‘The Lord of Triumph’: An Exegesis of Psalm 110
by John Drury
What would it be like if the United States had the assurance that its president was ordained by God Himself? What sort of confidence would we have in the actions taken by our leader? Although we may not feel this way, the ancient Israelites did. One reason they had such a confidence in their leader was royal psalms like Psalm 110. Their confidence in God was also strengthened, for “Yahweh’s lordship over Israel and over the nations gains concrete human form in the one who is enthroned.”[i] God’s purpose for this psalm was therefore to instill confidence in the nation by acknowledging His ordination of the king.
Because this psalm is about the king, it is difficult to regard it as written by David, despite the fact that the heading says “of David.” However, this Hebrew phrase is ambiguous and therefore not indicative of Davidic authorship. It is best regarded as “to David” or “about David.” Nevertheless, scholars such as Delitzsch see David as the speaker, singing praises of the future glory of his seed.[ii] Others, such as Kraus, identify a court prophet as the speaker.[iii] In either case, the prophetic nature of the psalm is undeniable, and so whoever the speaker may be, he is speaking on behalf of God.
Since the psalm may be best regarded as spoken by a court prophet to the king, the setting seems clearly to be in the royal court. However, Psalm 110 is one of the strongest candidates for Mowinckle’s “Enthronement Festival” theory. This hypothesis identifies the function of the psalm as primarily cultic with the purpose of praising Yahweh. This line of thinking has been perpetuated by John Gammie’s suggestion that the Psalm was part of a cultic drama used when autumn rains failed.[iv] This would render the psalm as having little to do with the actually monarchy. On the other hand, Dahood contends that it is most certainly a royal psalm used to celebrate a military victory.[v] Kraus agrees with Dahood concerning the monarchical use of the Psalm, yet sees it being used specifically for the enthronement of the Davidic king. He also allows for the cultic function to play a role as part of this enthronement, but not in place of it.[vi] Certainly its religious use cannot be denied, but the Psalm is first and foremost about the king and his particular ordination from God.[vii]
Although it is addressed to David, the continued canonical presence of this psalm brings confusion as to who the addressed king really is. Those who emphasize the cultic function identify the addressee as Yahweh. Those who wrote the New Testament saw this specially anointed king as Christ Himself.[viii] One reason for the difficulty of accepting it as addressed to a king is the reference to priesthood (v. 4). However, it is important to remember that David was himself portrayed as a religious leader by the Chronicler. Also, the charismatic leaders of the Exodus and pre-monarchial period have been replaced by the centralized monarchy, so the religious element must be transferred to the king and emphasized by the ritualistic use of psalms such as Psalm 110.[ix]
The royal and ritual overtones of this psalm provide a unique atmosphere. It is feels like a celebration, as the power of the king over his enemies is praised. The psalm is overflowing with honor language, as the king is ascribed glory because of his divine ordination. There also is an atmosphere of terror, but not for the king or the reader but rather for the nations who will be judged by the king. This prophetic element of the psalm adds a layer of mystery and suspense, as the king’s future victory is envisioned.
In reference to form, the heading of Psalm 110 simply calls itself “a psalm.” Hebrew poetry is known for its parallelism, which, for this psalm, is not found in the lining but in word repetitions and word plays. More specific to this psalm is its royal character. P. J. Nel points out seven key elements of the ideology of the Royal Psalms: (1) little influence by the ideology on historical realities of the monarchy, (2) the covenant is specific to the Davidic line, (3) centrality and even supremacy of the cult of Zion, (4) the cultic role of the king, (5) uniqueness of the king, (6) opposition to the enemies, and (7) the righteous governance of the king.[x] Each of these elements are present in Psalm 110. What is unique to it is the presence of oracles from the very mouth of God. However, the poetic form of most prophetic utterances keeps this fact from causing too much confusion.
