Psalm 2

Dear Reader,

This is once again a revision of some work I had done previously. You can find all my posts on the Psalms as well as some explanations of how and why we study them here

Translation of Psalm 2

Below is my translation of Psalm 2. As always, I recommend that you print it out and spend some time with it before reading my comments. Notice which lines form parallel pairs. Are there sections within the Psalm? What words seem to recur?

  1. Why do nations rage
  2. And peoples devise vainly;
  3. The kings of earth take their stand
  4. And princes assemble together
  5. Against the LORD and against his anointed [1]?
  6. “Let us break his fetters
  7. And let us throw off from us his ropes.” [2]
  8. He who sits in heaven laughs;
  9. The lord [3] will mock them.
  10. Then he will speak against them in his anger
  11. And in his wrath he will terrify them:
  12. “But as for me I installed my king upon Zion, my holy mount.”
  13. I will recount the decree of the LORD.
  14. He said to me, “You [are] my son.
  15. I today begot you.
  16. Ask me and I will give nations [as] your inheritance
  17. And [as] your possession the ends of the earth.
  18. You will break them with a rod of iron;
  19. Like the vessel of a potter you will shatter them.”
  20. And now, kings, understand;
  21. And be chastened, judges of earth.
  22. Serve the LORD with fear
  23. And rejoice with trembling.
  24. Kiss his feet lest he rage
  25. And you perish [in the] way for his anger quickly will burn
  26. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Notes:

[1] Hebrew: messiah

[2] The Hebrew text has no punctuation, whether commas or periods or quotation marks. I have used translator’s license to include them here.

[3] “LORD” translates the tetragram, the divine covenant name of God of which the consonants are YHWH. “Lord” (not all caps) here in line 9 translates the Hebrew word for “lord,” not the divine name. See postscript #2 for a further discussion of this.

Analysis

The elephant in the room for this Psalm is “his feet” in line 24. Unless you read the Revised Standard Version, this is probably not what you expect. This is a big translational/text critical issue, but I don’t want it to sidetrack our whole study of the Psalm so I will put my explanation of it at the end of this post (see postscript #1).

Let’s Look at Some Parallelism

There are a lot of nice pairs of parallel lines in Psalm 2. I like to line them up and see what elements correspond. Lines 1 through 4, for instance, could be arranged thus:

  1. Why        do nations              rage
  2.               And peoples           devise vainly;
  3. The kings of earth              take their stand
  4.           And princes                   assemble           together

Actually, Hebrew can be more flexible with the word order so in reality what we would have is:

  1. Why        do  they rage            nations
  2.               And peoples           devise vainly;
  3. They take their stand         the kings of earth
  4.           And princes                   assemble           together

The difference is that in lines 1 and 3 the verb comes before the subject while in lines 2 and 4 the subject comes first. This forms a small chiasm. “Chi” is a Greek letter that looks like an “X.” If you were to draw lines between the corresponding elements in lines 1 and 2 and then lines 3 and 4, you would make x’s.

Line 5 stands on its own. Lines 6 & 7 and 8 & 9 are fairly straight-forward in their parallelism. In lines 10 and 11, we again get a small chiasm:

Then      he will speak           against them           in his anger

             and in his wrath                                  he will terrify them.

This variation is not terribly significant but it keeps the audience awake and keeps the parallelism from feeling too repetitious.

Line 12 again stands on its own. Lines 13 through 15 seem to overlap with 13 echoed by the beginning of 14 and the latter half of 14 and 15 forming a pair:

I will recount the decree of the LORD.

He said to me,                                           “You [are] my son.

                                                                       I today begot you.

Hebrew, like Spanish and many other languages, and unlike English, does not need to use the personal pronoun with the verb. The subject is inherent in the verbal form. This, in Spanish “hablo” means “I speak”; one does not need to say “yo hablo.” In lines 12 and 15 of Psalm 2, we do find the personal pronoun “I.” Because it is not necessary, its use tends to add emphasis. In line 12 I translated “as for me” to try to convey this. This would be a little more awkward in line 15 but we could also render this line: “As for me, today I begot you.”

