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Occational Letters: Perspectives on the Psalms

D Newell, Glasgow

Have you ever climbed a hill to stand at one of those official viewing-points where (weather permitting) you are able to enjoy an all-round observation of the landscape? You can look back to where you have come from and ahead to your destination. At the centre of the Bible is a book which does something like that. The Psalms reach out in all directions. I have lately been enjoying them with the aid of an old but recently reprinted study by Arthur Pridham. Given a copy some years back I decided it was about time I made use of it. Now, although Pridham is not exactly a racy writer – Spurgeon sums up his volume as "spiritual reflections of an excellent kind, but not very striking" – he consistently foregrounds both the prophetic perspective and the Messianic insights of the Psalms. That is to say, he is alert to the fulfilment of their hopes in the establishment of the future Kingdom age, and also sees many of the psalmists’ experiences as foretastes of what the Lord Jesus endured down here. It is this careful interpretive balance which appeals to me. Instead of rushing to find instant practical applications, as do so many, Pridham is concerned to allow the language of Scripture to speak for itself. In other words, correct interpretation must precede personal application. There is little point in teasing out what I think Scripture means for me unless I have taken time to determine what it means in its own context. Pridham stirs our hopes for the glorious consummation of God’s programme at the Saviour’s second advent, while warming our hearts with a reverently devotional focus on His past sufferings. There are of course many valuable commentaries on the Psalms – I for one would not be without Arthur G Clarke’s outstandingly comprehensive and terse analysis, all the more remarkable when one bears in mind the conditions under which it was written – but Pridham, I find, helps stir the soul.

As I have already hinted, these rich poems invite us to look in three directions: backwards (to their historical circumstances), forwards (to their ultimate fulfilment at Messiah’s coming), and inwards (to the way they minister to our own needs today). Under the first heading we can learn much from the joys and sorrows of King David as he sought to live for God in a sinful world. Hounded by Saul, conspired against by his own son, he so often reminds us of Christ in His rejection. Back in 1876 A R Fausset (of the superb Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary) published a little-known but most helpful book called Studies in the 150 Psalms which painstakingly traces the connections between each Psalm and the historical background noted in its superscript or suggested by its details. These poems are not abstract meditations written in ivory towers of isolation from the world but are the product of real and strenuous exercises of soul. They tread the ground of history. The second heading (looking forwards) divides into two subsections, for it is only in the New Testament that it becomes evident that Messiah’s coming would be in two distinct stages: one when He would be "despised and rejected of men" (Is 53.3), and one when He would reign in triumph from Zion (Jer 23.5-6). In the Acts the Apostle Peter distinguishes sharply between these two strands of prophecy. He tells his Jewish hearers that "those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled" (Acts 3.18). This refers to the predictions of Messiah’s suffering and death. Psalms 22.1-21, 69.1-21, 102.1-11, and 109.1-5 fall into this category. And these details, we should note, were all accomplished to the letter.

But there is another body of prophetic statements which have yet to be fulfilled. So Peter looks to the future. The Christ who suffered and thereby fulfilled the predictions about His rejection is now in the heavens, but only "until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began" (Acts 3.21). This carefully chosen language describes the blessing of the Kingdom era to be inaugurated at Christ’s return in glory. Like Peter, we also look back gratefully to Calvary and onward eagerly to His coming. So we should not be surprised to find that the Psalms often combine the two advents of Christ. If the first half of Psalm 22 anticipates the cross, the second half (vv.22-31) peers beyond that suffering to the glory to follow.

The third heading (looking inwards) is, I suppose, the most immediately practical, because it applies the poet’s inspired language to the current circumstances of any generation of believers. Calvin describes these poems as "an anatomy of all the parts of the soul", by which he means that they reflect every experience the child of God may face in this world. It is no wonder that throughout history believers from different lands and cultures have found their hearts lifted by reading the Psalms. In this sense, despite their specific Hebrew background, they are timeless.

But let us take a sample case. No one knows who wrote Psalm 118. Some trace it back to Moses on the ground that v.14 echoes Exodus 15.2 (but then so does Isaiah 12), while others are convinced it is the work of David or one of the leaders of the return from Babylonian exile. Whoever he was, the writer was a believer who, though exposed to human hostility, had been marvellously preserved: "I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place" (v.5). Look backwards and we find a man who can testify to God’s mercy (vv.1-4). Look forwards, and we find, for example, v.22 appropriated by the Lord Jesus in the Gospels (Mt 21.42). He is the predicted stone rejected by the builders. Look inwards and there is much to stiffen the sinews of saints under stress:

The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?...Thou art my God, and I will praise thee: thou art my God, I will exalt thee. O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

These verses (6, 28 and 29) express the feelings of all who have tasted of God’s mercy in Christ. Indeed, if I cannot identify with such sentiments there must be real doubt as to my salvation.

Yet it is the forward glimpse that dominates the poem. The language, taken at face value, goes beyond anything experienced in Israel’s history: "All nations compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them" (v.10). All nations? Before we dismiss this as poetic hyperbole we might compare the prophetic scene described by Zechariah: "in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it" (12.3); "I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle" (14.2). So the Psalm’s speaker represents besieged Jerusalem in the time of the Great Tribulation, when the whole world unites to eradicate Israel and thwart God’s purposes. This helps us identify other figures. The singular "thou" in v.13 is the Man of Sin in his Satanically-inspired rage against God’s ancient people, while "the right hand of the Lord" (vv.15-16), who is the theme of the psalmist’s rejoicing because He rescues Israel, can be none other than the Lord Jesus, always the great executor of God’s will. As a result of His intervention restored Israel will enter literally through the gates of a new Temple to engage in worship (vv.19-21). We need not spiritualise this away, for Ezekiel devotes several chapters to a meticulous description of a yet-to-be constructed Temple where all will come to praise the Lord (Ezek 46.3; Zech 14.16). And what will be the focus of their worship? It is Christ Himself, here described in three ways. As the Stone, He is the man formerly rejected by Israel but exalted by God as both the climax ("head stone") and the unifier ("corner") of the divine building programme, for all God’s plans find their completion in Him: "The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes" (Ps 118.22-23). As the Saviour ("Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord") He is currently engaged in rescuing His elect from the penalty and power of sin, just as He will at the close of the Tribulation deliver Israel physically from its enemies. The Lord Jesus unambiguously ties v.26 to a future fulfilment at the time of Israel’s national repentance (Mt 23.39). As the Sacrifice ("bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar"), He dealt with sin once for all in His atoning death, a death commemorated throughout the future Kingdom era in the offerings which will ascend from the millennial Temple. What He will be one day to repentant Israel He is now to us. In whatever direction we look we see Him!

To be continued.


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