There is considerable debate regarding what structural patterns can be found in Hebrew poetry. In reference to Psalm 110, the overall structural parallelism between verses 1-3 and 5-7 have been long identified. Other options have arisen of late. In an article on the structure of various psalms, Robert Alden proposes the following chiastic structure:
1 A The LORD installs the king.
2 B His commission to conquer.
3 C The day of power.
4 D The LORD promises an oath.
5 C The day of wrath.
6 B He will conquer.
7 A The LORD installs the king.[xi]
However, Alden’s proposed structure fails to acknowledge the clear parallel between v. 1 and v. 4. These two verses contain distinct oracles of Yahweh, while v. 7 does not. This structure also requires an inferior reading of v. 7a.[xii]
Another alternative structure has been offered by Kraus. He suggests the presence of three rather than two oracles. In his analysis, v. 3b stands as a different oracle than the first and third, which accounts for the striking lack of military language in that verse.[xiii] However, the clear parallel between v. 1 and v. 4 as well as between v. 3b and v. 7a seem to contradict his tri-oracle thesis. Furthermore, the very assumption that this Psalm contains oracles is based upon the use of direct discourse in v. 1 and v. 4, something which cannot be found in v. 3b. In light of the inferiority of these recent speculations, we will follow a more traditional structure.
I. First Oracle of Yahweh: A Command (1)
A. Address from Yahweh to Ahdohn (1a)
B. The Oracle (1b)
1. Command to Sit at Yahweh’s Right Hand
2. Statement of Purpose: Conquer
II. Enacting of the Lord’s Strength (2-3)
A. Promise to Award Strength (2a)
B. Command to Rule Over Foes (2b)
C. Willingness of the People in Battle (3a)
D. Splendor of the King (3b)
1. Beautiful Holiness
III. Second Oracle of Yahweh: An Oath (4)
A. Announcement of the Oath (4a)
B. The Oracle (4b)
1. Ordination for Eternal Priesthood
2. Identification with Melchizedek
IV. Enacting the Lord’s Strength (5-7)
A. The Lord at the right hand of the king (5a)
B. The Judgment of the Nations (5b-7a)
1. execute kings on the day of wrath (5b)
2. judge the nations (6a)
3. cause much death (6b)
4. execute heads of nations (6c)
5. peace for the king (7a)
C. The Lord lifts up the king’s head (7b)
Ver. 1 The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand
till I make your enemies your footstool.”[xiv]
This is the first oracle, presumably spoken by God through the aforementioned temple prophet. This is implied from the possessive pronoun “my.” For those reading the New King James Version, this possessive pronoun is the only indication of the distinction between the two “Lords” present. However, the difference was quite clear to the Hebrew reader: “Yahweh said to my ahdohn.” In the Old Testament, Yahweh always refers to the God Himself (Ex. 4:1; Ps. 71:1; Jer. 31:23). Ahdohn is also used for God but predominately as a designation of Him as master (Ex. 24:23; Isa. 3:1; Ps. 8:1). The most common use of ahdohn is in reference to an earthly master (Gen. 25:9; 1 Sam. 25:10), often specifically addressing a king (1 Sam. 26:15; 2 Sam. 14:9). Since this usage is at work in the phrase, we can read it, “The Lord (God) said to my Lord (the King).”
The confusion surrounding Psalm 110:1 is not new, for the Septuagint translated the opening phrase “the kyrios said to my kyrios.” This Greek rendering equalized the two “Lords,” and it therefore set up the psalm even more for later Christological interpretation. Whether this inappropriate translation was God’s will for the benefit of the early church or not is a question we may never answer this side of heaven. Thankfully the NIV has clarified the matter by printing Yahweh in all capitals: “LORD.” The distinction is made even sharper by the Jerusalem Bible: “Yahweh declared to my Lord.”
The king is commanded to sit at the right hand of God. This is a striking image to the ancient Israelites, for the right hand nearly always refers to some kind of preferential treatment.[xv] When used in reference to where one sits, as we see here, the right side is the place of highest honor. This metaphorical enthronement is deeply anthropomorphic, as God is pictured like a king sitting on a throne. However, Dahood contends that this sort of thinking was not outside the ancient Hebrew mind-set.[xvi] By allowing the king to participate in the glory of God’s rule, this becomes the first of a long chain of images where the confidence of the nation may be boosted.
