Psalmnotherapy

Josh Moody

Psalmnotherapy

Why read the Psalms? Because they are designed to heal. In particular, they are designed to heal by pointing ourselves to Jesus. I know that when I read the Psalms I will not come across the name “Jesus” anywhere, but if the New Testament writers are to be believed, the soul language of the Psalms finds its fulfillment in Jesus, and in so doing it heals me by his wounds. Consider Psalm 2, Psalm 110, and Psalm 118 with me: 

Psalm 2 says,

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
    on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
    and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.”

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

When I read this psalm, I gain boldness. Consider Acts 4:23-31. The disciples had just been commanded not to preach any more in the name of Jesus. They refuse to obey this command because they must obey God’s commands when they conflict with human commands (Acts 4:19). They continue to speak the word of God with boldness. What is it that gives this confidence? The answer is found in the prayer of Acts 4:23-31, a prayer which focuses upon a correct understanding of Psalm 2. 

23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them.24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers were gathered together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel,28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

As they pray, they reflect upon Psalm 2. They notice that Psalm 2 predicts opposition to “the Lord and against his Anointed,” that is, against Jesus Christ. They realize that the opposition they are experiencing is because of their insistence on preaching Jesus. Therefore this opposition is predicted all the way back in Psalm 2. Once they realize this, they understand how the story will end. The psalm continues:

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
    on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
    and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.”

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

 The opposition, therefore, that they are experiencing to their preaching of the word of God is an opposition which has been predicted and whose result has also been foretold. Christ will triumph. His kingdom will be established. No wonder they are filled with the Spirit and speak the word with boldness. They are playing a part in a narrative whose conclusion is the victory of Jesus through the proclamation of his word. 

The second psalm I have in mind is Psalm 110. It reads:

The Lordsays to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

The Lordsends forth from Zion
    your mighty scepter.
    Rule in the midst of your enemies!
Your people will offer themselves freely
    on the day of your power,
    in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
    the dew of your youth will be yours.
The Lordhas sworn
    and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
    after the order of Melchizedek.”

The Lord is at your right hand;
    he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
He will execute judgment among the nations,
    filling them with corpses;
he will shatter chiefs
    over the wide earth.
He will drink from the brook by the way;
    therefore he will lift up his head.

This psalm also finds its fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus himself exegetes this psalm. He is teaching in the temple courts and explaining how the traditional message that the Christ was the son of David has to be understood by means of the psalm as a divine Son. 

35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I put your enemies under your feet.”’

37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?”And the great throng heard him gladly. (Mark 12:35-37)

The point Jesus is making is that their idea of “son of David” did not fit the evidence of this psalm. This son was also David’s Lord. What kind of “Son” must this then be? 

The early disciples make the same point when Peter preaches his Pentecost sermon:

34 For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
35     until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”(Acts 2:34-36)

This Jesus is the Lord.  The Psalms not only give us confidence when we face opposition, they also are designed to give us clarity about the divine nature of Jesus. 

My third example is Psalm 118.  Psalm 118 is a much longer psalm but the relevant excerpt is as follows. 

19 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord's doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lordhas made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
(Psalm 118:19-24)

While the first two psalms are more positive, this psalm has a distinctly negative function. It is intended to convict those who oppose Jesus of their danger. This is how Jesus preached the psalm in Mark 12. He told a parable where tenants of a vineyard reject all of the master’s messengers, until they finally reject and kill the son of the master. He concludes his story with this warning:

What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.10 Have you not read this Scripture:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
11 this was the Lord's doing,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

12 And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away. (Mark 12:9-12)

Jesus’ point is that if people reject him, they are fulfilling God’s plan that this Christ would be rejected and yet still become the keystone of God’s salvation plan, and that is a matter for rejoicing and wonder. 

Once more the early disciples pick up on Jesus’ exegesis of the psalm to preach the psalm in the same way. Dragged before the religious rulers to explain their miraculous healing of a crippled man, Peter declares:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders,if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:8-12)

Pete is saying that their rejection of Jesus fulfills God’s plan that by Jesus’ death salvation would come to the whole world. There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. 

In each of these three cases – Psalm 2, Psalm 110, Psalm 118 – the New Testament clearly indicates that the message of the psalm is fulfilled in Jesus the Christ. By so using the “soul” language of the Psalms to point to Jesus, they employ what someone called “Psalmnotherapy” by leading us to Christ in the midst of three different and specific situations.

1)      First, Psalm 2 gives us great boldness in the face of opposition to continue to stand up for Jesus. It heals us, by the work of the Spirit, of our temerity, fear, and cowardice. We become bold when by the work of the Spirit we realize that the One in heaven laughs – and that God’s Son will be proclaimed as the King of the whole universe.

2)      Second, Psalm 110 is intended to help us be clear about the divine nature of Jesus. If Jesus stands in the line of David, the promises in the Old Testament regarding this Messiah figure create such large categories – “the Lord said to my Lord” – that there is no space big enough for them other than infinity.  Psalm 110 provides healing for our man-centered, humanistic, small-minded appreciation of Jesus. He moves from being the man in sandals with a beard to the Son of God, the Lord, the majestic One, before whom we kneel, and at whose name we worship.

3)      Third, Psalm 118 is a warning psalm. I read it and am convicted of my need to accept Jesus as God’s salvation. There is no other name. Reject him and reject God; believe in him and you are saved. It heals through him, through Jesus. There is no other person who can provide the saving, healing, that I need: only Christ Jesus. 

 

Josh Moody is senior pastor at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois. He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and is an Associate Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards College at Yale University. He has authored several books, including No Other Gospel (Crossway, 2011) and Journey to Joy (Crossway, 2013).  Follow him on his blog and on Twitter @GodCenteredLife.

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