12 Jul 2013

The Psalms, The Reign of God, and Jesus the Messiah

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Kingdom, Prayer, Preaching, Psalms, Worship
O precious reading of the psalter, which for this alone deserves to be called the book of life!” (Richard de Bury, The Philobiblon, p. 24)

Wading into the Deep Waters

Jesus is a Jew. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born to an impoverished but faithful, and full of faith, Jewish family.  His mother, Mary, was obviously a gifted singer and prayer warrior as we see in her Magnificant (1.46-55).  From the time of his birth, he was so deeply immersed in the Jewish faith that his family made the arduous journey “every year” to Jerusalem for the Passover (Lk 3.41).

The stories of God with his people were constantly with him. The worship of his Jewish family would mold him inside and out. One part of his prayer life and worship was immersion in the book of Psalms. His family knew how to pray, his people knew how to pray and those prayers, those cries of faith, those longings he heard and sang as a child became part of the fabric of his mind.

Since the Psalms were so deeply enmeshed in his family life, it is not surprising to find that the ministry of Jesus in so many ways is sort of a mirror of the concerns, theology, and often the very words of the Psalms [1]. Communion with God. Importance of truth. Anger at injustice. Disgust at hypocrisy. Celebrating the flood of God’s gifts. Trust that leads to freedom. Gratitude that expresses itself in humble obedience. And above all the kingdom of God.

YHWH MALAK

The Book of Psalms discloses, as much any section of Scripture, the radical unity of the Testaments. Grace, faith, creation, redemption, the fellowship of the saints, the presence of God, worship, and the proclamation of that the God of Israel is King and the glory of his reign are unbreakable chains that tie the Testaments together through the Psalms. It is a surprising, yet common, misunderstanding among Evangelicals and restorationists that the kingdom of God was an idea introduced by Jesus of Nazareth.  But Jesus did not introduce the reign of God into Jewish piety.  Jews knew, believed, and preached that God was/is King.  Jesus did too, every time he prayed and sang the Psalms. We do know that the central proclamation of Christ was the kingdom … but it was an “Old Testament” doctrine.

Yhwh Malak! This is the central theological claim of the canonical book of Psalms. It is the center on which all faith and “topics” in the Psalter depend.  This declaration can be translated as Yahweh reigns, or the LORD is King (NRSV), or “the LORD has become King” (REB). The first translation views the kingdom as an activity, the second as a role, and the third as an event.  Here is the kicker, all three are grammatically possible.  So I embrace them all without denying the accuracy of any.

The Lord, the God of Israel, is King. This is, according to James Luther Mays, is the central theological claim of the canonical Psalter [2].  My own study of the Psalms indicates that Mays is not far from the mark, if at all. God’s reign is explicitly stated and lies behind the major metaphors for Yahweh in the book as we shall see.

I want to encourage my readers to meditate upon all the following Psalms: Pss 24, 29, 47, 93, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 104, 145, and 146.  When you are reading through the rest of the psalms note phrases like the Lord “sits enthroned” or “rules the nations.” It is a theme that is not hidden.

Why Yahweh is King?

The Psalms declare the kingship, and thus the kingdom, of God from two directions.  The first is that Yahweh is the “maker of heaven and earth.”  Psalms such as 8, 19, 29, 33, 93 and 104 show the Lord overcoming the forces of chaos (anti-creation and anti-life) in order to establish a dwelling in which his creatures can thrive in his presence. Because Yahweh is the Creator, all other powers of whatever nature are subject to him. It is for this reason the Psalms repeatedly exhort, and even command, “all the earth” to acknowledge and submit to the Reign of God. It is the reason that “all creation” declares his glory.  The Loving King creates.

The second direction the Psalms proclaim the reign of Yahweh and his kingdom is through his astounding, and unprecedented, act of pure grace in redeeming the most insignificant (Deuteronomy 7.7) of people to be his very own treasured possession – Israel.  The Exodus is the Gospel in the Hebrew Bible. Such psalms as 47, 68, 98 and 114 all bring the Gathered People back to the fact that Yahweh is King because he rescued, redeemed and saved Israel.

God is King because he is the Redeemer! These texts all bring us back to the central Story of Israel – the Exodus from certain death in Egypt.  These psalms recall the very first time in the Bible that God is declared to be King.  In Exodus 15, after the great miracle of grace in the Exodus, the prophets Moses and Miriam lead the people in worship. In worship they declare, “The LORD will reign forever and ever” (Ex 15.18).

These two ways of declaring the kingship of Yahweh are intertwined in numerous Psalms.  Creation and Redemption are never that far apart in the Bible.  Such powerful mingling of these occur in psalms such as 33, 136, 146, and 147.  Sometimes within a single psalm these themes are brought together in the corporate prayers of God’s people.   Look at Psalm 74

Yet God my King is from old,
working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons 
in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the for 
the creatures of the wilderness.
You cut openings for springs and 
torrents;
you dried up ever flowing streams.
Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you established the luminaries and 
the sun.
You have fixed all the bounds
of the earth;
you made summer and winter.
(74.12-17; see also 89.5-14)

The classic example of the bringing of these themes together in the Psalms is the majestic hymn to the King’s  HESED in Ps 136.  The psalm thunders between the congregational leader and the response of the gathered people declaring God has shown steadfast love in creating the world and for redeeming Israel in that world.

God is King! This is not new with Jesus, rather it is the bedrock of Israel’s faith. As we read, pray, and praise our way through the Psalms we see many other “titles” for God’s activity.  But these are royal in nature in the Ancient Near East even if at times we in the modern west misconstrue the nature of the images [3]. It is as King that the Lord is warrior, judge, refuge, and shepherd. These roles are all kingly roles and all proclaim the kingdom of God in the Psalms.

Prayers of appeal and lament, as well as hymns of praise are based on the belief that Yahweh is in fact the King of the Universe and King of Israel in particular.

f53a76eee965538356d3a4747732c6b9Dimensions of God’s Kingdom

Worship is such a radical enterprise. Israel was “literally” the backwoods of the ancient world. Yet they made “grandiose” claims.  Mt. Zion is a pathetically small hill and yet Israel declared it to be the greatest and grandest of all mountains.  In fact Zion is sort of the “navel” of the world.  These claims are nearly laughable from the perspective of the rebellious world and its “empirical evidence.”

Yet these statements are all true though because Israel had gone to worship. In worship a reality is disclosed, the Psalms declare it to be so, in which the rebellious creation is turned on its proverbial head! What is “out there” is mere counterfeit.  God is King. His Kingdom will fill the whole earth. His dwelling is the center of all creation. Zion is to the world what the Holy of Holies is to Israel.

Israel knows these truths not through observation but through faith and worship. Jesus believed these truths he learned as a child singing and praying the Psalms as a faithful and liturgical Jew.  Israel makes three claims (if not more) about Yahweh and his kingdom.

First, the Psalms declare that God’s kingdom is transnational and universal.  Israel is the manifestation of God’s kingdom but God’s kingship is not limited to the boundaries of Israel. He is King of all the earth.  Israel knew this because Yahweh defeated the faux king named Pharaoh (Ex 8.2, 9:14, 16, 29).  The “Old Testament” proclaims the kingdom of God is universal.

They shall speak of the glory of your
kingdom,
and tell of your power,
to make known to all people {nations} your
mighty deeds,
and the glorious splendor of your
kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting
kingdom,
and your dominion endures
throughout all
generations
(Ps 145.11-13)

Israel is the “type” of the church in the Hebrew Bible.  Israel does not correspond to any nation states such as the USA, Germany or Japan.  Israel corresponds to the church. In fact the “church” is the Israel of God. No, Gentiles have not “replaced” Israel of old. Rather Gentiles have been grafted by God’s amazing grace into the one People of God stretching back to Abraham.  Thus Israel is God’s kingdom made visible in the world, just as the “church” is the kingdom made visible.  But God’s kingdom is greater than both and never reduced to some nation state.  It is universal.

Second, the Psalms declare that God’s kingship is redemptive in its function. Celebrating the King is an act of faith done in worship.  The declaration Yhwh Malak is made within hymns in the Psalter.  Declaring Yahweh to be King is not something the wicked perceive, that the nations acknowledge (anymore than they think Zion is greater than Mt. Everest!). It is something proclaimed through worship and lived because we know it to be true. In the kingdom of God specific values are inculcated and enjoined because they flow from the King’s nature. These values turn the world, again, on its head.  Note these texts,

righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (97.2)

The King is mighty, he loves justice, you have established equity,
you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (99.4)

The LORD is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and rich in love.
The LORD is good to all;
he has compassion on all he has made” (145.8-9, see vv. 14-20)

He upholds the cause of the oppressed 
and gives food to the hungry.
the LORD sets the prisoners free,
the LORD gives sight to the blind,
the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down,
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the alien
and sustains the fatherless and the widow
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.
The LORD reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD.” (146.7-10)

It is difficult to read these few excerpts and not hear the voice of Jesus in the Gospels saying virtually the same things. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God is straight from the “Old Testament.” His preaching molded and shaped by the faithful worship of his mother Mary and his step-father Joseph. The kingdom has a redemptive thrust. Compassion is the value of values. In the kingdom we imitate God. We love what he loves, we do what he does.  The reality of the kingdom cannot be “spiritualized” into some “heaven” or privatized as my own secret walk with God.  It is the aligning of our entire life, in every way thinkable, to the redemptive will of God.  We are the vessels of God’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  God’s kingdom is in the world as salt, light and leaven to undo the vandalism of shalom throughout creation.

