Psalm 2:1-2 'Why are the nations in turmoil, with the peoples devising such worthless things? When the kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers meet to decide, they go against the Lord and his anointed. “Let us tear off His bonds and throw off His fetters from us”'
This is the opening of a messianic psalm that looks forward to the birth of a king as son of God who will rule the nations. But the scene is set at the beginning of the psalm as to the world this king will be born into and proclaimed king over.
It’s common to translate the opening lines in a way that summons up a picture of rulers who get together to plot against the Lord and his son, the anointed Messiah. The Hebrew doesn’t clearly express it in those terms, though you can see how people easily assume that’s what it means. If we were to take it that way, we could see a fulfilment of it in the way that communist regimes in the 20th century certainly did combine together with the declared intention of stamping out the Christian faith – and they saw it as breaking free from the shackles of faith in Christ (though they had more than a few shackles of their own to replace it with!). However, we would be seeing it in too narrow terms if we settled with that. The rise of Communism is the only example I can think of where it happened clearly in this way and I believe the Psalm is speaking on a much wider level than that. Both the Hebrew and the Greek translation of this passage quoted later in the Bible express the matter in more general terms (though English translations don’t necessarily reflect this) and, when Peter quotes it, he sees it as having already had a particular fulfilment in the meeting together of Pilate, Herod and the Jewish religious leaders that resulted in Jesus’ death. The gospel narratives do not say that these three parties met together with the express purpose of plotting against Christ. Here is what we are told happened: Jewish religious leaders were indeed intent on getting rid of Jesus but the same could not be said of Pilate and Herod. Pilate was too detached from the issues surrounding the rift between Jesus and the Jewish leaders to have any interest in them; for him it was simply a dispute amongst Jews and he would much rather it was sorted out between themselves but he found himself being dragged into the situation by the Sanhedrin who needed his authority to have Jesus executed. Pilate was savvy enough to pick up that Jesus was no threat to civil disorder or Roman rule and he could see that, for reasons best known to themselves, the Jewish leaders clearly had it in for Jesus - he saw that their desire to put him to death was driven by hatred. He was, therefore, very reluctant to grant them their wish and did all he could to put them off the idea. They were irrepressible in their aim and Pilate finally caved in after being on the receiving end of a barely concealed piece of political blackmail. He may have been guilty of moral cowardice but Jesus was explicit in telling him that he was far less guilty than those who determinately sought his death.
As for Herod, he isn’t recorded as expressing any explicit opinion as to what should happen to Jesus but, by the time he finished with him, he was content to leave him to his wretched fate. Up till that point it looks like he had had the same ambivalence towards Jesus as he had towards John the Baptist – he’d been both very interested in him but also felt threatened by him. When Jesus hadn’t responded to his request for a miracle on demand, and didn’t seem to be able to provide an answer to any of his questions, Herod doubtlessly concluded that here was a man who, whatever his much-touted powers were, obviously couldn’t produce the goods when it really counted. He was now in the happy position of being able to see Jesus as a sad, pathetic figure rather than a threat, and in his great relief he turned to mockery. By humiliating him and casually sending him back to Pilate without comment, he was saying, in effect, “I don’t care what you do with him.”
This is the situation that Peter is referring the Psalm to but the Psalm has the rulers and nations saying they want to throw off the shackles of the Lord and his anointed king. Can this be applied to Herod and Pilate? Certainly not in any obvious way. They didn’t consciously set out to do away with Jesus on these terms. Pilate was unnerved by Jesus but also nonplussed by him; no doubt he saw him as a strange Jewish religious teacher with possibly special powers. Herod found a real sense of relief in being able to think of Jesus as a deluded teacher and pathetic would-be ruler.
The Bible is in the habit of assigning sentiments to people that they wouldn’t necessarily express, maybe not even to themselves, but are in reality what’s going on deep down in their hearts – lurking deep down in their introvert as we would say. The idea that being under the rule of God is like being in chains is something that is common to fallen humanity. That’s how unbelievers think of it if the idea of giving your life to God is put to them. It goes right back to the garden of Eden where the man and woman were persuaded that God’s oversight of them was a monstrous constraint on their freedom to fulfil their potential as people, even though they were already possessors of great power and authority over the earth. It’s now part of our mental DNA that we inherit as children of Adam. This is what the psalm is referring to. Our rulers should be leading us into better ways but, in fact, they usually end up just acting out the common weakness of us all. Herod and Pilate were hampered by the common spiritual blindness of humanity and so were not open to coming to terms with the reality about Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, quite unwittingly, they gave the go-ahead to doing away with the Lord’s anointed.
The moral of the story is that you don’t have to be consciously going against God to end up acting against him. When people do, as the Psalm says, they come up with things that are empty and worthless; nations made up of people like this are given to anger, crisis and turmoil. Those of us who have given our life to God have surrendered our lives into his hands but we recognise that there are still parts of us that are left with the hang-over of our common mental DNA as fallen humans. There are murky rooms still to open up that haven’t got the message yet and pressure of circumstances can find these unsavoury parts of our internal make-up coming to the surface. We are unnerved in finding that we are capable of thinking and acting against God without at all meaning to. God in his grace says to us, “that’s okay, I know you don’t mean it – you’ve surrendered your life to me and you’re a child of mine under my full protection.” There are always going to be the sort of minor hiccups we shouldn’t worry too much about; we accept we’re on a journey and heading to a good place. But on other occasions it feels more serious and then God may say to us “Yes you’re still my beloved child and you’re future is secure. But in the mean time, don’t you think it would be a good idea if we sorted this one out?.....”