Psalm 2:1-12, ASV translation, as prose:
Why do the nations rage, and the peoples meditate a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against YHWH, and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their cords from us.”
He that sitteth in the heavens will laugh: the Lord will have them in derision. Then will he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure: yet I have set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.
I will tell of the decree: YHWH said unto me, “Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore be wise, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve YHWH with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the son, lest he be angry, and ye perish in the way, for his wrath will soon be kindled. Blessed are all they that take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:1-12 ASV according to Hebrew parallelism (as marked in BHS):
Why do the nations rage / and the peoples meditate a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves / and the rulers take counsel together
Against YHWH / and against his anointed,
“Let us break their bonds asunder / and cast away their cords from us.”
He that sitteth in the heavens will laugh / the Lord will have them in derision.
Then will he speak unto them in his wrath / and vex them in his sore displeasure
Yet I have set my king / upon my holy hill of Zion.
I will tell of the decree: YHWH
Said unto me, “Thou art my son / this day have I begotten thee.
Ask of me / and I will give thee the nations for thine inheritance / and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron / thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore be wise, O ye kings / be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
Serve YHWH with fear / and rejoice with trembling / Kiss the son,
Lest he be angry and ye perish in the way / for his wrath will soon be kindled.
Blessed are all they that take refuge in him.
Psalm 2 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter of 1650:
1 Why rage the heathen? and vain things
why do the people mind?
2 Kings of the earth do set themselves,
and princes are combined,
To plot against the Lord, and his
Anointed, saying thus,
3 Let us asunder break their bands,
and cast their cords from us.
4 He that in heaven sits shall laugh;
the Lord shall scorn them all.
5 Then shall he speak to them in wrath,
in rage he vex them shall.
6 Yet, notwithstanding, I have him
to be my King appointed;
And over Zion, my holy hill,
I have him King anointed.
7 The sure decree I will declare:
The Lord hath said to me,
Thou art mine only Son; this day
I have begotten thee.
8 Ask of me, and for heritage
the heathen I’ll make thine;
And, for possession, I to thee
will give earth’s utmost line.
9 Thou shalt, as with a weighty rod
of iron, break them all;
And, as a potter’s sherd, thou shalt
them dash in pieces small.
10 Now therefore, kings, be wise; be taught,
ye judges of the earth:
11 Serve God in fear, and see that ye
join trembling with your mirth.
12 Kiss ye the Son, lest in his ire
ye perish from the way,
If once his wrath begin to burn:
blessed all that on him stay.
Psalm 2 as Poetry
Psalm 2 features a chiastic structure of A B B’ A’ perhaps as a “four act play” or ritual of sorts (Psalm 2:1-3 A, Psalm 2:4-6 B, Psalm 2:7-9 B’, Psalm 2:10-12 A’). The versets display classic Hebrew parallel features, often emphasizing and intensifying the message.
Other aspects of the poetry reinforce associations and connections between Psalm 1 and Psalm 2. Psalm 1:1 begins with a beatitude; Psalm 2:12 ends with one, an inclusio for Psalms 1-2 as an introductory unit. The Hebrew root hagah is found in both Psalm 1:2 (“meditate”) and Psalm 2:1 (sometimes translated “meditate,” also translated “plot”). Many similar lexical associations can be found between the two psalms.
Psalm 2 in Context and Canon
Psalm 2 has no superscription just like Psalm 1; many in antiquity reckoned Psalms 1 and 2 to be a composite unity (cf. certain manuscripts of Acts 13:33 which read “first” for “second”), and even those who recognized them as distinct psalms understood that they served as a dual introduction to the whole Psalter.
The “wicked” of Psalm 1 morph into the nations and peoples who rage and plot against YHWH in Psalm 2; the “righteous” of Psalm 1 is embodied in YHWH’s Anointed One in Psalm 2, the King who will receive power and authority.
If one looks at Books 1 through 3 of the Psalter as “the king in prayer,” Psalm 2 proves a most fitting introduction to this collection. Psalm 2 is certainly a royal psalm, a coronation, part of either an enthronement ceremony or perhaps a covenant renewal ceremony (cf. 2 Kings 11:12).
The history of Israel is full of examples of the danger of instability that marked regnal transitions. When Ahab king of Israel died and Ahaziah took his throne Moab revolted (2 Kings 1:1); in the days of Joram king of Judah Edom and Libnah rebelled (2 Kings 8:22). Kings would frequently need to make military excursions soon after they ascended to the throne so as to continue to project strength and keep vassal kingdoms under submission.
