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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 110

Verses 1-7

Psalms 110:1-7

Does our Lord’s attribution of this psalm to David foreclose the question of its authorship for those who accept His authority? Many, who fully recognise and reverently bow to that authority, think that it does not, and appeal for support of their view to the unquestionable limitations of His earthly knowledge. It is urged that His object in His argument with the Pharisees, in which this psalm is quoted by Him, {Matthew 22:41-46 and parallels} is not to instruct them on the authorship of the psalm, but to argue from its contents; and though He assumes the Davidic authorship, accepted generally at the time, yet the cogency of His argument is unimpaired, so long as it is recognised that the psalm is a Messianic one, and that the august language used in it of the Messiah is not compatible with the position of One who was a mere human son of David (Driver, "Introd.," p. 363, note). So also Dr. Sanday ("Inspiration," p. 420) says that "the Pharisees were taken upon their own ground, and the fallacy of their conclusion was shown on their own premises." But our Lord’s argument is not drawn from the "august language" of the psalm, but from David’s relationship to the Messiah, and crumbles to pieces if he is not the singer. It may freely be admitted that there are instances in our Lord’s references to the Old Testament in which He speaks from the point of view of His hearers in regard to it; but these are cases in which nothing turned on the question whether that point of view was correct or not. Here everything turns on it; and to maintain that, in so important a crisis, He based His arguments on an error comes perilously near to imputing fallibility to Him as our teacher. Most of recent writers who advocate the view in question would recoil from such a consequence; but their position is divided from it by a thin line. Whatever the limitations of our Lord’s human knowledge, they did not affect His authority in regard to what He did teach; and the present writer ventures to believe that He did teach that David in this psalm calls Messiah his Lord.

If so, the psalm stands alone, as not having primary reference to an earthly king. It is not, like other Messianic psalms, typical, but directly prophetic of Messiah, and of Him only. We are not warranted in denying the possibility of such direct prophecy; and the picture drawn in this psalm, so far transcending any possible original among the sons of men, has not full justice done to its majestic lines, unless it is recognised as setting forth none other than the personal Messiah. True, it is drawn with colours supplied from earthly experiences, and paints a warrior-monarch. The prophet-psalmist, no doubt, conceived of literal warfare; but a prophet did not always understand the oracles which he spoke.

The psalm falls into two parts: the Vision of the Priest-King and His army (Psalms 110:1-4); the King’s Warfare and Victory (Psalms 110:5-7).

"The oracle of Jehovah" introduces a fresh utterance of God’s, heard by the psalmist, who thus claims to be the mouthpiece of the Divine will. It is a familiar prophetic phrase, but usually found at the close-not, as here, at the beginning of the utterance to which it refers (see, however, Isaiah 56:8; Zechariah 12:1). The unusual position makes the Divine origin of the following words more emphatic. "My Lord" is a customary title of respect in addressing a superior, but not in speaking of him. Its use here evidently implies that the psalmist regards Messiah as his king. and the best comment on it is Matthew 22:43: "How then doth David in spirit call Him Lord?" The substance of the oracle follows. He who is exalted to sit at the right hand of a king is installed there by as his associate in rule. He who is seated by God at His right hand is received into such mystery of participation in Divine authority and power, as cannot be imposed on frail humanity. The rigid monotheism of the Jewish singers makes this tremendous "oracle" the more remarkable. Greek gods might have their assessors from among mortals, but who shall share Jehovah’s throne? "Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king"; {1 Chronicles 29:23} but that is no parallel, nor does it show that the oracle of this psalm simply states the dignity of the theocratic king. Solomon’s throne was Jehovah’s, as being established by Him and since he represented Jehovah on earth; but to sit at Jehovah’s right hand means far more than this. That session of Messiah is represented as the prelude to the exercise of Divine power for His triumph over His foes; and that apparent repose, while Jehovah fights for him, is singularly contrasted with his activity as described in Psalms 110:6-7. The singer speaks riddles about a union of undisturbed tranquility and of warlike strenuousness, which are only solved when we see their fulfilment in Him who sitteth at the right hand of God, and who yet goes with His armies where they go. "He was received up, and sat on the right hand of God the Lord also working with them" {Mark 16:19-20} The opened heavens showed to Stephen his Master, not sitting, but standing in the posture of readiness to help him dying, and to receive him made more alive by death. His foot shall be on the neck of His foes, as Joshua bade the men of Israel put theirs on the conquered kings’. Opposition shall not only be subdued, but shall become subsidiary to Messiah’s dominion, "a stepping stone to higher things."

