Jesus in the Psalms

Luke 24 arguably contains the greatest Bible study ever. Jesus explains how the prophets spoke of him and how everything written about him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled (Luke 24:25–27, 44). (“Psalms” here most likely refers to Scripture’s poetry and wisdom literature). Nevertheless, the point is clear throughout Luke 24—in Jesus’s mind, the 150-part Psalter clearly testifies to him.

But we can be more specific about the Psalter. There is a growing consensus in Psalms scholarship that the Psalter has an intentional shape—that editors and compilers arranged the individual psalms in the order we have them for a particular purpose.

I want to give a glimpse of the Psalter’s five books, and in doing so show how the overall shape encourages its readers to hope for a new Davidic king. In doing so, it does exactly what Jesus says it did—it preaches him.

Book One: The Rise of the King (Pss. 1–41)

The first indication that the Psalter has been edited or compiled into a particular shape is the presence of a two-part introduction. A number of reasons suggest that Psalms 1–2 function this way, setting them apart from the rest of Book One:

  • Neither psalm possesses a title. This is in stark contrast to the rest of Book One.
  • The word “blessed” forms an inclusion (Pss. 1:1; 2:12).
  • Both psalms begin with the imagery of a group of people plotting or meditating (Pss. 1:2; 2:1).
  • Both psalms end with a mention of the “way” (Pss. 1:6; 2:12).

Moreover, these two psalms also seem to describe the same individual. Psalm 1 introduces him as the blessed man, who demonstrates his righteousness by meditating on God’s Word day and night. Arguably this individual is named in Psalm 2 as the king enthroned in Zion.

This link is further strengthened by recalling that Israel’s kings were to devote themselves to God’s Word (Deut. 17:14–20), and by comparing Psalm 1 with Joshua 1:8—where the prototypical king, Joshua, is instructed to meditate on God’s Word day and night.

There is a growing consensus in Psalms scholarship that the Psalter has an intentional shape.

Book One connects the nameless king of the introduction to David. It does so by attributing virtually every psalm to the Israelite king par excellence. It is consistently the voice of the Davidic king that is heard.

Related to David’s kingship is the battle between the righteous and the wicked. In the two-part introduction there is first a division between the righteous and the wicked (Ps. 1), which is then detailed as the king and the rebellious nations (Ps. 2). As a consequence, two expectations are established in Book One: the righteous will be protected by the Lord, and the Lord will establish his king in Zion.

In reality the two expectations go hand in hand, as David testifies (Ps. 41:11–12). From the beginning, the Psalter looks forward to the establishing of God’s anointed one in Zion.

Book Two: Rise of the Kingdom (Pss. 42–72)

In many ways Book Two continues the trajectory of Book One. However, there is a development. Immediately evident is a change in authorship, from (mostly) David to (mostly) the sons of Korah. Thus Book Two takes on a Levitical hue. There is also an increase in communal psalms, reflective of a worshiping community.

From the beginning the Psalter looks forward to the establishing of God’s anointed one in Zion.

Book Two has a Levitical zenith. Psalm 68 traces the journey of the Ark of the Covenant from Sinai to Jerusalem. God resides with his people, dwelling with them in their capital. This is matched by a royal zenith in Psalm 72. Here Davidic kingship morphs into Davidic dynasty as both David and Solomon are named together. Psalm 72 takes the form of a prayer for successive kings dwelling in Zion.

The vision of Book Two is one of Israelite religion and kingship functioning as they should. Yet this vision is more ideal than anything that was ever experienced in Israel’s history. Hence, the expectations established in Book One are sustained in Book Two.

Book Three: Exile (Pss. 73–89)

The expectations of the first two books come to an abrupt halt in Book Three. Several features suggest this interruption marks the devastation of the exile:

  • There is a Davidic absence. After being the dominant voice in the Psalter thus far, David is ascribed only one psalm (Ps. 86).
  • There are communal laments that clearly reference the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (Ps. 74; 79).
  • The book opens with a psalm that addresses the issue of theodicy (Ps. 73)—there was perhaps no greater challenge to Israel’s trust in God than the exile.
  • Psalm 89 laments the apparent rejection of Davidic kingship by God (vv. 38–51).

