Praying Psalm 110
A reminder that priesthood and shepherding are entirely dependent on, and in service to, Christ
Father Harry Hagan and Father Christian Raab Comments Off on Praying Psalm 110
Psalm 110 has a special place in the life of a priest. Indeed, as one of the approved texts for the Rite of Ordination, many priests will hear it on the day their priestly life begins. Also, it appears at vespers every Sunday and on most solemnities, so it is a psalm the priest returns to frequently as part of his duty to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. It is, therefore, worth reflecting on the meaning of this psalm for the priest.
Psalm 110 is one of the great messianic psalms, which celebrates both the kingship of God and the intimate relationship of King David to the Lord. Old Testament scholars have related Psalm 110 to three very different periods: the monarchy, when it served as an enthronement psalm; the post-exilic period, for which it linked the more ancient royal theology to a new theme of the royal priesthood; and the Maccabean period, with its hope for an apocalyptic priest-king.
These three contexts testify to this psalm’s ability to serve the biblical community at different moments. Therefore, it is not surprising that the New Testament refers to or quotes this text more than any other Old Testament text, as it mines the priestly and royal theology to create its Christological interpretation.
The Speaker (v. 1a)
This psalm is presented in the first person. The psalmist addresses the king as “my lord,” and celebrates what God has done for “my lord.”
Various scholars identify the psalmist as a cultic prophet bringing the word of YHWH in verses 1b and 4. However, the speaker identifies himself in the opening line by stating: “The utterance of YHWH to my lord.” The word “lord” is from the Hebrew ˀadon meaning lord, overlord, sovereign or master and refers here to the king, who is the speaker’s lord. It is the technical term for the more powerful party in a covenant. By calling the king my lord, the speaker asserts his own covenantal relationship to the king which makes him ˁebed – “servant, vassal” to the king.
The Second Book of Samuel defines this relationship (cf. 15:21). In that story, David flees Jerusalem lest Absalom besiege him. Ittai the Gittite follows David, but David tells him to go back, because he cannot make a claim of loyalty to this foreigner. But Ittai replies: “As the Lord [YHWH] lives, and as my lord (ˀadon) the king lives, your servant (ˁebed) shall be wherever my lord (ˀadon) the king is, whether for death or for life.” Ittai’s oath expresses the fundamental claim of covenant: “whether for life or for death.” The king binds himself to protect the lives of his servants while they bind themselves to fight for the king.
The psalmist reveals his own covenant loyalty by proclaiming the wonders that YHWH has done for the king, his ˀadon to whom he is vassal. In the New Testament, the text gets a new gloss. Noting the superscription, “to David,” Jesus assumes that David, the traditional author of the psalms, is the speaker, and he argues that David cannot be speaking of “his son” since he calls him “my lord.” Jesus implies his own origin is before David’s and that he is the one David is calling “my lord” (cf. Mk 12:36-37). Based on this Gospel passage, Christians understand the ˀadon spoken of here as a reference to Christ. Moreover, the Greek translates both YHWH and ˀadon as kurios, “lord,” and this common translation identifies the Lord Christ with the Lord God, as does the Latin dominus and the English lord.
After the introductory line, the psalm alternates between speeches of YHWH (vv. 1b, 3, 4b) and speeches of the psalmist (vv. 2, 4a, 5-7). Let’s consider the three statements of YHWH more closely before returning to the words of the psalmist.
‘Sit at my right hand, while …’ (v. 1b)
YHWH invites the king to share the divine throne and promises to subdue the king’s enemies. The battle motif is central to this psalm, and in the Old Testament YHWH is always the hero of the battle. Here the battle is understood not only in earthly terms, but also in spiritual terms. Since Israel’s enemies paid homage to other deities, it is a conflict between good and evil, justice and injustice, fidelity and idolatry. For these reasons, the battle is the “day of wrath” on which YHWH rights all wrongs and subjects all things to himself.
For us, war is a complex of politics and power on all sides, and the Roman Office omits 110:6 from this psalm’s recitation in order to blunt the feel of violence. With that said, the battle motif should not be simply dismissed. In the Bible, YHWH is always the battle hero and victor, as in Exodus 14:14: “The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still.”
Here, YHWH makes the enemies the footstool and crushes the heads of kings. YHWH extends the king’s mighty scepter and commands him to rule in the midst of his foes as the guardian of all that is good and right (cf. Ps 110:2).
The first part of the verse is crucial for New Testament Christology. In Matthew, Jesus declares before the Sanhedrin that he will be seated “at the right hand of the Power” (26:64). Other authors return to the theme of the king’s seat to establish Christ’s divine authority and sonship (for example, Mk 16:19; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55, 56; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pt 3:22).
The Mysterious Birth (v. 3)
Verse 3 is a wonderfully mysterious text. As translated here, the last phrase is dominant: “I begot you.” It implies that the psalmist’s lord is divine, like YHWH. This is stunning, because YHWH’s adherents did not recognize kings as divine the way other ancient cultures did. Somehow YHWH begets my lord. This begetting happens “in holy splendor before the daystar,” or as the Hebrew reads, “from the womb of the dawn/daystar.”
It is mysterious, “like dew,” which in the Old Testament world appears inexplicably, and so the text points us toward what is inexplicable. Within this context, a virgin birth becomes reasonable. Thus the verse appears in the introit for Christmas Mass in nocte: “from the womb before the dawn I begot you.”
