|THE MESSIAH IN THE PSALMS
The Psalms have a place of special importance as Messianic proofs in
the preaching of both Jesus and the first disciples. Luke 24:44 tells us
of Jesus saying to his disciples after the resurrection:
"This is what I told you when I was still with you: Everything must
be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets
and the Psalms."
If we examine statistically the significance of the Psalms to the
New Testament writers we will be surprised. In the Nestlé edition
of the Greek NT there is a list of "passages in bold print which are direct
quotations from the Old Testament." This list shows the NT as borrowing
224 separate passages from 103 different psalms, and with the same passages
appearing in different places this gives a total of 280 psalm quotations
in the NT. Approximately 50 of these deal with the sufferings, resurrection,
ascension of Christ, and the spreading of the gospel to all nations. The
other quotations are more of a teaching or comforting nature.
If, furthermore, we were to examine the relationship of the Jewish Sages
to the Psalms as reflectors of the Messianic idea we would see that they
in fact read the Messianic hope into more psalms than do the Christians.
This expectation relates to King David. The eminent Joseph Klausner devoted
only five pages of his book "The Messianic Idea in Israel" to the Psalms.
Of their background he says:
"There is not another book in the Bible concerning which information
about the time of its writing and the composition of its various parts
differ from one an other so widely as in the Psalms." "Where earlier critics
approached the book as being in its entirety a work of Israel's King David,
the bulk of the newer criticism does not see in the Psalms a single one
which predates the Babylonian captivity."
Klausner states that the Messianic idea as such is not the main theme,
rather the "Messianic motif". Therefore, "understood in its wider sense,
every chapter of the Psalms is full from beginning to end with a tinge
of salvation expectation". Klausner reckons that the Psalms do not so much
speak of a personal Messiah as of the "consolation of Zion and the gathering
of the Jews from their dispersal".1
Klausner's attitude, which is very common among the Jews, comes from
the fact that he belonged to Ahad ha-Am, the followers of the father of
prophetic Zionism, Asher Ginsburg. This group awaited the dawn of some
kind of Socialistic golden age -- even Communism can be based on the Messianic
Idea. There is in the Talmud the suggestion:
"If someone says to you 'Buy this field for yourself for one denarius'
and its value is one thousand denarii... do not buy it",
because the Messiah might come that year, and then the fields would be
divided up without cost.2
It is perhaps no mere coincidence that the Jewish-born Marx, Lassalle and
Trotsky set themselves up in the early stages of Communism as its prophets
-- the Messianic hope without a Messiah-figure easily gives rise to popular
Tradition ascribes 73 of the 150 psalms to King David. In the
Rabbinic literature the Messiah is constantly referred to as the "Son of
David". For this reason, everywhere the future blessing of the house of
David is described, the Sages saw Messianic material. Even the bridal mystery
of psalm 45 is seen from a Jewish perspective as being an expression of
the relation between the Messiah and Israel. When this psalm says "I speak
of the things which I have made touching the king (AV)" or "the nations
will praise you for ever and ever," the Rabbis perceive the Messiah. But
the NT also uses expressions associated with nuptials in describing the
relation between Christ and the Church.3
The Jews find Messiah material in the "psalms of lamentation", in which
the devout and guiltless man of God suffers the hatred of the people. Here
it is not merely a question of a Messianic figure but of the whole of Israel
itself participating in the "Messianic birth-pangs", tsirei or
hevlei ha-Mashiah. These yisurei ha-Malkhut or "sufferings
for the kingdom" become the lot of everyone who takes upon himself the
yoke of the kingdom of God.
The Hebrew word for 'psalms', tehillim, means 'hymns of praise'.
The Psalms, however, also contain many "prayers", tephilloth, and
straightforward "hymns", mizmorim. It is no wonder that the Psalms
have been called "Jesus' hymnbook" and that to this day they form the basis
of the Jewish liturgy and book of prayer.
What the Psalms have to say about Christ
Before actually looking in detail at the Psalms themselves, it is worthwhile
listing their basic message in the NT. When discussing our theme, the
term 'Messiah' is to be understood as meaning the Saviour expected by Israel.
