Most will be aware that the purpose of the book of Hebrews is to dissuade people who were thinking of leaving Christianity and returning to Judaism. The author does that by demonstrating the superiority of Christianity. The author does this extremely effectively and we can see just how effectively when we pay close attention to the structure and argumentation.
I have included an outline of the book suggested by Dan Owen and others that we looked at in the last article to help us.
- 1:5-14 Exposition of Various Enthronement Texts
- 2:5-3:1 Exposition of Psalm 8:4-6
- 3:7-4:13 Exposition of Psalm 95:7-11
- 4:14-8:6 Exposition of Psalm 110:4
- 8:6-10:31 Exposition of Jeremiah 31:31-34
- 10:1-10 Exposition of Psalm 40:6-8 (This is a sub-section of the Exposition of Jeremiah 31:31-34)
- 10:32-12:3 Exposition of Habakkuk 2:3-4
- 12:4-13 Exposition of Proverbs 3:11-12
- 12:18-24 Exposition of Exodus 19:10-23
You will want you Bible open to Hebrews as you read this next section.
To begin his arguments, the author cites several passages related to some specific themes. First, Psalms 2 and 45, have the themes of Kingship as does II Sam 7:14. These Kingship passages would easily be understood as applying to not just the human ruler of Israel but in an even greater way, to the ultimate King of Israel, the Messiah. If David’s son was to be a “son of God,” how much more the perfect realization of the King like David? This King will be the true “Son of God,” perfectly bearing his image and reflecting his glory (John 1:14). This “Firstborn,” not in a birth order sense but in a rightful heir sense, will occupy the preeminent role in God’s realized scheme of redemption and restoration. This role involves divinity and therefore, this firstborn is worthy of worship, a fact even attested to by the angels. This rightful King will truly reflect God, therefore, he will “Love righteousness and hate wickedness.” His rule will not be limited by a human lifespan but will rather be perpetual. He was from before creation and even involved in it, and his rule will outlast creation. It will be a rule not on an earthly throne but from the right hand of God himself, in heaven.
When one pays close attention to the descriptions given in the Psalms that are referenced, there is no way that any purely human descendant of David could fulfill such a role. It is only in Jesus, that these descriptions could be truly satisfied. While these texts, no doubt, have contextual applications to human rulers of Israel, none could ever fully meet the qualifications required by the texts. Imperfect human placeholders, no matter how good, (and many were not good) could only further demonstrate the need for a greater fulfillment in the awaited Messiah.
Does the Hebrews author then make appropriate use of the Old Testament text’s cited? Clearly he does. Perhaps a more appropriate question would be to ask, was it ever appropriate to see a physical king being the primary referent of these texts?
Having demonstrated Jesus’ right to rule through this collection of enthronement passages, the author goes on to discuss His priestly qualifications as mediator and the source of salvation. Two passages are cited by the author to discuss the incarnation. They are Psalm 8:4-6 and Psalm 22:22. The author of Psalm 8 seems to describe humans in general, as “a little lower than the angels”. But the Holy Spirit, the divine author had Jesus in mind, who for a little while was made human in order qualify as our great high priest. Once again, the author goes on to demonstrate that humanity neither exhausts nor fulfills the Psalm because, “we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.” Specifically, Jesus needed to “destroy death and the one who has the power of death.” As with the previously quoted passages, the author sees the immediate context as only partially fulfilling the passage while the fullness belongs to Christ. This then is a completely appropriate use of this passage. The apologetic value to the readers of Hebrews is evident.
It should come as no surprise, at this point, that a similar thing can be said of the authors use of Psalm 22. Since we know that this was the Psalm that Jesus quoted on the cross, we immediately make that connection. First century Christians would have done so as well, even those who were thinking about abandoning the faith. Psalm 22 makes another historical connection to the crucifixion when it predicts that lots would be cast to decide who would get Jesus’ clothing (Pace, 2007, p. 88). These would no doubt point the reader to apply this Psalm to Jesus. When one reads the Psalm, it is clearly envisioning something greater than David, both in the suffering it describes, as well as the glorious victory mentioned in Hebrews (Smith, 1996, p. 243).
So while there is no doubt a reference to David in Psalm 22, the full application and fulfillment of the Psalm is found in Jesus. Given that, and the well attested connection to Jesus, the writer of Hebrews makes an appropriate and convincing use of this Old Testament Passage.
Moving on to his next argument, the writer of Hebrews makes a slightly different use of the Psalms. One that is initially a more obvious moral application but which will become more familiar as his argument advances. Much like Paul in I Corinthians 10:1-5, the author recounts the past behaviour of the Israelites as an example of what not to do. Long after Israel’s failure to enter the land of Canaan, David wrote about it in Psalm 95:7-11. God sentenced them to die in the wilderness for their disobedience and this serves as a lesson for all of us.
