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Psalm 2

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” (Psalm 2:1–12, ESV)

A sublime vision of the nations in revolt against Jehovah and his Anointed, with a declaration of the divine purpose to maintain his King’s authority, and a warning to the world that it must bow to him or perish. The structure of this psalm is extremely regular. It naturally falls into four stanzas of three verses each. In the first, the conduct of the rebellious nations is described. In the second, God replies to them by word and deed. In the third, the Messiah or Anointed One declares the divine decree in relation to himself. In the fourth, the Psalmist exhorts the rulers of the nations to submission, with a threatening of divine wrath to the disobedient, and a closing benediction on believers. The several sentences are also very regular in form, exhibiting parallelisms of great uniformity. Little as this psalm may, at first sight, seem to resemble that before it, there is really a very strong affinity between them. Even in form they are related to each other. The number of verses and of stanzas is just double in the second, which moreover begins, as the first ends, with a threatening, and ends, as the first begins, with a beatitude. There is also a resemblance in their subject and contents. The contrast indicated in the first is carried out and rendered more distinct in the second. The first is in fact an introduction to the second, and the second to what follows. And as the psalms which follow bear the name of David, there is the strongest reason to believe that these two are his likewise, a conclusion confirmed by the authority of Acts 4:25, as well as by the internal character of the psalm itself. The imagery of the scene presented is evidently borrowed from the warlike and eventful times of David. He cannot, however, be himself the subject of the composition, the terms of which are wholly inappropriate to any king but the Messiah, to whom they are applied by the oldest Jewish writers, and again and again in the New Testament. This is the first of those prophetic psalms, in which the promise made to David, with respect to the Messiah (2 Sam. 7:16, 1 Chron. 17:11–14), is wrought into the lyrical devotions of the ancient church. The supposition of a double reference to David, or some one of his successors, and to Christ, is not only needless and gratuitous, but hurtful to the sense by the confusion which it introduces, and forbidden by the utter inappropriateness of some of the expressions used to any lower subject. The style of this psalm, although not less pure and simple, is livelier than that of the first, a difference arising partly from the nature of the subject, but still more from the dramatic structure of the composition.

  1. This psalm opens, like the first, with an exclamation, here expressive of astonishment and indignation at the wickedness and folly of the scene presented to the psalmist’s view. Why do nations make a noise, tumultuate, or rage? The Hebrew verb is not expressive of an internal feeling, but of the outward agitation which denotes it. There may be an allusion to the rolling and roaring of the sea, often used as an emblem of popular commotion, both in the Scriptures and the classics. The past tense of this verb (why have they raged?) refers to the commotion as already begun, while the future in the next clause expresses its continuance. And peoples, not people, in the collective sense of persons, but in the proper plural sense of nations, races, will imagine, i.e. are imagining and will continue to imagine, vanity, a vain thing, something hopeless and impossible. The interrogation in this verse implies that no rational solution of the strange sight could be given, for reasons assigned in the remainder of the psalm. This implied charge of irrationality is equally well founded in all cases where the same kind of opposition exists, though secretly, and on the smallest scale.

  2. The confused scene presented in the first verse now becomes more distinct, by a nearer view of the contending parties. (Why will) the kings of earth set themselves, or, without repeating the interrogation, the kings of earth will set themselves, or take their stand, and rulers consult together, literally sit together, but with special reference to taking counsel, as in Ps. 31:14 (13), against Jehovah and against his Anointed, or Messiah, which is only a modified form of the Hebrew word here used, as Christ is a like modification of the corresponding term in Greek. External unction or anointing is a sign, in the Old Testament, of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and especially of those conferred on prophets, priests, and kings, as ministers of the theocracy, and representatives of Christ himself. To kings particularly, as the highest and most comprehensive order, and peculiar types of Christ in his supremacy as Head of the church, the sacred history applies the title of the Lord’s Anointed. The rite of unction is explicitly recorded in the case of Saul, David, and Solomon, and was probably repeated at the coronation of their successors. From the verse before us, and from Dan. 9:26, the name Messiah had, before the Advent, come into use among the Jews as a common designation of the great Deliverer and King whom they expected. (Compare John 1:41 with ver. 49 of the same chapter, and with Mark 15:32.) The intimate relation of the Anointed One to God himself is indicated even here by making them the common object of attack, or rather of revolt. In Acts 4:25–27, this description is applied to the combination of Herod and Pilate, Jews and Gentiles, against Jesus Christ, not as the sole event predicted, but as that in which the gradual fulfilment reached its culmination. From that quotation, and indeed from the terms of the prophecy itself, we learn that nations here does not mean Gentiles or heathen, as opposed to Jews, but whole communities or masses of mankind, as distinguished from mere personal or insulated cases of resistance and rebellion.