Following the command to sit there is a statement of purpose: “I will make your enemies your footstool.” To the ancients, this image signifies the act of conquering (Jos. 10:24; 2 Chron. 9:18; 1 Kings 5:3). Those under the feet of a king are under his dominion and rule. Archeologists have discovered ancient iconography depicting kings with enemies pictured under their feet.[xvii] God’s sovereignty over the nations is prophetically envisioned as coming through the Davidic king.
We can learn from this verse that God is the one who appoints leaders. Even the bad ones are His servants. Take for instance Cyrus, a pagan ruler who liberated the Israelites in accordance with the will of God (Is. 45:1-4). At the same time, God is willing to share His glory and dominion with His people. Altogether, we see that God is sovereign, which is a good starting point for all theological implications.
Ver. 2 The Lord shall send the rod of your strength out of Zion.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!
This verse begins the exposition of the oracle of v. 1. Strength is promised to the king. The rod, or “scepter,” which God sends forth, was seen as the king’s weapon and therefore symbolized his collective strength as a ruler.[xviii] It is important to note, however, that God is the one sending out the king’s scepter, indicating that God rules through the king. This theme is also supported by the mention of Zion, which was not only the seat of the monarchy but also the religious center. Zion was the seat of God’s authority too.
The second line is properly translated as a command.[xix] This parallels the imperative tone of v. 1b, when God commanded the king to sit at His right hand. Also, the “enemies under your feet” parallels “ruling in the midst of enemies.” However, the passive role of the king in v. 1 is contrasted with the active role found here. God Himself commissions the king to conquer foes, which is characteristic of the role of the king in the psalms.[xx] This assumes a covenant relationship, where the enemies of one party become the enemies of the other.
Who are these enemies? The Hebrew word ahyav (also in v. 2) implies more than just those whom the king dislikes. In most cases, it refers to generic military enemies (Deut. 20:1-4; 1 Sam. 4:3; Est. 8:13). Another Hebrew word for enemies common to the Psalter is shurr. It speaks of conspiring enemies,[xxi] while ahyav is quite consistently used to speak of significant national enemies. Certainly God is not ordaining the vengeance of personal enemies, but rather enacting His sovereignty through His chosen people.
The king is commanded to rule in the “midst” of these military enemies. The Hebrew word here, kehrev, is used to mean (1) literally “inside” (Gen. 25:22), (2) a euphemism for one’s innards (Lev. 1:9), (3) being “from” someone or something (Duet. 1:42), or (4) presence (Ex. 8:22). Certainly the king is not literally ruling inside his enemies nor over their innards. Ruling “from” one’s enemies proves too confusing as well, so the last choice is best: “rule in the presence of your enemies.” To do this would require an amazing amount of strength -- a characteristic already attributed to the king. The command to rule in the midst of enemies is in hope of reversing the state of the nation in the “midst” of wickedness (Ps. 5:11).
The sovereign rule of God over the world is worked out in a small way through His chosen king. God is willing to work through His people. His call back by the assurance that He can promise safety, even in the midst of enemies. The power of triumph in the face of the greatest of danger only comes from God. To God be the ultimate glory, for He is the Lord of Triumph!
Ver. 3 Your people shall be volunteers in the day of your power;
in the beauties of holiness, from the womb of the morning,
you have the dew of your youth.
The first phrase of this verse continues the promise of military strength. The people of the king are literally “willingnesses.” The Hebrew word used here is n’dahvah, which is used by the Old Testament nearly exclusively for “free will offerings” (Ex. 35:29; 2 Chron. 31:14). Only in Hosea 14:4 is it used as the adjective “freely.” The cultic allusion may be intentionally, for just as an animal may be given to die as a sacrifice, so to will the king’s subject give themselves to die in battle. Such an extreme willingness of one’s soldiers is essential for victory. It also implies a certain assurance in the king, which, as we have already stated, is the purpose for this psalm.
The second line of this verse is the most confusing part of Psalm 110. The images are enigmatic and the themes seem out of place. The opening phrase, although ambiguous, is at least partially accessible. The king’s “beauties of holiness” could be reference to his righteousness, or possibly the adornments that represent the wealth of a ruler. Either way, the phrase ascribes glory and honor to the king, which would aid in raising Israel’s confidence in the king.
