Kingdom Worship

After 1-2 Chronicles it is most appropriate to consider the book of Psalms. For this book also teaches that the kingdom of David was actually the kingdom of God, and in a way that points even further and unmistakably, to the Messiah as the ultimate fulfilment of the Davidic Covenant. We already had a foretaste of this when we considered how the author of Hebrews, taking a cue from the Chronicler, reinterpreted the Davidic Covenant in light of Psalm 2.

And in stressing that David’s kingdom was God’s kingdom the Chronicler pays exceptional attention to the Temple, where God executed His reign. He also presents snapshots of how Israel recognized God’s reign through temple worship—the singing of psalms accompanied with musical instruments (see 1 Chronicles 6:31-32; 16:7-36; 2 Chronicles 7:3-6; 29:25-30; 30:21-22). The Psalms presents a more complete picture on how faithful Israelites would act out their recognition of God’s reign through worship at the Temple and through meditation at home.

In other words the Psalms complements 1-2 Chronicles in our understanding of the kingdom of God. Actually the Psalms is too rich in teaching to be reduced to just this encompassing theme. However in view of our focus on the meaning of history, we will do just that, which will take us far beyond a mere historical interest.

The psalms are meant to be acted out, that is, sung, or at least recited, as prayers to God both corporately and individually (Wenham 2012: 11-25). This is significant. As Gordon Wenham (2005: 177) puts it, “worshippers’ central beliefs are expressed in their prayers…, for it is in prayer that people give utterance to their deepest and most fundamental convictions.” For if we really believe we are talking to the all-knowing God, we would not say anything that is not from our heart. Thus when we pray the psalms to God, the words that are “put on our lips in worship affect us profoundly: they teach us what to think and feel, the more effectively when they are put to music.”

Putting the words to music makes them more effective because “we can hum them to ourselves whenever we are so inclined.” This demonstrates that “the rhythms of music, song [and thus the words] … get implanted in us as a mode of bodily memory” (Smith 2009: 171). And because music affects our imagination and emotion more powerfully than even literature, it empowers the words that we sing and hum to ourselves to shape how we think and feel in a way not otherwise possible.

Hence the songs people sing and the music they listen to have an impact on their convictions. What convictions then would be formed and reinforced in believers when they pray the psalms? Since the encompassing theme of the Psalms is the kingdom of God, these convictions will relate and contribute to their recognition of God’s reign in their life. The Psalms thus complements 1-2 Chronicles in helping believers understand God’s kingdom both cognitively and experientially. We will focus on how this book shapes convictions of believers in this regard.

As creatures of space and time, all human beings live within an imagined story. We have stressed in our exposition on the Sabbath System the importance of believers living within the story of God’s redemptive plan. For this gives them the necessary context to recognize the meaning of history in a way that gives shape and direction to their life that is consistent with God’s purpose for humanity. Otherwise they are in danger of being absorbed into whatever story that is shaping the wider culture, and allowing it to give shape and direction to their life (adapting Bartholomew and Goheen 2004: 12).

The psalms, with their powers to shape imagination and emotion, would enable believers to sense deeply that they are living within the narrative of God’s redemptive plan. For the Psalms also recounts the history of the world and of Israel from Creation to the Exile and the Return from exile, including all the major turning points in the history of Israel (Bullock 2001: 99-118).

All the psalms are poems to be sung; numerous are narrative poems which use poetry to recount history. Though these historical psalms are not necessarily placed together or in the proper sequence, taken together they present an overarching narrative that tells the story of God’s redemptive plan. This narrative then provides the context for the rest of the psalms, which in turn enrich the meaning of the story.

When believers participate in this recounting of God’s redemptive plan through narrative poetry set to music, they allow the combined powers of narrative, poetry as well as music to shape their imagination and emotion and thus form and reinforce their convictions concerning God and His kingdom.

To help capture this poetic vision of the history of the world and of Israel, we will survey Psalms 104-107, which together cover the whole span of that history. In the process we will also include some other psalms to fill in the gaps so as to present a more complete picture of God’s purpose for Israel and for humanity.

Psalm 104 is a poet’s interpretation of Genesis 1 (cf. Grogan 2008: 173-175), which takes advantage of poetic license to stretch our imagination and shape our perception to worship the Creator with emotions that better accord with who He is. Consider his rendering of God’s creation of the heavens: “stretching out the heavens like a (tent) curtain” (verse 2b). This is a simple example of how “the transcendent majesty and effortless power of the LORD are graphically described. The ‘heavens’ are no more difficult for him to put in place than hanging a curtain within a tent” (Davidson 1998: 339).

