After preaching on Psalm 110 last week, I want to offer a brief follow up.
As I said in the sermon, by the time we reach the end of the psalm, the dead bodies are piling up. In verse 1, Christ’s enemies are made into a footstool for his feet. In verse 2, he rules in the midst of his enemies — and has a scepter to smite them. In verse 5, he shatters kings in the day of his wrath. In verse 6, he executes nations and fills them with corpses.
And yet right in the middle of this “messiah on the warpath” imagery, we have a reference to Christ being an eternal priest after the order of Melchizedek. It is perhaps easier for us to see how the battle imagery of the psalm fits with Jesus’ kingship. After all, we expect kings — especially Davidic kings — to be battlefield heroes. Jesus does not disappoint in that way. He strikes and smashes his enemies from the beginning to the end of this psalm. The psalm paints the portrait of an utterly victorious king.
But since the psalm also pays homage to Jesus’ priesthood, an astute reader might wonder where priestly imagery shows up in the psalm. I would contend that the battlefield imagery fits not only with the motif of Jesus as reigning king but also with him as everlasting priest. In the Bible, priests are warriors just as much as kings. Waging holy war has been a priestly calling from the beginning.
There is a lot of biblical evidence for this truth, and we will only survey a fraction of it here. Start with Adam. Adam was a priest, serving in the sanctuary of Eden. We know this because the verbs used to describe Adam’s task in Eden, “tend and keep,” or “serve and guard” (Gen. 2:15), are used later to describe the tasks of the priests at the tabernacle, e.g., Num. 3:7-8. A priestly vocabulary is used of Adam’s task from the very beginning; he is to guard and keep Eden, just as the later priests would guard and keep the tabernacle. Of course, this also came to mean that he was to guard and keep the woman (the embodiment of Eden) after she was created, just as the priests were to guard and keep the people of Israel (the living tabernacle).
When Adam was told to guard the Garden, he should have deduced that there would be an invader. And sure enough, an intruder shows up. As soon as the serpent started questioning God’s Word to the woman, Adam should have stepped between the serpent and the woman to protect her. He should have silenced the lying serpent by crushing its head. That was his priestly task, and because he failed at that priestly task, he lost both his priesthood and his sanctuary. Adam should have piled up at least one corpse in Eden; he should have made the serpent a footstool for his feet. He should have ruled in the midst of his enemy (the serpent) by shattering and executing the serpent in a show of righteous wrath. Unfortunately, he did none of those things. What should have been the day of his power became a day of weakness and failure. He failed as a priest because he failed to fight. He refused to exercise holy violence and so he lost his holy status and access to the holy place.
Later in history, God establishes the tribe of Levi as the priestly tribe within Israel. But it is important to understand why the Levites in general, and the descendants of Phinehas in particular, were chosen to have an enduring priestly office in Israel. In large measure, they were chosen because they were willing to guard in the way that Adam failed. They waged holy war against idolatry.
How did the tribe of Levi become the priestly tribe? How did the line of Phinehas confirm its standing as the High Priestly line? Two well known stories give the answer. In Exodus 32, in the golden calf incident, Moses asked the camp of Israel, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” The Levites gathered to Moses, and Moses told them to use their swords to kill the idolaters. Driven by a holy zeal, the Levites fought to exterminate idolatry from the nation. The sons of Levi obeyed Moses, and piled up about 3000 dead bodies that day (Ex. 32:28). In the language of Psalm 110, we could say they made the enemies of the Lord into a footstool; they shattered and executed them in a day of righteous wrath. Moses considers their warfare against idolatry as a kind of priestly ordination. Moses says, “Today, you have been ordained for the service of the Lord.” Because they put the Lord’s honor above son and brother, they were blessed by the Lord (Ex. 32:29). Holy war and holy office went together.
A similar story occurs with Phinehas in Numbers 25, with a similar result. Phinehas is the grandson of Aaron, the first high priest of Israel. Just like Exodus 32, Israel is once again committing idolatry. This time idolatry is combined with sexual immorality (spiritual adultery and physical adultery often go together). God sends a plague in judgment, killing 24,000. One Israelite man was so audacious in his sin that he took a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses. When Phinehas saw this intrusion of wickedness into the camp of the saints, he did not stand by and watch (like Adam in Eden). Instead he sprang into action, piercing both the man and his pagan mistress with his spear. This ended the plague and led to a great reward for Phinehas (cf. Psalm 106:28ff). Because Phinehas was filled with holy zeal for the Lord (shown in his willing to execute idolaters/adulterers in an act of holy war), the Lord establishes his line as the high priestly line. The Lord said, “Behold I give him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel” (Num. 25:12-13).
