The Psalms: Songs of Christ

Following our extract from the Crosslands Seminary ‘Old Testament Introduction’ module, looking at the role the Psalms played in reflection and formation in the life of ancient Israel, this extract continues by exploring the profound way in which the Psalms speak of Christ.

The function of the Psalms, part 2: Songs of Christ

The psalter is … a God-given mirror that reflects our humanity; it is an emotional symphony that plays melodies that capture our creatureliness; and it is a lexicon that gives expression to our deepest feelings. In short, as the most introspective book in the Old Testament, the Psalter provides us with a profound vision of who we are. And in so doing, the book provides us with a rich theological anthropology.

Yet the psalms do also, of course, speak of God, and in particular they speak of Christ. Jesus himself makes that clear shortly before his ascension, saying to his disciples: “everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).

The psalms speak of Christ in a variety of ways. First, it turns out in the fulness of Scripture that certain parts of the psalms are ultimately words which the Father speaks to his Son, especially in describing for us who the Son is. This is especially evident in the NT, in Hebrews 1:5-13, where the writer quotes from Psalms 2, 45, 102 and 110, and asserts that each of those statements was made by the Father to the Son. They particularly concern the Son’s status, role in creation, lordship and universal reign. Peter, in his sermon at Pentecost, also quotes from Psalm 110, and for precisely the same purpose (Acts 2:34-35). Thus, these psalms are interpreted in the NT as songs of Christ in the sense that they are songs that are ultimately about Christ.

However, the NT treats the psalms as songs of Christ in an additional sense: not just as songs about him but as songs to be understood as ultimately sung by him. A little earlier in that same Pentecost sermon, Peter quotes Psalm 16:8-11 (Acts 2:25-28), saying that in these words David speaks “about” Christ in his resurrection: “I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (v.25). Peter then extends the quote from Psalm 16, and as he does so it becomes clear (at least to the careful listener) that these can no longer be words which David said about Christ: “you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, / you will not let your holy one see decay” (v.27). Peter immediately reminds his hearers of the obvious fact that David did in fact die (v.29), and yet his words stand as a prophecy of the resurrection. Yet it seems as if part of what he has quoted from Psalm 16 makes sense, not as words spoken by David about Christ’s resurrection, but as words spoken by Christ about his own resurrection.

What Peter hints at in this sermon is drawn out explicitly in Hebrews 10:5-7. The writer there quotes words from Psalm 40, in which David spoke to God: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, / but a body you prepared for me…”, and introduces the quote by saying explicitly that Christ said them at the point of his incarnation, addressing his Father: “when Christ came into the world, he said… ‘I have come to do your will, my God’” (v.5, 7).

A little earlier, in Hebrews 2:12, the writer does something even more remarkable. He introduces a quote from Psalm 22:22 by saying of Christ that “he says” it. Here, not only are words spoken in a psalm by David said to be also words spoken by Christ, they are also said to be words which Christ continues to say in the present: “he says…” The quotation is about Christ calling Christian believers his brothers and sisters, and therefore a remarkable pastoral strategy emerges in Hebrews at this point: when the writer wants to reassure believers that they are truly “of the same family” as Jesus (2:11), he does so by asserting that Jesus is saying right now that they are his family and is doing so by using words from a psalm of David.

One twentieth-century writer who reflected on this deeply was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His little booklet on the Psalms begins in a very illuminating way:

‘‘Lord, teach us to pray’: that is what the disciples said to Jesus. It was an admission that they could not pray by themselves. They had to learn. To learn to pray – it sounds like a contradiction. Surely, we would say, either the heart is over-flowing and will begin to pray of its own accord, or else it will never learn to pray at all. But it is a dangerous error, and one that is widespread among Christians today, to suppose that prayer comes naturally to the heart. By falling into that error we confuse wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing – all these things the heart can indeed do on its own – with praying. But in that case we confuse earth and heaven, man and God. Praying does not simply mean pouring out one’s heart, it means rather – whether the heart be full or empty – finding one’s way to God and talking to him. And no one can do this by himself, he needs Jesus Christ.”

Thus, if we are to learn to pray we need Christ. And what especially do we need from him?…

“We begin to pray by repeating to God his own words. We are to speak to him not in the false and confused language of our own hearts but in the clear, pure language in which God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ, and in that language he will hear us.”

Thus, what we particularly need from Christ in order to pray are words which God himself gives us, so that in and through them we may express ourselves in prayer. Now where especially are those words from Christ which are God’s own words to be found?…

“…prayer is the speech of the Son of God who dwells with us men, addressed to God the Father who dwells in eternity. Jesus Christ has brought before God all the needs, all the joys, all the thanks and hopes of mankind. On his lips the words of a man become words of God, and when we join in his prayer, the words of God become once more words of man. Thus the prayers of the Bible are all of this kind, prayers which we pray with Jesus Christ, into which he gathers us, bringing us before the face of God, otherwise they will never be prayers at all, for only with Jesus Christ and in his Name can we really pray.”

Thus ,we learn to pray when we pray the prayers of the Bible. They are themselves the prayers which Jesus prays, and so in praying them we are praying with Jesus, learning to pray as he has prayed and continues to pray.

After this general introduction Bonhoeffer turns to the Psalter in particular and asks, “[h]ow is it possible that at the same time a man and Jesus Christ should both pray in the Psalter?”. He answers:

“It is the Son of God made man, who has borne all our human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all mankind before God, who stands in our place and prays for us. He has known pain and anguish, guilt and death more deeply than we have. Thus it is the prayer of that humanity he has assumed that comes before God in the Psalms. It is indeed our prayer, but since he knows us better than we know ourselves, since for our sake he became true man, it is also truly his prayer, and it can only become our prayer because it was his.”

We could sum up this approach to the function of the psalms in this way. They are seen as being, in the first instance, prayers which Jesus, as the Son of God become incarnate by taking to himself a human nature, prays to God for his people. Then, secondarily but just as truly, they become the prayers which God’s people can and should pray because, being united to Christ by faith, they may pray with him, just as he prays.

In a moment, we will give an example of how this might work out in practice in the exposition of one particular psalm. However, there are two things that we may usefully reflect on at this point.

First, note how Bonhoeffer’s interpretative approach to the psalms is fundamentally based on two particular doctrines: the humanity of Christ in the incarnation, and the union of believers with Christ. Here is a telling example of how doctrine and biblical interpretation mutually inform each other, and of why solid education in Christian doctrine is crucial for wise and rich interpretation and application of Scripture.

Second, it is probably not a coincidence that the two theologians from the past whose approaches to the Psalms we have recommended both lived lives marked especially by suffering and persecution. Athanasius was sent into exile on five different occasions, and Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and then executed by the Nazis at the age of 39. It may well be those who have been most grievously tested in their life with Christ who grasp best why God has given us these 150 psalms.