Psalm 110:1 — A Case Study for the NT use of the OT

Jason Dulle

The NT interprets the OT in some very interesting ways. Consider, for example, Jesus’ and Peter’s interpretation of Psalm 110:1:

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”

The context is always determinative for interpretation, so let me quote the entire psalm:

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” 2 The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! 3 Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours. 4 The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” 5 The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. 6 He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. 7 He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head. (Psalm 110:1-7, ESV)

It’s important to understand the structure of this verse. The person speaking in verse 1a is a prophetic voice in the royal court, delivering a message from YHWH (“LORD”) to the prophet’s “lord.” The prophet’s lord is the king, David. Verses 1b and 4 constitute YHWH’s message to David via the unnamed prophet. In verses 2-3 the prophet addresses David, and then speaks to God about David in verses 5-7.

In the original context, then, the “Lord” was David, and the person who spoke the words, “The LORD says to my Lord” was the unnamed prophet speaking to David. When we turn to the NT, however, the original context is turned on its head. According to Jesus and Peter, the “Lord” is a reference to the Messiah, and the person who spoke the words, “The LORD said to my Lord” was David (See Matthew 22:43-45; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44; Acts 2:34-36).

Jesus did not invent this interpretation of Psalm 110:1. The Jews already had a long-standing interpretive tradition of identifying the “Lord” as the coming Messiah. They reasoned that if what was spoken applied to David, it also applied to all of His royal descendents, including (and especially so) the promised Messiah. As for attributing the words of verse 1a to David, presumably it was reasoned that since David was the author of the psalm, He could be cited as having said those words. A similar phenomenon appears elsewhere in the NT when the words of YHWH are attributed to the prophet who authored the book containing YHWH’s words, or when the words of prophets are attributed to YHWH.

Be that as it may, there is something else even more troubling than these semi-understandable changes to the original meaning. In the NT, Jesus and Peter appeal to Psalm 110:1 as an argument for the deity of Christ. It was common knowledge that the Messiah would be the son of David. So Jesus asked those present, “How is it that the experts in the law say that the Christ is David’s son? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, said, ‘The Lord said to my lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.” If David himself calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Mark 12:35b-37a).

To understand Jesus’ argument one must understand ancient-near-eastern culture (ANE). According to ANE culture the father is superior to his offspring. Why, then, does David call the Messiah his Lord? To call him such implies that his son is superior to himself, which is unthinkable. This was a paradox that could only be solved if one granted that the Messiah was more than a mere man—He was divine as well. What I find troubling about this argument for the deity of Christ is that it only works if one takes the OT passage out of context. One has to change the identity of the original subjects in order for it to work. And yet, the crowds found the argument powerful and persuasive.

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