Most of us think of prophecy as something coming in the future. So in our Bibles, Old Testament prophecies are translated in the future tense. What else could they be? But the writers of the Hebrew Bible had a different view of prophecy than we do. When they wrote prophecy, they used a verb form most often used for past events.* Why would they do that? It seems that the most important thing about prophecy for them was not that it was coming in the future, as we think of it, but that it was something completed, fixed and finished in the mind of God—God said it, and that finishes it—even though the fulfillment might be far in the future.
This is not only a fascinating insight into the Bible, but also into the mind of God. Since he is not bound by time (after all, he created time), the past and the future must be just as immediate to him as the present is for us. Future events really are already completed from God’s point of view. But while that’s amazing to think about, for translators it can create a huge problem. How can they know whether a verse or a section of the Bible is talking about something that already happened or something coming in the future? Usually it’s quite clear from the context. But there are some places where it’s not so clear. Psalm 97 is one of those places.
Most modern versions translate the events in Psalm 97 as past and present, with no hint that this psalm says anything at all about the future. But this is not how the New Testament understands this Psalm. Hebrews 1:6 quotes Psalm 97:7 as referring to the future return of Messiah (“But when he again brings the firstborn into the world, he says, ‘And let all the angels of God prostrate themselves [in worship] before him’”). Hebrews understands Psalm 97 to be referring to the return of Jesus (the “firstborn”) into the world, i.e. the Second Coming. In other words, Hebrews understands this psalm as a prophecy of things to come.
It’s not only the New Testament that understands Psalm 97 this way. The Septuagint (LXX, the old Greek translation of the Old Testament, made before the time of Christ) translates a couple of its verses with the future tense. So for example, vs. 3 is translated, “Fire will go out before him and will burn up his enemies round about” (Psa. 97:3 LXX). This verse is understood to be talking about the coming judgment. Vs. 10 is translated, “…He will deliver them from the hand of sinners” (Psa. 97:10 LXX). This, too, is taken as referring to the coming judgment. So the Septuagint also understands this psalm, at least in part, to be pointing to the prophetic future.*
* The Septuagint only translates the Hebrew imperfect forms in Psalm 97 into the future tense. The Hebrew perfect it translates with the past tense, as do most modern versions.
But the few verses put by the Septuagint into the future tense are not enough to bring out the Messianic understanding of this psalm that we see in the book of Hebrews. Clearly, New Testament believers were taking much more of the psalm as future. So what happens if we translate even more of this psalm into the future tense (understanding the Hebrew perfects here to be prophetic)?
Psa. 97:3 Fire will go before him and will set his enemies ablaze round about.
4 His lightnings will light up the world; the earth will see and will writhe (in fear).
5 Mountains will melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth.
6 The heavens will declare his righteousness, and all the peoples will see his glory.
7 All those serving idols will be ashamed, those glorying in worthless things. Prostrate yourselves (in worship) before him…
This makes it much clearer that these verses are talking about the Second Coming. The book of Revelation also talks about fire preceding the return of Messiah (vs. 3; Rev. 8:5,7), with lightning and a huge earthquake (vs. 4; Rev. 6:12, 8:5, 11:19, 16:18). Both Jesus (Matt. 24:29) and the book of Revelation (6:12,13) mention the signs in the heavens. As it says vs. 6: “the heavens will declare his righteousness.”
This means that the presence of the LORD, before whom the mountains will melt (vs. 5) and whose “glory” will appear to all peoples (vs. 6), must be talking about the Messiah. This is how the writer of Hebrews surely understood it. The “him” of vs. 7, which Hebrews says is the Messiah, refers back to the “LORD” in vs. 5, who must therefore also be the Messiah. In this way, Hebrews identifies the Messiah as God. This is the whole point of Hebrews 1: to show that Messiah, since he is God, is far greater than the angels.
This is certainly how early Syriac Christians understood this Psalm. The Syriac heading to this Psalm is: “A psalm of David, in which he predicts the advent of Christ (i.e. in the flesh), and through it his last appearing (i.e. to judgment).” This may also be the meaning of the Septuagint heading, “For David, when his land is established.” The verb “is established” is in the Greek present tense, which hints that this event will be in the future. The “David” referred to then must be the Messiah.*
* David is a common name for the Messiah in prophecy.
But who is it that Psa. 97:7 tells to worship Jesus? The Hebrew says, “Prostrate yourselves before him, all you gods.” But the Septuagint and the book of Hebrews translate this as “angels” rather than “gods.” Why? This reflects the New Testament understanding that the gods of the pagan peoples (also called “sons of God” in the Old Testament [bene HaElohim], Gen. 6:2,4; Job 1:6, 2:1) are actually angels. This verse tells us that they will all be required to submit themselves to Jesus when he returns.
Since the book of Hebrews understands Psalm 97 as referring to the future, that’s how we should interpret it (and translate it), too: as a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah.