Frustrated with a Friend

Introduction

Having an interest in Hebrew and Old Testament studies in particular there are few people to whom I am more indebted than the scholar Mark Futato. His language courses are brilliant and his contribution to Hebrew studies massive. Whether thinking of ‘BibleWorks’ or ‘Daily Dose of Hebrew’, though I have never met him personally, I regard him as a friend.

I Just Happened To Be Reading

I was, however, a little troubled recently, when I picked up a new book entitled ‘A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Promised’, edited by Ligon Duncan III: this text contains many brilliant contributions from numerous outstanding authors. It was with a sense of excitement, therefore, that I eventually turned to the chapter on the Psalms.

Why I was frustrated

I really was not anticipating what I encountered next, as I lit upon a surprising comment he makes, on page 353 of this tome. It comes at the end of a lucid, succinct, informative, in many ways excellent entry: the section is headed ‘Approaching the New Testament’; he is dealing with the question of how many or which of the Psalms should be considered Messianic? Let me quote what our brother says:

“The answer can either be none or all. If by Messianic one is thinking of psalms that directly predict some dimension of the life and work of Jesus the Messiah without any reference to someone in the Old Testament (such as David), then the answer is none.”

The explanation that Futato seems to proffer, for what I find is a puzzling statement, is as follows:

“Before moving to the New Testament, the reader must understand a given psalm in its original context with its original reference.”

He adds:

“While the kingship psalms that focus on the human king certainly referred to David and his descendant in their original contexts, psalms like Psalm 2 clearly point forward to the coming of Jesus, the ultimate messianic King.”

Otherwise Recommended

To be fair to Futato, he also proceeds to show, in other senses, how the whole Psalter should be considered and used as a thoroughly messianic document. I entirely concur with this latter part of his comments: this holistic and wholesome view of the Christology of the Psalter is a great advance on some scholarship and greatly to be welcomed. In that respect I would welcome its wider audience.

Yet, on the other hand (though I don’t yet have in my possession a copy of his commentary on the Psalter), I really am quite troubled by the content and manner of his statement on this important interpretative matter. What lies at the heart of my objection is this seems to cast a shadow on the validity and veracity of the comments of the Lord Jesus on this text (I am sure that it not what Futato intends at all). If I can humbly state (mindful of my own lack of understanding of the Scriptures), that I don’t think I am being unfair in wondering if our dear friend has considered fully the wider implications of his position on the Psalter.

A Test Case – Psalm 110

I suppose, for sake of argument, a case could be made for agreeing with Futato in a number of Psalms which some have regarded as traditionally messianic. Even if the evidence in others points heavily towards a directly prophetic meaning, it would be hard to convince all that only Christ is meant. There is one case however where Futato’s thesis cannot stand – in the case, I mean, of Psalm 110.

As far as I am able to understand, the synoptic Gospel records seem to count against it overwhelmingly .The key passages to consider are well-known to many: the first is Matthew 22.41-46 (see also Mark 12.35-37 and Luke 20.41-44):

“Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, ‘What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?’ They said to him ‘The son of David.’ He said to them ‘How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord saying: ‘The LORD said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?’ And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.’

Perhaps I am naive in my interpretation, or missing some key piece of hermeneutic subtlety (though I’ve been musing, reading and studying Psalter interpretation for nearly two decades). Yet it does seem to me that the plainest understanding of this passage, is that Jesus is showing the Jews, what they already in fact believed, that Messiah must be more than merely human because He is also David’s Lord – the God-Man Messiah now enthroned in heaven at God’s right hand. Jesus does not try to establish that this Psalm is Messianic and directly prophetic; nor does he state explicitly, in so many words, ‘this psalm is directly prophetic’ – yet it is plain import and implication of what he says: it seems that our Lord simply assumes what all knew could be the only fair interpretation of these words (and I don’t think this is a ‘for sake of argument let’s assume it’s true’ ad hominem text.

I wondered, during a few minutes of self-doubt, whether I was alone in taking this position (on this particular psalm I still think this would be the correct understanding even if I was alone)! Thankfully this seems to be the majority position throughout the ages of the church, even if there are some in recent centuries (generally of a less conservative bent) who have taken a more skeptical, modernist, line. Let me give you some examples:

Calvin

Calvin writes in his commentary on Psalm 110 (and in general in the commentary on the Psalter, for pastoral reasons, Calvin tends to omit Christological interpretations, even if he held them) the following words.

