Psalm 110 is the most widely quoted psalm within our New Testament.
The LORD says to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
This royal psalm celebrates the king of Israel – an earthly lord who embodies the presence and will of the Sovereign LORD of heaven and earth. Not only did the king represent God’s presence on earth, but Jerusalem and the Temple represented God’s holy dwelling.
The Anointed of God ruling from Zion, the city of God.
The LORD sends out from Zion your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your foes.
More than likely, this psalm originated during the time of the Davidic monarchy and parts of it may have been sung at coronations (consequently categorized as an “enthronement” psalm). But by the time 110 was gathered into the psalter, Israel was in Exile. The land, the Temple and the monarchy were all gone.
Thus the scholars of Israel were challenged to look back at their story and re-interpret its meaning for this tragic new time.
Consequently within the psalter itself, we see theological re-readings and readjustments of understandings and expectations. If the Davidic kings were no more, then (Jewish teachers pondered because of the Exile) this hope of God’s reign throughout the earth must be assigned to another “anointed one.”
Hope for the Jewish messiah was born.
This psalm in 110 assumes what Psalm 2 proclaims:
The LORD said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
The king of Israel was considered the begotten son of God. Before the kings, the tribal people of God thought of themselves as God’s chosen ones; God’s “son.” After the loss of the monarchy, it was the whole people of God who once again considered themselves the beloved sons of God so that at the end of the Exile and during the post exilic time of the Second Temple, the concrete presence of God resided within the community of the faithful of God.
You will also recognize this saying from the gospels; it was crucial to the story as a heavenly pronouncement of Jesus’ unique status made during his baptism and transfiguration.
But the poet of 110 adds a twist to the kingly tradition:
The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
Melchizedek is an enigmatic biblical character. This poet would have been working out of the Abraham story found in Genesis 14 where the patriarch met the mysterious king-priest near Salem (years later: Jeru-Salem).
King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine;
he was priest of God Most High.
So the psalmist sees the anointed one of Israel as both king and priest. One who – in God’s authority – rules AND serves. The king ruled God’s people according to God’s will and way while the priest offered up the people’s worship and petitions to God.
In the book of Hebrews, a brilliant New Testament theologian also works from the ancient story of Melchizedek but this time, he see Jesus as the Christ – the Anointed One of God, the promised Messiah – who fills this role of priest and king. Hebrews chapter 7 is an extended argument that weaves both the Genesis story and the psalmist’s interpretation and re-interpretation into a seamless confession of faith that it is Jesus who has now embodied in concrete ways, the presence of God. Ruler over all the nations within the Kingdom of God as well as Intercessor for all the people before the throne of the Sovereign LORD.
Psalms scholar Clinton McCann says this:
Psalm 110 is no mere artifact of ancient political propaganda. Rather, in relation to Jesus Messiah, it is a world-transforming challenge to every form of politics and power that does not begin with submission of the self to God’s claim. Jesus, messiah and priest, guarantees all people access to God.
Those who would deny such grace and its claims set themselves up as enemies of the reign of God. The exalted will be humbled. Persons who accept such grace and submit to its claims open themselves to abundant life; the humble will be exalted.
On a side note, some years ago, when my family visited Westminster Abbey in London, I was fascinated to see fragments of this ancient understanding continue within the long tradition of the monarchical understandings of Great Britain. The old “divine right of kings” has evolved with newer Constitutional approaches but the theological significance of God’s anointed remains.
The coronation of the monarch of England is a worship service of the Church. Priests and prayers and praise to the Sovereign Ruler of the cosmos punctuate the crowning and anointing of this earthly ruler.
When the British sovereign sits in the Coronation Chair, that chair is placed at the center of the famed Cosmati Pavement, representing the center of the universe. The monarch is anointed as one responsible to rule and serve throughout the earth.
So even in this modern day, this earthly monarch continues to represent the heavenly monarch.
The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IV. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1996.