Pp Mark 12:35-37, Luke 20:41-44
If we were playing a game of chess, we might call this the ‘checkmate’ move which seals the victory and defeats the enemy at the end of a long and arduous series of questions and objections which have been brought before Jesus by the religious leaders.
Their opening attack in Matthew’s Gospel was to question the authority with which He was doing the works He was (Mtw 21:23-27) which had been the prompt for a series of three parables all of which were directed at the Jewish leadership (Mtw 21:28-22:14) and a quotation of Scripture which gave a general warning to them that what they were rejecting was about to become God’s special foundation in the new Kingdom of God (Mtw 21:42-43).
Yet more attacks began with Mtw 22:15 where the Pharisees allied themselves with the Herodians and tempted Jesus to answer with a statement which would have caused Him to open Himself up to the charge of treason before the Roman authorities (Mtw 22:15-22), being followed by a possibly hypothetical situation concerning the resurrection of the dead from the Sadducees (Mtw 22:23-33) and a final question from an individual scribe/lawyer asking which was the greatest commandment of all (Mtw 22:34-40).
It seems a fair assumption that there were more questions, discussions and arguments than are here recorded from Mark 12:28’s statement (my italics) that
‘...one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another...’
but that all three Synoptic writers are concerned simply to record those events which seemed to be the most important and the more clearly remembered. In the context of this assault upon Jesus’ teaching where questions are presented with the sole intention of leaving the enemy fatally wounded, Jesus’ final offensive question concerning whose son the Messiah is considered to be is the ultimate and decisive move which ends their open antagonism, Matthew noting that (22:46)
‘...from that day [no] one dare[d] to ask Him any more questions’
The statement from the Davidic OT Psalm was the dividing line between open hostility and hidden schemings which would ultimately result in paying off Judas to betray Him into their hands at a time when the multitudes would be unaware of His arrest and trial.
From here, Jesus immediately turns His attention to a lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees (Mtw 23:1-36) which is dealt with more briefly in both Mark and Luke (Mark 12:38-40, Luke 20:45-47), teaching which appears to have been declared openly within the Temple to both His disciples and the crowds who were present (Mtw 23:1).
We need to consider - albeit very briefly - the original passage of Scripture from which Jesus draws His inference that, although the Messiah is David’s natural son, He must also be considered to be someone greater and possibly prior to David’s existence (see below for a discussion), the reason being that the attribution of authorship amongst modern scholars undermines Jesus’ statement that David was its originator (Mtw 22:43).
Pskid is absolutely correct when he notes at the outset of his commentary on the OT passage that
‘Nowhere in the Psalter does so much hang on the familiar title A Psalm of David as it does here; nor is the authorship of any other psalm quite so emphatically endorsed in other parts of Scripture’
David’s authorship is, indeed, stated plainly in just two NT passages - both here in our present passage and parallels (Mtw 22:41-45, Mark 12:35-37, Luke 20:41-44) and in Peter’s speech on the Day of Pentecost immediately after Jesus’ ascension into Heaven (Acts 2:34-35) so that to deny the authorship of the OT Psalm would be to necessarily undermine the authority and inerrancy of the NT Scriptures. But this is what a great many commentators choose to do.
Psall’s comments on the various assignations of authorship to the psalm is very illuminative here and he will go on to conclude in his main text that
‘The composer of Ps 110 was evidently a court poet...’
which is all the more surprising seeing as he immediately states (my italics) that
‘...this song poses many problems requiring sensitive decisions and a reconstruction of its setting and original meaning can be only tentative’
If it could be shown conclusively that the context favoured a non-Davidic author then we would do well to understand Jesus’ and Peter’s plain statements that the psalm originated with David as being, in Jesus’ case, a declaration of what the Jews believed so as to convey the truth of who He was rather than an absolute statement of authorship and, in Peter’s case, an honest statement based upon Jewish tradition and that the revelation of true authorship was denied him (Pskid attributes this latter reason to both Peter and Jesus if the author of the Psalm is taken to be anyone other than David and which is one of the only possible conclusions if the NT text is to continue to be regarded as infallible).
