Thursday, February 16, 2012

Who was Melchisedech? Psalm 109/6

Meeting of Abraham and Melchisedech
Dieric Bouts, c1464
The first half of Psalm 109, the verses that we have looked at so far, essentially focused on our Lord’s kingship:

Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis,
donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum.
Virgam virtutis tuæ emittet Dominus ex Sion : dominare in medio inimicorum tuorum
Tecum principium in die virtutis tuæ in splendoribus sanctorum: ex utero, ante luciferum, genui te.

Now we turn to his status as high priest.

Today’s verse of Psalm 109 alludes to the mysterious figure of Melchisedech:

Jurávit Dóminus, et non pœnitébit eum: * tu es sacérdos in ætérnum secúndum órdinem Melchísedech.
ὤμοσεν κύριος καὶ οὐ μεταμεληθήσεται σὺ εἶ ἱερεὺς εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα κατὰ τὴν τάξιν Μελχισεδεκ
The Lord has sworn, and he will not repent: You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech.

Who was Melchisedech?

Melchisedech is a mysterious figure, because unlike almost every other figure in Genesis, he is presented without genealogy.

As one of David’s line the Messiah could not of course be a member of the Aaronic priesthood, the Levites. This verse however tells us that he will nonetheless be a priest in the manner of the priest king Melchisdech, who offered God a sacrifice of bread and wine, as described in Genesis 14:14-20:

“When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his goods, and the women and the people. After his return from the defeat of Ched-or-lao'mer 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). And Mel-chiz'edek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!"

Melchisedech also appears in some surviving non-canonical works, particularly the Second Book of Enoch.

St John Chrysostom comments on the importance of Melchisidech as a type of Jesus:

“What was the reason for his saying in the line of Mechizedek? With the eucharist in mind, because he too offered bread and wine to Abraham, and because of the independence of this priesthood of the Law and its being without end and without beginning, as Paul too says. You see, what that priest had in shadow was realized in reality in the case of Jesus; and as the names, like "Jesus" and "Christ," had preceded him, so too this Melchizedek seems to have had no beginning to his days nor end to his life, not because he did not have them but because he had no genealogy. Jesus, on the other hand, had no beginning to his days nor end to his life, not in that fashion but because there was absolutely no chronological beginning in his case, nor any end. One case was shadow, you see, the other reality. So when you hear the name "Jesus," do not be deceived into thinking he was really Jesus, but recognize only the type in the name, and look for no further significance. Likewise also, when you hear that Melchizedek had no beginning or end, do not require him to provide the reality in fact; instead, be content with the name alone, and grasp the reality in the case of Christ.”

The Latin

The Lord swore an oath

Jurávit (3rd person indicative pf of juro, I swear, take an oath) Dóminus (nominative)

Jurávit Dóminus = the Lord has sworn

Here is the first point of contrast between the Aaronic priesthood and the Christian: Aaronic priests were priests by virtue purely of their birth; Christ was immediately appointed by God. As Hebrews points out: “Those who formerly became priests took their office without an oath, but this one was addressed with an oath, "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, `Thou art a priest for ever.'" This makes Jesus the surety of a better covenant.” (7:21-22)

A priest forever

et non pœnitébit (3rd person future indicative of peonitet, he relents, repents) eum (demonstrative pronoun is ea id, acc governed by poenitebit, provides emphasis)

et non pœnitébit eum = and he will not relent

St Paul in Romans 11:29 comments: “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

tu (you, pronoun nom) es (you are) sacérdos (priest, nom) in ætérnum

tu es sacérdos in ætérnum= you are a priest forever

secúndum (according to, by reason of) órdinem (acc, likeness, order, manner) Melchísedech

secúndum órdinem Melchísedech= according to the order of /after the manner of/in the line of Melchisedech

St Robert Bellarmine comments:

“Now Christ is said to be a priest forever, because the effect of the one sacrifice in which he offered his body on the cross holds forever, as the apostle, in Heb. 10 has it, "For by one oblation he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified;" as also, because he, living forever, daily, through the hands of the priests of his Church, who succeed each other, offers a sacrifice to which the apostle alludes, when he says, "And the others indeed were made many priests, because, by reason of death, they were not suffered to continue; but this, for that he continueth forever, hath an everlasting priesthood."

