good translation does just that.
For studying Scripture, paraphrased translations are poor starting points. A paraphrase is a translation in which words have been added, others dropped, and exact words of the original languages have been substituted by other words that the translators consider to be more palatable or understandable to modern tastes or sensibilities. The NIV sticks to the original intent of the biblical authors without use of word for word translation (dynamic equivalence), while the KJV, the NKJV, the NASB, and more recently the ESV stick to a close translation of both the intent and the actual words of the original languages (formal equivalence). The Message Bible is an example of a translation that is extremely paraphrased, and the NET Bible paraphrases freely as occasions suit the translators’ or the editors’ tastes.
For hearing Christ’s voice in the Psalms, a translation which sticks as closely to the original language as possible is preferable over a paraphrase.
One translation that is ancient is the Septuagint. While the Septuagint (LXX for short) often departs from the Hebrew in significant ways, this is the translation of the Old Testament that the authors of the New Testament used, since many, if not most people in New Testament biblical times no longer spoke or wrote Hebrew. Greek was the international language of common exchange when the New Testament was written, and the New Testament was written in Greek with the Septuagint largely used for quotations from the Old Testament.
While not all scholars would be in agreement, I believe that God chose the Septuagint as the Old Testament to be used by authors of the New Testament for good reason. I find that the voice of Christ in Psalms is more readily apparent when reading from the Septuagint, and Christ is, after all, the point of the entire Bible (3). Since the Septuagint is a Greek translation, most readers must read a translation of it, just as most readers must read a translation of the New Testament itself, rather than the original Greek. Lancelot Brenton’s English translation of the Septuagint is the best translation I have found. I use it often.
I recommend choosing what is commonly called a Reference Bible. The references may appear on the left or right margins of the page, down a center column of the page, or in horizontal rows across the foot of the page. For my own ease of reading, I prefer either the center or side column references.
Most of what the reference columns contain are references to other portions of Scripture. In some cases, there might be a note that refers to a different possible translation or to a different manuscript tradition (1).
Some of the references refer to single words that appear elsewhere in Scripture. These are useful in doing word studies. Others refer to phrases or concepts that appear elsewhere in Scripture. Still others refer to entire verses that appear or are quoted elsewhere in Scripture. Often this last kind of reference has a back and forth movement between the Old and New Testaments. Exact repetitions of verbiage elsewhere in Scripture are called citations, and I find these the most useful form of reference.
A forward citation is a reference at a particular verse in the Old Testament which notes the occurrence of the words in that verse at a certain point or points in the New Testament. A backward citation is a reference at a verse in the New Testament that has its counterpart in the Old Testament. Both of these citation types are useful and necessary for the reader. Not all reference Bibles give both forward and backward citations for all verses. Some do a better job than others. Some give backward citations but largely ignore the forward. A good reference Bible is the ESV, since it gives fairly complete citations in both a forward and backward directions. On the other side, I find that the NET Bible lacks a fair number of forward citations for the book of Psalms. This means that verses of some psalms are found in the New Testament that the NET Bible fails to point out in the Old Testament (2).
Reference Bibles Yes, Study Bibles No
While a good study Bible should contain an excellent set of forward and backward references, not all do (2), and study Bibles contain lots more than simple references. More than one study Bible contains commentary that can only be regarded as biased to favor one form of biblical interpretation over another. For new Christians and for anyone seeking to hear directly from the Holy Spirit through Scripture, it is best not to consult a study Bible for Psalms. Even a reference Bible is not necessary for anyone familiar with the facts of Christ’s life as presented primarily in the Gospels and Acts, and also in the New Testament letters, since the Holy Spirit is able to ring the internal bells of recollection to connect the psalms with the actual events of Christ’s life.
