In late February and early March, Iowa residents become pilgrims to an annual festival in Des Moines—the high school boys basketball tournament. In a district game, Van Meter High School has competed against Des Moines Christian School. The sportscast about the game took the sidelines when the Van Meter boys wore t-shirts insulting the beliefs of the Des Moines Christian kids. Some of the shirts said, “I Hate Jesus”. Of course, there was no national news feeding frenzy about this story as there would have been with emblazoned messages such as “I hate Mohammed” or “Jesus rules” or even “Save the Stars” with a simple drawing of a male fetus.
As we continue our Psalms studies in this Old Testament Survey course, we come now to the second of the two gateway psalms, Psalm 2. With clarion call to all nations, it declares a stern warning to everyone who would hate Jesus, and it announces in dramatic verse the end result of all who do.
Having expressed astonishment at the senseless rejection of Yahweh’s rule by insurgent communities, the psalmist narrates Yahweh’s response to such arrogance through the coronation of his Messiah, and he exhorts all to submit him in order to avoid his wrath and experience his blessing.
George Frideric Handel’s (in his timeless oratorio, Messiah), graphically depicts the foolishness and sheer arrogance of hating Jesus as a bass boldly sings, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together and why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.” Then a chorus quotes the Jesus-haters in an agitated polyphony: “Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us.’ Finally, an impassioned tenor woefully declares the tragic climax of the Jesus-hater: “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
By way of review, Psalms 1 and 2 open the door to the rest of the Psalter both in sequential position and doctrinal content. They stand as the gateway poems for the remaining 148. The first contrasts two ways: the righteous and the wicked. The second contrasts two kingdoms and hence, two worlds and two worldviews: the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of earth. Psalm 1 looks at individual, personal life. Psalm 2 looks at corporate, national life. Both psalms present contrasting attitudes toward God’s law. In the first psalm, the righteous person loves tôrâ and is able to stand under judgment, but the wicked person hates it and cannot survive under God’s just judgment. In the second psalm, righteous leaders submit to it and receive Yahweh’s favor; wicked leaders seek to throw it off and receive Yahweh’s wrath.
So, we come to Psalm 2 that divides into four stanzas of three verses each. In the first stanza, the psalmist expresses astonishment at insurgent nations’ rejection of Yahweh’s rule (1-3). Then the psalmist narrates Yahweh’s response to the nations’ rebellion through the installment of his king on Zion (4-6). The third stanza records Yahweh’s decree and the coronation of his anointed one who will destroy the rebel nations (7-9). Finally, the psalm ends with an exhortation to submit to Yahweh’s anointed for two opposite reasons: to avoid his wrath and to experience his blessing (10-12).
(Read Psalm 2.)
Notice how “the theme of kingship pervades this psalm. While most of the kingship psalms focus on either divine or human kingship, Psalm 2 masterfully integrates both, contrasting the divine King and His human counterpart with the hostile ‘kings of the earth.’”1 Without a superscription, we may find help in understanding the origin of the psalm by the notice in Acts 4:25 that these are David’s inspired words.
Spurgeon (1966: vol. 1, 10) labels this a sublime psalm
as it sets forth as in a wondrous vision  the tumult of the people against the Lord’s anointed,  the determinate purpose of God to exalt his own Son, and  the ultimate reign of that Son over all his enemies. [And Spurgeon exhorts:] Let us read it with the eye of faith, beholding, as in a glass, the final triumph of our Lord Jesus Christ over all his enemies.
A brief analysis of the form of this psalm shows how uniform are its parallelisms. For example, “the nations rage” and “the peoples plot” (v. 1); “the kings of the earth set themselves” and “the rulers take counsel”(v. 2). They say, “let us burst their bonds” and “let us cast away their cords” (v. 3). The Lord “laughs” and “holds them in derision” (v. 4). Then the Lord speaks in wrath and terrifies in fury (v. 5). You get the idea. Alexander (1975: 12) took the time to count some details of comparison between Psalm 1 and Psalm 2:
The number of verses and of stanzas is just double in the second.… [The second begins] as the first ends, with a threatening…. [The second] ends, as the first begins, with a beatitude. There is also a resemblance in their subject and contents. The contrast indicated in the first is carried out and rendered more distinct in the second. The first is in fact an introduction to the second, and the second to what follows.
Perhaps your own personal study will reveal even more how intricately the Holy Spirit planned the composition and placement of these gateway psalms for our instruction and blessing.