  3. Having described the conduct of the disaffected nations and their chiefs, he now introduces them as speaking. In the preceding verse they were seen, as it were, at a distance, taking counsel. Here they are brought so near to us, or we to them, that we can overhear their consultations. Let us break their bands, i.e. the bands of the Lord and his Anointed, the restraints imposed by their authority. The form of the Hebrew verb may be expressive either of a proposition or of a fixed determination. We will break their bands, we are resolved to do it. This is, in fact, involved in the other version, where let us break must not be understood as a faint or dubious suggestion, but as a summons to the execution of a formed and settled purpose. The same idea is expressed, with a slight modification, in the other clause. And we will cast, or let us cast away from us their cords, twisted ropes, a stronger term than bands. The verb, too, while it really implies the act of breaking, suggests the additional idea of contemptuous facility, as if they had said, Let us fling away from us with scorn these feeble bands by which we have been hitherto confined. The application of this passage to the revolt of the Ammonites and other conquered nations against David, or to any similar rebellion against any of the later Jewish kings, as the principal subject of this grand description, makes it quite ridiculous, if not profane, and cannot therefore be consistent with the principles of sound interpretation. The utmost that can be conceded is that David borrowed the scenery of this dramatic exhibition from the wars and insurrections of his own eventful reign. The language of the rebels in the verse before us is a genuine expression of the feelings entertained, not only in the hearts of individual sinners, but by the masses of mankind, so far as they have been brought into collision with the sovereignty of God and Christ, not only at the time of his appearance upon earth, but in the ages both before and after that event, in which the prophecy, as we have seen, attained its height, but was not finally exhausted or fulfilled, since the same rash and hopeless opposition to the Lord and his anointed still continues, and is likely to continue until the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15), an expression borrowed from this very passage.

  4. As the first strophe or stanza of three verses is descriptive of the conduct of the rebels, so the next describes the corresponding action of their sovereign, in precisely the same order, telling first what he does (in ver. 4, 5), and then what he says (in ver. 6), so that these two stanzas are not only regular in their internal structure, but exactly fitted to each other. This symmetrical adjustment is entitled to attention, as that feature of the Hebrew poetry which fills the place of rhythm and meter in the poetry of other nations. At the same time, it facilitates interpretation, when allowed to speak for itself without artificial or unnatural straining, by exhibiting the salient points of the passage in their true relation. The transition here is a sublime one, from the noise and agitation of earth to the safety and tranquility of heaven. No shifting of the scene could be more dramatic in effect or form. While the nations and their kings exhort each other to cast off their allegiance to Jehovah, and thereby virtually to dethrone him, he reposes far above them, and beyond their reach. Sitting in the heavens, i.e. resident and reigning there, he laughs, or will laugh. This figure, strong and almost startling as it is, cannot possibly be misunderstood by any reader, as a vivid expression of contemptuous security on God’s part, and of impotent folly on the part of men. At them may be supplied from Ps. 37:13, and 59:9 (8); but it is not necessary, and the picture is perhaps more perfect, if we understand the laughter here to be simply expressive of contempt, and the idea of directly laughing at them to be first suggested in the other clause. The Lord, not Jehovah, as in ver. 2, but Adhonai, the Hebrew word properly denoting Lord or Sovereign as a divine title, the Lord shall mock them, or mock at them, as the strongest possible expression of contempt. This verse conveys in the most vivid manner, one indeed that would be inadmissible in any uninspired writer, the fatuity of all rebellious opposition to God’s will. That such is often suffered to proceed long with impunity is only, in the figurative language of this passage, because God first laughs at human folly, and then smites it. "Who thought," says Luther, "when Christ suffered, and the Jews triumphed, that God was laughing all the time?" Beneath this bold anthropomorphism there is hidden a profound truth, namely, that to all superior beings, and above all, to God himself, there is something in sin not only odious but absurd, something which cannot possibly escape the contempt of higher, much less of the highest, intelligence.

