Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
At the first sight the authorship and purpose of this psalm are, for a Christian expositor, not only placed beyond the necessity of conjecture, but even removed from the region of criticism, by the use made of its first verse by our Lord, and the emphatic manner in which He quotes it as the Divinely inspired utterance of David (Matthew 22:41-45; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44). But it is now, even among the most orthodox, an admitted fact that, in matters of literature and criticism, our Lord did not withdraw Himself from the conditions of His time, and that the application He made of current opinions and beliefs does not necessarily stamp them with the seal of Divine authorisation.
The prominent thought in the psalm is the formal union in one person of the royal dignity and the priesthood. Now all the kings of Israel and Judah at times assumed priestly functions, but only twice in the history can the offices be said to have been formally combined—in the person of Joshua son of Josedech (Zechariah 11:12-13), and in that of the Asmonean Jonathan and his successors (1 Maccabees 11:57). The latter reference is preferable. The impression left by the psalm is exactly in accordance with the history of the Asmoneans. One whom Jehovah has declared by solemn oath a priest; one, i.e., in whom the priesthood was indubitably and firmly fixed, is exalted at Jehovah’s right hand as a king, and, as a warrior, rides on with Jehovah to triumph. And the choice of Melchizedek, as type (see Note, Psalm 110:4), does not arise from any idea of contrasting his order with that of Aaron, but from the necessity of going back to him for an instance of actual and formal priesthood combined in the same person, with kingly rank. In 1 Maccabees 14:41 the very expression of the psalm, “high priest for ever,” is used of Simon.
The abrupt ending of this short psalm has led many critics to regard it as a fragment. The parallelism is very lax.
A Psalm of David. The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.(1) The Lord said . . .—The usual prophetic phrase, generally translated, “Thus saith,” &c. (See Note, Psalm 36:1.)
The psalmist may possibly be quoting an old prophetic saying, but, according to the usual way in which the expression is used, it marks an immediate inspiration.
My Lord.—Heb., adonî, an address of honour to those more noble than the speaker, or superior in rank: to a father, Genesis 31:35; to a brother, Numbers 12:11; a royal consort, 1Kings 1:17-18; to a prince, 1Kings 3:17; with addition of the royal title, “my Lord, O king,” 2Samuel 14:19.
The question of the person here intended is, of course, closely bound up with the general question of the authorship and meaning of the psalm. Here the various views that have been held are briefly enumerated:—
(1) The Messiah; and, if so, with a prophetic consciousness of His Divinity, or, at least, His superiority as a Prince over all other princes. (2) David himself: this is, of course, inconsistent with the Davidic authorship of the psalm. (3) Solomon. (4) Hezekiah. (5) Joshua son of Josedech. (6) One of the priest-kings of the Asmonean dynasty.
We now come to the words of the oracle: “Sit thou at my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool.”
Commentators have sought in the customs of Arabia, and even in the mythology of the Greek poets, for proof that this expression denotes viceroyalty or copartnership in the throne. If this meaning could be established from Hebrew literature, these parallels would be confirmatory as well as illustrative; but the nearest approach to be found in the Old Testament only makes the seat at the king’s right hand a mark of extreme honour. (See the case of Bath-sheba, 1Kings 2:19; of the queen consort of Psalm 45:9; of Jonathan, 1 Maccabees 10:63.)
Nothing more can be assumed, therefore, from the words themselves than an invitation to sit at Jehovah’s right hand to watch the progress of the victorious struggle in which wide and sure dominion is to be won for this Prince. But even this is obscured by the concluding part of the psalm (see Psalm 110:5), where Jehovah is said to be at the right hand of the person addressed, and is beyond question represented ac[??] going out with him to battle. Hence, we are led to the conclusion, that the exact position (“at the right hand”) i not to be pressed in either case, and that no more is intended than that, with Jehovah’s help, the monarch who is the hero of the poem will acquire and administer a vast and glorious realm.
Footstool.—The imagery of the footstool (literally a stool for thy feet) is no doubt taken from the custom mentioned in Joshua 10:24.
The LORD shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.(2) Send.—The verb should be here rendered stretch, as in Genesis 22:10; Genesis 48:14, and frequently of stretching out the hand, often with hostile intent. The poet here speaks in his own person, addressing the King, to whom the oracle has just been announced.
Rod of thy strength—i.e., the sceptre, which is the emblem of royal power and sway. (See Jeremiah 48:17.) The word “staff” is different from that rendered “rod,” in Psalm 2:9; and the image is not, as there, necessarily of a weapon of destruction, but only of kingly rule, as in Psalm 45:6.
Rule thou . . .—It is better to take these words as a quotation, and understand them as spoken of Jehovah. In the picture before us the Divine King seats the earthly monarch by His side, and taking his sceptre from his hand, stretches it in token of the wide empire he is to administer from Zion, where they sit enthroned, over the surrounding nations, and bids him assume the offered sway, in spite of the foes that surround him at present. The expression “in the midst,” instead of “over,” implies the condition under which the sovereignty was to be assumed, as also does the rest of the psalm, proceeding to describe the wars by which ultimate triumph over the hostile tribes would be secured.
Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.(3) This difficult verse runs, literally, Thy people willingnesses (or, willing offerings) in the day of thy force in holy attire, from the womb of morning dew of thy youth.
The first clause is tolerably clear. The word rendered force means either “strength” or “an army;” and the noun willingnesses appears as a verb in Judges 5:9, to express the alacrity with which the northern clans mustered for battle. We may therefore translate: Thy people will be willing on thy muster-day.
As to the next two-words there is a variation in the text. Many MSS. read, by the slightest change of a Hebrew letter, “on the holy mountains” (this was also, according to one version, the reading of Symmachus and Jerome), and, adopting the reading, we have a picture of the people mustering for battle with alacrity on the mountains round Zion, under the eye of Jehovah Himself, and in obedience to the outstretched sceptre.
The second clause is not so clear. By themselves the words “from the womb of morning dew of thy youth,” would naturally be taken as a description of the vigour and freshness of the person addressed: “thine is the morning dew of youth.” With the image compare—
“The meek-eyed morn appears; mother of the dews.”
(Comp. Job 38:28.)
But the parallelism directs us still to the gathering of the army, and the image of the dew was familiar to the language as an emblem at once of multitude (2Samuel 17:11-12), of freshness and vigour (Psalm 133:3; Hosea 14:5), and was especially applied to Israel as a nation in immediate relation to Jehovah, coming and going among the nations at His command (Micah 5:7). Here there is the additional idea of brightness—the array of young warriors, in their bright attire, recalling the multitudinous glancing of the ground on a dewy morning: thy young warriors come to thee thick and bright as the morning dew.
Milton has the same figure for the innumerable hosts
of angel warriors:—
Innumerable as the stars of night
Or stars of morning, dewdrops, which the sun
Impearls on every leaf and every flower.”
The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.(4) After the order of Melchizedek.—This follows the LXX. and Vulg. Better, after the manner of since there could have been with the psalmist no intention of contrasting this priesthood with that of Aaron, as there naturally was when the Aaronic order had come to an end or was visibly doomed to extinction.
The previous history of Israel itself offered no example of the formal union of kingly and priestly offices in one person. It first appears in idea in Zechariah 6:12-13; in actual fact in the pontificate of Jonathan (1 Maccabees 10:21). It is true that the royal and priestly functions were sometimes united, especially in the case of David, and in 2Samuel 8:18, David’s sons are called “priests” (in English version, “chief rulers;” margin, or princes). It was therefore necessary to go back to Melchizedek, in whom history recognised this sanctioned and formal union (Genesis 14:18). For the various points brought out in the Epistle to the Hebrews 6, 7, see New Testament Commentary.
The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath.(5) The Lord at thy right hand.—We are naturally tempted to understand this as still of the king whom the first verse placed at Jehovah’s right hand. But the word for Lord here is Adonai, which is nowhere else used except of God. Moreover, God throughout has as yet appeared as the active agent. It is He who stretched out the sceptre and conferred the office of priest; and hitherto the king has been the person addressed. It is therefore necessary still to consider him as addressed, and suppose that the change of position of Jehovah from the king’s right hand to his left is simply due to the usage of the language. To sit at the right hand was an emblem of honour, to stand at the right hand was a figure of protecting might (Psalm 16:8; Psalm 109:31); and the imagery of a battle into which the song now plunges caused the change of expression.
He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries.(6) He shall judge.—Comp. Psalm 9:8, &c.
He shall fill.—The construction is peculiar, and in the Hebrew for heathen and corpses there is a play on words. A slight change in the vowel pointing gives a better construction than is obtained by understanding any word as the Authorised Version does, and critics generally: He judges among the heathen fulness of corpses. At first the poet meant to write, “He judges among the heathen fulness of judgment” (comp. Job 36:17), but, for the sake of the play on the sound, changed his words to “fulness of corpses.”
He shall wound the heads.—Literally, crushes a head over a vast land, where “head” means, as in Judges 7:16; Judges 7:20, a band or host of men. The picture is of a vast battle-field with heaps of slain. Others understand, “the chief or master of a wide land.” (Comp. Habakkuk 3:14, “head of his villages.”)
He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.(7) Drink . . . lift up.—The victorious leader, “faint yet pursuing” (Judges 8:4), pauses at the stream that crosses his path, and then refreshed, with head once more erect, continues his pursuit of the foe. Such is undoubtedly the meaning of this verse, and we need not suppose a sudden change of subject, as some critics do, as if the picture representing a thirsty warrior were unworthy of Jehovah. Poetry knows nothing of such timidity, and with the grand scene of Isaiah 63:1-6, of the hero stained with blood, we need not hesitate to admit this further detail so true to life, even if we had not in Psalms 60, 108 images of a still more homely type.