Making Sense of Melchizedek
What’s the deal with Melchizedek? A seemingly small Old Testament character with a profound legacy. Though he appears in only 3 books of the Bible (2 Old Testament and 1 New Testament), his influence is incredible.
We find the narrative of Melchizedek in Genesis 14:17-20. Here is the account in its entirety:
After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer 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 Melchizedek 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, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. Genesis 14:17–20
This is absolutely all we have of the narrative of Melchizedek. That seems simple enough. Like so many other persons of the OT, or like Zacchaeus in the New (Luke 19), Melchizedek enters and exits the stage ever so quickly—like a one-hit wonder, appearing suddenly and fading just as quickly.
By the time we get to end of Genesis, Melchizedek is but a distant memory of a silly name. Nothing further is added to the narrative throughout the Torah or the historical books, but then we run across this verse in the Psalms:
The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 110:4
This Psalm—the most quoted in the New Testament—is one of the clearest messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Here, the Messiah to come, the future king, is compared to this seemingly insignificant Melchizedek. Why in the world did David compare this random, flash-in-the-pan character with the coming Christ?
You might expect Jesus to explain further, but He remains silent on the correlation. But just when you are about to throw your hands up, you turn to the book of Hebrews and there find three entire chapters (5-7) alluding to Melchizedek .
Maybe Melchizedek isn’t so insignificant after all. So, who is this Melchizedek and how is he a precursor to the Messiah?
What’s in a Name?
He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. Hebrews 7:2
I loved studying the Hebrew language. I have since forgotten most of what I once knew, but it was nonetheless quite enjoyable and edifying at the time.
To understand what the author of Hebrews is saying, it is helpful to note the flexibility of the original language. The Hebrew language does not have vowels, but meaning is instead carried by a root typically consisting of three consonants.
If you remove all of the vowels from Melchizedek, you get MLCHZDK. As the “ch” is only one letter in Hebrew and is often represented by the English letter “k” you could render it: MLKZDK. That is six letters. Since meaning is carried by a three letter root, you actually have two distinct words represented: MLK and ZDK. The MLK root, like the surname of the famous civil rights activist suggests, means “king.” The ZDK root means “righteousness.” This is what the author means when he writes, “He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness.”
He then states that he is the king of Salem (information which Genesis provided) which contains three root consonants: SLM. You should note this same root in words such as Solomon, shalom (like the “ch,” the “sh” represents one letter) and Jerusalem. The root carries the meaning of “wholeness” or “peace” which is why the author states “that is, king of peace.”
In Hebrews, the author makes a series of comparisons between Christ and Melchizedek. Christ was “like” Melchizedek in various respects (Hebrews 7:15). Jesus is the better and greater Melchizedek (this “better and greater” concept is a dominant theme of entire book of Hebrews). The author of Hebrews is not suggesting that Melchizedek was a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ, but rather that he was a type of Christ.
To understand this we must understand what a type is as used in biblical studies. Unfortunately, the most common usage of “type” is definitely not what is meant in theological usage. In typical English usage, we think of types of cars, plants, animals, etc., but this is different from how typology functions in the Bible. A type of car is still a car, but a type of Christ is not a Christ. Confusing? Let’s explain.
In theological terms, a type is like a model or picture. Think of it as a “symbolic preview.” It is something which corresponds in some manner to something else. It does not correspond perfectly, but it does share certain characteristics. Thus the veil over Moses’ face is a type representing the blindness we possess before regeneration (2 Corinthians 3), Adam is a type representing headship over the fallen just as Christ represents headship over the redeemed (Romans 5), the crossing of the Red Sea is a type pointing to our baptism (1 Corinthians 10), etc. Typology suggests similarity not equivalence.
In some sense the entire Old Testament is serving as a picture or “shadow” (Colossians 2:17, Hebrews 10:1) to point forward to the great antitype, the one who fulfills all of these pictures—Jesus Christ (an antitype is the one who fulfills and completes a type).
What is it about Melchizedek that is similar to and, thus, points toward Christ? While this list could probably be quite extensive if you pondered on it for a great time, here are just a few quick thoughts for some of the ideas that might be hinted at:
- Melchizedek was, by name, the king of righteousness and, by locale, the king of peace. Jesus is our King, our righteousness and our peace.
- Melchizedek blessed Abraham. Jesus blesses all of the sons of Abraham.
- Melchizedek offered bread and wine. Jesus offered His body and blood.
- Melchizedek was appointed both priest and king although the Old Testament offices were clearly divided in ancient Israel. Jesus combines all three offices of prophet, priest and king into one person. This answers the question of how someone of the tribe of Judah could be a priest although that was designated for the tribe of Levi.
- Melchizedek has no written genealogy (not suggesting he is eternal) and thus his priesthood was not derived from biological descent. Jesus’ priesthood does not originate from Joseph and Mary (Hebrews 7:16), but from the Father.
- Melchizedek has no written record of his death or succession (again, this is not to suggest that he did not die). Jesus actually died, but rose from the grave and thus can reign and intercede forever. He truly has no beginning or end. He is a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110 and Hebrews 7).
We need to be careful and not overanalyze the various details of the account and sway into unhealthy levels of allegorization, but we certainly can see a number of relationships that can and should be drawn between the person and work of Melchizedek and the person and work of the Messiah.
Melchizedek is a fascinating character study for our contemplation, but only in so far as he is a historical shadow to point us to the ultimate substance and object of our worship – Jesus Christ.
For Further Study, Consider the Following Resource:
Getting Excited About Melchizedek – DA Carson