Seeing Christ in the Psalms

by Timothy Shorey

Introduction: Seeing Jesus in The Psalms[1]

“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself…Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
(Luke 24:25-27, 44-47)

The Psalms: Who Are They About and For?

The Psalms is firstly a collection of the songs and cries of the ancient people of God—in all the drama and trauma of life. Real and raw, these inspired prayer-songs express all that we think and feel as we face life and seek hard after God in a broken and hostile world. We may rightly read them as our own testimony, pray them as our own prayers, and sing them as our own songs.

But with that understood, most of the inspired psalms are also prayer-songs about the drama, trauma, struggles, and triumphs of a king; the ancient ruler of Israel, King David. King David (who had a heart like God’s, 1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22) went through a lot—both before becoming king and after he was crowned. He had a hard life mixed with lots of blessings—and his prayer-songs show it.

But there is something we should know about King David. He was a shadow (or [fore]shadow) of another King—David’s son and David’s Lord (Matt.22:41-45). And for this reason, his life and words prefigured and predicted the drama and trauma—and eventual glory and triumph of the ultimate and eternal Son of David, Jesus Christ (Isa. 9:6, 7; Matt. 1:1; Luke 1:30-33).

Our appreciation of The Psalms will be too narrow and shallow if we think they are mostly about us, or even about David. They are not. They are much, if not mostly about David’s Son and David’s Lord whom David foreshadows. In other words, we are meant to see Jesus standing over The Psalms, casting his shadow upon them in such a way that we see shapes, hints, contours, and glimpses of him everywhere.

Seeing What David Longed to See

Interestingly, the original psalmists did not know all of these connections; but they longed to. We learn from Jesus and the apostles that Old Testament prophet-writers often did not know what their own words meant. So true was this that they studied their own writings to figure out more about the Messiah-King to come. (1 Peter 1:10-12). We can say that they wrote Spirit-inspired words (2 Peter 1:20, 21), and then read them and wondered: “Who is this about and what does it mean! It cannot be just about me! I know I’m writing about a greater person—indeed a King—who is going to suffer greatly, but then be exalted even more greatly. What do these things mean?” They knew that they were writing (and in the case of the psalmists, praying and singing) about Someone yet to come; one who turned out to be none other than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

And the earliest Christians didn’t miss the message. For example, in the earliest chapters of the Book of Acts, Luke cites The Psalms several times, interpreting various phrases, paragraphs and more as being about Christ or events around his life and death (Acts 1:16; 2:25-36; 4:24-28; 13:22, 23, 34-36). This is so much the case that one author writes that in those chapters “One is…given a hint [in Luke-Acts] as to how the early Christians read the psalms, namely, as royal texts that foreshadow the life and experiences of David’s royal son.” And again: “…Luke read the psalms as a portrait of the life and experiences of Jesus the Messiah…[A]s the autobiographical speech of the suffering Davidic Messiah…[2]

This is all clear from how Jesus and New testament writers interpreted the book of The Psalms.[3] Of the 283 New Testament citations of the 66 books of the Old Testament, 116 of them are from one book, The Psalms. That means that New Testament writers—and Jesus—believed the book of The Psalms to be about King Jesus, the Son of David. Jesus tells us explicitly that the book of The Psalms is about him (Luke 24:44), and cites them as many as 50 times in connection to his own life, ministry, sufferings, and glory. In addition, New Testament writers seem to see The Psalms as being about Jesus the Christ-Messiah so thoroughly and pervasively that they lift even short phrases and/or sentences from the middle of various psalms and say they are about him. This indicates that in their mind, The Psalms as a collection of writings are frequently, if thoroughly and primarily about David’s Son, and could be cited at virtually any point as applying to him.

The list of New Testament allusions to The Psalms in connection to Christ, his mission, his church, and his sufferings and glory includes the following:[4]