The Divine oracle is silent, and the strain is taken up by the psalmist himself, who speaks "in the spirit," in the remainder of the psalm, no less than he did when uttering Jehovah’s word. Messiah’s dominion has a definite earthly centre. From Zion is this King to rule. His mighty sceptre, the symbol and instrument of His God-given power, is to stretch thence. How far? No limit is named to the sweep of His sway. But since Jehovah is to extend it, it must be conterminous with the reach of His omnipotence. Psalms 110:2 b may be taken as the words of Jehovah, but more probably they are the loyal exclamation of the psalmist, moved to his heart’s depths by the vision which makes the bliss of his solitude. The word rendered "rule" is found also in Balaam’s prophecy of Messiah {Numbers 24:19} and in the Messianic Psalms 72:8. The kingdom is to subsist in the midst of enemies. The normal state of the Church on earth is militant. Yet the enemies are not only a ring of antagonists round a centre of submission, but into their midst His power penetrates, and Messiah dominates them too, for all their embattled hostility. A throne round which storms of rebellion rage is an insecure seat. But this throne is established through enmity, because it is upheld by Jehovah.

The kingdom in relation to its subjects is the theme of Psalms 110:3, which accords with the warlike tone of the whole psalm, by describing them as an army. The period spoken of is "the day of Thy host," or array-the time when the forces are mustered and set in order for battle. The word rendered free-will offerings may possibly mean simply "willingnesses," and the abstract noun may he used as in "I am-prayer" {Psalms 109:4} -i.e., most willing; but it is better to retain the fuller and more picturesque meaning of glad, spontaneous sacrifices, which corresponds with the priestly character afterwards ascribed to the people, and goes very deep into the essence of Christian service. There are to be no pressed men or mercenaries in that host. As Deborah sang of her warriors, these "offer themselves willingly." Glad consecration of self, issuing in spontaneous enlisting for the wars of the King, is to characterise all His subjects. The army is the nation. These soldiers are to be priests. They are clad in holy attire, "fine linen, clean and white." That representation goes as deep into the nature of the warfare they have to wage and the weapons they have to wield, as the former did into the impulse which sends them to serve under Messiah’s flag. The priestly function is to bring God and man near to one another. Their warfare can only be for the carrying out of their office. Their weapons are sympathy, gentleness, purity. Like the Templars, the Christian soldier must bear the cross on his shield and the hilt of his sword. Another reading of this phrase is "on the holy mountains," which is preferred by many, among whom are Hupfeld and Cheyne. But the great preponderance of evidence is against the change, which obliterates a very striking and profound thought.

Psalms 110:3 c, d gives another picture of the host. The usual explanation of the clause takes "youth" as meaning, not the young vigour of the King, but, in a collective sense, the assembled warriors, whom it paints as in the bloom of early manhood. The principal point of comparison of the army with the dew is probably its multitude. {2 Samuel 17:12} The warriors have the gift of unaging youth, as all those have who renew their strength by serving Christ. And it is permissible to take other characteristics of the dew than its abundance, and to think of the mystery of its origin, of the tiny mirrors of the sunshine hanging on every cobweb, of its power to refresh, as well as of the myriads of its drops.

But this explanation, beautiful and deep as it is, is challenged by many. The word rendered "dawn" is unusual. "Youth" is not found elsewhere in the sense thus assigned to it. "Dew" is thought to be an infelicitous emblem. "From a linguistic point of view" Cheyne pronounces both "dawn" and "dew" to be intolerable. Singularly enough, in the next sentence, he deprecates a previous opinion of his own as premature "until we know something certain of the Hebrew of the Davidic age" ("Orig. of Psalt.," p. 482). But if such certainty is lacking, why should these two words be "intolerable"? He approves Bickell’s conjectural emendation, "From the womb, from the dawn [of life], Thy youthful band is devoted to Thee."

