Tag Archives: typology

Reading the Psalms as Christians

A friend (and relative of a relative) raised some good questions after my last post about Psalm 122. In summary, if I understood him correctly, he wondered whether my interpretation might be another example of a flat Bible approach. Let me quote some of his questions:

Are OT scriptures sometimes just that, OT scriptures? And even though we can possibly identify with the sentiment, a passage may not have been intended to refer to us, and/or the church. Maybe some passages are more relevant to a Jew than to a Christian? Do we read things into scripture that it was never intended to mean?

As I started answering these questions in a comment, my thoughts kept growing, so I thought I’d post my reply here instead. So here it is.


Thanks for your thoughts, Wayne. I’m not surprised this post raises some questions, and I’m still thinking through some of them myself.

A few thoughts. First, I don’t think the approach I presented is a flat Bible approach, although I did think about that concept as I wrote; the topic was certainly relevant to my post. But a flat Bible approach would be to read Psalm 122 today in the same way that the ancient Israelites did. In my post I carefully distinguished between how the Israelites would have read it and how I’m suggesting we can. So that’s not a flat Bible approach.

Let me sketch some alternate approaches to mine:

(A) I think it is actually “flatter” to read vs. 6 as we often hear it–as still referring to the current earthly city of Jerusalem. This approach does not recognize the coming of Christ as making any hermeneutical difference; all the words in the psalm only and still have their original ethnic Israel referents. If we insist that vs. 6 still carries this meaning for today, then we should be consistent and conclude that no one is currently able to sing vs. 1, for there is no earthly temple at present. We could only sing a lament: “I used to be so glad back when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ But now the temple is destroyed, and we cannot go!”

(B) An approach somewhat similar to A, but avoiding the problem of a flat Bible problem, is the approach I hear you tentatively suggesting: To conclude that the psalm had an original meaning for the ancient Israelites and that, since the coming of Christ, no one can any longer read it as they did. This would mean that we should also stop thinking that vs. 1 is ours to quote, too. This is the approach of higher critical bible scholars, who take the history of religions approach and see the book of Psalms as being Israel’s hymn book, interesting for learning more about the religion of ancient Israel, but of little direct significance for us today.

(C) Or, and this is probably even closer to what you may be thinking, we could tweak B to say that, though no one can any longer sing Psalm 122, it is still useful for us today as revelation from and about God, useful for learning his character and observing his history of redemption. I like what this approach affirms (educational value of the psalm) but not what it denies (that we can no longer sing the psalm). This approach might work for 1 and 2 Chronicles, but hardly for Psalms.

In short, I think that perhaps the key reason why the approach to Psalm 122 that I sketched in my last post sounds strange to some (in part even to me) is that the modern Church has, by and large, ceased to sing the Psalms. This is an historical abnormality! The early Church sang the Psalms, the Reformers did, as did many other saints across time. How might we read the Psalms as we sing them? Are we to sing them merely as historical pieces, stepping into ancient roles as actors, rehearsing the thoughts and feelings of ancient Israel but knowing they are not our own? Or is there a way in which we can sing the Psalms from our hearts, as our own expressions of lament and praise to God? I think it is clear that the Church has done the latter.

I have a reprint of a hymnal that was originally produced in 1843. It includes 241 pages of hymns based directly on the Psalms! Included are four hymns based on Psalm 122, two of them by Isaac Watts. The interpretive approach in these hymns matches my post exactly. (I did not think to check this until now!)

