Friday, October 26, 2012

Some Thoughts on Psalm 110

This week at Glory of Christ Fellowship I will be preaching about the use of the Old Testament (OT) in Hebrews 1:5-13, and more particularly how the author read the seven texts he quotes in the light of Christ. Since I cannot cover all seven OT quotes in detail in one sermon, I plan to look at Psalm 110, and its use in Hebrews 1:3, 13, with a view to training our church how to read the OT in the light of Christ. 

Back in the summer of 2011, as part of a doctoral course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I wrote a brief exegetical (interpretive) paper on this Psalm and as I read over that paper today, I thought it might be helpful to publish it here. If this is of interest to you, I encourage you to open your Bible to Psalm 110, pray, read the Psalm carefully, and then consider my thoughts. May the Lord give you "a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him" as you study his Word (Ephesians 1:17). And please feel free to leave any comments or suggestions you have, as I would love to interact with you about whatever the Lord puts on your hearts. 


Hermeneutical Commentary on Psalm 110:1-7 

Exegetical Commentary. The authorship of Psalm 110 is a topic of great debate but there is sufficient evidence to believe the opinion of later scribes, namely, that it is “A Psalm of David” (v 1; Beale, 83; VanGemeren, 696). For the purposes of this paper I will assume Davidic authorship. The implication of this assumption is that King David wrote Psalm 110 as a song to be sung by the priests and people of Israel. It was intended to be pressed into their minds and memorized, to be the fodder of meditation and rejoicing as they reflected on the power of their God, Yahweh, flowing through the rule of their great King-Priest. As important as the particulars of the song is the fact that it was meant to inform the mind and inflame the heart toward God. 

With this function in mind, the opening line of the Psalm, “Yahweh says to my Lord,” both inspires and puzzles. It inspires because it is built on the firm foundation of the speech of the God of Israel, the same speech that caused the universe to fling into being (Gen 1:1-2) and called Abraham to be a conduit of blessing for the nations of the earth (Gen 12:1-3). It puzzles because of the word “my.” If David, the great King of Israel, is in fact the author of this Psalm, then to whom is he referring when he writes “my Lord”? 

Some suggest that David was humbly referring to himself in the third person, or that he had a court prophet or poet write on his behalf (VanGemeren, 697; Beale 942). If this point of view is correct, then the point of the Psalm is that the Davidic King rules by the will of Yahweh and not his own authority or the will of the people. He is a theocratic ruler fully submitted to Yahweh and yet he is very close to him, in fact, he sits at his right hand. 

There does seem to be some Scriptural evidence for the idea that the king of Israel sits on the throne of Yahweh over Israel (1 Chron 28:5, 29:23, 2 Chron 9:8), however, this evidence refers to the reign of Solomon (though it may have implications beyond Solomon) and it does not include the language of “sitting at the right hand” (Beale, 83). Further, the series of excessive exaltations of this King throughout the Psalm, including the inalterable declaration that besides being King he will also be “a Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (v 4), point to one who is more than an earthly king. 

As one muses on who this “more than a king” might be in the mind of David, it quickly occurs that it could be the Messiah of Israel, the promised deliverer. The idea of the Messiah did not have to be equal to the person of Jesus in the mind of David, rather, he could simply have thought of the Messiah as “the anointed one.” The Holy Spirit who inspired David to write obviously had a fullness of knowledge of the object of his words, and yet this does not imply that David must have known all that the Holy Spirit knew. David may have only seen a shadow of things to come, or he may have seen the fullness of the glory of Jesus, we will never know. However, for our purposes all we need to know is that if David did see even a shadowy figure of this Messiah, he could have written the words “my Lord” in reference to one other than himself. I am persuaded, along with B. C. Davis (2000), that this is the case. David had the Messiah in mind when he penned Psalm 110 and pressed it into the minds and mouths of the people of Israel. 

Further proof of this point of view outside the Psalm itself, are the words of Jesus in Matt 22:41-46. In this pericope, Jesus clearly taught that David was referring to one other than himself. This point was not disputed by his opponents. They all agreed that David was speaking of the Messiah. The question, then, was this: “Whose son is the Christ?” (v 42) Jesus’ opponents answered that he is David’s son, but Jesus retorted, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord…? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (vv 43-45) 

Jesus was not hereby denying that the Messiah was the human descendant of David, rather, he was asserting  that he was not merely this. The Messiah, the great King-Priest, was both the son of David and the son of God, an argument so compelling and irrefutable that no one could answer him or would dare ask him any more questions (Beale, 82-83). 

Thus, I conclude that whatever David knew, he was consciously writing this Psalm about the Messiah and not about himself, and he was aware that this Messiah was both his descendant and Lord. This undoubtedly filled him with a sense of awe, a sense which he wished to share with the people of God whom he served and loved. 

With this in mind, David expressed two great pronouncements made by Yahweh to his Lord. First, Yahweh installed this King as his Vice-Regent by making him to sit at his right hand—the place of ultimate power and honor—and promising to establish his rule for him (v 1). The King was not to put his enemies under his feet, rather, he was to sit and watch and be in awe of Yahweh as he did this for him. It was Yahweh who would cause his scepter to stretch forth from Zion, thus extending his rule. And having done this, he commanded the King to “rule in the midst of [his] enemies” (v 2). His word to the King was, “Rule your enemies for I have subdued them for you.” 

As the King submitted to this command, Yahweh promised that the people would willingly follow him and present themselves ready for battle (v 3). This particular clause is famously difficult to interpret, but whatever the interpretive possibilities, it does imply that the people will willingly present themselves to the King in great numbers, and that they will be ready to fight. And as it was with the previous promises, so it is with this one: they will come on the basis of what Yahweh had already done for the King. 

Second, Yahweh promised in the strongest of terms to make this King “a Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (v 4). Melchizedek served as the king-priest of Jerusalem in the days of Abraham (Gen 14:17-24), and thus the point David is making in this Psalm is that this King will rule in like manner: he will be both King and Priest. He will embody two offices which were strongly separated in the Word of God and the culture of Israel. 

In v 5 the subject of the verbs shifts from Yahweh to his King-Priest whom David calls Lord. We know that this Lord is the subject of the verbs contained in vv 5-7 because in the first four verses David has been careful to distinguish between “Yahweh” and his “Lord.” Thus, it is very unlikely that David would now apply the word “Lord” to Yahweh. Further, the subject of these verbs is said in v 7 to “drink from the brook by the way” which most certainly cannot refer to Yahweh himself. 

Therefore, the logic of these verses is this: on the basis of the subjecting work of Yahweh, the Lord—the great King-Priest—will walk in obedience to his command and rule in the midst of his enemies. He will shatter kings, execute judgment, shatter chiefs, and “drink from the brook along the way,” that is, find all the nourishment and supplies and refreshment he needs throughout the whole of the process. Therefore, “he will lift up his head,” that is, raise his head in triumph to the glory of Yahweh who in fact made his enemies his footstool. 

As the people of Israel sang and memorized and meditated on this Psalm, I think they would have seen at least four meanings in it. First, they would have known and rejoiced in the fact that one day God would place a great King-Priest over Israel who would reign forever. David was great, but this King-Priest would be much greater. This truth would have filled their hearts with a sense of awe and anticipation and hope and faith. 

Second, they would have rested in the fact that Yahweh was very great and in control of the destiny of Israel and the raging of the nations. Third, they would have realized that submission is the key to entering into this rule, both that of the King-Priest who humbled himself before Yahweh and that of the people who humbled themselves before the King-Priest. Finally, they would have been motivated to in fact submit themselves to both David and this coming King-Priest. As they watched him offer himself freely to Yahweh, they would have freely offered themselves to him. 

Biblical and Theological Commentary. The relationship of this Psalm to the broader corpus of Scripture has already been alluded to in my previous comments. However, I do want to point out three things. First, the widespread Apostolic usage of this Psalm implies that the authors of the New Testament envisioned it as Messianic (cf. Matt 22:44, 26:64; Mark 12:36, 14:62, 16:19; Luke 20:42-44, 22:69; Acts 2:34-35; Rom 8:34; 1 Cor 15:25; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3, 1:5, 5:6, 7:17, 7:21, 8:1, 10:12-13, 12:2). They clearly saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Psalm 110, as did Jesus himself (Matt 22:41-46). 

Second, the persistent use of the divine name “Yahweh” in this Psalm connects the God of this Psalm with the God of the Pentateuch and the broader story of Israel. Whoever this King-Priest is, the one thing Israel would surely have known was that he was the fulfillment of the promise of God to their father Abraham to bless the nations through his offspring. 

Finally, though this King-Priest is in a category all by himself, the pattern of Israel’s leaders submitting to the Yahweh who subdued their enemies is a long one. Joshua made this truth explicit hundreds of years before David when he told the people that if they loved the Lord their God and clung to him, he would drive out their enemies before them (Josh 22:1-6, 23:1-16). Clinging was always the key to conquering; failing to cling was the harbinger of defeat. This means that the vision of God for the destiny of Israel was always that he would rule and that his people, particularly his rulers, would walk in loving submission to him. David saw the fulfillment of this vision in the person of the great King-Priest of Israel. 

Relevance to my Ministry Context: I am presently preaching through the Pentateuch as a way to prepare our people for a thorough study of the book of Hebrews. Since Psalm 110 plays such a significant role in that book, I plan to preach one sermon on this Psalm at some point in our journey through Hebrews 1. The allusion to Psalm 110 in Hebrews 1:3 and the direct quote of it in 1:13 form an inclusio which gives meaning to the whole string of quotes in this chapter. Psalm 110 is then alluded to no less than six times in the remainder of the book which has caused some to suggest that Hebrews is a homiletic commentary on Psalm 110 (Attridge, 26). Thus, gaining a better understanding of this Psalm will help the people I serve gain a better understanding of Hebrews, which in turn will hopefully deepen their love of and fidelity to Jesus himself, the great King-Priest. 

The practical implications of this Psalm for the life of our church are much the same as they were for its original hearers or singers, as it were. First, our people will see that God has placed a great King-Priest over us who will rule the nations at the command of God the Father. Second, our people will see that God is in control of all things and that he will fulfill the work he has begun in Israel and Christ. Indeed, as he was faithful to the nation of Israel, so he will be faithful to the church. Third, our people will see that submission is still the key to entering into the joy of God in Christ, as Christ submits to the Father and we submit ourselves to Christ. Finally, our people will be motivated to joyfully surrender themselves to this great King-Priest and serve him all the days of their lives. 

Admittedly, these applications are not in line with the modern propensity to preach about “four ways to deal with stress,” or what have you. However, as the people of God behold the greatness and glory of God, the sight of him will put other things into perspective. I will likely take a few minutes to give at least one example of how these things can impact normal, everyday life, but then again I may simply exalt the glory of Jesus as high as I can and allow the Holy Spirit to help his people figure out what it means for them. Father knows best, and when the time comes I will do my best to submit to him in this. 

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