Psalm 2 –Two Interpretations of the Divine Right of Kings
Psalm 2 TEXT
1. Why do the nations conspire, and peoples plot vain things;
2. kings of the earth take their stand, and princes intrigue together against the LORD and against his anointed?
3. "Let us break their bonds asunder, shake off their ropes from us!"
4. He who is enthroned in heaven laughs; the LORD holds them in derision.
5. Then he speaks to them in anger, terrifying them in His rage.
6. "I - I have installed My king on Zion, My holy mountain!"
7. Let me tell of the decree of the LORD. He said to me, "You are my son, I have fathered you this day.
8. Ask it of Me and I will make the nations your estate; your domain, the limits of the earth.
9. You can smash them with an iron mace; shatter them like potter's vessel."
10. So now, O kings, be prudent; be warned, you rulers of the earth!
11. Serve the LORD in awe, rejoice with trembling,
12. 1-pay homage in good faith,-1 lest He be incensed and you be lost on the way, as his anger flashes up in an instant.
Happy are all who take refuge in Him.
1. meaning uncertain
Psalm 2 is commonly labeled a “Royal Psalm,” implying that is was written for, about and/or in the service of the Israelite monarchy. While the subject, in fact, is the king, the psalm takes an unexpected turn, and also expands it addressed audience.
Psalm 2 may be less accessible to the modern reader than other psalms, as it rests so heavily on the role of the king. To a degree, one is best advised simply to make the effort to capture ancient sensibilities and understandings, and to a degree, one might seek modern phenomena as approximate representations.
Psalm 2 presents itself by sections, these formed by change of speaker and audience as well as shifts in emphasis. (It does not rely on the more frequently used format of word repetition.) The poem is divided into four sections of three verses each, with a brief postscript (the last phrase).
The first two sections share a structure: an anonymous speaker makes his point to an unidentified audience through two verses, followed by a supporting quotation. In the first section, the speaker “asks” a mocking question, citing the words of the kings of other nations, and in the second section he reveals God’s reaction, ultimately citing Him. The third section, too, is formed by a statement and a quotation, but this time the speaker is the king of Israel (though this becomes clear only after reading the first few words), the quote (again from the LORD) is longer, and it carries the message.
The meaning of the fourth section will vary somewhat depending on who one perceives as being the speaker: the verses are clearly addressed to foreign kings, but they are the words of either the first anonymous speaker, his audience who now joins in addressing the kings, the king of Israel or even God (who might refer to Himself in the third person). The postscript, in turn, with several possible speakers and several possible audiences, vastly complicates the psalm's meaning, and gives it great depth. Indeed, as we shall see, the variety of voices and audiences in this brief psalm leaves us, at the end, a deliciously multi-directed message.
Analysis by Section
1. Verses 1–3: The background of this psalm is clear, but not specific. (Later interpreters seek to identify specific historical contexts, to little avail.) This real or imagined background is that Israel is sovereign, and subject kings plot (or speak of, or think of) rebellion. The rebellion is directed at two parties: the LORD, and His anointed one (the human king of Israel).
2. Verses 4–6: In parallel fashion (two verses followed by a quote), the Lord mocks the efforts of the subject kings, making it clear that He has anointed the earthly king of Israel. The Lord’s singularity or control is taken for granted. The assurance is that the human king in fact is God’s chosen. (He rules over God’s chosen mountain.) Citing God articulates the conflict as a clash of voices—those of the subject kings and that of God.
3. The point made subtly at first (posited frontally only in verse 6)—that the earthly king of Israel is in fact God’s choice—is now reasserted, as the king quotes God’s investiture. For many commentators, this is the essence of the psalm—the assertion that the earthly king is divinely chosen. It is emphasized by two surprises: the subject is new to the psalm (not mentioned until verse 6), as is the speaker, the king. In fact, the king's being the speaker is apparent only with the sixth Hebrew word of verse 7, “to me.” The reader is almost shocked into close attention. Only further reading, into the fourth section, will challenge the contention that this is the psalm’s core.
4. The addressees of the fourth section are the other kings, who are told to serve God.
Unfortunately, an unclear detail leaves some ambiguity. The Hebrew phrase beginning verse 12—nashku var—is not clear and is subject to hopelessly varied interpretations. ("Kiss the ground" – Buttenwieser; "With purity be armed" – Alter; ""Kiss his feet" – RSV; "O mortal men"' [part of verse 11] – Dahood; "Pay homage in good faith"- NJPS; "Kiss the son" – New International Version). These are not well attested alternatives, but attempts (some, reconstructions or re-readings) to handle a difficult text (and therefore they cannot be considered cumulative alternative meanings). This is more than a small glitch. Only if the meaning is “kiss the son” (an unlikely interpretation) is the earthly king mentioned directly (as the figurative son of God).
If not, the earthly king of Israel appears only by implication in the final section, after his centrality in the third section! As a “royal psalm,” then, the thrust seems to be redirected away from the earthly king and towards the Ultimate King. The other kings are told to subject themselves to the LORD, as a practical, prudent and proper step. While this may imply serving the earthly king of Israel, as per the third section, the essence is shifted.
