Psalm 69 in the Gospel of John

Jesus rejected by his own people

This essay identifies Psalm 69 as having great significance to Christ and the Apostle John.  John’s gospel makes use of Psalm 69 to illustrate the suffering and glory of the Messiah, and does so with a basic grammical-historical hermeneutic of the original OT context, while not ignoring the way that Christ transforms the original meaning of the psalm.

According to Goldsworthy in Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, Psalm 69 is one of the top eight most frequently referred to in the NT.  This is fitting, since the psalm contains several verses that are overtly messianic and thus quite transparently applicable to Jesus.  The apostle John quotes or alludes to Psalm 69 at least four times.  This psalm of lament abounds with pleas for deliverance from the psalmist’s enemies and their reproaches, and for rescue from the flood waters of judgment.  The structure and flow of the psalm is that of glory, vindication, and exaltation following a great trial by ordeal.

A direct quote from verse 4[1]  appears in John 15:25 where Jesus is explaining to his disciples in the Farewell Discourse that since the world has hated him without a cause, as his servants and disciples they should expect suffering of the same.  John’s quotation of this verse comes on the eve of Christ’s passion—the ultimate experience of undeserved suffering at the hands of “those who hate me without cause.”  For those familiar with Psalm 69, quoting it at this point in the gospel narrative is a powerful reminder that Jesus’ suffering will certainly lead to his glory.

In the prologue to his gospel (John 1:11), John alludes to Psalm 69:8 (“I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother’s sons”) thereby emphasizing that from the very beginning Jesus’ life in this world was a life a suffering.  He came from heaven to his own people, and yet his own people did not receive him.  But according to the psalm, his people hated him without cause but not without a reason.  In the very next verse (Ps 69:9), we learn that Jesus was hated because he was too righteous—he loved God and the house of God to the shame of his enemies.  The holy ardor he felt and displayed for the temple of the Lord became the occasion for his reproach (“For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me”).  John’s quotation of verses 8 and 9 elucidate the reason why Jesus’ enemies hated him.  Verse 8, quoted at the beginning of John’s gospel, prepares us to expect that Jesus will be a man of suffering and rejected by his own people.  Verse 9, quoted just one chapter later in John, provides the first manifestation of hated by those who rejected him, thus setting the tone for his public ministry.

In quoting Psalm 69:21, John, in a sense, bookends the suffering aspect of Jesus’ life by showing that he suffered unjust and cruel treatment at the hands of his enemies until the very end of his life.  As Jesus hung dying on the cross and asked for a drink (not to quench his thirst, but to fulfill the Scripture), the soldiers who crucified him unknowingly fulfilled prophecy by giving him bitter wine to drink.  “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.”

The gospel of John makes direct use of the suffering motif in Psalm 69, but his silence on the glorious conclusion of the psalm only highlights the anticipation of the suffering servant’s vindication and glorification at the end of the gospel in Christ’s resurrection.  Sometimes it is difficult to decipher the meaning of a NT writer’s quotation or allusion of a particular OT passage, but John’s use of Psalm 69 is quite consistent with the original OT context of the psalm, thus making it a valuable passage to convince his readers that Jesus is the suffering and glorified Christ prophesied in the OT.

[1]  John 15:25 contains a quotation from Ps 69:4 or Ps 35:19 (or perhaps both are in view).

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