Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 26, 2017
Psalm 2 Commentary
This is Transfiguration Sunday, the glorious conclusion of the season of Epiphany. The story of Christ’s Transfiguration pre-figured in Exodus 24:12-18, told in Matthew 17:1-9, and retold in II Peter 1:16-21 (our other lectionary readings for today) is given a dark twist in our reading from Psalm 2. The other lectionary readings point to the brightest revelation of Christ’s glory before his resurrection. But Psalm 2 seems to speak not of a glowing Christ, but of a glowering Christ who rules with an iron scepter, flares into dangerous anger, and dashes his enemies to pieces.
That is hardly a comforting message, unless you are feeling depressed over the seemingly overwhelming power of evil in the world. That is not a picture of Christ most of us will want to preach, unless our congregations are feeling endangered by the anti-Christian tsunami that is sweeping over the world. Even if some of your congregants feel that way, many others will not like the strident tone of Psalm 2, because they (appropriately) want to love even their enemies.
But before you turn away from Psalm 2 on this Transfiguration Sunday, consider the value of presenting your listeners with a very different view of history than they will find anywhere else. All day every day we are assaulted with the story of nation rising up against nation, human beings going to war with their fellow human beings, and we get caught up in that story. We take sides and become partisan in multiple ways. Some of your more spiritual listeners, informed by Bible passages like Ephesians 6:10-20, will understand that our battle is “not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly realms.” Call that a more spiritual view of history.
But Psalm 2 gives us a distinctively Christological view of history. At the heart of human affairs is not a geopolitical struggle between nations or spiritual warfare between believers and the Devil, but the age-old battle of evil against God. It began in the Garden (Genesis 3:15) and it will end at Armageddon. The nations and their rulers (humanity in organized rebellion) are trying to throw off the reign of God and his Anointed. “We can only be truly free when we are free of God and his rule.” Many of your listeners do not view history this way, and some will scoff at such an understanding of what is happening in the world. That is precisely why Psalm 2 is such a good choice for today.
Here’s the heart of the matter according to Psalm 2. Verses 1-3 reveal that there is a conspiracy going on in human history, an earthly conspiracy against heaven. Verses 4-6 let us in on the heavenly response to the conspiracy. Verses 7-9 reveal the secret mission of God’s Anointed on earth. Verses 10-12 give fair warning and the promise of refuge to the whole world.
Before we go into a detailed study of those four stanzas of Psalm 2, we must wrestle with a larger question. Who is speaking in Psalm 2? Or more accurately, who is “the Anointed” of which Psalm 2 speaks? Older scholars like Calvin assume that the Psalm is talking about King David first of all. With God’s help, he had conquered many nations, but now the leaders of those nations are rebelling against the Kingdom of God represented by Israel. Psalm 2, then, is a promise of David’s ultimate victory.
More recent scholars see Psalm 2 as a royal Psalm used at the coronation of kings in the Davidic line. Rather than applying the Psalm to the original king, it becomes an assurance or a blessing to each subsequent king who sits on the throne of David. Because Yahweh is on our side and, indeed, our king is “the Son” of God, the line of David and the Kingdom of Israel will survive and be victorious, even if the present geopolitical situation is threatening.
While not denying those original meanings of Psalm 2, many scholars give an explicitly Messianic interpretation of this Psalm. They note that the word “Anointed” in the Hebrew is meshiac, while the Greek is christos, both of which are the English word “Messiah.” While that may be no more than verbal coincidence, the use of Psalm 2 in the New Testament is more conclusive. Again and again, New Testament authors take Psalm 2 as the story of Christ written on a cosmic or at least global scale. Acts 4:24-27 claims that the crucifixion of Christ by the Jewish and Roman authorities was an explicit fulfillment of Psalm 2. Hebrews 1:5 uses Psalm 2 to prove the divine superiority of Christ over all things. Revelation 12:5 quotes Psalm 2:9 in ascribing to Christ world-wide dominion. The words “you are my Son” were central to the early Christian claim that Jesus was precisely that. See also Acts 13:33, Heb. 5:5, and I John 5:9.
