An Interpretive Key to Hebrews Chapter 1 (Part 2)



V. 6 – I have already noted, in part 1, that the reference to God’s ‘firstborn’ here is likely an allusion to Ps. 89:27, and fits well into the author’s theme that the ‘son’ is the Davidic king, and not an eternal second person in the Godhead. This notwithstanding, some trinitarian apologists see in this verse elements that support the interpretation of this chapter as proving the deity of the son. The first point they make is that this ‘firstborn’ is said to be brought into the world. They deduce from this that the son was existing outside of this world and then had to be brought into this world, hence they read the doctrine of the incarnation of the pre-existent son into the passage. They then point to the fact that the son is worshipped by angels as further proof that the author of Hebrews is presenting this son in terms of deity. On top of this, the quotation the author gives appears to be from Deut. 32:43, which, in it’s original context, refers to worshipping Yahweh. Based on these elements in the verse trinitarians believe they have a sound proof-text for the deity of the son. So let’s look at each of these aspsects of the passage.

First, it is merely an assumption that the son’s being brought into the world implies the incarnation. A more reasonable assumption would be that it refers to Messiah’s return to establish the kingdom of God upon the earth. The Greek says literally, “When then again he brings the firstborn into the world.” While some expositors see the ‘again’ here as simply introducing another quotation about the ‘son,’ the word order seems to favor the connection of palin (again) with the verb eisagage (bring in), which would give us the sense of “When he brings again the firstborn into the world.” Also, eisagage is an aorist subjunctive verb which would indicate an event that has not yet happened. If the supposed incarnation were in view the aorist indicative would have been used. So then, this ‘bringing in again’ of the son is a future event. This would be in keeping with one of the prominent themes of the book – the coming again of Messiah {see 2:5; 9:28; 10:37-39}. That the second coming of Messiah would be described as God once again bringing the firstborn into the world should not be controversial. If trinitarians insist that the language implies he be brought from somewhere then the second coming answers this – he is brought into the world from where he is now. But really the language does not have to imply this at all. Even if it were referring to his first coming it would simply be speaking of his birth. All men are brought into the world in the same manner, i.e. by birth.

Now, as to the fact that the angels are enjoined to worship the son, trinitarians are incredulous as to how Jesus could be a mere human and receive such worship. This is due to their mistaken presupposition that worship can only rightly be given to God. The word for ‘worship’ is proskuneo which may mean nothing more than to show homage to a superior by prostrating oneself before him. The word does not denote only the worship of a deity but also the paying of homage to one who is a superior and is used of such homage being given to men throughout both testaments. One such passage which is of special note is 1 Chron. 29:20:

So they all praised Yahweh, the God of their fathers; they bowed low and paid homage to Yahweh and the king.

Seeing that Yahweh’s anointed one, the king, legitimately received shachah, the Hebrew equivalent of proskuneo, along with Yahweh, it is not unreasonable to conclude or difficult to understand how the son can be simply human and yet receive such worship as this verse envisions.

Finally, regarding the quotation of Deut. 32:43 being applied to the son, and that by this, the author is equating the son with Yahweh, let me say that this is simply untenable. Let’s remember that the author’s purpose in this chapter is to show the superior nature of Messiah’s role in God’s plan compared with that of angels. He does this in the first two quotations, in v.5, by showing that he is the one chosen to rule over God’s kingdom. He does this in v. 6 by showing that angels are commanded to pay him homage, thereby signifying a superior status to theirs. The whole exercise of the author would be superfluous if Messiah just was Yahweh. If the author and recipients of the letter both believed Messiah was Yahweh why would the author spend the time to show his superiority to angels? Wouldn’t that be obvious? And if it is assumed that he is using this quotation of Deut. 32:43 to prove to his readers that Messiah is Yahweh, then I have two questions. First, wouldn’t his readers have already believed he was Yahweh if they were Christians, i.e. from a trinitarian perspective? Second, exactly how does Deut. 32:43 prove Messiah is Yahweh? The verse says absolutely nothing about the Messiah or the son or the firstborn. How does a passage which enjoins angels to worship Yahweh prove that Messiah is Yahweh? Obviously something else is in play here.

This is perhaps an example of this author’s penchant for midrashic interpretation. Other examples are found in 2:13; 9:8; 10:19-20; 13:10-12. Though Deut. 32 in the LXX does not mention the Messiah it is not unlikely that ancient Jews saw the passage, especially vv. 40-43, as messianic, as do modern Jews. Here is the passage:

40 For I will lift up my hand to heaven, and swear by my right hand, and I will say, I live for ever. 41 For I will sharpen my sword like lightning, and my hand shall take hold of judgment; and I will render judgment to my enemies, and will recompense them that hate me. 42 I will make my weapons drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh, [it shall glut itself] with the blood of the wounded, and from the captivity of the heads of [their] enemies that rule over them. 43 Rejoice, ye heavens, with him, and let all the angels of God worship him; rejoice ye Gentiles, with his people, and let all the sons of God strengthen themselves in him; for he will avenge the blood of his sons, and he will render vengeance, and recompense justice to his enemies, and will reward them that hate him; and the Lord shall purge the land of his people.


It is possible that the author is following a tradition which saw in this passage the coming of Messiah as the agent who executes Yahweh’s vengeance upon Israel’s enemies at the end of this age. They could have seen in either the words “my hand” or “my sword” a reference to the Messiah, who would be the agent through whom Yahweh executes his vengeance on the nations in the last days. From the author’s perspective this would take place when God again brings his firstborn i.e. the Messianic king, into the world {Cf. Rev. 19:11-16}. In this understanding of the passage, the call for the angels to pay homage to him, would be referring to the Messiah rather than to Yahweh. This is perfectly in keeping with Jewish methods of interpretation, especially of passages they regarded as messianic. This interpretation of the passage does not entail that the son be divine in nature.

V. 7 – The quote from Psalm 104:4 seems to suggest a minor role for angels in God’s plan as compared to that of the ‘son’; they are sometimes ‘winds’, sometimes ‘fire’, whatever suits the need of God.

V. 8-9 – As I pointed out in part 1, this quotation from Psalm 45 once again confirms that the son of which he is speaking is not an eternally begotten (whatever that means) son who is of the same substance as the Father (that is Gnostic mythology), but that the son is the reigning Davidic king. Psalm 45 is an idealized depiction of the Davidic king, not a description of a pre-existent divine being. The son is God’s vicegerent, ruling over God’s kingdom in God’s power. The Davidic ruler is addressed by the honorific ‘God’ in the Psalm not because he is ontologically so, but because he functions as the visible representative of God’s rule. Now the point of our author’s quoting of this passage from Psalm 45 is not that the ‘son‘ is called God, and so his readers are supposed to think the son is synonymous with God, but the point is that the Davidic throne is an everlasting throne. He says this in contrast to the role of angelic beings, which as we shall see, our author sees as temporary.

V. 10-12 – Once again we come across a passage cited by the author that trinitarian expositors interpret as the author presenting the son as Yahweh himself. The reasoning goes like this: At the beginning of v. 8 the author says,“But of the son . . . “ and then cites Ps. 45:6-7. Then at the beginning of v. 10 we have the word “and” and then the quotation from Ps. 102:25-27, which begins, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands . . .” So it appears that the second citation is being said about the son just as the first one is. From this is drawn the rather overly simplistic and superficial conclusion that the author is telling his readers that the son is the creator of the heavens and the earth.

Now this absurd notion suffers from the same problem that we saw with v. 6, where the quotation of Deut. 32:43 is also superficially taken to be equating the son with Yahweh. Just as in that case, Ps. 102 says nothing about the Messiah, whereas all of the other passages he cites regarding the son refer specifically to the Davidic king. Is it reasonable to suppose that in a section where the author is trying to establish for his readers the fact of the son’s superior status compared to angels, that he would pull a passage out of the OT that speaks of God creating the the heavens and the earth and simply apply it to the son, even though it makes no mention of the son? How would this be convincing to the readers? It seems to me that this would only be effective if the readers already believed that the son was Yahweh, the creator. But if they already believed this then the whole exercise of the author in this chapter is superfluous; you would not have to prove to Jews that the Creator is superior to angels. The fact is that Ps.102:25-27 does not in any sense prove that the son is Yahweh. We must consider the possibility that perhaps the author cited this passage for some other reason than to say that the son is Yahweh, in the making of his case for the superiority of the son.