Here are those two hymns, as copied from this website:

  Going to church.
   1  How pleased and blessed was I
      To hear the people cry,
         "Come, let us seek our God to-day!"
      Yes, with a cheerful zeal
      We haste to Zion's hill,
         And there our vows and honors pay.
   2  Zion, thrice happy place,
      Adorned with wondrous grace,
         And walls of strength embrace thee round;
      In thee our tribes appear
      To pray, and praise, and hear
         The sacred gospel's joyful sound.
   3  There David's greater Son
      Has fixed his royal throne,
         He sits for grace and judgment there:
      He bids the saint be glad,
      He makes the sinner sad,
         And humble souls rejoice with fear.
   4  May peace attend thy gate,
      And joy within thee wait
         To bless the soul of ev'ry guest!
      The man that seeks thy peace,
      And wishes thine increase,
         A thousand blessings on him rest!
   5  My tongue repeats her vows,
      "Peace to this sacred house!"
         For there my friends and kindred dwell;
      And since my glorious God
      Makes thee his blessed abode,
         My soul shall ever love thee well.
  Going to church.
   1  How did my heart rejoice to hear
         My friends devoutly say,
      "In Zion let us all appear,
         And keep the solemn day!"
   2  I love her gates, I love the road;
         The church, adorned with grace,
      Stands like a palace built for God,
         To show his milder face.
   3  Up to her courts with joys unknown
         The holy tribes repair;
      The Son of David holds his throne,
         And sits in judgment there.
   4  He hears our praises and complaints;
         And while his awful voice
      Divides the sinners from the saints,
         We tremble and rejoice.
   5  Peace be within this sacred place,
         And joy a constant guest,
      With holy gifts and heav'nly grace
         Be her attendants blessed!
   6  My soul shall pray for Zion still,
         While life or breath remains;
      There my best friends, my kindred dwell,
         There God my Savior reigns.

I think that if we reject the interpretation I suggested in my post, then we will need to reject these hymns, along with many hymns in our current hymnals, including favorites like “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” based in part on Psalm 87.

Clearly it is possible to jump too quickly from OT to NT. For example, the promises made to Israel were first made to Israel; when they apply also to us, it is often only in a varied form, as fulfilled in Christ (“The meek shall inherit the earth,” for example). I think we should be very careful to never hastily draw 100% equivalence between ancient Israel and the Church. Israel is a type of the Church, and types contain differences as well as similarities; they do not match in every detail, and sometimes, in fact, they are mirror opposites in some respects. We need to first read the OT, including the Psalms, in their original historical and covenantal contexts.

At the end of the day, however, when I ask myself what a psalm like Psalm 122 means, I need to ask: Why, in the first place, did God instruct Israel to build the tabernacle? Why did he choose Jerusalem? What did these mean at the deepest level from the very beginning? Where they not intended from the start to prepare the way for Christ, to provide images and patterns that would never be fully realized until Christ appeared? So, reading the Bible “backward,” starting with Christ, we can see what things truly meant all along at the deepest level. Thus we sometimes see things in the OT that the original earthly authors either never grasped at all or only partially, as prophets (1 Pet. 1:10-12; 1Cor. 13:9-10). What we see is not at odds with what they saw, for sure, and our new insight does not mean that their understandings were wrong. Rather, it is like they were painting by candlelight and we can now view the same Scriptures in the full light of the Sun.

The foundation for this approach to reading the OT, I believe, is Jesus himself. He read the OT in ways that none of his own contemporaries imagined. (Seeing himself as the Son of Man from Daniel 7 is just one example of a new interpretive move.) The apostles, trained by Christ and guided by the Spirit, continued this new hermeneutical approach. Many psalms were among the texts that they reread in convincing ways that astounded their Jewish hearers.

It would be fun to dig into multiple examples from the NT of reading the OT (including psalms) in just the kind of way I’ve suggested. But I’ll end by mentioning two books that have helped me start to see these realities: According to the Scriptures, by C.H. Dodd (currently out of print), and Jesus and the Old Testament, by R.T. France. Both are technical, but both are extremely helpful and oft-cited books that are guaranteed to help you read Scripture with sharper vision.

Finally, let me repeat that I am still learning. I feel like I’m wading on the edge of the ocean! May God help us learn together, to the glory of Christ, the one to whom the Scriptures point.

Feel free to share your insights in the comments below. And God give you joy as you gather with his people this Lord’s Day!