  • Jesus’s birth is seen as the fulfillment of the promised Son of David who would rule forever (Luke 1:32, 33; Psalm 89:3; 132:11, 12).
  • In Acts 4:25-26 the political schemes mentioned in Psalm 2:1-2 are understood to be against Jesus.
  • In John 12:27 Jesus cites Psalm 6:3 to describe his own troubled heart.
  • Our Lord’s cry of dereliction on the cross in Matthew 27:46 is a direct quote from Psalm 22:2.
  • The soldiers’ gambling over Jesus’ clothing (John 19:24) is said to “fulfill” Psalm 22:18.
  • When Jesus “commits his spirit” into the hands of his Father in Luke 23:46 he is turning Psalm 31:5 into his own words.
  • John understands King David’s words that not one of his bones would be broken (Psalm 34:20) to be fulfilled in Christ on the cross (John 19:33, 36).
  • Jesus says that the “without a cause” hatred of him by his contemporaries (described in John 15:23-25) was one of the Old Testament Psalm-predictions of the Christ that had to be fulfilled (Psalm 35:19; 109:3, 4).
  • David’s words in Psalm 40:6-8 that reveal the inadequacy of human sacrifices and the necessity of obedience to God’s will as our very reason for being, are taken by our Lord as his own—to explain how he came into the world to be the ultimate obedience sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:5-10).
  • King David’s sorrow that he had been betrayed by a close friend (Psalm 41:9) is seen as “fulfilled” in Judas’s betrayal of the Lord (John 13:18, 19, 21-30).
  • The triumphant processional language (in Psalm 68:17, 18) finds fuller expression in the triumph of Christ (in Ephesians 4:8).
  • The sour wine offered to Jesus on the cross (Matthew 27:34, 48) is foreshadowed in David’s experience (Psalm 69:21).
  • The head-wagging scorn that David faced from his enemies (Psalm 109:25) finds its ultimate heinous expression in the derision of Jesus’s killers (Matthew 27:39).
  • Judas, the villainous traitor who betrayed our Lord suffered a similar fate as did a similar villain in David’s life (Acts 1:20; Psalm 109:8, 9).
  • King David’s zeal is a shadow of that belonging to King Jesus (Psalm 69:9; John 2:17).
  • The Messiah’s use of parables fulfilled the teaching method of David (Matthew 13:35; Psalm 78:2).
  • King David’s majestic glory in Psalm 2:6, 7 turns into King Jesus’s majestic glory in Hebrews 1:5; Revelation 2:27).
  • The majesty of man as seen in Psalm 8:5-8 is seen as the Majesty of Christ in Hebrews 2:5-10 and 1 Corinthians 15:27, 28.
  • The promise of resurrection and avoidance of decay in death that David records in Psalm 16:9 was fulfilled ultimately in Christ, and not in David’s experience at all (Acts 2:25-31).
  • King David’s commitment to praise God among the nations is said to be fulfilled in the gospel mission of Christ through his church (Psalm 18:49, 50; Romans 15:9).
  • David’s promise to sing with the congregation of his brothers and sisters in Psalm 22:22, 23 is fulfilled in Jesus in Hebrews 2:10-12.
  • The enthronement of David in Psalm 45:6, 7 finds it truest expression in the enthronement of David’s Son, the Son of God (Hebrews 1:8, 9).
  • The promise of kingdom victory over all enemies foreshadowed in David is fulfilled absolutely in Jesus (Psalm 110:1; Matthew 22:43, 44 and Hebrews 1:13).
  • The rejected cornerstone of David and his kingdom is but a hint of the rejection, but ultimate triumph of the Christ (Psalm 118:22, 23; Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11).
  • Many of the specific sufferings cited in Psalm 22 find all their fulfilment in the Cross—beginning with the cry of dereliction in Psalm 22:1.
  • Several of the psalms appear to be messianic from start to finish; with a usual but not universal reference to one to come who would suffered greatly and even die, but then be restored (e.g.-Psalms 2, 22, 45, 110, and 118).
  • Time and again the Psalms are quoted as abiding principles and promises given by King Jesus to us as relevant for the life of those who follow Christ today (Compare: Psalm 34:12-16 with 1 Peter 3:10-12; Psalm 55:22, 23 with 1 Peter 5:7; Psalm 90:4 with 2 Peter 3:8; Psalm 4:4, 5 with Ephesians 4:26; Psalm 112:9 with 2 Corinthians 9:9; Psalm 24:1 with 1 Corinthians 10:26; Psalm 146:6 with Acts 4:24).
  • There seem to be echoes of the Psalms in the book of Revelation as well; that book that is uniquely a revelation of Jesus (Compare: Revelation 2:27, 12:5, and 19:15 with Psalm 2:9; Revelation 6:17 with Psalm 76:7; Revelation 7:10 with Psalm 3:8; Revelation 7:16 with Psalm 121:5, 6; Revelation 11:18 with Psalm 2:1-3; Revelation 14:10 with Psalm 75:8; Revelation 22:1 with Psalm 46:4).

It is significant how many times phrases and words in various psalms are said to be fulfilled in Christ. The Greek word behind that translation means to fill up or complete, or bring to realization or actuality. This means that until actualized in the experience of Christ (either in history past, present, or future), the words of those psalms cited were only partially completed; and could not be brought to their fullness of meaning apart from him.

