Psalm 2: the noise of politics, or the politics of noise?
by Dave Skipper
History is often written as a narrative of power. Kings, empires, and wars define the priorities of textbooks and serve to bookend eras. Tracing the arcs of ascent into power, and descent from power, supposedly yields vital outlines to the flow of the annals of time. The concomitant struggles and ensuing cultural manifestations find their gravitas in the context of the machinations of the mighty. The destinies of nations are perceived to have been formed out of power struggles, race relations, class warfare, and all manner of power grabs and their piercing benchmarks of inequality. Even ostensibly benign leaders and rulers, with all their noble intentions and caring rhetoric, too easily operate under the cloak, anchored in a variant on the same philosophy: salvation by the state. In this near ubiquitous modus operandi, it is the force of law and its threat of sanctions for resistance that are deemed to be the true and proper grounds for controlling and/or freeing society. It’s easy to spot the religious fervour for power in the hands of the few when we observe tyrants and totalitarian regimes. But have you noticed the sister faith that undergirds popular political philosophies demanding the pursuit of societal advancement, fairness, and prosperity at the hands of the state?
Despair not, for history does not belong to despots, presidents, prime ministers, or any earthly rulers. Do not put your trust in men. “This is what the LORD says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD.” (Jeremiah 17:5)
Such matters are worthy of study, to be sure, but I would argue that much of the underlying bedrock of history, and even the seismic shifts of history that reverberate across generations, nevertheless keenly ride upon small stories: unsung heroes, unseen forces, hidden acts, the evil and the good done between friends and enemies, or behind closed doors. And many rides find their rhythm and momentum from beliefs, collectively held or individually spearheaded. Arguably the marketplace of ideas is critical in defining the trajectories and outcomes of cultures. And minds are propelled by hearts. The human heart is a strange and strong compass, full of passion and deceit, compulsion and complicity, confidence and compromise. How we are driven to kindness and to madness alike! “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
We are all kings in our own way, seeking to master, mould, or manipulate our minds and our means to further our own desires, whether for good or for ill.
The one throne
But when the dust finally settles at the end of all the ages, there will be only one throne remaining, and that throne will last through all eternity. A constant refrain of Scripture is THE LORD REIGNS! and YOUR THRONE WILL LAST FOREVER, O LORD! One place (among many) in the Bible where we read about this is in Psalm 2. This is known as a Messianic Psalm: it is a psalm that prophecies and looks forward to the coming Jewish Messiah (meaning Saviour) who would redeem and rescue God’s people. Written centuries before the birth of Christ, it dramatically expounds on Jesus’ coming and ceaseless reign:
Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the LORD and against his anointed, saying,
‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’
The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
‘I have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain.’
I will proclaim the LORD’s decree:
He said to me,
‘You are my son;
today I have become your father.
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.’
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
This psalm is quoted several times in the New Testament, and every time it is understood to apply directly to Jesus Christ:
- In Acts 4, the Apostles Peter and John quote from the start of Psalm 2, identifying the conspiring or raging of the nations ‘against the Lord’s anointed one’ specifically to the trial and death of Jesus. Read Acts 4:23-31.
- In Acts 13, the Apostle Paul quotes from the middle of Psalm 2, identifying the Lord’s son as Jesus Christ, especially in connection to his resurrection from the dead. Read a chunk of Paul’s sermon in Acts 13:26-39.
- The writer of the letter to Hebrews quotes the same verse as Paul, this time in connection to Jesus’ identity as the very Son of God and not a mere angel. Read Hebrews 1.
- In Revelation 12, the Apostle John quotes the verse from Psalm 2 about the anointed one ruling the nations ‘with a rod of iron’, identifying him again with Jesus; he did the exact same thing in Revelation 2, but I will comment on that reference later in this article.
Now let’s consider the noises that define the parameters of this psalm.
Noise of a global conspiracy
First, we encounter the noise of the nations, raging against the perceived chains and shackles that are the laws of God. They hate the restraints of creatureliness. They hate being under God’s sovereignty. They hate the ethics of a holy God. Freedom is sought in self-definition, in being answerable to no-one, and in choosing their own path and destiny. Sound familiar? This is the track taken by kings and presidents, by governments and committees, and by our own ambitions and desires.
Noise music, by one perspective, exemplifies perfectly the attempt to cast off all restraints, to demolish all rules and boundaries, to surpass definitions of art and expression with no reference to norms or expectations. This pursuit and exaltation of reckless abandon and individual destiny may be directed against an unfair god/God of morality, or against the injustices and oppression of ‘the system’, or against the personal struggles and frustrations of family, work, culture, relationships, or inner demons. As such, noise music can, if desired, underneath tow a given political or anti-political line, in cahoots with the battle against whichever chains and shackles are in view. This can surely be a good thing, but in a Christian framework of thinking it must first be evaluated against the Bible’s perspective on injustice. If the raging is in any way (explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously) against the Biblical God, colouring Him as unjust and to be resisted or despised, then the next noise is the one that will come right back at it…
Noise of heavenly laughter
Second, laughter and scoffing. The rhetoric of this psalm is directed against those whose own rhetoric is directed against the Almighty Lord God, Creator of heaven and earth. The futility of the frothing and foaming of power-hungry men is well worthy of derision. Whatever havoc and terror they may wreak on their fellow men during their reigns pale into puny insignificance compared to the power and might of the One who hung stars in space. No wonder He laughs! It’s not a funny situation, but the schemes of men are truly ridiculous in scope and in the briefness of their influence. Kings may have their day in the sun, but all their kingdoms will crumble, and each will be brought to account for the consequences of their decisions and deeds.
Noise music is also well tuned to highlight the ridiculous. One avenue into noise is as an exercise in exaggeration, nonsense, and a gentle or harsh mocking of elitism, consumerism, ego, and skill. Some noise is laughable in its pretenses, while other noise is laughable in how it shows up the emptiness of its others. And the fact that noise has the potential and ability to have as much, or sometimes even more, impact than other highly-crafted and more intricate and ‘musical’ artforms brings a worthy smile to those in on the joke. So let noise remind us of the ultimate pointlessness and sure demise of all those power systems and immoral controls of man, for they will crash with a great noise of their own! Which leads us neatly to the next point.
Noise of iron smashing pottery
Third, the noise of smashing tyrants, workers of injustice, and all evildoers – like pottery smashed by a rod of iron. Who does this? The King who God has installed on His holy mountain, the One who is His Son, none other than Jesus Christ. He is the One through whose power the universe was made, and as the righteous mighty ruler over creation He has both the prerogative and the ability to dispense perfect justice. The raucous noise of the shattering pottery that will be the destruction of those rulers and nations who conspire against Jesus will be a joyful noise! That will be the true noise of final freedom from all oppression!
The creation of a new world through the destruction of the old is dramatic, traumatic, vital, and beautiful. But there is something paradoxical at play here. The Jews, in the light of such texts as Psalm 2, were waiting for centuries for a Messiah who would come in battle to vanquish their foes, a mighty warrior king with fire in his eyes and red-hot blood coursing through his veins. Yet when we come to the New Testament eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life we find something very different. He was not at all what they were expecting. Yes, he spoke harsh words against the hypocrisy and pride of the religious authorities, but his weapons of choice were words of teaching, acts of service, and miracles of love. He knew what was in people’s hearts, and he could change those hearts like no-one else ever could, without resorting to manipulation or force. And the climax of his mission on earth was a path of humility, suffering, humiliation, submission, quietitude, and willing surrender to a most brutal death. What? Why? How could he possibly then be the enthroned King of Psalm 2 who mocks and smashes earthly rulers? There are many Bible texts that together unpack this mystery, but for now a couple will suffice:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. ”
from the Bible – Ephesians 6:12
Jesus’ priority was not first of all human rulers, but the very real spiritual forces of darkness.
“…having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
from the Bible – Colossians 2:15
In the first place, Jesus dealt decisively in his death with all the powers of hell that hold us naturally captive.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
from the Bible – Philipians 2:5-11
And after his resurrection from the dead Jesus ascended to the place of all authority over heaven and earth.
“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
From the Bible – 1 Corinthians 15:24-26
Jesus is reigning now, and this reign will expand and culminate in the defeat of all God’s enemies, human or otherwise, last of all death itself.
Then note back in Psalm 2 that the nations are promised as this King’s inheritance. Yes, Jesus’ inheritance will be nations who love and worship Him!
Noise music is perfectly suited to demonstrate the power and beauty of creation through destruction. This is one of noise’s ubiquitous themes and unparalleled strengths. Broken electronics, or the physical breaking or smashing of gear, or the misuse/abuse of DIY/junk objects are far from uncommon in the processes of many a noise artist. These icons of brokenness and suffering carve through the clutter of life to an elevated role of transformative or therapeutic power. Anger against the system finds catharsis in the controlled destruction of noise. The internal struggle against weakness and depression finds some measure of satisfaction in the physical activity of noise bombardment. In itself noise cannot save, but it can serve as a reminder, an echo, a microcosm of the hope and promise of change that we all yearn for.
How to inherit the earth
Fourth, a kiss. That sweet, soft sound. It speaks of vulnerability, of respect, and most of all of love. Head bowed to the ground, lips gently parting, heartfelt adoration and submission pouring onto His pierced feet. Do you want to be on the right side of history? Then kiss the Son. Pay willing obeisance to the beautiful and majestic King of kings. Worship Jesus Christ – the eternal Son of God – in humility, awe, and delight. The juxtaposition of this subtle almost-not-noise noise against the foregoing violence is enticing and stunning. That the climax of the psalm should be a kiss is profound.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Do you want to inherit the earth? Then kiss the Son. Deferring to his divine right as King of your entire existence, with full meekness and humility of heart, is the one and only path to peace and joy and contentment. This is the way to life with purpose and of eternal pleasures undiluted and unpolluted. Do you want to inherit the earth? Then kiss the Son. Not like Judas, a kiss of betrayal, but the kiss of the sinner woman who anointed Jesus with her tears. She showed Jesus love, for she knew her sins were forgiven. (Read Luke 7:36-50 for the full and beautiful account of this incident.)
But how can we inherit the earth if that is already to be the inheritance of Jesus? Check the amazing promise here for the answer:
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
from the Bible – Romans 8:14-17
Co-heirs with Christ! But note that the path is one of suffering with Him, but it is a path that leads to glory with Him.
Now, here is what is gets really cool. I mentioned in the introduction that Psalm 2 is quoted in Revelation 2 by the Apostle John. In context, John is reporting what Jesus spoke in a vision to him, and this is part of a message from Jesus to one of seven churches, that in Thyatira (an ancient Greek city, in modern-day Turkey):
“To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations – that one “will rule them with an iron sceptre and will dash them to pieces like pottery” – just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
from the Bible – Revelation 2:26-29
Noise music delights in searching out unusual sonic minutiae and amplifying them to extraordinary proportions. And some of the most effective noise music exploits extreme contrasts and dynamics through the deliberate retooling of gaps, silences, and quiet interludes into vital noise vocabulary. And then there is the whole raft of ‘quiet noise’ approaches, let alone subtle field recordings and other minimal musics. So although I often refer to the louder and harsher end of the noise spectrum, gentle sounds clearly inform a lot of noise music too.
In my experience in Japan, a quiet and gentle disposition is also readily found in more than a few noise artists, belying the terrific onslaught of noise that they wield onstage. And egos are few and far between, with a humility and down-to-earth attitude that is very refreshing. Again, My perceptions are possible skewed by being in a Japanese cultural context, but I cannot so easily comment on other countries’ noise scenes. Anyway, I guess my general point here is that the performance of and love for extreme harsh noise is no indicator in itself of a loud, proud character, and so the possibility of noise as an expression of worship and submission to Jesus – a life of obedience to Him – is not precluded on any grounds inherent to noise music in itself. It is in fact to this kind of expression that I want to increasingly find myself pushing into.
Even the wildest noise humanity can conjure up shrinks into the merest kiss alongside the destructive sonics of ocean storms and volcanic explosions and bombs of war, let alone exploding stars…
And speaking of destructive noise, this leads into the final noise-related detail of the psalm.
Final noise forewarned
Fifth, destructive anger. ‘His wrath can flare up in a moment.’ Is this God prone to tantrums? Many imagine him to be that way. Certainly it is hard to avoid the innumerable references to God’s anger and wrath in the pages of Scripture. It is a theme that I will continue to revisit in this blog, as many of the ‘noise passages’ of the Bible are related to God’s wrath and judgments. But Scripture is also soaked through with the faithfulness, mercy, love, grace, and kindness of God, so it is crucial to see how these attributes and actions cooperate and intertwine and relate together in perfect and wise harmony. Here, though, I just want to note that God’s wrath is just, it is forewarned, and it can be avoided.
Just (as in right, righteous, fair) wrath. Justice to all humanly-appointed gods and self-made gods will be done and will be seen to be done. What comfort and confidence that gives us in the face of injustice, cruelty, and oppression. We don’t sit back, resigned to defeat or awaiting in false hope, but we tackle injustice in the world knowing that God cares about it. He is holy so must act in accordance with his character. Would we want God to be indifferent of callous? We need a God who is just.
Forewarned wrath. God has revealed his character and his laws in his word so that we are without excuse. Would we want God to be silent or mischievous? We need a God who warns.
Avoidable wrath. There is a way out. There is a way to have all our sin and darkness justly and thoroughly dealt with. There is a way into God’s perfect presence, where we can bask in his love and majesty. There is a way through Jesus. He came as the Servant King, to seek and to save the lost, to suffer in our place, to take the punishment our sin deserves, to start a new humanity, to usher in a new creation. Would we want God to leave us to an inevitable doom, forever under his wrath? We need a God who can love us and forgive. This is only possible through Jesus.
Jesus can do what no other king can do: changes the human heart. He does in the quiet of our hearts what human rulers attempt to do by force. No wonder God exalted Him to the highest place, no wonder He has been crowned with glory and honour, and no wonder he deserves to be the King over everything!
Noise music often bears resemblance to wrath flaring up for a moment. In can be a vivid and potent pointer to the terrible wrath of God. But as that moment passes, we can feel in our bones the relief and buzz of the aftermath, akin to the phenomenal gratitude and relief we can experience in knowing God’s wrath was poured out in His Son on the cross. I wouldn’t describe listening to music as a religious experience (though some might), but the potential parallels give opportunity for thought, don’t they?
Back to the start. History and kings, empires, and wars. But the secret is out. The real story of history is of God redeeming all things to himself. The real political turmoil that matters is the ultimate overthrow of all oppressors under Christ’s victorious rule. The real King, the only one who matters and the one to whom all other kings will one day bow, has been revealed to us. The real question is not who you vote for, but will you kiss the Son?
The psalm ends with a promise of blessing for all who take refuge in Christ. An eternal prospect of complete wholeness, wellness, and happiness, with a foretaste available now! Acknowledge Jesus, bow before him, and let’s enter into His inheritance together!
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!