I gave a brief introduction on the psalms in my first “Sunday Psalm” but I didn’t get the chance on relating my methodology for this series, if indeed I have one. First, I plan on reading several different translations. The website Biblegateway.com is an incredible resource. It contains just about every translation in just about very language imaginable—including Cherokee!—and specific to denominations. It includes commentary, dictionaries, study tools, and other resources. I will also scour the internet for commentary, and at the risk of having people cringe I will admit I use Wikipedia often. If a subject is not controversial, I find Wikipedia to be very sound. People may not realize it, but published encyclopedias have lots of mistakes too. Wikipedia has a process for correcting mistakes while once published a book with mistakes will go on indefinitely.
I will post the psalm under scrutiny using The New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE). There are several good Bible translations, but I feel comfortable with the NABRE mainly because it seems like it’s striving for precision of translation rather than elevated language. Those are the two ends of the translation spectrum: do you strive to translate precisely or do you try to capture the poeticism of the original language? Glory be to God when you can do both, boy usually it’s impossible. If it this were poetry, it would be a different matter, but for religious texts I personally want to know what the original author meant as precisely as possible. Plus the NABRE is what is used in Catholic Mass in the United States, so I listen to it every Sunday and read from it every day. For Catholics I would say The Ignatius Bible is also very good but we don’t use it at Mass. I don’t know Protestant Bibles that well but I have found the New International Version (NIV) to be very sound. When I want to bounce a Catholic interpretation against a Protestant one, I usually go to that one. I’ve said this before on my blog, I do not like the Kings James Version (KJV). I find the language stilted and the translation to be suspect at places. It was translated over 400 years ago, and the scholarship has come a long way since then.
I will be relying on two books for their commentary. First is Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A translation with Commentary (W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007). Robert Alter is a Jewish Biblical scholar and his translation and commentary will provide a much needed Jewish perspective that most of my resources lack. The other book I will rely on is Charles J. Dollen’s Prayerbook of the Kings: The Psalms (Alba House, New York, 1998). Monsignor Dollen is a widely published Catholic author and Monsignor.
Now let’s go to Psalm 2.
1 Why do the nations protest
and the peoples conspire in vain?
2 Kings on earth rise up
and princes plot together
against the Lord and against his anointed one:
3 “Let us break their shackles
and cast off their chains from us!”
4 The one enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord derides them,
5 Then he speaks to them in his anger,
in his wrath he terrifies them:
6 “I myself have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.”
7 I will proclaim the decree of the Lord,
he said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask it of me,
and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
and, as your possession, the ends of the earth.
9 With an iron rod you will shepherd them,
like a potter’s vessel you will shatter them.”
10 And now, kings, give heed;
take warning, judges on earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear;
exult with trembling,
12 Accept correction
lest he become angry and you perish along the way
when his anger suddenly blazes up.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him!
This is one of the ten psalms that have been identified as a Royal Psalm. Royal Psalms deal with the relationship of God with the Kings of Israel. At the very beginning of the psaltery, a Royal Psalm is placed showing the divine favor placed upon Israel’s King, which in this case is David. That sixth line, we get the central theme right out of God’s mouth, “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” Two interesting thoughts come to mind. First is that the coronation of a King comes as a divine commandment, which I imagine to be radical at that time in Jewish history. For the first 400 years the Jewish people did not have a King. Excluding Abimelech, who was an anomaly, and to some never a King, the Jewish people were ruled by judges and prophets for the pre-Davidic era, which essentially made it a theocracy. From Chabad.org, a Jewish information website, under “A History of the Jewish Monarchy:”
Then, in the year 2881 (880 BCE), after 400 years of being led by prophets and judges, the people approached the Prophet Samuel, clamoring for a king “like all the other nations.”
After consulting with G‑d (who expressed His disappointment in the peoples’ lack of faith), Samuel reluctantly gave in to their pleas, but not without warning them of the pitfalls inherent in having an absolute monarch.1
A short while later, when a young man from the tribe of Benjamin named Saul came to him for help locating his lost donkeys, Samuel anointed him as king over Israel.
Ultimately God rejects Saul for David but whoever was king, it required some Divine justification. This Psalm depicts that coronation with the voice of God Himself establishing the transition in government. Such a divine appointment establishes the Jewish King as a theocratic ruler, having a sort of Divine Right. This concept of Divine Right will later be picked up by Christian monarchs to justify their authority.
The second thought that comes to mind is that there is a parallel construction between God as King of all creation and with His appointed King of His people, the Royal King of Israel. There are several other Psalms that are classified as Enthronement Psalms, Psalms where God is enthroned as King of the universe. See Psalms 47 and 93, and see line 4 in this psalm, “the one enthroned in heaven laughs.” Just as God is enthroned as the universal King, God enthrones a man to be King of His people, “the Lord and His anointed one” (l. 2). But isn’t the “anointed one” also a reference to the Messiah, the One who will forever lead and save the world? Yes, and Christians call Him Jesus Christ. And so, we can see three parallel persons intimated: God who is King of creation, David who is King of the temporal Israel, and Christ who is the Lord of all mankind.
Robert Alter, presenting the Jewish perspective, disputes that jump to Jesus Christ. On line 2 he says that “anointed” here clearly is used “in its political sense as the designation of the legitimate current heir to the Davidic dynasty, without eschatological implications.” And on line 7, he argues that “despite Christological readings…over the centuries, it was commonplace in the ancient Near East, readily adopted by the Israelites, to imagine the King as God’s son.” While those are both true, it does not dispute God worked salvation history over centuries and cultures. While the poet could not have had Jesus Christ in mind when he wrote those lyrics—I do not believe Christians claim otherwise—the lyrics turn out to be prophetic.
The psalm is structured into three parts: Some historical reference to nations conspiring against Israel (lines 1-4), God appointing an earthly King with the power to smash those nations (lines 5-9), and a warning to those nations of God’s power (lines 10-12). Though it takes a number of lines to get there, the psalm is of the praise genre. The poet indirectly praises God for siding with Israel.
Of note, the twelfth line (“Accept correction lest he become angry and you perish along the way when his anger suddenly blazes up”) seems to have wide variation in translation. NIV, as many others, translates it as “Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.” Alter translates it “With purity be armed, lest He rage and you be lost on the way.” “Kiss his son” seems vastly different than “accept correction” and both vastly different than “with purity be armed.” Alter explains that the Hebrew words that governs the text is nashqu bar, which literally mean kiss the son but idiomatically means to wield arms. The NIV and Alter’s translations both attempt to capture a metaphor while the NABRE strips out the figure of speech to what it thinks is the implied meaning. I can’t make up my mind which I prefer.
Quick summary of Psalm 2:
Theme: Royal, Installation of the King
Length: twelve lines.
Key imagery: shackles, Holy Mountain, iron rod, shattered pot.
Christian typology: Eternal King.
Favorite lines: “I myself have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”