In this poetic rendering of Creation the psalmist focuses on God’s care and provision for the needs of not only humanity but also the birds, the land animals and the sea creatures (verses 5-30). Put to music, this psalm enables a believer to “sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being” (verse 33).

As for God’s purpose for humanity, Psalm 8 praises God for creating humanity in His image, thus enabling humanity to rule over the earth and all that it contains. It is a reference to the Creation Mandate to build a civilization that is in fellowship with God and consistent with His will (Genesis 1:26-28).

Humanity’s failure to fulfil this mandate because of the Fall is then graphically pictured in Psalm 82. In an imaginary trial God condemns the “gods” for failing to uphold justice. This is a reference to God holding rulers of the world accountable to the Noahic Covenant (see Isaiah 24:5,20-21), through which God instituted government specifically to uphold justice (Genesis 9:6-7). The use of the term “gods” here is appropriate because under the Noahic Covenant the government is authorized to “bear the sword” with powers over life and death (Romans 13:1-7), a prerogative of God that is delegated to rulers.

Psalm 105 moves the plot to God’s election of Abraham to initiate God’s redemptive plan for the world (Genesis 12:1-3). It focuses on the Abrahamic Covenant in terms of the Promised Land (verses 8-15,42-44) in a way that accords with God’s promise to Abraham when He formalized the covenant (Genesis 15:12-21). God promised Abraham that his descendants (Israel) would be resident aliens in a foreign land (Egypt) for 400 years, and that they would leave with many possessions to possess Canaan. So most of Psalm 105 narrates how this was fulfilled: how God brought them into Egypt through Joseph and how God brought them out through Moses.

The poem ends with why God gave them the Promised Land: “so that they might keep His statutes and observe His laws” (verse 45). This refers to the Mosaic Covenant and God’s purpose for the nation to be a covenant community as a model for the nations. For this reason, in Psalm 101 the king is to pledge to God that he himself (verse 2-4) and those in his government (verse 6-7) would live and rule with integrity and blamelessness and that justice would be upheld in the nation (verses 5 and 8).

This poetic rendering of the formative history of the nation stresses God’s providence by highlighting His reign or sovereignty. We read that it was God who “called for the famine” (105:16) that led to Jacob and his family moving to Egypt. This happened because God had “sent a man before them, Joseph,” and had made him “lord” and “ruler” over Egypt (105:17). When sung or recited this narrative poem not only enables the believer to dwell within the story of God’s redemptive plan but it will also form or reinforce the conviction that God is faithful to His promise and is committed to His purpose.

Psalm 106 takes it further by stressing God’s faithfulness in the face of Israel’s faithlessness. Most of this psalm is a poetic reiteration of the nation’s repeated failures to trust in and thus obey God, beginning with their leaving Egypt to their possessing Canaan (verses 6-39). They even served the idols of Canaan to the point of sacrificing their own children to them. So God “gave them into the hands of the nations” to oppress them; but He would look upon their distress and hear their cry; He would remember His covenant (with Abraham) and relent according to His unfailing love; He would even cause them to be pitied by those who held them captive (verses 40-46).

This review of God’s faithfulness despite Israel’s faithlessness is well illustrated in, but not limited to, the book of Judges. This remembrance of God’s unfailing love led the psalmist to ask God to save them and “gather us from among the nations” (verse 47; cf. 27; Psalm 79). So this brings the plot to the Exile, as the petition “arises from the situation of the people of God that is exiled and dispersed throughout all nations” (Kraus 1989: 322).

Psalm 107 then is a celebration of God’s answer to this petition and thus moves the plot further to the Return from exile (Kraus 1989: 327). For it calls upon the “redeemed of the LORD” (cf. Isaiah 62:12) whom God has “gathered from the lands, from east and west, north and the sea,” to give thanks to Him (verses 1-3). And it presents (verses 4-32) four images of Israel in exile drawn from the book of Isaiah (especially chapters 40-55)—wandering in the desert, imprisonment, sickness and storm at sea—and recounts how God delivered them when they cried to Him (Goulder 1998: 116-127).

The rest of the poem (verses 33-42) extolls God’s reign over creation (“changes rivers into wilderness”) and over humanity (“pours contempt upon [unjust] rulers”) to show that “the sovereign Lord can provide people with all their needs … [and that] the future of the upright is secured, and the wicked are left speechless” (DeClaissé-Walford, Jacobson and Tanner 2014: 813). It ends with calling the wise to “give heed to these things” and “consider the unfailing love” of such a God (verse 43).

