1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
7 I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 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, with trembling 12 kiss his feet, or he will be angry,
and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Happy are all who take refuge in him.
The year is 871, and the Great Heathen Army, hoardes of vikings from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, have invaded England, bent on conquering the island and its loose alliance of Christian, Anglo-Saxon Kings. The Vikings have largely succeeded, as kingdom after kingdom falls under their advance. All except for one, in the remote southwest corner of the island: The tiny kingdom of Wessex is the last to offer any resistance.
Its aging King, Æthelwulf, left behind five strong sons, but one by one they fell, and only the youngest, Prince Ælfred, remains. Ælfred, at 22, is not a warrior; he is an intellectual, a deeply religious boy who suffered from illnesses throughout his childhood.
And now in 871, surrounded on all sides with Vikings, with no allies or brothers left to come to his aid, and little hope or confidence from his people, Ælfred is crowned king.
Of course, he will go on to become Ælfred the Great, the king who defeated the Vikings, united England under one crown, and sparked a rennaisance in medieval English art, literature, government, and education.
Along the way, he personally translated the Book of Psalms from Latin into his native tongue, the very first translation of the psalms into the English language.
He did this late in his life, and I like to imagine him sitting in his study, reflecting back on his long reign and all that he had accomplished, as he translated the words of Psalm 2, verse 6:
“And ic eam þeah cincg geset fram Gode ofer his ðone halgan munt Syon, to þam þæt ic lære his willan and his æ.”
English sounds a little different now than it did in the 9th century. In modern English, Alfred’s translation reads: “But I, however, am appointed by God king over Zion, that holy mountain of his, to teach his will and his law.”
And when he translated the opening lines of Psalm 2, about the nations raging, and the kings of earth setting themselves against God’s chosen king, I wonder if these words took King Alfred back in thought and memory to that day when he first became king, to his own desperate prayers on that day to to break his enemies “with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”
I wonder this because Psalm 2 is believed by scholars to be a coronation psalm of the ancient Jewish people, to be read or sung in the temple as part of the official ceremony when a new king ascended to the throne of Israel. Like England in the 9th century, Israel was a small country sourrounded on all sides by powerful enemies. The number one priority of a good king was to protect the people from invasion.
The Psalm is divided into four parts with a near perfect inner symmetry, each speaking with a different dramatic voice. The first part (v.1-3) is the voice of the nations, and they speak their part threatening Israel, Israel’s God, and Israel’s king.
The second part (v.4-6) is God’s part, laughing at the challenge and therefore inspiring his people with confidence. When God speaks his part, it is to introduce his chosen king, whom he has placed on Zion, the holy hill (a poetic reference to Jerusalem).
In the third part (v.7-9), the king speaks, reminding the people of his special connection with God, and of God’s promises to defend them and give them success against their enemies.
In the final part (v.10-12), the people, now unified under their God and king, speak their reply to the nations and their kings, warning them and threatening them and making the “circle” complete.
I’m explaining all of this in order to make the point that the context in which a Psalm was written, and the purpose for which it was used is important. That’s true for all scripture, but especially for the Psalms. And Psalm 2, right here at the beginning of the book, is a little bit hard for us to relate to. In our country, we haven’t had a king or a coronation for hundreds of years. That’s why I started with the story of King Alfred.
But if even that story feels remote, consider this one: On January 20, 1961, a young John F. Kennedy, recently elected President, stood on the steps of the United States capitol and said “I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.” In his inaugural speech, he addressed other countries, saying “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
His words included some promises, some thinly veiled threats, some appeals to God, and the acknowlegement that we as a country were (in his words) “embattled” in a struggle against powerful enemies–in essence, the same kinds of sentiments we find in the words of Psalm 2.
Despite the common themes, Kennedy’s words likely sound to us more sophisticated, more “civilized” than the promise in Psalm 2 that the king, with God’s help, will break his enemies “with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Here again, it’s important to remember historical context, and that in many respects, we’ve made a lot of progress in the last 3,000 years. Maybe.