However, the author does not stop there. He further develops his argument based on redemptive history. Since David said “Today,” even though he wrote long after the people had entered Canaan, at least some aspect of God’s rest must remain to be entered. This is familiar territory for the author of Hebrews. Once again he has demonstrated that the initial or immediate subject of the Psalm does not explain its full meaning or fulfill what it anticipated. Taking his point one step further, he transitions from an argument based upon redemptive history to a typological one. (Carson, 2019).
The type that he cites is God’s sabbath rest. When God freed his people from Egypt, He promised to give them ‘rest’ in the land of Canaan. In this limited sense, Joshua gave them rest. But now, in Christ, God frees his people from slavery to sin, and promises an eternal rest. Those who entered Canaan and observed God’s Sabbaths enjoyed peace from their enemies and the providence of God. But the ultimate fulfillment of this type was reserved for those who receive eternal rest based on the finished work of God in Christ. Far from doing violence to these Old Testament passages, the author of Hebrews argues persuasively from them, making appropriate use of them.
Our author then turns to Psalm 110 which, is referenced throughout the New Testament, to shed further light upon the priesthood of Jesus. Jesus quoted from it to prove that the Messiah could not merely be a human descendant of David. And perhaps recalling the words of his Lord, the apostle Peter cited it on Pentecost to prove the enthronement of Jesus in heaven following his ascension.
Having already applied Psalm 110 to the reign of Jesus, the writer of Hebrews now shares what it says about His priesthood. All legitimate high priests in Israel had to be appointed by God. Psalm 110:4 not only declares the enthronement of Jesus but also His divine appointment as high priest. He was not appointed as a Levitical priest, since the ‘son of David’ was from the tribe of Judah. But rather, He was a priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Since Psalm 110 is quoted throughout the Synoptic gospels and the book of Acts, we are not surprised to find it referenced again in the book of Hebrews. But the author proceeds to explain that which had only been implied by earlier citations. Namely, that no purely human descendant of David could fulfill all that is said of the messiah in this Psalm. He was already enthroned in heaven when God inspired David to write this psalm. And at that same time, God appointed him a priest forever in after the order of Melchizedek Ps.110:4. Since Abraham paid tithes to and was blessed by Melchizedek, then Melchizedek is greater than Abraham. And since Levi was seminally present within Abraham, it follows that the priesthood of Levi paid tithes to the priesthood of Melchizedek and thus to the priesthood of Jesus. Furthermore, the Messiah’s priesthood was established by an oath from God himself.1
Now a whole new priesthood required a whole new covenant, for God’s covenant through Moses reserved that role for the descendants of Aaron. Rather than turning again to the Psalms, the writer cites the prophet Jeremiah. The prophets of God spoke on his behalf and for most of Israel’s history, attempted to bring about repentance. Sometimes, as in the case of Jeremiah, they also predicted that which was to come. So it was that our author quoted from
Jeremiah 31:31-34. This passage comes out of a larger discussion in Jeremiah of God’s continued providence in the face of his people’s rebellion.
Jeremiah reminded Judah of God’s love for them, even in the midst of judgment. And in the context of Judah’s downfall he promised to one day establish a new Covenant – not only with them but with all of His people.
In the near term, God did bring his people back from exile and reaffirmed his covenant with them. They resettled the land, rebuilt the temple along with the city of Jerusalem. But this was not the new covenant that He had promised. Nor would He have proposed a whole new one, if the old one would do. (G.K Beale, 2007, p. 972). Jeremiah 31:31-34, implies that the Old Covenant was insufficient. “In speaking of a new covenant he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Heb 8:13)
Why was the first covenant insufficient for the purposes of God and in what sense had it become obsolete? Jeremiah has said as much and the Hebrew writer proceeds to explain.
It has to do with the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice and therefore the superiority of his Priesthood. Jeremiah anticipated the nature of the better covenant in two important ways. First, that God’s law will be reside the hearts and minds of his people, and second, that sin will be remembered no more. These points serve as a summary of all that he argues from chapter nine verse one through chapter ten verse fourteen. As with previous Old Testament references, Jeremiah 31:31-34 required a greater fulfillment than what was available under the old law. It would take a new covenant with a new set of promises and blessings. Jesus himself spoke of the ‘new covenant in my blood’, clearly a fulfillment of all that Jeremiah had promised.
