Psalm 2 at Christmas

I was given the privilege of preaching briefly this morning at my church after our annual Christmas program, and I chose what might seem an odd passage for Christmas: Psalm 2.

During the time of year at which we are celebrating what is in one sense the beginning of Jesus’ story, the birth of the Lord’s Anointed, the Messiah, it is appropriate for us to look to the end of Jesus’ story, too. And, interestingly enough, the end was predicted before the beginning.

This psalm, written probably at the time of King David, the ancestor of Jesus, is always relevant, because it describes the way the world always is. I want to take a quick trip through this psalm, stanza by short stanza.

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

There have always been rulers of the earth taking counseling together against the Lord and his Anointed. King Herod did it shortly after the first Christmas by trying to kill the Anointed one in a murderous purge of all the baby boys in that region.

Pontius Pilate took counsel against the Lord and against his Anointed years later by giving into the fear of a bloodthirsty crowd that wanted the adult Anointed One dead.

And many rulers of American society today take the same counsel together today, counsel against the Lord and against Jesus—who, if you haven’t figured it out, is God’s Anointed. Psalm 2 describes all history up to the present time.

I’m going to make a small stretch from the word “rulers” here to the word “influencers.” Today it is quite possible to be more influential than the top politicians in the country—we have more “rulers” of public opinion because of our mass media than any society could ever have had in the past. And one of these “rulers”—my favorite liberal, Nick Kristof—used his column in the New York Times yesterday in part to express his skepticism about claims the Bible makes about God’s Anointed.

[I] am…skeptical of…the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles [of Jesus] and so on. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief [within Christianity], or can I mix and match?

So God’s word expresses truth claims about Jesus, and Kristof won’t accept them. He is trying to burst the bonds of truth that God laid on the world. He’s saying, “I don’t want God’s cords wrapped around my mind. Get ‘em off me! I’ve got my own thoughts!” He may not be a ruler, per se, but he’s doing the same thing Psalm 2 describes from a perch of influence few kings could have dreamt of in the past.*

How does God respond to these challenges against his rule and that of his Anointed?

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

God laughs at this opposition. And then he turns to the rulers of this world in fury and says something to terrify them: they have already been displaced by a greater ruler. “I have set my King on Zion.”

The first Christmas was the birth of that king. As the song goes—and I find it so interesting that so many non-Christians sing this every year,

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?

Mary had some idea, yes. And God the Father knew. The one who anointed Jesus to fill that role knew.

I will tell of the decree:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Jesus came to this earth to seek and to save the lost. He told us this himself, and he accomplished it at his first coming—the one he launched on Christmas day 2000-plus years ago.

But that first coming was never meant to be the final one. Psalm 2 predicted it: one day Christ will come and make all the nations his, possessing the entire globe—even though it will take great violence for him to do so. When God’s anointed takes up a rod of iron, the nations opposing him will be dashed in pieces like a ceramic vase on your kitchen floor.

One day Christ will “make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness.” And how do you think he’s going to do that? By fulfilling Psalm 2.

So Psalm 2 has counsel for the kings of the earth:

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Come obediently and fearfully before this king—O, come, let us adore him. Rejoice at his coming, yes, but do so with trembling. The King of Kings salvation brings, yes, let loving hearts enthrone him—yes. But one day it will no longer be possible to do these things. His wrath will be quickly kindled, and some will perish.

Now this is a scary psalm, not a text normally turned to at Christmas time. But I get to end on a positive note, because the psalm does. During this era of opposition to Christ, it is possible to take refuge in him. The same ruler who will, yes, be dashing his enemies to pieces will have behind him a host of people whom he has rescued from among those very enemies. What the writer of Psalm 2 saw was far off in the future, and it may still be. What he did not mention is all the time in between, the time in which we all are permitted to “take refuge in him,” to be in a state called “blessed.”

When the Bible makes a claim—that Jesus was born of a virgin, that He rules the world with truth and grace, that he died for our sins, rose from the dead, and now sits at the right hand of God to intercede for us—when the Bible makes those claims, take refuge in him by believing them.

We live right now in rebel territory, the one tiny spot in all the cosmos that we know of that has been permitted to turn against its true ruler. Stars, I presume, don’t do this. They obey. Whole galaxies of stars likewise. But on our little blue planet, we think we can go our own way despite being upheld every moment by his hand. When you live in rebel territory but are loyal to the true king, and when that king is in a kind of exile, an exile that last a long time, it’s tempting to go with the flow and accept whatever illegitimate ruler is placed over you—from Baal to Napoleon to conspicuous consumption of material stuff. But Christians are exiles in our society, because we’re the ones blessed to take refuge in him even before he comes to set the world right.

Christmas was a down payment on the salvation of the planet. God broke into creation mightily and gloriously. He sent his Anointed King to earth as a tiny baby. Take refuge in him.

* I really like Kristof. A lot. I respect him, I really do. So I find it all the more funny and interesting that his objections to Christ’s virgin birth and Resurrection are so flimsy. He sounds like an unreconstructed theological liberal of the 19th century.

A New Insight into the First of Jesus’ Antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount

I recently preached a message at Cornerstone in Anacortes on Matthew 5:21–26:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Thanks to a gracious wife and in-laws willing to watch kids, I had truly sufficient time to prepare this message and didn’t feel as pressed as I commonly do. As a result, it was a true joy to study and preach this text. I gained further appreciation for what “real” pastors do every week; I’ve never preached regularly to Christian adults (I’ve taught plenty, just not preached).

What’s more, I think I finally found an answer to an interpretive difficulty that I’d always only half-noticed. There are some obvious difficulties in this text: how can Jesus speak so categorically against anger and against calling people “fools” when he gets angry and calls people fools in this same Gospel? I attempt some help there. But there’s another difficulty I think we often read right past, one that comes at the hinge point of the passage. It was a delight to be able to dig into it and come out with something edifying for my and, I hope, others’ souls.

Practical Questions about Original Language Study in Sermon Prep

A questions from someone who watched my Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies lecture on Original Languages (click here and here for related blog posts):

Most pastors I know have only about 6 hours max, maybe 8, to prepare a message and most need to prepare 3 messages a week. We want to spend more time in the original text, but if they are like me, I spend most of my time reading and re-reading the text in the ESV & HCSB, making sure I understand the context and authorial intent, analyzing the grammar to make sure I understand the main ideas and how the other parts relate to it (diagramming & clause displays), and then writing and refining my sermon notes. I also need to think about helpful illustrations & specific applications. So I never feel like I have spent enough time in the original text or even consulting commentaries. So do you have any practical advice for how much time we should set aside to spend in the original text out of the 6-8 hours we have per message, and how to use the, let’s say, 20-30 minutes we have to look at the original text? Also, any generality you can make about how much time you would spend consulting commentaries or how many? Lastly, if your Hebrew is pretty rusty, what resource would you use to try to get something out of the original text if you are preaching from an OT passage?

My answer:

A few caveats first: I’m not a regular preaching pastor. I teach Sunday School all year round, pretty much, but my sermon prep (I preach maybe five times a year) tends to get squeezed in between projects. I also tend to use exegetical work I’ve done recently for Logos articles. So though I get two or three hours of “sermon prep” per sermon, I’m spending most of that on rhetorical crafting and manuscripting in English. But I’m relying on other hours of work I’ve already done in exegesis, including time in Greek and Hebrew. This makes it hard for me to generalize. I also don’t do exegesis in such discrete steps that I could say: “Spend one hour in Greek.” I read the text in multiple English translations, and I go chase down in Greek or Hebrew interesting questions that occur to me. If I’m struggling with the structure of a passage, I use Logos’ sentence-flow diagrams. If I’ve got extra time, I do it in Greek rather than in English (I have not done this in Hebrew; the genres don’t usually lend themselves to this type of analysis). If I’m ever about to make a preaching point out of some finer point of grammar, I make sure to check the original languages. Again I’d say that use of Greek/Hebrew is not a step so much as a significant ingredient in the entire atmosphere of my sermon prep. Sometimes, however, I must admit that my time in Greek/Hebrew is limited to a last-minute realization that I’d better read the whole of my sermon text before I go preach it, lest I say something stupid! I totally get the time pressure question.

And I, too, feel like I’ve never spent enough time on commentaries, in particular. I’ve gotten to the point that I mainly tend to check commentaries either 1) when I know I need access to the history of interpretation, 2) when I’m guessing they’ve tracked down a niggling point of grammar or usage that puzzles me, or 3) when I’m looking for rhetorical help in communicating something I’ve already noticed in the text (for this homiletical commentaries are useful, but even technical ones will usually offer some help). The key is that I bring questions to commentaries; I don’t just read them. Most frequently the question I come to commentaries for is this: how have other people used this text throughout time? Often that means I get a quick vote from multiple commentaries on a particular exegetical or theological question (like “Did Jephthah actually kill his daughter?”). I think I’m at the stage of my exegetical skill that if something in the text really puzzles me, it’s going to divide the commentators. Checking commentaries is not a discrete step for me anymore than using Greek/Hebrew is—except that I do try to push commentaries toward the end of my exegetical process, after I’ve had a chance to generate questions. I typically use three to five commentaries at least a little (usually one of them gets more attention than the others), and on the occasions when I need to run an interpreters’ referendum, I use Logos to check a bunch—as many as 60, but usually more like 10–15. That’s what I did with Jephthah. I’m not digging into reasons, I’m just getting votes.

I’ve been influenced by the hermeneutical spiral model, in which knowledge is gained by attendance to generals and particulars in an ever-tightening spiral. In my limited sermon prep time, I’m grabbing as many generals and particulars as I can get, from as many sources as I can get them from, until the last second! I will never be able to track down all the details relevant to the interpretation of my sermon’s given Scripture passage; I have to trust God’s providence in the time he has allotted me. I guess I’d say that attention to theory and methodology—hermeneutics, linguistics, systematics, biblical theology—has really paid dividends, so that I can use the time I have more efficiently.

As for Hebrew… I’d point someone to the methodological reading. Get into linguistics enough so that you can do your own survey of the usage of a given Hebrew word using Bible software. Get into genre analyses like Robert Alter on The Art of Biblical Poetry so that you’re not reinventing the wheel on parallelism every time you preach a Psalm. I have recently been thinking that I need some refreshment of my Hebrew, and I’m strongly considering adopting the read-a-little-bit-every-day approach I’ve heard recommended. William Barrick of The Master’s Seminary has also put out a free online course.

Hope this helps.

Final Lecture for Asia Center for Advanced Christian Studies

In which I take students through How to Think about Others’ Exegetical Fallacies and then talk through some portions of my dissertation that focused on ἀγάπη (agape) and what it “really” means. No, like, for real this time.