The next two phrases are far more difficult to interpret. William Brown contends they are actually a liturgical command for the royal figure to go out from the womb of the dawn. He goes on to suggest the womb to be a metaphorical reference to the Temple and/ or Zion.[xxii] Also, morning was regarded as a time of executing righteousness and could possibly be a reference to the sun-god -- the foe of righteousness in ancient mythology.[xxiii] Hidden beneath the layers of mythology and cultic imagery there lies adoration for the king. What this adoration is specifically for we may never know.
The womb image may imply a divine begetting of the Davidic king.[xxiv] This theme is also found in the inauguration of David in 2 Samuel 7, where God proclaims the king to be His son (2 Sam. 7:14). This is contested by Allen, who sees the mention of youth as pointed back to the young warriors of the first half of the verse.[xxv] The poetic connection between “youth” and “womb” does not seem to allow for such an interpretation, but the presence of an allusion to divine sonship is worth questioning. Certainly some kind of sonship is implied here, but we cannot jump to conclusions as to how developed the metaphysics of a “son of God” were in ancient Israel. Whatever the imagery is saying, the overall thrust -- the unique glory of the Davidic king -- is effectively communicated.
The assurance of a willing people illustrates that God understands the importance of human support. He provides a promise even though a simple command is all He is obliged to give. The beauty and youth of the king are a healthy reminder that God is the source of all earthly glories.
Ver. 4 The Lord has sworn and will not relent,
“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
This is the second oracle of God, given this time as an oath with a promise. The
psalmists chooses the verb nahgham (NKJV “relent”) for a reason. Although it often used to speak of the “repenting of sins” by humans (Judg. 2:18; Jer. 8:6) or for the giving of comfort (2 Sam. 13:39; Isa. 57:6), it is most certainly used here as the “changing of mind.” Since God is often said to nahgham or “change His mind” in the Old Testament (Gen. 6:6; Ex. 32:14), the psalmist chooses to proclaim that in the case of His ordination of the Davidic King, he most certainly will not.
For all the assurance the king may have in the oath of God, scholars have little assurance in their interpretation of the content of this oracle. Who is this Melchizedek? A quick answer is often sought in chapter seven of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Although I do not wish to deny the Christological significance of Psalm 110, it is clear that the first readers of this psalm did not have Christ in mind. Also, the early church was not the first to speculate about the mystery of Melchizedek. There was so much midrash interpretation of him in the inter-testament period that some scholars, including Dahood, claim that his presence here is a later interpolation. This view is substantiated by the lack of evidence in Gen. 14 regarding Melchizedek being a priest “forever.”[xxvi] This view is combated by P. J. Nel, who identifies the connection made by the psalmist between David and Melchizedek has the purpose of justifying the Davidic line in reference to its seat at Zion. Melchizedek, just like David, was king of Jerusalem. Furthermore, Nel suggests that the Melchizedek reference has less to do with the priestly role of the king but rather this geographical and royal connection.[xxvii] Nel’s hypothesis would help clarify why little of the priestly function of the king follows this oracle, but rather only the mention of kingly judgment. The priesthood of the king may be a position but not an active role. Although the author’s intention for the Melchizedekian Priesthood reference may be lost, we can be certain of the claim of an eternal reign.[xxviii]
We may not understand who Melchizedek is, but we can still learn about God from this verse. God’s oath is trustworthy. He will not go back on it. Also, God is eternal and the source of eternal promises.
Ver. 5 The Lord is at your right hand;
he shall execute kings in the day of his wrath.
The final stanza (vs. 5-7) picks up on the conquering theme of vs. 1-3. The “day of wrath” (v. 5b) parallels the “day of power” (v. 3a). Also, the “right hand” is found in both v. 1 and v. 5. The prophetic quality is enhanced by an overwhelming eschatological tone evidenced by the vision of the future judgment of the nations through the king. This execution of judgment against the nations is justified, for the Davidic king, as we have already shown, participates in God’s rule over the earth.