Unfortunately, most academic scholars and editors in today’s chilly climate reject the idea that the book of Psalms was written by God, through human psalmists, with the Lord Jesus, God’s Son, as God’s intended primary speaker of those prayers. In other words, God always intended Psalms to be the prophetic prayers of Jesus Christ pointing towards his incarnation. Then, during his incarnation, he lived out those same prayers. The notes of some study Bibles reflect disbelief in a tight unity of Scripture and provide a purposefully negative influence upon readers who are seeking to hear the prophetic voice of Jesus Christ within the psalms of Scripture. These study Bibles should be avoided if your purpose is to hear the voice of Jesus Christ praying the psalms.
In a later post, Lord willing, I will write about authors who are favorable to the view of Christ in the Psalms.
(1) The original Bible was written in pieces, not all at the same time and not all at the same place. Each piece was carefully copied again and again by hand. No one has the original of any Scripture. Some of the existing copies are very, very old, and others are old, but not as old. Some of the existing copies are copied from a copy which was copied from a copy and so on. Over time, the existing copies came to contain small differences. When these differences persist over time, they become known as “manuscript traditions.”
(2) One example of a possible biblical reference is found in Psalm 2:1-2, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,…” (ESV). Everyone familiar with the lyrics of Handel’s Messiah should recognize that for centuries these time-honored words from Psalm 2 have been commonly considered to be about Jesus Christ.
As an example of a good use of references, the ESV at the very beginning of the first verse of this set of two verses in Psalms points out a citation in Acts 4:25-26, in which Psalm 2:1-2 is quoted exactly. The NET Bible, however, makes no mention anywhere in their voluminous notes for these two verses in Psalms that they are directly quoted in Acts. When the reader turns to Acts 4:25-26, the ESV cites Psalm 2:1-2 at the very outset of those verses, while the NET Bible places the reference to Psalms in the very last of eight long and arduous notes.
Further, the biblical speakers in Acts 4:24-25, just before the quotation from psalms, describe the quotation with these words, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,” (ESV). This is a very clear, scriptural, God-inspired statement (2 Timothy 3:16) that attributes the original verses in Psalms to God as author. A reader can safely assume that God knew what he meant and meant what he said when he inspired David as the go-between mouthpiece for his words. The aggregate of the NET notes, however, seems to suggest that the meaning of what God said through David as it concerns Christ was a human development through time in Israel’s long history, was only finalized by the Apostle Paul (who is not a Christian in Acts 4), and that it was not the direct intention of God from the very beginning. But the short text in Acts makes clear that those original Christians understood and quoted God’s original intention. It often seems that the editorial/translation stance of NET Bible, as just exemplified, is that the Old Testament should be read according to the assumed or academically reconstructed “theological context” of the human authors and listeners of the biblical era in which it was written, rather than the eternal theological context of God. This translation and notes should be avoided by readers desirous of hearing Jesus Christ’s voice praying the psalms.
(3) I extend my apologies to any reading this blog who might not see Christ as the point of the entire Bible. However, this blog is openly devoted to Christ. Christ is this blog’s only reason for existence.
One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to reveal Christ within the heart of every believer (See footnote). One of the ways he does this is through Scripture. When a believer in Christ prayerfully asks the Holy Spirit to open (explain, interpret, enlighten) a passage to the understanding of his heart, he will do so. In Jesus’ own words, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13 ESV)
How does the Holy Spirit do this? Much in the same way as Jesus himself did when he walked with the two disciples on their way to Emmaus and later when he met with all the disciples in the upper room after his resurrection. He expounded the Scripture to them, giving them the key of himself as the all-pervasive subject of all of them.
Luke 24:27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (ESV)
Luke 24:44-49 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (ESV)
Every believer in Christ—as one example, the woman at the well—has a story, or testimony, to tell about the living Lord Christ. So it is, that every believer in Christ is a witness to his resurrection. All believers in Christ are witnesses to his resurrection because they perceive him alive and well, living in their own heart. Therefore, because believers are his witnesses, Christ wants to prepare them in all ways to live well, to grow well, and to tell others about him—well! This preparation includes opening Scripture to their understanding, so that by its pure milk (1 Peter 2:2) and solid food (Hebrews 5:14) all believers may grow in maturity and become full partakers within the body of Christ, which is made up of other believers. The Holy Spirit alone can make this growth happen, and he alone is the one who opens Scripture in a living, personal way inside each believer’s heart and mind. Scripture becomes the food that feeds a Christian’s growth (Deuteronomy 8:3; Luke 4:4).
Additionally, God desires fellowship with people (1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 13:13; 2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 1:3). When God created humankind in his own image, he did so for the purpose of having fellowship with them. The whole point of the cross of Christ is the restoration of fellowship, or communal friendship, between God and man.
Here are some biblical examples to illustrate friendship between God and humans.
1) In Genesis 3:8-9, we read of God walking in the garden home of the first two human beings, Adam and Eve, talking with them. When Adam and Eve chose to follow the serpent rather than God, they were expelled from the garden of fellowship with God, and their spirits died to God.
2) In Isaiah 41:8, God calls Abraham, “my friend.” Jesus says to his disciples in John 15:15, “I have called you friends.”
3) Jesus’ name Immanuel means, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
4) In John 4, when Jesus sat down and asked the woman at the well for a drink, he was asking for more than a bit of physical water. He was asking her for fellowship (think of having a cup of coffee and conversation with a friend in your favorite coffee shop.) And as a follow up to fellowship with just this woman, he spent two days in her town, meeting and talking with, eating and spending the night with her friends, the people of that Samaritan town.
5) Christ’s atoning death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension opened the gate into God’s very presence once more for every believer in Christ (Hebrews 4:16; 1 Corinthians 3:16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.)
One of the best places to experience the fellowship, friendship, favor, love, grace, and self-sacrifice of God is to spend time with him in Scripture, to “hang out” with him there. And one of the very best biblical places to do this is in Psalms, given that the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of your spiritual understanding to see the Lord Jesus Christ revealed in them in both the fullness of his humanity and in the fullness of his deity.
The psalms are the human prayers of Christ prophetically prayed to God his Father during his incarnation on earth. He prayed them thus prophetically through the Spirit-filled mouths of the psalmists and during his actual incarnation, as their words were very familiar to him—in fact they were his own words. The Father answers Christ’s prayers within the psalms as well. At times the reader becomes aware of back-and-forth dialogue between Father and Son (Psalms 3:4 and 2:7) and at other times the answer to the prayers forms part of a narrative (Psalm 18:3-6 and 18:7-19).
It is highly unlikely that anyone would hear the words of Jesus Christ in Psalms apart from the work of the Holy Spirit enlightening the eyes of their understanding.
Most people who love Psalms experience them as Scripture giving voice and words to their own personal heart cries as they face various seasons and situations in their lives. Going one step beyond that, the Holy Spirit coaxes us to hear, as well as our own heart cries, the heart cries of Jesus our Savior, who suffered and died in our place.
Experientially speaking, because of our amazement that God has taken our thoughts and printed them on the page of the Bible facing us—that he knows, understands, and loves us so much as to do that, and then to show us as we read that he has done so, and that he has the power to do all this—it is but a short step to realize that Jesus Christ was in all respects one of us, that these are also and primarily his heart cries, that he cried them first, before me. And because I know, feel, and experience my own pain, I also know, experience, and feel the pain of my Savior as a man. And I come to see and understand God’s amazing love for us in Christ. And then, Christ’s hope, his faithful endurance, his victories also become mine. And I grow in Christ’s faith and in God’s love both for Christ and for me.
