Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 2, 2018
Psalm 45 Commentary
Digging into the Text:
In reading this Psalm something about the phrase “palaces adorned with ivory” struck a chord in my memory. After some reflection I realized it was a hymn from my childhood entitled “Ivory Palaces.” It could be found in many hymnals from the first half of the 20th century, and was made famous as a favorite of Cliff Barrows, the music director of the Billy Graham crusades. The refrain tells the story:
Out of the Ivory palaces, into a world of woe,
Only his great eternal love made my Savior go.
It’s not a great hymn, and the tune is as smaltzy as they come. From the lyrics alone, I doubt that many people recognized its connection with Psalm 45. The hymn picks up a few phrases from the Psalm and then leans heavily toward the Christological interpretation. . (A much better hymn-text for Psalm 45 is the more recent “For the Honor of our King” by Martin Leckebusch.)
In some prayer books, particularly in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, each Psalm is ended with a prayer that centers on Christ. The prayer for Psalm 45 in Daily Prayer from the Church of England web site is:
Lord our God,
bring your bride, your holy Church,
with joy to the marriage feast of heaven,
and unite us with your anointed Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Psalm 45 confronts us with one of the most important issues in interpreting and preaching the Psalms in general. Is this Psalm merely about some ancient royal wedding, or does it convey spiritual truth about the relationship of Christ to his church, or both?
Some modern exegetes tend to interpret the Psalms with a strict focus on things like their authorship, historical setting, and authorial intent. Thus many modern interpreters of Psalm 45 delve into the background of royal weddings in Israel or in the Ancient Near East generally. Whatever message it conveys is then limited to this original historical context.
But this approach ignores the deep patterns of interpretation found in the Bible itself. The image of Israel as bride to God the King is apparent in Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1-3 to name a few. At least one Targum on Psalm 45 renders verse 2, “Thy beauty, O King Messiah.”
More recently, many scholars have come to recognize the validity of at least a limited Christological exegesis of the Psalms in the New Testament and the Early Church. It’s not that we have to choose between an exegetical stance grounded in original intent and historical context or Christological exegesis. We need both. We study the Psalm as an ancient text in its historical context and we see it as part of Holy Scripture now centered in Christ.
The Psalms are, after all, the most frequently quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament, where they are usually interpreted as prophesies about Christ. Psalms 2, 16 and 110, for example, are quoted in the apostolic preaching in Acts as affirmations of Christ’s resurrection and his kingly reign as ascended Lord.
The New Testament authors, and the early church Fathers following them, read the Old Testament through the lens of the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel. Since Christ is the final and complete revelation of God, they interpreted some of the key themes of the Psalms, particularly kingship, as ultimately pointing to Christ, the true and eternal King.
The only actual quotation from Psalm 45 in the New Testament is in Hebrews 1, where the author, quoting verses 6 and 7, is intent on showing that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God.
But about the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;
a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy.” (Hebrews 1: 8,9)
In the Ancient Near East, the king was often pictured as one who embodied the best of human qualities. So, in verses 3-8 the Psalmist exalts both the moral and physical beauty of the king. He is not only clothed with rich attire and anointed with the finest fragrant oils, the king is also a person of moral integrity, ruling with justice, humility, and truth. The king should embody all the best qualities that God intended not just for monarchs, but for all humanity.
The Bible presents David as the quintessential king. He is strong, brave, handsome, daring, and wise. Yet, as the glaring sins and the familial dysfunction surrounding him demonstrate, he is far from an ideal human being. He is the best we humans can do to embody the kingly ideal, but he falls short. Jesus is called the “Son of David,” not just because of his family lineage, but because he, the Son, has come to fully embody what David could not.
But the Psalm is not just a celebration of the physical and moral qualities of the king, it’s a royal wedding song. The king has chosen a beautiful bride, who now must leave her family to live in the ivory palace of the king. She is his delight, and he has adorned her with the finest of clothes for their wedding day.
As mentioned earlier, the image of Israel as God’s bride is deeply embedded in the Old Testament, and in the New Testament this image is transformed into the church as the bride of Christ. This is especially evident in Ephesians 5:31-32 and Revelation 19:6-9.
Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5 is a good example. He begins by addressing the behavior of husbands toward their wives, then quickly moves on to quote the familiar lines from Genesis 2, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” But, in. a surprising move he immediately adds, “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Eph. 5:31-32)
So the human institution of marriage, and even its most intimate act, points to the relationship of Christ to his bride, the church. It may not be a sacrament according to most Protestants, but marriage certainly conveys a deep sacramental truth about our relationship to Christ. As the bride and groom bind themselves to each other in a covenant of love and faithfulness, Christ binds us to himself. We are his bride.
In the older vows, the bride promised to “love, honor, and obey” her husband. The promise of obedience often left out now, recognizing a more equal relationship as human beings. But Psalm 45 points to that the full ethical commitment in becoming the bride of the king.
Listen, daughter, and pay careful attention:
Forget your people and your father’s house.
Let the king be enthralled by your beauty;
honor him, for he is your lord. vss. 10,11)
This image of Christ as bridegroom emerges once more at the close of the Bible. it’s still the story of God’s great romance with his people and with his creation. John sees the staggering vision of where everything is headed. He calls it the “wedding feast of the Lamb.” “And I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21: 4)
All our lives, our loves, our relationships, our marriages, must now be seen in the light of God’s great romance with his creation, and the redemption of his human image-bearers. We are the bride of Christ who has clothed us with the garments of righteousness. He has betrothed us to himself with his own blood, and sealed it in the cleansing waters of baptism. So, let us be his beloved people, faithful to his covenant, obedient to his commands, putting on the wedding garments of his bride.
But Psalm 45 isn’t just about the faithful obedience of the royal bride, but her beauty, her loveliness. “Let the king be enthralled by your beauty.” (vs. 11) Lady Julian of Norwich, the great 13th century Christian mystic was given a series of revelations that are collected in, “Revelations of Divine Love,” which remains a classic of Christian devotional literature today. At one point she felt she was taken up into the heart of God. Reflecting on her experience, she concluded quite simply, “We are his lovers.”
It’s not just that God loves us as unworthy sinners, and redeems us in Christ. But here God’s love is depicted as a love that actually desires us, chooses us, delights in us, and, do we dare say it this way, is in love with us. Ultimately the story of the Bible is a romance. We are not only saved, we are wooed. We are not only redeemed, we are desired.
The last stanza of Martin Leckebusch’s hymn on Psalm 45 beautifully expresses the ultimate meaning of the royal wedding depicted there.
See the splendor of Christ’s bride
led in honor to his side–
chosen, loved, and beautified
by her royal Savior.
Preaching the Text
1. One helpful approach to preaching on Psalm 45 is to couple it with one Ephesians 5: 21-32 or Revelation 19: 6-9. The image of the church as the bride of Christ is not developed very often in preaching, but it opens a deep vein of theological and ethical truth congregations need to hear.
Invite the congregation to look more deeply at the symbolic features that undergird typical wedding practices. The bride will march down the aisle in a beautiful gown. Say the word bride to any girl, and the first free association is the bridal gown. She walks down the aisle to the loving gaze of her groom who us also dressed with special clothes for the occasion.
Why all this pomp and folderol? Not just to satisfy the dictates of Brides magazine. It’s because at this moment, the bride and groom are not just Tammy and Tom, but Adam and Eve, Man and Woman.. They are the ideal of what a man and woman are meant to be.
But, even more deeply, Paul tells us that they are Christ and his Church. The vows to love each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part” is an echo of our faithful love to Christ who gave himself up for his Bride.
2. There are other possible New Testament pairings for this Psalm. In Colossians 3 Paul writes of the Christian life as putting on new clothes. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12-14)
We, each one of us and together, are Christ’s bride. We are called to put on the clothes that befit our status by living our lives in the joyful love, pure devotion, and exclusive faithfulness of the bride on her wedding day.
3. This Psalm also provides an exegetical teaching moment for the congregation. Why not take this opportunity to at least introduce your congregation to the ways in which this Psalm, and many others, as well as the whole Old Testament, can be read by the church with a Christological focus. It’s important for them to see that Christ is not just the Messiah promised in the Old Testament prophesy, but that he is deeply embedded in all of its history, its poetry, its worship, and its wisdom. The whole Bible is centered in Christ, and he becomes the interpretive key to its deepest meaning.
CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018.
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