The Epistle to Philemon: Analysis and Application

 

As the briefest member of the Pauline corpus, the epistle to Philemon is a letter of recommendation for the sake of reconciliation in which the apostle Paul brings the gospel truth of mutual participation in the body of Christ to bear on an estranged relationship – making a delicate request of his friend Philemon to receive back a certain Onesimus into full fellowship as a brother in Christ.[1]

Comprehension of the passage’s contemporaneous Greco-Roman epistolary landscape facilitates a knowledgeable analysis of its constituent parts.[2] Subsequently, the interpretive insights yielded by this examination facilitate an application of the letter to the contemporary Christian church.

Greco-Roman Letters

Originally referring to “an oral communication sent by messenger,” the Hellenistic ἐπιστολή eventually encompassed a wide variety of documents – from commercial to legal, political to personal.[3] As Greidanus notes, the basic form of a Greco-Roman letter was tripartite, consisting of introduction/opening, body, and conclusion.[4]

The first section named the sender and addressee, often including a brief greeting and “a wish for good health.”[5] Most difficult to analyze formally, the body of Hellenistic letters was flexible enough to encompass content suited to each writing’s particular communicative act.[6] Finally, “greetings to persons other than the addressee, a final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes a date” comprised a typical conclusion to Greco-Roman epistles.[7]

In contrast to literary essays and official documents of the day, written to general audiences apart from any relational context, Paul’s letters are more private and personal – exhibiting his pastoral concern for those to whom he was a representative of Christ and an elder in the faith.[8] Nevertheless, the Pauline epistles arguably exceed their contemporaneous correspondence in length, structure, and didactic intent.[9]

Although Paul understandably followed the prevailing Greco-Roman form in his own letters, he nonetheless freely adapted the epistolary conventions of the day to suit his own purposes.

For example, as O’Brien notes, although “on occasion the more intimate letters of the Hellenistic period began with a thanksgiving to the gods for personal benefits received,” Paul expanded and developed the introductory thanksgiving/blessing section in his writings more often than any writer of his day, yielding a mix of Hellenistic form with Jewish and Christian content which is present in most of his letters.[10]

Similarly, Paul often modified the Greco-Roman form by including a concluding paranetic section of exhortation after the body of his letters.[11]

Analysis of Philemon

An appreciation of Pauline epistolary form in Greco-Roman context yields important interpretive insights relating to both the parts and whole of the letter to Philemon, in which Paul displays remarkable tact as he advances his request for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus.[12] 

Although lacking a definite section of paranesis, the epistle is composed of

  • an opening greeting (Philem 1-3),
  • thanksgiving/prayer (4-7),
  • body (8-22),
  • and closing (23-25).[13]

Opening Greeting

Of immediate note, Paul atypically refers to himself, in the midst of an otherwise standard greeting, not as an apostle (cf. Gal 1:1) or servant (cf. Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1), but as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Philem 1; NRSV) – perhaps best explained by his desire throughout “to entreat rather than command” (cf. 8-9), but also to stress Onesimus’ usefulness to him in his captivity (cf. 11-13).[14]

Sender (“Paul…and Timothy”; Philem 1a), and addressee (“Philemon…Apphia…Archippus…and the church in your house”; 1b-2) thus identified, Paul’s signature greeting of χάρις καὶ εἰρήνη (3) functions as a benedictional transition to a section of thanksgiving and prayer (4-7), which – as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus – introduces the letter’s main themes.[15]

Thanksgiving/Prayer

As Bruce notes, “the ground of the thanksgiving and the substance of the prayer are closely related to the purpose of the letter.”[16] Paul gives thanks to God because of Philemon’s love, faith, and refreshment of “the hearts of the saints” (Philem 5, 7).

The content of Paul’s subsequent prayer, then, is that “the sharing of [Philemon’s] faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (6; ESV).

However, the phrase ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου is better translated as “the mutual belonging which is proper to your faith,” referring to, as Wright puts it, “the mutuality of the Christian life which, springing from common participation in the body of Christ, extends beyond mere common concern into actual exchange” – a mutual belonging which lies at the heart of Paul’s argument and requests throughout the epistle.[17]

In addition to introducing the key themes of love/heart (cf. ἀγάπη, 4,7,9; σπλάγχνα, 7,12,20) and mutual participation (cf. κοινωνόν, 17), the thanksgiving/prayer rhetorically establishes mutual goodwill as an exordium in which Paul emphasizes characteristics of Philemon to which he can then appeal.[18]

Body

The main request of the letter’s body – of noteworthy length in its Greco-Roman context – is that Philemon should receive Onesimus just as he would receive Paul (17b).[19]