Now to Psalm 2, stanza by stanza: First, the psalmist expresses astonishment at insurgent nations’ rejection of Yahweh’s rule (1-3). “Why?” he begins. “Why” commonly introduces a interrogative seeking a reason or an explanation, such as “Why do the righteous suffer?” or “Why do you weep at stories of hardened sinners becoming softened saints?” But this “why” seeks no reason.
Rather it expresses exasperation, amazement, and incredulity. What in the world are they thinking? Don’t they know how foolish, how naïve, how utterly outlandish, how shortsighted is their behavior? Think, if you will, about how we ourselves ask this at times: “Why did I reject what I know is true and turn my heart away from righteousness? Or, why did I speak so hastily?” We pose the question to our children: “Why did you eat all those cookies? Why did you wait until bedtime to remember this homework assignment for tomorrow?” Exasperation couples with frustration or anger. Sometimes, the “why” includes a merciful tone, “Why did you forget my promise? I am so saddened that you forgot!”
Here in Psalm 2, the psalmist may in fact bear that merciful attitude as, in the first place, he wonders why the nations (KJV, heathen) plot against Yahweh (1). “Nations” and “peoples” (1a) do not simply denote Gentiles in contrast to Jews but “whole communities or masses of mankind…. [A]s distinguished from Psalm 1’s mere personal or insulated cases of resistance and rebellion.”2, Psalm 2 concerns the scattered and varied creatures of Yahweh made in his image.
The psalmist pictures the nations in a popular commotion as an agitated, roiling sea, raging, noisily assembling together (1a). I am reminded of motion picture portrayals of British parliamentarians shouting in wild debate, nearly ready to draw swords upon their opponents across the aisle. Here the mass of humanity congregates on one side of the aisle, and, as we will learn in verse 2, God dominates the other side in holy majesty. Now, as we listen to their speech, we hear the assembled nations imagining and plotting a scheme. The Hebrew word for “plot” (ESV, NIV) or “imagine” (KJV) here (1b) is translated “meditate” in Psalm 1:2, meaning “murmuring to oneself, or in a bad sense, muttering.”3 The psalmist editorializes their scheme as “in vain, something hopeless, impossible.
After wondering why the nations plot against Yahweh in verse 1, the psalmist now portrays the nations’ rulers as counseling together against Yahweh in rejection of his rule (2-3). First, in verse 2, the collective behavior of the nations opposes a common “enemy”—Yahweh and his Messiah (2). The term “anointed one,” meaning, Messiah (Christ), came “into use among the Jews as the common designation of the Great Deliverer and King whom they expected.”4 Acts 4:23-28 sees here a prediction of Christ’s crucifixion.5 Luke records the aftermath of Peter and John’s post-Pentecostal imprisonment:
23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,
“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’,
27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
After telling that the collective behavior of the nations opposes a common “enemy”, the psalmist quotes the nations’ intention to reject Yahweh’s rule (3): “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.“
“Bonds” (KJV, “bands”) and “cords” reflect the restrictiveness of the Lord’s law, the restraints that the holy law of God imposes upon mankind. Without such restraints, can you not imagine the multiplication of chaos, anarchy, terror, and eventual implosion of human society? We see the inevitable destructiveness in lesser degrees within relationships, marriages and families when demanding lust replaces God’s wise and loving sexual restraints. We see the tragic destructiveness of churches, organizations and businesses where covetous and jealously, gossip and lying superimpose God’s wise and loving restraints of human attitudes and speech. We see the destruction of human government when human greed and power press their demands above God’s wise and loving restraints that breed love, moderation, prosperity and social peace. Such restraints stand as burdensome, distasteful and hated to the collective heart of the world.
And so, the psalmist quotes the nations’ intention to reject Yahweh’s rule. They want to break them asunder and cast them away, a graphic picture of the contemptuous severing and flinging from oneself any obligation to or regard for the Lord’s and his Word. The psalmist (in stanza 1), then, expresses astonishment at insurgent nations’ rejection of Yahweh’s rule.
Now in stanza 2, the psalmist narrates Yahweh’s response to the nations’ rebellion through the installment of his king on Zion (4-6). First, the Lord derides the nations for their rebellion (4). Then he declares the installment of his king on Zion (5-6).
