The Psalms are distinguished from the prophetic utterances, amongst other points, in this: that they were not spoken to the people, not messages sent of God, but the spontaneous, though inspired, expressions of individual feeling. Probably, if we could trace their origin we should find it for the most part in some special outward event affecting the heart of the Psalmist, and awakening emotion which sought expression in song. Extending over a period of probably more than five hundred years, counting from the earliest to the latest, and therefore widely differing in manner and matter, there is yet a fundamental unity, — a unity having its root in the covenant relation of the people to Jehovah, and which manifests itself in common beliefs, hopes, fears, joys, and sorrows. If it were not for this community of sentiment of which the Psalms are the utterances, they could not have been used in common worship: as purely individual utterances, they must have perished with their writers. But this fundamental unity does not exclude, both in form and contents, much diversity. As having many authors, living under widely dissimilar circumstances, and differing in degrees of spiritual knowledge and literary power of expression, we may expect to see in them a variety of conception and of statement as regards both the character of God and His purpose in His people. It is not impossible that some of the Psalmists may surpass the prophets in their deep insight into the Divine character, in their spiritual understanding of His purpose, and in their steadfast faith. Personal communion with Him may give such sense of His holiness and of human sinfulness, such apprehension of the way of salvation through the Messiah, that truths are seen by them which cannot yet be revealed by Him to the people at large, and promises dark to others are to them full of light.
We are here concerned with the Psalms only as regards the one point, — how far the Messianic beliefs of which we are speaking are found in them; and we may designate as Messianic Psalms all those that distinctly mention either of the three elements already spoken of as entering into the Messianic conception of the Jews. Their references to a suffering Messiah will be considered elsewhere.
1. The kingdom of Jehovah as now established in Israel, and to be established over all the earth. That Jehovah is the King of Israel, and will judge and rule all nations, is often declared in the Psalms. "The Lord is King for ever and ever." (x. 16.) "The kingdom is the Lord's, and He is the Governor among the nations." (xxii. 28.) "The Lord sitteth King for ever." (xxix. 10, xxiv. 7-10, cxlv. 13.) "He hath prepared His throne for judgment, and He shall judge the world in righteousness. . . . The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all nations that forget God." (ix. 17.) In several Psalms, mention is made of His coming to judge the earth. "For He cometh, He cometh to judge the earth." (xevi. 13.) "A fire goeth before Him, and burneth up His enemies round about. . . . The hills melted like wax at the Presence of the Lord, at the Presence of the Lord of the whole earth." (xcvii. 3, 5; xcviii. 9; lxxxii. 8.) Thus through His acts in judgment His universal Kingdom is established. "All the ends of the world shall remember, and turn unto the Lord; and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee." (Ps. xxii. 27, cii. 15, cxxxviii. 4.)
2. In this Kingdom, His elect people will have the highest place; they are "His inheritance," they are "the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand." It is among them that He dwells, and through them that He manifests Himself to the nations. To them it belongs "to declare His glory among the heathen, His wonders among all people." In the land which He had given them, upon Mount Zion, will He dwell, and from thence will He show forth His righteousness in the eyes of all nations. "The Lord hath chosen Zion; He hath desired it for His habitation. This is my rest for ever: here will I dwell." (cxxxii. 13, 14.) "Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the Great King.''' (xlviii. 2.) "When the Lord shall build up Zion, He shall appear in His glory." "From heaven did the Lord behold the earth, ... to declare the name of the Lord in Zion, and His praise in Jerusalem, when the people are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the Lord." (cii. 16-22.)
3. In this kingdom there is a King under Jehovah, of the house of David. There are several allusions to the Davidic covenant: "The Lord hath sworn in truth unto David: He will not turn from it." (cxxxii. 11,12, 17.) "He chose David His servant, and took him from the sheep-folds. . . . He brought him to feed Jacob His people, and Israel His inheritance." (lxxviii. 70.) "I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant, thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations." (lxxxix. 3, 4; xviii. 50, etc.)
Mention is also made in several Psalms of a King, an Anointed One, but nothing is said of His name or lineage. In Psalm ii. such a King is spoken of whom Jehovah has set upon His holy hill of Zion, and to whom He will "give the heathen for His inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession." In Psalm xx. prayers are offered for a King going forth to battle, and who is called His Anointed: "Now know I that the Lord saveth His Anointed." In the Psalm following (xxi.), thanksgiving is offered for His victorious return. In Psalm xlv. mention is made of the marriage of a King, who wins great victories, and of whom it is said, "I will make thy name to be remembered in all generations: therefore shall the peoples praise thee for ever and ever." In Psalm lxxii. prayers are offered to God for a "king's Son," that He may rule the world in righteousness, and under whose rule all nations are blessed. In Psalm ex. Jehovah says to One whom the Psalmist calls his Lord, "Sit thou at my right hand. . . . Thou art a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek;" and to whom He gives the promise of victory over all His enemies.
