D.A. Carson: Getting Excited about Melchizedek #TGC11

In the final plenary session of The Gospel Coalition’s 2011 National Conference, D.A. Carson expounds on Psalm 110, the psalm most quoted in all the New Testament.

The audio is available for download here. Video footage can be viewed below:


My notes follow:

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”

The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter.

Rule in the midst of your enemies!

Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours.

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.

He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses, he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth.

He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head. (Psalm 110 ESV)

Most of the controlling themes in the Bible don’t resonate well with the dominate culture in the west. Think of the categories:

Covenant. Priests. Sacrifice. Blood Offering. King. Passover. Day of Atonement. Year of Jubilee.

King. We speak of King Jesus. When Jesus announced His coming, He did not announce the coming of the republic of God. The king of the Bible is not a constitutional monarch. King has very different references.

We’re not thinking in these terms alone.

Yet Melchizedek turns out to be one of the most instructive figures in the whole Bible for helping us put together our Bible and seeing who Jesus is. God has put things together in the Bible in this way for our good.

Melchizedek only shows up in the OT in two places, once in Genesis and once here. And he shows up only once in the NT and that’s it. Yet he is absolutely revolutionary in our understanding of the Bible.

So we begin with Psalm 110.

Who wrote it?

We have in our Bibles in superscript, “Of David.” Yet some contemporaries don’t believe David wrote it. So if so, who did? If it wasn’t David, but written by a servant, it sounds like Psalm 2. But the superscription won’t go away. It’s in all the manuscripts that have come down. It’s not to be seen as an add-on, but part of the Psalm. If that’s not enough, we turn to Jesus’ own interpretation of this Psalm. Mark 12:35, “Why do the teachers of the Law say the Messiah is the Son of David….”

Jesus Himself interprets it this way. In one sense, the Messiah is the Son of David, but He’s more than that because He would be inferior to David. But if He’s more than that, “the Lord said to my Lord,” then He’s something greater.

So this Psalm is talking about the Messiah.

What does the Psalm say?

“The Lord says to my Lord…” It literally reads, “Yahweh says to my Lord…” This is a prophetic utterance. David is functioning as a prophet. And he’s saying sit here until I put your enemies under your feet. This phrase, “sit at my right hand,” what do we infer from that?

  1. He is greater than David (Acts 2:34)
  2. He is greater than Angels (Heb. 1:13)
  3. He is exalted to God’s side (Acts 5:30-31)
  4. His being seated at the right hand grounds his intercession
  5. His being seated signals the completion of His sacrifice (Heb. 10)
  6. He awaits the ultimate conquest of His enemies (Heb. 10)

And after that phrase, “until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” This is about conquest. God is going to do it now that the sacrifice has been paid.

All of God’s people have been so transformed, we are told, that they will serve willingly in the Lord’s army. It’s not simply that God will be confronting the enemies all by Himself, but He will somehow call upon His people. He will somehow transform them. And that’s what we call regeneration. His troops become willing on the day of His power, which is telling something of the nature of this conversion.

The last part of verse 3 sounds to me as if it envisions an army of the young who will come splendidly to serve. That’s the first oracle.

The second is still addressed to the Messiah. “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” On first reading, it is staggeringly out of place. According to the Law, a priest couldn’t be a King, and a king couldn’t be a priest. In fact, Saul was destroyed because he was trying to mingle those two roles. So what is David doing? And what is Melchizedek doing here? What’s going on here?

Look at the next commentary: you’d expect commentary on the priesthood, but you get more on the kingship. It’s still on the authority and judgment and war. The setting, therefore, is a prelude to conquest. And the Messiah and the LORD who will work together somehow. The LORD is at work

Psa 110: 5-7. What’s the closest NT passage to this? Revelation. Here you’ve moved to the apocalypse, to judgment. We’ve moved from the priesthood to the ultimate conquest in judgment.

But that makes the second oracle even stranger. So what is going on here? What is David thinking about?

I’ve thought about that one for a long time and for a long time I think I got it wrong.

The fact of the matter is that inspiration is in many modes. Sometimes it’s dictation. Sometimes it’s by vision and word that the human agent himself doesn’t even understand. Think Daniel. On the other hand, you’re not supposed to think about David coming in and hearing God say, “not so fast David, I’ve got another psalm for you.” David writes out of the fullness of his experience, his creativity, but born along by the spirit of God that the words are David’s words, but they are the words of God.

So what’s going on here? Is David writing here and saying, “I don’t know what’s going on in verse four, but okay…”

It seems like it could be one of those places where the human author doesn’t understand is going on. But I think I was wrong. I think David understood what was going on from his devotions. In Deut, the kings were commanded to write out for themselves a copy of the book of the Law, and read it every day of his life.

Remember the account of David. He began his reign in Hebron and after seven years, he reigned over all Israel. And he moved to Jerusalem, and soon after, the tabernacle is moved to Jerusalem. For the first time the king and the priesthood are in the same place.

