November 19, 2013

The Life of Faith

In biblical interpretation, one can be right for the wrong reasons, and wrong for the right reasons. There’s an important passage in Scripture about which I believe Christians have been right for the wrong reasons, and Jews have been wrong for the right reasons.

Psalm 110 is crucial to the Christian faith because its interpretation is traceable to Jesus Himself. In a fascinating exchange with His own Jewish people, Jesus raised the tantalizing possibility that the Jewish Messiah was more than human:

“While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, ‘What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?’

“ ‘The son of David,’ they replied.

“He said to them, ‘How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him “Lord”? For he says, “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 can he be his son?’

“No one could say a word in reply” (Matt. 22:41-46).

This exchange, which “delighted” the crowds (see Mark 12:37), has been less than delightful to Jewish theologians through the centuries—in part, because Christians often present it wrongly. In fact, our Bibles have contributed to the problem.

Many versions of the Bible translate Psalm 110:1: “The LORD says to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand’ ” (NKJV).1 LORD (all capitals) indicates Yahweh, while Lord (capitalized) indicates Adonai; both are divine. In essence, eager Trinitarian Christians have explained this verse as: God [the Father] says to God [the Son], “Sit at My right hand.”

Unfortunately, this has resulted in Christians being dismissed by Jews as naive and careless with Scripture. Why? Because the second “Lord” in verse 1 should not, in fact, be translated adonai (Hebrew for divine Lord) but adoni (Hebrew for human lord).2 This verse should read: “The LORD says to my lord” (NIV).

Our Jewish friends are right. They are also wrong.

There’s another “Lord” in this psalm. He can be found in verse 5, sitting at the right hand. He is the Lord, Adonai. But at whose right hand is Adonai sitting? Who else, but Yahweh’s?3 What? How can a human lord sit at the right hand of Yahweh in verse 1, and a divine Lord sit at the right hand of Yahweh in verse 5? How can one figure be both human and divine at the same time?

It’s the Jewish reminder of careful exegesis that, ironically, makes Psalm 110 even more powerful than what many Christians have realized and taught. Indeed, it’s the human nature of “lord” in verse 1 that sets up the cosmic punch line: the divine nature of this same “Lord” in verse 5. The revelation is startling: This Messiah is not only from earth; He’s from heaven. He’s not only the Son of man; He’s the Son of God. He’s not only the offspring of David; He’s the Root of Jesse (Rev. 22:16).

This is precisely the point Jesus was making all along.

  1. Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
  2. The Hebrew term adon can mean either a human lord or divine Lord. But when adon appears with the possessive “my” (adoni in Hebrew), it always refers to a human lord or master (even angel), not to God (see, for example, 1 Sam. 29:8; Ex. 21:5; Gen. 18:12; Joshua 5:14).
  3. Some have suggested that in verse 5 adonai sits at the right hand of a human lord, meaning that we’ve gone from a human at the right hand of Yahweh in verse 1 to a divine Adonai at the right hand of a human in verse 5. While this is possible, it must be asked: Did these figures somehow switch seats? If so, why? Also, if the “LORD” (Yahweh) of verse 1 is the same figure as the “Lord” (adonai) of verse 5 (who’s described as the “Lord” who will crush kings and judge the nations [verses 5, 6]) would the LORD (Yahweh) also have to drink from a brook along the way (verse 7)? Does it not make more sense that the lord (adoni) invited to sit at the right hand of Yahweh in verse 1 is the same Lord (adonai) seated at the right hand of Yahweh in verse 5?