Should we see Jesus in the Psalms?
The church fathers saw Jesus everywhere, but modern commentators focus on authorial intent — the meaning the author intended to convey. The Psalms were written to celebrate the reign of Israel’s God and to lament their struggles as his people. The authors didn’t intend to write about Jesus, so can the Psalms be about Jesus?
And yet, the New Testament writers do apply the Psalms to Jesus. Psalm 8 is applied to Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:27 and Hebrews 2:6-8, and even by Jesus himself in Matthew 21:16. Authorial intent matters, but it’s too limited a view. There’s a bigger story playing out across the canon of Scripture.
It’s the story of God’s kingship over the earth (the kingdom God). In the Old Testament, King David and his descendants served as God’s anointed, ruling on earth as the heir of the sovereign who ruled in the heavens. This is the voice of David we hear in the Psalms, the voice calling us to celebrate earth’s true sovereign, to recognize the Lord reigns!
But the Psalms also recognize that God’s reign isn’t playing out on earth as it should. The Davidic king constantly struggles with enemies preying on him. He calls them God’s enemies, because any attack on God’s anointed is an attack on God’s reign.
The attack on divine kingship forms the shape of the Book of Psalms, just as it shaped Israel’s story. We start with the reign of David and his son (Books 1–2), and then the descent of the Davidic kingship into failure (Book 3). Despite the demise of God’s anointed, the Psalms continue to assert God’s reign, that this reign will be vindicated and celebrated (Books 4–5). Like the rest of the Old Testament, the Psalms end without resolving the incongruence of claiming that God rules in the heavens while we’re not seeing that on earth.
Jesus comes as the answer to the problem posed by the Psalms. He is the the son of David who restores the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. He is the anointed of the Lord, coming in the name of the Lord to restore divine reign to the earth so we function a kingdom of heaven.
That’s why authorial intent is inadequate — constrained by the individualism that characterizes our culture. In the Psalms, David recognizes God’s sovereignty and laments Israel’s struggles, and God’s answer is revealed in a son of David who was yet to come.
Let’s see how that works with a specific example.
Matthew has been telling us that Jesus is the son of David from the start (Matthew 1:1, 6, 17, 20; 2:6; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31). We’re not surprised when the crowds wave palm branches and lay their cloaks on the road to smooth the entry of the son of David into his capital, the king returning in the name of the Lord (21:9), the son of David who saves his people (hosanna in 21:15).
When the temple authorities demean these cries as the voice of uninformed children (21:16), Jesus disagrees. Their cries match the founder of the Davidic dynasty who declared that God’s majestic authority could be established by infants, not infantry (Psalm 8:2 in Matthew 21: 16).
God’s answer to David’s problem of the enemies of God’s reign is not a bunker or a bomb. God-crucified is how God silences those baying for his blood:
Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger (Psalm 8:2).
That is the gospel of the kingdom, the good news of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.
That’s still important today. God reign is not obvious to those who hold the wealth of the world or the might of the military or the perception of the philosophers. It’s the nobodies — those with the status of a child — who see the crucified king (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).
So let’s re-read David’s declarations in Psalm 8 in the light of the son of David fulfilling all that David had in mind … and more.
Psalm 8 (paraphrased, compare NIV)
1 YHWH — Israel’s leader — how majestic is your sovereign authority over the whole earth!
You have set the weight of your sovereignty in the heavens, 2 and established it on earth through the voice of powerless children, defenceless babies who celebrate you while those who oppose your authority are silenced.
3 As I ponder your sovereignty revealed in the heavens, I see the moon and stars following the paths you set for them. 4 Why do you even bother with humanity? Why extend your providence to the human descendant?
5 Yet, the human has a place in your kingdom — a place just one step below God, covered with your glory and honour as his crown. 6 You have given him dominion over everything you crafted, placing all creation under his feet: 7 domestic animals and wild beasts; 8 birds flying through the heavens above us, and fish swimming through the oceans below us, everything that navigates its depths.
9 YHWH — Israel’s leader — how majestic is your sovereign authority over the whole earth!
The global scope of God’s reign in Christ
The sovereign authority that David represented, the authority that had disintegrated by the end of the Psalms, was restored in the ultimate son of David. He entered the occupied capital not on a warhorse with an army to dislodge his enemies, but meekly, on a donkey, to the voice of children proclaiming his kingship. The enemies of divine kingship would crucify him, but the children’s voices ultimately silence God’s enemies.
The wonder is that Davidic kingship is only one corner of this grand story. Psalm 8 declares YHWH’s reign over all the earth. Reaching back beyond Jacob’s story, it reasserts the global declarations of Genesis 1: God giving the human dominion over the earth and all its creatures, creatures that live as God decreed (domestic and wild creatures on land, birds in the air, fish in the sea).
This authority — the global authority God gave the human in the beginning — is restored in the human descendant who sets all things right. The anointed king (son of David) who restores God’s authority for his people is also the human descendant (son of man) who restores God’s authority to the whole earth. That’s how 1 Corinthians 15:27 and Hebrews 8:6 understand Psalm 8.
That’s the good news in the Psalms: the restoration of God’s reign through the son of David, the anointed ruler (his Christ) entrusted with global leadership (our Lord). This gospel is a person: Jesus Christ our Lord.
Our response to this good news is therefore to honour our king:
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.
What others are saying
By way of background, here are two polar extremes of how Christians should approach the Old Testament: only for authorial intent (an view of modernity), or only to find Christ (an Eastern Orthodox view).
Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 468:
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) is the father of modern hermeneutics. For him the purpose of interpretation is the reconstruction of the author’s original message. Interpreters, through historical and critical reflection on the text, align themselves with that intended meaning.
Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2000), x:
As Christians, we only go to the Old Testament because it pertains to Jesus. Otherwise the Old Testament is, for us non-Jews, just another ancient book. We accept it as our Bible only because it is Jesus’ Bible. In truth and strictly speaking, after all, it is only Christ that makes the Old Testament theologically pertinent to us.