Psalm 110:1 – The LORD said unto my Lord, * Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.

Psalm 110 is one of the most frequently quoted Old Testament passages in the New Testament.  You will recall, of course, the debate our Lord has with the Pharisees concerning the first verse of this psalm.  Our Lord and the Pharisees both assumed that this psalm is spoken by the voice of king David.  It is David who says, ‘The LORD’ – that is, Yahweh, Jehovah, David’s God – ‘The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.’  It is natural that David should refer to God as ‘Lord’.  But who is this second ‘Lord’, the one to whom Jehovah speaks when he says, ‘Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool’?  This is what our Lord asks the Pharisees:

How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?  If David then call him Lord, how is he his son?  (Matthew 22:43ff.)

The Pharisees are unable to answer these questions and, in fact, from the moment our Lord asked these things, no man dared to try to trap him again with questions (Matthew 22:46).  The problem for the Pharisees was that the messiah is a descendant of king David and of the royal family of Judah.  Yet in the psalm, which tradition attributed to David, this same messiah, this descendant of David, is called ‘my lord’ by David.  To the ancient Jewish mind, which is patriarchal and which reveres the elderly and ancestors, it is difficult to see how an ancestor, David, could call his descendant, the messiah, ‘my lord’. 

The problem is resolved for Christians.  The first LORD in the psalm, Jehovah, is God the Father.  The Father speaks to God the Son, our incarnate Lord, saying, ‘Sit thou on my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool.’  Jesus Christ in his divine nature is God incarnate, and as such he is David’s Lord and God.  Yet in his human nature he is the son of Mary and the foster son of Joseph, and as such he is both a legal and a blood descendant of David.  For Christians there is no problem interpreting this psalm:  it speaks of Christ.  The Father tells the Son, who has ascended into heaven after the exaltation of the Resurrection, to sit upon his right hand, where indeed our creed proclaims that he does sit, and where Saint Stephen beheld him when at the moment of Stephen’s martyrdom he cried out,

Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.  (Acts 7:56)

Christians easily see Christ in this psalm, exalted by his Father with a priestly kingship and a royal priesthood.  So agrees Saint Augustine:

This Psalm is one of those promises, surely and openly prophesying our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; so that we are utterly unable to doubt that Christ is announced in this Psalm, since we are now Christians and believe the Gospel…[L]et us believe, I say, and let us declare both the Son of David, and the Lord of David.  Let us not be ashamed of the Son of David, lest we find the Lord of David angry with us.  (Augustine, p. 541)

This last point of Augustine’s suggests another psalm verse, in which we see Christ again.  Psalm 2, verse 12:  ‘Kiss the Son, lest he be angry.’  This psalm begins, ‘Why do the heathen so furiously rage together; and why do the people imagine a vain thing?’  Historically this psalm probably refers to a revolt by Gentile vassal princes against the overlordship of some descendant of David.  The psalm recalls God’s promises to David and his line and then warns the rebels to kiss Judah’s king, whom God loves as a son.  This kiss is a sign of homage, as, for instance, when

Samuel took a vial of oil, and poured it upon [Saul’s] head, and kissed him, and said, Is it not because the LORD hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance.  (I Samuel 10:1);

or again, when God tells Elijah that he has kept seven thousand who have not bowed unto Baal and have not kissed him (I Kings 19:18).

But for Christians the raging heathen inevitably suggest, not some petty ancient rebellion, but rather the powers of this world arrayed against our Lord:  the powers both of the Jewish world of Caiaphas and the Jerusalem mob and also the powers of the Gentile world of Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers.  Why do they so furiously rage together, and why do they imagine a vain thing?  Why do they take counsel against God the Father and against his Anointed, our Lord Jesus Christ?  Why?  God asks this question elsewhere in Scripture, too:

O my people, what have I done unto thee?  and wherein have I wearied thee?  testify against me.  For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  (Micah 6:4)

And yet thou hast hung thy Saviour upon the gibbet of the cross, we might add from the Reproaches of the Good Friday liturgy.  It is against Christ that the heathen so furiously rage together. 

And let us not become too secure, thinking that the heathen are someone else, someone other than you and I.  The Roman Catholic Church foolishly has dropped the Reproaches from the Good Friday liturgy on the theory that they might be thought to be anti-Semitic.  But the point of singing or saying the Reproaches on Good Friday is precisely to warn us — us, the Church — that we, each and every one of us, is responsible for the Cross.  The Jews crucified Christ.  So too did the Gentiles.  So too do Christians.  So too do you and I.  Every sin you commit is a nail driven into our Lord’s feet and hands; every sin you commit steadies the lance driven into the Sacred Heart; every sin is a thorn in his crown of pain.  When the Reproaches ask, ‘O my people, what have I done unto thee?  and wherein have I wearied thee?’ the question is directed to you and me, not to some group safely dead in the past.  The heathen that so furiously rage against our Lord are the hosts of our sins.

Yet the psalm does not end on this note of rebellion.  The situation reverses before the psalm ends: ‘Kiss the Son lest he be angry.’  The rebellion, you see, is defeated; the raging powers of sin are put down.  Christ has won the victory.  There is only one way to eternal life, and that comes by laying down our rebel arms and submitting to the authority of Christ.  We must kiss the Son lest he be angry, for he alone is the way, the truth, and the life.  If we fail to become his servants, then we shall perish on account of our rebellious way.  Ye shall perish ‘if his wrath be kindled, yea, but a little.’  But on the other hand, ‘blessed are all they that put their trust in him.’

Historical-critical scholars spend time investigating the historical situation which gave rise to the psalms that speak of Gentile rebellion.  As a matter of theoretical scholarly interest, such investigations are fine.  But that question is truly unimportant for people of faith if we believe that psalms have living significance for modern believers.  The significant issue is not a long dead rebellion by some ancient Moabite or Edomite vassal of the Davidic monarchy.  The far more significant issue is the rebellion of living Christians against the Son of David, and their need for reconciliation. 

Many of the psalms speak to or speak about the king in the manner of Psalm 2 and Psalm 110.  Historically these many psalms refer to various Jewish rulers and various situations.  But in the eyes of the Church their mystical reference is to Christ the King, the Son of David, the Son of God.  When we learn to see Christ in the psalms, then we have mastered the central key to their proper interpretation both in the Mass and in the daily Office and in our private reading and study.

2 thoughts on “The Psalms. 5. Christ in the Psalms

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