The Center of the Old Testament

A few days ago, Phil Sumpter wrote two related posts (“Picking Up Posting Again” and “Louth drew on Childs“), the former ending with links to two earlier posts of his working out some thoughts on Christological interpretation of the Old Testament (“Is Christological Interpretation OK?” and ” Jesus in the Old Testament?“). I recommend all these posts as thoughtful notes on the subject which I’m also now going to address. The comments in the last-mentioned post are especially interesting, and are directly relevant to what follows here.

Dispensing with introductory banter, I’ll get right to it: the center of the Old Testament is the Anointed, the Son of David. Everything revolves around him: from his appearance to his absence, thoughout the books of Israel collected into our Old Testaments, the sun around which everything revolves is the Son of David.

Notice in Genesis and through the Pentateuch how there is the creation of a race, and a continual process of God selecting one single family out of all the families of the world from which would come His chosen king. It is the line of the firstborn of all humanity, and therefore the rightful ruler over all humanity. God creates Adam, his firstborn son, the Son of God, then comes Abel replaced with Seth, then Seth’s line down to Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob/Israel, then the disqualification of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi in favor of Judah, then Perez, and his line to Boaz, then to the son of Jesse, David. Throughout, these tales are all related by prophets, from the prophetic viewpoint solely, one that follows the preferences of the God for whom they speak. These prophets know of the Divine promise to David, that he would never lack an heir: there would always be a Son of David to rule.

This promise of a Son of David is especially prominent in the book of Isaiah, where the imagery related to the Son of David, the ruling scion of the House of David in Jerusalem, reveals an intriguing and rather surprisingly high status for the Son of David as the firstborn Son of God, with comcomitant authority, and amazing imagery. All of the prophets describe failures and successes of the Sons of David, and they describe the usurpation of rulership by those unqualified, whether Israelite or foreign. Yet there is always the unspoken hope of another Son of David, the hope of the unfading and eternal Divine promise of an Anointed One to always be. Removal of an actual kingship from Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile didn’t stem the hopes, but rather crystallized them. The hoped-for Son of David, the Son of God as described in Isaiah and the Psalms, would come, and the kingship would one day be established, and the Son of David would rule over all the earth. These are exactly the expectations voiced by the apostles and other disciples of the New Testament.

But God had a surprise! The promises were understood in a particular way, but were to be fulfilled in another. Prophecies of the sufferings of the righteous (which happened more often than not in Israelite history, perpetrated by any number of ill-qualified rulers) were often ignored in thoughts concerning the Son of David, though they play such a central role in the great prophecies of Isaiah, for instance, and throughout the Psalms. As Paul said, “Every Scripture is God-breathed”―He inserted his own words here and there as desired, to point to something amazing He Himself was about to accomplish: His incarnation as the Son of David, and the fulfillment of all the hopes, expectations, prophecies, and every last jot and tittle of the Scriptures. This Son of David was the Son of God in a very real and much more immediate way than the Son of David had ever been before, as all history was established to accomplish exactly this.

The presence or absence of the Son of David, the Son of God, is spread throughout the Old Testament writings, and thus it is not only acceptable, but necessary to recognize this. To deny it is to deny the motivation for the writing of those Scriptures themselves, and the entire prophetic tradition of Israel.

Over the centuries, this connection has not been lost in the Church, where Patristic Christological interpretation of the Old Testament was the only valid form of interpretation. This in itself is a legitimation of such interpretation that stands above all critique by lesser authorities, however erudite they may find themselves. Church hymnography, especially the particularly rich imagery of Byzantine hymnody, shows the refinement of this form of Christological interpretation of Scripture through the centuries. In this, it merely extends and continues the form of interpretation utilized by the apostles themselves in the New Testament writings. But we should not consider this Christological interpretation to be so severe a break with the original intent and focus of the Old Testament writings themselves, in light of the above. The focus was always God’s promise being worked out in the world through the Son of David, His firstborn son, the firstborn of all humanity and its rightful ruler. This is the very origin of the texts. A rejection of any interpretation that recognizes that centrality of the Son of David and the extension and extraordinary resolution of those promises in the person of Jesus Christ is simply not Christian.

But even aside from this religious value and application, the centrality of the Son of David within the Old Testament needs greater recognition. Current (generally Protestantized) scholarly squeamishness regarding Christological interpretation has blinded the exegetical field to this very obvious centrality. It doesn’t help that the atomizing tendencies of so-called higher criticism, the supposed pinnacle of Biblical studies, distort the texts, which are deprived of their own witness, their own voice, in the form in which they sit before us on the very page. Theoretical and worthless fore-drafts are proposed, with preposterous social dimensions invented, a ridiculous practice that is never presumed for any other ancient writing of any other culture. It’s a peculiar honor!

In short, regarding Christological interpretation of the Old Testament, I say: Bring it on! The more, the better. This is only the proper exegesis that can be expected of these writings because of their origins.