Just like its parallel in v. 1, the identification of the characters in v. 5 is not easy. “Lord” here is neither Yahweh nor ahdon, but adohnahy. The positioning in v. 1 of the king to the right of God ought to indicate adohnahy refers to the king. However, adohnahy is almost always employed to refer to God. Only in Gen. 18:3, where Abraham welcomes three mysterious visitors, do we see adohnahy addressed to a human. But even in this case the use is ambiguous, as these visitors are, at minimum, angelic. The ambiguity could be intentional, as the psalmist tries to express the closeness between God and the king. Yet even if this were the case, the confusion of the antecedent of “he” in the following verses would remain a mystery. Some scholars have suggested that a hand-configuration different from that of v. 1 is at work here, so that God is now at the right hand of the conquering king.[xxix] Since the context employs language not exclusive to God, this interpretation allows for the king to be the subject of vs. 5b-7a.[xxx] Also, the king has the attention of the reader throughout the Psalm, so this reading is more consistent.
There is a thematic parallel between the first and last lines of this stanza. Both speak of some kind of honoring of the king by God. They also each contain body-part images: “hand” (v. 5) and “head” (v. 7). Sandwiched between this inclusio is the vision of judgment, as illustrated by the following outline:
5a A The Lord at the right hand
5b-7a B Judgment of Nations
7b A’ The Lord lifting up the head
Ver. 6 He shall judge among the nations,
he shall fill the places with dead bodies,
he shall execute the heads of many countries.
For affect, the psalmist lists a series of royal acts of judgment. These “nations” are to be quickly identified with the “enemies” of vs. 1 & 2. It is striking that the king is found in the role of judge. Is not judgment the exclusive right of God? As we have stated before, the king participates in God’s rule, which includes the judgment of the nations. Also, the covenant relationship implies the sharing of enemies-- both ways. The national enemies of Israel become the spiritual enemies of God. God is committed to protecting His people through his chosen king.
The psalmist revels in the victory of the king, who piles up dead bodies. The executed heads of the final line may be a picture of beheading, or they may better serve as a symbol of the overcoming of the leaders of another country. The Hebrew word for “execute” is mahghatz -- used only fourteen times in the Old Testament. Two of these times are in Psalm 110, here and in v. 5. The word is used either for a literal “wounding” (Judg. 5:26; Ps. 68:21) or a “smiting” (Num. 24:17; Job 26:12). The second choice is more true to the context, as the leaders of other nations are “smitten” by the king’s victory. Just as the king will have his enemies under his footstool, the heads of enemy nations will be dishonored.
Ver. 7 He shall drink of the brook by the wayside;
therefore he shall lift up the head.
Just like its structural counterpart (v. 3), this verse is difficult to interpret. The first line could also read, “The One who grants succession will set him in authority.” Although it seems closer to the context, most scholars agree this to be an inferior reading. Even Alden, who argues for this reading for the sake of his chiastic structure, admits to the problems with such a choice.[xxxi] The peaceful image given by the NKJV proves best in this case.
This image of peace, where the king dips down to take a drink, is strengthened by the psalmist choice of the noun nahghal, translated as “brook.” This Hebrew has a wide variety of uses, ranging from “valley” (Job 21:33), to “river” (Judg. 5:21), and even “flood” (Jer. 47:2). All of these would be positive terms to an ancient Israelites, including floods, which made the land fertile. “River” or “brook” would be the best understanding here. The term is often employed as an image of peace (Deut. 10:7), and such is probably the case here.
We encounter again in the final line the “who’s who” confusion of v. 1 and v. 5. Who is lifting who’s head? The context suggests that God reappears at the end to lift up the king’s head.[xxxii] The lifting of the head was used as a sign of acceptance in the ancient world. Commentators suggest it is used here as a reference to the king’s triumph over his enemies.[xxxiii] God will “hold his head up high,” honoring him for his victory. This interpretation is supported by a similar use of the same phrase in Ps. 3:3.
This last stanza may be troubling at first sight, and further investigation has done nothing to reduce the horror of these verses. Nevertheless, we can glean implications about the character of God from them. First of all God is just. God is the source of peace. The intent of God’s wrath is peace. God is the source of our confidence.
