The Righteous One of Psalm One
In recent years there has been pushback on the idea that every Psalm is Messianic. Perhaps it is born out of a failure to understand the typological nature of the Old Testament saints and their experiences (e.g. that of David), or perhaps it is for fear of undermining the experiential value of the Psalms or the call to holiness for believers contained in them under an assumed imbalanced view of justification by faith alone. Whatever the reason, such argumentation fails to take into account the fact that 1) Jesus was an Israelite, born under the Law to redeem us from the curse of the Law, and 2) that Jesus is the source of all righteousness and life for us. He is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). In short, Jesus is the foundation of both imputed and imparted righteousness–in our justification and sanctification. He is, at ground zero in our experience of redemption, the Righteous One. In seeking to understand how to read the Psalms in light of the Person, work and reward of Christ, Andrew Bonar, in his outstanding Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, left us a beautiful inlet into the Christology of Psalm 1 when he wrote:
We have noticed that our Lord seems to quote one of the expressions of this Psalm; and let us see how we may suppose it all read by him in the days of his flesh. We know He read it; his delight was in the law of the Lord; and often has he quoted the book of Psalms. As he read, it would be natural to his human soul to appropriate the blessedness pronounced on the godly; for he knew and felt himself to be indeed the godly, who ‘had not walked in the counsels of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful.’ He felt himself able to say at all times, ‘Thy law is within my heart!’ Was He not the true palm-tree? Was He not the true pomegranate-tree? Can we help thinking on Him as alone realizing the description in this Psalm? The members of his mystical Body, in their measure, aim at this holy walk; but it is only—in him that they see it perfectly exemplified. ‘His leaf never withered;’ ‘he did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth’ (1 Peter 2:22); ‘he yielded his fruit in its season,’ obeying his mother Mary, and being found about his Father’s business; going up to the feast ‘when his hour was come,’ and suffering, when the time appointed came; everything ‘in season.’ And ‘all he did prospered;’ he finished the work given him to do (John 17:4), and because of his completed work, ‘therefore God hath highly exalted him,’ (Phil. 2:8, 9).
We who are his members seek to realize all this in our measure. We seek that everything in us should be to the glory of God—heart, words, actions—all that may adorn the gospel, as well as all that is directly holy. Having the imputed righteousness of this Savior, we earnestly long to have his holiness imparted too; though conscious that He alone comes up to the picture drawn here so beautifully. In either view, we may inscribe as the title of this Psalm, ‘The blessed path of the Righteous One.'”1
1. Andrew Bonar Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1859) p. 3
Calvin rarely used typology in his Psalms exegesis. Bucer followed the fourfold method of OT exegesis as did Luther and Augustine before them. In their view the typological method or sensus plenior (the full sense) yielded a Christological result. Compare Calvin on Psalm 72 with Bucer and Luther. Calvin was at times accused if being a rabbinic exegete because of this tendency. He was influenced by Nicholas Lyra’s exegetical method. Lyra was more interested in the first sense of the psalms – the literal sense. Was Calvin suppressing the typological sense? Or was he insisting that the typological meaning of a text can only be arrived at once the literal sense is determined? And then typology must be carefully controlled lest we preach the NT through each OT text thereby minimizing the literal. There are some excellent essays and books tracing the history of Reformed exegesis of the psalms beginning with Augustine.
