Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 2

Psalm 2

The second Psalm is, in many respects the first Psalm proper of the collection, with Psalm 1 (discussed previously) being better viewed as a prologue or introduction to the Psalter. This is likely reflected in the variant reading of Acts 13:33; at the very least, there is some confusion in the manuscript tradition regarding how the Psalms were numbered. Psalm 1 is a piece of Wisdom literature, as the analysis given last week demonstrates, and likely dates from a later period, after most (if not all) of the Psalms had already been composed. Psalm 2, on the other hand, clearly stems from the kingdom period and, in both substance and language, may date back very nearly to the time of Solomon (10th century B.C.). It is thus fitting as the first Psalm of the collection; moreover, the royal theology reflected in it can be found in many of the Psalms, and is a central component of the Psalter (and to our understanding of it). This aspect was preserved in subsequent Israelite and Jewish tradition and informed Messianic beliefs regarding a future/end-time Davidic Ruler (on this, cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Psalm 2, given a Messianic interpretation, was applied to Jesus already in the very earliest stages of Christian tradition; its widespread application is seen at numerous points in the New Testament (Mark 1:11 par [Lk 3:22 v.l.]; 9:7 par; Acts 4:25-26ff; 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5).

In many ways, Psalm 2 is the royal Psalm par excellence—certainly, nowhere else is the Israelite/Judean royal theology presented so concisely and forcefully. It is generally recognized by most scholars that the setting of the Psalm is the accession (coronation/enthronement) of the new king; however, there are few clear signs of a specific ritual use of the Psalm. Thematically, Psalm 2 has a basic three-part structure, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Depiction of the surrounding nations and their rulers (at the time of the king’s coronation)—vv. 1-3
    • The Enthronement: YHWH and the King—vv. 4-9
    • Warning to the nations and their rulers (with the new king now enthroned)—vv. 10-12

The Psalm more or less follows the typical 3 + 3 bicola meter—i.e. three stressed syllables for each half line (colon).

Verses 1-3

The first two verses run parallel and show what the nations and their rulers are doing; in verse 3 they declare their intentions, climaxing in a sudden act of rebellion. In the ancient world, the accession of a new king (especially if he happened to be a child or young man) provided an opportunity, at this time of transition, for vassals and rulers of surrounding territories to seek to gain independence and/or power of their own. Acts of rebellion and warfare were not uncommon at such moments. This is what we see depicted in verse 1-3. At the time of accession, before the new (Israelite/Judean) king has the chance to establish/consolidate his rule, vassals and other surrounding nations are plotting to take action. Let us examine the structure of these lines, and some of the key words involved.

hM*l* (“for what”, i.e. “for what purpose, why”)—the opening word summarizes the wickedness and futility of such plans for rebellion. Despite the youth and/or inexperience of the new king, and the apparent vulnerability of the Israelite/Judean kingdom at this moment, king and kingdom have the protection of God (YHWH) himself. This is the point made in verses 4-9.

There is a chiastic parallelism to the remainder of words in verse/line 1:

    • “they throng (together)” [Wvg+r*]
      • “(the) nations” [<y]og]
      • “and (the) peoples” [<yM!u%l=W]
    • “they mutter empty (threats)” [qyr!-WGh=y#]

Moreover, the final word (qy!r, “emptiness, empty [thing]”) echoes the futility of the first (“for what, why”). The two verbs are certainly parallel, in a synonymous or synthetic manner:

    • vg~r* (r¹gaš)—this relatively rare verb, often translated “rage” here, more properly refers to a group or throng of people coming together, with a hostile intent or purpose (cf. also Psalm 55:14; 64:2).
    • hg`h* (h¹gâ)—this basic verb seems to refer to someone (or something) making a low/deep sound, as of a person moaning or an animal growling (Isa 31:4; 38:14; 59:11). It is used in the context of mourning in Isa 16:7; Jer 48:31. Figuratively, it can be used of words or thoughts coming from the heart, often in a negative or hostile sense (Prov 24:2; Isa 8:19; 59:3, 13; Lam 3:62), but also for the thoughts/words of the righteous and devout (Ps 1:2; 19:15; 35:28; 63:7; Prov 15:28, etc). Typically it is understood here in terms of negative/hostile thoughts (i.e. plans for rebellion, etc); however, Dahood (p. 7) cites the cognate usage in the Canaanite Kirta text (lines 90-91) where the root seems to be used in the sense of counting/numbering military troops. This meaning would fit the context of the Psalm as well.

