Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Lord and My God: You, LORD, in the Beginning

In "Introducing the Trinity" we started this series by looking at Thomas' response to the risen Lord when he touched Jesus' crucifixion wounds. Specifically addressing Jesus, Thomas called Him, "My Lord and my God" (John 20:28). We were introduced to the historic, orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity: there is one and only one God; the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit God; and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are eternally distinct and interpersonally relate to one another.

For a long time I have considered one particular argument from Scripture as the proverbial "slam dunk" (above innumerable other "slam dunks"), and have pointed to it regularly. I had planned to start this series in earnest by first laying down the foundation for this doctrine, namely the biblical insistence that there is one and only one God. However, recent events have caused me to reconsider my "slam dunk," and having done so I now believe even more strongly in this argument. Before I continue with this series in the manner I had intended, I'd like to share my excitement with you.


Several days ago I solicited your prayers, explaining that a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses had come to my door and reluctantly agreed to return to discuss our faiths. I've been prayerfully considering how best to approach this dialogue, and am closing in on a plan. I was relating the plan I'm formulating with my best friend at dinner the other night, explaining that one of the things I intend to do is point to Hebrews 1:10--in their New World Translation of the Bible--and demonstrate that Jesus is God: my "slam dunk." I'll explain this in a moment.

My friend asked me a question, however: "How does the Watch Tower answer this argument?" Perhaps out of arrogance, I insisted, "They don't have one! There is no answer!" I was honest in saying that I had done some research before, seeking a response from the Jehovah's Witnesses. However, I was being dishonest with myself; I hadn't really searched all that hard at all. Yesterday I realized that as a lover of Truth, I was standing on shaky ground. So, I resolved to make a search more thoroughly.


Here is the argument I have for a long time viewed as incontrovertible proof that Jesus is God. If we turn to the psalms, we read in one of them, "Of old You founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands" (Psalm 102:25). The psalmist is obviously singing to God, addressing Him by name: "Hear my prayer, O LORD!" (Psalm 102:1). In the book of Hebrews, the author tells us something fascinating about this psalm.

The book opens with a refutation of a view which held that the Son of God is equal or inferior to the angels. The author poses a hypothetical question: "For to which of the angels did He ever say, 'YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU'? And again, 'I WILL BE A FATHER TO HIM AND HE SHALL BE A SON TO ME'?" (Hebrews 1:5). The answer implicit in the question is, "None of them." Rather, these words were clearly spoken of the Son.

On the other hand, the author tells us, the Father did say something about Jesus: "But of the Son He says...'YOU, LORD, IN THE BEGINNING LAID THE FOUNDATION OF THE EARTH, AND THE HEAVENS ARE THE WORKS OF YOUR HANDS" (Hebrews 1:8-10). Quoting Psalm 102, the author of Hebrews tells us those words were spoken, by the Father, to the Son. The psalmist's words directed toward God, therefore, were the words of the Father directed toward the Son! There could be no possible explanation, I insisted, besides the obvious implication that Jesus is God.


I did some poking around in an effort to find a response to this argument, by either the Watch Tower or by any Jehovah's Witnesses. Much to my amazement, I found one. In a summary critique of Greg Stafford's book, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics, James White writes,

"In the Fall 1997 issue of the Christian Research Journal, I presented an article in which I suggested that demonstrating the deity of Christ by use of such passages as John 12:39-41 and Hebrews 1:10-12, in which Jesus is identified as Jehovah, is one of the best ways of witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Stafford addresses both passages in his book, but space will allow us to examine only the use of Psalm 102:25-27 in Hebrews 1:10-12. The writer to the Hebrews quotes the passage from the Psalms, which plainly describes the unchanging nature of Jehovah and His role as Creator, and he applies it to Jesus Christ. This passage underscores the deity of Christ and the fact that He is the Creator of all things.

Stafford follows instead the explanation provided by the Watchtower Society, which is twofold. First, since the earlier verses differentiate between the Father and the Son, this passage cannot be making Jesus Jehovah. Second, Hebrews 1:5b, a passage that was originally written about Solomon, is applied to Jesus Christ. Since the later application of the passage to Jesus does not make Jesus Solomon, applying a passage that was originally about Jehovah to Jesus does not, necessarily, create an identity between the two. Stafford writes, 'Paul no more intended to identify Jesus with Jehovah than he intended to identify Solomon with Jesus. He did, however, apply certain concepts and ideas expressed in those verses which were originally applied to Jehovah God and Solomon, to the Son of God.'"

