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While my approach to Psalms is independently my own, in the sense that I first recognized Christ’s voice in Psalms before I consulted other sources, over roughly the past eight years, I have looked for confirmation from other writers. My viewpoint is that the Psalms are about Christ, and even further, predominantly his own words, spoken prophetically through human authors by means of the Holy Spirit. Confirmation is difficult to find, both within Christian devotional and academic literature. Fortunately, as the Lord has guided my search, I have had some small success.
Because I will quote various authors in future posts, I want to introduce and briefly describe in advance the few books and authors I value.
My authorial intent in writing the series of articles in this blog is to encourage readers to seek the Lord’s own voice within the Psalter. For devotional purposes, hearing the Son’s voice through psalmic prophets carries great reward. With this intention in mind, the following few books have confirmed my own discoveries.
There are not many devotional books nor scholarly books available to the average reader who seeks either guidance or confirmation in hearing and identifying the Lord Christ’s voice in Psalms. I believe that the New Testament authors of the gospels, Acts, and letters did hear the Christ’s voice in Psalms and other books of the Old Testament. Christ himself, as recorded in several gospel locations (Matthew 22:44 and parallels; Luke 24:25-27; 44-47) perceived the Old Testament to have been written about himself. After his resurrection, he gave his disciples his own key to this understanding and helped them unlock the Scriptures for themselves (Acts 2:25-36). The author of Hebrews also wrote extensively about the Old Testament with the Christological viewpoint in mind.
The following annotated list includes authors favorable to the view that the Psalter and other biblical books contain a record of prayers and speech occurrences performed by Christ during all ages of his eternal existence and especially during his incarnation. These have been handed down prophetically through Old Testament authors by means of the Holy Spirit. In some of these speech occurrences, dialogue between Father and Son is displayed.
Discerning and dividing God’s Word in a manner that includes recognition of divine speech and dialogue in Psalms (and elsewhere in Scripture) is a rich and sorely overlooked field of study today. I hope this small list proves useful to those few who may be interested.
New International Version Bible (NIV)
The Holy Bible: New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica. All rights reserved worldwide. See also (New International Version Bible Online): http://www.biblestudytools.com/colossians/. See also http://www.biblestudytools.com/esv/psalms/.
I recommend the versions published before the 2011 revision. I do not recommend that version because the gender neutral language erased some of the direct references to Christ “the man.”
Although the NIV uses a dynamic equivalence method, the older editions adhere to the literal intention of the text and are not influenced by a heavily biased set of presuppositions regarding hermeneutic principles.
Psalm 1:1 Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. (NIV, 1983 Print Edition)
31 Days of Wisdom and Praise: Daily Readings from the Books of Psalms and Proverbs, New International Version. Arranged by R. Dean Jones. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990, by International Bible Society.
A small, pocket-sized NIV paperback arranged with five psalms per day, not in sequence. On a typical day, such as Day 25, for example, the reader would discover Psalms 25, 55, 85, 115, and 145. This edition provides a palatable way to read across the psalms and to finish the entire book in one month. Because of the unique arrangement, the reader is exposed to thematic connections within the psalms that otherwise might not be noticed in a strictly chronological reading. This is a very comfortable book in which to read and make small notations as in a daily devotional. There are few notes and no commentary.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2001, 2007, 2011 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. (ESV)
The ESV is a solid, clear, reliable, trustworthy, and consistent biblical translation based on literal hermeneutic principles. References include citations at the beginning of notes for a given passage, multiple citations are given, and the reader is not overly burdened by excessive notes.
Psalm 1:1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; (ESV)
For those who may have access to digital or printed Bibles in the original languages, I recommend the following (which is also available in print):
Brenton, Sir Lancelot C. L. The Septuagint Version: Greek and English. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970.
Although the number of translations of the Septuagint (LXX) into English (LXE) have increased recently, for biblical research I recommend Brenton’s as one which adheres fairly closely to the Greek text and has not been redacted, or edited, to match the Masoretic (Hebrew) tradition. Because New Testament authors used the Septuagint as their personal Bibles and most often quoted a Septuagint version in their writing, it is a useful and important version to have for textual comparisons. Further, the Septuagint, although written a few centuries before Christ appeared, seems to make his prophetically proclaimed presence in the Old Testament clearer than many English translations based upon the Masoretic text and influenced by a biblical hermeneutic that discourages what translators sometimes term reading backward into a text. The Septuagint translators cannot be accused of interpreting the Old Testament in view of light from the New, since events of the New Testament were still future when the Septuagint translations were written.
Psalm 1:1 Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, and has not stood in the way of sinners, and has not sat in the seat of evil men. (LXE)
Note: For the purpose of hearing the voice of Christ in Psalms, most study Bibles will not help readers, and many may hinder. A good reference Bible that includes both forward and backward citations, word use references, and allusions between the Old and New Testaments is very useful. I do recommend the Bibles described above.
Archer, Gleason L. and Gregory Chirichigno. Old Testament Quotations in the New Testament. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1983.
As the title suggests, this book is a “must have” for locating Old Testament quotations that appear in the New Testament.
Barclay, John. The Psalms of David, and the Paraphrases and Hymns: With a Dissertation on the Book of Psalms, and Explanatory Introductions to Each. Edinburgh: James Gall, 1826. Reprinted Digitally by Forgotten Books, registered trademark of FB &c Ltd., London, 2017. Available at http://www.ForgottenBooks.com, 2017.
John Barclay, a Berean preacher of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, determined quite against the established church to preach what he uncovered in Scripture alone, no matter where that Scripture might lead. Accordingly, he ranks among those who recognize the figure of Christ the Messiah present throughout the Psalter, including Psalm 1. Just as he hears the Son’s prayers, he also hears the Father’s reply. He is one of very few who delineates a two-part dialogue in Psalm 102, as cited in Hebrews 1. He labels Psalm 102 with the superscription, “A pray’r of God’s afflicted Son…”
Even though Barclay’s Psalter is paraphrased verse, its rendering is remarkably literal. He reserves his comments and the detailed defense of his view for the initial preface to Psalm 1, raising and answering many objections to the understanding that Christ prays all the Psalms, and to the shorter prefaces before each of the other psalms.
Bates, Matthew W. The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament & Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015 and Paperback Edition 2016.
Matthew W. Bates, Ph.D., The University of Notre Dame is Assistant Professor of Theology at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois.
To paraphrase E. B. White’s Wilbur the Pig, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true Christian and a good scholar. Matthew Bates is both.” In The Birth of the Trinity, Bates has gifted his readers a treasure chest. This is a magnificent book replete with highly detailed bibliographic and substantive footnotes, end references, and beautiful biblical, topical, and primary, secondary, ancient, and modern bibliographic indices.
Everything Bates writes is thoroughly focused and impressively complete on the topic of divine dialogue between Father and Son, as evidenced in the ancient Jewish Scripture, i.e., the Old Testament. As he demonstrates the early concept of Trinity, Bates closely examines and dissects biblical passages from the Old Testament that evidence speaker shifts, or dialogue, between the Divine Persons. Then, just as thoroughly, he reviews the literary reception history of these passages that is found in the pages of the New Testament (by Jesus, Peter, Paul, Luke, the author of Hebrews, and others) and in extra-biblical, coeval literature by authors such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen. By these methods, he demonstrates that the Trinitarian God has “an unremitting personal concern for one another” (204) and that “the Christology of our earliest Christian sources is as high as that of our later sources.” (ibid.)
As concerns the topic of divine dialogue within Scripture, Bates performs the inestimably valuable service of structuring a framework of analysis, introducing a vocabulary (prosopological exegesis), and proposing a methodology for any reader to recognize and critically test such biblical speech. This book is a scholar’s prayer come true on the topic of divine dialogue in Scripture.
Bates, Matthew W. The Hermeneutics of the Apostolic Proclamation: The Center of Paul’s Method of Scriptural Interpretation. Baylor University Press: Wayco, Texas, 2012.
Matthew W. Bates, Ph.D., The University of Notre Dame is Assistant Professor of Theology at Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois.
While this book is about Paul’s use of kerygmatic proclamation, Matthew Bates’ central argument in exegeting Paul’s hermeneutic is Paul’s use of the reading technique Bates calls “prosopological exegesis.” He gives this topic three entire chapters, pages 183-355.
The book is excellent both for understanding this overlooked literary technique employed by the Holy Spirit through the prophets of the Old Testament and as a resource for further study of other authors writing on the same topic.
Belcher, Richard P. Jr. The Messiah and the Psalms: Preaching Christ from All the Psalms. Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd., 2006.
From the back cover of the book: Dr. Richard Belcher is Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina. He received an MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary and a PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is also an active pastor.
Richard Belcher’s book tends more towards scholarship than devotion; however, his Christian beliefs shine forth in this work. The book discusses the psalms topically, according to received categories, such as Royal Psalms, direct and indirect Messianic Psalms, Psalms of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation, among others. Only thirty of the one hundred and fifty psalms are covered in particular analysis.
