Right in the middle of most English Bibles, there is a collection of one hundred and fifty ancient Hebrew songs. Filled with emotion, imagery, and devotion to the Lord, they are a masterpiece of poetic expression as well as a profound source of encouragement, comfort, and guidance for believers in the midst of the trials of daily life.
But despite their beauty and transparent honesty, it is a mistake to think that reading the Psalms is a simple business. Very often when we read the Psalms, our natural impulse is to appropriate the experiences of the psalmists to ourselves. The “I” of the author becomes the “I” of the reader as we embrace their emotions and place ourselves in their shoes.
Unfortunately, it often becomes difficult to sustain this way of reading the Psalms. Sure, it works in Psalm 23. But what about when the psalmist calls for the destruction of his enemies, or asserts his blamelessness, or promises to offer a sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem? How do we apply these psalms to our lives? Do we try to force them into the categories of our own experience? Do we turn them into allegories? Or do we just ignore them and stick to our top ten favorites?
I think these sort of questions should prompt us to re-examine simplistic approaches to reading the Psalms. It’s not that we shouldn’t identify directly with the voice of the psalmist. But that isn’t the only way to read the Psalms, or even the first way we should be reading them.
There are multiple layers to reading the Psalms. The first is the historical context of each individual psalm. Before we rush to claim the words of a psalm as our own, we must first hear them as the voice of a particular person in a particular time and place. It’s vital for us to understand who the psalmist is, what the circumstances are which they are addressing, and what cultural, historical, and theological factors can help us understand the meaning of their words.
A second layer is each psalm’s place within the story of the book as a whole. As many biblical scholars have recognized, the five-book division of the Psalms is a reflection on the progression from the rise of David (Book 1, psalms 1-41), through the Davidic monarchy (Book 2, psalms 42-72), the fall of the Davidic kingdom (Book 3, psalms 73-89), and the life of the believing community in exile (Book 4, psalms 90-106), to the celebration of restoration and return (Book 5, psalms 107-150). Each book, of course, contains psalms written at other times than the period it reflects; but the overall mood of each book is implicit throughout, and each book’s place in the story is explicitly reflected in key psalms at the beginning and end.
Just as reading the psalms in light of the first layer enables us to hear the voice of the individual psalmist, recognizing this second layer enables us to hear the voice of the entire worshiping people of God. We approach the psalms not only as individual expressions of faith, but as the songs of a community spanning multiple generations and centuries united around the story of God’s faithfulness in the past.
Of course, if we leave the Psalms there, reading them will simply be an academic exercise, the study of the religious experiences of an ancient civilization. If we are to claim the Psalms as God’s word to us, we must have some way to bridge the gap between their original context and our own needs and concerns.
This brings us to the third layer to reading the Psalms. The story of God’s faithfulness does not end with the return from the Babylonian exile. So the psalms look forward to the complete fulfillment of his promises to Israel, and especially to the coming of another anointed King, another David – the Christ.
The idea of hearing the Psalms as the voice of Christ has a long history in the church, appearing in the thought of countless theologians from Augustine to Bonhoeffer. But its roots go back all the way to the earliest preaching of the apostles themselves. We see a great example in Acts 2. In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter explains the resurrection and ascension of Jesus through an exposition of Psalms 16 and 110. Peter draws our attention to the fact that, though written by David, neither of these psalms was literally true of him. Thus he explains Psalm 16:10 (“You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay”) as follows:
Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact (Acts 2:29-32).
Peter here is making a remarkable assertion: that the voice celebrating God’s deliverance in Psalm 16 is not that of it’s author, but of someone else. This doesn’t mean that this Psalm is not rooted in David’s own experience – far from it. But writing as the Lord’s anointed, the sacred king of God’s people, he wrote words that were only figuratively true of himself, but found true and literal fulfillment in the experience of another king, the ultimate Anointed One, Jesus, the Son of David.
This is not a one-off, anomalous interpretation; it is the apostles’ customary approach to the Psalms. Thus in Acts 4:10-11, Peter applies Psalm 118:22 (“the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”) to Jesus’ rejection by the “rulers and elders of the people.” A little later in the same chapter (Acts 4:23-28) the church takes Psalm 2:1-2 – which describes “the rulers” conspiring “against the Lord and against his Christ [i.e. ‘Anointed’]” – as a prediction of the sufferings of Jesus, God’s anointed servant. Psalm 2 will reappear later in Acts along with Psalm 16 in the first recorded sermon of the apostle Paul (Acts 13:32-37).
