Psalm 23: A Song of Christ                                                    (Or: A Note on Christ-Centered Preaching from the Psalter)

Psalm 23: A Song of Christ (Or: A Note on Christ-Centered Preaching from the Psalter)

The Psalms preach Christ. Two psalms appear in the Holy Church’s first sermon on the very day of Pentecost. The fisherman-evangelist, St. Peter, quoted and interpreted both Psalms 98 and 110. From these texts, along with a long citation from the prophet Joel and intimations from Isaiah 44, 54 and 57, Jesus of Nazareth is proclaimed as the once-crucified, now risen Sovereign and Savior of both Jews and gentiles (Acts 2:25-35). The Old Testament preaches Christ.

Of course, this should be no mystery. The authoritative Word of God (Scripture) discloses the One who is the Word of God (Jesus) giving the authoritative (authorized) principle for interpreting all the Scriptures. On the day of our Lord’s resurrection He says,

“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.

Then He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24: 25-27 ;44-47).

Jesus seemed especially keen on the Psalms being understood Christocentrically.

In fact, the Psalter is the Old Testament book most frequently referenced by Jesus and the most cited in the New Testament. Christ and the Evangelists, along with Saints Peter and Paul, show a deep attachment to the Book of Psalms. This was not because the Psalms seemed to them to cover the full range of human emotions – a psalm for every mood. Not at all. It was not sentimentalism or anthropocentrism. Rather, it was because the Psalms were about the Messiah, the Christ of God. They were an esteemed, prophetic book about the Messiah Himself. That is right, the Psalms are numbered among the prophets, who bear explicit witness to the person and work of the Messiah.

It was in that very first gathering on Easter when the Christian Church began to discern the significance and importance of the Psalms in its newfound, Christian thought and worship. Put simply, the Psalter is a book of Christology – a teaching guide about the Christ. Therefore, if the psalms are about Christ (so says Christ Himself), then the Psalms may also be said to be Christology in poetic prayer form.[1] In other words, there is nothing at all contrived about speaking of, preaching from, praying through, or singing with the Psalms as Christians, because the Psalms are all about Jesus Christ. Christ says so. To read them Christocentrically is to read them in obedience to Christ. No other reading horizon has been authorized by our Lord for Scripture and so no other preaching horizon has been authorized by the Lord either. Consequently, St. Paul writes, “I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Maybe this is surprising. Admittedly Jesus’ name nowhere appears in the Psalms. After all, they were written about a thousand years before the newborn Jesus was laid in a feeding trough. On the other hand, this steady theme of reading Christ in the Psalms was shared by Christian authors who were otherwise so diverse: Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Martin Luther. If we limit ourselves to Luther, we observe that he, in the words of Patrick Henry Reardon, “so consistently interpreted the Psalms in the light of the New Testament and Christian theology that sometimes this approach even determined how he translated them into German.”[2] He insisted on reading the Psalms precisely as a Christian because this is what Jesus and the Apostles taught. The principle was to read the Psalms Christianly by reading them understanding Christ as the true subject – not human emotions. Luther himself taught:

[The Gospels and Epistles] want themselves to be our guides, to direct us to the writings of the prophets and of Moses and the Old Testament so that we might there read and see for ourselves how Christ is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger, that is, how He is comprehended in the writings of the prophets. It is there that people like us should read and study, drill ourselves, and see what Christ is, for what purpose He has been given, how He was promised, and how all Scripture tends toward Him.[3]

All the other writers listed above agreed with Luther in their writings as well. They all saw the Psalms just like the Jews in the first century and for centuries before; seeing it as a prophetic book. It was a collection of prophesies about the Messiah. Luther again says:

Thus, all of Scripture… is pure Christ, God’s and Mary’s Son. Everything is focused on this Son, so that we might know Him distinctively and in that we see the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally as one God. To him who has the Son, Scripture is an open book.[4]

We find Jesus confirming this way of reading Scripture in John 5:39. He says it is absolutely right: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.” The Psalms are all about Him. Get to know me, says Jesus, by reading, singing, chanting and preaching the Psalms.

