When it comes to tracing the Messiah in the Old Testament, the Psalms are key. Psalm 22 dominates the Passion narratives, Psalm 118 is seen in Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem, Psalm 2 appears at key points in Jesus’ life, and Psalm 110 is the most quoted of any OT passage. However, which Psalms are Messianic? And exactly how are they Messianic? Some see Messianic Psalms as fulfilled typologically, others see direct and exclusive predictions of Jesus. Richard Belcher, in The Messiah and the Psalms: Preaching Christ from all the Psalms, presents a different way of reading, where “all the psalms have some relationship to Christ” (p31).
The Messiah and the Psalms
Chapters 1-3 introduce issues in Psalms interpretation. Belcher’s historical summary begins with the Reformation period, which is unfortunate given the wealth of Patristic writings on the topic. Next, Historical Critical, Literary Critical, and Historical Grammatical approaches are introduced and evaluated before Belcher introduces his own Christological Approach, where, in light of Luke 24:44-47, “all the Old Testament speaks of Jesus in some way, not merely those texts commonly accepted as ‘Messianic’” (p32). So how can Christ be read in all the Psalms? Since the NT uses more Psalms than those traditionally considered Messianic, we ought to broaden our horizons. Several insights help us to do so. First, the Psalm should be read in light of redemptive-history, the grand story from Genesis to Revelation. What’s more, since Jesus is equal to the Father, references to God in the Psalms “also speak of the person of Christ” (p34). Also, as an Israelite, Jesus “would have sung and prayed the Psalms” (p36). In this sense, He internalized all the Psalms. In fact, since “Hebrews places some psalms on the lips of Jesus [it] lays the basis for understanding all the psalms as the prayers of Christ in his role as our Mediator” (p38). In a sense then, all Psalms are Messianic.
In Chapters 4-6, Belcher applies his method to Psalms normally considered non-Messianic, calling these “Indirect Messianic Psalms”. Psalms are divided into three categories: orientation (ch 4), disorientation (ch 5) and new orientation (ch 6). There are a few representative Psalms from each category, examined first in their own context, then in how they apply to Christ. Examples will be given below.
Chapter 7 considers the Royal Psalms, which are defined by clear royal context. Belcher treats the following Psalms: 2, 45, 72, 89, 110, 132, 144. How should we consider these Psalms in relationship to Israel’s kings and the Messiah? There are at least four approaches:
- Not originally Messianic. Hyperbolic statements used of historical kings were inspired by God to find literal fulfillment in Messiah.
- Not originally Messianic. Became Messianic through incorporation into the Psalter, which was produced in a time of Messianic hope.
- Not originally Messianic. Correspondence and escalation in Psalms applied first to a historical king are fulfilled typologically in Christ.
- Directly Messianic, as the content cannot apply to any other historical king.
Belcher reads the Royal Psalms typologically, with the exception of Psalm 110 being the only psalm “understood as a direct prediction of the Christ” (p122).
Chapter 8 treats the Direct Messianic Psalms, which are those used in the NT of Christ. Excluding others covered in previous chapters, this is 8, 16, 22, 40, 68 and 118. Fulfillment is found typologically, except for Psalm 16.
Chapter 9 concludes and restates in summary the book’s argument and application of Psalms.
The Messiah and the Psalms has been criticized by some for performing hermeneutical gymnastics on the Indirect Messianic Psalms in order to get to Christ. I think these criticisms are half right. They are wrong in that Belcher is simply providing a paradigm for how to preach Christ from any Psalm. However, they are right when Belcher indicates his approach is a robust hermeneutic for Psalm interpretation. Most of the time Belcher appears to only indicate the former, but then there are exceptions, such as where he adds his approach to the list of other hermeneutical approaches! For preaching, Belcher’s “Christological” approach is insightful and will prove very helpful for teachers and preachers. However, as an interpretative hermeneutic, his approach is unhelpful. Calling every Psalm Messianic blurs the line between all Psalms and then Psalms that (arguably) are intended by the author to refer to the Messiah. In this way, if every Psalm is Messianic, then no Psalm is Messianic. The label becomes redundant.
An example could better illustrate my point. Psalm 19 extols Yhwh’s revelation in creation and Torah. Belcher, applying his “Christological” approach to this “Indirect Messianic Psalm” connects it to Christ by noting that Christ is the ultimate revelation of God (Heb 1:1), the one who in Matt 5-7 reveals the “true meaning of the law” (p54), and that the words praising the Torah can equally describe Christ (Ps 19:7-9). As an illustration of how one can bring a sermon on Psalm 19 around to Christ, this is all useful if done tastefully; however, this is not a proper interpretation of the Psalm itself.
Belcher uses the New Testament use of the Psalms as support for this Christological approach (again, implying that this is not simply a preaching guide). However, I am not convinced by his argumentation. It is illogical to say that if Hebrews presents Christ as the speaker of some Psalms, then we have warrant for reading all Psalms in such a way. What if the author really saw Christ as the speaker of the quoted Psalms?
That said, Belcher’s unique Christological approach only really applies to the Indirect Messianic Psalms in Chapters 4-6. From there on, a more usual typological reading is employed. For example, Psalm 22 describes David’s own suffering, but foreshadows Christ’s.
The typological approach to fulfillment is popular and fruitful, but it has limits. Typology can be utilized blindly to resolve any problem. As the saying goes, if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Secondly, typology requires correspondence between the type and antitype (e.g. David’s suffering and Jesus’ suffering); however, the NT does not argue for such correspondence. Instead, the NT argues for discontinuity between David and Jesus! In regards to Ps 16 and 110, Peter emphasizes that David was not raised (Acts 2:29-31) and David did not ascend to the Father (Acts 2:34-36). This is the very opposite of typology. What’s more, Belcher is inconsistent in his use of typological approach. Unlike some, he (rightly) reads Psalm 110 and 16 as directly Messianic because the details do not match David’s experience, but then doesn’t apply the Apostolic hermeneutic to obvious cases elsewhere, such as Psalm 22 and 45!
Not all is a loss however. If one is convinced that typological fulfillment of the Messianic Psalms is the norm, then this book will be more valuable. What’s more, Belcher’s treatment of individual Psalms is very fair and level-headed. He regularly presents alternative views when a text can be read multiple ways. Also, he shows familiarity with recent and important Psalms scholarship and his writing is both accessibly studious and pastoral.
Though I was disappointed to see no engagement with Psalm 18 and 102 (both used in the NT), find Belcher’s “Christological” approach largely unhelpful as an interpretative approach, and am hesitant to apply typological fulfillment so thoroughly, The Messiah and the Psalms is useful as a commentary on traditional Messianic Psalms and generally illuminating when providing a method for tracing any Psalm to Christ. With my above caveats, I would recommend The Messiah and the Psalms to any readers interested in the Psalms, in the Messiah in the Old Testament, and particularly for pastors and teachers who want examples of how to preach Christ from the Psalms. As such, this is a very useful resource. Those persuaded by a predominantly typological Messianic fulfillment will find Belcher even more useful. More recent work need to be done on the Messianic Psalms, and so I am grateful for The Messiah and the Psalms.
Many thanks to Christian Focus for providing a review copy.