Superlative claims are risky to make. They’re sure to start a debate, since by their very nature they are absolute and exclusive. They are stance-taking and polarizing claims. Just ask, who is the greatest basketball player, Michael Jordan or LeBron James? Or, who is the greatest guitarist, Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan? The debates churn on in dorm rooms and online forums. By definition there can only be one greatest (“two MCs can’t occupy the same space at the same time”), and so unselected rivals and their devotees clamor in protest or plot revenge.
Yet despite their polarizing nature, there seems to be an urge within us to identify who or what is the greatest of its kind.
The Historical Urge to Identify the Greatest
Paris is asked to judge who is the fairest of three goddesses (they all bribe him, so the question really might be, what is the most desirable human possession—power, wisdom, or a beautiful girl?). He picks Aphrodite, who gives him Helen, which leads to the Trojan War.
King Lear asks his three daughters which one loves him most. The oldest two flatter their father with “that glib and oily art to speak and purpose not.” In other words, they don’t really love him like they say they do. They make effusive yet hollow declarations of love to get as much power as they can. Cordelia refuses to stroke his vanity and is banished. “Power bows to flattery”, “majesty stoops to folly”, and tragedy marches towards its destiny.
In the Gospels, a lawyer asks Jesus, what is the greatest commandment in the law (Mark 12:28-31)? The Jews commonly ascribe 613 commandments to the law of Moses. To identify one as the greatest is to imply that the commandments are not all on the same plane and that there is a divine ordering and telos inherent in the Torah. Jesus combines Deuteronomy 6:5 with Leviticus 19:18 to form a compound commandment, like an electric dipole, where two equal and opposite charges are bound infinitely close together. This produces the bidirectional dynamic of the Christian life—simultaneously vertical and horizontal, expanding toward man in service and contracting to God in communion. Jesus cuts through to the essence and decisive issue of that whole network of legalities that so easily became a matter of external compliance. He chides the Pharisees for giving a tenth of every herb but bypassing justice and love for God (Luke 11:42). Jesus literally gets to the heart of the matter—this dipolar love. “Jesus achieves simply and concretely an unparalleled reduction and concentration of all the commandments into this dual commandment and combines love of God and love of man in an indissoluble unity.”
Finally, in one of his letters Paul exalts love, above faith and hope, as the greatest of the theological virtues (1 Cor. 13:13). Faith and hope are both temporal means, one to substantiate present realities and the other to sustain us unto future perfections, both of which are presently unseen. Faith is for the path, hope is for the peak. But when faith becomes sight and hope becomes substance, faith and hope will no longer be needed, “for who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom 8:24). But “love never falls away.” In eternity, we will shed faith and hope like outgrown skins, but we will not discard our love; we will deepen it in “the joy and passion of a marriage forever young.”
From the myths of Greece to the plays of England, from Israel’s law to the church’s virtues, the desire to establish the GOAT—greatest of all time—is constant.
What Makes the Psalms so Great?
Can we extend this quest to the Psalms?
The early church quickly appropriated the Jewish scriptures, finding Christ prophesied and portrayed in the law and prophets. Origen is inexhaustible on this theme, saying that “both Testaments are always for us a New Testament, not through temporal age, but through newness of understanding.” Christians have especially treasured the Psalms, as evidenced today by the common practice of printing pocket-sized New Testaments together with the Psalms.
Witness Lee opens one of his studies on the Psalms with the following observation:
All Christians know that in the Bible there is a wonderful book called the Psalms. Yet most of them merely know that this book is wonderful; they cannot tell why it is so wonderful. (emphasis added)
What makes the Psalms so wonderful? The greatness of the Psalms lies not merely in the fact that they encompass the “entire range of human feelings,” allowing us to find a Psalm for every situation that life throws our way. Their greatness lies in their poetic portrayal of Christ and the church. “In the Psalms the primary concern is not comfort but Christ, and following Christ, the church as the house and city of God.” The central thought of the Psalms can be encapsulated in just four words—Christ, house, city, earth.
The Greatest Psalm
With this view in mind, Witness Lee identifies Psalm 45 as the greatest Psalm.
