You Asked: Did the Apostle Peter Have a Bad Hermeneutic?
We’re continuing our new feature, “You Asked,” where readers send us theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions that we pass along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share in this space. If you’d like to ask a question, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org along with your full name, city, and state.
We pose today's question to D. A. Carson, president of The Gospel Coalition and research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of numerous books on New Testament studies, theological issues, pastoral concerns, and more. The volume he edited with G. K. Beale, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, deals directly with today's question.
Fletcher L. from Louisville, Kentucky, writes:
I'm reading through Acts this month. In Acts 1:20, Peter's talking about Judas and quotes Psalm 69, "May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it." But Psalm 69 doesn't seem to have anything to do with Judas. In fact, that psalm seems somewhat anti-gospel. It's all about David wanting God to smite his enemies, but Jesus said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they're doing." Did Peter have a bad hermeneutic? If someone tried to quote a psalm like this without apostolic authority, would you call them crazy?
Good question. In fact, you seem to have asked three questions, which we can take in turn:
Q 1: Doesn't Psalm 69 sound anti-gospel, with its rhetoric of retaliation? Answer: I suspect this casts the matter too antithetically: gospel versus anti-gospel. After all, the same Jesus who cries "Father, forgive them" also pronounces blistering denunciations on assorted spiritual hypocrites (e.g., Matt. 23), and the ultimate retaliation at the end is not glossed over in the New Testament (e.g., Rev. 19). The Old Testament, which includes many passages like Psalm 69 that ask God for retaliatory justice, also includes many affirmations of God's enduring and pursuing love (e.g., Hosea). It makes little sense to set one retaliatory passage from the Old Testament over against a forgiveness passage from the New and pronounce it anti-gospel. The gospel announces the dawning of the kingdom, the coming of the king, especially focusing on his cross and resurrection, to redeem a fallen and rebellious people to God—but the entailment of this news is catastrophic judgment on those who spurn him. All of this is bound up in the gospel: the gospel is not mere happy sentimentality that rejects any judgment, but the spectacular news of what God has done in Christ, with all its comprehensive entailments in both blessing and judgment to the glory of God and for the good of his redeemed people. To put this matter in the broadest Christian categories, ultimately people will find forgiveness and reconciliation to God in the cross, "where wrath and mercy meet," or they will face unrestrained judgment and face the wrath of God unprotected by Christ.
Q 2: Doesn't Acts 1:20 rip Psalm 69:25 out of its context, since the psalm makes no mention of Judas Iscariot, and the writer does not appear to have him in view? Answer: Psalm 69 is often called an "individual lament." In such laments, the psalmist depicts his anguish and suffering, usually caused by horrible circumstances and cruel oppressors. He asks God for grace, strength, faithfulness, and triumph, beseeching God to bring down judgment on the wicked who are trying to destroy him. This, as we have seen under the first question, is not antithetical to one of the major strands of the Bible. But there is more: Psalm 69, the superscription tells us, is a psalm of David. One of the things that Bible readers must come to grips with is "Davidic typology." This means that in the Old Testament's progressive description of and comments about David, a trajectory is created, a Davidic trajectory.
To unpack how this Davidic trajectory works would require a long essay, but the basic idea is simple enough. Part of our problem in understanding such trajectories lies in our common assumption that Old Testament predictive prophecies must be simple verbal predictions, while their fulfillments are in the events they predict. Sure enough, there are quite a few prophecies of that sort. But there are far more predictive prophecies that do not depend so much on explicit verbal predictions as on trajectories, commonly called typologies. For example, the institution of the Passover, repeated year after year, annually calls to mind God's stipulation of a slaughtered lamb, its blood sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel so that the angel of destruction will "pass over" the protected house. There is no Old Testament passage that clearly stipulates that the ultimate passover lamb will be the Messiah. Nevertheless, the repeated rite constitutes a trajectory of expectation, until the apostle Paul finally declares that Christ himself is our Passover lamb, sacrificed for us (1 Cor. 5:7).
So with David. God himself establishes the Davidic dynasty (2 Sam. 7). That means we keep looking for a king in David's line to fulfill God's dynastic promises, a new David. Almost three centuries after the Davidic dynasty has been established, Isaiah tells his hearers and readers that this scion of David for whom they are waiting, whose kingdom will know no end, is also the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace (Is. 9). Two centuries later, God, speaking through Ezekiel, promises that he himself will be the Shepherd of his people—in particular, he will send his servant "David" to shepherd them (Ez. 34:23). Passages such as these (and there are many of them) establish what I have called a Davidic trajectory—a trajectory of this theme of David that points unerringly ahead to anticipate the arrival of a greater David, "great David's greater son" (as the hymn writer puts it).
These predictive structures are there in the Old Testament text itself. The effect is to make us ponder what elements in the life of the historical David become part of this anticipatory trajectory. Some of those events are bound up with the historical David's suffering. In other words, if David himself points forward along the Davidic trajectory to the ultimate "David," then crucial events such as David's unjust suffering also point forward to the unjust suffering of the ultimate "David."
In this way Psalm 69 plays its part. Just as there are servant songs in Isaiah that point forward to the ultimate suffering servant, so there are Davidic psalms that point forward to the ultimate suffering David. That is why Psalm 69 is repeatedly quoted as being ultimately fulfilled in the sufferings of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 27:34; Mark 15:23; John 2:17; 15:25; 19:28-30; Rom. 15:23). Once we see that this is the way Christians commonly read Psalm 69—that is, along this Davidic trajectory—the application of Psalm 69:25 to Judas in Acts 1:20 does not seem far away: As the experience of suffering and betrayal belonged to the historical David while pointing forward to the experience of suffering and betrayal of the ultimate David, so the betrayers of the historical David are finally fulfilled in the betrayer, Judas Iscariot, of the ultimate David, Jesus himself. That seems to be the way Peter in Acts 1 is understanding Psalm 69:25.
Q 3: So does Peter have a bad hermeneutic? Is his reading of the Old Testament simply crazy? Answer: Some skeptical scholars argue precisely along those lines. They say the New Testament preachers and authors regularly ripped Old Testament texts out of their respective contexts in order to justify the Christian position. This skeptical stance, in my view, is justified only if we concede that the only way the Old Testament is allowed to point forward is in explicit verbal predictions. But that is clearly not so. I have spent much of my adult life working through the way the New Testament quotes the Old, and the longer I ponder these texts, the more I begin to see how they "work," how rich and beautiful are the ways in which God ordained that his great plan of redemption would be prefigured in an extraordinarily rich, complex, and intertwined array of promises, types, trajectories, histories, institutions and persons, working together to point forward to Jesus and his gospel (see Luke 24:26-27, 45-48; John 5:46). Many Christians have studied these matters in recent years, and some of their work is brought together in one fat volume I edited with G. K. Beale, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), including some technical comments that further explain how Psalm 69:25 is used by Peter in Acts 1 (see p. 530 of the Commentary).