The Messiah in the Psalms


September 3, 2017

The Sanctuary | Hazelwood, Missouri

Theme: The essential theme of Psalms is the coming One, the Messiah. According to Jesus (Luke 24:44-45), Peter (Acts 2:25-36), Paul (Acts 13:32-37), and the use of the psalms by the New Testament church (Acts 4:25-28), the Psalter is first and foremost a book about the Messiah. It focuses on Zion theology and the kingdom of God (i.e., the physical restoration of Davidic hope, the fulfillment of the promise God made to David that the Messiah would descend physically from him to rule on David’s throne in Zion).[1]

To say that the theme of the Psalter is messianic does not mean only that there are messianic psalms scattered throughout the book. From beginning to end, the book testifies in a variety of ways of the Messiah. When read this way, Psalms takes on a dynamic dimension beyond that of devotional literature. It is not just a section of the Holy Bible to which we turn only when searching for encouragement or wisdom; it is a book we turn to in order to know Jesus better. This does not eliminate its devotional value; it enhances it by showing us that the one with whom we identify in suffering and victory is not just David or other human authors; it is our Lord Jesus Christ.

Authors: Ninety-nine of the psalms identify the author or authors in the superscriptions, which are included in the Hebrew text as the first verse rather than being separated from the psalms as frequently done in translation. The oldest is Psalm 90, identified with Moses and dating possibly from about 1500 bc. Seventy-three psalms are identified with David and would have been written in the tenth century bc. (See Psalms 3-9, 11-32, 34-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, 138-145.) Psalms 72 and 127 are identified with Solomon. Asaph, a Levite and chief musician of David, is identified with twelve psalms. (See Psalms 50, 73-83.) Eleven psalms are attributed to the sons of Korah. Korah was a great-grandson of Levi. (See Psalms 42, 44-49, 84-85, 87-88.) Psalm 89 is identified with Ethan the Ezrahite. We are not certain of his identity, but this was the name of a wise man who lived in Solomon’s time as well as a Levitical musician contemporary with David.

Although some question the authenticity and validity of the superscriptions – they are set apart from the psalms as a kind of heading and not numbered with the verses – the fact that they are included in the Hebrew text as the first verse of the psalm, resulting in a renumbering of the rest of the verses, indicates that we should accept them as authoritative. There are also other reasons for accepting them:

  1. Biblical poets typically identified themselves with their work. (See II Samuel 22:1; 23:1; Isaiah 38:9; cf. Psalm 18.)
  2. Not all the psalms have superscriptions. This suggests the authenticity of the superscriptions, for if they had been added after the psalms were originally written, it seems that superscriptions would have been added to all the psalms.
  3. The Septuagint indicates that those who translated from Hebrew to Greek in the third century bc knew little about the meaning of the musical terms in the superscriptions. If this were so, the terms in the superscriptions must have substantially predated the Septuagint.
  4. Jesus’ use of what is now included as superscription indicated that He viewed the words as authoritative and authentic. (See Matthew 22:43-45.)

Why the Book Is Called “Psalms”: The Book of Psalms takes its English title from the Septuagint title Psalmoi, a word that means “hymns” sung to musical accompaniment. Although the Hebrew mizmor, meaning “a song sung with musical accompaniment,” appears fifty-seven times in the superscriptions, the title of the book in the Hebrew text is Tehillim, meaning “praises.”

In addition to the title Tehillim, a portion of the book is identified as “the prayers (tefillot) of David.” (See Psalm 72:20.) This is an ancient title for a book comprised of Psalms 3-72.

Original Audience: A common view is that the Psalter was intended for use in corporate worship during the second temple period. A close reading of the text suggests, however, that it was also useful for individuals, not only for the community, and that a specific intended audience is those in exile or tribulation. For these readers, it is a source of hope and comfort.

