Forty days after Jesus rose from the dead, He ascended into heaven to take His place at the right hand of the Father (Acts 1:3). The New Testament regularly cites Psalm 110 as a prophecy of this event.
Psalm 110 is patterned by three sets of seven clauses. Verses 1-2 make up the first sequence, verses 3-4 the second, and verses 5-7 the third. The sevenfold pattern alludes to the creation week, suggesting that the installation of the Lord at the right hand marks the beginning of a new creation. The first and the last section begin with the name Yahweh and a reference to the “right hand” of Yahweh (vv. 2, 5), and both include references to the power of king to conquer enemies (vv. 1-2, 5-6). The name “Yahweh” appears three times in the Psalm (vv. 1, 2, 4).
By translating two different words identically, English translations make the first verse of this Psalm more obscure than it is in the Hebrew. In Hebrew, the first “Lord” is “Yahweh,” the covenant Name of God, while the second is “adon” or “adonai,” which is not a name but a title, one used for human masters or even husbands (Genesis 18:12; 19:2; 40:1; Ruth 2:13; etc.). Adonai can also be used as a title for Yahweh, as in Exodus 34:23 (“the lord Yahweh, God of Israel”) and Deuteronomy 10:17 (“lord of lords,” Heb. adone ha’adonim). In many passages, a better translation for a phrase like “Lord God” would be “Lord Yahweh” or “Master Yahweh” (e.g., Psalm 69:6).
In Psalm 110, David refers to someone as “my lord,” a someone who is addressed by Yahweh: “Yahweh said to my master.” Whom is David talking about? We know from the New Testament’s prosopological readings of this Psalm that David is talking about the Son of God, but who did David think he was talking about?
There are two answers to this. First, David is certainly acting as a prophet here, looking forward to an “Anointed One” who is far greater than he. The Psalm is directly Messianic and prophetic. Second, the Old Testament sometimes refers to a Person who is distinct from Yahweh yet also somehow identical to Yahweh, identified as the “angel of Yahweh” (cf. Genesis 18; Zechariah 1:7-17) or as the “Name” of Yahweh who dwells in the temple (1 Kings 8:16, 18, 20, etc.). David was conscious that, though he was the Lord’s anointed king over Israel, he was subordinate to a King enthroned above the cherubim, a King who was/wasn’t Yahweh. Psalm 110 unveils an intra-divine conversation, one that is unveiled more fully at the ascension.
At the center of the Psalm is the promise that Yahweh will establish David’s lord not only as a king, ruling with a scepter (vv 1-2), but also as a priest after the order of Melchizedek (v. 4). Melchizedek was the priest of God and king of Salem, who met Abram with bread and wine after the latter had won the battle of the five kings (Genesis 14). In response, Abram showed honor to Melchizedek by giving him a tithe.
In the New Testament, this part of the Psalm is also taken as a prophecy of Jesus, who serves as both priest and king (Hebrews 7). But the writer of Hebrews goes further to say that the establishment of Jesus as a “high priest” overturns the priestly order of Aaron. How does this work? The priestly order of Aaron was based on physical descent; only men in the genealogy of Aaron could serve as priests. Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, which was not a priestly tribe (Hebrews 7:14-16), yet He was designated as high priest. The writer sees this as a sign that the entire Old Covenant order has been shattered (Hebrews 7:17-23). A “fleshly” first covenant, which depended on physical descent, has been replaced by a “spiritual” second covenant, which depends on the resurrection power of Jesus (v. 16). The seven-clause Psalm predicts a new order of priesthood, and a new order of the world.