The Songs of the Son (Seeing Christ in the Psalms)
With a resurgence of interest in Christ-centered biblical interpretation and preaching, one of the areas of redemptive-history that desperately needs a renewed focus is that of Christ in the Psalms and OT wisdom literature. Among some of the more helpful works on these books are Nancy Guthrie’s The Wisdom of God: Seeing Jesus in the Psalms and Wisdom Literature, Ray Ortlund Jr.’s Proverbs: Wisdom that Works, Sinclair Ferguson’s Pundit’s Folly and Richard Belcher’s Messiah and the Psalms. Edmund Clowney’s several lectures on Preaching Christ from the Psalms are almost unparalleled for their hermenuetical value in this respect: “Christ in All the Scriptures:: Psalms, Wisdom Literature;” “Preaching Christ in the Old Testament:: Christ in the Psalms (part 1), part 2 and part 3;” “Preaching Christ From the Psalms, part 1 and part 2.”
One of the surprising things that we discover when we start looking for Christ-centered, redemptive-historical works on the Psalms and the Wisdom literature is the sparcity of works that have actually been written throughout church history. Not that there is any shortage of commentaries and works on the Psalms that include expositions of what have been commonly called the “Messianic Psalms” (i.e. 2, 8, 16, 22, 45, 110 etc.)–but works that give sound principles of redemptive-historical exposition of all the Psalms. In a very real sense we can say that every Psalm is Messianic in its character. The debate over the Song of Songs aside, there has been a less than consistent placing of the Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes into their canonical and biblical-theological setting. It should be apparent from the way in which the apostles cite the Psalms that the Psalter is preeminently Christocentric in its focus (e.g. see the seven Psalms cited in Heb. 1:4-14). So why, if the apostolic testimony is abundantly clear about the Psalms being Christ-centered, do we find so little on them (other than the obviously Messianic Psalms)?
As you sift through the overwhelming amount of books and commentaries on the Psalms, one of the things that you discover is the disagreement about how to approach them hermeneutically. There is no shortage of expositions of what we call the “Messianic Psalms;” but even there we find disagreement over how to view them in light of the historical setting in which they were written and the redemptive-historical setting in which they are interpreted by the apostles. For instance, John Owen gave us a bit of an insight into the two approaches to interpreting Psalm 2 when he wrote:
That it is the Messiah who is prophesied of in the second Psalm, from whence the words are taken. This, with all Christians, is put beyond dispute by its application to Christ in several places of the New Testament, as Acts 5:25—27; Acts 13:33; Heb. 5:5. It is certain also, that the Jews esteemed that psalm to relate to the Messiah. But it was not enough for the apostle, that those with whom he dealt acknowledged these things, unless they were really so; that his argument might proceed (ex veris) from what was true, as well as (ex concessis) from what was granted. There is no cogent reason why we should acknowledge David and his kingdom to be at all intended in this psalm. The apostles, we see, apply it to the Lord Christ without any mention of David, and that four several times; twice in the Acts, and twice in this epistle.1
Owen concluded that Psalm 2 was exclusively about Christ. It was prophetic in it’s nature. it seems that Owen is not even sure that it had a historico-typical element to it from the life of David. Owen does, however, concede that even if some suggest that Psalm 2 is about an experience of David coming to the throne–and that he was then a type of Christ–it was, in its ultimate sense, about the coming Redeemer. He explained:
We may indeed grant that consideration was had of David and his kingdom typically, but not absolutely…When the thing signified is principally aimed at, it is not necessary that every thing spoken should be applicable properly to the type itself; it being sufficient that there was in the type somewhat that bore a general resemblance to what was principally intended. On the contrary, where the type is principally intended, and an application made to the thing signified only by way of general allusion, there it is not required that all the particulars assigned to the type should belong to the anti-type. Hence though in general David, and his deliverance from trouble, with the establishment of his throne, might be respected in this psalm, as an obscure representation of the kingdom of Christ; yet sundry particulars in it, and among them this mentioned by our apostle, seem to have no respect to him, but directly and immediately to intend the Messiah.
If it yet be supposed that what is hence spoken, “Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee,” is also to be applied to David, yet it is not ascribed to him personally and absolutely, but merely considered as the type of Christ: what then is principally and directly intended in the words, is to be sought for in Christ alone; it being sufficient to preserve the nature of the type, that there was in David any resemblance or representation of it. Thus, whether David be admitted here as a type of Christ or no, the apostle’s purpose stands firm, that the words were principally and propT erJy spoken of the Messiah.2
In this way, we could say that some Psalms are exclusively about Christ in prophecy form. Surely Peter understood that the Spirit of Christ sometimes wrote of the sufferings of Christ and the glories that followed irrespective of some experience of David, after all he says:
Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into. (1 Peter 1:10-12).