Psalm 45 is the highest and the greatest of the one hundred fifty psalms.
Really, Psalm 45? Like an unexpected first round draft pick, I think this choice will surprise people. This is because I doubt that most people can recall what Psalm 45 is about, and how can the greatest Psalm not be instantly familiar or recitable?
Before I get into why Psalm 45 might just be the greatest Psalm, let’s look at five rival claims and runners up.
Psalm 110 is probably the best contender that theologians would submit. It is the most quoted or alluded to Old Testament text in the New Testament. Martin Luther called it “the crown of all the Psalms, worthy to be overlaid with precious jewels” and wrote 120 pages of commentary on it. Lee also highly regarded this Psalm, citing Luther’s opinion, and entitling his message on this Psalm, “The Highest Revelation of Christ.”
Psalm 119 may be a good runner up as well. It is the longest Psalm and the longest chapter in the entire Bible. It is an acrostic Psalm, an ingenious composition—surely the result of “leisurely and disciplined craftsmanship.” In this acrostic Psalm, the first letters of each group of eight verses follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet. The twenty-two sections of this psalm thus correspond to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Furthermore, all the verses in a particular section begin with the same Hebrew letter. Also, every verse in this Psalm mentions the Word of God (under various terms). Kevin DeYoung call it “the explosion of praise made possible by an orthodox and evangelical doctrine of Scripture.” Thomas Manton preached, 190 sermons on this one Psalm alone, which he began with, “This Psalm is a choice piece of Scripture.” Henrietta C. Mears straight up called it “the greatest psalm of the whole book.” Johannes Paulus Palanterius, in 1600 wrote, “The other Psalms, truly, as lesser stars shine somewhat; but this burns with the meridian heat of its full brightness, and is wholly resplendent with moral loveliness.” Rev. W. Simmons echoed him 61 years later: “This Psalm shines and shows itself among the rest, velut inter igneous luna minores [like the moon among lesser fires], a star in the firmament of the Psalms, of the first and greatest magnitude.”
Psalm 23 is probably the most well-known and recited of the Psalms. I would imagine it makes its way onto more wall hangings and calendars than all the others. Every verse is a stand-alone frameable quote. It is full of pastoral imagery that conjures up idyllic countryside scenes, reminiscent of 17th century landscape paintings by Claude Lorrain or Nicolaes Berchem. Spurgeon said, “This is the pearl of psalms whose soft and pure radiance delights every eye; a pearl of which Helicon need not be ashamed, though Jordan claims it. Of this delightful song it may be affirmed that its piety and its poetry are equal, its sweetness and its spirituality are unsurpassed.” It is a personal psalm of divine care, security, and hope. On top of this, it contains one of the most beloved images of the Lord, our shepherd. On a deeper theological level, it also packs a punch. This psalm poetically depicts the five stages of the organic shepherding of the pneumatic Christ in His present heavenly ministry. Psalm 23 is the link between Psalm 22 and 24, revealing that the experience of Christ as our Shepherd is the bridge between the two comings of Christ, in the past as Redeemer and in the future as King.
C.S Lewis considered Psalm 19 “to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” It’s famous for its opening line: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims the work of His hands.” It also has a famous section on the perfection of the law. These are what theologians have called the two books of God through which we gain knowledge of God—the book of nature and the book of Scripture. Meditation on these two books produces a penetrating realization. And so it ends with a prayer, asking God to clear the psalmist of his secret faults. Lewis takes the connection to be that just as there is nothing hidden from the sun’s heat—”the cloudless, blinding, tyrannous rays hammering the hills, searching every cranny”—so nothing in our heart can hide from the shining of God’s law.
Thomas Chalmers called Psalm 51 “the most deeply affecting of all the Psalms.” Certainly this powerful psalm of David’s repentance deserves to be included among the greatest psalms. Anyone who has received even the slightest exposure of his sins treasures this psalm and has made it his own.
