From Learning to Love the Psalms
If Psalm 109 gives us remarkable insight into the suffering of King Jesus, Psalm 110 opens for us his triumph in resurrection glory. This third psalm of David in Book Five shows us not only the importance of the king in the redemptive plan of God, but it also transforms in a surprising way the whole meaning of the kingship.
Most of the psalm is about a victorious king. God himself seats this great king at his right hand and promises to subject the king’s enemies to him so completely that they will be no more than a footstool, (v. 1). The scepter of this king will stretch out from Zion over all his enemies, (v. 2). He will lead his eager troops into battle clothed in dazzling robes, (v. 3). He will destroy those who oppose him and will judge the peoples, (vv. 5-6). This triumph will not exhaust him, but rather he will be refreshed in his labors, (v. 7). To this point, the psalm is splendid, but not obviously different from other royal psalms such as Psalm 21.
Jesus himself, however, draws our attention to a detail in this text that we might otherwise overlook. This point is so important that all three Synoptic Gospels record his statement, (Matthew 22:41-46; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44). Jesus had entered Jerusalem in triumph, hailed as David’s son, (Matthew 21:9). After the teachers of the law tried to trap him with difficult questions, Jesus had a question for them. He asked first: Is the Christ the son of David? That question was easy – everyone knew that the Christ was the son of David. But then Jesus quoted a psalm of David about the Messiah, Psalm 110, which begins with the words, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand.’” The first “Lord” is God, using his covenant name, Yahweh, usually rendered “Lord” in our English translations. The second “Lord” is someone whom David, Israel’s greatest king, calls, “my Lord.” Who is David’s Lord? That is Jesus’s question. Since this “Lord” is a king, presumably he is a descendant of David. But Jesus knows that David would not call one of his descendants his Lord. The teachers of the law cannot answer Jesus’s second question. They are confounded.
Jesus and the apostles understood the meaning of the text. Peter uses it in his Pentecost sermon to prove the superiority of Christ to David, (Acts 2:33-35). Peter argues that Jesus is raised from the dead and exalted in Heaven at the right hand of God. He is Lord and Christ because he is God’s Son as well as David’s son, and so therefore he is David’s Lord. David was a prophet and he saw the divine as well as human nature of the Christ.
Psalm 110 looks forward not only to a divine Christ as the great king of God’s people, but surprisingly, it also prophesies a priest-king. The central verse of this psalm looks forward to a new office for the king: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek,’” (v. 4). In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews gives extensive reflection on this verse, arguing from it for the priesthood of Christ.
In the Old Testament, no king of God’s people was allowed to function as a priest. Such practices were found in pagan nations, but not in Israel. When King Uzziah presumed to offer incense on the altar of incense in the Holy Place, he was punished with leprosy, (2 Chronicles 26). Uzziah was not the Messiah. Only the Messiah, only Jesus, would combine in his person the offices of king and priest.
The book of Hebrews alludes to the theme of priesthood and to Psalm 110 near the beginning. Jesus is described as the Son and image of God: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high,” (Hebrews 1:3b). This verse alludes to Psalm 110:1: “Sit at my right hand.” It may also allude to Psalm 110:4 in its mention of Christ’s work of purification. The idea of purification is part of priestly work, (see, for example, Luke 5:14).
Hebrews 2:17 clearly identifies Jesus as the High Priest of his people: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” In his priestly work, he is the object of our faith, able to help now as we face temptations: “Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a Heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession,” (Hebrews 3:1). We are reminded that the High Priestly work of Jesus was not confined to the cross, where he was our substitute and sacrifice. He still prays for us and provides for us from his Heavenly throne of grace, (Hebrews 4:14-16).
In chapter 5, Hebrews begins to address the question of how Jesus can be a priest. He is not descended from Aaron or Levi. He is not qualified to take up the traditional priesthood. “And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’; as he says also in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek,’” (Hebrews 5:4-6). The writer to the Hebrews argues that the calling of God is the real foundation of the priesthood and that Aaron was not qualified until God called him. And then the author quotes Psalm 110 to show that God had always intended the creation of another priesthood in addition to that of Aaron.
Hebrews sees the evidence for Jesus’s call to the priesthood in his suffering and glorification, (Hebrews 5:8-10). He is the priest forever, as prophesied, because he lives forever as the resurrection Lord: “This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life,” (Hebrews 7:15-16). Death could not hold Jesus, so he is indeed a priest forever.
The writer to the Hebrews also argues from Psalm 110 the superiority of the new priesthood of Christ to the old Jewish priesthood. Since Abraham, the father of Levi and Aaron, gave tithes to and received a blessing from Melchizedek. Melchizedek is superior to Abraham and all his offspring. Therefore, if Christ is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, he is the superior priest, (Hebrews 7:1-10). Jesus is Abraham’s superior as well as David’s.
This elaborate appeal to Psalm 110 in Hebrews strikes some modern readers as strange. But in fact it establishes in yet another way that Jesus is the true Messiah predicted in the Old Testament. It also is foundational for understanding his saving work:
The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. (Hebrews 7:23-27)
Psalm 110 is an amazing prophecy of the coming priest-king who by his one sacrifice and his glorious resurrection saves his people completely.
As Psalm 107 speaks of a people re-created for God, Psalm 110 points to a most glorious restoration and transformation of the Davidic kingship. No wonder that Psalm 110 is the most-quoted psalm in the New Testament.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What concepts within this psalm point to its being about a victorious king?
- What is Jesus’s point when quoting this psalm to the teachers of the law? How does the book of Hebrews allude to the priesthood theme near the beginning of Psalm 110?
- What is the importance of the superiority of the new priesthood of Christ to the old Jewish priesthood? Why do you think Psalm 110 is the most-quoted psalm in the New Testament?