That Psall’s list of differing commentator’s positions covers a wide variety of initial contexts in which the Psalm could have been written should immediately alert us to the fact that, if it really was so simple and straightforward a case to assign its authorship to anyone other than David, conclusive proof and one demonstrable context would long since have been accepted by the academic community. The fact that there is a multiplicity of ‘solutions’ should encourage us to see that David as author is just as possible and more plausible (seeing as the OT assigns it to him) as any constructed hypothesis which undermines the simplicity of the title contained in Ps 110:1.
That there were singers in Israel is certain (I Chron 25:1) and that they were expected to ‘prophesy’ upon their instruments. That psalms would be attributed to some of their number (for example, Ps 50) should immediately sound a warning as to why, if this psalm was one of theirs, it didn’t bear their name - especially as they deal with subjects which would be seen to be primarily affairs of the throne (for example, Ps 82). So, although ‘court singers’ or ‘prophetic minstrels’ both sound plausible, they raise enough questions in our minds as to undermine its own position as being the most likely source of the text.
The context of writing offered by various commentators is equally problematical and, in Psall, is noted as ranging through a special composition for the New Year festival, a military victory and the enthronement of David in Jerusalem.
Even the psalm’s age is disputed and can be attributed anywhere from the time of David to the Maccabees in the second century BC (and, if it’s linked with being an enthronement oracle, it could be attributable to just about any king or ruler).
Having said all this, there seems to be no good reason why the psalm couldn’t have been written by David when king Saul was enthroned as the first ‘official’ king of Israel - especially as David recognised that Saul was the Lord’s anointed and held him up to be such long after the hand of the Lord had departed from him (I Sam 16:6 echoed in David’s words of I Sam 26:11 long after the statement and action of I Sam 16:14).
The psalm then takes on the context of an utterance of David presumably as he ministered to the king in the days of his torment by the evil spirit (I Sam 16:18-23) and even before his ultimate rejection at the king’s hand. His opening line thus would make perfect contextual sense by being a prayer addressed to Saul that all the nations would be subjected to him through the direct intervention of God Himself, running
‘YHWH said to my lord, king Saul...’
Against this, however, would be the reference to ‘Zion’ in Ps 110:2 and which we know was a name given to the Jerusalem site used in II Sam 5:7 for the first time in connection with David’s conquering of the place. It would seem naturally improper to use this in a psalm addressed to king Saul simply because its possession by the Israelites still lay in the future. Even the statement of Ps 110:4 which quotes YHWH as stating
‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’
would be a serious problem to this line of interpretation but it is just as much of a problem to envisage how king David could be seen to be its subject. And this is the real problem in interpreting the Psalm whether we attribute it to David’s early life and as a reference to his desires for king Saul or as the product of a court minstrel who composed it as the desire of his heart for the newly secured king David in Jerusalem.
The real interpretative clause, however, is in the NT and used by Jesus in Mtw 22:43 where the RSV renders the statement that David was
‘...inspired by the Spirit...’
or, as the marginal reading translates
‘...in the Spirit...’
a phrase which seems to be applied only to this Scripture from the OT throughout the entire text of the NT and, possibly, shows the uniqueness of its writing.
By stating such a situation for the time of writing, we needn’t have to compel ourselves to understand the composition of such a passage as a direct answer to a specific context in the OT. That is, although commentators note that the Psalm would fit well in an enthronement context - and, therefore, is taken to be used at the enthronement of King David in Jerusalem (or another such king) - if David was being moved upon by God’s Spirit, there seems to be no reason why such language could be employed if the recipient of the revelation was witnessing events which he barely understood.
The psalm would be a revelatory passage which sprung out of the direct action of God upon one who was operating as a prophet, declaring things which he may not have fully understood himself.
Therefore, although we often interpret the Book of Psalms as having a contemporary context which helps the reader to understand any prophetic, secondary interpretation and application, this passage - like others - only has a primary message to convey as a declaration of the coming One who was being witnessed through a direct impartation by the Spirit of God.