In the old covenant, Levites carried swords. Obviously, these swords were used to cut up sacrificial animals, but they could be used against any who unholy invaders who trespassed into the Lord’s tabernacle or temple. Priests, like Adam, were guardians, and sometimes guarding entailed violence. The mission of the priesthood has always had a military component. Priests must fight for the Lord and for the sake of the Lord’s people. In the old covenant, Phinehas was the model priest precisely because he was a holy warrior.
In summary, to be a priest in the old covenant world meant being willing to kill for the sake of the Lord. Priests were the kind of men who could engage in holy violence in order to guard the Lord’s honor and the integrity of his people. Psalm 110 is the climax of this theme: Jesus is better than the Levites, but like the Levites in Exodus 32, he can draw his sword and go to war with idolaters. He has a greater priesthood than Phinehas, but like Phinehas, he is full of the zeal of the Lord and his wrath will flare up against both spiritual and physical adulterers. Psalm 110 describes the High Priest-King smashing his enemies, a task which is both priestly and kingly. As the ultimate High Priest, Jesus wages the ultimate holy war.
With this in view, we can see why a psalm that celebrates Christ’s priesthood also describes him wrecking his enemies. Now, in the new covenant the meaning of this imagery has been transformed (and this transformation was already being hinted at in the OT). As I pointed out in the sermon, the imagery of subduing, shattering, etc., can be used to describe conversion just as much as it describes destruction. And so Psalm 110 can be transposed from physical warfare onto the higher plane of spiritual warfare. Nevertheless, it still describes the ruthless and brutal battle Christ our Priest will wage against idolaters. Christ is the true Holy Warrior precisely because he is the true and final priest of God’s people. As priest, he not only wages war, he also leads us into warfare. Thus, in Revelation it is no surprise that the same vision that shows Christ dressed in priestly garments also shows him leading his priestly people into battle (Rev. 19).
Another example of priestly holy war being transformed is found in Acts 2. Peter functioned as a high priest (a kind of first among equals) during Jesus' earthly ministry. At Pentecost, he takes the lead by preaching the sermon. As his sermon reaches its climax (which is based on Psalm 110, not coincidentally), the people were "cut to the heart." Peter has used the sword of the Word to cut open these sinners; he is killing the old unbelieving Jews so newly made Christians can arise. Like Phinenhas, he is driving the spear of God's word through them. The result is that 3000 are saved that day, meaning that Peter's priestly holy war ministry in Acts 2 precisely reverses the 3000 who were killed by Levitical holy war in Exodus 32. The giving of the Spirit overturns the curse that came when the law was given (and immediately broken). Peter's use of Psalm 110 in Acts 2:34-35 invites us to interpret the whole scene in light of the categories of Psalm 110: On the day of Pentecost, the Priest King, Jesus Christ, reigned in the midst of the very enemies who crucified him. He made 3000 enemies into a footstool for his feet that day. He created an army of willing volunteers.
One more takeaway: While there are many reasons only men could serve as priests in the old covenant, and many reasons only men can serve as pastors in the new covenant, surely this is among them. Given the intensely physical, even violent, nature of the work of old covenant priests (killing animals daily and humans occasionally), it was manly work. Women were forbidden the priestly office the same way they were forbidden to be warriors. Both were combat roles in the old covenant. In the new covenant, the sword carried by pastors is not one of steel but one of the Spirit, namely, the Word of God (Heb. 4:12). But pastoral tasks still require manly courage. Every pastor is a new Levite and a new Phinehas. Pastors must be willing to “run through” sinners with the spear of the Word. Pastors must work to crush all arguments and ideologies that set themselves up against God’s truth (2 Cor. 10:3-6). Pastors must strike idolaters with the shepherd's rod. Pastors must be willing to apply the spiritual death penalty of church discipline to the unrepentant. Excommunication is a kind of execution -- and pastors are the executioners (cf. Psalm 110:6). Ministry is masculine because it is combative. This is not to say every fight pastors get into is worth having; Paul acknowledges that many men entangle themselves in useless quarrels that are really distractions from the central war we are called to wage. But when I am evaluating a candidate for ministry, one of the first questions I ask is, “Will other men follow this man into spiritual battle — because if he’s going to be a pastor, that’s where he is going to take them." Or to put it another way, I ask: "Does this man have the courage to kill people with God's Word? Could he use the sword of the Word to execute a wicked king? Can he execute the spiritual death penalty if there is unrepentant sin in the camp of the saints?" I ask those questions because those are precisely the kinds of "holy war" tasks pastors have to undertake. If you don't have the courage of the Levites in Exodus 32 or the zeal of Phinehas in Numbers 25, don't bother applying to the pastorate; find something else to do.