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1. Psalm 1. Introduction to the Psalter. God favors the righteous; the unrighteous will perish. God defines righteousness.
2. Psalm 2. Introduction to the Royal Family; the King is appointed
3. Psalm 3. The King appears as a man on earth
4. Psalm 4. The King on earth walks in righteousness but has many enemies who do not receive him
5. Psalm 5. The King prays Psalm 1
6. Psalm 6. The King is assaulted by enemies and feels assaulted by God; he cries out to the Lord for deliverance
And, moving forward:
7. Psalm 7. The King addresses accusations against himself; war is fully declared and victory won
8. Psalm 8. First denouement, a day of rest, the end of the story foretold, a post-resurrection view, creation celebrated
“Early Christian writers adapted prosopological analysis for interpreting poetic biblical texts like the Psalms and the Song of Songs, and routinely identified the speaking “I” (ego) of the Psalms as Christ.” —Michael Cameron, 171
The key to understanding the Psalter is Jesus Christ. When the reader perceives Christ in the first person speaking role of the Psalms of David, much of what otherwise may appear to be a scattered jumble of statements falls into place. My premise is that “the man,” of Psalm 1 describes Christ in particular. The immediately following psalms unfold as in the Recap and Moving Forward above. When the superscriptions assign a psalm to David, David is “taking on” the persona of someone else–the Christ. (See Peter’s statements in Acts 2:29-31.) A good Greek term to describe this rhetorical tool is prosopopoeia. (1)
In these psalms we find a progression from God’s decree in heaven (Psalm 2:6-9 and especially verse 7, “the ordinance of the Lord” LXE) to its enactment on earth. The entire sequence is the Gospel of Christ our King. He was appointed by God in eons past to be Savior and Sovereign Lord of humanity. He performed the salvation by means of his incarnation, substitutionary death on the cross, his resurrection, and ascension. The Psalter records in advance Christ’s holy ministry. Much of this is presented through first person prayers and other speech. In the recorded prayers, as the Apostle Paul writes, “…we have the mind of Christ” (1Co 2:16b ESV).
When the reader adheres to the simplicity of this key concept of interpretation, the love of God for his Son all but shouts from the pages of the Psalter. When we see that love of the Father/Son Godhead and ourselves as readers interacting spiritually with the text by means of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are included in the fellowship of love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in an interactive way. When we hear Christ speaking the psalms, the love of God for us pours into our hearts. It is a transforming love, “… God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5b ESV).
Following the progressive sequence from Psalm 1 through Psalm 8, Psalm 7 moves beyond Psalm 6. In Psalm 6, the human Son-of-God-King presents himself in weakness and, possibly, what we might experience as confusion, if this were happening to us. God seems to be angry with him and is far away. He cries to the Lord as death draws nearer. Eventually, God does answer. Although Psalm 6 is called the first of the Penitential Psalms, in it the psalmist does not confess any sins. Neither does God offer forgiveness when he answers the psalmist’s prayer. The reader can conclude (knowing who the speaker is) that any sin and God’s resultant wrath are not on account of the psalmist himself.
Psalm 7 is blatantly defensive. The accusations from the speaker’s enemies have been pinpointed (vv 3-4), and the psalmist vehemently denies any wrongdoing on his part by asking God to punish him if indeed he committed the crimes stated by his accusers (vv 4b-5). He then appeals to God on the basis of God’s decree, which is recorded in Psalm 2. In other words, he prays Psalm 2 as concerns himself. Psalm 2:6-9 shows God decreeing Christ as King (quoted in Hebrews 1:5). Verses 6-16 speak of the decreed judgment upon those who reject God and his appointed Ruler. (See also Psalm 1:4-6.)
Verses 7-8a of Psalm 7 in the Septuagint makes better sense when heard as spoken by the Chorus, which is slightly off-stage but ever present. (See the dramatic setting including the Chorus in “Penitential Psalms: The Amazing Psalm 6–Windup to the Pitch“.)
And the congregation of the nations shall compass thee: and for this cause do thou return on high. The Lord shall judge the nations. (Psalm 7:7-8a LXE)
This is because of these verses being embedded solidly within a paragraph of verses clearly spoken by the main speaker of Psalm 7, yet verse 7 appears to be addressing Christ the Lord, rather than God most High, and verse 8a is about the Lord. We learn from New Testament Scripture, Isaiah, and other Psalms that “the nations” shall gather around Christ the King, and it is Christ who shall “return on high,” in other words–ascend–after his resurrection, in order for his Lordship over the nations to begin. It also befits a dramatic production to assign the speech in verse 7 about “the congregation” to the Chorus. Verses 14-16 are also suited as lines for the Chorus. If 14-16 are spoken by the Chorus, then verse 17 is the closing “Amen” of thanksgiving spoken once more by the main speaker of Psalm 7.
