We’ve found 3 places in the OT where the word firstborn clearly does not mean “the first one to be born.” So what does it mean in those cases? Let’s work on one of those occurrences and see what we can learn.
Psalm 89.27 reads, “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” Before we can determine what this means, we need to know who it’s talking about. And that means identifying those pronouns—or rather, the antecedents of those pronouns. Who is “I”? And who is “him”? (And yes, that’s grammatically correct, even though it sounds awful.)
Let’s start with the “I.” Who is speaking in the passage? Well, the previous verse says, “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ ” OK, the speaker is God; the Psalmist, Ethan the Ezrahite, is quoting God at some length beginning in verse 19.
And who is God going to make his firstborn? We see the answer toward the beginning of the quotation, in verse 20. He’s talking about David.
So. God will make David his firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.
Now, we know that firstborn here can’t mean “the first one to be born,” for two simple reasons:
- David wasn’t the firstborn. In fact, he was the youngest of eight brothers (1Sam 16.10).
- The verb’s all wrong. You can’t “make” someone the first one born, after he’s born. Either he’s already the first one born, or he’s not.
Well, then, what does the word mean? The last part of the verse tells us: “the highest of the kings of the earth.”
Not “the oldest,” mind you, but “the highest.” Here God is using the word firstborn to refer to someone who is over others—who is more important than those around him, who is pre-eminent.
And come to think of it, we know of situations like that in the Bible. Jacob buys the birthright from his (slightly) older brother, Esau (Gen 25.29-34); decades later the same Jacob intentionally gives his grandson Ephraim the blessing of the firstborn over his older brother Manasseh (Gen 48.13-19), to the displeasure of their father, Joseph. The younger became more important than the older.
So how did a mathematical, biological word like firstborn come to have this very non-literal nuance?
The answer is obvious. The firstborn son in a family in the ancient world had certain rights and responsibilities. In the Mosaic Law, the firstborn son received a double portion of the inheritance—so if there were 3 sons, the oldest got 2/4, and each of the other two got 1/4 (Dt 21.15-17). The firstborn would rule the family in the father’s absence; he would be “lord” over his brothers (Gen 27.29).
Since the most important characteristic of the firstborn was his pre-eminence, it was natural to make the word mean that. So the word firstborn came to mean “the pre-eminent one,” “the boss,” “the highest one.”
And that seems to be what the word means in those other two occurrences we found at the end of the previous post.
- When God tells Pharaoh that Israel is his firstborn son (Ex 4.22), he is saying that he prefers Israel above all others—including Egypt—and that ol’ Pharaoh had better keep his bloomin’ hands to himself—and Pharaoh learns that lesson in spades through the plagues (Ex 7.14ff) and the massacre at the Red Sea (Ex 14.26-29).
- Similarly, when Jeremiah quotes God as saying that Ephraim is his firstborn (Jer 31.9), he means that he prefers Israel (implied as included in the one tribe Ephraim) over their Babylonian captors, and he will certainly restore them to their land after the captivity.
So the word firstborn in Colossians 1.15 could have at least two possible meanings.
- It could be used literally: Jesus came into existence by God’s creative act before anything else was created. This is the Jehovah’s Witness position, and it seems heavily favored by the word’s usage statistics.
- Or it could be used metaphorically, as it is only rarely elsewhere: Jesus is pre-eminent over all (merely) created things.
Now right here is where most Christians make their big mistake. We’ll talk about that next time.