Archive Authors Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Buchanan on the Prince in Psalm 2

A key feature of much classicizing biblical poetry (that is, poetry that serves as paraphrase or gloss on the biblical text) is expansion for rhetorical, exegetical, or theological reasons. Such expansions indicate to the reader how the source-text is to be interpreted.

George Buchanan’s version of Psalm 2.10-12a can serve as an example of rhetorical and politico-theological expansion. The Psalmist says (ESV):

Now, therefore, O kings, be wise;

be warned, O rulers of the earth.

Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.

Kiss the Son…

Here is Buchanan’s version according to Green’s text (the poem is written in couplets consisting of a dactylic hexameter followed by an iambic trimeter):1

at vos, in populos quibus est permissa potestas,

et ius ab alta sede plebi dicitis,

errorum tenebras depellite, discite verum;

servite domino cum tremore; gaudiis

et timor et domini accedat reverentia vestris,

ut missum ab illo filium amplectamini…

But you, to whom power over peoples has been entrusted,

and [who] deliver the law to the common folk from your high seat,

drive away the darkness of your errors, learn the truth;

serve the Lord with trembling; let fear and

reverence for the Lord be added to your rejoicings,

in order that you may embrace the Son sent by him…

Buchanan in his expansion fills out what he believes it to mean for princes to “be wise” and to “be warned”–what it means, that is, for them to “serve the Lord.” They have been entrusted with power (potestas), but this power comes with limitations and duties. They are to rule with justice (ius): though they are placed in a high station, they have obligations toward those whose lot in life is lower (the significance of the use of plebs to identify those who should receive justice). The Psalmist does not make the subjects of the prince’s rule explicit, aside from the reference to the “rulers of the earth.” Buchanan does so twice (in populos and plebi), and so draws out the dynamic between ruler and ruled, a dynamic perhaps only latent in the Psalm. This repetition tells us something important about his political theology and philosophy, for we know from elsewhere that Buchanan believed that sovereignty comes from God to the prince not directly, but through the people.

In dispensing the justice referred to above, princes must rule in accordance with truth (verum), acknowledging the real order of things, in which God reigns supreme. In his rendering of the Psalmist’s command to “drive away the darkness of errors,” there is perhaps a reminiscence of Cicero’s thanksgiving to the gods in Pro Sulla 40:

O di immortales!—vobis enim tribuo quae vestra

sunt, nec vero possum meo tantum ingenio dare ut tot res

tantas, tam varias, tam repentinas in illa turbulentissima


tempestate rei publicae mea sponte dispexerim—vos pro-

fecto animum meum tum conservandae patriae cupiditate

incendistis, vos me ab omnibus ceteris cogitationibus ad

unam salutem rei publicae convertistis, vos denique in tantis


tenebris erroris et inscientiae clarissimum lumen menti meae



In English:

O ye immortal gods! (for I will give you what belongs to you; nor can I attribute so much to my own ability, as to think that I was able, in that most turbulent tempest which was afflicting the republic, to manage, of my own power, so many and such important affairs,—affairs arising so unexpectedly, and of such various characters,) it was you, in truth, who then inflamed my mind with the desire of saving my country; it was you who turned me from all other thoughts to the one idea of preserving the republic; it was you who, amid all that darkness of error and ignorance, held a bright light before my mind!

Likewise, Buchanan believes that only God himself can replace ignorance with the knowledge of the truth. Thus it is not sufficient for the prince in his calling to “rejoice” in God; to that rejoicing must be added “fear and reverence for the Lord.” Only so can he “embrace the Son.”


  1. The translation is my own. 

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.