Why do the nations so furiously rage together?
Psalm 2 is the most familiar psalm that you have never sung on a Sunday. It is not prescribed for any Sunday, Holy Day of Obligation or major saint’s day. Yet it is possibly one of the best-known psalms; it was one of Luther’s favourites; it contains some of the most famous lines supposed to have been spoken by God; it is quoted by both Peter and Paul in Acts, as a direct foreshadowing of Jesus, and Paul quotes it repeatedly in the Letter to the Hebrews. It is quoted three times in the book of Revelation, where only one other psalm is cited directly. But we never sing it on a Sunday.
Occasional weekday psalm
I only set it because my friend in Australia needed it for a weekday Mass. Then it came up again, twice, again for weekdays, and is about to do so again over the Eastertide weeks. So far I have had to write a new tune for it each time because the moods in the different versions varied so much, so I did a bit of investigating. How many settings can one psalm need?
Form, shape and function
It’s a short psalm, only twelve verses altogether, but it’s slightly scrappy. Some of it is in direct speech, but with at least three different speakers, so the feel of it is of great compression, and if you wanted to make it simpler to grasp, you would have to expand it quite a bit. It starts with a direct question, which is always very engaging, even though the rest of the psalm does not actually answer it. The first stanza vividly portrays a world in chaos, kings, nations and peoples murmuring, making tumult, plotting and fomenting unrest. It’s intensely dramatic, on a very big canvas. It’s like the Creation stories of the Greeks or even earlier civilisations, where all the monsters or titans rumble and fight until Kronos or Zeus pins them under the earth so that humanity can take root and civilisation triumph. Here the evil forces are kings, plotting against ‘the Lord and his Anointed’, the first time that this word is used to describe the Messiah. Only the king and the High Priest were anointed; the Messiah is both king and High Priest (just like Melchisedek of old, as it says in Psalm 109/110), and the apostles are keen to appropriate this psalm to Jesus.
The first stanza portrays chaos, but not the pre-Creation chaos of Genesis. This is the chaos of warring kings and nations, and they are all plotting together to make common cause against God and ‘his Anointed’, the rightful king, the king that God has chosen. These other kings are enormously powerful (‘the kings of the earth’), they are all working together, and the stanza ends with direct speech from them : ‘Come, let us break their fetters, […] cast off their yoke’. The atmosphere is dark; it sounds like a threat. The ‘their’ here refers to the fetters that have been put on the kings of the earth by the Lord, so we are talking about the wielders of earthly authority being restrained by God, and deciding to fight against that restraint : warfare on a cosmic scale, unlike the usual intimate individualism of the Psalms.
And cut! you might say if you were making this into a film (it would make a great superhero cartoon). The second stanza is a classic reversal of point-of-view : now we are in heaven, and God is watching these puny opponents. They may be ‘kings of the earth’, but they are ridiculous. His reaction is laughter and scorn, swiftly overtaken by anger, but his words are calm. Again the stanza ends with two lines of direct speech : ‘It is I who have set up my king / on Zion, my holy mountain.’
An extra line (?)
Then we have a line which feels almost like a stage direction. It is in parenthesis, and holds up the action without contributing much : (I will announce the decree of the Lord:) , and if you look up different translations, they deal with it differently, assigning it to God, to Christ or simply to the psalmist. My commentary says that the text is uncertain, that in the Hebrew text it is God speaking, and in the Vulgate the words have been corrected to come from the Messiah, which makes better sense. But that’s not clearly what we have, even in the new version of the Psalms which has just come out, where they drop the brackets but leave it unclear : ‘I will announce his decree ‘, with no indication of who is speaking. So this extra line stays as an extra line, altering the flow of the verses if it is included in the Responsorial Psalm. As I said, different translations sometimes incorporate it, so that the flow of the stanzas is unimpaired; but not the ones we use in the Lectionary.
The third stanza continues in first person direct speech. God is named as the speaker, speaking to the person reporting the direct speech (‘The Lord said to me’ ), whom we can identify only as ‘the Anointed’, the king set up by God. The Lord officially recognises him as his Son, in words which recall God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7.14, but here it is in the present tense, not the future, and I would love to know whether it resembles any legal adoption formula recognised at the time (think of the scene in Ben Hur, where Arrius formally adopts Ben Hur as his son and heir).
God goes on to promise all rule and authority to his Son, who will rule (indeed, break) the ends of the earth with the proverbial rod of iron, and shatter them like a potter’s jar. The language is highly-coloured and dramatic. The relationship between God and the Anointed could not be closer. This is the earliest stratum of all the expectations built up into the figure of the Messiah, and you can see why the apostles use it to strengthen Jesus’ claim to kingship. It is a very fierce and destructive version of kingship being offered here, but we need to remember the context of the earlier stanza, where all earth’s kings together are trying to overthrow God’s legitimate rule.
The fourth stanza returns to these earthly powers and points the moral for them. In a direct (and fearless) address to these kings and rulers of the earth, the psalmist issues a prophetic warning (and you can see why prophets were never popular with the authorities). Dreadful things will happen if they do not serve the Lord and carry out his will. The text is slightly corrupted again around vv. 11 and 12, but the meaning is clear, even if the reconstruction of the exact words is not. The language of all this section is direct and colourful : ‘trembling, pay him your homage […] for suddenly his anger will blaze’. It’s another threat, like the first stanza, but a much more frightening one.
Another freestanding line (coda?)
There is one more line to this psalm, like a coda, and it is a complete change from all the previous text :’Blessed are they who put their trust in God’. When I saw this as the Response for one of the versions of this psalm used on a weekday, I thought that the Response might have been taken from another psalm or even another book of the Bible, which does sometimes happen; but no, it is integral, the last line of the psalm itself. It could sound warning or reassuring, but the force of it is to return the focus away from these rulers and bring it back to us and the psalmist.
Handel, Jennens and Psalm 2
The great elephant in the room that I have deliberately not yet looked at is Georg Friderick Handel. He is at least partially responsible for the familiarity of Psalm 2, or rather both he and his librettist Charles Jennens. Their most successful collaboration is of course Messiah , probably sung more often than any other choral work, and beloved. The libretto for Messiah is a collection and arrangement of verses from all over the Bible, most from Isaiah, with the Book of Psalms coming in as the next most used text. There is a fascinating Text Study of Handel’s Messiah libretto by Martin P. Dicke, which I came across by chance and was delighted to find, because it saved me a lot of work (my Messiah doesn’t list the Bible references in the libretto at the beginning). I recommend it.
Jennens uses several of the psalms, but usually only one or two verses each time. When it comes to Psalm 2, though, he uses several verses, and one of the Recitatives (No.34) which Martin Dicke classes as a quotation from Hebrews, is where Paul quotes Psalm 2 (v.7) yet again. The psalm translation is Coverdale, out of the Book of Common Prayer (except for v.9, which is from the KJV), which is why the first verse is so much more dramatic even than our version. Musically it’s irresistible. Handel sets it for bass, with all the orchestra rushing around furiously raging for all they are worth. It’s tremendously exciting. The Chorus then gets to be the kings of the earth, plotting, and what is striking about this is that Handel does not take them seriously. This is a jolly piece of music, very intricate and upbeat to sing. It’s not possible to sing it intimidatingly. Although I’ve sung it many times, I’ve never been clear on its relation to the other parts of the text, but now I know better. I certainly didn’t realise it followed straight on from the previous two numbers! However, the Lord is about to ‘laugh them to scorn’.
The tenor then warns of God’s vengeance, skipping to a few verses further on, the lines about the rod of iron and the potter’s vessel. This music is full of sharp edges, all spiky like shards, and indicates that the Lord (or his King) will have no trouble in subduing these petty princes. They will be smashed to pieces with savage relish. It is followed by the Hallelujah chorus, so it is clear that it has worked.
Psalm 2 and Revelation
Psalm 2 is repeatedly referenced in the book of Revelation, and it is these verses again, vv. 8 and 9, the rod of iron and the shattered pot; they focus on the figure of the king and his fierce power, the breaking up of the established order and the creation of the new kingdom where those currently in power will be cast out of their seats, as it says in the Magnificat. This is the topsy-turvey nature of Christ’s message, which comes up repeatedly : the last shall be first, the master shall become the servant, a woman is allowed to sit and listen to teaching, and so on.
Not a Sunday psalm
So why don’t we ever sing it on a Sunday? I think it’s because the focus is so broad and the portrayal of God and the Anointed are so fierce. This is a psalm to encourage those living in times of utter turbulence that God will come and smite everyone into submission. The wicked will suffer mightily unless they submit. Like every psalm in the Psalter, it has its place, and there will be people hearing it who find exactly what they need in it, but it’s not the psalm that most of us would turn to most often.
Editing to soften
The weekday versions are selective. I’d set it twice before the first verses even came into play, and the resolutely upbeat nature of the first two versions is the result of leaving most of the verses out. The emphasis is on the authority conferred by God (‘You are my Son. This day I have begotten you’, the Response for one version) and his promises to the king he has chosen (‘I will give you all the nations as your heritage‘, the Response for the other one). More of the verses are included in the darker version for the Second Week of Easter, but even there, God’s ridicule, scorn and anger are left out, along with the final threat. Although the Response for this version is the last verse (‘Happy are all who put their trust in the Lord’), I had to give this psalm a modal setting to keep it dark, because the mood is not cheerful. We do sing darker psalms, occasionally (Ps 87/88; Ps 136/137), but there is nothing personal in this psalm, no developing relationship between God and the speaker. The scope of the whole psalm remains the whole world, and the dramatis personae are the kings of the earth and an unspecified ‘they’ who put their trust in God. The individual is keeping out of the way; the last line seems almost an afterthought.
The wrath of God
It is a harsh version of kingship, and a scary portrayal of God. The emphasis is on God’s power and wrath, a more Calvinist or Protestant attitude, possibly. The psalmist is so confident that no harm can come to him that he even dares to rebuke the kings of the earth, but the emphasis is not on him. Rather this is a psalm about the standing of a long-hoped-for figure, a prediction of the eternal kingship presiding over God’s Kingdom after the Second Coming. So the Hallelujah Chorus directly follows Psalm 2 in Messiah (returning to Handel), because that will be the outcome; the words of the Hallelujah Chorus are out of Revelation, and bring the second part of the oratorio to an end. The third part, beginning with I know that my Redeemer liveth, is all focused on what happens after the Last Judgment, after the establishment of the new Kingdom. Powerful and esoteric stuff.
Psalm 2 is crucial to the early Christians’ understanding of Jesus’ place as God’s Anointed, the Son, the King set up by God on Zion. We don’t sing it often because we are usually highlighting other aspects, more personal, more comforting; but you can’t have the one without the other. It’s not a comforting psalm if you are invested in ‘the kings of the earth’, but if you’re an ordinary vulnerable mortal, this King is on your side.
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