There is offensive, and then there is subtly offensive. I’m not talking about being passive-aggressive—an abomination in every culture. I’m instead talking about politely offensive. Polite offense may not be necessary when the truth must be said bluntly, but that doesn’t preclude a particular decorum in other situations. When I lived in Mississippi, there was a certain form of polite offense. The decorum was in the genteel preface. You knew the truth about someone was about to come out when certain words were said. If you were talking about a man, you’d begin by saying, “He’s a great guy, but . . .” If you were talking about a lady (and sometimes a man too), you’d say, “Bless her heart, but . . .” The truth came out, but you weren’t quite sure it was an insult. Sometimes it was; sometimes it wasn’t. But it was always subtle and decorous.
There is a theological and Christian way to do this as well, this subtle and honorable truth-telling. It’s emblematic of the life of Jesus, who wasn’t averse at other times to employ bold offense. He used this subtle offense most notably when speaking of his deity. Some of this was by necessity. Blasphemy was punishable by large-ish rocks thrown at your head, and Jesus’s public ministry was three years long. He couldn’t show up on day one and flatly assert the truth that he was indeed God, Yahweh of the Old Testament. That would be a very short public ministry. So he said and did things that clearly showed his divinity but subtly. It left people wondering, “I’m pretty sure he’s claiming to be on par with God,” but in a way that kept them from picking up stones (or nails), until, of course, the time for his passion had come. We see this kind of subtle offense-giving in Matthew 21. But before we look at that text, we need to look at Psalm 8.
Glory and the Power of Song
Some psalms have clear structures; some don’t. Psalm 8 falls into the former category. The first two verses speak about the glory of God. In fact, in a mere two verses, David provides a sweeping description of God’s deity. In historic confessional history, when we speak about the deity of God, we speak of God’s names, attributes, works, and worship. These categories are helpful when we turn to the New Testament to prove the doctrine of the Trinity—showing that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are fully and unequivocally God. They both take the names of God, display the attributes of God, do the works only God can do, and receive the worship that is due to God alone. Psalm 8 begins with God’s double name LORD and Lord (Yahweh and Adonai). It talks of God’s attribute of glory. It speaks of God’s work of creation. And it tells how even infants worship him. Psalm 8:1–2 is a brief but sweeping summary of the glorious deity of God. By verse three, the psalm pivots to declare the glory of man, a derivative glory, as the pinnacle of God’s creation. The glory of man is emphasized in the dominion that God commanded man to take over the created universe (Psalm 8:6–8). So, in whole, Psalm 8 is a two-part proclamation of glory—the glory of God as Creator and the glory of man as the height of creation.
“The Bible teaches that Jesus is fully God, fully man, and the only Savior of sinners.”—Joe Holland
Now, before we skip ahead to Matthew 21, we have to state the not-so-obvious obvious fact that Psalm 8 (like the rest of Psalms) is a song. And songs have a unique pedagogical function anthropologically and biblically. Anthropologically, songs are unique carriers of culturally situated truth. Hardwired into our humanity is the power of song to encourage memorization while also communicating both tone and theme. To show you what I mean, see if you can finish these lines:
- “Amazing grace, how sweet the . . .”
- “O! Say can you see by the . . .”
- “Sweet Caroline . . .”
Did you answer “sound,” “dawn’s early light,” and “bah, bah, bah”? If you did, then you’ve illustrated the power of song for memory. But there is also the power of song to communicate the theme of the whole song, even if only a line is quoted. You probably set the first lyric within the context of Christian worship, the second within a patriotic frame, and the third to a party that looks something like a wedding reception. And you only needed a few words of prompt to do all of this heavy lifting. So much more came along with the song, even though a verse or partial verse was quoted.
And this anthropological use informs the biblical use. There is a reason that the Book of Psalms is the most quoted Old Testament book by the New Testament authors, including Jesus. The Psalms were the songbook of Israel. The content and the themes of the psalms were regularly on the lips of the people of God every seventh Saturday.1 All 150 psalms were driven, by divine design, deep into the soul of all God’s worshiping people. Israelites certainly gave themselves to Scripture memory, but the Psalms shaped their lives more than any other book of the Bible. And again, all of this was by God’s design.
So let’s finally get over to Matthew 21 and the subtle offense-giving ministry of Jesus. Here is the context. Jesus has triumphally entered Jerusalem. He’s caused a ruckus in the temple, overturned tables and all. He’s also healed a number of folks. You can imagine that this has caused quite a stir. The children, as they often do, notice what is going on before the adults. Also, as they prone to do, the children begin to call out without a concern of what the people around them might think. They begin to sing “Hosanna to the Son of David!” about the Jewish carpenter-turned-itenerant-teacher who just came into town. For the chief priests and scribes, this was obviously unacceptable behavior. Where were these kids’ parents? In the absence of responsible adults to correct their children, the leaders appeal to Jesus, asking him to shut down this adolescent blasphemy. But Jesus isn’t having it, and quotes from the Bible.
Now, to get the deep offense that Jesus delivers, consider a preface he could have given. The kids were all uproarious and theologically so. The leaders were indignant. Jesus could’ve said, “Well, they are right, Psalm 8 applies to me.” At this point, everyone would comb their communal memory of Psalm 8. They would assume that Jesus was making a vague reference to the second half of Psalm 8, the part about the glory of man’s dominion.2 But that isn’t what Jesus does. He goes for the jugular and quotes Psalm 8:2—the part of the psalm about the glory of God. In so doing, by quoting a single line from a song, he declares four things.
- These kids are correct.
- Jesus is God almighty (Yahweh and Adonai).
- The leaders are the enemies of God (read the rest of the quote).
- The Old Testament clearly confirms Jesus’s identity and ministry.
He could not have been more offensive . . . subtly.
In this, we learn a number of things, not the least of which is the power of sung worship. But most of all, we see that the Bible teaches that Jesus is fully God, fully man, and the only Savior of sinners. At one point, this was a subtle message. It is no longer.
- And this is part of the reason why all Christians have and should continue to sing the Psalms. ↩
- If this was their conclusion, they’d also be right. In 1 Corinthians 15:27 and Ephesians 1:22, Paul says that Psalm 8:6 is all about Jesus. And the author Hebrews, in Hebrews 2:2–9, says that Psalm 8:4–6 is about Jesus. Jesus is the perfect man who exercises ultimate dominion over all of creation. ↩