When we speak of 'Christ', however, we always mean our risen Redeemer Jesus
The New Testament expounds virtually the whole history of salvation
in the light of the Psalms. Christ was despised, Ps. 22:6, 69:19--22; he
was rejected, Ps. 118:22; he was mocked, Ps. 22:7--8, 89:51--52; he was
whipped, Ps. 129:3; he was derided, Ps. 69:8,20; he was impalled on a cross,
Ps. 22:1--2, 14--17; he was thirsty, Ps. 22:16; he was given wine mixed
with gall on the cross, Ps. 69:20--22; lots were cast for his garments,
Ps. 22:18--19; his bones were not broken, Ps. 34:21; he rose from the dead,
Ps.16:10; he ascended to heaven, Ps. 68:19; he is at the right hand of
God, Ps. 110:1 and 80:17; he is the High Priest, Ps. 110:4; he will judge
the nations, Ps. 89:3--5; his reign is eternal, Ps. 89:35--37; he is the
son of God, Ps. 2:7; he spoke in parables, Ps. 78:2; he calmed the storm,
Ps. 89:10; the people sang Hosanna to him, Ps. 118:25--26; he is blessed
for ever, Ps. 45:1--4,8,18; and he will come in his glory in the Last Days,
The Bible's prophecies of Christ resemble a great jigsaw puzzle. The
figure of the suffering Redeemer gradually emerges as the individual pieces
are put together. The passages from the Psalms we have just mentioned complete
the picture outlined by the Pentateuch and the Prophets. It should come
as no surprise that Luther as early as 1513 -- that is, at the outset of
his career -- lectured on the Psalms, in which he found an emphasis on
righteousness and the grace of God. In the Psalms he found his Christ-centred
thought ready-made. Later, in the prolegomena to his commentary on Galatians,
he confides: "My heart is ruled by this one doctrine -- faith in Christ
-- from which, through which and to which all my theological thoughts issue
and return, night and day."
The Jews see the Messiah in the Psalms
in more or less the same contexts as do the Christians. But since
they communicate in the Psalms' own language they find there secret references
which they then apply to their own conception of the Messiah. Before looking
at the Psalms in detail it is worth collecting a few examples of the way
in which the Sages understood their own Messianic expectation.
a) In Christian circles Psalm 21 is not usually considered Messianic.
The Midrash, on the other hand, sees the Messiah-King in its first and
fourth verses; RaSHI attaches the same interpretation to v 7, and the Targum
to v 8. We quote here the verses with which this Messianic expectation
"O LORD, the king rejoices on your strength... You welcomed him
with rich blessings and placed a crown of pure gold on his head. He asked
you for life, and you gave it to him -- length of days for ever and ever.
Through the victories you gave, his glory is great; you have bestowed on
him splendour and majesty. Surely you have granted him eternal blessings
and made him glad with the joy of your presence. For the king trusts in
the LORD; through the unfailing love of the Most High he will not be shaken."
The Midrash on the Psalms says of this king:
"This is the Messiah, the Son of David, who has been hidden until the
last days. Rabbi Tan .huma says,'The Messiah-King will come only to give
the world six commandments, such as the Feast of Tabernacles, (the use
of) the palm fronds, and the phylacteries, but all Israel will learn the
Torah... and why so? Because the Gentiles will seek him.' "
After this the Midrash asks:
"Who is this king?... God will not crown a king of flesh and
blood, but the Holy One -- may he be praised -- will give his own crown
to the Messiah-King, because it is said of him, 'You placed a crown of
pure gold on his head'. God will not dress an earthly king in his own purple
robe, rather he has given it to the Messiah-King, for it is said, 'You
have bestowed on him splendour and majesty'... And he will call the
Messiah-King by name, for it is said, 'This is the name by which he will
be known: The LORD our Righteousness'."
