by Rev. Dan Bergman
It was a spring day during the earthly ministry of our Messiah, Jesus. He had gone up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. It was there that he met, and healed a man who had been incapacitated with a physical infirmity for thirty eight years! God’s plan for this man was to be healed after all those years, not on any day, but on the Sabbath day. Jesus is encountered by no small opposition ridiculing Him for breaking the Sabbath by healing this man. Jesus then makes the statement that God is His Father. The Jews are enraged! Amidst the response that Jesus then gives them is this statement, “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” John 5:39.
Psalm 40 is one of those Messianic passages that tell not only the coming of the Messiah, but His very words. Psalm 40, like other chapters contain a prophetic Messianic portion, as well as narrative sections focusing on the author. Understanding the prophetic setting, the significance, and the fulfillment of this passage will greatly aid our desire to better understand Jesus the Messiah from the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Setting of Psalm 40
We are not told specifically which event in the life of David the first five verses are referring to, although there were certainly many times which could apply (such as the Absalom rebellion). Within the 17 verses of this Psalm sits a brilliant jewel: the words of our Savior. This is the portion we will be focusing on, verses 6 – 10.
The Significance of David’s Prophecy
Verse six of this Psalm begins the Messianic portion of this passage. This can in part be applied to David himself, whereas the ultimate fulfillment of the words in this passage (although differing from David’s exact quote) is shown to be in the incarnation of the Messiah, Jesus. An examination of this verse, along with its New Testament quotation in the book of Hebrews will help us to better understand this discrepancy, and find it to be an amazing contrast that shows the Messiah to be the One casting the shadow that we see this Psalm:
“Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required” Psalm 40:6.
“Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure” Hebrews 10:5-6.
For us to correctly interpret this apparent “contradiction” of what is said in the Hebrew passage when compared with verse six of the 40th psalm, we must examine the introductory clause given to its quotation in Hebrews 10:5. The context of its quotation is the inadequacy of the levitical sacrifices to remove sin: “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins,” Hebrews 10:4.
The statement that bridges Hebrews 10:4 with the quotation of Psalm 40:6 is vital to understanding that this isn’t a contradiction. Some would be quick to jump on the writer of Hebrews with the accusation that he is changing the Old Testament text to fit Christ; from “mine ears hast thou opened” to “a body hast thou prepared me”.
However, the quotation in Hebrews 10 is introduced, and qualified with “Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith…” This statement stands out where we would expect to see the usual “as it is written…” That is not the case here, which is vital to understanding the correlation between these two passages.
There are a number of views regarding this correlation. First is that the Hebrews passage is quoting an older manuscript. Second is the Hebrew servant of Exodus 21:1-6 and Deuteronomy 15:12-18 being linked to what is meant by “my ears thou hast opened.”1 This is certainly a “shadow” of Christ’s fulfillment, but falls short of a consistent hermeneutic (interpretation of the scriptures), as does the first view.
The Savior’s Fulfillment
The most consistent view, without taking scripture out of context or doubting the legitimacy of Hebrew manuscripts, is the view that the Psalm passage points to a fulfillment that transcends the idea of David’s “ears being opened” or a slave committing to his master. The issue is the failure of the levitical sacrifices to eradicate sins. That is the context of both the Psalm passage and the Hebrews passage. The body spoken of in Hebrews is the answer to the sin problem explained in both passages. Since according to the book of Hebrews, these are the words of Christ, they do not need to be an exact quotation of David’s words, nor should we expect them to be. It is a contrast, showing the readers the superiority of the Messiah over the previous sacrificial system, His uniqueness, and the matchless wonder that is His incarnation.
If verse six in conjunction with Hebrews 10:4 is not enough evidence that this is a very special Psalm which transcends Davidic application, we need only read the next two verses:
“Then said I, Lo, I come: In the volume of the book it is written of me I delight to do thy will, O my God: Yea, thy law is within my heart” Psalm 40:7-8.
This makes absolutely no sense at all (along with the following three verses) when applied to David. When was David written about in the scriptures? Many Jewish versions of the Bible make a mess of this passage in order to remove its application to Messiah. One such translation comes from the Jewish publication society, as can be seen in verses 8 and 9 of our passage:
“Then I said, See, I will bring a scroll recounting what befell me. To do what pleases You, my God, is my desire; Your teaching is in my inmost parts.”2
This is a twisting, and even a deliberate mistranslation of the Hebrew text. I am by no means a Hebrew scholar, and yet the words and constructions in this passage are a plain, simple, black and white. The KJV translation is word for word an exact translation of this passage (with the exception of the Hebrew word “Lo” for emphasis). There is no bringing, recounting, or “what befell me”. This translation has been purposefully distorted. These verses were obviously (when correctly translated) speaking about someone other than David.
The amazing thing about this passage, in addition to the extraordinary insight that Hebrews gives, is that the words of the Messiah Himself, referring to Himself, are recorded here, in this Psalm that was penned approximately 1,000 years before He was born! He says that in the volume of the book, it was written of Him!
The phrase “I delight to do thy will” in verse 8 perfectly summarizes Jesus the Messiah. When as a boy He tarried behind in Jerusalem and confounded the Doctors of the Torah, He told His earthly parents “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” Luke 2:49. In John chapter four, Jesus confronts His disciples with the reason He went through Samaria, and why He wasn’t concerned with stopping to eat. He tells them, “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work,” John 4:34. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” In the garden, before His crucifixion and subsequent separation from God the Father, He prayed “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done,” Luke 22:42. Jesus is the Torah personified (John 1:1). We can clearly see that the shadow seen in Psalm 40 is being cast by none other than Jesus Himself.
By viewing the remainder of the Messianic portion of this Psalm, we will see how this falls short when applied to David:
“I have preached righteousness in the great congregation: Lo, I have not refrained my lips, O Lord, thou knowest. I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation: I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation” Psalm 40:9-10.
David did write of the righteousness of God in many of his Psalms. He was called a man after God’s own heart.3 Even when taking these statements into consideration, the question still remains, “Do these verses personify David, or do they speak of someone else entirely?”
When did David preach the salvation and righteousness of God in the great congregation? As previously noted, Jesus not only went to the Jews and the Gentiles, but even to the Samaritans! That is certainly a greater congregation than the valley of Elah! Never once did Jesus refrain from glorifying God, or speaking the truth4, and yet David on a number of occasions concealed the truth to get himself out of a tight spot!5 Jesus is Truth personified.6
Through this amazing passage, along with its quotation in Hebrews, we have truly seen the promised Messiah vividly portrayed. We have read His words from a millennium before His birth. We have seen the One who caused the shadow within Psalm 40. Our Savior is the ultimate fulfillment of those words penned by David so long ago, “Then said I, Lo, I come: In the volume of the book it is written of me.”
1. The Messianic Psalms, Ernest Wilson, http://www.gospelfolio.com/”, Gospel Folio Press Grand Rapids MI Copyright 1997
2. Jewish Publication Society. (1985). Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Ps 40:8–9). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
3. 1 Samuel 13:14
4. John 18:37
5. 1 Samuel 11:1-27, 2 Samuel 21:10-15
6. John 14:6 “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”