Psalm 2
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

As Psalms 1 describes the results of fulfilling the covenant for the individual by contrasting the condition of those who fail in their allegiance, so Psalms 2 shows how the covenant relation exalts Israel over the heathen; but some particular political situation seems to be indicated. Jerusalem appears to be threatened by a confederacy of hostile and rebellious powers—a confederacy that took advantage of the succession of a young and inexperienced monarch to throw off the bonds of subjection and tribute. David, Solomon, Ahaz, and Uzziah, have each of them been regarded as the hero and theme of the poem, but in each case there is some lack of correspondence between the history and the psalm. The psalm must therefore be regarded as expressing an ideal view of the future—an ideal which the poet felt, from his historic knowledge of the past, would not shape itself except under difficulties and opposition. Doubtless there were in his mind the prophetic words spoken of David’s son, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son”—words embodying the vital principle of the Hebrew monarchy, the essential idea of the Israelitish polity, that the king was only a regent in God’s name, the deputy of Jehovah, and the chosen instrument of His will. Starting from these words, the poet shapes an ideal monarchy and an ideal king—one who, though encountered by the worst forms of opposition, would prove himself a true son of David, and by his fidelity to his God and nation, a true son of God. Undismayed by the threatening aspect of things, and with prophetic words ringing in his ears, the youthful monarch aims at re-asserting God’s supremacy over the heathen, and imposing once more that restraint of His law and religion from which they longed to be free. Such a view of the psalm alone explains its want of exact historic coincidence, and vindicates the claims universally made for it of Messianic prevision; for there is but a step between the ideal king and the Messianic king—a step which, though perhaps unconsciously, the poets and prophets of Israel were for ever taking.

The psalm is lyric, with intense dramatic feeling. The poet begins and ends in his own person; but we hear the heathen muttering their threats, Jehovah answering them in thunder from heaven, and holding animated dialogue with His anointed, who, in turn, takes up the address, and declares His Divine mission and asserts His power. The strophical arrangement is fairly marked.

Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
(1) Why do the heathen rage?—Better, Why did nations band together, or muster? The Hebrew occurs only here as a verb, but derivatives occur in Pss. 4:14, Psalm 64:2: in the first, of a festive crowd; in the second, of a conspiracy allied with some evil intent. This fixes the meaning here, band together, possibly as in Aquila’s translation, with added sense of tumult. The LXX. have “grown restive,” like horses; Vulg., “have raged.”

Imagine.—Better, meditate, or plan. Literally, as in Psalm 1:2, only here in bad sense, mutter, referring to the whispered treasons passing to and fro among the nations, “a maze of mutter’d threats and mysteries.” In old English “imagine” was used in a bad sense; thus Chaucer, “nothing list him to be imaginatif i.e., suspicious. The verb in this clause, as in the next, is in the present, the change being expressive: Why did they plot? what do they hope to gain by it?

The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying,
(2) Set themselvesi.e., with hostile intent, as in Jeremiah 46:4, where the same word is used of warriors: “Stand forth with your helmets.”

Rulers.—Properly, grave dignitaries.

Take counsel.—Better, have taken their pians, and are now mustering to carry them into effect. Notice the change of tense: in the first clause, the poet sees, as it were, the array; in the second, he goes back to its origin.

Against the Lord.—Notice the majestic simplicity of this line. The word Messiah is applicable in its first sense to any one anointed for a holy office or with holy oil (Leviticus 4:3; Leviticus 4:5; Leviticus 4:16). Its distinctive reference to an expected prince of the chosen people, who was to redeem them from their enemies, and fulfil completely all the Divine promises for them, probably dates from this psalm, or more distinctly from this psalm than from any one passage. At least, that the traditional Jewish interpretation had fastened upon it as of this importance is shown by the frequent and emphatic quotation of this psalm in the New Testament. (See New Testament use of these verses in Acts 4:25, and Note in New Testament Commentary.)

Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.
(3) Let us break.—The whispered purpose now breaks out into loud menace, and we hear their defiance pass along the ranks of the rebels.

Cords.—The LXX. and Vulg. have “yoke,” which is in keeping with the metaphor of a restive animal. (Comp. Isaiah 58:6; Isaiah 10:27.)

He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.
(4) He that sitteth.—Here the psalm, with a sublimity truly Hebrew, turns from the wild confusion on earth to the spectacle of God looking down with mingled scorn and wrath on the fruitless attempts of the heathen against His chosen people.

Laugh.—We speak of the “irony of events “; the Hebrew ascribes irony to God, who controls events.

Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.
(5) Then.—An emphatic particle, marking the climax; possibly equal to “Lo! behold.” The grand roll of the words in the original is like the roll of the thunder, and is rendered more effective by its contrast with the quiet manner of Psalm 2:4.

And vex them.—Literally, and greatly (the verb is in the intensive conjugation) terrify them in his nostrils and in his heat.

Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.
(6) Yet have I.—The pronoun is very emphatic: “You dare to revolt, it is I who have given this office to the king.”

