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Seeing Christ in the Psalms

As you're continuing your journey through the Psalms this Lent, Rev. Dr. Nick McRae shares where he sees Jesus in the book of Psalms:

As I was praying through the Psalms this week, I couldn’t help thinking about Jesus. Specifically, I found myself considering how often Jesus would ask people to keep what he was doing a secret. Again and again Jesus would heal someone and then command them not to tell anyone. And when the disciples started to figure out that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and himself God made flesh, Jesus commanded them to keep it quiet, because “his hour had not yet come” (Jn 7:30). Even when Jesus was divinely transfigured in front of Peter, James, and John, he afterward commanded them to “tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead” (Mt 17:9). That “until” is the key to understanding all the secrecy. Jesus knew that no one would be able to understand the true nature of his mission on earth until they understood the cross and the resurrection. Only in the light of what Jesus accomplished through the cross can we see the deep significance of the rest of his ministry. It was in the cross that the saving work of God throughout the preceding millenia found its ultimate expression. As Jesus said, “do not presume that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17). By the cross and the resurrection, God finished the narrative of salvation that we find woven throughout the Old Testament, from Genesis to Malachi. Because of this, Christ and his cross now become our lens as we read the Bible. Everywhere we look through the lens of the cross, we can see that everything God was doing through the ages in the descendants of Abraham was pointing forward to Jesus Christ—the one true seed of Abraham (Gal 3:16). This is as true of the Psalms as it is of any other part of Scripture. If we look into the Psalms with the eyes of faith, there’s no telling where we might see Jesus looking back at us.

There are some biblical scholars who would say that it’s fine to see the Psalms as background material for the Gospels, but we shouldn’t expect to see the gospel itself in the Psalms. I’d say they’re half right. The Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John almost certainly had the Psalms in mind when composing their narratives of the life and ministry of Jesus. A reader thoroughly versed in the Psalms can see long before the disciples do that Jesus isn’t just a great Rabbi, and he isn’t simply the promised Messiah—he’s God Almighty in the flesh. For example, we read in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus had compassion on the hungry multitude “because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (6:34), that Jesus “ordered them all to recline by groups on the green grass” (6:39), and that after the people had eaten, “they picked up twelve full baskets” of leftover food (6:43). A reader saturated in the language of the Psalms can see that these seemingly unimportant details in Mark’s account are in fact strong allusions to Psalm 23—”The Lord is my shepherd” (23:1), “he makes me to lie down in green pastures” (23:2), “my cup overflows” (23:5). Mark is hinting that Jesus is himself the God whom David calls his Shepherd. Again, in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when “a fierce gale of wind descended on the sea, and they began to be swamped and to be in danger” (8:23), so they cried out, “‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ and Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and the surging waves, and they stopped, and it became calm” (8:24), and afterwards the disciples “were fearful and amazed, saying to one another, ‘Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?’” (8:25). A reader attuned to the Psalms can see in this narrative strong allusions to Psalm 107—”Those who go down to the sea in ships [...] have seen the works of the Lord, [...] for he spoke and raised a stormy wind, which lifted the waves of the sea [...]; their soul melted away in their misery” (107:23-26), “then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distresses. He caused the storm to be still, so that the waves of the sea were hushed” (107:28-29). Knowing this Psalm, the reader can answer the disciples’ question about who Jesus really is: he’s the Lord, the God who created the land and the sea. These are just two examples of how the Psalms can help us read the Gospels. 

