How some obscure Old Testament priest-king got so mixed up with Jesus.
Psalm 110.4 KWL
- The L
ORDswore, and isn’t turning back from it:
- “You’re a priest, eternally, in the manner of Melchizédek.”
Melchizédek (Hebrew melkhí chédeq/“king [of] rightness”) is probably a title, not a name. He appeared once in the bible; he never appeared again, but he sure got everyone’s attention: David in this psalm, and the writer of Hebrews in her interpretation of the psalm.
The Canaanite king Khedorlaómer of Elam, and his allies, conquered Sodom and dragged its people into slavery. Among them was Lot ben Haran, the nephew of Avrám ben Terah, whom the L
Genesis 14.18-20 KWL
- 18 King Melchizédek of Salém brought out bread and wine.
- He was a priest of the Highest God, 19 and blessed Avrám and said,
- “Avrám is blessed by the Highest God, owner of the heavens and earth.
- 20 The Highest God is blessed: He handed your opponents to you.”
- Avrám gave Melchizédek a tithe from everything.
“Highest God” (Hebrew El Elyón, Greek Theós Ýpsistos) is what pagans tend to call God. ’Cause they don’t know his name; they don’t know what he calls himself; they only know he’s God. And not just any god—’cause these pagans believed in all sorts of gods—but the highest God. The God beyond all the other gods. Higher than even their king-gods, like Odin or Zeus. Often the god who created the other gods—the one the gods considered God. Any time you encounter a
I know; lots of Christians insist a pagan’s highest god can’t be our God, can’t be the Father of Christ Jesus. ’Cause these pagans are so wrong. I get their concerns. But look at it this way: If someone seriously misrepresented who George Washington was (say, Mason Weems, just so he could sell books), does this mean there’s not a real Washington at the back of all the made-up stories? Of course there is; and some pagan’s idea of the Highest God does have the L
Anyway, this was the God whom Melchizédek knew, and Avrám recognized they followed the very same God. Avrám called him El Shadda’í/“God Almighty,”
Christians have analyzed this Genesis appearance like crazy. Sometimes a little too crazy, but I’ll get to that.
Melchizédek the priest-king.
Why’d David drop a reference to Melchizédek in his psalm? ’Cause Israel’s ancient kings—their Messiahs—had certain functions which were part of their job which aren’t so much kingly or ruler-like. In fact they’d sorta be considered priestly.
- Kings had to interpret the Law if they were gonna abide by it, enforce it, and judge according to it.
- Kings answered directly to the L
ORD: If God didn’t care for the way they were doing things, God had every right to correct or even overthrow them. (Contrast that with other kings throughout history, who felt only they were the highest authority—including certain Israelite kings.)
- Addressing God on his people’s behalf. And, after God responded, addressing the people on God’s behalf.
- Offering sacrifices on his people’s behalf, or declaring fasts and times of worship.
Yep, no separation of temple and state back then, so the king served as Israel’s lead worshiper a lot of the time. And that’s not even counting all the psalms David wrote.
Yet the Law stated only
So how could any of these non-Levite kings function as a priest? Well, as David stated in his psalm, Messiah wasn’t part of the Levite order. He was part of the Melchizédek order. Here was a Salemite king, who wasn’t even Hebrew!—yet was a priest of the Highest God.
So Messiahs would function as a priest, just like the ancient king of Salém was a priest. In fact, some folks speculate Salém was actually an old name for Jerusalem—meaning Melchizédek ruled over the very same city David did, a thousand years before. Neat idea, but there’s no evidence other than a similar name.
Anyway, the definitive interpretation comes from the writer of Hebrews. She explained how Jesus relates to Melchizédek, like so:
Hebrews 7.1-10 KWL
- 1 This Melchizédek—king of Salém, priest of the Highest God—
- upon meeting Abraham as he returned from butchering the kings, upon blessing him,
- Abraham divided everything and gave Melchizédek a tithe.
- 2 Now first: Melchizédek is translated “righteous king.”
- And “king of Salem” also means “king of peace.”
- 3 Fatherless, motherles, no genealogy, no background, no biography:
- He’s like the Son of God—in that he’s a timeless priest.
- 4 Look how important he was: The patriarch Abraham gave him a tithe of the spoils.
- 5 Now, under the Law, the Levites, the priests who received God’s commands,
- have to collect tithes from the people—their family members,
- who likewise came out of Abraham’s loins.
- 6 Abraham had God’s promise.
- Yet one who’s not descended from Abraham had collected a tithe from him, and blessed him.
- 7 There should be no debate that the lesser is blessed by the greater:
- 8 Among us, dying men collect tithes; in this story, we witness Melchizédek “lives.”
- 9 It’s as if to say Levi, who collects tithes, had paid a tithe through Abraham—
- 10 for he was in his ancestor’s loins when Melchizédek met him.
David pointed to Melchizédek because he was a legitimate priest, though not Levite. The writer of Hebrews took this one step further: She claimed Melchizédek was an even greater priest than the Levites. Let’s follow her logic.
1. He’s a legit priest. Genesis tells us nothing about Melchizédek’s background as king of Salém, priest of the Highest God. To ancient Israelites, that’s not enough information to qualify someone as a priest. “Fatherless, motherless, no genealogy, no background, no biography”—you needed all these references if you claimed to be a priest.
- The priesthood was a hereditary job: If your ancestors on both sides weren’t direct descendants of Levi, you were disqualified.
- Who were your parents? Were they righteous, upstanding citizens?
- Who were you personally? What sort of character did you have?