Belcher does not overtly recognize “speech” as such in this book. For example, he labels as oracles what Bates (above) terms “reported speech” in Psalm 110. Belcher appears to take a “middle of the road” approach regarding Christ in the Psalms. While he freely proposes the Psalms to be about Christ and demonstrates how many might be applicable to him, he does not seem to go beyond what current, traditional scholarship might accept. Belcher includes an excellent set of notes and bibliography. While there is a biblical index, there is no topical index.
BibleWorks. BibleWorks 9 Software for Biblical Exegesis & Research. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, 2011.
BibleWorks is currently in its 10th edition. While not inexpensive, it is far less expensive than Logos, and its quality and user friendliness is supreme. Nearly all language translations are available, including photos of the original Dead Sea Scrolls. Users can design their own parallel columns with as many versions as they choose. BibleWorks contains all the digital and original language features any scholar or lay person might want. It does not contain commentaries. I highly recommend BibleWorks as being well worth its cost.
Bonar, Andrew A. Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms: 150 Inspirational Studies. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1978.
Andrew Bonar, a nineteenth century (1810-1892) minister in the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Finieston Free Church, was a contemporary of Charles H. Spurgeon.
Bonar’s book on Psalms is a blessing to read, filled with the love, joy, and peace emanating from his devotion to Christ, as he is portrayed in Psalms and other Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. Bonar is an outstanding scholar who gives copious references to other works, which he cites in both text and footnotes, and who frequently cites both Hebrew and Greek.
Bonar is not ashamed to own Christ in the Psalms, yet he does so gently by biblical demonstration, never appearing strident or as though he has a point to prove. He recognizes divine dialogue. For example, he hears the plaintive voice of the suffering, incarnated Christ in Psalm 102, and he distinguishes the Father’s direct address to Christ as being one of reply: “From the Garden of Gethsemane…Sorrowful unto death, his soul cries, …” and, “It is here (compare Heb. i. 10-12) that the voice from the Father addresses him.” (303) Very few scholars, or even devotional writers, are able and/or willing to name Christ as the poor person in Psalm 102 and to hear the words of divine dialogue within that psalm. Bonar does.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974 in paperback.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, best known perhaps for his being a willing martyr’s sacrifice at the hand of the Nazis, wrote his slim devotional book on Psalms in 1943.
Bonhoeffer writes, “And he [David] is not unaware of this, but ‘being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ’ (Acts 2:30 f.). David was a witness to Christ in his office, in his life, and in his words. The New Testament says even more. In the Psalms of David the promised Christ himself already speaks (Hebrews 2:12; 10:5) or, as may also be indicated, the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 3:7). These same words which David spoke, therefore, the future Messiah spoke through him. The prayers of David were prayed also by Christ. Or better, Christ himself prayed them through his forerunner David” (18-19).
Cameron, Michael. Christ Meets Me Everywhere: Augustine’s Early Figurative Exegesis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Michael Cameron wrote Christ Meets Me Everywhere while an Associate Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Portland in Oregon.
As Cameron explains in his introduction, he was careful to enter into the mind of Augustine himself in order to lead readers into an understanding of this prodigious writer in the context of his own times and mindframe. Chapter 6 is titled, “Hearing Voices: Christ at Prayer ‘In the Psalm and on the Cross.” It explores Augustine’s Exposition of the Psalms and the interpretive method of uncovering the use of prosopoligical exegesis within the psalms, a rhetorical device common in the classics and during the time period when the Psalter was written.
Cameron writes concerning Augustine and the psalms, “He read them according to the Church’s already ancient tradition, which heard them not only speaking about Christ but even as transcribing the thoughts of Christ’s inner life” (Christ Meets Me Everywhere, 9).
Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1989.
Richard B. Hays is a highly respected, world-renowned scholar of New Testament theology and its writers. He was Dean of Duke Divinity School as recently as 2015.
Hays’ approach to Paul’s letters is fresh, vibrant, and alive. While the goal of the book is not to challenge one of the most dearly held tenets of modern exegesis, namely, that a biblical text can only mean what it meant to its original readers, he does just that. Scrupulously using all the tools of exegetical academics, he casts the Apostle Paul as a charismatic writer and seeks to prove by means of Paul’s own words that the biblical text is alive and interactive, even today. He also grants today’s readers permission to read Scripture as Paul did. I happened to finish reading the book on a New Year’s Eve, and truly, Hays sets off a giant bundle of fireworks in the field of biblical exegesis.