Calvin’s “Christ: the End of the Law” is an instructive inlet into his hermeneutics regarding Christ-centered biblical interpretation. Regarding typology, Calvin noted: “For this is eternal life, to know the one and only true God, and Him who He sent, Jesus Christ, whom he constituted the beginning, the middle, and the end of our salvation. This One is Isaac the well-beloved Son of the Father, who was offered in sacrifice, and yet did not succumb to the power of death. This is the vigilant Shepherd Jacob, taking such great care of the sheep He has charge over. This is the good and pitiable Brother Joseph, who in His glory was not ashamed to recognize His brothers, however contemptible and abject as they were. This is the great Priest and Bishop Melchizedek, having made eternal sacrifice once for all. This is the sovereign Lawgiver Moses, writing His law on the tables of our hearts by His Spirit. This is the faithful Captain and Guide Joshua to conduct us to the promised land. This is the noble and victorious King David, subduing under His hand every rebellious power. This is the magnificent and triumphant King Solomon, governing His kingdom in peace and prosperity. This is the strong and mighty Samson, who, by His death, overwhelmed all His enemies.” Regarding the Christological focus of the Old Testament, Calvin wrote: “”This is in sum what we should seek in the whole Scripture: it is to know well Jesus Christ and the infinite riches which are comprised in Him, and are, by Him, offered to us from God His Father. For when the law and the prophets are carefully searched, there is not to be found in them one word which does not reduce and lead us to Him. And in fact, since all the treasures of wisdom and intelligence are hid in Him, there is no question of having any other end or object, if we wish not, as of deliberate intention, to turn ourselves away from the light of truth, in order to lose our way into the darkness of lies. For this reason does St. Paul rightly say in another passage that he resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. For though the flesh has the opinion that that knowledge is something vulgar and contemptible, the acquiring of it is sufficient to occupy our whole life. And we will not have wasted our time, when we will have employed all our study and applied all our understanding, to profit of it. What more could we ask, for the spiritual doctrine of our souls, than to know God, in order to be transformed into Him, and to have His glorious image imprinted in us, in order to be partakers of His justice, heirs of His kingdom, and to possess it fully to the end? Now it is thus, that from the beginning He gave Himself, and now even more clearly gives Himself to be contemplated in the face of His Christ. It is therefore not lawful that we turn ourselves away and wander here and there, however little it may be. But our understanding must be altogether stopped at this point, to learn in the Scripture to know only Jesus Christ, in order to be conducted by Him straight to the Father, who contains in Himself all perfection.”
Additionally–and it should be well noted–that even James Anderson (the man who translated Calvin’s Psalm commentary out of Latin, and upon whose work G. Sujin Pak relies) made the following important observation about Calvin’s hermeneutical method: “Before his time the mystical and allegorical method of explaining the Scriptures was very prevalent; according to which, the interpreter, dwelling very little or not at all upon the literal sense, sought for hidden and allegorical meanings. But rejecting this mode of interpretation, which contributed little to the right understanding of the word of God, and according to which the meaning was made to depend entirely upon the fancy of the interpreter, Calvin set himself to the investigation of the grammatical and literal sense, by a careful examination of the Hebrew test, and by a diligent attention to the drift and intention of the writer’s discourse.
This principle of interpretation cannot be too highly commended. It should first engage the attention of the commentator; and when it is neglected, the fundamental principle of sacred criticism is violated. Calvin was deeply alive to its importance. His only defect lies in his acting upon it too exclusively. Many of the Psalms, in addition to the literal meaning, have a prophetical, evangelical, and spiritual sense. While referring primarily to David and the nation of Israel, they have, at the same time, a reference to Christ and the New Testament Church, founded on the fact that the former were typical of the latter. Calvin, indeed, explains some of the Psalms on this principle. But he applies the principle less frequently than he might have done, without contravening the canons of sound hermeneutics. His great aversion to the mystical method of interpretation, and to the absurd and extravagant lengths to which it was carried by the Fathers, perhaps made him err on the other extreme of confining his attention too much to the literal meanings and directing his attention too little to the prophetical and spiritual character of the Book, and to the reference which it has to Christ and the Church. In consequence of this, his expositions have less unction, and contain less of rich evangelical sentiment, than would otherwise have distinguished them. There are, however, two principles of evangelical truth which he is at pains to inculcates whenever a fit opportunity presents itself —the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ without the works of the Law; and the necessity of personal holiness in order to salvation.”
I’m pleased to see you giving Bonar’s marvelous book on the Psalms a mention. His work on Leviticus is also well worth a read and his diary and life, which has been recently republished by Banner of Truth is a spiritual classic.
Ian, Bonar’s book might be a breakthrough in the history of expositions on the Psalms. William Binnie–whose excellent work on the theology of the Psalms–as well as James Anderson (whom I reference above)–seem to appeal to the language of it when they speak of viewing David and Old Covenant Israel as typical of Christ and His Church. Bonar does some sweet things in it! I do not think that I’ve read much out of his Leviticus commentary. I have it and need to dig in. It might be the next thing I do thanks to your recommendation. Oh to love Christ more, the way that these men did.