A Brief Review of “Glory at the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity,” by David M. Hay

In light of my Christmas series, here is a brief review of Hay’s Glory at the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity (Abingdon: Nashville and New York, 1973; references are cited by page numbers in parentheses) with special reference to Hebrews. It might be helpful in connecting some dots, but listening to the Christmas messages (especially Dec. 1 and 15) would be necessary to get the most out of this review in relation to the coming of Jesus and Christmas. Hay investigates the place of Psalm 110 in the NT and related writings hoping to identify why so many authors took up especially vv. 1 and 4 to describe Jesus. He notes that “the psalm was an unusually apt vehicle for expressing the ultimacy of Jesus, though not for describing his saving work” (16). The NT authors use Psalm 110 for ends, not means. Hay identifies four major purposes for Christian authors applying Psa. 110:1 and 4 to Jesus: (1) the idea that Jesus or Christians sit at God’s right hand in glory; (2) its potency for Christological titles; (3) phrases which could affirm Christ as ruler of opposing forces; and, (4) description of a heavenly intercessor and priest (155). Hay concludes that the Author’s (of Hebrews) use of Psa. 110:1 and 4 “lay in the proof for him of Jesus’ status as heavenly Son and priest,” Jesus’ status, or in Hay’s designation SESSION (156, all caps original). Here the Author walks in step with other NT writers as “all early Christian references to the psalm connect it with Jesus’ post-death glory” (156).

Hay suggests that Psalm 110 was composed in the general period of the Davidic monarchy. The author sought to fuse priestly and royal motifs in celebration of Israel’s king, and saw in the Melchizedek figure of Genesis 14 a Biblical precedent (20). After all, at times Israel’s kings undertook priestly service (e.g., 2 Sam. 6:14-18; 24:18-25; 1 Kgs. 3:4-15; 8:14, 62-65) (20). The psalm was thus part of a rich religious tradition, not just a compilation of catch phrases assembled for later NT authors (21). But even before the NT period Jewish authors seized upon the psalm’s language and imagery. Hasmonean period allusions include 1 Macc 14:41 describing Simon appointed to an eternal high priesthood and governorship (24). The Testament of Levi 8:3-15 and 18, and the Similitudes of 1 Enoch also allude to Psalm 110 (25-26). Perhaps the most explicit Jewish reference to Melchizedek is 11QMelch. Though differences remain between the figure described in this fragmentary DSS text and the picture of Melchizedek set forth in the OT, points of contact remain. Hay avers: “If the author of this Qumran writing did have the psalm in mind, he must have applied at least its fourth verse to the heavenly Melchizedek; and he may have taken its first verse as testimony to Melchizedek’s celestial enthronement” (27). Pre-NT era interpretations of Psalm 110 vary but they generally picture an exalted priestly figure in eternal covenant with God, but stopping short of explicating just what this eternal figure does at God’s right hand (33).

Hay gives special attention to how various early Christian authors use Psa. 110:1 to describe the exaltation of Jesus to God’s right hand. Though Psa. 110:1 surfaces as a textual basis for the exaltation of Jesus, Hay suggests that “wholly apart from the psalm such notions would be richly meaningful to contemporary pagans and Jews” (58). Though Psa. 110:1 is used by different NT authors for their unique purposes, they repeatedly employ it to describe Jesus’ post-resurrection glory to the position of honor with God (89-90). Hay suggests that though the right hand position denotes honor in both ancient Jewish and pagan texts, no author described an explicit function to a right-hand SESSION, and Christian use of Psa. 110:1 follows the same path (90-91).

