Here we lay down a general rule, by which it may be discovered when Christ is either the speaker or the object contemplated in any given Psalm.
This rule is one taught by the Apostles, Peter and Paul: it is one which they united in employing in the interpretation of the language of the Psalms: it is one which, by consequence, is sanctioned by the Spirit. It is the Spirit's rule for the legitimate exposition of his own words. Simplicity is its recommendation.
The rule is this : When an expression is used in one of the Psalms, which is not true of the writer when the first person is used, nor of the apparent object contemplated by the writer, when the second or third person is used, it may safely be taken for granted that Jesus Christ, in the former case, is the speaker; in the latter, that he is addressed or spoken of.
Consider how the Apostles apply this rule, with the utmost harmony.
Turn to the sixteenth Psalm: “I will bless the Lord who hath given me counsel: my reins also instruct me in the night seasons. I have set the Lord always before me ; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore, my heart is glad and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell: neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness ot joy: at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore." The words which have been read, Peter repeats in his address to the mixed multitude which had congregated together, attracted by the miraculous events of the day of Pentecost, and proceed to reason upon them in the following strain: "Men and brethren, let me freely speak to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried,: and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn unto him with an oath, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; he seeing this before, spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption."
When we read the Psalm, we might be ready to suppose David the speaker, declaring his own resolution, and confidence and joy. " I have set the Lord always before me,—He is at my right hand—therefore my heart is glad." This Peter evidently takes for granted. But presently we meet with a declaration, upon which he fixes the attention of his audience, which cannot be explained of David or any other human person. "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption." Here we are at a stand. David disappears. The Apostle puts his hearers in mind that David is dead and buried, that his sepulchre was still before their eyes to testify that his soul had been left in hell, and that his flesh had seen corruption. David, therefore, he concludes, is not speaking of himself. He is the organ of another, of whom every part of the song is true. Of Christ the words are true. He has been raised from the dead, without having seen corruption. The inference is Christ speaks by David.
Paul adopts the same rule of interpretation. He quotes a part of the eighth Psalm: "But one in a certain place testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him or the son of man that thou visitest him ? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands. Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet." As the cursory reader might be ready to suppose, that the Psalmist designs merely to set forth the sovereignty and honour, conferred upon man by his Creator, in appointing him Lord of this lower world, the Apostle is willing for a moment to admit it, that he may, from the admission, take occasion to point out the fallacy of the supposition. He compares the concluding declaration with facts. “He hath put all things in subjection under his feet." If then all things are subjected, it follows plainly, the Creator "left nothing which is not put under him." But is this consistent with facts— facts which are open to the observation of all ? Are all things, without exception, in this world, under man's feet ? Do all obey him ? Every one is ready to answer, "Far from it." A very small proportion of the beasts of the field, or of the fowls of the air, or of the fish of the sea, is subject to his control. Many of them are objects calculated to inspire, and inspiring terror into his heart: and then over winds, and waves, the thunder, the earthquake, and the rain, he has no power. Long as man is supposed to have reigned, his power is still confined within very narrow limits. But now we see not yet all things put under him? Of whom then does the penman speak in the eighth Psalm ? Of mere man plainly he is not speaking, or the testimony is false which he brings. Paul teaches us that it is of the "man" approved of God by signs and wonders wrought by him, while he sojourned on earth,—of the "son of man," who came to seek and to save that which was lost. Of him the words of the Psalm are true, in the most absolute sense of them. “We see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man."
Such is the rule, and such is the authority by which it is recommended. Let it be tried upon those Psalms which the New Testament writers interpret of the Saviour. If it fail in one instance, it cannot be singly relied on. We shall bring forward but a few examples.
Psalms 2, 18, 40
Read the second Psalm. The question to be determined is, whether David be intended by the King, who is said to be set upon the Holy Hill of Zion, and Solomon the Son mentioned toward the conclusion of the Psalm; or whether Christ be both God's King and Son. If there be found language not true of David or Solomon, the Saviour is revealed to us. "Ask of me, and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel” Was this realized in David? or in Solomon? No. Consequently we look for their fulfilment in Christ, the Father's Anointed.—See the eighteenth Psalm. “The assembly of the wicked have inclosed me : they pierced my hands and my feet. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” David's hands and feet never were pierced. Lots never were cast upon his vesture. The Psalm is the words of Christ speaking by David. In the fortieth Psalm we read: "Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required." Were no sacrifices, according to the ceremonial law, required of David? They were, and he presented them, in obedience to the Divine injunction. But the fulfilment of the law, in its moral obligation, was required of Christ, and he magnified the law and made it honourable. Additional examples are not necessary.
When the Book of Psalms is read in the light of Evangelists and Apostles, Christ will be found set forth in it very fully. If we look for a collection of Hymns or Psalms, or Spiritual Songs bringing the Saviour more fully, than he is brought to view in the Songs of Zion, we shall look in vain. To expect another exhibiting him with unerring correctness would be even more vain, if possible.
So thought Bishop Horsely. His words, " Of those (Psalms) which allude to the life of David, there are none in which the Son of David is not the principal and immediate subject. David's complaints against his enemies are Messiah's complaints, first of the unbelieving Jews, then of the Heathen persecutors and of the apostate faction in later ages. David's afflictions are Messiah's sufferings. David's penitential supplications are Messiah's, under the burden of the imputed guilt of man. David's songs of triumph and thanksgiving, are Messiah's songs of triumph and thanksgiving, for his victory over sin, and death, and hell."
In a word, there is not a page of this book of Psalms, in which the pious reader will not find his Saviour, if he reads with a view of finding him. It should seem, the Spirit of Jehovah would not be wanting to enable a mere man to make complaint of his own enemies, to describe his own sufferings just as he felt them, and his own escape just as they happened. But the Spirit of Jehovah described, by David's utterance, what was known to that Spirit only, and that Spirit only could describe. So that, if David be allowed to have any knowledge of the true subject of his own compositions, it was nothing in his own life, but something put into his mind by the Holy Spirit of God: and the misapplication of the Psalms to the literal David has done more mischief, than the misapplication of any other parts of the Scripture, among those who profess the belief of the Christian Religion.
If a full and perspicuous exhibition of the person and work, the trials and triumphs of the Captain of salvation, should recommend a collection of songs to the attention of Christians that recommendation belongs to the Book of Psalms in a preeminent degree.
From The Exclusive claims of David's Psalms, Sommerville, William, 1800-1878.