It may be argued that no Scripture influenced early Christian belief regarding the person of Jesus more than the opening verse of Psalm 110. Its significance can be seen on several different levels:
- The Messianic identity of Jesus—that is, as the royal Messiah from the line of David (cf. Parts 6, 7, 8 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”)
- In relation to the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God in heaven, and, developing from this, the exaltation-Christology that dominated early Christian thought
- The application to Jesus of the figure-type of Melchizedek (as developed especially in Hebrews)
- It was also a seminal text in the shift from an exaltation- to a pre-existence-Christology
We may begin with the role of Psalm 110:1 in establishing the Messianic identity of Jesus. In particular, we must consider the Synoptic episode in Mark 12:35-37 par, where Jesus discusses the relationship between “the Anointed (One)” and the “Son of David”. Central to the episode is Jesus’ citation of Psalm 110:1, which in the Greek version (LXX) begins:
ei@pen o( ku/rio$ tw=| kuri/w|
eípen ho kúrios tœ kuríœ
“The Lord said to my Lord…”
The dual use of ku/rio$ (“lord”) at first glance is confusing, and is due to specific circumstances surrounding the recitation (and translation) of the Divine Name hwhy (YHWH, Yahweh). The original Hebrew reads,
yn]d)al^ hw`hy+ <a%n+
n®°¥m YHWH la°dœnî
“Utterance of YHWH to my Lord:…”
Early on in Jewish tradition, the Tetragrammaton hwhy (YHWH) was replaced with “(my) Lord” (ynda) when the text was recited; this, in turn, generally led to the common practice of translating hwhy with Ku/rio$ (“Lord”) in Greek, and to the double-use of ku/rio$ in LXX Psalm 110:1. A similar wordplay could be attested for Aramaic—ya!r=m*l= ar@m* rm^a& °¦mar m¹r¢° l®m¹r°î (cf. Fitzmyer, WA p. 90).
In the original context of the Psalm, the Lord (YHWH) speaks to “my Lord” (the king). Most scholars would hold that the setting (as in Psalm 2) involves the enthronement or inauguration of the (new) king, a time at which nobles and vassals might choose to rebel or to gain power and independence for themselves (Ps 2:1-3; 110:1). God gives to the king assurance of His protection and support, including victory over all enemies, i.e. the surrounding nations (Ps 2:4-11; 110:2-3, 5-7). Much like Psalm 2, this Psalm refers to the king in exalted, ‘divine’ language, very much in keeping with ancient (Near Eastern) ideas of kingship.
I would divide the Psalm as follows:
- Declaration (utterance/oracle) of YHWH— “Sit at my right-hand…” (verse 1)
- Promise by YHWH of (divine) power/victory over the king’s enemies (verses 2-3)
- Declaration (oath) of YHWH— “You are a priest…” (verse 4)
- Promise of the king’s power/victory over the peoples, in terms of YHWH’s judgment against the nations (verses 5-6)
- Concluding declaration of YHWH’s establishment of the king’s rule (verse 7)
- Declaration (utterance/oracle) of YHWH— “Sit at my right-hand…” (verse 1)
It should be noted that much of the vocabulary and syntax of this Psalm remains obscure, with verses 4 and 7 being especially difficult to interpret.
As discussed in Parts 6 and 7 of this series, Psalm 2 was interpreted and applied to the coming/future Anointed King (from the line of David) in a number of Jewish writings of the period (such as the 17th Psalm of Solomon). However, apart from its use in the New Testament, there is little evidence for a similar Messianic interpretation of Psalm 110 at the time of Jesus. In one text from Qumran (11QMelch [11Q13]), Melchizedek (Ps 110:4) appears as a Divine/Heavenly figure who functions as Judge against the wicked (Belial), but this scenario (col ii, lines 9-13) is derived from Psalm 82:1-2 rather than 110:1. His appearance (as Judge and Deliverer) is also connected with the Anointed One of Daniel 9:25 and the Messenger of Isa 52:7 who brings the good news of salvation (col ii, lines 15-25). A similar paradigm may underlie the “Elect/Righteous One” and “Son of Man” figure in the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71), which many scholars hold to be roughly contemporary with Jesus and the early New Testament writings.
