Jesus and the Psalms

In an earlier post, I suggested that the Psalms, as worship songs, can tutor our emotions.  But we have to honor the whole collection, and sing them all the way through, instead of attending only to what reflects our mood.  If the Christian life were to have a soundtrack, the Psalms would have to be part of it.

The life of our Lord Jesus himself is a case in point.

Matthew, for example, loves to tell the story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the promises implicit in the Hebrew Scriptures, frequently citing the prophets (especially Isaiah) and the psalms.  A variety of psalms appear in different ways: Satan misuses Psalm 91 to tempt Jesus (Matt 4:6); Matthew treats Psalm 78 as a prophetic utterance (Matt 13:35); the crowd hails Jesus on Palm Sunday by quoting Psalm 118 (Matt 21:9); and shortly thereafter, Jesus himself quotes Psalm 8 in response to the pestering indignation of some Jewish leaders (Matt 21:16).

Indeed, the closer the story gets to the crucifixion, the more frequently snippets of psalms can be found on Jesus’ lips.  He cites Psalm 118 in a parable against the chief priests and Pharisees (Matt 21:42); challenges the Pharisees’ understanding of the Messiah with Psalm 110 (Matt 22:44); echoes the Palm Sunday chant of Psalm 118 in his lament over Jerusalem (Matt 23:39); and after his arrest, quotes Psalm 110 again in a way that sends the high priest into a self-righteous tirade (Matt 26:64).

But perhaps the best known example is also the final one, when on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 as he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; also Mark 15:34, NIV).  Some have been troubled by what seem to be contradictory portraits of Jesus; the agonized cry from the cross in Matthew seems too much at odds with the confident and authoritative Jesus in the gospel of John, where Jesus’ final words from the cross were “Here is your mother,” “I am thirsty,” and “It is finished” (John 19:27, 28, 30, NIV).

In response, it’s been suggested that Jesus’ anguished exclamation be taken as a stand-in for the whole psalm, in which desperation gives way to the memory of God’s deliverance in the past, then ends on a note of trust and praise that God’s dominion will be established over all nations and for all the generations to come.

I think it would be too much to say that this is what Jesus meant by that cry, as if to say, “I’d recite the whole psalm, but I’m short on breath at the moment.”  The anguish of the psalmist was real–as was the anguish of Jesus.  But the psalm presupposes a narrative context in which the righteousness and justice of God will have the last word.  A cry of suffering is not a betrayal of the story, but the expression of a moment within it; the whole story is implied only to the extent that it has already engaged one’s imagination in quieter moments.

It’s interesting to note that John, who gives us a Jesus who seems to be in charge at every step along the way, nevertheless also takes up Matthew’s job of showing us a savior who fulfills the prophetic vision of the psalms.  He may not mention Jesus’ forsaken cry from Psalm 22:1, but he observes–as Matthew does not–that the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing in fulfillment of Psalm 22:18 (John 19:23-24).  John also sees the fulfillment of Psalm 34:20 in the fact that the soldiers didn’t bother to break Jesus’ legs, since he was already dead (John 19:33, 36).  And even a cursory reading of Psalm 22 will find other parallels between it and the crucifixion story.

Quotations from the Psalms are shot through the New Testament: the gospels, Acts, Paul, the book of Hebrews.  And the point isn’t that the Psalms are a goldmine of prophetic utterances about Jesus.  Rather, the point is that they form an important part of how the people of God–including Jesus and the writers of the New Testament–understood the story of what God was doing in history.  Their identities and imaginations were shaped by those songs and the stories their lyrics told of a faithful and sovereign God to whom one could look in times of trouble.

How might the Psalms shape us?