The Psalms have a place of special importance as Messianic proofs in the preaching of both Jesus and the first disciples. Luke 24:44 tells us of Jesus saying to his disciples after the resurrection:

    "This is what I told you when I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms."

If we examine statistically the significance of the Psalms to the New Testament writers we will be surprised. In the Nestlé edition of the Greek NT there is a list of "passages in bold print which are direct quotations from the Old Testament." This list shows the NT as borrowing 224 separate passages from 103 different psalms, and with the same passages appearing in different places this gives a total of 280 psalm quotations in the NT. Approximately 50 of these deal with the sufferings, resurrection, ascension of Christ, and the spreading of the gospel to all nations. The other quotations are more of a teaching or comforting nature.

If, furthermore, we were to examine the relationship of the Jewish Sages to the Psalms as reflectors of the Messianic idea we would see that they in fact read the Messianic hope into more psalms than do the Christians. This expectation relates to King David. The eminent Joseph Klausner devoted only five pages of his book "The Messianic Idea in Israel" to the Psalms. Of their background he says:

    "There is not another book in the Bible concerning which information about the time of its writing and the composition of its various parts differ from one an other so widely as in the Psalms." "Where earlier critics approached the book as being in its entirety a work of Israel's King David, the bulk of the newer criticism does not see in the Psalms a single one which predates the Babylonian captivity."
Klausner states that the Messianic idea as such is not the main theme, rather the "Messianic motif". Therefore, "understood in its wider sense, every chapter of the Psalms is full from beginning to end with a tinge of salvation expectation". Klausner reckons that the Psalms do not so much speak of a personal Messiah as of the "consolation of Zion and the gathering of the Jews from their dispersal".1

Klausner's attitude, which is very common among the Jews, comes from the fact that he belonged to Ahad ha-Am, the followers of the father of prophetic Zionism, Asher Ginsburg. This group awaited the dawn of some kind of Socialistic golden age -- even Communism can be based on the Messianic Idea. There is in the Talmud the suggestion:

    "If someone says to you 'Buy this field for yourself for one denarius' and its value is one thousand denarii...  do not buy it",
because the Messiah might come that year, and then the fields would be divided up without cost.2 It is perhaps no mere coincidence that the Jewish-born Marx, Lassalle and Trotsky set themselves up in the early stages of Communism as its prophets -- the Messianic hope without a Messiah-figure easily gives rise to popular liberation fronts.

Tradition ascribes 73 of the 150 psalms to King David. In the Rabbinic literature the Messiah is constantly referred to as the "Son of David". For this reason, everywhere the future blessing of the house of David is described, the Sages saw Messianic material. Even the bridal mystery of psalm 45 is seen from a Jewish perspective as being an expression of the relation between the Messiah and Israel. When this psalm says "I speak of the things which I have made touching the king (AV)" or "the nations will praise you for ever and ever," the Rabbis perceive the Messiah. But the NT also uses expressions associated with nuptials in describing the relation between Christ and the Church.3

The Jews find Messiah material in the "psalms of lamentation", in which the devout and guiltless man of God suffers the hatred of the people. Here it is not merely a question of a Messianic figure but of the whole of Israel itself participating in the  "Messianic birth-pangs", tsirei or hevlei ha-Mashiah. These yisurei ha-Malkhut or "sufferings for the kingdom" become the lot of everyone who takes upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of God.

The Hebrew word for 'psalms', tehillim, means 'hymns of praise'. The Psalms, however, also contain many "prayers", tephilloth, and straightforward "hymns", mizmorim. It is no wonder that the Psalms have been called "Jesus' hymnbook" and that to this day they form the basis of the Jewish liturgy and book of prayer.
What the Psalms have to say about Christ

Before actually looking in detail at the Psalms themselves, it is worthwhile listing their basic message in the NT. When discussing our theme, the term 'Messiah' is to be understood as meaning the Saviour expected by Israel. When we speak of 'Christ', however, we always mean our risen Redeemer Jesus Christ.

The New Testament expounds virtually the whole history of salvation in the light of the Psalms. Christ was despised, Ps. 22:6, 69:19--22; he was rejected, Ps. 118:22; he was mocked, Ps. 22:7--8, 89:51--52; he was whipped, Ps. 129:3; he was derided, Ps. 69:8,20; he was impalled on a cross, Ps. 22:1--2, 14--17; he was thirsty, Ps. 22:16; he was given wine mixed with gall on the cross, Ps. 69:20--22; lots were cast for his garments, Ps. 22:18--19; his bones were not broken, Ps. 34:21; he rose from the dead, Ps.16:10; he ascended to heaven, Ps. 68:19; he is at the right hand of God, Ps. 110:1 and 80:17; he is the High Priest, Ps. 110:4; he will judge the nations, Ps. 89:3--5; his reign is eternal, Ps. 89:35--37; he is the son of God, Ps. 2:7; he spoke in parables, Ps. 78:2; he calmed the storm, Ps. 89:10; the people sang Hosanna to him, Ps. 118:25--26; he is blessed for ever, Ps. 45:1--4,8,18; and he will come in his glory in the Last Days, Ps. 102:16--23.

The Bible's prophecies of Christ resemble a great jigsaw puzzle. The figure of the suffering Redeemer gradually emerges as the individual pieces are put together. The passages from the Psalms we have just mentioned complete the picture outlined by the Pentateuch and the Prophets. It should come as no surprise that Luther as early as 1513 -- that is, at the outset of his career -- lectured on the Psalms, in which he found an emphasis on righteousness and the grace of God. In the Psalms he found his Christ-centred thought ready-made. Later, in the prolegomena to his commentary on Galatians, he confides: "My heart is ruled by this one doctrine -- faith in Christ -- from which, through which and to which all my theological thoughts issue and return, night and day."
The Jews see the Messiah in the Psalms

in more or less the same contexts as do the Christians. But since they communicate in the Psalms' own language they find there secret references which they then apply to their own conception of the Messiah. Before looking at the Psalms in detail it is worth collecting a few examples of the way in which the Sages understood their own Messianic expectation.

a) In Christian circles Psalm 21 is not usually considered Messianic. The Midrash, on the other hand, sees the Messiah-King in its first and fourth verses; RaSHI attaches the same interpretation to v 7, and the Targum to v 8. We quote here the verses with which this Messianic expectation is associated:

    "O LORD, the king rejoices on your strength...  You welcomed him with rich blessings and placed a crown of pure gold on his head. He asked you for life, and you gave it to him -- length of days for ever and ever. Through the victories you gave, his glory is great; you have bestowed on him splendour and majesty. Surely you have granted him eternal blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence. For the king trusts in the LORD; through the unfailing love of the Most High he will not be shaken."
The Midrash on the Psalms says of this king:
    "This is the Messiah, the Son of David, who has been hidden until the last days. Rabbi Tan .huma says,'The Messiah-King will come only to give the world six commandments, such as the Feast of Tabernacles, (the use of) the palm fronds, and the phylacteries, but all Israel will learn the Torah...  and why so? Because the Gentiles will seek him.' "
After this the Midrash asks:
    "Who is this king?...  God will not crown a king of flesh and blood, but the Holy One -- may he be praised -- will give his own crown to the Messiah-King, because it is said of him, 'You placed a crown of pure gold on his head'. God will not dress an earthly king in his own purple robe, rather he has given it to the Messiah-King, for it is said, 'You have bestowed on him splendour and majesty'...  And he will call the Messiah-King by name, for it is said, 'This is the name by which he will be known: The LORD our Righteousness'."
Even the Midrash on Exodus speaks of this same crown when it says:
    " 'And Moses took the staff of God in his hand': God will not adorn an earthly king with his crown, and the Holy One -- may he be praised -- will place his crown on the head of the Messiah-King.4
In connection with the 8th verse the Targum says that the "Messiah-King" trusts in the LORD. It is significant that according to the Rabbis the purple robe and the crown were to be part of the Messiah's attire. The young Rabbi from Nazareth was however given this robe and crown of thorns only in derision.

b) The Rabbis attach an equally beautiful allegorical discussion to the nuptial mysticism of psalm 45. The most celebrated Jewish exegetes agree that this psalm speaks of the "Messiah-King". It may be that its Messianic flavour comes out more clearly in the original than in the English versions, and so we will give a rendering here, from the Hebrew, of the verses which relate to this expectation of future salvation:

    "A song of love: My heart overflows with beautiful words. I will recite: My song concerns the king, my tongue is the pen of a ready writer. You are more beautiful than the children of men, delight has been poured on your lips; therefore God will bless you for ever...  Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; your kingdom will be a sceptre of justice. You love righteousness and hate wickedness; for this reason God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joy more than your companions... I will perpetuate your name from generation to generation: for this reason the nations will praise you for ever and ever" (Ps. 45:2--3, 7--8, 18).
It is remarkable to see how the Midrash relates this song in praise of the king to other parts of the Old Testament message. The Midrash on the Psalms states:
    "Thus those who believe in the Messiah (Heb. lit. 'the righteous ones of Him who is to come') will one day praise the glory of God's presence and will not be hurt (by his holiness), as it is written: 'In thy presence there is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore' (Ps. 16:11 RSV). The Israelites asked...  'When will you redeem us?' He answered them: 'When you suffer the deepest oppression, then will I redeem you', as it is written: 'The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited, and they will appoint one leader (Hos. 1:11)... He said 'For we are brought down into the dust' (Ps. 44:26)... and just as the rose blossoms and opens its heart upwards, so will it be for you when you repent before me, your hearts will be turned upwards like the rose's, and at that moment I will bring the Messiah to you, for it is said: 'I will be like the dew to Israel' (Hos. 14:6)... "
The Midrash goes on to describe the words 'My song concerns the king', and says that:
    "This is a prophecy of the One who is to come, and Hannah too says that 'The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up'. In this way they will be brought down until their feet reach the grave, and immediately I will raise them up; therefore it is said,'He brings down to the grave and raises up'." 5
There is a similar picture in the Talmud of the salvation of Israel in the last days from their "deepest oppression".

c) Very often, looking from the perspective of the Psalms, the oldest Rabbinic sources see "supra-historical" features in the Messiah. As an example of this kind of interpretation we might mention Ps. 72. Both the Targum and the Midrash understand the whole psalm Messianically. We will give it here in essence:

    "Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness... In his days the righteous will flourish; prosperity will abound till the moon is no more. He will rule from sea to sea... He will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no-one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death...  May his name endure for ever; may it continue as long as the sun. All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed" (Ps. 72:1, 7--8, 10--13, 17).
The OT "associative" method of which we spoke at the beginning of the book is clearly in evidence in the exposition of this psalm.
    The king who will deliver the needy and the afflicted is, according to the Midrash, the Messiah, "for it is written: 'A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, and he will judge the needy with righteousness' " (Is. 11:4). The whole psalm, the Midrash says, is "praise to the Messiah-King". Verse 17 in the Hebrew reads, "before the sun was, his name was Yinnôn", which means 'may it sprout' -- one of the eight OT names meaning a 'shoot', as in the verse from Isaiah. The Midrash also understands this name as being assigned to the Messiah "before the creation of the world".

RaSHI refers to psalm 72 in his exposition of Micah chapter 5 verse 2, which says of the Ruler of Israel who will be born in Bethlehem that his "origins are from old, from ancient times". According to RaSHI he is

    "the Messiah, the Son of David, as Ps. 118 says, he is the 'stone which the builders rejected', and his origins are from ancient times, for 'before the sun was, his name was Yinnôn'."
R. David Qimhi, "without whom there is no correct biblical exegesis", according to the Sages, says unexpectedly:
"It will be said in the Messianic age that his 'origins are from old, from ancient times'; 'from Bethlehem' means that he will be of the house of David, because there is a long period of time between David and the Messiah-King; and he is El (God), which is how he is 'from old, from ancient times'." 6

Psalm 72 tells us furthermore that the Messiah will be brought gifts, and the Talmud picks up this interpretation, saying that "Egypt will bring gifts to the Messiah".7 The same secret appears in Jacob's blessing connected with the name Shilo. Ps. 76:12 contains a phrase which resembles this name, shai lô, or 'gifts for him': "Let all around him bring gifts to him who is to be feared". In this way Jewish biblical exegesis builds internal bridges from one hidden Messianic reference to another.

d) In addition to these "suprahistorical" features the Rabbis frequently saw hidden allusions which the Bible itself could hardly be said to authorise, but which nevertheless have their own internal logic in the thought world of the Wise. In the lengthy psalm 78 there is the promise: "I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from old". Verse 41 gives us the following for our consideration: "Again and again they put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel". This specific phrase the "Holy One of Israel" appears 15 times in Isaiah. For example, in his description of the forthcoming "covenant of grace" Isaiah says:

    "Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you (Hebr.)" (Is. 55:5).
R. David Qimhi, who is considered as representing the "correct" biblical interpretation, explains this verse and that from Ps. 78 as referring to the Messiah:
    "Incline your ear; the 'unfailing kindnesses promised to David' refers to the Messiah, for he is called David...  He will be a teacher of the nations, as it is said at the beginning of Isaiah (2:4) 'He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples'."
The term "vexing" the Holy One of Israel, hitvû, used by the psalm, comes from the word tôv meaning a 'mark'. The Midrash also states that "the strokes left marks on the body", just as Ezekiel 9:4 speaks of the putting of a "mark" on the foreheads of all those who sigh and groan for Israel. In the same way RaSHI sees hitvû as meaning 'drawing a mark'.

A certain Christian Rabbi considered the above and then gave his own solution to this "ancient riddle". He pointed out that the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, tâv, on the ancient stone inscriptions and seals was written in the form of a cross. Understood in this way the verse above refers to the crucifixion of the "Holy one of Israel". Isaiah 50:6 speaks of the servant of the LORD receiving the "marks of beating":

    "I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting... I will not be disgraced".
And Ps. 129:3 states graphically:
    "Ploughmen have ploughed my back and made their furrows long."
Of this the Midrash says enigmatically:
    "Tomorrow, when the end times come, the Holy One -- may he be praised -- will not say to the nations of the world, 'Thus and thus have you done to my son'. No. Rather, he will immediately break the yoke and shorten the reins, as it is said: 'I have broken the bars of your yoke' " (Lev. 26:13).
Could it be that it was similar convoluted thoughts Paul had in mind when he said in 1 Cor. 2:6:
    "We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age"!
Such enigmatic features are part of the mystery of Christ and especially so of the Jewish Messianic Idea.

We have seen in the above that even the psalms which Christians would not consider "Messianic" may in the opinions of the Jewish scholars allude to the saviour who is to come. On the other hand, these scholars take the whole OT message as their palette and with it depict the Messiah's supra-historical and enigmatic features. Mainstream Jewish Messianic expectation is, however, best seen in the same psalms on which Christians too traditionally rely in the elucidation of the roots of their faith.
1.    Josef Klausner, Ha-Ra'ayon ha-Meshihi, p87-88 and 135-136.
2.    Avoda Zara 9b as interpreted by RaSHI.
3.    See eg. John 3:29, Matt. chaps. 22 and 25, 2 Cor 11:2 and Rev. 19.7.
4.    See Midrash Shemoth, par. va-erâ 8 and the corresp. description from Midrash on Numbers. The main discussion is found in Midrash Tehilim 21.
5.    Sanhedrin 97a.
6.    The interpretations of both RaSHI and RaDaQ can be found in the Mikraôth Gedolôth commentary.
7.    Pesahim 118b.

The next chapter "PSALM 2 AND PSALM 110"

Back to the main page of Risto Santala's books