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Sunday, 28 January 2018

How Hebrews Came to Interpret Psalm 102:25-27 as Spoken by God to/of the Son

Several years ago I wrote an article on Hebrews 1:10-12, arguing that this text unambiguously teaches the personal pre-existence of the Son of God. I also interacted with Christadelphian interpretations of this passage and discussed why I found their pre-existence-less interpretations unconvincing. Subsequently, as part of my theology studies, I wrote an essay on The Contribution of Hebrews to New Testament Christology, which interacted with scholarly views on Hebrews 1:10-12, among other passages in Hebrews.

I recently returned to examine this fascinating passage, prompted by an exposition that a Christadelphian friend, Mike MacDonald, sent me. Mike regards Psalm 102:25-27, as cited in Hebrews 1:10-12, as a conversation between the Son and the Father, with the content of v. 25 (where primeval existence is implied) addressed by the Son to the Father, and vv. 26-27 (which mention only future existence) addressed by the Father to the Son in reply. I dealt with this interpretation briefly in my original article, but Mike has marshaled a more substantial argument for it. I responded privately to Mike explaining why I did not find his exposition persuasive. I do not intend to reproduce my response here, but what I would like to do is add a few more comments on a puzzling matter: how the writer of Hebrews came to see Psalm 102:25-27 as words spoken by God to his Son. I am obliged to Mike for bringing to my attention the unique way (among New Testament writers) in which the author of Hebrews introduces biblical quotations, which is an important clue in resolving this puzzle.

The Quotation in Context

Hebrews 1 reads thus:
1 In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; 2 in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, 3 who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 as far superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. 5 For to which of the angels did God ever say: “You are my son; this day I have begotten you”? Or again: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me”? 6 And again, when he leads the first-born into the world, he says: “Let all the angels of God worship him.” 7 Of the angels he says: “He makes his angels winds and his ministers a fiery flame”; 8 but of the Son: “Your throne, O God, stands forever and ever; and a righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. 9 You loved justice and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions”; 10 and: “At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. 11 They will perish, but you remain; and they will all grow old like a garment. 12 You will roll them up like a cloak, and like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” 13 But to which of the angels has he ever said: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool”? 14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Heb. 1:1-14 NABRE)
In vv. 10-12 the writer quotes from Psalm 102:25-27. However, rather than making his own translation from the Hebrew here, he quotes the Septuagint (LXX) Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures that was widely used by Hellenistic Jews and Christians in the first century. Because of differences in versification between the English Translation and the Septuagint, he is actually quoting Psalm 101:26-28 LXX. We know his source is the Septuagint because the Septuagint differs from the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT) at three points in this passage, and Hebrews follows the Septuagint in all three cases. The most significant of these are: (1) In Psalm 101:26 LXX and Hebrews 1:10 the statement is addressed to kyrie ("O Lord"), whereas Psalm 102:26 MT does not give the addressee any title. (2) In Psalm 101:26 LXX and Hebrews 1:10 the heavens are said to be the erga ("works," plural) of the addressee's hands, whereas Psalm 102:26 MT says the heavens are the מעשה ("work," singular) of the addressee's hands.1

For this reason, we need to turn to Psalm 101 LXX to get as near as we can to the text the writer of Hebrews was working from in Heb. 1:10-12.

