Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together, against the Lord and against his anointed saying,
“Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me,
“You are my son; today I have become your father.
Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
Therefore, you kings be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.Psalm 2 (NIV2011)
Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
I have read several non-commentary books on Psalms recently. I have been making a list of the specific psalms referred to in those books so that I can go back to them when I get to those psalms. Psalm 2 is not on my list. These books aren’t talking about this particular psalm. That’s interesting to me because this psalm is one of the most quoted in the New Testament. It is there that this psalm gains a fresh meaning. But to understand that new interpretation, we should know its original meaning and context first.
Psalm 2 is a royal psalm or a psalm regarding kingship. It is written from the perspective of the Davidic covenant. In ancient Israel, the king was to reflect the kingship of God himself. Not only that, but the king ruled because God chose him to do so. God chose Saul, and after he rejected him, God chose David. And it is to David that God promised a dynasty that would rule forever. So originally this psalm was about David and his line. God has set his king in Zion (v6) which is another name for Jerusalem, as is his holy hill or mountain.
In Psalms 2:7, the king begins speaking and he tells of God’s decree. The part about the king being God’s son is from the promise God made to David: “I will be his (David’s offspring) father and he will be my son.” (2 Samuel 7:14). Verse 8 where God instructs the king to ask him for an inheritance seems to allude to 1 Kings 3:5 when God tells Solomon to ask for what he wants God to give him. Solomon was David’s son, so this makes sense here.
This psalm was originally sung about David and his lineage of kings. It says that God chose them. He established them. He loves them. He gives them their power to rule over the nations including Israel. The kings who choose to rebel are going to lose. They should choose to serve God’s king instead. That is the way of salvation: to pay homage to God’s king and to obey him.
There are some interesting content things to note. First, whereas Psalm 1 is speaking about the individual who serves God, Psalm 2 wants the community to serve God. Nations and peoples and kings. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Instead of blessed is the one and whatever he does prospers. Also as a contrast to chapter 1 is an interesting word choice by the psalmist. In my last post on Psalms 1 I pointed out that the word translated meditates literally means to murmur or mutter. So a blessed person is murmuring the law of the Lord day and night. That has a positive connotation. But the same word is used here in Psalm 2:1. The nations and peoples are “muttering” against the Lord and his anointed. That’s a negative connotation. They are muttering against God and they want to break the bonds that God has on them. Interesting juxtaposition.
The New Testament writers take this psalm and apply it directly to Jesus. In Acts 4, Peter and John are rebuked by the Jewish leaders and told to stop speaking about Jesus. They go to their friends and have a prayer meeting. And this is what they say:
“Sovereign Lord, you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.’ (Psalm 2:1-2) Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.Acts 4:24b-30 (NIV)
The first Christians take the first two verses of Psalm 2 and apply it to specifics. The nations and the peoples, the kings of the earth and the rulers are Herod (a king) and Pontius Pilate (a Roman ruler) along with the Gentiles (the nations) and the peoples (the Jews). The NIV is not clear, but the Greek for the people of Israel is plural. It actually reads the peoples of Israel. So the connections is even clearer than this translation shows. And what did all those people do? They plotted and conspired against Jesus – God’s anointed. The crucifixion is the result of their plotting. Then the disciples ask God to give them the nations. They want to speak with boldness and heal and perform signs. Why? So that they will continue to make disciples of all nations as Jesus instructed them. Which is what the end of Psalms 2 points to: people following the Lord’s anointed.
Paul himself continues this line of thought in Acts 13. Paul equates the resurrection of Jesus with God installing his anointed in Zion. He quotes Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son, today I have become your father,” in verse 33. God has anointed Jesus as King by raising him from the dead. Not only that, but Jesus is the recipient of the promises that God gave David. Jesus is the descendant of David (Acts 13:23), and he is the complete fulfillment of the Davidic covenant, the anointed king whose throne God establishes forever.
The writer of Hebrews alludes to and quotes from Psalm 2 as well. In Hebrews 1:2, God speaks to us by his Son who has been appointed heir of all things. The author argues that Jesus is superior to angels and quotes Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14 to make his point. And again in chapter 5 the quotes Psalm 2:7 as proof that Christ our high priest because God chose him and appointed him.
And finally, in Revelation 12:5, the author applies the part of Psalm 2 where the Lord’s anointed will rule the nations with an iron rod to the child, which, according to Craig Koester in his Revelation commentary, is best understood as Jesus. This image is used again in Revelation 19:15 where Jesus strikes down the nations and “will rule them with an iron scepter.”
So we see that the New Testament writers understood Psalm 2 to point to Jesus. But they are applicable to us today as well. In Revelation 2:26-27, the author is clearly referencing Psalm 2. However, it seems that he is saying that the true follower of Christ, the one who does not fall away will be given authority to rule over the nations “with an iron scepter and…dash them to pieces like pottery.” Jesus has the authority here and he extends it to those who serve him. Koester says this pattern is also found in Revelation 21:7 where 2 Samuel 7:14 doesn’t just apply to Jesus, but to all of the redeemed. Koester says that whereas the NT authors are clear in their messianic interpretation of Psalm 2, here in Revelation 2, that language is extended to apply to those who are faithful to Jesus. (Koester 302-303.)
This Psalm starts with a question, a question that seems to be spoken with astonishment: Why would these people try to break the bonds of God? The bonds of God can feel harsh to those who don’t love Him. But Hosea refers to God’s bonds as bonds of kindness and love (Hosea 11:4). God laughs at those who think his bonds are harsh because he knows the consequences of breaking them and serving themselves. Here in Psalm 2, those consequences are referred to as his wrath. God’s anger leads to death and destruction (v12). But the Lord has installed his anointed as King over all the earth. And as in all wisdom psalms (multiple categories here), people are offered a choice. Serve the Lord and his anointed with reverence and rejoice in his rule or don’t. And if you don’t wrath and death are the results. All of that sounds discouraging, but the last verse of this Psalm is my favorite.
We are blessed when He is our refuge. It’s not about politics even though this psalm starts by talking about kings and nations. It’s about Jesus. Serving him. Taking refuge in him. Paying homage to him. Worshiping him. Rejoicing in him and his rule. How are you doing that today? If you like to listen to your Psalms sung, here is a classic. (Sorry Youtube makes you watch an ad first. If you have another way of listening, it is Rich Mullins singing “While the Nations Rage.”)
May you be blessed by God’s word today.