The Psalms and Mission Part 1: The Psalms, Authority, and Mission
Posted on: 1st November 2021
In this first part of a series on the Psalms and mission, CMS missionary Nathan Lovell, lecturer at George Whitfield College in South Africa, reminds us that ultimately, all political power rests with God the King—and this has consequences for mission.
This is the first in a short series of reflections on the Psalms and Christian mission, where we will examine some common mission-related themes and issues through the eyes of the Psalms.
We don’t want to pretend that the Psalms might say everything there is to say about mission. For a full account of mission, we will need the full revelation of God; the whole Bible. But the Psalms have their own perspective, and it can enrich our wider knowledge if we let them speak.
Do we have the authority for mission?
The issue I want to tackle first is one of authority. As is well known, the concept of ‘mission’ has been under scrutiny for a while now. Is it not simply imperialism in disguise, to go into the midst of another culture and proclaim ‘my truth’ as universal?
The ways in which mission and empire have interacted over the centuries are not simple to disentangle. The Christian missionary movements have, at various times, served more than one interest. This has been done to our shame.
History has also shown us that it is not possible to extract a kernel of trans-cultural timeless truth from the Scriptures that can be passed along independently of a cultural husk. To some extent, culture and the gospel shape each other. This is because the gospel is a verbal proclamation, and culture and language shape each other.
But the underlying justification of the missionary endeavour is a different question. That answer relies, in the end, on the grace of God to both the unsaved peoples and to the redeemed (but still sinful) missionaries, as well as on the power of the Holy Spirit. By what right do Christians engage in mission? The answer is that the nations of this world owe their allegiance to the God who created them.
The Lord is King
The Psalms use the exact phrase “the Lord is king” (Hebrew: Yahweh melek) six times (Psalm 10:16, 29:10, 93:1, 96:10, 97:1, 99:1). Although there are many ways to talk about God as King, this is the simplest. This particular phrase is a feature of the Psalms. But what does it mean to say God is king? And what is God king of?
Often, when we think about the kingship of God, we think of the sovereignty of God. But, although sovereignty is connected to king-words like sovereign, the way English uses these words can be confusing.
Kingship: Not the power to do everything, but political power
There’s an old Latin phrase for the idea that God can do whatever he likes, which is what we usually mean by sovereignty: the potentia absoluta (= absolute power) of God. As long as your mind connects the word potentia with the English potency rather than potential, then you won’t need to brush up on your Latin!) But, although you can find this idea in the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 115:3, 135:6), this isn’t what the Psalms mean when they talk about the kingship of God.
Instead, to say “the Lord is king” means that he has political power. The Psalms celebrate a God who actually gets involved in the things that we might think of a human king doing: enforcing laws, adjudicating disputes, punishing wrongdoers, protecting the state from threats, fighting against enemies, and generally making it possible for people to live quiet and godly lives. It’s not possible to resist God’s sovereignty, understood as the potentia absoluta or ‘absolute power’ of God because, if it were, it wouldn’t be absoluta!
But it is possible to rebel against God’s sovereignty understood as his kingly rule. It’s called sin. And it is treason.
Psalm 9 is a splendid example of some of these things. It celebrates God’s deliverance from enemies (verses 1-6) and the establishment of his kingship (verses 7-8, 11):
The Lord reigns forever;
he has established his throne for judgment.
– Psalm 9:7
It then recalls his acts of righteous judgment for the sake of the oppressed (verses 9-10, 12-18) and calls on God to continue in judging the world (verses 19-20). We’ll return later in this series to think about God’s judgment, but it’s worth noting briefly here that judgment is an indispensable part of God’s kingship. This is because justice requires judgment. In fact, they are the same concept in Hebrew. If God judges (shaphat in Hebrew) then he does justice (mishphat).
But it’s the final thought of Psalm 9 that I want to pick up on here.
Arise, Lord, do not let mortals triumph;
let the nations be judged in your presence.
