Why Do the Nations Rage?

Scott Aniol

people gathering on street during nighttime

Psalm 1 began by saying that a truly blessed person will not allow his image of the good life to be shaped by the wicked image of blessedness; Psalm 2 shows us what that wicked image is. It shows us the counsel of the ungodly—their image of the good life.

Why do the nations rage,
and the peoples plot in vain? (Ps 2:1)

This is a deliberate development between the two introductory psalms. Notably, the Hebrew word for “plot” in Psalm 2:1 is the exact same term as the word “meditates” in Psalm 1:2, this idea of musing on something, something that forms and shapes your imagination. The KJV translated this phrase, “the people imagine a vain thing.” Helpfully, the Legacy Standard Bible translates both as “meditates”—The righteous person meditates on God’s Law day and night…. “Why do the nations rage and the peoples meditate on a vain thing?” This is a picture of the wicked imagination of the good life. A righteous person’s imagination will reflect the Torah, but an ungodly person’s imagination will reflect a different vain image.

And what is that image? Notice what the ungodly nations say about the rule of the Lord in verses 2–3. A righteous person imagines the rule of God to be that which enables blessedness; how does a wicked person imagine life under the rule of God?

2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,

3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

This is what the wicked imagine God to be like; this is not really about their theology, what they intellectually think in their minds. It’s not that they necessarily deny the power and rule of God. They acknowledge that rule, but they imagine that rule entirely differently than a righteous person does. Wicked people muse on different music. When they consider the rule of God, they conceive of his rule like bonds that must be broken, like cords that must be cast away for there to be true freedom. The ungodly image of the good life is a life of prosperity apart from God, with explicit rejection of his rule, because they imagine that rule to be oppressive.

Psalms 1 and 2 express two different images of life under God—as a flourishing tree, or as an oppressive bondage. Which image forms you will determine your path and your ultimate destiny.

And this is how the wicked have imagined the rule of God throughout history. Think about the serpent’s counsel to Eve: Did God really command that you not eat of the tree? That’s burdensome! He just knows you will become like him. Burst that bond apart and eat the fruit.

Or think about the Tower of Babel. God had commanded Noah and his sons to “be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Gen 9:7). But their descendants migrated together east, and they said, That’s burdensome! Cast away that cord from us. “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4). What God meant as a blessing for them, they imagined as restraining.

Or think about the Israelites. God gave them the law of Moses, and he said, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God” (Deut 28:1–2). And the Hebrews said, That’s burdensome! If we want peace in the land, we need to intermarry with the Canaanites, contrary to God’s law. And if we want our crops to grow, we need to worship Baal, the god of the storm. And if we want to have children, we need to worship Ashteroth, the god of fertility. Let us burst those bonds apart and cast away the cords from us. They wanted the good life, but their wrong image of life under the rule of God—their imagining a vain thing—led them to cast off what they saw as restrictive bonds and cords, when actually the commands God gave them were the path toward true flourishing.

I could go on and on—this is the story of human history. In none of these examples did the wicked necessarily have a deficient knowledge of the fact that God is the Creator and Ruler of all—Romans 1 tells us that all people know God’s eternal power and divine nature; their deficiency—what formed their path—is what they imagined God to be like. And this is exactly the point of Psalm 2: these introductory psalms are presenting the structural framework for the entire Psalter that is meant to shape our imagination of reality in this world and lead us to blessedness and praise, even as we are surrounded by wicked people with an entirely different image.

In fact, this is exactly how Jesus’s apostles interpreted Psalm 2. In Acts 4, Peter and John experienced the first persecution by the Jews, and after they were released, they quoted Psalm 2, recognizing this paradigmatic psalm as a fundamental lens through which to interpret all of human history as a conflict in images of the good life, a life under the rule of God vs. a life that throws off the rule of God. And, in fact, they also recognized that their little part in the unfolding of the framework Psalm 2 lays out was nowhere near the most significant example of it. This kind of conflict happened in the garden, it happened at Babel, it happened with the children of Israel, and it was happening to the apostles; but the apostles knew that the ultimate example of Psalm 2 was the crucifixion of the Son of God. And it was no stretch for them to interpret Psalm 2 this way—this is exactly what Psalm 2:2 says:

The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed.

The apostles correctly identified the Anointed—this Messiah—as Jesus. In other words, Psalm 2 explains how the fundamental truths of Psalm 1 play out in world history, and as we will explore in the next chapter, the Messiah is at the center of it all. The apostles knew that; they had mused on God’s music—the Psalms had formed their imagination. And so they interpreted the conflict they were experiencing in light of that, which kept them on the right path toward true blessedness.

The Biblical Image of God

Psalm 2 also portrays a biblical image of God and his response to the imagination of the wicked. Again, this is setting up a paradigmatic set of images that are developed in the entirety of the Psalter and that form a God-inspired imagination of reality under God’s rule.