Although not a central part of the argumentation of the book the author of Hebrews makes an interesting use of Psalm 40:6-8. We mention it because part of our goal is to understand how this author uses portions of the Old Testament. This quotation is found in the midst of a discussion of the New Covenant which began in chapter 8. The author has been explaining the superiority of Christ’s covenant because of His better sacrifice. With this in mind, he quotes Psalm 40:6-8. This Psalm speaks of God’s deliverance, which ties into the authors discussion of sacrifice. It also speaks of an internalization of God’s law, in a way that is similar to Jeremiah 31:31-34. The author goes beyond simply noticing a theme, by making Christ the referent of these verses. David, in this case, is a type while Christ is the antitype. As has previously been the case, David could not embody the full expectation of the text. Only Christ’s obedience could satisfy verse six. It is important to point out that the term “open ear” is an expression, meaning obedient submission (G.K Beale, 2007, p. 976). The change of wording is justified as a thought for thought translation of the Hebrew idiom. Furthermore, only Christ’s sacrifice could satisfy God’s justice, therefore, the Old Testament sacrifices were not what God was truly looking for. The Hebrews writer then, is fully justified in making use of the Psalm. Furthermore, he is well within the realm of sound reasoning to suggest, that his points about the better covenant and sacrifice were anticipated in the passage.
To connect the thoughts of Chapter ten to the following points of encouragement, the author combines two Old Testament passages to convey a single message. These passages are, Isaiah 26:20 and Habakkuk 2:3-4. While the combination may initially seem questionable, upon examination the connection becomes quite clear. Isaiah and Habakuk are anticipating God’s judgment upon Judah through Babylon (Morris, 1981, p. 111). Furthermore, they are making a similar point about trusting God through doubt and hardship.
Habakuk had expressed doubt in God’s intention to destroy Judah and God’s answer was “the righteous shall live by faith.” In other words, “trust me.” Now, as the Hebrews author prepared to launch into a prolonged discussion of faith, these two passages serve as a perfect springboard for the rest of his discussion. The usage of these passages is a little more obvious than some of the others, as he is making a moral argument. He has done this earlier, with his initial use of Psalm 95 in chapter three. Essentially saying, God’s people in the past have been in a similar situation to what you are in now, and those who were successful, maintained their faith. If you want to be successful you will need to do the same. There seems to be some fear on the part of the author that they didn’t fully grasp what exactly faith was all about. He feels the need to offer an extended explanation by way of numerous examples.
Having examined the relevant passages and how the Hebrews author employs each one, we can make some summary remarks that will help us to explain the author’s hermeneutical approach.
We have seen how the author of Hebrews chose certain Old Testament concepts like “King”, “Priest”, “Sacrifice”, “Rest”, “Covenant”, and went on to demonstrate how each of these examples could never fulfill the complete intention of God. And even when they had first-hand reference to a person or event in the Old Testament, they ultimately prefigured Jesus. The author does not wrench passages out of context to make his point. Rather, he demonstrates from the context, how the Old Testament pointed to something more. He repeatedly points out that the ultimate author was not the historical individual who originally wrote, but rather, God (Heb 1:5-13; 3:7; 9:8). Therefore, it would be expected that we find predictions in various forms of what God was ultimately working toward.
To summarize, the Hebrews author believed that God wrote a book outlining his scheme of redemption through Christ. Jesus is the climax of that book and the fulfillment of all that God did and said through history. His use of the Old Testament then, is as part of God’s book which is, the story of Jesus. Because of this conviction, he expresses frustration in chapter 5 when his audience seems unable to grasp the big picture provided by the overall narrative of the Bible.
As we consider what application we could make of this, we hear the words of Jesus “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
Commenting on this passage, Luther said, “[T]he Scriptures of the Old Testament are not to be despised but diligently read. . . . Therefore, dismiss your own opinions and feelings and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find that divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies. . . . Simple and lowly are these swaddling cloths, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.” (Hays, 2014).
The writer of Hebrews understood this and wrote so that we might understand it as well.
G.K Beale, D. C. (2007). Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament . Grand Rapids MI: Backer Academic.
Hays, R. B. (2014). Reading Backwards. Waco TX.: Baylor University Press
Morris, F. E. (1981). The Expositors Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Smith, J. E. (1996). The Wisdom Literature and Psalms. Joplin MI: College Press.
1It is worth noticing, that unlike other psalms, psalm 110 did not apply first to David and then to Jesus. David was speaking prophetically and in a way that could only apply to Jesus. And while this does not diminish the apologetic value of the passage it does represent a minor departure from the author’s pattern of seeing Jesus as the greater fulfillment. In this case, he is the only fulfillment.