It is an awesome thing to read Psalms this way, and it doesn’t happen without the Holy Spirit. We receive this by asking, asking God to open his word to us through his Holy Spirit. “Lord, show each believing heart who reads this and who desires to know—show them what you showed the two disciples on their walk to Emmaus. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
John 15:26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (Joh 15:26 ESV)
Ephesians 1:17-18 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, (Eph 1:17-18 ESV)
1 Corinthians 2:9-16 9 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”–10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
Ephesians 3:14-19 14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith– that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19 ESV)
John the Gospel writer wrote chapters 3 and 4 like a poetic couplet written in Hebrew. We miss a great deal of meaning if we read about Nicodemus without considering the woman at the well, and we miss a great deal of meaning if we read about the woman at the well without considering Nicodemus. Each of these narratives is like one line of a single couplet of Hebrew poetry.
This Blog Has Two Sections
Woman at the Well–Shorter, fewer details, general comments: Link
Nicodemus–Longer, more details, specific comparisons
Hebrew poetry of the Old Testament, especially in Psalms, features couplets. A Hebrew couplet consists of two lines of poetry that are independent, yet connected. The second line commonly repeats the first line by using a slightly different image, by adding a detail or example, by extending the meaning of the first line, or by particularizing the first line in some way. Examples abound.
1. Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD,
your salvation according to your promise; (Psalm 119:41)
2. How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 36:7)
3. My God in his steadfast love will meet me;
God will let me look in triumph on my enemies. (Psalm 59:10)
John 3:16 itself is like two couplets of Hebrew poetry:
1. For this is the way God loved the world:
He gave his one and only Son,
2. so that everyone who believes in him will not perish
but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NET)
In John 3:16 above, Jesus says that God gives “everyone” who believes in the Son eternal life. To illustrate this statement, John gives two examples of “everyone”: first, Nicodemus in John 3, and then the woman at the well in John 4. These are two very different people, yet identical. While the differences are external, the points of identification are essential. The two taken together form a continuum of humanity with Nicodemus at one extreme and the woman at the well at the other. The two examples together are like a Hebrew couplet of poetry that illustrate the couplets in John 3:16 above:
Nicodemus is part of the world; this is the way God (in Jesus) loves him.
The woman at the well is part of the world; this is the way God (in Jesus) loves her.
Differences between the two:
Nicodemus–a man, Jewish, a rabbi, well known, well-respected, educated, a teacher, close follower of the law.
Woman at the well–a woman, a Samaritan (pagan), anonymous, not respected, not educated, an adulteress.
Identification of the two:
Nicodemus–unable to enter God’s kingdom without the Spirit of Life (Christ).
Woman at the well–unable to enter God’s kingdom without the Water of Life (Christ).
Nicodemus–welcomed by Christ.
Woman at the Well–welcomed by Christ.
Nicodemus–slow to believe and receive.
Woman at the well–quick to believe, to receive, and to go share with others.
We can see the relationship between the two chapters if we align the verses in a table format:
2 “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God,”
19 “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.
3 Jesus answered … “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
23 …true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh,
and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
24 God is spirit,
and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Progress towards Faith Breaks Down
Progress towards Faith Continues
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.”
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel
and yet you do not understand these things?
26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people,
29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”
John the Gospel writer devotes great detail to demonstrate his point about Jesus’ teaching concerning the Kingdom of God. We can summarize Jesus’ teaching like this:
In order to enter the Kingdom of God…
1. No one is so rich that Jesus is not necessary (Nicodemus);
No one is so poor that Jesus is not sufficient (the woman at the well).
2. Jesus is necessary for everyone to enter the Kingdom of God;
Jesus is sufficient for everyone to enter the Kingdom of God.
3. Jesus is necessary and sufficient for all to enter the Kingdom of God.
John 3:16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (NET)
The Gospel of John shows us that everyone who is born again receives the Spirit of God. Everyone who believes in Christ God’s Son receives the Spirit of God. God is a living God who speaks with everyone who receives his Spirit. The Spirit of God is Christ, God’s Son. If you believe, then God gives his Spirit to you, and God’s Spirit will talk with you.