The two nouns are also parallel and complementary, forming a hendiadys: “nations” (<y]og) and “peoples” (<yM!u%)—i.e. all of the surrounding people who are (and have been) under the influence and authority of the Israelite/Judean king, including individuals, socio-political and ethnic groups, vassal states, and separate kingdoms. This comprehensive depiction sets the stage for the warning—to any and all who might seek to rebel at the time of the new king’s coronation—at the end of the Psalm (vv. 10-12). In verse 2, the rulers of these nations/peoples are in view, following a similar poetic parallelism as in verse 1; note the sequence of words:

    • “they set/place themselves” (Wbx=y~t=)
      • “(the) kings of (the) earth” (Jr#a#-yk@l=m^)
      • “and (the) honored (one)s” (<yn]z+orw+)
    • “they are set/established” (Wds=on)

These parallel and partially synonymous verbs need to be considered:

The verb /z~r* should also be noted; it is similar in meaning to db^k*, “(be) weighty, worthy, honored/honorable” (cf. Judg 5:3; Prov 8:5; 31:4; Isa 40:23; Hab 1:10. Here the participle is parallel to “kings of the earth” and refers to persons who have a commanding presence or position, i.e. ruler, prince, etc; a related noun has a similar meaning (Prov 14:28). With all this in mind, here are verses 1-2 in full translation:

“For what [i.e. why] do the nations throng together,
and for (what) do the peoples mutter empty (threats)?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the honored (one)s are set (firmly),
against YHWH and against his Anointed.”

The rebellious plans and actions are directed against the new king (“[the] anointed [one]”, j^yv!m*), but, at the same time, also against Yahweh Himself; this is to be expounded in vv. 4-9. The drama of the scene continues to build in verse 3, where the rulers speak and declare their rebellious intent:

“We shall pull off their (cord)s binding (us)
and we shall throw away their ropes from (off of) us!”

This is a typical example of synonymous parallelism in Hebrew poetry, in which the second line heightens and intensifies the first. The verbs qt^n` (“pull, drag, draw [away]”) and El^v* (“throw, drag [away]”), along with the nouns rs@m) (from rs^a*, i.e. something which binds) and tb)u& (“woven [strands]”, i.e. rope), create a doubling which underlines the hostile intent of the rulers, but also, in a sense, the futility of their efforts. From the standpoint of the historical setting, the pronoun suffix “their” (o[m]) could simple refer to the Israelites; however, based on the context of what preceded in verse 2, the plural certainly refers to “YHWH and his Anointed” (i.e. God and the new king, together). The rebellious hostility of the rulers is directed specifically, and ultimately, against Yahweh and the anointed King of Israel/Judah.

Verses 4-9

In these verses, the focus shifts to the coronation and enthronement of the new king, who is under the protection of YHWH. This ruler is referred to specifically as “his [i.e. Yahweh’s] Anointed”. There would have been an actual anointing ceremony involved at the accession/coronation of the king, but here we see expressed the religious and theological dimension—the king is anointed by God, and belongs under His authority and protection. The power ruling Israel/Judah ultimately belongs to God, not the king. This is the basis for the Israelite royal theology in the Psalms, which we see expounded throughout vv. 4-9. It begins in striking fashion, emphasizing not the king’s enthronement, but that of God’s own throne in Heaven:

“The (One) sitting in the heavens laughs,
My Lord [yn`d)a&] chatters at them”

Both verbs indicate mocking derision: (a) qj^c* (equivalent to qj^x*), “laugh (at)”, perhaps in the sense of “play/toy (with)”; and (b) gu^l*, apparently a kind of stuttering/stammering, done in a mocking manner. In verse 5, the mockery gives way to more direct action against the rebels; but does God act by speaking, or by driving away and scattering his enemies in a more primal and concrete sense? Based on a customary reading of the MT, verse 5 begins:

“Then he speaks to them…” (omyl@a@ rB@d^y+ za*)

where omyla is read as the preposition la + object suffix; however, Dahood reads this as the noun lya (“ram”) with defective spelling, the expression “their rams” being a reference to the valiant warriors and commanders of the rebellious rulers. At the same time, Dahood understands the verb rbd not in the ordinary sense of “open the mouth, speak, say”, but according to the Akkadian duppuru/dubburu, “pursue, drive (away)” (p. 9; citing Chicago Assyrian Dictionary [CAD] III (D), p. 188a). For other Old Testament examples, he cites Psalm 56:5; 116:10; 127:5; Jer 9:20-21; Lam 5:9. According to this reading, v. 5 would be:

“Then he drives away their ‘rams’ [i.e. warriors]…”

Most notably, in support of this reading, I would point out Exodus 15:15, in the Song of the Sea; cf. also 2 Kings 24:15; Job 19:22 (Dahood, p. 9). The parallel use of the verb lh^B* (also in Ex 15:15) would seem to support this sense as well; it adds to the idea of God creating a disturbance which alarms and frightens the rebels, causing them move quickly (run away, etc). The nouns [a^ (lit. “nostril”, fig. “anger”) and /orj* (“burning”) add to the graphic depiction of the scene, often obscured in conventional English translation. Here is my rendering (using Dahood’s reconstruction of v. 5a for the moment):

“Then he drives away their ‘rams’ with his nostril(s flaring),
he frightens them (all) with his burning (anger)”

