The Psalms as the Prayerbook of Jesus and the Church

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As the sin-bearer, Jesus was also the sin-confessor in the psalms.

This is an excerpt from “The Christ Key: Unlocking the Centrality of Christ in the Old Testament” by Chad Bird (1517 Publishing, 2021).

Like so many of David’s prayers, Psalm 41 concerns the trauma that arises from the attacks of enemies, especially verbal attacks. His haters whisper about him; they daydream of the worst befalling him.

As if such hatred were not bad enough, he continues, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (41:9). The phrase “close friend” is literally “man of my shalom”—that is, a person with whom I was at peace. This “friend,” however, turned foe.

What was happening in David’s life that inspired this psalm, we don’t know. Perhaps it reflects the events surrounding Absalom’s coup and Ahithophel’s betrayal. What we do know, however, is that the Spirit inspired it as a description of what was happening in the final days of Christ’s earthly life.

On the night he celebrated the Passover with his disciples, having washed their feet, Jesus then said, “I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he” (John 13:18–19). The “Scripture” being fulfilled is, of course, Psalm 41. And the one who has been eating Christ’s bread is Judas.

It’s easy to see how the rest of Psalm 41 is descriptive of the ministry of Jesus, especially considering the malicious lies and verbal attacks he had to endure from his adversaries.

There is, however, one verse that might be troubling to some readers. How could Christ be the speaker of this verse, “As for me, I said, ‘O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you!’” (41:4)? Why would the Messiah pray for grace? How could he say to his Father, “I have sinned against you” (41:4)?

Could it be that Jesus sinned? That he broke some command of his Father? No, because the Scriptures are clear that Jesus, our high priest, was temped as we are, yet was “without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Could it be that this verse (Ps. 41:4) doesn’t really belong on the lips of the speaker in the rest of the psalm? No, because that makes no textual sense. The “I” of Psalm 41 is the same speaker throughout the prayer.

If, therefore, Christ has no sin but prays “I have sinned against you,” how are we to solve the seeming contradiction?

The Scriptures have prepared us for the answer in a variety of ways.

For one, the worship of Israel involved numerous kinds of sacrifices in which animals, free of blemish, were offered by those who had been made unclean by sin or death. It doesn’t matter what theory one uses to explain the connection between the worshiper and the animal, we wind up in the same place: the unblemished animal is offered by the blemished human with the result that the sinner is made clean or forgiven. The “sinless” victim in some way takes the impurity upon itself. This is the only way to make sense of John the Baptist’s words, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John’s listeners would have understood this because they were accustomed to thinking of sacrificial lambs “taking away” sins in some way.

In Psalm 41, and in other psalms like it (e.g., Psalm 38), the Messiah is speaking as one who is free of blemish, without sin, yet also as the sacrificial victim who will take upon himself the sin of the world. “He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth,” Isaiah says, yet he was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,” for “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:9, 7, 5).

In short, what happened at Israel’s altar teaches us how to pray Israel’s psalms.

The vocation of the high priest also instructs us on how to interpret psalms in which the Messiah confesses sins. On the vestments of the high priest were two different representations of the tribes of Israel. First, on the shoulder straps were two onyx stones, each of which had six names of the tribes of Israel (Exod. 28:9). When the high priest wore the ephod, he bore “their names before the Lord on his two shoulders for remembrance” (28:12). Second, on the breastpiece— a square pouch that held the Urim and Thummim—were four rows of precious stones, with three stones per row. These dozen stones represented the twelve tribes (28:21).

All these stones together—the two onyx and the dozen others—were an emblematic proclamation that the priest was the representative embodiment of the tribes. All Israel melted into Aaron when he stood before God. This one man was the nation. He was a sinner himself, to be sure, but because he was also the singular symbol of the nation before God, he also bore the sins of the nation before the Lord, even sins that he himself had not personally committed.

We see this ritually enacted on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest was to lay his hands on the head of the goat and to “confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” (Lev. 16:21). The priest confessed not only his own sins but the sins of others, “all the iniquities of the people of Israel.”

When Christ came as our great and final high priest, he too was the nation. Indeed, he was all humanity reduced to one man. Though he had no sins of his own to confess, he confessed all the iniquities, all the transgressions, all the sins of every individual, everywhere, for all time, on the great and climactic Day of Atonement known as Good Friday. What he does in the psalms, when he prays, “I have sinned against you” (41:4), is pray as our high priest.

Because Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins as well as our high priest—and because “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19)— therefore, Paul can write that “for our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21).

As the sin-bearer, Jesus was also the sin-confessor in the psalms.

Discussing such psalms, Martin Luther writes, “In these psalms the Holy Spirit is speaking in the Person of Christ and testifying in clear words that he has sinned or has sins. These testimonies of the psalms are not the words of an innocent one; they are the words of the suffering of Christ, who undertook to bear the person of all sinners and therefore was made guilty of the sins of the entire world” (Lectures on Galatians, AE 26:279).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains it similarly:

However, the question could arise as to how one is to think about the fact that Christ also prays these Psalms with us. How can the sinless one ask for forgiveness? In no way other than he can, as the sinless one, bear the sins of the world and be made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Not for the sake of his sins, but for the sake of our sins, which he has taken upon himself and for which he suffers, does Jesus pray for the forgiveness of sins. He positions himself entirely for us. He wants to be a man before God as we are. So he prays also the most human of all prayers with us and thereby demonstrates precisely that he is the true Son of God (Psalms, 51).

Jesus is not only the one who prays Psalms 1– 5 but also the praying sinner of Psalm 6. Our discussion of Psalm 41 should have adequately explained what I meant. Indeed, this perspective swings wide open the door into the Psalms.

Years ago, I remember thinking, “Sure, I can picture Jesus praying Psalms 1 and 3 and lots of others that are usually regarded as non-messianic. But Psalms 6 or 51 or even 119? In these, the poet confesses iniquities or admits he’s strayed from God. So, no, that just won’t do.” I guess that I assumed Jesus would sit quietly in the synagogue when those psalms were being sung!

Now I see things differently. Now I know that whatever psalm was on the lips of others was also on the lips of Jesus.

Yes, in fact, the psalm was his psalm more than anyone else’s.

This is an excerpt from “The Christ Key: Unlocking the Centrality of Christ in the Old Testament” by Chad Bird (1517 Publishing, 2021), pgs. 170-173.