“Having the testimony of Christ that this Psalm was penned in reference to himself, we need not apply to any other quarter for the corroboration of this statement; and, even, supposing we neither had his authority, nor the testimony of the apostle, the psalm itself would admit of no other interpretation; for although we should have a dispute with the Jews …about the right application of it, we are able, by the most irresistible arguments, to compel them to admit that the truths here stated relate neither to David nor to any other person than the Mediator alone.”

Calvin, like I am, was well aware of the typical significance of David’s Kingdom, and that Old Testament passages need to be applied to Christ with care, to avoid extravagant allegories. Yet when he comes to this Psalm he does not mince his words. This psalm at least must be prophetic of Christ.

Delitzsch

Similarly Franz Delitzsch comments on this text with reference to the synoptic passages:

“The inference which is left for the Pharisees to draw rests upon two premises, which are granted, that Psalm 110 is Davidic, and that it is prophetico-messianic, i.e., that in it the future Messiah stands objectively before the mind of David. For if those who were interrogated had been able to reply that David does not there speak of the future Messiah” (or another Davidic King) “…but puts into the mouth of the people words concerning himself …then the question would lack the background of cogency as an argument. Since, however, the prophetico-messianic character of the Psalm was acknowledged at that time …the conclusion to be drawn …must have been felt by the Pharisees themselves, that the Messiah …was of human and at the same time of superhuman nature …the New Testament also assumes” this interpretation “…elsewhere.”

Grogan

I was cheered also by Geoffrey Grogan in his book on the Psalter:

“This royal psalm is attributed to David by Jesus, and the way he used it …makes it difficult to consider it less than fully messianic, not simply foreshadowing but predicting the Messiah.”

I would in fact put it a little more strongly …I think the way Christ explained the text and silenced his critics makes it impossible that we should admit any other view.

Surprising Opinions

It is true that Tremper Longman III (another scholar I respect), slightly fudges the issue.

“While the title names David as the composer, the first verse in its original context can only be understood as an oracle from God …to the king …the psalm is addressed to the king, not given by the king, although the title will allow the New Testament authors to apply the psalm in a different direction.”

To be quite frank, for a moment, I also find that a rather worrying statement: to me it seems both dogmatic and unqualified and appears to treat the New Testament explanation of the Psalm as not carrying much weight as to the original meaning of Psalm 110.

Yet, even Kraus, who is sometimes adrift from the mark, if I am reading him correctly, seem to entertain little doubt about the true meaning of the text. Having looked at the other options he is forced to concede:

“The interpreter is therefore duty bound not to let his view remain fixed on the world of origins or motifs, not to persist in things cultic and historical, but after careful investigation of all these complexes to recognize what tends toward fulfillment of the statements. Who is the proper bearer of this officium sacerdotale et regium which is transferred in Psalm 110? His citation in a footnote of the comment of Calvin seems to settle the matter!

Reliable Conclusions

Allan Harman puts it well:

“There is no indication of the setting or time of the psalm” (which is a very telling comment – any other putative setting is highly speculative and finally without weight or substance) “…It may have had its origin at the time of Solomon’s enthronement” (or it may not – how could we possible know when it has not been revealed) “…but David is looking prophetically (see 2 Sam 23.2) to his greater future son, the Messiah. Even in pre-Christian times it was regarded as Messianic by the Jews, and Jesus, by the use of it, silenced his critics.”

(For those who are itching to read a helpful affirmative piece without wading through all the scholarship, Greg Beale & Don Carson’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, page 82-83, is a really helpful place to start).

Pentecost Sermon

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is a fascinating text and helps throw much needed light on the question of Psalter Messianic interpretation. Even with respect to, what Futato would probably think, is an even-less-clear-cut text, Psalm 16, David is clearly the author, Acts 2.29, and to be regarded as a prophet. In light of an earlier covenant promise (2 Samuel 7.12-13), of a future messianic descendant, David sees and speaks of the resurrected Christ. When we come to how Peter expounds Psalm 110:1, David again is clearly the author who speaks and not one of the subjects spoken about, Acts 2.34.

“For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The LORD said unto my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'”

Was it not exactly this same vision that Stephen had at his martyrdom in Acts 7.54-59 when he looked into glory and cried out to Christ “Lord Jesus receive my Spirit.” It was not till his Damascene Vision that the pieces fell into place for Saul of Tarsus when he asked “Who are you Lord?” to which he was answered “I am Jesus.” Now he was able to prove, from personal experience, that Jesus was the Christ of David’s Psalm 110, Acts 9.22.