However, the variety of speakers and secondary audiences adds even greater depth to this fourth section. These three verses might be the words of the original “speaker,” his original audience, the earthly king or even the Lord (referring to Himself in the third person). This ambiguity, in turn, allows for various secondary audiences who are meant to take note of the message (the primary addressees are clearly the subject kings): the people of Israel (the presumed audience at the beginning), including the reader, and/or the earthly king (to remind him of the ultimate source of his investiture and power). With those secondary audiences in mind, one notes that some of the phrases are at least as appropriate to the secondary audiences as to the foreign kings. "Serve" the LORD can also mean "worship" the LORD. "Rejoice with trembling" (11) better befits Israelite devotees than foreigners. The varied possible speakers and varied possible audiences, I assume, are purposely included, and so the volume is raised into a virtual chorus of speakers, with messages possibly applying to different groups.
The postscript is perhaps the most fascinating part of the psalm —the lingering moment of contemplation: “Happy are all who take refuge in Him,” wherein “happy” is that deep sense of satisfaction, calm and completion noted in the very first word of Psalm 1. The abundance of possible speakers and audiences joins a message that is potentially independent of the earthly king to take the psalm far from its starting point. (As we shall see, many final verses in Psalms contain a surprising twist.) What was a "chorus" in the fourth section becomes a shout in the postscript, both joyous and cacophonous. Such a reading, of course, expands the poem's meaning to include the reader and all devotees of the LORD. For the modern reader, so much after the monarchy, it here that the poem gains its personal impact as she or he hears the voice of such a huge chorus inviting one to join.
These overlapping audiences hearing a single, if complex, message give the end of the psalm its power. To recall: there are many possible speakers (original speaker, God, the king of Israel, the original anonymous audience), many audiences (these same parties, plus the present reader) with a message concerning happiness. The focus on the earthly king is somewhat removed, as the original concentration on him has led somewhere else.
The Circumstance Pictured, and Later Use
In light of a threat, the thoughts of rebellion are mocked. However, Psalm 2 includes no request, indicating that the threat is less a cause of worry than an occasion for contemplation. The speaker wants to emphasize that Zion’s king is God’s emissary, and, ultimately, that one finds joy in the LORD's protective care.
The psalm reflects a period of national success and domination and serves as a reminder of where the credit is due. There is no hint of an active rebellion against God here, simply a reminder framed within a rather idyllic situation. In life, success is as much a challenge to belief and religiosity as are tragedy and disaster. This psalm attributes success to the Divine and then invites the reader to take delight in this understanding.
A later interpretation might also be mentioned here. Psalm 2 might well have been applied years after its composition to circumstances other than those originally seen. In particular, we note a number of commentators who find a messianic longing within it. Indeed, there are elements that would support such a reading, including the emphasis on the king, the familial relationship to God and the use of “anoint” (= “messiah” in Hebrew).
The text as written, however, bears no such future reference, which is not to say that in Second Temple times the text was not given such a reading, perhaps even a widespread one. Many commentators read the text that way, including several traditional Jewish commentators and modern Jewish religionists. The Christian church has applied this psalm to Jesus innumerable times across the generations. (Recall the reading, “Kiss the son.”) All of these are of interest in the history of religion, but are not helpful in understanding the psalm as written.
Psalm 2 as an Introduction to Psalms
As is the case with Psalm 1, Psalm 2 is commonly understood to have been placed at the beginning (of the first book within Psalms or of the entire collection) as an appropriate introduction. Unlike most poems in the first section of Psalms, these two are not attributed to David. In fact, in some manuscripts they are unnumbered, the first numbered psalm being the one that we call Psalm 3. The two psalms include no request, and the two themes (widely cited as Torah and monarchy, the latter conceived in Second Temple times as a longing for a renewed monarchy) are thought to be the framework that the editor sought to achieve. (Again, this does not clarify the intent of the original poem, as opposed to the history of interpretation.) Indeed, as I noted earlier (and rejected at the end of my comments on Psalm 1), some have proposed that Psalms 1 and 2 are a unit, based partially on the term ashrei, “happy,” which appears at the start of Psalm 1 and, as a kind of enclosure, at the end of Psalm 2. However, given the prominence accorded the final phrase of Psalm 2, one might well posit that the editors indeed chose two psalms which began and ended as they do, focusing on this happiness. This term will be used in nineteen of the Psalms, and its emphasis is thus an appropriate introduction to the book. (A psychologist friend is struck that the opening of Psalms is so close to the concern of modern therapy!)
The psalm also establishes what will be one of the most common literary techniques of the Psalter – the inclusion of a last line which radically differs from that which came before. (It is too early in these studies to seek a uniform implication of these last verses. I shall return to this technique in later essays.)
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An Additional Consideration
There is a striking phrase in verse 11 of Psalm 2 that deserves specific comment. In Hebrew this is vigilu bir’adah, “rejoice with trembling.” The phrase has led to various attempts to discover alternative meanings or emendations for the Hebrew, since rejoicing and trembling in awe are usually thought of as opposites, or at least as incompatible. I do not propose to cite those efforts or weigh them, but rather I want to pause to consider the concept. I suggest that the parallelism of the verse supports the literal translation. (The first half of the verse is “Serve the LORD in awe.”) I also suggest that the poet did not offer us any clarification as to how the two fit together. Rather, he just proposed that they do, and in that left a beguiling challenge for the reader.