Jews cared about and wanted these details. Genesis provided none of ’em about Melchizédek. Which would ordinarily mean nobody would recognize him as a legitimate priest. He had no bonafides.
Yet Abraham gave Melchizédek tithes. ’Cause Abraham recognized him as God’s priest. So he must’ve been God’s priest, right? Abraham’s his character reference, and who’s gonna knock Abraham?
2. Abraham deferred to him. Levites collected tithes from their fellow Hebrews: They ministered God to their cousins, and in return their cousins financially supported them. Whereas Abraham and Melchizédek weren’t related (other than being brothers in the L
ORD) —yet Abraham gave Melchizédek tithes.
We don’t know Abraham was in any way obligated to give anything to Melchizédek. More than likely this was an act of thanksgiving. Abraham wanted to thank God for the victory, and Melchizédek happened to be God’s only priest in the vicinity. But the writer of Hebrews interpreted it as if there is some form of obligation. And who knows? Maybe there was. Maybe Abraham promised God a tithe if God let him defeat Khedorlaómer. We don’t know; Genesis doesn’t say.
I trust the writer of Hebrews knew what she was writing about: I figure the Holy Spirit filled her in on what details we lack. So Abraham recognized, to some degree, Melchizédek’s authority over him in spiritual matters.
3. If Abraham deferred, why not Levi? If Melchizédek was an authority over Abraham, wouldn’t that mean he’s an authority over Abraham’s descendants? Like Israel? Like Levi? Like the Levites?
So there you go. Melchizédek is a greater priest than Levites—greater than Aaron and every head priest thereafter.
One of the reasons David wrote his psalm was to declare this: Some of the things kings do, especially if they answer to God, are gonna be kinda priestly. But that’s okay. Kings are priests kinda like Melchizédek was a priest. Serving God, representing him to his people, come with the job. Messiah doesn’t violate the Law by being just a little bit priestly. (Although there are lines you don’t cross, as Uzziah ben Amaziah found out when he entered the temple to burn incense.
The author of Hebrews took it further: Jesus, our Messiah, our head priest, is a greater priest than any of the existing priests. ’Cause Melchizédek was. You just hadn’t realized how so.
Connecting the dots to Melchizédek’s secret identity?
Hebrews’s author made a few further comparisons between Jesus and Melchizédek.
Because Melchizédek lacks any background, “he’s like the Son of God—in that he’s a timeless priest.”
Hebrews’s author also translated “Melchizédek” and “Salém” in order to show the similarities between him and Jesus: He was a righteous king, as is Jesus. He’s the king of “peace,” as is Jesus. Interesting similarities, right?
Except you know how people get: These similarities, they insist, can’t just be interesting coincidences. There are no such things as coincidences. There’s gotta be a secret Hebrews was attempting to reveal. Some greater, deeper mystery. Wait… is she saying Melchizédek is actually, secretly, a pre-incarnate Jesus?
No she’s not. At all. But we’re too late; the loons have flown the coop.
I’ve heard many a Christian claim Melchizédek was Jesus appearing to Abraham in the form of Salém’s priest-king. And the reason Abraham deferred to him was ’cause somehow, deep down, he knew Melchizédek was God in human form. Wouldn’t be the last time.
But no. Messiah is a priest only in the manner of Melchizédek. Melchizédek is like the Son of God. He’s a simile, an example, a parallel. He’s not the same guy. The writer of Hebrews said so. Didn’t say he is; only that he’s like.
Let’s pick up a little further down the chapter:
Hebrews 7.15-25 KWL
- 15 This is even more evident if another priest, resembling Melchizédek, has arisen:
- 16 One who hasn’t fit the Law’s physical requirement,
- but has the role by the power of eternal life.
- 17 Scripture confirms: “You’re a priest, eternally, in Melchizédek’s order.”
- 18 In fact, the previous command about priests was weak and useless—
- and set aside, 19 for the Law perfects nothing.
- This way, achieving a better hope, we draw near to God.
- 20 This wasn’t done without an oath.
- Usually people become priests without an oath.
- 21 With an oath, Jesus was told, “The Lord swore, and won’t turn back from it:
- You’re a priest, eternally.”
- 22 By this great act, Jesus has become the guarantee of a vastly better covenant.
- 23 Because of death, though many people had become priests, they couldn’t remain priests.
- 24 Because Jesus lives forever, the priesthood has permanence,
- 25 so he can completely save anyone who comes to God through him:
- Always alive, able to be consulted by them.
Again, the author referred to Jesus as resembling Melchizédek.
Jesus fulfills the psalm by literally living forever: He’s been resurrected, and functions as our king and head priest in heaven. He can perform the priestly duty of speaking to God on our behalf, and speaking to us on God’s behalf. Like Melchizédek. Not secretly Melchizédek.
So this is why we so often see the Melchizédek story listed among prophecies of Messiah’s coming. But properly speaking, the Genesis story isn’t the Messianic prophecy. Psalm 110 is. There’s nothing about Melchizédek’s appearance in Genesis which hints of any coming Messiah or savior. It’s why the writer of Hebrews quoted Psalm 110.4 repeatedly… and not so much Genesis 14, except by way of introduction.
Of course, overzealous Christians want the biggest list of Messianic prophecies we can possibly find. So they throw in Genesis 14. In so doing, they just confuse people who can’t see how it’s a prophecy. Relax; it’s not. Only Psalm 110.
And Jesus is still fulfilling it. He’s standing before the Father on our behalf, sorta like a defense attorney, as John put it.