The Psalms: Who Are They About and For?

by Timothy Shorey

Interrupting Our Regularly Scheduled Post

[The following is excerpted from a longer article, “Seeing Christ in the Psalms”. This is offered today in place of our next Psalter installment to help believers read (and sing) the Psalms to greater effect. God-willing, Psalm 15 will be posted next Saturday. We hope this deeper study of Christ Jesus in the Psalms will bless you now.]

 

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

How the New Testament Views the Psalms

This is all clear from how Jesus and New testament writers interpreted the book of The Psalms. 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 not thoroughly and primarily about David’s Son, and could be cited at virtually any point as applying to him… [For some of these thoughts, I am indebted to Bruce K. Waltke’s chapter “Christ in the Psalms”].

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…

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 the “Shorey” 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. So let us look for Jesus everywhere… throughout the sorrow and glory-filled pages of this first hymn-book of the church.

[For a more complete and in-depth Bible study, exploring how our Lord is seen in the Psalms, see the entire “Seeing Christ in the Psalms” article at https://timothyshorey.com/seeing-christ-in-the-psalms/ ]

 

 

 

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