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Tools for Reading Old Testament Stories Well

(Old Facebook Post – Lightly Edited)

Old Testament stories can be confusing. What do they mean? What are they intended to teach us? How can we read them in a way that helps us hear the messages that God designed for us to hear?

In this post I’ll share two tools that can help us read OT stories well:

  1. A multi-purpose tool: Read each story on three levels.
  2. A more specialized tool: Distinguish between prophecy and typology.

I’ll illustrate these tools by discussing a couple stories from 2 Samuel—especially 1 Samuel 7, which tells the story of God promising David a “house.” (By the way, this chapter is so important that you should memorize the reference. Use the alliteration to help you: “Second Samuel Seven.”)

READING OLD TESTAMENT STORIES ON 3 LEVELS

feestuartIn Fee and Stuart’s book on biblical interpretation, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, they distinguish three different levels of Old Testament narrative (historical story). When interpreting any one passage, you can (and, if possible, should) consider all three levels at which the narrative functions. What are the three levels?

First, there is Level 1—the over-arching narrative of the Bible’s big story of how God is sending a Redeemer to rescue a people from sin and for himself. Second, there is Level 2—the individual books of Scripture, or perhaps major “cycles” within books. For example, 1 Samuel contains a series of stories (one “cycle”) featuring Samuel, a series of stories featuring Samuel and Saul, and then a series of stories featuring Saul and David. Third, there is Level 3—the individual stories, such as last week’s story about David bringing the ark into Jerusalem. (I’m paraphrasing Fee and Stuart’s terminology. I also would add that one could suggest more than three levels, but let’s keep it simple.)

Fee and Stuart emphasize that each individual story plays a role at all three levels. Not all stories function equally clearly at all levels, but all are connected somehow. We should consider all three levels when trying to interpret Old Testament stories.

For example, when we read the story of David bringing the ark into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6) we often focus on Level 3—on what we can learn from the story itself. So we often discuss what we can learn about how we should act in the presence of a holy God. If we focus on level 2, we might notice how this story is part of a series of stories from 2 Samuel 1-6. This series of stories describes how David’s reign was firmly established, beginning with Saul’s death and ending with David reigning from his newly-conquered city Jerusalem—reigning in the presence of Israel’s true King, God himself. We might also notice how the episode in chapter 6 about Michel serves to eliminate Saul’s line from the throne forever, preventing the mingling of David’s and Saul’s dynasties. And if we focus on Level 1? I would have to think about that for a while. Perhaps on that level chapter 6 says something about how the priestly and kingly roles were starting to be united—a unity that would find its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.

All the above is preamble for my comments about 2 Samuel 7. This chapter, unlike chapter 6, very obviously has great significance at Level 1. God’s promise to David that he (God) would build him a “house” (a dynasty) is interpreted by the rest of Scripture to find its ultimate fulfillment in the Messiah, Jesus. So I’ll limit my comments here to Level 1 interpretation, even though this story also works (and suggests applications for faith and practice) at the other two levels.

PROPHECY AND TYPOLOGY

So here is my question: Is God’s promise to David a prophecy of Jesus? I’m thinking specifically of 2 Samuel 7:12-16 (ESV):

12 “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall 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 to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.”

When you start reading at verse 12, it indeed sounds like a direct prophecy of Jesus. You continue on through verses 13 and into 14, and it still sounds like a direct prophecy of Jesus. Especially when you read this: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” God only has one Son, right?

And then you hit 14b: “When he commits iniquity…” Wait a minute! The Messiah won’t sin! Suddenly we’re faced with the fact that this can’t be a direct prophecy about Jesus, but only a direct prophecy about Solomon.

Indeed, in the ancient world (both pagan and Israelite), it was common to think of the king as being a “son” of the gods/God. Being a son meant that you represented and mediated the authority of your “father.” So we should not be shocked to read that God calls Solomon his “son.”