In lines 16 and 17, we see another common feature of parallelism: not every element need be repeated:

Ask me and I will give      nations                   [as] your inheritance

                                       and [as] your possession         the ends of the earth.

“Ask me and I will give” applies to both lines. Note that we again have one of those little chiasms here in 16 & 17 and again in 18 & 19.

In lines 20 through 23, the parallelism is pretty straight-forward again.

Lines 24 and 25 are a little more tricky; it is not inherently obvious how we should divide them. The lines feel a bit unbalanced even in Hebrew (and more so in English) with the first half of the verse shorter than the second. I am inclined to make the division between “angry” and “and” for two reasons: 1) rendered this way each line ends with anger/wrath; and  2) “and” often introduces a new clause.

Kiss his feet                                               lest he rage

And you perish [in the] way         for his anger quickly will burn

Finally, line 26 stands on its own, as did 5 and 12.

Dividing up the Psalm

These three lines without parallels occur roughly evenly through the Psalm They could be seen to divide the Psalm into sections, each ending with a stand-alone line. If we accept this division, we would have three sections: lines 1 through 5, an introductory question; lines 6 through 12, the kings exalt themselves and God responds; and lines 13 through 26, God acts and the kings are subdued.

Another way to divide the Psalm is to consider who speaks. The Hebrew, you will recall, does not use quotation marks so we are being somewhat interpretive in deciding what words are spoken, but I don’t think there is much disagreement on this Psalm. If we view the direct quotes as ending sections, we have the following: lines 1 through 7, the kings rebel; lines 8 through 12, God responds; lines 13 through 19, God issues His decree; and lines 20 through 26, the kings are addressed again and the Psalm concludes.

Delving into Content

What repeated words and ideas did you notice in this Psalm? A few that stood out to me are “kings,” “nations,” and “anger,” each of which also has various synonyms in the Psalm.  We have kings and princes in lines 3 and 4; God’s king in line 12; and the kings and judges again in lines 20 and 21.

Nations, peoples, and earth occur in lines 1, 2 and 3 respectively. In lines 16 and 17, the nations and earth occur again, this time as the inheritance of God’s anointed.  And finally the earth is mentioned again in line 21.

Note that for both these clusters of words, the reference is initially to the nations and their rulers. In the middle of the Psalm, God appoints His own ruler and gives him charge of the earth, and in the end the nations’ rulers are humbled. The message seems clear: You, rulers, think the earth is your own, but I will appoint my ruler and the earth shall be his, and you shall be humbled before him.

Words for anger and wrath occur in lines 10, 11, 24 and 25. The picture of God given here is not a gentle one; He is a wrathful God.

A Messianic Psalm

Psalm 2 is clearly a messianic Psalm. The Hebrew word messiah, which means anointed, occurs in line 5. This king, who will inherit the earth and subdue the nations, cannot be found completely in any merely human king. But we also need to be careful not to read into this Psalm more than is there. I will refer you again to the postscript to this post in which I will explain why I chose to translate “his feet” in line 24 where others translate “son.”

Psalm 2 begins with the nations and their rulers. They stand opposed to the LORD (God’s proper name) and his anointed (line 5). In line 8 God is refered to as “he who sits in heaven” and , based on the parallelism, we can assume it is also God who is refered to by “lord” (little “l”; see postscript 2 below) in line 9. But in line 12 God appoints a king, his king, in contrast to the kings of the nations. I think it is reasonable to assume this individual is the same as the anointed in line 5, anointing literally being how one marks or coronates a king. It seems to be this anointed king who speaks in lines 13 through 19. Here he reveals that God has called him son. In lines 20 and following, the rulers of the earth are again addressed. They are told in line 22 to serve the LORD (that proper name again). And, as I have translated it, they are to kiss God’s feet — a sign of submission to a greater king — lest His (God’s) anger destroy them. Note that even without “son” in line 24, this is a very messianic Psalm, and there is still a reference to the anointed king being called son in line 14.

