Psalm 2:12 should not be translated as “kiss the Son.” Only the King James Version and modern Christian fundamentalist translations still maintain this incorrect rendering.
The words “kiss the son” in Psalm 2:12 are actually not quoted in the New Testament, but one of the greatest of the medieval Rabbinic commentators, along with some noted modern Hebrew scholars argued for the “kiss the son” rendering. A good case can be made for this translation. In any case, regardless of the translation of this verse, the psalm is filled with important Messianic imagery.
Psalm 2 is a coronation psalm, celebrating the enthronement of the Davidic king, called God’s son. As I pointed out in vol. 2, 3.3, the psalm reaches its ultimate fulfillment in the Messiah, the greatest Davidic king of all. The connection between psalms of David and Messianic psalms is reflected in the comments of Rashi on verse 1 of this psalm, “Our Sages [in the Talmud, b. Berakhoth 7b] expounded the passage as referring to the King Messiah, but according to its apparent meaning, it is proper to interpret it as referring to David himself, as the matter is stated (2 Sam. 5:17).” Similarly, Ibn Ezra states, “The correct [interpretation] in my opinion is that one of the [court] poets composed this psalm concerning David when he was anointed, thus it is written, Today I have begotten you. Or, it concerns the Messiah.”212 As I understand Messianic prophecy, both interpretations are true: Psalm 2 was originally written concerning David (or one of his descendants) at the time of coronation, and this psalm reaches its fulfillment in the life of the Messiah (see the principles articulated in the appendix).
There is also a Talmudic reference to Psalm 2:7–8 in b. Sukkah 52a, the famous section dealing with Messiah ben Joseph, which is applied to Messiah son of David. It is written there:
Our Rabbis taught: The Holy One, blessed be He, will say to the Messiah, son of David (may he reveal himself speedily in our days!), “Ask of Me anything, and I will give it to you,” as it is said, “I will tell of the decree, etc., this day have I begotten you. Ask of me and I will give the nations for your inheritance” (Ps. 2:7–8). But when he will see that Messiah son of Joseph is slain, he will say to him, “Lord of the universe, I ask of You only the gift of life.” “As to life,” He would answer him, “Your father David has already prophesied this concerning you,” as it is said, “He asked life of You, and You gave it to him [even length of days for ever and ever]” (Ps. 21:4).
This text reminds us that the language of sonship is prominent in this psalm, as proclaimed by the king himself—the Messiah according to the Talmudic passage just cited—in verse 7b: “I am obliged to proclaim that Hashem said to me, ‘You are my son, I have begotten you this day’ ” (Stone).213 And throughout the psalm, there are two key subjects: the Lord and his anointed one (Hebrew, mashiach), as stated in the opening verses: “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. ‘Let us break their chains,’ they say, ‘and throw off their fetters’ ” (Ps. 2:1–3). How preposterous—the nations of the earth want to overthrow the Lord and his anointed king! No chance, says the Lord. “I have installed my Kingon Zion, my holy hill” (v. 6a). And this king, as stated in verse 7b, was God’s son.
Why then should it be considered odd that the psalm would close with a twofold admonition, namely, to “serve the Lord with fear” (v. 11a) and “kiss the son” (v. 12a)? The primary issue is not the translation of the verb “kiss” (nashaq), nor is it the meaning of the word, since “kiss” can be used in the sense of paying homage, either to an idol (1 Kings 19:18; Hosea 13:2; cf. m. Sanhedrin 7:6) or to an earthly ruler (1 Sam. 10:1). The bigger issue is the word “son,” since it is not the normal Hebrew noun ben (as in v. 7) but rather the Aramaic word for son, bar, which is rarely found in the Hebrew Bible (see Prov. 31:2). Thus, the oldest versions are divided on the phrase’s meaning,214 while traditional Hebrew commentators have suggested widely varied renderings, including reading bor (“purity”) rather than bar, and understanding the text to say something like, “worship [the Lord] in purity.” But this is far from certain, as can be seen by comparing recent Jewish translations: “pay homage in good faith” (NJPSV, with a note that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain); “yearn for purity” (Stone, understanding the verb nashaq to mean “yearn,” as suggested by Rashi); “arm yourselves with purity” (Rosenberg, following another interpretation suggested by Rashi).
