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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 2

Verses 1-12

Psalms 2:1-12

VARIOUS unsatisfactory conjectures as to a historical basis for this magnificent lyric have been made, but none succeeds in specifying events which fit with the situation painted in it. The banded enemies are rebels, and the revolt is widespread; for the "kings of the earth" is a very comprehensive, if we may not even say a universal, expression. If taken in connection with "the uttermost parts of the earth" (Psalms 2:8), which are the King’s rightful dominion, it implies a sweep of authority and a breadth of opposition quite beyond any recorded facts. Authorship and date must be left undetermined. The psalm is anonymous, like Psalms 1:1-6, and is thereby marked off from the psalms which follow in Book 1, and with one exception are ascribed to David. Whether these two preludes to the Psalter were set in their present place on the completion of the whole book, or were prefixed to the smaller "Davidic" collection, cannot be settled. The date of composition may have been much earlier than that of either the smaller or the larger collection.

The true basis of the psalm is not some petty revolt of subject tribes, even if such could be adduced, but Nathan’s prophecy in 2 Samuel 7:1-29, which sets forth the dignity and dominion of the King of Israel as God’s son and representative. The poet-prophet of our psalm may have lived after many monarchs had borne the title, but failed to realise the ideal there outlined, and the imperfect shadows may have helped to lift his thoughts to the reality. His grand poem may be called an idealising of the monarch of Israel, but it is an idealising which expected realisation. The psalm is prophecy as well as poetry; and whether it had contemporaneous persons and events as a starting point or not, its theme is a real person, fully possessing the prerogatives and wielding the dominion which Nathan had declared to be God’s gift to the King of Israel.

The psalm falls into four strophes of three verses each, in the first three of which the reader is made spectator and auditor of vividly painted scenes, while in the last the psalmist exhort; the rebels to return to allegiance.

In the first strophe (Psalms 2:1-3) the conspiracy of banded rebels is set before us with extraordinary force. The singer does not delay to tell what he sees, but breaks into a question of astonished indignation as to what can be the cause of it all. Then, in a series of swift clauses, of which the vivid movement cannot be preserved in a translation, he lets us see what had so moved him. The masses of the "nations" are hurrying tumultuously to the mustering place; the "peoples" are meditating revolt, which is smitingly stigmatised in anticipation as "vanity." But it is no mere uprising of the common herd; "the kings of the earth" take their stand as in battle array, and the men of mark and influence lay their heads together, pressing close to one another on the divan as they plot. All classes and orders are united in revolt, and hurry and eagerness mark their action and throb in the words. The. rule against which the revolt is directed is that of "Jehovah and His Anointed." That is one rule, not two, -the dominion of Jehovah exercised through the Messiah. The psalmist had grasped firmly the conception that God’s visible rule is wielded by Messiah, so that rebellion against one is rebellion against both. Their "bands" are the same. Pure monotheist as the psalmist was, he had the thought of a king so closely associated with Jehovah, that he could name them in one breath as, in some sense, sharers of the same throne and struck at by the same revolt. The foundation of such a conception was given in the designation of the Davidic monarch as God’s vicegerent and representative, but its full justification is the relation of the historic Christ to the Father whose throne He shares in glory.

That eloquent "why" may include both the ideas of "for what reason?" and "to what purpose?" Opposition to that King, whether by communities or individuals, is unreasonable. Every rising of a human will against the rule which it is blessedness to accept is absurd, and hopelessly incapable of justification. The question, so understood, is unanswerable by the rebels or by anyone else. The one mystery of mysteries is that a finite will should be able to lift itself against the Infinite Will, and be willing to use its power. In the other aspect, the question, like that pregnant "vanity," implies the failure of all rebellion. Plot and strive, conspire and muster, as men may, all is vanity and striving of wind. It is destined to break down from the beginning. It is as hopeless as if the stars were to combine to abolish gravitation. That dominion does not depend on man’s acceptance of it, and he can no more throw it off by opposition than he can fling a somersault into space and so get away from earth. When we can vote ourselves out of submission to physical law, we may plot or fight ourselves out of subjection to the reign of Jehovah and of His Anointed.

All the self-will in the world does not alter the fact that the authority of Christ is sovereign over human wills. We cannot get away from it; but we can either lovingly embrace it, and then it is our life, or we can set ourselves against it, like an obstinate ox planting its feet and standing stock still, and then the goad is driven deep and draws blood.

The metaphor of bands and cords is taken from the fastenings of the yoke on a draught bullock. One can scarcely miss the lovely contrast of this truculent exhortation to rebellion with the gracious summons "Take my yoke upon you and learn of me." The "bands" are already on our necks in a very real sense, for we are all under Christ’s authority, and opposition is rebellion, not the effort to prevent a yoke being imposed, but to shake off one already laid on. But yet the consent of our own wills is called for, and thereby we take the yoke, which is a stay rather than a fetter, and bear the burden which bears up those who bear it.

