Note: This is part of a series which began on December 10. To start from the beginning of the series, or to access the Table of Contents, click here.
Having spent the last three entries telling of Christ’s resurrection, of His defeat of death so that we might be made righteous before God, and of our mission to take this message to the world, this one ought to be about how the entire world rejoices at this message, giving God the glory He is due. But alas, this does not match up with reality, whether we observe people’s reactions to the Gospel today, during Handel’s time, or during the lifetime of the apostles.
Jennens’ libretto instead reflects the sad truth that most who hear about Jesus’ death & resurrection refuse to worship Him. They continue to reject Him, turning each one to his own way, just as before. The four texts we will see today, all from Psalm 2, are captured brilliantly by Handel’s orchestration. The musical setting for “Let Us Break Their Bonds” is very similar to “All We Like Sheep” (which we’ve studied previously) in that it portrays our joyful and willful rebellion against the Lord.
#38: Air (Bass)
Psalm 2:1-2 — Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against His Anointed.
Psalm 2:3 — Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us.
#40: Recitative (Tenor)
Psalm 2:4 — He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision.
#41: Aria (Tenor)
Psalm 2:9 — Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Commentary from the Block essay (my comments in italics):
Tragically, however, this (our having taken the Gospel to the world) does not mean that all who hear the message receive it with gladness. On the contrary, citing Psalm 2:1-3, the oratorio declares the persistence of human rebellion. Rather than accepting the salvation which the Messiah offers, the kings of the earth see him as a threat to their own power, and with derisive folly conspire against the Lord and his Messiah. For the first time in the oratorio Jennens cites a text that actually includes the word “Messiah,” that is “the anointed one.” But of course the Lord and his anointed will have the last laugh (#40). With no effort at all, Yahweh will smash the rebels who revolt against him and his Messiah (#41).
The second Psalm is the first of what are known as the “royal psalms”, which deal with how God works through the office of the king, and with the king’s role in the worship of God. In Psalm 2, we read of a revolt against the reign of the Lord’s anointed king. The psalmist first asks rhetorically why the nations rebel and plot against the Davidic king, and by extension, against God. It is because they want to be free of the Law, which the foreign kings see as a threat to their own power.
We then read of Heaven’s perspective. God is neither impressed nor worried by this revolt. He has established the throne of David forever, and His decree will stand. Incidentally, the wording in the Messiah libretto says that the Lord “laughs them to scorn”, which is the same phrase used earlier from Psalm 22, when those who crucified Christ “laughed him to scorn”. Ultimately, we see who gets the “last laugh” (more on this later). God will utterly destroy those who rebel against Him. The psalm then gives a call for wisdom and a warning: serve the Lord with reverent fear, lest you incur His wrath. A closing benediction promises blessing for those who take refuge in the Lord.
While the original context for this Psalm was gentile nations rebelling against the rule of the Davidic line of kings in historic Israel, it ultimately pertains to the promised king from David’s line who will reign forever: Jesus Christ. In fact, the early believers quoted this psalm in reference to Jesus, as they saw the persecution they were facing for their beliefs as the same sort of rebellion (see Acts 4:25-26).
Today, we rebel for the same reasons. Belief in God requires loving the same things He loves. This is a threat to our autonomy — the sense of power that we love every bit as much as the kings of old. Because God loves justice, order, lawfulness, and truth, we must love these same things. Because He loves and values the world He has created, we must care for it. Above all, He loves the people who bear His image, and so we must love them the way He does: by self-sacrificially doing whatever it takes to bring them the message of His love for them, even if it means they reject — or even kill — us for it.
We must be careful, though, that we have a proper understanding of what it means when the Bible tells us that the Lord “laughs” at those who rebel against Him. This does NOT mean that He delights in their destruction. On the contrary, he does not desire for anyone to perish. Because He is holy, though, justice is required. Because Man is sinful, all deserve death. Because He is gracious, some will be saved. Because His patience is not unlimited, many will reject the salvation that is offered.
God does not laugh as one who enjoys punishing the wicked. His laughter in Psalm 2 is a sign of just how Holy He is. Our greatest schemes are but folly before Him. The Christian response to this thought ought to be one of comfort in His supremacy, just as Israel was comforted. Jesus was the perfect example of this, when He submitted himself wholly to His Father’s will, because He knew it was perfect. Even as He pronounced judgment upon sin, Christ loved sinners and sought their repentance.
Unfortunately, I think we tend to follow more closely the example of Jonah, who, after preaching God’s truth to the people of Ninevah, went to a point outside the city, hoping to observe its destruction. Jonah was angry that God had relented from destroying Ninevah when the people turned their hearts back to Him. Though the message Jonah preached was true, it was spoken reluctantly. He never wanted or expected it to work, desiring instead to see the punishment of the unrighteous. God still worked through this, but chided Jonah for his hypocrisy, just as Jesus rebuked James and John for wanting to call down fire from Heaven on a village which had rejected Him.
How often do we preach Truth without love? How often do we wish to see the downfall of those with whom we disagree (naturally assuming that they if they are our enemies, they must be and will always remain enemies of God), rather than their salvation and repentance? How often do we view our own salvation as something that makes us somehow better than those who do not yet know the Lord? How quickly do we forget that our hearts are desperately wicked, and that apart from the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, we are no different from those on whom we would pass judgment?
Let us see to it, then, that when we speak of God’s wrath and judgment, we speak not out of the hypocrisy of those whose fallen nature is thirsty for the blood of the unrighteous, but out of the love of those who realize that every day the Lord delays His return is a chance for us to plead with those who are just as we were, that they might come to saving faith in Christ Jesus. Most who hear this message will reject it. This is God’s concern, not ours. We are to be faithful in the task of evangelism, trusting God for the results. If we are faithful, then we will be persecuted. We may even be killed. Yet this will not be a deterrent for those who take refuge in the Son (Psalm 2:12), because we know that God’s will is perfect, that His justice will prevail, and that He has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57)!