“The Word Became Flesh…”: New Testament Christology, part 1

John 1:14 and New Testament Christology

Our final area of study in this series is the relation of John 1:14 to the wider view of Christ, held by early believers, and as expressed in the New Testament. To what extent does the Johannine Christology of the Prologue (and its underlying Logos-poem) reflect the beliefs and thought of first-century Christians? In what ways does this Christology represent a natural development of the early Gospel traditions, or should it be characterized more as a distinctly Johannine creative expression?

Due to the scope of the study, which involves much of the New Testament, I will not be going into the kind of exegetical detail that I did in the first two divisions. Rather, the study will proceed as a survey, looking at the more salient points and citing certain references and phrasing when appropriate. This study will build upon the results from the prior articles, framed in terms of the Johannine Christology found in the Prologue (and particularly verse 14). It is to be divided into three parts, focusing on:

    • The Sonship of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (and Acts)
    • The influence of Wisdom tradition on early Christology, and
    • The specific idea of the Divine pre-existence of Jesus Christ

Here, in Part 1, we begin with the first of these topics.

The Sonship of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels

John 1:14 speaks of the incarnation (“became flesh”) of the Word/Wisdom (Logos) of God, even though, throughout the remainder of the Gospel (and in the Letters), the principal identification is of Jesus as the Son of God. The word lo/go$ has considerable theological importance in the Johannine writings, but, outside of the Gospel Prologue, the profound Christological use of the term is, at best, only indirectly alluded to or implied. By contrast, the Gospel repeatedly refers to Jesus as the Son (ui(o/$) who was sent (by God the Father) from heaven to earth. This theology implies the idea of the Son’s pre-existence; Jesus’ words in 8:58 and 17:5, 24 state the Christological point even more directly.

In the Prologue, the Gospel writer appears to have taken an existing ‘Logos-poem’, developing and applying it to the context of the Gospel he was composing (or had composed). The Logos-poem itself draws upon Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom tradition, involving the personification of Divine Wisdom (cf. Prov 8:22-31), but expressed through the philosophical/theological use of the term lo/go$, rather than utilizing the term sofi/a (“wisdom”) itself. This usage of the word lo/go$ in the Johannine Logos-poem has much in common with the way the term is used, for example, in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, as we have discussed.

In verses 14-18 of the Prologue, the Gospel writer makes the transition from the term lo/go$ (i.e., the pre-existent Word/Wisdom of God) to the term ui(o/$ (i.e., the Son of God). This transition is enabled through the use of the adjective monogenh/$ (“only [Son]”) in v. 14 (cf. also v. 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9). The idea of Jesus as the incarnate Logos is absent from the Synoptic Gospels; nor does the term monogenh/$ occur (in this theological/Christological sense). However, the idea that Jesus is the unique Son of God is found at various points in the wider Gospel Tradition, going back to the early historical tradition and the earliest expressions of Christian belief.

In this article, we will examine the outlines of this belief in the Divine Sonship of Jesus, considering how it may relate to the Johannine Christology (of the Prologue, etc). I wish to focus on three areas:

    • The early exaltation Christology—viz., the Sonship of Jesus defined by his resurrection and exaltation (to God’s right hand in heaven)
    • The identification of Jesus as God’s Son at the baptism
    • The birth of Jesus (as God’s Son) in the Infancy Narratives
1. The early exaltation Christology

By all accounts, the earliest Christology can be characterized as an exaltation Christology—that is, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God was defined primarily in terms of his resurrection and exaltation to heaven. This exaltation resulted in his obtaining a status and position at the “right hand” of God in heaven (cf. Mk 14:62 par; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22; Heb 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2). The early Gospel proclamation (kerygma), as we find it preserved in the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts (and elsewhere in the New Testament), tends to define the Sonship of Jesus primarily in terms of this exaltation—see, for example, the declaration in Acts 2:36, the citations of Ps 110:1 and 2:7 (in the specific context of the resurrection) in Acts 2:34-35 and 13:33 (cp. Heb 1:5; 5:5), and Paul’s statements in 1 Thes 1:10 and Rom 1:3-4 (the latter perhaps quoting from an early credal statement).

Within the Gospel Tradition itself, the identification of Jesus as the exalted Son tends to be framed by way of the title “(the) Son of Man” (cf. Mk 13:26, 32; 14:61-62 par; Matt 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:36ff pars; 25:1). This Gospel usage of the expression “(the) Son of Man” ([o(] ui(o\$ [tou=] a)nqrw/pou), which unquestionably derives from authentic historical tradition (and Jesus’ own usage), is a complex matter. Four aspects of its use must be recognized:

    • As a self-reference, a circumlocution for the pronoun “I”, so that, when Jesus speaks of “the son of man”, he is simply referring to himself
    • The Son of Man sayings, where Jesus uses the expression to identify with the suffering and mortality of the human condition
    • The Passion statements and predictions, where the human mortality of Jesus (the Son of Man) refers specifically to his own impending death (and resurrection)
    • The eschatological Son of Man sayings, in which Jesus seems to identify himself with a heavenly figure who will appear on earth and usher in the end-time Judgment

All four of these aspects are combined in the famous declaration by Jesus in Mk 14:62 par, which is clearly influenced by Daniel 7:13-14, and thus refers indirectly to the idea of Jesus’ exaltation. For more on the Gospel use of the title “Son of Man”, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with my series on the Son of Man sayings; see also my note on Dan 7:13-14.

The Gospel of John preserves this exaltation Christology, but adds to it a highly developed pre-existence Christology. The two aspects of Jesus’ Sonship are thus balanced, much as we see, for example, in the ‘Christ hymn’ of Phil 2:6-11. In the Johannine theological idiom, the exalted status which Jesus receives (following his death and resurrection) is understood as a return—that is, to the glory which he, the Son, possessed in the beginning (17:5). The “Son of Man” references in the Gospel of John are instructive in this regard (1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 9:35; 12:23, 34; 13:31). They refer not only to the exaltation (“lifting high”) of the Son of Man, but to his coming down to earth (from heaven)—i.e., during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The pairing of the related verbs katabai/nw (“step down”) and a)nabai/nw (“step up”) highlight this dual-aspect. In the Johannine Gospel, the emphasis is squarely on the Son’s heavenly origin.

The Son’s heavenly origin is clearly the focus in the Gospel Prologue as well. The emphasis on his pre-existent glory (do/ca) balances the traditional idea of Jesus’ post-resurrection exaltation, as does the specific image of the Logos/Son possessing this glory “alongside” (para/) the Father. One is immediately reminded of the traditional idiom of the exalted Jesus standing “at the right hand” (i.e., alongside) God in heaven (cf. above).

2. The identification of Jesus as God’s Son at the baptism

The Gospel Tradition also expresses the idea of Jesus’ Divine Sonship through the specific tradition(s) surrounding his baptism. In particular, the heavenly voice at the baptism declares, quite unequivocally, that Jesus is God’s Son (Mk 1:11; par Matt 3:17; Lk 3:22), a declaration that is essentially repeated in the Synoptic Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:7 par Matt 17:5 [where the declarations are identical]; Lk 9:35).

In my view, this idea of Jesus’ Sonship should be understood in a Messianic sense. This seems particularly clear by the Lukan version of the declaration in the Transfiguration scene:

“This is my Son, the (one) gathered out [i.e., chosen]…”

The use of the participle e)klelegme/no$ (from the verb e)kle/gomai) unquestionably has Messianic significance, referring to Jesus as the “Chosen (One)”. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the Gospel writer (trad. Luke) has this in mind, given the occurrence of the related adjective e)klekto/$ in 23:35: “…the Anointed [xristo/$] of God, the Chosen (One)”. Interestingly, in some manuscripts, the Johannine version of the heavenly declaration at the baptism (Jn 1:34) also uses the substantive adjective e)klekto/$ rather than the noun ui(o/$ (“Son”):

    • “This is the Son [ui(o/$] of God”
      [Majority Text]
    • “This is the Chosen (One) [e)klekto/$] of God”
      [the reading of Ë5vid a* and other versional witnesses]
    • “This is the Chosen Son of God”
      [a conflation of the two readings attested in a number of versional witnesses]

The original Gospel tradition almost certainly alludes to Isaiah 42:1, Jesus’ baptism (marking the beginning of his time of ministry) being seen as a fulfillment of this prophetic passage—the heavenly declaration corresponding to v. 1a, and the descent of the Spirit to v. 1b. For more on this connection, cf. my earlier study in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”. Jesus is thus identified with the Deutero-Isaian Servant figure, and as a Messianic Prophet, chosen by God and anointed by His Spirit. Again, it is Luke’s Gospel that brings out this Messianic identification most clearly, identifying Jesus, in particular, with the anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff (4:18-19, cf. also 7:22 par). Cf. Parts 23 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

By the time the Gospels were completed, Jesus’ Messianic identity as the royal/Davidic figure type (cf. Parts 68 of “Yeshua the Anointed”) had completely eclipsed that of the Prophet figure-types. It is thus not surprising that the Sonship emphasized in the baptism scene would come to be understood in terms of the royal/Davidic type as well. The textual tradition of the Lukan version of the heavenly declaration (3:22) contains a variant reading to this effect, whereby the heavenly voice quotes Psalm 2:7. Certainly, in the Lukan and Matthean Infancy Narratives (cf. below), Jesus is identified exclusively as the Davidic Messiah, with his Sonship defined on those terms.