Psalm 89 is a dark cloud hanging over the expectations raised earlier in the Psalter. It asks God a provocative question: Where is your faithfulness? (Ps. 89:49). Book Four begins to answer this question.

Book Four: Future Hope (Pss. 90–106)

Just as Moses led the Israelites through their first exile, so he will once more lead them through this wilderness experience. Outside the Promised Land, God will again be Israel’s refuge. Psalms 90–92 carry a variety of wilderness imagery—such as danger in the open (Ps. 91:3–5, 11–13) and imagery of a long journey (Ps. 90).

Book Four begins to answer a provocative question posed to God: Where is your faithfulness?

The repeated refrain of the following psalms is “the LORD reigns” (Pss. 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1), and the Bible’s testimony is that God’s reign is experienced through a Davidic king. The careful reader will note that David is not absent from Book Four (Pss. 101; 103). It’s striking that, following the lament for God’s rejection of the Davidic dynasty in Psalm 89, the reader now finds David mentioned again. Psalm 101 even idealizes the king as someone who maintains justice and righteousness—such a description matches the just, royal individual of Psalms 1–2.

Book Five: New David (Pss. 107–150)

The culmination of the Psalter’s storyline is Book Five. The reader cannot miss the plea for restoration: “Save us, O LORD our God, and gather us from among the nations” (Ps. 106:47); and the affirmation of answered prayer: “he has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands” (Ps. 107:2–3). The exile is no longer the dominant theme. Instead the reader is encouraged to look beyond circumstances to the future God promises.

The primary element of future hope in Book Five is a new David. Davidic psalms occur near the beginning (Pss. 108–110), in the middle (Pss. 131; 133), and toward the end (Pss. 138–145). The mere fact that David’s name is mentioned in a post-exilic context, when no Davidic king was enthroned, suggests that this is intended to foster hope for a new David.

Psalm 110 in particular speaks of David’s Lord, an enigmatic royal figure who defeats enemies and thus rules. Match this with Psalm 132’s recasting of the promises contained in 2 Samuel 7 and explicit mention of a Davidic dynasty once more sprouting (Ps. 132:11–12, 17–18). There is hope of a new Davidic king!

Psalm 110 in particular speaks of David’s Lord, an enigmatic royal figure who defeats enemies and thus rules.

Alongside the Davidic element, Zion is added. Book Three lamented the destruction of Zion, but in Book Five Zion is once more depicted as a place of peace, prosperity, and the home of the Davidic king. This is achieved particularly by placing the Songs of Ascents in the heart of Book Five (Ps. 120–134), in which worshipers moved “up to Zion.”

The Hebrew word “Hallelujah” is translated “praise the LORD.” It is present in response to the first Davidic collection of Book Five (Ps. 108–110 are followed by hallelujah themes in Ps. 111–118) and the celebration of Zion in the Songs of Ascents (Ps. 120–134 are followed by Ps. 135). The entire Psalter ends with a Hallelujah Conclusion (Ps. 146–150) in which each psalm both begins and ends with “praise the LORD.” Certain hope fosters global praise.

Leading Us to David’s Lord

As beneficial as it is to read each psalm as an independent unit, there is something larger occurring in the Psalter’s structure. Each book within the Psalter thrusts the reader onward, fostering hope for a new Davidic king.

Perhaps this is seen most clearly in Psalm 110, a passage Jesus wields against the Pharisees (Matt. 22:41–45), Peter proclaims at Pentecost (Acts 2:33–36), and the book of Hebrews majors on (Heb. 1:3, 13; 5:6; 7:17, 21; 8:1; 10:12–13; 12:2). Hebrews acknowledges that Psalm 110 is spoken by God to his Son (Heb. 1:5, 8, 13; 5:5–6), it implies that David possessed prophetic capacity (Heb. 1:5–14), and it understands Psalm 110:1 and 4 to be fulfilled in a single individual (Heb. 5:5–6).

The book of Hebrews therefore claims that Jesus is the anticipated king-priest of Psalm 110. Given that Psalm 110 is located in Book Five of the Psalter, such a reading appears justified.

You and I weren’t present at that greatest of all Bible studies in Luke 24. But if we want to know what Jesus taught them, we need only read the apostolic writings, especially the book of Hebrews. Jesus was right—the psalter points to him.

Davy Ellison

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

%d bloggers like this: