Mark 1:11; Matt 3:17; Luke 3:22
As I write, it is Tuesday of Holy Week and the world seems to be coming apart all around me – terrorism in Belgium, turmoil in American politics, and troubled people on every horizon. People want political answers to what they perceive to be political threats; they want forceful measures to deal with destructive forces. People are angry and afraid. Can
anger, fear, and force bring us peace?
A basic task of the New Testament and of the early church was to describe the manner in which Jesus of Nazareth can be said to be the Messiah of Old Testament expectations. This task involved several questions: Which Old Testament passages can be said to be “Messianic”? In light of the fact that the Messiah concept developed from the ancient Israelite practice of anointing (messiah = mashiach = anointed = Christos) leaders, particularly kings, who then bore the title “messiah,” do all texts that refer to an anointed leader speak “prophetically” of Jesus Christ? Is there a one-to-one correspondence between the characteristics of the messianic figure in texts deemed messianic and the characteristics of Jesus of Nazareth? How are texts that originally spoke of a Davidic king now to be construed with reference to Jesus?
The New Testament’s treatment of Psalm 2 in the baptism and temptation narratives proves especially instructive for an understanding of the way in which these questions may be answered. This Psalm is manifestly “messianic” in that it makes explicit reference to “YHWH and … his anointed,” but does it predict who Jesus would be and, more importantly, how he would fulfill his saving mission?
The Psalm appears in four readily discernible stanzas: (1) Verses 1-3 relate the plans of a group of rebellious princes, over whom the Messiah has authority, as they seek to throw off the bonds of his control. (2) Verses 4-7a give YHWH’s response, a recapitulation of his authority as expressed concretely in the political realm through the agency of the king-messiah whom YHWH has established on Zion. (3) Verses 7b-9 list the privileges of the anointed, with particular emphasis on imperial prerogatives. (4) Verses 10-12 conclude with a warning for the rebels of the opening stanza suggesting that YHWH’s might and the anointed’s authority and privilege will prove too great an obstacle to their planned rebellion.
Several features of this structure make it unmistakable that this Psalm speaks first and foremost about a Judean king (or kings, if the Psalm was reused in the cult) facing a rebellion among his vassals, and does not predict anything about Jesus. The opening section refers, not to a refusal initially to recognize the claims of the anointed king, but to a desire to be free from hegemony already imposed. The second section uses the perfect tense, apparently to describe the enthronement of the king as YHWH’s past act (from the perspective of the psalmist), a likely reference to the sitting king. The third section seems to refer to the adoption of the king as the son of God at the time of his enthronement, a practice similar to that of the Ancient near East in general, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, with the exception that the Israelites were careful to maintain a distinction between adoption and actual sonship. Further, this adopted son is promised ownership of the rebellious lands and aid in militarily crushing their rebellion.
The circumstances described potentially agree with several periods in Israel’s history: the Davidic-Solomonic Empire, when vassal states such as Edom, Moab, and Ammon sought a freedom that they eventually regained; the reigns of several subsequent kings of Judah who were able for short periods to reassert control over limited regions of former hegemony; and, perhaps even the Hasmonean period, when the brief independence before the Roman era saw the forced reincorporation of certain of the same territories into the kingdom of Israel. Regardless of which of these situations constituted the background to Psalm 2, the text clearly cannot be said to prescribe how Jesus’ would execute his mission. Do Jesus’ unsatisfied subjects seek to regain freedom from him (vv 1-2)? Is citizenship in his kingdom a condition of bondage (v 3)? Has he been enthroned as king over a political realm (v 6)? Is he adopted (v 7)? Does he exercise his authority with a “rod of iron” smashing his enemies “like a potter’s vessel” (v 9)?
Immediately following the baptism of Jesus, God affirms Jesus’ mission by quoting a portion of Psalm 2:7 in his declaration that Jesus is his son, beloved and well-pleasing. The quotation is almost verbatim in Luke and Mark (“you are my son,” with a rearrangement of the Septuagint order, “my son you are”; Matthew has “this is my son”), but equally important is the fact that key elements of the Psalm are omitted. Although one might expect that God would have taken the opportunity to make it clear that Jesus is the expected Messiah, he does not employ the term prominent in Psalm 2:2. Furthermore, he omits the expression “today, I have begotton you,” which would have completed the quotation from v 7. God intimates that, while the relationship between him and his son Jesus is similar to that which had existed between him and the king of Psalm 2, it is not identical: Jesus did not become the adopted son of God when he was anointed/enthroned in his baptism, his sonship is of a different character. Finally, jarringly and definitively, the Synoptics agree in juxtaposing a citation from Isaiah 42:1 with the Psalm reference in a way that further excludes the direct and unreflected applicability of the messianic Psalm to Jesus. Whereas the Psalm speaks of a messiah-king might in was, Isaiah 42 is the first of a series on songs in the latter half of Isaiah that describe the “Suffering Servant.” This figure is the antithesis of the messiah of Psalm 2: he suffers and dies redemptively; by his stripes we are healed.
In Christ’s third temptation by the Matthean order, Satan reopens the issue raised by this juxtaposition of Messiah and Suffering Servant. At the baptism, God applied Psalm 2:7 to Jesus. Satan alludes to an aspect of the next verse of the Psalm implying Jesus intends to exercise the political and military rights and powers offered the Messiah there. Jesus rejects that option outright. He will not execute such a mission. As God has asked (“you shall worship God alone”) he will be servant (“and him only shall you serve”).
According to the Synoptics, Jesus confronted this temptation to power throughout his ministry. Whenever someone called him Messiah, he silenced them. At Caesarea Philippi, when Peter scolded him for talking about his impending suffering and death, Jesus heard again the tempting voice of Satan. No, he would not take the world by force; he would serve, suffer, and redeem.
No, force does not bring peace; it does not redeem. This Holy Week, Christians will remember that Jesus went beyond rebuking Peter for suggesting the path of power. Jesus called his disciples to join him in the task of the Suffering Servant by taking up their own crosses.