So, in the last analysis, Psalm 2 is about Christ, the Messiah whom God sent to earth to quell the rebellion and establish the Kingdom of God in all its glory. It does, indeed, give us a Christological interpretation of human history. Whatever humans and demons might being doing in history, here’s what God is up to, and what God will accomplish. Let’s look at the details of the story.
The Psalm opens with a word that is ubiquitous in human experience and, thus, in Scripture. “Why?” Often this question is addressed to God when we face unexplainable suffering. “Why, O God, is this happening to me?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Here the question is addressed to rebellious humans by God, or by his people. It assumes that “the nations and peoples” (the typical Hebrew words for non-Jews) are rebelling against God. It asks in amazement and puzzlement, why would they do that? As the rest of the Psalm reveals, such rebellion is as foolish as it is useless. Why would God’s most god-like creatures rebel against a loving God who only intends them good? And why would mere creatures think they could possibly succeed in their rebellion against the Almighty?
But rebel they do. What shape does their rebellion take? Well, at this point, it is all talk. They “conspire” and they “plot.” “They take their stand and they gather together against the Lord and his Anointed.” They present a united front. “We all agree. It’s all of us against the two of them.” But all they can do is talk. “’Let us break their chains,’ they say, ‘and throw off their fetters.’” Humans in rebellion see God and his Law as the source of their bondage and failure, so they want to get rid of them. “If we could be gods and do whatever we want, we would be free and happy.” So they say. And that’s all the rebels can do in the face of God’s sovereignty—say, speak, conspire and plot, take a verbal stand and present a united front. But they can’t ultimately do a thing that will change God’s sovereignty.
The fundamental powerlessness of rebellious humanity is the reason for God’s surprising response to their rebellion. “The One enthroned on high laughs….” Is this the amused laughter of an indulgent father who has just been struck on the leg by a defiant toddler? No, it’s not quite that benign, although the word “laughs” does hint at what will come later, much later. This is a scoffing laughter, a laughter born of invincible power, a laughter that sees such rebellion as foolish, irrational, infantile, and useless. Though it may ultimately prove to be loving laughter, it is not gentle or approving laughter.
Instead, this laughter turns to anger after a while, when God’s patience wears thin. “Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath….” This kind of talk about God is not acceptable to many Christians today. With Marcion and many sensitive Christians throughout the centuries, some of your listeners hear such language as pre-Christian, even un-Christian, the legacy of the primitive, violent religion of the Old Testament. Since Jesus came, we think of God as more loving and gracious. The Father of Jesus would never get angry, so we will simply ignore passages that speak of the wrath of God.
What shall we say to this way of reading Psalm 2 and so many other passages? Well, quite apart from the fact that we lose much of sacred Scripture with such a bias, we also end up with a God who is morally tepid and spiritually weak. If God doesn’t respond to evil with something like anger, what kind of God is that? Indifferent, uncaring, uncompassionate? A sort of “whatever, dude” God who is not moved by the suffering of vast portions of the human race? What kind of God doesn’t rebuke human rebellion? What kind of God doesn’t get angry and do something radical to stop the rebellion? Not the Father of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, it is precisely Jesus Christ that the Psalmist turns to next in Psalm 2. God’s response to human rebellion is not just scornful laughter and angry rebuke. It is, pre-eminently, the proclamation that there is a new King. And God doesn’t just speak (the only thing the rebels can do). God actually does something. “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill.” As I said before, this undoubtedly referred originally to David and his successors. But ultimately all of them failed in the mission God gave them. So God let them sink into the dust of history and sent a new King, the Messiah. He will bring the freedom the rebels hoped to find by getting rid of God. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
Verses 7-9 lay out the mission of the King God will send. That mission begins with his commission. “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” Some scholars see these words as reflective of the ancient tradition of seeing kings as “sons of God.” But our Gospel reading for today (Matthew 17:1-9) pushes us in the direction of taking these words literally. At his Transfiguration (as well as at his Baptism), Jesus was publicly declared to be God’s own Son. Though he was always God the Son, there were moments in history (“today”) when God made that eternal Sonship public to a select few.