Psalm 2 is composed to this end. The Psalter is aware of the plots and machinations of the nations to rebel against the authority of the Davidic king; in so doing they plot against YHWH as well (Psalm 2:1-3). YHWH sees this from above; He laughs at them and holds them in derision, and in His (burning) anger He will speak and vex them (Psalm 2:4-5). What frustrates the nations? YHWH has set His king on the hill of Zion in Jerusalem (Psalm 2:6). The Davidic king is an authority legitimated by YHWH and is to accomplish YHWH’s purposes (associated with the “righteous” of Psalm 1).
“The decree” is then given; in the ancient Near Eastern world almost every culture had some sort of recognition of adoption of the king as the son of the relevant deity. The Psalter speaks in similar terms: “Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee” (Psalm 2:7). As a result the Davidic king is invited to ask of YHWH to receive power and dominion over the nations and He will provide (Psalm 2:8-9). Perhaps the Davidic king would use a royal scepter or mace to break a pot as a symbolic gesture to declare his power over the vassal nations in the midst of the declaration of Psalm 2:9.
A taunt or exhortation to the nations follow: they ought to be wise, serve YHWH, and indicate their submission to the rightful Davidic king lest he get angry with them (Psalm 2:10-11). There may be some textual confusion surrounding “kiss” in Psalm 2:10 yet the idea is clear enough: the delegate of the nation(s) ought to provide the proper gesture of subjugation and humiliation before the Davidic king. We should not be surprised to see an expectation for other nations to serve YHWH; we must remember that the standard practice of the ancient Near Eastern world was to respect the gods of other nations and especially give them their due when their people were ascendant. That standard practice proved to be exactly the problem for Israel: the Israelites respected the gods of the other nations and did not serve YHWH exclusively (cf. 2 Kings 17, etc.)!
The point of Psalm 2 is found at the very end: blessings come to those who serve YHWH and His anointed, the Davidic king, and take refuge in him (Psalm 2:12). Problems come to those who would dare to revolt and rebel, thinking the death of one king and the accession of the next to be an indicator of weakness.
The strong association between YHWH and the anointed Davidic king in the face of the nations who would seek to break away from Judahite vassalage provides strong evidence that Psalm 2 belongs originally to the First Temple period. It certainly sounds like a psalm that would be used in an enthronement ceremony declaring the strength of the Davidic monarchy; whether it was used only at the accession of a new king or annually or at certain “jubilee” points, or whether the ceremony would take place at the Temple precinct or in front of the palace cannot be definitively ascertained.
Psalm 1 expressed the two ways, that of the righteous and that of the wicked; Psalm 2 places that in the context of the monarchy. The nations often plot wickedly; YHWH has established the Davidic king and his kingdom based in Jerusalem as the bastion for the righteous and will prosper His people. Psalm 1 provides a framework for the individual to find liturgical value in the Psalms while seeking to practice Torah as an ethic in life; Psalm 2 provides the framework for the nation of Israel to understand how YHWH will triumph over the nations hostile to Israel through His anointed Davidic king. Psalms give voice to the individual to make his complaint before YHWH, but Psalms also give voice to the nation of God’s people to give voice to their frustrations about their plight in light of current events. Psalms 1 and 2 set the tone for the rest of the Psalter: follow YHWH’s torah, remain righteous; the enemies and the wicked will plot, but YHWH will gain triumph through His Anointed.
Psalm 2 Throughout History
During and after the exile in the Second Temple period Psalm 2 was understood as a Messianic Psalm. The Israelites continually lived under the yoke of foreign oppression and increased hostility by those nations. Israel looked forward to the Messiah who would come as the descendant of David and who would crush their foes and vindicate them in the sight of their enemies.
It is worth noting that the Seputagint reads poimaneis (“rule”) for Hebrew tero’em (“break”) in Psalm 2:9; while the Hebrew MT reading is preferable since it maintains continuity in parallelism (break / dash in pieces), the Septuagint LXX reading highlights the rule of the Messiah over the nations and is seen in Revelation 2:27.