The place of the baptism of Jesus (and the heavenly declaration) within the Johannine Christology is problematic and remains debated by scholars. The main event at the baptism (in all four Gospel accounts) is the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus (Jn 1:32-33). In the Synoptics, the clear implication is that the presence of the Spirit is tied to Jesus’ Messianic identity (Isa 42:1; 61:1), empowering him to fulfill his ministry, working miracles as a Spirit-anointed Messianic Prophet (according to figure-types of Elijah and Moses). Luke’s Gospel particularly emphasizes this role of the Spirit, in relation to Jesus’ identity as a Messianic Prophet (4:1ff, 14, 18-19ff, 24ff [note the Elijah/Elisha references in vv. 25-27]).

However, in the Gospel of John, both Jesus’ Sonship and the role of the Spirit are described very differently, and the traditional material preserved in the baptism scene thus needs to be interpreted and explained accordingly. I am devoting an extensive supplemental note to this subject.

3. The Birth of Jesus (as God’s Son) in the Infancy Narratives

In the detailed exegesis of Jn 1:14 given previously, in the articles of the first two divisions of our study, I discussed the evidence in support of the expression “became flesh” (sa/rc e)ge/neto) as referring to a human birth—viz., of the birth of the Logos as a human being. For many Christians, this would simply be taken for granted, given the tendency to harmonize 1:14 with the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives—thus assuming that 1:14 refers to Jesus’ birth.

There is, however, no real indication that the Gospel of John, in any way, has been influenced by the Matthean and/or Lukan narrative (or any of their underlying traditions). The Gospel writer certainly was aware of the expectation that the royal/Davidic Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (7:42), but there is no evidence that he understood Jesus to have been born there—indeed, the author’s handling of the matter in 7:41-43 could be taken as suggesting the opposite.

More seriously, there are two ways in which the Gospel of John differs markedly from the Infancy Narratives: (1) the lack of emphasis on Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, and (2) the Johannine emphasis on Jesus’ birth as an incarnation. As we conclude Part 1 of this article, let us briefly consider each of these points.

The identification of Jesus as the “Anointed (One)” (xristo/$), that is, the Messiah, is central to the Johannine theology—as, indeed, it was for virtually all early Christians. However, as I have discussed (particularly in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), there were a number of different Messianic figure-types present in Judaism during the first centuries B.C./A.D., and these should not be reduced to the single (royal/Davidic) type that subsequently came to dominate eschatological and Messianic thought. In 7:40-43 (discussed above), there is a distinction made between “the Prophet” (that is, a Messianic Prophet, patterned after Moses) and “the Anointed One” (the Davidic Messiah). Similar distinctions are made in 1:20-25.

It is not clear whether the title o( xristo/$, throughout the Gospel, refers strictly to Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, or whether it has broader or more general Messianic significance. In any case, Johannine Christians would have identified Jesus with all relevant Messianic figure-types, both “the Prophet” (esp. patterned after Moses) and the Davidic Messiah. The Gospel explicitly identifies Jesus as “the King of Israel” (1:49), and, like the Synoptic tradition, beginning with the ‘triumphal entry’ and throughout the Passion narrative, gives certain emphasis to the theme of Jesus’ kingship (12:13, 15; 18:33ff, 39; 19:3, 12-21). In my view, the title o( xristo/$, in the Gospel of John, entails both Prophet (Moses) and Kingly (Davidic) aspects; overall, however, it is the association with Moses that is specifically established in the Prologue, and which is more dominant which the thematic structure and theology of the Gospel.

This is to be contrasted with the Infancy Narratives, where the Davidic Messiahship of Jesus is unquestionably given emphasis, and which is tied directly to Jesus’ birth—Matt 1:1ff, 20; 2:1-6ff (citing Mic 5:2), 15; Luke 1:27ff, 69; 2:1-4ff, 10-11ff. In the Lukan narrative, the Sonship of Jesus is defined by this particular Messianic paradigm, as the statements in 1:32-33 and 35 make abundantly clear. There is no real sense, in either narrative, that Jesus’ birth represents the incarnation of a pre-existent Divine being; to be sure, the Lukan and Matthean accounts are typically read that way, but this largely under the harmonizing influence of Jn 1:14.

The Johannine confessional statements (cf. especially in 11:27 and 20:31) effectively summarize the Johannine theology: Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah) and the Son of God. He is, indeed, the Messiah (both Prophet and King), but also something more—the eternal and pre-existent Son of God. In Parts 2 and 3, we will consider the New Testament parallels to this pre-existence Christology, focusing (in Part 2) on the influence of Wisdom tradition on early Christology, and evidence for this outside of the Johannine writings.

January 6: Psalm 89:51-53

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:50-53, continued

(Verse 50 was discussed in the previous note.)

Verses 51-52 [50-51]

“Remember, my Lord, (the) scorn of your servants!
I bear in my bosom all (the) shots of (the) peoples,
(by) which your hostile (one)s cast scorn, O YHWH,
(by) which they scorn (the) heel-steps of your anointed!”

In addition to calling on YHWH to remember His binding agreement (covenant), and the sacred oath by which He made it (v. 50), the Psalmist now appeals to the shameful treatment which God’s people have received from the surrounding nations. Such taunting and disgraceful insults, toward God’s people, ultimately reflect on God Himself. By insulting YHWH’s people (“your servants”), the nations are also insulting YHWH.

The term used to express this shameful treatment is hP*r=j# (“scorn”), referring to a taunting insult, often in the sense of casting blame on someone. The word is frequently used in the Psalms, in the context of attacks on the protagonist (by his wicked adversaries), or of the suffering of the righteous generally. Part of the taunt doubtlessly involves rebuking Israel for its trust in YHWH, since the people have endured defeat and destruction, exile and disgrace, in spite of their trust.

The related verb [r^j* (“cast blame/scorn”) is used twice in verse 52, emphasizing two specific points which are intended (by the Psalmist) to prompt YHWH to take action: (1) those who are casting scorn on His people are His enemies (“your hostile ones,” those hostile to you), and (2) they cast scorn on the one whom He has anointed as His chosen servant. The last point presumably refers to mockery that is specifically leveled at the Davidic king, who, in the person of Jehoiachin, was led off in exile to Babylon; the expression “(the) heel-steps (or heel-prints) of your anointed” may refer, somewhat literally, to the king’s tracks as he is taken off to Babylon. It would be natural for the enemies of Israel/Judah to mock the defeated and exiled monarch.

The Psalmist personalizes this suffering, in the second line of verse 51, by declaring that he bears the pain (in his own “bosom”) of such taunts. The author-protagonist of the Psalms frequently functions as a figure representing the people as a whole (particularly the righteous ones of the people). As such, he feels the suffering of his people; and, indeed, throughout history, many Israelites and Jews have been so inclined to personalize the communal and corporate suffering of the people.

I follow Dahood (II, p. 320) in reading MT <yB!r^ as a form of br^ III, denoting a projectile, something “shot/cast” (vb bb^r* II), such as an arrow. The vocalization would then be yB@r^, with the <– explained as an enclitic suffix—easily to be confused with the sufformative <– (<y-) that marks the plural. The Psalmist feels the arrows (of scorn) cast by the nations/peoples, as they have penetrated (figuratively) into his bosom.

Verse 53 [52]

“Blessed (be) YHWH into (the) distant (future)!
/m@a*w+ /m@a*!”

The Psalm concludes with a benediction, giving blessing to YHWH. The simple traditional form, however, is more significant thematically than it might at first seem. Two points of vocabulary find an echo throughout the Psalm.

First is the temporal expression <l*oul=, “into/unto (the) distant (future)”, which was used to express the enduring character of the Davidic kingship (vv. 5, 29, 37-38), even as the heavens themselves endure (v. 2-3). The enduring character of the heavens is due to the firmness/faithfulness of YHWH Himself, and this is also true of the promise(s) to David.

Second, we have the final word, /m@a* (°¹m¢n), repeated as a couplet (/m@a*w+ /m@a*). The term defies easy translation, and so is often simply transliterated in English— “Amen and amen!”. However, this obscures the derivation of /m@a* from the root /ma (“be/make firm”), and its relation to the noun hn`Wma$. The noun hn`Wma$ (“firmness”) is the central keyword of the Psalm, occurring 7 times (vv. 2-3, 6, 9, 25, 34, 50), while the verb /m^a* occurs twice (vv. 29, 38), and the related noun tm#a# (also with the basic meaning “firmness”) once (v. 15).

The rhetorical purpose of this repeated use of the /ma word-group relates to the context of the Psalmist’s prayer to YHWH. He hopes to see reaffirmed God’s covenant-promise to David, regarding the kingship (and thus also the kingdom for Israel). In terms of the exilic (and/or post-exilic) setting of the Psalm (in its final form), this is another way of referring to the restoration of Israel, presented in an early Messianic framework. The final words of the Psalm thus represent one last prayer-wish: that YHWH would act to bring about the restoration for His people. As an exclamatory declaration, the adjective /m@a* (“firm,” i.e., reliable, trustworthy) allows the hearer to affirm the validity of a statement (or agreement, etc). There is no good way to translate such an exclamation precisely; rough approximations would be “surely!”, “certainly!”, and the like, while, as an imprecation, something like “may it be so!” or “let it truly be (so)!” captures the basic sense.

