READ : Psalm 2
From the very beginning Christians have confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the “Christ,” the Son of God. But did you know that the Bible first speaks of the Messiah as God’s Son not in the gospels or epistles, but early in the book of Psalms — Psalm 2, to be precise.
A rash of recently published best-sellers have a rather unusual theme in common. They all represent angry, even vicious, attacks on belief in God. Atheist manifestos like The End of Faith and The God Delusion don’t simply argue along standard “I can’t believe there’s a God” lines. They assert that faith in God of any kind is wrong – not just intellectually wrong, but morally wrong. Not only are atheists smart and believers dumb, according to these books, but believers are also bad people. The most virulent of them – a volume by the British journalist Christopher Hitchens entitled God Is Not Good – purports to explain this in its subtitle, How Religion Poisons Everything. It all brings to my mind the ancient question of the psalmist: “Why do the heathen rage . . . against the Lord, and against his Anointed?” (Psalm 2:1-2, KJV).
Hatred of God, you see, is nothing new. Apostles of atheism, self-appointed prickers of faith’s balloon whose chosen mission in life is to set believers free from their God delusion – such folks have been around for a long time. The writer of the second Psalm knew all about scoffers like these.
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.” (vv. 1-3)
On the surface, the second Psalm seems to be about a rebellion among the subject peoples who owed allegiance to the king of Israel. Whenever a great king died in the ancient world, it was an opportunity for every tribute-paying vassal, every ambitious warlord, to try to gain a little more independence. So in this psalm the scent of rebellion was in the air. The first thing a new king had to do was to assert his authority and reestablish the effective limits of his power. Psalm 2 was probably written to mark the coronation of a new king of Israel, and the rebelliousness of Israel’s neighboring kingdoms is the back story behind this poem.
But of course, that’s far from all there is here. To say that this Psalm is about the dynastic struggles of the house of David is like saying that Hamlet is a story about Danish politics. There is a deeper meaning here. The Psalm is really about a greater King even than David, a more significant “Anointed One,” – literally, as that Hebrew word says, a Messiah.
Rage against the Messiah
Psalm 2 is quoted in the New Testament more than almost any other Old Testament passage. In the book of Acts, for example, the church in Jerusalem prayed the words of this Psalm when they were facing persecution from the city’s religious authorities.
Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot . . . ?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed.
These first believers saw in the crucifixion of Jesus the ultimate act of rebellion by the world’s rulers against the Lord and his Anointed, against Jesus the Messiah. “For truly in this city,” they prayed, “there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” (v. 27). So it was no wonder to the earliest Christians if they too should be facing hostility and opposition from the very same people who had plotted against their Lord, and finally brought him to the cross.
The words I’ve just quoted from Acts 4 are all part of the prayer offered by the church when Peter and John were first brought before the authorities and threatened with punishment if they continued to preach about Jesus. In the face of this serious danger, the believers in Jerusalem gathered together to call upon God for help. You might think that they would pray for protection or for deliverance from their enemies, or that they would cry out for the Lord to defeat their enemies. But what they actually asked of God is more remarkable still:
“And now, Lord,” they prayed, “look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness” (v. 29).
All they asked was the courage to go on bearing witness to Jesus when fear for their own safety urged them to be silent.
These first Christians knew they could expect opposition from the world, and even persecution by the political powers and authorities. After all, they had witnessed first-hand what had happened to Jesus, and they remembered his words that a servant is not greater than his Master (John 13:16). They were ready to face for Jesus what he had faced for them.
But they took comfort in the belief that the God of Jesus would grant courage and strength to them as well in the time of testing. They were confident that the Lord would enable them to be faithful unto death, even as Jesus was. That same assurance can be ours too. We need not fear the plots and threats of the world’s anti-God forces, whether they come in the form of state-sponsored persecution, or in the taunts and jibes of clever atheists. Our God is the Sovereign Lord (Acts 4:24). He will give us courage and grace to face whatever we must.
“You Are My Son”
There is another passage in Psalm 2 that especially attracted the attention of the New Testament church. In the opening verses the psalmist speaks of the Lord’s Anointed, or Messiah; later the Anointed One himself speaks. “I will tell of the decree,” says the Messiah in verse 7, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you.'”
This reference identifying God’s Anointed One as his Son had an electrifying effect on the writers of the New Testament, as you might have guessed. Like Christians ever since, the apostles saw in this verse a clear prophecy pointing straight to Jesus Christ.
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews quotes it as underscoring the superiority of Jesus to even the most glorious created being. “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you'”? (Hebrews 1:5). Paul, both in his missionary preaching (Acts 13:33) and in his apostolic writing (Romans1:4), relates this declaration to Jesus’ resurrection. It was his resurrection from the dead, states the apostle, that fully and finally revealed Jesus to be the eternal, only-begotten Son of God, the true Messiah of whom even the greatest of the anointed kings of Israel were but pale copies.
Therefore Be Warned
So this Psalm, perhaps written originally to glorify the kings of ancient Israel on their coronation day, in its deepest meaning points ahead to an infinitely greater King and Son. The most dramatic coronation took place not on a throne in Jerusalem but in an empty tomb just outside that city, when Christ – “the Anointed One” – was once and for all shown to be the Son of God with power.
The second Psalm serves not just as a prophecy, though, but as a warning. It offers some serious advice to those who are living as enemies of King Jesus and his church. Today many people, not just our public atheists, have declared their independence from God. Some aggressive unbelievers have determined that faith in God is worse than foolish, and have set themselves the task of ridding the world of its believers. But most secularists are content to simply ignore God and sneer at his people. We needn’t be afraid of such folks, or worry excessively about their impact. After all, God doesn’t need us to defend him from his cultured despisers. But we ought to feel compassion for these people.
Do you know how God himself responds to all such attacks? He laughs at them. Listen to Psalm 2:4: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” Now that’s a very chilling thought. A kindly God, a sympathetic God, a gentle, all-accepting, all-embracing God – that’s God as people expect him to be. But a laughing God? A mocking God? The image is unsettling, and it’s meant to be. This laughter of God against those who set themselves against him is derisory. It is contemptuous laughter. All the rebellious arrogance of tiny little men and women running around shouting that God is dead, God is irrelevant, we have no need of him, we’ll make our own future, we’ll recreate our very nature, we’ll make ourselves immortal – it all strikes God as ludicrous. He laughs such people to scorn.
Which is not to say that any of this is funny. Not at all. It is rather terrifying. After God’s laughter comes his word of judgment, and what God says to human rebels is deadly serious. “Then he will speak to them in his wrath,” declares the psalmist, “and terrify them in his fury” (v. 5). As one Old Testament scholar commented, “at this moment all the human pygmies come face to face with a giant.” And when this all-holy, all-powerful, infinite God speaks, it is to bear witness to his Son. All sorts of sophisticated opinion leaders in our society may belittle Jesus Christ and his followers, make fun of them, or even do their best to destroy them. But God’s determination cancels theirs. “As for me,” says the Almighty, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill. . . . I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession” (vv. 6, 8). In the end, King Jesus will rule over all. All who honor and worship him will be vindicated. All who hate and oppose him will be thrown into confusion, disaster, and eternal ruin.
So, whose side are you on?