This is precisely what I will propose, but before I do I want to first show that the typical biblical unitarian (BU) interpretations of this passage are also inadequate. There are two predominate BU interpretations: 1.The author does intend that Ps. 102:25-27 refers to the son, but that the creation of the heavens and earth refer to the new creation not the original one. Hence, the son is the creator of the new heavens and earth. 2.The author does not intend the verse to refer to the son but to the Father, and he employs it to show the everlasting nature of God’s kingdom in the words, “But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” Neither of these interpretations is satisfying for the following reasons: #1 is untenable because it would involve the perishing of the new heavens and earth. Attempts have been made to alleviate this problem but they are not convincing. Plus this understanding has the same problem that the trinitarian interpretation has, i.e. the passage does not mention the son at all. #2 doesn’t seem right because it breaks the flow of thought of the whole passage, in which the author is switching back and forth between citing verses about the son and verses about angels. Why would the author interrupt this flow to simply show that Yahweh created the heavens and the earth? Also, this passage was not needed to show the everlasting nature of the kingdom because his prior quote from Ps 45: 6-7 already established that fact in the words, “Your throne O god, is for ever and ever.”

So if the trinitarian and the typical BU interpretations are inadequate to account for the authors use of Ps 102:25-27, then what was his purpose for employing it in his argument? The answer is simply this – he cites this passage because it says something about the angels that is in contrast to his previous citation regarding the son. His previous citation showed the everlasting nature of the throne, and hence kingdom, of the son; this citation shows the temporary nature of the role of angels in whatever ruling capacity they may have. This proposal fits well with the flow of the argument. In v. 5 the author cites passages about the son; in vv. 6-7 about angels; in vv. 8-9 about the son; in vv. 10-12 about angels; in v. 13 about the son; v. 14 speaks of the angels. If the passage was cited in reference to either the son or the Father it would interrupt this flow.

So just what exactly does Ps. 102:25-27 have to do with angels? Well, at first glance it doesn’t appear to say anything about angels, at least not to 21st century non-Jewish readers. But the question we must ask is how would a 1st century Jew have understood the authors citation of this passage. My contention is that the mere mention of ‘the heavens’ in this passage would have connoted more to the Jewish readers of this letter than just the physical heavens. It would have implied also the things in the heavens, which included the host a spiritual beings which were believed to inhabit the heavens. That the mention of ‘the heavens’ would have evoked the thought of angels in the mind of 1st century Jews would not be controversial to anyone who has studied the development of angelology in the 2nd Temple period. Taking their cue from the book of Daniel, Jewish writers in the intertestamental period penned a number of writings which can only be labeled as apocalyptic fiction, in which they elaborated and expanded upon what the biblical text itself said about angels. By the time of the writing of the NT it was common among Jews to speak of the rulers and authorities in the heavens {see Eph. 3:10; 6:12}. It may very well be the case that a Jewish sect that had become overly preoccupied with the mediatorial role of angels had exerted an influence over some of the members of the congregation to which the author of Hebrews was writing, to the point that some of them were giving greater weight to the mediatorial role of angels than to that of the chosen descendant of David, which spurred the author to remind them again of the superior status of the son.

Now the biblical text itself was the foundation upon which this development took place. The fact that ‘the heavens’ could denote the beings who inhabit them can be seen in the following passages:

Deut. 32:43 (LXX) – “Rejoice you heavens with him, and let all the angels of God worship him.”
Here the ‘heavens’ and the ‘angels’ are synonymous thoughts, thus the heavens implies the angels.

Ps. 89:5 – “The heavens praise your wonders, O Yahweh, also your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.”
To say that the heavens praise Yahweh is to say that those in the heavens praise Yahweh.

Neh. 9:6 – “You alone are Yahweh. You created the heavens, the highest heavens with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to all of them, and the heavenly host worships You.”