Thus, the Christ-centeredness of the Psalms is not simply a matter of identifying certain passages as “messianic” (Here a verse, there a verse, etc.). Rather, the Church regards the teaching about Christ as the proper key to the whole Psalter. A correct understanding of the Psalms always involves Christ. He is the subject in each and every part. Therefore, we are to preach every part in relation to Christ. “One must not understand Scripture contrary to Christ, but in favor of Him; therefore,” opines Luther once more, “all Scripture must be brought into relation to Christ or must not be regarded as Scripture.”[5]

For this reason, translations of the Psalms which are motivated by a spirit of political correctness with interests towards gender-inclusiveness, destroy any semblance of seeing the Psalms as Christ-centered, as Jesus Himself taught. Christian preaching, Biblical preaching must steadfastly resist this. The Psalms are about a “man”. Like in Psalm 8:4, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” Or Psalm 1:1, “Blessed is the man…” That “man” is Jesus Christ. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Pontius Pilate unwittingly revealed this holy truth in John 19:5 before the crowd. He declares, “Ecce homo!” or, “Behold, the man!” Whether by the elimination of nouns like man and the masculine pronouns “him,” “he”, and “his,” for radical egalitarian purposes or by the insertion of female names to provide “balance” for purposes of politically correct inclusivity, such efforts produce translations that would be unrecognizable to any New Testament author, Church Father, or Reformer.[6]    

Consider what these new translations do to Psalm 8:4, which was a major, formative text in Hebrews 2 and the New Testament’s teaching about who Christ is and how He accomplishes salvation. “What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You visited him?” Just what “man” is the psalmist talking about here? The earliest Christian commentary on these lines leaves no doubt. The Epistle to the Hebrews quotes these verses of Psalm8:4-6. He sees them as descriptive of the person and work of Christ.

“For in that God the Father put all in subjection to him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus, who was made for a little while lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor, that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (Hebrews 2:6-9).

In other words, the New Testament, in obedience to the way Jesus tells us to read and proclaim the Bible, already interprets the Old Testament Psalms for us in an explicitly Christ-centered way. Again, this is just as Jesus Himself intended. He is the interpretive tool. He sets the reading horizon. He, therefore, is the topic of proclamation, the subject of preaching... always.

Consequently, it is not contrived or artificial to find Jesus in the Psalms and everywhere else in the Old Testament. This is not twisting the Bible until Jesus squeezes out. Far from it. When you open your Bible to the Old Testament, and in this case to the Psalms, the Bible itself presents Jesus as the subject of every part. The self-presenting nature of the Bible is always Christ-centered. Our problem is we tend to think we are the central-figure, that humanity somehow gets center stage in the pages of holy writ. On the contrary, the Bible teaches us we are to read what the Psalms say to us only after we learn what they first say about Jesus. This applies to the Psalms, to the Creation account, to the Exodus, whatever.     

So, what happens when we read Psalm 23, for example, the way Jesus teaches us, the way the New Testament would interpret it, the way orthodox Christianity has done for nearly two thousand years? What happens is this: We hear Christ speaking. He says, the Lord is my shepherd. When the Lord Jesus speaks of the Lord, He is referring to God the Father. It is the Father’s love and care which prevents Him from wanting; wanting in the way the world lusts and covets. It is the Father who makes Him lie down in green pastures, where the image of grassy fields is evocative of the Word of God. Jesus Himself would teach, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4; ref. Deuteronomy 8:3). It is God’s Word that feeds and sustains Him, and us.

The Father leads Jesus beside still waters and restores His soul. These are none other than the waters of baptism. In Jesus’ baptism He is anointed without measure by the Holy Spirit of God. There in the River Jordan, the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; see also Matthew 17:5 and 2 Peter 1:17). There by the still waters over which the Father is present, in which the Holy Spirit enters, and through which the Christ is made manifest, Jesus - acting out Israel’s history, as well as ours - is restored.