Although Paul makes use of every persuasive tactic at his disposal – including concession of apostolic authority (8; 19b), emotional appeal (9, 12), pun (11), and appeal to honor (14) – the main thrust of the argument depends on the “mutual belonging” (6) between Philemon and Onesimus now that the latter has become a Christian during Paul’s captivity (10).[20]

Regardless of the exact nature of the past estrangement (about which Paul remains virtually silent), Philemon is urged to interpret the seemingly unfortunate state of affairs as an opportunity for eternal reconciliation (15-16), transferring any debts that Onesimus had incurred to Paul’s own account instead (18). In receiving back Onesimus, Paul’s “very heart” (12b), as “a beloved brother” (16), Philemon would continue his refreshment of the saints’ hearts (7) by refreshing Paul’s heart (20).[21]

Here, then, is an analogous microcosm of the gospel itself – a fulfillment of Paul’s prayer for κοινωνία (6) and of the cruciform “ministry of reconciliation” of 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Colossians 1:24-29.[22]

As Wright notes, just as in Christ God reconciles the entire world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), “God is in Paul reconciling Philemon and Onesimus” – who both owed a debt, so to speak, to the apostle for their conversion (Philem 10, 19b).[23]

Confident of Philemon’s compliance with his reconciliatory request (21), Paul makes an additional request for lodging based on Paul’s hope for release from imprisonment and subsequent travel to Colossae to be present with his audience (22) – an epistolary structure known as the “apostolic parousia,” revealing Paul’s consideration of his writings as substitutes for his physical presence.[24]

Closing

Finally, Paul reports the greetings of his gospel co-workers to Philemon (23-24), before reverting to the plural to include the other addressees (2) in his concluding benediction.[25]

Application

If the consensus interpretation that Onesimus is Philemon’s runaway slave is correct, then Deuteronomy 23:15-16 would seem to mandate that Paul not return the fugitive to his estranged master. [26]

However, the reality of their mutual belonging in Christ compelled the apostle to facilitate the reconciliation now possible due to the Messiah’s death, burial, and resurrection (cf. 2 Cor 5:16-21).

Nevertheless, Lightfoot reveals a potential hurdle for modern readers of this ancient text when he notes that, though “the word ‘emancipation’ seems to be trembling on [Paul’s] lips…he does not once utter it.”[27]

The first step in resolving this frustration involves the clear delineation between the context of slavery in which Onesimus lived, the transatlantic slave trade of the 16th through 19th centuries, and the modern day slavery of human trafficking and forced labor – for it is far too easy to conflate the three in indignation at Paul’s failure to request Onesimus’ freedom.[28]

Then, once the anachronism of expecting Paul to be a modern abolitionist is noted, it can be clearly seen that, as Bruce observes, though the epistle to Philemon “throws little light on Paul’s attitude to the institution of slavery,” it brings “the institution into an atmosphere where it could only wilt and die.[29]

After all, the same κοινωνία that enabled Philemon and Onesimus to be reconciled could not help but destroy the dynamics of slavery within the kingdom of God and body of Christ – where “there is no longer slave or free,” but all are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

According to the world, Onesimus belonged to Philemon as a slave. According to Christ, they belonged to one another as brothers.

Although here in Philemon, as elsewhere (cf. Col 3:22-4:1), Paul stops short of prohibiting slavery, it is clear that he understood the gospel of Jesus Christ inescapably to transform the divisive condition of humanity into a restored, eternal unity which transcended all temporal divisions (cf. 1 Cor 7:17-24; Col 3:11).

Paul’s tactful requests reveal that the bond between Philemon and Onesimus as brothers in the Lord (Philem 16) was far stronger than the social expectations of master and slave.

Transcending the issue of slavery – yet simultaneously striking at its very core – Paul’s masterfully crafted epistle to Philemon reminds Christians in every age to apply consistently the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ to their relationships, in spite of individualism’s siren song, which might tempt them to manipulate and dominate instead of to mutually belong to one another in κοινωνία.

Furthermore, readers of Paul’s letter to Philemon should follow his peace-making example by seeking to be ministers of reconciliation in their respective contexts – no matter how discordant or seemingly insignificant.