The Speaker and Addressee of Psalm 101 LXX in Context

The psalm reads as follows in the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) (with some key verses highlighted in bold):
1 A prayer. Pertaining to the poor one. When he is weary and pours out his petition before the Lord. 2 O Lord, listen to my prayer, and let my cry come to you. 3 Do not turn away your face from me. In the day when I am afflicted, incline your ear to me; in the day when I call upon you, listen to me speedily, 4 because my days vanished like smoke and my bones were burnt up like firewood. 5 My heart was stricken like grass and it withered, because I forgot to eat my bread. 6 Due to the sound of my groaning, my bone clung to my flesh. 7 I resembled a desert pelican, I became like a long-eared owl on a building-site. 8 I lay awake, and I became like a lone sparrow on a housetop. 9 All day long my enemies would reproach me, and those who used to commend me would swear against me, 10 because I ate ashes like bread and would mix my drink with weeping, 11 from before your wrath and your anger, because when you had lifted me up you dashed me down. 12 My days faded like a shadow, and I, like grass, withered away. 13 But you, O Lord, remain forever, and the mention of you to generation and generation. 14 When you rise up you will have compassion on Sion, because it is the appointed time to have compassion on it, because the appointed time has come, 15 because your slaves held its stones dear and on its dust they will have compassion. 16 And the nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth your glory, 17 because the Lord will build up Sion, and he will be seen in his glory. 18 He regarded the prayer of the lowly and did not despise their petition. 19 Let this be recorded for another generation, and a people, which is being created, will praise the Lord, 20 because he peered down from his holy height, the Lord from heaven looked at the earth, 21 to hear the groaning of the prisoners, to set free the sons of those put to death, 22 so that the name of the Lord might be declared in Sion, and his praise in Ierousalem, 23 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to be subject to the Lord. 24 He answered him in the way of his strength, "Tell me the paucity of my days. 25 Do not take me away at the mid-point of my days, while your years are in generation of generations!" 26 At the beginning it was you, O Lord, who founded the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. 27 They will perish, but you will endure, and they will all become old like a garment. Like clothing you will change them, and they will be changed. 28 But you are the same, and your years will not fail. 29 The sons of your slaves shall encamp, and their offspring shall prosper for ever.2
The overall theme of the psalm is described in v. 1: it is a prayer that a poor, weary person pours out before the Lord (ho kyrios). Verse 2 sets the syntactic structure of the psalm: it is a prayer from a singular speaker to the Lord. The direct second-person address of the Lord continues from v. 2 to v. 17 or 18, despite a subordinate clause in v. 17 (and 18?) that speaks of the Lord in the third person (explaining why "all the kings of the earth" will see "your glory"). From v. 19 to 23 we have an aside, a statement about the Lord that the psalmist wishes to have written down for posterity. In v. 24a, we have an odd statement about a third-person "he" who answers a third-person "him," which diverges significantly from the Masoretic Text, largely due to differences in vocalization of the Hebrew text, which originally lacked vowels.3 From v. 24b to 29, the psalmist returns to direct second-person address of the Lord, and it is from this portion that Heb. 1:10-12 quotes.

Thus, overall we have two portions of prayer addressed to the Lord (vv. 2-17/18 and 24b-29) separated by material referring to the Lord in the third person (vv. 18/19-24a). There are several indications that the one addressed in vv. 24b-29 is the same one addressed in vv. 2-17/18. (1) Who else besides the Lord might the psalmist address prayers to? (2) The vocative kyrie ("O Lord") is used in vv. 2 and 13 and then again in v. 26, so the same term of address is used for the addressee in both prayer sections. (3) In both v. 13 and v. 27, the petitioner declares to the one addressed as kyrie that he will "remain" forever (v. 13: menō; v. 27: diamenō). (4) In both v. 15 and v. 29 the psalmist refers to "your slaves". (5) In both v. 12 and vv. 24-25, the psalmist laments about the shortness of "my days". Thus, both sections of prayer in Psalm 101 LXX are addressed to the Lord.

