The Trinity’s Hymnbook (Part I)
Certain congregational songbooks use the word “Trinity” in their titles. For instance, there is the Trinity Hymnal and the Trinity Psalter. Yet how aware are we that the songbook found in the middle of the Bible, the Psalms, is filled with references and allusions to the Trinity? In one sense this should not surprise us, as they were authored by the Triune God (II Timothy 3:16; I Peter 1:20-21). However, if my own growing awareness and recent experiments pointing this out to students are any indication, many believers are missing out on this particular vein of richness in the Psalter.
My eyes were opened to this while sitting under the teacher of Robert Letham, author of The Holy Trinity. During this wonderful week of learning, Dr. Letham showed how the knowledge of the Trinity is present in the Old Testament but is veiled and only progressively revealed. For instance, do you know where in the Bible is the first place the Trinity is referenced? The first three verses of the Bible! God (the Father) is mentioned in verse 1, the Spirit of God in verse 2, and the Word of God (whom we know is Jesus) in verse 3. He then lead us through an exercise where we saw how the Trinity is abundantly present in the Old Testament, but then rightly showed how it is not until the New Testament that there is a virtual explosion of Trinitarian passages. From Jesus’ baptism to his discourse at the Lord’s Supper to the Great Commission to the apostolic epistles, seeing the fullness of Trinitarian doctrine growing and expanding through the Scriptures was a blessed experience.
One of the applications that could arise from this exercise is to think that, because the Trinity is not fully disclosed in the Old Testament and hence the Psalter, the Psalms alone are not a sufficient hymnbook for the Christian church. Certainly the argument has been offered, now that the Spirit has been given fully to the church, that a need exists for the church to have further worship songs beyond the Psalms that capture the fullness of Trinitarian revelation. However, granted that I am a convinced Psalm-singer, this exercise actually led my thinking in the opposite direction.
For as I thought on these things, two other key principles merged in my mind. I began to think again of how Jesus himself said that the Psalms were written about him (Luke 24:27, 44). We find Christ’s birth, life, ministry, teaching, death, resurrection, ascension, and inner thoughts all recorded in the Psalms as previous posts (such as this and that) have demonstrated. So the second person of the Trinity is in the Psalter in abundance. Then I recalled how we discussed in class that a healthy Christology will lead to a vigorous Trinitarianism, for you cannot look at Christ without beholding the Father and Son. As Gregory of Nazianzus famously said, “No sooner do I conceive of the one than I am illumined by the splendor of the three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the one.” So if Christ is clearly in the Psalter, should we not expect to see the Father and Spirit as well?
The answer to that question is a glorious “Yes!” The more one meditates on the Scriptures contained in the Psalms, the more clear this becomes. Though a more extensive study can be done on this, I would like to offer a brief, three-part series that highlights three of the ways in which the Trinity shines forth in the Psalter.
The first way is by personal references. Some Psalms just directly shout, “Trinity!” Here are seven examples.
Psalm 2:2 tells us, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.” Here the Father is referenced as Lord, the Son as his Anointed, and the Spirit would of course be the one who is the means of his anointing (Matthew 3:13-17).
Similarly, one verse in Psalm 45 about the king, which the author of Hebrews makes clear is about Christ (Hebrews 1:8), is clearly a Trinitarian statement as we read, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of joy above Your fellows.”
In the New Testament, often the Trinity is referred to as God, the Lord or Christ, and the Spirit (see Romans 8:9 0r I Corinthians 12:4-6 for examples). Note how Psalm 143:10-11 says, “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God! Let your good Spirit lead me on level ground! For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!”
Psalm 104 speaks of the Lord’s work in creation, yet acknowledges the dependence of this work on the Spirit when it says of the animals, “When you send your Spirit created are they” (verse ).
In Psalm 51:10-12, David prays in a Trinitarian way when he cries out , “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”
Psalm 110 was quoted by Jesus (Matthew 23:41-46) to show that when David said, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand,until I make your enemies your footstool’” this was in reference to the Father and himself, with the Spirit’s work clearly referenced later in the psalm (see verse 3).
In the 139th psalm, while he marvels at God’s omniscience, David equates the Spirit’s omnipresence with the Lord’s presence when he says in verses 4-8:
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
In the next article, I will show the fuller manifestation of this as we look at the way this is done by prophetical predictions. Then I will conclude in the third post with looking at how the Trinity is made known by poetical allusions. My hope is that rather than saying the more veiled nature of Old Testament Trinitarian revelation makes the Psalter an outdated hymnbook, you might look afresh with gospel-opened eyes and have your heart filled with joy at how manifest the Triune presence is in the Psalms.
Remember, Father, Son and Holy Spirit wrote them and gave them to us. So we might want to think again about what we mean when we say the Trinity Hymnbook or the Trinity Psalter!