Psalm 110

Since we’ve just recently commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it’s fitting that Psalm 110 should be next in this series on the psalms.  As my ESV Study Bible informs me, this song is classified as a royal psalm, treating the role of the king in the life of God’s people.  Further, it says, Psalm 110 is one of the Old Testament passages most frequently quoted in the New Testament, with references appearing extensively in the letter to the Hebrews (1:13, 5:6, 6:20, 7:1-28), as well as in Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, Luke 20:42, and Acts 2:34.  The reason for such numerous citations is that Psalm 110 is one of the clearest prophetic texts in the entire book of Psalms, looking forward to the glorious reign of the Messiah—Jesus Christ.  Undoubtedly, the best commentary on the messianic aspect of this passage was delivered by the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’  [from Psalm 16]

“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

–Acts 2:22-36 (ESV)

While the prophetic elements of Psalm 110 make it an especially important Old Testament text, they also cause a number of problems in Christian versifications.  For one, Christ’s name is never mentioned directly in the Old Testament text, nor are the terms “Anointed,” “Savior,” or “Messiah.”  Should we leave the content of the psalm unaltered in our own settings, or should we incorporate the fulfillment proclaimed in the New Testament by inserting direct references to Christ?

Another difficulty arises from verse 4, where the Lord says, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”  How are we to understand this reference to an extremely obscure Old Testament character?  The author of Hebrews interprets this strange passage for us:

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.…

This becomes even more evident when another priest arises in the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life. For it is witnessed of him,

“You are a priest forever,
after the order of Melchizedek.”

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.

–Hebrews 7:1-22

Should Melchizedek be mentioned in songs based on Psalm 110, or is it better to leave his name out and modify this passage to speak directly of Christ’s everlasting priesthood?  These are the difficult questions that must be answered when attempting to adapt such Scriptures for Christian song.  Thus, after this unusually long introduction, I’d like to spend the remainder of this post focusing on how these issues are addressed in our Psalter Hymnal.

221, “The Lord unto His Christ Has Said”

As you can see right away from the first line, this setting of Psalm 110 replaces the reference to “my Lord” with Christ’s name.  Is this a problem?  Certainly it is not Scripturally inaccurate when the New Testament is taken into account.  But could the name “Lord” actually be more important here?  Christ himself emphasized the distinction between the two persons mentioned in Psalm 110:1: “the LORD” (YAHWEH, the covenant name of God) and “the Lord” (referring to the Davidic king).  As he taught in the temple, Jesus asked the crowds,

“How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.”’

David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?”

By replacing “my Lord” with “the Christ,” the creators of this setting have compromised the significance of the glorious paradox found in Psalm 110: Jesus Christ was a descendant of David, yet over David and the rest of the human race he reigns as everlasting King.  Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the psalmist expressed this truth in the clearest way possible.  We can only do harm to this passage by over-interpreting it.  Further, the wording “make your enemies your footstool” has been completely omitted, dissolving the connection between this psalm and New Testament passages such as I Corinthians 15:27, Ephesians 1:22, and Hebrews 2:8.

Similarly, in the second stanza of number 221, the reference to Melchizedek has been replaced with the phrase “A priesthood that shall never end.”  Yes, this is in agreement with the interpretation found in Hebrews 7, where Melchizedek is described as an everlasting priest.  But this is only one of the many aspects of this priesthood; by limiting the meaning of the passage, the writers have sadly lost the full significance of the comparison between Christ and Melchizedek.  How much better would it be to leave these Scriptures in their original form, and allow them to interpret themselves!

Thankfully, on a more practical level, the shortcomings of this Psalter Hymnal setting are extremely easy to fix.  If the phrases “his Christ” and “a priesthood that shall never end” were replaced by “my Lord” and “the priesthood of Melchizedek,” this versification would be just about as solid as any.  In the 1987 CRC Psalter Hymnal (number 110), you can see how these changes can be implemented successfully.  I’m confident that the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee has also taken these important considerations into account, and that the version of Psalm 110 we’ll eventually be singing in worship will be as Scripturally accurate as possible.

This article wouldn’t be complete without a few notes on the tune.  ALL SAINTS NEW is a rousing 4/4-meter tune, with jubilant harmonies and an expansive melody line.  It appears in the easily-managed key of B-flat in most hymnals, both old and new.  Entirely suitable for a royal psalm like Psalm 110, this tune is good enough to be used frequently for a variety of psalms and hymns.

Indeed, among Old Testament texts, Psalm 110 is a particularly clear portrait of the Messiah and his reign over the whole world.  In Hebrews 7:23-28, the apostle perfectly aligns the message of this royal psalm with the work of our Savior, Jesus Christ:

The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

All praise to Christ,

–MRK

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