Key Apostolic Insights: The New Testament quotes from, alludes to, or paraphrases the Old Testament in nearly 800 verses. The book most frequently appealed to is Psalms, which is referred to 206 times. The Psalms show that Christ, the promised Messiah, is the Son of God and the Son of Man. As the Son of God, the Messiah is God Himself in human existence. As the Son of Man, He is a physical descendant of David. The psalms foretell the Messiah’s birth, important events in His life, His betrayal, His sufferings, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, His second coming, and the Millennium. The Psalter also anticipates the proclamation of the gospel, the Messiah’s bride, and the gifts given to the New Testament church upon His ascension.

The Structure of Hebrew Poetry: We refer to Psalms as one of the poetic books because it consists of poetry. Parallelism and figurative images are basic features of ancient poetry. Parallelism is not merely the idea of repetition of a thought in different words, so that a subsequent line (or lines) is completely synonymous with the opening line of the poem; rather, successive lines serve to further develop the thought in some way. The “rhyming” of Hebrew poetry is not similarity of sound but of ideas or concepts. This is sometimes called “thought rhymes,” but that term leads to the notion that successive lines simply recast the same idea in different words rather than advancing the idea. With biblical poetry, however, the entire meaning is not found in the first line; subsequent lines are required to fill out the intended sense of the poem. An example of this is seen immediately upon the opening of the Psalter.

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,

nor standeth in the way of sinners,

nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

The first line of Psalm 1:1 describes the characteristics of a blessed person. This person avoids the influence of the “ungodly” (reshaʻiym [wicked]), a topic that continues throughout the Psalter. The ungodly are further identified in the second line as “sinners” (ḥaṭṭa’iym), indicating that these ungodly ones “miss the way.” Their “way” is the way of the ungodly rather than the godly. Finally, the ungodly are described in the third line as “scornful” (lēṣiym). So it is not merely that the blessed person is one who avoids the influence of those who are wicked; it is that the wicked are not found in the way of the righteous (Psalm 1:6). Further, the wicked not only have their own way; they scorn those who do not walk in their way.

A further development can be seen in the first verse of the Psalter. To walk with the wicked leads to standing with sinners, which leads to sitting with the scornful. These words are not synonyms.

Parallelism gives full expression to an idea. Not only may this be done as in Psalm 1:1, where full expression is given to an idea by developing the theme of the first line in the following lines. This may be done by expressing in the second line a meaning similar to the meaning of the first line, further developing the idea in the first line by means of vivid imagery. Psalm 92:12 is an example:

The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree:

he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

On the other hand, there may be a reverse parallelism so that the second line expresses a different thought than the first line, while nevertheless further developing the point of the first line. Notice, for example, Psalm 30:5:

For his anger endureth but a moment;

in his favour is life:

weeping may endure for a night,

but joy cometh in the morning.

Another use of parallelism involves the completion of the thought of the first line, as in Psalm 96:7:

Give unto the Lord, O ye kindreds of the people,

give unto the Lord glory and strength.

Parallelism may also make use of a series of figures of speech with further significance of the initial idea emerging from successive lines. Psalm 1:3 is an example:

And he shall be like a tree

planted by the rivers of water,

that bringeth forth his fruit in his season;

his leaf also shall not wither;

and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

The poetic parallelism of Scripture provides not only a way for meaning to unfold to the reader like an opening flower; it also contributes to the biblical idea of meditation. The word translated “meditate,” as in Psalm 1:2, means to read over and ponder what is written. The idea is to read and reread the verse of Scripture. With parallelism, the reader reads the first line, holds that thought, reads the second line, then returns to the first line, pondering what is written.

It is characteristic of poetry to use figurative language featuring comparison. The comparison can be explicit, as in a simile: “He eats like a horse.” Or the comparison can be implicit, as in a metaphor: “He champed at the bit.” The simile states that someone is like a horse in some way. The metaphor assumes comparison of someone with a horse by describing the person with the characteristics of a horse.

Here are examples of similes:

“He gathereth the waters of the sea together as an heap” (Psalm 33:7).

