Psalm 35, Psalm 110, and the Martyrdom of Stephen

One thing I’d like to emphasize in the messianic interpretation of the Old Testament is that we need to pay great attention to the implications of the deity of the Messiah, not just his humanity, when looking at OT texts “fulflilled” in Christ. It is quite true that one implication of calling the name of the Messiah “David” prophetically is that the Messiah will be a man, a king, but just human, like David in some respects and from his line, but of course also greater than David. How much greater is indicated most explicitly in another prophetic name, “Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6), and the description of his reign as forever; i.e. he himself will reign forever (Isa 9:7), which is much more than saying his dynasty will remain forever.

In typological fulfillment interpretation, we look for things like similarities between David and Jesus as a human. An interesting example of a sort of role reversal occurs in the messianic interpretation (in terms of typological fulfillment) of Psalm 35:16b-17a:

They gnashed at me with their teeth;                                                         Lord, How long will you look on?

Compare to Acts 7:54-56:

They began gnashing their teeth at him.  .  .  .   I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

I.e., Stephen sees the Lord looking on – cf. Psalm 35:17a.

Here Stephen “plays the part” of David, human sufferer at whom the wicked gnash their teeth and deprive him of justice (just as happened to Jesus during his earthly ministry). The Messiah is not the man on earth in this scene, but is the Lord to whom David appealed in Psalm 35, “How long will you look on (from Heaven)?”, now exalted to the right hand of the Father in obvious fulfillment of Psalm 110, which some say is the OT passage quoted most often in the NT.

Here’s another twist. Saul of Tarsus was in this company, “in hearty agreement with putting him to death” (Acts 8:1). Presumably, included among those gnashing their teeth at Stephen. Guess where we find next, in the NT canonical order, a reference to Psalm 110? It is in Saul’s (now Paul’s) letter to the Romans:

Christ Jesus is he who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. (Rom 8:34)

And how did this transformation come about? It began when he saw a brilliant light and heard a voice from heaven:

Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? (Acts 9:4)

It is seldom observed that in these words, Jesus is paraphrasing a question asked by David when he was being hunted by another Saul, ultimate namesake of Saul of Tarsus:

Why then is my lord pursuing his servant? (2 Samuel 26:18)

Note that in the Biblical languages, “pursue” and “persecute” are the same word.

So in persecuting Stephen, as Saul persecuted David, Saul of Tarsus was ultimately persecuting Christ. King Saul was only hurting himself when he persecuted David, driving his best man away from the army, along with a multitude of defectors, so that Saul perished in battle against the Philistines (I’m not discounting his consulting a witch as the more immediate cause, but keep in mind the desperation that led him to this act can be traced to his weak tactical position caused by the defections). In persecuting David, hurting himself, King Saul was, in effect, “kicking against the goads,” as Jesus summarizes Saul of Tarsus’s later, futile actions (Acts 26:14).

We might also compare the two Saul’s in respect to their “standing”: the king stood head and shoulders above his countrymen (1 Samuel 10:23), while the Pharisee was “advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries” (Galatians 1:14). Both had a zeal that led to murder (2 Samuel 21:2; Galatians 1:14). Of course, both were Benjamites.

Their paths diverge with the latter Saul’s conversion to Paul the Apostle, after which he is the one who became a “David,” persecuted wherever he went for the sake of Christ, eventually leading to a martyr’s death, like Stephen. All of this gives poignancy to his statement, “by the grace of God I am who I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

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