Friday, July 08, 2022

Psalm 110 and the cross of Christ

Psalm 110 is one of the most cited passages from the Old Testament in the New, and its popularity continued through the first centuries of the church.  It is not hard to see why.  For one thing, the Lord Jesus quoted it in reference to his own identity.  But even without that, the picture of the triumphant Priest-King, seated in victory at the right hand of God speaks powerfully of the Messiah and his glory.

For us, the Psalm can feel harder to appropriate.  There are elements of the structure which are confusing, and in particular it is not immediately obvious who is speaking at each point.  I think this can be cleared up relatively easily, just by noting the difference between LORD (a placeholder for the divine name, YHWH) and Lord (the Messianic King-Priest).  In verses 1 to 4, David reports the address of YHWH to the Messiah (who is David's lord); YHWH tells the Messiah that he will have victory and eternal priesthood.  In verses 5-7, David sings to YHWH, celebrating the fact that (just as YHWH promised in verse 1) the Messianic King-Priest is indeed at God's right hand, and is indeed accomplishing victory.

Probably the toughest bit for us, though, is the end.  "He will crush kings on the day of his anger.  He will judge the nations, piling up corpses..."  The image of the nations filled with the slain is of course deeply unpleasant, but more than that it sits uneasily with our vision of Christ and his victory.  Isn't this, in fact, the polar opposite of the gospel?  Christ suffered death to deliver his enemies from death, right - not to inflict it on them in vast numbers!  So what do we do with this end of the Psalm?

I think the answer, at least in part, is in passages from the New Testament like 2 Corinthians 5.  This passage is all about the Apostle Paul's missionary motivation.  What is at that drives him out to preach the gospel, at such cost?  One part of the answer to that, it seems to me, is that Paul sees humanity around him through the lens of the history of Christ.  That is to say, he doesn't look at the people around him and then try to work out how the gospel is relevant to them; rather, he considers Christ's story to be the central story of all humanity.  He has reached this conclusion, on the basis of his knowledge of Christ: "that one died for all, and therefore all died."  All died.  Paul, realising that Jesus truly is the Christ, sees his death as an event which has validity and reality for all humanity.  All died.  This is so because Christ took the place of sinners ("[God] made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us...") and suffered the judgement of God on sin - and in so doing, executed the judgement of God on sinners.  Sinners were put to death in him.

And so the Apostle, looking out across the nations, sees them filled with corpses, those slain by the judgement of God executed by - and miraculously, marvellously, in - the Messiah.  This is why the nature of his victory requires a Priest-King, after the order of Melchizedek: his great Kingly triumph over the nations is a Priestly sacrifice of himself.

Because Paul knows that Jesus is risen, he also knows the story doesn't end here.  Psalm 110, after all, envisages the Messiah's enemies coming to serve him; how can they do so if they are all slain?  But Christ died for all so that those who trust in him might rise with him; he put an end to their sinful humanity so that they might share with him in the new humanity, by foretaste in the outpouring of the Spirit ("he will drink from the brook by the way") and then finally in the physical resurrection.  Paul's missionary motivation, then, is that all the people around him are dead, really dead, because of the cross; they just don't know it yet.  But this judgement carried out in Christ is not the final word for humanity.  To submit to this judgement, to accept (in baptism) the death executed on sinful humanity in him, is to find the door opened to resurrection life, and to have a certain hope that as our King and Priest is seated at the right hand of God, so we will be seated with him.

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