Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Psalm 110

Christians know Psalm 110 as the psalm quoted in the New Testament more often than any other psalm, although those quotations continually draw on just three of its seven verses (Year D, 75). Of the various ways in which it is put to use, it is perhaps best known by way of the brain teaser with which Jesus finally silences the several parties in the Jerusalem temple complex who take turns challenging his authority with their own doctrinal litmus tests. Taking those several pericopes together as a series of huddles that only result in one failure after another, these encounters are really quite (divinely) comical. The psalm in question is "of David" (according to the superscription), who was inspired by the Holy Spirit (Mark 10:36); hence, Jesus posits that the psalm's authority is indisputable. Who then is the "Lord" who is to be seated in this psalm, the Lord who is clearly differentiated from the David himself (who calls him "my Lord"), and from the "LORD" Yahweh, who addresses this "Lord" and invites him to be seated?

In his question in the Gospels, Jesus associates this Lord with the Messiah; indeed, he well knows it is himself, but for now he keeps what Wm. Wrede termed "the Messianic secret;" he does not declare himself openly, even at this late juncture. What is most interesting about this verse is the sense in which this Messianic Lord is at once enthroned and placed in a passive posture, seated until Yahweh brings about the submission of his enemies. The passive seating and waiting is mentioned in the Gospels during Passion week, the words for inaction and suffering sharing a root, of course, and while this is a royal enthronement psalm, one that predicts a sure victory and vindication of the "Lord," we should never forget, not even at Christmas, what sort of King this suffering Lord is, or what the manner of his victory shall be.

The second verse clearly indicates the expansion of the Davidic King's reign into hostile territory: "Rule in the midst of your foes" (v. 2b), though again, it is the LORD Yahweh who is the active agent in sending out from Zion the royal scepter —"your mighty scepter" — that belongs to the newly enthroned Lord (v. 2a).

The third verse anticipates a future assault, actively led by the Messianic King, on "the holy mountains" (which here must refer to those surrounding Jerusalem or Zion, not Mount Zion itself). Moreover, this verse presupposes two assemblies that are friendly and allied with the King: first, his "forces" which he shall lead in battle, and second, his "people (who) will offer themselves willingly" on that future day (v. 3). The reference to the holy mountains is sufficiently terrestrial to make it clear that these willing people are on earth, anticipating the Lord's reign, but the word "forces" is sufficiently ambiguous and the reference to the seat at Yahweh's right hand is sufficiently heavenly that we have good reason to conclude these forces proceed from heaven itself, the sorts of forces of whom we catch but the barest glimpse or hear a scant whisper from time to time (2Samuel 5:24; 2Kings 6:17; Matthew 26:53).

The promise of "the dew of your youth" doubtless signals fresh energy, vitality, and vigor, and perhaps even a reversal of aging itself — think of the sign given to Hezekiah at his healing: the shadow on the sundial retreating several intervals; from a New Testament perspective, it is almost impossible not to associate the cavernous "womb of the morning" with the quintessential restorative event of Jesus' resurrection from the empty tomb.

The Messianic King is now declared a Priest as well (v. 4), which conflates these roles in a way that is only rarely seen in Scripture. King Saul's priestly act of offering a sacrifice was denounced as rash and cost him dearly; the favored King David was never deemed as priest as such, but his music, his psalms, and his dancing certainly verged on the priestly. More importantly, we see such a positive conflation of these roles in the mysterious character of Melchizedek, "King ... of Salem" and "priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18). While the Epistle to the Hebrews bears the primary responsibility for exegeting and explaining the significance of this (at once new, ancient, and eternal) priesthood, here we should simply note the absolute, irreversible, and enduring character of Yahweh's oath: "The LORD has worn and will not change his mind; you are a priest forever ..." (v. 4).

Thus far (vv. 1–4), the use of the second person pronoun "you" has referred to the Messianic Priest-King, the "Lord" who is seated at the LORD's right hand. In what remains of the psalm, however, the Messianic Lord is mentioned solely in the third person. The reference is to "The Lord," followed by five nominative occurrences of the indefinite pronoun "he." Now that the Lord is discussed as "he," however, rather than addressed as "you," the first statement of this closing section begs the question: Who is now playing the role of the second person in this phrase: "The Lord is at your right hand"? The reference to "your right hand" would seem to suggest the Messianic Priest-King has taken the seat offered him by the LORD Yahweh, and thus it is now the LORD Yahweh who is being addressed. There is certainly nothing to prevent such an interpretation.

Another possibility, however, which is additive, not exclusive, is that "you," the reader or the listener or the gathered assembly — though the pronoun is in the singular — are being assured that the Lord (let us identify him clearly as the Christ) is at your right hand, in the same way that David the psalmist claims elsewhere of Yahweh: "I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved" (Psalm 16:8); or as the psalmist Asaph says to Elohim: "I am continually with you; you hold my right hand" (Psalm 73:23).

Such a reading, at once doxological and pastoral, would situate the Messianic Lord in between the LORD Yahweh and the individual, singular reader or listener, with the implication that all the fearsome actions he will in future undertake will be executed on behalf of both parties, namely, the Sovereign LORD (whose sovereignty is vindicated by the shattering of lesser kings and of "heads over the wide earth") and the adherent who stands hard by the Lord's right hand and keeps the Lord at his own. For in every respect, the right hand position indicates loyalty, allegiance, faith, and trust, in contrast to the "sinistral" left hand position, and in that (right) attitude, the adherent is assured of safety, unlike the enemies (v. 1), the "corpses," and the shattered heads (v. 6) that will pile up under the Lord's executive judgment.

The final verse is by most accounts obscure, but is nevertheless undeniably pastoral (especially in contrast to the head-knocking that has gone before). The image of the Lord drinking "from the stream by the path" suggests: (1) refreshment after the exertion of a hard fought victory; (2) a final satisfaction of the longing for the presence of the LORD—as that of a deer thirsting for flowing streams (Psalm 42:1); (3) that the clunking of principal, presidential, and prime ministerial heads will reflect the efficiency of Gideon's army, the three hundred who lapped like dogs and routed the entire Midianite army, and will therefore glorify the LORD for his decisive role in the victory; and finally, (4) that the dreadful image of the nations being filled with corpses will not so befoul this stream as to put the Lord off drinking from it. On the contrary, this refreshing image suggests an actual purifying of the environment by the means of the Lord's judgment, rather than its desolation or pollution.

"Therefore, he will lift up his head" (v. 7). In the New Testament, the Messiah directs his disciples to lift up their heads when they see the signs of his coming, "for your redemption draws near." The   is certainly suggested here in this erect and expectant posture, but clearly, if this phrase is to be read positively, it is the lifting up of the Lord's head—let us say, his coronation to complete his enthronement (v. 1)—that is in view. In short, it is from his exaltation, from his rest and refreshment, from his victory that ours shall arise. In preaching this psalm at Christmas, let us proclaim that very coronation!

On the other hand, a similar phrase is used in the Joseph narrative regarding both the happy restoration of Pharaoh's cupbearer to his position of honor (Gen 40:13) and of the terrible end that will meet Pharoah's baker (40:19). In the unlikely event the phrase used here at the conclusion of the psalm is to be read negatively, as an extension of the previous prophecies of the vanquishing of the Lord's enemies, then we may need to look even beyond the Reformed canon to that wonderful Psalm 151 that lies "outside the number" in the LXX and recall David's victory over the blaspheming Goliath, an episode that reads like a typological postscript to not only the Psalter but to revelation—and Revelation—itself.

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