But there’s something else I think is important to understand when reading the psalms, and Psalm 2 is a good example of this. A lot of times, when we think of the Bible, we imagine a collection of sacred writings handed down to us from the heavens by God himself, in final unchanging form, reflecting God’s perfection in every word.
And so, when Psalm 2 describes God as wrathful, angry, derisive–“kiss his feet or he will be angry and you will perish in the way!” what are we supposed to do with that? It is the “Word of God” after all. It comes from God, so it must be true. And we, as progressive, peace-loving, 21st century Christians have a hard time wrapping our heads around this kind of God. Even a 7th century BCE context has a hard time explaining that away.
Here’s what we need to remember: The book of Psalms is a little bit different than the other books of the Bible.
It is a book of prayers. When we pray, we imagine a God who hears, who understands, who is sympathetic, and because of that, sometimes the God to whom we pray begins to resemble…well…us!
I’m reminded of the kindergarten teacher who was observing her classroom of children while they drew pictures. Occasionally, she would walk around the room to see each child’s work. “What are you drawing?” she asked one little girl who was working diligently at her desk. The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.” The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” The little girl replied, “They will in a minute.”
Psalms is sacred and divine NOT because it perfectly expresses God’s thoughts and intentions, but because it perfectly expresses the hopes, fears, desires, and full range of very human emotions from some very human people.
If we’re honest, there’s not a single one of us who hasn’t at some point in our lives, wanted to punch somebody in the face, sometimes for very good reasons. Or better yet, you may have secretly hoped that God might do the dirty work for you, punishing the people who antagonize you, making sure they “get what’s coming to them.”
That sentiment is just as alive and well in our time as in ancient England and ancient Israel. Like the psalmist, we still pray those prayers to God, consciously or unconsciously.
The beauty of Psalms is that we get to see and hear all those heartfelt prayers–the joyful ones, the pious ones, right alongside the nasty and vindictive ones. And so we know we’re not alone. And we’re not wrong for pouring out our desires to God, even when those desires are less than charitable.
But while God listens to us, and God answers us, it’s not always in the way we might want or expect. The prayer of God’s people in ancient Israel, when they crowned a new King, was that their king might smash their enemies into tiny bits. That didn’t work out so well for them–in fact, most of their kings are defeated, and ultimately their temple is destroyed. Twice.
But 400 years later, when God finally answers the prayer at the heart of Psalm 2, he sends a different kind of king, a different kind of messiah. One who, instead of attacking his enemies, tells his followers to turn the other cheek. One who, instead of threatening with power and might, reaches out to the poor and the disposessed with kindness and love. One who, instead of taking lives, gives up his own. This of course, is Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the peasant king from the rural town of Galillee, who leads a relatively tiny army of fishermen, prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors. This irony is not lost on his followers: At his baptism, the writers of the gospels quote from Psalm 2, placing in God’s mouth the words of verse 7, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” but thankfully leaving out the part about dashing his enemies in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Jesus never gets a formal coronation ceremony, unless you count the crown of thorns forced onto his head at his crucifixion. But near the end of his life, he does institute a different kind of ceremony, a ritual he asks his followers to carry on after he is gone: It’s the ritual we celebrate every month when we gather around this table. It’s a ritual that emphasizes sacrifice and service rather than command and conquest.
Psalm 2, for all its posturing and politics, ends with a blessing: Happy (blessed) are all who take refuge in him. I think that part of “taking refuge in him” is praying with the brutal honesty of the psalmist, when we are afraid, when we are angry, when we are vulnerable, and when we are proud. But the other part of “taking refuge in him” is learning to recognize and accept God’s answer to our prayer when it arrives…unexpectedly…quietly…not in a crowd or a crown, but in the simple breaking of bread in the company of unlikely people.