Psalm 41

I get interesting questions from time to time. One emailer asked about Psalm 41 and how to make sense of it if it’s a messianic psalm.

This was my response:

It is true that Psalm 41:9 is quoted in John 13:18 and applied to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. This does not mean, however, that the entire 41st Psalm references Jesus. Psalm 41 is about a person facing hard times, a person who is ill and surrounded by enemies who hate him, one of whom turns out to be someone he thought was a friend. The psalmist asks for God’s mercy and for restoration.

Jesus’ application of verse 9 to himself is simply because of the overall theme of the passage (a man facing trouble and enemies), and then the specific wording of verse 9 fits what he was facing with Judas.

The way the New Testament authors made use of the Old Testament is not always the same way we would have used it. Not all quotations of the Old Testament in the New Testament are to be taken “literally.” There is variety in how the New Testament makes use of the Old Testament, ranging from explicit quotation and application according to historical-grammatical methods, to simply playing off a theme, making further developmental use of the picture. The process is often times similar to what Copeland did with American folk music in Rodeo or Appalachian Spring, or what Rachmaninoff did with the rift from Paganini in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (other composers have done similar things, both modern and classical; think of what rap artists do with sampling). Thus, Isaiah’s “apocalyptic” statements of “new heavens and new earth” (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22) in context are metaphors for the new life Israel would have once they returned from Babylonian captivity (think of how someone feels, and the metaphors they might use, after recovering from a long and serious illness).

The NT will play off these OT images and take them in new directions and develop them further. And sometimes the NT will merely allude to the OT pictures. Consider the many allusions to Ezekiel, Isaiah, the Exodus and Zechariah (among others) that show up in the book of Revelation. Given the widespread ignorance of the connections that the author of the book of Revelation is making to the OT, it is not surprising that so many entirely misunderstand what the book of Revelation is actually all about (a comparison between Babylon and the Roman Empire, both of whom mistreated God’s people and both of whom would suffer God’s judgment).

In thinking about the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament, also consider how Christians today will use catch phrases and biblical imagery and then apply them to situations far removed from their context or original purpose. Just as we will use literary, television, or movie allusions the same way (“I’ll be back” “Luke, I am your father”, etc). The allusion process we use today in day to day speech should not be excluded from consideration as we think of the NT use of the OT. They were normal people, just like us, after all. We should also remember (or become aware of) the first century Jewish practice and methods of interpretation and use of the OT.

We must be careful not to let our modern, post Enlightenment, twenty-first century engineering-technical, urban and industrialized approach to the world overwhelm our understanding of what the Bible and its authors (pre-industrial, pre-Enlightenment, and agricultural world) were doing.

As a classic examples of this sort of thing, where the NT use of the OT is radically different than the way we would use it, compare Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:22-23. Matthew applies the passage to the birth of Jesus by the virgin Mary. In the context of Isaiah 7-8, the phrase applies to “the prophetess,” apparently Isaiah’s wife, who then gives birth to a child, fulfilling the prophecy and serving a sign to the King of Israel that he would defeat his enemies. Likewise, Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:14 is different than Hosea’s point if you read Hosea.

And yet, there are other examples where NT authors follow a historical-grammatical usage, as for instance Hebrews 8 and its use of Jeremiah 31:31-34, or how Peter uses Joel 2:28-32 on the day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2:14-21.

As to what is going on in Psalm 41:9 and its connection to verse 4, it makes good sense in the context of the overall point of Psalm 41 which in context has nothing to do with Jesus but only a man suffering problems. Any modern translation I know of is a good presentation of the underlying Hebrew. There is nothing out of the ordinary or difficult about verse 9:

Gam ish shlomi = also my close friend, lit. also man of my peace, or also man at peace with me

Asher batahti bo = which I trusted him

Okel lahmi = eating my bread

Higdil alai aqev = a heel was lifted against me; aqev is the subject of the passive verb higdil; it is an idiom meaning something along the lines of “has betrayed me” or “turned against me”; think of the use of the same word in Genesis when one of Isaac’s sons is named “heel grabber”, that is Jacob (Genesis 25:25-26) and his birth is immediately followed by the story of how he cheated Esau out of birthright. Then, later, after he has stolen Esau’s blessing, we have this:

But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”

Esau said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? This is the second time he has taken advantage of me: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” (Genesis 27:35-36)

Esau feels cheated and betrayed by his brother “heel grabber”.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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