The Lord says to my lord:
‘Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.’
Psalm 110 is unlikely to feature in many Christians’ lists of their favourite Psalms, but it was one of the most important Psalms as far as the early church was concerned. It is referred to in three of the Gospels, in the book of Acts, in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians and Hebrews, and it is alluded to in 1 Peter.
In the early church there was sustained theological reflection on the enigmatic first verse. In that opening line, YHWH speaks to the Psalmist’s master (or ‘lord’) but who is being addressed is unclear. Some Jewish commentators believe that ‘my master’ to whom King David is referring is none other than Abraham, David’s father in the faith. Other commentators think that ‘my master’ is actually David himself and that the first line was sung in his honour by the Levites. The verse is ambiguous, it is open to more than one interpretation, and one of those is that David is addressing someone whom he considered to be his ‘lord’ or ‘master’. Rather than looking back to Abraham, David may well have been looking forward. David was the king of a united Israel but in the final years of his reign it all began to fall as his kingdom plunged into bitter and bloody civil war. It strikes me that in the dying days of his reign it would not at all have been improbable that David, conscious of his failure to be the king that God desired, remembered and clung to the promise that God had made to him that one of his ancestors would rule and do what David had failed to do (2 Samuel 7:13).
Over the years, that belief in a Davidic king who would do God’s will on earth as in heaven became a lively hope, found not just in the biblical prophets (Isaiah 9:1–7; Jeremiah 23:5, 6; Ezekiel 34:23, 24) but nurtured among other Jewish groups such as the Qumran community by the Dead Sea. It is quite legitimate, then, for David’s ‘lord’ to be seen as the Messiah and see the fulfilment of God’s promise in King Jesus.
The rest of the Psalm is militaristic. There is a long tradition of pacifism within the Baptist movement with the use of violence being seen to be incompatible with teaching of Jesus. Others believe that a just war may be the lesser of two evils in a fallen world. Whatever our views, we should all recognise that all too often Christ has been co-opted into sanctifying wars of aggression. It is sad that the cross, the symbol of God’s great love, for many became and still is a symbol to be feared. Given the way that faith has been used to justify unholy wars there is good reason to handle martial images with great care. In the days when churches had hymnbooks, there would be perennial debates over the appropriateness of the inclusion of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. Leaving aside the merits or demerits of that particular song it is a reminder that militaristic language is not unknown in the Bible. Indeed, the Gospels can be read as a war story as well as a love story.
CS Lewis comments:
‘For those who first read these Psalms as poems about the birth of Christ, that birth primarily meant something very militant; the hero, the “judge” or champion or giant-killer, who was to fight and beat death, hell and the devils, had at last arrived, and the evidence suggests that Our Lord also thought of Himself in those terms.’
Christ came like Melchizedek, King of Jerusalem, the city of peace. He came as the priest who would bring God’s blessing by defeating our enemies not through slaughtering them but through sacrificing himself. The risen Christ still calls us out of comfort zone to join him in the fray. In what turned out to be his final speech, William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, said:
‘While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight; while children go hungry, as they do now I’ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight; while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight, I’ll fight to the very end!’
We might not wage war as the world does and the weapons we fight with are certainly not the weapons of the world (2 Corinthians 10:3, 4) but there is a fight against evil within and without and we are called to it.