There are songs for every situation. Some for dancing. Some for studying. Some for road trips. Some take great movies to the next level. Some should only be played after Thanksgiving, not before (thank you very much).
The book of Psalms is similar. It gives God’s people songs for every kind of situation: celebration, mourning, and hope. And this hymnbook is even the playlist for Jesus’s life.
The book of Psalms gives God’s people songs for every kind of situation.
More than 40 of the 150 psalms are used in the New Testament, and they’re spread over 100 passages. In dozens of these passages, the NT authors apply a psalm to a facet of Jesus’s person and work. Some psalms (like Ps. 2 and Ps. 110) are used in this fashion on repeat and others (like Ps. 41:9 in John 13:18) are more like unexpected B-sides. Here are three ways the NT uses the Psalms to paint a portrait of Jesus.
1. Psalms as Prophecy
NT authors sometimes appeal to psalms as direct prophecies of something that took place in Jesus’s life. When most think of prophecies about Jesus, the prediction of his virgin conception (Isa. 7:14 referenced in Matt. 1:23), his title as the prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15 referenced in Acts 3:22), and the prediction of John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Lord (Mal. 3:1 referenced in Mark 1:1–3) first come to mind.
We don’t typically think of songs as prophetic. But the NT authors do.
A key example of prophecy is Peter’s use of Psalm 16 in Acts 2. He says that David—when clinging to God in hope that “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol” (Ps. 16:8–11)—was not mainly referring to himself. Rather, “being . . . a prophet,” he “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ” through this psalm (Acts 2:25–31).
Do all psalms work this way? No. But it’s notable that Peter and John see some psalms as direct prophecies about Jesus.
2. Psalms as Pattern
The apostolic authors also read the Psalms as describing patterns that first happened to the psalmist then were repeated in Jesus’s life. For instance, the “stone that the builders rejected” in Psalm 118:22 is not prophesying a future stone. Rather, the New Testament uses this phrase several times to show how the opposition Jesus experiences is like what the psalmist experienced centuries before (Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7).
Similarly, Psalm 22 becomes the soundtrack for Jesus’s suffering and death. The mocking and head-wagging of the crowds in Psalm 22:7 recurs with Jesus on the cross (Matt. 27:39–40). The parched mouth of the psalmist in Psalm 22:15 is what drives Jesus to thirst (John 19:28). The cynical way the psalmist’s clothes are divvied up as take-home prizes is reenacted by the Roman soldiers (Matt. 27:35). The tragedy of the psalmist, played like the blues, is the script for the tragedy of Jesus’s passion.
3. Psalms as Prosōpon
Lastly, the NT treats the Psalms as songs sung by Jesus himself. I’m using the Greek word prosōpon to describe this phenomenon, because the word denotes “face” or, better, “persona.” In a handful of marvelous places, the Psalms are interpreted as if Jesus is a persona in the psalm.
At least twice, Jesus opens this door himself.
In Luke 20:42–43 Jesus describes how David refers to two different “Lords” in Psalm 110:1: “The LORD says to my Lord.” David as the poet is the “my.” So, who are the “Lords”? Jesus, shockingly, identifies himself as the second one, David’s Lord. This means the psalm is a conversation between the eternal Father and preexistent Son. Centuries before his birth, the Son is already in the psalm, receiving promises from the Father.
In a handful of marvelous places, the Psalms are interpreted as if Jesus is a persona in the psalm.
Also, in Psalm 22, Jesus takes the words of the psalmist on his lips as he breathes his last, calling out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1 in Matt. 27:46). He owns the psalm. The anguish is his.
Other NT authors follow Jesus’s lead. John notes that the disciples realize that Jesus is the “me” in Psalm 69:9 who calls to God, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). Referencing the same psalm, Paul writes that Jesus, with the psalmist, declares, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me” (Rom. 15:3). The song is his personal lament of suffering.
Hebrews uses the prosōpon maneuver in spades as well. Hebrews 10:5–9 boldly declares that Jesus himself, when coming into the world, addresses the words of Psalm 40:6–8 to the Father: “A body have you prepared for me. . . . I have come to do your will.” And in Hebrews 1:5, 8 the Father addresses psalms to the Son. Psalm 2:7 records the Father saying to Jesus, “You are my Son. . . . Today I have begotten you.” And Psalm 45:6–7 is the Father’s declaration to the Son, “Your throne, O God, is forever.”
Across these examples, Jesus is placed as the prosōpon or persona—either “I” or “you”—in various psalms. These passages relate earth-shattering truths about the godhead; they’re the autobiographical playlist of Jesus’s eternal sonship, divine lordship, bodily incarnation, and suffering.
These three categories for approaching the Psalms christologically help us read our Bibles more richly. We can meditate on how the Psalms prophetically anticipate Jesus as Davidic king and covenant-keeper. We can read the Psalms as patterns of Christ’s obedience to God’s law. And we can see the prosōpon of Jesus in the Psalms, reading them as a strong testimony about his person and work.