Set.—Literally, poured out, as of melted metal; used of the Divine Spirit (Isaiah 29:10), of a libation (Exodus 30:9), and of pouring melted metal into a mould (Isaiah 40:19); from the latter use, to establish, or set up, is a natural transition. Gesenius and Ewald give a different sense to the word pour, and follow Symmachus in translating anointed, which agrees well with the mention of the Messiah (Psalm 2:4). The LXX. and Vulg. have “but I was appointed king by him,” making the Anointed begin his speech here, instead of at the next verse.

I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.
(7) I will declare.—The anointed king now speaks himself, recalling the covenant made with him by Jehovah at his coronation.

I will tell.—Better, Let me speak concerning the appointment. The word rendered decree in our version is derived from a root meaning to engrave, and so stands for any formal agreement, but it is usually an ordinance clearly announced by a prophet or some other commissioned interpreter of the Divine will, and consecrated and legalised by mutual adoption by king and people.

The Lord hath.—Better, Jehovah said unto me: that is, at that particular time, the day which the great event made the new birthday, as it were, of the monarch, or perhaps of the monarchy. From the particular prince, of whose career, if we could identify him with certainty, this would be the noblest historical memorial, the Psalmist—if, indeed, any one historic personage was in his thought at all—let his thoughts and hopes range, as we certainly may, on to a larger and higher fulfilment. The figure of an ideal prince who was always about to appear, but was never realised in any actual successor on the throne, may possibly, by the time of this psalm, have assumed its great place in the nation’s prophetic hopes. Certainly the whole line of tradition claims the passage in a Messianic sense. (See Note, Psalm 2:2; and in New Testament Commentary, Note to Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; Hebrews 5:5. For the king, spoken of as God’s son, see Psalm 89:26-27, and comp. 2Samuel 7:14.)

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.
(9) Thou shalt break.—The LXX. translated, “thou shalt pasture them,” understanding by the rod (Heb., shevet), as in Leviticus 27:32, a shepherd’s crook. (Comp. Ezekiel 20:37; Micah 7:14.) Elsewhere the rod is a sceptre (Psalm 125:3); in Proverbs 22:15 it is a rod of correction. The use to be made of it—to dash the nations in pieces, as one breaks a potter’s vessel—points to the latter of these significations here.

“Then shalt thou bring full low

With iron sceptre bruised, and them disperse

Like to a potter’s vessel shivered so.” (Milton’s trans.)

Psalm 2:10 begins the fourth section of the poem. Subject princes are warned to be wise in time, and, as a religious duty as well as a political necessity, to submit to Jehovah.

Rejoice with trembling.—Literally, quake, referring to the motion of the body produced by strong emotion, and therefore used both of joy and terror. Our version follows the LXX.; most of the old versions paraphrase the word: Chaldean, “pray”; Syriac,” cleave to him”; Arabic, “praise him.” It is historically interesting to remember that the words of this verse—et nunc reges intelligite—formed the legend of the medal struck in England after the execution of Charles I.

Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.
(12) Kiss the Son.—This familiar translation must be surrendered. It has against it the weight of all the ancient versions except the Syriac. Thus the Chaldaic has, “receive instruction “; LXX., followed by Vulg., “lay hold of discipline.” Symmachus and Jerome render “pay pure adoration.”Aquila has “kiss with discernment.” Bar, in the sense of “son,” is common in Chaldee, and is familiar to us from the Aramaic patronymics of the New Testament: e.g., Bar-Jonas, Bar-nabas, &c. The only place where it occurs in Heb., is Proverbs 31:2, where it is repeated three times; but the Book of Proverbs has a great deal of Aramaic colouring. Our psalmist uses ben for “son” in Psalm 2:7, and it is unlikely that he would change to so unusual a term, unless nashshekû-bar were a proverbial saying, and of this there is no proof Surely, too, the article or a suffix would have been employed. “Kiss son” seems altogether too abrupt and bald even for Hebrew poetry. The change of subject also in the co-ordinate clause, “lest he (i.e., Jehovah, as the context shows) be angry,” is very awkward. As to the translation of the verb, the remark of Delitzsch, that it means “to kiss, and nothing else,” is wide of the mark, since it must in any case be taken figuratively, with sense of doing homage, as in Genesis 41:40 (margin), or worshipping (1Kings 19:18; Hosea 13:2). The most consistent rendering is, therefore, proffer pure homage (to Jehovah), lest he be angry. It may be added that the current of Rabbinical authority is against our Authorised version. Thus R. Solomon: “Arm yourselves with discipline;” (so, with a slight variation, one of the latest commentators, E. Reuss: “Arm yourselves with loyalty”;) another Rabbi: “Kiss the covenant”; another, “Adore the corn.” Among the best of modern scholars, Hupfeld renders “yield sincerely”; Ewald, “receive wholesome warning”; Hitzig, “submit to duty”; Gratz (by emendation), “give good heed to the warning.”

From the way.—The LXX. and Vulg. amplify and explain “from the righteous way.” It is the way in following which, whether for individuals or nations, alone there is peace and happiness. (See Note Psalm 119:1.)

When his wrath.—Better, for his wrath is soon kindled, or easily kindled.

Put their trust.—Better, find their refuge.

Notice in the close of the psalm the settled and memorable belief that good must ultimately triumph over evil. The rebels against God’s kingdom must be conquered in the noblest way, by being drawn into it.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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