There’s no need to have to speak of any primary contextual meaning if the Spirit chose to originate a passage of Scripture which was as puzzling to the original recipients as it must have been to succeeding generations of Israelites until the One came to whom it was addressed. That Jesus affirmed that the psalm was written by none other than David and that the Jews didn’t object to His identification to undermine His position seems the most obvious proof not only that tradition held that he was the original author but that the header in our current Bibles as to his authorship is the simplest and best position to take regardless of feeling the need to justify the reason for its composition.
Mtw 22:41-42, Mark 12:35, Luke 20:41
Very little needs to be said here about the first question that Jesus asks the Pharisees (in both Mark and Luke, the questioning of the leaders is ignored and the incident recorded simply as a statement from Jesus) to lay the foundation upon which His next question was to be put to them. After all, it was a simple matter of reading the OT Scriptures to determine that the Messiah had been promised in the lineage of king David (II Sam 7:12-13, Ps 89:3-4, 132:17, Is 9:6-7, 11:1, Jer 23:5, Amos 9:11) and that, so much like the old king would He be, He could be referred to as being none other than David Himself, returning to re-establish His throne over the nation (Jer 30:9, Ezek 24:23-24, 37:24-25, Hosea 3:5).
It’s also plain that the NT believers regarded Jesus as being descended from David’s line (Mtw 1:6, Luke 3:31, Acts 2:30-31, Rom 1:3, II Tim 2:8, Rev 5:5) as well as people who were His contemporaries and who met Him (Mtw 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9, 21:15, John 7:42) so that the title ‘Son of David’ became a Messianic title rather than a simple statement concerning Jesus’ lineage which, as the latter, many in Israel would, no doubt, have been able to take upon themselves.
That the Pharisees regarded the Messiah as being necessarily descended from king David is plain from their response in Mtw 22:42 though Scriptures which spoke of a coming leader who would be a priest (for instance, Zech 6:11-12) also led many to propose other lineages for the coming King who would restore the Davidic Kingdom (Amos 9:11). Matcar is probably correct to note that
‘Many but not all Jews in Jesus’ day regarded Ps 110 as Messianic...’
but it’s application is not in doubt in the current incident being recorded and any alternative belief seems to have been held by only a very small minority of believers.
Nothing more needs to be said here save that their answer was all that would have been expected from them. They would have seen no problem in answering the question directly for it was well established and generally believed that one of the descendants of David was to be raised up by YHWH in their midst as the Messiah.
Mtw 22:43-46, Mark 12:36-37, Luke 20:42-44
Jesus’ second question to the Pharisees is more problematical simply because the religious leaders give no explanation as an answer, Matthew recording that
‘...no one was able to answer Him a word...’
and Jesus also leaves the question simply hanging in the wind for anyone to take up the challenge to explain the text which He’s presented to them. That the Jews took Psalm 110 as being both written by David and about the coming Messiah seems plain from their reaction of acceptance that the Scripture quoted was relevant to the application, but to try and state with any certainty from contemporary records that it was so is difficult.
The Mishnah never refers to Psalm 110 though we would, perhaps, not expect it seeing as it’s more of a handbook on the correct exposition and application of the Mosaic Law. Edersheim, on the other hand, cites the Jewish Midrash on Ps 18:35 as quoting Ps 110:1 where it speaks of the command
‘Sit at My right hand...’
and applies it to the Messiah while Abraham is spoken of as occupying the place at His left. A couple of other verses are recorded by Edersheim as applied by the Jews to Messianic times and the Messiah Himself but, generally, there’s little documented evidence that such a Psalm was accepted as being Messianic. This shouldn’t detract from the reasoning contained in this short Matthean passage, however, for no objections are raised on the grounds that the Scripture is irrelevant to the point being made - rather, the Messianic application is being taken for granted or else the quote becomes wholly meaningless.