Psalms 1:1-6 set side by side in sharp contrast the godly and the godless. Here a still more striking transition is made in the second strophe (Psalms 2:4-6), which changes the scene to heaven. The lower half of the picture is all eager motion and strained effort; the upper is full of Divine calm. Hot with hatred, flushed with defiant self-confidence and busy with plots, the rebels hurry together like swarming ants on their hillock. "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh." That representation of the seated God contrasts grandly with the stir on earth. He needs not to rise from His throned tranquillity, but regards undisturbed the disturbances of earth. The thought embodied is like that expressed in the Egyptian statues of gods carved out of the side of a mountain, "moulded in colossal calm," with their mighty hands laid in their laps and their wide-opened eyes gazing down on the little ways of the men creeping about their feet.

And what shall we say of that daring and awful image of the laughter of God? The attribution of such action to Him is so bold that no danger of misunderstanding it is possible. It sends us at once to look for its translation, which probably lies in the thought of the essential ludicrousness of opposition, which is discerned in heaven to be so utterly groundless and hopeless as to be absurd. "When He came nigh and beheld the city, He wept over it." The two pictures are not incapable of being reconciled. The Christ who wept over sinners is the fullest revelation of the heart of God, and the laughter of the psalm is consistent with the tears of Jesus as He stood on Olivet, and looked across the glen to the Temple glittering in the morning sun.

God’s laughter passes into the utterance of His wrath at the time determined by Him. The silence is broken by His voice, and the motionless form flashes into action. One movement is enough to "vex" the enemies and fling them into panic, as a flock of birds put to flight by the lifting of an arm. There is a point, known to God alone, when He perceives that the fulness of time has come, and the opposition must be ended. By long, drawn out, gentle patience He has sought to win to obedience (though that side of His dealings is not presented in this psalm), but the moment arrives when in world wide catastrophes or crushing blows on individuals sleeping retribution wakes at the right moment, determined by considerations inappreciable by us: "Then does He speak in His wrath."

The last verse of this strophe is parallel with the last of the preceding, being, like it, the dramatically introduced speech of the actor in the previous verses. The revolters’ mutual encouragement is directly answered by the sovereign word of God, which discloses the reason for the futility of their attempts. The "I" of Psalms 2:6 is emphatic. On one side is that majestic "I have set my King"; on the other a world of rebels. They may put their shoulders to the throne of the Anointed to overthrow it; but what of that? God’s hand holds it firm, whatever forces press on it. All enmity of banded or of single wills breaks against and is dashed by it into ineffectual spray.

Another speaker is next heard, the Anointed King, who, in the third strophe (Psalms 2:7-9), bears witness to Himself and claims universal dominion as His by a Divine decree. "Thou art my son; today have I begotten thee." So runs the first part of the decree. The allusion to Nathan’s words to David is clear. In them the prophet spoke of the succession of David’s descendants, the king as a collective person, so to speak. The psalmist, knowing how incompletely any or all of these had fulfilled the words which were the patent of their kingship, repeats them in confident faith as certain to be accomplished in the Messiah-king, who fills the future for him with a great light of hope. He knew not the historic person in whom the word has to be fulfilled, but it is difficult to resist the conclusion that he had before him the prospect of a king living as a man, the heir of the promises. Now, this idea of sonship, as belonging to the monarch, is much better illustrated by the fact that Israel, the nation, was so named, than by the boasts of Gentile dynasties to be sons of Zeus or Ra. The relationship is moral and spiritual, involving Divine care and love and appointment to office, and demanding human obedience and use of dignity for God. It is to be observed that in our psalm the day of the King’s self-attestation is the day of His being "begotten." The point of time referred to is not the beginning of personal existence, but of investiture with royalty. With accurate insight, then, into the meaning of the words, the New Testament takes them as fulfilled in the Resurrection. {Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4} In it, as the first step in the process which was completed in the Ascension, the manhood of Jesus was lifted above the limitations and weaknesses of earth, and began to rise to the throne. The day of His resurrection was, as it were, the day of the birth of His humanity into royal glory.

Built upon this exaltation to royalty and sonship follows the promise of universal dominion. Surely the expectation of "the uttermost parts of the earth for a possession" bursts the bonds of the tiny Jewish kingdom! The wildest national pride could, scarcely have dreamed that the narrow strip of seaboard, whose inhabitants never entered on any wide schemes of conquest, should expand into a universal monarchy, stretching even farther than the giant empires on either side. If such were the psalmist’s expectations, they were never even approximately fulfilled; but the reference of the glowing words to Messiah’s kingdom is in accordance with the current of prophetic hopes, and need cause no hesitation to those who believe in prophecy at all.

Universal dominion is God’s gift to Messiah. Even while putting His foot on the step of the throne, Jesus said, "All power is given unto me." This dominion is founded not on His essential divinity, but on His suffering and sacrifice. His rule is the rule of God in Him, for He is the highest form of the Divine self-revelation, and whoso trusts, loves, and obeys Christ, trusts, loves, and obeys God in Him. The psalmist did not know in how much more profound a sense than he attached to his words they were true. They had an intelligible, great, and true meaning for him. They have a greater for us.