Why Psalm 45 is the Greatest Psalm
Psalm 45 is a praise to Christ, the betrothed King, for His full ministry in three stages and for what it produces. This psalm is a song of love, composed for a marriage and to be sung in honor of the bride and bridegroom (the technical word for this is “epithalamium”). The bride here is the church and the bridegroom is Christ. This interpretation goes all the way back to Augustine. This psalm poetically depicts how Christ’s ministry in the stages of incarnation (Gospels), inclusion (Epistles), and intensification (Revelation) transforms rebels (the sons of Korah) into His glorious bride and queen. Verse 13 says, “The King’s daughter is all glorious within the royal abode.” This is the great, profound, and perfect work of God in this universe.
How great are Your works, O Jehovah! So very deep are Your thoughts! –Psalm 92:5
Perfect is His work. –Deuteronomy 32:4
Christ’s perfect work produces a twofold result—perfected praise and the perfection of beauty.
Because He is your Lord, worship Him. –Psalm 45:11b
The writer of Psalm 45 offers multidirectional and balanced praise to Christ. This is an example of what Psalm 8:2 (in the Septuagint) calls “perfected praise.” Augustine said that “the highest duty of every human being is to praise God.” Watchman Nee said that “praise is the highest work carried out by God’s children… [and] the highest expression of a saint’s spiritual life.” Highest duty, highest work, highest expression—praise touches the heights, but it is all too common to hear praises clattering along like carriage wheels on stone, with a droning monotony.
It is easy for our praises to become a broken record. Based on the narrow spectrum of experiences we’ve had or the low wattage of the light we’ve seen, we may only be able to offer up certain stock phrases along a single theme. Maybe we only praise the Lord for His mercy. Maybe only for His dying love. Maybe only for His creative power. That is not bad, but it is hardly overflowing (v. 1). Overflowing, it’s a good word to characterize praise—a boundless flow, beyond capacity, spreading out in all directions.
The praise in Psalm 45 is not like what we’re used to. In the span of 8 verses, the King is praised from four directions in two balanced pairs: his fairness, victory, kingdom, and virtues. “Fairness” here does not mean impartiality untainted by favoritism, but “of pleasing appearance, especially because of a pure or fresh quality; comely.” All these themes are connected. The King’s fairness is the issue of his virtues, while his kingdom is the issue of his victory. The grace of his fairness is balanced by the fierceness of his victory, and the righteousness of his kingdom is balanced by the sweetness of his virtues.
This forms something of a chiasm:
The Perfection of Beauty
Thus the King will desire your beauty. –Psalm 45:11a
Psalm 45 also unveils the “perfection of beauty” (Psa 50:2), which refers to the queen, as the result of Christ’s work. There is a fitting parallel here—the queen worships the King, the King desires the queen. The King is fair and victorious, the queen is beautiful and glorious. Remember all this typifies Christ and the church! Christ’s response to the result of His work is not apathetic, as if he already knew the answer to a mathematical inevitability; what He feels is desire.
The beauty of his bride is in her two garments, which signify Christ Himself as our two-fold covering, one for our justification and the other for our bridal presentation. The more we “hear and see” (v. 10) the great work of God and the more we “forget” our past, the more Christ will work Himself into us, stitch by stitch, to form our second garment. As the perfection of beauty in this universe, the bride of Christ will not only praise her King, but she will become His praise. On the day of Christ’s wedding, all positive things in the universe will praise Christ for the church. Psalm 45 ends with this thought, “The people will praise You forever and ever” (v. 17). As Paul says, “we will be to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6).
What is driving this process?
The driving factor in this process is our affectionate love for Christ. This psalm is an overflow of the heart (v. 1). Love is powerful—it produces praise and it transforms the lover into the beloved. We do not only praise what we love, we become what we love. A surface reading of Psalm 45 clearly reveals the first, but a closer reading reveals the second. Psalm 45 thus points to the highest peak of the divine revelation (deification) and the key to that transformation (love). Love activates, accelerates, and accomplishes God’s eternal purpose, which is to obtain a spouse for His Son.
