Psalm Two’s familiar contents have made it a favorite among students, pastors, and scholars alike, as it has echoes of the Davidic covenant, eschatological hopes, and the promise of divine justice. The psalm is quoted or alluded to frequently in the New Testament, included within the prayer of the disciples after Peter and John’s arrest (Acts 4) and Paul’s sermon at Athens. However, while often and variously labeled as a “Messianic,” “Royal,” or “Enthronement” psalm, such titles overlook a critical aspect of this psalm’s function. This article suggests an alternate classification of the psalm as a “Prophetic Rebuke.”
The Role of Genres: Structure Implies Meaning
We must begin with the consideration of genre. Vanhoozer notes that, “A text is not simply a sequence of words and sentences but a ‘composition,’ a work with a particular genre and style, a verbal work. . . a text’s structure imposes certain limits on interpretation.”1 But how does one delineate a genre? A text’s structure aids in interpretation because it places limitations upon the interpretive process. This is the nature of the problem with Psalm 2: while the assumption of a royal/enthronement/messianic psalm seems appealing, the form critics rely on theme rather than structure. Discourse studies have shown that understanding genre and structure play a pivotal role in ascertaining an author’s arguments. Themes should be subjugated to structure.
For example, laments have a clearly defined structure: “address, lament, confession of trust, or assurance of being heard, petition, vow of praise.”2 Psalm 2, however, has no petition proper, thus a cursory reading of the entire psalm might suggest that the Psalmist sees the nations’ raging as vain and futile because the King has received dominion from the LORD. The turn from lament to confidence is found in vv. 4-6 where God speaks and terrifies the nations. There follows a further assertion of confidence in Zion’s king to rule as his divine right. The psalm ends with a call for the nations to submit to God’s rule through submitting to the Lordship of Israel’s king.
Gunkel and Mowinckel have argued for a different categorization system which is useful and will serve as a form of sub-genre classification. Psalm 2, in their reading, is a lament of the people, so its sub-genre can be considered a royal or a kingship psalm, or a “prayer of the king.”3 Defining the royal psalms, Gunkel writes that the “internal unity of the above mentioned psalms [2; 18; 20; 21; 45; 72; 101; 110; 132; 145:1-11; cf. 89:47-52] stems from the fact that they are concerned entirely with the kings.”4 It is important to understand that the King as a representative of the nation, in a culture of corporate solidarity, is viewed as speaking on behalf of the nation in his individual prayers, since, as goes the king, so goes the nation.5 [callout img=”https://files.logoscdn.com/v1/assets/1498539/optimized?w=150″ text=”Study the Psalms confidently using powerful tools with” link_url=”https://www.logos.com/product/45685/psalms-explorer?utm_source=academic.logos.com&utm_medium=blog&utm_content=2022-02-02-psalm-2-mac-mcintyre&utm_campaign=promo-logospro2022″ link_text=”the Logos Psalms Explorer”]
Re-evaluating Gunkel‘s Classification
The kingship classification, while appealing, needs re-evaluation. Gunkel and Mowinckel came to prominence as form critics, but the kingship psalms have little to do with form. Instead, their common denominator is the recurring themes that surround the monarchy. This raises the question, then, whether Psalm 2 is concerned primarily with kingship. In another reading, the Psalm can be demonstrated to be first concerned with the reaction of the gentiles to YHWH, as evidenced by their rebellion against YHWH’s divinely imposed order (v. 1) and the demand they first serve YHWH. Though themes are important to note, especially when seeking to derive the theological essence of passages of Scripture, structure should be given priority, since “a text’s structure imposes certain limits on interpretation.”6 Those limits are significant in that they help the interpreter to refine their conclusions about the meaning of any given text, and this is especially the case for such a widely used (and, notably, self-contained) passage as Psalm 2.
Thus, we might suggest that the problem with the messianic/royal/enthronement psalm classifications is that they make משח the main point, to the exclusion (or at very least subordination) of the God-opposed gentile rulers. This gentile-heavy structure is affirmed through the exhortation to the gentile kings in the last stanza, along with the resultant blessing.
On the question of genre, then, Psalm 2 fits well into a different sub-genre, also defined by Gunkel, which better accounts for all of the data, and (as will be shown below) better explains inter-textual employment of the Psalm lending credence to this interpretation. As Gunkel notes, some psalms have been influenced by “other prophetic genres. . . from these prophetic genres, we encounter the word of rebuke three times. The threat is found only once.”7 Gunkel cites Pss. 50, 53, and 81, with a cautionary note about Ps. 52 as the rebuke genre, with the warning only found in 53:6. Gunkel then describes the form which the prophetic rebuke psalms take, which include the following elements: “The rebuke itself begins with an indignant question. . . the rebuke likes to introduce the words used by those being rebuked with a form of ’āmār. . . the rebuke frequently turns directly to those being rebuked in second person. . . The one rebuked is designated as nābāl . . one can mention. . . not listening to YHWH’s voice.”8 We can identify this sub-genre as “prophetic rebuke.”
