Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

187. Jesus and Judas in Psalm 41

It is a Psalm of David. The title need not be questioned. The occasion is Absalom's rebellion. David is struck down by sickness (v.1-4), and hence is unable-as well as unwilling (2 Sam.16 :11,12)-to take counter-measures against the rebels. One of the conspirators (v.6,9-Ahithophel, doubtless comes to see the king, pretending sympathy, yet all the while his eyes are eager for signs of advancing disease in the sick man ("his heart gathereth iniquity to itself"). He then hastens to rejoin the conspirators, and re-assures them that the king has neither the will nor the physical powers to offer resistance (v.6-8). Meantime (v.10) David commits his cause unto God. The concluding verses (v.11-13) celebrate his restoration.

But Jesus read and used this psalm as a prophecy of himself. Those who see no more than a general suitability of v.9 to Judas need to look a little more closely. The historical setting outlines a type of great beauty (see Studies 209, 214).

Even apart from the sanction of Jesus himself in John 13 :18, there is good reason to read the psalms of Absalom's rebellion as prophetic of the Messiah.

And now, a running commentary on the details of the psalm.

"Blessed is he that considereth the poor; the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble." Here the life of Jesus spent in ministering to the spiritually needy is the ground for future blessing. And who so poor as Judas, no matter how many shekels in his purse? And who so considerate of him as his Master? The repeated appeals made to Judas at the Last Supper were a last desperate, but unsuccessful, attempt to save this false disciple.

Such a man after God's own heart "the Lord will preserve, and cause him to live." The same form of the same Hebrew verb comes in Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones: "The breath (Spirit) came into them and they lived" (37 :10). Thus there may be here a prophetic hint of the resurrection of Jesus-"and he shall be blessed upon the earth."

However, at first glance, the next phrase presents a difficulty: "thou wilt not deliver him unto the will of his enemies." But Jesus was delivered to the will of his enemies! No! Their will was that "He die and his name perish" (v.5). But instead of this "his name shall endure for ever" (Ps.72:17).

"The Lord will strengthen him on the couch of languishing." Jesus reclined at the table with his disciples in the upper room, a man of sorrows and already acquainted with grief. Yet their fellowship, even though clouded by dim perception, uplifted his spirit and fortified his courage for the ordeal looming ahead. And the angel in Gethsemane was to add a purposeful reinforcement. So also his own prayer in the garden: "Lord, be merciful unto me: heal my soul."

But then, very suddenly, this Messianic reference of the psalm runs into trouble with the words: "for I have sinned against thee." True enough of David, and appropriate too that he should make this confession here, for it was his sin regarding Bathsheba and Uriah which led directly to the rebellion and civil war provoked by Absalom. But what possible relevance can these words have to the sufferings of Christ?

This is the major difficulty in the Messianic psalms. In at least four other psalms which the New Testament applies to Christ (31 :10; 40:12; 69 :5; 18 :23) the same problem arises. Yet in these places there is also a clear unselfconscious declaration of godliness and innocence (40:8; 69:4; 18 :20-24). And so also here: "As for me, thou upholdest me in mine integrity" (v.12).

So far as reference to David goes, these confessions of sin are statements of literal truth, and the assertions of innocence are limited in their scope,, being allusions to David's blamelessness regarding the scandalous falsehoods circulated by the rebels about him.

With reference to Jesus it is the other way round—the declarations of sinlessness are statements of precise and exact truth, whereas the associations with sin are his only by imputation; they are true only in the sense that he shared and bore the curse for sin which is the inheritance of the race. Daniel, Nehemiah, Joshua, Jeremiah all assumed that the individual cannot escape from some sort of 1 responsibility for the sin of the community: "We have sinned with our fathers" (Ps.106 :6). The passages involving this principle are very numerous; e.g. Dan.9 ;4-19; Neh.1 :6; Josh.6 :25,26; 7 :1,11; 22 :18,20; 24 6,7; Jer.3 :25; 10 :24; 1 Chr.15 :13; 21 :13; 2 Sam.21 :1; Ezra: 9 :6; Lev.4 :3; 26 :40; ls.59 :8,9; Mt.23 :35,36; 18 :25; Acts 9:4; Rom.3 :23;5 :12. It is another of the paradoxes of Scripture that there is equal emphasis on "the soul that sinneth, it shall die."

