Introduction: Today we are going to begin our study of the first Messianic psalm in the Book of Psalms. It is quoted or alluded to as such a number of times in the New Testament. Although the psalm itself does not have a superscription identifying the author, the early Christians, including the Apostles, attributed the psalm to King David (Acts 4:25-26). We shall therefore refer to David as the author throughout our study.
But this brings me to another matter I would like to address before we begin our study of this psalm, which is to what degree it actually has to do with David himself. Here I would like to briefly point out two approaches we might take, and then tell you which one I will take.
First, David, serving as a type of Christ, might be describing a scenario he faced when Gentile vassal states rebelled against his rule (see the example below in the notes). In this case, when writing a psalm about it, he was given revelation that went beyond his own experience into a prophecy about the Messiah. Following this approach, it might be difficult to discern how much of it actually had any real application to David.
Second, David might simply be describing a prophecy or vision that he received as a prophet of the LORD (Acts 2:29-31), all of which pertains to the future Messiah.
Although the first approach may certainly be valid, the second approach is the approach I will be taking as we make our way through the psalm in the coming weeks. This is because I cannot be sure precisely what reference it might have had to the life of David, whereas I can be sure, based upon the New Testament references to the psalm, that it is indeed a Messianic prophecy that finds its fulfillment in our Lord Jesus.
Psalm 2:1-3 David Contemplates the Rebellion of the Nations
I’m sure we are all aware of the literary device know as the rhetorical question. But, have you ever stopped to think about the purpose of the rhetorical question? Why do so many speakers and authors use rhetorical questions so often? Why am I using them now? Well, I think Earl P. McQuay, one of my former college professors, answered such questions well when he said that, “The rhetorical question is a means of focusing the thought upon a central idea in order to intensify that idea.” Such a question is designed to make us pause and think about a subject or a point in a way we might not otherwise do so. Consider, for example, the following rhetorical question from the Book of Jeremiah:
NKJ Jeremiah 32:27 Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh. Is there anything too hard for Me?
Now, the LORD could simply have said, “Nothing is too hard for Me.” But when He asks the rhetorical question “Is there anything too hard for Me?” we are forced to stop for a second, think about it, and reach the obvious conclusion in our minds as we consider the only possible answer to the question, which is, “No, there isn’t anything too hard for the LORD!”
This is the same kind of thing David was doing when he began this psalm with a rhetorical question. He was seeking to grab our attention and help us to reach an obvious conclusion.
NKJ Psalm 2:1 Why do the nations rage, And the people [לְאֻמִּ֗ים, the plural may literally be rendered peoples, as in ESV and NASB] plot a vain thing?
This is actually a two-part rhetorical question, so we will take some time to try to understand each part a little better.
First, David asks “why do the nations rage”? But some of you may have a different translation. For example, the NASB says, “Why are the nations in an uproar”? The NET Bible says, “Why do the nations rebel”? And the NIV says, “Why do the nations conspire”?
The Hebrew word translated rage here in the New King James Version, as well as in the ESV, occurs only this one time in the Old Testament, and this makes it a bit difficult to ascertain the precise meaning, since we don’t have multiple usages in varying contexts to help us. However, even though the LXX renders the Hebrew word with a Greek word that is also used only this one time in the Old Testament, we have a very good idea as to what that Greek word means, and we therefore have a very good idea as to what the Jewish translators of the LXX thought that the Hebrew word means. The Greek word they used literally referred to “the actions of a high-spirited horse,” such as snorting or stomping, and it could thus be used figuratively of a person as being insolent or as raving angrily (Friberg #28298, BibleWorks). So, it would seem that the New King James Version and the ESV have done a good job rendering the verb as rage. To this we could also add the Christian Standard Bible, which, although in its original version said, “Why do the nations rebel,” in the updated version says, “Why do the nations rage.”
To be sure, the context does go on to indicate that the nations actually were seeking to rebel, but at this point David seems to be getting at their extreme anger against the rule of the LORD, anger which lies behind their rebellion. They hate His rule and are enraged by it, and they want to be rid of it.
Second, David asks why do “the people plot a vain thing”? In other words, David is asking why the people would plan something that is destined to fail. He wants the reader to stop and consider that it is pointless to plot against the LORD.