An Alternative Classification: Prophetic Rebuke
All of the elements of a prophetic rebuke psalm are present in Psalm 2. The indignant question: “Why rage the nations and the countries plot vanity?” The speech of the rebuked: “Let us tear to pieces the fetters and throw from us their branches.” Though the אמר is missing, the direct speech is still found, and therefore אמר is implied. The turn to the rebuked in second person is found six times in the fourth stanza (delineated below in the forms הַשְׂכִּ֑ילוּ, הִ֝וָּסְר֗וּ, עִבְד֣וּ, וְ֝גִ֗ילוּ,נַשְּׁקוּ, וְתֹ֬אבְדוּ. Though the one rebuked is not designated as nābāl, the rhetorical use of the antonym of the commonly used stock-word pair “wise” implies that failure to heed the psalmist’s advice would be foolish. The retelling of the LORD’s speech in v. 7 by David implies that these gentile kings were “not listening to YHWH’s voice.”9 On structural bases, then, Psalm 2 clearly serves as a prophetic rebuke, with a hearty warning in v. 12 affirming this conclusion. Therefore, we can consider Psalm 2 as a lament of the people as its primary genre, with a sub-genre classification of a royal prophetic rebuke, since the speaker and the audience are royal figures.
The Exegetical Payoff of a Reclassification
Psalm 2 opens with a question; that question betrays the present conflict of the author. It is apparently so serious, that the psalmist is forced to turn to God for guidance. The subject of that question is not the king of Israel, nor the Messiah; it is the gentile nations and their rulers. By mis-classifying this text as a royal/enthronement/messianic psalm, the interpreter unintentionally minimizes the psalmist’s main concern by placing emphasis on God’s solution to the conflict. Though a matter of nuance, it is important to maintain this distinction of priority for a number of reasons to be shown below.
The way this psalm shows its preoccupation with the gentiles, as opposed to the Israelite Monarchy, is through a closing admonition for the gentile rulers to respond accordingly to God’s revealed oracle. They are assured of blessing as those who find refuge in the LORD and His anointed one, as opposed to the curses of God’s wrath promised to those who continue to rebel. Again, although God’s solution is the divine son-king, the psalmist returns from God’s solution to address the gentiles, educating them as to their proper reaction to divine revelation. If the Psalm begins and ends with the actions of the gentiles, then our exegetical and homiletical representations of the text should as well.
Structural Implications in Relation to Psalm 3
There has been much discussion about the composition of the Psalter.10 Interpreters have suggested that Psalms 1-2 serve as an introduction to the entire Psalter.11 Some interpreters, such as Kaiser,12 have separated the rest of the contents of Book 1 from Psalms 1-2. But it is preferable to keep Psalms 1-2 with the entirety of Book 1, serving a dual-introductory purpose.“However, in recent Psalms studies, a new emphasis is being placed on the broader context for interpreting a psalm in connection with other psalms that surround it in order to render a more accurate picture of what the psalmist meant. This new development is a welcome addition to treatment of the book of Psalms.” As such, Psalm 2 should be read in light of Psalm 1 and 3. As Palmer advocates, there must be some sort of “intentional development of order and theme” since there are “deliberate groupings with similar form, substance, or author” which “attest to an intentional arrangement at more than one point during the five-hundred-year history of the creation and collection of the various psalms.”13
Psalm 1 discusses the “two ways,” that of the wicked who pursue iniquity and sin, and that of the righteous who meditates on God’s law day and night. Psalm 2 serves to evince a contrast between the righteous ruler installed by God, and the wicked rulers, who rebel against God and his ordained governmental structures. Psalm 3 continues this theme by evincing a singularly wicked ruler who ironically came from within David’s own house and rebelled like the gentile kings from whom he descended (Absalom’s maternal grandfather being Talmai, King of Geshur, 2 Sam. 13:37). As such, Psalm 2 displays God’s ultimate sovereignty over the geo-politics of the nations, and his strategic placement of a particular King of Davidic descent, and not just any Davidic descendent. Through Psalm 2, the provision of the anointed King’s life is assured against the machinations of wicked would-be usurpers.