Now to Gen 14, the other appearance of Melchizedek.

[Carson describes the scene as found in Gen 14:1-16]

Gen 14:17: After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).

Skip 18-20 for a moment.

Gen 14:21: And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.” But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me. Let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share.”

Notice that if you remove 18-20, you have a coherent exchange. So what is Melchizedek doing there?

What should we learn from this? Melchizedek from the context, is a foil for Sodom. Sodom represents part of the wickedness of the valley, but Melchizedek is of another order. His name means “King of righteousness.” He’s the king whose name means “king of righteousness.” At the same time, he’s the king of Salem. Those are the same consonants as in “Shalom,” which means peace. So he’s also the king of peace. And while there were lots of Salems in the ancient near east, but the chances are high that he is also the king of Jerusalem.

“He was priest of God most high.” In Gen 14:22, Abram says, “I have sworn a covenant with Yahweh Most High…”

If you’re a good reader, you’ve got to be left shaking your head. What’s going on here. And everyone whose anyone in these accounts is identified by a genealogy. But this chap just pops in and goes again. Now there are others who aren’t identified by a genealogy, but they have the good sense to not be important. But Melchizedek, he is so important that Abram pays him a tenth.

There are two historic interpretations.

That this is a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus in the Old Testament. And it could be. [“But I think you’re wrong,” he quips.] There is no divine context to this appearance at all. If this really is an incarnation of the second person of the Godhead, then the verse in Psalm 110 gets even stranger. “You are a priest in the order of Melchizedek…” why not just say “He IS Melchizedek”?

So David’s reading this and seeing that there can’t be anything inherently wicked about being a king and a priest. So as he’s having his devotions, he can’t help thinking, “Maybe someday we’ll have a priest-king again… priest-king of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.” And he picks up and writes, “you are priest forever”—not in the order of Levi—“in the order of Melchizedek.”

Then we come to Hebrews 7:1-28.

The book of Hebrews is often said to twist around the OT.

But listen to this (Heb 7:1-28)

The writer believes the name is important. There is theological weight, significance in what is left out. An argument from silence is significant when there’s the expectation of noise. The fact that there is no genealogy, that’s not a big deal, except that he’s significant. What the author is saying is that there’s weight in the fact that there’s no beginning of life and end of days. This chap shows up and disappears. And thus, he is LIKE Christ.

It’s something that’s part of the pattern that we see in the OT which is that symbols and instances that are always pointing forward and pointing forward and pointing forward…

Now look at the rest of his exegesis: Abram gave Melchizedek a tithe. The lesser blesses the greater.

Now we look at the big jump. This is huge. When talking about how we preach Christ from the OT, we start by looking at how the NT quotes the OT. And there’s a huge variety of ways. Now if you were a first century Jew, and you were asked, “How do you please God?” you would answer, “Obey the law.” But what about Abraham? He obeyed the Law. Enoch? He obeyed the Law. So what are you doing? You’re taking the Law and having it control the text in an atemporal sort of way. But then we come to the NT, and how Paul writes, He is determined to show that salvation comes through FAITH. The sequence is important.

Look at Heb 7:11, we have the author writing that David knew that the Levitical priesthood was insufficient. And if the priesthood changes, then the Law needs to change as well. The priesthood and the Law are so closely tied together. This text says that if you pull out the priesthood, you’re changing the whole Law. You’re saying the covenant is obsolete in principle. And the writer here is now saying that we do have a new priesthood, not from the tribe of Levi, but from Judah. See Heb. 7:14-17.

For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him:

“The Lord has sworn

and will not change his mind,

‘You are a priest forever.’”

This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant.

(Heb. 7:18-22).

I’ve spent an undue amount of time explaining this because I want you to see that the NT writers were reading the OT carefully and sequentially, writing in such a way that their argument can’t be refuted. We need to learn and see and understand the wisdom of God in putting together the whole canon to show us the trajectory that takes us to Jesus. I’ve done three passages and it’s taken me an hour. But you can take all lines and you will discover how to preach the OT. God has put these in place. I’m not telling you anything that is unclear—it’s all there on the surface of the text. I’m telling you this to have some confidence in how the NT writers read and interpreted the OT, and to do likewise.

I want you to see this man… this King who is Priest… This Lamb, precious Redeemer, who would have thought that a man could ransom the souls of men. And we come before Him and we bow and we worship. I need a King to come before me and consummate the Kingdom. And I need a Priest to offer the perfect sacrifice before me so I can approach. One who is without beginning or end of days. This is the Jesus we proclaim

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  • Branden

    can someone provide me to the reference to the law that Carson references, which he says states “a priest couldn’t be a King, and a king couldn’t be a priest.”
    i can’t seem to find it
    in christ,

    • Steve

      Could it be that priests came from the tribe of Levi while kings came from the tribe of Judah?

      • Steve

        Sorry, I meant to say that from David the kings came from the tribe of Judah.