On Good Friday I wrote an article for the blog in which I briefly cited a number of places in the gospel passion narratives in which Christ takes up the words of the Psalms on his lips. Then I made the following statement:
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.
A few days afterwards, Jeff Kilmartin, Taylor Seminary graduate and pastor of Wiesenthal Baptist Church in Millet, Alberta, made the following query in response:
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.
I replied to Jeff that this was a good question, but I thought that rather than respond to the question in the comment section, the answer I would need to give would be long enough that it would merit its own post. I have re-thought this and decided instead to do a whole series of posts on this topic, as a special exercise in biblical theology, but not only in biblical theology, but also in prayer and spiritual formation
I’ll start providing biblical-theological arguments in the second post in this series. But, for this first post, I would like to simply introduce the topic by providing some quotations from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The quotations come from two of his books, Life Together, and Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible
David was a witness to Christ in his office, in his life, and in his words. The New Testament says even more. In the Psalms of David the promised Christ himself already speaks (Hebrews 2:12; 10:5) or, as may also be indicated, the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 3:7). These same words which David spoke, therefore, the future Messiah spoke through him. The prayers of David were prayed also by Christ. Or better, Christ himself prayed them through his forerunner David
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.
How is it possible for a man and Jesus Christ to pray the Psalter together? It is the incarnate Son of God, who has borne every human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all humanity before God and who stands in our place and prays for us. He has known torment and pain, guilt and death more deeply than we. Therefore it is the prayer of the human nature assumed by him which comes here before God. It is really our prayer, but since he knows us better that we know ourselves and since he himself was true man for our sakes, it is also really his prayer, and it can become our prayer only because it was his prayer
It is at first very surprising that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scripture is the Word of God to us. But prayers are the words of men. How do prayers then get into the Bible? Let us make no mistake about it, the Bible is the Word of God even in the Psalms. Then are these prayers to God also God’s own word? That seems rather difficult to understand. We grasp it only when we remember that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, from the word of the Son of God, who lives with us men, to God the Father, who lives in eternity. Jesus Christ has brought every need, every joy, every gratitude, every hope of men before God. In his mouth the word of man becomes the Word of God, and if we pray his prayer with him, the Word of God becomes once again the word of man. All prayers of the Bible are such prayers which we pray together with Jesus Christ, in which he accompanies us, and through which he brings us into the presence of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.
The Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word.
In the posts that follow, I hope to provide the biblical-theological arguments that demonstrate the validity of Bonhoeffer’s statements.
April 30, 2014
Thanks for this Jerry. I look forward to the rest.
As I read the the Psalms one of the things that I struggle with is the very frequent complaints about enemies. Either I am very naive or I haven’t fought hard enough against the world, because I really don’t feel like I have that many enemies. As the sands of time shift against a Christian worldview some of those Psalms resonate in a way that they haven’t before, but the enemy seems to remain a faceless society more than a person or flesh and blood people that I feel are attacking me.
Ryan, I’ll being saying more about this down the road; but I’ll also give a real quick reply here. While the psalms can certainly be our own individual prayers, I believe they should also be corporate prayers that we pray in solidarity with our families, our churches, and the entire church of Jesus Christ. When it come to the enemies, I’d put things this way: The enemies of my persecuted brothers and sisters around the world–in North Korea, in Iraq, in Iran, in India, in Syria, in Nigeria, in Indonesia–are my enemies. And I pray the psalms about the enemies in solidarity with my persecuted brothers and sisters as though I was were being persecuted with them (Heb 13:3). So the psalms are the prayers that Christians pray in solidarity with their Lord and with their fellow Christians in every time and every place. Again, more to come.
Is there a part 2? I’m interested to read more. Thanks.
Hi Todd. Part 2 is coming yet. I’ve been othwerwise detained from further installments by research and writing projects. When I continue the series, hopefully in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sure to send you a message alerting you. Thanks.
Terrific – thank you!
Hi Jerry. I’m new to your blog. I have recently completed a Sabbatical where I did intensive study on the Psalms. I have referenced your dissertation on the Psalms to great profit. I was delighted to discover your blog and your planned series of posts on Christ, The Psalmist. I am excited by the many insights from canonical critics such as Zenger, McCann,Wenham and others. I have been struck with how much these “new” insights into the Psalms as the prayers of the Messiah in solidarity with the body of Christ seem to echo what Bonhoeffer wrote long ago. I look forward to your future posts on the Psalms with great anticipation. Have you published anything else in this area recently?
Hi Neil. Thanks for your kind words. No I haven’t published anything in this area, though I certainly hope to. I’m doing a couple of presentations on this topic in a couple of different venues this fall, and preparation for those presentations will prompt me to come back and continue this series. It shouldn’t be long!