The point of the first question (Mtw 22:41-42) was to establish the relationship of the Messiah to David and to fix it in the leaders’ own minds that, by their own pronouncement and interpretation, the One who would come after David would be considered to be inferior to the father who had preceded Him. This appears to be the main reasoning behind the statement and Matmor notes of that first century society that
‘It was widely accepted that the greatest times had been in antiquity and that history had been all downhill since the early golden age. In a family the father was the great person and it was axiomatic that his sons were less significant than he’
But, although this is likely to have been the case, would it be right to think of the religious leaders as elevating David’s father, Jesse, over and above the importance and significance of his great son, David, who became the best expression of divine kingship on earth that the nation had ever seen? It would certainly seem unlikely and, for this reason, it would appear that, although the son was normally regarded as of lesser stature than his father, it wasn’t always the case if the son rose to a place of importance that far out-achieved him.
But what the Pharisees appear to have done was to have used the title ‘Son of David’ as a title of inferiority rather than as one of supremacy through their natural interpretation that any son could never be as great as the father from whom he came. What they considered the Messiah to be, therefore, was more of a pale shadow of king David who had gone before than One who was the fulfilment of all that he was never able to achieve and who would be the final word from God on what it meant to be fully human.
The Son of David was only a reflection of what had preceded Him to the Pharisees and they therefore saw in the Messiah someone who would have to be similar to king David, a military leader who, through conquest, would establish once more the Kingdom that had been lost to them. Matmor calls the expectancy of the Son of David as being similar to anticipating
‘...David all over again’
This is an important point to realise for, when the true Messiah came not in the image of David but only in His lineage, they were unable to recognise Him because their preconceived ideas had blinded them to the real character and work of the greater Son, thinking that He would simply restore a physical kingdom rather than to establish a heavenly one. Therefore Mattask is correct in stating that
‘They were looking for a Son of David who would inherit the military prowess of his sire’
It’s this that Jesus’ quote of Ps 110:1 undermines for David observed there (my italics) that
‘YHWH said to my Lord...’
calling not only the Messiah his Lord (which would have been expected) but also his own son. If one who is naturally inferior to oneself is spoken of as being superior, then it can be immediately seen that a simple reflection of who’s gone before in the ultimate Son is not being inferred but a radically new characteristic in the One who’s to come which elevates them into a position of supremacy over and above all that’s gone before - and this in an identical manner to the way in which David would have been considered to have been superior to his direct ancestors such as Jesse, his father.
Some commentators see in Jesus’ statement that His pre-eminence is being proclaimed . That Jesus, by citing the Scripture, is in fact saying that He was before David and, therefore, hinting at His divinity. This is the line that Mathag opts for, writing that the point of the argument is to
‘...elevate the concept of Messiah from that of a special human being to One who uniquely manifests the presence of God...It was because God uniquely manifested Himself in His Messiah for the gracious fulfilment of His promises to Israel that David referred to His descendant as “my Lord”’
but this needn’t be the case even though it’s extractable from the argument presented to the reader. Jesus’ divinity is not being thrown into question, either, if we accept the more likely interpretation for Jesus has already confirmed the relevancy of the title
‘...Christ, Son of the Living God’
to Peter in Mtw 16:16-17. The point is that Jesus is challenging the Pharisees’ interpretation of what the Messiah was to do when He appeared and who He was going to be - it was this which lay at the heart of the quotation of Ps 110:1.
Only if the Pharisees maintained their traditional viewpoint that the son was always inferior to the father would the conclusion have been forced upon them that the ultimate Son of David must be Someone who had preceded him - making Him Divine in their own eyes. If they were to radically change their opinion and so see in the Messiah Someone who was to be uniquely different to king David from whom He was descended, the challenge would have been to change their conception of a Messiah from a conquering King, come to expel Roman occupation and to restore a physical Kingdom on earth, to Someone who could have resembled Jesus who stood before them.
Either way, the reason for the question is that Jesus is challenging their own concept of Messiah as being insufficient and, had they allowed the challenge to reform their own Messianic expectations, they would have begun to see the plausibility of Jesus being the Messiah because His was a totally different ministry and function than they had been expecting. Matmor is perfectly correct to see this incident as being summed up in the statement that
‘...Jesus was encouraging His hearers to think again about what Messiah meant’
for, instead of conforming their own beliefs to what Scripture declared, they had conformed Scripture to their own concepts of who they wanted the Messiah to be.
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