“You keep using that word,” Inigo Montoya says in the film The Princess Bride. “I do not think it means what you think it means.” As Christians, we can often do the same with theological terms.
We are the heirs of a long tradition of systematic theology, a tradition of wrestling with the way the Bible writers expressed things, and summarizing the right beliefs in precise form. This is a good thing! At the same time, we have to recognize that our profiting from these noble endeavors may lead us to suppose that the Bible writers meant the same things our theologians meant with their words.
A good example is when the Bible applies the title “Son of God” to Jesus, as in Psalm 2:7, where God says, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” We naturally think of the controversies in the early church, and connect this title with Jesus’s deity. In fact, the Protestant scholastics did exactly that: Both Heinrich Heppe’s compilation of Reformed Dogmatics (vi.19) and Heinrich Schmid’s Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ii.29) cite this text as a proof of the relations between the first and second persons of the Trinity.
At the same time I affirm the worth of these discussions of the Trinity, I would also like to show that they haven’t really got it right on Psalm 2:7; and that missing the psalm’s point also makes us miss some important points about Jesus.
Psalm 2:7 has to do with the Davidic king. At a time when the Gentile kingdoms in the Davidic empire seek to throw off Israelite rule, this psalm recalls the promises made to the Davidic king at his coronation and notes that the Gentiles will find lasting joy only as subjects of this king.
The coronation oracle had declared the newly crowned king to be God’s “Son”; this recalls 2 Samuel 7:14, where God promises to David concerning Solomon, and then each new king in the line of David: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” This is talking about more than just the close relationship God will have with the king. The people as a whole are called the “son of God” (see Ex. 4:22–23; Hos. 11:1; Ps. 80:15), and the king is called the “son of God” because he represents and embodies the people (see also Ps. 89:27, with “firstborn”).
That is, the king’s job includes things like being the people’s “champion” (as David had done against Goliath, when Saul would not), embodying what it means to be a faithful member of God’s people so that the other members could imitate his example, and leading God’s people in carrying out their calling of bringing the blessings of Abraham to the Gentile world (as in Ps. 2).
New Testament Echoes
Just I have brought Psalm 2:7 together with 2 Samuel 7:14, so does the author of Hebrews (1:5); his theme is that Jesus is the reigning Messiah (heir of David, i.e., king) into whom God has also folded the priestly office (in line with Ps. 110:4).
In Acts 13:33 (a speech in a synagogue) Paul portrays the resurrection of Jesus as his coronation, his entry into his Davidic rule. This connection will probably help us with Romans 1:4 as well: there Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” The verb “declared” is elsewhere rendered things like “determined, appointed” (e.g., Acts 11:29; 17:26, 31; Heb. 4:7); but it is hard to imagine how the resurrection might have initiated Jesus into deity. It didn’t: it rather initiated him into his Davidic role, and this entails the widespread conversion of the Gentiles (Rom. 1:5), just as in Psalm 2.
So the New Testament authors didn’t do anything funny or suspicious when they applied Psalm 2:7 to Jesus, because Jesus’s Davidic role was important to them. That is, “Son of God” in some contexts refers to Jesus as the (human) heir of David, while in some it surely refers to him as deity (e.g., Matt. 28:19). It lies with us the readers to discern between the usages.
No Ordinary King
If you’re preaching or teaching on Psalm 2, or trying to understand this psalm for yourself, by all means, bring what you know about the Trinity to the text. Just don’t read it into this passage. The “Son of God” in Psalm 2 is first and foremost a Davidic title—and that is good news, because it means he comes as our King to fulfill all that God said he would do through the heir of David.
For this is no ordinary King. He not only secures our place with God (Rom. 4:25), but subdues all God’s enemies (Ps. 2:9), delivers God’s people (Mic. 5:4-5), spreads his salvation and light all over the earth (Ps. 72:16-17), and establishes his kingdom forever and ever (2 Sam. 7:16).