On Seeing Christ in the Psalms

Psalm 23 - Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

By Glen Taylor

Feb 04, 2019

My family and I live in a Victorian house in downtown Toronto. One of the things that drew us to buy this old home was the entrance, which consists of two nicely sculpted wooden doors with stained glass panels that make up the upper half of each door.

The first door is attractive, but mostly utilitarian; it has aesthetic features, but mostly it just keeps out old man winter. The second door is especially lovely; people often comment on the beveled glass and on the round, ruby-like glass buttons that form an inner frame to a cluster of diamond-and square-shaped glass pieces. It provides visitors with the same favorable impression of the house that it provided my wife and me when we first saw it.

Over the past 25 years, Old Testament scholars have come to reflect on the beauty and significance of a similar set of double doors that leads to a haven of spiritual refreshment and solace within the Bible itself.

The spiritual home is the Book of Psalms and the two doors that elegantly lead into it are Psalms 1 and 2. 

Simply put, Psalms 1 and 2, in addition to having their own particular roles, are also “The Introduction” to the Psalms by virtue of their placement at the beginning of the book.


Important clues

As with any other Introduction to a book, Psalms 1 and 2 provide important clues about how the Psalms as a whole are to be read, prayed, and also preached.

Psalm 1 concerns the value of meditating on God’s “law.” And to what does “the law” in Ps. 1:2 refer? The context of Psalm 1, including its placement at the beginning of the Psalms, provides a likely answer. The “law” refers to the five-book structure of the Book of Psalms as a whole (Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150).  These “Five Books” echo the five-book Torah (or law book) of Moses, the Pentateuch, suggesting that the Psalms are, like the Pentateuch, a sort of law-book upon which one can meditate for spiritual benefit.

Psalm 1 is thus like a sign hanging on the first entryway door. It says something like: “Ponder the things in this house to your joy and benefit; neglect them to your peril.”

But Psalm 2 also opens a door (quite literally given our analogy) for reading the whole Book of Psalms as a book about God’s Messiah.

We ought to think of entering the two front doors of the Psalter independently, as if entering one of two doors that stand side by side. On this understanding the double Introduction provides the reader with the option of reading the Psalms from the perspective of either Psalm 1 or Psalm 2. The person who enters through Psalm 1 is to faithfully meditate on the Book of Psalms for the purpose of growing into a deeply rooted and spiritually productive person who follows the way of life and avoids the path of evildoers. Alternatively, the one who enters through Psalm 2 is invited to read the Psalter as a book that deals with God’s plan to exercise sovereignty over the entire world through his begotten Davidic son, the Messiah. In either case, the Christian reader stands to benefit immensely from meditating on the Psalms. 

We ought also to think of entering these two doors as if they existed in relation to each other, as if one led to the other in a single narrow hallway such that one must first go through one door and then the next. From this perspective the reader cannot encounter one psalm without the other.  To read the psalms for the purpose of personal spiritual growth (the way of Psalm 1) is thus to be told in the very next psalm that the messiah’s reign is the means by which God executes his plan to bring salvation or judgment. So too, to read the psalms as messianic (the way of Psalm 2), one must first “sign on” to the plan of personal growth and the avoidance of evil advocated by Psalm 1. Indeed, given the placement of Psalm 1 prior to Psalm 2, the messiah cannot be the subject matter of the entire Psalter independently of the call of Psalm 1 for dedication to God's law.


How to Read the Psalter Messianically

Most present-day Christians will agree: It is more difficult to read the Book of Psalms as a whole from a messianic perspective (the way of Psalm 2) than from a devotional perspective (the way of Psalm 1).

Seeing Christ in the Psalms includes being open to different ways in which the psalms (or parts thereof) might apply to Christ. For example, most of Psalm 22 is best Christologically read as words said by Christ himself, whereas Psalms such as 72 are best read as words about Christ and his kingdom. And, regarding parts of psalms that contain cries for vengeance, even these can be read messianically as either part of the Type that does not apply to Christ, as a legitimate prerogative that Christ thankfully chose not to exercise, or as awaiting fulfillment at the return of Christ as judge.


Is it Really Appropriate to Read the Whole Psalter Messianically? 

It may seem like giving too much weight and influence to Psalm 2 to suggest, as I am, that it casts so long a shadow (or, better, light) over the book of Psalms such that the whole book can be read messianically. However, evidence from early Jewish and Christian history indicates that the Book of Psalms was read in this full-blown sort of way.  

For example, consider Luke’s testimony concerning the apostle Peter in Acts 2. Interpreting Pentecost for the bewildered crowd who just witnessed it, Peter cites the prophet Joel. What often goes unnoticed is that Peter, without batting an eyelash, goes right on in vv. 25–35 to cite “another prophet,” king David (v. 30), and then cites from two psalms (Psalm 16:10 and 110:1) as if they were prophecies (which, we must judge, they are).    

Psalm 2 has become a messianic psalm, and through its role as Introductory, it paints the entire Book of Psalms with a messianic brush. This broad messianic brushing was implicitly condoned by the apostle Peter, and continued by Christians throughout history, who instinctively knew to read the Psalms as if they had ultimately to do with Christ. Given this ancient historical tradition within Judaism first of reading the Psalms messianically, Christians cannot rightly be accused of misreading the Psalms by reading “Christ” (the messiah) back into the book. Rather, the earliest Christians were continuing a practice of messianic exegesis begun within Judaism long before Jesus.


About the Author

Glen Taylor is Professor of Scripture and Global Christianity.

This summer, from July 2 to August 23, Wycliffe College will be offering an online course called: Book of Psalms: A Spiritual Life Line in Christian History and Tradition. This course is an interactive investigation of the Book of Psalms, with a special emphasis on how the psalms have been and can be used within the devotional life of a Christian.