Comments for Christmas

Essential to the Messianic expectation of Israelites and Jews in the first century B.C./A.D. was the idea that God’s people would be delivered from the oppression of those who are hostile to them—especially by the wicked and godless ones among the nations who have been dominate over them for centuries. The Gospel Infancy narratives reflect this aspect of the Messianic hope in various ways. The hostility toward God’s people is expressed vividly as an integral part of the narrative in Matthew 2. The specific idea of hostility toward God’s anointed (m¹šîaµ, v. 52b) is certainly a key element in the narrative, as Herod seeks to eliminate the promised Davidic Messiah by killing all of the infants born in and around Bethlehem.

Closer to the thought and expression of the Psalm are certain verses in the Lukan hymns—the Magnificat and Benedictus—such as we looked at briefly in the previous note. The theme of deliverance for God’s people from their enemies is clearly present in the first section of the Benedictus (vv. 68-75), being part of the salvation and redemption (vv. 68-69) which God is bringing about through the promised Davidic Messiah (“in the house of David His child”). The thought is made explicit in verse 71:

“…salvation out of our enemies, and out of (the) hand of all (those) hating us”

The syntax of the poem clearly ties this deliverance to the person of the Davidic Messiah, connecting verse 71 with v. 69 (v. 70 being parenthetical):

“And He (has) raised a horn of salvation for us, in the house of David His child…
salvation out of [i.e. from] our enemies…”

The thought is repeated in verse 74, this time with the deliverance being connected to the covenant made by YHWH (and made binding by an oath):

“…to remember His holy agreement,
(the) oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
(and thus) to give us (to be) without fear,
(hav)ing been rescued out of (the) hand of our enemies…” (vv. 72-74)

Finally, the closing benediction of the Psalm (v. 53) also finds a parallel in the Benedictus, in its opening lines (v. 68):

“Blessed [eu)loghto/$] (is the) Lord, the God of Yisrael,
(in) that He (has) looked upon and (has) made a loosing from (bondage) for His people”

The term lu/trwsi$ (“loosing from [bondage]”) has Messianic significance, referring to the restoration of Israel, as can be seen by its use in Lk 2:38 (with the parallel in v. 25). In the person of Jesus, this deliverance of God’s people from their/our adversaries will be realized, even if not in quite the way that many Israelites and Jews (and even some early Christians) had expected.

All of the hymns, rather naturally, contain a blessing or praise of God, though expressed in different terms, such at the beginning of the Magnificat (vv. 46-47)—

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit leaps (for joy) upon God my Savior!”

or the famous lines of the Angels’ Song (“Gloria in excelsis”):

“Glory to God in the highest (place)s,
and on earth peace among men of (His) good will!”

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

January 1: Psalm 89:36-38

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:29-38, continued

(Verses 31-35 [30-34] were discussed in the previous note.)

Verse 36 [35]

“Once I confirmed (it) sevenfold (by oath), on my holiness—
(see) if I can (now) lie to David!”

The binding agreement (tyr!B=, covenant) has its binding force due to its being ‘hallowed’ by an oath, made before God. Since YHWH Himself is a party to the covenant with David (like that with Israel), He gives the binding oath (swearing “by seven,” vb ub^v*, i.e., with sevenfold force) before Himself, its sacred character being based on His own holiness. If YHWH swore such an oath to David, then how can He now lie to him by saying that the covenant is no longer valid?

The idea of God swearing an oath also defines His very promise here to David; indeed, the second line of v. 36 can be understood as the oath which He swears (line 1). The particle <a!, used as to introduce a conditional clause in vv. 31-32 (cf. the previous note), also is used in oath-formulae, to introduce a solemn declaration (asseveration). I translate it here as “(see) if I…!” — “(see) if I can lie to David!”, meaning “I surely cannot lie to David”.

Verse 37 [36]

“His seed, into (the) distant (future), shall be,
and his throne like the sun before me!”

YHWH confirms again the substance of His oath-promise to David—namely, that both the Davidic line (dynasty) and its kingship will endure, lasting into the far distant future. In the 2 Samuel 7 narrative, this same promise is expressed in vv. 13, 16:

“…and I will set firm [vb /WK] (the) throne of his kingdom unto (the) distant (future)” (v. 13)
“And will be (made) firm [vb /m^a*] your house and your kingdom unto (the) distant (future);
before your face, your throne shall be fixed [vb /WK] unto (the) distant (future).” (v. 16)

Clearly, the language here in the Psalm is patterned after this wording.

Verse 38 [37]

“Like (the) moon, it shall be fixed (into the) distance,
and a royal seat set firmly in (the) cloud(s)!”

The firmness (hn`Wma$) theme of the Psalm continues here in the conclusion of the strophe (and the second division), with the verbs /WK and /m^a* (both essentially meaning “be/set firm”) in parallel, as also in v. 3 (and see the usage in 2 Sam 7:13, 16, above). The imagery and thematic emphasis of this couplet continues from verse 37 (cf. above); indeed, the comparison with the moon here in line 1 matches that with the sun in line 2 of v. 37.

In other respects, the couplets of vv. 37-38 are parallel. In each first line, the promise that the Davidic line (“seed”) would endure is expressed with the noun <l*ou, conceptually representing a period of time lasting far into the distance (i.e., the distant future). However, Dahood (II, p. 318) suggests that in v. 38, <lwy should be vocalized <l!Wu (= <yl!Wu), “infants, children,” in the general sense of “offspring”, i.e., David’s descendants. This would, indeed, be a fitting parallel with the noun “seed” in v. 37.

The second lines in each couplet also match, referring to the seat of rule for David (and his descendants), in exalted imagery that locates this seat in the heavens (much like YHWH’s own throne). This thematic parallelism, between the firmness of the heavens and that of YHWH’s covenant/promise to David, was established in the introduction of the Psalm (vv. 2-5), and characterizes the first two divisions, respectively—i.e., the heavens and God’s heavenly throne, from which He rules over the cosmos (vv. 6-19; esp. 6-9, 14-15); the earthly throne of David, established by God, from which he rules over Israel and the nations (vv. 20-38).

The imagery is clear enough with regard to the noun aS@K! (“throne”) in v. 37; however, the situation is more complicated in v. 38. The noun parallel to aS@K! is du, vocalized in the MT as du@, “witness”. According to this identification, the final line would presumably be understood as: “and (as) a witness set firmly in (the) cloud(s)”, with the participle /m*a$n# (cf. verse 29) also connoting the idea of a faithful and trustworthy witness.

But Dahood (II, p. 318) identifies du here (as in v. 30, cf. the earlier note) with Ugaritic ±d  II, a noun apparently meaning something like “throne, throne room, (royal) dais” (cf. Gordon’s Ugaritic Textbook [UT], Glossary, p. 453, entry 19.1814). Even in the Ugaritic texts, this noun appears to be rare, attested principally from one occurrence in the Kirta epic (Tablet III, column 6, line 22). Whether this same noun (cognate in Hebrew) occurs in the Old Testament remains uncertain, though the occurrences claimed by Dahood, here in vv. 30 and 38, would seem to be warranted by the context. He also notes Ps 60:11; 94:15; 110:1; Isa 47:7; 57:15; Zeph 3:8; Jer 22:30 as possible instances. The Kohler-Baumgartner Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament [HALOT] gives a separate entry (p. 788) for this noun du (vocalized du^?), while admitting the appropriate reservations regarding its occurrence in the Scriptures.

With some reservation as well, I have adopted the suggested identification by Dahood, given the definite (and precisely formal) parallel between aS@K! (“throne”) and du (probably to be vocalized du^). Just as the Davidic throne endures, like the sun in heaven, before God, so his “royal seat” (du) is set firm, like the heavens themselves.

Comments for Christmas

The Messianic interpretation of Davidic covenant, as applied to the person of Jesus by early Christians, gave to the language and imagery of these verses (as also of 2 Sam 7:13-16) an entirely new significance. Two thematic motifs, in particular, may be noted: (1) the idea that Davidic kingship will endure, lasting into the distant future; and (2) the heavenly locale and setting, drawing parallels between the Davidic throne and the throne of YHWH Himself.

On the first point, the tendency to understand the noun <l*ou in the more abstract (and cosmic) sense of “forever, everlasting, eternal/eternity”, allowed for the terminology to be applied to the kingship of Jesus in a different way. The king may have been called God’s “son” in a symbolic sense, but, from the standpoint of early Christology, Jesus’ status as the Son of God was quite different, defined by his exaltation to heaven, where he now resides (and rules) at God’s right hand. This exalted position, and the Christological significance of the Messianic sonship-motif, are established in the Gospel Infancy narratives, long before the resurrection—and even before Jesus’ birth. We can see how the traditional language has been reinterpreted, and applied to Jesus, in Luke 1:32:

“He will be great, and will be called Son of (the) Highest, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father.”

In Greek idiom, an expression such as <l*oul= (“into [the] distant [future]”, i.e., “for ever”) can be rendered as ei)$ tou\$ ai)w=na$ (“into/unto the Ages”), as in Lk 1:33:

“And he will reign as king over the house of Ya’aqob unto the Ages, and of his kingdom there will not be (any) end.”

