In the last blog, we looked at how John describes Jesus in his first chapter, noting that his descriptions were solidly within the early Christian tradition. In particular, I noted that John describes Jesus as 'the faithful witness/martyr'; 'the firstborn of the dead'; and 'the ruler of the kings of the earth.' And, I admitted some discomfort with the ramifications of the last description, which merely means that I need to try to understand it better. What does John mean by describing Jesus as "the ruler of the kings of the earth"?
To get a sense of what John intends with this phrase, let's loot at John's description of Jesus intertextually. In particular, let's look at how the 89th Psalm plays in the background of this description. In fact, as I read the 89th Psalm more and more, it almost seems to have a similar plot as the book of Revelation- but without the dramatic resolution in the end. Here's what I mean:
Psalm 89 has two main parts. The first part (vv. 1-37) is an ode of praise to God, whose steadfast love and faithfulness are expressed in establishing the throne of David. The second main part (vv. 38-51) is more of a lament about how God has rejected the king and caused his sword to fail in battle. Here we find that memorable lament, "How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?" Then, the Psalm and the lament end- as laments typically end- with a word of praise, "Blessed be the Lord forever. Amen and Amen." (v.52).
So, of all of the wealth of the Hebrew Bible, why am I focusing on Psalm 89 as the background to John's description of Jesus? It is because I think a lot of John's way of describing Jesus is an "echo" of the words and descriptors found in Psalm 89 (as well as other Hebrew Bible texts that we'll look at in the future). I should make clear that I do not say that the psalmist was speaking 'prophetically'- by which I mean that he was either intentionally or accidentally saying things about Jesus. I think when the psalmist wrote "David" he meant David. It's not that the psalmist was speaking forward a thousand years; it's that John was listening backwards a thousand years. So, whatever I say about the "echo" of Psalm 89 reverberating in the book of Revelation is more a commentary on John's intention and not the psalmist's.
Psalm 89 begins with the primacy of God's glory (vv. 1-18) and then shows how God anointed his servant David and crowned him (vv.19-37). In vv.26-29, we hear the following as a declaration by God:
He shall cry to me, “You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!” I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm. I will establish his line for ever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure.
For one who hears this psalm and believes that God's steadfast love and faithfulness endure forever, there is the ongoing conviction that- not matter how bad the world gets for God's people- God will re-establish the throne of David to be "the highest of the kings of the earth." What John is saying is that, in Christ, God has been faithful to this covenant. That was a thorough conviction of the early church. For example, the most often quoted verse from the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament is Psalm 110: "The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’"
So, John is reflecting the Christian understanding of Jesus as the one who fulfills God's promise of faithfulness to the throne of David. However, the 89th Psalm is not just a song of praise. It is also a lament. It acknowledges that a roundabout look at the world would lead one to say that God has not been faithful and- in the fashion of Laments that good Christian people find so alarming at times- one way of believing in God's faithfulness is to challenge God in times of turmoil. "How long, O Lord?" As one of Chaim Potok's characters might say, "Master of the Universe, why are you doing this to us?" The lament is a natural- perhaps even necessary- voice of one who believes in God's sovereignty and who sees God's people suffering horribly. And the lament is taken up in the book of Revelation, when those who had been slaughtered for the Word of God lift their voices and say "Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhbitants of the earth?" (Rev. 6:10) which is very similar to the lament in Psalm 89, "How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?"
If we read John's description of Jesus intertextually, especially with Psalm 89 as the original sound that echoes John's description, it encourages us to think of the book of Revelation as a composite of songs of praise, laments that realistically describe the feeling of God's abandonment, and a resolution that demonstrates how God is faithful in fulfilling the promise of establishing David's throne above all thrones.