Deut. 32:1 – “Listen, O heavens, and I will speak; hear O earth, the words of my mouth.”
To call upon the heavens to listen is to call upon those who inhabit them to listen, just as to call upon the earth to hear is to call upon those who are upon the earth to hear.

Is. 24:21 – “In that day Yahweh will punish the powers in the heavens above and the kings on the earth below.”

Joel 3:16 – “Yahweh will roar from Zion, and from Jerusalem will utter his voice, and the heavens and earth will quake. But Yahweh will be a refuge for his people and a place of safety for the sons of Israel.”
That the heavens and earth will quake simply means that those in the heavens and those in the earth will quake.

So it is both reasonable to conclude and probable that the author of Hebrews quoted Ps. 102:25-27 specifically because of the clause which states that the heavens will be rolled up like a robe and like a garment be changed, and that his readers would have understood this. His point would be that while the throne of the son will last for ever, whatever function angels presently have is only temporary and will come to an end. In order to get the flow of the author’s thought I will combine the two citations but only with the pertinent clauses, according to what I think the author’s purpose was in citing each passage.

But to the son [it says], “Your throne, O god, will last for ever and ever . . .
and [it also says] . . . the heavens (and by implication those who rule in the heavens) . . . will wear out like a garment. You will role them up like robe; like a garment they will be changed . . .”

So then, this view of the passage solves all of the problems that are inherent in the other views, both the trinitarian and BU views. It also maintains the original context of Psalm 102 and the flow of thought of the author’s argument. It also takes into account the Jewish mindset of the author and recipients of the letter. I can think of only one objection that might be raised to this proposal and to my mind it is not formidable.

Someone may object on the basis that the two citations i.e. Ps 45 and Ps 102, are connected simply by the Greek word kai, which typically means and. This might imply that both citations refer to the son. It is true that in the Greek language kai is not typically used contrastively, unlike the Hebrew waw, which is often so used in the Hebrew bible, but there are a number of instances. Most of these may be regarded as Hebraisms i.e. a typical feature of the Hebrew language expressed through the Greek. This happens when one writes in a second language and is probably done more sub-consciously rather than on purpose. It is possible that the author of Hebrews sub-consciously used the kai contrastively, in imitation of the Hebrew waw, which would give the meaning of but or however. I know that this is impossible to prove or disprove, but to my mind a simple kai cannot turn the human son of God into the creator of the heavens and earth.

V. 13 – As we saw in part 1, the one from David’s line whom God chooses is called to share God’s rule over his people and to have the full backing of God. This is a call to co-rulership of His kingdom. This right was given, by covenant, only to the descendants of David {Cf. 2 Chron. 13:8; Ps. 89: 28-37}. For this reason no angel ever was or could be called to this position.

V. 14 – Here the author states that all angels are servant spirits sent forth on behalf of those who will inherit salvation. Since those who will inherit salvation are humans, this means that the son, who is the pioneer of that salvation {Cf. 2:10-11}, is also a human, one who is superior in status to these servant spirits.

I will now touch briefly on some relevant portions of chapter two to show that the son is considered by the author to be one from the human family.

The author of Hebrews is still, in chapter 2, starting at v. 5, showing a comparison between the son and angels, specifically that the son has a greater role in God’s plan than do angels. From what the author says in this chapter though, it can be inferred that some of the recipients of the letter may have come to view Jesus as an angel who had taken human form, but the author will have none of it.  Chapter 2 specifically seems to be combatting this idea. He starts off stating that God has not subjected the world to come to angels.  He then quotes from Ps. 8:4-6, which speaks of how God has given dominion over his creation to man. This seems to imply that the son, to whom all authority is given in the age to come, must be a man and cannot therefore be an angel. This identifies Jesus with humanity, not with the heavenly beings.  In v. 9 he says that Jesus was for a little while made lower than the angels.” This is what Ps. 8:5 says about man, thus again equating Jesus with humanity. In v. 10 he says that it was fitting for God to perfect the founder or pioneer of Israel’s salvation by the suffering of death. The point being made is not that a divine being had to become human so that he could die, but that it was fitting that this divinely appointed king should first suffer death on behalf of his people before being crowned with the glory and honor that was his due as the firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth” {Ps. 89:27}. 