Undoubted Complexities

If am fairly well acquainted with most of the arguments about the original meaning and reception history of texts. I know that there are huge, complex, questions surrounding how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament. I realize that there are subtleties that are sometimes hard to pick up. Far brighter minds than mine have tried to wrestle with the texts of whom Futato no doubt is one. Having said that, I think that the answer to the proper interpretation of Psalm 110 (at the very least), can only be resolved when we balance principles of interpretation by our understanding of prophecy and clear authoritative statements of Scripture, particularly in the New Testament.

Necessary Clarifications

Let me try to clarify a number of points: I agree with the principle that we need to do the hard work of understanding texts in their original sense and context – to do other wise would be exegetically unsound. We also need to regard the original intention of the author. In no way am I arguing for a fuller special sensus plenior of the kind that suggests that apostles plucked out of the ether explanations which actually are prejudicial to proper Old Testament interpretation. I would tend toward the rigorous methodological approach of Walter Kaiser: we must do all the hard work of grammar and history until it becomes clear why the apostles used. explained or applied certain Old Testament texts in the way they did.

Hermeneutical Questions

What I am trying to say, however, is that there are times in the bible when the original context is not stated in the Old Testament but light is shed on the matter by clear statements of the apostles, or of Jesus himself. It seems to me, as regards Psalm 110, that Peter himself shows us, that the original context was this: David in a vision was given a revelation, couched in semi-familiar royal figures, whereby he foresaw the enthronement and exaltation of the Christ. If our interpretative principles, of original context or authorial intent, are too inflexibly rigid to admit the possibility of direct predictive messianic prophecy, verified unambiguously by the apostles, then our understanding of that principle is incorrectly conceived, and needs amendment and adjustment. Our hermeneutic of scripture must not become so absolute, to drown out the voice of a clearer Sola Scriptura witness to the proper context, intention and interpretation of the Psalm.

Contextual Application

Some might query whether a vision of Messiah 800 years before his birth would have much practical bearing on the life of Church in its Old Testament form. I find such an objection does not carry much weight – surely the aim was to cultivate hope in the promised King to come, who would establish the Kingdom of Christ, bring in forgiveness of sins, and share attributes of divinity along with his humanity, that his reign might never end, at the regeneration of the world. That many or most failed to see this is really not the point. This was also a prophecy designed to announce Messiah’s reign in advance, so when it all worked out, the Church could be certain, that the God who works all things according to the counsel of His will, had bought his redemptive purpose to pass, with the exaltation of His Christ.

Firm Friends

I am sure my friend would be horrified to think he might have unintentionally undermined the veracity of the Scriptures and the authority of the apostles who record the words of Christ: I am quite sure his desire, in all his extensive labors, is to advance the cause of Christ and extend the knowledge of God’s Word.

I am equally certain he would shudder at the thought that his comment might spread abroad a mindset that undermines biblical inerrancy which I am very sure he holds. Perhaps I am wrong about Messianic Psalms! I have absolutely no desire at all to contend unnecessarily with a friend.

Yet, I do believe with all my heart, that Psalm 110 is above all the most clearly messianic of all the entries in the Psalter. If it means sticking my head above the parapet to preserve this possibility of Psalter predictive prophecy, I am happy to do that, for I believe that is clearly the New Testament position and that of Christ himself.

It is for this reason I have felt it necessary to write of my frustrations with a long-standing scholar whom I think of as a friend. No doubt there are many, many, things I could glean and learn, under the tutelage of this bright and gifted brother. This is one point at which I discern he may have erred. And if such a statement does not rattle most scholars and reformed pastors, if it spread downwards to the pews, and I hope I am wrong, it may well do more harm than good to the church. Nothing would thrill me more than seeing a slightly enlarged Messiah!

3 Comments

  1. David Carr November 14, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    Thank you for your clear thinking and writing!
    Re: hermeneutical questions. The one axiom that is needed for Biblical interpretation is:
    The Bible is the Word of God.
    Scholars, with all their study, often exalt their thoughts above the Word.
    Scholarship of the highest order is encouraged. (“Search the Scriptures!”) It is fruitful when exercised in the context of child-like (NOT childish), submissive, reverent, and worshiping faith.

    • Andrew Kerr November 14, 2017 at 1:08 pm #

      Glad you found that helpful David.
      I suppose, in this case, hazarding a guess, I think the problem is an overly-rigid, slavish, application of what are generally sound principles of hermeneutics; I cannot but assume my friend’s desire is to be faithful to Scripture!

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