Song of Mystery and Majesty: How Jesus Read Psalm 110 – Matthew Emadi

The New Testament quotes Psalm 110 more than any other Old Testament passage. The apostles and the early church loved Psalm 110 for its majestic depiction of the Lord Jesus Christ and his reign over all nations.

One of the most striking citations of Psalm 110, however, comes from Jesus himself. To understand the meaning of the psalm and its fulfillment in him, consider Jesus’s appeal to Psalm 110:1 in Matthew 22:44. At the end of a long discourse with his opponents (Matthew 21:28–22:14), Jesus turns to Psalm 110 to explain his identity:

“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” (Matthew 22:42)

Their answer is certainly correct. Any student of the Old Testament would have answered the same way. Jesus, however, isn’t satisfied. He reveals their deficient messianic understanding by asking them a question about Psalm 110:1:

He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matthew 22:43–45)

Though the Messiah would come from David’s line, he would not be just another king of Israel — another Solomon. No, “something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42). David himself recognized as much when he spoke of his future son as “my Lord.” Fathers, after all, do not address their sons as “Lord.”

But what made Jesus’s appeal to this psalm so powerful that no one dared to ask him more questions (Matthew 22:46)? To appreciate the full significance of Jesus’s use of Psalm 110:1, we first consider the psalm in its original context.

Psalm 110’s Messianic Priest-King

Psalm 110 depicts David’s hope in a messianic priest-king who will rule the earth. The psalm opens with Yahweh’s speech to David’s future Lord:

The Lord [Yahweh] says to my Lord [Adonai]: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1)

The promises of the Davidic covenant stand behind this speech. God had promised to give David a son and to establish the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Samuel 7:12–16). Psalm 110:1 reveals that this son is none other than David’s Lord (Adonai), who would one day reign over his enemies from Yahweh’s right hand (representing Yahweh’s kingship, power, and authority).

This kingly hope stretches back to the beginning. The imperative “rule” in Psalm 110:2 echoes the creation mandate given to Adam, the first priest-king in the biblical storyline (Genesis 1:26–28). Adam failed to subdue and rule the earth, but David’s Lord will reclaim dominion for humanity in a fallen world filled with evil forces. He will fight his holy war with an army of ready and willing volunteers on the eschatological “day” of his power (Psalm 110:3).

Surprisingly, this king will also hold a permanent priesthood (Psalm 110:4). David recognized that a son from the tribe of Judah did not qualify for the Levitical priesthood. Therefore, the future priest-king will belong to the order of Melchizedek, the ancient priest-king of Salem (identified with Jerusalem in Psalm 76:2) who shared a meal of bread and wine with Abram and blessed him after his victory in battle (Genesis 14:17–20). Since Melchizedek preceded the Mosaic law, his priesthood reflects Adam’s regal priesthood. David’s offspring will reunite the offices of king and priest in his own person, thus embodying God’s creational ideal for humanity.

The future son will also defeat his enemies. He will “shatter kings on the day of his wrath” and fill the nations “with corpses” (Psalm 110:5–6). He will even conquer the spiritual powers behind them when he shatters the “head” — an allusion to Genesis 3:15 — over the wide earth (Psalm 110:6). David’s Lord is the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the serpent, ending Satan’s tyrannical reign when he lifts up his own head in victory (Psalm 110:7). This priest-king will extend his rule from Jerusalem and bless the offspring of Abraham like Melchizedek of old.

Will the True Priest-King Please Stand Up?

Jesus’s quotation of Psalm 110:1 in the temple signals that he is the messianic priest-king of Psalm 110. Ironically, shortly after confounding the religious authorities in the temple, Jesus is put on trial before Caiaphas the high priest (Matthew 26:57–68). Jesus may be in the dock, but Caiaphas is the one on trial. During his examination, Jesus sheds more light on the answer to his question in the temple. When asked if he is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus appeals again to Psalm 110:1:

You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven. (Matthew 26:64)

Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the Son of David, but by appealing to Psalm 110:1 (and Daniel 7:13–14) in his answer to Caiaphas, Jesus reveals how he would fulfill those Old Testament texts. Jesus would not ascend an earthly throne in Jerusalem to defeat Rome; he would instead ascend to heaven to take his seat at God’s right hand and rule the nations and the spiritual forces of evil behind them. Moreover, his exaltation to God’s right hand would come through a bloody cross. Suffering is the path to glory. First death, then resurrection, then ascension to his heavenly throne.

