Essay / Theology

The Suffering of the Christ in the Psalms

As soon as Jesus had confirmed to his disciples that he was “the Christ, the son of the living God,” he went on to tell them that it was necessary that he would suffer and die at the hands of the leaders of his people (Mat 16:16, 21). Peter was taken aback, and his disciples could not understand what he was talking about. Even after his death, his followers were slow to believe that if he were really the Christ, the one they had hoped would “redeem all Israel,” he would have to suffer and die, condemned by Israel’s leaders (Luke 24:19-21, 25). Even after his resurrection, Jesus had to explain to them that it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer all these things these things.” He did this by interpreting the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament): “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:26-27).

The disciples had Jesus himself to interpret the Scriptures, but those reading the gospel accounts are left to wonder where in the Old Testament does it say does it say that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer?

There are no specific passages that explicitly predict that a person called the Christ will have to suffer. In fact, it’s quite difficult even to find a passage that clearly predicts that person called the Christ is coming (Daniel 9:25-26 perhaps comes the closest). Christians know that from the earliest times the followers of Christ have used Isaiah 53 to understand the significance of the Jesus’s suffering and death. However, the suffering figure in that passage is not referred to as the Christ but as “the servant” of the Lord (Isaiah 52:13, 53:11).

Among the Hebrew Scriptures, the book that presents the clearest picture of a suffering Christ is the Psalms. It’s interesting to note than in Luke’s account of Jesus explaining his death and resurrection to his disciples, Jesus says that these things happened to fulfill “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” (24:44).

Psalms 1 and 2 serve as an introduction to the book, and Psalm 2 introduces the figure of the Christ. (There is good reason to think that the “blessed” man in Psalm 1 also refers to the Christ though less explicitly). The first explicit reference to the Christ comes in Psalm 2:2 though it is easy to miss in English translations: “The kings of the earth set themselves…against the Lord and against his anointed.” The word “anointed” translates the Hebrew word mashiach, from which we get the word “Messiah.” A couple of centuries before the birth of Christ when Hebrew text was translated in to Greek, this word was translated as khristos, from which we get the word “Christ.”

The Lord’s anointed, or Christ, is his representative. As the psalm continues, it becomes clear that in opposition to kings of the nations, the Christ is the king established by the Lord. The Lord says to the other kings: “As for me I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (2:6).

Since “Zion” is a way of referring to the city of Jerusalem (or more specifically the hill it’s built on) and Jerusalem was the capital of the kingdom of Israel, “king on Zion” refers to the ruler of Israel, like the “president in Washington” refers to the ruler of the United States. The king of Israel was called the “Lord’s Christ,” either because he was directly anointed by one of the Lord’s prophets or priests, or because he was a descendent of David, whom God chose as king by sending Samuel to anoint him. Thus in its original historical context, the reference to the Christ in Psalm 2:2 (and seven other references to the Lord’s Christ in the Psalms) does not primarily refer to someone to come in the future, but the present king of Israel.

However, there is a second historical context important for understanding the meaning of the Psalms. Although most of the individual psalms were originally composed during the time of monarchy (from the tenth to the seventh century BC, when Israel or Judah was ruled by king David and his royal descendants), the book of Psalms was put together, arranged, and included as part of Jewish Scripture in the post-exilic period (after the exile of Judah in the fifth century BC, when the Jews were ruled by foreign emperors). In this setting when Israel no longer had their own king in Jerusalem, the numerous psalms about David or the Davidic king (sometimes called the Lord’s Christ) take on new meaning.

Why would a people with no king produce of book of songs that in which a king is a central figure? One possibility would be that they wanted to remember the past when they had a king. But there is more important reason in this case. These songs express Israel’s hope that God would restore the Davidic monarchy.

Israel’s hopes were based on the Lord’s extravagant promises to David that his house (or dynasty) would rule forever (II Sam 7:16, Psalm 89:29). Furthermore the Lord had said he would take David’s son (his descendant who ruled in his place) as his own son (II Sam 7:14). This is why “Christ” and “Son of God” can be understood as referring to the same person. Psalm 2 spells out the primary significance of the Davidic king being the “Son of God.” The king says: “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son….Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage” (2:7-8). The king of Israel is the Lord’s heir, and since the Lord (as creator) owns the nations of the world, they belong to the king of Israel as his rightful inheritance.

For those who collected the psalms and gave book of Psalms its present form (including putting Psalm 2 at the beginning as an introduction), references to David, the king, and the Lord’s anointed do not merely refer to historical figures in Israel’s past. They point to a coming king who will fulfill the Lord’s promise that David’s house would rule the all the nations of the world forever. It is in this way that Psalms speak of a coming Christ.

Now it can be seen in what way the Psalms show that it is “necessary that the Christ should suffer.” Psalm 3, a “Psalm of David,” is the first of many psalms in which the “Lord’s anointed,” “the king on Zion” introduced in Psalm 2 is the principal speaker. Given the exalted picture of Israel’s king as the rightful ruler of the nations in Psalm 2, the heading and first verse of Psalm 3 come as somewhat of a shock: “A Psalm of David when he fled from Absalom his son. Oh Lord, how many are my foes!” Psalm 3 is the first of dozens in which David cries out to God in a time of distress and suffering. Many of them have titles like: A psalm of David “when the Philistines seized him in Gath,” or “when he fled from Saul in the cave,” or “when Saul sent men to watch his house in order to kill him.” They remind the reader again and again, that David, the first King on Zion, the Lord’s Christ, was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”

For those who composed the book of Psalms, the suffering of the Lord’s Christ was not limited to the suffering of David, it included the suffering of David’s dynasty, in particular dethronement and exile. They looked forward to the time when God would restore the throne to a son of David who would rule the world as the Son of God. But when this Christ came, he would have enemies and it would be necessary for him to suffer.

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