The Davidic covenant has been transformed: the promise is no longer regarding a continuous line of kingship for David’s descendants, but of an eternal/everlasting kingship for the one exalted Messianic descendant, Jesus Christ.

On the second point noted above, there are only allusions to the heavenly aspect of the Davidic throne (expressed in vv. 37-38 of the Psalm, cf. above). It is, of course, implicit in the exalted status of Jesus (as the Son of God), residing/ruling at God’s right hand in heaven. Otherwise, in the Gospel tradition, this heavenly-dwelling motif applies more to certain of the Son of Man sayings, and to that particular Messianic figure-type (cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”), rather than to the Davidic Messiah. One might, however, detect this theme in the Angelic announcement in Luke 2:10-14. The “good news” of the cosmic ruler’s birth (echoing traditional language used in relation to the birth of Augustus [cf. my earlier note on the parallel]) comes from heaven. Moreover, both heaven and earth are referenced in the canticle of v. 14 (“Gloria in excelsis”), suggesting that the Messiah’s kingdom spans both the heavens (realm of the angels) and the earth (realm of human beings):

“(All) honor (be) in the highest (place)s to God,
and on earth among men of (His) good will [i.e. whom He thinks well of]!”

This kingdom, indeed, matches God’s own dominion as Ruler of the entire cosmos.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

December 31: Psalm 89:31-35

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:29-38, continued

(Verses 29-30 [28-29] were discussed in the previous note.)

Verses 31-32 [30-31]

“If his sons should leave behind my instruction,
and by my just (decision)s should not walk,
if my engraved (decree)s they would violate,
and my commands would not guard,”

This section deals with the question of what happens to YHWH’s binding agreement (covenant) with David, if his royal descendants violate the agreement. The tradition in 2 Samuel 7 (vv. 14-15) also deals with this aspect of the covenant, and these verses in the Psalm function as an exposition of that tradition.

The pair of couplets in vv. 31-32 form a double-conditional clause, each couplet beginning with the conditional particle <a! (“if…”). The covenant is broken when its terms are violated. With regard to the broader covenant, between YHWH and His people Israel, the terms of the covenant are embodied by the commands, regulations, and precepts laid down in the Instruction, or Torah (hr*oT), given by God to Moses, beginning with the “Ten Words”. The covenant with David (and his descendants) is dependent upon the binding agreement made with Israel.

Verse 31 makes clear that violation of the Davidic covenant is defined as violating the Torah, expressed in terms of “leaving” (vb bz~u*, i.e., forsaking, abandoning) it. This is traditional language (e.g., Deut 31:16-17), as is the wording that is used in the following lines of vv. 31-32. The Instruction (Torah) is described and characterized by three nouns: fP*v=m!, hQj%, and hw`x=m!.

All three of these terms refer principally to the authority exercised by rulers and governments, and characterize the Torah as regulations laid down by a ruler (i.e., YHWH as King and Judge). A fP*v=m! is an (authoritative) decision rendered by a ruler or judge; hQ*j% (or qj)) denotes a ruling that is engraved (or inscribed), meaning that it applies to all people in the realm, with the implication that it is permanent; a hw`x=m! refers, more generally, to any command or order that is given. All these terms are regularly used in the Scriptures, in reference to the Torah; however, here in Psalm 89, the theme of YHWH as Sovereign—both over the universe as a whole, and over His people Israel—is specifically emphasized.

The couplets in vv. 31-32 are parallel in presentation. In the first line, the breaking of the Torah is presented as a direct action, defined either as—abandoning it (vb bz~y`) or by profaning it (vb ll^j* II), the latter connoting the dissolution of the agreement in its binding and sacred force. In the second line, violation of the Torah is expressed through a negative—i.e., what one does not do—with the verbs El^h* (“walk”) and rm^v* (“guard”). These verbs are customary in religious and ethical instruction, in reference to keeping the regulations of the Torah, etc.

As a textual note, it is worth mentioning that, in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsx, verse 31 follows v. 28; however, at this point, the MS breaks off, so there is no way of knowing if vv. 29-30 are missing, or if they occur somewhere after v. 31.

Verse 33 [32]

“then with a rod I will deal with their breaking (of the bond),
and with blows (will punish) their crookedness.”

The apodosis (result clause) of the conditional statement is given here: if David’s descendants violate the terms of the covenant, then… (here the w-conjunction is to be translated “then”).

YHWH makes clear that He will, indeed, punish such violations of the covenant quite severely—as indicated by the parallel reference to use of a “rod” (fb#v@) with which one makes harsh physical contact (ug~n#, i.e., a “blow”). The noun uv^P# denotes the breaking of an agreement, or breaking faith—i.e., being disloyal, sometimes in the more extreme sense of being rebellious. The parallel noun /ou*, refers to the “crookedness” of the one breaking the covenant, often in the religious-ethical sense of “perversion”, or, more generally, as “deviation” from what is right.

The governing verb of the clause is dq^P*, a verb with a wide semantic range, and (notoriously) one of the most difficult to translate in all the Old Testament. The basic meaning appears to be something like “attend to”, “deal with”, “take care of”; however, it frequently is used in a number of specialized contexts, one of which involves a person (in a position of authority) exercising supervision over a subordinate. There are several variations of this aspect of meaning; when YHWH is the subject, the verb often is used in the context of YHWH, as King and Judge, disciplining and punishing those who defy His authority. Here, the verb could be translated “punish”, or “visit (punishment on)”; however, I feel it is just as well to retain the base meaning (i.e., “attend to, deal with”), understanding it in a harshly ironic sense—viz., YHWH will “deal with” the transgressors, and will “take care of” them.

Verse 34 [33]

“And (yet) my loyal devotion I will not break with him—
indeed, I will not be false in my firmness!”

Even if David’s descendants break faith with YHWH, He Himself will not break with David—viz., with the promises that He has made to him (cf. 2 Sam 7:8-16). The verb rr^P* (II), “break”, is here parallel with the root uvP used in v. 33; indeed, the conjunction of r^rP* with ds#j#/hn`Wma$ captures the basic meaning of uvP (“break [faith]”). The noun pair ds#j#/hn`Wma$, introduced in vv. 2-3, has been used repeatedly in the Psalm, to express the idea of YHWH’s faithfulness and loyalty (the noun hn`Wma$ denoting “firmness”).

Verse 35 [34]

“I will not violate my (own) binding (agreement),
and (what) goes forth (from) my lips, I will not change.”

Here, in the first line, YHWH states directly the point made in v. 34: that He will not violate His binding agreement (tyr!B=) with David. This creates a certain ambiguity with regard to the Davidic covenant. On the one hand, if David’s descendants break the agreement, then it has been nullified (for them, on their account). At the same time, since YHWH Himself does not break the agreement, then it remains in force—at least in terms of the promise(s) that He made to David. This aspect of the covenant is particularly emphasized here in the second line: “(what) goes forth (from) my lips” (i.e., His spoken promise).

The ambiguity surrounding the Davidic covenant, which goes back to the traditions of 2 Samuel (as presented in that narrative), will be discussed in the next note (on vv. 36-38).

Comments for Christmas

The juxtaposition of the failure of David’s royal descendants (to uphold the covenant), against the enduring force of YHWH’s promises to David, is directly relevant to figure-type of the royal/Davidic Messiah. The historical reality of the fall of the Israelite/Judean kingdom (and the Exile) clearly demonstrates how the covenant was violated by David’s descendants. At the same time, the promise to David remains, to be fulfilled by the Messiah. As previously noted, this is clearly relevant to the early Christian identification of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah—a theme that features prominently in the Gospel Infancy narratives. The fulfillment of the Davidic covenant, in the person of Jesus, is most clearly expressed in Luke 1:32-33 (cf. the previous note).

December 29: Psalm 89:29-30

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:29-38 [28-37]
Verse 29 [28]

“Into (the) distant (future) will I guard for him my devotion,
with my binding agreement holding firm for him.”

In this second strophe of the second division (vv. 20-38) of the Psalm, the emphasis is on YHWH’s binding agreement (tyr!B=) with David, and, in particular, on its firm and enduring character. This strophe continues (and develops) the key theme of God’s firmness (hn`Wma$), both in the sense of His strength and His faithfulness. The theme, with its keyword(s), was established at the beginning of the Psalm (vv. 2-3), expressed by the word-pair ds#j# and hn`Wma$. The same pairing is present here in v. 29, but with the verb /m^a* in place of the noun hn`Wma$.

As previously noted, even though ds#j# fundamentally means “goodness, kindness”, it frequently (and especially in the Psalms) carries the connotation of faithfulness and loyalty (i.e., to the covenant)—a meaning comparable to that of hn`Wma$ (or the related tm#a#). I have translated ds#j# in the sense of “loyal devotion”, alternating between the renderings “loyalty” and “devotion”.

YHWH’s devotion (ds#j#) for David will last “into (the) distant (future)” —a literal, if somewhat verbose, translation of the expression <l*oul=. This means that His devotion applies, not only to David himself, but to subsequent sons of his line. This devotion will be preserved (“guarded”, vb rm^v*) into the future, for the generations to come.

YHWH’s loyal devotion to David (and his descendants) is defined in terms of a “binding agreement” (tyr!B=), rendered more conventionally as “covenant”. It is important to emphasize the etymological aspect of the binding force of the agreement (or covenant). At least from God’s own standpoint, His agreement with David is binding—He Himself will not violate it. This is important, since from the Psalmist’s frame of reference, writing in the exilic (or post-exilic) period, the promises in the Davidic covenant would seem to have been nullified. The question of how the agreement could still be binding (and in effect) is dealt with in the third division (vv. 39-52). For the promises of this covenant, as rooted and expressed in the Davidic traditions, see 2 Samuel 7:8-16, with vv. 12b-13 and 15-16 being most relevant to this unit in the Psalm.

Here, in the second division—and in this strophe—the focus is on the binding character of the agreement, which YHWH (speaking prophetically in the Psalm) declares will be “holding firm” for David’s line. This is expressed by the participle tn#m#a$n#, from the verb /m^a* (“be firm”), and from which also the noun hn`Wma$ is derived. The participle indicates a regular/continuing condition, while the passive (Niphal) stem suggests that this characteristic (“holding firm”) of the covenant is due to the action of YHWH (i.e., His guarding it), giving to the covenant its fundamental character.

Verse 30 [29]

“And I will set his seed (to be enduring) for ever,
and his throne like (the) days of (the) heavens!”

Both the dynastic line (“seed”) and the kingship (“throne”) of David will be preserved, according to the binding agreement, lasting into the far distant future. This temporal aspect is here expressed by du^l*, parallel to <l*oul= in v. 29. The noun du^ is a bit difficult to translate, essentially denoting something (i.e., a period of time) going on (and on); “for ever” is as good a translation of du^l* as any, the expression being somewhat more abstract in meaning than <l*oul=.

Dahood (II, p. 317) interprets du^ (±ad) here (and in v. 38) in relation to Ugaritic ±d  II. The precise meaning of that Canaanite term is not entirely clear, but in at least one instance (Kirta III, col. 6, line 22) the expression l±dh (comparable to du^l* in the Psalm) is clearly parallel to lksi mlk (“at/on [the] throne of kingship”), and also lkµ¾ drkt (“at/on [the] seat of dominion”), lines 23-24. Based on this parallel, one could see du^l* and having a meaning like “on the seat of rule”, corresponding with “his throne” in the second line. The essence of the promise would then be that there will always be a descendant of David (his “seed”) on the throne.

The Davidic kingship will be like “the days of the heavens” in its continuity and enduring character. The “firmness” of the heavens, reflecting YHWH’s own hn`Wma$ (as Creator), was a key theme in the opening section (vv. 6-9). The parallel between the heavens and the Davidic covenant was specifically established in the introduction (vv. 2-3, 4-5). This parallel is all the more significance since YHWH’s throne is in/over the heavens (vv. 8-9, 15); He is the King over the entire universe (heaven and earth), while the (Davidic) king, correspondingly, is the ruler on earth (over the people of God, and the nations).

Comments for Christmas

The identification of Jesus as the promised royal Messiah from the line of David is a key component of the Gospel Infancy narratives, particularly the Lukan narrative. This has been discussed in the prior notes. Here, in relation to vv. 29-30 of the Psalm, we must focus on three specific elements: (1) Jesus as David’s “seed”, (2) the motif of the ruler’s throne, and (3) the enduring character of this rule.

The first element is basic to the Gospel tradition in the Infancy narratives, establishing Jesus’ Davidic ancestry—from a legal, rather than biological standpoint—through his father Joseph (Matt 1:1, 6, 17, 20; Lk 1:27; 2:4; 3:31). The specific expression “seed of David” occurs in the New Testament, in a Messianic sense, in Rom 1:3, Jn 7:42 and 2 Tim 2:8, clearly being applied to the person of Jesus. The parallel between Rom 1:3 and Gal 4:4

    • “(hav)ing come to be out of (the) seed of David”
    • “(hav)ing come to be out of a woman”

raises the possibility that Paul may have understood Jesus’ mother (Mary) as being of Davidic descent—a belief which came to be accepted among early Christians, but which is absent from the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives. For further discussion on Jesus as the “son of David,” cf. Part 8 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The second and third elements mentioned above are hinted at at various points in the Infancy narratives; see, for example, the citation of Micah 5:2 in Matt 2:6, in light of the remainder of v. 2 and v. 4b (which are not cited). However, those themes are dealt with directly only in one passage—the Angelic announcement to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. Verses 32b-33 could almost be read as a Christian commentary on vv. 29-30 of the Psalm:

“…the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father,
and he will reign as king over the house of Ya’aqob into the Age,
and of his kingdom there will not be (any) end!”

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

December 27: Psalm 89:27-28

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:27-28 [26-27]
Verse 27 [26]

“He shall call to me: ‘My Father you (are),
my Mighty (One) and (the) Rock of my salvation!'”

In this short unit of vv. 27-28, YHWH is still the speaker, continuing the prophetic Discourse of vv. 20-26. It is possible to read v. 27 as part of vv. 20-26, and v. 28 with the following vv. 29ff. However, I have chosen to follow the structure outlined by Hossfeld-Zenger (pp. 400, 407, 410f), who emphasizes these verses as containing (and epitomizing) a “two-sided declaration of covenant”, between YHWH and the king (David). The emphatic pronouns in each verse—aWh (“he”) and yn]a* (“I”)—support this structural approach. Each party to the covenant makes an affirmation of the binding relationship, using the terminology of a father-son paradigm. The king declares of YHWH that “you (are) my father”, while YHWH, in turn, declares that the king is his “firstborn” son (v. 28).

The importance of this father-son bond makes the metric division of the verse as a 4+3 couplet preferable, as it highlights the declaration of this bond in the first line. In the second line, the king expounds on the covenantal relationship, by making a further (dual) declaration—calling YHWH his “Mighty (One)” (i.e., God) and “Rock” (rWx) of salvation. The familiar Rock-motif emphasizes YHWH as a source of protection for the king, echoing a theme from vv. 18-19 and earlier in the current division (vv. 20-24). It also builds upon the key theme of God’s firmness—i.e., a rock as a firm foundation, providing strong support for the kingship of the Davidic ruler. The inclusion of the noun hu*Wvy+ (“salvation”) implies that YHWH will not only protect the king, but will also bring him victory over his enemies (vv. 11b, 23-24ff).

Verse 28 [27]

“And (as for) me, I will give him (to be my) firstborn,
(the) highest of (all) kings of (the) earth!”

As noted above, the first line of v. 28 parallels the first line of v. 27, with YHWH’s declaration of the king as His firstborn (son), matching the king’s declaration of YHWH as his father. While the idea of the Israelite king as God’s “son” (in a symbolic sense) is natural, in light of ancient Near Eastern religious and cultural tradition, it is somewhat rare in the Old Testament (2 Sam 7:14 par; Psalm 2:7; Isa 9:5-6 [6-7]). Much rarer still is the specific designation of the king as God’s “firstborn” (rokB=). In at least one passage (Jer 31:9), Israel (also referred to as “Ephraim”) is called God’s ‘firstborn’, but nowhere else is this said of the king, apart from v. 28 here. The closest parallel is in Zech 12:10, where it is said that the people of Jerusalem will mourn, like a parent grieving over a firstborn son; this prophecy is given in the context of a reference to the “house of David”.

The idea of the Davidic ruler as God’s firstborn represents, in many ways, a natural extension and enhancement of the core concept of the king as God’s son. In particular, David could be seen as the first Israelite/Judean ruler who was specially chosen by God, to act as His faithful and loyal servant. The support and strength of YHWH, given to the king by the covenant-bond, along with his special status as “firstborn son”, enables him to rise to a position higher than all other earthly kings.

The comparative adjective /oyl=u# (“high[er]”), often used as a superlative (“highest”), is frequently utilized as a name/title of God (“Highest [One], Most High”). It is rare that the term is applied, as a comparable title, to a human being; there is a notable parallel in Deut 26:19; 28:1, whereby God declares that Israel will be higher than all the other nations, just as the king (i.e., the Davidic ruler) will be higher than all other kings. The usage is natural in this regard, since the king effectively represents the people; what applies to them (as a nation) also applies to him (as their king).

The father-son bond, as it is formulated here in vv. 27-28, derives primarily from the Davidic tradition in 2 Samuel 7:14 (cf. the parallels in 1 Chron 17:13; 22:10; 28:6):

“I will be for him as a Father, and he will be for me as a son”

This tradition includes promises regarding the establishment (vb /WK) of the Davidic kingship (“throne”), a royal line that will endure into the distant future (i.e., for ever), vv. 13, 16, and also that the faithfulness and devotion (ds#j#) of YHWH will remain with the ruler (lit., will not turn aside from him) and his kingdom, v. 15. This ideology and terminology is very much reflected here in vv. 20-38 of our Psalm.

