Literary Analysis of Psalm 2

אשרי ashrai - psalm study

Click here to read “Psalm Two – Translation of the Song”

The second song is both a completion of and contrast to the first. The first song is stately, composed of elegant generalities; the tone,  overall calm. The second is passionate; direct quotations break the flow, and the overall effect –but for the final line– is unsettling.

The opening line, in its very asking of why nations conspire, predicts their plots’ outcome: because their conspiracies are rooted in arrogance –in vanity– their purpose is in vain; it can reach no fruition –their “plottings” are in vain.
The second verse makes clear that it is against God that the nations conspire. Again, their defeat is implicit: the plotters are named “kings of the land”. They are merely mortal.
The kings’ battle cry is heard in verse 3; it defines God as their oppressor. But their rallying call –“cast away [God’s] ropes from us!”– is itself their unwitting declaration of defeat: they are puppets God can command at will; the cords and ropes, the puppeteer’s strings. Nor do they realize that their very rebellion is, in fact, their acknowledgement of God (they cannot rebel against what does not exist).
No wonder, then, that verse 4 describes God’s laughter at and derision of the conspirators’ illusions and pretensions. It is God Who is “the Master”; they, merely kings.

Verse 5 voices God’s anger, recounting God’s words, which confirm that it is God Who has appointed the king of the people Israel; the implication is that the “kings of the land” have been given no divine authority.

Thus verses 1 to 6 make up the first section of the song. Verses 7 to 9, the second. In the second section, God assures the king of the Israelites of his legitimacy as ruler: “You are my son, I, from today on, give birth to you” (v.7). (The context of the verse makes a literal interpretation invalid; birth is here a metaphor, not an actuality.) And, proving his right to kingship, it is the king himself who recalls God’s decree: “I will tell…” ( verse 7) But though the mood of these middle verses is calm, in contrast to those of the song’s first section of verses, the intent is not: “You [God’s anointed ruler] will smash them [the nations] with a rod of iron; like a potter’s vessel, you will shatter them” (verse 9). Iron and clay –one durable, one not– are opposite elements, but both are equally fragile against God’s bestowal of might upon the king of the Israelites.

The third section of the song — verses 10 to 12– is both a warning and a declared moral: the composer of the song speaks directly to the kings of the earth — and, this time, makes clear by his appellation, “judges of the earth”, that their domain is limited in contrast to God’s – telling them that their homage must be to their one “Master”, God.  Verse 11 uses a startling phrase: “rejoice with trembling”: that is, though they themselves command earthly kingdoms, they must tremble before God even as they acknowledge God’s rule; and, in doing so, their awe and exultation must be accompanied by humility, by trembling.
The final line of the song completes the cycle. Its opening word, “Happy”, is both an echo and a reminder of the opening of Psalm One. Together, the two songs resolve in a chord of steadiness and calm; in the reassurance of God as shelter.


אשרי ashrai - psalm study