Introduction to the Messianic Psalms 1
R. Catchpole, London
Amongst the various groupings that expositors tend to divide the psalms into according to their literary content and character, the sixteen that are referred to as the ‘Messianic Psalms’ are perhaps amongst the best known, Psalms that anticipated the coming of the Messiah.1
The Messianic Psalms and the Spirit of God
As to their human penmen, ten of the sixteen Psalms are directly attributed to David.2 It seems likely that he was also the author of Psalm 72, the title to the psalm being ‘A psalm, written for Solomon’ and which concludes with the words ‘The prayers of David the Son of Jesse are ended’. Psalm 89 is attributed to ‘Ethan the Ezrahite’, a man famous for his great wisdom, of whom little else is known apart from references to him in 1 Kings chapter 4 verse 31 and 1 Chronicles chapter 2 verses 6 and 8. Psalm 91 is frequently attributed to Moses on account of its general content and its similarity to the Psalm that precedes it, ‘A prayer of Moses the man of God’. The title to Psalm 45 might indicate that it was composed by the sons of Korah.3 The authors of the remaining two psalms, i.e., Psalms 102 and 118, are uncertain. But whether known or unknown each penman belonged to that noble band of ‘Holy men of God who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’.4 So, in Acts chapter 2 verse 30, Peter, in quoting from Psalm 16, described its author, David, to be ‘a prophet’. In Acts chapter 1 verse 16, in connection with a quotation from Psalm 69, Peter said, ‘this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake’. The Lord Jesus in Matthew chapter 22 verse 43, quoting from Psalm 110, says, regarding David’s Son, ‘how then doth David in spirit [‘in Spirit’ JND] call him Lord?’ These references remind us that the Holy Spirit ever delights to speak of Christ, and also of the prominent and important place these Psalms have in the Holy Spirit’s testimony to ‘the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow’.5
The Messianic Psalms and the Lord Jesus Christ
It is frequently asserted that the distinguishing mark of any Messianic Psalm is seen in it being specifically quoted in the New Testament in reference to Christ. That, however, is only a general guide, for three of the sixteen Psalms, though not quoted in the New Testament, are nevertheless clearly Messianic in character, namely Psalms 24, 72 and 89.
A. The Messianic Psalms and their testimony to Christ
Behind each Messianic Psalm, though Psalm 110 is a notable exception, there is an historical setting. As J. Flanigan observes, ‘It may describe the experience of the psalmist at that time, or be associated with some great event or circumstance, but when it is read and studied it becomes obvious that the contents go beyond the writer and his experiences, and that it is necessary to see the Messiah in the Psalm for its true fulfilment’.6 By way of example, Psalm 2 can be profitably considered in that light. Identified in Acts chapter 4 verse 25 as being a Psalm of David, we can trace within it an echo of the early experiences of David himself, his defeat of Goliath and his establishment by God upon the throne.7 Then, thinking of the historical background to Psalm 24, it is generally accepted that it is found in the joyful occasion when David brought the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obed-Edom to Mount Zion, as recorded in 2 Samuel chapter 6 and 1 Chronicles chapter 15.
Franz Delitzsch divides the Messianic Psalms into five groups,8 which we might expand as follows:
- The purely prophetic – which predict that a future Davidic king would be the Lord, as in Psalm 110. The Psalm giving to us a panoramic view of His glory as King, Priest and Judge.
- The eschatological – predicting the coming of Messiah and the consummation of His kingdom as in Psalms 68 and 118. Although both Psalms review events or experiences in the history of the Jewish people, each one concludes with the kingdom being the Lord’s. Psalm 68 culminates with reference to Messiah’s kingdom and its earthly centre at Jerusalem, and all kings subject to Him, vv. 29-32. In Psalm 118 the Stone rejected by the builders becomes the headstone of the corner, v. 22, and the Psalm ends with Messiah’s coming and Israel’s national conversion and rejoicing, vv. 24-29.
