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4 Clues for Finding the Messiah in the Psalms

The Lord Jesus told his disciples after his resurrection that the Psalms had spoken about him: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44 ESV).

It doesn’t take long to find him. In Psalm 2 David introduces us to God’s “Anointed”—which in Hebrew is mashiach (which is transliterated into English as “Messiah”) and in Greek christos (which means “Christ”). David speaks of the wicked nations rebelling “against Yahweh and against his Anointed” (Ps 2:2). The New Testament quotes or alludes to this psalm six times, and every time it applies these words to Christ (Acts 4:25–26; 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5; Rev 12:5; 19:15).

But the word “anointed” isn’t a perfectly reliable signpost for finding Christ in the Psalms—in fact, at least eight instances of the word point to David and not to the Son of David.

Other clues, however, can help us to discover Christ in the Psalms. I’ll offer four.

Clue #1

The first clue is the glorious, elevated language used for the anointed King over Zion whom David mentions in Psalm 2. This kind of language is not unique to Psalm 2.

Take Psalm 110, for example. The Jews knew because of the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:8–17) that after David’s death God would establish an everlasting kingdom for one of his descendants (2 Sam 7:13). And we know they knew this because Christ’s conversation with the Pharisees in Matthew 22:41–46 assumes that they recognized Psalm 110 as messianic. They knew that “the LORD said to my Lord” pointed to the Christ. Peter, Paul, and the author of Hebrews all recognized the messianic nature of Psalm 110 (see Acts 2:34; 1 Cor 15:25; Heb 1:13).

Psalm 45 also contains exalted speech that addresses the King as “God” (v. 6)—and readers of this psalm since at least the time of the book of Hebrews have seen its language as pointing to the Messiah (Heb 1:8–9).

Clue #2

Of course, the key way to identify messianic passages in the Psalms is to listen to Christ—not to mention the New Testament apostles, who spoke and wrote under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. They pointed to certain psalms as messianic. It’s hard to call these “clues,” exactly, as if they take effort to decode.

John 19:24 and 28, for example, say explicitly that the soldiers’ lot-casting for Jesus’ garment happened in order “to fulfill the Scripture,” specifically Psalm 22. No incident we know of in David’s life comes close to fitting the execution described in that psalm; thus, David was prophesying what would happen to the Messiah.1 Indeed, in this psalm “every sentence can be applied to Jesus without straining its meaning.”2

In another case, Jesus identifies himself as the cornerstone (Luke 20:17) that the builders have rejected—and he cites Psalm 118:22–23.

Here are other examples of the Holy Spirit informing us that David was foretelling messianic events in the psalms:

  • Jesus’ incarnation (Ps 40:6–8; Heb 10:5–7)
  • His cleansing the temple (Ps 69:9a; John 2:17)
  • His rejection because of hatred (Ps 69:4a; John 15:25)
  • His betrayal by Judas (Ps 41:9; John 13:18)
  • His thirst on the cross (Ps 69:21b; John 19:28)
  • His resurrection (Ps 16:8–11; Acts 2:25–28, 31; 13:35)
  • His ascension to heaven (Ps 68:18; Eph 4:8).

In many of these cases only a portion of the psalm is messianic. For example, in Psalm 40:12 David mentions his iniquities, not the Messiah’s, but verses 6–10 are messianic. In Psalm 69 David confesses his sins (v. 5), but then the New Testament applies several verses in the passage (4, 9, 21) to Christ.

Clue #3

The next clue involves recognizing what the New Testament says about Christ’s returning to reign on earth over an eternal kingdom (2 Pet 1:11). The Psalms actually have a great deal to say about what the Messiah will do after his second coming.

  • We learn from Hebrews 2 that ultimately Christ (as the second Adam) will be the fulfillment of Psalm 8, which speaks of God crowning man with glory.
  • David asks “Who is this King of glory?” (Ps 24:8, 10); Hebrews answers, “Jesus” (Heb. 2:9)!
  • Psalms 2 and 110 proclaim that God will inaugurate his Anointed’s throne by crushing all enemies that oppose his divine rule.
  • Psalm 67 speaks of a time (the millennium) when an invitation will go out for all nations to worship God, who will judge them in righteousness, and Psalm 47 affirms that this divine King’s rule will extend over all the earth.
  • Isaac Watts wrote his hymn “Jesus Shall Reign” based on wording not from the New Testament but from the Psalms—from Psalms 72:5, 8, 10–19. Though this psalm does not explicitly mention the Messiah and no New Testament quotes identify it as messianic, its millennial descriptions closely reflect two messianic prophecies in Isaiah (11:1–5; 60–62).
  • The author of Psalm 89 struggles with the apparent conflict between historical reality and the “forever” promises in the Davidic covenant, thus leading us to interpret that covenant and the psalm as messianic with a millennial fulfillment.
  • Psalms 96–100 are praises to glorify the rule of God, magnifying various qualities of the Messiah, the divine King: his justice (96:10; 98:9), his power (97:3–5), his holiness (99:3), his faithfulness (99:6–7; 100:5), and his salvation (98:2–3).

Deeper knowledge of the Bible and its story will help you see such messianic references in the Psalms.

Clue #4

Technically, the Messiah is a divine‐human person—but what about his person before the incarnation? Do the psalms speak of this pre‐incarnate Person and his work? Yes, and this is our last clue.

From the New Testament we know that Christ was the eternal Creator (John 1:3, 10; 1 Cor 8:6b; Col 1:16; Heb 1:2); therefore, psalms that speak of Yahweh as Creator are really messianic in the broadest sense. Hebrews 1:10–12 quotes Psalm 102:25–27, a passage that speaks of God’s creative work and his unchangeableness, and it applies this ancient passage to the Son, Jesus Christ. (The key psalm passages for this theological theme include 8:3–8; 24:1–2; 33:6–9; 95:5; and 104:24–25.)

And toward the end of Psalms the psalmists proclaim five times that Yahweh is “maker of heaven and earth” (115:15; 121:2; 124:8; 134:3; and 146:6).

If we follow the clues, we can see our Lord Jesus throughout the ancient book of Psalms.

***

This article was originally published in the May/June 2021 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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  1. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary (1973; repr., Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 15:123.
  2. John Richard Sampey, “Psalms, Book of,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1929), 4:2492.
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Written by
Robert D. Bell

Robert D. Bell is a retired professor of Old Testament interpretation and theology at Bob Jones University, Seminary, and Graduate School of Religion, in Greenville, South Carolina. He taught graduate courses at this institution from 1968 to 2017.

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Written by Robert D. Bell