The words to most popular songs seldom have any substance, but inspired songs should capture our heads and our hearts. The second psalm is remarkable in this regard. Its theme is the ultimate triumph of Christ; its scope spans both the First and Second Advents of Christ; its tone is both bellicose and triumphant. In short, it richly rewards all the attention we might give it. The psalm begins with a question: “Why do the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing?” (v. 1).
We need not cast about for the significance of this question because the New Testament offers inspired commentary on the first three verses of this psalm. The first recorded Christian prayer quotes these verses from the second psalm and identifies the “heathen” as Gentiles, the “kings of the earth” and “the rulers” mentioned in verse two as including Herod and Pontius Pilate, and “the people” as being specifically “the people of Israel” (see: Acts 4:23-28).
The first verse of the psalm, then, presents us with an abbreviated description of God’s perspective of the crucifixion of Christ. First, though a recent Roman Catholic pope absolved the Jews of the death of Christ, God absolves no one of the death of His only begotten Son: Jews and Gentiles were complicit in His immoral and illegal execution. We cannot fail to see in this uniting of Jewish and Gentile effort to bring about Christ’s death the coalescing of the personal and individual guilt and sin of each and every human being—both Jew and Gentile—that required the substitutionary death of the Eternal Son.
This verse suggests the fact that the cross is the fulcrum upon which all human history pivots. The collusion in the death of Christ involving a mob of Jews, a minor Roman tetrarch, and an obscure Judean governor was no mere footnote on the page of history. Rather, their deeds are the fruition and culmination of all human endeavor. In their individual and personal lawless actions, God saw the hearts of every person for whom Christ died from Adam even to the end of the world.
And yet, as seemingly final as their efforts appeared to be (What is more final than death?), as sinful, as rebellious, and as satanic as their actions were, we discover that from God’s perspective their “rage” (i.e., “uproar”) did not signal a cataclysmic defeat of God or of His purposes. On the contrary, He labels their purpose to be a “vain thing.” In fact, the believers mentioned in the Book of Acts confess that the conspirators in Christ’s death “were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy [God’s] hand and thy counsel determined before to be done” (4:27, 28). Peter had earlier preached the same message to his brethren: Christ “being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23).
What a glorious description of the abject sinfulness of man and of the absolute sovereignty of God. It leaves man without excuse by virtue of conscious and deliberate sin, showing the hopelessness of his condition and the justice of his condemnation. But implicit in the picture it paints is the mercy and grace of a God who will take the most outrageous act of sin and rebellion—the crucifixion of Jesus Christ—and make it the means of the salvation of the very ones who crucified Him. In fact, knowing man’s heart, He had planned it thus from eternity past. Thus is the auspicious beginning of Psalm Two.
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