Verse 6 has proven even more problematic for commentators. As it stands, the Masoretic text reads:

“And I have placed [yT!k=s^n~] my king upon ‚iyyon,
upon (the) mountain of my holiness”

However, this has been frequently emended, based largely upon the reading of some Greek manuscripts, whereby it is the king speaking rather than God: “I have been placed (as) his king [Heb. oKl=m^ yT!k=S^n]?] upon ‚iyyon…”. Dahood (p. 10) repoints the MT to give a slightly different reading, along the same lines: “But I have been anointed [yT!k)s%n+] (as) his king upon ‚iyyon…”. According to this interpretation the waw (w+) at the beginning of the verse is contrastive: “Then he drives away their ‘rams’…but I have been set/anointed (as) his king…”. Following the traditional MT, the conjunction would indicate a dramatic climax to God’s action in v. 5: “Then he drives away…he frightens them…and (then says), ‘(See) I have placed my king upon ‚iyyon…”. If we keep to the understanding of the verb rbd in verse 5 as “speak”, then verse 6 represents what YHWH says to the rebels.

If it is God speaking in verse 6, then verse 7, in which the king is (again) clearly the speaker, suggests a dramatic dialogue, of sorts, within the Psalm. If the king is the speaker in verse 6, then v. 7 simply builds upon this scenario:

“But I have been placed (as) his king upon ‚iyyon,
upon (the) mountain of his holiness,
(and) I will recount the inscribed (decree) of YHWH
(in which) he said to me
‘You (are) my Son—I have given birth to you th(is) day!
…’

Whichever is the precise scenario envisioned in vv. 6-7, all commentators can agree that vv. 7b-9, the remainder of the section, represents the “inscribed (decree)” [qj)] of Yahweh, in which God lays out His relationship with the Israelite/Judean king. God is the Ruler of All, enthroned in Heaven, and it is He, through His own written (inscribed/engraved) decree, who gives ruling power and authority to the king. This authority includes rule over the surrounding peoples and nations, extending even to “the ends of the earth”. It is this idea of the Israelite/Judean king’s authority over all the nations which influenced certain aspects of Messianic thought—i.e. the coming Davidic Ruler who will subdue the wicked nations and usher in God’s (end-time) Judgment against them. The influence of verses 7-9 can be seen both in the New Testament (Luke 3:22 v.l.; Acts 4:25-26ff; Heb 1:5; 5:5; Rev 2:27; 12:5), and in other Jewish writings of the period (e.g. Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25; 2/4 Esdras 13:33ff). For more on the Messianic interpretation of Psalm 2 (esp. verse 7) by early Christians, see Parts 6-8 and 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Here is my rendering of verses 7b-9:

“You (are) my Son—I have given birth to you th(is) day!
As (for it) from me, and I will give the nations (for) your inheritance,
and the ends of the earth (as land) seized for your (possession).
You will break them with a staff of iron,
(and) shatter them (to) pieces like vessel(s) shaped (from clay).”

Verses 10-12

A precise interpretation of these closing verses of the Psalm depend much on the textual question surrounding the last two words of v. 11 and the first two of v. 12. Because of the complexities involved, I have devoted a separate note to a discussion of the matter. Fortunately, a general interpretation is still possible, and, indeed, clear enough from the overall context. If the enthronement of the new king is the focus in vv. 4-9, here in verses 10-12 we have a warning to the surrounding nations, now that the king is on the throne. This time-indicator is present in the opening word of verse 10, hT*u^w+, which means something like “and (so) at (this) time”, i.e., “and now…”. I take the context of the warning which follows to be two-fold: (a) you missed your chance to rebel before the enthronement, (b) now that he is enthroned you must not dare to rebel against him. However one ultimately understands the first two words of verse 12 (customarily read as “kiss the son…”, cf. the supplemental note), there can be no doubt of the idea, central to the royal theology, that the Israelite king is under the protection of YHWH, and any action against the king is effectively taken against God Himself. Thus we have the forceful warning (and exhortation) for the surrounding nations, with their rulers, to submit to the rule of YHWH—who is ultimately the one on the throne (in Heaven). The closing line of the Psalm makes clear that the orientation of the work, as it has come down to us, transcends the original (historical) setting with its Israelite royal theology. Indeed, we find an echo of the beatitude that begins the first Psalm (cf. the earlier study):

“(The) happiness of all (the one)s trusting in Him!”

Thus, the second Psalm, despite the historical origins of its content, is not addressed merely to the rulers of the nations, but to the nations themselves—to all people everywhere. The one who serves as God’s representative on earth, among the people, is rightly called His “son”, being the heir to God’s own ruling power, with the privileges and protections that come from such a position. The central message of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is that divine representative, the Son of God, in the fullest possible sense, and all the ones who trust in him have the happiness and blessedness of knowing that they, too, share in that same status and position—of being children of God.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 16 (1965).