A Priest According to the Order of Melchizedek (v. 4b)
Verse 4 declares: “YHWH has sworn and will not waver: ‘You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.’” Aside from this text, Melchizedek appears in the Old Testament only in Genesis 14:18-20. After Abraham has rescued Lot in a battle against the four kings, Melchizedek appears with bread and wine. He is identified as king and priest of Salem. He blesses Abram in the name of the “God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth,” and praises God for defeating Abram’s enemies. Abram presents Melchizedek with a tithe.
Melchizedek’s name is typically interpreted as coming from the words melek, meaning “king,” and zedek, meaning “righteousness, justice.” The two together can mean the king of righteousness. Salem, the place of which he is king, is related to shalom (“peace”), and it points us to Jerusalem, the city of the Davidic king. His appearance with bread and wine, of course, has readied New Testament connections.
Melchizedek blessed (barak) Abram. The Hebrew root brk (“bless”) is bound up with the bestowal of power for success, prosperity, fertility or the acknowledgment of God as the source of this power. Therefore, God is blessed, and those who are blessed share in God’s power. By naming the king a priest like Melchizedek, it implies he has received a blessing and makes him a source of power.
According to the psalm, the priesthood of Melchizedek’s order is “forever.” Some see here a link to 1 Maccabees 14:41: “Simon shall be their leader and high priest forever until a trustworthy prophet arises.” Simon, however, is a “priest forever until.” Here there is no “until.” It is a “priesthood forever.” Again, we have an Old Testament text that reaches beyond the human possibilities of Old Testament kingship and priesthood. It is a text looking for fulfillment.
Not surprisingly, the Letter to the Hebrews uses the figure of Melchizedek to develop its theology of Jesus as high priest (cf. Heb 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:3, 11, 15, 24, 28). Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah, so the author of Hebrews connects his priesthood to the mysterious Melchizedek rather than to the Levites. As the God-man, Christ’s royal and eternal priesthood fulfills and transcends all the Old Testament types.
The Speaker Again (vv. 5-7)
In verses 5 and 6, we hear the speaker again describing the defeat of the king’s enemies. Verse 7 portrays a victor “who drinks from the brook by the wayside and thus holds high his head.” The subject of verse 7 is enigmatic. On the one hand, it would make sense for the line to be describing the king, for it echoes 1 Kings 1:32-35 where David commands Solomon to ride the royal mule to the Gihon spring before taking his seat on David’s throne. On the other hand, the grammar of verse 7 continues verses 5 and 6 with the Lord (Adonai) as the subject. Though it seems counterintuitive for the Lord to drink from a brook by the way and then to lift up his head, some argue that this is a gesture of victory and therefore fits the motif of the Lord as hero. In any case, water suggests life, and lifting up the head is an act of pride and triumph. As a conclusion, then, it is consistent with the psalm’s message of hope for the embattled and assurance of divine victory.
Psalm 110, the Church and the Priest
When we pray Psalm 110, the first thing we notice is that the speaker addresses the king as “my lord,” which implies the speaker’s relationship to the king is as a servant in a covenantal relationship. Those who recite this psalm find these words in their own mouths, and so are invited to join the psalmist in claiming the lord here as their own. For Christians, of course, Jesus is Lord, so the psalm articulates our covenant relationship with Christ. We are drawn into gratitude for this covenant relationship where we are protected by the Lord and pledged to his service.
We are also humbled. Recall that the psalm was originally attributed to David. A great king himself, he was identifying himself as a servant and calling another man his lord. When we identify with the speaker, we are thus reminded that we too are servants, vassals even, of another. For priests, the psalm is a healthy reminder that our priesthood and our shepherding are entirely dependent on and in service to Christ, the one true mediator. Like David, we point to him.
At the same time, all of the faithful share in “my lord’s” identity through the royal priesthood received in baptism, and the ordained participate in the office of Christ as priest and king in a very special way. Accordingly, the promises made in the psalm by YHWH to the king are promises made to both the Church’s members and her priests. When we pray the psalm, we are filled with hope. God will draw us near in intimacy and be our champion in the many trials we face. It’s a message a priest would do well to hear on the day of his ordination and to return to regularly in the Liturgy of the Hours.
FATHER HARRY HAGAN, OSB, and FATHER CHRISTIAN RAAB, OSB, are monks of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. Father Harry is associate professor of Scripture and Father Christian is assistant professor of systematic theology in the seminary and School of Theology.
The Hebrew text is open to various readings and possibilities which Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger explore in Psalms 2 (Fortress, 2005). For this essay, we confine ourselves to the translation in the New American Bible (Revised Edition).
A psalm of David.
Psalmist: The LORD [YHWH] says to my lord (ˀadon):
YHWH: “Sit at my right hand,
while I make your enemies your footstool.”
Psalmist: 2 The scepter of your might:
the LORD extends
your strong scepter from Zion.
Have dominion over your enemies!
YHWH: 3 Yours is princely power
from the day of your birth.
In holy splendor
before the daystar,
like dew I begot you.
Psalmist: 4 The LORD has sworn
and will not waver:
YHWH: “You are a priest forever
in the manner of Melchizedek.”
Psalmist: 5 At your right hand is the Lord [Adonai],
who crushes kings
on the day of his wrath,
6 Who judges nations,
heaps up corpses,
across the wide earth,
7 Who drinks from the brook by the wayside
and thus holds high his head.