Counting people while they are running is difficult, but last year the UN managed to count a record 65.3 million people displaced by war and persecution around the world. That’s one in every 113 people on the planet, four times the rate of just ten years ago. And it comes at a time when wealthy nations are repudiating shared responsibility, preferring instead to use refugees as fuel for the fires of xenophobia and nationalism.
Without having lived it, it’s hard to imagine the crushing anxiety and mounting despair of having no home to return to and no safe place to stay. But God knows, and in the book of Psalms he has preserved for us the cries of many such people. Psalm 2 focuses more on the chaos that creates refugees than on refugees themselves, but its vision of God as the God of the refugee is the right place to begin.
Psalm 2 orients us to the whole 150-psalm collection by announcing its main characters: God and his Messiah; his arrogant enemies; his lowly servants. And it introduces the book’s main theme: the reign of God. It is a highly visual poem, rather like a screenplay that gives us an establishing shot followed by character dialogue, before cutting to a new scene with new characters. There are four brief scenes, and the tone is violent and confrontational throughout.
1Why do nations riot? Populations
cry and mutter empty imprecations?
2Kings of earth stand adamantly steadfast,
dignitaries join in solemn council –
to oppose the Lord and his Anointed!
3”Let us tear their manacles asunder,
“fling from off ourselves their binding shackles!”
4The one who sits in heaven laughs,
the Lord m-m-m-mocks them!
5Then speaks to them in burning wrath,
in his fury panics them:
6”It’s I who have installed my king
“on Zion, my holy mountain.”
7Let me recount the Lord’s decree:
“You are my son”, he said to me,
“I did this day beget you.
8”Ask it of me and I shall make
“nations into your freehold,
“earth’s ends your estate.
9”You’ll batter them with an iron rod,
“like porcelain you’ll shatter them.”
10Now therefore, O kings, be wise,
be instructed, earthly judges.
11Serve the Lord with fearfulness
and rejoice with trembling.
12Kiss the Son or he will rage –
and you will drop in your tracks,
for his wrath will flare in a flash.
Happy are all who seek refuge in him.
Scene 1. The camera pans across the earth and shows us a scene of worldwide chaos. But out of this chaos an assembly forms, a united nations. In the face of a global threat they put aside their differences to resist the common oppressor. It sounds like the alien invasion film Independence Day! Except that the Lord is no alien, he’s the world’s rightful owner.
Whether you find the Lord’s response shocking or glorious depends on whether you find the human struggle for autonomy noble or horrifying. It can certainly seem noble in the abstract, but in our world the quest for autonomy motivates both the warlords who displace millions, and the comfortable Westerners who leave them to suffer.
Scene 2. The camera sweeps up to the heavenly realms, from where the Lord has been watching and listening … and laughing. And yes, the spectacle of evil weaklings kidding themselves that they are both great and good is darkly and absurdly humorous. But this is not amused laughter; it is angry outrage. The language of mockery conveys derisive imitation of foreign speech, as if to say “Can you hear yourselves?!” Having silenced them with his laughter, the Lord pronounces seven words of terror (verse 6 is seven words long in Hebrew).
At first glance these words are comically underwhelming. Zion was the capital of a tiny kingdom in the hill country of Judah, never a threat to any of the great powers of the day. Could this psalm simply be a grandiose enthronement anthem for Israelite kings, recited in a fervour of national pride but not to be taken literally? The answer to this is No – Psalm 2 remained in use long after the monarchy collapsed and Israel’s population was forcibly displaced, because its message is future-oriented and prophetic. But the historical reference to the tiny Israelite kingdom is no accident, because God’s power is shown precisely in the way he chooses to use the small and humble to bring down the great and powerful.
Scene 3. In this pivotal scene, perhaps set in Zion’s throne-room, the film director makes an unusual choice. Rather than witnessing the moment where the Lord crowns his king, we are told about it by the king, after the fact. The effect of this technique is to put us readers, along with the nations, firmly on the outside looking in, as we observe the birth of a new (and terrifying) relationship, brought into existence by the Father’s decree. This scene is all about the Father-Son relationship. Together there is nothing they cannot do. As God tells the Son, “I shall make … you will break”.
As God’s Son (divine sonship was a fairly common way of describing ancient kings), the king receives the nations as his coronation gift and immediately – shockingly – smashes them to pieces. The opening scene has somewhat prepared us for this shock, but the language of inheritance and possession makes us hope that once the rebellious leaders are deposed the nations may yet be restored to peace under their rightful king.
Scene 4. We are now back on earth, where we hear the psalmist, like a herald, bring a message to the rebellious nations. By himself, Israel’s king could be brushed aside like a pesky fly; but he is not by himself. Do not be deceived by appearances! Recognise that in opposing the Son you oppose your Creator, God himself. And recognise that if you want to do the smart thing and lay down your arms at God’s feet, they will have to be the Son’s feet you kiss.
In different ways, every scene of this psalm has drawn us to reflect on the relationship between the Lord and his Messiah, Father and Son. As a result of the Lord’s decree, God now has a face, and it is the face of Zion’s king. The king now has a voice, and it is the voice of God. This Psalm gives us a prophetic portrait of the risen and exalted Lord Jesus, and Jesus is never more royal than when he says, “The one who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Whatever the Father does, the Son also does these things in the same way. … The Father, in fact, judges no one but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, so that all people may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him. (John 5:19b, 22-23)
Like many great poems there is a twist at the end of Psalm 2, and it involves the identity of the refugees in the last line – the line which breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses us readers directly. It’s not an obvious twist, however, because it depends on the way the Psalm connects to its context. If you can bear with me for two paragraphs I will try to tease it out.
If you had been reading the Psalms from the beginning, you might have noticed that the word ‘happy’ was the first word of Psalm 1, where it describes the person who sinks deep roots into the word of God. That is the sort of refugee Psalm 2 has in mind, and this is confirmed as we read on. Eight times in the psalms that follow, the King encourages God’s faithful people to seek refuge in him:
Let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you. (Ps 5:11; see Psalms 17; 18; 31; 34; 36; 37; 64; also Psalms 91; 118)
No twist yet! But there is more. As we read on in the Psalms we notice that the people are not actually the main refugees – their King is. Time after time David flees to God, seeking asylum:
Lord my God, I take refuge in you; save and deliver me from all who pursue me (Ps 7:1; see Psalms 11; 16; 18; 25; 31; 57; 61; 141; 144).
It turns out that the all-conquering Son of Psalm 2, the one whose rod shatters the nations, was himself a helpless and desperate asylum-seeker. In Psalms 3–7 he presents his pain with devastating honesty, and casts himself on God’s protection, with no back-up plan. So also with Jesus. When God raised the crucified Son to glory, he was repatriating a refugee from his sojourn in a far country. And by joining his lot to ours, Jesus opens the door to his own home for all who seek refuge in him. God does not ask us to present ourselves with forms filled in before a blank-faced border protection agent, but to lay everything at the feet of a man “acquainted with grief”.
If there is one thing Psalm 2 shows us, it is that the only way for anyone to survive God’s shining, fearsome wrath is to become a refugee. Do ever think of the poor souls on Nauru and Manus Island as role models to emulate? Like them, we must abandon the security of home and possessions and cast ourselves on God’s protection, with no back-up plan. And then we in turn must emulate God, showing concern for every weak and vulnerable person, not least the refugee. In the end, however, we need to recognise that even the most generous of host nations can offer refugees nothing more than a transit camp. For the storms of violence and injustice that batter this world can be stilled only by a word of judgment from heaven. In solidarity with refugees the world over, let us pray “Your kingdom come”.