This brief letter thus coheres with the biblical theme of unity. Because God is one, his people are called to be one as well – a community of forgiven women and men, Jews and Gentiles, even slaves and masters who forgive each other’s debts and refresh each other’s hearts in the κοινωνία of their faith in Jesus their Messiah.[30]


[1] Philemon is categorized as a letter of recommendation by D. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987) 211-2 and W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 431. This paper assumes the “consensus view” of the epistle’s provenance: namely, that the apostle Paul is addressing Philemon of Colossae regarding the estranged slave and now convert, Onesimus. The creative reconstruction of J. Knox, in which the extant epistle to Philemon is the “letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16) which was written by Paul to Archippus (Philem 2), master of Onesimus, is here ignored; cf. J. Knox, Philemon Among the Letters of Paul (New York: Abingdon, 1959). For critical responses to Knox’s claims from the consensus view, see F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 198-202; G.B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) 217; and N.T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, TNTC (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) 164-6.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “Greco-Roman” and “Hellenistic” are used synonymously.

[3] P.T. O’Brien, “Letters, Letter Forms,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 550.

[4] S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 315; cf. W.G. Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973) 27; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551.

[5] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[6] Doty, Letters, 34-5.

[7] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 315.

[8] O’Brien cites the intensely personal letter to the Galatians and Paul’s emphasis on apostleship at Gal 1:1, 15, 16; 5:2. O’Brien “Letters,” 551.

[9] Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 426.

[10] Although notably absent from the epistle to the Galatians. P.T. O’Brien, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 69; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551-2; Cf. 1 Cor 1:4-9; 2 Cor 1:3-4; Rom 1:8-10; Eph 1:3-14; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3-14; 1 Thess 1:2-3:13; 2 Thess 1:2-12; 2:13-14; Philem 4-7.

[11] Greidanus, Modern Preacher, 316; cf. 1 Cor 16:13-18; Rom 15:14-32; Doty, Letters, 27; pace Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, who include thanksgiving and paranesis in “the fairly typical [Greco-Roman] structure,” claiming that NT thanksgiving sections “performed what all writers considered a common courtesy.” Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 430. While a definitive stance is impossible sans a comprehensive study of Hellenistic epistolary literature, it seems best to emphasize the distinctiveness of Pauline thanksgiving and paranesis.

[12] See A. Patzia, “Philemon,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. G.R. Hawthorne and R.P. Martin; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993) 706. As a letter of recommendation, the passages closest extant parallel is perhaps a letter from Pliny the Younger to a certain Sabinianus, requesting that he mercifully receive a penitent freedman. Pliny, Letter, 9.21; cited by Aune, New Testament, 211 and J.B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973) 318-9.

[13] Pace Doty’s suggestion that Philem 21 contains the formulaic paranesis. For robust examples of Pauline paranesis, see Rom 12:1-15:13; Gal 5:13-6:10; 1 Thess 4:1-12, 5:1-22, the other examples cited by Doty, Letters, 43.

[14] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 333; cf. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 205; Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 172. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV].

[15]  “Grace and peace” is a modification of the Hellenistic greeting χαίρειν, designed both to affirm the grace and peace of God which his readers already possessed and to pray that they might enjoy/embody such blessings more fully; O’Brien, “Letters,” 551. On the epistolary function of Pauline thanksgivings, see O’Brien, “Benediction,” 70.

[16] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208.

[17] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 175-6; cf. 2 Cor 1:6-7; 4:10-15; Col 1:24; T.G. Gombis, Paul: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark, 2010) 40; pace suggestions of κοινωνία here as evangelism (so NIV, Philem 6) or vague generosity (so Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 208-9; and Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 335). The concept of Christian mutual belonging can be seen to have its roots in the “fellow Israelite” laws of the Pentateuch – the example par excellence being Leviticus 19:18’s injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

[18] Aune, New Testament, 211. The theme of mutual belonging is also expressed in the use of fellowship terminology in the epistle’s opening and conclusion: ἀδελφὸς (1), συνεργῷ (1), ἀδελφῇ (2), συστρατιώτῃ (2), συναιχμάλωτός (23), and συνεργοί (24).

[19] Doty, Letters, 35.

[20] Although Patzia rightly acknowledges the “continuing questions of interpretation” relating to the location of Paul’s imprisonment (Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea) and the timing/nature of Onesimus’ conversion, neither issue is central to the discussion at hand of mutual belonging in Christ; Patzia, Philemon, 705. Rhetorical arguments noted by Aune, New Testament, 211. As Patzia notes, per rhetorical criticism the epistle can be structured into exordium (4-7), proof (8-16), and peroration (17-22). Patzia, “Philemon,” 704.

[21] Aune, New Testament, 211-2.

[22] By “the gospel,” I am primarily referring to the atonement as the act in which God fulfills his creative purposes by bringing his attributes to bear on our sinful condition through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah in order to save a people to robust unity with himself, each other, and the entire creation. See A.J. Johnson, God’s Being in Reconciliation: The Theological Basis of the Unity and Diversity of the Atonement in the Theology of Karl Barth. (New York: T&T Clark, 2012).