Because of the difficulty that theologians have had in coming to a settled agreement on how to interpret the Psalms Christologically, some have offered a reductionistic paradigm for interpreting the Psalms. In her interesting work Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms, G. Sujin Pak suggests that Calvin’s approach to the Psalms is as follows:
Calvin applies his own specific exegetical principles to disclose what he considers to be the simple and natural sense of the text. By finding powerful doctrinal and pastoral messages for the church in the simple sense of the Psalm–namely in the historical life of David–Calvin believes he has fully disolved his duty as a biblical exegete. More often than not, such readings lead him to elevate the prominent messages of comfort and call to true Protestant piety as that which the Spirit speaks–through the mouthpiece of David–to downtrodden Protestant churches. Hence, Calvin’s primary interpretation of these Psalms are readings through the person of David that bring comfort and teach true Protestant piety (over against Roman Catholic piety) and expound upon the doctrines of the goodness of God, election and divine providence.3
Pak continues to explain her understanding of Calvin’s interpretive method and how it differed from Luther, Bucer and other Reformers:
Like Luther and Bucer, Calvin views David as a prophet who foresees Christ; however, the content of these prophecies differ from the content of the prophecies that Luther, Bucer and the late Medieval Christian interpreters emphasize. Whereas Luther, Bucer and the antecedent Christian tradition view David as a prophet, he specifically sees him as a prophet who foresees the Messianic kingdom. The description of the kingdom of Christ given by David is the full content of David’s prophecies, according to Calvin. Indeed, such differing perspectives on David’s office as prophet have consequences for the treatment of the Jews in these Psalms. The readings of these Psalms as prophesying Christ’s passion and resurrection have tended to render the Jews as enemies of Christ and the church, and Calvin’s lack of doing so curb these tendencies.
Whether or not Pak’s representation of Calvin’s hermeneutic on the Psalms is altogether accurate (and it is questionable considering the final statement in the above citation), it is a well known fact that other Reformed theologians have criticized Cavin’s inconsistency with regard to a biblical-theological Christocentricity in his treatment of the Psalms. For instance, William Binnie (a professor of church history at the beginning of the 19th Century at the Free Church College in Aberdeen)–in his exceptional work, The Psalms: Their History, Teaching and Use—made the following criticize of Calvin’s own reticence to move from David to Christ typologically, when he wrote:
It was Calvin who first applied the principle of types, with distinguished success, to the interpretation of the Messianic psalms. Before his time, indeed, devout men, as they listened to David’s harp, were sensible of the presence of a greater than David, and their devotional use of the psalms was, from the first, animated and governed by the conviction that Christ was in them of a truth. But when the problem arose, how to reconcile this conviction with the plain rule that, in interpreting an author, particular expressions must be read in the light of the context and must have no meaning imposed on them which the context refuses to share, they found themselves at a loss. Here were psalms of which some parts evidently related to David and not to Christ; was it allowable to interpret other parts as if they were prophetical of Christ ? Being unable to work out a satisfactory answer, and being at the same time perfectly confident that the sentiment of their hearts which testified to Christ’s presence in the psalms was well founded, they fell upon the way of handling them which is so familiar to all who have dipped into the patristic writings. It is well exemplified in Augustine. That great divine was certainly neither ignorant of the rules of exact interpretation, nor unaware of the importance of applying them to the Messianic Psalms. But not having a clear conception of the nature of a type,—as distinguished from a prediction, on the one hand, and from a mere emblem or allegory, on the other,—his expositions drift perpetually into a style of allegoris- ing by which any sense that may happen to be desired can be extracted from any passage. It was not the least of the many services rendered to the cause of truth by the Reformers, and especially by Calvin, that they, for the first time, reconciled the sentiment of devout readers as to the ultimate reference of the Messianic psalms, with the principles of exact interpretation.
But, as often happens, the great Reformer, having got hold of a valuable principle, went to an extreme in the application of it. In no psalm except the Hundred and Tenth did he find Christ set forth without some intervening type. In the Second Psalm he thinks there is an immediate reference to David, and in the Forty-fifth to the nuptials of Solomon ; and in this he has been followed by many commentators of the highest standing. But the interpretation in both instances is, I venture to think, destitute of solid foundation. It is difficult, no doubt, to draw a line between the Psalms which relate exclusively to Christ, and those in which he is seen through the veil of some type. The Seventy-second, although typical, approaches to the character of a direct prediction; the Second and Forty-fifth, on the other hand, so largely borrow from the reigns of David and Solomon the poetical imagery in which they celebrate Christ, that they have a good deal of the look of typical Psalms. But this borrowing of imagery is by no means inconsistent with the strictly prophetical character. There are passages in Isaiah (chapters ix. and xi. for example) in which Christ and his reign are celebrated in imagery wholly taken from David’s reign, yet no one regards them as anything but direct predictions. There is no reason to deny the same character to the Second and and Forty-fifth psalms. To expound them as having a primary reference to David or Solomon, is simply to introduce confusion and embarrassment.5
Perhaps more helpfully than in any other work that I have come across, Binnie lays out what he sees to be the different categories of Messianic Psalms and the ways we ought to seek to interpret them Christologically. He gives us three categories in his chapter “A Classifications of the Messianic Psalms” (pp. 178-196 in his Pathway to the Psalter). Binnie suggested that all of the Psalms fall under one of the following categories of Messianic interpretation:
I. Typically Messianic Psalms
Binnie noted that David’s “history from first to last, was a kind of acted parable of the sufferings and glory of Christ.” In this way David was a type of Christ. It is not hard for us to see this in the narrative of the life and ministry of David. He was a shepherd from Bethlehem, chosen by God to be King of Israel. He was first cast into an experience of humiliation (when Saul sought to destroy him) prior to entering into a period of exaltation as King. David, like the Son of David, had a betrayer who–when he discovered that his plot had been uncovered–went and hung himself. David faced off (and defeated by himself), as a federal representative of his people, the seemingly unbeatable enemy of the OT church; Jesus faced off (and defeated by Himself), in federal representation of His people, Satan–the great enemy of the church. The covenantal typology that exists between David and Jesus is so great that Ezekiel prophecies 4 times of the Messiah using David’s name synonymously with that of the coming Messiah: “David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd…” (Ez. 34:23, 24; 37:24, 25). Clearly Ezekiel does not have David in view–rather, he is referring to David’s greater Son. All of this is organically bound together in the Covenant promises that God gives to David (2 Sam. 7).
Some of the Psalms speak of the typological nature of David and some of other Old Testament figures. For instance, Psalm 110 says that Jesus was “a Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” One hardly need to investigate this, as Melchizedek is plainly set out as a type of Christ in the book of Hebrews.
There are times that the Tabernacle, Temple, sacrifices, Priests et al are referred to in the Psalms. As was true of Melchizedek, the book of Hebrews explains that all of these things we typical of Christ and the heavenly realities that Christ bought into this world in His first coming. Since a type is any person, place, thing or event that points beyond itself to a greater and more full anti-type, we see that the Psalms are full of typology. When the Psalmist speaks of the altar (Ps. 26:6; 43:4; 51:19; 84:3; and 118:27) how can we not see this as a reference to that which was typical of the cross (i.e. the altar) where our Lord Jesus was sacrificed for us (Heb. 9-10)?
II. Directly Predictive (Prophetic) Psalms
The second category of Messianic Psalms that Binnie sets out are those which he considers to be directly (and exclusively) predictive of Christ. While discussing Psalm 22, Binner explained: “The only adequate and natural interpretation of the psalm is that which sees in it a lyrical prediction of the Sufferings of Messiah and the Glory that was to follow. No Sufferer but One could, without presumption, have expected his griefs to result in the conversion of nations to God.” While I have read many commentators who attempt to see this first and foremost about David, I have always tended to agree with Binnie that this Psalm is exclusively about the sufferings of Christ. No different than Isaiah 53, this Psalm is directly predictive of Christ. Though David suffered often throughout his life, it is hard to see how the details of this Psalm–that includes at least 5 references to the 7 sayings of Christ at Calvary–as having reference to David. The Psalm is divided into two very clear parts–the sufferings of Christ (vv. 1-20) and the glories that followed (vv. 22-31). What seals the exclusively Messianic nature of this Psalm is the fact that the benefits of the sufferings of Christ are set out in vv. 26-31. In addition, the writer of Hebrews cites v. 22 in Heb. 2 and tells us that that was speaking of Christ as the Mediator and heavenly worship leader of His church. All attempts to make this partially about David (or even typologically about David) are vain.
III. Mystically Messianic Psalms
Recongizing that there are Psalms in which David is clearly speaking of his personal Christian experience, Binnie suggested that there are many Psalms that would be classified as “Mystically Messianic Psalms.” The two examples of mystically Psalms that Binnie gives are Psalm 16 and 40. By virtue of the believer’s union with Christ, he shares in similar experiences and benefits from the saving work of Christ. Though Peter tells us that those famous words of Psalm 16:10 could only be understood at that point in redemptive-history as referring to Jesus in the resurrection (Actas 2:23-33), they will also be shown to be true of all those united to Jesus by faith in the day of their own resurrection. This class of Psalms is not always easy to interpret, precisely because some of what is written in the Psalm may only be true of Jesus in redemptive-history, and yet will be applied to believers in the consummation–while other parts of the Psalm are true of the believer and of Christ in the days of their earthly pilgrimage here.
I would add to Binnie’s three categories two others:
IV. Psalms of Trust in Christ
There are many other Psalms in which David is found confessing sin, crying out for deliverance and speaking of his own trust in God through trials. Clearly we cannot apply to Christ those parts in which David confesses sin. Some may suggest that because Jesus becomes the sin-bearer by imputation we can see this as typological of Christ (as is true of His being circumcised and undergoing a baptism of repentance); however, this seems somewhat unnatural at this point in redemptive-history. Rather, we should see David’s experience in the confession of sin, the cry for salvation and the trust he professes in God as possible only because of the work of the coming Redeemer to whom David looked by faith (Acts 2:30-31). There could be no evangelical repentance without the Gospel of the Old Testament. David was one of the saints of the Old Covenant that understood that the promises, types, shadows and ordinances pointed beyond themselves to the coming Christ. In this way, we must speak of “Psalms of Trust in Christ.”
V. Creation/New Creation Messianic Psalms
One final category of Messianic Psalms is discovered in the pages of the New Testament. When working through the book of Hebrews we find references to several “Messianic Psalms of Creation/New Creation.” For instance, Hebrews 1:10-12 provides for us the hermeneutical principle for this category. The writer sees in Psalm 102:25-26 a statement of creation and new creation–then explicitly applies it to Christ. Jesus Christ is both the Creator of all things (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-16; Heb. 1:2; etc.) and the One who secures the new creation through His atoning death and resurrection. The writer of Hebrews develops the idea found in Heb. 1:10-12 when he cites Psalm 8 in Heb. 2:5-9. Here again, we see how the goal of the creation that Christ created finds its consummation and restoration in the saving work of Christ. When approaching other “Creation/New Creation” Psalms we must look for clues in the exegesis of the Psalm. For instance, Psalm 104 is clearly a Psalm of creation. At first glance it does not seem to having anything explicitly Messianic about it; but when we start to consider the flow of the Psalm, and the details contained in it, we see something striking surface. After setting out God’s glory and providence in creation (vv. 1-30), the Psalmist puts his own redemptive praise to God in it (vv. 31-34). Finally, he cries out, “May sinners be consummed from the earth, and the wicked be no more.” The Psalmist understands that the way of this fallen world is not the way of God’s original or ultimate design for creation. The world that is full of God’s glory and care should be filled with righteousness. The solution to the problem is only to be found in the saving work of Christ. One day, the wicked will be consumed from the earth.” Jesus cleansed His own people from their wickedness and will banish the unbelieving from this world. In that day, only those who have been redeemed by Christ will dwell in the “new heavens and the new earth wherein righteousness dwells.”
1. John Owen Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong, 1812) pp. 66-67.
2. Ibid., p. 67
3. G. Sujin Pak Judaizing Calvin: Sixteenth-Century Debates over the Messianic Psalms (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) p. 51
4. Ibid., p. 88
5. William Binnie The Psalms: The History, Teaching and Use (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1870) p. 187
I really appreciate this. Growing up in the church I’ve seen Psalms preached, explained and applied as examples for Christian living. Some number of years ago I heard for the first time a series of sermons from a Christological perspective. Since then I’ve been looking for some materials that presents Psalms Christologically. This helps.
Mark G – you should check out Richard Belcher’s The Messiah and the Psalms, released in 2012. Binnie’s distinctions above are also helpful. Thanks Nick.