Hence Psalms 105-107 present a moving account of God’s trustworthiness, especially God’s faithfulness and commitment to the Abrahamic Covenant. Just reading, let alone singing, these narrative poems would move believers to think and feel that God would surely fulfil all that He promised in the Abrahamic Covenant. And significantly this covenant concerns not just Israel but ultimately “all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).

In fact when David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem he assigned some Levites to sing a psalm of thanksgiving that celebrates this very aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant (1 Chronicles 16:8-36). For the first 15 verses (8-22) of this psalm are almost the same as Psalm 105:1-15, which is about the Abrahamic Covenant and begins with a call to give thanks to God and “make known His deeds among the peoples,” so as to fulfil the ultimate concern of the Abrahamic Covenant.

The next 11 verses (23-33), which are virtually the same as Psalm 96, specifically celebrates this fulfilment: “Sing to the LORD, all the earth” (23a); “Tell of His glory among the nations, His wonderful deeds among all the peoples” (24); “Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength” (28); “Tremble before Him, all the earth” (30); “And let them say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns’”(31).

The psalm ends with a petition on behalf of Israel (verses 35-36) that is similar to but not the same as Psalm 106:47-48; unlike the latter it is not a reference to the Babylonian Exile (see Keil and Delitzsch 1982b: 218). In other words, when the Ark, the seat of God’s reign, was brought to Jerusalem, the seat of David’s reign, thus indicating that David’s kingdom was actually God’s kingdom, the main concern was the ultimate fulfilment of the Abrahamic Covenant. But why is this the case?

We saw that Psalm 105 ends with a reference to the Mosaic Covenant. Psalm 78 begins with this covenant (verses 1-8) and covers the same historical ground of Psalm 106 (except the Exile), but fills in an important gap by ending with God’s election of Jerusalem as His dwelling place and of David as king of Israel (verses 67-72), thus making a reference to the Davidic Covenant.

According to Gerald Wilson (2005: 234), Psalms 2, 72 and 89, three key psalms on the Davidic Covenant, together

sketch out a thematic movement concerned to reflect on the rise, continuation and collapse of the hopes of the Davidic monarchy. Ps. 2 describes the inauguration of the Davidic dynasty …. Ps. 72 (attributed ‘to/for’ Solomon) articulates the hope for successive Davidic monarchs to ‘endure for ever … as long as the sun’ (72:17). This happy hope of eternal blessing comes crashing down at the end of … Ps. 89, [which,] after beginning with the exalted expectations grounded in the inviolable word of God himself, turns swiftly to agonized confusion over the destruction of kingdom and monarch in the exile. God is called to task for his failure to protect his people as promised, and the psalm concludes with a demand that God remember his ‘servant David’ (cf. v. 20) and act to restore the kingdom (vv. 49-51).

God’s covenant with David is eternal and inviolable. Like 1-2 Chronicles, the book of Psalms reaffirms the validity of the Davidic Covenant in light of the Exile by stressing that David’s kingdom was actually God’s kingdom.

Psalms 93-100 is a series of psalms on the kingdom of God, with four of them even proclaiming explicitly that “the LORD reigns” (93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1). And Psalm 99 specifically says God executed His reign over the nations, and over Israel at the same time, from the Temple in Jerusalem, as He was “enthroned above the cherubim” there (verses 1-2; cf. 1 Chronicles 13:6). This means the national kingdom of David was actually that part of the international kingdom of God where His reign was most recognized (through the Mosaic Covenant) and exceptionally manifest (He dwelt within the Promised Land on the basis of the Mosaic Covenant).

So when David brought the Ark to Jerusalem, which means the focus shifted from David’s kingdom to God’s kingdom, the attention would naturally be on God’s international reign. This explains why the main concern then was the ultimate fulfilment of the Abrahamic Covenant, when God’s reign would be equally recognized in all nations.

Now this coincides with the ultimate fulfilment of the Davidic Covenant, when the Messiah rules over all nations (Genesis 49:10). This is because the Davidic Covenant is a means to the ultimate fulfilment of the Abrahamic Covenant (the other means being the New Covenant). But how is this going to happen?

No psalm explains it better than Psalm 110, which opens with, “The LORD says to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” The “LORD” refers to the Creator God, and “my Lord” refers to the Davidic king. We have seen that the author of Hebrews rightly understood the Davidic king in Psalm 2 to be the Messiah because only He could actually ask God for the nations as His inheritance. So the Davidic king in Psalm 110 all the more has to be the Messiah. For in this psalm the king is said to be given not only the nations but also privileges that no earthly Davidic king could ever claim.

