THE CLOSING VERSES OF Matthew 22 (Matt. 22:41-46) contain one of the most intriguing exchanges in the Gospels. After successfully fending off a series of tricky questions designed rather more to trap him or demean him than to elicit the wise answers he actually gives, Jesus poses a question of his own: “What do you think about the Christ [i.e., the Messiah]? Whose son is he?” (22:42). Some Jews thought there would be two Messiahs — one from David’s line (the tribe of Judah) and one from the tribe of Levi. But not surprisingly, the Pharisees here give the right answer: “The son of David” (22:42). Now Jesus drops his bombshell: “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet’”(22:43-44).
Jesus is citing Psalm 110, identified by the superscription as a psalm of David. If a mere courtier had written the psalm, then when he wrote “The LORD says to my Lord,” he would have been understood to mean “The Lord [God] said to my Lord [the King].” In fact, that is the way many liberal scholars interpret the psalm — which means, of course, that they must ignore what the superscription says. But if David wrote the psalm, then the “my Lord” whom he addresses must be someone other than himself. The explanation offered by many students of the Bible, both Jewish and Christian, over the centuries, is correct: David, “speaking by the Spirit” (22:43), writing what is called an oracular psalm (i.e., an oracle, a prophecy immediately prompted by the Spirit), is referring to the Messiah who was to come: “The LORD [God] said to my Lord [the Messiah].” And what he said, in the rest of the psalm, establishes him as both universal king and perfect priest.
In days when family hierarchies meant that the son was always viewed as in some ways inferior to the father, Jesus drives home the point he is making: “If then David calls him [i.e., the Messiah] ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (22:45).
The implications are staggering. The Messiah from the line of David would, on the one hand, doubtless be David’s son, removed by a millennium from David but nevertheless in the throne succession. But on the other hand, he would be so great that even David must address him as “my Lord.” Any other conception of the Messiah is too small, too reductionistic. The Old Testament texts pointed in the right direction generations earlier. But there will always be people who prefer the simplifications of reductionism to the profundities of the revelation in the whole Bible.