Hays writes, “Illuminated by the Spirit…Paul’s reading of Scripture are transformative: by correlating God’s word to Israel with the new circumstances of his churches and the content of his kerygma, he generates novel interpretations that nonetheless claim to be the true, eschatologically disclosed sense of the ancient texts. Even passages that might have seemed perspicuous, such as Deut. 30:11-14, turn out to have concealed a meaning manifest only in Paul’s inspired reading, a meaning that neither Moses nor Ezra could have guessed…” (Echoes, 154-155).
In answer to the question, May we as today’s readers do what Paul did, Hays replies, “Yes.” “…Paul’s readings of Scripture enact a certain imaginative vision of the relation between Scripture and God’s eschatological activity in the present time. To learn from Paul how to read Scripture is to learn to share that vision, so that we can continue to read and speak under the guidance of the Spirit, interpreting Scripture in light of the gospel and the gospel in light of Scripture… Paul exhorted his readers to become imitators of him (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; Phil. 3:17). Surely to imitate him faithfully we must learn from him the art of reading and proclaiming Scripture (Echoes, 183).
Law, Timothy Michael. When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. New York: Oxford, University Press, 2013.
“Timothy Michael Law is Founding Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, Contributing Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Lecturer in Divinity at the University of St Andrews. He has been an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in the Georg-August-Universität Gottingen (2012-2014), a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Oriental Institute at the University of Oxfored (2009-2012), and a Junior Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (2009-2014)” (http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/masthead/timothy-michael-law/. Accessed May 16, 2018).
Law writes, “What would modern Christian theology look like if its theologians returned the Septuagint to the place it occupied at the foundation of the church, or at least began to read it alongside the Hebrew Bible, as a witness to the story of the Bible and in acknowledgment of its role in shaping Christianity? … I have tried to do the work of the historian, and perhaps now the door is open wide enough for the theologians to walk through it” (When God Spoke Greek, 171) .
Law’s book is a “thriller” of the academic world, not too difficult for the lay reader to follow, and definitely difficult to lay aside without reading to its very last page. Of great value to the student are the 35 plus pages of bibliographic notes. Its main point, which is the tremendous role the Septuagint played in shaping both the New Testament and the theology of the early church through Origen, Augustine, and up until Jerome, is easy to follow and to grasp.
Pink, Arthur. An Exposition of Hebrews. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1954.
Arthur Pink (1886-1952) of the Reformed tradition, was born in Great Britain, studied at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, pastored in four states of the United States, became an itinerant preacher, returned to Scotland in 1940, and continued writing until his death. Pink is widely respected today as a biblical scholar, and his book of 1,307 pages, An Exposition of Hebrews, is now a classic.
Why include a commentary on Hebrews in a bibliography about Psalms? Psalms is quoted in Hebrews at least 16 times. Citations from the Psalter form the backbone of the writer’s basic arguments in the first and second chapters of Hebrews, as well as elsewhere in the book. Most relevant to this discussion, the Letter to the Hebrews is a large and important piece of evidence in the reception history of Psalms in the early church.
Hebrews provides tremendous evidence that the writer of the letter and the readers in that day clearly understood that Psalms includes dialogue between Father and Son. While Pink authored his book on Hebrews long before Matthew Bates (see above) most likely was born, he himself uses Bates’ prosopological exegesis (this refers to a reading technique in which the reader understands that the psalmist writer has slipped into in-character-dialogue, often between Father and Son, within the text of the psalm) in his understanding and explaining the text of Hebrews in relevant portions (of course he did not use Bates’ unique term for this reading technique). Chapter 1 of Hebrews is replete with the biblical author’s use of prosopological exegesis to make his points to his readers. Pink recognizes these instances as matters of fact and expounds these psalmic passages for his readers in a completely unselfconscious manner with the portions of dialogue clearly explained.
Reardon, Patrick Henry. Christ in the Psalms, 2d ed. Chesterton: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2000, 2011.
Taken from the back cover of his book, “Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago.” He has written several books, including The Jesus We Missed (2012) and Reclaiming the Atonement Volume 1: The Incarnation (2015).
