Thanks to Handel’s oratorio Messiah, Psalm 2 often gets associated with Christmas as traditionally it is during Advent that many choirs/orchestras present this well-known piece of music, including the thundering and fiery solo “Thou Shalt Break Them.” Yet here we are on Transfiguration Sunday looking at this very psalm. And if applied to the Messiah (as Handel did), it is quite the poem to ponder. Here we see God’s Chosen One, his Anointed, coming loaded for bear, dashing the nations to pieces like a potter’s vessel. Here the Messiah is a military captain with a scorched earth policy, determined to annihilate all those raging nations that oppose God’s people, God’s ways, and so the forward march of God’s kingdom.
But in order to understand Psalm 2 clearly we need to begin first with the original meaning of this ancient Hebrew poem, shorn of later associations with the Christ. So to begin, recall that most scholars now believe that Psalms 1 and 2 were intentionally placed at the head of the Hebrew Psalter as a way to establish the key themes that would continue to crop up in the 148 psalms to follow.
Psalm 1 establishes the idea that there are two types of people to be found in the world: the righteous and the wicked. There are those who understand that the true delights of human life can be found only by following God’s ways and there are those scoffers who mock God, who make up life’s rules as they go along, and so who have no real root in reality. In the end they will fly away in the wind. But God’s people, firmly planted as they are in the reality of God’s creation, will endure in shalom and joy forever. And that contrast between the righteous and the wicked is a major theme of the psalms.
Psalm 2 pulls the camera back a bit, widening our focus from individual persons to whole nations. After all, in the Old Testament the basis of the covenant with Abraham was the promise that one day Abraham’s offspring would form a mighty nation, out of which would emerge the Christ of God, who would save all peoples. Thus the history of Israel forms the heart of the Old Testament. If Israel really is the Chosen People of God, then what happens to them matters a great deal. Further, if God really did renew his covenant with King David, then the anointed one occupying Israel’s throne was also a vital figure to watch, because one of these days the Messiah was going to be a son of David.
So Israel had to survive and flourish: the salvation of the world depended on it. Of course, the other nations of the Ancient Near East didn’t know that nor would they have had any reason to believe it even if they were told this. All they could see was a small-to-medium size nation occupying a pretty nice piece of Middle Eastern real estate. And in that rough-and-tumble ancient world, the game nations played was war and conquest. So if you were the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, or Romans, then Israel was just one nation among many to be conquered so as to expand your empire.
This reality is what lies behind the composition of Psalm 2. The other nations can see only the surface of history and based on that, Israel is nothing special. And so the kings of the earth gather their generals and intelligence officers together to make plans on how to wipe Israel out. But if you look beneath history’s surface, you find the living God who from time immemorial has guaranteed Israel’s survival. So even as these other nations roll out their military reconnaissance maps to plan strategy, God in heaven laughs–his people Israel will not be thwarted by such puny means as this! Somehow, some way Israel’s line will survive and from it will come, one day, an Anointed One of such power that nothing in all the universe will stand in the way of his saving efforts.
So that is the broader historical context that lies behind the second psalm. More specifically, however, it looks like this was a hymn sung on the occasion of a new king’s coronation. Verses 6-8 and verse 12 all appear to have direct application to the enthroning of a new king. And so to the surrounding nations God declares through the psalmist, “Pay attention, O you nations! This king is my beloved son not some pawn for you to move around on your little military chessboards.”
It’s easy to see why this psalm has come to be so heavily associated with Jesus. The connecting of these words with Jesus did not begin with Handel’s stirring song from Messiah. Instead that is but one example of a very long Christian tradition of linking Psalm 2 with Jesus. That’s true mostly because this is the only place in the Old Testament where the anointed one is called a son. Given what a major theme the Father-Son relationship between Jesus and God will become in the gospels, it was natural that Psalm 2 would gain a messianic significance lacking in other psalms.
But how can we associate the Jesus of the New Testament with this dashing image of the valiant king who squashes the nations? After all, in his time here on this earth, Jesus did not fit this bill. And don’t forget that there were not a few people in his day who wished he had (most famously no less than John the Baptist apparently thought this as well). The people of his day were hungry for someone to knock the teeth out of the Caesar’s mouth. There were many zealots who would never have allowed Jesus to be so easily carried away to a cross if they had thought Jesus had the political and military wherewithal to restore the physical kingdom to Israel.