In this light, Jesus and the early Christians were not just citing The Psalms as we might lift a phrase from Shakespeare to serve our own purposes. When we do this, we’re simply saying that something Shakespeare wrote is one way of saying what we’re trying to say. We are not suggesting that Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Othello or Romeo or Juliet are about or fulfilled in us. But that is precisely what Jesus and the New Testament authors are saying in the way they reference The Psalms. By citing the various psalms so often and by claiming that Jesus is the fulfillment of specific words and phrases in the book of The Psalms, they are saying that the collection of The Psalms is about Christ. They understood The Psalms to be (or at least to include) the words, emotions, experiences, and life and ministry of Jesus; prefigured and foreshadowed in the words, emotions, experiences, and life and work of King David (and the other psalmists).

What this means is that in reading and singing The Psalms we gain intimate access into the mind and heart of our Lord and Savior. The Psalms is not just about how God’s people have felt, or King David once felt. They are about how Jesus has felt and thought and suffered and triumphed. They are a window into the inner life of our Redeemer-King.

Those who use A Shorey Psalter in their devotional life will see many of these foreshadowings of Christ in song and/or devotional comment.[5] By including a Messianic Hint comment for each psalm, I call attention to explicit or implicit references to our Messiah-King, the Lord Jesus. My prayer is that this will add more wonder, worship, depth, and heart-felt poignancy to your contemplations on Christ, even as it has done for me.

Conclusion

While the Psalms may legitimately be sung as real and raw expressions of authentic fear, faith and hope from the vantage of suffering and triumphant saints, they may, and must be sung, too, from the vantage of the suffering and triumphant Savior. I would encourage those who use this Psalter to do both. Perhaps read and sing the day’s psalm first as an expression of personal faith or lament or cry for help. Then proceed to read and/or sing it, imagining Christ in Gethsemane, or on Golgotha, or facing the raging Pharisees, or before an angry mob, or hanging in public open shame at Golgotha, or ascended and enthroned on his Coronation Day, or ruling in justice and judgment both now and forevermore.

Beneath and behind and throughout The Psalms, there is Jesus—either in his sufferings or in his glory. Look for Jesus everywhere—even in laments. You might even find his agony in the confessions of sin. Not that Jesus ever sinned. But he did become sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24), and he did bear our iniquities and God’s wrath over our sin. He did suffer for our sins and in our stead. So it is not hard to hear his agonies in the agonies of King David or other psalmists who wept over the sins weighing them down.

Gayline and I have been working our way through the Psalms each day this year—and this has been the most powerful effect: hearing the voice of the suffering Servant of Yahweh, the man of sorrows who was deeply acquainted with grief in the cries of the ancient hymnist. I hope you too will learn to see and sense Jesus throughout the sorrow and glory-filled pages of this first hymn-book of the church.

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©2020 by Timothy M. Shorey

[1] Throughout this Psalter I have chosen to use capitalization very carefully. When referring to the whole collection (or a group) of psalms (i.e.-sacred hymns of praise) found in the Bible I will capitalize and italicize as in (e.g.-The Psalms or Psalms 1-10). If I am referring to one or more of these 150 prayer-songs generally, I will not capitalize (e.g.-“some of these psalms…”). If I am referencing a specific psalm, I will capitalize (e.g.-Psalm 1). I will not capitalize the words psalmist or psalm-writer since neither is a proper name or title. And finally, I will capitalize the word Psalter when referring to the collection of biblical psalms or to my collection of psalms, since it functions as an alternative title for The Psalms.

[2] Joshua W. Ipp, “Luke’s Scriptural Suffering Messiah: A Search for Precedent, a Search for Identity”, (Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322), 267, 269, 274

[3] I am indebted to Bruce K. Waltke’s chapter “Christ in the Psalms”.

[4] I am again indebted to Bruce K. Waltke for his collection of these references. I have looked them all up with joy (and have added a few), and now share them here in the hope that you will be as blessed as I have been. The reader may not choose to turn to all of these Scriptural texts, but let there be no doubt that it would be time well spent to do so!

[5] NT usage does not suggest that every part of any given psalm that it alludes to is about Jesus. It may only be one part, or even a phrase which the Holy Spirit inspired and inserted as a whispered foreshadowing of the Coming One. On the other hand, without being dogmatic at this point, the whole psalm—including references to sin and confession—may well reference Jesus, if one sees those confessions of sins as being an expression of our Lord’s grief over our sins not done by him, but imputed to him on the cross.

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