There are two basic ways of reading the awkward syntax of v. 24, which (with punctuation removed) translates to, "He answered him in the way of his strength tell me the paucity of my days." (1) "He" could be the psalmist (the "poor one" of v. 1 who has been praying) and "him" the Lord. We would then read v. 24a as reintroducing the psalmist's prayer and 24b as recommencing the prayer itself, as the NETS translates above. A paraphrase might be, "He (the poor one) answered him (the Lord) according to what strength he had left, 'Tell me the paucity of my days...'" (2) "He" could be the Lord, and "him" the poor one. We would then read v. 24a as emphasizing that the Lord answered the psalmist's prayer and did so with his divine strength. In that case, 24b resumes the psalmist's prayer addressed to the Lord. Thus, "He (the Lord) answered him (the poor one) in the way of his strength. (Poor one's prayer continues:) 'Tell me the paucity of my days...'" Which interpretation of v. 24 is preferable? It is not easy to decide; both readings have difficulties.4 However, perhaps it does not matter, because in either case the addressee from v. 24b to 29 is the Lord.5

To summarise, the speaker and addressee throughout Psalm 101 LXX, with the exception of an aside from vv. 18/19 to 24a, are respectively the psalmist (represented as a poor, afflicted human) and the Lord, i.e. God. This brings into sharper focus the problem of how the writer of Hebrews interpreted the speaker and addressee of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX as respectively God and his Son. To the solution of this problem we now turn.

How might the Son be the Addressee of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX?

From vv. 2-15, the Lord is only mentioned in the vocative (direct address): "O Lord". In vv. 16-17, however, the syntax vacillates between referring to the Lord in the third person and the second person, which could be taken to imply two Lords: 
And the nations will fear the name of the Lord (third person), and all the kings of the earth your glory (second person), 17 because the Lord (third person) will build up Sion, and he will be seen in his glory (third person).
The LXX translator probably had no intention of distinguishing two Lords here. However, the early Christian imagination made much of such syntactic quirks in the Scriptures. Consider Gen. 19:24 LXX: "And the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrha brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven." From this, coupled with Abraham's interactions with "the Lord" on the earth in Genesis 18, second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr inferred that there are two distinct Lords in this passage, one of whom appeared on earth and one of whom remained in heaven (Dialogue with Trypho 56.15-23). It is also possible that the writer of the Hebrews read "the Lord...your glory...the Lord...his glory" in Psalm 101 as implying two Lords, one of whom "will appear" while the other "look[s] down from heaven". What makes this a likelihood rather than a possibility is what immediately follows the quotation of Psalm 101:26-28 in Hebrews 1:10-12. In Hebrews 1:13, the writer quotes the latter part of Psalm 109:1 LXX: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool." The unquoted introductory part of this verse mentions two Lords: "The Lord said to my Lord". In the MT (Psalm 110:1), the reference is to the divine name YHWH and the word אדן, "Lord." In the LXX, however, the divine name and אדן are both translated ho kyrios.

Since we know that the writer of Hebrews interpreted the two Lords of Psalm 109:1 LXX as God and his Son immediately after quoting Hebrews 1:10-12, it is also likely that the writer interpreted the two apparent Lords of Psalm 101:16-17 LXX as God and his Son. Making this connection would have followed the ancient rabbinic hermeneutical principle of gezerah shavah.6 The eschatological connotations of the language in vv. 14-23 ("appointed time," "another generation," "when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to be subject to the Lord") would have strengthened the conviction that one of these Lords is the Messiah—perhaps the one who will be "seen in his glory," since God himself is invisible. The writer would then have pondered which of the two Lords was being addressed as kyrie in v. 26, and he evidently concluded either that it was the second Lord (i.e. the Son), as direct agent of creation (cf. Heb. 1:2), or else that because the psalmist did not distinguish which Lord was being addressed, the words are equally applicable to both Lords. This is, in my view, the most plausible solution to the puzzle of how the writer of Hebrews came to interpret the Son as the Lord addressed in Psalm 101:26-28 LXX.7

How might God be the Speaker of Psalm 101:26-28?