The Divine voice foretells victory over opposition and destruction to opposers. The sceptre is of iron, though the hand that holds it once grasped the reed. The word rendered "break" may also be translated, with a different set of vowels, "shepherd," and is so rendered by the LXX {which Revelation 2:27, etc., follows} and by some other versions. But, in view of the parallelism of the next clause, "break" is to be preferred. The truth of Christ’s destructive energy is too often forgotten, and, when remembered, is too often thrown forward into another world. The history of this world ever since the Resurrection has been but a record of conquered antagonism to Him. The stone cut out without hands has dashed against the images of clay and silver and gold and broken them all. The Gospel of Christ is the great solvent of institutions not based upon itself. Its work is

"To cast the kingdoms old

Into another mould."

Destructive work has still to be done, and its most terrible energy is to be displayed in the future, when all opposition shall be withered into nothingness by the brightness of His presence. There are two kinds of breaking: a merciful one, when His love shatters our pride and breaks into penitence the earthen vessels of our hearts; and a terrible one, when the weight of His sceptre crushes, and His hand casts down in shivers "vessels of wrath, fitted to destruction."

We have listened to three voices, and now, in Psalms 2:10-12, the poet speaks in solemn exhortation: "Be wise now, ye kings." The "now" is argumentative, not temporal. It means "since things are so." The kings addressed are the rebel monarchs whose power seems so puny measured against that of "my King." But not only these are addressed, but all possessors of power and influence. Open eyed consideration of the facts is true wisdom. The maddest thing a man can do is to shut his eyes to them and steel his heart against their instruction. This pleading invitation to calm reflection is the purpose of all the preceding. To draw rebels to loyalty which is life, is the meaning of all appeals to terror. God and His prophet desire that the conviction of the futility of rebellion with a poor "ten thousand" against "the king of twenty thousands" should lead to "sending an embassage" to sue for peace. The facts are before men, that they may be warned and wise. The exhortation which follows in Psalms 2:11-12 points to the conduct which will be dictated by wise reception of instruction. So far as regards Psalms 2:11 there is little difficulty. The exhortation to "serve Jehovah with fear and rejoice with trembling" points to obedience founded on awe of God’s majesty, -the fear which love does not cast out, but perfect; and to the gladness which blends with reverence, but is not darkened by it. To love and cleave to God, to feel the silent awe of His greatness and holiness giving dignity and solemnity to our gladness, and from this inmost heaven of contemplation to come down to a life of practical obedience-this is God’s command and man’s blessedness. The close connection between Jehovah and Messiah in the preceding sections, in each of which the dominion of the latter is treated as that of the former and rebellion as against both at once, renders it extremely improbable that there should be no reference to the King in this closing hortatory strophe. The viewpoint of the psalm, if consistently retained throughout, requires something equivalent to the exhortation to "kiss the Son" in token of fealty, to follow, "serve Jehovah." But the rendering "Son" is impossible. The word so translated is Bar, which is the Aramaic for son, but is not found in that sense in the Old Testament except in the Aramaic of Ezra and Daniel and in Proverbs 31:2, a chapter which has in other respects a distinct Aramaic tinge. No good reason appears for the supposition that the singer here went out of his way to employ a foreign word instead of the usual Ben. But it is probably impossible to make any good and certain rendering of the existing text. The LXX and Targum agree in rendering, "Take hold of instruction," which probably implies another reading of Hebrew text. None of the various proposed translations-e.g., Worship purely, Worship the chosen One-are without objection; and, on the whole, the supposition of textual corruption seems best. The conjectural emendations of Gratz, Hold fast by warning, or reproof; Cheyne’s alternative ones, Seek ye His face ("Book of Psalms," adopted from Brull) or Put on [again] His bonds ("Orig. of Psalt.," p. 351, adopted from Lagarde), and Hupfeld’s (in his translation) Cleave to Him, obliterate the reference to the King, which seems needful in this section, as has been pointed out, and depart from the well-established meaning of the verb-namely, "kiss." These two considerations seem to require that a noun referring to Messiah, and grammatically object of the verb, should stand in the place occupied by Son. The Messianic reference of the psalm remains undimmed by the uncertainty of the meaning of this clause.

The transition from the representative of Jehovah to Jehovah Himself, which takes place in the next clause, is in accordance with the close union between them which has marked the whole psalm. It is henceforth Jehovah only who appears till the close. But the anger which is destructive, and which may easily flash out like flames from a furnace mouth, is excited by opposition to Messiah’s kingdom, and the exclusive mention of Jehovah in these closing clauses makes the picture of the anger the more terrible.

But since the disclosure of the danger of perishing "in [or as to] the way," or course of rebellious conduct is part of an exhortation, the purpose of which is that the threatened flash of wrath may never need to shoot forth, the psalmist will not close without setting forth the blessed alternative. The sweet benediction of the close bends round to the opening words of the companion psalm of prelude, and thus identifies the man who delights in the law of Jehovah with him who submits to the kingdom of God’s Anointed. The expression "put their trust" literally means to take refuge in. The act of trust cannot be more beautifully or forcibly described than as the flight of the soul to God. They who take shelter in God need fear no kindling anger. They who yield to the King are they who take refuge in Jehovah; and such never know aught of His kingdom but its blessings, nor experience any flame of His wrath, but only the happy glow of His love.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 2". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".