For “no king of Israel was ever so close to God that he could normally be described, even metaphorically, as sitting at God’s right hand”; and “this ‘king’ embodies an eternal priesthood (110:4), whereas legitimate kings in the line of David came from the tribe of Judah, and not the tribe of Levi, from whom the priests had to descend”; also God is “said to be at this king’s right hand, ... as if God and the king were interchangeable!” (110:5); and “finally, this monarch will do what God alone is described elsewhere as doing: judging the nations and crushing the rulers of the whole earth (110:6)” (Blomberg 2007: 83, drawing on Davis 2000).

In other words unlike other Messianic psalms, Psalm 110 is “purely Messianic” in that it was composed specifically with the Messiah in mind. And it points to His divinity (cf. Isaiah 9:6-7). Not surprisingly it is the most quoted psalm in the New Testament. Jesus used it to show that the Messiah had to be more than a human descendant of David in order to silence the religious leaders who were seeking to trap Him (see Matthew 22:41-46).

So the author of Hebrews legitimately identifies “my Lord” in Psalm 110:1 as Jesus (Hebrews 1:13). And on the basis of Psalm 110:4 that this Lord will be a king-priest like Melchizedek, Hebrews develops an in-depth teaching of the priesthood of Christ that is unique in the New Testament (Hebrews 5:1-10; 7:1-10:25). It is a profound exposition on the Messiah being “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Psalm 8:4-6, as understood by the author of Hebrews, also explains how the Abrahamic Covenant would be ultimately fulfilled. As noted above, the psalmist was referring to the Creation Mandate given to Adam before the Fall (Genesis 1:26-28). So, as it stands, the “man” in “What is man that You take thought of him?” (verse 4) originally refers to pre-Fall humanity represented by Adam. But Hebrews 2:5-10 reinterprets it and equates the “man” to Jesus. What is the basis for doing this?

After the Fall the Creation Mandate as originally intended by God could no longer be fulfilled by Adam and fallen humanity. Since God’s purpose cannot be defeated we expect the original intention of the mandate to be given a new life. So when the author of Hebrews applied Psalm 8:4-6 to Christ, thus replacing Adam with Christ, he was recognizing a truth that was staring at him: Jesus the eternal Son of God is the new Adam who came to reclaim the pre-Fall mandate for humanity (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:22,45).

This principle—reinterpreting a promise or a plan of God in the Old Testament in view of Christ having fulfilled its original intention which the original recipient failed to fulfill—is often used in the New Testament when it cites the Old Testament. Recall that it is the same principle Hebrews uses to reinterpret the Davidic Covenant in 1 Chronicles 17 in light of Psalm 2.

Hence Hebrews legitimately teaches that the Psalms foresees Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant as well as the Creation Mandate. By thus reinterpreting both the Creation Mandate and the Davidic Covenant, Hebrews is reinterpreting the history of Israel and of the world in terms of Jesus Christ. History becomes His Story. Hence praying the Psalms helps believers today dwell within His Story—from the creation of the present heavens and earth to the ultimate fulfilment of the Abrahamic Covenant, which involves the deconstruction of the present heavens and earth and the reconstruction of the New Heavens and New Earth (Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 21-22).

The New Testament teaches not only that the Messiah has already come in the person of Jesus, but also that He will come again to complete all that has been promised about Him in the Psalms and the rest of the Old Testament. In His first coming His priestly role was more prominent (He came to save). In His second coming, His kingly role will be more prominent (He will come to judge). We shall elaborate on this when we come to the New Covenant.

Psalm 96 teaches that true worship is about ascribing to God “glory and strength,… the glory due His name” (verse 7-8). This involves offering praise and thanksgiving in response to who He is as well as what He has done and will do, as narrated in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation as His Story. In fact we would not know who God is without knowing what He has done and will do. Hence Biblical worship as expressed through the Psalms is His-Story-shaped.

For through narrative poetry the book of Psalms embodies a summary of the truth of who God is as well as what He has done and will do. Hence praying the Psalms will not only help believers live within His Story but also know God in a way not otherwise possible. For narrative poetry, especially when set to music, shapes our imagination, perception, emotion, and hence convictions, in a way not otherwise possible. Drawing on the whole of Scripture the Psalms serves as an indispensable means through which the formative and transformative powers of Scripture are unleashed.