Psalm 110:4 in the Authorized King James Version reads Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek, which has become traditional in English translations, but the Hebrew contains ambiguities. The New Jewish Publication Society of America Version, (1985 edition), for example, has You are a priest forever, a rightful king by My decree. Another alternative keeps Melchizedek as a personal name but changes the identity of the person addressed: "You are a priest forever by my order (or 'on my account'), O Melchizedek" - here it is Melchizedek who is being addressed throughout the psalm.
Much of the ambiguity centres on the translation of the word דִּבְרָתִי in verse 4. The KJV translation of עַל-דִּבְרָתִי as "after the order of," is fitting, when "order" is taken as the English word meaning, "an authoritative direction or instruction," דִּבְרָתִי has its root in דבר, and is most plainly "utterance" or "speech," with an implication of authority or leadership. Translations vary in how they interpret this. The New Living Translation gives the meaning as "in the line of," the Amplified Bible gives, "after the manner and order of," the Contemporary English Version prints it as, "just like," and The Message Bible omits the word.
The text is traditionally translated (Septuagint, Vulgate, KJV 1611, JPS 1917):
"4The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent: 'Thou art a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek.'." (JPS 1917)
Although the above is the traditional translation of the text, the Hebrew text contains ambiguities and can be interpreted in various ways, and the New Jewish Publication Society of America Version, (1985 edition), for example, has:
"You are a priest forever, a rightful king by My decree." (JPS 1985)
Another alternative keeps Melchizedek as a personal name but changes the identity of the person addressed: "You are a priest forever by my order (or 'on my account'), O Melchizedek" - here it is Melchizedek who is being addressed throughout the psalm.
Targum Yonathan to the opening verse of the psalm attributes the victorious kind as King David who was a "righteous king" and, as king, had certain priestly-like responsibilities. The Babylonian Talmud understands the chapter as referring to Abram who was victorious in battling to save his brother in law Lot and merited priesthood. According to Avot of Rabbi Nathan, chapter 34, Psalm 110 refers to the Messiah,
"These are the two anointed ones, that stand by the Lord of the whole earth (Zech. 4:14). This is a reference to Aaron and the Messiah, but I cannot tell which is the more beloved. However, from the verse, The Lord hath sworn and will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever after the manner of Mechizedek (Psalm 110:4), one can tell that the Messianic King is more beloved that the righteous priest." - The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Chapter 34, Translated by Judah Goldin, Yale University Press, pg. 137-138. Footnote:This psalm has been taken to refer to the Messiah. Cf. Epistle to the Hebrews, Chs 5-7
As a member of tribe of Judah King David was not a born priest (Kohen) as only members of the tribe of Levi of patrilineal descent from Aaron, the brother of Moses, are entitled to priesthood in Judaism. As the respected Jewish sage Rashi wrote:
Because of the speech of Malchizedek, because of the command of Malchizedek. You are a priest, Heb. kohen ("כהן"). The term kohen bears the connotation of priesthood, servitude to the deity and, less frequently, rulership, as (II Sam. 8:18): "and David's sons were kohanim (chief officers)".
Rashi is speaking of the Hebrew word "kohen" which Christian translators translate as "priest" in Psalm 110, but which is often translated as "ruler" in many places in Christian translations. The Hebrew word is kohen and while commonly translated as "priest" it may have other meanings. The word appears 750 times in the Massoretic Text. In 5 cases the KJV translates it as "officers":
2 Samuel 8:18 (KJV) - And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over both the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and David's sons were chief rulers (kohenim). 2 Samuel 20:26 (KJV) - And Ira also the Jairite was a chief ruler (kohen) about David. 1 Kings 4:5 (KJV) - And Azariah the son of Nathan was over the officers: and Zabud the son of Nathan was principal officer (kohen) and the king's friend.
- According to Acts 2:34-36), Psalm110:1 was fulfilled in the ascension and exaltation of Christ.
- The psalm in Latin, Dixit Dominus, is used in Vespers such as Monteverdi's Marian Vespers.
- Dixit Dominus, based on the psalm, is a Handel work of 1707, and his earliest surviving autograph.
- Edmund Ludlow reported that Cromwell in 1650, prior to war with Scotland “talked for almost an hour on the 110th Psalm”
- James L. Kugel, "Traditions of the Bible", pp.278-279
- Dictionary of the Talmud, Volume I, Traditional Press Inc Brooklyn, NY, p. 278-279
- New Living translation of Psalm 110:4
- Amplified translation of Psalm 110:4
- Contemporary English Version translation of Psalm 110:4
- Message Bible of Psalm 110:4
- Kugel, James L. Traditions of the Bible, pp.278-279
- based on the text שב לימיני with "Yemini" referring either to King Saul whom David was careful not to overthrow or to the Torah (as per it being referred to as "from his right hand -a fire of religion to them" -Deuteronomy) -Targum Yonathan to Psalm 110
- Babylonian Talmud to Nedarim, p. 32
- The Complete Artscroll Siddur page 457