  5. This contemptuous repose and seeming indifference shall not last for ever. Then, after having thus derided them, then, as the next stage in this fearful process, he will speak to them, as they, after rising up against him, spoke to one another in ver. 3. And in his heat, i.e. his hot displeasure, the wrath to which the laughter of ver. 4 was but a prelude, he will agitate them, terrify them, make them quake with fear, not as a separate act from that described in the first clause, but by the very act of speaking to them in his anger, the words spoken being given in the following verse.

  6. The divine address begins, as it were, in the middle of a sentence; but the clause suppressed is easily supplied, being tacitly involved in what precedes. As if he had said, you renounce your allegiance and assert your independence, and I, on my part, the pronoun when expressed in Hebrew being commonly emphatic, and here in strong antithesis to those who are addressed. You pursue your course and I mine. The translation yet, though inexact and arbitrary, brings out the antithesis correctly in a different form from that of the original. And I have constituted, or created, with allusion in the Hebrew to the casting of an image, or as some less probably suppose to unction, I have constituted my King, not simply a king, nor even the king, neither of which expressions would be adequate, but my king, one who is to reign for me and in indissoluble union with me, so that his reigning is identical with mine. This brings out still more clearly the intimate relation of the Anointed to Jehovah, which had been indicated less distinctly in ver. 2, and thus prepares us for the full disclosure of their mutual relation in ver. 7. And I have constituted my King upon Zion, my hill of holiness, or holy hill, i.e. consecrated, set apart, distinguished from all other hills and other places, as the seat of the theocracy, the royal residence, the capital city, of the Lord and of his Christ, from the time that David took up his abode, and deposited the ark there. The translation over Zion would convey the false idea, that Zion was itself the kingdom over which this sovereign was to reign, whereas it was only the visible and temporary center of a kingdom coextensive with the earth, as we expressly read it, ver. 8, below. This shews that the application of the verse before us to David himself, although intrinsically possible, is utterly at variance with the context and the whole scope of the composition.