[23] Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 181, 186-7; cf. Paul’s use of sonship as a metaphor regarding conversion: 1 Cor 4:14-15; 2 Cor 6:13; Gal 4:19; Phil 2:22.

[24] Doty, Letters, 36; O’Brien, “Letters,” 552.

[25] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 224-5; Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison, 223. The list of names at Philem 23-24 mirrors that found at Col 4:10-17, except for the omission of Jesus Justus (Col 4:11). Of note, though impossible to explain fully, is Epaphras’ designation as Paul’s “fellow prisoner” instead of a “fellow worker” as the others. However, Bruce notes that, as “the evangelist of the Lycus valley” in which Colossae was located (cf. Col 1:7; 4:12), Epaphras “would be personally known to Philemon,” and thus merit distinct mention. Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 213-4. The concluding benediction of Philem 25 closely resembles Gal 6:18 and Phil 4:23.

[26] Bruce, Caird, Lightfoot, and Wright all adopt the consensus view. Deuteronomy passage cited by Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197, fn. 19.

[27] Lightfoot, Colossians and Philemon, 323.

[28] Although an analysis of first century slavery far exceeds the scope of this essay, a potential aid in differentiating between ancient and modern slavery when it comes to Philemon is Gombis’ critique of the consensus view’s failure to acknowledge Paul’s language of ἀδελφὸν…ἐν σαρκὶ at Philem 16. It is likely that Philemon and Onesimus’ relationship was different than that between a normal master and slave. See T.G. Gombis, “Philemon and Onesimus: ‘Brothers in the Flesh’” (paper presented at the International Meeting of the SBL, St. Andrews, Scotland, 11 July, 2013).

[29] Bruce, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 197-8. Similarly, Wright notes that, although “inveighing against slavery per se [at the time] would have been totally ineffective,” Paul’s subtler message mimics Christ’s approach to cosmic change from the bottom up, from the inside out. Wright, Colossians and Philemon, 168-9.

[30] Cf. Deut 6:4; John 17:20-23; Eph 4:1-6.

Psalm 2: Quare Fremuerunt Gentes?

(Here’s my paper on Psalm 2, submitted to Dr. M. Sydney Park in partial fulfillment of my Biblical Interpretation course here at Beeson Divinity School. Although I don’t consider this the best thing I’ve ever written, I’d love for you to check this piece out and let me know what you think, because no matter the limitations of the assignment, there’s always room for improvement. Plus, I didn’t have space to talk about all the issues whirring around in my head while writing this paper, and your constructive feedback might very well help me take my next intellectual steps. Click the title below for the .pdf version.)

Psalm 2 – Quare Fremuerunt Gentes?

As the first royal psalm of the Psalter, Psalm 2 exhorts rebellious world leaders to serve Yahweh in wisdom by submitting to his anointed Davidic king who has been granted a global kingdom.1 Comprehension of the psalm’s original message first requires an examination of its constituent parts, with an eye toward its poetic features and original context. Furthermore, an understanding of the enduring significance of Psalm 2 necessitates a consideration of its canonical and redemptive-historical context, including the New Testament’s typological interpretations of the passage. This essay will provide both aspects before concluding with a brief discussion of how best to interpret and apply Psalm 2 to the contemporary Christian Church.

Original Message

Psalm 2 is arranged in four stanzas of three verses each that follow a loosely chiastic movement from the rebellious rulers of nations (2:1-3), to Yahweh (2:4-6), to his anointed king (2:7-9), and back to the rulers (2:10-12).2 The psalmist opens with a twofold rhetorical question that uses synthetic parallelism to express indignant astonishment at the nations’ rage (2:1a) and the peoples’ vain plots (2:1b).3 The rest of the first stanza clarifies the scene: the “kings” and “rulers” of the earth are rebelliously conspiring “against the Lord and against his Anointed” (2:2), using the metaphor of “bonds” and “cords” in their reported direct speech (2:3) to express comparatively the implied rule of the Israelite king.4 The second stanza shifts the focus upward from the limited earthly sphere of influence of the rebellious kings to the unlimited heavenly kingdom of Yahweh (2:4), who anthropomorphically responds to their machinations with laughter and derision, “just as humans would mock something ridiculous.”5 As Ross notes, the two verbs “he will speak” and “[he will] terrify them” (2:5) are respectively a metonymy of cause and of effect to portray the full divine response, arranged in chiastic order (“speak + wrath // anger + terrify”) to emphasize God’s wrath.6 At the heart of the passage’s chiastic structure, bridging the second and third stanzas, is a dramatic shift of scene from Yahweh speaking while seated in the heavens (2:4-6) to Mount Zion and the Davidic king’s recounting of the divine decree (2:7). Both divine speeches emphasize that the authority of Israel’s king proceeds from his divine installation and sonship.7 As Mays notes, although the human ruler in view is not equal or identical to the deity, this unique appearance in the Psalter of “son” as the Davidic king’s title (cf. 2 Sam 7:14) reveals the close correspondence between God and the king.8 This powerful polemic against the rulers who would dare to rebel against such an authoritative king continues through the third stanza (2:7-9), where the son/king is granted a global kingdom (2:8), described with synonymous parallelism between (1) the “nations” and “ends of the earth” and (2) “your heritage” and “your possession.” The section concludes with a vivid image, utilizing “a rod of iron” as a metaphor for the Davidic king’s divinely-granted authority and “like a potter’s vessel” as a simile for the relative vulnerability of the rulers of nations sans divine installation and protection.9