“And they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth” (Psalm 72:16).

“But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn” (Psalm 92:10).

Metaphors are more common than similes. Here are some examples of metaphors, where the comparison is implied:

“He layeth up the depth in storehouses” (Psalm 33:7).

Here, the waters of the ocean are compared with grain kept in storehouses. The metaphor pictures God as a farmer who gathers His grain and stores it.

“Those that be planted in the house of the Lord

shall flourish in the courts of our God.

They shall still bring forth fruit in old age;

they shall be fat and flourishing” (Psalm 92:13-14).

Righteous people are compared to trees planted in the courtyard of the Temple. They bear fruit and are green and full of sap.

The Structure of the Psalter: Since the Psalter is a collection of psalms by a variety of authors, the structure of the book as we now have it is not original with any of the authors whose psalms appear in the book. Its structure is, rather, the result of composition done after all the individual psalms were completed. There were earlier collections, some smaller and some larger, but the result was a book intentionally shaped to serve a theological purpose. (See, e.g., Psalm 72:20.) The traditional outline of the book follows its division into five books by the Masoretic Text. A common explanation of this division is that these five books correspond in some way to the five books of the Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch). The idea here is to read Psalms 1-41 in conjunction with Genesis; Psalms 42-72 with Exodus; Psalms 73-89 with Leviticus; Psalms 90-106 with Numbers; and Psalms 107-150 with Deuteronomy. It is difficult, however, to identify thematic links between the five books of the Pentateuch and the Psalter, and more recent scholarship questions whether these are the most significant structural features of the Psalter and whether the New Testament writers viewed the five-book division of the Psalms as significant for their purposes. More recent views of the structure of the Psalter include the following:

Thematic.  The thematic approach to the structure of the psalms was suggested by Franz Delitzsch and further developed by Christoph Barth.  The idea is that the psalms are linked together not only by key words, but also by broad themes.

Structural.  As suggested by P. Auffret, this approach sees a chiastic structure within the Psalter, specifically within Psalms 15-24.  A chiasm is a kind of reverse, inverted outline.  Auffret based the chiasm on several key words.

Redactional.  This is the idea that the current shape of the Psalter is a revision of an earlier shape, with the current shape intended to serve certain theological purposes, but not necessarily one purpose.

Canonical.  Brevard Childs has suggested that we can dispense with discussion about any previous shape of the Psalter and focus on its present shape and structure.  We do not need to be concerned with how the present shape came to be; all we need to be concerned with is that this is the shape found in the canon.

Compositional.  The compositional approach sees the current shape of the Psalter as reflecting an inspired work bringing together previously existing materials in a form intended to advance a specific theological purpose.  One compositional approach sees the Psalter as a collection of prayers for the Jewish people in exile, functioning as a replacement for temple worship.

A compositional/canonical approach seems most satisfying, because it recognizes the obvious facts concerning the variety of authors and evidence of previous collections now reshaped into the current canonical form.  The following points seem evidently true:

  1. The Psalter is a composition with a specific purpose and literary strategy.
  2. The Psalter is composed for individuals, not only for the community.
  3. The Psalter is composed for those in exile or tribulation as a source book for hope and divine comfort.
  4. The framework of the Psalter is messianic: It focuses on Zion theology and the Kingdom of God, by which we mean the physical restoration of Davidic hope, the ultimate fulfillment of the promise God made to David that the Messiah would descend physically from him to rule on David’s throne in Zion.  The selection and arrangement of the psalms are intended to explore the relationship between the Law of Moses and Israel’s hope for the future, or, as we might say from the Christian perspective, the relationship between law and grace.  The final form of the Psalter is also intended to explore the meaning of the Davidic Covenant in view of the apostasy and exile of the House of David.

[1] This lesson is drawn from the Apostolic Study Bible, ed. Robin Johnston (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 2014), 853-854. It is written by Daniel L. Segraves.