How are the Psalms “the Word of Christ”?
We are spending a summer in the Psalms at church as a response to Colossians 3:16’s command to “let the Word of Christ richly dwell in you.” This directive comes at the end of the string of descriptions of what a transformed life in Jesus Christ looks like – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, love, peace and thankfulness. Colossians 3:12-17 is the text that we have been living with since Easter. We have been talking and thinking together about how our encounter with the Risen Christ changes us fundamentally and irrevocably.
On Easter we looked at Romans 6:4 – “as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Since Easter we have been trying to understand what this “newness of life” looks like. That’s what got us to Colossians 3. Just like Romans 6, Colossians 3 is a baptismal text. In Colossians 2:11 baptism gets explicitly named as the gesture that signals the fact just as Christ was raised from the dead so we too are “raised up with Him through faith in the working of God.” This language about being “raised up with Christ” is where the argument of Colossians 3 begins (v. 1), and becomes the basis of its imperative to “put on the new self” (v 10). The virtues that get named in Colossians 3:12-17 are the wardrobe of grace that we are to put on as God’s chosen and beloved (3:12). And it is at the end of this list of virtues that Paul tells the Colossians that they are to “let the Word of Christ richly dwell in them” by singing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”
In the parallel to this verse in Ephesians it is the fullness of the Spirit that issues in the singing of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (5:18-19). This equivalency between the “Word of Christ” (Colossians) and the “fullness of the Spirit” (Ephesians) is a stunning reminder of how the Word and the Spirit are married in the work that God is doing in us. When a Christian opens her Bible that has been inspired by the Holy Spirit, an arc is created in her heart that is the seat of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling and empowering presence in her life. This is the experience of the “living word” that Hebrews 4:12 describes and that I started to write about in my April 2 Blog – “Let the Word of Christ Dwell in you Richly.” This is what makes the text of Scripture “a place of transforming encounter with God” that changes us, and then through us, changes the world around us (See M. Robert Mulholland’s “Working Assumptions as to the Nature of Scripture” in The Way of Scripture – pp.16-27). This is why it is indispensible for our spiritual vitality and effectiveness as a church to be a people who are committed to a serious and sustained engagement with Scripture. This thing we call Christianity just doesn’t work if we are not deeply rooted and grounded in God’s love, and since “the Bible is the only record of the redeeming love of God” that we have (James Denney) this requires the Word of Christ to dwell in us richly (Ephesians 3:17/Colossians 3:16).
Our “Summer in the Psalms” is a response to this critical need, one that takes its lead directly from Paul’s instruction that it is by “singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” that the “Word of Christ” can “richly dwell” in us. So, just exactly how are the Psalms the “Word of Christ”? Since they were all written long before Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), how can the Psalms be the “Word of Christ”? The answer to this question takes us in two different directions: (1) The Psalms are the “Word of Christ” because they were words that Jesus Christ used in His very own prayer life, and for that matter, still does; and (2) The Psalms are the “Word of Christ” because they are words about Jesus Christ; there is a sense in which He is the subject of every Psalm.
The Psalms are the Words of Jesus’ Own Prayers
I have a red-letter edition of the Bible, a Bible with all of the words of Jesus printed in red, and if it were more accurate, then the whole book of Psalms would be red. The Psalms were the prayers that Jesus prayed everyday, both at home and in the synagogue, both when He was alone and when He was gathered with the community of faith. As James Sire put it, “At key moments in His life on earth Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, turned to the Psalms for words to express his deepest thoughts and emotions.” The Psalms were such a part of Jesus’ own spiritual formation that they literally saturated his own thoughts and words. You hear echoes of them throughout the Gospels. Jesus used the words, phrases and thoughts of the Psalms to express Himself at the pivotal moments of His life. On the cross, in four of His seven “last words,” Jesus “chose Psalms as his voice” (Sire) –
1. “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachatni,” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1).
2. “I am thirsty” (John 19:28, quoting Psalm 69:21, cf. 22:15).