So, if this is not a direct prophecy about Jesus, what is it? I would say, instead, that it is typology. It is prophecy about Solomon, and Solomon was a type of Jesus. Actually, there is some prophecy here that points directly to Christ, but let’s first define our terms.

Prophecy is easy: it is direct prediction. Often this is the only category we think of when we think of how the OT points to Christ. We find individual predictions (a king riding on a donkey, a king born in Bethlehem) and note their explicit fulfillment in the life of Jesus.

franceTypology is a little harder. Here I’ll rely on a favorite author, R.T. France. In his classic book Jesus and the Old Testament he distinguishes typology from both prediction and allegory. I’ll omit the discussion of allegory to keep it simple:

A type… represents a pattern of the dealings of God with men that is followed in the antitype, when, in the coming of Jesus Christ and the setting up of His kingdom, those dealings of God are repeated, though with a fulness and finality that they did not exhibit before… A type is not a prediction; in itself it is simply a person, event, etc. recorded as historical fact, with no intrinsic reference to the future. Nor is the antitype the fulfilment of a prediction; it is rather the re-embodiment of a principle which has been previously exemplified in the type. A prediction looks forward to, and demands, an event which is to be its fulfilment; typology, however, consists essentially in looking back and discerning previous examples of a pattern now reaching its culmination…. The idea of fulfilment inherent in New Testament typology derives not from a belief that the events so understood were explicitly predicted, but from the conviction that in the coming and work of Jesus the principles of God’s working, already imperfectly embodied in the Old Testament, were more perfectly em-bodied, and thus brought to completion. In that sense, the Old Testament history [all of it, not just isolated prophetic predictions!] pointed forward to Jesus.” [emphasis added]

Whew! Are you still with me?

To summarize: Prophecy directly predicts, but typology sets a pattern that only later is seen as being more perfectly fulfilled (or “filled full”) in Christ.

So, which do we have in 2 Samuel 6? Clearly, both. Again, I would say that we have prophecy about Solomon, and, from the perspective of the NT, we can now see that Solomon was a type of Christ. Solomon was a king of peace; Christ is the King of peace. Solomon’s throne was established; Jesus’ throne is established. Most directly for our text: Solomon built a temple; Christ is building the true temple where God will forever dwell—the gathered people of God.

Distinguishing between prophecy and typology helps me to understand how to read this chapter. Clearly, it points to Christ. Equally clearly, it is not all direct prophecy about him. But that doesn’t matter; it still points to him. Solomon was Israel’s grandest king. But he still sinned, as predicted in this chapter. A greater-than-Solomon (sound familiar? see Matt 12:42) was coming in Christ. He fulfilled God’s promise to build David a dynasty better than Solomon ever did. And we can be part of his kingdom!

Finally, I promised I’d explain how this passage does also directly prophecy of Christ. I think it does this when God says “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever… And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” Solomon did not live “forever.” And, although this prophecy could have initially been understood as referring to David’s later kingly descendants, later history has proven that David’s merely earthly descendants have not always been established on a throne. Only in Christ has David’s throne been established forever.

(It might be observed that the Hebrew word translated “forever” in the OT does not always literally mean “forever.” In some cases it apparently means ” a very long time.” But “forever” might be the best translation here, given what I’m about to observe next.)

Most amazingly, David seemed to understand something of this prophesy about Christ! In Acts 2:31 Peter says that the “prophet” David “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of Christ” based on the promise given here in 2 Samuel 7! If that intrigues you, here’s some further reading: Ponder Acts 2:25-36, then go back to Psalms 16 (vv. 8-11) and 110. It’s amazing what David understood.

And it’s amazing how the story of 2 Samuel 7 (when interpreted at Level 1) is our story! Truly, “O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true” (2 Sam 7:28).


These tools have helped me to read Old Testament stories more productively. Hopefully they will help you, too. Do you have other tools that help you make proper sense of Old Testament stories? Please share them in the comments below.


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