fbpx
Teachings

A Cruel Assignment – Psalm 2, Part 6 © Johannes Gerloff

editor - 19 June 2019

When God turns to a person in a special way, when He chooses him, giving him a special status and extraordinary talents, springs from this always a task. The election of the anointed – may he be the Judean king David, the nation of Israel, the Christ Jesus from Nazareth, his followers from Jews and Gentiles or also the eschatological messianic redeemer – carries an assignment with itself. The Son of God is always also the Servant of the Lord. Together with the inheritance the heir will always also receive a commission.

The “yes” to God’s counsel

In verse 7 of the second psalm, we have already seen that the Messiah agreed with “the Lord’s decree.” He had decided to proclaim it. God expects the active consent of the one He has chosen to be His instrument. The Creator does not seek puppets without a will. He looks for children who consciously and resolutely want that “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10; 26:42; Luke 22:42). This is now emphatically underlined once more in verse 8. The Lord calls upon His Messiah: “Ask of me, and I shall give nations to you as inheritance, as your possession the ends of the earth.”

This challenge comes from God. The parlance reminds of Solomon’s dream, where God tells the young king: “Ask me what I should give you” (1 Kings 3:5).[1]  Rashi[2]  phrases: “Pray to me all the time, if you come to fight against your enemies.” Exactly in this manner the raised arms of Moses decided the fight against Amalek (Exodus 17:8-16). God wants to be asked by those who are active on His behalf. He seeks active prayer warriors.

The ends of the earth

As limited the election of the Messiah, the anointed king, the anointed people, the spiritually gifted church may be: The objective of God’s work is never a small circle of exclusives, but always “the ends of the earth” (verse 8). The Creator hears the sighing of His unredeemed creation (Romans 8:22) – of the whole of creation! – and He suffers from it. God loves the world (John 3:16), not just one group of people. Though concentrating on the individual, the Father in Heaven always keeps in view the whole of the cosmos.

Martin Luther connects Psalms 2:8 with Romans 15:8-9. There, Paul writes to the Gentile Christian church in Rome: “The Messiah has become a servant of circumcision for the sake of God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises that are given to the fathers; the Gentiles, however, shall praise God for His mercy’s sake.”

With this connection, the reformer, consciously or unconsciously, first of all underlines the lasting difference between Israel and the Gentiles. Luther concludes: “Therefore Zion will be given to Christ as His kingdom without Him asking for it; but the Gentiles are given to Him as inheritance as a result of His desire, as a gift of Christ, because nothing had been promised to them.”[3]

Luther then continues to develop a universal perspective: “Therefore, let us not accuse the word of this psalm of lying (so that we will not define the inheritance of Christ to tight), neither because of the disgraceful behavior (perfidiam) of the Turks, nor because of the multitude of others who are mistaken in error. For who else could know among us who are truly Christians? Are not even among us too many bad people, and only few are good? The power (auctoritas) of the divine Word is greater, than that we might comprehend it, how much more is it greater than our delusions (suspicio) and our imagination (phantasia) which are preoccupied with the appearance of external customs.”[4] Impressive is the modesty of these statements with regard to “many bad people among us.” At the same time, Luther recognizes in these psalm words a hope for the Islamic world.

The ends of the earth will bow to the claim to power of the living God. That is not a question, but certainty. It is not questionable if this will happen, but only when this will happen. Luther points out that the parallel between the “Gentile nations” and the “ends of the earth” had been observed before him: “St. Augustine thinks that here is a repetition of the same thing (tautologiam), for it is the same expressed by ‘the Gentiles as inheritance’ and ‘the end of the world as possession.’ This [repetition] is (as I have said) always an indication of certainty (firmitatis), by which our faith is strengthened even more.”[5]

A claim of exclusivity

The God of Israel is not just the tribal god of some desert people. He is the Creator of heaven and earth. He is the God before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He alone is Lord (Psalms 22:30; Isaiah 45:23; Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10). Before him, each and every human being will have to answer, whether he or she wants it or not.

As much as God’s character is love, as much as He is driven by the will that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4), as much is He also holy. He cannot and will not leave the rebellion of the nations unanswered. Therefore, the Messiah not only has the task of self-sacrifice, as was the case with Jesus’ first coming and the fulfillment of Psalm 2 in the time of Pilate and Herod. The anointed of the Lord has also a judicial function: “You shall break them with an iron rod, dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (verse 9).