This message of preservation was critical important for the original audience of the Psalter. It is accepted that the Psalter would have been found in its final form, or closely thereto, before the Hasmonean dynasty and after the exile.14 In the days of the exile, the Davidic dynasty was removed from rule, as the Israelites were consistently dominated by foreign rule, with no real hope of a Davidic restoration. This lack of a Davidic candidate for Kingship resulted in the general acceptance of the Hasmonean Dynasty shortly after the composition of the psalter. By turning to Psalm 2, the post-exilic audience could cast their hope onto God’s חסד, believing and hoping that he would fulfill his unconditional covenant to David and eventually bring an heir to the throne who would overthrow the wicked nations who oppressed Israel. When that messiah arrives, the nations will give proper obeisance, granting him god-like fealty or suffer his wrath. However, the goal of Psalm 2 was not simply to raise Israel to a place of political prominence, but to bring these nations under the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant as they blessed the Abrahamic nation, his chosen seed, and in doing so serve the LORD (v. 11). Though this might seem to contradict the early agreement with Gunkel, it is actually a refinement which distinguishes the author’s original intention with that of the final redactor of the book of Psalms and his intended audience.
The Psalter opens with a theme of retribution, by describing the two ways in Psalm 1, and then develops an expansion of that theme in Psalm 2 whereby the compiler draws attention to the kingship of YHWH over the earth, and his delegation of that authority to his משיח. Rebellion against the משיח is equated with rebellion against God. This self-sufficient rebellion incites the anger of God, and the Kings are called to repent before they suffer the common fate of violent judgement (vv. 10-11). However, in an ironic twist, the compiler of the Psalter recognizes it was such self-sufficient rebellion against YHWH and covenant disloyalty to YHWH that had led to God temporarily handing his people over for judgement in His wrath.15 This was seen in ANE contexts as evinced in the Weidner Chronicle where “we are told of a series of rulers who transgress and therefore lose power and are overthrown. The Fall of a dynasty is interpreted as Marduk’s punishment for cultic offences. He who does not respect Marduk and his cult is punished for it.”16 The compiler of the Psalter knew that ultimately the people of Israel proved themselves more evil than the gentile nations of Canaan, and YHWH was justified in his deportation of Israel for their cultic offenses (see 2 Kings 21:2).
New Testament Use of Psalm 2
The synoptic gospels have limited (namely, two) references to the second psalm by way of direct quote. However, the employment of indirect quotations is remarkable since both instances come directly by way of the audible command of the Father concerning his Son to a human audience. The first instance of Psalm 2’s employment is Christ’s baptism (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22). All three of these Biblical narratives, describing the same event, show the Father publicly recognizing Jesus as His Son. While Matthew employs different wording for the Father’s direct speech, Luke and Mark align more closely, in that the Father directs his speech to Jesus instead of the crowd (note the use of Σύ instead of Οὖτος as in Matthew’s account). This makes little difference in the meaning of the text, since the semantic effect, due to an audible proclamation in a public setting, still presents to the crowd an authoritative divine witness to Christ’s unique relationship to the Father before the start of his public ministry. This divine approval and authorization is something Christ will refer back to in his disputations with the Pharisees (see John 5:32-37). The entirety of the quote seems to have conflated two distinct OT passages, Ps. 2:7 and Isa. 42:1. Discussing this effect, Blomberg notes that the “conjunction of the two allusions is especially significant inasmuch as at least a segment of pre-Christian Judaism apparently took both as messianic (cf. 4Q174 1 I, 10–14 with Tg. Isa . 42:1). Together they reflect the heavenly Father’s understanding of Jesus’ dual role: one day a kingly messiah, but for now a Suffering Servant—both appropriate to his unique identity as the divine son.”17
While none might object to this analysis, there is a peculiar fact that is easily glossed over. Immediately before Jesus’ baptism, there is a short conversation between Jesus and John where John argues for his own need of baptism at the hands of Jesus, not the other way around (Matt. 3:14). Jesus tells John to permit it, and John obeys. This exchange is important to note, considering the fact that Psalm 2 is (as I argue) a Prophetic Rebuke psalm. John the Baptist, someone who supported (indeed, prefaced) Jesus, finds himself opposing the will of God, in need of the correction of the Davidic descendent Son-king Jesus. Jesus rebukes, though be it ever so mildly, John, and John humbly submits (Matt. 3:15) and receives the blessing of God through the commendation of Jesus later in the narrative (Matt. 11:11-15).
