Reflections on Psalm 110

Psalms 2 and 110 are the most prophetically messianic psalms in the Bible, with Psalm 110 regarded as the clearest and most powerful description of God’s Messiah. It is quoted seven times in the New Testament to identify Jesus as the fulfilment of this prophecy by King David. The psalm begins:

“The LORD says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’.” (v.1)

Note the two ‘Lords’ with different capitalisations. In Hebrew they are two completely different words. The “LORD” that is translated completely in upper case lettering is the tetragrammaton (four letter word) “יְהוָ֨ה”, which is the name of God, “YHWH”. This is most commonly pronounced as ‘Yahweh’. This personal name of God appears in the Old Testament 6,828 times. It is the name of God that is still considered by Jews today as too holy to speak aloud, and so they refer to him as “HaShem” – “the name”.

The second “Lord” in this verse is translated in our English Bibles with just the first letter capitalised. In Hebrew, it is the word, “לַֽאדֹנִ֗י”, (adoni), which was the common title of respect for someone who was greatly esteemed.

The two “Lords” can be a bit confusing in our English Bibles, but in the original Hebrew they make a profound statement: “Yahweh says to my Lord (adoni), ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” Who is this second Lord who sits at the right hand of Yahweh (God)? By the time of Jesus, the Jews had come to regard this whole psalm as a prophecy about the coming of the Messiah, who would come with authority to rule the nations and to lead Israel to victory. They rightly viewed it as speaking about one of David’s descendants, but they failed to appreciate the strong hints of divinity that this opening verse contains. This is no ordinary human that is being described here. This is One who sits at the right hand of the throne of God and shares in his divine authority.

Jesus pointed out the deficiency of the first century Jewish understanding of this verse in a fascinating encounter with the Pharisees, recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels:

“While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them,42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” “The son of David,” they replied. 43 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?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:41-45; Mark 12:36-37; Luke 20:42-44).

Jesus was using this psalm to point out the deficiency of their theology. Psalm 110 indicates that the Messiah was to be more than a mere man. He would be greater than David. He would share in God’s divinity and rule with God’s authority. He would not originate from the seed of a man, but would come from the very throne room of Heaven itself: from God’s right hand.

Jesus was, of course, speaking of himself as the One to whom this psalm was pointing.

Elsewhere, the New Testament writers quote Psalm 110 to establish their claim that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, bases his first evangelistic sermon on this psalm, in order to point people to Jesus (Acts 2:34-35). The writer to the Hebrews refers to this psalm three times to describe the divinity and high priestly role of Jesus (Hebrews 1:13; 5:6-10; 7:11-28).

Reading further in this Psalm, we find more detail about the Messiah’s role:

“The LORD (Yahweh) will extend your mighty sceptre from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of your enemies!” Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Arrayed in holy splendour, your young men will come to you like dew from the morning’s womb.” (vv.2-3)

This is strong battle imagery. It is completely understandable how the Jews had come to interpret this to refer to physical warfare and earthly rule. They believed that the Messiah would lead Israel to victory and free them from their oppressors. But the battle that this psalm is referring to is a spiritual one and the enemies to be defeated are also not of this world (see Ephesians 6). This is inferred by the verse that follows which describes that the coming Messiah will reign eternally as a high priest:

“The LORD (Yahweh) has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”” (v.4)

Thus, the Messiah will conquer as a king but also reign eternally as a high priest. No human king could do this. An eternal ministry requires an eternal being. No mere mortal is being described here. This is a reference to the eternal Son of God, whom the New Testament describes as having existed from eternity past with the Father (John 17:5) and whose kingly reign and priestly ministry will never end (Revelation 11:15; Hebrews 7:24).

The final three verses provide a powerful description of the ‘day’ when the Messiah’s eternal spiritual kingdom will finally and fully be established on earth; the great and terrible ‘day’ at the end of history, when the Messiah will return to judge mankind and establish his throne forever. It starts with an interesting pivot. Until now, the third person singular, ‘your’ and ‘you’, have been used to refer to the coming Messiah. But in these last three verses, it is Yahweh who is now addressed with this pronoun, and the coming Messiah (the “Lord” – adoni) is described as being at his side:

“The Lord (adoni) is at your (Yahweh’s) right hand; he will crush kings on the day of his wrath. He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth. He will drink from a brook along the way, and so he will lift his head high.” (vv.5-7)

This is strong apocalyptic language. The final day of judgment is a “day of his wrath”. It is a day when “the nations” will be judged and all who opposed the kingly rule of the Messiah will be “crushed” and the dead will be “heaped up”. The final reference to the Messiah “drinking from a brook” is simply a reference to the complete dominance and ease of the Messiah’s final victory. In earthly battles in the ancient world, when the opposing forces were evenly matched, the fighting could be so fierce and the outcome could be so finely balanced that soldiers would fight all day without a chance to rest, eat or even drink. But such will be the overwhelming and irresistible superiority of the Messiah’s final subduing of the whole world – so easy and complete will be his victory – that he will be able to “drink from a brook along the way.” Thus, the Messiah’s return for judgment will be both fierce and unstoppable, and he will easily overcome his enemies.

These are violent images. And for many today, they are uncomfortable images. In a world that insists on tolerance and acceptance, and which decries any hint of judgmentalism, passages like this are disturbing, if not abhorrent. A god who enacts wrathful judgment is simply not fashionable. Such a god does not conform to our modern sensibilities. We prefer a benign god who will respect our woke values and not dogmatically enforce his own narrow-minded morals. In short, if there must be a god, we prefer that he (she? it?) be made in our own image and subject to our own rules.

But this is no god at all. It is certainly not the God of the Bible. The overarching metanarrative of the Christian scriptures is that this world is the handiwork of an all-powerful Creator who not only brought the physical universe into existence but also created us to live in harmony with himself and established a set of moral and ethical laws which define what life in harmony with him actually looks like. It is his universe, and he makes the rules – not us!

Psalm 110 undercuts our sense of autonomy. It demolishes the modern belief that we are masters of our own destiny and authors of our own rules. The imminent return of the Messiah and the looming day of his judgment assert that we are guests in Someone Else’s universe and that we are ultimately accountable to Him for the way we live our lives.

Of course, the God of the Bible is also a God of incredible love and grace, demonstrated most wonderfully in the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross to pay for our sins and restore us to God the Father. But we cannot accept one side of God’s nature and reject the other. He is, at one and the same time, a God of both love and justice. He is a God of mercy and wrath: mercy toward those who ask for forgiveness through the merits of Jesus’ sacrifice, and wrath for those who continue to reject God’s gracious offer of forgiveness through His Son.

The Messiah who demonstrated his great love by sacrificing himself for us on the hilltop of Calvary is the same Messiah who will one day demonstrate his great wrath when he returns on the clouds of glory to judge the world with justice and truth. It is for good reason that this looming, ultimate day of history is often referred to as ‘the great and terrible day of God’s judgment’, for it will, indeed, be both of those things. For those who have responded to God’s loving offer of forgiveness through Christ, it will be a ‘great’ day when we will be ushered into an eternal kingdom of unimaginable joy. But, on the other hand, for those who continue to reject God’s offer of forgiveness through the Saviour, it will be a ‘terrible’ day – in fact, the worst day imaginable!  In the words of the writer to the Hebrews:

“For those who keep on sinning after they have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Hebrews 10:26-27) 

It is this latter warning that is the final message of Psalm 110.