Psalms of Resistance #2: A Call to an Unreasonable Faith

Why do the nations rage
And the people’s plot in vain?
The Kings of the earth set themselves
and the rulers take council 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.

Scholarly sorts aren’t agreed on when this song was written.

Was for some mad Israelite monarch who thought his tiny kingdom might one day smash the huge empires that ruled the known world? Or the wishful messianic ravings of a destitute people after their kingdom had been crushed into obscurity by the Babylonians?

In either case, coming from the margins, it makes little reasonable sense. It either speaks of someone who’s lost their mind, or, someone who who knows something we don’t.

The song was taken up by the Messianic movement after some were arrested for dissent (Acts 4). In an empire where Caesar’s title was “the saviour of the world,” they said the recently executed Jesus of Nazareth, who lead a movement of healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and redistribution, was in fact the saviour of the world, and that “there is no other name under heaven, given among men and women by which we must be saved.” Then they accused their own government (4:8) of collusion with the powers that had killed him. They were, in their own way, marching through the place of government, saying, Not my president. Not my government.*

When released, they gathered the community to pray, and they sing Psalm 2:

“Why do the nations rage
And the people’s plot in vain?
The Kings of the earth set themselves
and the rulers take council together
against the LORD and against his anointed”

Here, the song’s subversive core rings out. It’s not the tiny little resistance movement, still clinging onto its crucified leader, who are laughable – it is the imperial Powers and their collaborators. It’s not the community living under constant threat who should “be warned” – it is rather “the rulers of the earth.”

The rash tone here evokes a political hope that permeates the Psalms: the Maker will bring down the self-confident and corrupt Power. This conviction steadied the backbone of the small as they confronted the great. It gave them a quiet confidence and a peace. They didn’t protest merely as those who fight for their own rights. They announced a coming Peace, that would end the self-defeating folly of the Powers. And they did it as if they wanted to offer even these vain rulers and kings, an open door out of their own disasters. I think it might have been this quality of peace in their actions that really terrified the Powers – the peace that suggested that these nobodies knew something they didn’t.

For example, the disciples mentioned above who confronted their rulers. The elites “perceived that they were uneducated, common men” and were “astonished.” When given an order of silence, they refuse, saying “whether it is right in the sight of God, to listen to you or to listen to God, you must judge.”

Or Paul. On trial before King Agrippa, he wryly says “I would to God that not only you, but all who hear me this day, might become such as I am – except for these chains” (Acts26:29). This marvellously ironic statement, spoken by a prisoner in chains to a king on a throne, echoes with our psalm beautifully – where the powerless warn the powerful: “Be warned, O rulers… Kiss the son lest 13394112_10157051878455525_5957106952229146029_n.jpghe be angry.”

Or such as the homeless Messiah Jesus, who is brought before the Roman governor Pilate, in his grand palace (John 19). Pilate quickly becomes unnerved. He begins to feel that it is he who is on trial… he who should be afraid. The governor’s wife sees it, and urges him to have nothing more to do with this frightening man.

Today, when every day seems to bring another vote or executive order from the Powers against any respect for God’s creation, or for the image of God in any but a privileged few, this song is a call to an unreasonable faith, in the light of whatever odds. As Walter Benjamin said; “every second of time [is] the straight gate through which the Messiah might enter.” To live in that expectation is to stand before the Powers with a twinkle in your eye.

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* For context, the stir was caused by their having healed a disabled man. Their statements of dissent were not the political opinions that angrily bubble over whenever someone mentiones Thatcher. They were practicing a life of healing and compassion. When they were obliged to say what they were against, it was because they had demonstrated what they were for.

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