Judge and shepherd

Luther writes concerning the Hebrew “תְּרֹעֵם” (you shall break, smash), in which also the “shepherd” (רעה) resonates: “‘You shalt smash them’ (reges eos) is in Hebrew תְּרֹעֵם, which St. Jerome translated: You shall tend them. Johannes Reuchlin, however, indicates in his ‘Foundations’ (rudimentis) many meanings of this word, namely: to tend, to govern, to take away, to beat, to dash, or even to smash and to crush. And this last meaning is, in my humble opinion, the most suitable for this post, first, because an iron rod, as everyone knows, is better for crushing and shattering than for grazing and governing. Secondly, for governing it would have sufficed to say, with a scepter (virga), but for grazing, one cannot properly speak of a scepter neither of an iron [scepter].”[6]

In four Hebrew letters, thus, a whole feature of the character of God’s Messiah is comprehended. We may see in these four letters the shepherd boy David, who takes care of his flock, but then definitely will become aggressive when a lion or a bear attack (1 Samuel 17:34-36). We see the good shepherd going after a single lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7), who gives His life for the sheep (John 10:11), but also the judge of the world, who draws all nations to account, distinguishing between sheep and goats, in order to call the one “to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46).

The iron rod

Amos Hakham[7] explains that the “iron rod” (שֵׁבֶט בַּרְזֶל) is being used “to punish a rebellious slave. The Lord gives the king of Israel authority to subdue the rebellious Gentiles and punish them with all the severity of judgment.”[8]

Rashi explains the “iron rod” as “a sword.” In Revelation 19:15, “a sharp sword” and the “iron rod” stand side by side. The sword, carried by a government appointed by God, is to be feared because it “does not carry it in vain,” as Paul writes (Romans 13:4).

For Luther it is clear: “What is the rod (virga) of the mouth of Christ other than the Word of God, with which He smashes the earth, that is, those who are earthly-minded? What is the spirit of His lips other than the same Word of the Spirit, with which he kills the godless, that he may live in godliness, after he died to godlessness? This is the scepter, to whose point in the hand of Joseph Jacob bowed, Genesis 47:31 [Hebrews 11:21]. This is the scepter whose head Saint Esther touched, Esther 5:2.”[9]

Luther is aware that with his interpretation he leaves the ground of the simple wording of Scripture and slips into allegorical interpretation: “However, [the Gospel] is called a scepter in metaphorical (μεταφόρικως) or rather in figurative speech (αλληγόρικως).”[10]

Luther is not wrong when he states: “Just as the iron crushes and smashes everything, as is said in Daniel 2:40, so the Word of Christ crushes the great, that is, it humbles the proud, the crooked it makes just, that is, it chastises the disorderly, the straight it makes crooked, that is, it bows the haughty, the rough it makes smooth, that is, it makes the angry ones kind, the short it makes long, that is, it comforts the faint-hearted, the long it makes short, that is, it scares the presumptuous, the tightness it makes wide, that is, the stingy it makes generous, the width it makes tight, that is, the spendthrift it makes economical, the blunt it makes sharp, that is, the unlearned it makes learned, the sharp it makes dull, that is, the sages it makes fools, it takes away the rust, that is, it dispels laziness. In short, it destroys every flawed shape and changes it into another that pleases God.”[11]
The “iron rod” in Psalms 2:9, however, is about more than just a figurative, symbolic function of the Word of God by which a believer is purified, sanctified and realigned. Just as the opening verses of the psalm describe a concrete situation that is visible today, the following verses are about concrete, global political events. Luther knows: “See what it means to govern them (regere) with an iron scepter that is (as he says here) to smash many nations with an iron horn.”[12]

The comparison with the clay pot, which shatters into innumerable small pieces, is widespread in Holy Scripture (Rashi), up to the treasure that we have, according to the Apostle Paul, in “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

“The Hebrew word תְּנַפְּצֵם means, as Reuchlin affirms, you should disperse them, divide them, throw them apart.”[13] Luther further observes, that “a broken pot is completely unfit for its former use, so that you see how the word of Isaiah 30:14 is fulfilled: ‘Not a shard of its pieces will be found, to get in it a fire from the herd, or to draw water with it from a well.’”[14] “For a clay pot that has been broken, there is no restoration.”[15]
The “staff” stands for the rule of God, which will someday be unmistakably intrinsically tangible. Psalms 45:7 says: “Your throne, God, is forever and ever. A straight rod is the rod of your kingship.” Psalm 2 points out what Hannah, mother of the Prophet Samuel, confessed in her praise (1 Sam 2:6-7): “The Lord kills and makes alive. He leads down into the realm of the dead and [again] up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich. He humbles and exalts.”

