New Covenant Themes Psalmodically Mediated in the Book of Hebrews

No other book in the New Testament exposes the temporality and weakness of the old covenant system like the book of Hebrews. Though Colossians touches on it (chapter 2), and Galatians reflects magnificently on it throughout, both epistles focus on this subject narrowly and reactively (the former due to the ascetic traditions being promulgated in the Colossae congregation and the latter because of the attacks of the Pharisaical party upon the doctrine of justification). Paul in Hebrews, however, presents an entire system (and era) of ritual observances from the perspective of its fulfillment in Christ and thus concludes it is “ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13).

Given such a theme, one might expect that Paul would primarily turn to the ministry of Jesus or that of his fellow apostles as proof of such a momentous turning point in the redemptive work of God.[1] Thus it is striking, in light of the coming of Christ, whose very presence gave sight to those dwelling in comparative darkness and ignorance, that the overwhelming resource that Paul references for that purpose in Hebrews is the book of Psalms.[2] In fact, it is stunning how prominent of a role the Psalms play, not only in pointing us to Jesus, but as presenting and preserving his words, person, deeds, and eternal communion with his heavenly Father, even before he ever walked amongst us. 

This is not to suggest that the Psalms are the only book from the Old Testament that is used in Hebrews to present a full-orbed gospel; far from it. But, as we will see, they do form the thesis of Paul’s argument (Hebrews 1 & 2), and serve as the focal point of nearly every proof marshalled for his grand exposition of the gospel. Thus, the following, brief[3] survey of Hebrews should convince us that contemporary Christianity has woefully underestimated God’s ability to give us songs of Jesus in the book of Psalms.

In Hebrews 1, the angels are contrasted with the glory of the eternal son. While on the surface this may seem to be irrelevant to the discussion at hand, we see that chapter 2 plays an integral role in showing why this would be important to Paul’s Jewish audience. These, in fact, were early Christians who were being tempted to return to the inferiority of the Sinaitic code. Their ears would perk up when Paul vs. 2 says that the word spoken by angels “was steadfast” requiring prompt obedience by those listening. Stephen fills in the gap for us in his speech to the council in Acts 7. In vs. 53, he tells his hearers that they received the law “by the disposition of angels.” The law, as God gave it, was not only mediated to God’s people through Moses, but mediated to Moses by heavenly messengers. This makes sense, since Paul is not speaking of any number of messages that angels gave to the saints in the Old Testament, but one that came with penalties for disobedience and rewards for obedience (Hebrews 2:2).

Now Paul could cite various deeds that Jesus performed, or any particular sermons or teachings that he gave to prove how Jesus’ glory surpassed that of the servants of the heavenly realm. Yet he finds a ready defense of his Christian theology in the Psalms. This includes: i) the eternal Sonship of Christ as contrasted with the angelic hosts (vs. 5 – Psalm 2:7 & Psalm 89:26,27) ii) the divinity of the Son and his equality with the Father as demonstrated in the worship they receive from the angels (vs. 6 – Psalm 97:7 & vs. 8 – Psalm 45:6-7) iii) the creation of all things through the Son and thus their required obedience to him (vs. 10-12 – Psalm 102:25-27) & iv) the subjection of the angels, particularly to the one who brings salvation (vs. 13-14 – Psalm 110:1). In short, the Psalms are not only Christian, in the sense of being about Christ, but orthodox, that is splendidly Athanasian.[4]

Paul is, however, not finished. Having contrasted the divine nature of Christ with the angels, he also takes pains to contrast the exalted human nature of Christ from the perspective of Psalm 8 in chapter 2 (vs. 6ff.). It is not only because he is the second person of the Trinity that the angels should reverence him, but that he, being the mediator of the covenant of grace, is worthy of having all things subject to him. Indeed Paul does not merely demonstrate how the Psalms  anticipate something or hint at someone greater, but how they directly affirm the excellence of the Saviour. He proves this by quoting Christ himself from Psalm 22:22. For “he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” (Hebrews 2:12). Here Jesus is not a mere onlooker, nor does he merely join in the praise of men, as one amongst the crowd, but takes up the role of worship leader.[5]  Surely then the Psalms hold out for us the two natures of Christ in one person.

But what of the mediator of the old covenant, Moses himself? Paul returns to the theme of the eternal Sonship of Christ to establish the superiority of Christ over the old economy in chapter 3. Though both Moses and Christ are intimately tied to the house of God, Moses is a mere servant and that to Christ, who as son is “over his house” (vs. 6). Then he powerfully emphasises this point for his contemporaries and us by noting out how our obedience to Christ determines God’s disposition to us (even as it did, subordinately, in Israel’s reception of Moses’ as God’s representative).[6]

But what proof from God’s Word is s offered this appointment to us? We might recall Jesus’ kingly cleansing of the temple, or the priestly cleansing of the lepers as proving his authority over the house of God. Yet Paul exposits the 95th Psalm in this and the following chapter with much detail and repetition to show how Christ is to be respected and honoured as the voice of God (cf. Hebrews 1:2). It matters not if he is telling us that this is Christ speaking in this Psalm[7] or that the Father is speaking this Psalm on behalf of his son, but rather that the Psalm is used exclusively and definitively to speak of our duty to heed the Son’s voice in the gospel.

