Monday, March 21, 2016

Old Testament Christ

There are numerous verses in the Old Testament that have always been read in such a way that they seem to foresee the coming Christ. These verses, we always seem to read backward from the New Testament and find in them the echoes of Jesus. We then assume that this is why they were written at all.

This is our mistake.

This idea came up recently in connection with Psalm 22, which begins, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away from helping me, so far away from the words of my groaning? 

These are, of course, words that Jesus would cry out on the Cross many generations later. And the argument was made that this was the original intent of these words of David - to look forward to the day when Jesus would use these words in His final agony, His moment of glory. It's part of what we call a "Christological reading of the Old Testament."

But it's not without its problems.

If we argue that David chose these words because he knew that in some future time, the promised Messiah would also choose these words, what are we to make of the rest of the context of Psalm 22? This psalm is deeply woven with David's own story, with his own concerns, with his own heart. Those who read this psalm Christologically argue that David is framing his own story in the rest of the psalm with the promise of the coming Messiah in these opening verses. It is by the hope that is promised to him through the coming Christ that he is able to enter his own story so deeply, to be honest about his own heart, to engage the circumstances that he finds himself in.

That's not the experience of the mystery of God that most of us can resonate with, though. When we encounter the mystery of God, it has more of a silencing effect. It has a comforting effect. It doesn't draw us deeper into our own story; it draws us out of it and straight into His heart. It would be counter to the human experience for David to find comfort in God and then draw back into his own misery in such a powerful, raw way. That's just not the way we are wired.

And we'd also have to say that although these words may echo the hope for the coming Messiah, if these are not words spoken from David's own heart, then they are the only inauthentic words in the entire Psalm. David, as a psalmist, is known for bearing his heart. It's what we love about him. It's one of the things God loves about him. He's honest. He's raw. He's real. And here, we have this beautiful psalm of frustration/agony, but when we read it Christologically, we are forced to discover two Davids in these words - the prophet and the psalmist. It's not how we read David in any other place. It gives us less than a whole picture of the troubled king. And it makes us wonder how we are supposed to handle the psalmist in each of us. Must we always balance our heart with truth? can we not just cry out?

Even if these were the words of the promised Messiah, we'd be forced to ask ourselves: what exactly does David think this Messiah is going to be? A Messiah is an amazing figure. He is the completion of all the promises of God, the commencement of perfect things. It's not reasonable to think that ancient Israel had a concept of the Messiah in which the Promised One is "abandoned" by God. Some Messiah! Not only does this idea call into question the concept of the Messiah - whether a chosen, promised one would be in some way forsaken - but it also calls into question the nature of God. Is He able to keep His promise through a Messiah? Or will He turn His back even on the One? There is simply no way to read these words Christologically until we have some understanding of the Christ. As a mere idea, this would never be the way that David would have conceptualized the Messiah.

Maybe none of that matters. Maybe, we say, the Holy Spirit simply inspired these words and even David didn't understand what they meant. 


We make that argument all the time, but this is a serious problem for the God of all Truth. One of the unique things about our God is that while He knows Truth and is Truth, He also makes clear that He enables us to know Truth. It's no secret. He's very clear, very plain about what He's doing. If we believe that God filled His story with little truths like this that His people could never understand (for they had no framework in those days to know how the story of Jesus would play out), then it's all to easy to convince ourselves that God always does this. That He is Truth, but that we can never know that Truth. We just have to trust it.

But that's not what He says about Himself. He says He's revealing the truth so that we can have it. It's not unknowable. It's not incomprehensible. He doesn't give tomorrow's truth to us today so that some future generation can understand all the things that we can't. That's not how God works. (Now, it is how some of us have convinced ourselves that He works, and we go through our lives never really knowing Him. But that doesn't make that real.) It's hard to imagine that God would be inspiring David to write these words, saying, "Yes, really. Write it. People two thousand years from now are going to love this." It's just not how God works.

So we're left not with a Christological David, but instead, with a Davidic Christ. These words, like so many others in the Old Testament that we love to read in light of Jesus, are not Christ's words; they are David's. David wasn't foreseeing the coming Christ; Christ was listening to the historical David. He was making new meaning out of these words, setting them in a new context.

Or was the context so new?

Something amazing happens when we read Christ through the light of the Old Testament instead of the other way around. Tomorrow, I'll tell you what that is.

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