Consider the image Psalm 2:4 paints of God: It says, “He who sits in the heavens.” Now, that word “sits” is a bit misleading. The Hebrew word is actually much more metaphorical than just plain “sits.” Again, the Psalms use poetry to help to form our inner image of reality, and that’s what Psalm 2 is continuing to do. Elsewhere in the Psalms the translators often capture a fuller picture of what this Hebrew term is meant to portray with the English word “enthroned”:

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood,
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. (Ps 29:10)

That’s the sense of this word. As Ross notes, the term “means that he sits enthroned or reigns.”1Allen Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2012), 1:205. We could translate Psalm 2:4, “He who sits enthroned in the heavens.” That is the image of God Psalm 2 is beginning to paint, and that’s clear when Psalm 2:6 refers to him as King. The Psalms use other images of God to shape our conception of him, but the overwhelmingly dominant image is of God as King. You’ll find him called king throughout the psalms, you’ll find references to his throne in heaven like we see here in 2:4, and you’ll find other images like scepter, kingdom, dominion, reign, and rule. Likewise, in the ancient near east a title like judge connoted the idea of a ruler, like in the Book of Judges, where judges were champion warrior rulers of the people.

From beginning to end of the Psalter, these songs lead us to muse on God as King. These concrete images form within our imaginations, what Alison Searle calls the “eyes of the heart,” an image of the good life under the rule of God.2Alison Searle, The Eyes of Your Heart: Literary and Theological Trajectories of Imagining Biblically (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).

God’s Response

And how does this King respond to the rage of the nations? How does he respond to their vain imagination of a good life apart from his rule? How does he respond when the kings of the earth set themselves against him and his Anointed One, and burst what they consider the bonds of his rule and cast away what they imagine to be the cords of his reign?

He laughs.

But his laughter is not at all humorous. It very quickly turns to derision (v 4). He will “speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury” (v 5). You break the “bonds” of my rule? I will break you with a rod of iron and dash you in pieces like a potter’s vessel (v 9). You set yourself against my Anointed One? You reject him and arrest him and accuse him falsely and strip him and beat him and mock his rule with a crown of thorns? You nail my Anointed One to a shameful cross? I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill (v 6).

This certainty of destruction for those who live according to a vain imagination of the good life is communicated throughout the Psalter, and particularly in the progression of the Psalter’s organization. If you trace the appearance of the wicked throughout the Psalms, especially pictures of the wicked flourishing, you’ll notice that there is an intensification of contrast between the wicked and the righteous in the first forty psalms that begins to thin out and give way as the book progresses to the last fifty psalms, which focus on praise. There is a movement in the book from conflict to blessing, from lament to praise. When you get to the last psalm in the book, Psalm 150, there is absolutely no mention of the wicked. They’re gone.

Which is exactly what Psalm 1 predicts. The wicked will be like chaff that the wind drives away (v 4). They’re here in force for forty psalms, and they continue through most of the psalms, but they start to dwindle, and by Psalm 150, they’re gone. The fact of the matter is this: the presence of wicked people is an unavoidable reality, but it is also an unavoidable reality that “the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (Ps 1:5). They are here, and they will fight against us, and it will often look like they are prospering instead of us. But at the end, in the day of judgment, they will be blown away like chaff.

This is how we have hope in the midst of a dark world filled increasingly with ungodly paths and wicked imaginations. We don’t have hope by escaping the reality of wickedness around us or by ignoring that reality. Hope is formed in our hearts in the midst of all of this by musing on the Torah of David, by traveling along this path the psalm editors created for us from darkness, through adversity, to blessedness. We sing our way through the Psalms from songs of lament to songs of praise.

Torah’s Counsel

Psalms 1 and 2 portray two conflicting images of the good life that compete throughout world history: an image of a tree that flourishes under the rule of God, and an image of God’s rule as oppressive and tyrannical. The counsel of the ungodly is that the only way to flourish is to burst the bonds of God’s rule and cast off his cords. What is the righteous counsel? Psalm 2:10–12 tell us:

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.

11 Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.

12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.

Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This is the counsel of the Torah. This is an accurate image of what it will be like if you resist the rule of God as King. The last line of Psalm 1 promised, “the way of the wicked will perish,” and so the Torah counsels, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way.” Acknowledge him as King, accept that image, or you will not stand in the judgment.

If your image of the rule of God is that it is a thing to be broken and cast off because he is terrifying, then that’s the image that will actually come to pass. If you resist his rule as something oppressive, then you will experience oppression. You break his bonds? He will break you. Your image of the blessed life and its relationship to the rule of God will determine how you live and will determine your ultimate destiny.

But if you kiss the Son—if you serve him with fear because you know that his commandments are not burdensome; you don’t imagine God as a tyrannical despot, you imagine him as a Shepherd-King, as your Redeemer—if that’s your image, then you will be blessed.

Blessed is the man, Psalm 1 tells us, whose imagination is shaped by delighting in the Torah rather than ungodly counsel. And the final phrase of Psalm 2 is put there intentionally by the editors of the Psalter to form a bookend with Psalm 1:1: “Blessed are all those take refuge in him.” If you imagine God correctly, as formed within you by his inspired songs, then you will fly to him for refuge; you will see him as the source of true blessedness and as the one who will provide safety, comfort, and protection in the midst of a wicked world.

This post is an excerpt from Musing on God’s Music: Forming Hearts of Praise with the Psalms.

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1 Allen Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2012), 1:205.
2 Alison Searle, The Eyes of Your Heart: Literary and Theological Trajectories of Imagining Biblically (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).
Author people gathering on street during nighttime

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at www.scottaniol.com. Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.