This is what Jesus accomplished on the cross. The cross of Christ wiped out the sin that separates all humankind from Holy God. With sin gone and Christ in its place, there is no longer need for Holy God to maintain his distance from human hearts. Every believer in Jesus Christ God’s Son reunites with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
This is why Scripture is alive to all who believe. This is why as you faithfully and persistently read the Psalms, you will begin to hear God speaking to your heart through them. You will begin to hear the prayers of Christ within the Psalms as the Holy Spirit interprets them to your heart.
All humankind is somewhere on the continuum between Nicodemus and the woman at the well. Everyone needs Christ. Jesus God’s Son makes himself available to all.
Outline of Psalms Revisited
B. Expect God to Speak to You—Yes, You!
5. The Holy Spirit in the Reader
Shorter, fewer details, general comments
Longer, more details, specific comparisons with Nicodemus
I’ve come to feel that the “woman at the well” has received a bad rap. Truthfully, I envy her and would like to be more like her. I mean, she had one on one with Jesus out in the middle of the desert; he revealed to her point blank that he was Messiah; she received him into her heart without struggle; and she instantly went out and testified to all the men in her own town, bearing much, much fruit, even a hundred fold (John 4:30, 35, 39-42). She really exemplifies Romans 8:28—in the end, everything in her life worked together not only for her own good but for the good of many others, because she loved God and was called by him according to his purpose.
Sadly, at times, I feel more like a female Pharisee than the woman at the well—judgmental, argumentative, way off base— while the woman at the well was sincere in her joy, generous with her treasure, sharing her love for Messiah with everyone. Or, sometimes I feel like a female Nicodemus, of the Sanhedrin—an expert in the law, the “teacher of Israel,” who came to Jesus by night, sneakily, in fear of being spotted and condemned by one of his own crowd, outed. And he never quite got it. At least not in those moments when he had that awesome opportunity to interview Jesus one on one and speak to him without the jostling crowds competing for his attention.
So often in sermons and teachings, I hear the woman at the well being brushed off as a sinner, as though that were her one defining characteristic (1, 2). What ever happened to Romans 3:23 and 3:10? And when she learns that Jesus is a prophet and asks him a prophet’s question, we hear from some of the pundits that she is using an evasive tactic to divert attention away from her sin. Excuse me? We’ve already passed that part. Jesus scored. Can’t a woman whose sin falls into the category of sexual also have an intellect and a genuine interest in the big questions of Samaritan life—this mountain, that mountain, what is truth? She did better than Pilate on that one—she recognized Jesus for who he is. Or, do many commentators, especially those of an older generation, scorn her, finally, because she is a woman, period? Jesus, after all, was a ground breaker.
Yet, this story is mainly about Jesus, rather than the woman. We see him as a passionate evangelist. He really cared about people, all people, even people whom church ushers place near the back. You see, that is prejudice. Jesus sat this woman in the front row, directly, never in the back. This spot was reserved for her from all eternity past. He loved her, capital agape. He loved everything about her. We are wholes, not conglomerates of fractions. When we love someone, we must love all of them, because that’s who we are. The arm is not separable from the toe. He loved her as she was, and he loved what he knew she would become in him. He loved that she responded to his love by loving him in return. And he loved her town and all the people in it. I truly don’t think I would have done as well as the woman at the well. She, like Jesus, was a passionate evangelist who loved people.
Think: Jesus revealed himself to this woman more fully, more directly, and more quickly than to possibly anyone else in the Gospel narratives. What is God trying to tell us in this portion of Scripture? I can think of a few things—
- Jesus Christ, Messiah, God’s precious Son who reveals the heart of God to humans and who always does what God tells him to do, loves women.
- Jesus Christ loves sinful women.
- Jesus Christ, very God of very God, reveals himself gladly and directly to sinful women.
- Jesus Christ can use a sinful woman who believes in him to greatly advance his kingdom.
- Jesus Christ has no favorites.
This last point will be developed in Section II.