The mission of the Son of God, the Messiah King, was to end the rebellion, to take the earth back for God, and to re-establish the kingdom of God on earth. Thus, God urges his Son to ask for success in his mission (and we are told by the New Testament how often and how passionately Jesus prayed). God promises that the rebellious nations will be “your inheritance,” “your possession.”
That’s all well and good, but what will become of the rebels? “You will rule them with an iron scepter.” Isn’t that the very kind of harsh reign against which humanity rebelled in the beginning. And “you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” How can we preach such repressive, violent stuff? Who can look forward in hope to such a terrible end for millions of our fellow human beings?
Well, let’s ask this question. Are we doing people a favor if we don’t warn them of danger on the road ahead? If you see a child about to run onto a busy freeway, are you a loving and responsible person if you don’t shout a warning and even try to jerk that child out of harm’s way? That is exactly what Psalm 2 does next. Quite apart from the question of final justice, Psalm 2 uses the picture of Christ’s strong reign as a warning to all the rebels. “Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.”
This is a surprising turn in an otherwise fierce Psalm. Rather than simply threatening the rebels who want to throw God off his throne and who reject his Anointed One, God invites them to come home. Granted, it’s not an easy home-going. You don’t just waltz back into the kingdom carrying your armor and weapons, proud and cocky that you’ve survived your own foolishness. No, you have to “serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.” You have to surrender to the King.
Indeed, you have to kiss the King, the Son of God. That kiss is not so much a sign of affection as it is a sign of surrender, fealty, obeisance, loyalty. Jesus is not a King to be trifled with. The rebellion has been a terrible thing. God has done a terrible thing in sending his Son to suffer and die for rebels. So, we must take him and our sins seriously. A King despised and rejected is dangerous, even though he is full of mercy. That must be what Psalm 2 means when it says that a final rejection of the King will end in destruction. We don’t like to think of an angry Jesus, but we see him in the Gospels sometimes, when sinners won’t repent or when death wins.
But that isn’t what God wants, obviously. What God wants is that people finally come to the King, the Son of God, and “find refuge in him.” Speaking to the nations and peoples, the rebels and the members of his kingdom, God’s final word is a beatitude that matches the beatitude with which Psalm 1 begins. That one says, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked….” This one says, “Blessed is the one (even the wicked) who takes refuge in him.”
That’s what God is doing in history, in response to the rebellion. He’s offering refuge to the rebels by sending his Son. All who find refuge in him will finally be blessed, happy, the very thing humans were seeking when they rebelled against God. What kind of God does such a thing? The God who is revealed in the Transfiguration of Christ.
How can we apply this Psalm to the lives of our people? We could preach a challenging sermon, taking Calvin’s tack and emphasizing the absolute necessity of allegiance to Christ. “Let this, therefore, be held as a settled point, that all who do not submit themselves to the authority of Christ make war against God. Since it seems good to God to rule us by the hand of his own Son, those who refuse to obey Christ himself deny the authority of God….”
Or we could preach on the comfort of knowing that Christ is in charge of everything, even when it seems as though the “nations and peoples” are in control of history. We should not be unduly alarmed over attacks against Christ and his Kingdom. In the end, the rebellion cannot succeed.
Or we could preach Psalm 2 as a message of hope. Even though human rulers regularly fail, we have a hope that is certain. God has declared that his Son will reign. He does reign now, but not yet in a way that is visible or complete. But he will reign one day in all his visible glory. In other words, on this Sunday of Transfiguration we could preach an eschatological message of hope. What only a few saw at Christ’s Transfiguration, every eye will see at his final Epiphany, and every knee will bow and every tongue confess….
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The view of history presented in Psalm 2 is presented graphically in the movies based on Tolkien’s Trilogy of the Ring, where a battle between good and evil shakes the earth. Or think of the whole “Stars Wars” saga, except that in those movies the rebels are the good guys and the Emperor is evil. And the deciding factor is the Force, not the Son. But as a foil, those movies might help contemporary and younger audiences live into a story of global, even cosmic battle.
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