– Psalm 9:19
King of the Nations
Why should the nations be judged in the presence of Israel’s king? Most often, when the Old Testament thinks about God being king, it thinks about God’s rule of Israel in particular. In Israel’s great covenant traditions, God was king, both in the Exodus (e.g. Exodus 15:18) and at Sinai (e.g. Deuteronomy 33:5). But he was king of Israel. And many years later, when the people of Israel request a “king like the other nations”, you’ll recall God’s words to Samuel:
Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.
– 1 Samuel 8:7
That God is king of Israel is an idea throughout the Old Testament. But it is a striking feature of the Psalms that God’s kingship, which you will recall is his political authority rather than his providential power, is expressed more broadly over all of creation. God’s rule is located in Zion, in the sense that the temple is thought of as his throne room (e.g. Psalm 9:11, 99:1). But the nations of the entire world are expected to regard him as their king, because he created them. (We will explore the link between kingship and creation in a later reflection.)
English translations sometimes blur this notion, because it’s often possible to render the language of royal contexts as religious instead. For example, we might translate Psalm 96 slightly differently (but still faithfully, and arguably more so!) with royal language.
So we can substitute
- ‘pay homage’ for the NIV translation’s ‘ascribe’,
- ‘bring tribute’ for ‘bring an offering’,
- ‘bow down to’ for ‘worship’, and
- ‘majesty’ for ‘splendour’.
And now the expected attitude of the nations towards God becomes even clearer:
Pay homage to the Lord, all you families of nations,
pay homage to the Lord, glory and strength.
Pay homage to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring tribute and come into his courts.
Bow down to the Lord in his holy majesty;
tremble before him, all the earth.
Say among the nations, “The Lord is king.”
The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.
– Psalm 96:7–10
The generalisation amongst Christians that there is no push for mission in the Old Testament (except perhaps for the accounts featuring Jonah and Naaman) is a half-truth. So is the common idea where the nations come to God in the Old Testament, but God goes to the nations in the NT.
In actual fact, the Psalms resonate from end to end with the idea that God should be praised and his rule celebrated amongst all nations:
I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples.
– Psalm 108:3
The Rule of the Messiah
When God chooses an Israelite king and installs him as a sub-regent under his ultimate kingship, he mediates his rule through him. The Psalms call this person the ‘Messiah’ (anointed one). Nowadays we call him the Christ. Then the nations are expected to pay homage to him as well. Psalm 2 reflects on the delegated authority of the messianic king as divine son (verse 7), who mediates Yahweh’s rule (verse 8), wrath (verse 11), and blessings (verse 12). Rebellion against the messiah is rebellion against Yahweh, (verse 2) who still reigns, sitting “enthroned in the heavens” (verse 4). The nations, then, have a choice to make:
Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed (messiah)?
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
– Psalm 2:1-2, 10–12
Ultimately, the governments of our world, their people, our cultures, and our communities owe their allegiance to the God who made them, and to his Christ. We sometimes forget that when Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the gospel and make disciples, he grounds it in his own claim of authority:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
– Matthew 28:18-20
And for the same reason, the apostle Paul likens his own calling to one of an ambassador (2 Cor 5:20, Eph 6:20).
Missionaries are ambassadors for the King
Mission is, in the end, an ambassadorial post that serves the divine king who made the world. It reminds people and powers that that they are God’s subjects, and calls them to pay homage, finding blessing and refuge in the son.
The Psalms leave us in no doubt that the Lord God is king over not only Israel, but every nation in the world. Are you prepared to “make disciples of every nation” (Matthew 28:18-19) in response to his kingship? Contact your CMS branch to learn more about opportunities to serve.
 Sometimes the word “king” is understood as a verb instead, malak, “reigns.”
 It occurs only three times elsewhere in the OT (Ex. 15:18, Isa. 33:22, 44:6). It is also present in 1 Chr. 16:31, but that is quoting Ps. 96.
 God is said to be “enthroned” over twenty times in the Psalms, always either in heaven or in the temple on Zion.
 Even so, we should avoid drawing an implication from this that national governments should be either theocratic or in some way “Christian.” The issue of what type of authority is delegated to governments under Christ’s rule is one that needs further consideration. Ultimately governments are not authorised to proclaim the gospel, but to institute justice. They would, however, overstep their authority on those occasions when they attempt to prohibit the spread of the gospel (e.g. Acts 5:27-29).