On the word ‘order’ the Catechism (CCC1537) notes:

“The word order in Roman antiquity designated an established civil body, especially a governing body. Ordinatio means incorporation into an ordo. In the Church there are established bodies which Tradition, not without a basis in Sacred Scripture, has since ancient times called taxeis (Greek) or ordines. And so the liturgy speaks of the ordo episcoporum, the ordo presbyterorum, the ordo diaconorum. Other groups also receive this name of ordo: catechumens, virgins, spouses, widows,. . . .


The Monastic Diurnal translates this fairly literally as “The Lord hath sworn and will not repent: Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchisdedech”. The other main translations offer only minor variants on this.

Key vocab

juro, avi, atum, are, to swear, take an oath
poenitet, ituit with acc, it repents one, one relents,
secundum, according to; by reason of, because of; after the manner of, according to the likeness of, like.
ordo, inis, m. order, manner, likeness
aeternus, a, um eternal. Forever

The Christian priesthood

The main Scriptural expositions of this verse are contained in Hebrews chapter 5-7, which explains the continuity of New and Old when it comes to the priesthood in particular.  There are important distinctions to be made here though, as St Robert Bellarmine points out:

“In the first place, Melchisedech succeeded no priest, nor had he a successor; and, thus, the apostle says of him, "without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life." While in the priesthood of Aaron one succeeded another, the son supplied the father's place. Secondly, Melchisedech was both king and priest; Aaron was simply a priest. Thirdly, Melchisedech's offering consisted of bread and wine, that of Aaron was of sheep and oxen. Fourthly, Melchisedech was the priest of mankind, Aaron's priesthood was confined to the Jews. Fifthly, Melchisedech required neither tent, tabernacle, nor temple for sacrifice, Aaron did; and hence, to the present day, the Jews have no sacrifice, because they have no temple. Christ, then, is a priest according to the order of Melchisedech, by reason of his having succeeded no priest, and by reason of his having had no priest to succeed him in the great dignity of his everlasting priesthood; and he in fact, as to his human nature has really no father, and as to his divine nature has no mother. The same Christ is both King and Priest, and he offered bread and wine at his Last Supper, that is, his body under the appearance of bread, and his blood under the appearance of wine; and he is the priest, not only of the Jews, but of the Gentiles; nor is his priestly office confined to one temple or one tabernacle, but, as Malachy predicted, "From the rising of the sun, even to the going down, in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation."

St Augustine though draws out what I think is the really key point, namely the link between this prophesy of the nature of the priesthood of Christ and the destruction of the Temple:

“But Priest, in what sense? Will there be those victims, victims offered by the Patriarchs, altars of blood, and tabernacle, and those sacred emblems of the Old Covenant? God forbid! These things are already abolished; the temple being destroyed, that priesthood taken away, their victim and their sacrifice having alike disappeared, not even the Jews have these things. They see that the priesthood after the order of Aaron has already perished, and they do not recognise the Priesthood after the order of Melchizedec.”

Pope Benedict XVI comments:

"In the Risen Lord Jesus who had ascended into Heaven where he is seated at the right hand of the Father the prophecy of our Psalm is fulfilled and the priesthood of Melchizedek is brought to completion. This is because, rendered absolute and eternal, it became a reality that never fades (cf. 7:24). And the offering of bread and wine made by Melchizedek in Abraham’s time is fulfilled in the Eucharistic action of Jesus who offers himself in the bread and in the wine and, having conquered death, brings life to all believers. Since he is an eternal priest, “holy, blameless, unstained” (7:26), as the Letter to the Hebrews states further, “he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25)."

Psalm 109

Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis,
donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum.
Virgam virtutis tuæ emittet Dominus ex Sion : dominare in medio inimicorum tuorum
Tecum principium in die virtutis tuæ in splendoribus sanctorum: ex utero, ante luciferum, genui te.
Juravit Dominus, et non pœnitebit eum : Tu es sacerdos in æternum secundum ordinem Melchisedech.
Dominus a dextris tuis; confregit in die iræ suæ reges.
Judicabit in nationibus, implebit ruinas; conquassabit capita in terra multorum.
De torrente in via bibet; propterea exaltabit caput.

You can find the next part in this series here.

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