  7. We have here another of those changes which impart to this whole psalm a highly dramatic character. A third personage is introduced as speaking without any formal intimation in the text. As the first stanza (ver. 1–3) closes with the words of the insurgents, and the second (ver. 4–6) with the words of the Lord, so the third (ver. 7–9) contains the language of the king described in the preceding verse, announcing with his own lips the law or constitution of his kingdom. I will declare, or let me declare, the same form of the verb as in ver. 3, the decree, the statute, the organic law or constitution of my kingdom. The Hebrew verb is followed by a preposition, which may be expressed in English, without any change of sense, by rendering the clause, I will declare, or make a declaration, i.e. a public, formal announcement (as) to the law or constitution of my kingdom. This announcement is then made in a historical form, by reciting what had been said to the king at his inauguration or induction into office. Jehovah said to me, My son (art) thou, this day have I begotten thee. Whether this be regarded as a part of the decree or law itself, or as a mere preamble to it, the relation here described is evidently one which carried with it universal dominion as a necessary consequence, as well as one which justifies the use of the expression my King in ver. 6. It must be something more, then, than a figure for intense love or peculiar favor, something more than the filial relation which the theocratic kings, and Israel as a nation, bore to God. (Exod. 4:22; Deut. 14:1, 2, 32:6; Isa. 63:16; Hos. 11:1; Mal. 1:6; Rom 9:4.) Nor will any explanation of the terms fully meet the requisitions of the context except one which supposes the relation here described as manifest in time to rest on one essential and eternal. This alone accounts for the identification of the persons as possessing a common interest, and reigning with and in each other. This profound sense of the passage is no more excluded by the phrase this day, implying something recent, than the universality of Christ’s dominion is excluded by the local reference to Zion. The point of time, like the point of space, is the finite center of an infinite circle. Besides, the mere form of the declaration is a part of the dramatic scenery or costume with which the truth is here invested. The ideas of a king, a coronation, a hereditary succession, are all drawn from human and temporal associations. This day have I begotten thee may be considered, therefore, as referring only to the coronation of Messiah, which is an ideal one. The essential meaning of the phrase I have begotten thee is simply this, I am thy father. The antithesis is perfectly identical with that in 2 Sam. 7:14, "I will be his father, and he shall be my son." Had the same form of expression been used here, this day am I thy father, no reader would have understood this day as limiting the mutual relation of the parties, however it might limit to a certain point of time the formal recognition of it. It must also be observed, that even if this day be referred to the inception of the filial relation, it is thrown indefinitely back by the form of reminiscence or narration in the first clause of the verse. Jehovah said to me, but when? If understood to mean from everlasting or eternity, the form of expression would be perfectly in keeping with the other figurative forms by which the Scriptures represent things really ineffable in human language. The opinion that this passage is applied by Paul, in Acts 13:33, to Christ’s resurrection, rests upon a misapprehension of the verb raised up, which has this specific meaning only when determined by the context or the addition of the words from the dead, as in the next verse of the same chapter, which is so far from requiring the more general expressions of the preceding verse to be taken in the same sense, that it rather forbids such a construction, and shews that the two verses speak of different stages in the same great process: first, the raising up of Jesus in the same sense in which God is said to have raised him up in Acts 2:30, 3:22, 26, 7:36, i.e. bringing him into being as a man; and then the raising up from the dead, which the apostle himself introduces as another topic in Acts 13:34. There is nothing, therefore, inconsistent with the statement that the psalmist here speaks of eternal sonship, either in the passage just referred to, or in Heb. 5:5, where the words are only cited to prove the solemn recognition of Christ’s sonship, and his consequent authority, by God himself. This recognition was repeated, and, as it were, realized at our Savior's baptism and transfiguration (Mat. 3:17, 17:5), when a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, hear ye him!"

  8. The recital of Jehovah’s declaration to his Son is still continued. Ask of me, and I will give nations (as) thy heritage, i.e. thy portion as my Son, and (as) thy (permanent) possession, from a verb denoting to hold fast, the ends of the earth, a common Old Testament expression for the whole earth, the remotest bounds and all that lies between them. The phrase is never applied to a particular country, and cannot therefore be explained of Palestine or David’s conquests, without violently changing the sublime to the ridiculous. The only subject, who can be assumed and carried through without absurdity, is the Messiah, who, as the Son and heir of God, had a right to ask this vast inheritance. That he had asked it and received it, is implied in the dominion claimed for him in ver. 2 and 3, where the nations are represented in revolt against him as their rightful sovereign. It was to justify this claim that the divine decree is here recited, the constitution of Messiah’s kingdom, in which its limits are defined as co-extensive with the earth.

  9. This extensive grant had been accompanied by that of power adequate to hold it. That power was to be exercised in wrath as well as mercy. The former is here rendered prominent, because the previous context has respect to audacious rebels, over whom Messiah is invested with the necessary power of punishment, and even of destruction. Thou shalt break them with a rod (or scepter) of iron, as the hardest metal, and therefore the best suited to the use in question. By a slight change of pointing in the Hebrew, it may be made to mean, thou shalt feed them (as a shepherd) with a rod of iron, which is the sense expressed in several of the ancient versions, and to which there may be an ironical allusion, as the figure is a common one to represent the exercise of regal power. (See for example 2 Sam. 7:7, and Micah 7:14.) Like a potter’s vessel thou shalt shiver them, or dash them in pieces, which last, however, weakens the expression by multiplying the words. The idea suggested by the last comparison is that of easy and immediate destruction, perhaps with an implication of worthlessness in the object. This view of the Messiah as a destroyer is in perfect keeping with the New Testament doctrine, that those who reject Christ will incur an aggravated doom, and that Christ himself is in some sense the destroyer of those who will not let him be their Savior, or, to borrow terms from one of his own parables, in strict agreement with the scene presented by the psalm before us, "those mine enemies which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither and slay them before me" (Luke 19:27). That false view of the divine nature which regards God as delighting in the death of the sinner, is more revolting, but not more dangerous than that which looks upon his justice as extinguished by his mercy, and supposes that the death of Christ has rendered perdition impossible, even to those who will not believe in him. The terms of this verse are repeatedly applied to Christ in the Book of Revelation (2:27, 12:5, 19:15).

