Home » A. Bible Studies » Penitential Psalms: Psalm 102–Who Is Speaking?

Penitential Psalms: Psalm 102–Who Is Speaking?

 

The Old Testament was originally written mostly in Hebrew. About three centuries before Christ, translations of the Hebraic Scriptures into Greek became common. These translations collectively are called the Septuagint. The word “septuagint” means seventy, and unverified tradition holds that seventy scholars sequestered themselves while making the translation at the request of King Ptolemy II for the national library in Alexandria. Extant Greek manuscripts, translated from Hebrew, are older than the oldest extant Hebrew manuscripts by one to two centuries (1). The New Testament, on the other hand, was originally written in Greek, and its authors regularly read and quoted from the Old Testament Septuagint. Knowing this information helps to clarify why the author of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews included Psalm 102:25-27 in his list of Old Testament texts that demonstrate God’s calling Jesus Christ his “Son” (2).

In the first chapter of Hebrews, the biblical author quotes several passages from the Old Testament in which God speaks directly to his Son. The three occurrences of God speaking directly to his Son are found in verse 5, quoting Psalm 2:7, verses 10-12, quoting Psalm 102:25-27, and verse 13, quoting Psalm 110:1. In the first and third of these quotations, the reader readily discerns the voice of God speaking to a second person. The text clearly states that this is so. However, when reading the quotation from Psalm 102, as it stands embedded within the context of the entire psalm in most English translations, the reader may wonder how it is that these particular verses refer to the Son. How did the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews arrive at this conclusion? Many commentators simply skip past the confusion by stating that the Hebrews’ author, divinely inspired, applied these verses to Christ. But this begs the question, for if so, then why so? Why these verses in particular?

Knowing that the author of Hebrews was quoting from a Greek text helps tremendously. In fact, it solves the puzzle. The complete context in the Septuagint clearly indicates a dialogue between two speakers. That is, the Septuagint text tags the verses immediately preceding the quotation found in Hebrews with clear transitional phrases of dialogue, “23 He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days. 24a Take me not away in the midst of my days: 24b [the reply from the second speaker immediately follows here without an identifying tag, but it is clear from the context that a second speaker answers the requests of the first] thy years are through all generations. 25 In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth…” (3).  The Septuagint from which the author of Hebrews quotes (scholars overall agree that the writer is quoting from the Greek text) clearly distinguishes with speech labels the presence of two speakers in dialogue with each other. But the English translations of Psalm 102, which are based upon the Masoretic text (Hebrew), fail to include the tag words, “He answered him…”, found in verse 23a. And the author of the Letter to the Hebrews begins his quotation of Psalm 102 with verse 25, which occurs after the second speaker, God, has already begun speaking. The quotation in Hebrews does not contain the dialogue tags, or labels, but the author implicitly acknowledges their occurrence and assumes that his readers also know this fact. The assumption of dialogue is central to the logic and force of the author’s argument. He presents the Old Testament text as an example of God speaking directly to his Son.

Conclusion: While English versions translated from the Hebrew Masoretic text of Psalm 102:23 do not include the three words, “He answered him…”, the author of Hebrews implicitly acknowledges the prior occurrence of these three words as he begins his quotation in verse 25, which falls after their occurrence in the Septuagint from which he quotes. That the author implicitly acknowledges dialogue in the passage is clear from the entire context of Hebrews 1. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is demonstrating how Old Testament scripture accords Christ the status of Son. Among his proof texts are several verses that indicate direct speech by God to his Son. Among these is Psalm 102:25-27, quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12. It is clear that the Hebrews’ author is attributing the quotation as a speech statement by God to his Son. Again, the Son is the one to whom God is speaking, both in Hebrews 1:10-12 and in that passage’s source, Psalm 102:25-27. The Son is he to whom God replies. The Son is the “poor” man pouring out his supplication to the Lord, whose voice we hear so plaintively in the first eleven verses of this “penitential” psalm.

Significance: What is the answer to the big question, “So what?” The following blog in this series will, Lord willing, provide answers to that question.

 

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1 Reference works concerning the textual history of the Septuagint include 1) Karen H. Jobes & Moisés Silva. Invitation to the Septuagint. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000. 2) H.B. Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, Cambridge: University Press, 1900. 3) Timothy Michael Law. When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

2 Although Hebrews begins speaking of God’s Son in verse 2 of chapter 1, the author specifically names Christ as the Son in Hebrews 3:6, “But Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son…”

3 Brenton, Sir Lancelot C. L. The Septuagint Version: Greek and English. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970. Notice that the verse numbering differs from most English versions.

The NETS Bible (Pietersma, Albert, ed. A New English Translation of the Septuagint: The Psalms. Translated by Albert Pietersma. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Available online at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/24-ps-nets.pdf. Accessed April 27, 2018) reads, “24(23) He answered him in the way of my strength, ‘Tell me the paucity of my days. 25(24) Do not take me away at the mid-point of my days,…”

In further confirmation of the Septuagint text, the Latin Vulgate, which translates the Greek, includes the words from Psalm 102:23, “He answered him…”


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