1. “Consequently by all expectations, she is not a woman worthy of attention from the Son of God. She is not a woman who is elevated. This is condescension.”
https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/43-20/messiah-the-living-water-part-1. MacArthur, John. Sermon: “Messiah: The Living Water, Part 1, John 4:1-15.” Grace to You, April 21, 2013. Accessed January 25, 2018.
“So when He speaks to this Samaritan woman, it is a shocking condescension. It is an unexpected condescension.”
https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/43-21/messiah-the-living-water-part-2. MacArthur, John. Sermon: “Messiah: The Living Water, Part 2, John 4:16-26.” Grace to You, April 28, 2013. Accessed January 25, 2018.
My comment on the above: It might be a “shocking condescension” for a person who judges by externals and sees himself as actually being quite above a person such as the woman at the well. But what if Jesus Christ, as revealed in his having become human, is in fact as humble in character as both his birth and death indicate he is? Was he posing when he chose poor, uneducated people to be his earthly parents? Was all that about being born in a stable and laid in a feed trough for animals a charade? I posit that Jesus humbled himself in “shocking condescension” by becoming human in the first place. From his great height next to God the Father, the difference between Nicodemus, the well-respected Jewish male rabbi, and the woman at the well does not even exist. To us who are proud in heart by nature, Jesus perhaps “shockingly condescended” to the woman, but more likely, for him, he did not view his sister that way at all.
2. Contra the above and in defense of the woman’s perceived immorality, see Reeder, Caryn. “In Focus: Revisiting the Woman at the Well.” Intervarsity, Graduate Women in the Academy and Professions, May 27, 2014. http://thewell.intervarsity.org/in-focus/revisiting-woman-well. Accessed January 25, 2018.
Outline of Psalms Revisited
B. Expect God to Speak to You—Yes, You!
3. Jesus Evangelizes a Sinful Woman: Section I
Never think that you might not be good enough, smart enough, educated enough, rich enough, or important enough for God to talk to you personally. And if you think that God does talk to you, that does not mean that you are crazy (as in, why would God talk to you?).
Who in the Bible does God share himself and his thoughts with? Who are the ones to whom he opens his heart? The Psalms answer this question in a multitude of places: God loves those with a humble heart; a proud heart he despises.
Psalm 18:27 For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.
Psalm 69:33 For the LORD hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners.
Psalm 138:6 For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.
See also Psalm 22:6; 22:24; 146:8; 147:6; 149:4.
Again, who did Jesus reveal his true identity to? Who did he share himself with? He chose twelve disciples, some of whom were fishermen, one was a tax collector, none were religiously educated or well placed in the synagogue or society. He himself was born in a stable, and his legal father was a laborer, a craftsman who worked with his hands. His forerunner John the Baptist was something of a wild man who lived in the desert, wore camel hair clothing, and ate insects. Jesus ministered to the blind, the sick, the lame, the lepers, those possessed by demons, to sinners and women who committed adultery and other sexual indiscretions. These were his life, and these were his chosen environment.
Consider this. No one has ever risen from the dead, except Jesus. He had been crucified on a cross, and a soldier stuck a sword through his side. Water and blood, separate from each other, came out of the wound. Jesus was genuinely attested as dead. Then he was placed for three days in a cold, dark cave with a stone sealing the exit. Rising from the dead is a major event—it just doesn’t happen! So, to whom did Jesus show himself first? In a society in which a woman’s voice counted as nothing and women themselves were not greatly valued, Jesus, just having done what no human being had ever done before or since, first showed himself to Mary Magdalene, a woman who had once been possessed by seven demons (Luke 8:2; Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 1:9; John 1:1, 11-17). He showed himself to two disciples who were not among the inner circle, while they were walking to their dwelling in a town called Emmaus (Luke 24:1-33). He also showed himself to Peter and the other disciples (Luke 24:34, 36), who were all hiding behind locked doors.
