Monday, October 5, 2015

Psalm 110: Some Initial Reflections


There are several reasons why Psalm 110 has grabbed my attention and imagination. The primary cause for my selection is that the Psalm appears to be quoted throughout the entire New Testament, with a plethora of diverse voices quoting or alluding to it. For example, Paul seems to paraphrase or allude to 110:1 in 1 Cor. 15:24-25, Rom. 8:34 and Col. 3:1. The (possible Deutero?) Pauline epistles make some reference to the same verse in Eph. 1:20-22 and 2:6. Psalm 110 seems to be an important eschatological verse for Paul and the Pauline tradition. A strand of the Gospel tradition (Matthew 22:43-45; 26:63-64; Acts 2:33-36; 5:30-31; 7:55-56) seems to also see this verse as significant Christologically and eschatologically in the later parts of the first century CE. While almost certainly not part of the original Gospel, Mark 16:19 seems to contain a possible allusion to 110:1; given the textual tradition of Mark 16:9-20, it seems that even later scribes saw the importance of this Psalm. Hebrews is keen to cite or allude to 110:1 multiple times (1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12-13) as does 1 Peter (3:21-22). Thus, this Psalm is widely known amongst the diverse authors of the New Testament from the middle of the first century to the later parts of the first century. Since my research interests lie with the New Testament, it is necessary to understand this popular Psalm on her own terms. 


As per Fuller Theological Seminary’s preferred translations, I will limit my use to the CEB, NRSV, and NIV. Much of the differences between these three translations lie in the realm of emphasis. For instance, in 110:1, the NRSV does not include the apposition phrase, “for your feet,” whereas the CEB and NIV do include the phrase. There is also a difference in punctuation in the apposition phrasing. The CEB concludes the sentence with an exclamation point (!) and the NIV does not.

In v.2, there is a distinct difference in translation over the relation of the scepter and the Lord. The NRSV says the scepter is sent “out from Zion.” In addition to the addition of “may” at the beginning of the verse, the CEB views the scepter as reaching “far from Zion!” The NIV views the King’s scepter as an “extension from Zion.” The focus of the narrator is on the King’s scepter being extended or sent (“your”). In each case, the scepter’s point of origin is found as coming “from Zion,” though there is some tension regarding the exact nature of this scepter’s leading.

Continuing with v.3, the NRSV has an interesting phrase, “will offer themselves willingly” as opposed to the CEB’s rendering, “stand ready,” which illustrates a contested concept. The nature of a willingness to “offer themselves” suggests a deep conviction on the part of the King’s soldiers to die for him. “Stand ready” (CEB) makes sense, but “will be willing” (NIV) is less precise as to what is “willing” and suggests a future tense orientation. Regarding v.4, the CEB adds an appositional phrase, “a solemn pledge” in order to clarify the “sworn” language immediately before. This helps modern eyes see the seriousness of “swearing an oath or pledge” in Scripture and actually helps draw out the meaning.

V.5 appears to be a difficult verse to translate. The CEB seems to focus on the King’s actions: “by your [the King’s] right hand” which implies the activity of the King, and not God (NRSV, NIV). The focus of the other two translations is on God’s “crushing/shattering,” of the King’s enemies. The question then becomes, who is the one enacting judgment upon the enemies? Is it solely God, or is it the King through God’s providence? The tenses of “crush/shatter” are also different. The NRSV and NIV have a future orient, “will shatter,” and the CEB has a present tense, “has crushed.” Are the tenses in Hebrew meant to evoke a more prophetic (future) alignment, or is this an invocation for the present king?

Within v.6-7, there is some variation between 6a amongst all three translations. The NRSV emphasizes, “Execute judgment among the nations,” suggesting that the Lord is at work amongst the nations, but the nations are not the exclusive focus of judgment. The CEB counters this with, “bring the nations to justice,” which seems to highlight a less retributive aspect of the Lord’s action, and the NIV is explicit in making the “nations” the direct object of “judge.” Thus, there seems to be some differences in translation regarding the style of judgment, and the direct focus or recipient of that judgment. In v.7, both the NRSV and NIV state that God “will drink,” as opposed to the CEB (“drinks”). The emphasis from the NRSV and NIV appear future oriented rather than the CEB’s emphasis on the present action. There may also be an issue in 7a; the NRSV makes this a result of drinking by beginning the final clause with “therefore he will…” which suggests a more specific result action.

In conclusion, the differences in translation are often minute. However, a major issue may be summed up as such: how did the original author or editor intend for this Psalm to be understood, with an eye towards the future installment of a King, or with intent toward the present King? How do these variant tenses and other translational issues affect our reading of this particular Psalm in relation to Israel’s story? Is this Psalm possibly meant in a Proleptic fashion, anticipating a future of deliverance? Is this Psalm intended to instill hope in an idealized future figure? Time will only tell!

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