Psalm 2, the New Testament, and Christian Hermeneutics PDF Print E-mail
Written by Timothy Edwards   
Monday, 15 November 2010 09:22

Psalm 2:4-6 provides God's response to the futile rebellion of the nations against His rule exercised from Zion through His anointed King. In v.6 God declares that the anointed king against whom they are rebelling was installed by God himself:

I have installed My King on Zion My holy hill1

In English the meaning of the verse appears clear, yet the exact meaning of the verb נסכתי (translated here as "I have installed") has generated much discussion over the centuries. So, Midrash Tehillim, a rabbinic text based on the book of Psalms explores several possible different interpretations:

I have set my king. I anointed him, as it says: And I didn’t anoint (Daniel 10:3), Another interpretation, I made him firm (lit. cast), as it says: molten calf (Exodus 32:4), another interpretation, I raised him up (exalted/made great), as it says: eight princes of men (Micah 5:4), and it is written: there the princes of the North (Ezekiel 32:30), where shall I raise him up? On Zion my holy hill2

Anoint, raise up, cast/make firm are all options set forth for the meaning of the Hebrew phrase ואני נסכתי מלכי ("I have installed  my King").  

When the 'ambiguity' or 'difficulty' of the verb is highlighted to students alongside a variety of 'options' to solve the issue, the immediate question arises: which one is correct? The question is a natural one especially for those educated in the world of the academy whose methodology is best exemplified by the statement by the liberal Anglican B. Jowett:

Scripture has only one meaning: the meaning which it had in the mind of the prophet or evangelist who first uttered or wrote to the hearers or readers who first received it.

The Psalmist knew what he meant when he wrote נסכתי and it is that meaning, that historical moment which we seek to retrieve.3 That is the task of the modern-day interpreter of the sacred text. Such a task, however, would seem somewhat limited and anemic in the eyes of early Jewish and Christian exegetes. How did the New Testament read Psalm 2?

Psalm 2:6 is not quoted explicitly in the New Testament, but verse 7 is one of the most quoted Old Testament texts in the New Testament, and in examining how it is used will shed light on how significant the ambiguity of v.6 is in Christian theology and exegesis.

1. Luke 3:21-22 (c.f., Matt.3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11)

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”4

The significance of this event in the life and ministry of Jesus is clear, particularly when we read him standing in the Synagogue after his return from the temptation in the wilderness, and reading from Is.61 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. . .’ Jesus clearly understood his recent baptism as his anointing.5

Scholars are almost unanimous in identifying an echo of Ps.2:7 in the words ‘you are my beloved son.’ Such a conclusion seems completely justified (see note 2). Ps.2:7 was therefore interpreted as referring to God’s anointing of Jesus by the Spirit at his baptism.

2 Acts 13:29-35.

And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, 'You are my Son, today I have begotten you.'

Paul here sees the resurrection of Jesus as fulfilment of God’s promise to the fathers. It is the ultimate fulfilment of all the hopes laid out in the promises of the God to the patriarchs. This is what Ps.2:7 refers to according to Paul. In other words for Paul, God said, ‘you are my son, today I have begotten you’ to Jesus at his resurrection.6

3. Hebrews 1:5 / 5:5

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior (κρειττων) to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say,

"You are my Son,

today I have begotten you"? . . .

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people. And no one takes this honour for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed (made high priest / exalted) by him who said to him,

"You are my Son,
today I have begotten you."

Here the author to the Hebrews focuses on Jesus’ ascension – the one who for a little while became lower than the angels, suffered and died and has now become superior to the angels, receiving a more excellent name and becoming the exalted high priest seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. This exaltation is underlined by the words said to him by the father – ‘You are my son today I have begotten you.’ Ps.2:7 therefore was said to Jesus, according to the author to the Hebrews, at his ascension.

So, Psalm 2:7 refers to three different events: Jesus' baptism, resurrection and ascension. Students cannot ask on this occasion, 'Which is the correct meaning?' because they are all contained in scripture and so must all be correct!

How did the apostles reach such conclusions for Psalm 2? Is it simply a result of divine dictation or inspired exegesis? An irresponsible and carefree ransacking of scripture or the result of a careful reading of the text?

The answer, I would suggest, doesn’t lie in Ps.2:7 but rather in v.6 and the ambiguity highlighted at the beginning of this article. The Hebrew נסכתי allows for various meanings: anoint,7 establish / make firm,8 exalt / make king.9 All these meanings are found in the New Testament - Jesus was anointed at His baptism; 'established' as God's king at his resurrection (cf, Rom. 1:4) and exalted / enthroned at His ascension.

There is also one other occasion where Psalm 2 is used in the New Testament - not explicitly, but echoed: the passion narrative in Mark's gospel.

Joel Marcus, in his Journal of Biblical Literature article, highlights how the passion narrative functions as a coronation narrative, turning the Roman mockery on its head so it declares the truth:

Pilate sneeringly asks, ‘You are the king of the Jews?’ Jesus’ derisive rejoinder ‘You say so’ That is – you Pilate by your actions and words are declaring me Royal. ‘Here the mockery that has transformed kingship into a joke encounters a sharper mockery that unmasks it, so that the derision of kingship is itself derided and true royalty emerges through negation of a negation. For many early Christians this reversal of a reversal, which turned penal mockery on its head, was probably the inner meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion’ (p.87).10

What does the Roman centurion say on seeing all these events? Mark 15:39: "Truly this man was the Son of God." Portraying Jesus' crucifixion as His coronation combined with a declaration of sonship clearly echoes Psalm 2. As with the other examples above Jesus' coronation at His crucifixion can be derived from the ambiguity of the Hebrew נסכתי - which can be translated 'I poured out (as a libation).' God's pouring out of His Son turned out to be His Son's coronation - there is no Kingship without sacrifice.

The New Testament witnesses different meanings for the same verse, mediated, it seems through the ambiguity of one Hebrew root.11 In doing so it provides us with a rich theology of Jesus' Kingship, founded upon his baptism / anointing, death, resurrection and ascension (none of which can be missing if he is to be God's established King). Yet it also provides us with a rich hermeneutic that delivers us from the exegetical captivity of the modern church that seeks the original meaning of human creativity. This New Testament hermenutic is not, as it may appear, a free-for-all, but careful exegesis that brings the whole of God's revelation in Christ to bear on the smallest of its parts, as opposed to modern exegesis that 'defrauds us of the whole by her anxiety about the parts'.12



1. ואני נסכתי מלכי על־ציון הר־קדשי
ואני נסכתי מלכי. אמשחתיה, כמה דאת אמר וסוך לא סכתי (דניאל י ג) דבר אחר אתכתיה, כמה דאת אמר עגל מסכה (שמות לב ד) דבר   .2
אחר גדלתיהו, כמה דאת אמר ושמונה נסיכי אדם (מיכה ה ד) וכתיב שמה נסיכי צפון (יחזקאל לב ל) והיכן גדלתיהו, על ציון הר קדשי:
3. The unspoken assumption behind this methodology is that the psalmist could not possibly be speaking of a divine King and so it must have a peculiar meaning for a specific king in a particular historical circumstance which is distorted when read Christologically. In such a scheme the Old Testament saints are, at best, all unitarian.
4.  Some manuscripts (and some church fathers [incl. Justin and Clement]) read: "beloved Son; today I have begotten you."
5. This was also the position of the early church who combined anointing with baptism from a very early period.
6. C.f., Mark 9:1-8 (and parallels) where Ps.2:7 is echoed again at the transfiguration of Jesus, an event connected to resurrection / ascension, with the added command ‘listen to him’ which appears to be a summary of Ps. 2:10-12.
7. C.f., Symmachus' Greek translation and the Aramaic Targum of Psalms.
8. C.f., Is.40:19 and 44:10 and Midrash Tehillim above.
9. C.f., Joshua 13:21 with Num 31:8 where princes (from the root נסך) are described as kings. Hence when used verbally the root can be to exalt / make king.
10. Joel Marcus, “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation,” JBL 125.1 (2006) p. 87.
11. Space doesn't allow to develop the way this same verse is applied to Christians, who are united with Christ in his baptism, death, burial and resurrection, in their own baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
12. A phrase borrowed from Cardinal John Henry Newman in his discourse 6.vii, The Idea of a University; where he is specifically speaking of certain writers 'of Ecclesiastical History', yet he also mentions commentators on 'Holy Scripture' in the same context.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 20 November 2010 17:44