Even the Midrash on Exodus speaks of this same crown when it says:
" 'And Moses took the staff of God in his hand': God will not adorn
an earthly king with his crown, and the Holy One -- may he be praised --
will place his crown on the head of the Messiah-King.4
In connection with the 8th verse the Targum says that the "Messiah-King"
trusts in the LORD. It is significant that according to the Rabbis the
purple robe and the crown were to be part of the Messiah's attire. The
young Rabbi from Nazareth was however given this robe and crown of thorns
only in derision.
b) The Rabbis attach an equally beautiful allegorical discussion
to the nuptial mysticism of psalm 45. The most celebrated Jewish exegetes
agree that this psalm speaks of the "Messiah-King". It may be that
its Messianic flavour comes out more clearly in the original than in the
English versions, and so we will give a rendering here, from the Hebrew,
of the verses which relate to this expectation of future salvation:
"A song of love: My heart overflows with beautiful words. I will recite:
My song concerns the king, my tongue is the pen of a ready writer. You
are more beautiful than the children of men, delight has been poured on
your lips; therefore God will bless you for ever... Your throne,
O God, will last for ever and ever; your kingdom will be a sceptre of justice.
You love righteousness and hate wickedness; for this reason God, your God,
has anointed you with the oil of joy more than your companions... I will
perpetuate your name from generation to generation: for this reason the
nations will praise you for ever and ever" (Ps. 45:2--3, 7--8, 18).
It is remarkable to see how the Midrash relates this song in praise of
the king to other parts of the Old Testament message. The Midrash on the
"Thus those who believe in the Messiah (Heb. lit. 'the righteous ones
of Him who is to come') will one day praise the glory of God's presence
and will not be hurt (by his holiness), as it is written: 'In thy presence
there is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore'
(Ps. 16:11 RSV). The Israelites asked... 'When will you redeem us?'
He answered them: 'When you suffer the deepest oppression, then will I
redeem you', as it is written: 'The people of Judah and the people of Israel
will be reunited, and they will appoint one leader (Hos. 1:11)... He said
'For we are brought down into the dust' (Ps. 44:26)... and just as the
rose blossoms and opens its heart upwards, so will it be for you when you
repent before me, your hearts will be turned upwards like the rose's, and
at that moment I will bring the Messiah to you, for it is said: 'I will
be like the dew to Israel' (Hos. 14:6)... "
The Midrash goes on to describe the words 'My song concerns the king',
and says that:
"This is a prophecy of the One who is to come, and Hannah too says
that 'The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave
and raises up'. In this way they will be brought down until their feet
reach the grave, and immediately I will raise them up; therefore it is
said,'He brings down to the grave and raises up'." 5
There is a similar picture in the Talmud of the salvation of Israel in
the last days from their "deepest oppression".
c) Very often, looking from the perspective of the Psalms, the oldest
Rabbinic sources see "supra-historical" features in the Messiah. As an
example of this kind of interpretation we might mention Ps. 72. Both the
Targum and the Midrash understand the whole psalm Messianically. We will
give it here in essence:
"Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness...
In his days the righteous will flourish; prosperity will abound till the
moon is no more. He will rule from sea to sea... He will deliver the needy
who cry out, the afflicted who have no-one to help. He will take pity on
the weak and the needy and save the needy from death... May his name
endure for ever; may it continue as long as the sun. All nations will be
blessed through him, and they will call him blessed" (Ps. 72:1, 7--8, 10--13,
The OT "associative" method of which we spoke at the beginning of the book
is clearly in evidence in the exposition of this psalm.
The king who will deliver the needy and the afflicted is, according
to the Midrash, the Messiah, "for it is written: 'A shoot will come up
from the stump of Jesse, and he will judge the needy with righteousness'
" (Is. 11:4). The whole psalm, the Midrash says, is "praise to the Messiah-King".
Verse 17 in the Hebrew reads, "before the sun was, his name was Yinnôn",
which means 'may it sprout' -- one of the eight OT names meaning a 'shoot',
as in the verse from Isaiah. The Midrash also understands this name as
being assigned to the Messiah "before the creation of the world".
RaSHI refers to psalm 72 in his exposition of Micah chapter 5 verse
2, which says of the Ruler of Israel who will be born in Bethlehem that
his "origins are from old, from ancient times". According to RaSHI he is
"the Messiah, the Son of David, as Ps. 118 says, he is the 'stone which
the builders rejected', and his origins are from ancient times, for 'before
the sun was, his name was Yinnôn'."