Comments for Christmas

The central theme of vv. 27-28—namely, the Davidic ruler as the son of God (with YHWH as his Father)—is an important component of the identification of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah. This applies to the identification as we find it in the Gospel Infancy narratives, though it is clearly expressed only in a pair of statements within the Lukan narrative. As part of the Angelic announcement to Mary (Lk 1:26-38), we find the following declarations about the child (Jesus) who is to be born:

    • “He shall be great, and he shall be called ‘Son of the Highest [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou]’, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of David his father.” (v. 32)
    • “(the) holy Spirit will come upon you, and (the) power of (the) Highest [u%yisto$] will cast shade upon you; therefore, indeed, the (child) coming to be (born) will be called holy, (the) Son of God.” (v. 35)

The use of the adjective u%yisto$ (“highest”) echoes the corresponding Hebrew term /oylu# (as a divine title) in Ps 89:28b. Moreover, the idea of this ruler’s kingdom being greater than all earthly kingdoms—and he greater than all other kings—is certainly implied in the Angel’s announcement. It is more or less specified in v. 33, where the promise is given that the Messianic ruler’s kingdom will last “into the Age” and “there will be no end” to it—ideology that is found both in the original Davidic covenant tradition (2 Sam 7:13-16), and reflected throughout Ps 89 (esp. in vv. 20-38).

References above marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).


December 26: Psalm 89:25-26

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:20-26, continued

(For verses 22-24, see the previous note)

Verse 25 [24]

“My firmness and my devotion (are) with him,
and in my name his horn shall (be) lifted high.”

The keyword of this Psalm is hn`Wna$, emphasizing the firmness of YHWH. That term combines both the idea of God’s strength and His faithfulness. The former has been the focus in verses 18-24, as also in the prior vv. 10-14; however, it is the latter that is emphasized by the pairing of hn`Wma$ and ds#j#. These same two nouns were paired at the opening of the Psalm, in vv. 2-3, and also in v. 15 (with the related tm#a# in place of hn`Wma$). Though hn`Wma$ has the basic meaning “firmness”, it frequently carries a meaning of “faithfulness, trustworthiness”; similarly, ds#j# (“goodness, kindness”) often has the meaning “faithfulness, loyalty, devotion”. These are fundamental attributes of YHWH, relating particularly to the covenant loyalty that he shows to His people.

Here, in line 1, it is declared (and promised) that these attributes are with (<u!) the king—that is, the Davidic ruler, chosen by God, and expected to be a loyal servant to Him. The same preposition was used in v. 22 (cf. the previous note), where it was stated that YHWH’s strong and supporting hand/arm is “with him” (oMu!). This may allude to the statements regarding David in 1 Sam 18:12, 14; 2 Sam 5:10:

    • “And Ša’ûl was afraid from before (the) face of David, because YHWH was with him [oMu!]” (v. 12)
    • “And in all his ways David was having success, for YHWH (was) with him [oMu!]” (v. 14)
    • “And David kept on, going on and becoming great, for YHWH (the) Mighty (One) of (the) armies (was) with him [oMu!]” (2 Sam 5:10)

Much the same was said of the Judean king Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:7:

“For he clung on(to) YHWH; (and) he did not turn aside from following Him, but guarded His commands, (those) which YHWH had commanded Moshe. And YHWH was with him [oMu!], so (that), in whichever (way) he went forth, he had success…” (vv. 6-7)

The thought expressed in v. 7a, regarding Hezekiah, may well relate to the name la@ WnM*u! in Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10 (cf. below).

The wording of the second line is similar to that in vv. 17-18, both with the idea of being/acting “in the name” of God, along with the specific idiom of one’s “horn” (/r#q#) being “raised/lifted high” (vb <Wr in the Hiphil stem). The horn-motif applies particularly to a ruler or king, and was applied specifically to the Davidic ruler in Ps 132:17; cf. also 148:14; a Messianic interpretation of the idiom is suggested by Ezek 29:21, and certainly in Luke 1:69 (cf. below). Being “in the name” of YHWH implies that the king is faithful and loyal to God, able to participate in the Divine blessing and protection that He provides.

Verse 26 [25]

“And I will set his hand on the sea,
and his right (hand) on the rivers.”

This couplet alludes to the imagery from vv. 10-11 (cf. the discussion in the earlier note), describing YHWH’s sovereignty over the universe in the terminology of cosmological myth—viz., His subduing of the primeval waters at the time of Creation. The Davidic king, drawing upon the strength of YHWH Himself, similarly has authority over the waters—described by the pair of terms <y` (“sea”) and torh*n+ (“streams, rivers”). An allusion to the cosmological myth of the Creator’s victory over the primeval waters seems all the more likely, given how, in the Canaanite Baal Epic, the foe defeated by Baal-Haddu is both called Sea (ym = <y) and River (nhr = rhn, “judge River”, ¾p‰ nhr); cf. Dahood, II, p. 317. For more on this subject, see my article “The Conflict with the Sea in Ancient Near Eastern Myth”.

In verse 11, the dark and unruly waters (a) are compared with hostile human adversaries (b), and the “waters” here in v. 26 almost certainly have the same significance. Through God’s strength, the king has protection from all enemies, and is able to achieve victory over them; thus his rule is allowed to extend over the surrounding nations. Historically, this may allude to the Israelite conquests under David, which allowed the kingdom to reach its zenith during the reign of Solomon.

Metrically, verse 25 follows the three-beat (3+3) couplet format that dominates this division of the Psalm; however, verse 26 has a shorted 3+2 meter.

Textually, it is interesting to note that, in the Qumran manuscript 4QPsx, verse 26 appears between vv. 22 and 23, and that vv. 24-25 appear to be missing.

Comments for Christmas

Verse 25b, repeating as it does the horn-motif from v. 18, can be understood in a Messianic sense. This motif was applied to Jesus in Luke 1:69, as mentioned in the prior note. The added promise in v. 25a, that YHWH’s strength and devotion will be with the Davidic king (“with him,” oMu!), naturally reminds one of the name la@ WnM*u! (±Imm¹nû °E~l) in Isa 7:14; 8:8 (cf. also 8:10), and the identification of Jesus with the promised child of 7:14 (on which, cf. my earlier study and notes). This identification features prominently in the Matthean Infancy narrative (1:22-23), with Isa 7:14 representing the first of the Gospel’s Scripture citations. There is likely a similar use of the “God-with-us” motif in Luke 1:28, which clearly occurs in a Messianic context, identifying Jesus with the promised Davidic Messiah (vv. 27, 32f).

As for the extent of the Davidic ruler’s kingdom, and of his reign over the nations (symbolized by the waters), this is indicated in Luke 1:33. The worldwide scope of the Messiah’s rule, which the Lukan author compares (implicitly) with that of Augustus (and the Roman Empire), is established in 2:1ff, 10ff, and then is further interpreted in 2:30-32 as a foreshadowing of the early Christian mission. For more on the parallels between Jesus and Augustus, in the context of 2:1ff, 10ff, cf. my earlier note on the subject.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

December 25: Psalm 89:22-24

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Psalm 89:20-26, continued

(For verses 20-21, see the previous note)

Verse 22 [21]

“(He) who (by) my hand is kept firm (in place),
with him also my arm will give him strength.”

As the King over all creation, YHWH is the source of power and authority for every human king on earth; and this is certainly so for His chosen king (David) ruling over His people Israel. The power/strength of YHWH was described by the familiar figurative use of the arm/hand motif in verse 14 (cf. the earlier note). The noun pair dy` (“hand”) and u^orz+ (“arm”) occurs again here; only, in this instance, God’s strength is used to support the king (David).

The theme of YHWH’s firmness, established in verse 2 and running throughout the Psalm, continues here, utilizing the pair of verbs /WK and Jm^a*, both of which essentially mean “be firm”. YHWH’s hand/arm—that is, His strength—is the means by which David is set firmly in place (as king), as expressed by the verb /WK in the Niphal (passive) stem. God’s supporting power remains with the king (“with him,” oMu!), strengthening his rule (vb Jm^a*, Piel stem).

Verse 23 [22]

“(The) hostile (one) shall not lift (a hand) against him,
and (the) son of perversion shall not oppress him.”

With the support and strength of YHWH on the king’s side, enemies and wicked adversaries will not be able to attack him successfully. This draws upon the militaristic imagery in verse 19, as well as the earlier emphasis on YHWH defeating His (human) enemies, just as He had subdued the dark and unruly waters at the time of creation (vv. 10-11). The king’s adversaries are defined, in a general sense, by two traditional descriptive terms, set in parallel. The first is the participle by@oa (“being hostile”), as a substantive, i.e., “hostile (one)” = “enemy”.

The second term is the expression “son of perversion” (hl*w+u^ /B#). The noun hl*w+u^, like the related lw#u^, basically means “crookedness” or “deviation”, particularly in the ethical-religious sense of something deviating from what is right; it is often translated as “injustice”, but the more rudimentary “deviation” or “perversion” is preferred. The noun /B# (“son”) often is used in the generic or figurative sense of a person who belongs to a group or category, possessing certain defining characteristics, etc. The expression “son of perversion” is a colorful way of referring to the wicked.

The verbs used, for the actions of the king’s adversaries, are also set in parallel. In the first line, the MT reads aV!y~, apparently a form of the verb av^n`, meaning “lend”. As this seems incongruous to the context, it is, I think, fair to assume that a slight scribal error has occurred, and that the correct reading is aC*y], “lift up (i.e., one’s face/hand)”, in a hostile sense; cf. Dahood, II, p. 317. Parallel with ac^n`, in the second line, is the verb hn`u* III, “press down, oppress”.

Verse 24 [23]

“Indeed, I will crush his adversaries from (before) his face,
and (the one)s hating him I will strike!”

Not only will YHWH’s power protect the king from the attacks of wicked/hostile foes, but He will defeat and destroy them completely. Again, two parallel terms are used for the king’s foes, and also for YHWH’s action against them. First, there is the plural of the noun rx^, denoting someone who is hostile, similar in meaning to the participle by@oa (cf. above on v. 23); to distinguish these terms, I have translated the former here as “adversary”. Parallel to this is a participle of the verb an`c* (“hate”), in the Piel stem, denoting someone “who hates” another.

In the first line, YHWH states that He will “crush” the king’s enemies, utilizing a relatively rare verb (tt^K*) which can have the intensive meaning “pound (to dust), pulverize”. In the second line, the verb is [g~n`, “strike, land a (fatal) blow”.

Comments for Christmas

The Lukan Infancy narrative draws upon some of this same kind of militaristic imagery, tied to the expectation that God, through His servant the (Davidic) Messiah, will defeat the enemies and oppressors of His people. This line of thought is expressed at several points in the canticles of the Lukan narrative:

    • In the Magnificat, 1:51f, we find the idea that God, through the strength of His “arm”, scatters throughout (vb diaskorpi/zw) those who are overly inflated (with wicked arrogance); He does this specifically to help His people Israel, and those of them who are oppressed (vv. 52-54f).
    • In the Benedictus, in the context of the promise of “raising up a horn for salvation” from among the descendants of David (1:69, cf. verse 18 of our Psalm), this salvation is expressed in terms of delivering Israel from the hands of enemies (those who are hostile) and those who hate them (vv. 71, 73f).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).

December 24: Psalm 89:20-21

This series of daily notes on Psalm 89 is an extension of the article in the Sunday Studies on the Psalms feature. The Messianic orientation of this Psalm (especially in the central section vv. 20-38), dealing with the promise of kingship to David and his line, is particularly relevant to the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus.

Part 2: Verses 20-38 [19-37]

Psalm 89:20-26 [19-25]
Verse 20 [19]

“Then you spoke in a vision to your devoted (one)s,
and said:
I have set a youth over a mighty (warrior),
I have lifted high (one) chosen from (the) people.”

The division of vv. 20-38 deals principally with the covenant YHWH made with David (and his descendants). This involves promises regarding the kingship over Israel. Here, in verse 20, we have a reference to the historical tradition of God’s choice of David for the kingship, in place of Saul; on this, cf. the narrative in 1 Samuel 16:1-13.

The initial line emphasizes how YHWH’s choice of David was revealed to the people. Specifically, it refers to a vision, through which God spoke, given to the “devoted ones” (<yd!ys!j&). In the context of the Psalm, such a substantive use of the adjective dys!j* (“good, kind,” but here with the meaning “faithful, loyal, devoted”) would refer to the faithful/righteous ones among God’s people.

However, if the tradition in 1 Samuel 16:1ff is being referenced here, then <yd!ys!j& may specifically designate YHWH’s chosen prophets—as represented by the figure of Samuel. The Qumran manuscript 4QPsx reads iyrjb (“your chosen [one]s”), rather than iydysj (“your devoted [one]s”). Dahood (II, p. 316) explains how iydysj could be understood in a singular sense, with the form either seen as preserving an archaic genitive (singular) ending, or being read as a plural of majesty (in reference to the king). Some manuscripts, in fact, do read the singular form idsjl.

The second line, following the MT, reads:

“I have set [i.e. given] help [rz#u@] upon (the) mighty (one)”

However, it would seem preferable to understand rzu in relation to the term ²zr in Ugaritic, meaning “youth” (sometimes in the sense of a young hero). If this is correct, then the line would presumably allude to the contrast between David and Saul (in 1 Sam 16ff), and possibly also to the famous events in chap. 17. YHWH set this youth (David) over (lu^) a mighty warrior (roBG]). Hossfeld-Zenger (p. 401) suggests that MT rz#a@ should be emended to rz#n@ (“crown”), in which case the line would read “I have set a crown on (the) mighty (one) [i.e. David]”.

The third line speaks of David as chosen (passive participle rWjB*) from the people, by God, to be king. Sometimes the root rjb (“choose”) can be used in reference to a strong/vital youth—especially a young man of fighting age.

Verse 21 [20]

“I have found David, my servant, (and,)
with (the) oil of my holiness, I anointed him.”

The anointing of David is narrated in 1 Samuel 16:13. It is indicated here that YHWH anointed him, but clearly (in the tradition) this was actually carried out by Samuel (one of YHWH’s prophets). The reference to David as God’s servant (“my servant”) carries several levels of meaning:

    • The king is a servant of YHWH in the general sense that his kingship and authority comes from YHWH, who exercises authority over all things.
    • The Israelite king is (to be) a loyal/faithful servant within the covenant bond; this refers both to the covenant God has made with His people, and to the specific covenant made with David (and his descendants).
    • The ideal king is patterned after David, in his faithfulness and loyalty to YHWH; in this regard, the king represents all those among the people who are faithful/loyal to the covenant.

The oil, with which David was anointed king, is qualified here by the term “my holiness” (yv!d=q*), yielding the expression “(the) oil of my holiness” (i.e., my holy oil). The implication is that the holiness of YHWH, the attribute of Divine holiness, is communicated—ritually and symbolically—by the anointing. The association of such oil with holiness is mentioned in a number of Torah references involving ritual anointing (cf. Exod 29:21; 30:25, 31; 31:11; 37:29; 40:9; Num 35:25). It is significant that, in the tradition, the Spirit of God comes upon David immediately after he is anointed (1 Sam 16:13). Throughout the Old Testament, the king is referred to as God’s anointed (“my/His anointed”); this terminology occurs dozens of times in the books of Samuel and Kings (1 Sam 2:10, 35; 12:3, et al), but also a number of times in the Psalms, where it specifically centers around the figure of David—2:2; 18:51[50]; 132:10, 17; cf. also 20:7[6]; 28:8; 84:10[9].

Comments for Christmas

The figure of David plays an important role in the Gospel Infancy narratives, relating to the birth of Jesus. This is part of the wider Gospel tradition, and shows how early Christians recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of the various Messianic figure-types—notably, the royal Messiah from the line of David (cf. the discussion in Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Messiah”).

Apart from the location of Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus (cf. 1 Sam 16:4ff; 17:12ff; Micah 5:2), the underlying traditions of the Infancy narratives clearly identify Jesus as a “son [i.e. descendant] of David”, legally, through the line of his father Joseph. This detail is emphasized in both the Matthean and Lukan narratives (Matt 1:20 [cf. vv. 1, 6, 17 in the context of the genealogy]; Luke 1:27; 2:4; cf. also 3:31). The citation of Micah 5:2 in Matt 2:5-6, along with the context of the entire narrative episode (in 2:1-12), unquestionably identifies Jesus with the Davidic Messiah of Jewish expectation.

This thematic orientation features even more prominently in the Lukan narrative—due largely to the explicit references in the angelic annunciations (1:32-33; 2:10-11). The allusions in the canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus), in 1:69ff, are closer in tone and spirit to Psalm 89:20ff. We might note, in particular, the specific reference to David as God’s “servant” (cf. above on the first line of v. 21), and to God “raising up” a “horn” of salvation for His people (cf. the previous note on v. 18).

The themes of David as God’s chosen, and of God’s anointing him with the oil of His holiness, are also important components of Jesus’ Messianic identity. In this regard, it is not Jesus’ birth, but his baptism where these themes are most closely associated with him in the Gospel tradition. For the idea of Jesus as the “Chosen [One]”, cf. John 1:34 v.l.; Luke 9:35 (realizing the parallels between the baptism and the transfiguration; cp. 23:35). With regard to the Messianic context of the baptism, the Lukan narrative particularly brings out the association with anointing (by the Spirit)—Lk 3:22 v.l. (citing Ps 2:7, cp. verse 2); 4:18ff (citing Isa 61:1ff), and the context of vv. 1ff, 14; Acts 4:26-27; 10:38. It was noted above how, in the 1 Samuel narrative, after David was anointed (as the future king), it is said that God’s Spirit came upon him (1 Sam 16:13).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 89

Psalm 89

Dead Sea MSS: 4QPsx (vv. 20-22, 26, 23, 27-28, 31 [19-21, 25, 22, 26-27, 30]); 4QPse (vv. 44-48, 50-53 [43-47, 49-52])

Psalm 89 is one of the very longest and most complex in the Psalter. This length, along with the relative lack of difficulties and disruptions in the text, suggests a rather late time-frame for composition. The lament portion (vv. 39-52) makes clear that the promise regarding the Davidic kingship was not being realized in the present, at the time when the Psalm was written. This indicates an exilic, or (more likely) post-exilic, date for the composition of the Psalm, as it has come down to us. However, almost certainly, the Psalm also draws upon older traditions—language, style, and motifs—from the kingdom-period itself. In particular, the hymn of praise to YHWH in vv. 6-19 seems to preserve a number of older/archaic elements.

The arrangement of the Psalm is unusual, in the way that a praise-section occurs at the beginning, and a lament section at the end. This reverses the normal arrangement of lament-Psalms.

