16 March 2023
When we think of Jesus as the suffering servant around Easter, our minds usually go to Isaiah, especially the familiar words for Isaiah 53:3, “He was despised and rejected by others, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
Surprisingly, however, the gospels draw many of their quotes about the suffering servant from the Psalter, as New Testament scholar, Joshua Jipp explains in Luke’s Scriptural Suffering Messiah:
“It is David, not the Isaianic Servant, upon whom Luke consistently draws in order to describe Jesus’ persecution, death, resurrection, and exaltation … Luke found in the Davidic psalms something of a portrait of the Messiah’s career, and thus a precedent for the Messiah’s sufferings and subsequent exaltation.”
The New Testament does not just rely on quoting or alluding to specific psalms to convey the idea of a suffering servant, but on the background imagery of a royal but persecuted servant. In psalms with the heading “of David” (The Hebrew ledavid may mean “of David”, “for David,” or “to David”), “your servant” asks for help in times of danger from enemies who seek to trap him (Psalms 27:9; 31:5) and who offer him shame, insults, and dishonour (Psalms 31:16-17; 69:17-19).
In the ancient Near East, the term “servant” could be used as an honorific. David is described as “the Servant of the Lord” in the headings of Psalms 18 and 36, like Moses and Joshua, and God’s “servant” in Psalm 89:3, like Abraham.
“Servant” was also a term of deference and dependence in the ancient world, as seen in a prayer to the Babylonian god Marduk, cited by Anna Elise Zernecke in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, also uses “servant” as a deferential term, “Do not destroy the servant who is your handiwork.” The self-designation “your servant” is used in the Old Testament in military negotiations by kings such as Ahaz in 2 Kings 16:7, and in prayer by prophets such as Elijah in 1 Kings 18:36.
Read more: God is with us through the worst the world can throw
In the beginning of Psalm 89, David is honoured as “my servant David” (verses 3 and 20), and “my chosen one” (verse 3), and God crowns him and anoints him to signify his covenant and favour, seen in verses 19-20. Later in the psalm, tragedy strikes the king who is shamed when his royal crown is in the dust (verses 38-45), yet he is still called “your anointed” (verse 38) and “your servant” (verse 39). He asks, “Where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (verse 49) as he recalls the taunts offered to “your servant … your anointed one” (verses 50-51).
David’s hardships and David’s honoured status are found together in Psalm 132, which reminds God of his covenant with David (verse 10) and links “your servant David” with God’s promises of a throne and a crown (verses 10-18).
At the end of the Psalter, Psalm 143 describes the suffering of “your servant,” being “crushed to the ground” and numbed with horror from being pursued by his enemies (verses 2-4). David reaches out to God for help, recalling God’s past faithfulness (verses 5-6) and affirming his trust, loyalty, and submission (verses 7-12).
The Psalter’s final reference to a servant is in Psalm 144, where David is in danger from “mighty waters” and enemies, as in Psalm 18, and he asks God to once again “reach down from on high” to rescue him (Psalms 18:16-17 and 144:7-8). David praises God “who rescues his servant David” and “gives victory to kings,” (Psalm 144:10) in wording similar to Psalm 18:50’s “great triumphs he gives to his king.” In Psalm 144, David is not only concerned for his own safety, but he prays for the safety and flourishing of his people, and the wellbeing of young women and young men in the community (verses 12-15).
David’s conflict with his enemies creates “a symbolic world … within which the death of Jesus is retold and received,” writes Richard Hays in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, where Jesus is “inhabiting and reshaping … the role of the Davidic king.” In Luke’s account of the crucifixion (Luke 23:34-46), psalm references include mocking Jesus and casting lots for his clothing (Psalm 22:7-8, 18) and offering him sour wine (Psalm 69:21). In this passage, Jesus directly quotes “into your hands I commit my spirit” from a Davidic lament which describes danger from enemies (Psalm 31:5). In the early chapters of Acts, the resurrection is proclaimed with psalm references including “you will not let your Holy One experience corruption” (Psalm 16:8-11 in Acts 2:25-28, 31), “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1 in Acts 2:34-35), and “Why did the Gentiles rage?” (Psalm 2:1-2 in Acts 5:25-26).
Kingship, servanthood, and suffering are held together in the Psalms, as in the portrait of Jesus in the New Testament. “The way David grapples with God in the midst of suffering … allows the Gospel writers to tell the story of Jesus in such richly human ways,” says Stephen Ahearne-Kroll in The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms, “The Psalms hold in tension kingship … and shameful suffering, neither one cancelling the other out.”
The Reverend Dr Jill Firth is Lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament at Ridley College.
Scripture references are quoted and sometimes adapted from NRSV.
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