Who laid the earth’s foundation? Quoting Psalm 102 in Hebrews 1

The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews opens with a series of quotations from the Hebrew Bible in support of the proposition that the Son of God is superior to the angels. The series ends with a quotation from Psalm 102, which appears to suggest that the world was created by the Son:

10 “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.” (ESV)

However, Hebrews appears to give this Psalm a different meaning to that which it had in its original context. This is not unusual of course. The New Testament writers often took texts from the Hebrew Bible and reinterpreted them in new contexts. We need to be cautious about taking the ‘new’ meaning attached to the words by the New Testament writers and reading it back into the earlier text, as though that was the intended meaning of the original author.

With that caveat I would like to look at the way Hebrews quotes Psalm 102. Understanding the Chiasm in Hebrews 1  might help to understand the purpose in quoting Psalm 102. I think the structure of the argument provides a clue as to what the writer meant. He quotes seven texts from the Hebrew Bible (mostly Psalms) about the superiority of the Son to the angels, and presents them in a chiastic structure (chiasm is common throughout Hebrews). The chiasm follows the pattern A, B, C, D, C1, B1, A1:

A. To which of the angels did God ever say “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”. Psalm 2:7

B. “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son” 2 Sam 7:14

C. “Let all God’s angels worship him.” Psalm 97:7 (“worship him, all you אלהים elohim” [or possibly Deut 32:43 LXX and DSS])

D. “He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.” Psalm 104:4

C1. “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” Psalm 45:6

B1. “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,

and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you remain;

they will all wear out like a garment.

You will roll them up like a robe;

like a garment they will be changed.

But you remain the same,

and your years will never end.” Psalm 102:25-27

A1. To which of the angels did God ever say “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”. Psalm 110:1

The first clue to this being chiastic is in the recurrence of the words “to which of the angels did God ever say” in introducing the first and last of the seven texts, forming an inclusio. D is the central or climactic text and is consequently the only one to receive a commentary at the end (v. 14).

The other thing we should notice is that these quotations are mostly from Messianic Psalms. Psalm 2 (“You are my Son; today I have become your Father”) is actually about the enthronement of the King/Messiah in Zion, not his birth. It is followed by a reference to the promise to David about the Messiah-King who will sit on his throne (“I will be his father and he will be my son.”) Psalm 45 is also about the King-Messiah (“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever …) as is Psalm 110 (“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”). Psalm 97 is also arguably Messianic (e.g. the reference to the “lord [אדון adon a term referring to a human leader as distinct from אדוני adonai which is a term reserved for God] of all the earth” [v.4] whom the angels are called to worship).

There is a clear pattern here in the use of Messianic texts about the King enthroned in his glory. The exception is the central text about the angels (“He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire” OR “He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants”). As the commentary in verse 14 shows, this text is placed in the centre of the chiasm to highlight the inferiority of the angels to the Son and their subordinate position.

So where does Psalm 102 fit in with this structure? It is another Messianic Psalm (e.g. Ps 102:16 says “For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory”; verse 18 says “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD”; the Psalm up to verse 22 is speaking of the restoration of Zion and the Messianic Age) and in my view the mention of the heavens and earth has to be metaphorical within that context. That is consistent with the metaphorical use of these terms in similar texts (especially in Isaiah).

In Heb 2:5 he goes on to say that he has been speaking (in chapter 1) about the age to come.  I think the quote from Psalm 102 is best understood in that context as a reference to the Lord Messiah King in the age to come.

2 comments on “Who laid the earth’s foundation? Quoting Psalm 102 in Hebrews 1

  1. Good article! I agree with your conclusion – like the recognition of the use of Chiastic approach. I also came to the same conclusion and discuss this in my book on the Hebrew behind the Greek of the NT – http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009XO0NQU

  2. Xavier says:

    “”In the Septuagint text the person to whom these words [“of old you laid the foundation of the earth”] are spoken is addressed explicitly as “Lord,” and it is God who addresses him thus. Whereas in the Hebrew text the suppliant is the speaker from the beginning to the end of the psalm, in the Greek text his prayer comes to an end with v. 22, and the next words read as follows: “He [God] answered him [the suppliant] in the way of his strength:

    ‘Declare to Me the shortness of My days: Bring Me not up in the midst of My days. Thy [the suppliant’s] years are throughout all generations. Thou, lord [the suppliant, viewed here as the Messiah by Hebrews], in the beginning didst lay the foundation of the earth.’”

    This is God’s answer to the suppliant; He bids him acknowledge the shortness of God’s set time (for the restoration of Jerusalem, as in v. 13) and not summon Him [God] to act when that set time has only half expired, while He [God] assures him [the suppliant, called lord by God] that he and his servants’ children will be preserved forever.”
    http://inthenameofwhowhat.blogspot.com/2010/11/hebrews-110-and-age-to-come-reload.html

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