- The typological, prophetic – in which the writer describes his own experience but goes beyond that to describe what became true of the Messiah, e.g., Psalms 22 and 102. Both Psalms touch upon His sufferings and glory. In Psalm 22, in His suffering as forsaken of God, but, in His glory, the governor among the nations. In Psalm 102, in His sufferings as the lonely Man of sorrows, but, in His glory, the immutable Lord.
- The indirectly Messianic – composed for a contemporary king, but having ultimate fulfilment in the Messiah, e.g., Psalms 45 and 72. In Psalm 45, a Bridegroom and His wedding; in Psalm 72, a King and His rule.
- The typically Messianic – in which the writer was in some way typical of Messiah, but all he wrote in the psalm did not describe the Saviour Himself, e.g., Psalm 41, in which only verse 9 is directly applied to the Lord, cf. John. 13. 18.
Surely, no careful reader of the scriptures can fail to be impressed with the wide spectrum of truths the sixteen Psalms embrace in regard to the person, pathway, passion and pre-eminence of Christ. Though these comments are by their very nature only introductory, consider:
1. Aspects of His person:
As the Eternal Son: ‘Thou art my Son: this day have I begotten thee’, Ps. 2. 7.
As the last Adam: ‘Thou hast put all things under his feet’, 8. 6.
As the Priest, after the order of Melchizedec: ‘Thou art a priest forever’, 110. 4.
As the King of glory: ‘Who is this king of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle’, 24. 8.
As the eternal God: ‘Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre’, 45. 6.
As the unchangeable One: ‘thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end’, 102. 27.
2. Aspects of His pathway:
His incarnation and obedience: ‘Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me. I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea thy law is within my heart’, 40. 7-8.
His temptation in the wilderness: ‘he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways’, 91. 11.
His betrayal by Judas: ‘mine own familiar friend . . . which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me’, 41. 9.
His rejection and crucifixion: ‘they pierced my hands and my feet’, 22. 16.
His death and resurrection: ‘Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt shew me the path of life’, 16. 10-11.
His ascension and victory: ‘Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men’, 68. 18.
3. Aspects of His passion:
Following the order in which the Levitical offerings are described in the opening chapters of Leviticus, we can suggest that: in Psalm 40 we see the burnt offering; in Psalm 16 the meal offering’; in Psalm 118 the peace offering; in Psalm 22 the sin offering; and in Psalm 69 the trespass offering.
4. Aspects of His pre-eminence:
His manifestation in glory in Psalm 24: ‘Lift up your heads, O ye gates . . . and the King of glory shall come in’, v. 7; His exaltation upon the throne of David in Psalm 89: ‘I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth’, v. 27; and His millennial reign in Psalm 72: ‘He shall have dominion . . . from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth’, v. 8.9
1 The sixteen psalms are: Psalms 2, 8, 16, 22, 24, 40, 41, 45, 68, 69, 72, 89, 91, 102, 110, 118.
2 See Acts 4. 25 for Psalm 2, then the titles to Psalms 8, 16, 22, 24, 40, 41, 68, 69, 110.
3 The KJV has ‘For the sons of Korah’; J. N. Darby reads ‘Of the sons of Korah’. There are eleven such Psalms by, or for, this Levitical family choir.
4 2 Pet. 1. 21.
5 1 Pet. 1. 11.
6 J. Flanigan, What the Bible Teaches: Psalms, John Ritchie, pg. 16.
7 The Hebrew word translated ‘set themselves’ in Psalm 2 verse 2 is used of Goliath and translated ‘presented himself’, 1 Sam. 17. 16. Viewed in this way the ‘heathen’ raging and imagining a ‘vain thing’ are well illustrated in the proud boasting of the Philistines and their champion Goliath; the Lord’s ‘anointed’ would be a reference to king Saul; while ‘my son’ is David himself, cf. Acts 13. 21-22.
8 Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1, T & T Clarke, pp. 68-71.
9 For a helpful list of the Psalms in a suggestive chronological order see T. E. Wilson, The Messianic Psalms, pg. 5.