We have suggested a solution to how the writer of Hebrews came to see the Son as the one addressed as kyrie ("O Lord") in Psalm 101:26-28. A second puzzle remains: how did the writer of Hebrews come to see God as the speaker of these words, the one addressing the Son ("But of the Son he says, [quotes Psalm 44:7-8 LXX], and, [quotes Psalm 101:26-28]")? After all, we have already noted, as per v. 1, that all the words addressed to the Lord in this psalm (vv. 2-17/18, vv. 24b-29) are spoken by "the poor one," the weary, afflicted human. Moreover, the speaker in vv. 24b-25a cannot possibly be God, since they concern about the fewness of the speaker's days.

The solution to this conundrum lies in the view of Scripture that is presupposed by the writer of Hebrews: since Scripture is literally the Word of God, any words of Scripture can be thought of as spoken by God, regardless of who the speaker is in the text's own local context. This view is evident in the unique way the writer introduces Scripture quotations: he consistently identifies them as spoken by God, even when the text itself refers to God in the third person. For instance, "when he leads the first-born into the world, he says: “Let all the angels of God worship him.”" (Heb. 1:6). "But of the Son [he says]...You loved justice and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, anointed you..." (Heb. 1:8-9; the speaker in Psalm 44 LXX is the psalmist, addressing the king). Hebrews 4:7 declares that the words of Psalm 94:7-8 LXX were God "saying through David...'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts'." Hebrews 8:8-13 uses "he says" to introduce a quotation from Jeremiah 31:31-34 that repeatedly contains the words "declares the Lord." For other examples that have God speaking of himself in the third person, see Hebrews 7:21; 10:30.8

These examples show that even scriptural words that, in their original context, were spoken by human psalmists and prophets, and may even have mentioned God in the third person, were also considered by the author of Hebrews to have been "said" by God inasmuch as they were divinely inspired Scripture. Therefore, the writer of Hebrews would have recognised that the speaker's voice in Psalm 101:26-28 LXX was that of the human psalmist. However, just as he regarded the words of Psalm 94:7-8 LXX as God "saying" something "through David," so he would have regarded the words of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX. By inspiring the psalmist to address these words to the Son, God had endorsed their content as a true description of the Son.

Conclusion

It is not difficult to see that the writer of Hebrews understood the words quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12 to have been said by God to or of the Son.9 10 What is difficult is to see why the writer understood these words to have been said by God to the Son, particularly since, in the original context of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX, they are part of a prayer said by the psalmist to God.

In this article we have attempted to resolve this difficulty. First, noting that Psalm 101:16-17 LXX seems to refer to two Lords (kyrioi) in an eschatological context, we argued that the writer of Hebrews was prompted to identify these as God and the Son, as he did the two kyrioi of Psalm 109:1 LXX immediately thereafter (Heb. 1:13). This would have primed him to interpret the "Lord" addressed in v. 26 as the Son, or at least as equally applicable to God or his Son, both of whom are "Lord." Second, we noted the unique tendency in Hebrews to identify God as having "said" words of Scripture even when the psalmist or another human was the speaker in the immediate sense in the original context. We argued that this principle enabled the writer of Hebrews to construe God as having "said" the words of Psalm 101:26-28 LXX to/of the Son, albeit through the psalmist (as the writer says explicitly when quoting another psalm in Hebrews 4:7).


Footnotes

  • 1 George H. Guthrie, "Hebrews," in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 940-41.
  • 2 Albert Pietersma, "Psalms," in A New English Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 597.
  • 3 On the Septuagint translation of Psalm 102:23(101:24 LXX) and its meaning, see Jody A. Barnard, The Mysticism of Hebrews: Exploring the Role of Jewish Apocalyptic Mysticism in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 229-33.
  • 4 The verb apokrinomai ("answer," "reply") would normally presuppose some prior speech to which one is responding (cf. Ps. 118:42 LXX: "I shall render answer to them that reproach me"), which does not fit Psalm 101, where the Lord has not said anything. However, apokrinomai can denote the continuation of speech (cf. Matt. 12:38; Mark 10:24), thus, "He continued (praying) to him in the way of his strength, '..." (cf. BDAG 113-14). "In the way of his strength" seems more suited to describing a divine response than the petition of a poor, afflicted man. In favour of the second reading, apokrinomai is used elsewhere of God's responses to human speech (cf. Ex. 19:19 LXX), and God's responsiveness to the prayer of the poor has already been emphasised in v. 18 ("He regarded the prayer of the lowly and did not despise their petition"). The main difficulty with the second option is its abruptness: the Lord's unspecified answer does not flow smoothly from what comes before (the prayer having broken off in v. 17/18), and cannot introduce the speech that follows in 24b (since the one speaking of the paucity of his days and pleading not to be taken away is clearly not the Lord). However, the abruptness can be explained by the LXX translator having misunderstood the Hebrew here.
  • 5 The NETS has the prayer of the "he" of v. 24a end in v. 25, with the original first-person speaker resuming his speech in v. 26. There is no reason to see a change of speaker at the end of v. 25, however, even though the speaker never refers to himself in the first person thereafter. In any case, the addressee is clearly still the Lord throughout, for reasons already discussed.
  • 6 This ancient rule of biblical exegesis entails interpreting two passages jointly when they share an important phrase (David Instone Brewer, Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis before 70 CE [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992], pp. 17-18). Scholars have noted the use of this principle elsewhere in Hebrews (Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006], 24), including in the joining of Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14 in Hebrews 1:5 (Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2nd edn [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 81-82).
  • 7 Guthrie, focusing on the LXX text of Psalm 101:24, suggests it implies that "the words of our quotation" (i.e., Psalm 101:26-28) "can be taken as the words of Yahweh spoken to one addressed as 'Lord'" ("Hebrews," 940; similarly, Radu Gheorgita, The Role of the Septuagint in Hebrews: An Investigation of its Influence with Special Consideration to the Use of Hab 2:3-4 in Heb 10:37-38 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003], 61-62). However, not only is it unlikely that Yahweh would directly address the Son as kyrie, as though he were Yahweh's superior; it is also very unlikely that Yahweh could be construed as the speaker of vv. 24b-25c ("Tell me the paucity of my days. Do not take me away at the mid-point of my days")! Since it would be very awkward to have Yahweh's "answer" begin only in v. 26 after several intervening lines of direct speech by someone else, the solution here seems preferable.
  • 8 This tendency seems to be unique to Hebrews within the New Testament. Paul, for instance, usually introduces biblical quotations with the formula, "It is written." Occasionally he refers to biblical quotations as having been "said" by God, but seemingly only when God was being quoted making first-person speech in the original context (Rom. 9:15; 9:25; 2 Cor. 4:6; 6:16). In other instances, Paul refers to what "Scripture" says, what "the Law" says, or what Moses, David or Isaiah says (Rom. 4:3; 9:17; 10:11; 10:16; 10:19; 10:20; 11:2; 11:9), but as far as I can tell he never construes God as "saying" something in Scripture that refers to God in the third person. Again, I am obliged to Mike MacDonald for drawing my attention to this idiosyncrasy of Hebrews (at least among the NT writings).
  • 9 This is implied by the parallelism between vv. 8 and 10, with the word "And" in v. 10 showing that the writer is adding another example of what God says "to/of the Son" (pros de ton huion) in contrast to what he says "to/of the angels" (pros men tous aggelous, v. 7). (Compare v. 5, where only "and again" (kai palin) separates consecutive quotations from Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7).
  • 10 In writing "to/of" I am acknowledging the semantic ambiguity of the preposition pros when modifying an accusative: it could mean "towards, to" or "with reference/regard to" (BDAG 874-75).  The second-person address of the Son in vv. 8-9 and 10-12 might seem to favour "towards," but the parallelism with v. 7 (where the angels are referred to in the third person despite pros being used) neutralises this. Anyway, the distinction between "to" and "of" does not seem especially important to the meaning of Hebrews 1:7-12.

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