Third, the Psalms reveal that God’s kingship and his kingdom have an eschatological dimension. One cannot read in the psalms with any degree of sympathy and not come face to face with the cold fact that we live in a world that is completely alien to the kingdom of God. The world we proclaim in gathered and private worship is so contrary to the world “out there.” God’s people are often as flawed as the “wicked” and “enemies.” Those who are specifically designated to safe guard the powerless aliens, widows and poor, become the very instrument for crushing them. These kinds of huge gaps are dealt with in the Psalms themselves and also in the prophets of Israel.  In worship we confess that we do not place trust in human powers of any kind.  We have learned that we are easily seduced by the “dark side,” that is by the corrosive and toxic appeal of the fallen world.

So the Psalms proclaim that the King is coming! The coming King is reason for celebration, rejoicing and the ground of all hope.  So worship itself is a form of prayer in which God’s people call for the kingdom to be fully and completely manifest “out there.” This, by the way, is not simply so the wicked will go to hell.  Rather when the King comes to “judge” (as it is often translated) the notion is not simply that he is coming to condemn.  He will deal with gross evil though.  Rather the main point of the Hebrew is that the King “will make things right.”  All will be well when the King arrives.  This eschatological theme pervades a number of psalms.  The coming is Good News of great joy,

Shout for joy before the LORD, the King.
Let the sea resound and everything in it;
the world and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
(98.6-9)

Creation bursts into joy because of the King is coming to put the world back together again.  You may want to compare this train of thought in Ps 98 with Paul’s in Romans 8.18-25.  The king is coming.  That is something we look forward to. This eschatological look to the kingdom is what gives such potency to Jesus’ proclamation that the “kingdom of God is at hand.”

Wrapping Up

The notion of the kingdom of God is a fundamental theme in the Story of God.  It binds the Testaments together down to the DNA.  In the Psalms, this belief in the Sovereign God smashes directly into the human notion of Sovereign Self. The Psalms call us to confess that the Lord is King because he is Creator of all things in heaven and earth.  The Psalms call us to confess the King because he has redeemed by his own grace a people out of rebellious creation.  The Psalms call us to drink deeply the faith and values of the King and live them as missional people.  The Psalms call us to recognize the universal and cosmic nature of the kingdom of God and to be the people of redemption.  And the Psalms call us to recognize and pray for the King to come.

When we look at these themes, just mentioned, it is not hard to see why Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels looks the way it does.  Jesus’ ministry is a mirror of the prayers, the worship, and the faith of the minstrels of Israel who sang about the Glorious God – Yhwh Malak.

Notes:

1] For a brief overview of how Jesus’ life and the Psalms “mirror” one another see J. Clinton McCann, Jr, A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah (Abingdon, 1993), 163-175.

2] James Luther Mays, “The Language of the Reign of God,” Interpretation 47 (1993): 117-126

3] See Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near East Iconography and the Book of Psalms (Crossroads, 1978), 244-306.

2 Responses to “The Psalms, The Reign of God, and Jesus the Messiah”

  1. Warren Says:

    Bobby,
    This isn’t just a blog post, it is a chapter for a book. Very good, full of a lot of rich thought.

    I esp. liked this statement: “The Book of Psalms discloses, as much any section of Scripture, the radical unity of the Testaments. Grace, faith, creation, redemption, the fellowship of the saints, the presence of God, worship, and the proclamation of that the God of Israel is King and the glory of his reign are unbreakable chains that tie the Testaments together through the Psalms.”

    In a class I had with Andre Resner many years ago he said that one of the best ways to establish the authority of scripture was to preach the Psalms. So much of it resonates with people where they currently live that scripture and life will easily integrate. That’s not exactly how he put it but how I express it.

    Thanks for a good post.
    wb

  2. George Mearns Says:

    Bobby,

    Thanks for the good thoughts from the Psalms. I certainly agree that the kingdom is presented in the OT. In ch. of Christ our teaching has restricted the kingdom to the NT church. I work through this by thinking that the kingdom is the rule of God in which the church lives under, and not the church itself. Jesus is Lord and King and has all authority and the church (us), however it reveals God’s rule, is merely servants. We need to be careful with the idea of authority.

    I would like you to expand on this study with other texts such as Daniel and the NT. You stated that “Israel is God’s kingdom made visible in the world, just as the “church” is the kingdom made visible.” Now I would define this as God’s rule made visible. Am I missing something here? The church is not God’s rule but only reveals it, at least as I understand it.

    Again, excellent post worth reading and studying over and over.

    George

Leave a Reply