The point is that Jesus did not appear before the Pope (there was none then), nor to the high priests, nor to the secular ruler Herod, nor Nicodemus, a well-respected teacher of the Jews, nor to any of the religious authorities of the time—not the scribes, nor the rabbis, nor lawyers, Pharisees, or Sadducees, all of whom were religiously educated and regarded as authorities. No, but he chose to show himself to those few whom the world might call “nobodies.”
Question: if you happened to be one of those “nobodies” who first saw Jesus, would you draw your religious beliefs from your own experience of just having encountered the risen Jesus, or would you base how you thought about fulfilled Scripture on the teachings of those experts who never encountered Christ after he rose from the dead?
It is true that later in New Testament history, Jesus did reveal himself to a very highly educated man, Saul, who after this encounter received the new name Paul. He is the one who wrote thirteen of the books of the New Testament and possibly Hebrews. Yet here are Paul’s own words:
NET Philippians 3:8 More than that, I now regard all things [the things in his prior list of accomplishments] as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things– indeed, I regard them as dung!– that I may gain Christ.
ESV 1 Corinthians 2:2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
1 Corinthians 1:26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
In other words, it wasn’t Paul’s great education that the Lord chose, but he chose Paul’s heart of passion, learned humility, and willingness to serve.
All these Scriptures and multitudes of others show that God wants to have an open doorway of direct communication with every single least one of those who believe in Jesus Christ. God definitely talks to “nobodies” always and forever, because there are no “nobodies” in his sight. God judges very differently than we humans do. He can and does look inside a person’s heart, and the important people to God are the ones who sincerely desire to know him.
God loves to communicate. He is in the business of communication. He created by speaking all things into existence (Genesis 1), and His Son is called the Word (John 1:1-5). After Christ’s atoning death, resurrection, and ascension, God sent the Holy Spirit to take the place of Christ on earth, and the Holy Spirit will be with us until Christ comes again (Matthew 28:8, 20). The Holy Spirit reminded the disciples of everything that Jesus ever said to them (John 14:26, 16:12-13). He is still with us today to act in our lives, reveal Christ to our hearts, and to open and explain Scripture to our understanding.
God does not keep secrets (Matthew 28:20; Luke 11:9). Nor does he have favorites (Romans 2:11). He loves a humble, broken, repentant spirit, and to everyone who is hungry to learn of him, he eagerly gives his spiritual food (Luke 11:11-13). This means that you don’t need to be well-educated to understand the Bible. God wrote it for everyone to understand and use (Proverbs 1:20; 2:4-5).
But you must be hungry for his Word. If you are not so very hungry, pray that the Holy Spirit will make you hungrier. And if you are already hungry, then you are blessed (Matthew 5:6). Pursue your hunger and pray that God will give you the answers that your heart desires. Ask him to open Scripture to you, especially those specific parts of Scripture that you want to know more about (Luke 24:27). God’s Word promises that he will answer your prayer. So keep on praying until he does, because he will (John 15:16; 16:23).
Frankly, I wish I were a better writer. I wish I had the skill to write short and succinct. Get to the point, illustrate it, apply it–bim, bam, boom, an awesome post that hundreds of people would eagerly read in about one or two minutes max.
I’m not and I don’t.
All I am is a tiny person with an even smaller voice.
But I’m someone who loves the Lord with her whole heart, soul, mind, and spirit, and I love his Word. I believe that the Lord has given me the key to unlocking the Psalms (I’m certainly not claiming to be unique in that), and I want to share its treasures with you, for the one purpose that you, too, will find that key and enter into the most marvelous fellowship with the amazing Son of God/Son of Man whom they present.
I’m positive many of you already love the Psalms. If so, you might want to skip what I have to say. I’m mostly writing for those who are puzzled by Psalms or haven’t yet found a door for enjoying them more completely.
My goal in these posts is to write a Quicky Peek version, and then a longer, more detailed, somewhat academic version of the same material. I hope both versions are meaningful in themselves.
Please pray for me, and I’ll pray for you, and let’s see where this goes!