Perhaps we go too far to suggest that David anticipated a resurrected Messiah reigning in heaven when he penned the words of Psalm 110, though he probably understood more than we give him credit for. After all, he did expect the Messiah to defeat the serpent (Psalm 110:6), rule the nations (Psalm 110:5–6), and hold a priesthood “forever” (Psalm 110:4), implying an end to the Mosaic covenant and the Levitical priesthood, along with its animal sacrifices. Psalm 110 may very well reflect David’s belief that the Messiah would deal with the ultimate problems of sin, death, and separation from God by overcoming the serpent’s power and reclaiming Edenic fellowship with God.

Such messianic hopes come together only in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Indeed, as Jesus hints in his response to Caiaphas, and as the rest of the New Testament makes clear, Psalm 110:1 is fulfilled in a resurrected Savior.

Exalted King, Undying Priest

The New Testament authors recognized that some Old Testament texts prophetically predicted specific details about the life and ministry of the Messiah — for example, that he would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). They also recognized that God sovereignly orchestrated certain persons (like Melchizedek), events (like the exodus), and institutions (like the priesthood) to function as types of Christ. Psalm 110 has elements of both. David prophesied that his greater son and Lord would reign from Zion over the world as a priest-king (though exactly how that prophecy would come to pass remained uncertain). David also recognized that the priest-king Melchizedek was a type of the Messiah to come (Psalm 110:4). Both elements of Psalm 110 reach their fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Preaching on the day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed that Jesus’s resurrection and ascension into heaven fulfilled the words of Psalm 110:1 (Acts 2:34–35). According to Peter, God made Jesus “both Lord and Christ” when he raised him from the dead and seated him on the highest throne in the universe (Acts 2:36).

The author of Hebrews concurs. After Jesus made purification for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3; see also 1:13). Having fulfilled the old covenant sacrificial system with his sufficient self-sacrifice, Jesus rendered it obsolete and inaugurated the new and better covenant.

And with the new covenant came a new priesthood after an order greater than Levi’s. Melchizedek’s priesthood served as a type of Jesus’s permanent priesthood because Genesis — containing no record of Melchizedek’s birth, death, or family history (Hebrews 7:3) — presents Melchizedek as one who lives (Hebrews 7:8). Jesus became a priest after the order of Melchizedek on the basis of an indestructible life (Hebrews 7:16), meaning that he rose from the dead, never to die again. He holds his priesthood permanently and is therefore “able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25).

Psalm 110:4 is true of Christ only if the prophecy of Psalm 110:1 is fulfilled in a resurrected king who took his seat not in an earthly Jerusalem, but in a heavenly Zion.

Our Lord and David’s Lord

So, how could David’s son be David’s Lord? The ultimate answer is that David’s greater son is the Son of God who took on flesh to obtain our redemption. For Jesus to ascend to heaven in fulfillment of Psalm 110:1, he first had to defeat sin, Satan, and death. To defeat sin, Satan, and death, he had to fully atone for sins. To fully atone for sins, he had to be human like us, and he had to be God for us. Only God can satisfy the demands of his own infinite holiness and righteousness. Only God can truly and fully propitiate God’s own wrath. Yet only as man could he represent us, obey the law for us, die the death we deserve, and stand in our place, bearing our guilt. The ultimate fulfillment of Psalm 110 could come about only through one who is the God-man: David’s son yet David’s Lord.

Psalm 110 anticipates the hope of the gospel, which, according to the apostle Paul, was “promised beforehand through [the] prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Romans 1:2). This gospel, says Paul, is about God’s Son, “who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:3–4). Our Lord and David’s Lord. Psalm 110 is a majestic psalm because it speaks of Jesus, our majestic Savior.

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