The second allusion to Psalm 2 in the synoptics appears at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7, and Luke 9:35). Blomberg notes the similarity in semantic function: “As at Jesus’ baptism (see Matt. 3:17), a heavenly voice refers to him by alluding to Ps. 2:7 and Isa. 42:1, combining allusions to his roles as messianic king and Suffering Servant (17:5b).” Blomberg then comments that, “The additional charge, ‘Listen to him,’ alludes to Deut. 18:15 on heeding the prophet like Moses.”18 Although this allusion to Moses is appropriate, Blomberg might have also noted how the phrase “Kiss the Son lest he be angry” in Psalm 2 denotes the same posture of obeisance owed to the divine son-king. This section is especially pertinent, considering how it sits between Jesus’ first and second passion prediction in all three synoptics. The conflated quote, twice repeated at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (baptism) and a critical juncture in his ministry (after public confession of Messiahship by the disciples in Matthew 16:21-33, Luke 9:18-22, and Mark 8:27-33) serves as an introduction of the nature of Christ’s ministry in the first instance (baptism) and a correction to the disciple’s common messianic expectations in the second instance (transfiguration). These messianic expectations are evinced through Peter’s chastisement of Christ for the first Passion prediction, (see again Matt. 16:21-33, Luke 9:18-22 and Mark 8:27-33). It has been well documented that second temple Judaism expected a conquering Davidic Messiah, not a suffering Messiah, and this divine validation should have served as confirmation of Christ’s understanding to his ill-informed disciples.19
I have argued above that the employment of Psalm 2 within a canonical context shows that the prophetic rebuke theme was intentionally emphasized by the structure of the psalm itself, as well as its placement in the Psalter. I then demonstrated, in brief, that the New Testament continues this theme of prophetic rebuke to the least expecting recipients, two men closest to the incarnate Son, Jesus: John the Baptist and Peter his disciple. Though there is a messianic prophecy employed in the text of Psalm 2, and the theme of kingship is evident, the larger concern of the Psalm is human response to YWHW’s Messiah. Even the most well intentioned and privileged seem unaware of the Messiah’s function and work, and thus they are in need of humble submission. The nations were initially unwilling; John was initially unwilling; Peter was initially unwilling; the question is how will you as the reader of Psalm 2 respond to the Lord’s Messiah?
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Is There a Meaning in This Text?, Zondervan Academic (1998) 107.
- Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1981), 64; see Hermann Gunkel, and Joachim Begrich. Introduction to the Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998, 94 also, even though Gunkel calls this a Royal Psalm, its parts follow that of the “Individual Complaint Songs” namely, “address, complaint, petition [implied], perhaps the certainty of having been heard [via the declaration of the oracle], and the vow of a thanksgiving offering [oracle form not offering].”
- Gunkel and Begrich, 109.
- Gunkel, 199.
- Gunkel, 112 and 120.
- Vanhoozer, 107.
- Gunkel, and Begrich, 277.
- Gunkel, and Begrich, 277-78.
- Gunkel, and Begrich, 277-78.
- David M. Howard, “Recent Trends in Psalms Study,” in The Face of Old Testament Studies: A Survey of Contemporary Approaches (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), pp. 329-368.
- Philippus J. Botha, “Psalm 101: A Supplication for the Restoration of Society in the Late Post-Exilic Age,” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 72, no. 4 (August 19, 2016): pp. 1-8, https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v72i4.3389; see page 7 where he states that these two psalms were “composed and edited by exponents of wisdom teaching to reflect two possible responses to the invitation of Wisdom in Proverbs 1. Psalm 1 was composed to represent the correct, positive, and accepting response to the warnings and invitations in Proverbs 1:10 and 15. . . Psalm 2 on the other hand, in its present form, reflects on the futility of a rejection of this invitation by the rulers of the world and reports on the amused response of Yahweh in the role of a wisdom teacher.”
- Walter C. Kaiser, “The Structure of the Book of Psalms,” Bibliotheca Sacra 174, no. 693 (January 2017): 3.
- O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering their Structure and Theology, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015, p. 50.
- Evidence for this being that the kingship psalms continue to be limited to a Davidic ruler and not the Hasmoneans, see Gunkel, and Begrich, pp. 99, 112 and 119, and certain Psalms such as 89 &137 are clearly exilic or post exilic. For agreement to this assessment see David M. Howard Jr. in The Face of Old Testament Studies, Location 3394, as well as Kaiser, Structure, who argues for a purely messianic referent from the Davidic line, cited above; etc.
- Ringgren discusses the role of worship and the king’s role in the cult on pp. 77, 84, 99-102, 105-106. “The king was responsible to the gods for the performance of his office. . . the responsibility of the king was exceptionally serious when unfavourable omens threatened his people” (106). Kings in the ANE were required to perform absolution rites (84). Their failure to perform their duties could incite the wrath of the gods, leading to sickness, death, war, and sometimes exile of their people or images. The removal of the divine image (local idols) was viewed as a sign of chastisement upon the king for failure to maintain the cult. “If an image of a god was carried away by a conqueror, this signified that the god had abandoned his city in wrath” (77). “As the chosen servant of the gods, the king should also maintain harmony between society and nature. . . But he can only do this by ensuring that society gives the gods the service and worship which is due to them. His faithful service ensures prosperity and well-being in the land” (103-104). Such sentiments were well understood throughout the bible in exilic and post exilic times as seen in the annals of Kings and Chronicles (see 2 Kings 17:7-23, 23:26-27, 25:8-17, and 2 Chron. 36:15-19).
- Helmer Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East, Trans. John Sturdy, Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1973, pp.118.
- G. K. Beale and D.A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 14.
- Beale and Carson, 55.
- Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 411-412 and 419-420.