The psalms contain the emotions of the soul and portray the experiences of life, but they also direct us god-ward. If we only read the psalms in a personal or internal way, we miss something important.
And yet reading the Psalms in a god-ward way does not make our reading impersonal. John Calvin begins his Institutes by asking the question: Do we start with God or with man? It is nearly impossible to answer that, since one always leads to the other. When we start with ourselves and our weaknesses, we turn to God who is our strength. When we start with God, we come to know ourselves truly. For Calvin, “it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he [has] previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself” (Bk 1., Ch 1., §2).
The Psalms uniquely contemplate the face of God. They record divine conversations of the Trinity, of the Father to the Son and of the Son to the Father. We may wonder how the Father and Son talk to each other since they are both God. To some degree, the Psalms satisfy our wonder, as they pull back the veil, as it were, and let us listen to the Trinity speak.
The Old Testament Speaks of the Trinity
Christians often come to understand the Trinity through reading the New Testament. It seems clear that the Father sent the Son in the world, who in turn sent the Spirit at his ascension into heaven. The entire Bible is, however, a Christian book, a confession that early Christians knew well. For in the Old Testament, they found the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit walking as if in the noon-day.
The Latin Father Tertullian, for example, reads the psalms, listening to the Father and Son speak to each other: “But almost all the Psalms which prophesy of the person of Christ, represent the Son as conversing with the Father—that is, represent Christ (as speaking) to God. Observe also the Spirit speaking of the Father and the Son, in the character of a third Person: ‘The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou on my right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool’” [Philip Schaff, ed., “Against Praxeas,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, 1885, 606 (§11)].
Reading the Psalms in a Person-Centred Way
Tertullian’s reading of the Psalms is called a person-centred reading. Psalm authors often quote other people when they write, or speak in the voice of someone else. Modern love songs do this all the time. A singer quotes his love interest or if it’s country music perhaps his former love interest, and yet the entire time it is one voice singing the song, playing the parts of both persons.
Of all the psalms, Psalm 110 probably provides the best example of a person-centred psalm, in which we hear the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit talk. Psalm 110:1 reads: “A Psalm by David: The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
A number of observations illustrate the person-centred nature of the psalm. First, David is the author. David writes every word of this Psalm. Second, David says that the LORD says to my Lord. The first use of LORD is often in capitals in translations, meaning that it translates the Hebrew word Yahweh. Yahweh is God’s personal name. Dave is someone’s name. Yahweh is God’s name.
The second use of Lord, “my Lord,” translates the Hebrew word Adon. Adon means Lord, as in someone’s superior, and is not a personal name. David, then, quotes YHWH speaking to Adon, and he does so, according to Tertullian, in the person of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Reads the Psalms in a Person-Centred Way
Tertullian is not alone in this kind of reading. Jesus himself reads Psalm 110 in a person-centered way. In Matthew 22:43, Jesus answers a question from the Pharisees by asserting that (1) David spoke in the Holy Spirit, (2) about the Messiah, (3) and that Yahweh speaks to the Messiah: “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls the Messiah ‘Lord,’ saying: ‘The Lord said to my Lord: ‘sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet’”?
What we have here in Psalm 110, then, is a record of a divine conversation. The Spirit speaks through David to recount a conversation located in heaven: The Father speaks to the Son about the Son’s ascension into heaven.
To add yet another twist to this psalm, the time of the divine conversation seems to be after Jesus’ death and resurrection and at his ascension to the right hand of the Father. So not only does Psalm 110 recount the Spirit’s account of the Father speaking to his Son, but it is also prophetic about a future event.
Acts 2:34–35 confirms this reading when Peter says: “For David did not ascend into the heavens” and then quotes Psalm 110:1. It is as if Peter says: “Look, David did not ascend into heaven. So Psalm 110:1 cannot be about David. And if it is not about David, then it is about the Son, Jesus.
The psalms uniquely record divine conversations between the member of the Trinity. And if we want to understand God, then we would do well to listen to the psalms, as they speak the words of God to us. We with unveiled eyes gaze into the image of the face of God, moving from one level of glory to another.