“He who sits in the heavens laughs” (4). Note that the position that God holds “in the heavens,” a position from which he supremely reigns above [the nations]… despite their interest to throw off all allegiance to him and virtually dethrone him6. His name, we know, is Yahweh (2), but his title is Adonai, Lord, sovereign over the nations. He derides their rebellion, not in a gleeful laughter that makes sport of another’s misfortune, but in a holy contempt at one’s willful, indefatigable folly. Here the supreme ruler mocks the odiousness and the absurdity of mankind’s rebellion against him.7 Of all the nerve, wee ones spitting at the Great One. Remember the forty-two boys who jeered at Elisha in 2 Kings 4:23-24: “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” Their dishonor and their foolishness led to their destruction as the great prophet cursed them in the name of the Lord, and two she-bears came out of the woods and tore them apart.
Not only does Yahweh deride the nations for their rebellion. He also declares the installment of his king on Zion (5-6). First, he speaks with terrifying anger (5). Verse 5 begins with “then,” a signal of the progress of time. For a while, right now and perhaps for an undisclosed time in the future, the nations will carry on in contempt against the Sovereign Lord of the universe. But never forget, a “now” always yields to a “then.” The contempt against God, the foolish discarding of his holy and loving and wise restraints, will not and cannot last forever. Present self-centered attitudes, speech and behavior eventuate in a “then” which is always theocentric. Is this not one of the happiest thoughts to every believer in Jesus Christ. The turmoil, heartache, and anguish of present sin-caused sufferings eventuate in the certainty of future, final, theocratic justice. Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!
(Did you know that Handel put that thought next in his masterwork oratorio, Messiah, after that woeful tenor libretto, “Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel?” Immediately the whole chorus breaks forth into the Hallelujah Chorus. But I digress.)
“Then,” when the cup of wrath overflows its brim, he will “speak to them in his wrath and vex them in his sore displeasure” (KJV). The king’s laughter at the absurdity of their rebellion now escalates into a heated declaration of terrifying fury. As he speaks, he centers attention upon himself, answering the foolish and boastful rebellion against him. “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill (6). “I” is emphatic and “is best translated, “But as for me….” “My king” and “my holy hill, Zion” underscore the centerpiece of the psalm as well as the intimate union of God with Messiah and the earthly location of his reign. The next stanza gives the details.
In the first stanza, the psalmist has expressed his astonishment at the insurgent nations’ rejection of Yahweh’s rule (1-3). Then he narrates Yahweh’s response to the nation through the installment of his king (4-6). Now in third stanza, the psalmist records Yahweh’s decree and the coronation of his anointed one who will destroy the rebel nations (7-9).
First, in verse 7, the anointed one recalls the decree that established his rule with Yahweh (7). Yahweh declared the anointed one his son, an enlargement of Yahweh’s pledge of adoption given to David’s rightful heirs (see 2 Sam. 7:14; Mt. 3:17; 17:5; Heb. 1:5). “Today” suggests “the moment when the new sovereign formally took up his inheritance and his titles.”8 This may rightly apply to Jesus Christ at the time of his resurrection/ascension.
In Acts 13, missionaries Paul and Barnabas have just returned to their sending church in Antioch. During a report to the church, Paul speaks about Jesus’ death for the salvation of sinners. To buttress the authority of his teaching, he weaves lines from two psalms and from Isaiah:
30But God raised him from the dead, 31and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. 32And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,
“‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’
34And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David’ [Isa. 55:3].
35Therefore he says also in another psalm,
“‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption’ [Psa. 16:10].
36For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.
In Psalm 2, stanza 3, not only does Messiah recall Yahweh’s decree that makes him king of kings. He now recalls Yahweh’s promise to grant him sovereign judgment over the entire earth (8-9). “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession.” First, Yahweh promised to bequeath to his son all the nations (8). Secondly, he grants his son supreme power to destroy the insurgent nations who have rejected Yahweh (9). “You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Here is Kidner (1973: 52):
Three times the book of Revelation quotes these words, once concerning the victorious Christian (2:27) and twice concerning the Lord (12:5; 19:15). But it follows the LXX interpretation of the Hebrew consonants, reading the first verb as ‘rule’ (lit. ‘shepherd’) rather than ‘break.’ This gives a wider range to the promise, envisaging an iron discipline in the first place, and in the second a final overthrow for the incorrigible (cf. Jer. 19:10ff). The Christian’s present share in subjugating the nations to Christ is finely expressed in 2 Cor. 10:3ff. The rod had the functions of a shepherd’s crook in sorting out the flock (Lev. 27:32; Ezek. 20:37) and of a weapon against marauders (cf. Psa. 23:4). So it became a symbol of government, translated ‘sceptre’ in, e. g., Genesis 49:10, and seems more suited to this constructive role, in a kingly context, than to the destruction envisaged in the second line.
