Why do the Nations Rage?

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Psalm 2

“For one day at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)

One of the themes that frequently emerges in the book of Psalms is the issue of conflict. Many of the Psalms speak of enemies; over and over we read about them and the nasty things that they have done, usually to the psalmist. Here is Psalm 3, for example:

O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me.

(v.1, esv)

We read as well the psalmist’s pleas that he be delivered from his enemies, as in this prayer from the 7th Psalm:

O Lord my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me, lest like a lion they tear my soul apart, rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.

v.1, esv

And then there are the sometimes bloodcurdling pleas that those terrible men who are threatening or attacking the psalmist will get what is coming to them.

O God, break the teeth in their mouths…
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns . . .
may he sweep them away!

Psalm 58:6-9, nrsv

At first glance this apparent obsession with personal enemies and all these bloodthirsty cries for their destruction might seem, shall we say, inappropriate? That’s putting it mildly. How can we as Christians identify with such hatred? What could these Psalms possibly have to say to us who have been commanded to love our enemies and to pray for those who mistreat us?

But there is more to this opposition than at first it seems. For one thing, the foes of whom the psalmists speak are not simply their personal enemies. These are not just private quarrels they are talking about. The psalmists are writing as men of God, as those who have chosen the Lord’s way, as part of the people of God.

They do not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers. Their delight is in the law of the Lord.

Psalm 1:1

So because the psalmists have identified themselves with the Lord and his way, that means that their enemies are really God’s enemies. Or to put it another way, the attacks they are facing are actually arising from opposition against the Lord and against his Anointed One.

Why Do the Nations Rage?

That idea brings us to the most important of all the Psalms of conflict, Psalm 2, which begins this way:

Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.”

vv. 1-3

On the surface, this seems to be a Psalm about rebellion among the subject peoples who owed allegiance to the king of Israel. When a president or a prime minister retires, all the lesser party figures scramble for power and advantage, each hoping to use the temporary opening at the top to rise a little higher themselves. In just the same way, whenever a great king died in the ancient world, it was an opportunity for every subordinate tribe, every tribute-paying vassal, every ambitious warlord, to try to gain a little more independence. The scent of rebellion was in the air. So the first thing a new king had to do was to assert his authority and to reestablish the effective limits of his power. The second Psalm was written to mark the coronation of a new king of Israel, and the rebelliousness of Israel’s neighboring kingdoms is the story behind this poem.

But of course, that’s not all there is to it. To say that Psalm 2 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 second Psalm deals with far more profound issues than just ancient Israelite history. It’s really about a greater King than David, a more significant anointed one, or Messiah literally, than one of his successors, a more dangerous rebellion than any political struggle, and a more serious conflict than any earthly war.

Psalm 2 is quoted in the New Testament more than any other Old Testament passage. In Acts 4, for example, the early church repeats its opening words in connection with Jesus’ crucifixion the ultimate act of rebellion against the Lord and his Anointed. Psalm 2, verse 7 “You are my Son; today I have begotten you” is quoted in several New Testament passages referring to the resurrection and exaltation of the Lord Jesus, the act by which God publicly declared Jesus to be his divine Son. And the promise of verse 8 “I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” appears to be a bit of an exaggeration if applied to the kings of little Judah. But it is the simple truth about the everlasting reign of Messiah Jesus. For one day, at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (cf. Philippians 2:10-11).

Therefore Be Warned

In the last analysis, this Psalm isn’t just about conflict or prophecy. It is intended to warn those of us who think we can oppose God or who are living as enemies of Jesus Christ and his church. We live in an age of “do-it-yourself” religion and “make-your-own-rules” morality. So many people today have effectively declared their independence not just their political independence, but their spiritual independence. “I run my own life,” they boldly assert. “No one has the right to impose their values on me. I decide for myself what’s right. I choose what my beliefs will be, and nobody can tell me otherwise.”

All of us want to go to a self-serve of religion and morality. But what is that really saying? This is nothing less than an attempt to throw off the authority of God himself! People who reject the revelation of God’s Word in order to assert their own independence, people who substitute moral relativity for the commands of God’s Law are setting themselves against the Lord and his Anointed. What they’re really saying is, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”

And how does God respond to this? He laughs. Listen to Psalm 2:4, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” Now that strikes me as a very chilling thought, the idea of God laughing at us. It’s never very pleasant to be laughed at, especially by someone bigger and stronger than you.

And this seems so out of character for God, at least for God as many modern people imagine him to be. They’re used to thinking of him as sympathetic, caring, always ready to listen if they decide to pray, ever eager to forgive and welcome them back again if they choose to favor him with their attention. A kindly God that’s the image we have. Yes, a sympathetic God, a gentle, all-accepting, all-embracing God that’s God as people expect him to be, if they think about him at all. But a laughing God? A mocking God? The thought is unsettling.

It is meant to be. This laughter of God is not the kindly chuckling of an avuncular old man in the sky. No, God’s laughter at human pretensions of independence and rebellion is derisory laughter, mocking, contemptuous laughter. You see, he doesn’t take our claims to greatness seriously. 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 can solve our own problems, we will create our own future, we will remake our world, we will recreate our very nature, we will 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. No. Not at all. It is terrifying. After God’s sarcastic 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). And when this all-holy, all-powerful, infinite God God of all that was and is and ever will be speaks when he speaks, it is to bear witness to his Son. All sorts of important, sophisticated, influential power-brokers and opinion leaders in our society may belittle Jesus Christ and his followers, may make fun of them, or dismiss 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. . . I will make the nations your heritage” (vv. 6, 8). And as for these enemies who oppose the Lord’s Messiah “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (v. 9).

Please don’t make the mistake of thinking God is harmless, that the God of wrath is an outmoded, antique figure, or that dishonoring Jesus Christ has no consequences. So here’s the warning, in conclusion:

Now therefore … be wise; be warned … Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way. For his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

vv. 10-12

In the end, God’s laughter, though scornful, is not cruel. In fact, it’s really an act of kindness. It is only meant to get through to us, you see, to burst the balloon of our arrogance and our pride. In our anti-God way of living, to call us to our senses, to get us to see how ridiculous it is for puny creatures to set ourselves against their Creator. To oppose Jesus Christ is the height of folly. To embrace him is not a mark of weakness but of wisdom, and it leads to the only source of blessing and joy in all the world.