THE OLD TESTAMENT CHAPTER quoted most often in the New Testament is Psalm 110. It is an oracular psalm: i.e., it does not so much disclose the experience of its writer as set forth words that the writer has received by direct and immediate revelation — as an “oracle” from God. Perhaps there are even parts of it the psalmist himself did not fathom too well (just as Daniel did not understand the meaning of all that he saw in his visions and was required to record for the benefit of a later generation (Dan. 12:4, 8-10).
In the psalm, the LORD, Yahweh, speaks to someone whom David himself addresses as “my Lord.” This element, as much as any other, has convinced countless interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, that this is explicitly a messianic psalm, and that the person whom David addresses is the anticipated Messiah.
I shall focus on verse 4: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” Granted that Yahweh here addresses the Messiah, what do his words mean? Two elements attract attention:
First, Melchizedek himself — this is only the second mention of him in the Bible. The first is Genesis 14:18-20: after the defeat of the kings, Abraham meets this strange priest-king and pays him a tithe of the spoils. Various things can be inferred from the brief account (see meditation for January 13), but then Melchizedek drops from view until this psalm, written almost a millennium later.
Second, by this time much has taken place in the history of Israel. The people had endured slavery in Egypt, had been rescued at the Exodus, had received the Law of God at Sinai, had entered the Promised Land, and had lived through the period of the judges to reach this point of the beginning of the Davidic dynasty. Above all, Sinai had prescribed a tabernacle and the associated rites, all to be administered by Levites and by high priests drawn from that tribe. The Mosaic Law made it abundantly clear that Levites alone could discharge these priestly functions. Yet here is an oracle from God insisting that God himself will raise up another priest-king with very different links. Yahweh will extend this king’s mighty scepter from Zion: i.e., his kingly power is connected with Zion, with Jerusalem, and thus with the fledgling Davidic dynasty. And as priest, he will be aligned, not with the order of Levi, but with the order of Melchizedek.
Small wonder the writer to the Hebrews understands that this is an announcement of the obsolescence of the Mosaic Covenant (Heb. 7:11-12). We needed a better priesthood; and we have one.