When we link together the teaching of Psalm 2 with these many other biblical writers, we grasp hold of a large and powerful truth for ourselves in a world of Jesus-haters. The supremacy of God’s anointed and the promise of final justice have long encouraged God’s people in their daily and life-long fight against personal and societal evil. Here’s one poet’s lacing together various biblical allusions as she expresses such certainty:
Soldiers, rejoice! Your vict’ry is secure.
God Almighty fights: His kingdom will endure.
Following the saints enduring shame and loss,
For the joy before them, taking up their cross.
God guides His army, Jesus pays the price,
Saving captives Satan hungers to entice.
Though our strength is weak, our bravest feats blown chaff,
God shows greatest pow’r on weakest men’s behalf.
Every decision, motion, thought, and word
Is a battle won for Satan or the Lord.
Though each moment’s deeds may look small in our sight,
Little battles build our courage for the fight.
Seize faith to shield your soul from Satan’s darts.
Christian, did you think the devil e’er departs?
Scheming Satan lures your soul in times of rest:
Never let your vigil watching be suppressed.
When strong temptation seems too much to bear,
Shadows lurk around you, darting here and there.
Grip the Spirit’s sword, the two-edged word of God.
He will scatter sin and calm you with His rod.
Soldiers, rejoice! Your vict’ry is secure.
God Almighty fights: His kingdom will endure.9
The Christian’s hope of victory over sin, Satan, and death finds certainty in that which the Lord of Glory has already won for his people. Thus, the prophet Zephaniah (3:15) can assure us, “The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.
We come, now, to the fourth and final stanza of Psalm 2. In the first, the psalmist expressed astonishment at insurgent nations’ rejection of Yahweh’s rule (1-3). Secondly, he narrated Yahweh’s response to the nations’ rebellion through the installment of his king on Zion (4-6). Thirdly, he recorded Yahweh’s decree and the coronation of his anointed one who will destroy the rebel nations (7-9). Finally, the psalmist exhorts submission to Yahweh’s anointed in order to avoid His wrath and experience His blessing (10-12). “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.” The poet has suddenly turned sage, prophet, preacher. Alexander (1975: 18) guides us to see that in the preceding verse, the poet reaches a climax and now in verse 10 there is a “sudden change of manner, a transition to the tone of earnest admonition, still addressed, however, to the characters originally brought upon the scene.”
We have, first, a general exhortation (10) followed by a specific one (11-12b). First, be wise and be warned! These, of course, are favorite words of the Bible’s wisdom literature. Kidner (1973: 52) makes the point that “their presence in this most royal of psalms should remind us not to make these literary categories too rigid.” After all, the Bible tells us the truth about life and reality while it also commands our attention by its authority. Just as surely as the scriptures inform our understanding and present supreme wisdom on how to think and behave skillfully, it requires our submission to it, indeed, our worship of its Author and obedience of Him. “Be wise and be warned,” the psalmist exhorts generally.
Spurgeon (1975: vol. 1, 18) launches into application here regarding the responsibility of the preacher to speak authoritatively to those with political position: “The gospel takes a high tone before the rulers of the earth, and they who preach it should, like Knox and Melville, magnify their office bold rebukes and manly utterances even in the royal presence.” Then Spurgeon makes this judgment call: “A clerical sycophant (Webster: a servile, self-seeking flatterer) is only fit to be a scullion in the devil’s kitchen.”
Next, the psalmist speaks a specific exhortation in three parts (11-12b). “Serve Yahweh with fear” (11a). “Rejoice with trembling” (11b). And “kiss the son” (12a-b). Each of these expresses nuances of worship God. Serving God is surely as much a matter of one’s heart (attitude) as it one’s deeds (behavior). Tasks done for the Lord can only be done rightly if they are rooted in humble, submissive adoration of the Lord. Romans 12 develops this theme, as do other Pauline teachings. Note, too, the connection of fear and joy. Spurgeon (1975: vol. 1, 18) quotes a 17th century minister, William Bates: “This fear of God qualifies our joy. If you abstract fear from joy, joy will become light and wanton; and if you abstract joy from fear, fear then will become slavish.”
Now what is this “kiss the son” exhortation? The action of kissing expressed one’s submission to an ancient king’s authority (cf. 1 Sam. 10:1), affirming one’s willingness to live under his sovereign rule (12a). Note the warning: Failure to show timely submission to the son could result in his angry judgment that flares up quickly (12b). That’s not to say that God is not longsuffering. Indeed, the Lord is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psa. 86:15). But from the vantage point of one who trifles with his merciful patience, the moment of final patience is imminent. A disobedient and disdainful child seeming to dare a parent to get riled never knows when finally he will spend his last penny of parental patience. The ax could fall to the root at anytime and with such blazing swiftness that he best stop his wrongdoing now or else!
We come, then, to the end of this grand, royal psalm, so full of hope for those living in a world dominated by Jesus-haters. The psalmist concludes with a beatitude (12c) that brims over with grace as fully as the earlier stanzas overflowed with holy justice against sheer, insurgent evil. “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” “Blessed” corresponds to the opening of Ps. 1 where God’s special favor and grace stand as the portion of the righteous. Such grace “inspires the call”10 of verse 10-12. “Refuge” implies security, freedom and bliss. “And there is no refuge from Him; only in him.”11 Thus, the rightful response to him is trust and submission, not fear and pride that throws off his “bands”.
In the end, when Messiah returns and rules as supreme sovereign over all sin, Satan, and death, those who love him will reign with him. Paul assures us of the joy around the bend where, as yet, we cannot see except with faint understanding: “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).
- My worship of God: Adoration of God for His “quiet sovereignty” that works out His “secret and hidden wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:7-8) in the face of the “obtuseness of man”12 stands always as an appropriate response for the believer.
- My temptations to sin: Despite its popular appeal, meditating on ways to circumvent the Lord’s rule in our lives comprises an exercise in futility that yields disastrous results. “Every grand alliance against heaven”13 eventually shows this pattern—the quiet sovereignty of God in holy reign over the obtuseness of arrogant man.
- Psalm 1 summarizes this point, showing the stark contrast of outcomes between the righteous and the wicked.
- Proverbs overflows with principles and examples of the hopelessness of the one who does not fear the Lord.
- The Law and Historical Books contain numerous examples and promises to demonstrate this point.
- The Prophets predict the demise of nations who throw off the Lord’s rule.
- The Gospels record Jesus’ direct teaching on the foolishness of disobeying his words (e.g. Mt. 7:24-27) and failure to believe on him (John 3:16, 36)
- The Epistles and Revelation affirm the same.
- My desire to obey God: Living with confidence and unrelenting obedience to God’s law in a world of scoffers finds fresh encouragement in the Lord’s “derision” that a) confounds the worldly wise with the foolishness of the gospel (1 Cor. 1:20) and that b) triumphs over all cosmic arrogance (Col. 2:15; Rev. 11:18; 18:20-21).
- My witness to others: Even as Messiah has been granted sovereignty over all the nations, so his church has been given the high privilege and experienced a history of making disciples from them.
- My general outlook on the future: Fear and pride seek to discard God’s law and overthrow his rule in one’s life, resulting in insecurity and eventual destruction under his rule. Trust and humility (that “kisses” the Son with reverential homage) breed confidence, security and bliss under his favor.
Allender, Dan. B. and Longman II, Tremper. 1994. Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions about God. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
Alexander, Joseph Addison. 1975 (first published 1850). The Psalms Translated and Explained. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Estes, Daniel J. 2005. Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Kidner, Derek. 1973. Psalm 1-72: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press. Also Psalms 73-150, published by the same in 1975.
Spurgeon, C. H. 1966. The Treasury of David in Three Volumes. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
1 Reformation Study Bible. 2005: 739. Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries. Footnote at Psalm 2.
2 Joseph Addison Alexander, Psalms, pp. 13-14.
3 Derek Kidner, Psalms, p. 50.
4 Alexander, p. 13.
5 Kidner, p. 50: This passage sees Herod and Pilate as the kings/rulers, and Gentiles and the peoples of Israel as the nations and peoples united against the Lord’s anointed.
6 Alexander, p. 14.
7 Kidner, p. 51: “The only laughing matter is the arrogance itself—not the suffering it will cost before it ends.”
8 Kidner, p. 51.
9 Shelden, Rosemary. 2006. Tacoma: Faith Presbyterian Church Senior High Snow Retreat new hymn contest entry.
10 Kidner, p. 53.
11 Kidner, p. 53.
12 Kidner, p. 50.
13 Kidner, p. 50.