In the psalm the picture of the conspiracy against Christ is graphically portrayed: "Mine enemies speak evil against me, saying, When shall he die, and his name perish?"-"The chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him" (Lk.22 :2). That phrase: "his name perish," suggesting hostility to the very idea of a Messiah of the house of David, is marvellously appropriate to the outlook of the Sadducee chief priests.

Next comes a quick change of reference to one particular enemy. The sudden switch to a singular pronoun is very striking: "And if he come to see me, he speaketh vanity (with a double heart; Ps.12 :2): his heart gathereth iniquity to itself." This "speaking vanity" is Judas's "Hail master!" and his kiss of betrayal. In that last week of the ministry Judas became more and more a man acting a part. The iniquity his heart gathered to itself was, doubtless, his mounting dissatisfaction and dwindling sympathy for the cause of Christ. In particular, the cumulative effect on him of the Lord's frequent allusions to coming shame and death would be considerable.

"When he goeth abroad, he telleth it." The traitor's words to the chief priests can be imagined: "He is in a mood of deep pessimism; and talks of failure and death. What better time for action against him?"

The psalm goes on to imply that all classes were now united against Jesus: "All that hate me whisper together against me: against me do they devise my hurt." In the gospel: "they consulted (the Pharisees also joining in) how they might take Jesus by subtilty" (Mt.26 :4). That repetition: "against me, against me," with the phrases cheek by jowl, is a superb piece of translating.

The more literally the next verse is translated, the more closely it fits the case of Jesus: "A thing of Belial is poured out in him"-the same verb is used of the anointing of Saul, that man of such mighty promise who ended up a wretched failure (1 Sam. 10:1).

Similarly, this Jesus claimed to be prophet and Messiah, yet he talked of rejection and death! To those who did not understand, this was indeed "a thing of Belial." The Hebrew text suggests: "and when he has lain down, he shall not Joseph to rise up" (using here the word for resurrection). Joseph may have risen out of the pit to ultimate triumph over his brethren, but (say they) this man shall not do so. At this point the Septuagint Version has the emphatic double negative which, in the gospels, was invariably proved wrong when used by any except Jesus (see Study 184).

There now follow the words quoted by Jesus at the Last Supper: "Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me." The LXX reading: "in whom I set my hope", might even imply that when Jesus first chose Judas he had better hopes of him than of the rest. But instead, Judas ate the bread of Jesus at the feeding of the five thousand, and lost faith in him (see the context of John 6 :70,71, and see also Study 97). Again, at the Last Supper, when offered the sop, he ate the bread of Jesus and went out into the night. It is surely significant that Jesus, quoting those words from the psalm came away from the LXX in order to use again the word he had used in John 6 :54-58 in his sacramental commentary on the feeding of the multitude.

The expression: "hath lifted up his heel against me," is surely an allusion to the familiar prophecy in Genesis 3 :15 of Messiah crushing the head of the serpent, and being stung in the heel whilst doing so. But now the words are used so as to represent the traitor as the saviour and Jesus as the serpent. This authoritatively vetoes the popular guess that in betraying his Lord, Judas was well-intentioned, hoping to constrain the Master into an open demonstration of Messianic power. (Ps.109 similarly rules out this piece of imagination). Instead, if this psalm is any authority, the implication rather is that Judas betrayed Jesus out of a twisted sense of duty, to save the nation from the disaster which the policy followed by his leader seemed sure to bring (compare Jn.11:48-50).

Now comes the plea for God's succour and strength: "But thou, O Lord, be merciful unto me, and raise me up (once again, the word for "resurrection"), that I may requite them." There are those who are willing enough to read these words as the expression of a vengeful spirit, but there is nothing here to require such a meaning. After all, it was the duty of a king of Israel to administer justice and to punish rebellion against God.

At this point the tone of the psalm changes. Now the Messiah looks back on his tribulations and knows himself to be vindicated by the outcome: "By this I know that thou takest delight in me, because mine enemy doth not triumph over me. And as for me, thou upholdest me in mine integrity, and settest me before thy face for ever." With reference to Jesus the words are self-explanatory.

The doxology: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel," is woven into the rejoicing of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist (Lk. l:68-and note v.69 also). Here, then, is further proof of the psalm's Messianic intent.

It should not be assumed that the doxology was added later so as to terminate suitably the First Book of Psalms. More probably this psalm was inserted here because its last verse makes an appropriate end to Book 1.

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