But Jesus disappointed such hopes. Indeed, the more spiritual Jesus got, the smaller the crowds became until finally he stood alone. After all, Jesus encouraged paying taxes to Caesar, submitting to the governing authorities, and putting away the sword. He spoke of a kingdom not of this world and urged everyone to love their enemies and pray for the power mongers who persecuted them. There was no iron scepter in Jesus’ hands and far from dashing anyone like a potter’s vessel, he was himself finally hung out to dry at a place called Skull Hill. It was Jesus who looked shattered, not any of the foreign powers that occupied the Promised Land in his day! Far from rebuking Caesar or Herod or Pilate, Jesus rebuked his own disciple for brandishing a sword in the moments before they arrested Jesus and led him away.
Based on the gospels, there seems to be virtually no hook-up between Psalm 2 and Jesus’ actual life. But maybe that’s because we’re making the same mistake as the Babylonians and others made about ancient Israel: namely, we’re looking only at the surface of history. Perhaps if our vision could penetrate deeper, we would see that everything Psalm 2 says about God’s mighty anointed King applies to Jesus and then some. Perhaps if we could peek behind the scenes of history we’d see Jesus smashing the forces of darkness with something far firmer than even an iron scepter: we’d see him defeating death itself through the unlikely weapon of his own cross.
It’s not that the New Testament disagrees with the Old Testament’s vision that evil and the ungodly need to be defeated. It’s just that the way by which God chose to accomplish those goals took the astonishing form of Jesus, the Child born in a barn, the carpenter’s son whom no one could figure out, the itinerant preacher whom even his own family once chalked up as crazy, the enemy of the Pharisees who eventually got crossed out for his trouble.
Jesus himself preached a kingdom that looked like a teeny mustard seed, a kingdom that was of great value but that lay hidden beneath the sod out in a field somewhere, of a kingdom that was penetrating the whole world all right but that was doing so in the stealthy, invisible manner of yeast in dough. All of that seemed to be Jesus’ parabolic way of acknowledging that the surface of history will remain pretty much the way it had always appeared. The Wall Streets, Hollywoods, Moscows, and Washingtons of the world will always seem to have more going for them than any church body or communion.
But by faith we look deeper. We penetrate to a level of reality in which God has enthroned his Son Jesus as an eternal King. Those who oppose that King are on the wrong side of history–their causes will not endure nor will they have even the slightest of effects on the coming of God’s kingdom in Christ. And if they persist in their opposition to Jesus, they will be banished from the mind of Him who knows all, banished from the presence of Him who is everywhere, banished to a hell which, in C.S. Lewis’s memorable depiction, is finally nothing and nowhere, encapsulated in no more than a grain of sand on a beach of the New Creation.
Ultimately, of course, such claims are the provenance of faith. But a faith that can see how Jesus’ power through weakness and sacrifice saved the world can see and celebrate God’s victory as depicted in Psalm 2 and as brought to grand fruition on Easter. Or, on this Transfiguration Sunday, we can say that the Jesus who most of the time looked ever-so-ordinary could in the blink of an eye be revealed to be the dazzling figure those few disciples saw on that mountaintop that long ago day. He has won the victory!
[Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
Lewis Smedes once told a story about Siauliai, a village in Lithuania. Just outside the village is the Hill of Crosses: a cemetery commemorating a host of loved ones and so a hill so thick with crosses you can hardly see the ground because of them. When the Russians came in 1940, the Soviet Army made sure to mow down those crosses the way a farmer mows a wheat field. They later passed a law against any further cross-planting as an offense against the atheist state.
But the Lithuanian villagers paid the law no mind and kept sneaking back in the night to replace the crosses the Russians took. For over 40 years a tug-o-war between the Soviets and the villagers continued until finally, by 1988, the Soviet Empire had enough other problems and so they left the Hill of Crosses in peace. And then the Soviet Empire died (and nobody put up a cross to mark that particular death!).
Now those crosses have new meaning for the people of Siauliai. Now the people gather there to remember not only their loved ones but the wonderful way by which the cross of Jesus beat back the hammer and sickle emblazoned on those Russian bulldozers. For them, the Hill of Crosses has become a Hill of Hope–hope in God’s Anointed One who alone will emerge the Victor in and through and over history’s every conflict. Or as Psalm 2 puts it in conclusion, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” Indeed.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 19, 2023
Psalm 2 Commentary