“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). In this chaotic time, most people want stability and comfort. For those of biblical faith, the Psalms are often the place they turn to. When read from a purely devotional perspective, the psalms can and do offer comfort, hope, and even cathartic release. As we read, recite, or sing with the psalm writers, we identify with their words of praise, struggle, despair and hope.
There is a reason many small New Testaments have the book of Psalms appended: the Psalms were the prayer book of early Christians. The New Testament is pervaded with quotations and allusions from the Psalms. For instance, in Romans 8:36, Paul invoked the suffering words of the psalmist in Psalm 44:23 as words of explanation and comfort in his own suffering with Jesus. Yet most of the quotations or allusions to the Psalms in the New Testament refer to Jesus and his Messiahship. Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2 refers to Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 to affirm the Messianic status of the risen Jesus. Other examples abound.
A question I have been considering for some time is how Jesus understood the Psalms. Multiple times he mentioned that the scriptures must be fulfilled. The Psalms were a big part of this fulfillment. Luke records a post-resurrection word from Jesus to his disciples: “And he said to them, ‘These are the words of mine that I spoke to you while I was with you, that all the things written in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled about me’” (Luke 24:44). Jesus specifically mentions the Psalms rather than the traditional designation for the third part of the Hebrew Bible, the ketuvim or Writings. The Torah, Prophets and Psalms must be fulfilled. People usually point to the “messianic psalms” such as Psalms 2, 18, 22, and 110, as the focus of Jesus’s statements. But what if Jesus were speaking about many more psalms? What if Jesus saw something in the Psalms that we miss because we are simply looking for comfort and hope? What if Jesus was identifying with the Psalms as one who was constantly persecuted, though innocent? If so, a look at the Psalms would give us a perspective on Jesus not often discussed and an understanding of the Psalms out of the ordinary desire for comfort. In my pursuit of this thought, a number of blog posts to come will explore some individual psalms, and question the “normal” interpretation. By asking “how did Jesus view this psalm?” or “what was David actually getting at when he wrote the psalm?” we may find some truths in the Psalms that lead us into a deeper understanding of Jesus and his cross-focused mission.
Just as a teaser, consider the opening quotation, “Blessed is the man who …” Who is “the man”? Recent opinions take “the man” to be generic, though not all. The NRSV actually pluralizes the phrase to “Blessed are those who …” But what if “the man” was more specific and referred to the ideal man, the Messiah, Jesus. The Hebrew text actually adds specificity with the definite article, ha (Heb. ha ‘ish). Augustine and other church fathers took “the man” this way. The overall message of the psalm does not change, but instead of “the man” being any person, “the man” becomes the model for others to emulate, as Jesus is the model for us to emulate.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his small book, Psalms, The Prayer Book of the Bible, wrote, “If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.” Bonhoeffer’s book was only suggestive in this regard. A more recent book by Patrick Henry Reardon makes the claim more explicit in its title, Christ in the Psalms. The content is exquisite and even profound at times, yet remains primarily devotional. The question remains, how did Jesus view the Psalms with respect to himself and his mission?