The Bible: Psalms in the New Testament

The book of Psalms had an immense influence on New Testament writers. They have many quotes from several Old Testament books, but none more so than from Psalms. From the Psalms, they drew on the wealth of material that God had inspired pertaining to Jesus Christ.

Peter preaching to a crowd, by Winston Taylor
Peter quoted Psalm 110:1 in his sermon on Pentecost: “The Lord said unto my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”

When Peter and John had been ordered (unsuccessfully) by the Sanhedrin not to preach Jesus Christ, the just-started New Testament church prayed to God for the continuing boldness of the apostles. In their prayer, they quoted Psalm 2:1-2 and applied it as a prophecy of what had happened to Jesus Christ.

The psalm speaks about the nations conspiring and the people plotting vain things, and about kings and rulers gathering together against the Lord and his anointed. The church cried to God, “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed” (Acts 4:27).

Those who had witnessed the life of Jesus and had been convicted of his teachings saw that the second Psalm applied to Jesus as the anointed, the Messiah. The word Christ is a title meaning “anointed”; Jesus was the Christ, the Anointed One.

Viewing the second Psalm in the light of Jesus’ life, the New Testament writers understood verse 7 as a reference to Jesus as the Son of God. In both Acts and Hebrews, the saying, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father,” is applied to Jesus as the Son of God (Acts 13:33; Hebrews 5:5).

The followers of Jesus noticed that several psalms predicted events in Jesus’ life. Such psalms became known as “messianic psalms.”

Psalm 22 is a typical messianic psalm. Matthew and Mark record Christ’s agonizing plea from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). These words were the beginning of one of David’s psalms (Psalm 22:1). The New Testament writers understood that David’s words concerning his own situation applied even more fully to Christ’s suffering. In addition to the direct quotations, there are numerous allusions to this psalm in the New Testament.

For example, David said: “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him’” (verses 7-8). Matthew, Mark and Luke record the actions of Christ’s enemies: mocking him, shaking their heads at him and telling him to save himself, since he claimed to be the Son of God (Matthew 27:39-44; Mark 15:29-32; Luke 23:35-39).

One striking example of how David’s words applied to Jesus Christ is Psalm 22:18, which says, “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” The apostle John showed how this prophecy was fulfilled by the soldiers who divided Christ’s clothes into four parts and cast lots for his tunic (John 19:23-24).

Psalm 69 is another messianic psalm. Jesus Christ himself said he was hated without a cause, “but this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason’” (John 15:25). Christ was referring to Psalm 69:4.

When one rereads this psalm in light of the events in Christ’s life, it is obvious that several other verses apply to Christ, even if not quoted in the New Testament. For example: “I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face. I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother’s sons” (verses 7-8).

When Jesus cast the money changers from the temple, saying, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16), his disciples remembered the scripture (Psalm 69:9) where it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17).

Other messianic psalms include Psalms 110 and 118. These psalms, like many other parts of the Old Testament in which there are prophecies concerning Christ’s first coming, were used by the apostles and evangelists as they preached the gospel.

Psalms in Praise and Worship

The Psalms are not only of historical interest in understanding how the ancient Israelites worshiped God — they greatly influenced the New Testament church in how it worshiped and praised God and his Son, Jesus Christ. Moreover, the legacy of the Psalms continues to influence worship services in the church today.

Jesus told his disciples, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). The apostles were thoroughly familiar with the book of Psalms and quoted from it frequently. Of the 263 times the Old Testament is quoted by the New Testament writers, 116 quotations are from Psalms.

Even when not directly quoting the Psalms, the apostles and evangelists were often influenced by them in the expressions they used. Ralph P. Martin tells us that the early church, like Jesus himself, “turned to the Psalms for language in which to express their deepest emotions” (“Worship,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 1125).

Articles in “Exploring the Word of God: Books of Poetry and Wisdom”

Undoubtedly, the early church created psalms in which they praised Jesus Christ. Donald Guthrie notes, “Many scholars have considered that Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 were originally hymns which had been composed and used before being incorporated into the respective epistles” (New Testament Theology, p. 343). Other hymns of the early church may have included 1 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 1:1-3 and 1 Peter 3:18-22.

The Psalms had been central to the Jews’ worship of God for centuries, providing the inspiration for their prayer patterns. These prayer patterns, in turn, were used by the early Christian communities. David E. Aune writes: “The Jewish hodayah (‘thanksgiving’) pattern of prayer, which characteristically began with the phrase ‘I/we thank you,’ is frequently found in the NT and early Christian literature (Luke 2:38; Heb 13:15; Rev 11:17-18). This type of prayer is also frequently used [by] Paul to introduce petitions and intercessions (Rom 1:8; cf. Phil 4:6; Col 4:2; 1 Thess 5:16-18)” (“Early Christian Worship,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, p. 980).

As you read the epistles, you will come across sayings based on the doxologies in the Psalms. A doxology is an ascription of praise to God by the congregation. For example, Psalm 72 concludes: “Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvelous deeds. Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory. Amen and Amen” (verses 18-19; see also Psalm 41:13; 89:52; 106:48). A typical Christian doxology similarly attributes various characteristics — especially glory — to God and/or Christ, and includes phrases such as “forever” or “for ever and ever.” It usually concludes with an “Amen.”

Here are some examples of doxologies in Paul’s writings:

  • “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).
  • “For from him [God] and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:36).
  • “To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Romans 16:27).

Other New Testament writers also used this format:

  • “To him [Jesus Christ] be glory both now and forever! Amen” (2 Peter 3:18).
  • “To the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen” (Jude 25).
  • “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb [Jesus Christ] be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13).

Another area in which the Psalms have continued to influence Christian worship throughout the centuries is that of congregational singing. In the sixth century, when Benedict set up a monastic order, he commanded the monks to chant all 150 psalms each week. A thousand years later, Martin Luther established a church hymnal in the language of the people. He wrote a number of hymns himself, the most famous being “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”), which is based on Psalm 46. And Psalm 23, in its numerous arrangements, remains a long-lasting favorite in many denominations.

Paul’s encouragement to the New Testament church, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16), is as important today as ever. During the song service, a congregation offers its praise to God and strengthens its relationship with Jesus Christ. Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs helps unify the congregation in an inspirational endeavor that draws it closer together as the Body of Christ.

Author: Jim Herst and Tim Finlay

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