The coming Messiah …

According to the testimony of the New Testament, it is first of all the exalted Messiah, who, two thousand years ago, went His way from the crib to the cross as suffering Christ and in the near future will come back as ruler of the world in order to govern the nations. In the Apocalypse of John (1:16), He is the One “out of whose mouth a sharp, double-edged sword” comes, with whom He will smite the Gentiles. In principle, John the seer paraphrases Psalms 2:9 in Revelation 19:15: “He grazes them with an iron rod. He stamps the winepress of the wine of the fierce wrath of the Almighty God.”

With this, the New Testament picks up what the prophets of ancient Israel had seen. Isaiah describes the “sprig from the trunk of Isaiah” as the one who “strikes the land with the stick of his mouth”. “With the spirit of his lips he kills evil” (Isaiah 11:4). In chapter 49 Isaiah describes the Servant of the Lord, whose mouth God has set “like a sharp sword” (verse 2). Strangely blurry – and we keep that as observation for the following – the prophet explicitly identifies this Servant of the Lord, who as an individual person has been called “from the womb of his mother” (verse 1) with the collective nation of Israel (verse 3).

The German Old Testament scholar Franz Delitzsch[16] wrote in the 19th century: “The office of the Messiah is not only that of Saviour but also of Judge. Redemption is the beginning and the judgment the end of His work… The Lord himself frequently refers in the Gospels to the fact of His bearing side by side with the scepter of peace and the shepherd’s staff, the scepter of iron also, Mat. xxiv. 50 sq., xxi. 44, Luke xix. 27. The day of His coming is indeed a day of judgment – the great day of the ὀργὴ τοῦ ἀρνίου, Apoc. vi. 17.”[17]

Undoubtedly, Psalms 2:9 describes the process Zechariah 9:9-10 tells us about, where the One who two thousand years ago entered Jerusalem “poor” “on a donkey, on a donkey’s foal,” will extirpate “the chariot from Ephraim” and “the horse from Jerusalem” – that is, the most powerful weapons systems imaginable at that time. He summarizes: “The bow of battle will be eradicated.” When the messianic king commands peace to the Gentiles who rebel against Him, then the first step may be a smashing, as Psalm 2 describes it. In the end, it will lead to a situation in which “His rule will stretch from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the land.”

If we have the five hermeneutical levels of Psalm 2 in mind, it is conceivable that the regional policy of King David three thousand years ago mirrored on a small scale this scenario, which today has global proportions.

… His people Israel, …

Psalms 110:2 says that “the Lord will send out the rod of His power from Zion.” Micah 4:13 gets more concrete by requiring: “Get up and thresh, daughter Zion. Because I make your horn of iron, I make your hooves bronze. You will crush many nations.” Isaiah 41:15-16 and Zechariah 12:6 are further texts describing a similar scenario in which the nation of Israel is used by God to judge Gentile peoples.

… and we?

No, I do not want to read any instructions for action from this text to the Jewish people or its modern State of Israel – and most certainly I do not wish to justify any injustice committed in war. I am not entitled to do so. Nor would it help in any way those who became or will become guilty in the turmoil of armed conflict.

But what if these prophetic texts predict scenarios in order to prepare us to do the right thing at the right moment?

Undoubtedly, the biblical context not only sees the eschatological messianic king as judge for the nations, but also His people Israel as a tool of judgment. And the Book of Revelation, which mentions the sword of judgment for the nations twice in viewing the exalted Christ (Revelation 12:5; 19:15), also sees it once in the hand of a victorious follower of Messiah.[18] In Revelation 2:26-27 the Risen One says: “He who overcomes and keeps my works to the end, to him I give authority over the Gentile nations. He will graze them with an iron rod, he will smash them like pots of clay.”

