For my weekly quiet time, I studied Psalm 110.
Psalm 110 is quoted a couple of times in the New Testament. In Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, and Luke 20:42, Jesus appeals to Psalm 110:1 to argue that, because David there called the Messiah “my Lord”, the Messiah would be David’s lord, not his son. (Or a number of Christians interpret Jesus to be saying that the Messiah would not only be the Son of David, but would be much more than that.) Hebrews 6-7 tries to get a lot of mileage out of Psalm 110:4, which states (in the King James Version): “The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou [art] a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” The argument of Hebrews is that Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, for, in the same way that Melchizedek was a priest even though he was not descended from the priestly tribe of Levi (who had not yet been born when Melchizedek met Abraham), so likewise is Jesus a priest, even though he was descended from Judah and not Levi. And I Corinthians 15:24-28 may be alluding to Psalm 110:1, for it affirms that Jesus must reign until God has placed all enemies, including death, under Jesus’ feet. That sounds like Psalm 110:1’s statement that the LORD will make the Lord’s enemies his footstool.
Was Psalm 110 a prophecy about the Messiah, or Jesus? There are scholars who argue precisely that. Some say that David himself in Psalm 110 was predicting the Messiah. Erhard Gerstenberger, however, speculates that Psalm 110 could fit within the messianic expectations of the Second Temple Period.
There are a variety of other ways that Psalm 110 has been interpreted, however. Here are three.
1. One way is to say that Psalm 110 is honoring a Davidic king, who helps Israel to fight her battles. The LORD is asking the Davidic king to sit on God’s right hand, in a time when the king’s right hand was a place of great honor (I Kings 2:19). God is honoring the Davidic king as his vice-roy and is promising to fight his battles for him. In this scenario, the singer of the Psalm (not David himself) is recognizing that.
But was the Davidic king a priest like Melchizedek? In a way, he was. II Samuel 8:18 says that David’s sons were priests. David wore an ephod (I Samuel 21:9; II Samuel 6:14), something that priests often wore (I Samuel 2:28; 14:3; 22:18, etc.). And King Solomon blessed the congregation (I Kings 8:14, 55), something that priests did (Numbers 6:23). There were disputes about where the Davidic king’s priestly authority ended, as II Chronicles 26 indicates when it shows King Uzziah trying to go into the Temple to offer incense, only to be resisted by the priestly sons of Aaron. (I draw here from Leslie Allen’s comments.) But the Davidic king arguably had a priestly sort of role: in promoting and leading worship.
Why does Psalm 110 mention Melchizedek, though? One explanation is that the Davidic monarchy had assumed the priest-king role of Melchizedek after David had defeated the Jebusites and made Jerusalem into his city. The Jebusites had kings whose names ended in “Zedek”, such as Melchizedek and Adonizedek (Joshua 10:1, 3), and the idea is that David was saying that he now had the role that the Jebusite king Melchizedek had years before him. Some have even argued that Genesis 14 is really about the subordination of the Jebusites to Israel, for Melchizedek blesses Abraham.
Robin Routledge, in her excellent article “Psalm 110, Melchizedek, and David: blessing (the descendents of) Abraham” (Baptistic Theologies 1 no. 2 Aut 2009), does not buy that explanation. She believes that Genesis 14 is much older than the time of David, for Melchizedek in Genesis 14 mentions “El Elyon”, a name that hardly ever occurs in the Book of Psalms (except for Psalm 78:35). For Routledge, the Davidic king in Psalm 110 is called a priest like Melchizedek because both brought blessing to Abraham, or, more accurately, the Davidic king brought blessing to Abraham’s descendents when he fought Israel’s battles.
2. Some figures within older biblical scholarship (Peake’s commentary, for example) sought to locate Psalm 110 in the time of the Maccabees, when Israel had military enemies and was ruled by a priest-king. Whether or not this works, there appears to have been some attempt within Israel’s post-exilic period to unite the priestly and the kingly roles, for Zechariah 6:9-15 presents the high priest Joshua being crowned.
3. A prominent Jewish interpretation, which is in Rashi, is that Psalm 110 is about Abraham, specifically the events of Genesis 14, in which Abraham defeats mighty kings to save his nephew Lot. Here, you can see that Rashi probably understood Psalm 110:4 to mean, “The Lord swore and will not repent; you are a priest forever because of the speech of Malchizedek.” There were other Jewish interpreters who understood Psalm 110:4 in that manner, for Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 32b contains the view that the priesthood passed from Melchizedek to Abraham (and, in turn, Levi) on account of the errant words of Melchizedek: Melchizedek made the mistake of blessing Abraham before he blessed God!
In volume 3 of Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Michael Brown disputes the application of Psalm 110 to Abraham. One reason that he gives is that v 2 affirms that “The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion”, and Zion is the city of David. Another reason is that “Abraham was not a royal figure in the Torah, nor was he primarily a triumphant ruler; yet that is what Psalm 110 explicitly describes and promises” (page 140). But Rashi interprets v 2 differently from Brown. Rashi understand the verse to mean something like, “The staff of your might the Lord will send from Zion; rule in the midst of your enemies” (see Chabad). For Rashi, within the Abraham interpretation, the staff of Abraham’s might who came from Zion was Melchizedek the King of Salem himself, who came from Zion and (like a staff of support) supported and strengthened Abraham’s weary men when he brought bread and wine (see Genesis 14:18). And Rashi interprets “rule” within the Abraham interpretation to mean ruling in war, which Abraham did when he defeated the kings.
I’d like to make a final point. There are a number of scholars who have trouble saying that David anticipated a future Messiah in Psalm 110. Why, after all, would David look for a Messiah in a time when he himself was king, before Messianic expectations of the sort that we see in the prophetic writings were even prominent (if existent at all)? This is a good question. But, although I believe that there are a variety of legitimate ways to interpret and to apply Psalm 110, I’d like to play for a second with the idea that David was predicting a future Messiah. Could David have longed for a future Messiah because he recognized his own limitations as king? I think of what I have been reading in Derek Leman’s Daily Isaiah: Isaiah presented an ideal king who would be better than the kings Judah had at the time (i.e., Ahaz, and even Hezekiah). Could David have recognized his own shortcomings, and that led him to think of a future king who would be much better than he was?