Acts of the Apostles: Telling the story of the second psalm

When Christians speak of their favorite psalms, Psalm 2 is not often mentioned. If we were to pose the question to Luke or the author of the Apocalypse, however, they would likely have identified this particular psalm as one of the most important if not the most important. Their quotations from and their allusions to Psalm 2 suggest as much.

In this post I want to look at how Luke applies his favorite psalm, Psalm 2, to the situations faced by the early churches and make the case that he believed the story encoded in the psalm was being played out in history, in his own time. Here is the psalm.

Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.

Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Happy are all who take refuge in him.

JCRKsnipFullSizeThe story of Psalm 2

We can begin by addressing the nature of Psalm 2. It is a liturgy for the enthronement of a Davidic king. It celebrates and awaits God’s decision to anoint a king over Israel, a king who would be given the authority necessary to subdue the godless raging nations. The psalm thus celebrates and awaits God’s solution to the essential problem of Jewish existence: the hostility of pagan empires and the lawlessness of pagan kings. David and Solomon for a time solved this pressing issue. They provided security to Israel by defeating their enemies, thus allowing Israel to serve YHWH in peace. In accordance with Psalm 2, therefore, other Biblical passages also celebrate David and Solomon as sons adopted by God and as inheritors of God’s powerful divine reign over the neighboring rebellious nations. In the Hebrew Bible sonship and inheritance are thus inextricably linked: the one who is adopted as son is heir to God’s fatherly authority over the world. Consider also Israel’s national adoption as Son through the Exodus and subsequent victory over the nations and inheritance of Canaan.

In sum, the Son of YHWH is to be honored as the one who “possesses the nations” and “breaks them with a rod of iron.” The Son is a “refuge” for the faithful and YHWH’s instrument by which the kings of the earth come to serve the one true God.

Luke’s Story

It might then seem odd that Luke, the biographer of the Prince of Peace, should so often recall this psalm. While some have posited that he does so for Christological reasons (i.e. because it refers to the Messiah as God’s Son), I think this is a largely superficial reading. I argue that for Luke what’s most important about the psalm, and most important about Jesus’ divine sonship, is its historical-political ramifications. Allow me to explain this further as we examine the contexts in which Luke evokes Psalm 2, keeping in mind that this poem is a story concerning the Davidic king’s inheritance and subjugation of the nations.

Why do the Nations Rage? (Acts 4)

There are two quotations of Psalm 2 in Acts. In the first instance, the disciples pray these words in response to Peter and John’s detainment by the Temple authorities: “Why did the nations rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah” (4:25-26). The words are then explained as Luke names Herod, Pilate, the nations, and even the peoples of Israel as enemies of Christ and his servants (4:27-31). In this way Luke identifies the conspirators, the figures who will serve as the enemies of YHWH’s anointed. They are all the enemies of Christ’s church. The point to not miss here is that Luke has not spiritualized these enemies into elements like sin, death, and demons; they are concrete historical people and communities.

You are my Son! You will rule the nations! (Acts 13)

In the next instance, Paul quotes verse 7 of Psalm 2 in a speech recorded in Acts 13. Paul appeals to his Jewish countrymen to accept what God has done in Jesus and in so doing be saved from destruction. He declares “we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’” (13:32-33). The Apostle has thus announced the news that God has granted Jesus authority over the nations by means of resurrection from the dead. Jesus, the Son, has inherited all his Father’s estate.

Paul concludes his appeal in chapter 13 with another Biblical quotation, one that serves as a warning: “Look, you scoffers! Be amazed and perish, for in your days I am doing a work, a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you” (13:41, cf. Habakkuk 1:5). Note that Paul has extracted his warning from a prophetic announcement of historical judgement—the Babylonian invasion. Might Paul (and Luke) have in mind a similar kind of judgement in Israel’s future? Something like the Roman war in AD 70? I argue that the early Christians are doing exactly that. They are warning their hearers to ally with this Jesus and not with the conspirators. For, as the psalm says, “[the Son] will break them with an iron rod.”

Has Luke changed the story?

So in these two quotation from Acts we see that Luke has demarcated the resurrection and exaltation as Jesus’ entrance into his inheritance. Jesus has become owner of the nations, appointed by God to execute divine judgement. Christ’s enemies will soon be subjected and Christ’s friends will soon find refuge in his rule. The apostles therefore work to extend the offer of salvation. They proclaim the gospel: anyone from among the raging nations may repent and be saved from the wrath of the Son.

To conclude then, I want to reiterate that the story Luke is telling in Acts through the poetry of Psalm 2 is not a story about heaven and hell, it is not even a story about the Christian’s struggle against sin and darkness; it is a story about God bringing about “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5) among the nations in history through His Son and through His redeemed people. As we saw, the Second Psalm expects historical-political outcomes and Luke has done nothing to reinvent their meaning. Rather, what Luke has done is transplant the story told by the psalm into his own time. For Luke, the nations are writhing against God, persecuting His people. But God has sent out his decree by raising Jesus from the dead: “This is my Son! He will inherit his Father’s authority, subdue the nations, and save his people.”

The question Acts asks then is Will Israel recognize the one whom God has called His Son, the one to whom He has bequeathed His reign? Or will Israel be counted among those pots broken by the Son’s iron rod?

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