It’s been awhile.
In Richard Hays’ The Conversion of the Imagination, there is this wonderful essay entitled “Christ Prays the Psalms.” Hays uses Rom. 15:3 as a jumping off point, though I am going to quote Rom. 15:1-4 for context, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” 4For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (ESV)
Notice what Paul does in verse 3. He says that Christ did not please Himself. After all, it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” The citation is from Psalm 69:9. You have probably read this verse quite a few times. I know I had read it a ton and I missed the salient point: who is speaking this verse? Look at the wording again: “the reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” Who is the me? This is linked up and used as support for Christ not pleasing Himself. So who prays Psalm 69:9? Jesus Christ Himself.
There is a question I like to ask people to get a gauge on them. What book of the Bible that people really like would you go without? For awhile my answers was Psalms. I just never connected with the book. I get that David is upset and sad because people are trying to kill him, but I cannot really identify with that myself. Plus, sometimes he seems so whiny. And while asking for forgiveness is obviously great and something I do, I just didn’t find the Psalms to help a lot in this.
But back to Christ praying the Psalms. So Hays points out that Paul did not argue for Jesus praying this Psalm, he just took it for granted. Moreover, this practice seems to be pretty widespread. After all, in the crucifixion narratives he often quotes the Psalms, so there is good reason for this imaginative link to be established.
Throughout church history, therefore, the Psalms have been a popular place to see Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. But what does it mean to see Jesus in the Old Testament? Lately I have been reading a lot on figural reading/theological interpretation of Scripture. To put it simply, throughout church history there has been an insistence in thinking that there is a spiritual sense alongside a literal sense of the text. Figural reading/theological interpretation of Scripture try to recover that practice.
So take our passage from Psalm 69:9 again, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” The point is not making a connection to Jesus based on systematic theology. That is, they are not saying that we can talk about some systematic theological category like how God uses suffering and then connect this passage with Jesus’ life and death. Nor is the point one of biblical theology, namely, that the righteous have always suffered and so as the supremely righteous one Jesus suffers too. Instead, the point is that to really truly understand Psalm 69:9 is to see Jesus Christ. And this does not go for just Psalm 69:9, but for all of Scripture, even where the New Testament writers do not give us clues.
Frankly, I find the whole thing rather disturbing. It is not natural to me by any means. Even being convinced that figural reading should be practice, I still find myself really uncomfortable with engaging in it and reading some of the ways theologians throughout history and today engage in it. A big way of it becoming natural, though, is just by doing it, so I plan this series as an exercise in the figural reading of Psalms, with my eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of the Psalms.
I am not sure how many days a week I will post, but I hope I will not let the series die. Most of the time a post will just be on one psalm, but longer psalms (like 119) will probably be broken up and maybe some posts will discuss more than one psalm. We will see how it goes.
Nowadays, I really like Psalms. It has become one of my favorite books. But still, I do not expect this to be an easy task. Moreover, my reading is far from a definitive one. This series is one of exploration, of trying to learn to listen, of searching the text until I find King Jesus. There will probably be false starts, slip ups, misreadings, and (hopefully) places where my reading is on the right track but needs to be supplemented. But we must begin somewhere.
To give a taste, not too long ago I had an experience where seeing Christ in the Psalms came naturally. It was this last Easter on Good Friday that I was thinking about Hays’ work and his article “Christ Prays the Psalms.” I was reflecting on the oft-neglected day of Holy Saturday. I had just read a book by a Christian theologian on being diagnosed with incurable cancer. He talked a lot about the lament psalms, another frequent topic of thought for me. While thinking about Holy Saturday, I was not sure what the proper terminology was, so I had to look it up. Before doing so, I thought it should be called Silent Saturday because the crucified God was dead in a tomb and his body was decaying; for a moment, God seemed to blink. All of this made me think about the lament Psalms even more. As is well known, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So I began reading the Psalms with Holy Saturday in mind. The gospel writers loved reading the lament psalms in terms of Jesus, so maybe I would see something. And as I began doing so, these reading just welled up irresistibly inside me. I had tried to make myself read Scripture prophetically before, to no avail. Now I just opened myself up: maybe God would speak something if I am willing to listen.
I ran across passages like this: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God.’ … I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.” (Ps. 3:1-2, 5) Or this one: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (Ps. 4:8 ) “Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand…O Lord, save the king! May he answer us when we call.” (Ps. 20:6, 9)
This is already really long, so I will end it with one final word. I have been thinking a lot about the loss of figural reading in the church, how weird it is (to me), how the loss of figural reading is often tied to the anemia of the church, what recovery looks like, etc. And I found myself thinking of a particular vision.
So at the end we find ourselves in the middle of a valley full of bones. There are many and they are very dry. God cries out, “Son of man, can these bones live?” To which we can only reply, “O Lord GOD, you know.” And He commands us, “Prophesy over these bones and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.'” (Ezek. 37:1-4, ESV)
May we hear the word of the LORD Jesus pray the Psalms.