With Attridge (Hermeneia) I wish to take exception with Hay’s suggestions that even in Hebrews when the Author employs Psa. 110:1 (1:3, 10; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2) he describes no function to the exalted Christ (91).  In light of the flow of thought in Heb. 6:18-20 and 7:26-28 especially, Jesus’ intercessory role does not seem like a passive endeavor. Though, with Hay, it might be beyond the scope of the NT use of Psa. 110:1 to suggest that with it the NT authors describe Jesus as presently ruling from heaven (which Hay argues is God’s task until the final consummation at least, à la 1 Cor. 15:23-29), this does not imply that Jesus is altogether passive at God’s right hand. Hebrews describes Jesus as an exalted (Psa. 110:1) active intercessor (Psa. 110:4); to analyze the former without synthesis of the latter misses the Author’s use of Psa. 110:1. Hay argues that, “Hebrews never represents the exalted Christ as ruler or judge” (86). But in light of the fact that through His death Jesus defeats the devil and rises to the position of honor and aid at God’s right hand (2:10-18), the flow of thought in especially 4:14-16; 5:9-10; 6:18-20; 7:26-28 suggests that Jesus has at least some measure of spiritual authority as mediator in the heavenly tabernacle (9:11-14; 12:22-24). Further, the use of Psa. 110:1 in Acts 5:30-32 and 7:55-56 suggest that the author of Acts at least understood the exalted Jesus to have some domain of authority to which early church leaders thought themselves accountable, and hoped in for vindication (71-76). Later Hay notes that Heb. 10:12-13 and 12:2 picture Jesus as passive in his SESSION, but in 7:25 2:17-18; 4:14-16; 8:2; 9:24; 12:24; and 13:8, 13 active in his ongoing heavenly priestly ministry (150). Hay observes the broad influence of Psalm 110 on Hebrews and notes what the psalm does not provide the Author: “Obviously the single major christological idea which the author of Hebrews could not find in Psa. 110 was that of the messiah’s death” (153).

Hay notes that warfare imagery dominates Psalm 110, saying, “In late Judaism ideas of militant saviors seem to have flourished in many circles” (122). When NT authors take up Psa. 110:1 they do not specify with one voice just who the opponent would be or when the victory would take place; rather, “these passages betray widely diverging views of the time of subjection (pas, present, future) and the persons or powers subjected (angels, demons, men, creatures generally)” (129). Hay concludes that NT authors apply Psa. 110:1 to Jesus as a means of stressing “the absoluteness of his exaltation and the utter security of those he willed to save,” without detailing specific threats coming against the faithful or just how Jesus would deliver (129). In Heb. 10:12-13 the author employs imagery from Psa. 110:1 but “the reference to this subjection is not only brief but almost incidental, since the real concern lies in arguing that Jesus’ death put away sin once for all” (125). Hay notes that though the Author pictures apostates as God’s enemies (though Hay cites no reference for the claim), the Author never calls apostates enemies of Christ (125). Hay concludes that the Author’s interests simply lie beyond the identification of a specific enemy; his aim is rather to show the connection between Christ’s work in the past as the basis of subjugation of enemies in the future (125).

But why did NT authors take up only Psa. 110:1 and 4? Hay suggests that these verse provided a locus of rich phrases and imagery reflecting their understanding of Jesus as the raised Messiah (155, 157). Did the NT authors sense a need to justify Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation in light of the Jewish Scriptures? Hay notes that in using just a phrase or two from the psalm they may have been following Jesus’ own example. Debating with the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus argued, on the grounds of Psa. 110:1, that He is David’s Lord (cf. Mark 12:35-37 pars.). Yet, the NT writers did not cite Jesus’ citation of Psa. 110:1 as justification of their own use of the psalm; they seem to have been operating in a similar world of thought but without constraint to the precedent set by Jesus (159). Hay concludes that “the primary reason for the psalm’s popularity among early Christians lay in its meeting vital religious needs of which they were conscious” (159).

The early churches addressed by the authors of the NT may have been perplexed about Jesus’ on-going heavenly role. What would the-ascended Jesus do? Hay avers that “the conception of a right-hand SESSION has an aura of definiteness about it, a quality which might have satisfied early believers perplexed about the post-Easter location or precise dignity of their lord” (160). But Psa. 110:1 and 4 do not close the circle of Jesus’ eternal glory. On the other hand, Psa. 110:1 and 4 do not explain every detail of Christ’s SESSION, providing margin for various eschatological frames of thought developing in the early churches (160). For the Author, it seems that Psa. 110 provided a locus of both familiarity and freshness for explaining Christ’s mediatorial role as self-offering high priest (161). Since Jewish exegesis, broadly speaking, expected a heavenly mediator, applying Psa. 110:1 and 4 to Jesus explained Him in light of the OT; further, though, the NT authors speak of Jesus as the only human fulfillment of a heavenly mediator. Messianic conceptions are drawn tightly and only around Jesus: “Christian exegesis took a new path by referring the psalm to the invisible gory of one who had lived as a prophet opposed in part to Judaism and the Mosaic law itself, one who had been condemned by Jewish leaders and executed as a political criminal” (161).

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