In order to understand how the Old Testament saints thought and spoke about God’s plan for the future, we may begin by viewing the manner in which the Psalms speak of the coming Messiah and the nature of his kingdom. New Testament writers quote or refer to Psalm 110 more than any other Old Testament passage. This psalm builds the theology of the King and his kingdom that was foundational to the New Covenant message. In order for first-century Jews to rightly understand Messiah, they had to rightly understand the message of Psalm 110:
The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool. The LORD shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies. Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauty of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth. The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek. The Lord at thy right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath. He shall judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies; he shall wound the heads over many countries. He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head.
This psalm pronounces God’s objective that the rule of Messiah be a reign that would take place at the Father’s own right hand. It teaches that Jesus is ruling right now from his throne in heaven. For the psalmist David, it was not necessary for Christ to be present physically on the earth to wage war against his enemies. We see here in this psalm the details of a battle in progress with a sure outcome of victory for the King. His enemies will certainly be made a footstool under his rule, and until they are vanquished he will not leave the Father’s right hand.
While apparently many of the Jews of Jesus’ day missed the point of this psalm, expecting the Messiah to gain an immediate military and political victory over his enemies, the apostle Paul reminded them that “now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20), and then, quoting Psalm 110, “For he must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet.” (1 Cor. 15:25). Christ did not fail in his mission, for his mission was not to set up a palace in downtown Jerusalem. Paul comforts the church with the message that the risen and ascended Christ is now in a superior position from which to carry out his program of putting “all things under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:27), and that his reign does not only begin with the defeat of his enemies, but lasts all the way through the act of their suppression. He remains seated on his throne next to his Father and does not come back to earth until his enemies are overthrown.
One more key insight into the view of the future presented in the psalms is found in Psalm 105:7–8: “He is the LORD our God: his judgments are in all the earth. He hath remembered his covenant for ever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations.” From the perspective of this psalm there is still a lot of future to be lived in the light of the covenant promises of God. The psalmist expects there to be at least one thousand generations to reap the benefits of the covenant of the Lord. Usually when the Scriptures use big round numbers like “a thousand,” it is taken to mean an innumerable amount far beyond one thousand. For example, Psalm 50:10 tells us that God owns the cattle upon a thousand hills. This does not mean that someone else owns the cattle on the one-thousand-and-first hill. It is a figurative means of saying that God owns the cattle on an innumerable amount of hills. In other words, God owns all the cows.
Psalm 105 could be indicating that God has directed his word to thousands upon thousands of generations, in which case we are not even close to seeing the last generation. But for argument’s sake, if Jesus plans to return again to judge the earth after the one-thousandth generation, we are still very, very far from that point in time. If a new generation is born every twenty years, then we are roughly one hundred generations removed from Christ’s generation, and at most only about three hundred generations removed from Adam. Using the most conservative estimate, the one-thousandth generation of mankind will not be born until 16,000 AD. Certainly the point of this passage is not for us to draw a timeline, but to let us know that God intends to be gracious to thousands of generations.
This post was adapted from Why the End is Not Near: A Refutation of End-Times Hysteria by Duane Garner (Athanasius Press, 2008). The book is part of the Answers in an Hour series.