In the previous posts of this Lenten series, we have made our way through the first three of the four servant songs in the book of Isaiah. I would like to have posted every day of this passion week on the fourth servant song in Isaiah 52:13—53:12; but, because of the pressures of the semester, was unable to do so. And I don’t want to try to say everything I wanted to say about this very important passage in this one post. So, I’ll come back to that, God willing, in another Lenten season. Instead, on this Good Friday afternoon, I offer the following, focusing on the role of the Psalms in the life of Jesus during Passion week, culminating in the role they play even as Christ hangs on the cross.
The passages below are all the places in the gospels, as best as I can ascertain, where the words of the Psalms appear on Christ lips in the week leading up to his crucifixion.
16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?” (Matthew 21:16, quoting Psalm 8:2)
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42, quoting Psalm 118:22-23; see also Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17).
42 “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.” ‘ 45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matthew 22:42-45, quoting Psalm 110:1; see also Mark 12:35-37)
18 “I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture: ‘He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.’ ” (John 13:18, quoting Psalm 41:9)
25 “But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’ ” (John 15:25, citing Psalm 35:19 and/or Psalm 69:4)
38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” (Matthew 26:38, quoting Psalms 42:5, 11; 43:5; see also Mark 14:34)
46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1; see also Mark 15:34)
46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46, quoting Psalm 31:5)
As you, can see, passages from the Psalms were very much on Jesus’ mind during the last week of his life before his crucifxion. Indeed, two of the seven sayings from the cross are quotations from the Psalms. There are three implications I would like to draw from this.
(1) In all of the passages at which we looked, Christ is portrayed as taking the language of the psalmist onto his own lips. In other words, Christ becomes the Psalmist of Passion Week. Rather than creating new expressions to articulate his sorrows, his anguish, and his grief, he chooses to utilize the compositions contained within the Psalter. The prayerbook of Israel has become his prayerbook. The laments of his ancestors have become his laments. David’s greater son has inherited the Psalms of David, and they now belong to the rightful heir, the true Messianic King.
(2) What we have noticed about Christ’s use of the Psalms during Passion Week, is also true more generally of most Psalm citations that are made in the New Testament with reference to Christ. For the most part, when the New Testament cites a psalm with reference to Christ, either the citation of the psalm is placed directly on Christ’s lips, or the logic of the citation is best understood if the words are regarded as being spoken by Christ. In other words, far more often than not, it is not so much that the psalm quoted is about Christ; rather, the psalm is by Christ. Thus, Messianic psalms are not so much psalms that are predictively about Jesus; Messianic psalms are psalms that are sung by Jesus. Indeed, there may not be any purely predictive psalms. It might be more precise to say that Christ appropriates these psalms for his own use. But that does not make them any less Messianic. As I wrote in my dissertation nearly twenty years ago,
To be sure, Jesus “appropriates” the psalmist’s language. But what is important to see here is that this is not just an “after thought” appropriation. Rather, it is both an “intentional” and an “intended” appropriation. When God inspired David and the other psalmists to compose their laments, their thanksgiving songs, and their hymns, these compositions were not only, or even primarily intended by God for use in their original contexts. Instead, God intended them for use by his Son. And, if we are to determine what a text means by authorial intention, then it seems that we have to say that these psalms receive their fullest and intended meaning in Christ’s appropriation of them.
(3) Finally, this is instructive about the way in which we might make use of and pray the Psalms. The words of the psalmists which gave strength and comfort, and even provided the very words for the Son of man to use in expressing his deepest anguish, can provide us with strength and comfort and the words we need as well. Thus, the Psalms become more to us than just cute little spiritual ditties, or a collection of promises to put in our “promise boxes.” Rather, they become the lenses through which we see clearly the issues of life and death.
But, and this is all-important, we do not go to the Psalms directly. Rather, we go to them through our Head, Jesus Christ, the one to whom the Psalms belong, the rightful heir of the prayerbook of Israel, and royal Son of David, who, as the King of Israel, has rightfully inherited the book of Psalms. It is his book, and it can be our book only because it is his book. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says so eloquently, and so correctly,
If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.
We pray the Psalms, not by ourselves, but, rather, in solidarity with the one who prays them with us.
So, on this late Friday afternoon, if you desire to meditate more thoughtfully, and enter more contemplatively into the sufferings that our Lord went through for us on that first Good Friday nearly two thousand years ago, perhaps one way in which you could do that would be by way of the Psalms which were in Christ’s own mind and heart as he faced his great hour of trial. Read them, meditate on them, pray them. Pray them in solidarity with your Lord. Perhaps, by doing so, you will find one very meaningful pathway into the heart of Jesus.
April 18, 2014
I used Psalm 118 for my text on Palm Sunday. While the crowds quote from the latter part of it, I used the first part of the Psalm as a framework for what Christ might have been thinking when he rode into Jerusalem.
I also preached on Palm Sunday. And I too used Psalm 118. And I too did something very similar to what you did. Great minds, huh?!
I will look in triumph on my enemies,
The Lord is my strength and my song:
he has become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone. The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has acted!
Thanks for this Jerry. I like and agree with most of what you say here, but just have a question on one aspect of it.
How can you say (with such confidence) anything about what God intended the psalms for? I don’t disagree with your view, but am wondering on what you base your opinion.
Hi Jeff, good question, but I think the answer is long enough that it probably warrants its own post. So, be patient with me, and in a few days I’ll put up an article on the question. Thanks.