This does not mean that we as followers of Jesus should take the sword out of the hand of our returning Lord and hit out – certainly not ahead of time. But the Bible shows us that the Lord involves the people of Israel and us in His dealings with this world, not only in grace, but also in judgment.

As a stimulus for further thought: The second part of the book of Isaiah repeatedly suggests a similar scenario as here Psalm 2. I myself have experienced war several times and personally know soldiers who became terribly guilty in the framework of war. No one who goes to war will get away without trauma. That’s why I’ve become very careful not to envy anyone because he is chosen, or even to wish for election myself.

Isaiah 40 begins with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people!” The prophet speaks of an end to “military service” (Luther translated “bondage”) and does not trivialize guilt and failure in any way. God rarely reveals anything to us unless it concerns us directly. Therefore, the question arises: If Psalm 2 speaks into our time, what is our mission?

Footnotes:

[1] עמוס חכם, ספר תהלים, ספרים ג-ה, מזמורים עג-קן (ירושלים: הוצאת מוסד הרב קוק, הדפסה שישית תש”ן/1990), ח.

[2] Rabbi Shlomo Ben Yitzchak (1040-1105) or “Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki,” commonly called “Rashi,” was born in the northern French town of Troyes, studied for ten years in Mainz and Worms, before he returned to Troyes, where he distinguished himself as a judge and teacher. In his last years he witnessed the persecution of Jews during the Crusades. Rashi is one of the extraordinary interpreters of Jewish writings and the very first who explained the Bible and the Talmud comprehensively. His basic concerns were to bring Holy Scripture to the people, to promote the unity of the Jewish people and the theological confrontation with Christianity. Raschi made a sharp distinction between “pshat” (literal interpretation) and “drash” (allegorical interpretation), whereby the pshat gives the rash. His interpretation of Scripture has decisively shaped the reformer Martin Luther.

[3]Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 278.

[4] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 279.

[5] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 279.

[6] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 281-282.

[7] (1921-2012) became known in Israel as champion of the first Israeli and worldwide Bible quiz. His handicapped father, Noah Hakham, was a Jewish Bible teacher who had moved from Vienna to Jerusalem in 1913. He had not sent the only son to a public school for fear of a speech impediment. Rather, he himself had trained him in extremely poor conditions. The Bible quiz in August 1958 revealed Amos’ genius and established his legendary career as interpreter of Scripture.

[8] עמוס חכם, ספר תהלים, ספרים ג-ה, מזמורים עג-קן (ירושלים: הוצאת מוסד הרב קוק, הדפסה שישית תש”ן/1990), ח.

[9] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 282-283.

[10] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 283.

[11] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 285.

[12] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 282.

[13] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 286-287.

[14] Johann Georg Walch (hg.), Dr. Martin Luthers Sämtliche Schriften. Vierter Band. Auslegung des Alten Testaments (Fortsetzung). Auslegung über die Psalmen (Groß Oesingen: Verlag der Lutherischen Buchhandlung Heinrich Harms, 2. Auflage, 1880-1910), 287.

[15] עמוס חכם, ספר תהלים, ספרים ג-ה, מזמורים עג-קן (ירושלים: הוצאת מוסד הרב קוק, הדפסה שישית תש”ן/1990), ח.

[16] Franz Julius Delitzsch (1813-1890) was a German, Lutheran theologian and Hebraist. He taught at the Universities of Rostock, Erlangen and Leipzig. Delitzsch had an unusual knowledge of rabbinical writing. Best known are his translation of the New Testament into Hebrew and a series of commentaries on the Old Testament edited by Carl Friedrich Keil. In 1880 Delitzsch founded the Institutum Judaicum in Leipzig. The missionary John Duncan wrote about Professor Delitzsch that he “held to the divine authority and inspiration of the whole Old Testament” at a time when “many seemed to give this up”.

[17] C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Psalms 1-35, Commentary on the Old Testament vol.5/1. Translated by Francis Bolton (Peabody, Massachusetts/USA: Hendrickson Publishers, February 1989), 91.

[18] Compare Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72. An Introduction & Commentary, TOTC (Leicester/England and Downers Grove, Illinois/USA: Inter-Varsity, 1973), 51.

About the Author