God created the world to provide a spouse and a kingdom for His Son: and the setting up of the kingdom of Christ, and the spiritual marriage of the spouse to Him, is what the whole creation labours and travails in pain to bring to pass. –Jonathan Edwards
We have been created, commanded, and constituted to love the Lord. The marriage of the Lamb will consummate this age. So how is our love?
The last question the Lord asked on earth was, “Do you love Me?” (John 21:15). It’s also the name of a song in Fiddler on the Roof. The main character, Tevye, asks his wife one day if she loves him. It’s funny because all movie they are fighting and yelling at each other. She answers:
For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your melas, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked the cow,
After 25 years, why talk about love right now?
At the end of the song she deduces that she must, in fact, love her husband. But the contrast with their daughters’ budding romances is striking.
It’s easy for love to fade, and this is true in the Christian life too. Fifteen years in and we may be content with just getting things done for the Lord—”milking the cows” and “cleaning the house.” But we need more than an efficient home economics, more than a working relationship, if we are going to become the bride of Christ. Historically, the degradation of the church began in the church in Ephesus—a stalwart church famous for its doctrinal orthodoxy and unflagging service. They only lost one thing, and in the end it is the only thing that matters—their first love for the love. Losing the first love was the beginning of the degradation of the church.
Psalm 45 stirs our heart and rekindles our love for the Lord by reminding us of the loveliness of our bridegroom King and by reminding us of our calling to become his beautiful bride.
Let us hear Psalm 45, see the great work of God, forget the things behind, and stretch forward to an eternity where our love for Christ will never dwindle down to cool relational distance, but will retain the joy and passion of a marriage forever young.
What could be greater than that?
1. Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 255
2. ESV note on Isaiah 54:6
3. Henri De Lubac quoting Origen in, History and Spirit, 194
4. Witness Lee, Christ and the Church Revealed and Typified in the Psalms, Ch. 1
5. Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 311
6. Witness Lee, Christ and the Church Revealed and Typified in the Psalms, Ch. 8
7. Witness Lee, Life-Study of Psalms, Ch. 20
8. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, 373
9. Martin Luther. See also: “This is a true and exalted psalm, the main one to deal with our dear Lord Jesus Christ. Here, as nowhere else in the Old Testament Scriptures, we find a clear and powerful description of His person—who He is, namely, both David’s promised Son according to the flesh and God’s eternal Son, as well as the eternal King and Priest—and of His resurrection, ascension, and entire kingdom… Both Christ and His apostles often cite this psalm in the New Testament Scriptures because it serves as the most conclusive basis and confirmation of the article of faith regarding Christ’s person and His spiritual kingdom and righteousness.” (LW 13:228)
10. Witness Lee, Christ and the Church Revealed and Typified in the Psalms, Ch. 19. “Martin Luther said that this psalm is the greatest of all the psalms. In a sense, I agree with him.”
11. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 50
12. Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word, 16
13. Thomas Manton, 190 Sermons on the 119 Psalm: Vol. 1
14. Henrietta C. Mears, What the Bible Is All About NIV: Bible Handbook, 224
15. Johannes Paulus Palanterius, quoted by Spurgeon in Treasury of David, notes on Psalm 119
16. Rev. W. Simmons, quoted by Spurgeon in Treasury of David, notes on Psalm 119
17. Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David, notes on Psalm 23
18. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 53
19. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, 45:7. “It is the divine page that you must listen to; it is the book of the universe that you must observe. The pages of Scripture can only be read by those who know how to read and write, while everyone, even the illiterate, can read the book of the universe.”
20. Thomas Chalmers, quoted by Spurgeon, in Treasury of David, notes on Psalm 51
21. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, 44:3. “Let the psalm now sing of him, and let us rejoice at his marriage, and so be among those of whom the marriage is made, who are invited to the wedding: these invited guests are themselves the bride, for the Church is the bride, and Christ the Bridegroom… The nuptial union is effected between the Word and human flesh…”
22. Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, 44:9
23. Watchman Nee, CWWN 48:247
24. American Heritage Dictionary, 5th ed.
25. A central concept to Augustine’s theology of deification. See David Vincent Meconi in, Called to be the Children of God, 82
26. Jonathan Edwards, The History of Redemption, 346