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John 2b: Psalm 69 in the New Testament

The second half of John 2 details Jesus cleansing the temple “marketplace” and the aftermath of His actions. In 2:17, it is said that the event reminds the disciples of a passage from Psalm 69:9 – “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The New Testament frequently quotes the Old, and of all the chapters that are quoted, Psalm 69 ranks as one of the highest in frequency (Psa 110, Exod 20/Deut 5, and Gen 2 are among the few chapters that may rank higher).

In the sermon today, I originally intended to briefly survey the influence of Psalm 69 on the New Testament, but quickly realized this would distract too much from the purpose of the text itself. But the influence of Psalm 69 on the New Testament is a worthwhile investigation. The treatment here is brief, but hopefully a useful starting point for more study.

As a refresher, Psalm 69 is “of David” and details the agony of this man of God as he is persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Clearly he faces a situation where many enemies seek his downfall (69:4, 14, 18, etc.). He feels like he has sunk to the lowest of lows and needs God’s intervention to climb out from such a pit.

John 2:17 quoted Psalm 69:9. There, we saw that the disciples considered Jesus’ actions in cleansing the temple in alignment with the psalmist’s zeal for God’s “house” (which may include God’s purposes and people in the psalm). Just as David was zealous for God’s house, even though such zeal brought him persecution and suffering, so Jesus will continually be zealous for God’s house, even unto His death.

But John 2 is not the only place in the Bible that quotes verse 9 of this psalm. Paul quotes the second half of the verse in Romans 15:3 – “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”” (all quotes from ESV) Paul gives us Christ’s example when applying the principle of selfless love. Much can be said about Paul’s appropriation of this verse, but it is sufficient for now to notice how easily Paul assumes the psalm is referring to Jesus.

This holds true in the other quotations of Psalm 69 in the NT. John himself once again uses this psalm in 15:25 – “But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’” Here, he is quoting Psalm 69:4. (Some scholars think Paul may be quoting Psalm 35:19, but I think this reference to chapter 69 is more likely.) Jesus says that His enemies hate Him without a cause, which fulfills the words of this psalm.

This pushes against many modern Christians’ understanding of what it means to “fulfill” something. Usually, when we think of a prophecy being “fulfilled,” we think of something being predicted in a straightforward manner, then that prediction coming true (e.g. Micah 5:2 – the Messiah will come from Bethlehem; Matt 2:6 – the Messiah came from Bethlehem). This indeed is one way “fulfill” can be used. But it seems that the word has broader application than that, and can take on the meaning, “to fill up.”

Psalm 69 does not mention Jesus, and 69:4 does not appear to be a straightforward “prophecy” at first glance. It is understood historically to refer to David’s enemies. But David is a “type” of Christ. His experience in Psalm 69 foreshadows, in a way, the experience of Christ with His persecutors. In that way, Jesus “fills up” the meaning of the psalm in Himself and ultimately embodies what it means to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

We see this idea of “typological fulfillment” in several allusive ways Psalm 69 shows up in the NT. While on the cross, the soldiers offer Jesus “wine mixed with gall” to drink (Matt 27:34). The soldiers mock Him, offering Him “sour wine” (Luke 23:36), which later He did indeed drink (John 19:28-29). John explicitly says in 19:28 that Jesus knowingly asked for the drink “in order to fulfill Scripture.” This is likely an allusion to Psalm 69:21 – “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” The Matthew and Luke references likely allude to the same passage, though they are not as explicit about the act fulfilling Scripture.

Again we see that the reference in Psalm 69:21 is not what one might expect of a “literal prophecy.” David writes it straightforward. He does not say, “Just as I needed drink and my enemies gave me sour wine instead of water, so the same will happen to the Messiah.” But the experiences of David are “filled up” in Christ in such a way that Jesus can be said to “fulfill Scripture” when asking for a drink on the cross.

But the Christological allusions/quotes are not the only application of this psalm in the NT. Paul uses it again in Romans 11:9-10, quoting quite freely from Psalm 69:22-23. In the psalm, David is praying an imprecation upon his enemies. This means he prays that God will bring them divine justice in order to pay them back for their crimes against him. Paul’s use of this psalm is ironic, since Paul uses it to refer to hard-hearted Jews who rejected their Messiah. I would imagine that many Israelites were not so fond of Paul’s use of this passage in application to them.

Finally, Acts 1:20 also makes use of Psalm 69:25. Again, the original context in the psalm is an imprecation against David’s enemies. In Acts 1, Peter addresses the fellow believers concerning the traitor Judas. He applies the words of Psalm 69:25 to Judas, as if the words were meant for him all along. And from God’s perspective, they were (typologically), though they had historical reference to David’s enemies as well. Just as the words and experiences of the Righteous Sufferer David in Psalm 69 are typified in Jesus, so the enemies of that psalmist are typified in Judas.

Stepping back, what we see regarding the OT in the NT and its relation to “fulfilled prophecy” is that the issue is quite a bit more complex than just saying the NT fulfills the meaning of the OT. Countless books have been written on the subject, but for further study, one of the best (in my opinion) is Greg Beale’s Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Baker, 2012), which acts as a guide to learning how to handle the quotes and what to look for. Another great resource is Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (edited by Beale and D. A. Carson; Baker 2007). Each book of the Bible is dealt with by an expert Bible scholar and every quote in the NT is treated with discussion. Both of these are good starting points to aid the interested student of Scripture in more research.

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