Aside from the confusion as to the text’s actual meaning, there is a contextual problem as well, since the psalm centers around the figure of the Davidic king, installed by the Lord, and it is against the Lord and his anointed king that the nations rage. But, if any of these Jewish translations are followed, the closing verses of the psalm, which contain a stern word of warning addressed to these very nations, contain no mention of the Messianic King at all! In traditional Christian translations, however, there is no such problem, since the foreign kings are admonished to serve the Lord and reverence the son, lest God’s wrath come upon them.215
“But that’s the whole problem,” you say. “It’s only the Christian translations that understand bar to mean ‘son.’ ”
Not so. Abraham Ibn Ezra, possibly the most exacting of the medieval Jewish commentators and a man with no sympathy for Christian interpretations of the Tanakh, understood bar to mean “son,” with reference to Proverbs 31:2. Other Jewish scholars—some traditional and some not—have also interpreted the text in similar terms, including A. B. Ehrlich, A. Sh. Hartom (in his fairly traditional Psalms commentary, where “son” is mentioned as a possibility),216 and Samuel Loewenstamm and Joshua Blau, leading Israeli scholars, in their Thesaurus.217 (Note that David Kimchi also understands bar to refer to the king, although reading the text in terms of bar lebab [“purity of heart”], hence “the pure one” or, with another interpretation, “the elect one.”218) Thus, Ibn Ezra states, “ ‘Serve the Lord refers to the Lord, while ‘Kiss the son’ refers to his anointed one, and the meaning of bar is like [the meaning of bar in the phrase] ‘What my son [beri] and what, son of my womb [bar bitni; Prov. 31:2].’ And thus it is written, ‘You are my son’ [Ps. 2:7]. And it is a custom of the nations in the world to put their hands under the hand of the king, as the brothers of Solomon did [see 1 Chr. 29:24 in the Hebrew], or for the servant [to put his hand] under the thigh of his master [see Gen. 24:2], or to kiss the king. And this is the custom until today in the land of India.”219
There is also an interesting mystical interpretation provided in the Zohar that equates bar with the son of God: “You are the good shepherd; of you it is said, ‘Kiss the son.’ You are great here below, the teacher of Israel, the Lord of the serving angels, the son of the Most High, the son of the Holy One, may His name be praised and His Holy Spirit [Shekhinah].”220
As to the question of why an Aramaic word would occur in a Hebrew psalm, some scholars have suggested that just as in Jeremiah 10:11, where the foreign nations are addressed in Aramaic (the most widely used Semitic language of the day, similar to Arabic today in the Muslim world) in an otherwise totally Hebrew context, so also the final warning to the foreign kings reminds them in the most common Semitic term (Aramaic bar for “son”) that the king in Jerusalem is God’s son.
We can safely say, then, that there are excellent reasons to accept the translation of “kiss the son” and no compelling reasons to reject it. In context, it reminds us of the central role played by the Messianic King in Jerusalem, the son/Son of God.
212 Similarly, Ibn Ezra, commenting on Psalm 45:16, sees his interpretation as fitting both David and the Messiah.
213 I cite the Stone edition here to emphasize that even through traditional Jewish eyes, the Hebrew yelidtika is rightly rendered, “I have begotten you.” See further vol. 2, 3.3.
214 The Syriac Peshitta understood bar as “son”; other ancient versions (Greek, Aramaic, Latin) understood the meaning to be “purity,” “chastity,” “discipline,” “pure,” “unmixed” (reading the Hebrew as either bar or bor).
215 Among these translations are the KJV, NKJV, NIV, and NASB.
216 A. Sh. Hartom, The Book of Psalms (in Hebrew) (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1972), 12: “It is possible that the word bar occurs here according to its meaning in Aramaic, ‘son’, in which case it should be interpreted: kiss the son, that is, the king (v. 7), as if to say, give him glory (2 Sam. 10:1; 1 Kin. 19:18; Hos. 13:2).” Hartom’s volume belongs to a commentary series that was edited by the respected Orthodox scholar M. D. (Umberto) Cassuto.
217 Samuel Loewenstamm and Joshua Blau, eds., Thesaurus of the Language of the Bible, vol. 2 (in Hebrew and English) (Jerusalem: The Bible Concordance Press, 1959), 146–47. Blau and Loewenstamm also mention kissing “the soil (before the king’s feet)” as a possibility.
218 Cf. A. A. Macintosh, “A consideration of the problems presented by Psalm 2:11 and 12,” Journal of Theological Studies, n.s., 27 (1976): 138ff. for translations of both Ibn Ezra as well as Radak (the latter understanding br as “elect, chosen,” from a putative root brr, “to choose, select”); Arnold B. Ehrlich, Die Psalmen, Hüldiget dem Sohne (Berlin: M. Poppelauer, 1905), 4; A. Sh. Hartom, The Book of Psalms, 12; Loewenstamm and Blau, Thesaurus, 2:147–48. Moreover, it can be argued that some Christian scholars have unconsciously steered away from such a translation for fear of seeming partial and biased. In any case, from the viewpoint of a contextual and philological study of Psalm 2, what does any rendering of verse 12 have to do with later Jewish or Christian interpretations, especially in light of the fact that in spite of the popularity of Psalm 2 in the New Testament (esp. v. 7; cf. Donald Juel, Messianic Exegesis [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988], 62), verse 12 is never quoted? For an interesting study of the affect of medieval Jewish-Christian polemics on the concept of Israel as God’s “son”, see V. Huonder, Israel Sohn Gottes. Zur Deutung eines altestamentlichen Themas in der judischen Exegese des Mittelalters (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975).
219 Of minor grammatical importance is the question of why there is no definite article before bar (in other words, why the word “the” is not found), but in poetic contexts such as Psalm 2, the definite article would not be necessary; cf. Delitzsch, Psalms, in Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 847.
220 As cited in Santala, The Messiah in the Old Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings, 121, from the Amsterdam edition, part 3, 307a. Another citation of this passage in the Zohar (vol. 1, 267a), adds the words, “It is also said about the Messiah son of Joseph,” possibly referring to b. Sukkah 52a, cited above.
Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (111). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.