Psalm 2

For my weekly quiet time this Sabbath, I studied Psalm 2.

Many historical-critics of the Bible have seen Psalm 2 as part of an ancient coronation ceremony for an ascending Davidic king. Foreign vassals of Israel (perhaps Edom and Moab, who rebel from Israel in the Hebrew Bible) are seeking to break the bonds of their Israelite captors. But God proclaims that the Davidic king is his son, and that, if the Davidic king asks, God will give him the nations, the ends of the earth. The Psalm exhorts the nations to serve the LORD with fear. We see these sorts of views in other ancient Near Eastern nations: that the king is a son of a god, the hope that he will rule over the earth, etc.

Maybe this was the sort of view that led to imperialism in the ancient world: I, the king, am the son of a god, and so I am entitled to the entire world. The Israelites didn’t have a vast empire, as did Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, at certain times in their histories. Israel mostly conquered her neighbors, such as Edom and Moab. But did the Israelites dream of possessing the entire world? We see throughout Isaiah the hope that Israel would be supreme over the nations. Isaiah 49:23, for example, which pops up in discussions about the meaning of Psalm 2:12 (which exhorts the nations to “kiss the son,” or “kiss the ground,” or “accept discipline,” or “kiss in purity,” or “kiss grain,” or “be nourished by grain,” or “be armed with purity”—there are many understandings of this verse!), talks about kings of other nations licking the dust of Israel’s feet.

Some commentators whom I read didn’t really buy into the notion that Psalm 2 is expressing hope that the Davidic king would rule the entire world. They said that the Psalm means that, since YHWH owns the entire world, and since the Davidic king is YHWH’s representative, in a sense, the Davidic king owns the entire world! Maybe not officially—Israel probably couldn’t tell Babylon to cough up tribute—but the God of Israel could use his influence over creation and the affairs of humanity to benefit his beloved nation, Israel.

These are the views of historical-critics who believe that the Psalm is pre-exilic and concerns an actual Davidic monarchy. There are other scholars who think that the Psalm is exilic or post-exilic and reflects Israel’s messianic hopes. Even those who think that the Psalm was pre-exilic, however, acknowledge that the Psalm at some point may have gained messianic connotations in the minds of those who heard it. In the Book of Psalms as a whole, we encounter Psalms that refer to Israel’s exile and the destruction of the Davidic monarchy (Psalms 89, 137). That means that Israel was either in her exilic or post-exilic period when the Psalms were collected into a book. Why preserve Psalm 2 in that process of collection, when it was about a Davidic monarchy whose time had passed? Because there were Jews in the post-exilic period who were hoping that God would restore the Davidic monarchy, in the person of the Messiah; then, the nations would serve the LORD with fear (unless God destroyed them).

The New Testament applies Psalm 2 to Jesus Christ. In Acts 4:25-26, Herod and Pilate uniting against Jesus is interpreted in light of Psalm 2 (or, in one ancient version of the New Testament, Psalm 1, for the version apparently considers Psalms 1-2 to be one Psalm). The idea seems to be that the kings of the earth are rebelling against the very authority of God and of his son; Psalm 2 is interpreted much more broadly than as a couple of vassals rebelling against Israel. Psalm 2:7’s “You are my son” appears throughout the New Testament (Matthew 3:17; 17:5; Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5). And when did Jesus become God’s begotten son? Was it at his baptism (which is when God quotes Psalm 2:7 in Matthew 3:17)? His resurrection (which is what Paul is talking about in Acts 13:33, when he quotes Psalm 2:7)? Was Jesus God’s begotten son even before he came to earth as a human being (perhaps the view of Hebrews, but we also see it in John and Paul)?

And then, in Revelation, the part of Psalm 2 about smashing the nations is applied to the coming rule of Jesus Christ, which he will share with overcoming believers (Revelation 2:27; 12:5; 19:15).

On which note, I like what the fourth century Christian thinker Theodore of Mopsuestia said about God smashing the nations as if they’re a potter’s vessel: “he smashes them not to ruin and waste them, but to reshape them.” You can fix clay vessels.

Psalm 2 is rather nationalistic, in that it reflects Israel’s hopes that she will be the dominant nation in the earth. Actually, I can understand why Moab and Edom rebelled, considering David’s brutality towards the Moabites in II Samuel 8:2. At the same time, Moab was brutal towards Israel in the Pentateuch and the Book of Judges. Or were those stories Israelite propaganda that was used to justify Israel’s rule over Moab?

Psalm 2 is nationalistic, but it also expresses a view that YHWH is to be the God of all nations. In Psalm 2, that implies Israel’s dominance. In Christianity, however, Gentiles are invited to become a part of Israel, and so the promise of dominion becomes universal—for Jewish and Gentile believers both; but Christianity’s application of Psalm 2 to the church has historically entailed its devaluation of Israel as God’s covenant people.

I guess that, at the very least, I can draw hope from Psalm 2 that God will defeat the evil rulers of the world. Many preachers have applied the part of Psalm 2 about breaking the bonds asunder to those who don’t want the rule of God in their lives. Personally, I’m all for moral law, but I think Christianity tries to force me into a perfectionistic mold, and I can’t live up to that.

But I respect the hope that Psalm 2 has given to Jews and Christians through the ages.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Psalm 2

  1. pat carbaugh says:

    Dear James, I just read through your Palms 2 piece. My day is busy and don’t have time to share the thoughts you provoked. They were very possitive as your writings expressed some desire for an understanding thats been missing. I’m specifically refering to the dominance of Israel around the world. It’s happening as we speak but not being understood HOW!!! All the while ALL the social ills of today are happening to keep this secret—secret.. The solutions of these ills will be when this secret is revealed—ALL IN SCRIPTURE TOO! My profession is masonry,,specializing in repair. My analogy goes something like: Modern christianity, the “house of God” has been built w/o the proper “foundation”. In some areas (remodeled areas) there literally is NO foundation. Foundation here meaning TRUTH. There was a TRUTH “lost” when Israel was removed some 4000 yrs ago. None the less the truth is this removed people have been scattered through out the world and given enough time(generations) this “seed” a covenant seed has become the “light” to the gentiles making them literally the generations linked to king David genetically covered by the covenant. This “seed” has been so scattered so well that one method to IDENTIFY this seed as in America we would be called “Hebrew Americans”. Same as Canadian Hebrew, English Hebrew even Chinese Hebrew are out there… The Chinese/Asian Hebrew are a “newer breed of generation” as their societies hadn’t been so available to the Hebrew seed. I think you understand my revelation here. More later upon your reponse. In Christ name. Pat

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Pat.

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  3. Pingback: Book Write-Up: Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context | James' Ramblings

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