Paul, after all, would not have us think that obedience strictly considered is what is required. The Christian, or for that matter, the believer in every age, is motivated primarily by faith (cf. Hebrews 11:1). Without faith, all works are dead (Hebrews 6:1) and, more essentially, without Christ in and whom we believe, all works are dead. Obedience and disobedience are motivated by faith, even as they always have been (Hebrews 3:19). The Jewish church did not enter into the promised rest because they did not believe the gospel (Hebrews 4:2).

How then was this gospel fulfilled? As the old covenant, so the new covenant: both were mediated through the priesthood. But the new covenant is so much better because it is mediated through Christ. And as Paul used one Psalm to make his previous point, so he now turns to Psalm 110 to prove the greater priesthood of Christ. In chapter 5, the conclusion of chapter 6 (vs. 20) and ending with a marvellous crescendo in chapter 7, Paul repeats that the believer[8] has need of no other mediator if they have the king of peace and the priest of the most high God, Melchizedek. Psalm 110 establishes: i) his appointment by God (5:5-6), including its abiding (7:16-17) and immutable nature (7:21) ii) his salvific work (5:9-10) iii) resulting in his securing of eternal life for his people (6:20), in short that he saves to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25). It is particularly remarkable that Paul not only sees this in one Psalm but in one verse, in the oft repeated phrase (or a variation thereof): “thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchisedec” (Psalm 110:4).   

Paul concludes his grand presentation of the Psalmodic gospel in Hebrews 10, there plainly holding out the superiority of Christ’s intercessory work and sacrifice. Psalm 40 takes centre stage as he cites it four times or two texts (Psalm 40: 6 & 7,8) interchangeably. Much like his use of Psalm 110 previously, Paul finds more than a few gospel themes in these verses: i) the incarnation of Christ (Hebrews 10:5 citing Psalm 40:6) ii) the precious words of Christ, covenanting with his eternal father for the redemption of his people (Hebrews 10:7 citing Psalm 40:7,8) iii) signifying the end of the sacrificial system (Hebrews 10:8 citing Psalm 40:6) iv) and fulfilling all necessary sacrifice and obedience on behalf of God’s people “through the offering” of his body “once for all” (Hebrews 10:9-10 citing Psalm 40:7,8).

Finally, it is worthy of note that though the Psalms contain references to the old system of religion (e.g. sacrifices, priestly intercession etc.), Paul never quotes the Psalms in Hebrews to demonstrate how they were preparatory for the time of Christ (thus implying their insufficiency for the new covenant believer). Rather, as I argue, they anticipate and reveal new covenant themes of fulfilment.  Therefore it is even instructive to note where the Psalms are notably absent in Hebrews, namely chapters 8-9 as Paul, referencing Jeremiah 31, speaks of the abolishing of the old covenant. It must be, though there are shadows contained therein,[9] they are not worthy of being mentioned for the sake of the pure, gospel light that emanates from their pages.

Truly then the Psalms do not present a marked antithesis to the new covenant, nor even function as the shape or shadow of something that has yet to be fully revealed, but themselves are the vehicles of, the voice of, the substance of and the ministry of the eternal Saviour before he took on flesh. It would be difficult then, yes impossible, to conclude that the Psalms are an inferior product of an outdated faith.

1Indeed Paul does this in Hebrews 2:3-4 but note how quickly he returns to the Psalms as his central focus (vs. 6ff.).
2Especially considering that some have wished that the Psalms would be muted in Christian worship while others still have done away with them altogether. 
3Our survey will cover the first ten chapters which comprise the bulk of his argument concerning the supremacy of Christ. Arguably, the concluding chapters are largely hortatory.
4To borrow a thought from J.C. Ryle: “Thomas… who was once so desponding and weak in faith, but afterwards cried out with such grand Athanasian confidence, “My Lord and my God” (John xx.28).” Ryle, John Charles. The Upper Room. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990, page 14.
5“Sung praise is an act of confession in the midst of the congregation, and one which our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Elder Brother and Superintendent of the Sanctuary, claims a sole prerogative to lead. Heb. 2:12.” Winzer, Matthew. “What is the scriptural warrant to confine song in public worship to Psalms only?” (reply to thread) Puritanboard (Web forum) May 19, 2009 (6:01 p.m.).
6See Numbers 12 & 16, for example.
7Noting that there are other passages in the New Testament that demonstrate Christ’s authority over the Old Testament people of God. See 1 Corinthians 10:9 and Jude 5 (when read with vs. 4). See also the discussion of Psalm 40:6-8 from Hebrews 10 below.
8Abraham being the prominent example (Hebrews 7:1ff) and thus applying to believers of every age.

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