Parables help us get our bearings (Matthew 13:34-35)

Wisdom: learning from where we’ve been, to end up in a better place.

So why did Jesus speak in parables? He was revealing divine plans that had been confidential since the world was founded.

That’s how Matthew’s community understood him, based on Psalm 78:2:
I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world (quoted in Matthew 13:35).

But why did they think that Psalm was about Jesus? Was it just because the Psalm used the word parable?

Perhaps it was just the word. Dick France thinks so:

Matthew is concerned not with the psalm as a whole but with this introductory statement, focused in the term parabolē (NICOT, 2007, 530).

Craig Blomberg thought the same way in 1992:

This “fulfillment” is not an exegesis of the Old Testament text but a typological application (NAC, 1992, 221).

But 15 years later, Blomberg wondered if there might be a stronger link between the whole Psalm (Israel’s historical story) and Matthew 13 as a whole (Jesus’ kingdom stories):

Matthew may also be implying that a new era of salvation history has arrived: the age of the inaugurated kingdom. The parables of Matt. 13, after all, are about precisely this inauguration (Commentary on the NT use of the OT, 2007, 50).

He’s got a point. If Psalm 78 was about the kingdom, and Jesus’ stories are also about the kingdom, the connection could be much more than just the word parable. We should check the Psalm.

Psalm 78 is a wisdom song. It’s attributed to Asaph, who asks the people to listen to his wisdom instruction. The Hebrew word translated “parable” in verse 2 is mā·šāl, and it’s used of wisdom statements (proverbs, bywords) or stories (oracles, discourses). Psalm 78 is Asaph’s parable — a wisdom discourse so his generation won’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

He reminds them how the exodus generation aroused God’s anger because of their unfaithfulness — because they did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power (78:22). That warning is at the heart of the Psalm: despite his wonders, they did not believe (78:32).

But Israel had not learned from the past. The northern tribes (Ephraimites, 78:9) rejected God’s kingship when they refused to give allegiance to the son of David, the king anointed by God. That’s why Israel (the tent of Joseph, 78:67) ceased to exist as a nation, leaving only Judah.

Asaph’s parable advised the Jews not to make the same mistake. They must not refuse God’s leading, as the exodus generation did. They must not refuse God’s chosen king, as the northern tribes did. They must come together as a nation under the son of David whom God appointed to be their shepherd (78:70-72).

Can you see the relevance of that message for Matthew’s community? He’s calling the Jewish people of his day to come together under God’s appointed ruler (the Christ), the son of David. Asaph’s parable (Psalm 78) is the perfect wisdom lesson for Matthew’s audience.

Jesus was doing the same thing. He was telling wisdom stories, parables that explained to Israel who he was and what he was doing, calling them into God’s kingdom under his leadership.

The story of all previous generations since the foundation of the world was about to be fulfilled in Jesus’ kingship. The parables of the kingdom call for allegiance to the king appointed by God.

The text

Matthew 13:33-35 (my translation, compare ESV)
33 Another parable he told them, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three buckets of flour — until the whole lot fermented!”
34 Jesus told the crowds everything in parables; he told them nothing except through parables, 35 so the word spoken through the prophet could be fulfilled, “I will open my mouth in parables. I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” [Psalm 78:2]

What others are saying

Beth Tanner, “Book Three of the Psalter: Psalms 73–89” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 617:

[Psalm 78] should not be understood as simply a recitation of historical happenings. It is shaped in a particular way to teach a particular lesson: that of the cost of disobedience to the Lord and what that faithlessness has cost Israel.

Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1975), 310–311:

This [Psalm] could be sub-titled … From Zoan to Zion … It is history that must not repeat itself. … The Christian user of the psalm knows that history did repeat itself, and that finally the chosen tribe refused its King, and did so in the chosen city (68); but he also knows that God has more than kept the promise to David, and has established a Mount Zion that is ‘the mother of us all’ (Gal. 4:26, AV).

Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 484–485:

Jesus is doing a similar service to Israel in his day, revealing in his parables the secrets of the kingdom of heaven that have been hidden since the beginning. The entire Old Testament has looked forward to the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven, and in Jesus’ ministry he has drawn together the many strands of prophetic hope that seemed disparate to some. His revelation of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven in parables has brought to the light God’s program of salvation and redemption.

[previous: Infecting the world with good]

 [next: What’s the Bible’s main theme?]

Update 2022-05-18: Translation added.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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