In the final stanza (2:10-12), the psalmist appropriately begins with “now therefore,” a common phrase from Hebrew wisdom literature, before exhorting the rebellious kings and rulers of the earth to “be wise” (2:10) by serving the Lord in reverential fear (2:11) and submitting to his anointed son/king (2:12a).10 The urgency of the exhortations is “met by the warning that he may be angry” (2:12b-c).11 The ambiguity of the subject (“he”) of the descriptions of anger in these two clauses serves to illustrate the close link between Yahweh and his king throughout the entire psalm. As Ross rightly notes, the result of either interpretive option would be the same – “the king will put down their rebellion, but it will be God giving him the victory. To rebel against the one is to rebel against both, and to submit to one is to submit to both.”12 The psalmist concludes by promising blessing to those who take refuge in “him” (2:12d) – an again ambiguous referent, but contextually describing those who demonstrate reverential faith for Yahweh by submitting to his anointed king.13

Contextually, the parallels between this passage and the promises spoken to David in 2 Samuel 7:8-16 clarify the content by identifying the psalm with the coronation of a Davidic king, in addition to the Davidic covenant’s continuity with the other covenant commitments of Yahweh throughout the OT.14 Despite Gunn’s creative proposal that Psalm 2 refers to the anointing and not the coronation of the king, Ross offers a balanced perspective when he views the psalm’s original occasion as a time of crisis due to the vulnerability of the nation to foreign attack at the time of a new king’s coronation.15 Within the Psalter itself, Psalm 2 comprises an introduction along with Psalm 1 – focusing “on the victory of the LORD’s anointed king over the nations” after Psalm 1’s emphasis on the wise way of the righteous.16 Because the final editing and compilation of the Psalter took place in absence of a Davidic king, this fitting introduction “served as a reminder of God’s plan” to its earliest audiences.17

However, as VanGemeren rightly emphasizes, “the juxtaposition of Psalm 3 [a Davidic lament psalm] with Psalms 1 and 2 creates a sense of dissonance” which refocuses “the hope of the godly from David to the Lord, who has made the promises to David.”18 That is, the tension between the idealized portraits (of the individual and Davidic king) in the first two Psalms, the “canonical understanding of the failure of David and of the Davidic dynasty,” and the “real world of failure and exile” experienced throughout the rest of the Psalter and Hebrew Bible encourages a christological and eschatological reading – one which looks for the fulfillment of the expectations of Israel and David in a coming anointed king who is both Son of David and Son of God.19

Enduring Significance

It is reasonable to assume that Psalm 2’s uniqueness as the only psalm to use “son” as a title for the Davidic king and the only OT combination of “anointed/messiah,” “king,” and “son” in one passage contributed to its frequent use in the NT.20 The redemptive-historical context of the second psalm suggests its meaningful relevance (1) during the Hebrew monarchy when a Davidic king was on the throne, (2) during the post-exilic absence of a king, and (3) as the psalm’s circle of context extended into the New Testament and the nascent Church – taking on a typological significance in its portrayal of the anointed Davidic king as the type of which Jesus the Messiah was the antitype.21 Based on the NT evidence, as VanGemeren notes, “from the perspective of typology, Jesus is the fulfillment of the psalm,” because “he is born of David’s lineage (Mt 1:1; Lk 2:4, 11), has a right to David’s throne (Lk 1:32), is the Son of God in a unique way (Mt 3:17; Lk 9:35; Heb 1:5), and will ultimately subdue all enemies under his feet (1Co 15:25-27; Heb 2:5-8).”22 Although a full discussion of messianic typological interpretation exceeds the purview of this paper, a discussion of the quotations of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:25-26 and twice in Hebrews (1:5 and 5:5) will suffice to demonstrate the NT sensitivity to the contours of God’s redemptive mission and the uniqueness of his Messiah – an awareness which contemporary interpretative methods should embody.23