Psalms is the book most often quoted in the New Testament. According to the authors of the New Testament, writes Reardon, Christ “walks” within the Psalms. (viii) “…to pray the psalms is to pray them in Jesus’ name, because the voice in the Psalter is Christ’s own voice. Christ is the referential center of the Book of Psalms.” … “Ultimately, the words of the psalms are the mighty name of Jesus broken down into its component parts. Thus has it always been.” (viii)
Reardon’s work contradicts the recent academic premise, introduced during the Enlightenment, that the Old Testament can only mean what its human authors and the listeners of that day may have thought it meant, as reconstructed by today’s scholars. The “radical premise” (viii) of Reardon’s approach to Psalms is the theological unity of the Old and New Testaments. Further, the foundation of the biblical unity is the continuity of the church with ancient Israel. (viii)
Reardon demonstrates that the Psalter, like many other parts of Scripture, includes dialogue in multiple voices. Reardon compares the dialogue to mini-dramas. When we pray the prayers of Psalms, we enter into the voice and character of Christ the Son of God, as he and the Father engage in dialogue with one another. We also enter into the conversation between the Church and God, Father and Son, that is audible in both Testaments. Reardon claims that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to teach us these things, “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.” (1 Corinthians 2:13 ESV) Reardon labels his viewpoint concerning the unity of Old and New Testaments “radical.” (viii) I can heartily agree, as sadly, in today’s era, we do not find this viewpoint often encouraged.
Concerning divine dialogue within the Psalms, Reardon appeals to Justin Martyr. “‘The Divine Word,’ said Justin, ‘sometimes speaks as from the person [apo prosopou] of God, the Ruler and Father of all, sometimes as from the person [apo prosopou] of Christ, sometimes from the person [apo prosopou] of the peoples answering the Lord or His s
The remainder of Reardon’s book explores each psalm individually with Christ in view throughout. His presentation is both devotional and scholarly, including multiple citations from related portions of Scripture and occasional references to other authors.
For a casual audience, Reardon is vastly more readable than Bates (above), because Reardon does not include the prolific technical detail of the latter. Sadly, Reardon does not include an index.
Saphir, Adolph. The Divine Unity of Scripture. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1896. Public Domain. Available at https://archive.org/stream/divineunityofscr00saph/divineunityofscr00saph_djvu.txt. Accessed 3/08/2018.
Adolph Saphir (1831-1891) was born in Hungary of Jewish parents. The entire family converted to Christianity in response to the Jewish mission of the Church of Scotland. He became a Christian pastor and lived most of his adult life in Great Britain. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Saphir,_Adolph_(DNB00).
This book is fresh air. While it is not about Psalms in particular, it is about Scripture from the perspective of one converted to Christianity from Judaism. Adolph Saphir captures the essence of the Reformation and marries Scripture and the Holy Spirit. His view is that Scripture, by means of the Holy Spirit, is available to all, regardless of education or “expertise.” While the pastor/teacher’s role in scriptural interpretation is genuine, that role is to present the “key” that allows readers to unlock Scripture for themselves, much as Phillip presented the key to the Ethiopian eunuch, who then went on his way without Phillip, the book of Isaiah happily in his hands. The key which both Phillip and Saphir present is Christ, whom they acknowledge as the center of Scripture.
Saphir writes, “The synagogue has given me the Old Testament, and am I therefore to deny that Jesus is the Messiah? Because the synagogue has given me the Old Testament, am I bound to interpret the Old Testament with their blindness? I am thankful that it has given me the Old Testament, but it has no authority to interpret to me the Old Testament. [See note below*.] And as for the Church that has given me the New Testament, I am thankful to the Church that has given me the New Testament. But the authority of the Church in interpreting the New Testament, specially [spelling in original] when it says exactly the opposite to what is written in the New Testament, certainly no Christian can acknowledge, for the Scripture is very simple and plain.” (143-144)
*This author’s Note: Contra the mantra, The Old Testament can only mean what the original authors and readers of that day would have understood it to mean.
Saphir, Adolph and Cortesi, Lawrence. “Chapter 4. Christ Above the Angels (Hebrews 1:5-2:4)” in The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Exposition. Public Domain. Available at http://juchre.org/saphir/heb2.htm Accessed 7/30/2017.
Adolph Saphir (1831-1891) was born in Hungary of Jewish parents. The entire family converted to Christianity in response to the Jewish mission of the Church of Scotland. He became a Christian pastor and lived most of his adult life in Great Britain. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Saphir,_Adolph_(DNB00).
In his exposition of the book of Hebrews, Adolph Saphir acknowledges the voice of Christ in all the psalms. He writes, “Christ is in all the psalms; they speak of Him.” To Saphir, not only do the psalms speak of Christ, but both Christ and the Father speak to one another from within psalms. One example is Psalm 102. Saphir writes, “Then it is that God the Father replies to Him, ‘Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands’ (Heb 1:10)… this suffering One is the Lord; He is the same, and His years fail not.” (Both of the above quotations can be found at https://juchre.org/saphir/heb2.htm.)
The foregoing Annotated Bibliography is hardly a beginning. Hopefully, as time progresses, the list of authors who hear divine dialogue within the pages of Psalms will increase.
Link to the full bibliography
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 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.