But what about the other way around? Is it really legitimate to look for Christ himself in the Psalms even though they were written long before he was born? Jesus seemed to think so. Jesus alluded to his coming rejection, death, and resurrection (Mt 21:42, Mk 12:10, Lk 20:17) by quoting Psalm 118:22, “a stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” To prove to the religious authorities that the Messiah is the Son of God (Mt 22:44, Mk 12:36, Lk 20:42-43), Jesus quoted Psalm 110:1, “the Lord says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” At the Last Supper (Jn 13:18), Jesus revealed that a disciple would betray him, quoting Psalm 41:9, “he who ate my bread has lifted up his heel against me.” As Jesus was dying on the cross (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34), he called out in the words of Psalm 22:1, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And in his dying moment (Lk 23:46), Jesus spoke to his heavenly Father in the words of Psalm 31:5, “into your hand I entrust my spirit.” The Evangelists saw the Psalms pointing to Jesus in other ways as well. Matthew (13:35) wrote that Jesus’ practice of teaching in parables was the fulfillment of Psalm 78:2, “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will tell riddles of old.” Matthew (21:9), Mark (11:9), Luke (19:38), and John (12:13) all four recounted how, as Jesus entered Jerusalem, the people called out in the words of Psalm 118:26, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” They also saw Jesus’ treatment at the hands of the Roman soldiers (Mt 27:35, Mk 15:24, Lk 23:34, Jn 19:24) as a fulfillment of Psalm 22:18, “they divide my garments among them, and they cast lots for my clothing.” Other New Testament authors likewise looked to the Psalms to help them describe the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry. The first several chapters of the Letter to the Hebrews, for example, are practically a christological commentary on the Psalms. All of these are just a small sample of the instances when Jesus, the Evangelists, and the other New Testament writers looked to the Psalms to illuminate who Christ was and what he did for us. 

Jesus and the New Testament authors all spoke of Jesus’ ministry as a “fulfillment” of what was written in the Psalms. Does this mean we’re supposed to understand the Psalms as prophecies or predictions of the future? No, not really. The idea of “fulfillment” in the Bible doesn’t primarily have to do with predictions coming true, though sometimes it does. The English word “fulfill” is a compound word, full + fill, meaning “to fill something until it is full.” The New Testament Greek word typically translated “fulfill” also means “to make full.” This is important because “making full” or “filling full” is what biblical fulfillment is all about. When Jesus says that he’s “fulfilled” something from the Psalms, what he’s done is filled that piece of Scripture full of new meaning in such a way that it highlights what God’s been doing all along. For instance, in the paragraph above, I pointed out how the Evangelists saw Jesus’ abuse, humiliation, and death on the cross as a fulfilment of Psalm 22. Their use of Psalm 22 is even more striking when you read the whole psalm, which begins in despair (“Why have you forsaken me?”) but ends in victory: “You who fear the Lord, praise him,[...] and stand in awe of him, [...] for he has not despised nor scorned the suffering of the afflicted, nor has he hidden his face from him, but when he cried to him for help, he heard” (22:23-24), and “all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before you, for the kingdom is the Lord’s and he rules over the nations” (22:27-28). Taken as a whole, Psalm 22 shows that what looks like defeat and despair is actually just the beginning of a great victory, the means by which the world will come to worship the Lord. So did David intend this psalm to be a prediction of what would happen to Jesus a thousand years in the future? Almost certainly not. He most likely wrote it about himself—about the despair he’d felt when he was a fugitive in the wilderness, and how God intervened to save him and lift him up and make him king in Saul’s place. Yet Jesus and the Evangelists could see that what God had begun by saving David a thousand years ago, God was now bringing to completion through Christ and the cross in a way that fulfilled David’s psalm—that is, filled it full of new meaning. 

So how do we apply this in our prayer? I think it’s as simple as keeping Christ in the forefront of our minds as we’re praying through the Psalms. When we come to an image or phrase or verse that reminds us of Christ—reminds us of his character, his teachings, his saving work on the cross—that’s an invitation to adore him, marvel at his beauty, and thank him for what he did for us and our salvation. It may be something big and obvious that reminds us of him, such as one of the psalm verses quoted in the Gospels. It may be something very small, even a single word or image: shepherd, truth, salvation. Whatever it may be that reminds us of him, we can simply take a moment to dwell on it, take it to heart, and lift it up to him as an offering of love. As we pray through the Psalms with Christ in mind, it’s important that we don’t let the little things that don’t quite fit rob us of the joy of seeing him there. Perhaps we’re reading a group of verses that remind us of Christ, but in the middle of them there’s something that doesn’t sound like him at all. That’s okay. The point isn’t to look for a one-to-one correlation between some part of a psalm and some aspect of the gospel narrative. The point is to delight in Jesus Christ our Savior. We need not worry whether a particular verse is “really about” Christ. If some part of the Psalms is opening our hearts to Christ and deepening our love for him, that’s proof enough for me that what we’re seeing there is Christ himself. He’s the fulfillment of every word of Scripture. He is, after all, the Word of God.

Now, would you believe me if I told you we can also see the Church in the Psalms? Join me next week to find out what this means and how it can change the way we pray.

Posted by Alyssa Robinson at 4:53 PM
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