Psalm of Solomon 17 is by far the most significant section of the collection. The Psalm describes a Davidic, messianic figure who will purge Jerusalem of Gentiles, gather the exiles and lead them in righteousness and shepherd the Lord’s flock in righteousness. This lengthy Psalm draws on the canonical Psalm 72 and is witness to fervent messianic hopes among some strands of early Judaism. The belief a messiah would soon appear and liberate Jerusalem from their Roman oppressors ultimately culminates in the first Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. See also my post on Messianic Hopes and the Jewish Revolt.
Psalm of Solomon 17 describes the activities of a “lawless one who lays to waste our land” (17:11). From the vivid imagery of verses 11-20 it is difficult to say this person is a Gentile, although he does things in Jerusalem that “gentiles do for their gods in their cities” (v. 14). He drives de devout ones from Jerusalem and they take refuge in the wilderness (v 17). The most common view is this lawless one is Pompey and the psalm represents the messianic expectations of the Pharisees. Julius Wellhausen suggested the psalm reflects the political unrest at the time of Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II.
Although it seems clear enough that Psalm of Solomon 2 refers to Pompey as one who defiled the sanctuary (Ps.Sol 2:1-2), the identity of the lawless one is less obvious in Psalm 17. Kenneth Atkinson challenged the consensus view that Pompey is the lawless one by arguing the Psalm refers to Herod the Great. After he was appointed king of Judea Herod was forced to attack Jerusalem in order to secure his territory (37 B.C.) He was assisted by the Romans According to Josephus (Ant. 14.16.2, §475-81), “they were murdered continually in the narrow streets and in the houses by crowds, and as they were flying to the temple for shelter, and there was no pity taken of either infants or the aged, nor did they spare so much as the weaker sex; nay, although the king sent about, and besought them to spare the people, yet nobody restrained their hand from slaughter, but as if they were a company of madmen, they fell upon persons of all ages, without distinction.” Herod’s siege of the city took place in a sabbatical year which led to a famine and increased the suffering of the people. After securing Jerusalem Herod murdered the last of the Hasmonean dynasty (Antigonus II, Aristobulus III, and Hyrcanus II). Atkinson therefore dates Psalm of Solomon 17 sometime between 37 and 30 B.C.
The defenders of Jerusalem considered Herod a foreign invader, and the capture of the city must have appeared as an apocalyptic invasion anticipated by the Hebrew prophets. Josephus says “Now the Jews that were enclosed within the walls of the city fought against Herod with great alacrity and zeal (for the whole nation was gathered together); they also gave out many prophecies about the temple, and many things agreeable to the people, as if God would deliver them out of the dangers they were in” (Ant. 14.16.1, §470). There are two important items in this description. First, the whole nation was gathered and fought against Herod with zeal. Allowing for obvious exaggeration, this zealous gathering to resist the foreign invader, Psalm of Solomon indicates the son of David who is coming will smash the arrogant sinners (17:22-24) and gather “a holy people” (17:26).
Second, the zealous ones in Jerusalem “gave out many prophecies about the temple.” Although written after these events, Psalm of Solomon 17 contains the sorts of prophecies one might expect when the lawless gentiles are slaughtering people in the streets of Jerusalem. The description of the coming son of David in verses 21-25 is a collection of allusions to messianic texts in the Hebrew Bible. Atkinson compared several texts from Qumran which indicate the Qumran community also expected a Davidic king (4Q161; 4Q285; 4Q252; 4Q174) who would be a warrior (4Q161; 4Q285; 4Q252; 4Q174) and a righteous ruler (4Q252; 4Q174) (Atkinson 458). Atkinson observes that the authors of Psalm of Solomon 17, the Qumran texts, and the book of Revelation are usually regarded as pacifist, but they all looked forward with “apparent eagerness to great bloodshed and annihilation of their enemies” (460).
I would suggest Josephus’s description of the final defenders of the temple in 37 B.C. as “zealous” may indicate they were not as pacifistic as commonly thought. Although there was an expectation of a Davidic warrior king who would smash Jerusalem’s enemies, the zealous ones in 37 B.C. (or A.D. 70) were willing to join Phineas, Elijah and Judas Maccabees and defend the land against foreign invaders.
Whether this Psalm reflects the siege of Jerusalem at the time of Pompey or Herod, I agree with Atkinson’s conclusion to his article: the actions of Jesus at the triumphal entry and his “rampage in the temple” (as he puts it), as well as Jesus’s prediction of the destruction of the Temple would have resonated with the hope for a Davidic warrior messiah. Jesus’s intention to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) was a shock even to his closest followers.
Bibliography: Kenneth Atkinson, “On the Herodian Origin of Militant Davidic Messianism at Qumran: New Light from Psalm of Solomon 17,” JBL 118 (1999): 435-460.