Who is this King? Is one and the same person meant in all these Psalms? or did their writers refer each to some king of his own day? To answer this, we must consider them in the light of the Davidic covenant.
We have seen in our examination of this covenant, that in the promises made to David special mention is made of his house and of his kingdom as to abide forever, but not of any individual king: "Thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee;" "thy throne shall be established for ever." (2 Sam. vii. 12, etc.) How did David understand this promise? That he applied it to himself, was not possible. Did he look for a succession of kings without end? or did he believe that one would come in due time in whom the promise could find its perfect and final realization,—one who would not die like all before him, but abide the eternal king, and administer an universal kingdom? Let us ask what light the Psalms give us on these points.
We can easily believe that David, as a man specially endowed by the Spirit, had an insight into the meaning of the promises made him respecting his Son deeper than any of his contemporaries or royal successors. (2 Sam. xxiii. 2.) It is plain from the Psalms generally admitted to be his, that he knew and felt the dignity of his place as Jehovah's king, His anointed, and had a just sense of the duties it involved. (Ps. xviii., ci.) But it was his chief honor to be the father of the Anointed One to come. Wherever, therefore, in any Psalm he speaks of a king in terms far surpassing any that could be justly applied to himself, we must suppose that he looks forward to his greater Son. There was, indeed, much which all his successors as theocratic kings must have in common, springing from a like relation to Jehovah. (Ps. lxxxix. 18, Rev. Ver.) Each might be called "His son;" "His king, seated on His holy hill;" "His anointed;" and, if faithful, each had the promise of His help to overcome all his enemies. And of David, as the first in the line of these kings, might all this be said in a pre-eminent degree; but not of himself, and of no successor except One, could it be said that he had an universal and eternal Kingdom.
If we now examine the Psalms generally ascribed to David in which mention is made of such a king, we shall see that his words can be fully understood only as applied to the Messiah. In Psalm ii. mention is made of a great assemblage of nations and peoples to cast off the rule of Jehovah and of His Anointed. Such rebellion, in a limited degree, might have occurred in the life of David, or of any one of his successors; but the language here clearly intimates that it is an universal and final attempt of the nations to free themselves from their subjection to the Lord and His King. The promise, "Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen" — 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," points to a full and absolute investiture of power, and to a last and complete victory over all enemies. Thus He by whom this is effected is marked out among the successors of David as the highest and the last. He is in such sense as none other "The Son of God," "The King," "The Anointed."
In Psalm xx., generally regarded as David's, — a prayer to be offered on his behalf when going forth to war,—there is nothing asked that might not have been fulfilled to him; but in Psalm xxi., also his, and a commemoration of a victory, there is a largeness of expression which makes its exclusive application to him difficult. "He asked life of thee, and thou gavest it Him, even length of days for ever and ever." "For thou hast made Him most blessed for ever." This length of days and eternal blessing belong much more to the Messiah than to David. (2 Sam. vii. 13; 1 Chron. xvii. 14.)
In Psalm ex. the writer, whom we cannot doubt to be David, clearly distinguishes between himself and another whom he calls his Lord: "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand." That these words were not spoken by David of himself, need scarcely be said. The writer in spirit sees one who is not only a king exalted to God's right hand, but a priest: "The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek;" i.e., a priest sitting on a throne. This prerogative of priesthood did not belong to the sons of David as heirs of the throne, but is given to Him of whom the Psalmist speaks; and by this He is distinguished from all before Him. And this priesthood is given to Him as a personal prerogative, and secured to Him forever by Jehovah's oath.
It is this Royal Priest who is to be the instrument for executing Jehovah's judgments upon His enemies. "Jehovah will send the rod of thy strength out of Zion, rule thou in the midst of thine enemies." Then will His foes be made His footstool. Here is marked a new stage of Jehovah's actings, beginning in judgment upon the nations, and ending in their submission. Under His Royal Priest His universal Kingdom begins.
Let us now turn to those Psalms not written by David, which are generally regarded as Messianic, — the forty-fifth and seventy-second. The former seems to have been written on the occasion of a royal marriage. Who is this king? That he was of David's line may be assumed. Was he a king of the writer's own day? Of all the historical circumstances, except so far as the Psalm itself declares them, we are ignorant. That this king was regarded as a type of the Messiah, the Psalm as Messianic, both by the Jews and in the Church, is well known; and in the Epistle to the Hebrews it is quoted as having direct reference to the Son. "But unto the Son He saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever." Let it be admitted that the term Elohim — God — is here used, as in some other places, in a secondary sense, or that the words may be rendered, as by some, "Thy throne is God's throne," and so are in themselves applicable to every successive theocratic king, still the other expressions used by him point to One pre-eminent among the sons of David. He is One loving righteousness and hating iniquity, and who is anointed with the oil of gladness above His fellows. His children shall be made princes in all the earth, His name shall be remembered in all generations, and be praised by the peoples for ever and ever.