In any case, Jesus cites Psalm 110:1 as though a Messianic interpretation were understood, but he shifts the meaning of “Anointed One” (o( xristo/$, Christ/Messiah) away from the royal Davidic figure-type and toward a different reference point—a Divine/Heavenly figure, closer, perhaps, to the “Son of Man” of 1 Enoch and Jesus’ own sayings (cf. Mark 8:38; 13:26; 14:62 pars; Luke 12:8, 40; 17:22, 24, 26, 30; 18:8, and pars in Matthew; also John 1:51; 3:13; 5:27; 6:62). Certainly, it was understood this way in early Christian tradition, associated specifically with the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God in Acts 2:34-36 (cf. also Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; 1 Pet 3:22, etc). In the Synoptic saying of Jesus in Mark 14:62 par, he identifies himself (as “the Son of Man”) who will appear at the right hand of God, in connection with the coming/end-time Judgment (Mk 13:26 par). Thus Jesus may be identifying himself with a pre-existent Heavenly/Divine figure akin to that in 1 Enoch 37-71. In Hebrews 1:13, Psalm 110:1 is cited in the context of belief in the pre-existent deity of Jesus, though in Heb 5:6 an association with the resurrection (and exaltation) seems to be more in mind.
Mark 12:35-37 / Matt 22:41-46 / Luke 20:41-44
In this Synoptic episode (set during Passion week in Jerusalem), Jesus himself raises a question regarding the relationship between the “Anointed (One)” and the “Son of David”, based on an exposition of Psalm 110:1. The precise meaning and intent of Jesus’ argument continues to be debated by commentators. Only traces survive of the historical setting—it appears to be part of a scholarly discussion between Jesus and certain authorities on Scripture (Scribes/Pharisees), a context that is best preserved in Matthew’s account (Matt 22:41-43ff) which records at least part of an exchange. In Mark and Luke, this is framed as a pair of (rhetorical) questions by Jesus:
The second question is based on the common-place idea that the son would call his father “Lord” (“Master, Sir”), not the other way around. The first question assumes that the “Anointed (One)” —here the future Anointed King/Ruler—would be a descendant of David, which is attested in Jewish writings of the period, as well as in the New Testament (cf. the previous two articles). The identification is derived from Scriptures such as 2 Sam 7:11-16; Psalm 132:10-12, etc. It is in this context that Jesus cites another Scripture—Psalm 110:1 (Lk 20:42-43 par), and the way he uses it would indicate that it was commonly understood in a Messianic sense; however, there does not appear to be any other surviving evidence for such an interpretation in Judaism at the time of Jesus (see the discussion above).
In my view, Jesus uses Psalm 110:1 as a clever way to shift the meaning of “the Anointed (One)” from the Davidic King figure-type over to a different reference point—that of a coming Divine/Heavenly figure, generally referred to elsewhere by Jesus as “the Son of Man” (from Daniel 7:13).
Psalm 110:1 is one of three central Scriptures cited in Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2:14-41, cf. the previous article on Psalm 16:8-11). The citation (in vv. 34-35) is virtually identical to the Greek (LXX) version [109:1]:
Ei@pen o( ku/rio$ tw=| kuri/w| mou Ka/qou e)k deciw=n mou,
e%w$ a*n qw= tou\$ e)xqrou/$ sou u(popo/dion tw=n podw=n sou.
“The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit out of [i.e. from/by] my right-hand,
until I should set your enemies (as something) under-foot [i.e. a ‘foot-stool’] for your feet’.”
The only difference is the first definite article (o() for ku/rio$ (i.e. “[the] Lord”), which is omitted in some manuscripts.
The Exposition/Application.—Psalm 110:1 follows on the citation of Psalm 16:8-11, with a definite continuity of thought: just as Ps 16:8-11 refers to God not leaving his Holy One down in Hades to see ruin/corruption—implying the resurrection—so with Ps 110:1 we see the result and after-effect of the resurrection—Jesus exalted (as Lord) to the right hand of God the Father in Heaven. This is stated clearly in the kerygmatic statement in vv. 32-33 (see below), but decisively in verse 36, which serves as both exposition and kerygmatic declaration. In its original context, Psalm 110 was probably connected with the coronation or inauguration (enthronement) of the king (cf. the discussion above). Of course, this very ambiguity lies at the center of the early Christian view of Jesus as “Lord” [ku/rio$] (see below).
However, there can be no doubt that early Christians saw in this Psalm (as in Psalm 2) a reference to Jesus’ exalted/divine status. The fact that verse 1 was already cited by Jesus in early Gospel (Synoptic) tradition (Mark 12:36-37 par) may have contributed to the association, even though the exact meaning and force of the question Jesus asks is not entirely clear (cf. above).
Here in Acts, Ps 110:1 is applied specifically to Jesus’ exaltation to God’s right hand in Heaven following the resurrection, which is somewhat problematic for orthodox Christology, for it could be taken to mean that Jesus had a position at God’s right hand only after (and as a result of) the resurrection/exaltation. This was discussed in an earlier note; and see also my article on Adoptionism. For more on this idea, cf. below on Acts 2:36.
Kerygmatic statement/formulae.—There are two statements which should be noted: (a) verses 32-33, following the exposition of vv. 29-31 and prior to the citation of Ps 110:1 in vv. 34-35, and (b) the climactic declaration in verse 36. Here is the statement in vv. 32-33:
“This Yeshua God made to stand up (again)—of which we all are witnesses—(and) therefore he was lifted high to the right [lit. giving] hand of God, and receiving the announcement [e)paggeli/a, i.e. promise] of the holy Spirit (from) alongside the Father he poured this out—(of) which [also] you see and hear.”
In some ways this continues the kerygmatic statement from vv. 22-24, which summarizes Jesus’ earthly life and ministry up to the moment of resurrection; now is described the resurrection (and post-resurrection appearance[s], “of which we all are witnesses”), the exaltation to God’s right hand in Heaven, and the sending of the Spirit (which Jesus receives from the Father). There can be little doubt that such credal summaries were an important part of early Gospel preaching and proclamation (kerygma). The climactic declaration in verse 36 is, however, especially striking:
“Therefore let all the house of Yisrael safely/certainly know that God made him (both) Lord and Anointed—this Yeshua whom you put to the stake!”
Here we have the two titles most widely used and applied to Jesus in the early Church— “Lord” (ku/rio$) and “Anointed” (xristo/$, i.e. Messiah / ‘Christ’). It would seem the implication here is that both titles apply to Jesus as a result of the resurrection and exaltation, which, again, is somewhat problematic from the standpoint of orthodox Christology. Also difficult is the statement that God made (e)poi/hsen) Jesus Lord. I have discussed these points in some detail in an earlier note.
Psalm 110:1 in Hebrews
Hebrews 1:13 apparently cites Ps 110:1 in the context of Jesus’ pre-existent nature and status as God’s Son (Heb 1:2-3ff). This represents a considerable development in early Christology, moving in the direction of subsequent orthodox belief. Mention should also be made of the obscure and highly enigmatic reference to “Melchi-zedek” in Ps 110:4—the entire verse, in context, is extremely difficult to interpret, with a wide range of scholarly suggestions available. Be that as it may, Christians applied this specific reference from the Psalm to Jesus as well—most famously in the seventh chapter of Hebrews (Heb 7). For more on this, cf. Part 9 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with a related study on the idea in Hebrews.
References marked “Fitzmyer, WA” above are from J. A. Fitzmyer, A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (Scholars Press: 1979).