Psalm 2 features prominently in the New Testament. The decree of Psalm 2:7, understood as the adoption of the Davidic king as the son of God, is understood in its fullness and actuality in terms of Jesus of Nazareth when God the Father declares Him to be His Son at His baptism and Transfiguration in Matthew 3:17, 17:5. All references to Jesus as the “Son of God” are rooted in the decree of Psalm 2:7. The Hebrew author uses Psalm 2:7 to prove that Jesus is higher than the angels since God never called an angel His Son (Hebrews 1:5, 3:6) and emphasizes that Jesus does not assume the honor for Himself but is granted it by the Father’s spoken decree (Hebrews 5:5, 8). Paul understands the decree of Psalm 2:7 in light of the promises of Psalm 2:8-11 and interprets them in view of Daniel 7:13-14 and the resurrection: this leads to his citation of Psalm 2:7 in Acts 13:33 and Romans 1:4 to assert that Jesus was declared the Son of God, that is, the Messiah of David who would rule over all the nations, in power in His resurrection. John evokes Psalm 2:7 when speaking of Jesus as the monogenes, the “only begotten” or “unique” Son of the Father in John 1:14, 18, 3:16. The Apostles appropriated the entire message of Psalm 2 around Jesus, for after they experienced persecution from the same Sanhedrin authority that had condemned Jesus to death, they pray before God, explicitly quoting Psalm 2:1-2 and interpret it in light of the plotting of Herod, Pilate, the Jews, and the Gentiles first against Jesus and by extension now against them as well (Acts 4:23-31). In Revelation 12:5 the Child of the woman is identifiable as Jesus precisely because John describes Him as the One who would rule the nations with a rod of iron. In Revelation 2:26-27, however, Jesus invites all those who conquer/overcome to share in that rule over the nations, indicating some level of participation of the people of God in the Kingdom of Jesus.
Christians continued to understand the powerful Christology inherent in Psalm 2. Many considered Psalm 2 to highlight Jesus’ humanity yet also how Psalm 2 provides a coherent view of how Jesus could be both fully God and fully man.
Christians also continued to use the “life situation” of Psalm 2 as a way of understanding the struggles of their own day, especially in the early modern period (1500 – 1800). They understood their situation in terms of the “nations raging” and “peoples plotting” and put their trust in God in Christ that He would overcome and gain the victory.
Psalm 2 Today
Many Christians look at Psalm 2 entirely according to its apologetic/Christological purpose and see the foreshadowing of Jesus the Anointed One gaining God’s victory over the forces which conspire against Him. This approach does have its value and we ought to gain encouragement from the clear reference to Jesus and what He would do.
Yet we do well to also consider the whole message of Psalm 2. In context Psalm 2 is really a bold declaration: be afraid of this geographically small kingdom based on this hill in the Judean highlands! One can imagine the snark or contemptuousness which would be sounded from the thrones of Pharaoh in Egypt or the kings of Assyria, Babylon, etc., to such a claim. Yet Israel held firm to the belief that YHWH their God, the Creator, intended to be vindicated through His people in the face of enemies generally stronger than they.
Psalm 2 is not just about Jesus being begotten of God and the Son of God even though that is there. Psalm 2 is about God’s rule over the nations and the wisdom of submitting to YHWH and His Anointed. Jesus has now been ruling for almost 2,000 years; in the meantime the Jewish people who rejected Him saw the loss of their Temple and their city, the Romans terribly persecuted His people but ultimately were won over to a form of Christianity, falling as a power; in turn all sorts of kingdoms, rulers, and authorities have come and go. Christianity itself has experienced its ups and downs in terms of faithfulness and standing. Yet through it all the nations have raged and the peoples have plotted against YHWH and His Anointed, and they have all failed.
We live in a time when we can see the nations raging and the peoples plotting against YHWH and His Anointed. Psalm 2 thus can speak to us and for us today, just as it did for the early Christians to whom John wrote his Revelation. The nations rage; we should not be afraid, for YHWH has obtained the victory through His Anointed, and He laughs and holds them in derision. The peoples plot; yet YHWH invites us to participate with His Anointed in His Kingdom and we will see Him crush all who are opposed to Him. If the authorities, nations, and peoples were really wise they would serve YHWH and revere His Son!
Psalms 1 and 2 open our eyes and ears so we can truly see and hear and thus speak the Psalter. We are invited to choose righteousness through the Torah of YHWH and to know that despite the ravings and plots of the wicked YHWH will gain victory over them through His Anointed Jesus; therefore, we should submit to the Father, obey the Son, and give praise and thanks through the voice of the Spirit as He has provided in the Psalter. Let us be wise, serve YHWH in Christ, and live to glorify and praise Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry