Who is the “Son of David”?

Last Updated on June 21, 2023 by GMC

The Psalms scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

9th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday

As Jesus was teaching in the temple area he said, “How do the scribes claim that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, inspired by the holy Spirit, said:

‘The Lord said to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I place your enemies under your feet.”’

David himself calls him ‘lord’; so how is he his son?” The great crowd heard this with delight.

Mark 12:35-37

Prophecy of a Messiah King

Jesus’ discourse in the temple is unintelligible unless we put on the mindset of the people listening. Psalm 110:1, a Messianic prophecy of David, was very familiar to the crowd.

The Lord says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
while I make your enemies your footstool.”

The reference to “my Lord” was understood to be “the Christ” or the “Anointed One,” a king who would come from the line of David. The expectation of a “Son of David,” the primary title for the coming Messiah, was cultivated for centuries and shaped the cultural lens. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel foretold that a shoot or righteous Branch would spring from the stump of Jesse, a Davidic child king who would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). The hoped-for descendant of David was so ingrained in the popular mind that those who heard Jesus and sought his healing power cried out to him, “Son of David!” Scripture prophesied that the Messiah would sit on the throne of David and “shepherd” his flock (Ezekiel 34:23).

Divinity of the Son

Jesus knew his audience well and opened with the question, “How do the scribes claim that the Christ is the son of David?…David himself calls him ‘Lord’; so how is he his son?”

Familiar words, yet the scribes never connected sonship and lordship. Why would David call his own descendant his Lord? In this psalm, David declares that his descendant will be equal in dignity and authority with God—one who “sits at His right hand.”

Israel Expected a Military Hero

The prevailing mindset viewed the “Son of David” as an anointed king according to the flesh alone—a purely biological descendant of David. The idea of an eternally begotten Son of God who entered time in the womb of a Virgin escaped their orbit. Centuries and centuries of oral tradition, rabbinic discussions, dinner conversations, and “cocktail parties” had painted the “Son of David” as a political or military hero come to establish an earthly kingdom. Up until the last hour of Jesus’ earthly mission, at the Ascension, his disciples still asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Cultural consciousness changes slowly.

Jesus’ Challenge

How would Jesus gain acceptance of his identity as the Son of God? Moving an ancient mindset proved more difficult than raising the dead. Jesus cleansed lepers and healed the sick with a mere word. Nothing seemed to open the minds of the obstinate to “see” the familiar in a new light.

Development of Historical Consciousness

Against the backdrop of Judaism, the later reflections of the Evangelist John, Paul, and the Church Fathers represent a seismic shift in consciousness. Flights into the “Word made flesh” and of an eternal Son who sits at the right hand of—not just God but the Father (Ephesians 1:17-21)—are from another universe of thought altogether. 

Step one is simply recognizing that the “Son of David” is divine. Step two—that the Son is equal to the “Father”—is a paradigm shift. Step three—that the Spirit who “proceeds from the Father” will come to dwell in us—is yet another shift. John included the Last Supper Discourse in his Gospel, in which he unfolds Christ’s revelation of the Trinity in the New Testament. His account supplements the Synoptic Gospels, which focus on the basics of Christ’s revelation.

In the first four centuries after the Ascension and Pentecost, the Church Fathers advanced humanity’s reflection on the Psalms. In the light of the Trinity, they found new, hidden meanings that eluded the psalm writer himself. For example, taking Psalms 110:3 and 2:7 together, St. Athanasius reflected that it is the Father who says of His Son, “I have begotten You from the womb before the morning star;” and again, “You are my Son, this day have I begotten you” (Defense of the Nicene Definition 3:13).

This insight surpassed the limited goal of Jesus at the temple, which was simply getting to step one. St. Athanasius was not reading something alien into the Psalms, for Jesus affirmed that David was “inspired by the Holy Spirit” when he wrote them. Prophets are sometimes unaware, as when the high priest Caiaphas declared that one man should die for the people (John 11:50).

One Reply to “Who is the “Son of David”?”

  1. Transforming attitudes remains a huge challenge today. How true today that “opening the minds of free thinking persons to “see” the familiar in a new light was no easy task” and is no easy task now. . How do we change our snail-like view and bring change? An organized group of criminals use violence to loot our cities. Years of hard work put into a business wiped out in one night. Peaceful protests invite outside criminal elements. May we be led by leaders who inspire us to find new ways to love one another.

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