Who is this God on High who wreaks vengeance upon those who oppose his favored Son/King? Is he being unfair, autocratic, authoritarian, narrow, and fascist in his outlook?
First, God is Creator. At this point in human history, that fact cannot be changed. It follows from this fact that God is Sovereign. Whether we as people like it or not, the Creator is the Ruler.
But secondly, he is a God who gives many chances.
Now therefore understand, ye kings: be instructed, all ye that judge the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice in him with trembling. 12 Accept correction, lest at any time the Lord be angry, and ye should perish from the righteous way: whensoever his wrath shall be suddenly kindled, blessed are all they that trust in him. (Psalm 2:10 LXE)
Psalm 7 reinforces the call of God to repentance found above in Psalm 2.
God is a righteous judge, and strong, and patient, not inflicting vengeance every day. 12 If ye will not repent, he will furbish his sword; he has bent his bow, and made it ready. (Psalm 7:11 LXE)
Verses 14-16 work well as a choral commentary upon the preceding four verses. These lines speak of an unnamed “he,” which from the context can only be the unrighteous false accuser of the righteous King. They spell out the bad choice the unrighteous one made and how he is bringing down upon his own head his just retribution. These verses demonstrate the false reasoning of those who blame God for condemning evil. Here the just punishment that pursues the unrighteous is nothing more than what that person planned for an innocent person who had done him no wrong. God is patient and just, inviting sinners to repent.
Verse 8a says, “The Lord shall judge the nations…” Immediately the Judge, when not yet the Judge but still the suffering Savior, in response to God on account of the words just spoken by the chorus, pleads with God, “Judge me, O Lord,…” The righteous Judge wants to be judged by God first.
And God does acquit him. Psalm 7 ends very strongly, much as Psalm 2. The righteous King is vindicated, and his false accuser falls into the pit his own hands have dug (vv 15-16). These words of Scripture have been written in future tense, as prophetic, yet their outcome is secure.
From Psalms 3 through 6, the audience perceives the King descending, as he falls deeper and deeper into persecution and human vulnerability. Psalm 7 presents him rising up in strength to face his accuser, along with the announcement of his final victory. Then Psalm 8 comes crashing onto the scene in a wild exuberance of joyful praise. I’ll give Psalm 8 a posting of its own.
1 We encounter this ancient tool of figurative language called prosopopoeia nearly every day. Whenever we hear a child or someone else speak “Valley talk” as they describe an encounter with another person, we might hear a statement such as, “And then she’s like, ‘………’.” What transpires in the elipsis, the dots in the quotation, is a perfect reenactment of the described person’s words, intonation, mannerisms, and attitude, albeit exaggerated for effect. This is prosopopoeia, when a speaker or writer takes up the persona of someone else and becomes them imitatively. This is what acting on stage is all about. Real life actors take up the lives and characters of others in order to portray them with convincing reality. Within Psalms, David, the prophet/actor being used by God, takes up the persona of the Christ. Who has a greater role in God’s plan of salvation: David the man or Christ the Atoning King? Did David know that he was being used by God this way? According to Peter in Acts 2:30-31, David did know that he was prophesying about Another.
When as readers we consistently keep Christ in view and use the key of the gospel message which he himself provided to his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47), much of the Psalter prophetically accommodates the apostolic kerygma (gospel message). In Psalm 88, Christ the Messiah, in his form as a human being (Philippians 2:8), prophetically laments his condition as he approaches the grave and then descends into it. Psalm 89 gives us another view of Christ’s persecuted life during his incarnation, with the difference that it stops short of his Passion week. Before we hear the psalmist’s lament, however, the reader is given a brief review in broad, comprehensive strokes of the biblical history of creation and the Davidic Covenant. (Link to text of Psalm 89: Link)
Psalm 89 Is Like Readers’ Theater
Dialogue is notably present in Psalm 89. Speech as a tool creates dramatic immediacy and truthfulness within the psalm. The quotations themselves unite Scripture into an organic whole, as one portion cites other portions. Speech causes the readers or listeners to recall the real history of Israel as God’s holy people.
One of the first tasks for the reader, then, is to recognize that speech occurs. The fancy word for this reading technique is prosopological exegesis (Matthew W. Bates, The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation, 183f). Our task in Psalm 89 is made easier by the use within the text of quotation marks and identifying speech markers, such as, “I said, …” (v 2) and, “You have said, …” (v 3). Additionally, the text supplies a liberal use of second person speech labels, as commonly used in direct address: “you” (e.g., vv 8, 9, and 10) and “your” (e.g., vv 4, 14, 15). Finally, the use of first person singular in verses 1 and 50, intertwined with direct address (you) to God, provides a strong clue to the reader that dialogue is present. The reader can easily envision Psalm 89 being performed or read upon a dramatic stage, perhaps as a reader’s theater.
Where is the Speech and Who Are the Speakers?