The Messiah Jesus confesses, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3). There is a sense in which the Son represents the Father. He who has seen me, Jesus says, has seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus bears the name of God, as the Son of God. Consequently, since He and the Father are one, the Father, for His name’s sake, sets the course Christ must walk. It is a path which will honor and glorify the name of the father.

 

But why is the Father Shepherding the Son this way? Why is He fattening Him up, as it were, on the Word of God? Why is He leading Him through the Jordan and John’s baptism of repentance? Why is He restoring His soul and leading Him in paths of righteousness? The Father shepherds the Son, because Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Jesus is the spotless lamb being prepared for sacrifice, even death on a cross. Throughout His sinless life, Jesus Christ was being fattened on the Word of God. Being made perfect through obedience to the Shepherd, His Father, there was an obedience that brought the Lamb of God to the horrors of Golgotha, to atone for the sins of the world with His blood.

During those dark hours of betrayal, scourging, beatings, floggings, and crucifixion, the words of Psalm 23 must have come to the mind of Jesus. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). He is crucified unto death. The Father, now propitiated, now atoned, reconciles the world to Himself through the Christ.

Fully satisfied with the life and death of Jesus, He raises Him from the grave on the third day. And upon Jesus’ resurrection a glorious transition takes place. All power and authority are given to Him, both in heaven and on the earth. Jesus Christ is elevated to Lord of All or, as Psalm 23 would teach us, elevated to be the Shepherd – the Good Shepherd. And now, what was true of the Christ becomes true of us in Christ.

The Lord Jesus is our Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life down for the sheep (John 10:11). Christ Himself is the Word of God and so, in giving us the Holy Gospel, He gives us of Himself. He leads us, and our children, beside the still waters of Holy Baptism in which He restores our once lost souls. He endows us with the Holy Spirit that we may be led in paths of righteousness, so that we do not besmear His holy name.

And the Good Shepherd has an attitude. While false messiahs and cowardly shepherds run for the woods when the going gets tough, the Good Shepherd wields His rod and breaks the teeth of those who would do His sheep harm. He pelts the wolves with rocks on our behalf. Even when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death, just as He says more than anything else in the Gospel, we are to fear not. We have nothing to fear because He is with us. And through this life we find He disciplines us and guides us with His rod and staff, always doing so out of love.

Then there is this prepared table He sets for us, in the presence of our enemies. The table is, of course, the Holy Eucharist. Jesus prepares a feast of Lamb, the Lamb of God, for us in Holy Communion. He does so right in the face of our surliest enemies: sin, death and the devil. Where your sin has got you thinking you are worthless and no good, where death creeps up over you and perhaps even has its claws in you by way of failing health, and where the Devil would have you despair and sink into depression about your inability to overcome your own sinfulness and selfishness, just then the Good Shepherd says:

“Take eat, take drink, this is my blood which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. Depart in peace. I am with you and now graphically in you. You are forgiven. You are mine. Expect good from me. I am the Good Shepherd. My cup,” the chalice of His blood, “overflows with divine grace and mercy.”

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6). By His being the Lamb, I am assured of dwelling in the house of the Good Shepherd… and so are you.
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[1] Patrick Henry Reardon, “Christology & The Psalter” in Creed & Culture: A Touchstone Reader, edited by James M. Kushiner (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), 154.

[2] Ibid.

[3] LW 35:132. Luther was thoroughly conversant with Jewish commentary on Scripture, citing multiple authors, but frequently disagreed with them because of their “failure to understanding the subject matter [viz., Christ]” (LW 1:263-66 (Gen. 4:7)). For how Luther’s trinitarian thought emerges from his christology, see, Charles A. Gieschen, “All Scripture is Pure Christ: Luther’s Christocentric Interpretation in the Context of Reformation Exegesis”, Concordia Theological Quarterly 81 (April 2017): 3-17.

[4] LW 15:339. See the excellent article on this topic from Charles A. Gieschen, “All Scripture is Pure Christ:”, 3-17.

[5] WA, 9:560; Martin Luther’s Sämtliche Schrifen, 19:144. Italics mine.

[6] In this section I am indebted to Patrick Henry Reardon’s essay, “Christology & the Psalter”, 158-60.

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