In both the superscription, and with regard to certain features of the composition, Ps 89 has points of affinity with the Korahite Psalms, attributed to the “sons of Qorah”. It follows immediately the collection comprised of Pss 84-85, 87-88 (cf. also the earlier collection 42-49). Like Ps 88, this Psalm is designated a lyk!c=m^, and is attributed to author (Ethan, /t*ya@) identified as an yj!r*z+a#; on this particular term (and the term lyk!c=m^), cf. the introduction to the study on Ps 88. The attribution probably refers to the Ethan mentioned in 1 Kings 5:11 [4:31], a sage of great wisdom, associated with Heman (the name of the person to whom Ps 88 is attributed). There was also a Levitical singer-musician named Ethan who served, during David’s reign, as an overseer of the music performed in the Temple (1 Chron 6:29 [44]).

As mentioned above, there is a three-part division to this Psalm, the first division being preceded by a proemic introduction (vv. 2-5). The tripartate structure is as follows:

    • Hymn in praise of YHWH (vv. 6-19)
    • A “Messianic” Discourse, regarding God’s covenant with David and the Kingdom of Israel (vv. 20-38)
    • A Lament, over how YHWH seems to have renounced the Davidic covenant (and its promise of kingship) (vv. 39-52)

Metrically, the Psalm tends to follow either a 4-beat (4+4) or 3-beat (3+3) couplet format. With a composition of this length, it is to be expected that there would various rhythmic and metrical irregularities. These will be pointed out in the notes.

Introduction: Vv. 2-5 [1-4]

Verse 2 [1]

“(Of your faithful) devotion, O YHWH, (into) distant (ages) will I sing;
for cycle and cycle, will I make known your firmness with my mouth.”

Many Psalms end with the author-protagonist offering to fulfill a vow of praise to YHWH, promising to sing of His greatness, etc. That is essentially how our composition begins here, as the Psalmist promises to sing (vb ryv!) of God’s faithfulness. Two familiar terms are used, in parallel, to express this:

    • ds#j#—This word means “goodness, kindness”; however, as I have noted repeatedly, in the context of a covenant it regularly connotes faithfulness and loyalty. This is frequently the meaning of ds#j# in the Psalms, and certainly here at the beginning of Ps 89 (given the emphasis on YHWH’s covenant with David).
    • hn`Wma$—Literally, the noun means “firmness,” but often in the sense of “faithfulness, trustworthiness,” etc.

The plural of ds#j# in line 1 may refer to individual acts/deeds of faithful devotion; however, it is probably better to treat the plural in a collection or comprehensive sense (or even as an intensive plural, i.e., “your great loyalty”). For the construct form of the plural, we should assume an implied second person suffix, in parallel with “your firmness” in the second line (cf. Dahood, II, p. 311); however, it is not necessary to emend the text to make explicit the suffix.

The noun <l*ou typically denotes a time-frame (lasting) into either the distant future or the distant past. The meaning of the line is “I will sing of your faithful devotion into the distant future”. It is customary to set <l*ou[l] in parallel with rd)w rd)[l]—cf. Ps 33:11; 45:18[17]; 49:12[11]; 79:13, etc. The noun roD (rD)) is often translated “(a) generation”, but it fundamentally means “circle”, often in the temporal sense of a cycle of time; when it refers particularly to the people living in a particular time, it can be said to have the meaning “generation”. Possibly, the sense of the line could be that the Psalmist will sing of God’s faithfulness for each successive generation (of Israelites), but the parallel with <l*ou suggests that the emphasis is, rather, on the singing of it continually, into the distant future.

Metrically, verse 2 is a slightly irregular 4-beat (4+4) couplet.

Verse 3 [2]

“Indeed, I have said, O Distant (One),
(that by your) devotion was built (the) heavens,
(and) you have fixed your firmness in them.”

The Psalmist builds upon the theme of v. 2, declaring that it was by the faithfulness of YHWH that the heavens were created, and that they reflect the character of His faithfulness. The same two terms from v. 2, ds#j# and hn`Wma$ are set in parallel. This establishes the theme of the first division of the Psalm (vv. 6-19), focusing on YHWH’s role as Creator (and thus also King) of the universe. Here, the term <y]m^v* (“heavens”) refers primarily to the hemispherical ‘shell’ that bounds the upper half of the cosmos, covering over the disc-shaped (or cylindrical) earth. In the ancient Near Eastern cosmology, this hemispheric surface was depicted as gleaming metal that had been ‘hammered’ into shape (Gen 1:6-7). It is thus firm (i.e. ‘firmament’), in a way that resembles the firmness of the Creator (YHWH) Himself. His firmness is fixed firmly within this firmament; the conceptual wordplay utilizes a different verbal root (/WK) for the idea of fixing something firmly in place.

I treat this verse as a 3-beat (3+3+3) tricolon, and I follow Dahood (II, p. 312) in reading the <l*ou in the first line here as a Divine title (i.e., “Eternal [One]”); in order to preserve the wordplay with verse 2, I have translated this “Distant (One)”, understood in the sense of “Ancient (One)”, but certainly the Divine characteristic of Eternal/Everlasting is also intended.

The verb rm^a* (“say”) in the first line (“I have said…”) probably should be understood as “I have acknowledged…” or “I have recognized…”. The Psalmist, in his praise, admits and confesses his faith regarding YHWH as the Eternal Creator and Sovereign of the universe.

Verse 4 [3]

“I have cut a binding agreement for my chosen (one),
(and) have confirmed (it) sevenfold for David my servant:”

There is an abrupt shift in speaker between vv. 2-3 and 4-5; now it is YHWH speaking. The relationship between these two portions of the introduction are not entirely clear. It may simply be that the two units are meant to summarize the first two divisions of the Psalm—with vv. 2-3 corresponding to vv. 6-19, and vv. 4-5 corresponding to vv. 20-38. However, within the overall context of vv. 2-5, we may perhaps envision a mini-dialogue, in which YHWH responds to the Psalmist’s declaration of praise. There is, indeed, a certain formal parallelism between the openings of v. 3 and v. 4: “I have said…” / “I have cut…”. By this line of interpretation, YHWH is affirming His promise regarding the Israelite kingdom (and of David as Israel’s king), guaranteeing its fulfillment for the faithful ones of His people.

It is also possible to view vv. 4-5 as a kind of quotation, representative of the account of Israel’s history. Just as YHWH demonstrates His faithfulness in the Creation (vv. 2-3, 6-19), so He also does for His people throughout their history. In this regard, the covenant with David reflects the wider covenant that He established (lit. “cut”) with His people. This all the more appropriate since the king (and especially David) represents the people, serving as a mediating figure for their collective identity as God’s people. The idea of God’s promise for David (and his line) as a “binding agreement” (tyr!B=, i.e., covenant) is mentioned in 2 Sam 23:5; 2 Chron 13:5; 21:7; cf. also Ezek 34:25; 37:26. It is very much implied in other passages as well; note, for example, the context of 1 Kings 8:15-21. As for the promise itself, see, primarily, the account in 2 Samuel 7:8-16.

The promise was confirmed, and the covenant established, through a binding oath. That is the idea expressed in the second line, using the denominative verb ub^v*, which would seem to have the meaning “do (something) seven (times), or sevenfold”. It is used in the specific context of swearing an oath, related to an agreement, etc, presumably in the sense of binding it sevenfold (or seven times over); however, the precise background and significance of this idiom remains uncertain.

Metrically, verses 4 and 5 are both 3-beat (3+3) couplets.

Verse 5 [4]

“Unto (the) distant (future) will I set firm your seed,
and for cycle and cycle will I build your throne.”

The wording of YHWH’s promise to David, as expressed in v. 5, clearly echoes the Psalmist’s praise in vv. 2-3 (cf. above), with the parallelism of rd)w` rd)l= / <l*ou (v. 2), and that of the verbs hn`B* [“build”] and /WK [“fix, set firm”] (v. 3). The parallels are intentional and have theological significance. Just as YHWH’s faithfulness is manifest in Creation, so also it is in the promise to David. This is of great importance, given the fact that the promise regarding the Israelite/Davidic kingdom seems to have been broken (assuming an exilic/post-exilic provenance for the Psalm). If God’s faithfulness cannot be removed from Creation, then neither can it ever truly be removed from the promise to David—the covenant with David regarding the kingship will, eventually, be realized. The Messianic implications of this line of thought—both for Israelites/Jews of the time and in later generations, and also for early Christians (for whom the Messianic promise was seen as being fulfilled in the person of  Jesus)—are clear.

These two thematic strands are developed and expounded further in the corresponding divisions of the Psalm (vv. 6-19, 20-38). They provide the backdrop for the final lament-section of vv. 39-52. If God’s faithfulness cannot be renounced, being fixed (as it is) firmly within Creation, then His promise to David (and to His people) also cannot be renounced, and this means that it will, eventually, be fulfilled.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Due to the length of this Psalm, the remainder of it will be discussed over a series of daily notes, for Christmas season, during the rest of December. Given the Messianic focus of the composition, it seemed appropriate to connect the study of it with our celebration (as Christians) of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. The identity of Jesus as the royal (Davidic) Messiah, and of his birth as representing the fulfillment of Messianic hopes, is a key element in the Gospel Infancy narratives—the Lukan narrative, in particular emphasizes it (1:32-33, 68-69; 2:1-4ff, 10-11ff).

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).