The title son of God was not a common phrase in the Jewish Scriptures, at least like it has become in the New Testament. While the title son of God has been used to refer to Jesus as the unique Son of God and to refer to believers as adopted sons/children of God, it did not have such a prominent usage in the Old Testament. In the Exodus, Israel as a nation was referred to as God’s son in Exodus 4.22, which is then picked up in Jeremiah 31.9 and Hosea 11.1, but the overwhelming usage of the sonship language was to refer to the anointed king of Israel in the David lineage. For instance, Psalm 2.7 and 89.27 make reference to the king of Israel as a son and a firstborn. It is this language that is picked up both when Jesus is called the Son of God, but also for believers as there was the eschatological expectation that the saints would be judges in the eschaton (cf. 1 Cor 6.3). However, the reason this language is used in regards to Jesus is because it is kingdom language, spoken of in the context of renew hopes in Judea for Israel’s future national autonomy and return to political glory from the Maccabean era.
Of course, many people are familiar with the idea that Jesus was expected to be a king, but He refused to fill that role the way it was expected. What I want to suggest, however, is that as soon as in the Beatitudes, we begin to get a brief glimpse of the alternative way that Jesus understood God’s Kingdom and the role of Him and His disciples within it. In Matthew 5.9, Jesus utters the now familiar Beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” While many translations with a gender-inclusive concern will render the last phrase “children of God,” I would say such a translation masks the potential royal significance of this language where I think it is intended to be conveyed.1 I want to suggest that Psalm 2.7-9 is specifically in view here, where the Psalmist describes God’s promise to the anointed king as His Son.
First, in Psalm 2.7 you have a portrayal of God actively calling someone His son as Jesus speaks of in Matthew 5.9. While other texts will *identify* Israel or the king as son or a firstborn, it is in Psalm 2.7 where you see God described as personally calling someone a son of God. Second, the son of God is said to obtain the nations and the earth as their inheritance and their possession in Psalm 2.8, whereas just beforehand in the Beatitudes, Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5.5).
Third, and perhaps most importantly, in distinction to the Masoretic Hebrew, the Septuagint translation in 2.9 can be interpreted as describing a ruler who is cast more like a peacemaker. There is a question as to what Psalm 2.9a originally read as. In the Masoretic Hebrew, it reads as: “You will break (תְּ֭רֹעֵם) them with a rod of iron.” However, the Septuagint reads differently: “You will shepherd (ποιμανεῖς) them with a rod of iron.” Why the difference? Because the Hebrew word for to shepherd (רעה) is similar to the word for to break (רעע). One possibility is that the original Hebrew Vorlage from which the LXX Psalms was produced originally read shepherd, but because 2.9b referred to smashing pots, somewhere along the way the verb was unintentionally altered to break in the Hebrew. This possibility would plausible as it is much more likely to think of a king who uses power against his enemies, rather than to liken a king to a shepherd, even though that was king David’s origins.
If this is the case, then 2.9 was mean to metaphorically compare the actions of the anointed king with the utensils of two occupations: the shepherd’s rod and the potter’s pots. Furthermore, the two lines can be seen as offering a contrast with each other, as the shepherd uses the rod to keep and guide sheep together, whereas the breaking of a pot signifies a scattering of pieces. The two images together describe the way the king oversees and manages the people, both in leading them and also in having to put an end to revolts set against him. These two images of the son of God is offered in response to the revolt of kings and rulers plot against God and His anointed, where they consider the rule of God to be chains and ropes that control them. The king will have two responses to such plots: to act a gentle shepherd of the nations but with strength, represented by the iron staff, and to break up such rebellions, represented by the shattered pot. Put simply, the image of the son of God is one who makes and maintains peace among His people. This portrayal has the son of God acting as a peacemaker. This offers an explanation of two possibilities laid before the kings and rulers planning a revolt in 2.10-11, where they can can either live in awe-inspired respect of God (which would dissuade a revolt) or God will destroy them: the son of God is God’s agent who will act to break their revolt if they continue with their plans, but he can also be like a gentle shepherd to them. God is making peace with the powers of the world through the son of God as His agent.
By contrast, the alternative portrayal with “break” in the Masoretic texts in 2.9a casts the son of God as a destroying conqueror, who obtains victory over his foes. Such an image could have been appealing against the backdrop of Maccabean history, where the Maccabees were leaders and warriors whose strength and strategy gave them ability to struggle for the liberation of Israel through conquering the foreign occupiers. Any image of a son of God, any image of a king from this stream would be a revolutionary and ruler who could violently conquer the nations as foes and take the world by force. Then, 2.10-11 would be cast as the servile submission of the kings of the world to God by the conquering power of the son of God.
Two different images, both of which would have been available to 1st century Jews, as the differences in the Masoretic Hebrew and the Septuagint were present then. If Psalm 2.7ff is in the background of the mention of the sons of God in Matthew 5.9, then Jesus is presenting a conscious choice to cast God’s agents in the world to be a peacemaker who can be like a shepherds but then put tangle with serious threats, rather than like marauding conquerors. Is it any coincidence that Jesus uses the image of shepherds and sheep throughout his teaching, such as calling Himself the good shepherd who gives his live to protect the sheep and discussing wolves in sheep clothing who destroy? My hypothesis is that Jesus understanding of His own vocation as the Son of God as a protective shepherd stems from the “shepherd” reading in Psalm 2.7, consciously distinguishing Himself from a conquering warrior.
However, of course, the Beatitudes is not about describing a singular figure, but about a group of people. There are multiple peacemakers who are called sons of God. If the speculation that Psalm 2.7 is in the background for Matthew 5.9 and is also the source for Jesus’ own understanding of His purpose and role is correct, then this strongly suggests that title son of God is not taken in the Gospels, strictly speaking, to be an identifier of the divinity of Jesus, but rather of those who resemble God’s character and purposes and act as His peace-making agents in the world. In favor of this, we can see in Matthew 5.48 the call to be complete as the Heavenly Father is complete.
Put simply, the sons/children of God are people who act as God’s agents in the world *because* they are peacemakers. There are other agents of God who accomplish his purposes. For instance, King Cyrus of Persia was someone who would carry out God’s purposes, described as a shepherd and anointed to fight the nations (Isaiah 44.28-45.1). However, he was called by his name (45.3-4), but not called a son of God. King Cyrus would be instrumental in rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple by conquering the nations, but ultimately, he serves this role through his military strength. The sons of God are people who are God’s agents in the world precisely because they themselves reflect God’s love and peace-making character in the world.
Naturally, there is still an important distinction between Jesus as THE Son of God and His followers as sons of God, as the Gospel of John explicitly identifies Jesus not simply as the Son of God but as the only-begotten (μονογενής) in John 1.14, 1.18, 3.16, and 3.18. However, this differences serves to highlight the high-fidelity, fully exact representation and understanding of the Father that is found in Jesus as the μονογενής, whereas the children of God more broadly do not have the fullest degree of fidelity and understanding. This is why that even as Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples after a long time instructing them, He says He will send them a Helper in the Holy Spirit in John 14-16: the disciples will need to continuously remember and live according to what they saw and knew in Jesus through the Spirit who Jesus gives so that their love for one another can come to reflect Jesus’s love for them, which is the full representation of God’s love.
In summary, then, I put forward that Jesus’ own understanding of His own vocation and also the vocation of His disciples and followers would be in part determined by the reading of Psalm 2 that is reflected in the Septuagint. As a consequence, rather than seeing Psalm 2 as a simply Messianic psalm that describes the anointed of a singular king, Jesus takes it as paradigmatic of God’s people who are to be agents of God’s kingdom through acting like gentle peacemakers.