  10. The description having reached its height in the preceding verse, there is here a sudden change of manner, a transition to the tone of earnest admonition, still addressed, however, to the characters originally brought upon the scene. And now (O) kings, after all that you have seen and heard, after this demonstration that you cannot escape from the dominion of Messiah, and that if you persist in your rebellion he will certainly destroy you, be wise, act wisely; be warned, be admonished of your danger and your duty, (O) judges of the earth! A specific function of the regal office is here used as an equivalent or parallel to kings in the first clause, just as rulers is employed for the same purpose in ver. 2. The change of tone in this last strophe shews that the previous exhibition of Messiah as invested with destroying power was, as it usually is in Scripture, only introductory to another aspect of the same great object, which becomes more clear and bright to the conclusion of the psalm. At the same time the original dramatic structure is maintained; for the speaker, in this closing stanza, is the Psalmist himself.

  11. Serve the Lord, Jehovah, in the way that he requires, by acknowledging his Anointed as your rightful sovereign. Serve the Lord with fear, religious awe, not only on account of his tremendous majesty, but also in view of his vindicatory justice and destroying power. And shout, as a customary recognition of a present sovereign, with trembling, an external sign of fear, employed as an equivalent or parallel to fear itself. The word translated shout may also mean rejoice, as joy is often publicly expressed by acclamation. The sense will then be, and rejoice with trembling, i.e. exercise those mingled feelings which are suited to your present situation, in full view of God’s wrath on one side, and his mercy on the other. This explanation agrees well with the transition, in these verses, from the tone of terrible denunciation to that of friendly admonition and encouragement.

  12. Lest the exhortation in the preceding verse should seem to have respect to Jehovah as an absolute sovereign, without reference to any other person, the attention is again called to his King, his Anointed, and his Son, as the sovereign to whom homage must be paid, in order to escape destruction. Kiss the Son, an ancient mode of doing homage or allegiance to a king (1 Sam. 10:1), sometimes applied to the dress, and sometimes to the person, either of the sovereign or the subject himself. Even in modern European courts the kissing of the hand has this significance. In the case before us there may possibly be an allusion to the kiss as a religious act among the heathen (1 Kings 19:18; Hos. 13:2; Job 31:27). Kiss the Son, the Son of God, the Messiah, so called by the Jews in Christ’s time (John 1:50; Matt. 26:63; Mark 14:61; Luke 22:70): do him homage, own him as your sovereign, lest he be angry, and ye lose the way, i.e. the way to happiness and heaven, as in Ps. 1:6, or perish from the way, which is the same thing in another form, or perish by the way, i.e. before you reach your destination. All these ideas are suggested by the Hebrew phrase, which is unusual. The necessity of prompt as well as humble submission is then urged. For his wrath will soon burn, or be kindled. The translation, "when his wrath is kindled but a little," does not yield so good a meaning, and requires two of the original expressions to be taken in a doubtful and unusual sense. The same view of the Messiah as a judge and an avenger, which appeared in ver. 9, is again presented here, but only for a moment, and as a prelude to the closing beatitude or benediction. Blessed (are) all, oh the felicities of all, those trusting him, believing on him, and confiding in him. This delightful contrast of salvation and perdition, at one and the same view, is characteristic of the Scriptures, and should teach us not to look ourselves, and not to turn the eyes of others, towards either of these objects without due regard to the other also. The resemblance in the language of this verse to that of Ps. 1:1 and 6, brings the two into connection, as parts of one harmonious composition, or at least as kindred and contemporaneous products of a single mind, under the influence of one and the same Spirit.

Alexander, J. A. (1864). The Psalms Translated and Explained. Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot; James Thin. (Public Domain)

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