Following the reprimand and release of Peter and John from the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-23), the believers to whom they are reunited quote Psalm 2:1-2 (Acts 4:25-26) as they confess to God (4:24) a poignant interpretation of the resistance the anointed king of Psalm 2 faced from the “Gentiles,” “peoples,” “kings,” and “rulers” (4:25-26) in terms of the lethal opposition Jesus received from “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel” (4:27). Of note is the intimate awareness of not only the content but also the eschatological bent of Psalm 2 that such a typological interpretation of the text required. In a profound interpretive dialectic, familiarity with the passage’s unmet expectations, the patterns of God’s redemptive work, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus enabled these believers to bring Psalm 2 to bear on the very resistance their messianic interpretations were creating for themselves.24 Because Psalm 2 teaches that “the declaration of the Son of God is God’s answer to the opposition of the world’s powers,” the early Christians used the passage to bolster their proclamation of the gospel in the face of external threats, not by directly identifying themselves with Psalm 2’s Davidic king, but by taking refuge in him, so to speak, by proclaiming their experience of the passage’s unique fulfillment in the person of Jesus and trusting in Yahweh’s promised blessing (Ps 2:12).25

The uniqueness of Jesus’ fulfillment of the second psalm is further accentuated in the quotation of Psalm 2:7 at Hebrews 1:5a and 5:5. The former quotation follows immediately after the introduction to the epistle (1:1-4), and is paired with a quotation of 2 Samuel 7:14 (Heb 1:5b) in order to emphasize the Son’s superiority to the angels, a theme which is then carried forward through a litany of OT quotations which collectively emphasize the same point.26 The latter occurrence of Psalm 2:7 (Heb 5:5) is the first use of an OT passage in the lengthy central discussion of the priesthood of Christ in Hebrews 5:1-10:18, explaining his appointment as high priest in terms of his divine sonship – with an emphasis on the humility of one who “did not exalt himself,” (5:5a) but rather was installed by God. In answer to those who would overlook the Son’s unique status, both uses of Psalm 2:7 together emphasize that “the same one who exalted the Son above the angels (Heb. 1:5) has also glorified him to become high priest (5:1-9).”27 Significantly, the typological use of Psalm 2 in terms of Jesus Christ’s fulfillment as antitype coheres with the central point of the passage in its original context: the indissoluble link between Yahweh and his anointed son/king.

The interpretation of Psalm 2 in the contemporary Christian context should demonstrate the same sensitivity the NT does to the contours of God’s redemptive mission and the uniqueness of his Messiah. This does not denigrate the passage’s relevance to Christians today, but rather guards against identifying oneself with the king of Psalm 2 and usurping the uniqueness of God’s Son in the desire for authority, blessing, and protection. Although Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard claim that “royal psalms [such as Psalm 2] relate best to the modern counterparts of Israel’s kings: the leaders of the Christian community,” this approach, seems to risk a gross misinterpretation of the passage if Christian leaders fail to show due concern for the uniqueness of Jesus as the passage’s fulfillment.28

Instead, interpretations of Psalm 2 best emphasize the “crucial inherent differences between monarchs and church leaders” when they cohere with the passage’s original exhortation to demonstrate wisdom by submitting to God’s authoritative and anointed king.29 This is a warning to those who rebel against God by neglecting the authority of his anointed king – either by spurning him or, perhaps even more dangerously, by trying to take his place.30 Christian leaders need to heed this warning just as much as anyone else. And yet Psalm 2 is simultaneously an encouraging comfort to those who follow Jesus the Messiah as the King of Kings, especially in times of fierce opposition when the future of God’s mission seems most vulnerable. The promised global kingdom (Ps 2:8-9) will one day be fully given to the Son of David who is the Son of God – and although the rulers of this world will continue to rise up against Yahweh and his king, those who take refuge in the Son (and therefore in Yahweh himself) will still receive the promised blessing (Ps 2:12) as faithful citizens of the Son’s kingdom.

=== NOTES ===

1 All consulted commentators classify Psalm 2 as a royal psalm, the first example of their remarkable agreement throughout the passage. See P.C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC (Waco: Word, 1983) 64; D.J. Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005) 179; J.L. Mays, Psalms, IBC (Louisville: John Knox, 1994) 45; A.P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1:1-41 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011) 199; and W.A. VanGemeren, Psalms, EBC 5, Rev. Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 89. The main, notable exception is a certain facet of Gunn’s analysis. See fn. 15 below; cf. G.A. Gunn, “Psalm 2 and the Reign of the Messiah,” BSac 169 (2012) 431-2.

2 Craigie, Mays, Ross, and VanGemeren all agree on the verse divisions of the stanzas. Craigie and VanGemeren note the chiastic structure of the Psalm as a whole. See Craigie, Psalms, 64; Mays, Psalms, 45; Ross, Psalms, 200-1; VanGemeren, Psalms, 89.

3 “Psalmist” will refer to the unknown author of Ps 2 throughout this paper. As Gunn notes, “though the psalm is anonymous, it is accorded Davidic authorship in Acts 4:25. […] Whether the psalm is of Davidic authorship has little bearing on the interpretation of the psalm.” Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 427.

4 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations come from the English Standard Version [ESV].

5 Ross, Psalms, 205.

6 Ross, Psalms, 206.

7 Cf. Craigie, Psalms, 66-7.

8 Mays, Psalms, 47-8. Ross agrees, noting that “you are my son” is “a pure metaphor. The statement makes a comparison between what a son is to a father and what the king is to God to describe the special relationship between them.” Ross, Psalms, 207.

9 Cf. Ross, Psalms, 209-10.

10 VanGemeren, Psalms, 97. For the Wisdom use of “now therefore,” see Prov 5:7; 7:24; 8:32. For kissing as a sign of “homage and submission,” see 1 Sam 10:1; 1 Kgs 19:18; cf. Craigie, Psalms, 68. Finally, for a discussion of the phrase “kiss the Son” as the crux interpretum of the passage at hand, see the discussions in Craigie, Psalms, 64, fn. 12.a; and VanGemeren, Psalms, 97-8, fn. 12. I agree with Ross when he notes that “in addressing leaders of other countries where Aramaic was spoken, using the Aramaic word [for “son”] made sense.” Ross, Psalms, 198-9, fn. 6.

11 Ross, Psalms, 212; emphasis added.

12 Ross, Psalms, 213.

13 Cf. Craigie, Psalms, 68; Ross, Psalms, 213;

14 Craigie, Psalms, 64. The Davidic covenant of 2 Sam 7 stands in elaborating continuity with the Abrahamic (Gen 12-17) and Mosaic (Exod 19-24) covenants, and is itself intensified and elaborated upon in the “new covenant” of Jer 31. This context of covenantal continuity is extremely important to the interpretation of Ps 2 because, without it, Yahweh’s exclusive, close relationship with the king (Ps 2:4-12) is inexplicable.

15 Ross, Psalms, 200. VanGemeren rightly notes that “any attempt to link the psalm with an actual coronation of a Judean king…finds little support in the text.” VanGemeren, Psalms, 89. Gunn’s proposal, while heeding VanGemeren’s caution and offering a creative explanation of the already-not-yet dimensions of Jesus Christ’s current kingly reign, seems more driven by the concerns of a presupposed eschatological system than by a straightforward exegesis of the passage at hand. Although the gap between David’s anointing as king (1 Sam 16) and his coronation as such (2 Sam 2, 5) is instructive for considerations of the Hebrew monarchy, it does not mean that such a gap was normative for the kingly sons of David for whom the psalm at hand was probably composed. Furthermore, there are other, better ways to explain the unique kingdom reign of Christ during the current age than this kind of artificial reverse interpretation of Psalm 2. See Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 431-2.

16 Ross, Psalms, 200.

17 Ross, Psalms, 200.

18 VanGemeren, Psalms, 90.

19 VanGemeren, Psalms, 90,8; cf. Pss 19:13; 25:7, 18; 31:10; 32:3-5; 38:3-4, 18; 39:1, 8; 40:12; 41:4; 51:1-2.

20 Mays notes both aspects of Psalm 2’s uniqueness. The OT/NT assumption is my own. Mays, Psalms, 40,7. According to the UBS Greek New Testament, 4th Rev. Ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001) 887,95, Psalm 2 is quoted in the NT at Acts 4:25-26 (Ps 2:1-2); 13:33; Heb 1:5, and 5:5 (Ps 2:7). Furthermore, there are allusions and verbal parallels to Psalm 2 at Mt 3:17; 17:5; Mk 1:11; 9:7; Lk 3:22; 9:35; Jn 1:49 (Ps 2:7); Heb 1:2 (Ps 2:8); Rev 11:18 (Ps 2:1); and 19:19 (Ps 2:2). Gunn notes that “based on New Testament quotations, allusions, and verbal parallels, Psalm 2 is one of the most frequently referred to of all the psalms.” Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 427.

21 Ross, Psalms, 213, fn. 31, citing J. Clifford, Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 46.

22 VanGemeren, Psalms, 91.

23 As noted above (fn. 20), NT quotations of and allusions to Psalm 2 abound. The three examples have been chosen based on this essay’s prompt and the author’s prior familiarity with the thought-flow of Hebrews.

24 As Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard note, “the use of typology rests on the belief that God’s ways of acting are consistent throughout history. Thus NT writers may, in places, explain phenomena in the new Messianic era in terms of their OT precursors.” W.W. Klein, C.L. Blomberg and R.L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004) 183. A familiarity with the consistent patterns of God’s redemptive work throughout history would have undoubtedly involved an intimate knowledge of the covenantal continuity throughout the OT, reference in fn. 14 above.

25 Mays, Psalms, 50.

26 Cf. “angellwn”as a “hook-word” between Heb 1:1-4 and 1:5-14. The other OT passages cited are, in order: Deut 32:43; Pss 104:4; 45:6,7; 102:25-27; and 110:1.

27 Gunn, “Psalm 2,” 438.

28 Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 358. Christian leaders who desire instruction in the biblical ways of leadership do well to look to Jesus the Messiah as an example of humble servant leadership (cf. Jn 13:12-20), but should not feel the need to identify themselves with the Messiah himself in order to secure the respect and obedience of those under their instruction. No messianic interpretation of Christian leadership is necessary in order to follow Paul when he exhorts his readers to imitate him as he imitates Christ (cf. 1 Cor 11:1).

29 Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 358-9.

30 Cf. Ross, Psalms, 214.

Scripture: Handle with Care – by Amy Chase Ashley

Update (April 2017): I’ve gone back to update/clean-up the formatting in this wonderful June 2013 guest post from my friend Amy Elizabeth Chase Ashley, one of the most gifted students of Scripture with whom I’ve been privileged to study. She blogs at https://amyechase.wordpress.com/

Scripture: Handle with Care

Jeremiah 29:11

When I accepted the invitation to speak at my parents’ church, I immediately started thinking about what message I would deliver.  I decided to give a message on something that is very important to me after my four years at Cedarville and something I am very passionate about.  I hope it will be engaging; I hope it will make you think; and I hope it will bring glory to God.  If I can accomplish those three things, I will be satisfied.

The Scripture I chose is Jeremiah 29:11 and I’m guessing that most Christians could recite the verse from memory.  If not, once you read it, you’ll probably remember or recognize it.

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’”

This is a familiar verse for a lot of Christians.  My question today is whether it should be.

This might seem like a strange question, but I think you’ll understand what I mean soon.

So why is this verse so familiar to us?  Well, it’s used a lot.  Are you nervous about future uncertainties?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Are you starting a new job?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Graduating from high school or college?  Jeremiah 29:11.  That teenage girl had her boyfriend break up with her?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Car trouble that makes you late to work?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Lost your lucky pencil?  Jeremiah 29:11.

I hope you’re catching my sarcasm.

And maybe you think I’m exaggerating.  But I did a Google search for Jeremiah 29:11 and you can buy folders, clocks, plaques, keychains, mugs, pictures, bumper stickers, aprons, tote bags, iPhone cases, tshirts, pillows, bracelets, and even playing cards that have this verse on them.  It might be rivaling the 23rd Psalm after all that.   And I know for a fact that it can be found on countless greeting cards whether they be sympathy, graduation, engagement, or congratulatory cards.

- this is not a bag of trail mix you cant just pick out the p

I saw a meme on the internet the other day.  It was an image of the Bible, and the text said: “This is not a bag of trail mix.  You can’t just pick out the pieces you like and ignore the rest.”  I’m afraid that the widespread use of Jeremiah 29:11 demonstrates a bigger problem: we really are guilty of treating the Bible like a bag of trail mix.  Jeremiah 29:11 is an M&M that we pull out time and time again while we ignore all the peanuts and raisins and cashews and granola all around it.

Christians claim to have a high view of Scripture—that is, we say that the Bible is the authoritative, divinely inspired Word of God.  We are quick to use it to tell the world what they’re doing wrong whether that be gay marriage or murder or how to raise children.  We say that we live by what the Bible says, but I’m afraid that we’re often guilty of not even knowing what the Bible says.  For me, the widespread use of Jeremiah 29:11 proves this.

To demonstrate, does anyone know what Jeremiah 29:10 says?  No, because it’s a peanut.  Jeremiah 29:12?  Sorry, I don’t like raisins.  But I am feeling uncertain about this new job/relationship/house/baby/friend/responsibility/accomplishment/etc., so I like to be told that God has good plans for me.  I like to imagine him saying, “I know the plans I have for you…”

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