At this point, James White attempts to refute this argument, but I don't think he does so in the best possible way. In short, his response is that "quoting a passage about a king in the Old Testament does not mean Jesus is that particular person, but quoting a passage about the unique aspects of Jehovah’s character and applying it to Jesus does indicate identity with Jehovah." You see, the author of Hebrews goes on to say that God said to the Son,


White is correct. In their original context, these words were speaking of God's unchanging and eternal nature. However, Stafford argues that when applied to the Son in the context of the book of Hebrews, these words speak to the Son's deathlessness: "the thrust of [Paul’s] message is to highlight Jesus’ immortality (deathlessness) since his resurrection by God. (Ro 6:9; Ga 1:1)" (p. 51). In the opening of Hebrews we read, "[the Son] upholds all things by the word of His power When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3). Thus, Stafford says, the Son's superiority to the angels is demonstrated by His death and resurrection unto everlasting life. It is with this in view that the psalmist's words, "they will perish, but You remain...You are the same, and Your years will not come to an end," are applied to the Son.


Being someone who enjoys debating, and sees great value in debate, I appreciate this argument. I think that it is sound, with one exception, and it is because of this exception that I think there is a better argument than James White's. The hole in Stafford's reasoning is this: the author of Hebrews quotes the Septuagint's version of the psalm, including the words, "You, Lord." (Psalm 102:25, Septuagint.)

(When it comes to what follows, I am still fairly unlearned, so don't take my word for it, look it up yourself.) My understanding is that our modern translations are translations of what is called the Masoretic Text. It is comprised of copies of the original Hebrew that was written by the biblical authors. The Septuagint, however, is a translation of the original Hebrew into Greek, so named because it is believed approximately 70 Jewish translators were commissioned to do the work of translating.

Throughout much of the New Testament, the authors quote Old Testament passages from the Septuagint, not the Masoretic Text. This is why you'll often compare an Old Testament with how it's cited in the New, and see that while the meaning is unchanged, the text reads differently. Our bibles translate the Masoretic Text, the authors of the New Testament often quoted the Septuagint.

Whereas the Masoretic Text renders Psalm 102:25 as, "Of old You founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands," the Septuagint renders it, "In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands" (Septuagint). The author of Hebrews qotes the Septuagint, specifically including the words, "You, Lord," and applies those to the Son along with the rest of the original verse.

Now, because the Septuagint is a translation into Greek, it does not contain the original Hebrew name of God, YHVH (Jehovah, or Yahweh). However, the Masoretic Text does contain this name in verse 1: "Hear my prayer, O LORD" (Psalm 102:1). The translators of the Septuagint rendered this as kyrios, the generic "lord." They translated God's name again in verses 12, 15, 16, 18, 21 and 22. Thus, it is evident that the "lord" in view throughout the psalm is not merely some ruler or master, but YHVH Himself, the one true God of Israel.

Interestingly, the Jewish authors of the Septuagint included this word in verse 25 saying, "In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth." But the Masoretic Text does not contain the name of God in this verse. Yet, as is clear from its previous use, the word "lord" is used with God's name in mind. Thus, Stafford is incorrect in insisting that the author of Hebrews was merely attributing statements of deathlessness to the Son. The author did more than that. He tells us specifically that God applied the name of God to the Son, addressing Him as "You, YHVH."


As it turns out, it is alleged by some that though the psalmist is singing to God throughout the bulk of the psalm, the direction of speaking shifts in verse 23, such that God begins speaking to the psalmist. This is not evident in the Masoretic Text, obviously: "He has weakened my strength in the way; He has shortened my days" (Psalm 102:23). But the Septuagint reads differently: "He answered him in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days."

In his New International Commentary on Hebrews, F. F. Bruce writes,

"In the LXX, Septuagint text, the person to whom these words (‘of old you laid the foundation of the earth’) are spoken is addressed explicitly as ‘lord.’ God bids him acknowledge the shortness of God’s set time for the restoration of Jerusalem (v. 13) and not summon Him to act when that set time has only half expired, while He assures him that he and his servants’ children will be preserved forever...It is God who addresses this ‘lord’ thus. Whereas in the Hebrew text the suppliant is the speaker from beginning to end of the psalm, in the Greek text the suppliant’s prayer comes to an end in verse 22. And the next words read as follows: “He answered him in the way of His strength: ‘Declare to Me the shortness of My days. Bring me not up in the midst of My days. Your years are throughout all generations. You, lord  in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth...'"

The argument, then, is that leading up to verse 23, the psalmist is speaking to God, pleading with Him to "have compassion on Zion; For it is time to be gracious to her, For the appointed time has come" (Psalm 102:13). In response, Bruce says, God urges the psalmist to acknowledge that God has appointed that the restoration of Jerusalem is soon, saying, "Declare to Me the shortness of My days." God is telling the psalmist that the appointed period of time is only partially completed, saying, "Bring me not up in the midst of My days." Then, God tells the psalmist, "Your years are throughout all generations. You, lord in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth."

Is this true? Is God speaking to the psalmist when we read, "thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth"? No, this does injustice to the text. Yes, it is true that in response to the psalmist's pleading, God answers the psalmist and says, "tell me the fewness of my days." However, God is not demanding that the psalmist acknowledge the shortness, yet incompletion, of God's appointed time for the restoration of Israel. Rather, God is demanding that the psalmist recognize God's eternality in constrast with his own fleeting life.


The phrase "my days" is not a reference to God's appointed time. It is, throughout Scripture, a reference to one's lifetime. Authors speak of their days--referring to them as "my days"--as being short and fleeting:

"My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle." (Job 7:6)

"Now my days are swifter than a runner; They flee away." (Job 9:25)

"my days are cut short, the grave awaits me" (Job 17:1, NIV)

"Are not my days few?" (Job 10:20, KJV)

"LORD, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; Let me know how transient I am. Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths; and my lifetime as nothing in Your sight; Surely every man at his best is a mere (E)breath." (Psalm 39:4-5)

"I said in the cutting off of my days, I shall go to the gates of the grave: I am deprived of the residue of my years" (Isaiah 38:10, KJV)

The phrase "my days" appears in these places and others, in various translations, but always refers to the speaker's lifetime. This is even the case when the point is not the shortness of one's life:

"Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, 'The word of the LORD which you have spoken is good.' For he thought, 'Is it not so, if there will be peace and truth in my days?'" (2 Kings 20:19)

"I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go. My heart does not reproach any of my days" (Job 27:6)

"As I was in the prime of my days, when the friendship of God was over my tent" (Job 29:4)

"Why did I come out from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame" (Jeremiah 20:18)

There are other verses as well, all of which demonstrate that the phrase "my days" is a Hebrew idiom referring to one's lifetime. Thus, in the Septuagint's rendering of Psalm 102:23, when God "answered [the psalmist] in the way of his strength: tell me the fewness of my days," God is saying, "Tell me, how short is my life?" The point is, God is timeless, eternal, and the lives of many generations are but a blink of His eye. He is rebuking the psalmist "in the way of his strength," warning him against insisting that "[it is] time to have mercy upon her, for the set time is come" (v. 13). God will do His work at the time He has appointed, and it doesn't matter if that seems too far away to the psalmist; God is not bound by human perception of time.


This is clear as we continue in the passage. Bruce claims--as do those who deny that Jesus is God, pointing to Bruce's commentary--that this shift in direction of speech continues in verse 14, but this is not the case. As we've just seen, God has rebuked the psalmist for insisting that "the set time is come," challenging him to say God's life is short like man's. Verse 14 continues, "Take me not away in the midst of my days." In Bruce's commentary he renders this verse, "Bring me not up in the midst of My days," giving (I think) the impression that God is speaking to the psalmist in modern English parliance saying, "Don't bring me up as a topic of conversation." But this is not what the text means.

The phrase "bring me not up" or "take me not away" comes from the Hebrew root `alah, meaning "to go up, ascend, climb." The one being spoken to is told to not "cause me to come up." Now, can the psalmist, a human, in any sense of the word, cause God to "come up?" No. Can God cause the psalmist to "come up?" Of course. The psalmist, having being just rebuked by God, pleads with Him not to punish him by death. He says, essentially, "don’t take my life while I am so young!" (Psalm 102:24, NLT).

Remember, "my days" is an idiomatic reference to one's life time. The psalmist is in the middle of his life, and having been rebuked by God for imposing the shortness of a man's life upon Him and His timing, the psalmist fears for his life! This may be, in fact, why the Masoretic Text reads, "He has weakened my strength in the way; He has shortened my days." Though the Hebrew does not depict God speaking, the psalmist seems to suggest his life has been shortened. He cries out, "Take me not away in the midst of my days!" And he goes on to acknowledge God's eternality: "thy years [are] through all generations!" He acknowledges that God existed before creation, saying, "In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands." But whereas God's creation shall change, and cease to exist in the form in which it exists now, "thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail."

God's point has been made clear, and the psalmist realizes it. We humans cannot insist that God act in accordance with our time, for while our lives are fleeting, His is without beginning and without end. Therefore, though He doesn't always act as quickly as we would like Him to, we can rest assured that He is a keeper of promises, and He will act at the time He has appointed. Thus, the psalmist recognizes the trustworthiness of God, and that even though it may not happen in his timeline, God will restore Israel: "The children of thy servants shall dwell [securely], and their seed shall prosper for ever."


Thus, we see that though yes, God speaks to the psalmist in verse 23 (of the Septuagint), in verse 24 it is again the psalmist speaking, pleading with God not to shorten his life, answering God's challenge correctly. Though his life is fleeting, God's life is "through all generations." So when he says (in the Septuagint), "In the beginning thou, O Lord, didst lay the foundation of the earth," he is again speaking to God, YHVH, Jehovah, Yahweh, the one true, eternal God of Israel.

Returning to Hebrews, the author tells us that the psalmist's words, "YOU, [YHVH, Jehovah, Yahweh], IN THE BEGINNING LAID THE FOUNDATION OF THE EARTH, AND THE HEAVENS ARE THE WORKS OF YOUR HANDS," were the words of God directed toward the Son. Man did not invent the concept of the Trinity; we did not call Jesus the God of the Old Testament. God did. God called Jesus God. YHVH spoke to the Son and called Him YHVH. The authors of Scripture were the first Trinitarians.


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