So, the function of this particular rhetorical question is to emphasize the utter futility of those who seek to throw off the rule of God. As Willem VanGemeren put it in his commentary on this passage:
The introductory interrogative “Why” expresses the irony of the tumultuous efforts against the Lord and his anointed. The psalmist was neither surprised nor worried by the rebellion of the nations. He expressed astonishment that the rulers of the earth tried to counsel together against God. The same idea can be expressed by “Why do the nations bother?” (EBC, p. 91)
In order to help us get the point, the Puritan commentator John Trapp restates David’s question this way: “What? Are they mad to attempt such things, as whereof they can neither give any good reason, nor expect any good effect?” (Complete Commentary, e-Sword, italics mine)
In the next two verses David’s emphasis on the futility of seeking to throw of the rule of God becomes even more evident as he describes what is intended by the raging and the vain plotting of the nations and the people.
NKJ Psalm 2:2 The kings of the earth set themselves [NASB = take their stand], And the rulers take counsel together, Against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying,
Here David describes the focus of the rage mentioned in the first verse. The nations and people are enraged against the LORD and against His anointed, so they are plotting against them.
The “Anointed” one referred to here could initially have been David himself, if we understand this psalm as having an initial reference to him and viewing him as a type of our Lord Jesus. But, as we shall see, the ultimate reference is to Jesus in any case, so I think it best to view this simply as a prophecy concerning Him. The Hebrew word translated anointed is māšiyaḥ, which is transliterated into English as Messiah. The Greek translation of this word is Christos, which of course is transliterated into English as Christ and in the New Testament becomes both a title and a name for our Lord Jesus. In fact, in the New Testament the first two verses of this psalm are cited in Acts 4:25-26 as a prophecy concerning our Lord. As we read that passage, notice that the early Christians identified four distinct groups in the Psalm 2 prophecy, and they connected each of those four groups with a group – or a representative of a group – in their own day.
NKJ Acts 4:24-28 So when they [Peter and John, together with a group of believers] heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, 25 who by the mouth of Your servant David have said: ‘Why did the  nations [Pl. > ἔθνος] rage [φρυάσσω, hapax legomenon], And the  people [Pl. > λαός, “people” of Ps. 2:1b, NASB and ESV = “peoples”] plot vain things? 26 The  kings of the earth took their stand, And the  rulers were gathered together Against the LORD and against His Christ.’ 27 For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod [“kings” of Ps. 2:2a] and Pontius Pilate [“rulers” of Ps. 2:2b], with the Gentiles [Pl. > ἔθνος, “nations” of Ps. 2:1a] and the people [Pl. > λαός, “people” of Ps. 2:1b, NASB and ESV = “peoples”] of Israel, were gathered together 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.”
We see here that this group of Christians, among whom were the Apostles Peter and John, saw the “people” – or “peoples” – mentioned in Psalm 2:1 as distinct from the “nations” mentioned there, for they saw the term as a reference to “the peoples of Israel.” So, they most definitely saw the tribes of Israel themselves as joining with the other nations of the world in their rebellion against the LORD and against His Messiah. Indeed, they saw what was happening in their own day as the very fulfillment of this prophecy, or at least as the beginning of its fulfillment.
But notice also that these early Christians saw in this fulfillment the outworking of God’s sovereign plan. In their prayer they glorified God by declaring to Him that all these enemies of Himself and of His Messiah “were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27b-28).
However, the enemies of God who crucified the Messiah, who is our Lord Jesus, were ignorant of what they were doing. The Apostle Paul points this out in his first epistle to the Corinthians, where he also describes this ignorance as common to all men apart form the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit:
NKJ 1 Corinthians 2:7-14 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, 8 which none of the rulers [ἄρχων, same word as in Acts 4:26] of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” [Loose quotation of Isa. 64:4, perhaps combined with Isa. 65:17] 10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 11 For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. 13 These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
So, the reason the “rulers of this world,” or anyone else in this world, are enraged by the rule of the LORD and His Messiah and seek to plot against it is that they are spiritually blind. And they will never submit to the Messiah’s sovereign rule unless and until the Holy Spirit enables them to do so. Instead, they will continually seek to resist His rule, as David describes their scheming in the next verse.
NKJ Psalm 2:3 “Let us break Their bonds in pieces And cast away Their cords from us.”
Notice the repetition of the plural pronoun their in this verse. David says, “Let us break their bonds and cast away their cords,” and this of course refers back to both the LORD and His Anointed (vs. 2). He is thus emphasizing the fact that rebellion against the LORD’s Anointed is rebellion against the LORD Himself. We cannot submit to the rule of the LORD without also submitting to the Messiah, and we cannot reject the Messiah without also rejecting the LORD Himself. And, as we have seen, the Messiah, whom we commonly refer to as the Christ, is our Lord Jesus.
Yet people seek to resist His rule today just as they did in the past. They do this whenever they try either to undermine or to outright reject His law as revealed in His Word. We see this all around us today, just as the early Christians saw it in the first century. Only now, instead of crucifying the Lord Jesus, they either openly rail against Him, or they simply ignore Him. But they do not submit to Him because they do not want to be bound by His moral standards and by His requirement that they repent of their sins and trust in Him as their sovereign Lord and Savior.
We live in a culture that sees the sovereign rule of our Lord Jesus Christ as bondage that must be thrown off. “How dare He tell us how to live!” That is what they think. But they refuse to see that He has every right to tell them how to live and to expect their obedience. And they refuse to see that submission to Him is actually the highest form of freedom rather than bondage. As Charles Spurgeon remarked on this verse, “To a graceless neck the yoke of Christ is intolerable, but to the saved sinner it is easy and light. We may judge ourselves by this, do we love that yoke, or do we wish to cast it from us?” (Treasury of David, e-Sword).
Conclusion: I pray that each one of us will learn to love the yoke of Christ more and more each and every day. I pray that we will delight in submitting to His sovereign rule and that we will resist the pressure of our culture which attempts to throw off His rule at every turn. They fail to realize that, in seeking to throw off the rule of Christ, which they regard as bondage, they are actually remaining in bondage to sin. And they fail to realize that only our Lord Jesus can free them from this bondage.
But those of us who have trusted in Christ as Lord and Savior have indeed been freed from sin. I implore each one of us, then, in the words of the Apostle Paul:
NKJ Galatians 5:1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
Notes: Concerning the psalm as whole, an important aspect of the larger context is the covenant that the LORD made with David:
NKJ 2 Samuel 7:12-16 When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men. 15 But My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.
Derek Kidner also helpfully points out that, “Although it has no superscription this psalm is ascribed to David in Acts 4:25, and identified as ‘the second psalm’ in Acts 13:33.” But he adds a footnote stating that “an alternative reading there, naming it the first psalm, reflects the fact that some Heb. MSS treated the second psalm (which lacks a heading) as a continuation of the first” (TOTC, pp. 49-50).
Concerning the use of רָגַשׁ in verse 1, it is a hapax legomenon about which the NET Bible notes observe:
The Hebrew verb רָגַשׁ (ragash) occurs only here. In Dan. 6:6, 11, 15 the Aramaic cognate verb describes several officials acting as a group. A Hebrew nominal derivative is used in Ps. 55:14 of a crowd of people in the temple. (BibleWorks)
This is helpful in explaining why some modern versions translate the word as they do. However, both the LXX and the New Testament citation of the LXX text render the Hebrew verb with the Greek verb φρυάσσω, which does not seem to fit the direction the NET Bible notes have taken. After all, the Friberg Lexicon, for example, offers the following meaning for this Greek verb: “literally, of the actions of a high-spirited horse snort and neigh, stomp; figuratively be arrogant, be insolent, rave angrily (AC 4.25)” (#28298, BibleWorks).
Concerning the reference to the Anointed in verse 2, we must remember that David himself had been anointed by Samuel as king (1 Sam. 16:1-13), so this could indeed be a reference to him as a type of Christ.
Concerning the rebellion of the nations against the LORD and his anointed, remembering that David himself was anointed as king by Samuel, it is possible that the rebellion of vassal states against him serves as a type of the future rebellion of the nations against the Messiah. An example of such a rebellion during David’s reign can be found in 2 Sam. 10, in which the rebellion of Ammon, together with Syrian mercenaries, is described.
Concerning the citation of verses 1-2 in Acts 4:25-26, I. Howard Marshall helpfully observes:
In relation to the main thrust of the prayer [in Acts 4], the motif of the conspiracy between Herod and Pilate is thus seen to be a minor theme. What is the point of it? The answer probably lies in the fact that the psalm refers to the “nations” (ethnē) and the “peoples” (laoí) in parallel; in the psalm this is most naturally understood as the typical parallelism of Hebrew poetry in which a thought can be repeated in different words to make a slightly different thought (here the development from “raging” to the consequent “plotting”). But the word “people” is normally reserved for Israel, and the term “nations” for Gentiles. Here, despite the plural form “peoples,” the word is used for the Jewish people, with the result that the psalm can be seen to foreshadow the opposition to the Messiah not only from the Gentiles, but also from his own people, the Jews, and their rulers. In this context one might also perhaps connect the term “kings” with Herod, who was sometime referred to as “king” (cf. Mark 6:14), and “rulers” with Pilate, the Roman governor, but “rulers” is elsewhere used quite generally for persons with authority, whether Jewish or Gentile. (Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 553)