It was necessary that the founder of their salvation should die on their behalf, which an angel could not do {see Lk. 20:36}. It had to be a human being just like them. The author states plainly in v. 11 that the founder of salvation is of the same family as those he saves, once again asserting his full-fledged humanity. After quoting three passages of Scripture in vv. 12-13, in which the Messiah is identifying himself with the people of Israel, as being one of them, he says:

14 Therefore, because the children have shared in flesh and blood, he (i.e. the founder of their salvation) also, in the same way, shared in the same, so that by death he might destroy him who holds the power of death . . . 16 For certainly nowhere (in scripture) is he laying claim to angels (as his family), but Abraham’s seed he lays claim to (as his family). 17 On account of this (i.e. what Scripture says) it was necessary for him (i.e. the founder of their salvation) to be like his brothers in every way . . .  

The Greek of verse 16 reads like this: “Ou (not) gar (for) de (certainly) pou (somewhere) angelon (angels) epilambanetai  (he lays hold of), alla (but) spermatos (seed) Abraam (of Abraham)  epilambanetai (he lays hold of).”
If you check most English versions you will see that they have nothing in their translations of this verse that corresponds to the word pou.  The only version I found that does is the Douay-Rheims, which reads: “For no where does he take hold of angels . . .” It is as if the translators didn’t know what to do with this word in this context, so they left it untranslated. But the word is key to rightly understanding the author’s point. The word pou is used two other times in Hebrews to denote somewhere in Scripture, at 2:6 and 4:4. The author had just quoted three passages from OT Scripture in vv. 12-13 to show the son’s identification with the people of Israel. His point in v. 16 is that nowhere in scripture is the Messiah identified with angels, but only with Abraham’s seed. As for the meaning of epilambanetai = to lay hold of, to take to oneself, the author could be using it in the figurative sense of identification, i.e. in OT Scripture the Messiah is depicted as claiming for himself the Israelite people as his people and never claiming for himself angels as his ontological identification. But it is also possible to take it in this sense: “For surely nowhere (in scripture) is he (depicted as) laying hold of angels (i.e. to deliver them from death) . . .”  The meaning would be the same – the founder of salvation had to be of the same family as those he saves, hence he must be of the human family not the angelic family.

The word homoioo in v. 17 can simply mean to be like and not necessarily to be made like. There is nothing in this passage that demands the reader understand Jesus to have been a divine being who then became a human being; there is no incarnation in this passage. The focus from v. 10 to v. 17 is not the supposed eternal Son, who had to become human to save us, but the founder of salvation {v.10}. Whoever this founder of salvation would be, he had to be a member of the human race and in particular of the seed of Abraham. The author’s point is that the Messiah, i.e. the founder of salvation, had to be one from the same family as those he saves, thus eliminating the possibility of the son being an angel or even God himself.

Please feel free to comment, whether you agree or disagree with this post.

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

3 thoughts on “An Interpretive Key to Hebrews Chapter 1 (Part 2)”

  1. Troy,
    Not sure I follow with the idea that 10-12 being about the angles / heavens being rolled up is to contrast with the Son enduring for ever? Or are you saying that the phrase “but thou are the same and the years will never end,” is not about the Son.? Because if it is about the Son it refers back to the one who created. And if it’s not about the Son, well that’s doesn’t follow the contrast right? So if it is the Son being referred to as whose years will never end , that seems to definitely link back to the Lord who created in the first part of the verse so how is that explained. That verse really stumps me.

    Thank you for your labor. I’m enjoying your work.

    Like

    1. Hey Joel,
      Thanks for taking time to read the article and commenting. Sorry if I didn’t make it clear enough in the article, but I do not think that the author is citing Ps. 102 in reference to the son, but rather in reference to the temporary nature of the function of angels in this present age. This is in contrast to the quote from Ps 45 which establishes that the throne of the son is forever, hence the superiority of the son compared to angels. That the present function of angels will cease is implied in the fact that the present heavens will be changed.
      Hope that clarifies my position. God Bless!

      Like

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