Psalms 110:4 again enshrines a Divine utterance, which is presented in an even more solemn manner than that of Psalms 110:1. The oath of Jehovah by Himself represents the thing sworn as guaranteed by the Divine character. God, as it were, pledges His own name, with its fulness of unchanging power, to the fulfilment of the word; and this irrevocable and omnipotent decree is made still more impressive by the added assurance that He "will not repent." Thus inextricably intertwined with the augustness of God’s nature, the union of the royal and priestly offices in the person of Messiah shall endure forever. Some commentators contend that every theocratic king of Israel was a priest, inasmuch as he was king of a priestly nation. But since the national priestliness did not hinder the appointment of a special order of priests, it is most natural to assume that the special order is here referred to. Why should the singer have gone back into the mists of antiquity, in order to find the type of a priest-king, if the union of offices belonged, by virtue of his kinghood, to every Jewish monarch? Clearly the combination was unexampled; and such an incident as that of Uzziah’s leprosy shows how carefully the two great offices were kept apart. Their opposition has resulted in many tragedies: probably their union would be still more fatal, except in the case of One whose priestly sacrifice of Himself as a willing offering is the basis of His royal sway. The "order of Melchizedek" has received unexpected elucidation from the Tel-el-Amarna tablets, which bring to light, as a correspondent of the Pharaoh, one Ebed-tob, king of Uru-salim (the city of Salim, the god of peace). In one of his letters he says, "Behold, neither my father nor my mother have exalted me in this place; the prophecy [or perhaps, arm] of the mighty King has caused me to enter the house of my father." By the mighty King is meant the god whose sanctuary stood on the summit of Mount Moriah. He was king of Jerusalem, because he was priest of its god (Sayce, "Criticism and the Monuments." p. 175). The psalm lays stress on the eternal duration of the royalty and priesthood of Messiah; and although in other Messianic psalms the promised perpetuity may be taken to refer to the dynasty rather than the individual monarch, that explanation is impossible here, where a person is the theme.

Many attempts have been made to fit the language of the psalm to one or other of the kings of Israel; but, not to mention other difficulties, this Psalms 110:4 remains as an insuperable obstacle. In default of Israelite kings, one or other of the Maccabean family has been thought of. Cheyne strongly pronounces for Simon Maccabaeus, and refers, as others have done, to a popular decree in his favour, declaring him "ruler and high priest forever" ("Orig. of Psalt.," p. 26). On this identification, Baethgen asks if it is probable that the singer should have taken his theme from a popular decree, and have transformed it (umgestempelt) into a Divine oath. It may be added that Simon was not a king, and that he was by birth a priest.

The second part of the psalm carries the King into the battlefield. He comes forth from the throne, where He sat at Jehovah’s right hand, and now Jehovah stands at His right hand. The word rendered Lord in Psalms 110:5 is never used of any but God, and it is best to take it so here, even though to do so involves the necessity of supposing a change in the subject either in Psalms 110:6 or Psalms 110:7, which latter verse can only refer to the Messiah. The destructive conflict described is said to take place "in the day of His wrath" - i.e., of Jehovah’s. If this is strictly interpreted, the period intended is not that of "the day of Thine army," when by His priestly warriors the Priest-King wages a warfare among His enemies, which wins them to be His lovers, but that dread hour when He comes forth from His ascended glory to pronounce doom among the nations and to crush all opposition. Such a final apocalypse of the wrath of the Lamb is declared to us in clearer words, which may well be permitted to cast a light back on this psalm. {Revelation 19:11} "He has crushed kings" is the perfect of prophetic certainty or intuition, the scene being so vividly bodied before the singer that he regards it as accomplished. "He shall judge" or give doom "among the nations,"-the future of pure prediction. Psalms 110:6 b is capable of various renderings. It may be rendered as above, or the verb may be intransitive and the whole clause translated, It becomes full of corpses (so Delitzsch); or the word may be taken as an adjective, in which case the meaning would be the same as if it were an intransitive verb. "The head over a wide land" is also ambiguous. If "head" is taken as a collective noun, it means rulers. But it may be also regarded as referring to a person, the principal antagonist of the Messiah. This is the explanation of many of the older interpreters, who think of Death or "the prince of this world," but is too fanciful to be adopted.

Psalms 110:7 is usually taken as depicting the King as pausing in His victorious pursuit of the flying foe to drink, like Gideon’s men, from the brook, and then with renewed vigour pressing on. But is not the idea of the Messiah needing refreshment in that final conflict somewhat harsh?-and may there not be here a certain desertion of the order of sequence, so that we are carried back to the time prior to the enthronement of the King? One is tempted to suggest the possibility of this closing verse being a full parallel with Philippians 2:7-9. Christ on the way to His throne drank of "waters of affliction," and precisely therefore is He "highly exalted."

The choice for every man is being crushed beneath His foot, or being exalted to sit with Him on His throne. "He that overcometh, to him will I give to sit down with Me on My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father on His throne." It is better to sit on His throne than to be His footstool.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 110". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".