Psalm 45:6 – Does Psalm 45:6 refer to Jesus or to Yahweh?

Problem: The author of Hebrews claims that Psalm 45:6 refers to “the Son” (Heb. 1:8). In psalm 45, we read, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Your kingdom. 7 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of joy above Your fellows” (Ps. 45:6-7). Does the author of Hebrews correctly interpret Psalm 45?

Solution:  At the heart of interpreting this passage is whether this passage should be rendered in the “vocative.” The “vocative” (Latin vocare) refers to “calling out” to someone. In this case, the psalmist is “calling out” to God: “Your throne, O God…” Murray J. Harris[1] defends the “vocative” translations extensively, and we draw on his scholarship to defend this longstanding historical translation. Consider several reasons to support this translation:

First, the context supports this translation. In the next verse, the context directly addresses God (“God, Your God, has anointed You”).

Second, the earlier title might be an allusion to King Messiah. The writer addresses Psalm 45 to the King of Israel (v.1). Yet the psalmist this figure the “Mighty One” (gibbôr), which is a descriptor of Jesus (Isa. 9:6) and of God (Isa. 10:21 el gibbôr). We run the risk of mere word association. But this does seem somewhat significant given the messianic context. Moreover, the translation of the Targum supports the messianic interpretation (see below).

Third, the grammar supports this translation. The word “God” (ʾĕlōhîm) doesn’t require the article before it. For one, in “poetry and elevated prose it is quite often omitted.”[2] Moreover, the article doesn’t appear in the greater context of the psalm: “Gird Your sword on Your thigh, O Mighty One… Listen, O daughter, give attention and incline your ear” (vv.3, 10). Neither passage contains the article before the vocative.

Fourth, English translations support this translation. Indeed, virtually all major English translations render this as a vocative: “Your throne, O God” (NASB, NIV, ESV, NRSV, KJV, LEB, NET). Two translations are outliers:

(RSV) “Your divine throne endures for ever and ever.” Yet, this construction is “probably unparalleled in the OT.”[3]
(NEB) “Your throne is like God’s throne.” Harris writes, “The purported conflation of the two idioms in Psalm 45:7 lacks any unambiguous parallel in the OT and therefore remains an unconvincing explanation.”[4]
Fifth, ancient translations support this translation. The Septuagint (250-132 BC) renders this as, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever… Therefore God, your God, anointed you.”[5] The Targum states, “Thy throne of glory, O Lord, endures for ever and ever.” Earlier, the Targumist addresses the Messiah: “Your beauty, O King Messiah, surpasses that of ordinary men.”

Sixth, the New Testament supports this translation. The author of Hebrews writes, “Of the Son He says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness above Your companions’” (Heb. 1:8-9). This should clinch the argument for anyone who holds to the inspiration of Scripture.

The psalmist directly addresses the King as “God” (ʾĕlōhîm). he writes, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.” Furthermore, he seems to show diversity within God’s nature. He writes, “God, Your God, has anointed You” (Ps. 45:6-7). How can a human king carry the title “God”? And how can one “God” speak to another “God”? One Hebrew scholar tells this anecdote, regarding Psalm 45:

When I first started studying Hebrew in college, I asked my professor, a very friendly Israeli rabbi, to translate for me the words kis’aka ‘elohim ‘olam wa’ed. He replied immediately, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,’ explaining, ‘These are praises to the Almighty.’ I then asked him to read the rest of the psalm, clearly addressed to the king, and his face dropped. How could this earthly king be called ‘elohim? To repeat: This is the most natural and obvious meaning of the Hebrew, and no one would have questioned such a rendering had the entire psalm been addressed to God.[6]
In this text, we have the psalmist referring to an earthly king being called “God” (ʾĕlōhîm) and ruling on a throne “forever and ever.” Jesus fits this passage beautifully: He is both human and divine, and he will rule on Earth “forever and ever.”

How can this refer to Jesus if the royal king is getting married to a woman?
Clearly, Jesus was never married (see comments on John 20:17). How then can this psalm refer to Jesus, if the royal king gets married in the second half of the psalm? (see Ps. 45:9-17)

When a NT author cites a messianic psalm, they don’t always mean that everything in the psalm predicts the Messiah. Sometimes, biblical prophecy has a one-to-one correspondence and fulfillment (e.g. Ps. 22; Isa. 53; Dan. 9:24-27; Mic. 5:2). Other times, the NT authors see either (1) similarities with Jesus or (2) unfulfilled promises to David that lead to a future fulfillment in Christ:

(1) Similarities between David and Jesus. The NT authors will sometimes demonstrate how Jesus was “a greater David.” Instead of showing a one-to-one correspondence, they will simply show a similarity between the two figures.

(2) Unfulfilled promises given to David. The NT authors sometimes notice unfulfilled promises given to David that were never fulfilled in his lifetime. Consequently, these promises must be fulfilled in one of his descendants. In this psalm, the anointed king destroys the enemy nations (Ps. 45:5) and all the nations praise him (Ps. 45:17). Clearly, this never happened to David; so, the psalm points forward to a descendant of David who would fulfill this promises.

Most importantly, the author of Hebrews notices that the son of David would be called “God.” Surely this never happened to David! So, one of David’s descendants would need to fulfill this portion of Scripture. VanGemeren writes, “The psalm has implicit messianic significance. Jesus the Messiah is of the lineage of David. He fulfills the theocratic ideals in his present rule and in his glorious return. The promise of remembrance, perpetuity, and honor given to the Davidic king is particularly applicable to the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. All nations will submit themselves to him (1 Cor 15:24-26; Heb 10:12-13).”[7]

[1] Murray J. Harris, “The Translation of Elohim in Psalm 45:7-8,” (Tyndale Bulletin 35, 1984), pp. 65-89.
[2] Murray J. Harris, “The Translation of Elohim in Psalm 45:7-8,” (Tyndale Bulletin 35, 1984), p.80.

[3] Murray J. Harris, “The Translation of Elohim in Psalm 45:7-8,” (Tyndale Bulletin 35, 1984), p.71.

[4] Murray J. Harris, “The Translation of Elohim in Psalm 45:7-8,” (Tyndale Bulletin 35, 1984), p.77.

[5] A New English Translation of the Septuagint (tr. Albert Pietersma, Oxford University Press, 2009).

[6] Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections. Volume 2. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 43.

[7] Willem A. VanGemeren, “Psalms,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 349.

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