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A Christological Theology of the Psalms

In reading through the Psalms yesterday, I was struck by what it might mean to read them Christologically as Dietrich Bonhoeffer recommends in his books Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible and Life Together.  His proposal, simply stated is that it ultimately Christ himself who prays the psalms.  This is, in part a brilliant way of reading the imprecatory psalms with it’s shockingly violent imagery: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Ps. 137:8)

For Bonhoeffer, it is Christ himself and Christ alone who is able to pray this prayer for God’s judgment, and in so praying it he causes it to fall, not on those deserving wrath, but on himself.  Thus, we cannot pray such prayers, rather we can listen to Christ pray them and make them his own, bringing about the curses on his own head for us and in our place.

However, such a way of reading the pslams is not just a handy way to deal with rough texts.  It also helps to make sense of a great many of the psalms of David.  Beginning always with the epitaph לְדָוִד ( “to David” or “in reference to David”), a great many of these psalms make little sense if we simply try to situate them within the historical life of David as narrated in Samuel and Kings.  One could, of course cite radical poetic hyperbole as the reason for the language of these psalms: “O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (Ps. 30:3).  And, I certainly don’t dispute that the Psalms could be read on that level.  However, in reading through them it seems that the text of the psalms invites a theological reading that extends far beyond simply the emotional and historical situations of the life of David.

First of all throughout the first book of the Psalms (1-42), which are all ascribed to David (except for the first two Psalms, which I would argue serve as an introduction to the book as a whole and which should in fact be read as a unity rather than two separate songs) there are references to Israel’s exile and a longing for redemption (see e.g. Ps. 14:7; 25:22).  Moreover, the superscriptions of many of the psalms speak to these psams being composed for occasions that could not have historical reference to David (“for the memorial offering”: Ps. 38 or, more definitively, “A Song at the dedication of the temple”: Ps. 30).

My point in all of this is that the psalms seem to invite a level of theological interpretation that goes beyond simply the historical.  The weaving together of rich poetic language of suffering and vindication, descent and ascent, desolation and consolation seems to point beyond the historical origins of the individual psalms towards a broader situatedness within the history of Israel in exile, and more importantly, within the all-encompassing history of Jesus.  Read canonically, I think the the bulk of the psalms just make more sense if we read them as coming from the mouth Jesus himself.  The dialectic of death and resurrection, desolation and joy, abandonment and praise seems to long for a Christological interpretation.

Consider for example, Psalm 30:

I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up
  and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
  and you have healed me.
O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
  you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.

Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints,
  and give thanks to his holy name.
 For his anger is but for a moment,
  and his favor is for a lifetime.
 Weeping may tarry for the night,
  but joy comes with the morning.

As for me, I said in my prosperity,
  “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O LORD,
  you made my mountain stand strong;
you hid your face;
  I was dismayed.

To you, O LORD, I cry,
  and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,
  if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
  Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O LORD, and be merciful to me!
  O LORD, be my helper!”

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
  you have loosed my sackcloth
  and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
  O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

In a psalm such as this I cannot help but hear the voice of Jesus of Nazareth at prayer with the one he called Father.  Here we here the voice of the one who “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the One who was able to save him from death” who “although he was a Son, learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:7, 8).  One is hard pressed to find a more appropriate poetic articulation of the agonies of Gethsemane and the ecstasy of Galilee.

The psalms string together, in a beautiful symphony the longing of Israel for redemption in exile, the Davidic memory and covenant, the cries of the faithful for vindication, and the firm resolve to praise the God of Israel.  All of these themes coalesce and cohere in Christ, and truly I think, nowhere else.  So, after reading the psalms through again, I find my self more convinced than ever that the best way to read them is through a historically and eschatologically oriented Christology.  Or, to put it another way, the pslams can fruitfully be read as a sort of inter-trinitarian dialogue between Jesus and his Father.  And it is within that trinitarian conversation, through the rhythms of descent and ascent, death and resurrection that Israel and the Church are found and redeemed.  What this might for the reading of the psalms as a whole is an interesting, and I think, exciting prospect. 

6 Comments

  1. I was reading St. Augustine’s commentary on the Psalter today and I believe he would completely agree with you.

    Thursday, November 8, 2007 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  2. bobby grow wrote:

    Okay then, you “Lubeckian” ;~)!

    Thursday, November 8, 2007 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  3. This is good, but I think you too quickly dismiss the attributions to David as ‘simply historical.’ Canonically and traditionally speaking, attributing the Psalms to David already involves a theological point–like attributing all law to Moses and all wisdom to Solomon. And the early church read the Psalms as being spoken not by Jesus instead of David, but by Jesus as the new David. That way, you get all the theological benefits you mention without losing all those internal to the Psalms’ canonical placement in the OT itself. A quick and helpful essay on this: Gary Anderson, “King David and the Psalms of Imprecation,” Pro Ecclesia 15 (no. 3), 2007, 33-55.

    Thursday, November 8, 2007 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Brian, I agree with you, I think you just stated it better than I did. In reading the Psalms it actually feels like David is the ikon of Jesus. When we look at him through his words we are immediately looking “through” him so to speak to the one he called “Lord”.

    Thursday, November 8, 2007 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Harris wrote:

    Thanks for a great post Halden. My reading of the psalms too was revolutionized by reading Bonhoeffer. Being in on the inner-trinitarian conversation (and Love) can be rapturous. Brian’s point is well-taken. King David is a Type of the Messiah, and especially as his name means “beloved”. “This is my son, the Beloved… Mt. 3:17, as well Mt. 12:18,17:5. Then in Romans 1 (and elsewhere) we are called his beloved. Here is the participation theme.

    Saturday, November 10, 2007 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  6. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    I bookmarked this post to be read ages ago, and have only just come to it. I find it strikingly revelant to an “Easter” post I wrote just yesterday here (note I cite the same Psalm at the end). What interests me is the way the Psalms can be actualized in the daily worship and discipleship of the believer. I find it hard to visualize, but don’t you think that somehow being in Christ enables us to also be “in” David, that, especially as a Gentile, Jesus forms a gateway to the Psalms that I otherwise wouldn’t have. This idea of the king vicariously representing and embodying his people is already found in the OT, especially in the opening Psalms of the Psalter (see Patrick Millar on this).

    One thing I agree with in principle and desperately want to get my head around is the following sentence:

    All of these themes coalesce and cohere in Christ, and truly I think, nowhere else.

    Can you recommend any reading that explicates that? I’m interested in understanding just how it is that Christ fulfills all of Scripture, and not just isolated prophecies.

    Thanks for your great thoughts!

    Thursday, March 27, 2008 at 11:13 am | Permalink

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