Shortly after Jesus’ execution his followers came to believe that their master had ascended out of the grave as an exalted and heavenly man. In order to explain and justify this newfound conviction, these Jewish believers turned decisively to Psalms 2 & 110. These psalms—or rather, prophecies—confirmed what the earliest Christians believed God had done on behalf of their deceased teacher. By resurrection from the dead and exaltation to heaven God had “begotten” Jesus as a father begets a son and had enthroned Jesus as a king enthrones a lord. Jesus was thus not only back from the dead, he was now God’s special agent of judgement.
YHWH said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”
YHWH says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”Psalms 2:7 & 110:1
But despite the consistent early Christian appropriation of these psalms with reference to Jesus’ post-mortem appearances and his imminent return as heavenly judge, most Christian interpretive strategies apply a Christological rather than eschatological lens to Psalms 2:7 & 110:1. As such, these scriptures work to affirm Christ’s eternal divine identity as God the Son and the Lord God, respectively.
The politics of exaltation
In their original contexts, of course, Psalms 2 & 110 betray no interest in the divine identity of God’s appointed king. They are concerned chiefly, instead, with the dramatic deeds of power and judgment wrought as a result of the king’s divine coronation. Once rebellious nations would be quelled by God’s rod-wielding son (Psalm 2) and once powerful kings would be shattered by God’s right-hand man (Psalm 110). With God’s begotten son now on David’s throne, God’s will and kingdom would at last prevail over the kingdoms of the world.
I will tell of the decree of YHWH: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
YHWH says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” YHWH sends out from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes… YHWH is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses.Psalms 2:7-9 & 110:1-2, 5-6
It is unlikely, therefore, that the first Jewish Christians built upon these poems a divine Christology, at least initially. Instead, and as alluded to above, when we examine their use in the New Testament these scriptures serve predominantly eschatological and political purposes (cf. 1 Cor 15:25-28, Revelation 2:26-28, 3:21, 19:15, Acts 2:34-35, 13:32-33, etc.): they allude to what God was about to do in the world through Jesus, his newly-exalted king.
So, more in accordance with the original intention of the psalmists, quotations of and allusions to Psalms 2:7 and 110:1 would have evoked a sweeping political narrative in the minds of early Christians: God had installed his servant as lord of the nations and through him he would promptly pour out judgement upon the earth. As God’s people had long awaited, every earthly and heavenly power was about to submit to God and his king.
Abram’s vassalage to Melchizedek
The fourth verse of Psalm 110 somewhat complicates this picture of exaltation, judgement, and submission, however, especially for Christian readers familiar with the book of Hebrews—to which we will turn in a moment.
Amid descriptions of the lord’s military victories over his enemies, God abruptly consecrates his right-hand man as a priest in the order of Melchizedek.
YHWH has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”Psalm 110:4
The psalmist, seemingly unfazed by the novel pronouncement, says nothing more concerning the lord’s priestly role.
The question remains then: What is the purpose of the king’s acquisition of these holy orders? Why must God’s king be also a priest?
The answer to such questions likely lie in Abram’s brief encounter with Melchizedek, the story to which the psalmist refers.1
Turning to that context, the Melchizedek episode interrupts the “Battle of the kings” narrative—a story wherein Abram raises an army to redeem his brother Lot from among the captives of Sodom’s victorious enemies (Genesis 14:1-16). Abram is so successful in this role as warlord that he not only restores Lot but also plunders the spoils that had been sacked from Sodom and Gomorrah.
Melchizedek, the king of Salem and a priest of the highest [Canaanite] god,2 suddenly emerges on the scene with bread and wine with which to bless Abram in God’s name (14:19). This priest-king proceeds to give thanks to his god as the one who “delivered [Abram’s] enemies into [his] hands” (14:20).
As a token of thanks, and in acknowledgement of the god invoked by and mediated through Melchizedek, Abram hands over a tenth of what he won in battle to the stranger. Abram, soon to be “father of nations,” thus pays tribute to Melchizedek, God’s priest, in exchange for blessing.3
David—priest to the nations
With the whole of this story in view, the psalmist’s intentions in 110:4 perhaps become clearer. The two divine decrees issued in the poem—God’s decision to enthrone his king over his enemies (110:1) and God’s decision to dedicate that same king as a priest in the order of Melchizedek (110:4)—stand in parallel as equivalent pronouncements. This is to say that to be God’s king over the nations, to be the instrument through whom God’s political purposes are enforced in the world, is to be also God’s priest to the nations, the instrument through whom the peoples of the earth relate to God and God to them. This priesthood then, has political rather than merely spiritual ends. This priest trades in political, rather than merely spiritual favors. This priest is a king.
Perhaps put more simply, and returning to Genesis 14, the God of Psalm 110 designates his king as a priest in the order of Melchizedek so that he might, like Melchizedek, 1) receive tribute from Abraham’s progeny (Israel and the nations)4 in exchange for divine blessing, and 2) pronounce and affect divine conquest on behalf of God’s people. For the psalmist these are the functions of Melchizedek’s office. It is therefore through the Melchizedek priest-king that God will “shatter kings” and “execute judgement among the nations” (110:5-6). When the dust of war settles, every power will be vassal to God and his priest (110:1).
Melchizedek—priest in the order of Aaron
The author of Hebrews, on the other hand, appropriates Psalm 110:4 for quite foreign purposes. For him, Jesus accepts Melchizedek’s priestly mantle so that he might “intercede” on behalf of believers through the sacrifice of his own body in the heavenly [Mosaic] temple (7:25, 9:28). This offering of righteous blood to God secures salvation for those who remain loyal to Christ (5:9-10). As the Melchizedek-priest then, Jesus dies to redeem his people through a kind of Aaronide temple sacrifice.5 In this way the author of Hebrews brings to a convergence three streams of thought: 1) the suffering and death of Jesus the Messiah, 2) the Torah’s sacrificial system of atonement, and 3) the otherwise regal character of Melchizedek’s priestly office.
Although the concrete subjection and rule of those earthly forces aligned against God’s people still constitutes a fundamental element of salvation for the writer of Hebrews (cf. Hebrews 1:13, 9:28, 10:12-13, 26-27, 12:26-28), Melchizedek has become an atonement-making Aaronite. His priestly service as political and spiritual mediator between God and the nations has been all but lost.6
1—Other translations of the Hebrew are possible; a reference to king Melchizedek is not certain.
2—Understood by the compilers of Genesis to be YHWH, the god who called Abram out of Mesopotamia.
3—The author of Hebrews suggests Levi, still in the loins of Abraham, symbolically paid a tithe to Melchizedek, the superior priest (7:9-10).
4—Many nations, of course, do not come from Abraham. Still, God promised to bless and curse “all the peoples of the earth” through Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3, 18:18, 22:16-18). “All the nations” look to Abraham for God’s blessing just as Abraham himself looked to Melchizedek for the same.
5—Specifically the Day of Atonement scapegoat sacrifice (Leviticus 16).
6—Though it never makes reference to Melchizedek or Psalm 110:4, the book of Revelation presents the priesthood of believers in political terms. Christian priests are “a kingdom” and will “rule upon the earth” with Christ (1:6, 5:10, 20:6).