But what significance, as applied to the Messiah, has the marriage relation? By the queen cannot be meant the Jewish people, since she is bidden to forget her own people and her father's house, which plainly implies that she is of foreign lineage. If it be prophetically spoken of Christ and the Church, the words find an easy application. The queen is the type of the Church, the Lamb's wife, gathered from all nations. (Eph. v. 32; Rev. xix. 7.) It is of the children of the Church, the sons of God, that He will set princes in the earth. But it must be acknowledged that this mention of the new election, and of its special relation to the Messiah, is such as is not found elsewhere in the Old Testament.
In the seventy-second Psalm we find mention made of One, a king's Son, and in the order of royal succession, to whom is given a kingdom of righteousness and peace without end. "All kings shall fall down before Him, all nations shall serve Him. . . . They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations. . . . His name shall endure for ever." In this Psalm a King appears under whom there are such righteousness and peace in the earth as never before. Nor is His rule one of force, though no enemies can stand before Him, and "He breaks in pieces the oppressor." The establishment of the kingdom is not here described, as in Psalms ii. and ex., but its order and prosperity and universality when established. And the King under whom this is done is thus clearly distinguished from all those before Him, whose rule had been so partial in extent and imperfect in character.
Thus our examination shows us that while, to all the successors of David as Jehovah's kings certain promises are made, all if faithful are to be upheld by Him, and their people, under their righteous rule, will have internal prosperity and peace, and strength to overcome all enemies from without; yet there are certain points in which one King and His reign are distinguished in all these Psalms from all kings and reigns before Him. It is an universal Kingdom; the whole earth is His inheritance; all nations are subject to Him, and under His sway righteousness and peace everywhere prevail. It is a kingdom without end; the kingdom now attains its permanent form. Jehovah has found One who can be in the highest sense His King and His Priest, and thus His purpose in His people can be accomplished. Now He is known and obeyed and worshipped in all the earth, by all peoples; and He by whom He acts, in all His works, both of judgment and of blessing, is a Son of David. This King is thus lifted up above all of His predecessors.
In certain Psalms of uncertain date (xcvi.-xcix.) mention is made of the coming of Jehovah to judge the earth, and to establish His kingdom; and yet nothing is said of the Messiah, or of any one of David's line. How is this to be explained? It is said by some that these Psalms were written after the Babylonian exile, and at the time of the rebuilding of the temple, when the house of David no longer sat on the throne. If it be so, we may understand how the desire for Jehovah's return to His holy city to reign again over them, might put out of mind the remembrance of the promised One of the house of David; for not till the old theocratic relation, broken at the national overthrow, was re-established, and Jehovah dwell again on His holy hill of Zion, could His King administer the government under Him. To Him, therefore, rather than to the Ruler under Him, were the eyes of the Psalmist turned, as even now we call on God to arise in judgment, although we know that all judgment is given to the Son. (John v. 22.) Or it may be, that in the mind of the Psalmist the two were inseparably associated, — the revelation of Jehovah to judge the world in righteousness, and the appearing of Him of the house of David, to whom He would give the rule over the nations. That this coming of Jehovah was not merely for the restoration of the old order, — the state of things before the exile, — is plain from its terms. He appears in terrible majesty; "a fire goeth before Him, and burneth up His enemies round about, His lightnings enlightened the world, the earth saw and trembled, the hills melted like wax at the Presence of the Lord." In this day not only does "He remember His mercy and His truth toward the house of Israel," but "all the ends of the earth see the salvation of God," all the earth is called upon to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, to rejoice and sing praise. "He hath done marvellous things, His right hand and His holy arm hath gotten Him the victory." It is plain that this day is the same as that spoken of in the other Psalms, in which Jehovah acts in judgment through His Anointed King, and by Him rules over all the nations.
We thus find, in some of the Psalms, clear proof that their writers looked forward to the universal kingdom of Jehovah, to be administered by a Son of David; and that this Son was to be distinguished from all His predecessors. The impossibility of arranging the Psalms in a defined chronological order renders it impossible to trace in them the growth of Messianic beliefs; nor can we say how general at any period was the knowledge among the people of the purpose of the Davidic covenant as fulfilled in the Messiah, or expectation of its speedy fulfillment. If their hopes reached only to a renewal of the prosperity and glory of the kingdom in the days of David and Solomon, then each successive occupant of the throne may have been looked upon as one who might do this. As all the kings of this family had in virtue of the Davidic covenant a kind of Messianic character, there is no reason why a Psalm may not have been written of any one of them, in which desires are expressed and prayers offered for the fulfillment of all the promises to David.
But if such hopes were early cherished, and find expression in some Psalms, the national experience soon showed how sadly the house of David failed to respond to its high calling. Of the great disappointment of the national hope, Psalm lxxxix. is an expression, and also an appeal to God to remember His faithfulness, and fulfill His oath to David. It is plain that this Psalmist, who may have lived at the time of the exile, looked for the restoration of David's house, and in the person of One in whom the covenant promises would have their complete and final fulfillment.