Psalm 45

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 45 and its interpreters.  Most likely, the Psalm was originally composed to celebrate the marriage of a king of Israel to a foreign woman in order to form an alliance between Israel and that woman’s nation, and, because the marriage and anointing of the king were often combined in the ancient Near East (according to the Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary), the Psalm also talks about the king’s job: to fight Israel’s battles, and to execute justice.

Subsequent interpreters have read the Psalm in a spiritual, an eschatological, or a Christological sense.  Concerning spirituality, the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi related the Psalm to Torah scholars, who are married to the Torah, promote good deeds in Israel, and merit for Israel the reward of one day seeing the Gentiles fall at her feet.  Various Christian readers have interpreted v 10’s exhortation for the bride to forget her father and his house in light of the Christian obligation to forsake the love of the world’s ways for Christ.  Regarding eschatology, the medieval commentator Radak (or David Kimhi) saw the battle of v 5 as the battle of Gog and Magog, which will precede the Messianic era of peace and Gentile submission to Israel.  Similarly, Jimmy Swaggart believes that the Psalm is about Christ’s defeat of the Antichrist, which will come before Christ’s marriage with the nation of Israel.  On Christology, Augustine interprets the gifts that the people of Tyre will send the king in v 12 in reference to the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church and their gifts of alms to Christ, since Christ says in Matthew 25:40 that helping the least of these is the same as helping Christ.  Augustine also brings into his discussion of Psalm 45:12 Christ’s interaction with the Canaanitish woman in Matthew 15:21-28, for the woman was from the region of Tyre, and, while she was a dog among her own people (Augustine’s words, not mine), she became beautiful on account of her faith.  Augustine may be arguing that the Canaanitish woman was forgetting her own people for Christ (though, of course, she was requesting healing for her child), in the sense that she was finding a new identity, just like the foreign princess in Psalm 45:10.

Hebrews 1:8 applies Psalm 45:6 to Christ.  Psalm 45:6 states (in the KJV), “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever.”  Since the verses surrounding Psalm 45:6 are speaking to the king of Israel, is v 6 calling the king of Israel or the Messiah “God”?  In their comment in the Jewish Study Bible on Psalm 45:6 (or 7, in the MT), Adele Berlin and Marc Brettler address ancient Near Eastern and biblical material, as well as Jewish interactions with this verse:

“This may also be translated ‘Your throne, O God (‘elohim’) is everlasting’ (so LXX), where the king is referred to a God.  If this is taken literally, this psalm would be unique in the entire Bible in explicitly depicting the king as divine…a notion that existed at times in other ancient Near Eastern cultures but is otherwise absent in biblical thought.  Other modern scholars render the v. as ‘Your throne is like God’s throne’ (so already Ibn Ezra) or ‘Your throne is supreme.’  The Targum and Saadia add the words ‘will establish,’ reading ‘God will establish your throne,’ while Rashi understands ‘elohim’ as judges (see Exod. 21:6…).  These medieval and modern translations, including [The New Jewish Publication Society translation] (Your divine throne), make this v. fit other texts, which do not view the biblical king as divine.”

I am not surprised that Jewish commentators have had problems with the view that Psalm 45:6 is calling the king God, but what took me aback was that certain conservative Christians had problems with that interpretation, too.  Keil-Delitzsch at first manifest openness to the idea that Psalm 45:6 is saying “Thy throne of God” rather than “Thy throne, O God”, in light of I Chronicles 29:23’s statement that the throne of God’s anointed king actually is the throne of the LORD.  But Keil-Delitzsch reject that view in favor of saying that v 6 means that the king is God’s representative on earth (i.e., an executor of justice), yet is under God, according to v 7.  

John MacArthur states: “Since this king-groom was likely a member of the Davidic dynasty (e.g., 2 Sam. 7), there was a near and immediate application (cf. 1 Chr. 28:5; 29:23). Through progressive revelation (i.e., Heb. 1:8, 9), we learn of the ultimate application to ‘a greater than Solomon’ who is God—the Lord Jesus Christ.”  For MacArthur, Psalm 45 was originally about a wedding of a Davidic monarch in Israel’s pre-exilic period, and so, within that context, v 6 was saying that the king’s throne was God’s throne.  But progressive revelation unveiled a deeper meaning of the verse, a meaning that concerns Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, the fourth century Christian exegete, Theodore of Mopsuestia, who usually goes with the literal and non-Christological meaning of passages in the Hebrew Bible, strays from his usual course and regards Psalm 45 as a prophecy about Jesus Christ, whom he considered to be God (meaning that Psalm 45:6 is not a problem for him).  Theodore openly takes on Jewish interpretation of the verse, and that may be a reason that he becomes Christological in his interpretation of Psalm 45.

I still think that my summary of Mark Smith’s treatment of Psalm 45:6 in The Origins of Biblical Monotheism raises important issues (see here):

“Isaiah 9:5 calls the Davidic king ‘mighty God,’ and Psalm 45:7 refers to the king as Elohim. This is significant in debates between Jewish and Christian apologists, for Christian apologists have argued from such texts that the Messiah would be God (cp. Hebrews 1:8), a view that Jewish apologists deny. Smith points to Ugaritic passages in which a king is portrayed as a representative of the divine, with divine characteristics (159). And he refers to a comment by J.R. Porter, who states: ‘[A]t 2 Sam. xiv.17, David is called the Angel of God because he is able to [hear good and evil]: this recalls Gen. iii. 22 [to know good and evil], and it was precisely this knowledge which placed Adam among the [gods]’ (161). Are Isaiah 9:5 and Psalm 45:7 saying that a future Messiah would be God, or is there a way to understand them within their ancient Near Eastern context: they mean that the Davidic king is a representative of God, who executes the divine mission to defeat evil and bring forth justice, and who also possesses certain divine attributes (e.g., the ability to distinguish good from evil)?”

Perhaps the author of Psalm 45 did view the king as divine, in some sense, and such a notion is rare in the Hebrew Bible due to later attempts by Deuteronomists to suppress that sort of idea, since the Deuteronomists thought that the king was far from divine because he could easily fall into a transgression that would lead to disaster on his entire nation.

Another issue that I want to address is the king’s beauty, which is mentioned in v 2.  John MacArthur states that physical beauty was “an ancient prerequisite for kingship”, and he cites as evidence 1 Samuel 9:2; 10:33; 16:12; 2 Samuel 14:25; 1 Kings 1:6; Song of Songs 5:10; and Isaiah 33:17.  Peter Craigie, by contrast, argues that physical beauty is not the issue here, for the Psalm as a whole talks about such things as the king’s words of grace, his support for truth, his humility, and his righteousness.  For Craigie, the king is beautiful in terms of his character, not so much his physical appearance. 

In terms of how I can relate this Psalm to my own spiritual life, what I see in this Psalm is admiration for a hero.  Perhaps I can apply such admiration to God, Jesus Christ, and maybe even people of character who have done good (though I should remember that human beings are not perfect).

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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