The rest of the NT bears out this practice of seeing Jesus as the subject of the Psalms. Psalm 2, which we have already seen cited twice in Acts, appears everywhere from Matthew (3:17; 17:5) to Revelation (2:27; 11:15; 12:5; 19:15). Psalm 110, cited by Peter in Acts 2, is the most widely-quoted Psalm in the New Testament, appearing in nine different books and providing the central text for the sermon we call the book of Hebrews. Psalms 22 and 69 stand out for their use in the gospels, which see them fulfilled in the suffering and death of Christ (Matthew 27:34-48; Mark 15:24, 34; John 2:17; 15:25; 19:24, 28-29). Even psalms which speak of not of the Davidic king but of “the righteous man” (Psalm 34:19-20) or just “man” in general (Psalm 8:4) are explained as references to Jesus (John 19:36; 1 Corinthians 15:25-28; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:5-9).
In all this, the writers of the New Testament are only following Jesus’ own teaching and example. Jesus frequently presented himself as the subject of various psalms (Matthew 7:23; 21:9, 42-44; 23:39; 26:64; 27:46; John 13:18; 15:25). After his resurrection, he explained to his disciples how was the fulfillment of “things written … in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44-47).
It should come as no surprise, then, that when the writers of the New Testament read the Psalms, they neither left them as historical relics nor forced them into the framework of their own individual experiences. The voice they heard in the Psalms was neither a recording of long-dead heroes nor the echo of their own personalities, but the word of the living Christ in whom all the promises, prophecies, and pre-figurings of the Old Testament had finally reached their perfect fulfillment.
Reading the psalms this way makes a radical difference. Instead of laboring to make the psalmists’ words our own by trying to work ourselves up into the same emotional state as them, we can listen in as the Son of God embraces all the turmoil and mess of human experience for our sakes. Indeed, he experienced it all far more deeply than any other human ever has. David felt abandoned by God (Psalm 22:1), but Jesus actually was. David only imagined the joy of resurrection, which Jesus truly experienced (Psalm 16:9-11).
No part of human experience is alien to Jesus. He freely shared our pain, our weakness, our fear, our loneliness. And though he himself committed no sin, he bore our sins and took our guilt as his own, so that even our songs of confession can be taken on his lips (e.g. Psalm 40:12; compare verses 6-8 and Hebrews 10:5-10). And, as Augustine said, because he came to sing our song, we can sing his song.* Because we have been united with Christ by faith, his death becomes our death and his life our life (Romans 6:3-10; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:4-10). Because he joined in our lamentation, we can join in his song of victory.
It is in Christ alone that the words of the Psalms become truly ours. By entering into our fallen human experience, he is able to lead us out of it – out of our sin and lostness and into his glorious victory. Jesus thus becomes the bridge connecting our personal experience to the sometimes alien words of the psalms, so that in him we may claim them as our own. Despite our ongoing struggle with sin, in Christ we can boast of perfect righteousness (Psalm 18:20-24). Even when our own lives are a complete mess, in him we can celebrate a salvation worth proclaiming to every nation and generation (Psalm 22:25-31). Though this world sometimes beats down upon us, in Jesus we can look forward to sharing in his victorious exaltation (Psalm 2:9; Revelation 2:26-27).
Not only that, but even those psalms that seem straightforward and relatable to us take on new depths when we hear them as the words of Jesus. Not only the royal triumph of Psalm 21 and the righteous suffering of Psalm 22, but even the trusting intimacy with God of Psalm 23 can be fully ours only because it was first and most truly his. It is because he passed through the valley of the shadow of death for us that we can dare to walk there without fear. And it is because he eternally sits at the right hand of the Father that we know we have a dwelling place in his house, where we will join together at last with David and all the people of God in singing the new song of the Lamb forever and ever.
*Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 30(2).1.3. “He spoke our words so that we might speak his words.” The original Latin of Augustine’s second exposition of Psalm 31 is available here. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an English translation online.
Image Credit: Supper at Emmaus by Hendrik Terbrugghen, circa 1621; http://the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=89555