Throughout Psalm 110, the confidence levels of the nation of Israel in their king are increased like an octave scale. They can find assurance that he is God-ordained, called to a promised victory, and the righteous judge of the nations. More importantly, the Israelites are reminded all this and more can be said about God Himself. “It is beyond doubt that in Israel’s worship the king was not the object of veneration.”[xxxiv] This means that for every inch of glory given to the king, there was mile given to God. So in all the praises for the king’s victory, we too can find confidence in God Himself, who is the Lord of Triumph.
[i] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) 115.
[ii] Franz Delitzch, Biblical Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. III. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970) 185-187.
[iii] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-150, Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 346
[iv] John G. Gammie, “A New Setting for Psalm 110,” Anglican Theological Review 51:1 (1969) 4-17.
[v] Mitchell Dahood, Psalms III: 101-150, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970) 112.
[vi] Kraus, Psalms 347.
[vii] Some scholars have suggested it was written during the inter-testament period to Simon Maccabee who combined the priestly office with the monarchy. Most scholars now reject such views (Kraus, 1993, 346). A summary of the competing views of the setting of Psalm 110 can be found on page 371 of A. Cohen, The Psalms, Soncino (London: Soncino Press, 1969).
[viii] Matt. 22:41-46; 26:63-64; Mk. 12:35-37; 14:61-62; 16:19; Lk. 20:41-44; 22:67-70; Acts 2:33-36; 5:31; 7:55ff; Rom. 8:34; 16:20; 1 Cor. 15:25; Eph. 1:20-22; Col 3:1; Heb. 1:3,13; 5:5-10; 1 Pet. 3:22.
[ix] P. J. Nel further discusses this transition on pg. 73 in “The Theology of Royal Psalms,” Old Testament Essays 11:1 (1998).
[x] P. J. Nel, “Royal Psalms” 74-85.
[xi] Taken from Robert Alden, “Chiastic Psalms (Part III): A Study in the Mechanics of Semetic Poetry in Ps. 101-150,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 21:3 (1978) 204.
[xii] See below.
[xiii] Kraus, Psalms 346.
[xiv] In seeking a translation, the one which preserves word order more woodenly and therefore highlights the poetic patterns more effective must take precedence. The New King James Version fulfilled this criterion and will therefore serve as the primary translation for this paper.
[xv] “Right/ Right Hand,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Gen. Ed., Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998) 727.
[xvi] Dahood, Psalms 114.
[xvii] “Under the Feet,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery 906.
[xviii] “Scepter,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery 764.
[xix] Cohen, Psalms 371.
[xx] Kraus, Theology 120.
[xxi] David Firth, “A Note on the Meaning of Shurr in the Psalms,” Old Testament Essays 11:1 (1998) 49.
[xxii] Brown, William P., “A Royal Performance: Critical Notes on Ps. 110:3ag-b” Journal of Biblical Literature 117:1 (1998) 96.
[xxiii] P. J. Nel, “Royal Psalms” 85.
[xxiv] Kraus, Psalms 350.
[xxv] Leslie Allen, Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1983) 81.
[xxvi] Dahood, Psalms 117.
[xxvii] P. J. Nel, “Psalm 110 and the Melchizedek Tradition,” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 22:1 (1996) 5.
[xxviii] The lack of data to explain Melchizedek’s relationship to David may be contrasted with the significant Old Testament motif of David’s eternal rule (2 Sam. 7:16; 1 Chron. 17:14).
[xxix] Thijs Booij, “Psalm 110: Rule in the Midst of Your Foes,” Vetus Testamentum 41:4 (1991) 403-404.
[xxx] Maurice Gilbert and Stephen Pisano, “Psalm 110:5-7,” Biblica 61:3 (1980) 350-351.
[xxxi] Alden, “Chiastic Psalms” 204.
[xxxii] Gilbert and Pisano, “Psalm 110:5-7” 355.
[xxxiii] Cohen, Psalms 373; Dahood, Psalms 119.
[xxxiv] Kraus, Theology 111.
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