Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism The Two Kingdoms

Melanchthon’s Poetic Paraphrase of Psalm 2

Some more on Melanchthon’s poetry, while we’re on the subject. Below is a poem from (perhaps) 1540.

“Christ’s Speech (from Psalm 2)”
What madness to rouse arms against the heavenly powers!

Man’s impiety will not have a happy issue.

On Zion’s height God hands me Zion’s royal scepter

and grants it to me to bring new commands.

For the Father himself says, “My Son, my highest pleasure,

will justly be my heir of the whole world.

Let him who follows the victorious standards of this King

laugh in safety at the threats of Fortune.”

The greatest Father commands his Son to spread these commandments–

and they are not empty–throughout the world among the peoples.

You, peoples, offer frankincense to the Son of the highest Father;

whoever trusts in this Prince will be saved.1

A few remarks:

  1. The beginning of this poem, in elegiac couplets, is a good example of prosopopoeia or ethopoeia: “The description and portrayal of a character (natural propensities, manners and affections, etc.). A kind of enargia.” The term indicates the “making” (-poeia) of a “character” (etho-), and so is a kind of impersonation. Ethopoeia was a standard part of the rhetorical exercises called the progymnasmata; cf. the extant exercises by Libanius, the famous fourth century rhetor who taught Basil of Caesarea, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and John Chrysostom, among others. Augustine gives an account of performing such an exercise in the person of the goddess Juno in his Confessions. It is worth noting that such exercises still formed an important part of Melanchthonian pedagogy.
  2. The speaker of the poem, then, is the exalted Christ, with whom the Son of Psalm 2 was traditionally identified. The Son speaks in the first person in vv. 7-9 of the original, but Melanchthon has made it the mode of address for the entire poem. Thus the Psalm’s opening, regarding the raging of the nations, is put in the Son’s own mouth rather than a third-person speaker. At the end of the poem, on the other hand, Melanchthon speaks in propria persona as the psalmist had in the original, thus breaking the ethopoeic illusion.
  3. Modulations of the source-text are common in paraphrastic Latin biblical poetry. They occur in a couple of places in this poem’s conclusion: the Psalm’s command to “kings” is extended to “peoples”; the Father’s commands are called “new” and are glossed as “not vain” (non vana); the injunction to “kiss the Son” is replaced by an injunction to offer frankincense (thura) to him, since frankincense is a standard offering for divinity in the poetic tradition (and elsewhere, of course, as well). Thus when the fifth century poet Sedulius glosses the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the Magi to the infant Christ, he writes: aurea nascenti fuderunt munera regi/ tura dedere Deo, myrram tribuere sepulchro (“For the babe they poured forth gifts of gold as for a king, they gave him frankincense as to God, they bestowed myrrh for his tomb” (Paschale carmen 2.95-6). Thus Melanchthon combines royalty (Principe) and divinity (thura) in the poem’s last couplet. The God-Man is enthroned, then, as King over all the earth, both according to the Psalm and to Melanchthon’s rendering of it.
  4. Just as we saw him to do in the poem on Cicero’s On Duties, Melanchthon refers to the “threats of Fortune” (Fortunae…minas). One wonders whether it would be a stretch to hear in this echo an intimation of Melanchthon’s (classical) doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, and that of the other early Reformers as well: on the civic, temporal, horizontal plane Cicero provides a refuge for those seeking knowledge of virtue and ethics. On the spiritual, eternal, vertical plane it is Christ who serves as the refuge–and that not in the first instance unto temporal peace and order, but unto everlasting salvation. But notice that, for Melanchthon, this doctrine of the Two Kingdoms does not mean that religion is banished from the civic sphere. No, the command in the Psalm goes forth to kings, and in Melanchthon’s poem it goes forth to everyone. And Melanchthon held it as firm that princes doing their duty as “ministers of God,” as Paul puts it in Romans 13, was in fact integral to temporal peace and order.





  1. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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