Conclusions

Psalm 2 begins with a bad situation: the nations and their rulers are defying God. This is no doubt troubling to God’s people on earth but we are given a heavenly perspective on the issue: God is sitting in heaven laughing at them.  They think they can throw off His authority and have power on and over the earth. He provides another solution: He anoints a king, whom He calls son. To this son He gives what they claim — power on earth. Note that from the perspective of the psalmist these are future events. As Reformed Presbyterians we would see this prophecy as having been fulfilled in the messianic kingship of Christ. For the time being these rebellious rulers are called to humble themselves, to kiss the feet of God (figuratively speaking of course) and to thereby acknowledge His rule and authority lest they be destroyed in His wrath.

Nebby

Postscript #1: “His Feet” vs. “The Son”

The phrase in line 24 (verse 12 in your Bibles) which I have translated “kiss his feet” is rendered by most English translations “kiss the son” (the RSV and NRSV are exceptions; they translate “feet” as I have done). This is not how the Hebrew reads, however. The word in question is bar which does sound like the Aramaic word for son. It is not the Hebrew word for son ben which is used in line 14 (v. 7).  Even if we were to do so, we would need to play with the text as we have it a little.  “Son,” if we take it as such, has no article or possessive pronoun. Translations that go this way are supplying either “his” or “the” before son.

Instead, I have translated “kiss his feet.” This is assuming that the Hebrew line has been cut off and that the last few letters of the word “feet” are missing. This, to my mind, better fits the Hebrew text as we have it. It is as if had before us “kiss his fe” and we are supplying the end of the word, assuming it has been dropped off at the end of a line.

The main argument for reading “son” here is theological. We really like to see Christ in the psalter. And it is true that many, many psalms contain references to him, including an earlier verse of this Psalm. But we must always be careful to read what is in front of us and not to read our own ideas into the text, even good ideas or ideas we find elsewhere in the Bible.

To sum up:

Reasons to translate “son”–

  • There is a  reference to “son” earlier in the Psalm.
  • Reading “feet” we have to assume some letters have dropped out or that an abbreviation of sorts is being used.
  • It provides a clear reference to Jesus and to worship being given to Him.
  • Most English translations do so.

Reasons to translate “feet”–

  • The earlier reference to “son” uses the normal Hebrew word; this reference does not.
  • Even if we accept that this is the Aramaic word “son,” it is awkward with no possessive or article.
  • Enemies kissing one’s feet in obeisance would have been a normal practice and makes sense in context.
  • The pronouns which follow (“his anger” and “those who take refuge in him“) would then refer to God.
  • This reading has the support of the RSV and NRSV.

Note that whichever of these two readings we take, we are supplying something which is not in the Hebrew text as we have it.

Postscript #2: “lord” and “the LORD”

When God revealed Himself to Moses in Exodus 3, He gave him a name. The consonants of that name are YHWH. The Hebrew text was orginally written without vowels so the consonants are all we have of that name. The Jews were so reticent about using God’s name in vain that they would not say it aloud. Instead they said adonai which means “lord.”

Psalm 2 uses the divine name in lines 5 and 13 but also has the ordinary word adonai in line 9. The text-critical way to understand this woudl be to say that it is a scribal error. Because someone copying the text would have said adonai, he messed up in this one verse and wrote that instead of the divine name.

My default assumption in approaching the biblical text is that, however it got to be the way it is (and that process might involve multiple author and/or editors) that it is the text God wants us to have. So when I read adonai in line 9, I have to assume that God meant that word. If we read “lord” (little “l”) in line 9, how does that affect the meaning of this Psalm? The parallelism with “he who sits in heaven” in line 8 makes clear that this “lord” refers to God. Psalm 2 is more than anything about authority and who holds sway on earth. God is the LORD (that is his name) but He is also a lord; power and authority are His. Applying to Him here a title which might also be used of a human lord only serves to emphasize that He is the true ruler.

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