Psalm 2 is one of what are called coronation psalms; together, they make up about one-sixth of the total 150, and share – as the name suggests – a use of royal imagery: there are crowns and scepters, chariots and steeds. We are given to see conquering kings march in triumph, to see chastened rulers mourn the suffering their own misjudgments have begotten, to see the grandeur and the spectacle (and yes, to hear all the ooo-ing and ahhh-ing and every ‘just look at her dress!’) as the Kate Middletons and Prince Williams of the ancient world wed. Most likely, these psalms were sung to mark and to celebrate momentous national holidays, along the lines, maybe, of the anniversary of a monarch’s ascension to the throne. This psalm in particular has just that sort of stirring ‘Hail to the Chief’ air about it. It begins by painting the scene of a sinister cabal, a kind of shadow UN, with the princes and the powerful of world gathered to conspire against … God – God, who, to their minds, is a malevolent tyrant, God, who has reduced them to servitude. Vast empires and great riches ain’t what they used to be, I guess, for the princes and the powerful, styling themselves as pitiable and oppressed, cry out: ‘Let us break these chains and throw off these shackles!’
What exactly is the nature of their bondage? The Hebrew word for chains or cords there is sometimes used to describe what holds plow to ox – a yoke – which, as we see, for instance, when Jesus says, ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’, is a common metaphor for the commandments, the big ten and all the rest, that are laid upon us, and that we are called and duty-bound to keep. So, at issue for the princes and the powerful is that they are morally answerable for their actions – poor them, I know. The responsibility to govern justly and righteously is weighing them down, and so they rage against the One, the dastardly One (!), whose demand it is that justice and righteousness be done. God has got to go. At this point, the scene shifts; it is as if the camera zooms way, way out – out and out and out – from the clandestine huddle of handle-mustache-swirling fat cats and Mafioso-type powerbrokers aiming their nukes at the Pearly Gates. And what we see in response to their woe-is-me-ing and to their scheming, what we see, or rather, what we hear is howling, howling from heaven. God lets out a laugh that sets the sky to shaking and the earth to quaking. God looks upon those who would rule without regard for what is right, and God laughs, laughs for the folly of it, laughs for the futility of it.
For God is sovereign above all, over all, absolutely, unassailably, and God’s will for moral order among the peoples of the world will never, simply can never be broken. Justice and righteousness are a part of the very architecture of the cosmos, and no affront against them could amount to more, in the end, than silly trifling. The psalm goes on to say that God’s claims upon us and over us, God’s claims upon those and over those who govern us are to be enforced by something of a vice-regent whom God will install in Zion – holy city, city of history, city of myth. God will see to the enthroning of a king of fierce, iron principles, who is to establish justice and righteousness the whole world over. From pole to pole, the princes and the powerful are imagined as coming, bowing low, bending to the power-for-good with which God’s king has been entrusted. And that this is God’s king, we know. We know, for the psalm marshals all the language of divine investiture: in ancient Israel, anointing, anointing with oil, was what made a king a king; the king in Psalm 2 is named as God’s own anointed one, that is, in Hebrew, God’s messiah. And the king in Psalm 2 is named, also, as God’s own son. It was commonplace in the Mesopotamia of this time, and even across the Mediterranean of much later times, for kings to be hailed as sons of god. King David and Julius Caesar alike were called sons of God. So this king, God’s king, God’s messiah, God’s son, will see that God’s justice and God’s righteousness prevail.
No doubt, for Israel’s kings, for those who reigned from Zion to hear in this psalm – this psalm sung out in the presence of teeming, thronging subjects, this psalm sung out on occasions of national decision and significance – for Israel’s kings to hear in this psalm just how it is that God has willed to use kings: to inaugurate and to defend rule by justice and righteousness to the ends of the earth, for them to hear this could only have been deeply humbling. What they would have heard was an invitation to promise themselves to God as servants of the good. However, for much, for most of Israel’s history there simply were no monarchs in a position to make such promises. After a short-lived golden age, one after another king, and then the kingdom, fell. There never was a time when the nations of the world were the vassals of Zion. Quite to the contrary: Israel spent centuries, millennia really, as a conquered and powerless people, as the prey of mighty empires. But throughout the bitterness and the anguish of that, Israel sung this psalm. Israel sung this psalm, no more as their, or as their king’s, promise to God, but as God’s promise to them, God’s promise to send someone, someday to vindicate the justice and the righteousness they stood for in defiance of whatever the catastrophe of governance de jour. And because this psalm is the only passage in the Hebrew scriptures where the images of king and messiah and son of God all coalesce, Christians, too, have turned to it, have entered spiritually and imaginatively into it. We have taken to singing it ourselves, of Jesus, who we confess will come again, Jesus before whom every knee shall bow.
Well, so what? God is sovereign above all, over all, absolutely, unassailably, and God in the cosmic reign of Jesus Christ will give justice and righteousness to triumph at the last. But what difference does that make when the news of the day is what it is? I think of something that the Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famer and manager of the Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver, would say: ‘you’re never as good as you look when you’re goin’ good, and you’re never as bad as you look when you’re goin’ bad.’1 God is on the throne. And so if you wake up the morning after Election Day and think, ‘hallelujah! hip, hip, hooray! It will be on earth as it is in heaven!’, you have radically overestimated the power of even the most powerful person on earth. And if you wake up the morning after Election Day and think, ‘holy you-know-what! The Great Satan arises! All hell is about to break loose!’, you have radically overestimated the power of even the most powerful person on earth. God is on the throne. And part of what gets us into trouble this side of the Beyond is both the hope and the hysteria that are so out of proportion with reality, and which only feed in our leaders the very sense of all-powerfulness that is too grave a temptation for anyone to live with.
God is on the throne. So no matter the promises and no matter the threats we hear on the campaign trail or out of Washington or whatever – we are never going to get everything, and we are never going to lose everything. We will get some of what we want, sometimes. And we will lose some of what we don’t want, sometimes. We and others may lose quite a lot. That is the way of the things. We must always be mindful of those who have the most to lose, and work to protect them from this and to provide for them in this. Indeed this is the very worthiest work. But we are not all-powerful either. We do what we can, even as those in authority will do what they will do. But we must keep our wits. We must avoid the Siren Songs – the tweets and the headlines and so on that invest every moment with ultimacy and romance and pathos and make of it an emergency. We cannot think in such a state; and no one would say that too much thinking is what has brought us to where we are. We must call ourselves back to truth that God sits enthroned over human history and is even yet establishing justice and righteousness on the earth, and will, will bring down those who would abuse their high office. We must, as believers, cultivate the quiet confidence and the peace and the centeredness – quiet confidence and peace and centeredness in weal and in woe – so that, in the fullness of time, we may act wisely and surprisingly. We must, as believers, cultivate the quiet confidence and the peace and the centeredness that come in remembering more than the one news or election cycle back, and anticipating more than the one news or election cycle ahead: that come in remembering the great, the absolute, the unassailable power-for-good of God, by which the world was brought forth from the abyss and Israel was brought forth from bondage and from Babylon and Christ was brought forth from the tomb – the great, absolute, unassailable power-for-good of God, which was before time, which is even yet, and will shade off unto eternity, with petty tyrants swept off into the dustbin of history.
1 This gem was quoted often enough by my mentor, David Ruhe, to achieve something of canonical status for me.