I have blogged in the past on some of the strange ways the NT interprets the OT, and linked to an essay by Peter Enns that helps make sense of it. As helpful as it is, I am still baffled by some of the ways the NT interprets the OT. Here is another troubling example: Jesus’ and Peter’s interpretation of Psalm 110:1.

The LORD said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”

It’s important to understand the structure of this verse. The person speaking in verse 1a is a prophetic voice in the royal court, delivering a message from YHWH (“LORD”) to the prophet’s “lord.” The prophet’s lord is the king, David. Verses 1b and 4 constitute YHWH’s message to David via the unnamed prophet. In verses 2-3 the prophet addresses David, and then speaks to God about David in verses 5-7.

In the original context, then, the “Lord” was David, and the person who spoke the words, “The LORD said to my Lord” was the unnamed prophet speaking to David. When we turn to the NT, however, the original context is turned on its head. According to Jesus and Peter, the “Lord” is a reference to the Messiah, and the person who spoke the words, “The LORD said to my Lord” was David (See Matthew 22:43-45; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44; Acts 2:34-36).

It should be pointed out that Jesus did not invent this interpretation of Psalm 110:1. The Jews already had a long-standing interpretive tradition of identifying the “Lord” as the coming Messiah. They reasoned that if what was spoken applied to David, it also applied to all of His royal descendents, including (and especially so) the promised Messiah. As for attributing the words of verse 1a to David, presumably it was reasoned that since David was the author of the psalm, He could be cited as having said those words. A similar phenomenon appears elsewhere in the NT when the words of YHWH are attributed to the prophet who authored the book containing YHWH’s words, or when the words of prophets are attributed to YHWH.

Be that as it may, there is something else even more troubling than these semi-understandable changes to the original meaning. In the NT, Jesus and Peter appeal to Psalm 110:1 as an argument for the deity of Christ. It was common knowledge that the Messiah would be the son of David. So Jesus asked those present, “How is it that the experts in the law say that the Christ is David’s son? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, said, ‘The Lord said to my lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ If David himself calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Mark 12:35b-37a).

To understand Jesus’ argument one must understand ancient-near-eastern culture (ANE). According to ANE culture the father is superior to his offspring. Why, then, does David call the Messiah his Lord? To call him such implies that his son is superior to himself, which is unthinkable. This was a paradox that could only be solved if one granted that the Messiah was more than a mere man—He was divine as well.

What I find troubling about this argument for the deity of Christ is that it only works if one takes the OT passage out of context. One has to change the identity of the original subjects in order for it to work. And yet, as with other strange uses of the OT in the NT, the crowds found the argument powerful and persuasive.