R. David Qimhi, "without whom there is no correct biblical exegesis", according
to the Sages, says unexpectedly:
"It will be said in the Messianic age that his 'origins are from
old, from ancient times'; 'from Bethlehem' means that he will be of the
house of David, because there is a long period of time between David and
the Messiah-King; and he is El (God), which is how he is 'from old, from
ancient times'." 6
Psalm 72 tells us furthermore that the Messiah will be brought gifts,
and the Talmud picks up this interpretation, saying that "Egypt will
bring gifts to the Messiah".7
The same secret appears in Jacob's blessing connected with the name Shilo.
Ps. 76:12 contains a phrase which resembles this name, shai lô,
or 'gifts for him': "Let all around him bring gifts to him who is to be
feared". In this way Jewish biblical exegesis builds internal bridges from
one hidden Messianic reference to another.
d) In addition to these "suprahistorical" features the Rabbis frequently
saw hidden allusions which the Bible itself could hardly be said to authorise,
but which nevertheless have their own internal logic in the thought world
of the Wise. In the lengthy psalm 78 there is the promise: "I will open
my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from old". Verse 41
gives us the following for our consideration: "Again and again they
put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel". This specific
phrase the "Holy One of Israel" appears 15 times in Isaiah. For example,
in his description of the forthcoming "covenant of grace" Isaiah says:
"Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not
know you will hasten to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One
of Israel, for he has glorified you (Hebr.)" (Is. 55:5).
R. David Qimhi, who is considered as representing the "correct" biblical
interpretation, explains this verse and that from Ps. 78 as referring to
"Incline your ear; the 'unfailing kindnesses promised to David' refers
to the Messiah, for he is called David... He will be a teacher of
the nations, as it is said at the beginning of Isaiah (2:4) 'He will judge
between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples'."
The term "vexing" the Holy One of Israel, hitvû, used by the psalm,
comes from the word tôv meaning a 'mark'. The Midrash also states
that "the strokes left marks on the body", just as Ezekiel 9:4 speaks
of the putting of a "mark" on the foreheads of all those who sigh and groan
for Israel. In the same way RaSHI sees hitvû as meaning 'drawing
A certain Christian Rabbi considered the above and then gave his own
solution to this "ancient riddle". He pointed out that the last letter
of the Hebrew alphabet, tâv, on the ancient stone inscriptions and
seals was written in the form of a cross. Understood in this way the verse
above refers to the crucifixion of the "Holy one of Israel". Isaiah
50:6 speaks of the servant of the LORD receiving the "marks of beating":
"I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled
out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting... I will
not be disgraced".
And Ps. 129:3 states graphically:
"Ploughmen have ploughed my back and made their furrows long."
Of this the Midrash says enigmatically:
"Tomorrow, when the end times come, the Holy One -- may he be praised
-- will not say to the nations of the world, 'Thus and thus have you done
to my son'. No. Rather, he will immediately break the yoke and shorten
the reins, as it is said: 'I have broken the bars of your yoke' " (Lev.
Could it be that it was similar convoluted thoughts Paul had in mind when
he said in 1 Cor. 2:6:
"We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not
the wisdom of this age"!
Such enigmatic features are part of the mystery of Christ and especially
so of the Jewish Messianic Idea.
We have seen in the above that even the psalms which Christians would
not consider "Messianic" may in the opinions of the Jewish scholars allude
to the saviour who is to come. On the other hand, these scholars take the
whole OT message as their palette and with it depict the Messiah's supra-historical
and enigmatic features. Mainstream Jewish Messianic expectation is, however,
best seen in the same psalms on which Christians too traditionally rely
in the elucidation of the roots of their faith.
1. Josef Klausner,
Ha-Ra'ayon ha-Meshihi, p87-88 and 135-136.
2. Avoda Zara
9b as interpreted by RaSHI.
3. See eg. John 3:29,
Matt. chaps. 22 and 25, 2 Cor 11:2 and Rev. 19.7.
4. See Midrash
Shemoth, par. va-erâ 8 and the corresp. description from Midrash
on Numbers. The main discussion is found in Midrash Tehilim 21.
5. Sanhedrin 97a.
6. The interpretations
of both RaSHI and RaDaQ can be found in the Mikraôth Gedolôth
7. Pesahim 118b.
The next chapter "PSALM
2 AND PSALM 110"
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