3. “It is finished” (John 19:30, quoting Psalm 22:31).
4. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46, alluding to Psalm 31:5).
The book of Psalms was the prayer book of Jesus Christ. These were the words that Jesus Christ prayed when He was on earth, and for that matter, still does. This was the insight of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, what he called the “secret of the Psalter.” The New Testament is quite clear that the Risen Christ now sits at the right hand of God the Father in glory, and one of the things that He is doing there is interceding for us – pleading our case – praying for us, and with us (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25; 9:24; I John 2:1). And according to Bonhoeffer, it is the Psalms that Jesus prayed while He was on earth that continues to be His prayer in heaven –
The Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word. He prayed the Psalter and now it has become his prayer for all time. Now do we understand how the Psalter can be prayer to God and yet God’s own Word, precisely because here we encounter the praying Christ? Jesus Christ prays through the Psalter in his congregation. His congregation prays too, the individual prays. But here he prays, in so far as Christ prays within him, not in his own name, but in the Name of Jesus Christ. He prays, not from the natural desires of his own heart; he prays out of the manhood put on by Christ; he prays on the basis of the prayer of the Man Jesus Christ. But when he so acts, his prayer falls within the promise that it will be heard. Because Christ prays the prayer of the psalms with the individual and the congregation before the heavenly throne of God, or rather because of those who pray the psalms are joining in the prayer of Jesus Christ, their prayer reaches the ears of God. Christ has become their intercessor. ( Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)
In Romans 8:26-27 we are told one of the more obvious truths about us as human beings – “we so not know how to pray as we should” (8:26); and then we are given one of the most important prayer promises in the whole Bible – “But the Spirit helps in our weakness… the Spirit intercedes for us… He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:26-27). Whatever else this means; I believe it means that when we pray the Psalms – part of the inspired Word of God – we are making an important connection between what is going on in our hearts and what has been revealed to be the will of God for us. This is why Jesus prayed the Psalms, and still does.
The Psalms are Words about Jesus Christ
The Psalms are the “Word of Christ” because they were and are words that Jesus Christ used and uses. They are words that He has made His own through His own faithful use of them. But they are also the “Word of Christ” because the Psalms are words about Jesus Christ. At the end of the Gospel of Luke, in the days before His Ascension when the Risen Christ “presented Himself alive… to the apostles whom He had chosen… by many convincing proofs… speaking of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:2-3), we are told that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” showing them how all the things that had been written about Him “in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms” had been fulfilled (Luke 24:44-45). The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once called the Old Testament the straw in which we find the baby Jesus, and this is what Jesus Christ Himself was telling His disciples at the end of the Gospel of Luke. He said it again in John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures,” Jesus told His critics, “because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness to me.” Take a look at Hebrews chapter 1. After an amazing introductory affirmation of who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does (1:1-3), the author of Hebrews proceeded to make the case for what he had just affirmed by rooting and grounding his claims in things the Scriptures taught, and the Scriptures to which the author of Hebrews specifically turned to make his case for Jesus Christ was the book of Psalms. Five different Psalms were quoted by the author of Hebrews in this chapter as having been fulfilled by Jesus Christ – Psalm 2 in verse 5; Psalm 104 in verse 7; Psalm 45 in verses 8-9; Psalm 102 in verse 10; and Psalm 103 in verse 13. And this is not the only place that you’ll find this in the New Testament. “Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians made the Psalms its own, applying to the Lord and to itself what was said in the Psalms about the People of God, Jerusalem, the king, the temple, the promised land, the kingdom and the covenant.” The Psalms are among the most quoted Old Testament sources in the New Testament explanations of the person and work of Jesus Christ. As Patrick Henry Reardon puts it in his book Christ in the Psalms: “Christ is the referential center of the Book of Psalms…the words of the psalms are the mighty name of Jesus broken down into its component parts” (xvii). And so, to know Jesus Christ, you’ve got to know the Psalms. They are as much about Him as anything you’ll read in the four Gospels. DBS+