“Sit at My Right Hand”- David M. Hay on the Use of Psalm 110 in the New Testament

If you know the Apostles’ Creed, you know that Jesus is “seated at the right hand of the Father.”

This bit of information deserves its place in the creed. It appears all over the New Testament.

Yet when we look at the Old Testament, we find only one place where it is prophesied that the Christ would sit at the right hand of God.

That place is Psalm 110. Verses 1 and 5 of that psalm both speak of the Lord at the right hand of God.

What a significant psalm. It’s a short psalm with a big influence on the New Testament.

Jesus taught about it in the temple at Jerusalem, just days before His crucifixion. In Acts 2:34, Peter’s reference to this psalm forms the climax of his Pentecost sermon—the church’s first public proclamation of the gospel.

David H. Hay found 33 quotations or allusions to Psalm 110 in the New Testament, plus seven more in other early Christian writings.

Hay studied the use of Psalm 110 in early Christianity for his doctoral dissertation in 1965. That became the basis for the monograph published in 1973, titled Glory at the Right Hand.

Below are three things we can learn from that book.

But first, here is Psalm 110 (ESV). The verses marked with an asterisk are verses 1 and 4. Those are the only verses quoted in the New Testament (and verse 4 is only quoted in the book of Hebrews).

Psalm 110

*The LORD said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”

The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the Midst of your enemies!

Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours.

*The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.

He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.

He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.

This Psalm Had Political Baggage in Jesus’ Day

When we read about the violence described in the second half of the psalm, we naturally look for a spiritual application to Christ.

They also interpreted it spiritually in Jesus’ day. At the same time, however, there was also an earthly, political interpretation.

David M. Hay suggested that political connotations would have lingered over this Psalm 110 because of its use by the Hasmonean dynasty.

The Hasmoneans ruled the land of Judah for about one hundred years, until they were replace by Herod the Great in 37 BC. For much of that time they ruled like the rest of the Gentiles, with violence and deception. They also used the Old Testament to justify their rule.

Hay couldn’t prove for sure that the Hasmoneans applied Psalm 110 to themselves, but he said “they probably did use it to defend their claims to priestly and royal prerogatives.”

The Hasmoneans considered themselves both kings and priests. They called themselves “priests of the Most High God.” That name for God, said Hay, “is used three times in Gen 14:18-20 in connection with Melchizedek, and the Jewish scriptures do not connect it with any other priest.”

Hay concluded that Psalm 110 probably “entered the NT age trailing associations of the dusty glory of the Hasmoneans.”

If he is correct, it could shed more light on a verse in Mark’s Gospel. In that Gospel, we read that Jesus taught from Psalm 110 in Jerusalem. He showed that the ruler it spoke about was more than an earthly king, because David referred to him as “my Lord.”

Then, Mark 12:37 adds this comment: “And the great throng heard him gladly.”

If Psalm had been so abused and misapplied by the Hasmoneans, it’s no wonder the crowds were happy with the way Jesus taught it. He took it away from earthly, political rulers and reclaimed it for the true Christ. He emptied it of the earthly baggage and brought forth is spiritual dimensions.

Here’s the full passage from Mark 12:35-37 (ESV):

And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,

‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’

David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?”

And the great throng heard him gladly.

There Was That Time Jesus Stood Up

In Acts 7, right before Stephen is stoned to death, he exclaims that he sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, doesn’t tell us why he was standing. In fact, he might not have even known why.

Hay concluded that Luke was simply reporting Stephen’s words exactly as he had found them in his research.

This is in Acts 7:55-56 (ESV):

“But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”

Hay believed that we could see, in this text, the moment that Luke went from narrating the event to transcribing the direct quote of Stephen.

First, there’s the redundancy. Luke says what Stephen saw, then Stephen himself says what he saw.

Second, there’s the redundancy. (Just kidding.)

Second, there’s the different vocabulary. There’s the uncommon name for Jesus, “the Son of Man.” Outside of this verse, only Jesus used that term.

We also see both the singular term for heaven (which Luke normally used) and the plural term, “the heavens.” They both mean the same thing, but it’s typical of Luke to use the plural form.

So why was Jesus standing? Hay didn’t think we could find out for sure. “The answer to this question,” he wrote, “lies in the twilight zone of pre-Lucan tradition.”

He did share some ideas that had been suggested by other. For example, it may have been a vision of the future, of Jesus getting ready to return to earth.

Another idea is that Jesus “rises in the heavenly courtroom to act as a witness on Stephen’s behalf.”

However, the answer Hay found “perhaps most plausible,” was “that Jesus rises from his throne to welcome Stephen into heaven.”

The Book of Hebrews Did Not Pull Melchizedek Out of Relative Obscurity

It might look that way to us.

When we read the New Testament, Melchizedek is mentioned nowhere else but in Hebrews. He appears only twice in the Old Testament, briefly in a story about Abraham, and then in one verse of Psalm 110.

We might think that the writer of Hebrews was making a big deal out of a little-known figure.

In fact, there were plenty of theories about Melchizedek going around at the time that Hebrews was written. One thing they had in common was that they added human opinion to the biblical account.

The writer of Hebrews was different. He really stuck to the text. Hay was impressed by his restraint:

“The marvel about the argument concering Melchizedek in Heb 5-7 is not that the author has made so much out of so little, but that he has made so little out of so much. It is clear that at least within Judaism large clouds of speculation swirled about Melchizedek, and there can be little doubt that the author of the epistle knew more than he chose to elaborate (cf. 7.1-3). With the most astonishing thrift, or resolute reserve, he determined to know nothing of him that could not be inferred from Gen 14.18-20 and Ps. 110.4 (chiefly the latter).