The psalmist (the narrative speaker of the psalm, not the author) makes reference to himself as “I” in verse 1 and again in verse 50. As is usual in the Psalter, the first person psalmist does not identify himself. One of the first person speakers is God, as the entire context declares. Therefore, our task is to identify the voice represented by the other speaker, the first person psalmist. No universal agreement exists. If there were, there would be no need for me to write. Context, however, including the previously mentioned apostolic kerygma, provides sufficient clues for the reader to confidently assume that the speaker is the Anointed One.
- God as the reported speaker in verses 3-4 states the Davidic Covenant as it applies to Messiah. Verses 19-37 expand the terms of that covenant (see 2 Samuel 7:1-17). Details of this expansion, as in the original, indicate that the covenant extends beyond David himself and refer to God’s chosen Messiah, or Anointed (see vv 25-37, especially verses 27, 29, and 36).
- The gospel message, or apostolic kerygma, proclaims Jesus of Nazareth to be Christ, God’s Messiah.
- Verses 50 and 51 (“Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked, and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations, 5with which your enemies mock, O Lord, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed,“) in context of the larger unit unite the first person speaker and the referenced Messiah. The calamities described in verses 38-51 have befallen the Anointed One with whom God made the covenant, and by the use of first person singular in verse 50, the psalmist claims those calamities as his own.
The Four Sections of the Psalm
Psalm 89 tells the interesting story of God’s promises to Israel concerning Messiah. The exalted expectations are then contrasted with the harsh realities of the Messiah’s life during his incarnation. The psalmist/Messiah points out the contractions to the Lord, reminding him of his promises. He asks the Lord why his life compares so unfavorably with the promises. Nevertheless, he closes by blessing the Lord. (I am indebted to Patrick Reardon for his observation of the sections in Psalm 89. While he identifies three sections, I find it more convenient to locate and describe four. See Reardon, 175.)
The reader needs to bear in mind that the psalm is prophecy, and this is Scripture’s way of announcing that the Messiah’s life would be one of suffering. The facts of his future incarnation do not seem to resemble the facts of God’s promises. No one understood this in the days when Jesus walked on earth, not even his own disciples. It was left to the Lord to explain the prophetic Scriptures concerning himself to his disciples after his resurrection. We, as readers today, have the great advantage of hindsight, although even today, many, if not most, believers do not perceive the messianic prophecies in this psalm. Psalm 89 is not listed as being messianic in most study Bibles.
Creation: Verses 2, 5-18. God created all things, and his power is supreme, even over Rahab (Job 9:3). Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before him. (v 14)
God’s Promise to Israel and Messiah: Verses 3-4, 19-37. God’s righteous, just, loving, and faithful nature, as established, manifested, and proven throughout all of creation, form the basis of his covenant with Israel, as represented by David his servant, and by the Greater David, Messiah. Verses 15-18 provide the transition from the first section to the second. God’s people know and understand God’s nature as expressed in creation, and they are blessed because they walk in accordance with his nature.
In the long speech block from verse 19 thr0ugh 37, God describes in his own words the future messianic kingdom, Messiah’s loving response to him (verse 26), and the nature of his disciplinary yet covenantal interactions with Messiah’s progeny. Just as God proves himself to be righteous, just, loving, and faithful in all his created works, so the Israelites and Messiah can count on him to be the same in all his covenantal dealings with them.
Enter Messiah. Enter Discord. Is Something Wrong? This Reality Doesn’t Match Up with the Promise. Description of the Discord: Verses 38-51
Verses 38-51 describes Messiah’s actual incarnated experience with the following statements:
38 But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed.
39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.
40 You have breached all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
41 All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice.
43 You have also turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not made him stand in battle.
44 You have made his splendor to cease and cast his throne to the ground.
45 You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame. Selah
Messiah’s Prayer of Appeal (vv 46-51)
As we read Messiah’s prayerful protest to God, there can be no doubt that Messiah was fully man. These words are spoken from a human vantage, and a suffering human at that. Well may Paul have had this psalm in mind when he wrote of Christ to the Philippians:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phi 2:5-8 ESV)
Summary and Conclusion
Psalm 89 concludes, as many psalms do, with a final word of blessing for the Lord. Here the psalmist/Messiah reminds us that even when the path is difficult and strewn with trials of all kinds, God is faithful to perform what he promises, notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, and in that his people worship and adore him.
Psalm 89 does not solve the mystery of a suffering Messiah–it simply announces the mystery. Nevertheless, as mentioned above, by the time Jesus walked the earth, his entire people had lost sight of the full scope of this psalm’s message. They grasped well enough the exalted promises of God to Israel through a glorified Messiah, but they apparently had never connected or had forgotten the last portions of the psalm, which paint a portrait of a suffering Messiah. How like ourselves–don’t we so often want the glory without the pain?