Though I don’t want to understate the complexities in Psalm 110 and I realise I am swimming against the stream of scholarship, still, I am perplexed by evangelical attempts to avoid Davidic authorship of Psalm 110 and/or find its fulfillment in anything but an exclusive and direct reference to the Messiah. This is even more odd considering evangelical scholarship indeed affirms Jesus at very least as the “ultimate” fulfillment of the Psalm.
The Non-Messianic Psalm 110?
As one example, DTS Professor Gordon Johnston in Jesus the Messiah refers to Psalm 110 as a “royal enthronement psalm” (p91) that is applied to any and all kings from the line of David. However, since Jesus is the ultimate Davidic king, Psalm 110 applies to Him ultimately, though indirectly.
Johnston argues that though the Psalm was not originally directly about the Messiah, when Ps 110 was placed in the Psalter, it took on an eschatological and messianic meaning since the Psalter was completed after the exile. A Psalm originally about David’s son now expresses hope for a future son. I would agree with Johnston’s approach here with reference to some of the other Psalms, but I think there are serious problems with such an approach with Psalm 110.
(I don’t mean to pick out Johnston and demonize the guy. This rant could apply to any of the many evangelical scholars who take this view. I simply chose Johnston as I was re-reading his work on the Psalms while preparing for teaching Ps 110).
As to the origin of the Psalm, Johnston considers two non-messianic options as possible:
Option #1. A prophet delivered this Psalm to David on the day of his enthronement in Jerusalem. The Psalm is thus not “by David” but “about/concerning David”. Messianic fulfillment comes through reapplying a Psalm about David to each future king, culminating in the final king.
The original Hebrew would allow such a translation but it runs into problems.
- While the Hebrew behind “by David” could legitimately be translated as “concerning David”, it is unlikely since we do not translate other Psalm headings in this way. For example, the Psalms by Asaph are not “concerning” him, they are clearly “by” him.
- Most conclusive in my mind, is the attestation in the New Testament that David is the author (Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42; Acts 2:34).
Option #2. David composed the Psalm for Solomon, “recounting God’s address to Solomon at the time of his enthronement in Jerusalem” (p93). But how can David call Solomon his “lord” (Ps 110:1)? It is simple, “as David relinquished the throne to his son, it would have been appropriate for him to refer to Solomon as ‘my lord’ on that occasion” (p93). This is how any of Solomon’s other subjects would have addressed him (1 Kings 2:38; 3:17, 26), so why not David as he passed on the crown.
How would messianic fulfillment work, then? Johnston argues that Scriptures’ silence on the identity of the individual was a “divinely inspired vagueness” that allows for an ultimate messianic fulfillment. That is to say, since the Psalm could be applied to any Davidic king, it can be applied fittingly to the messiah: “God’s address to the original Davidic king applied equally – if not ultimately – to [the Messiah] in a generic sense” (p94). While this option appears more reasonable at first, I think it is untenable when considered further.
Psalm 110 in the New Testament
I think that the NT’s use of Ps 110 makes Davidic authorship and Messianic referent certain.
First, Peter in Acts 2:34-35 reads “sit at my right hand” literally, and infers that since David did not ascend to the heavens but Jesus did, that Jesus is the exclusive referent of the Psalm.
The second point requires more unpacking. Here is Mark 12:35-37:
And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.’
David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly.
If we want to read the Scriptures as inspired, I think these texts make Johnston’s suggestions impossible for two simple reasons:
- Jesus says the Psalm is about the Messiah, and no one objects (Mk 12:35). Johnston thinks his view of the original referent being unnamed explains and justifies the New Testament assertion that God spoke to the Messiah in Ps 110:1 as “theologically and hermeneutically valid” (p94). But I think Jesus goes further. He doesn’t say His reading is “hermeneutically valid”, He expects His hearers to agree the referent of Psalm 110 is the Christ. Why not take the NT’s assertions more plainly?
- Jesus’ argument for direct fulfillment was irrefutable. Matthew closes his account, “no one was able to answer him a word” (Matt 22:46). In the context, Jesus is responding to the questions from His opponents intending to stump Him by asking a question of His own. How can the Messiah be David’s son if David calls the Messiah his “Lord” (Mk 12:35-37)? In other words, how can the Messiah be David’s greater (“Lord”) if he is David’s lesser (“son”/descendant)? Here’s the rub: no one can answer Him! Jesus’ question stumped His hearers. However, if Johnston is correct, Jesus’ hearers had an incredibly simple answer that would totally undermine Jesus’ head-scratcher:
“David wrote Psalm 110 originally about Solomon, and it’s natural that David called Solomon his lord since he had just taken the throne. Simple.
Gee, that was easy; got another one, Jesus?”
Now in no way do I think Johnston (and others like him) would be so dismissive toward Jesus, but I think his view leads to such a conclusion. So what does Johnston say about Jesus’ use of the passage?
Granted, it was unusual for one who was the king and founder of a dynasty [David] to refer to a descendant [Solomon] as his lord. Yet the unusual nature of this setting is why Jesus later raises the question about his passage and ultimately, he was right to raise the question and contemplate its significance.
Nevertheless, this did not mean that David had not originally addressed his son Solomon (94).
See what this view does to the Jesus’ question-argument? It totally deflates it.
This. just. doesn’t. work.
The interpreter is left with two options:
- The NT misreads and misuses the Psalm. Typological reading, though applicable elsewhere, is out of the question, given the logic of the above NT quotations. Also, the popular idea of a further and new divine revelation of the Psalm’s meaning to the NT authors is also out of the question as the authors don’t appeal to further revelation, but argue for original authorial intent of the Psalm.
- The NT reads Psalm 110 rightly as a direct prophecy of the Messiah.